Syr listened to the darkness.
And the darkness sang its song: the slow drip, drip, drip of greasy moisture seeping from cracks in the ceiling. A bump from something heavy being dumped on a table upstairs. The gentle clink of the prisoner two cells down rolling over in his sleep.
The song of the crickets outside.
Syr made no movement, disturbed the song with no sound. It was the only thing she could do here to feel at home, and trying to feel at home was the only thing worth doing at the moment. She could be here for a while, so best be comfortable.
Drip, drip, drip.
Drip, drip, drip.
Syr was keenly aware of the iron gate’s awful complaint but lay motionless, falling back on old habits: pretend you’re still asleep; why let them know you’re awake? It wasn’t until the heavy footfalls rumbled down to her own cell that she raised herself up on her elbows to peer at the cell door.
A gruff voice emerged from the din of feet and equipment. “I told you, there’s no room!”
The reply bore the exacting polish and deep annoyance of someone much higher up the chain. “And what do you think we should do with him, then?”
“I’s hoping you had an idea for that.”
“Fah. Who’s in this cell?”
Syr blinked as the gaoler raised his lantern to the little barred window carved out of the door. There was a pause.
“And what,” continued the man who sounded as though he was going to begin giving orders, “is this teenage girl in for?”
“Loitering,” answered the gruff gaoler.
“Toss her out. Now.”
There was a pause, a crotchet in the song of the darkness, just long enough for Syr to make its meaning. Indignance.
“…Yes, sir. You, girl. Get up.”
Syr scrambled to her feet wordlessly and dusted off… well, the stained prison rags. She felt pretty silly when she realized it.
The door crashed open and the gaoler, a truly enormous, bearded man wearing the most chainmail Syr had ever seen in one place, hauled in a man wearing similar prison rags to her own and a hood tied around his head by a rope. He pushed the man straight past Syr and into the back wall with force that would threaten to break bones and wasted no time clapping him into the irons.
“Get out. You don’t want to share a cell with this one.”
Syr was feeling lucky. “And why’s that?”
“GET OUT” bellowed the gaoler, into the face of the new prisoner but clearly at Syr.
Syr did not press said luck. She made for the door. The polished man—now in the light of the doorway as an aristocrat of some sort, wearing a fine doublet and an even finer cloak—watched her leave with an icy stare. She made eye contact to try to pry some details from him, but realized quickly that his bloodshot eyes were tracking her hands.
He watched her disappear all the way up the staircase as it wound up to the ground floor.
The door at the top of the curling staircase lay wide open, revealing a darkened, bleak little room containing nothing but a half-full barrel of fresh water, a lidded crate, an empty sconce on the stone wall, and a little wooden stool sitting next to a stack of dirty wooden plates. Not even a table to spare for the guard on watch to eat his meals. Syr had a chuckle at the expense of the giant gaoler, imagining him eating a plate of too-cold gruel sitting on a too-small stool.
Syr slid the lid off the crate to rifle through its contents, supposing that her meager possessions could only be there. She wasn’t in the mood to waste time—that nobleman looked like the kind of man who wouldn’t hesitate to literally kick her from the room for ruining the sanctity of his shitty hole of a castle—so when the cell door downstairs slammed and she still hadn’t found her tunic and hose (and more importantly, her shoes), she grabbed an armful of everything off the top, pulled the lid back over, and bolted from the room.
A few minutes later, Syr emerged from a nearby alleyway, clothed in a shirt, cloak, and trousers intended for a man fully a foot and a half taller than herself, and turned right to join the foot and cart traffic.
Gullport was an unimaginatively named hillside city on the north shore, home to fifty thousand thronging subjects of King Emault II and (what seemed like, anyway) about a million squawking seagulls. The afternoon breeze always reeked of the day’s catch, and today was no different. But the crowds were especially thick today, mixing a familiar human stench into the humid air. The semi-weekly harvest caravan was in, bringing with it a surge of activity to board its porters and escorts and to prepare its bounties for shipment.
Syr shuffled down the street with the enormous flow of people, descending from the high district and its dingy castle toward the piers on the east end of town, meandering through sandy-colored stone buildings topped with staggered, shingled rooflines and crawling ivies. She was immensely glad for the jostling crowd and the anonymity it afforded. It spared her most of the embarrassment of her appearance as a street rat.
What it could not spare her from was the sinking feeling that she had, in fact, become a street rat.
Having put about a quarter mile between herself and the castle, Syr peeled out of the crowd, ducking under the muzzle of a horse and nearly getting bowled over by a woman carrying a basket of corn to find a staircase in an alley leading up and around the corner to someone’s back door. She perched herself on the railing by the door and heaved herself up onto the shingles, finding a nook sheltered from the sun by a higher roofline and far enough from the edge of the roof to be obscured from the street. If she couldn’t loiter up in the high district, she’d just have to loiter in the fishy portside streets.
Having finally found some shade and some quiet, Syr sat and doffed the enormous shirt, absentmindedly picking at the seams with the intention of unraveling the garment into something more useful.
Her head was quickly crowding with thoughts. Where to now? Probably to find somewhere to sleep later tonight. Food could wait. Water… wouldn’t be too hard to find. Right? Especially if it rains? But what if it rains? Would hightown be better or portside? But she was tired and couldn’t hold on to any of them. She sat on those stairs, numb, letting them circle like wolves while her fingers worked at the shirt sleeve.
It was an exhausting new life she had plunged into. No need to take it in all at once.
The sleeve tore from the body with a satisfying rip, and something small fell onto the step between Syr’s feet. She snapped out of her daze and leaned over to examine it: a small black pendant resting on a heap of dainty silver chain. She snatched it.
The hair stood up on the back of her neck.
Syr jumped to her feet and spun around, nearly missing her footing and falling backward down to the alley. Nothing. The plain wooden door beneath her and at the top of the stairs was closed. The alley below was clear of people. She peered over the edge of the roof to see that traffic on the main street kept passing the mouth of the alley by, a tiny window-slice of a parade of colors, sights, and sounds, wafting up to her little roost.
There was a presence here, she was sure of it. She’d been traveling on her own long enough now to have developed the sixth sense for a sucker punch. And that sense was screaming in the bottom of her mind, clawing at her heart, coursing in her thighs and calves, tingling in her fingertips. SOMEONE WAS OUT THERE, and that someone was GOING TO PUNCH HER.
And nobody came. Nobody punched her.
It was five full heart-pounding minutes, craning her neck to and fro, up and down, before Syr convinced herself to sit back down. She took one last look around, and then she loosened her white-knuckled grip on the pendant to look back down at it. It had the look of a coin of some sort, stamped into a square. The edges were straight and the corners razor sharp, each like a piece of flint struck to a piercing tip. One had even drawn blood from her palm as she had gripped it. Both the obverse and reverse were perfectly blank, adorned only with a small rim. A hole was bored in one of the corners, making it hang off the chain in a diamond orientation.
She looked back up. Still nobody on the roof or in the alley. Her instincts warred desperately against the evidence of her eyes and her ears.
Syr assured herself that there was nothing out there worth abandoning this spot over, and she put the pendant on.
“WHERE DO I FIND THEM?” Syr shouted into the man’s face.
The man, a burly, bald porter whose muscles had muscles, blinked in confusion. The girl who had seized the front of his shirt and shoved her face into his was as tall as he was, but surely weighed just a little less than half he did. He paused for a moment to try to understand, and as he sized up his assailant the situation began to make a bit more sense. Her red hair was matted and clumped with dirt, her dark eyes teary and puffy. They were thin and wide, set above a narrow nose and a pentagonal jaw—a foreigner, probably. Her clenched hands trembled. Her clothes were a mess; she wore baggy trousers and some sort of ragged chestwrap under a too-big cloak.
“Easy there girl, easy. Down dockside, right? Big long street…”
He gestured awkwardly with his hands as she refused to release her grip. But her eyes seemed to follow, at least.
“… right on the waterfront. On the south end, here, there’s a street that cuts this way uphill between a fishmonger’s stall and a cooperage. Follow that, almost to the end. Door has a string of beads on the knob.”
The girl, trembling, nodded.
“Be good, aye? Nobody gonna hurt you dockside. Be good?”
The girl managed to force a steely look through her tears, threw herself off of him and hurtled down the street toward dockside.
Poor lass, he thought to himself. Coming down off the first hit is never easy. And worse, she might already be hunting for the next fix.
Syr slumped with her elbows on the little round table, cradling her head in her hands and drawing ragged breaths.
The soothsayer hummed a few more bars of their strange song, and held the last note for a brief diminuendo into perfect silence. They turned to face Syr across the little table, a subtle movement made difficult to notice by the strange purple veil-hood they wore that obscured their face and left no obvious way for them to see out.
“Feeling better, I hope?”
“Yes… yes, I think so.”
They sat in silence in the soothsayer’s little shack for a brief span. It smelled of fish, cinnamon, and the faintest whiff of herbal perfume, probably applied to the red curtains that encircled the little table, in a vain hope to mask the scent of fish. Four candles burned peacefully, arranged in a square on the table.
“Will you accept my aid?” inquired the soothsayer in their reedy, androgynous voice.
Syr looked up. “I don’t know where to go. If you’re offering, then…”
The veil shook, sadly, Syr thought. “I cannot offer advice, but I would be full glad to tell you what I see. They are visions of great omen.”
Syr blinked. “Wait. Why?”
“All will be clear. You have my word.”
Syr barrelled forward into the silence, flustered.
“Fine! Tell me then.”
The soothsayer sat across from Syr, multicolored beads and rings clattering gently as they did so.
“You are foreign to this place but studied to its language. If, perhaps, not all its customs. You fled tragedy at home. Persecution. Your family. Now, you have stolen something. You do not understand it. You have come to me.”
“All this is made clear by the eyes and ears.”
“You are considering lying to me.”
Syr fell silent.
“Please. Tell me the truth of what happened. We shall summit that mount, and from there we shall see great distances.”
Syr drew in one more breath, and the soothsayer gave what she thought might be an encouraging nod, and she began.
“My dad was a scribe. We lived out in the ass end of the Kingdom, past the end of the desert and out in the scrublands, with the thin, cold air. His job was to receive written word from the capitol, about half the time directly from the King’s court, and do whatever it said, or give the orders to do whatever it said. We were close with the tax collector’s family, which made us oh so popular.
“Anyway, out there, lots of Veldimen come through. Made dad extra important because he translated both ways, Veldic and Hannumnan.”
“The King favors the honest man, and the honest man favors the King.”
Syr looked up to turn an icy glare on the soothsayer.
“I am familiar with the King’s tongue.”
“Suuuure…” hissed Syr, fixing her gaze on the soothsayer. “… and that was the problem. He was an honest man until he wasn’t. Or until he was caught. I don’t know. I… don’t really know.”
She hesitated, struggling to arrange the memories into a story.
“We were summoned to the capitol out of the blue. Two week trip downriver, even in good weather. Mom was clearly nervous. But they never told me anything but that it was for dad’s ‘duties’.
“Turns out it was a trial. Something about the Veldimen. It lasted less than an hour. The King judged it himself. He found dad guilty, and carried out the sentence right there, with… nothing. Not a nod, not a wave of the wrist, nothing. He just stared that stare of his and dad fell down dead.”
Syr took a deep breath and continued.
“Mom wasn’t the same after that. And she… she was also gone within a few days.
“I hate the desert, so I took a raft downriver. Stowed away on a trader bound here. And…”
“Pardon, child. Surely there is more to that.”
“No, there isn’t,” snapped Syr. “I hate the desert.”
The soothsayer’s head shifted under the veil. “Very well. Please continue.”
“I snuck off here. Been here a week now? Spent two of it in the castle jail because constable two-shoes caught me eyeing a clothier’s thinking I was going to steal something.”
The soothsayer’s head shifted.
“Yes, yes, fine, he was right. So, second night, the constable hauls in someone new and kicks me out of the cell. I go to leave, but he and his lord are busy yelling at each other and clapping in the new prisoner. Rather than get more face time with the law here, I grabbed whatever I could from the seized goods bin and left. That was… this…”
Syr gestured to the chestwrap she had fashioned out of the shirt, and the cloak she wore more like a blanket than clothing.
Her throat caught. Something dark and spidery danced within her ribcage.
The soothsayer stood and was upon her before she realized what was going on. She felt them seize her by the shoulders and turn her, then grab at the chestwrap. Rings jingled and beads rattled and soft robes whirled and obscured her vision while fear coiled around her chest and neck.
When all was quiet and still in the little room, she found herself sitting on the floor, leaning on her left hand, looking up at the robed soothsayer. The soothsayer held the little black square coin on its chain and was examining it.
Syr shook her head and pushed herself to her feet. “HEY. You can’t just…”
She snatched the coin back, froze, and fell to her knees, breathing quickly and shallowly.
The soothsayer knelt over her, coin clasped in their left hand and their right over Syr’s forehead.
“Please allow me to hold the coin.”
“Fine,” mumbled Syr.
“All is clear. Please sit.”
Syr hauled herself back to the chair she had been offered when she arrived. When she was settled, the soothsayer pushed her a cup of piping hot tea, which she accepted. The soothsayer spoke in Hannumnan.
“This is a promise given and a promise owed. A wage paid and a toll pledged. For what you have given, you are owed. What you are owed will be given at the end of all things.”
They placed the coin on the table before themselves.
“This coin was struck in the world beyond, by the forgemaster with no name, and was given to a mortal to whom a God owed a debt. It is impossible to say which God or for what. The coin is only accepted by Death as a form of toll. A single passage for a single soul.”
Syr stared, only dimly comprehending.
“It is what you think it is, whether that is death or life. It is not so straightforward to employ. That does not concern you now. What you should know is that it is useless as payment. It may not be freely given to another while in a realm the Gods reach. It may only be offered to settle the debt it represents, as intended.
The soothsayer paused, looking down at the coin.
“The forgemaster’s will is very strong. You can feel it. It presses against your own, battles with you in your own body. That is what brought you to me.”
“Yeah. So… it’s useless to me? I won’t survive feeling like that for very long. Unless…”
“You need not my help to endure its presence. Your will—the forgemaster’s will—I do not mean these as rude forces akin to those of rutting boars. I mean your numinous being.”
“What I mean to say is that the forgemaster’s magic and yours are quarrelling, yes, but they may be reconciled.”