“Time to Reflect”
Written by Aaron McQueen
Illustrated by Rachel Mrotek
Copyright September 16th, 2017
This story is dedicated to my family, my friends, and my most generous subscribers, whom I have listed below. Without their help, support, and contributions, this production would not be possible.
The wagon bumped. Nathanius rocked in the cushions. The winnings from the fight had multiplied the profits from Ellyn’s impromptu concert by more than ten times, more than enough to secure passage to Selapak, and in a comfortable wagon to boot.
It was almost enough to pay off the Jaspers. Sadly that wasn’t part of the plan, at least not yet.
Ellyn kept the money, after splitting it with Asterious. Nathanius frowned. He’d received a pitifully small commission. He looked down at his tattered fur cloak and old boots. He remained penniless. The only reason he was on the wagon at all was that, for the moment, the others needed him. Plus, Asterious seemed to like him. He had no idea why.
It would take weeks for them to reach Selapak. In the meantime they could only wait. Nathanius was using the time to think about what on earth he was going to tell the Jaspers when he showed up upon their doorstep on the eve of the long dark…again. Worse, this time he would have absolutely nothing to offer. They were going to skin him alive.
The wagon bumped again.
The snow hid the rocks. There were no roads on Kalkonu. There’d never been a society stable enough to build them. There were only overgrown trails marked by natural landmarks and lonely, disintegrating mileposts.
He’d noted the mileposts when he came west from the city. They were all different. Some were carved with the names of old hunters, others by caravan masters or the leaders of monstrous tribes; a few marked the borders of now-defunct territories, the provinces of sometime lords and baronets, all long since come and gone.
No civilization could survive the long dark.
A few had come close. He’d been on the continent almost five years, long enough to have witnessed a few promising attempts: Highpass, Bell Town, even the elven settlement they’d called Chrysalis. Each one had risen from the ruins of the long dark that came before. They were all gone now. It was as though they were cursed by their origins, marked from birth and doomed to the same cold, bloody fate as their predecessors, just another turn in the endless, ephemeral cycle.
He looked over at the others.
Asterious was sitting on the floor under a pile of furs, nestled comfortably like he hadn’t a care in the world. He chatted with Ellyn, seated beside him stroking the guitar she’d purchased before they left the Notch. The barman had demanded a ludicrous price. Ellyn had been happy to pay. She had plans to play it for shelter and supper when they reached the city. It would work, and with her talents it would probably work well…for a time.
They had no idea what was coming.
A musky drift of incense tickled his nose, emanating from the quarters of the wagon’s fourth occupant, a Blind-Deaf Lady from Selapak, returning from her assignment. She’d introduced herself as Eldra—although Nathanius was virtually certain that was not her given name—before retreating behind her wall of curtains at the end of the wagon. They saw little of her. She emerged only at mealtimes to collect her portion, and spoke hardly a word in passing.
Nathanius found his eyes drifting regularly towards her silken bedding area in the corner. She was young and human, friendly and beautiful, and cloaked silken haze of exotic colour and feminine mystique. He fought not to be drawn in. It was not an easy task.
The Blind-Deaf Ladies were professional entertainers, and despite the name their guild was not exclusively female. They made their living through a variety of crafts both savoury and sultry. It was an old organization, one of few that managed to revive itself fairly reliably after each long dark. They weren’t prostitutes, although the story went that the guild began as a bittersweet shelter for women exiled to the continent, a safe place with good food, bodyguards, and access to vocational training, all financed by carefully monitored “services.” Not exactly the good life, but for some it was better than the alternative. Nathanius had even contemplated joining. In the end he had decided against it. He couldn’t abide the tattoos.
They were the symbols of the organization. Once you joined they sent you to school to get you trained in the guild’s so-called basic skill set. You also received whatever instruction they had available to broaden and hone whatever talent it was that got you in: music, dancing, story-telling, wrestling, even bar service. At the end of the training you received the guild mark, a trio of long tattoos in black ink: one across your eyes to resemble a blindfold, and one on each ear coming down from the lobe and extending to the lower jaw. They represented the guild’s philosophy of secrecy. A blind-deaf lady never repeated anything they might see or hear while serving a client. No exceptions.
Eldra was a story-teller, with a minor in music. She’d had her accoutrements all but packed by the time the three of them had arrived at the Notch, having secured her passage the moment it became available. She’d mentioned it had been her plan to leave more than a month earlier, but snow had delayed the caravan. Now she was in the same boat as them, rushing back to Selapak and praying that it wasn’t too late.
It was worth mentioning that their shared peril only generated so much camaraderie. She hadn’t told them any stories. They couldn’t afford her rates.
Nathanius lay back on his pillow and breathed in the sweet incense, casting his mind back to the smell of the shore markets and his little flat by the sea. The fragrant smoke perfumed his memory. It was as close as he had come in years.
He didn’t like to think about his home, though he did so constantly. He savoured the aroma. He wished for a story of the old country. He wished for orange coffee and the little window in his kitchen that overlooked the pier. He wished and frowned. Such luxuries were not for him anymore. The memory would have to be enough.
In the dark and quiet, and silently, he wept.
“You should talk to her.”
“I will not.”
“You might like what she has to say.”
Ellyn shook her head, a stern frown hardening on her face.
“You heard Nathanius. They’re whores.”
“The term is companion, and I wouldn’t say that too loud. They take their profession seriously.”
“How could you possibly know that?”
“Listen, I appreciate what you did for us at the Notch. You risked your life and I’m grateful, but that doesn’t mean I need you and it certainly doesn’t mean I’m going to go ask this woman to pitch me on call girl academy.”
Asterious laughed. Ellyn leaned back against the wall.
“I’ve lived that life already.”
Asterious raised an eyebrow.
She stared at the ceiling.
“No, but life at court for a servant girl is…similar.”
They sat quietly for a moment before Asterious spoke again.
“Do you mind if I ask what happened?”
She glanced over.
“I’d prefer you didn’t.”
“It might help to talk about it.”
Ellyn took a deep breath. His well-intentioned interest was starting to get annoying, but there was something earnest about his expression that made it difficult to refuse. It was like having a puppy whimpering at your feet. She surrendered grudgingly.
“I grew up in Lunetri. Do you know where that is?”
She shook her head.
“Not for a long time. They moved the government to Sylarea when they formed the new concordat. The emperor still keeps his palace there though, along with what’s left of the court. The city is overrun with wealthy families, all noble to one degree or another, and they spend every day planning new ways to curry favour with the crown.”
“And your family?”
Ellyn let out a laugh.
“Not noble. My father is a glass-blower. He makes beautiful things, but nothing spectacular enough to get the attention of the gentry.”
“So how did you end up here?”
She strummed the stings of the guitar.
“My father always thought I had a lovely singing voice. When I got older he was able to apprentice me to one of the city chora.”
“It’s like an orchestra, but with vocalists.”
“I thought that was chorelea.”
“Nobody calls it that anymore.”
He shrugged. She went on.
“Anyway, that’s where I learned to play. One evening I was practicing on our balcony, a passing noble heard, and that was that. He took me in as a house musician.”
“That doesn’t explain how you ended up here.”
“Let’s just say palace life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.”
“No argument there.”
She raised an eyebrow.
“You’ve lived in a palace?”
He nodded again.
“I had my own.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“No one does.”
He leaned forward and pulled down his collar. There was a tattoo near his heart by the breastbone: three horses under a crown.
“Your coat of arms?”
“Gondavol. It’s where I’m from. I was a prince.”
“You? A prince?”
Ellyn slid down the wall and rested on her pillow. He didn’t seem like he was lying, but she’d been at enough parties to know always to be wary when someone tries to sell you on the story that they’re a prince from a faraway land.
She lay down and shut her eyes.
“Well, I’ve never heard of any place called Gondavol.”
Asterious chuckled and lay down as well.
“Yeah, no one has.”
The wagon bumped and swayed though the night. No one noticed. It was enough for now to be warm and on the move.
Across the wagon, in the dark, a wall of red silk curtains gently drew apart. Through the gap a pair of careful eyes looked out, coming quietly to rest upon Asterious. They lingered only for a moment before retreating back to the vermillion folds from whence they’d come.
Special Thanks To: