Everything was so bright. I’d forgotten how the sun was different here, how everything felt dimmer, less intense up north. Walls of sandstone reflected the light back at us, towers cutting silhouettes into the pale blue sky. Around us crept up the chatter and bustle of a city.
All around us were people in bright colors, wrapped in long cloths of every shade and decorated with trinkets that glittered when the midday light caught them. They wore sandals, though some brave (or heat resistant) souls had taken to the cobblestone streets barefoot. It was closer to how it was back home, but not quite. Most people were darker skinned, mostly humans, though there was the occasional half-orc, orc, half-elf, and even smaller creatures making their way through the city as carts pulled by chitinous creatures hauled their burdens through the city.
A market hummed with activity before us, overhangs flapping in the sun over piles of spices and merchants hawking goods in melodic entreaties to passersby.
It was making me nostalgic for simpler times when a long-bearded halfling yelled at us. “Get off the circle!”
“Where are we?” asked Zeno, still squinting.
It wasn’t anywhere I’d been, but I hadn’t exactly been a lot of places.
The halfling scoffed. “Only the greatest city on earth!”
I snorted. This was no Csipherus, but my city been going through a rough patch, so I forgave him the mistake.
Seeing Zeno’s still-puzzled expression, the halfling took mercy. “Tormani! What, did you get teleported somewhere you weren’t expecting?”
Zeno was unphased and pressed on. “What year is it?”
The halfling maybe thought that at this point the bard had to be joking and did not dignify this with a response. Zeno therefore turned to me. “Set, is this your culture?”
“Dude,” I said, eyebrows raised, unable to communicate just how very different and very superior Csipherian everything was, comparatively speaking, to its Tormani versions, “this is not my culture. Not all brown people come from the same place.”
“Ugh.” The bard put his hands on his hips, eyeing the crowds. “I was just trying to get a read on the local scene, but fine, I’ll do it myself.”
I turned my face to the sun, feeling the warmth and intensity that I hadn’t felt for a while. Kheryph laid out on my shoulder, soaking it up. I hoped he’d like it here. It was, after all, a little different from the fields outside Greenrest and the citadel.
Around us was the squawking of birds, water lapping at docks, and people yelling in almost-familiar tongues. If I closed my eyes, it was almost close enough that I could pretend I was home.
As I was reminiscing, Zeno had magicked his clothes to look like a Zeno version of the wrap most people were wearing. He’d gotten a purple wrap going with a nice red sash, and for a cursory read of the place he’d done a good job. I’d never been here so I didn’t know all the ins and outs of Tormani culture, but I’d seen enough low-quality imitations in my travels to know that care had been taken here and I appreciated that.
Felegum, ever practical, set off to finding a place that would sell us new clothes.
The one he found, though, was this dude who was way too into it. “I sell the finest silk threads in all Tormani!”
“Ugh.” Felegum winced, examining his finances. “Silk is too rich for me, what about linen?”
The clothes merchant looked as though Felegum had said he ate babies lightly salted with a side of cornbread. “No one has worn linen since 223.”
Felegum tsked. “The calendar strikes again!”
I suppressed a grin. “It really does, though.”
What followed was a long interval of the merchant pulling out fabrics and tutting at them, deep in thought, until at last he presented the mage with a long sleeved shirt in a bright turquoise with airy pants in a matching and no less ostentatious shade.
Felegum audibly winced. “I guess I’ll wear it.”
Scenting blood, the shopkeeper moved in. “What, does this not suit your fancy?”
“I’d prefer neutrals,” Felegum admitted.
“How very boring,” the shopkeeper replied, and went off to find something less fun. His attention turned to Harry next. “You look like you could, ah,” he paused, evaluating Harry’s near-clotheless state, “use something.”
“Yeah,” Harry said, surveying his melted and utterly tattered monk robes. “Just something fit for travel, not eye-catching or anything.”
“With a stature like yours,” the man replied from behind a pile of fabrics, “eye-catching is not something you’ll be avoiding.”
“That’s fair,” the dragonborn admitted, then asked if the man had anything in white. After a brief skirmish with a blindingly white toga, Harry at last accepted it (provided that it also came with a pair of pants).
Harry also got a sick pair of sandals that laced up along his calves, kind of like the kind I’d seen arena fighters wear. I bet Lankin was familiar with them.
Helli was easy to please: a blue outfit with pants, light and breezy and easy to move around in. Because of her small size, the merchant was even able to give her a discount. She asked about places where she’d be able to buy some replacement weapons, and the merchant said to head to Old Skaldrun and say he’d sent us.
As easy as the first gnome had been, the second gnome was not. Awk immediately was drawn to the most lime green thing the store offered, which ended up being this jumpsuit. There really were no words for it beyond that it was hideous. The merchant, though eager to make a sale, was also having an aesthetic crisis of conscience.
“Oh very well,” he said after considerable thought, “it’s not a current style, though. Do you want a closed toe shoe or do you want to embrace the rays of the sun? Praise be.”
Awk was settled quickly, perhaps because the merchant could not stand to think about what he had done agreeing to clothe the gnome in such lurid tones. This was very relatable.
Zeno, sensing his moment, stepped forward with a presence. “Oh my dear shopkeeper, drape me in purple.”
The merchant clasped his hands together, already having a wonderful time. He spun out vast skeins of silks and color palettes for Zeno to approve and by the end of it, the bard sported a half-chest exposed look, with deep royal purple main colors on his tunic and wrap and tiny gold embroidery work fractaling into delicate, twinkling patterns. Somehow Zeno was prevailed upon to wear less ostentatious footwear, opting for a fairly practical sandal.
As all this was going on, I was browsing and listening for prices. I’d already gambled on Kalends and my purse was starting to get as light as it had been when I’d first set out on this journey. I’d slept outside of inns before, hungry and stealing food, and that wasn’t what I wanted. In the grand hierarchy of things, food came before clothes. I could sweat and deal with it. My clothes so far had lasted.
It wasn’t not tempting, though. There was a shimmering silk the same shade of saffron as a dress my mother had. Our skin tone was closer than me and my dad’s, and that bolder goldenrod verging into amber was nice. But this was Tormani silk; as striking as a pop of orange-gold would be against a black and dark brown motif would be, it was also going to be expensive.
Everything I had had to go toward the city. That was just how it was.
Then I felt guilty just thinking about the silk. Gods, imagine meeting my friends and parents again. Like, oh, hey, Set, you came back with no money, no cure, no food, nothing to help save us, but at least you look fly as hell?
Irresponsible. I’d worked so hard not to be that.
Like every other complicated emotion, explaining this was not going to work so I just put on the large hat with bells I’d gotten from the tabaxi food cart guy and called it a day. I’d looked out of place before; I could hide. And in the desert, it really wouldn’t matter what I looked like.
The merchant looked like he was going to die of apoplexy or something.
I tried using an illusion to make myself seem a little less upsetting, but apparently none of my cool spells were destined to have the effect I wanted them to have, because the merchant’s expression did not improve. Lankin, while this great shopping fallout was occurring, had picked out a tiny orange undergarment for himself and some tanning oil. This tracked.
Zeno and the merchant consulted. It appeared to be conspiratorial, which I did not like, because who likes being made fun of for being poor, especially by your friends who already know you have to pay them back for your hella expensive literal-piece-of-art dagger.
But in the end, it actually ended up being pretty mundane. Zeno exchanged some silver for a wrap and presented it to me. “Here, Set. I got you a gift.”
It was a dark navy blue with these little crossed oars patterned over it. All things considered, it was nice. Maybe not what I would have chosen myself but it didn’t scream prank or that it was one of those things people got you to make you feel terrible like, for example, a companion outfit to Awk’s jumpsuit. It was just someone doing their best to be kind.
Sure, his sense of fashion was a little out there, but it was the thought that counted. Maybe that was how Zeno got the mergirls and mayors: simple kindness.
Also, not gonna lie, it was a relief not to be low-key scolded for the dagger again. I’d been kind of worried about that when he’d gotten snappy at me when we’d left the Den.
And even better, my illusion was still up so I could change clothes in peace. The dark navy was pretty striking, though my mom would probably say all the black and blue made me look like a bruise. I smiled. Even better.
Harry at last asked the merchant for his name, and thus we officially met Jacquard. Naturally, the next order of business was Zeno asking for a bar. Jacquard laughed and said that there were many but that the one he’d recommend was particular. “It has a dirty name,” he said, “but not in this language. The Coconut and the Pineapple.”
Zeno thought about it and then laughed. “Ha, I got you.”
“What?” asked Awk.
“Don’t worry about it.”
“Hey!” Awk glowered. “I’ll have you know I’m older than most of you.”
I wondered briefly if that was Awk or the dragonpriest talking. Concerning thought.
“Age does not equate to wisdom,” Harry said.
At this point, our business concluded at Jacquard’s store, we split off: Helli and Harry went to go find the blacksmith to get weapons, Zeno was interested in a bar, and Felegum had taken off in search of more information. I followed Zeno to the bar, the Pineapple and the Coconut.
On the way to the bar, Awk checked his magic book– I rarely got to see this thing in action– and found to his disappointment that the page with the spell that made his eyes glimmer had been burned away in the mines. Lankin also came with us.
The Coconut and the Pineapple was relatively empty, which made sense given that it was nearer to noontime here than evening. Two human women worked behind the bar, setting out glasses for the evening rush. One of them shaved pieces of ice from a block into smaller chunks.
Zeno was in his element. “Hello, I’m new,” he said, approaching the bar. “Well, Zeno, but new.”
He struck up a brief conversation with them, got himself a fancy pineapple drink, and began to play his pipes in the corner. It was loud in the enclosed space, but this place was also on the empty side of things and this helped make it feel more full. Awk asked for a giant drink in a bowl, for mysterious reasons no doubt, and then I approached.
I was low on money, but I had this fail-proof idea to use my calligraphy skills to make a modest amount to get by. Unfortunately, my brilliant strategy did not survive contact with reality; speaking with one of the bartenders revealed that while yes, they were potentially interested in someone to come in and beautifully label their pantry and supplies, they’d also have to check in with the owner of the establishment who wasn’t here right now.
This kind of made sense. I had never considered the logistics of actually being hired or that there would be a process to it. When I worked for my parents, I mean, it had been my parents, and everything else–an older boy tossing me a bruised apple in the streets— I’d just, well, kind of walked into.
Feeling stupid, I bought my own drink and the bartender agreed to show me the ins and outs of making it. The technique she used on the pineapple was called “sabering” which I thought was badass. As I watched, I asked if she’d heard anything of Csipherus, saying that my friends and I were tourists en route to the Jewel of the South.
Her mood shifted as I rattled on and on about the greatness of the city. I had expected a gentle chiding, perhaps her to tell me that the gates were closed, that the dead were walking, all the terrible things I’d heard before.
I did not expect her to tell me something even worse.
Her name was Utadria and she was a survivor who had escaped, like me, as the city was closing itself down. She spoke quietly, in Csipherian, about a giant who led an army of corpses to the central pyramid of the city, a group of people who looked like they knew what they were doing when they began to excavate, and how all those who tried to stop them were killed and absorbed into their army of skin and bone and rotting flesh, mining and mining deeper below.
There was, she said, a portal, something down there that they were seeking. And the giant, the man who was leading his army of dead, had a very distinctive feature, one she’d never forget.
“He had these haunting,” she said, shaking her head, “glowing red eyes.”
It was hard to hold back my anger. At the Red Eyes, at us for taking so long to get here, at myself for not being ready for it until now. Utadria was shaken and upset and while I could read that I couldn’t figure out a way to make it better.
Maybe because there was no way to make it better beyond the most obvious, most direct one.
Travel from Tormani to Csipherus would be, according to Utadria, one day by boat (provided we could find an insane captain to take us) or who knows how long via the desert, which presented its own slew of problems. I thanked her and returned to my companions, sharing the grim news. This was also when my hat with bells popped back into view as my illusion ran out, so I had to deal with that before I could be serious again.
Felegum returned from his jaunt to the markets and mentioned that he’d seen banners for an upcoming festival being hung, something called the Festival of Twelve Fishes. Zeno did his best to play something sad that gradually transitioned to a more uplifting tune, and as we chatted, we glanced over and noticed Utadria’s eyes were red.
I felt awful.
Further discussion about travel made us think that maybe the desert would be the less dangerous option. Felegum had said that caravans were often looking for protection. He chatted with Utadria himself about the possibility, Dronie once again floating by his side, presumably re-summoned on his walk.
“You must have seen us over there,” he said.
She nodded. “That one over there plays very loud and obnoxious music, but yes.”
He asked about possible jobs for adventurers and she confirmed that indeed, caravans often took on hired help, that they wanted protection from bandits or phantasms of the sands.
Crossing the desert when I’d done it hadn’t been easy, but that certainly didn’t sound good.
“How bad could wurms be?” Zeno asked between sets.
“Dude, seriously?” I held out my knife. “Just like, imagine a mouth full of these coming at you. They are bad.”
Zeno shrugged like he saw worse every other weekend and suddenly I was overcome with the urge to get another drink.
I went up to the bar again, ordered another pineapple drink, and apologized. “I’m sorry for earlier,” I said. “That whole thing about being tourists? That was terrible.”
Utadria waved it off, but I insisted.
“No, I was a dick.” I shook my head. “Perhaps you already figured it out, but I also escaped the city before things got this bad. I understand what that’s like, how afraid I was, and I just wanted to say I’m sorry for trying to pull one over on you. And that it brings joy my heart to see another countryman doing well.”
“There are not many of us left,” she said with a sigh. “People do not treat us well anymore even when they do see us, after what happened. They think we are dirty.”
I scoffed. Csipherians were a proud people. This would not be allowed to stand.
But, I remembered, I had allowed it. Coming into Paripas, when the guard had asked us about disease and I’d denied being from somewhere infected, not wanting to deal with the conflict, to be barred or called names, or finally admitting my shame at the buffet with Letitia, feeling small and problematic, the dirty street urchin from a dirty plague city.
I had not been a proud son of Csipherus. I’d lied about it when it suited me and I’d avoided going back when I heard things were worsening.
I’d run and kept running. I’d been afraid. And now, here was the price of that fear and that hesitation, someone from my city feeling like all was lost, that as proud as we had been, we were scattered to the four winds and dying out in foreign lands as our city was forgotten, or worse, remembered only as dirty.
“Perhaps,” I said in that dying city’s language, “there is still something that can be done. Don’t give up hope.”
She looked at me like most people did, an adult looking at a child who had not yet grasped just how cruel the world could be. “I am grateful to have been able to escape when I did. But hope,” she said, shaking her head, “that it could be fixed? That feels impossible.”
I got up with my second drink and headed back to the group, firm in my resolve.
When I’d last left the city, I’d wavered and gotten scared, let myself rest when my people suffered, and run when my friends got hurt. No longer. I’d known what I had to do when we’d left the mines. Utadria only underlined how quickly we needed to act.
When I’d left Csipherus, I’d sworn to bring back a miracle.
My hand tightened around the dagger. The thing with magic was that, most times, impossible things weren’t that impossible at all. Impossible only meant that you weren’t willing to pay the price for it.
Finally, I was.