Author's Note: Okay, this is a sneak peak of book two I'm about to send off to my copy editor (so don't judge the typos!) so I can include it in the re-release of The Woven Ring in the next few weeks with a new cover.
Astute eyes will see the inclusion of another Payday Story, a version of which came in 11th at a flash fiction contest and earned me comments from Mark Lawrence, Josiah Bancroft, and Sebastien de Castell (whose book I was coincidentally reading at the time).
That means all three of them read something I wrote, which is pretty cool. But now, on to the story:
Marz 13, 557
Things could not be worse for the boy. Those of the yogano, the communal campfire for victorious men, pelted his lumbering pursuer with catcalls as he wove between the wagons, Luca only a few steps ahead. It irked the twelve-year old to no end that he too received their derision, men he had considered himself one of only moments before.
Dodging between two wagons, Luca considered his options. He was certainly fleeter of foot than the aggrieved farmer, his senses not dulled with wine either. But the farmer’s endurance was as unending as a waterfall and easily eclipsed his own. It was desperation that sent Luca to the edge of the encircled wagons’ light, the dark woods awaiting on the other side. He risked it all if he stepped outside the circle, but the child chanced it nonetheless.
Like all Dobra children, Luca learned to stay close to the welcoming fire in the center of the wolari, the wagon camps the Wandering tribes toured in. The darkness outside was dangerous, said to be the haunts of ghuls, gasts, glassmen and other sundry creatures. The real reason for this warning, Luca realized now, was the lack of kin to defend him from a gaji. Were he caught outside the light, there would be no one to stop this outsider from doing him harm.
His eyes still blinded from the campfire, the woods became all the blacker, Luca navigating between the trees more through luck than skill. The farmer slowed as well, but his path stayed aimed at the boy, or, more likely, the seven silver coins jingling in his pocket. Luca considered stopping dead to silence them, the farmer sure to fully lose him in the dark. But the woods loomed high, their branches rubbing together with an eerie scrape that sent a shiver up Luca’s spine. Stopping still and waiting might save him, but the boy turned tail and sprinted back to camp.
Not far outside the small town of Farnham in the state of Walshvan, this was not the worst stop they mad made in Luca’s estimation, but all the stops sort of bled together. Already Luca had traveled the length of the nation of Newfield east to west, his wolari now reversing their course east again on their unending, meandering journey. Never was there a distinct destination to their wandering, only the constant journey bequeathed to them by their ancestors Dobradab and his mistress Ikus. The towns might have different names, but they were all the same to Luca: They were all inhabited by gaji, who might be willing to trade with the Dobra, but never considered him and his tribes Newfield citizens.
This made the gaji dangerous, as Luca now realized firsthand.
The woods lost to him, and the men of the yogano content to offer no more than insults, only one option remained in the form of his father. Camlo Dolphus was not a man large in stature, but his girth had increased of late, his bristling black beard making him all the more imposing, and Luca hoped it would be enough to frighten off the farmer.
It was actually his father who picked the farmer as a mark soon after he arrived in the encampment. Despite the fiddle pressed to his cheek, Luca could easily see his father’s intent when he spied the man. Like many of his fellow Dobra who were not born Blessed to earn a living by plucking the lines of ley, his father made due through his music, the gaji tossing a coin his way along with a song request. With dozens of musicians and gaji guests, the campsite quickly devolving into a cacophony of competing strains nightly. Unfortunately for the family, Camlo Dolphus was a middling musician at best, Luca already nipping at his heels despite his age.
But the music ultimately did not matter; it was only a distraction and excuse for the gaji to drink. The cheap wine the Dobra provided made their marks more pliant and willing to take part in the un-Blessed’s true source of income: trading imbued objects. All Dobra hawked imbued objects, all considered of dubious worth once removed from the camp, but the Ikus were widely renowned for fashioning authentic articles demanding dear prices. The trinkets the Ikus traded were just as counterfeit as the other tribes’, but that was all a part of the unending dance between the Dobra and gaji.
Luca played in his stead as his father signaled to the rest of the wolari his chosen mark by taking a break beside the farmer. He then struck up an offhand conversation even as he refilled the man’s cup with wine. Luca could barely hear their chat over his tune, but he Listened to the farmer’s mind to catch what his ears could not. The farmer’s answers followed his father’s line of questioning as to the planting season, but his mind kept straying to a lady he liked, a lady currently in camp on the arm of another. Unaware of the farmer’s present disinterest in his crops, Luca’s father quickly, and inelegantly to Luca’s reckoning, turned the conversation to the pearl in his pocket.
Camlo Dolphus acquired the capper, one of the thousands of trinkets circulating the campsite, not a week back. Luca accompanied him, stepping back as his father haggled with Saban, who was widely known to always have the best baubles. After his father argued down and paid the price, he finally allowed Luca to look it over.
“It looks more like paste than a pearl.”
“Think so,” his father challenged, a glint of a grin shimmering under his beard. “You ever seen a pearl before?”
“No,” Luca answered. “Not outside of cappers.”
“Then what are the chances some soil toiler has?”
But the pearl capper proved harder to trade than either imagined, perhaps because no farmer had ever seen one, and his father exhaled desperation each time he now tried to unload it. At least that was how he appeared to his Listener son, who did not even need his Blessed ability to realize the current mark’s disinterest. The only thing on the forefront of his mind was the woman he wanted but could not win, and like the poor farmer, Luca’s father toiled away at an impossible task. Although he could put no words to it, shame licked at Luca upon seeing his father struggle so futilely.
The sting of the unnamed shame galled him to no end, and Luca dug as deep into the gaji’s mind as his Listener talents allowed. It was no easy task, but eventually Luca came away with two names: Lisa, the object of the farmer’s affection, and Price, his fellow suitor.
Soon as he finished his song, Luca begged off by twirling the bow over his fingers in the pattern his father taught him. Realizing finally the futility of pursuing his mark any further, Camlo gave his son a nod, and Luca hurried away to find Saban.
“I need a capper,” Luca announced as he arrived outside the man’s vurd. All Wanderers took pride in decorating their wagons in garish colors, but the outlandish Saban outdid them all. Each piece, be it wall, wheel, awning or door, of his home sported a decidedly disparate color, Saban then draping his outer walls in strung cappers numbering in the hundreds. Anyone could easily sidestep a deal with the shrewd Saban, but none did. Theft within the wolari considered one of the cardinal sins, punishment was banishment from the tribe. Since a Dobra without a tribe was equally long to live as a bird without wings, everyone always presented themselves to Saban for trade.
“And make it a rin kuti, something a woman would wear,” Luca added, receiving a raised eyebrow upon his insistence of a particularly fine counterfeit.
“And what do you have to buy this rin kuti with?”
All the profits he received from playing beside his father belonged to the family, Luca dutifully turning over his earnings at the end of each night. Yet he managed to filch a coin or two when his father showed more interested in his wine than their take, and Luca turned out his pockets, clinking the change that totaled less than a dollar.
“Rin kuti it is.”
Saban unveiled his wares, his smile widening as if displayed a true treasure. The fact such a statement was an outright lie, the trinkets and baubles Saban showed Luca nothing more than junk, did not cause him offence. Luca’s wolari, just like all the Dobra tribes, were a tight-knit people constantly tripping over each other in camp. Listeners also made up many of their number, much more than any other people covering the face of Ayr, and so everyone knew the truth about everyone else. And, as every Wanderer worth his salt knew, heading straight for a destination stole the savor out of the journey. They therefore meandered around every topic, speaking straight at the truth considered the height of rudeness. As such, embellishments were always expected and considered good form in everyday interactions. Saban’s wares were no more rin kuti than Luca’s pittance a treasure, but each treated the other as if it were the Sol’s honest truth.
Luca made the requisite pretense expected of him as he oohed and aahed, but there was nothing there among the baubles that caught his eye. “Perhaps the garnet ring you showed my father,” he finally offered.
“You have fine tastes. And a good memory on top of it.”
Luca’s good memory recalled that the “garnet” appeared it might shatter from looking at it too intently, but he accepted the fawning compliment and bit his tongue so as to be equally polite.
“I’m afraid what you have here tonight would only be a first payment,” Saban said. “But as soon as you brought me another dollar, I’d be happy to part with it.”
It took Luca nearly six months to procure his meager money, so the initial price nearly made him wail. Dobra decorum dictated he proffer at least three more offers before he haggled his way down to what he could actually afford, but Luca did not believe he would ever have enough, and simply did not have the time.
“Let me have it for what I have now, and tomorrow I will pay you two dollars after my trade.”
The audacious offer took Saban aback, the man scrutinizing the boy all the harder. “And if you cannot trade it?”
“Then I will return the ring and we’ll be through. You’ll have nothing but profit.”
The proposal was too good to be true, and Saban observed the idea from every angle as Luca stewed. But after his considerations he saw the offer to be marrow true, and the result of nothing more than a desperate boy. With nothing of risk, he kissed his fist then extended his hand. Luca mirrored the gesture, sealing the deal in the Dobra way before snatching his prize and hurrying away.
Arriving back at the campsite thronging with Dobra and gaji alike, Luca feared his mark had already departed. Then he spied the man and was overjoyed to see him deeper into his cups as he passed by. Opening his coat so as to cover his Listener pin, Luca held the ring in his hand as he tripped. Spilling in front of the farmer, Luca made a great show of searching the earth. He had ensured the ring landed next to his mark’s boot, but seemed quite oblivious as he hunted. Eventually the farmer picked up the ring, examining it in the flickering firelight.
“Thank you, thank you, kind sir,” Luca gushed, eagerly grasping for the ring. “Mr. Price would be all kinds of cross if I lost him that.”
Upon hearing his competitor’s name, the farmer considered the ring all the closer. “Why’s Price so keen on this thing?”
“It… it wouldn’t be proper to say, sir. Mr. Price would… well, I wouldn’t want to upset him.”
“Upsetting that sack of sick be damned, it’s me you don’t want to disappoint. The ring, what makes it special, boy?”
Conspiratorially leaning in closer, Luca made sure to whisper loud enough to be clearly heard. “Well, the ring, it’s imbued you see. A charm to turn a woman’s affection the owner’s direction so long as she wears it.”
Luca did not need to Listen to know his mark greedily gobbled the lie down. Haggling over the price was simply a formality, the farmer departing with his ring and the knowledge he got one better over Price, and Luca leaving with seven silver coins jangling in his pocket. Such a haul was an unheard-of fortune that drove away all memory of shame at his father’s own failure earlier.
Having completed his first trade with a gaji, Luca should have swiftly retired to his family’s wagon or paid off Saban, but the yogano called to him. After the nightly festivities finished, and outsiders drunkenly departed for their homes, the Dobra men who proved successful sat up all night by the fire, trading the remaining wine and tales of their victories. To sit around the fire, one had to have successfully traded that night, something Luca’s father could not claim, and Luca reveled at the opportunity to sit beside his equals. The men of the yagano eyed him with amusement upon his approach, but as soon as he told the tale of his trade, they clapped him on the back and called him one of their own. Luca already earned the admiration of the children of the wolari through his mastery of Onas’ fearsome dog, but this was the first time the men saw him as anything other than a boy. He was one of them now, now fully a member of the Ikus tribe.
Although he sipped the sour wine they passed around, it was their acceptance that tingled in his veins. His tale told, he settled into polite silence as the others grew raucous and spun their own stories. The boy only realized he basked in his new status as man for too long when the irate farmer barreled back into camp, swearing how he had been swindled.
Luca then discovered that his newfound status did not mean the other men would defend him. To enact an advantageous trade on an unsuspecting gaji was the Dobra way, while being caught an anathema to everything they held sacred. To be seized meant the trader was lax, and so he must be punished however the swindled gaji saw fit. Sure, the men of the campfire would intercede if the farmer tried to outright kill one of their own, but they certainly would not lift a finger if he wished to administer a beating to the boy. To do so would only be just and proper.
Luca finally careened into his vurd and banged upon its side hard as he could. His father was drinking hard last time Luca saw him, and Camlo Dolphus was notoriously difficult to rouse. All other means of escape eluding him, Luca availed himself of the last possible recourse by shamefully sliding under the wagon. The farmer, either too stout or too stupid to climb under himself, flailed an arm underneath to grab him until the door burst open and rebounded off the side of the wagon.
“What’s this then?” Camlo Dolphus bellowed. A thick club in hand, his red-rimmed eyes caught sight of the angry farmer, then his sheepish son emerging on the far side of the wagon.
“What have you done now?” his father asked in the Dobra tongue.
“Trade gone wrong,” Luca answered in the same language.
“None of that Dobra dreck!” the farmer shouted. “Speak true words or I’ll tear this entire campsite apart!”
“What’s the trouble then?” Luca’s father descended the steps, making sure the farmer caught sight of his club.
“Your runt swindled me out of seven hard dollars for a ring he said would bring me love. But all it bought me was a slap when I tried to claim a kiss.”
“It was a fair trade—” Luca began in Acwealt before his father cut him off with a flair of his hand. Then he beckoned Luca over, the boy slinking beside his father. Looking into the doorway, he saw his mother Marieni with sisters Lela and Esme huddled behind her. The fact that all three cowered from the man in their own vurd within the tribe’s wolari raised Luca’s pique. They should be safe within their own homes wherever they roamed, and he looked forward to his father setting the gaji straight.
“If the ring didn’t work, then it wasn’t a fair trade,” his father said to Luca’s horror. “A return of both will make us square.”
“Pfft,” the farmer spat. “I hurled that junk away soon as I realized what it was.”
“Then how do you expect to exchange it?” Luca fired back. He would have said more, but his father cuffed his ear roughly enough to make Luca’s world spin. When his vision cleared, he saw the farmer unkindly grinning at him.
“Return the man his money with an apology,” his father ordered in a voice that brooked no argument.
Luca felt sick, not just from the blow, but from the injustice of it all. The loss of the money was bad enough, the fact he would still be on the hook to Saban for the lost ring compounding matters. But it was the thought of the apology that brought up his bile when he handed over the coins he had worked so hard for.
The boy sullenly stared up at the gloating farmer, taunting him to violence and forcing his father to use the club to defend his son. Instead, he received another cuff to the back of his head.
“You keep him waiting any longer, I’ll toss you into the fire, boy.”
Luca forced the hateful words through his clenched teeth. “I apologize.”
The man remained a moment before turning heel, but not before spitting on the wheel of their vurd. For a moment Luca wanted nothing more than to snatch his father’s cudgel and bash the farmer bloody, but turning towards his father and seeing his anger, Luca feared he might soon be acquainted with the club’s kiss.
“Stupid, stupid boy,” Camlo Dolphus began in the Dobra tongue before switching back to Acwealt. “Seven dollars? Seven entire dollars?! What were you thinking?”
“That it was more money than we’ve made in a month performing for them!”
Luca watched his father’s hands tighten around the cudgel and winced. Seeing this, his father relaxed, but not much. “Your trade was for too short a time, that was your first mistake. If he had bought the pearl thinking it would aid his crops, he might be happy when they came in. Or maybe angry when they did not. It would not matter to us either way since we would be long gone before his harvest. We would be safe, far away. That is the true gift of the Wanderer.
“And you forget the purpose of our trades with the gaji. For us, it is livelihood. For them, diversion. It’s a dance both sides go into with open eyes, them knowing they will be spun about and come out a few coins lighter. For that they have a good story to tell their friends, a bright spark in their dirt lives. They understand that and do not begrudge us what we take so long as it’s a pittance. But seven dollars? You guarantee he will come back for that! You grasp for too much, boy.”
Through his Listening, Luca knew his father wanted him to cower, so he broke into his grin. This particular grin irked his father to no end, so his son wielded it as deftly and hurtfully as his father’s cudgel.
“You’re bad as the boy swallowed by the sea,” his father said before disappearing back into the wagon.
It was an old children’s tale his father invoked to inflict irritation in his son with the same relish the boy took in his grin. In it, a ship crashed upon the rocks near shore, spilling its treasures onto the seabed. So the children of the nearby town dove down, collecting coins and gems among the dead bodies. But one emerald stood out among the treasures, one as big as a man’s chest. All the children wrestled with it, all unable to pry it free and therefore departing to collect the easier treasures.
Yet one ambitious boy would not be denied, ignoring all the other baubles to work at the giant gem each day. Soon the seabed was picked clean, only the giant gem and the boy remaining. And finally, after weeks of toil, the boy broke the emerald free. But the boy did not know that the emerald was actually the heart of the sea, the plug keeping all the water from draining away. And with the gem removed, the sea waters retreated down the dark hole and sucked the boy along with them. Only then was the emerald pulled back into place by the waters, the boy trapped on the other side, where he finally drowned.
The moral to the story was clear, at least to his sister Lela when their father told it years ago. The sensible Lela took the message to heart, but Luca was abuzz with questions: Why was the heart of the sea there and not in the center of the sea? How did the boy finally wrest it free? Did he have help? What if he used ropes to secure it and climbed back by them? Who was it that witnessed him sucked into the hole? Would they too not be sucked away?
Their father quickly grew cross and never uttered the story again until he discovered that Luca touched Onas’ dog rather than just the wagon. Hearing how his son risked life and limb to impress the other children, Camlo Dolphus demanded to know why Luca stupidly chanced everything for just a little bit more when he could have been content with quite a lot less.
“I didn’t want them to think me a grubber.”
“But we are grubbers,” his father corrected, dismissing the boy’s statement with a wave. “The whole Ikus clan is grubbers to the other Wanderers, but that doesn’t matter none. They’re grubbers to the Cousins, who are grubbers to the gaji. We’re all grubbers in someone’s eyes, us Dolphus the grubbiest among them, and that’s a good thing. When they look down on you, they don’t expect much. Remember, it’s the tallest blade of grass that loses the most come mowing season.”
Luca’s forehead contracted as he tasted the idea, his face finally souring. “But I’m not grass. And I’m not a grubber.”
Seeing his son’s sincerity, Camlo Dolphus could not help but snigger. “No, you’re as bad as the boy swallowed by the sea.”
Luca did not know if it was his father’s laughter or the definitive distinction of a grubber that spilled his traitorous tears, but he was well aware his father laughed all the harder upon seeing them.
“You’re just as bad as the boy swallowed by the sea,” quickly became his father’s favorite refrain. Not a month went by without Luca being lashed with it, and although Camlo Dolphus believed otherwise, his son sussed a moral from the story, one he kept close to his heart. Luca learned that, while other, lesser children might be content to only grasp for what they could carry, he had both more imagination and ambition. Contentedness was never the prize, rather a distraction from his true, better purpose. Luca knew in his bones he was meant for greater things, a grand destiny awaiting him so long as he was willing to reach for it. His path would undoubtedly be dangerous, but so long as he proved quick and clever, he knew he would never be sucked down to the depths below.
No, he would earn his destined prize, even if he had to drain the entire ocean to do it.