The peddler that PD, Bee, and Chande hitched a ride with was on their way to one of the fortified towns along the trading routes to Percs, a place called Firpak. It was a few days out by mule-drawn cart. Since Chande was still recovering, she got to ride in the cart. PD walked, and made friends with the mule. Bee napped.
Nobody talked much. The peddler was not unfriendly, just suspicious. PD and Chande didn’t know what to say to each other, and Bee didn’t want to show themself to the peddler. The mule couldn’t talk.
The night before they arrived in Firpak, they were all sat around the campfire. PD was playing softly; the peddler had already gone to sleep. It was the first night Chande hadn’t instantly gone to sleep herself, and she seemed ready to talk. PD stopped playing and gave the saxophone a look-over. It didn’t need any maintenance, being magic, but PD pretended to polish a rough spot anyway, to give Chande the opportunity to speak.
Chande cleared her throat awkwardly. “I wanted to thank you for helping me,” she said, rushing the words. “You didn’t have to.”
Bee was sitting on a rock by the fire. The lizard turned their head to give PD a little affirmative nod.
“Oh, don’t worry about it,” PD replied, with an uncomfortable shrug. “I wasn’t just going to leave you.”
“No one would have blamed you,” Chande told her. “I wouldn’t have.”
“That’s what I said,” said Bee.
Chande blinked at the little lizard. “I’m glad one of you has sense.”
“Huh,” said PD. “No, you two can be as cynical as you like. I won’t believe you. I certainly would have blamed myself.”
“You don’t have to believe me.” Chande crossed her arms and leaned back from the fire, until the only part of her face that was visible was the glitter of her eyes and her large white teeth. “I’m just trying to tell you that your swamp people might be all sweet and good, but out here no one will thank you for going out of your way to help them.”
PD blew a long, rude note out of her saxophone. Bee, close to the bell, jumped in surprise and rolled down their rock with a desperate wave of their paws. “I believe you just did thank me for exactly that,” PD continued. “And I’m not sure I like the term ‘swamp people.’”
“Okay,” said Chande. “If you’re going to be like that, I’m going to sleep.” She got up and walked out of the light from the fire.
“Was that too harsh?” PD asked Bee, worried.
Bee was climbing back up the rock. “It could have been more subtle,” said the grumpy lizard. “You won’t make many friends if you keep blowing raspberries in their ears.”
“But I’ve yet to see you do anything that could be termed harsh. This orc-woman seems a little touchy.”
PD put away the saxophone. “I don’t understand any of these people. Even when they say what they’re thinking they think things that don’t make sense. I’m as lost out here as I was in Percs, but with no Fija to help me.” She stood up, stretched, and banked the fire. “I’m going to sleep too. Goodnight, Bee.”
They arrived in Firpak around mid-morning the next day. There was a crowd waiting to get past the gates. PD and Chande thanked the peddler and made their way through the crowd, hoping to get in before the carts and wagons heading for the markets.
At the gate, one of the guards stopped Chande. “Hands.”
Chande held them out, palms up.
The guard looked at her hands, gave them both a suspicious once-over, and waved them through.
“What was he looking for?” PD asked, curious. They were on the main throughway, pushed along by the crowds heading for all the different markets.
“A criminal record,” Chande replied. Her cheeks were flushed.
“Oh,” said PD, but she still couldn’t help sneaking a glance at Chande’s hands.
Chande held them up again, so PD could see. Her palms were rough with callouses, but unmarked. “I don’t have one,” she said, with a snap in her voice. “I’m not a criminal.”
“No, of course,” said PD. “I didn’t think you were, I just -” her curiosity got the better of her again “- what would it look like?”
“A brand, probably.”
PD’s stomach lurched. “Oh.”
Chande shouldered her way through the crowd. PD stepped around people gracefully, keeping pace with Chande, until the other woman finally turned around and stopped in the middle of the street. Traffic broke around them in a wave of market-goers’ nasty looks.
“Okay, listen,” said Chande, with the air of someone trying to end a conversation quickly. “I appreciate everything you’ve done for me, PD, but we’re out of the woods now, and I think it would be better if we – it might be time for us to go our separate ways?”
“What?” asked PD, alarmed. “You want to split up?”
Chande shifted her weight from foot to foot. She was trying hard not to just disappear yet, but PD could see in her face how uncomfortable she was. “It’s been fun, sort of, but I work alone, and I just don’t think there’s any reason for us to stick together? So, maybe, I’ll see you?”
With that, she turned back into the line of traffic and was soon out of sight.
“Oh,” said PD. “Okay.”
A man bumped into her and yelled over his shoulder, “Sorry, you’re in the way!”
PD was jostled and pushed out of the crowd, just managing not to have her flukes run over by cart wheels or stepped on by donkeys. Out of the way, tucked into a corner between houses, she sighed and leaned against the wall.
Bee popped their head out. “Ouch,” they said. “That was unexpected.”
PD shrugged. She wasn’t that surprised, but it didn’t make her feel any better.
“What now?” asked Bee. “What’s the plan?”
“Same as it ever was,” PD replied. “Find a place to stay the night. And somewhere I can play a set and make some money. Let’s find an inn.”
They found one just off the market square, a large one with a tavern attached. PD brokered a deal with the innkeeper: a room for the night and a set that evening in exchange for a few hours of dishwashing and the rest of the willowbark from Winter. Apparently the innkeeper suffered from headaches.
After an hour and a bit of post-lunch dishes, PD and Bee set out to do some sightseeing. At the end of the temple district sat a large mansion, probably for the mayor or governor or some other important person.
PD bought some honey nuts (Bee’s favorite) and they circled the mansion, admiring the architecture and the regal liveries of the many guards standing watch. Over the front gate was a relief of a large snarling cat, mirrored by similar statues on the roof and around the doors and windows. The pillars that held the second and third stories were stone carved to look like braided leafy vines, which reached across the roof to link each pillar together.
“Humans,” said Bee in PD’s ear. “Only humans would so remove themselves from nature, and then recreate it in art to prove their wealth.”
PD chuckled. “It might not be a human’s house,” she pointed out. “You seem to have quite the prejudice against them.”
Bee was licking the honey off a nut and didn’t respond.
“I understand what you mean, though,” said PD. “At home, the Prorastomus, the head of the clan, has several fine – you might call them treehouses. The library is especially beautiful. But the Prorastomus would never think to distance herself from the clan. We rely on her for protection, for guidance. She couldn’t live behind walls like these, as though she were afraid of us.”
“Hmm,” said Bee. “The Teth merpeople always were sensible. You say she has a library?”
PD nodded. “For generations the Prorastomi have been collecting knowledge and magic, even from the outside world. The library is the jewel of the swamp.” She chuckled again at the image.
“Like I said: sensible.” Bee relaxed on PD’s shoulder, belly full. “I’d like to see that someday.”
PD’s smile melted off her face. “Yes,” she said. “Someday, I’ll take you there.”
“Promise?” Bee asked, sleepy in the afternoon light.
“Hey!” One of the guards pointed a spear at PD. They’d gotten too close to the walls. Bee disappeared from her shoulder. “Run off, webwalker.”
PD walked away quickly. “Webwalker?” she asked. “That’s a new one.”
“May the creativity of humanity never cease.”
“They aren’t that bad,” said PD with a snort. “Let’s find the fish market. I’m running low.”
“Ugh,” said Bee.
By the time PD and Bee had found and left the fish market, the sun was setting. She was rushing to get back to the inn, and she turned down the wrong street.
It really wasn’t a street. It was more of an alley, and the farther they got into is, the more PD felt Bee shrinking under her shirt.
PD stopped. She didn’t know where she was, and she couldn’t see the end of the alley in the gloom. She turned back the way she’d come, and suddenly she was surrounded.
There were three of them, two in front and one behind. The two up front carried swords. The one behind PD had some kind of javelin. The point had found an uncomfortable spot to rest in her lower back. They’d pulled hoods low over their faces, but the one on the right was nearly as tall as PD, a rare feat for a human.
“Money. Valuables.” said the one on the left, poking PD with the tip of their sword.
The second one, the tall one, pulled out a large rock and waved it over PD. The rock seemed to glow from within. When it passed over the saxophone medallion, it flashed with light.
“Hah!” said the talkative one, and they yanked the medallion off its chain.
If they’d been a bit less rude, PD might’ve warned them, but they were rude, so she wasn’t surprised when they screamed as the saxophone expanded within their closed fist, pinching all the little hairs and skin folds painfully before forcing them to drop it.
PD caught the saxophone and hugged it to her chest as the other two stepped toward her menacingly. The one holding the rock raised it again, scanning up. As it passed over her right shoulder, the rock flashed again, too bright, and then exploded, spraying shards in all directions.
The attacker on the right had caught a faceful of rock; the one behind PD was fine, and the one on the left had been nursing their hand and wasn’t looking. They got a scalpful of rock. PD had flinched, avoiding shards in her eyes, but she could feel sharp flashes of pain all over the right side of her face and something warm on her cheek.
A hollow thocking sound echoed up and down the alley. The pressure of the javelin’s point in her back was gone. It took PD a few seconds to blink the spots out of her eyes, but she heard a second loud thock, and she looked up in time to see the third attacker, the one with the injured hand, get smacked right between the eyes with the butt of their own companion’s javelin.
Someone grabbed her hand, and took off running for the end of the alley, dragging PD behind them. PD tripped over one of her attackers, because the right side of her vision was still covered in spots, but she stayed upright and ran.
On a larger street, busy and bright, they stopped to catch their breath. PD could feel Bee’s paws on her face. She hoped the lizard was okay – the rock’s explosion had enough force to shred her clothes, and Bee had been right under it.
A voice on her right, her rescuer, said, “you are so good at getting into trouble.”
PD couldn’t see her, but she recognised the voice and smiled. The smile made more blood run down her face. “Chande!”
Bee tapped her cheek, or possibly slapped it, but it was hard to tell when the lizard was so small. “Stop smiling,” said Bee’s dry voice. “You’re making it worse.”
“She has a gift for making things worse,” said Chande, grumpily. She moved over to PD’s other side and inspected her eyes. “It’s not that bad, actually.”
“My vision is clearing,” PD agreed. She tried to grin with the other side of her face, and Bee almost fell off her shoulder. “How’d you do that?” she asked, excited. “You just took them all out, like bam, bam!”
“Stop. Moving.” said Bee.
Chande rolled her eyes. “You did most of the work,” she said. “That explosion was a good distraction.”
“I didn’t make the rock explode.” PD frowned.
“Can we go somewhere else?” asked Bee. “We both could use a clean up. And our friends will be up soon, and they won’t be happy if they find us.”
PD put a hand on Chande’s shoulder. “Come with us. I have a place to stay. And we need to actually sit down and talk.”
From what PD could see of Chande’s expression, she was uncomfortable again, but she nodded. “As long as we don’t run into them again.” She gestured over PD’s shoulder the way they’d come.”
“Nah,” said PD. “They won’t want to see you again, either. This way.”
The innkeeper was not happy with PD’s face or the fact that she was late, but she gave them a clean cloth and water and stood by while Chande cleaned out PD’s cuts. They weren’t bad, but the one on her cheek bled sluggishly.
This was because PD wouldn’t stop talking. She thanked the innkeeper, and assured her she’d be able to play soon. The woman told her she had ten minutes and left to deal with a room complaint. Bee took the opportunity to wash off PD’s blood while the innkeeper wasn’t there.
PD asked Chande why she’d been in that alley. Chande didn’t really respond, so PD asked if she’d been following them. Chande grumbled something about meeting someone nearby and seeing PD walk into the alley, and then hearing someone scream. PD left it at that.
“So why’d the rock explode?” asked Chande. “That was intense.”
“I don’t know,” said PD. “It was some kind of -”
“- magic detection spell,” said Bee. “You can charm all kinds of things to do that.” Their voice got drier. “Cheap one, though.”
“Then you made it explode,” said Chande.
“Not intentionally.” Bee rolled around on a napkin, drying themself off. “Hence why I said it was cheap.”
PD shook her head, smiling again. It made her cheek hurt, but she ignored it. “Thanks, Bee.”
“I didn’t do anything. I’m just glad we got out of there.”
“And thank you, Chande. I mean it.” PD looked over her lost friend. Chande’d had maybe a week to recover from her illness, which PD knew wasn’t that much time, but she still looked ill. She still had the same dark circles under her eyes, and she was visibly underweight. “I know you said you don’t want to stick together, but, well, we could obviously use your help. We’re not doing that well on our own, and you’re pretty capable. And no offense meant, you said you work alone, and I respect that, but it doesn’t look as though you’re doing that well either. We’re better off together than we are apart.”
Bee stuck their head out from under the napkin, looking expectantly from Chande to PD and back. There was a long, awkward moment while PD and Bee communicated silently, and Chande considered what to say.
“I’ve been on my own for … a very long time,” Chande said finally. “It’s better that way. People don’t like me, and I don’t like people.”
“You aren’t alone in that,” said Bee.
Chande looked up at the lizard in surprise, and then she almost smiled. “Maybe not. You two seem okay, even if you are constantly getting in trouble.”
“Precisely why we need you,” said PD. “You may not like people, but they don’t make sense to me. I don’t understand why they do the things they do. I don’t know enough to protect myself and Bee.”
Chande seemed to be struggling with herself. Finally she shook her head as though she were disgusted. “Fine. At least for the time being. I guess I can deal with it for a little while longer.”
PD gave her a brilliant smile.