Amates 15, 1277. Later that afternoon. Underside District. City of Ishnanor. Planus Continent
“So you said ‘no’.”
I didn’t reply. Really, I didn’t think I needed to. Instead, I navigated the crowd through Tagrica Silk Square in Underside. The afternoon caravans had come down from the Tugart Marshands with fresh produce and other wares. Some of it was from as far away as the Kingdom of Jata. I figured it was a good time to get supplies and give my friend the news.
“Tela. Really, tell me you said no.”
Kiyosi was staring at me in disbelief. I didn’t even have to look in his direction to know that. Besides, I could hear that long tail of his swat the air in irritation.
“Kiyosi Valchar. You’ve known me for how long? You know what I told Ihodis about this.”
“Oh gods and ancestors, woman, you said ‘yes’,” he moaned. “So you’re going to do it. Really. Make another run at Long Deep.”
My wandering brought us up to a booth that belonged to Nilevian’s Brass Carriage. One of several ‘general’ storefronts in the Silk Square. I’d shopped there countless times over the years. Especially before heading out on an expedition.
The stand outside the shop was filled with colorful fresh produce just unloaded that day. It was at least some of what I was looking for. Planus is flat, wide open, and a little unforgiving. Fruit can be in short supply out there.
“You do remember that place nearly broke you. It did kill a lot of your last Long Deep expedition,” Kiyosi snapped.
I scooped up a fresh, purple Immon apple from the stand, then spun around to pin Kiyosi to the spot with a scowl. In his defense, he looked as distraught as he sounded. The worry lines on his forehead under his tiefling horns had worry lines.
“I do, Ki. Vividly. There probably isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t remember some little part of what happened.”
Tearing my eyes off Kiyosi, I stared at the apple in my hand. A host of bad memories washed over me, triggered by the conversation. My shoulders bunched, tightened as I felt the old, familiar sense of being in danger from all sides. I became all too aware of the crowd. Fortunately, the moment passed quickly this time.
“This is different, Ki.” I let go of a long sigh. “It isn’t just a ‘hey, why not go dig up what might have killed off the Ancient Order today’ sort of thing. You know just how bad the Crimson Company actually, really, are. Especially Vargas.”
Kiyosi ran a hand over his head, past his horns and through his reddish-brown hair. After a ragged sigh, he tilted his head back to stare at the multi-colored silken shade sails overhead. The large triangles, draped across the rocky cavern roof, fluttered as a short gust of wind raced through the ancient lava tube.
He rubbed the back of his neck while his tail popped the air out of frustration.
“I still wonder if you’re obsessed with him,” Ki said in a solemn tone. “But I do understand. Vargas is a sadistic man. The idea that he is heading out to find what might be some ancient weapon? That scares me. Mostly because I know he might find it, then use it.”
Turning back around, I held out the Immon apple to the young man attending the booth. Only twenty summers if by a day, he sported a dull orange and rust jacket that wrapped across his chest and tied on either side at the waist. It was a merchant journeyman’s coat.
His eyes lingered on the enamel pin bearing the crossed key symbol of the Windtracer Company that I wore on my canvas vest. The journeyman grinned, dusted his hands on his trousers, then accepted the apple.
“I’ll need a right good twelve tubik of these. Make sure the lot is preserved, dried, or cooked in Travelcake,” I said. “Some of the dried beef and Thorn Lemons, too. Have them delivered with the bill to the Windtracer Company, care of Windtracer Tela Kioni.”
The young man’s eyes lit up at the large amount. Obviously a dyed-in-the-wool merchant, that one.
“Yes, Windtracer. Right away!”
The journeyman ran off to tell the shop owner, Nilevian Annaba, about the order. Nilevian would get it filled pretty quick, like usual. I turned back to Kiyosi and crossed my arms over my chest.
“It would help if that sadistic lunatic would leave me alone and let me, you know, do my work in peace.”
Kiyosi didn’t reply right away. Instead, my worry-wart of a friend looked slightly more perturbed than usual. I rubbed my hands over my face.
“Look, Ki. You’re the best herbalist and physician I know. You’re also my oldest friend. If even half of what Ihodis said is true, the Crimson Company does not need to find this ‘Automatic Crystal of the Eclipse’ and hand it over to some baron bent on making his own Ancient Order. For all anyone knows, this crystal may be a part of what brought down the Ancient Order.”
Kiyosi’s expression melted from ‘perturbed’ into downright ‘sour’. So, that was at least progress.
“So, back out there then?” He waved a hand, gesturing in the air at the idea. “Where all sorts of illnesses and diseases could kill us in a slow, ugly death. That’s before you get to magical traps, storms, and creatures that could just wink us out of existence.” Kiyosi snapped his fingers. “Just like that.”
I smirked. Some of that expression was bluster and bravado on my part, but not all of it. Going back to Long Deep? It wasn’t going to be easy. That place was an old wound for me. But there was more to this than just Long Deep and the Crimson Company.
“If I have the right company with me that I can count on, then it might even be a little fun,” I suggested.
Kiyosi let out a low sigh.
“I’d best get packed,” he said. “Otherwise, ancestors only know what sort of ancient plague you’ll come down with that’ll turn you to paste. But,” he emphasized this by raising an index finger between us, “we don’t go alone. I’ll get the crew together. Do you have a route in mind?”
I frowned over that. Planus continent is as flat as a dinner plate. So there were all sorts of ways to ‘walk a path across Planus’. Some were just better than others. But, while certain paths were more interesting, that didn’t always make them ‘better’, ‘quicker’, or ‘safer’. The trouble was that Planus was so big, most people didn’t have a good idea of what was out there.
“Same route as before, I suppose, using the same means of transport. If he’s available, that is.” I thought that over for a moment. “I’m pretty sure I heard he’s available.”
Ki again made with the sour look.
“Tyre? Tyre Paleros? He’s a cheat and swindler. That old smuggler would sell the chair you're sitting in to make a coin.”
I put a hand on Kiyosi’s sleeve.
“And he’s also a smuggler of the highest caliber with the fastest Windwagon on this side of Planus.” I gave Ki a hard look. “You also know Tyre has never steered us wrong. Look. At this time of day, he’ll be at the Salty Nightingale.” I gave Ki’s arm a gentle squeeze. “Come on. We’ll go talk to him and make sure he’s available for a trip like this.”