The wicked heroine, p.43
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       The Wicked Heroine, p.43

           Jasmine Giacomo
 

  ~~~

  The next day’s sun burned away Sanych’s bizarre mental images of the night before, and the day’s ride was pleasant and easy. The caravan passed along the wide, well-maintained road that cut through the thick tropical forest. They threaded their way through small clusters of homes that made up occasional villages. Gratefully, they accepted dippers full of water from helpful and amazed homesteaders as they went. Rhona traded jewelry for her water and received stunned smiles along with her refreshment.

  In the afternoon, Rhona rode back from scouting, her assigned escort watching closely to see that she didn’t fall off. She pulled up next to Geret.

  “The next town is closer than we estimated. Their festival has been going since morning. Do you want the caravan to stop early?” She hoped she didn’t sound too eager.

  “Yes, let’s do that. A little time off from traveling sounds pretty good to me, and I bet it will sound even better to everyone else.” He rode ahead a bit and asked the caravan masters to spread the word.

  By late afternoon they reached the Springfest. Whoops and calls of excitement ran up and down the caravan as the high-fenced town came into view around a curve in the road. The jungle was cleared far back from the fence so that crops could be grown close to town, grouped within their own smaller fences as well. The scent of the sea was strong here, though. Geret guessed it might be just down a cliff a half-mile or so from the southern wall of the town, through the fringe of trees he could see there.

  As they rode in from the east, it became clear that the larger part of the Springfest was outside the town fence, close to the forest. Crowds and booths and enormous tents filled the space where there might otherwise have been crop-fields. Geret ordered the caravan to set up camp on the northern side of the road, in a fallow spot among the fields. This left them half a mile from the town itself, which was close enough to get the residents’ attention. While the caravan was still arranging night camps, a small delegation came out from the town to meet with its leaders.

  The mayor of Fernwall, a short man with wide dark eyes and a big smile, invited Geret and his companions on a favored tour of the festivities. He was nearly beside himself with glee as he realized that the entire caravan was about to descend on his town for trading, carousing, and spending of gipp. He personally led his honored guests through his town, pointing out significant landmarks and buildings to them. The town had been laid out well, so it wasn’t too long before they exited through the southern gate and entered the festival area. The green grass was trampled flat. Several orange tents at the town gate offered food, and purple tents offered wine and citrus beverages. A large area ahead was cleared for dances or other performances; currently it was half full of small children cavorting and squealing as they played.

  The mayor stopped to announce their arrival to all those in earshot.

  “My good people!” he shouted, standing up in his stirrups. “We have guests, all the way from Vint! I bid you all to make the entire caravan welcome–” He waited for cheers and whistles to die down before continuing, “And most especially Prince Geret and his guests!” The mayor gestured to Geret, and all those listening went ecstatic with cheering.

  Geret blinked at the reception he was receiving, then waved an arm in response. “Is Vint so favored in your town, Mayor?” he asked.

  “Currently, yes, Prince Geret,” the mayor said with a smile. “The closer to the capital you get, however, the more self-absorbed the people get. Let us,” he gestured to his townsfolk, “show you the true spirit of the Kirthan people. Have yourselves a good evening. Since you are so favored a dignitary, my people will not charge you or your personal entourage anything for your food or entertainment this night.”

  “Superb; I’m starving,” Salvor murmured, causing Meena to chuckle.

  “But we will be happy to pay anyway,” Geret responded, with a glare at Salvor.

  “Your highness is most kind,” the mayor said, bowing in his saddle.

  “Please, may we walk though?” Rhona asked politely.

  “My legs need a good stretch too,” Sanych added.

  “Of course.” The mayor nodded and led them to a dismount area. Afoot, the group began to look around and decide what they wanted to do first. Salvor clapped a hand onto Ruel’s shoulder and began to lead him away, but Meena stepped over to join them.

  “I’m curious to see what it is young men find interesting these days,” she murmured, falling in step beside Ruel.

  Salvor grinned and said, “I doubt it’s changed since your day, Meena.”

  “‘Your day’?” Ruel asked, as the threesome began to get lost in the crowds.

  Sanych watched them leave, then turned to Rhona. “Would you like to walk around with me?” she asked the pirate girl.

  Rhona looked down on the shorter, younger girl, then back at Geret, who was being commandeered by the three Counts. “Sure, you can tag along with me.” She turned and headed off into the crowds, leaving Sanych to catch up.

  They walked along the narrow booth avenues, looking over the items for sale. Most were simply the excess inventory from the shops in town, at lower prices. Rhona gave running commentary on their trade value as the pair walked. Sanych kept quiet for the most part, until she saw the bookseller.

  “Let’s look over there,” she suggested, walking across the avenue and stopping before the displayed wares. She reached out reverently and touched an older leather cover, tracing the hammered Kirthan script. “By Wisdom…Old Kirthan. I haven’t seen Old Kirthan for years,” she commented absently.

  “You think it’s worth trading?” Rhona asked, peering over her shoulder.

  “I’d never trade this book!” Sanych insisted, aghast.

  “Well then, what’s the point?” Rhona huffed.

  “What are you on about, child?” the booth’s owner asked sharply, eying Sanych’s hand.

  Sanych looked up into the wizened woman’s dark eyes. “Good woman, I am an Archivist at the Temple of Knowledge in Highnave. I mean no disrespect to your book. I was just wondering if you knew its origins. The Old Kirthan books we have are nearly falling apart with age. We can’t even open them anymore, or they’ll break. But this one appears in very good condition. Where is it from, please?”

  The old woman’s eyes widened at Sanych’s mention of her title. She eagerly bid the girl to wait a moment. She slipped behind a heavy curtain in the back of the booth, returned with a small, flat bit of parchment and handed it to Sanych, who read the book’s provenance: Book of the Lineage, Fourth Dynasty of Kirth. Scribed by Dre Hassa’nat, Year One Forty Six of Said Dynasty. Held in possession of Dynastic Tomekeepers until sold at the end of their lineage, Common Year Fifteen.

  Sanych gasped. “We don’t have this book. How much do you want for it?”

  The bookseller named an exorbitant price, and Sanych countered with an offer of half that. The woman’s eyes glinted. Another two offers each, and Sanych felt she was finally being offered an honest price.

  “Done,” she said quickly. “I’ll write a scrip for you; please deliver the book to the Temple of Knowledge in Highnave, and they will see you paid.”

  “But…” the woman blinked at her monetary good fortune. “But won’t you want it now?” she asked, slowly handing a blank parchment and ink pot over to Sanych.

  Sanych started writing. “I’m heading away from Vint, if you hadn’t noticed. I dare not take such a fascinating book into the unknown with me. It belongs in the Temple.”

  “The unknown? Archivist, you can only go another three days before you reach the end of the entire continent. Where are you going, that it’s unknown to even your learned self?”

  “Our quest leads us to Shanal,” Sanych said, unsure of the reception her words would have.

  The woman frowned a moment. “Never heard of it. It’s across the sea, then?”

  “Yes…” Sanych turned and looked for Rhona, who might have a clearer idea about traveling the sea.

  The young pira
te was gone.

 
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