Barns and caravans passed us by as we traveled west, quickly catching up to the group of carts we’d been interested in.
Felegum walked up to the guards. “Ho, friends. Do you mind if we travel together?”
Smooth. Very smooth.
One of the guards gave us a once-over. “You’re an interesting looking crew. Heading into the old Fallow?”
Felegum chattered away as we spread ourselves out along the wagons. There were three of them, so there was plenty of space for us to hang out.
“Yes, indeed,” said the guard, “you are an unusual group. We don’t know what to call you.”
“Most recently we hailed from the desert,” Zeno supplied, “so you could call us the Silly Desert Circus.”
Despite these overtures at friendship, though, the guards did not seem particularly excited about making our long and joyful acquaintance. Both Zeno and Felegum tried their best and both were met with failure.
These people were not interested in making friends, they said. Not when the Circled Hand was becoming more active in closing things off in the area.
I had no idea what this Circled Hand person or group or whatever was, but it seemed political. According to the guards, caravans these days didn’t even go past the walls, and there was a ton of paperwork (brief elation from Felegum) to even unload your wares inside.
Zeno told a story about a friend of his who had received with a letter with an odd symbol on it. The guards nodded gravely and said that symbol was the mark of the rebels.
Felegum nodded sensibly. “To rebel seems quite inadvisable.”
The guard shrugged. “Depends on what side of the coin you’re on.”
Seeing that he would find no friend of order here, the magician fell back to talk with me. Specifically, to talk with me about shipping manifests. Somehow Felegum’s ethics about order seemed perfectly happy to accommodate disorderly things, like theft and illegal snooping, as long as he didn’t have to be the one perpetrating them. Or, I thought, perhaps his year with Helli in Paripas had enlightened him.
Anyway, we’d also been following this cart for days, and the prospect of actually figuring out what was in here (more tubes? something else that would bring the whole mystery together) was enticing.
I too fell back, to the last of the three carts. When you’re walking somewhere, generally people’s eyes are facing forward (unless something weird is going on or they are really weird) as forward is the direction you are going. Therefore, if you were going to do something sneaky, best to limit the number of eyes on you as much as you could. The last caravan was perfect to investigate with so many members of the caravan unlikely to look back at me, a young person acting bored and trailing a questing hand discreetly along an edge and then, when no one was looking, inside.
It was full of casks.
Honestly, I feel I should have seen that one coming. This was Zeno’s hometown, where he literally hailed from– of course it would have wine. But what about all the tubes and all that noise?
I paused and reconsidered. Maybe the casks was the cover. The clinking was still coming from somewhere. When I continued to reach, there was a cabinet under a dip in the cart. Even better, it was locked.
Now we were getting somewhere.
I waited for a copse of trees to come up, then called out that I had to pee and that I’d catch up. Hiding behind a tree, I went invisible. Then, I caught up, found purchase on the wagon bed, and leapt inside.
The sound of my landing was muffled in the bumping and rumbling along of the cart, and possibly the relentless banter of a sorcerer determined to make friends. I looked around.
There were three casks, all unsuspicious, all from some place called the Eight-Eyed Vineyard. I read the names on each cask as I passed it. There was a Sangiovese ’94, which sounded more like a medical problem than something you’d want to ingest, and then two more casks on top which were Pinot Blanc ’96. They all made sloshing noises like liquid and smelled like Zeno, so it stood to reason that they were what they purported to be.
The cabinets I’d felt earlier were where my attention was captured. These were, after all, the wagons we’d been trailing with the weird tubes. The wine could just as easily be a clever cover for smuggling them in.
Of course, the cabinets were locked.
Luckily, we had me.
A few moments of careful lockpicking later, I pocketed my tools and opened the cabinet door.
Inside were eight boxes of finely treated wood. I took one out. This could be it. This could be the whole entire secret. That lock hadn’t been easy, so whatever was in here had to be something, some plan, some schematic, pertaining to this secret.
I wiped my sweaty palms off on my pants and opened the box.
On a bed of velvet inside the fine box was a very fine glass bottle of wine. Its finely calligraphed label read: Chenin Blanc ’62.
This did not feel like the dastardly plan I had thought it would be.
Still, it could not hurt to be too cautious. It also did look cool, and if this was supposed to be for the dude Zeno was versing (or had previously versed and now was taking a siesta therefrom) then I had no issue pilfering his goods. I had to rearrange basically everything in my pack to accommodate the box– which is like, next level challenge to do when you and your stuff is invisible– but I’d gotten pretty good at packing and unpacking at the apothecary.
Work done, I relocked the cabinet, hopped off the cart, found another copse of trees to return to the visible world, then ran back to the cart. I blamed the extended break on terrible mushroom soup.
But I probably did not need to have bothered; these guys were pretty uninterested in anything to do with us or maybe any outside forces.
Iago made a valiant effort to ride on the first cart and was summarily denied, despite his wheedlings. “Good luck to be mean to a traveler!” he sniffed.
“Back luck to be too trusting of a stranger,” a guard quipped back, which, yeah, honestly.
I caught back up with the rest of my friends and talked about finding the wine casks. Felegum evolved a plan of putting a large hunk of the cube somewhere on the cart so we could track it. This seemed like a great way to lose the cube. Technically, I could find things using the power of the divine, or like, I had a feeling I could, so we decided that we’d trust my ability to provide good directions over the potential loss of a cool magical item, which felt legit.
Once this was concluded, we also arrived at the conclusion that it was kind of silly for us to keep accompanying these people who clearly did not want us harshing their vibe. So, we stopped, thanked them for their time and indulgence, said we had made a grievous directional error, and promptly turned around to go back from whence we came.
Ten or fifteen minutes later there was a terrible sound.
It was like something wet hitting wood and metal amid shouts. Almost like a battle.
Almost exactly like a frog battle.
What followed was an inelegant sprint back to the wagons we’d literally just left. While Metzi, the war lizard, and Lily were all creatures capable of understanding haste, the broom was not. In normal circumstances, this wouldn’t be a problem. I’d just be like, whatever, take your deviant bird and leave.
But now this kind of sucked. People needed help.
By the time we arrived, a number of caravan guards had fallen. Some maybe were dead, others had heavy wounds as the frogs around them were on the cusp of finishing them off.
Zeno, despite being on Lily along with a bunch of zombies, somehow contrived to be the fastest. He unleashed– I hated to admit it– a pretty cool illusion around the cart. I wasn’t sure if this was to give those dying a glimpse or hope of a really trippy afterlife or if this was to distract the frogs, but it was certainly elaborate.
Tem squinted, as though gauging the best angle for attack, and urged her reptilian mount (which despite all odds had indeed come back to her after she turned it loose) forward into the fray.
Regrettably, I tried to be cool, a tactic which has historically not served me well. Fed up with the lack of speed on my broom, my plan was to leap off it and hit the ground running to make up for lost time. Reader, I did not. I absolutely ate dirt. I spat it out in time to yell at one of the guards to get out of there and infuse it with a little healing energy, but that was about it.
One of the guards who were not watching hypnotic Zenovision crawled under the middle cart. The one I’d told to run instead fired at a massive, close frog and thankfully missed. I swear, I try to help and people insist on trying to die anyway. Story of my life.
The third cart also featured people crawling under it for safety, a sound tactic, while one of the guards hopped on the first cart and drove it away from the thick of battle. Judging from the frogs looking greedily at its horse and rider, though, it likely wouldn’t be safe for long.