~ ~ * ~ ~

The Gleaming Ones
Kinnan claims he isn’t a hero. The woman who rescues him disagrees.

Excerpt

Flames leaped up in the central hearth, revealing the interior of a snug round wooden hut, sparsely furnished. And, but for himself, empty. Kinnan’s scalp tightened and his heart squeezed and thudded. He tried to stand, but his legs betrayed him. He sat again, his weight causing the wooden bed-frame to creak.

When his eyes adjusted to the glare, he saw the figure he had missed before. A woman faced away from him, pouring water from a wooden jug into a basin. She wore a short, unbelted sepia tunic over an ivory gown.

“You’re ill-dressed for a walk in the dark,” he said.

When she turned, he saw eyes of the true, pure-blood Istoki lavender in a rose-tinted bronze-brown face, the caramel curls closely cropped. Around her neck was a torque of ceramic set with opals, and her gown and tunic were richly embroidered. The embroidery was studded with tiny silver bells which tinkled with any sudden move.

“These are my hunting clothes,” she said, in the voice from the fog.

“What do you hunt in clothes like that?”

“Heroes.”

~ ~ * ~ ~

The Mountain Who Loved the Moon
A legend from the land of Sule.

Excerpt

It was no laughing matter to the fire mountain, for his heart both sang and broke for the love of his beautiful moon.

At last, he could bear it no longer, but vowed he would display his love, to her and to all the world.

He concentrated all his power, all his passion, every element of his being, and shouted his love in a glorious, fiery hallelujah, as he turned himself inside out beneath her gaze.

Alas, the fire mountain was no more. The moon wept for the beauty of his love. Her tears fell into his ashes, and each tear became an opal, a true marriage of the mountain’s fire and the moon’s pale beauty.

~ ~ * ~ ~

Engagement
Salali wasn’t born an old trinket woman, you know.

Excerpt

Salali wished she could believe she was dreaming, but the pain in her feet and legs and the sting in her nettled fingers told her she was awake.

“I have a son,” Erda said, her face melting into dotage. “His name is Vernando, and he’s a darling boy.”

“You need help in raising him? I know nothing about raising little boys-”

“Vernando is a man! He needs a wife, not a nursemaid!”

Salali backed as far as she could from the opening where Erda glared at her.

“No,” she said. Then, more firmly, “No!”

Erda’s face transformed again, twisting into a mask of distaste.

“Do you think I want to throw him away on a vagabond? But he wants a wife, and I deny my darling nothing. By the time he comes home, I’ll have you gowned and trained and ready to do his bidding and to smile even if he strikes you.”

“No.”

“Go hungry, then. Go thirsty. Live with your own filth. When you’re ready for my magic to work, take that cloth and fashion a bridal gown. Make it as lavish as you like, for you’ll dress in serviceable homespun for the rest of your life.”

~ ~ * ~ ~

Heart’s Desire
The heart wants what the heart wants.

Excerpt

The play was well received. Stories with dogs in them always did well in this part of Layounna.

It amused Silvin to see Florian play so broadly to the giggling woman. It was seldom that Florian’s attention was engaged by anything other than troupe business.

After the show, Cristoval collected the coins tossed on stage by satisfied patrons, and Silvin and Maida returned the stage to its position as one side of the show-wagon. Silvin backed Lumpkin into the shafts and harnessed him.

Florian was deep in an animated conversation with the friendly woman in the elegant gown. Unlike earlier that day, she wasn’t agreeing to anything. She still giggled and batted her eyelashes and counterfeited a coy blush, but she shook her head in denial after Florian’s every warm murmur.

With a final flirty flounce, she turn from him and swayed away.

Brow thunderous, Florian mounted the wagon and took up the reins.

~ ~ * ~ ~

On The Planting of Evidence
Confession is good for the soul, but not for the career.

Excerpt

Inwardly, Brady groaned. If it did bear on the troupe, he needed to hear it, but he dreaded unlocking the secrets of a young maid’s heart to get to it.

Sibilla didn’t notice the piper’s distaste. “We met when we worked for the same cloth merchant in Kudasad.”

“You said this had to do with the troupe.”

“I’m getting to that! Our plan was to save our pay and join a band of players – see something of the world before we settled down as husband and wife. With our savings, we could afford to leave the company any time and set up house. Have a garden. Sean loves to grow things -”

“I gather it didn’t work out.” Brady regretted getting her started. Maybe he should play this one performance and then quit. Let whatever trouble this might turn out to be move on without him.

“We joined the Festival Players. Sean had charge of our savings, his and mine. Last week, he came to me and said it had disappeared during the night. He swore he didn’t take it, but he said he would always be afraid I thought he did.”

“You don’t?”

Sibilla’s glare was so fierce, Brady flinched.

When she spoke, it was in a flat voice that roused Brady’s sympathy in spite of himself. “No, I don’t, although everybody else seems to. I trust him. But I couldn’t convince him. He left us – me – and went back to the merchant. He said he’s going to work there until he can pay back my part of the stolen money.”

“When I hear of a man like that – ” Brady tucked his pipes into his tunic, “- I’m glad I have no honor.”

~ ~ * ~ ~

Command Performance
A good horse is beyond price.

Excerpt

The first order of business was to water Lumpkin and check him for signs of serious strain. Players besides these founding four had come and gone, but Lumpkin was the troupe’s fifth core member, and the one they could least afford to lose.

That done, Florian clapped and rubbed his hands together, his brilliant smile breaking through his energetic black beard. “We have time to set up and give them a matinée. Then we’ll have a bang-up supper, do a late show, and sleep at an inn tonight.”

A city supper and beds in an inn were rare treats. Only large towns were sophisticated enough to risk allowing such rascals as actors to linger overnight. The laborious ascent of the hill was forgotten. Forgotten, until they found the city gates closed.

A lone guard atop a wooden watchtower shouted down, “Who goes there?”

“The Festival Players!” Florian didn’t merely say it, he announced it. “We’ve played Bahari many a time. They love us here! Why the closure? Are you in quarantine?”

“No,” said the guard. “It’s just for today. Because it’s … today.”

“Ah, of course! Naturally,” said Florian. He turned to Cristoval and asked, “What’s today?”

~ ~ * ~ ~

How Tortoise Got His Shell
Another of Farukh’s tales of the marketplace.

Excerpt

“Long ago, my children, when the world was new, the Mother of Life created the Four Divine Animals. She began with Tortoise, for everyone must begin somewhere.”

He mimed shaping something with his hands, regarding it, reacting in surprise and disgust, and putting it carefully away from himself. His listeners laughed nervously, for Tortoise was a dangerous – though irresistible – figure to mock.

“The Mother had made Tortoise’s body low to the ground and soft, something like a lizard that’s lost its tail.

“‘I’ll set it aside,’ the Mother thought, ‘and dispose of it later.'”

“Then she made Dragon.” His mobile hands sketched a graceful shape in the air.

“She made Unicorn.” His hands all but brought the land’s favorite figure into their presence.

“Last of all, she made the magnificent Phoenix.” He held up his hands and wiggled his fingers, and his listeners imagined flames.

“The Mother of Life was pleased with these, and turned back to Tortoise, certain she could do a better job on him now.

“He was gone. While she was distracted with better creations, Tortoise had seized his chance and slipped away.”

The audience laughed. It was such a Tortoise thing to do.

~ ~ * ~ ~

At the Turning of the Year
When a person treated as a thing remembers her humanity, it touches the divine.

Excerpt

“You can stay the night, if you behave yourself. You haven’t been wild for long, I think.”

“No, Mistress. A few days. My mistress’ father took me for a walk and left me.”

“Why? Not that you’d tell the truth.”

She had planned to lie, but now, out of a burst of perversity, she didn’t.

“My mistress died and I didn’t want to be put down. So I hid.”

The words shocked her as they came from her mouth, and she cringed. She wished she could take the truth back, but she found herself saying even more. “She was a good, kind, mistress.”

“But you didn’t love her that much.”

“I did love her.” Hot salt tears flooded the blue eyes. A vast emptiness opened within her, an emptiness that would never be refilled. “She was so good to me. She was my dear one. She was my light and my joy.” She smothered her sobs with her hair, not wanting to wake the baby, afraid the mother would throw something at her for making unpleasant noise.

But Anastay sat again in her rocking chair and held out a beckoning hand. Frayce crawled to it and let the woman stroke her hair, taking comfort in the familiar sensation.

“Poor Pet. You just didn’t want to die.”

“I didn’t. I didn’t want to die.”

~ ~ * ~ ~

The Sweetest Dish
A tale of The Cook Who Couldn’t Lie.

Excerpt

The three cooks drew straws in the Primarch’s presence to see the order of their presentation. Alith Mayros drew the final place.

Although the construction of a dish unheard of in the country of Istok was an unreasonable demand which might have inspired escape attempts, the Primarch left the three free to come and go as they pleased, for who in Istok is ever truly out of the Primarch’s reach?

That night, the man who was to go first whistled at the door of Alith Mayros’ guest hut and went in to sit at the central fire.

“What are you making?” For he knew that Alith Mayros had wandered in the wilderness beyond Istok’s borders, and knew the ways of barbarians.

Alith Mayros would have preferred to keep that to himself, but he couldn’t tell a lie, so he said, “I’m thinking of making lemon shortbread.”

“How do you make it? What goes into it?”

And Alith Mayros gave him the recipe.

The next day, the man ordered all the ingredients for lemon shortbread and wouldn’t meet Alith Mayros’ eye.

~ ~ * ~ ~

How Nerissa Kept Her Head
A poor child caught in the royal gardens must keep her head — or hopes to.

Excerpt

Night was familiar to her, for she had often been on errands at night, so the moonlit darkness didn’t frighten her. It was the trespass, the being where she shouldn’t be with no way to escape that made her heart pound and her palms grow damp. Besides that, her owners had told her tales of Tortoise, who loves to lurk in shadows and take bites from unwary children who wander out of bounds.

She caught her breath and forced herself to think. A palace would have more than one garden, and a gardener wouldn’t go through the kitchen to get from one to another, which meant there had to be a way out of this yard.

A few steps showed her the opening that a trellis had concealed.

She passed through another garden, then another, then more, each larger and more elaborate than the last. She turned a leafy corner between two hedges, and came face to face with a boy.

He was taller than she, and plumper, but not much better dressed, and not much cleaner. He was, though Nerissa had no way to know, the Emirzade, out when he should have been in bed, simply because he wished to be.

~ ~ * ~ ~

After the Bear
He had always wanted to explore the woods.

Excerpt

It seemed as if between one breath and the next, the light was nearly gone. His stomach growled, reminding him of the food and ale waiting in the lean-to the patrols had erected well outside the forest bounds.

How had he stayed so long? He called to the others in his patrol, listened carefully, but heard no answering cries. How far had he strayed? He had only been supposed to walk the forest border, able to glimpse the sunny meadow beyond the trees, and yet here he was, obviously deep into the pathless darkness, his sense of direction as lost as he was.

Was this his Way? Was he supposed to die in bewildered wandering here, in this goal of his imagination?

A light glowed ahead. He derided himself as a simpleton, for thinking himself lost, when he had only been gawking around in a circle, and had bewildered himself back into sight of the patrol’s cooking fires.

As he neared the light, though, he saw that it shone from a clearing deep within the woods. A man stood near it, silhouetted against the fire. His voice rose and fell almost like song, though there was no one else visible. Was he talking to his horse, who could only be made out by the faint illumination touching the curves of its flank and neck?

And such a horse! What sort of fool would ride a plowhorse, a warhorse, a massive drayhorse into a forest?

~ ~ * ~ ~

The Warmth of Midwinter
What’s washed up on the riverbank by the exile’s cottage?

Excerpt

A man in black leather armor lay face-down in the muddy snow, bare hands tinged with blue. The uniform marked him as a Sword, a member of the royal guard that was becoming a standing army, answerable to the crown and not to the people.

“For once,” Andrin said, “you’re right to protest, my feathery friend. Of all the places for bad fortune to wash ashore, why at my feet?”

“At whose feet would you prefer bad fortune to wash ashore, Little Plum?”

The breathy, amiable voice of his grandmother didn’t startle Andrin, for he was accustomed to her sudden appearances.

“At Landry’s,” he replied, for Andrin had once served the court, and Landry was the new ruler who had banished him from royal comfort into rural obscurity.

“And what would Landry do with a man who brought bad fortune?”

Nothing good was the answer, of course. But why should he wish good to a Sword? This could be one of the very men who had chivvied him out of the castle grounds with little else but mockery to take with him.

He prodded at the body with the toe of his boot. The man stirred and gave a twin of the grunting cough Andrin had heard in the night. Chandler discharged one last reprimanding cluck and returned to the house.

~ ~ * ~ ~

A New Name For Reticence
He had disgraced himself by showing compassion. What could redeem him?

Excerpt

The former Brother Reticence picked up his pace – running, as the bloody scrapes on the old man’s legs and hands became visible.

“Father Not My Father,” he said when he reached the fallen figure, “may I help you?”

The old man raised puzzled, despairing, frightened eyes.

“I’ve … I’ve lost her,” the old man said, in a voice oddly strong for being so hesitant. “My One goat is lost. Have you seen her? She’s white, with black around her eyes and one black dot on the tip of her tail. She flicks it like this.” He flapped his hand.

“I haven’t seen a goat, Father Not My Father, but I’ll help you look.”

“Will you? Thank you! Thank you! The others won’t help. They tell me to stay home and forget about her. But she’s my One goat! Without her, the herd will scatter!”

Oh, the words, the terms, the ways of the lowland! He felt as his feet had felt the night before, plunged into refreshment and renewal! He was suddenly ravenous.

The former brother surmised he had come upon a cherished elder who had, after some attempt at dissuasion, been allowed to follow where his mind led him: into a productive past. His loss would be mourned, and his safe – though, no doubt, temporary – return would be celebrated. If the old man could be induced to lead them both to the family who had so lovingly combed and braided that silky beard, even a border keeper would be welcomed.

“We’ll find her, Father Not My Father. Give me food and drink, and I’ll search with you.”

“Of course. Of course. This way.”

~ ~ * ~ ~

Back to SHIFTY: TALES FROM THE WORLD OF SAGE.

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