Getting rooms over at the inn next door proved easy enough, and we settled in for the night in another strange place. It wasn’t as economical in the space department as the Loving Lettuce had been, and I found myself missing the late night tea service, but being close to the ocean it did present a nice view of the docks and the water in the distance.
Harry’s eye, to put it nicely, had not looked great. In fact, it looked awful. I did not consider myself an expert on medical stuff, but I had seen enough eyes in my short but eventful life to know what one broadly should do and what was beyond normal function. Pus was not on the list of healthy characteristics. Especially for someone who thrived in close combat, Harry needed to be able to, you know, actually see.
I mused briefly on how we seemed to keep running into this problem as I walked down the hallway, first with him and the darkvision goggles and now with this injury. Why was everything going for Harry’s eyes?
Further, I thought as I knocked on the door to his room, why was everything about eyes?
Harry answered, and I asked if he’d be down letting me look at his injury and seeing if there was anything I could do about it. It was a long shot, but he acquiesced provided I let him sit on the bed and meditate while I tried to figure it out.
Unfortunately, my insights did not amount to much: it looked not great and I couldn’t come up with any ideas for things I could put on it that would be useful. We hadn’t seen much in the way of dragonborns coming in, so maybe they were just a careful people or maybe there just hadn’t been that many of them around the city. Either way, I knew enough to know I didn’t know what I was doing and that an expert would probably need to be consulted.
Asking for Harry’s permission, I gave him a little healing boost on the affected area and it looked, I don’t know, marginally better as far as inflammation went, but again, hard to tell with all the scales and pus. We decided we might have better luck finding something in the market and put that on the docket for tomorrow.
On my way back to my rooms, I passed a purposeful monodrone zipping down the hall and out the door; no doubt Felegum had set Dronie about a critically important mission during the evening. Somewhere else down the hall drifted soft strains of pennywhistle.
It had, I realized, been a long time since Zeno had had a zombie.
It had been a long time since I’d been around them, too. I settled into bed, Kheryph nestling into my elbow, wondering who I was going to find and who I wasn’t.
The next day, I got up early.
It was about sunrise, that still time between when the rowdier elements have exhausted themselves and when the industrious souls apply themselves to their work before the heat of the day sets in, that brief period where hardly anyone is on the streets and if they are, they’re going somewhere.
I slipped out of the inn and let myself wander eastward. The smell of yeast rising in clay ovens accompanied me past bakeries preparing for the morning rush, trays of buns and breads and delicate pastries folded into soft shapes, waiting for room in the oven.
As the city brightened, I came to a small, circular temple open on all sides to let in the light. It was surrounded by gardens and small candles glowing in the semi-dawn, and a careful glance revealed a figure in brown robes lighting and replacing candles that hadn’t lasted the evening. They were far enough away that it didn’t feel awkward approaching the temple and not talking to them, which was good because my hands were covered in sweat and my stomach felt like I’d eaten every loaf of bread I’d smelled getting here.
Inside the temple was a small plinth where the sun’s light cut across the top like an offering, like a knife. Cut into the plinth was a basin filled with water glittering in the morning sun. It reminded me of the empty temple in Paripas with its wide pool where I’d left what remained of Chip. I’d done okay then; maybe I’d do okay now.
Where did you even begin to talk with a god? Where did you start when you’d lived for silence in so many crises and it was only recently that you’d started getting responses?
It was easy to be angry. Easier still to ask for a reason why my people had been allowed to suffer, why no one had listened to me and my parents before when we’d poured everything we had into helping sick people and begged for reprieve, for a cure, for anything to save us, and nothing had come.
And maybe if I’d come to this temple in that spirit, I wouldn’t have been able to ask what I needed to. I was a person with a degree of pride. I was not exactly a person who easily accepted things that felt unfair, and that certainly had.
But sometimes you had to gamble. If you had one shot at what you wanted, you had to be willing to play your last card to get it.
And that was exactly the kind of person I was.
“My city is dying,” I said, quietly. “You already know that. I mean, you’re a god. My people are either scattered across the desert or trapped in a place that seeks to devour them. I’m here because I need help.”
Before, my parents had spoken in low voices where they thought I couldn’t hear about how hard it was getting to feed three people. They’d started saying they weren’t hungry at dinners or meals, all to ensure I still had enough. My family prided ourselves on giving to others, and there I was, taking without giving anything in return.
I had never felt more like a burden in my life. After I met Kalends and began providing for my parents instead, I’d sworn I’d never ask for help again, if only to avoid feeling like that.
But I had, countless times with the people I traveled with– whether it was for food, shelter, healing, protection from an attack. They had given it. And I had not felt like I was causing them undue hardship when I’d asked.
Maybe asking this wouldn’t feel shameful either.
“My friends were all dying in a mine and I couldn’t do anything,” I continued to the open, airy shrine. “One of them actually did die and I couldn’t help him. And they’re coming with me to the city because I asked, but I can’t ask them to walk into something like that again. I can’t not protect them.”
I took a deep breath. “So, I’m asking for help.”
A wind from the desert swirled through the space, bearing on it little grains of sand and the tang of lightning and storms. I closed my eyes.
“I know that nothing is free. Everything has a cost. And I don’t have much to offer, well, not anything that belongs only to me anyway. But there’s one thing I have that belongs solely to me that I have left of value. My life.”
This felt maybe too metal. I wasn’t really a hundred percent on how gods worked and if you had to word this a particular way or whatever, so I backpedaled. “And if that’s dying, then fine. Just let me finish what I came to do first. But I think things like you don’t prefer easy solutions like that, a single moment of devotion. It’s too simple. So, I offer you myself. A lifetime of service, given freely. Help me help my friends and my city.”
“And if it’s really dying,” I whispered, “then let me bury it and give it a better end than this.”
The morning was quiet. Then there was that feeling again, like the same one I’d get hiding and not seeing something following me, that tap on a shoulder to just look.
And in the water was a dude. A human guy, fair of skin with shining metal armor and brown hair. And it wasn’t like he was saying it, like speaking it, but more like, he was talking and the words were forming in my head:
To choose life over death, unconsciously, willingly, is braver than most can say they are. The path you are on will be hard, but I’ll be there to guide you. You must merely ask.
Then the light shifted, reflecting the bright sun up onto me from the water.
And it felt good, warm like the dawn after a long night, like something starting. Pinks, oranges, and golds flashed like light through a prism, refracting and wrapping around me, through me like I was one more low cloud rising from the earth.
I rose. Over by the candles in the gardens, the hooded figure looked up and me and and nodded as I passed. I nodded back.
This was unexpected, but not bad. Like having a secret group of sort-of friends I was cool with just by virtue of one dude in charge saying it was cool. Having a god who was chill with you just talking to them and asking for things? New, but metal.
Anyway, by this time I was done with being nervous and back to being hungry, so I followed my heart where it led, which was down an off-shoot alleyway where an older woman was setting up one of those nameless food vendors. It smelled amazing, so I stopped and asked what she was cooking.
She was pleased to share with me that she’d just finished her first batch of fig pastries of the day and offered them to me by the dozen at an extremely reasonable price for something that smelled so good. They had little slices of fig in the centers and the corners folded up and maybe, my experience with Innard and Layne told me, glazed with something like an egg. Definitely sweet, no doubt about that.
I asked for two dozen and the woman was delighted. “Manu!” she called to a very buff dude in the back, who emerged soon with a second tray. “Fresh out of the oven for you.”
I waited a bit as she packaged them all up, paid her, and then found my way back to the inn with breakfast.
The pastries were as much of a hit as I could have hoped for. I had little doubt that I would be unlikely to find that shop again, so I savored them. Helli also savored her pastries and contentedly leaned back, full.
I brought out the scroll. “You know, I’ve always loved magic. But this is a little beyond me. And uh, I’m not totally sure I can do it.”
This hurt to admit because magic was very cool but this was important Csipherus stuff and it was better to have it all on the table. No one else knew Kalends, so it was going to have to be me; there was no way around that. The group agreed to hold off on me reaching out until we had more of a firm timeline for getting to the city. Then I could let Kalends know and he could help us in.
Provided, obviously, the reason he’d been uncontactable wasn’t because he was already dead.
On that happy note, we broke off to run errands for the day. Zeno talked to the innkeeper about caravans and set off with Lankin to try to use their masculine wiles to arrange passage for us on one, Felegum and Awk were discussing food, and I was tempted to pursue that for obvious reasons when some altercation crept up between the warlock-druid combo meal and the monk and Harry swept out into the street.
Not wanting to be left out of any apothecary shenanigans, I followed him, passing a beautiful and incredibly orderly sandcastle outside the inn. It almost seemed to be made out of clockwork, finely detailed with little driftwood sticks and beach pebbles.
We ended up in the southern part of Tormani where we stumbled across a promising set-up under a red awning with a sign out front stating simply “Mo’s”.
It was run by this little half-goblin, half-gnome, all-green dude, probably Mo, who seemed almost irritated to have customers. As Harry was accosted and made fun of, I judged the shop.
For a place that was open, bazaar-style, on all sides, it was full of plants. He had plants in lattices and he had plants on tables, stacked on shelves, and in groupings on workbenches. This was impressive, but honestly a little too much on the plant side for my taste; my parents, having a bit of a smaller space to work with in our flat, had favored dried ingredients and those just seemed so much more efficient.
“Ginger root,” the apothecary said with a nod. “Now, make yourself useful while I prepare it. Would you mind watering the plants along the wall?”
Harry did not protest, accustomed perhaps to this perfunctory treatment after years of monastic life. “Sure,” he said, and began to quest for a watering can.
It was about at this point that I became impossible not to notice, the only other person in the shop.
Mo, on discerning that I was not here to buy anything, demanded that I also do something useful, so finding his establishment worthy, I went to go label some plants. Unfortunately for him, plants were not my strong suit. Obviously, I couldn’t shame my family by actually admitting this so I did my best and hoped no one would notice.
My basilis plant was right, but Mo, being keen of eye and sharp of plant, called me out on a geranium that was actually a bogswort that I had to re-label. Not wanting to deal with more aspersions cast upon my character, I subtly rotated the last potted plant, which I had labeled in my best writing: Surprise.
I hadn’t known what that one was either and now everyone would experience the joy of discovery.
Harry, at this point, had located the watering can and had been placidly attending to various plants.
Mo continued to rattle on for a bit about tonics and tinctures and plants, and eventually finished up his supplies for Harry’s scar. I was not quite sure how he’d gotten on the topic, perhaps because Harry was a dragonborn and those were rare-ish, but he was really into a story as we were setting down labels and watering cans and preparing to go.
“I once tried to out-burrow a young bronze dragon and it did not go so well for me.” Mo sighed, looking wistfully at an aloe. “I lost my lunch money that day.”
We bade him farewell.
In the meantime, a bunch of other things happened, which Harry and I found out in detail when we returned to the inn.
Zeno had booked us a gig on a caravan at the caravansary. I, maybe the only one who had been on a caravan before, had not even known that was a word. Anyway, apparently Zeno had sung so cool of a song (he was calling it “The Black Dragon’s Bane” and I surmised from the title it was about our brush with Nightscale way back when) that the dude in charge of one of the caravans was like, bam, you guys are hired.
Maybe he really had believed Zeno that we were mighty warriors, or maybe he wanted quality musical accompaniment through part of his travels. Whatever his ultimate reason, he was also going to pay us for defending his caravan, which was also amazing, since I’d been thinking that we’d need to pony up to bribe people to get close enough to Csipherus so we could head over.
This was well done pretty much across the board. Lankin had also helped by flexing, I think.
While that was going on, Felegum and Awk had acquired a truly staggering amount of food and water, which Awk carried back to the inn as a camel because they did not have HFVNN or any way to open the bag. With Zeno and Lankin again, the task was accomplished and the water and vegetables stored, along with our moose meat that Lankin had hunted for us outside of Paripas. It still appeared good.
“So,” Zeno said, “we might have some work.”
“Mmm.” Harry nodded, perhaps deep in contemplation of all the work we had yet to do. “Yes, more.”
“I got us a dinner date and a job,” the bard continued. “How do you all feel about flatbread?”
Harry paused in his observation of the universe and narrowed his eyes, trying to piece these disparate events together. “Did you anger someone’s husband?”
“Dear, no.” Zeno sighed and shook his head, then explained.
We would be helping our employer, a nice dude with fine taste in music named Pinjin, cross the desert close to Csipherus. As it stood now, caravans were having to make long detours around the city, adding a lot of time onto their journeys. It was possible to take the more direct route closer to the city, and had the added benefit of shaving weeks off the journey south to the Spike of the Continent or wherever that was, but one was almost guaranteed to run into monsters, the undead, or whatever other ~phantasms of the sands~ were out there. Guards and experienced fighters were a must for express travel.
As it stood, Pinjin estimated that it would take us a week to get to a point where we’d split off from the caravan and continue to Csipherus.
I had a timeline. I could contact Kalends.
But before all that and the anxiety of finally doing the thing could set in, we had a dinner date.
The Tomato and Basil was, like many Tormani establishments, it seemed, named after two things. It was also a make-your-own flatbread kind of place, which was new and exciting, both because there were a ton of options and because I wasn’t sure if I’d had flatbread before.
Zeno made a big show of looking for camel cheese–why, I have no idea– and while he wasn’t able to find any, he was able to find Pinjin at a table enjoying some flatbread.
I suggested that if Zeno was really into camel cheese he could always just ask Awk to turn into a camel and milk him, which maybe was offensive to Awk, because the gnome pulled down his pants in the middle of the dinnertime rush and asked, “Is this a female camel?”
He was asked to pull up his pants in this establishment and I could swear a vein in Harry’s forehead twitched.
We placed our orders and Zeno took up a position playing his pipes as we waited. Zeno’s flatbread was predictable (all the meats), mine was spicy sausage and spicy peppers with cheese and basil (you got the best sense of a food culture through their native choice of seasonings), Awk chose all the greens and something that looked strangely like camel’s milk (I have no idea how he acquired this), where Harry went spicy and simple (commendable), and Felegum specifically asked that everything be circular and well-ordered. Unfortunately his flatbread was the only one of ours that came out slightly misshapen.
Lankin, I can only assume, ate his flatbread so fast that I was unable to document his ingredient choices. Helli was still full from breakfast and all the fig pastries; there had been twenty-four and by the time I’d returned from visiting the apothecary, they were totally gone.
Zeno’s musical choice for the evening was “The Ballad of Lady Zen” played to moderately adoring crowds. He made a decent amount in small copper tips, which he was in turn moderately offended by, since it was a pretty good version of the song.
After some discussion and confirmation of the terms, again, pretty much matching what Zeno had told us earlier, we agreed on the terms and to leave tomorrow morning. Finishing up our flatbreads, we returned to the inn and settled in for the night.
And when the sun rose, I rose with it.