Chapter Three: Medan, Microsha
The Roy'gal, Emersan, walked by the crowd of mercenaries loitering in the trailer lot and bellowed some orders to fill out paperwork. Go'ria would do his own eventually, but not before he was forced. He'd have to have Emersan help him forge some of the more obscure details, anyway. "Rio", as he claimed to be, wasn't on any registry, Microshan or Glyssian. Arbitors were above that sort of thing, and, as Go'ria was also a Durai, he rarely had to formally declare who he was in writing. He wasn't even fully sure if he'd cooperate at all with all this playacting; he'd see how much patience was required.
Go'ria leaned against a metal trailer and waited for the Roy'gal. He ran his tongue around his teeth, not used to the flat, human set he had shifted into. It had been a while since he had needed to dawn a body that resembled the adi'i. He wouldn't say he disliked the human form. Go'ria personally enjoyed his slim, striking appearance: green-yellow eyes, sickly skin, and hair so blonde it may as well have been white. It made people uneasy to stare for too long. Still, despite his love of the shape, it always took a few days to be comfortable with his limits and stature. Growing from the size of a small dog to that of a man was not an easy thing, even for a Durai.
While he waited, he watched the troupe. Most had ragged, tired faces, and their leather clothes looked the same. All were well armed with various styles of blades. A few had high-impact hunting bows or whips, but nothing more complicated than that. Go'ria had expected some of the stupid ones to bring guns; shooting blindly at noises in the dark, which would only attract more hunters to the sound. Luckily, it seemed that no one was quite that moronic.
One of the leaders of the expedition, Khan, was happily answering questions and mingling with the mercenaries. His skin was tanned, which Go'ria thought looked odd for one of the adi'i. He hadn't personally encountered any who had gone to the surface and come back, so the first time was a bit shocking.
"Thank you," Khan said as he took the first of the finished packets and gemboards. "Your service is greatly appreciated."
Go'ria scoffed, as did the mercenaries to whom Khan was speaking. The boy was overly optimistic and disgustingly happy. He didn't seem to understand what it was to live with the darkness anymore, if he ever did. If this were any other expedition, Go'ria wouldn't have surprised to find Khan dead before the week was done: a light snack for the plethora of beasts and monsters in the Deep. Fortunately for the scrawny academic, there was too much interest in the travelers' success. Khan would survive a while longer in his ignorance.
The little Fuhal, Vega, was more composed with the troupe. None of the fighters seemed to like her. A lot of them did not acknowledge her existence, taking everything from the stacks beside her instead from her offering hands. Not that it surprised him. Considering their love of independence, mercenaries weren't overly fond of the collectivist dogma that Fuhals believed in. Still, Vega was pleasant and calm enough, but Go'ria suspected that her smile was fake.
One of the mercenaries spat on the ground in front of the table where she sat. He glared at her, "Damn Fuhal. Why the hell are you here?"
"Helping where I can," Vega answered.
"You gonna bleed us when we're all alone out in the dark? Sell us to your fancy friends and get rich?" Go'ria listened in carefully, not understanding what the mercenary meant. Fuhals didn't bleed people, and, while a few rotten ones did seek fortune, generally they were a humble lot.
While Vega was good at covering up her Colour and keeping a happy expression, her eyes were hollow. "I don't have fancy friends. I've been an Apprentice all my life, and I plan on serving this expedition faithfully as Fuhal."
"More of a criminal than I," he barked. "Lyin' an' all that shit."
"I don't see you changing your mind about me," she said, handing him a gemboard. "Please follow the instructions and register."
He backhanded it to the ground. "Filthy bitch. I'm not taking anything from you."
Just as Go'ria crumpled the edge of the packet in his hand, Vega grabbed the mercenary's wrist and caught his eye. There was no smile on her face when she said calmly, "I can see that you're tired and upset. Why don't you ask your Roy'gal to excuse you from registration? I'm sure he'll understand."
Through her touch Vega pushed a flaring energy through him. While Go'ria could see the Colour, it seemed that the mercenary could not. The man turned pale and tore himself away, shaking. He was so panicked that his companion felt the need to ask if he was well. Instead of answering, he picked up the dirty gemboard and skulked off to some corner. A few other members of the troupe, who had been watching, quickly and silently took forms and more gemboards. It seemed no one else had anything to say, nor did they wish to stay around the Fuhal. As soon as all the materials were taken, Vega was mostly alone. For a moment, when she thought no one was looking, Go'ria saw sadness slip in her gaze. That confused him. Had that been Vega's mother, she would have held that empty, smiling face until the end of time.
Honestly, Vega was much more interesting than paperwork. He threw the packet beneath the trailer and walked up to her side. She hadn't noticed his presence before he said, "Well he was rude."
Vega's Colour flinched, but she didn't. The woman looked more surprised than spooked. "I'm sorry, I didn't see you–"
"I'm good at the sneaking bit," Go'ria said, smirking. "So, what did he mean by all that blood talk?"
Vega's brows knit. "You don't know?"
He shrugged. "Maybe I just stay out of stuff. Like, everything."
She turned to face him, a bit too stiff for a formal pose. "There's been talk for decades of Fuhals who live on the surface, but I don't know how much is true." Go'ria nodded. "Apparently, there are some who believe that energy work can alter human blood. Those who were born after the Serum was destroyed could have a chance at immortality."
"That sounds like a miracle."
"But they have to ingest the blood," Vega continued. "In doses."
"Are there donations?"
"There are, but not many, not enough." Vega looked around and then lowered her voice, "I hear that some people are kidnapped and drained, and others are kept like livestock. It's been going on for more than a hundred years, and it just keeps getting worse."
Go'ria acted surprised, but wasn't. The ways people tortured one another hadn't shocked him in ages. Though he found it all offensive, this bloodletting wasn't a fight he could do anything about. Even if Go'ria had a punishment scheme ready at hand, Dranul would find out about his self-appointed mission to the surface, and then send every Arbitor out to capture him. Besides, it would be difficult to dismantle a system that prevalent all by himself.
"So, Fuhals are behind this?" he asked.
"I don't want to believe that," she said. She looked stubborn save for the defeated look in her eyes. "I want to believe that Fuhals would never do that, but I can't help what others do. If that is the truth, then I can only say I don't practice such a thing. I would never."
The shame was that Go'ria believed her. Whatever it was – her posture, her voice, her eyes perhaps – Vega seemed to be the kind of Fuhal that couldn't survive outside of a traditional town like Medan: good natured, smart, even powerful beneath it all. It wasn't much, but J'han had rubbed off on Vega. The old Fuhal always upheld the idea that they were like pillars holding up the community in nearly every way.
However, nature alone would not be enough to bring her traveling community together for long, especially considering many of them hated her on instinct. Worse, she did not seem ready to take on the task Dranul had for her.
"I've never had bad experiences with Fuhals," Go'ria responded. "Not really bad, anyway."
Vega smiled a little. "I don't plan on changing that." She bowed her head. "My name is Vega, by the way. It's good to meet you."
"Call me Rio." Go'ria then pulled up a second folding chair and plopped himself down, putting one ankle up on his knee and leaning back. He wanted to have a bit of fun with her. A bit of "counseling" sounded like a good time. "So, I have this woman that I adore. She doesn't know it, and she's taken–"
"You're not filling out anything," Atyr said as she walked up to Go'ria and Vega, visibly annoyed. That didn't bother him. He was just happy to see the lean brunette alive and unharmed. It had been a few dozen years since he had seen her. She hadn't changed a bit, down to her favorite black knit beanie. Atyr handed him a fresh packet and gave it a pointed look. "Get writing."
"Yes ma'am," Go'ria said, mocking as if he was scrambling to grab it and write something down.
Atyr sneered. "You make fun of me again and I'll break that thin little nose of yours. Got it?"
"Is there something wrong?" a low voice said from behind Atyr. Go'ria straightened himself to see Emersan.
Atyr didn't bother turning around. "Getting him to cooperate."
Emersan approached and gave Go'ria a serious stare: recognition diluted in worry. The Roy'gal turned to Atyr, "There are others. Leave the Fuhal to her duty." Atyr shot a glare at Emersan. "Come with me. We have to organize the shifts for tomorrow."
The brunette snorted, but there was no room for argument. Emersan was already leaving, successfully ending the matter.
Vega softly chimed in, "He's come to me in confidence. After our talk, I'll make sure his papers are in order."
Atyr nodded. "Right, do what you need." Atyr was about to turn away, but she stared a moment longer. She gave Go'ria a concerned look. "I've never seen a Microshan with green-yellow eyes. You're kind of creepy, you know that?"
"So I've been told," Go'ria said, all glee gone from his face. She had said that the first time they met. It was a harsh reminder that she really had forgotten everything.
Atyr nodded at the packet. "Don't forget to turn it in."
Go'ria smirked, but looked down to begin writing as she walked away. He waited a few steps before looking at her again. She wore a Roy's belt now: flat discs of metal – the size of a thumbnail – studded into the leather, each disc a vote given by a member of the troupe. Some Roys only won their position with a few votes, more candidates than there were voters. Atyr's belt, however, was completely full. In a way, Go'ria was happy for her. In another, he was wildly jealous and angry. He hadn't been there to see her victory, and Dranul had forbid Go'ria from getting too friendly with the woman again.
Vega waited until Atyr was out of earshot before whispering, "You were sad."
Go'ria stopped writing and sighed. "Long story, but she's the one."
"Your taken woman?"
"Something like that."
"Do you want advice?"
Vega nodded, and silently went back to her duties while Go'ria wrote.
After Go'ria filled out all the tedious details that he could, he helped Vega collect and organize the packets that the mercenaries handed over. They were reluctant at first, but a few stern glares from the Arbitor left them more afraid of Go'ria than Vega.
"I don't think I've ever met a mercenary who was on my side of things," Vega said, amused.
He shrugged. "I'm full of surprises."
"Would you be willing to do me a favor?"
"I'd like to finish here, but I have an errand to run." Vega looked down at a gemboard that was lit with the time. "I'm afraid if I stay here too long, the bank will close."
"I thought Fuhals didn't earn money like that."
She nodded. "We don't, but others do. It's my fiancé's pay."
"Couldn't be bothered to pick it up?"
"He left for the surface yesterday in a hurry. He didn't have time for it."
"Selfish prick," Go'ria muttered, infuriated. "He left?"
It didn't seem to faze the woman. She shrugged and stated, "Moving that far is an intense process. Some things slip by."
"You should just take the cash and run." That's exactly what Go'ria would have done. His title, The Thief, was not unearned. The hordes of treasure he had accumulated were worth more than the whole of Microsha, and only a few of those pieces had been given to him. Even so, there was a greater insult that needed remedy. What kind of husband-to-be doesn't stay with his partner when she needed him the most? To Go'ria, whatever measly wages this man earned was worth stealing on principle. "He won't be needing it up there."
"Perhaps, but neither do I out in the Deep."
'I suppose that's a fair point,' he thought, but it made him angrier. Vega would not get retribution if she deposited the money fairly, and that simply would not do.
"What was your fiancé's name?"
"Does it matter?"
She smiled, reaching to touch his hand and pat it. "Whatever curse you have in mind, I don't need. Everything that's happened has already happened. There's no use crying over it."
"No," Go'ria said, shaking his head. "But you can be angry about it."
"Not worth the energy."
It was well worth his energy, though. While Go'ria knew fully well that it wasn't his fight and therefore he should not be upset, he couldn't stand the gall of this ex-fiancé (and he was sure it had to be "ex"). The ungrateful idiot couldn't wait two more days before he scuttled off somewhere else?
On the other hand, Go'ria rarely stayed out of fights that weren't his as long as he could get away with it.
"All right, I'll stay here," he lied. "Go on. I won't tell anyone you escaped."
"Thank you," she said. She quickly looked around once, then carefully rose out of her chair. Go'ria waited until she had disappeared behind a row of trailers before abandoning his post and following her.
Medan was the western-most border town in Microsha with one of the largest Black Oaks outside of the sacred forests of Luha'nia. Some of the sidewalks were paved in concrete, lined with glowing, lamp-like mushrooms that grew up the poles of electric street lights. Other walkways were more like the rest of the border towns, made of rows of stones and lit by well groomed plants. Each house was built slightly different, and nearly all were in some state of repair. Fire, it seemed, had recently ravaged a few houses on that particular block. Even so, Medan appeared to be prospering. The last time Go'ria had visited only half the number of buildings existed, and there was exactly one electric light in the entire town. Then again, the last time he had passed through there had been significantly more people about the place. There was not a single person out.
Go'ria followed until Vega reached a craftsmen's guild. Apparently, the ex-fiancé was a carpenter. It wasn't too uncommon among the western towns. With Luha'nia forests relatively close, there were a lot of people who took up wood-related trades. Go'ria cursed inwardly. The bastard would probably make a fortune on the surface. Even as out of touch as he was, Go'ria knew that the surface cultures loved "exotic" Microshan styles. The ex-fiancé didn't need that paycheck.
Few words were exchanged before the guild master handed Vega a thin envelope. She bowed, but the guild master did not return the gesture. Instead, the woman turned away and let Vega leave without a word. The guild master's Colour was a deep blue, so dark it was almost black. It struck Go'ria that she actually cared about Vega. In other towns, Fuhals and Apprentices were simply figures in the community: replaceable and relatively unnoticed. Here, it seemed they were loved.
Go'ria kept low and to the shadows, staying far enough away to keep out of sight. Just as Vega had passed a house with a gigantic Black Oak, an elderly man called from down the street.
"Vega," he said, waving. "Excuse me, Vega!" He approached slowly, his face worried and his eyes darting around the empty road. "Mallen'e. I'm sorry to bother you!"
She seemed to know him and smiled. "Mallen'e, and you know it's never any trouble." Vega put out an open palm to take his hand in hers. "I wasn't sure if I'd see you today."
"I wasn't sure either to be honest, but I knew I had to," he said. "I would ask your mother, but I saw her already busy at prayer in the garden–"
"I'll come with you," she promised. Go'ria watched the two link arms and then walk toward the well-lit, two-story house. He sucked his tongue, irritated. Following Vega would have been much easier if he could shrink back down to his normal body, but he did not have the time to waste on it. Instead, Go'ria held closely to the few shadows present and cautiously trailed the two into the yard.
The ground was still littered with the small, mummified bodies from the morning's culling, and there was a frazzled woman prostrate before the Oak. It was J'han. He couldn't make out the whispers but her words were rapidly spoken between gasps of air.
'No wonder the guy didn't want to disturb her,' Go'ria thought. He flattened himself against the side of the house and crouched in the corner. 'I've never seen her so. . . out of control.'
Vega didn't appear to be bothered by her mother's state. In fact, she actively ignored J'han and led the old man inside for a moment. Go'ria did not dare follow, but snuck below a window to watch. Vega shrugged off her shawl, placing it carefully on the table, and walked toward the window. Go'ria ducked. Something like water trickled and then stopped, and he could hear Vega walking away. The Arbitor peered in again; Vega handed the man a small cup of bitter brown tea, and they seemed to be making small talk as he drank. The Microshan's smile was soft, but did not contain the kind of sadness that the guild master had. This man was genuinely happy to see her.
Once he was finished with the tea, Vega led the man outside to different root from J'han, still at prayer, and stood behind him while he knelt. He raised his hands together, then circled around his head before bowing and touching a root. The Black Oak's light shivered. It's shine dimmed but remained a brilliant white with dark blue leaves. Vega spoke an initial plea, and then sat down to let the man say his peace.
"I ask, as always, to watch over my daughter Yasik and my wife Sasen as they wander in the land of spirits. Keep them happy and together until I join them," he spoke in traditional Microshan: a serious prayer, then. "Today, I ask mercy on J'han, whose love and care has guided all of us through our darkness. I ask the same for Vega, whose devotion is unrivaled. Let her death in the Deep Dark be painless, and guide her spirit back to her brothers and sisters. I wish for the strength of forgiveness for Khadil. He has been too long away from home, and cannot understand what he is doing."
Vega's Colour shifted, guilt-ridden sadness threatening to burst beneath her calm wall. Go'ria watched her struggle. Each time her emotions flared, they were quickly squashed back down. She held herself still, not even a twitch indicated how much this prayer hurt her. If nothing else, she wore the Fuhal role well, which impressed Go'ria.
The man kissed the root and looked up at the Black Oak. The colors had not changed. "Lastly, I beg for guidance. The truth of the Cycle is hard to bear alone. Let us all have such courage and understanding to say our farewells without pain or anger."
'He's a good man,' Go'ria thought. 'Foolish, but good.'
When it seemed that he had no more to say, Vega finished out the prayer with some appropriate verse Go'ria didn't know existed. Not that he was entirely familiar with the Verses of Light. Religion had no place with him.
The man stood and thanked Vega, then hugged her tight. She didn't appear to have expected that, for she froze for a moment. Eventually she returned the embrace, whispering something in his ear.
"I wanted to give you something," the man said, reaching into his pocket. He pulled out a simple necklace, a thin silver chain with an opal pendant. In the white light, the honeycomb flecks shone in every color. Vega didn't take it. "Please, when you see Yasik, give this to her. Tell her I love her, and that I pray every day."
Vega closed his hand over the necklace. "You should keep it until you can give it to her yourself."
"E'glyssi ba'hol kle'an." The terrible light gives us strength.
Vega leaned in to kiss the man's forehead, then let him drop the necklace in her hand. "I will carry it safely."
"I will pray for you," he said, kissing her knuckles. "We will take care of your mother. Please do not worry for her."
Her eyes were on the brink of tears, but she remained – inside and out – unmoved. "Thank you."
Go'ria did not watch the rest of their good bye. He hurried into the house and found the coat Vega had left on the kitchen table. The envelope had to be in the pockets somewhere.
When he found it, he tore it open and checked the contents. The wage was fair, but the commission was small. Go'ria sneered and stuffed the paper in his mouth. It tasted terrible, mostly because of the ink, but it was worth the feeling he had done Vega justice. After only a few chews, he swallowed and ran his tongue around his mouth to clear the flavor. He stuffed the empty envelope in his pocket just as he heard footsteps approaching the back door. Quickly, he rushed into the next room and shrank behind a worn loveseat.
"What?" Vega whispered to herself. Go'ria could hear her shuffling the shawl. He assumed she had noticed it had moved, and now the check was missing. Chairs moved, and so did some dishes. He smirked, triumphant, and then ate the envelope as well, adhesive and all.
After a few minutes of frantic searching, Vega sat and began to laugh. Go'ria took a chance and peaked over the couch. She was sitting at the table, eyes closed and her head leaning in her hands. Her Colour was turning dark blue at the core, but it was no larger than a fist in her chest. For a moment, Go'ria thought perhaps he had made the wrong call. Had her duty meant so much to her?
It didn't matter. What was done was done. Before he was caught, Go'ria slowly slipped through the sitting room and out the front door.