Rikaria

Four fruitless days of searching for any clue about the locket we carried, and suddenly someone was willing to kill us for it.

I study the unimpressive trinket as we hide, hunkered down below a low, stone wall.

The locket is small, silver, shaped like a heart, and decorated with delicate but meaningless engraving. We keep it on a simple leather cord. A hundred like it dangle from fine chains in any market. Open the clever latch, put your loved one’s photo inside, and it becomes very personal.

This particular locket was the only remaining artifact of a terrible witch. We have no idea who’s weathered photo is inside.

Two weeks ago, my companion and I had been nowhere at all that was known for witches. Then we stumbled one day late into a mass murder that one was busy orchestrating in a tiny nameless village, deep in the Firevine Hills of inland Purna.

Every adult in that town died fighting, but we somehow got their kids to safety. We also took out the witch, just not in time to save anyone. The big problem for us was, nobody knew who that witch was.

Fiora and I are Wild Guides, wandering adventurers for hire. We really have to make a living off these situations that we stumble into, and there is no meaningful bounty on an unknown witch.

So we took the only clue we had, a locket our quarry had in her pocket, and traveled to the dark, damp, misty, wet, drippy, country of Rikaria, where all witches usually seem to come from. Maybe somewhere here there might be pledged some coin we are owed.

Fiora also said we were trying to do some good in the world, to put right the wrong we witnessed. But I’m honest enough to admit I like eating, plus catnip when we can afford it.

At first we traveled slowly, taking quests in the right direction to get here, and mostly just getting used to each other’s presence. Then Fiora got tired of our pace and train tickets materialized from nowhere, for us and our mounts both, despite the cost being well past our means.

I didn’t understand at all, but I did feel compelled to afford a whole bunch of catnip, and that helped me feel better about my lack of understanding.

We had arrived four rainy nights past then spent the days in between moving from town to town, guildhall to guildhall, tracing out the rim of this not-quite-an-island country.

On Rikaria, like everywhere, tiny villages seemed to be a quarter day apart. Towns big enough for a guild hall were most of a day in between, which becomes a full day this late into the season when night falls so early.

Once again, our progress slowed, and no magic train tickets could help with this one.

At each day’s stop we’d ask the local guild master if they had record of our witch. When the bard took a break from performing to refresh themself we’d catch them and ask the same question. Then we’d paw through the book of open bounties to see for ourselves that our witch wasn’t it in, because there really wasn’t much else to do until morning when we could travel again.

Each hall master told us to never travel at night. That was odd. Scary things that hunt at night are usually what people hire guides like us to protect them from. “Don’t be out past dark” was rather disturbing advice to be receiving from our own guild.

But then tonight had all turned out different.

I hadn’t caught the name of this particular town, as they’ve all begun to blend together. The guild hall’s master was as uninformative as all her predecessors before. But then the bard here gave us some traction.

I was distracted, truly. The bard had a partner for his performance, an overly large fox who danced while he sang. When they took their break Fiora approached the old music maker while I caught the young dancer.

The lad was quite a fun conversationalist. We sat at the bar and he worked on a mug he already had in progress while we talked about witches and witch stories.

Then suddenly Fiora grabbed the back of my vest and said minimally, “he is running,” before charging out the door, into the night, after the bard.

I had to bow my apologies to the cute dancer while trying to race after the odd bundle of overlapping silk robes that obscures my traveling companion’s own lovely golden jaguar butt.

The bard was surprisingly fast for someone I’d taken to be old, and he bolted down the street toward a burned-out church. Fiora was hot behind and I pumped my legs hard as I could but gained no ground. I was a full six heartbeats behind when I followed them through a side door and almost collided into my partner.

“I lost him,” she admitted, sounding very annoyed. The silk sleeve that obscured her tail was quivering as she said it, her curved sword still sheathed but in her hand.

Together we searched the dark shell of a church, the fires so long cold that not even the smell of creosol remained.

Fiora told me that the bard had gotten very animated at seeing the locket. She described that he first tried to trade her for it, then to buy it from her, then he tried to steal it and run.

I’d run too if I’d made Fiora mad. She can be kind of scary.

Running always makes me want to chase someone, but it could still have been all harmless.

Then a terrible groaning sound echoed through the church, like the place was alive and regretting it. Suddenly, the already-burned walls of the church burst, all at once, into unnatural blue flame on every side around us.

The color of the fire might be wrong, but the heat was very real and hit like a wall. Fiora moved in an instant, drawing her sword and charging straight at the inferno.

I’m a fully trained mage, an elementalist even, able to move water and other fluids with my will. Fire is, at heart, air plus heat. I should be able to pull them apart, but this fire escaped me. I was ineffectually grasping at nothing while trying to not lose Fiora in the blaze.

My sword fighter made a pair of cross-wise cuts in one burning wall of the church, then spun to me and pointed where she had weakened the wood.

This I could do.

I drained two stones worth of lux to power it, grabbed a big wad of the super-heated air around us with my will, and shoved it at the wall. The wall split apart where Fiora had weakened it. Together we spilled out, coughing and wheezing.

We took shelter in the church yard behind an abandoned, half-broken wagon.

Shortly after, we moved to a low stone wall, which is what we now crouch behind, back to back, watching for foes.

Fiora turns and lightly touches my arm. “The fire has burned out,” she says quietly.

“No sign of the bard,” I reply with the obvious, just to have something to say too.

“Nor anyone from the inn,” she retorts, rising slowly and stretching fluidly. I have to take a second to admire her motion. Obscured by her silks or not, Fiora’s every movement is done at a higher level of polished grace than most of us are capable of on our best day.

But her point is a great one that had escaped me. I’m so used to being in the empty wilds that having something like this happen in the middle of a big town is kind of a new experience.

I do wonder that she called the guild hall an inn – most of our guild masters don’t like that, and I puzzle all over again at how long she’s been adventuring.

“Let us ask your crush what he knows,” Fiora suggests, already settling her curved sword onto her waist and leading the way.

“He’s not a crush,” I reply.

“Then how did you know who I meant?”

“Nobody followed you because we know not to get involved with witches unless we have to,” the dancer lad explains. The three of us fill a small booth in the half-crowded common room of the guild hall. Fiora and I share one bench, the heavily muscled fox sits across from us.

“Let me put it this way,” he goes on, “that church you were in? It has burned at least two times before.”

“You are from here?” Fiora asks. “And your bard?” she adds a follow-up question.

“I am, he’s not,” the young man says. “Bards travel a lot, there’s a new one here every few days. I work with whoever. Caser came in yesterday.”

“Does this mean anything to you?” I ask, setting the open locket on the table between us but not taking my claw from it.

The lad bends forward, his pointed fox features studying the piece carefully.

“No,” he says finally, his gaze darting between us nervously. “Should it?” he asks.

Fiora and I glance at each other and I shrug. “The person who knew something tried to take it and run. We still smell like burned fur because of it.” We did. I could smell it on myself, heavens alone know how I smelled to anyone else.

“His name is Caser?” Fiora asks.

The athletic fox leans back and shuffles himself around, at odds with sitting still. He nods vehemently. “Caser is all he used here. I heard someone call him Caser Leaf this morning though. They went off and talked for a while, and both seemed mad.”

He seems to run off his words into thoughts. A quiet moment passes.

Fiora nods suddenly and touches the dancer’s hand gently. “Thank you for your insight,” she tells him.

Then she turns to me and takes the locket from under my claw, slipping it into her robes. “Tiger, let me know if you learn anything more. I am going to bathe then will meditate. If you come up to our room, please give me three quarters of a mark.”

She slips out of our booth, leaving me and the heavily muscled fox looking across at each other.

He tilts his chin down shyly and rearranges his bushy tail.

I find I have absolutely no idea what to say or do next.

I can seduce anyone if it’s business, but when I’m actually into someone I have no idea what I’m doing. Or it doesn’t seem that important and talk time seems more worthwhile. Or something. You know, the excuses we tell ourselves.

So some hour or so later I tread tiredly upstairs, pleasantly buzzed on catnip but otherwise unsatisfied on some salient points. I opt for a cycle through the bathing room before seeking my own room, so that I can rid some tension in the privacy of the hot steam.

Being a water-focus elementalist is kind of nice. I can make my own steam baths no matter how primitive the facilities.

I drain my last stone of its lux to dry my fur then step lightly down the hall wearing my trunks but otherwise carrying my clothes. At the door to our room I tap a short staggered pattern of knocks then press my keystone to the lock and step in.

Between the room’s two cots, a tiny lamp rests on an equally tiny table and yields a dim glow to the closet-sized space. A tiny stone warmer sits next to the lamp, chained to the table. Fiora is still in meditation, cross-legged on the bed she’s claimed. Most of her silks are folded or hung for the night, giving me a rare view of her sleek body and the mottled jaguar rosettes of her fur. Her sword, as always, is on the bed next to her.

At least she sleeps with it sheathed, I muse to myself, settling onto my own tiny cot and starting to fish all my dun stones out of the pockets they’re in.

“That took no time,” Fiora says quietly.

My ears fold and I feel my face heat. “Nothing happened,” I say, then wonder why I’m being defensive. “I just like his spear,” I try and realize that’s no better. “I mean, did you see how he dances with it? And the light show, he’s weaving lux around as he moves!” I double down and hope it helps.

Fiora’s trying not to laugh. “Good night, tiger,” she says and turns to settle into bed, her back to me.

“Good night,” I reply curtly, dropping my dun stones in the shallow dish of the warmer to absorb lux through the night, then extinguish the lamp without bothering to touch it.

Sometime later there’s a quick knocking on the door. It duly registers it’s not Fiora’s pattern and I blink myself awake. Fiora is lighting the lamp and swinging to her feat, sheathed weapon in hand.

I join her, peeling a little sliver of lux off my spirit and balancing a small pool of light in my hand. This doesn’t cost me much but does advertise that I’m a mage pretty clearly.

Fiora nods at me and I slip the latch to pull open the door.

“Pardon, pardon,” one of the guild hall’s boys says to us. “A man’s here an’ wants you,” he says and nods toward the stairs like we should follow.

If it’s not important Fiora likes to let me talk to strangers for us both. “Thank you, be down in a moment,” I grunt. The boy nods and turns to leave. I’ve got the door closed before he’s gone.

We dress quickly and head downstairs to see who knows who we are enough to ask for us.

It must be the last hours of the night because the common room is all but empty.

A single lamp on the empty bar lights the room and the libations are safely locked into their cases. The lad who woke us guards the only other person in the room, a silver-haired human man in an elegantly cut, deep blue, formal suit, hat resting under his arm while he stands patiently staring out the dark window as if considering the blank view.

As we come down the stairs the hall’s boy nods our way then retreats down a dark hall towards his own bed. The man turns to cross the room and reaches us as we touch the bottom step.

“Gerrard Cotter,” the man says with a small bow. “Forgive the late hour but this is a matter of some urgency,” he says in a strong, if quiet, baritone. “Master guides, if it please you, could you tell me, is there a chance you have come into possession of a small valuable, made of silver, shaped as a heart, and bearing these markings?”

With a quick flourish of his wrist the man holds a paper up to the light. On it is sketched our locket, both closed and open, right down to the face of the mysterious woman inside.

As this seems like something important, I defer to let Fiora answer. She looks to me and seems to wait for me to say something instead.

“Excellent!” the man says for us both. “Then we can help each other! Please, may we have a seat?” He gestures and numbly we all settle into chairs around the one lit part of the bar. He sets his hat next to him.

“My employers,” the man clears his throat and goes on, “and forgive me but I must maintain confidence on who these are; my employers extend deep regret towards your unfortunate welcome earlier. It was gross negligence, we admit, and I can personally assure you that the responsible individual has been proportionately disciplined. As well, we would offer amends, please, to let us make this issue right.”

He pauses his torrent of words for a moment as if to let us catch up. Then somewhat more slowly goes on, “if I could only see the relic for a moment, then I could size our offer appropriately.”

I understand that part. “You want to buy it from us?” I translate.

“In so many words,” the man replies.

Fiora produces the locket and presses it under a claw to the bar, holding it much as I did earlier, but closed this time.

The man takes a deep breath, then brings his empty hands up as if to show himself harmless. He slowly moves all ten fingers towards the locket as if testing it for being hot.

I have no idea what he’s feeling for. I am highly lux sensitive and I swear the damn piece of jewelry is fully inert.

The man takes another deep breath, stutteringly this time, and returns his hands to his lap. He seems to suppress an excited shudder. “Indeed,” he says and clears his throat.

“Perhaps 32 stone?” he asks.

I cough from surprise and “No,” Fiora says in the same instant.

I swing to face her, ready to argue.

“Excuse us a minute,” she says and rises but the man beats her to standing.

“Of course, please excuse me, I will seek to refresh myself,” he hurriedly says and steps lightly towards the back hallway as if knowing the layout of the place.

Then again, most guild halls do get built the same way.

Fiora waits to hear the soilroom door close then says clearly, “we can not sell it.”

“Fiora,” I say as plainly as I can. “This is exactly what we came here for. 32 stone will feed us for sparking months. Even at the rate we’ve been spending we could still make it last half the winter!”

“Something deeper is going on here,” she replies patiently, tucking the locket away in her silks. “Until we know what, we dare not make an irreversible move.”

I grasp for words, staring at the point she hid the locket, feeling our fortunes evaporate.

The door down the hall clicks open and the odd human returns to our pool of light then takes his seat again. He quirks his head sideways, his hands resting loose in his lap. “Forgive me, in my growing dementia I forgot the confidentiality clause. If you would opt to participate in a contractual silence, I am authorized to offer each of you individually an additional 16 stone, raising the total count of our package to a cumulative total of 64 stone.”

“We decline,” Fiora says slowly.

I could almost cry sometimes at the unfairness of the world.

“Indeed,” the man says solemnly. He takes up his hat from the bar and tucks it under his arm again, rising. “Then I will convey your regards to my employers.”

The man bows and slowly walks toward the door as if dreading his next move. He turns and bows once more. “It is advisable to lock the door behind me,” he says, then leaves.

Fiora steps over and closes the lock.

We face each other for a long moment.

“Tiger,” she says gently.

I turn and trudge back up the stairs towards bed. There’s times my tail gets me into trouble by betraying whatever emotion I’m feeling. This time I make sure of it, lashing the appendage around wildly with every step.

Fiora was already gone when I wake, likely outside doing her morning exercises. I enjoy taking the extra hour or so of sleep each dawn while I have the room to myself. I’ve been a wild guide for a couple years, but we’ve travelled together only these last few weeks. Things like having a partner and sharing a private room with them are all still new to me. I used to take a cot in the shared bunk room.

Suddenly I remember how much money we turned down last night.

That makes me rather sluggish and grumpy about rousing to start my day, but then a knocking on the door forces the issue.

I take a folded paper from the hall boy on the other side and sit back on the bed to consider the message under the dim light of the tiny window. This misty, wet country never does seem to get bright out, no matter what time of day. I peel a bit of lux off my own spirit and spark a light on one fingertip to help me read.

Fiora and Tuan
Tensootkan Guild of Guides

The label was sketched in flowing, overly elegant trade script, and I feel a deep worry that anyone important knows our names.

Slipping the claw of my thumb through the seal, I open the short note, hoping to find last night’s offer of riches restated in writing.

The Noble Houses of

• Folio • Sarpento • Argen Luno •

Address

Wild Guides in Good Standing
- Fiora Ravensky and Tuan Suntiger

Salutations

As this day folds into her dark sister’s embrace,
You will attend on us for mutual interview.
Safe passage and safe return are hereby sworn.
Our man receives you by the final tone of bright bell.

I read through the note a couple times, trying to decode the floral text and wondering at the three house marks emblazoned boldly near the top of the page – some crazy leaf, a tangle of two snakes, and a crescent moon, each with a name below it. I’m even deeper disturbed that they know our family names.

I stare at Fiora’s family name, sure she hasn’t actually told it to me, but wondering why it seems familiar.

Whatever, I’m not good with names.

“Huh,” I say out loud. The text isn’t an offer of riches, but it does sound like we’re not done negotiating just yet.

Dressing quickly, I go looking for Fiora.