The Curse of the Winged Scorpion

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Remenes

As soon as Fantel disembarked from Vedeca she found herself surrounded by goblins. She towered over them; the tallest of the goblins stood no higher than four feet. As one they looked up at her from under their wide hoods, their small slope shouldered bodies swathed in thick grey cloaks. Fantel stared down upon the smooth white porcelain mask of the goblin directly in front of her; the immobile features painted onto the mask were drawn into a permanent scowl – an eloquent expression of the goblin’s displeasure at the tardiness of their disembarkation. Goblins were ubiquitous in and around skyports all over Aldlis due to their extraordinary strength and agility. Even among human cultures that looked down on most non-humans goblins could be assured of finding work in manufacture, aviation, or any other industry where their dexterity and hardiness could be put to use. All the same they were not completely accepted. Hence their attire; humans were afraid of goblins true appearance -they found their snub-nosed, lipless, furred faces and black liquid eyes unnerving – so the goblins wore masks with painted faces to assuage the fears of the ignorant. They had also learned to talk with their hands instead of the needle-toothed mouths they were forced to hide. Fantel found this willingness to appease bigoted humans shameful, and yet, of all the non-human races of Aldlis it was the goblins who prospered. Whereas the Chimeri isolated themselves from the never ending march of human advancement, and the Ogdegre became nomads wandering the Battlan steppes, shunned and prohibited from entering most human cities, the goblins had flourished in the very heart of empire. Fantel found that she was not quite sure how to feel about that.

“Yes I know,” Rashari had crouched down, almost kneeling on the metal grated floor of the platform so that he could speak with a goblin wearing a mechanic’s belt cinched around his cape. He signed with his hands as he spoke, apparently fluent in the fluid, swirling gestures of the Goblin language. “I apologise for the imposition; I will of course compensate you for…” He stopped when the goblin reached out a long, three-fingered hand to still Rashari’s movements. Then once he was still the Goblin pulled another mask from inside his cloak, this one only a half-mask, moulded into a perfect facsimile of a beaming grin. The goblin held the porcelain grin over the bottom of the mask covering his face, replacing frown with smile. The two junior technicians behind him repeated the gesture lifting their own painted smiles. The lead goblin flicked the spindly fingers of his free hand in a complicated gesture. Rashari’s lips twisted into a badly suppressed smile. “I am not always broke.” He grumbled. The goblin mechanic kept his grin in place but reached out with his free hand to pat Rashari on the shoulder. He huffed and looked away, trying not to smile. One of the junior technicians rustled around in a rucksack hanging over one shoulder. A moment later the goblin withdrew a small laminated card imprinted with a picture of a pint glass full of frothy beer. The goblin tapped the card and nodded emphatically, voluminous hood bobbing up and down. Rashari smirked. “Alright, alright; if you can get my girl shipshape within two hours I’ll buy you all a round.” The technician shook her head, and held up two long fingers, folding the third finger (opposable like a thumb) down against her black padded palm. The meaning was obvious. Rashari sighed. “Alright, two rounds – and I want it noted that this is daylight robbery.” He paused and narrowed his eyes pointedly at the second technician quivering under his cape. “Yes very funny; a Raider being robbed; very droll. I’m glad I could bring you such amusement.”

The trio of goblins all quivered with silent laughter; the rippling of their shoulders and the shivering folds of their cloaks somehow more emphatic than the loudest belly laugh. The mechanic patted Rashari on the shoulder one last time before the three goblins passed him and moved toward Vedeca’s boarding ramp. Fantel stepped out of the way of the frowning goblin as he passed her and joined the others. The group of goblins then marched up the ramp and into the ship, ignoring the odd looks and stifled gasps from the human women who stared down on the skyport technicians as if they were rats scurry along the floor. Impulsively Fantel looked over at Rashari. He was frowning at the women. Oddly his reaction pleased her. It was one thing for a human to fear the Djinn or Ogdegra –both races had bloody histories with humans – but to continue to revile goblins when it was they who maintained the infrastructure of human society – that, beyond mere prejudice, smacked of gross ingratitude.

“I suggest we split up; the ladies can leave through the front and we’ll take the back way.” Rashari murmured jerking his head to the left. Fantel looked where he indicated and saw that the walkway turned to follow the wall at the back of the chamber before ending at a reinforced steel door marked against unauthorised access. She quirked an enquiring eyebrow, assuming he would be able to read her question in her silence. He did. “We’re not so far the Dha-hali couldn’t follow. They know me and, if you’ll forgive me madame, you do tend to stand out in a crowd.” He shrugged artlessly, careful not to move his left shoulder. “We’re all safer if the ladies blend into the milieu and we slip away unobserved.”

She couldn’t fault his logic, and as she had no particular desire to stay with the women she had been imprisoned alongside. She agreed with a sharp nod. They turned as one and started walking down the platform. The other women had already joined the milling crowd of tourists and travellers alighting from a docked sky ferry, losing themselves in the collage of human traffic. She and Rashari walked in silence. Their footsteps echoed softly along the platform. She noted that their strides matched; they kept perfect pace with each other as if they had already walked a thousand miles side by side. Fantel frowned, disconcerted not just by their synchronicity but also by the fact that she had noticed.

“Wait!”

Tamaki ran up to them, her own feet thundering across the metal grating. She stopped abruptly in front of Fantel, wide eyes skittering from her to Rashari and back again. “I…er…I wanted to thank you.” She stammered cheeks going pink. She twisted her fingers together into a snake-nest knot of tangled digits, almost vibrating with nerves. “You saved me- both of you – and…and…I want you to know that um,” she trailed off, the deepening blush crawled down her cheeks to her neck and upper chest, mottling the skin visible above the square neckline of her white cotton smock. Fantel met the girl’s panicked eyes blankly waiting for her to finish whatever it was she meant to say. She did not understand the girl’s reaction at all. Tamaki was free and safe; she was back in her home city – why didn’t she simply run to the family she was so desperate to see? The moment stretched, awkwardly. Fantel had the uncomfortable feeling that Tamaki expected her to say something.

Rashari, leaning against the guard rail, looked up from his inspection of his wound, a tiny quiver of a smile twitching his lips. Just as their silent tableau threatened to drag on forever he pushed off the rail and spoke, voice bright with bluff cheer. “Oh no thanks necessary,” he assured Tamaki before fixing his dark eyes on her and deliberately moulding his expression into a mask of solemn sincerity so perfect it could have been etched in porcelain and kept in a goblin’s backpack. “It is enough reward to know that you will be returned safe and sound to your no doubt loving family. I’m sure they have been beside themselves with worry.”

Tamaki bit her lip, eyes tearing. She nodded. “I was so stupid leaving without telling anyone. Father will be so angry with me.”

“Nonsense,” Rashari cut her off. “I’m sure he’ll welcome you home with open arms – feeling only joy to have his daughter restored to him.”

Fantel cast him a dubious glance, not so much at his words, she was sure that Tamaki’s family would be overjoyed by her safe return, but instead toward his virtuoso performance of sentiment. She wondered what sort of human could not merely express a sentiment but instead must enact it like a player in a Dushkui masque. Still the act was enough to appease Tamaki. Her smile was wobbly and wet but undoubtedly sincere.

“I…um…I was going to say…my father runs a tavern and…”

“A tavern, eh?” Rashari brightened visibly, the mask of solemnity falling away in an instant. He beamed. “Now why didn’t you say so before? Lead on girl. I’m parched.” Playfully he pushed Tamaki ahead of him toward the personnel door at the back of the docking chamber. Tamaki laughed, light and girlish, but twisted to look back at Fantel. “You’ll come won’t you? I, um, I’m sure that my father will want to thank you both for saving me.”

Fantel parted her lips to point out that she had not, in fact, saved Tamaki, or made any attempt to do so, but Rashari beat her to the punch. “Of course she will.” He promised in the same blithe tone Fantel found completely impossible to trust. She was about to object once more but he leaned back and murmured lowly for her ears only. “We have things to discuss Madame Chimera – I ask only that you grant me a few more hours of your time.” His dark eyes were serious, no act this time. Fantel hesitated. Ingrained habit told her to decline – to escape these humans and their drama – but she hesitated, torn. If nothing else she might gain answers to some of her lingering questions if she went with him.

“Very well,” She jerked her chin, “But you had better explain yourself.” She strode forward toward the exit deliberately choosing to ignore the pleased light warming Rashari’s dark eyes, or the way Tamaki’s smile grew brighter as she trotted along behind them, gamely trying to keep up.

“It’s all just like I left it.” Tamaki exclaimed almost pirouetting in the middle of the marketplace clogged with vendors stalls selling bolts of vibrantly dyed silk, meat skewers punctuated with slices of juicy apple, sweet pancakes filled with berry compote, or apothecary stalls covered in hand-labelled jars filled with vaguely ominous looking ingredients. Fantel twitched as she passed a series of stacked wooden crates holding squawking chickens lined up behind a farmer’s stall; the loosely packed eggs and chicken carcasses attracting flies in the afternoon heat. Everywhere she looked there was colour and motion; the marketplace thronged with people – pressing in on all sides. The flapping of marquee awnings in the warm breeze was as constant as a beating heart, creating a resonant bass line to the hollers and caterwauls of the vendors. They were only five minutes from the skyport and already Fantel longed for the glorious isolation of the open road. She gave another violent twitch when a horde of grubby children almost ploughed right into her, laughing and squalling like chittering monkeys as they raced each other in and out of the stalls.

Rashari sidled up to her, dark eyes amused. “Not one for crowds, Madame Chimera?” He asked lightly, teasing her.

Fantel refused to give him the satisfaction of a response. She simply strode on determinedly, ignoring him completely. Unperturbed Rashari once again fell easily into step beside her as Tamaki hurried ahead, impatient to be home. They passed by a municipal building and Fantel stopped to read a posted sign proclaiming the upcoming Investiture of the royal princess of Tabris into the Cloister of the Seraphim. Tamaki, scampering ahead, noticed that her rescuers had stopped and came scampering back again like a puppy straining on the leash. She glanced at the sign. “Everyone’s really looking forward to Princess Reniah’s investiture; we haven’t had a living Scion since the King’s brother died. My father says Princess Reniah will protect us if war comes.” She beamed proudly. “Not even the Adran Empire would dare take us on if we have a Scion to protect us.”

“Don’t be so sure,” Rashari muttered under his breath so only Fantel heard him. She glanced at him briefly before focusing on Tamaki. “Is the Princess not the first born? Why would the king risk her life to an Investiture?” Fantel knew that Tabris kept to the old ways – the way of the Seraphim. It was a practice most humans had forsaken when Phantasma energy became prevalent. What was the point in worshipping gods and looking to an afterlife when everyone knew the dead were burned up for fuel? Yet in Tabris the Seraph Cirroc was still revered and the royal family had been offering up one of its own to the Investiture - a joining between mortal host and divine spirit –for countless generations.

“It’s because of the war,” Tamaki answered her quietly.

“War?” Fantel asked, bemused. There was always conflict in Aldlis; the humans seemed incapable of living side by side in anything but enmity, yet she hadn’t been aware that Tabris was at war with any nation at this time.

Tamaki nodded. “No one talks about it but everyone knows there’ll be a war; my father says war with Adra is inevitableEveryone knows Adrans are cruel and greedy. The Empire won’t stop until they control the whole of Tybur.”

“Quite so,” Rashari drawled his Adran accent somewhat exaggerated, his expression deadpan. “Speaking as a cruel and greedy Imperial – I don’t suppose we could get a move on? My shoulder is killing me and I think that peg-legged beggar over there is giving me the evil eye.”

Tamaki flushed and ducked her head. “It’s this way.” She darted back into the crowds thronging the market, cheeks burning. Rashari smiled crookedly, turning slightly to Fantel, his expression amused rather than offended, “After you, Madame Chimera.”

The Firefly Tavern was in Old Town; an attractive conical roofed building made of the same red stone as the crater. Trestle tables sat under large parasols and a neat border of orange hedge roses lined the pathway up to the tavern’s front door; the sweet scent of the roses mingled with the malty, earthy aroma of Tabrian black beer. Tamaki ran ahead of them, shoving open the stain-glass panelled double doors. She and Rashari followed after the girl at a more sedate pace. The interior of the tavern was brightly lit by shaded phantasma wall sconces and ceiling lamps; the ethereal light refracted through the faceted glass of the shades in jewel bright rainbows. The bar sat at the back of the room, mobbed with patrons. Round tables littered the stone tiled floor and a wide staircase curved up to a higher split-level seating area looking down over the bar. The warm, inviting scent of roasted meat and spiced vegetables wafted down from the upper level along with the muted clash of cutlery striking against plates. A door to the far right appeared to lead to the kitchens. In the corner a small troupe of musicians froze in the middle of a lively jig as Tamaki stopped in the middle of the floor. Conversation stalled and silence rippled outward to the far corners of the tavern as dozens of pairs of eyes turned toward the door.

“Father!”

A thick-set human man with a head as bald as an egg and a bristled tawny beard rounded the bar, throwing down a wash cloth. The man’s expression was thunderous, ruddy cheeks mottled with some strong emotion. His strong hairy forearms flexed with muscle as he seized Tamaki under the arms, lifted her half a foot off the ground and crushed her to him in a bone jarring hug.

“Tammy, thank Cirroc. I thought I’d lost you.” Tamaki and her father clung to each other tightly, both crying freely, unashamed. Slowly he lowered her back to her feet and kissed the top of her head several times repeating over and over again that he’d thought he would never see her again, and whispering thanks to Cirroc while Tamaki wept and apologised again and again for scaring him. Finally after some time the man lifted his head and raised his voice. “Meira, Phion - get out here!”

“Father – what - ?” a young woman appeared in the doorway leading to the kitchen. She was several years older than Tamaki but instantly recognisable as her sister. They had the same clear, lucent hazel eyes and thick, brown hair. The young woman’s eyes widened like saucers when she saw Tamaki and she clapped one hand to her mouth in shock, her face paled.

“Meira!” Tamaki tore free of her father and barrelled into her sister’s arms.

“Hey, Mere – the soup’s boiling.” A lanky boy, barely an adolescent, appeared in the kitchen doorway. He was tow-headed with a round, unfinished face and a somewhat gormless expression, which morphed into one of absolute joy when he saw Tamaki. The resultant bear hug and jubilant sobbing was inevitable. It wasn’t long before the tavern’s patrons had amassed around the reunited family offering up back-slaps, hugs, arm pats, and words of glad tiding and welcome.

Rashari, standing beside Fantel, sighed and poked at the bullet hole in his coat, wincing as he pressed on the wound. “Do you think they’ll be at this for long?” His wry inquiry sliced through the happy scene like a knife. Tamaki’s father broke free and turned toward them, the luminous happiness fading from his rough features as he looked from Fantel to Rashari with slow creeping wariness. Fantel shifted her weight from her left to right foot and propped one hand against her hip, watching the man coolly. Rashari stopped irritating his injury and relaxed his posture, spreading his weight evenly between both feet – he was ready for fight or flight, his eyes keen and watchful.

“Father these are the people who helped me escape.” Tamaki appeared at her father’s elbow. “I was caught by a bunch of ropeheads – they were going to make me a slave – but Rashari and Madame Chimera fought them and brought me home.”

The tavern patrons broke out in murmurs of dismay, and a flurry of questions went unanswered as Tamaki’s father’s face paled with shock and fear. His large fists curled tightly, knuckles whitening. Fantel saw the sister, Meira, press her hand to her mouth once more, her other arm clutched around her waist. The boy, Phion, stared at Fantel. She met his eyes and held them until he looked away. Tamaki’s father lurched forward, shock and relief making him ungainly on his feet. He looked hard at Rashari and then Fantel in turn. She noticed how his eyes fixed on the blood staining Rashari’s coat.

“Thank you.” He said voice gruff and harsh with emotion. “I’m Vasili Innis; my family and I are in your debt.”

Fantel gazed back at him placidly having no interest in his debt or gratitude. Rashari shifted a little uncomfortably beside her and smiled faintly. She had the feeling he was a little unnerved by the man’s frank and unwavering regard. “Glad to be of service.” He mumbled meeting Vasili’s eyes but with none of his usual blithe confidence. All eyes were on them, the hiss of smothered whispers biting at Fantel’s ears. The urge to dart back out of the door was almost overwhelming.

“Father,” Tamaki spoke up breaking the tense and mounting silence. “How is mother – is she better?”

Vasili turned to his daughter and the focus of the avid tavern patrons shattered in a thousand different directions, releasing her and Rashari from the chokehold of undivided attention. They both released a sigh of relief, shoulders slumping and spines relaxing. Fantel looked quizzically at Rashari who shrugged a little abashed. “I’m not usually the hero of the story,” he admitted. “Generally speaking when I meet the fathers of distressed damsels they are anything but pleased to make my acquaintance.”

Fantel gave him a hard look, taking in his fine leather boots and his startling blue coat, his dark eyes and care-free half-smile. She clucked her tongue. “That surprises me not at all.”


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