I HOPE HOPELESS CHANGES OVER TIME: which involves a variety of rings, as well as a fishy interlude

Breakfast the next morning was mealed oats. I had never had them before, and neither had most of us, so Zeno was getting us acquainted with the local custom.

“If you get two of them, you can make a sandwich,” he said, demonstrating. “Sometimes I’ll put bacon in the center.”

“Looks very crunchy,” I said.

Zeno nodded with enthusiasm, crunching away. The inn, the Raven’s Talon, was decent, though it seemed to have an ever-present raven that cawed whenever the inn’s name was spoken. Perhaps this was a charming affectation of a pet or maybe it was just a spell. Either way, it took a little getting used to the first few times.

Breakfast acquired, I headed out. As fun as it was to sample new delights (especially weird ones that were culturally important to my friends), I had business to attend to. Since this was the first opportunity I’d had in ages to be in a place that had more places of commerce than an inn, I took advantage of it. I’d heard the Red Market was the place to go for this stuff, so I went.

What I didn’t realize was that the Red Market was pretty good for sundries. Like, I could find my magical components there no problem. I bought ten sticks of incense from a cool half-elf woman named Ava who ran Ava’s Illusions. She had dark skin and bright purple smoke puffed out of her hookah as she explained the benefits of the different varieties to me. It was actually pretty sick to talk shop with a fellow master of illusions, but I had another item to pick up.

“Oh, those?” Ava quirked an eyebrow. “You’re not going to find that in the outer ring.”

“Really?” I beheld the open-air market. It wasn’t the sprawl of the merchants in Tormani (let alone the majesty of even a single Csipherian street cart) but like, this had a lot going on in a small space.

“Really,” she said. “Platinum rings aren’t going to be in the Third Dahn.”

I had to ask for clarification here, because like, this was not something anybody had briefed me on. The outer ring of Reach’s Fallow was its Third Dahn, where “dahn” seemed to be used interchangeably with “ring” or “rank”. It was where people with less status lived. It wasn’t exactly dilapidated; there just weren’t beautiful buildings here. Yurts and tents populated side alleys by the big open-air markets.

On our way into the city, we’d passed through forests cut down for miles to help build out the retaining wall that separated the Third Dahn from the outskirts of the city. I wasn’t sure if that was a “fourth dahn” or something else, but it seemed like there was an even lower rank that people could fall into.

The Second Dahn, the middle ring, had a stone wall protecting it from the outside and tasteful plantlife growing up it. Saying goodbye to Ava, I took a walk and surveyed the prospect. There were three gates into the Second Dahn with iron portcullises on each one. They were all shut, with guards in the gatehouses above them.

The traditional route was out, then.

I walked along the wall, feeling for seams or good climbing holds. It was so damn smooth it took me a while to find a spot that even looked slightly possible. While I was searching, I also observed the people beyond the wall, getting a sense of their style of clothing, level of displayed wealth, that sort of thing.

I was a decent climber. Csipherus is a vertical place, and growing up I’d learned how to scramble up and down buildings with relative ease. But these walls were something else.

I’d ducked behind a building, made myself invisible, and then made my attempts to no avail. Like, I wondered if the people here had done something to the walls, deliberately smoothed them or something, to make them harder to scale.

Well, no matter.

I had other means.

Returning to the same building I’d used to turn invisible before, I hopped on my broom and flew over the wall, still invisible, still unseen. Touching down in the Second Dahn beyond the views of the guard towers, I packed the broom away and cast a spell to blend in.

I basically copied Zeno’s clothes and replaced all the purple accents with orange. Then I added more ornamentation from home as jewelry, like a Csipherian collar in brass and small shells, bronze cuffs, and a variety of tasteful ear piercings (gold and obsidian). I felt a natural inclination toward several belts, but that didn’t seem to match the style here, so it was with great reluctance that I held myself back.

I looked like an exotic Zeno in amber. My work was, as always, flawless.

There were so many banners and so much heraldry around here, I lost track of all the different sigils and symbols, animals on fields in a variety of specific and unlikely postures. Probably it might have meant something to someone, possibly Zeno or even Felegum, but I had my eye on the prize.

That being said, I still ran into difficulty. I’d forgotten the age-old problem: other cities are not like Csipherus and therefore no one puts stores and things where they ought to be.

My quest for a jeweler took me to four shops, each less helpful than the next. I ended up at the Pheasant’s Nest (it would make sense that I was naturally drawn to restaurants) before I was stopped by the city guards.

This was annoying.

I wouldn’t go through the whole interaction, but the gist of it was that they didn’t like that no one knew who I was. Apparently this worried people in the Second Dahn?

I explained that I was a traveling scholar on exchange study from Csipherus, learning arcane mysteries and living with my host family. I apologized for not knowing the customs better, and they were very polite, but insisted on knowing what family I’d come from.

Somehow I got out of answering that, but I wasn’t able to shake the guards. They asked that I escort them back to the place I was staying, which I agreed to. On the way, I was overcome by gastrointestinal distress and begged to be able to use a bathroom. I was, ah, genteel about it, which seemed to go over well, and that was how I ended up being allowed to go into the Woven Worm, a silk merchant’s shop, to relieve myself.

Thanking the proprietor profusely, I slipped into the bathroom, turned invisible, and departed, leaving the guards and a very concerned silk merchant behind.

Cursing this ridiculous city, I was about to give up when I dashed by Thinissent Silver. I stopped, invisible, dead in my tracks.

I didn’t like the idea of getting caught again. But this was it. This was my chance.

I went to a back alley and once again came out decked in (slightly different) illusory fine outerwear, then went in.

“Hello,” I said to the proprietor. “I’d like two platinum rings, please.”

Perhaps you are wondering why I wanted these rings so badly that I’d sneak into the Second Dahn, wander around in disguise, get caught, escape, and then risk getting caught twice. That, I’m going to keep close to my chest for now. Suffice it to say that if I didn’t foresee a useful purpose for them, I wouldn’t have invested so much into their acquisition.

“Oh?” the proprietor asked. “Any special occasion?”

“Well.” I looked at the floor, not even having to fake the blush coming to my cheeks. “It’s, ah, for a friend. A very good friend. And me. We’ve been, uh, adventuring companions for a while now, and I’m, ah, looking to make it official.”

I could feel my stupid voice going higher. Thinissent smiled.

I blathered on. “We have an inside joke about platinum–” I hoped that didn’t sound too speciesist; Milto was a metallic dragon and therefore probably cool with Bahamut but like, that still felt like a reach “–so it’d be really meaningful to do it with rings from that, if you have them. You came highly recommended and I thought–“

“Oh, yes, yes,” said Thinissent. “That can certainly be arranged. Now, do you need these to be magical at all?”

“Oh no,” I replied. “Non-magical is fine. It’s just, you know, for–“

Why was this so hard to say?

I looked up at the ceiling. Like that would help.

“I only ask because the rings won’t automatically re-size without magic,” the jeweler said tactfully.

“That’s fine.” I waved it off. “I– This is going to sound so goofy, but I measured his ring size while he was asleep. Like, just took a piece of string and wrapped it around his finger. So I know it.”

When the rings were sized accordingly, one to my hand and the other to, well, whatever measurements I gave, Thinissent asked how I’d found out about his shop. “You said I came highly recommended and I just wanted to know to whom I owed the thanks for such high praise.”

I had to think fast there. “Well, you know, the Battle of the Bards is a huge contest, and I thought, who better to for the very best of Reach’s Fallow other than one of its most respected winners? You may know them as one of the players in Two Goblins and a Halfling.”

I really hoped I’d gotten the numbers right there, but I needn’t have worried.

Thinissent nodded. “Ah, Fitzroy! Always a pleasure doing business for them. I’m very happy that my services were enough for them to recommend me.”

“Of course,” I said. The rings were stunning. Exactly what I needed.

“Would you like to personalize them at all?” he asked. “I can offer you an engraving service.”

“Would insetting stones be possible at all? I realize this is short notice, but his favorite color is purple, so I figured maybe an amethyst for him and for me, maybe an amber or a citrine–“

Thinissent wrinkled his nose. “Topaz,” he said decisively. “And on short notice, no, I’m afraid, but with time–“

“That’s alright, I’d like to have them on hand in case the moment presents itself.”

“Oh, but the engraving is free and I’d be more than happy to show you how to operate the machine,” he continued. “It writes in a variety of languages. I don’t see what you write,” he added with a knowing look, “so please rest assured it is discreet.”

“Of course,” I said, taking the rings over after I’d paid for them. The machine, I was surprised to note, could engrave in Csipherian.

This felt very permanent.

Thinissent took a little while to finish counting out all the gold I’d paid, so I had a moment to think but I couldn’t stay here too long. I had to be believable and then leave.

So, I wrote the truest thing I knew. It was a line of Csipherian poetry I’d heard recited as a kid, one half of the verse on each ring.

It was actually pretty corny when I stopped to think about it, so I just decided not to think, thanked Thinissent, and left. I walked a polite amount of steps visible and then promptly vanished.

By the time I got back to the Raven’s Talon, I was exhausted.

Zeno had been drinking all morning and it showed. Helli, who had showed back up after the auditions were over, was worried about how she could contribute to the act.

“Helli, Helli, Helli,” Zeno sing-songed. “Special.” He paused. “Effects.”

This was a surprisingly good idea for that level of inebriation. I sat down and laid my head on the table.

“Set,” asked Iago, “what are your opinions on ventriloquism?”

I looked up at him.

“I’m thinking of getting a live fish,” he added with a grin.

“Oh my god, no.” I buried my head in my hands. “No.”

“Did anyone find any information on the battle?” Zeno asked, somewhere between disconsolate and disgusted.

Iago sighed. “I’d have to ask the inner city guard about that.”

“No,” I said, “that would be bad.”

“It would be,” said Zeno. “How do you know that?”

Thus followed a (mostly) accurate retelling (minus the hunt for a jeweler) of my encounters in the Second Dahn. “They’re all horrible,” I said. “Everyone is so fake.”

“Obviously,” Zeno said. If possible, he looked worse.

Helli talked to him for a little while, and I thought it was really nice of her to try to perk him up. Then he chugged his beer massively after their conversation.

Maybe not.

Also concerning was the sky getting darker in the middle of the afternoon. People were walking around with eye coverings on outside and many of them didn’t seem panicked. What was this, normal?

Helli elbowed Zeno. “Why do they have those weird glasses on?”

“So they can keep track of the visions in their eyes,” he whispered back.

It was a total solar eclipse. Ten seconds later, fireworks exploded all throughout the city and a voice boomed out: “Lord Reinbach is happy to announce the theme of this year’s Battle of the Bards: Ashes of the Phoenix!”

Zeno flipped a table.

“Metal,” I breathed. I’d heard some of the previous years’ themes and they’d all been rad. This one was even radder. Wild cheering erupted from the streets.

“Every time,” Zeno muttered, “it’s just like the hot air balloon thing.”

I was not paying as much attention to that because I had just had an epiphany. I reached into my stuff. “Okay, hear me out. One, you shoot a bow. Two, the theme is phoenix. Bow, phoenix.”

I placed the item on the table. “Phoenix Bow.”

At first, I thought Felegum might be a good candidate for it, since he always liked blowing people up from a safe distance, but then after some debate we settled on Tem as its wielder for a cohesive fire theme.

“Speaking of themes,” I said, “what’s our first act going to be?”

“Rock opera,” said Zeno, deadpan, over another drink.

I knew what opera was; sometimes in the forum or open-air amphitheatres actors would put on shows that I’d catch pieces of in between pickpocketing. I had no idea about rock opera.

“Okay,” I said.

“We need some pizzazz,” Zeno continued. “Cup stacks, judges that survive, visual effects. Any instruments at all, really.”

He looked at us, as though this were somehow a new and exciting problem and not one we had had always.

“I have a music box?” Helli offered.

“Can you invent a synthesizer?”

She considered. “I was thinking more like a disco ball.”

“Oh my god, yes.” He picked up the gnome and twirled her around, legs and all. “Glory, glory!”

Tem finished putting her new bow away. “Do you have your baby dragon with you?”

Helli looked up from the twirls. “Sometimes?”

“What do you mean, baby dragon?” Iago asked, askance.

“I think,” Zeno continued as if none of this were worrying, “we should make the big finale the big Zeno reveal.”

“And fire?” Helli asked.

“Yeah, yeah,” he said. “Fire and horns.”

He put her down. “Do you remember that song I played for Thunderstruck on bagpipes? The one that accelerated?” It took me a moment to realize he meant Ojutai. “It’s gonna be hideous. It’s gonna be beautiful. We might have to kill, but that just means more friends.”

I was not sure if these were lines of the rock opera or not.

“Skeletons all die eventually,” Felegum mused.

Zeno slapped a rib out of Vincenzo. “A weapon!” he cried.

Vincenzo clutched his chest.

“No,” Zeno said, “I mean, use this as a weapon.”

Thus instructed, Vincenzo brandished the rib.

Outside the Raven’s Talon came the sounds of rock and stone shifting around and the creaking of large timbers being hammered into place. A huge arena was being constructed somewhere.

Thanks to some listening in and chatting with other locals, we learned that people typically didn’t start killing each other until the third or fourth round.

“Is violence…normal?” Tem asked a server.

“Are you participating?” they asked her back.

Zeno leaned in. “What’s your perspective?”

“It’s a transcendent experience,” they said. “People take herbs to increase the levels at which they perceive…the experience.”

They said it with a dramatic pause.

Zeno smiled. “Have you ever seen a man’s brain melting out his ears?”

“Uh,” said the server, “no.”

“Keep a weather eye out.” Zeno winked. “Probably not yours.”

This only served to unnerve the server further. “Uh, now I’m kind of afraid of you.”

“Kind of scary, kind of hot?”

There was a pause. Then:

“I get off at eleven.”

“So do I,” Zeno said.

In the early evening, there was a knock at the door of the Raven’s Talon, and a voice called, “We’re looking for members of the, uh, SDC? We have your pairing and call time information. Who’s your leader?”

Zeno tossed his hair back. “Yes?”

They handed him a letter. Basically, after a lot of burned logos and very fancy handwriting from Lord S. Reinbach III, we were going to face our first match tomorrow at 3:27pm. Our opponents were the Rats of Glomphordshire. Their party had twenty-seven members and had been allowed extra because they were all so small.

“Sounds pestilent,” Zeno said, then squinted. “Wait, tomorrow?”

The server looked over. “Oh, early berth, huh? Oh, and more Rats from Glomphordshire?”

“They’re not really rats, are they?” the bard asked.

“Well.” The server did not elaborate.

“And you said violence is accepted in this thing?” Felegum asked, eyes shining at the prospect of genocide.

“I mean, yes–” the server frowned at him “– but you’re not supposed to throw the first punch.”

“What about kicking?” asked Iago.

“Hm, good point,” Felegum said. “They didn’t say anything about kicking.”

More worryingly, though, we found that if you made it to the third round and didn’t win, you’d never be heard from again. Supposedly, those people became the attending bards of Lord Reinbach, and they went on to live in the inner dahns.

“Those people are dead to us,” said a patron with disgust.

“Fair, fair,” replied Zeno. “Perhaps things might turn out a little differently this year.”

“You have inside information?” The patron leaned in.

“Yeah,” he breathed. “As well as an itch that I can’t place.”

“Oh my god,” said Felegum, suddenly remembering, “I have to sort out the goods still! As soon as I take out any of the food, it becomes illegal! That’s a huge problem. Wait, is this city’s government in the First Dahn? Augh, no!”

I put my head in my hands and re-read the now discarded letter as the others argued.

Your first act must be a direct head-to-head competition with at least one musical performance number and an audience interaction aspect. It is an inter-format battle.

And here I thought we’d have some breathing room.

I was still sorting through spells and strategies until that night, when two figures stole out of the inn and into the shadows of the outer city.

Probably best not to ask.

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