The handler and the boy passed through the desert like a breeze through leaves of a dead palm tree. They trailed through towns and villages on horseback, leaving as quickly as they had arrived. On more than one occasion, just after supper, a confused inn hand or barkeep would come to collect their bowls, always thoroughly clean and wonder whom he'd served. Wonder if patrons sat there in the first place. Wonder if he had set two bowls out in a moment of mental vacuity.
The handler did his best to travel discreetly. He adopted the drawl of the lands inhabitant, dropping his curt brisk manner of speaking for something languid. The handler didn't see his change in dialect like deception so much as like a seasonal change of clothes. He was in the land of Toull and he would speak like it. And on the rare occasions the boy spoke up, the handler demanded he do the same-- not that either often had a chance to speak. Toull was a barren, thankless land with few inhabitants and even fewer children. The ground was hard and cracked. When the handler passed by farms, he saw frail men with as much girth as the tools they used. They attacked the land petulantly. The handler watched them unearth dirt like stale rye which had been ground to a coarse powder.
Toull was not the apotheosis of deserts, but rather a bumbling landscape with ochre fists of weeds. The place had some life to it yet. But a desert is a desert. Something about desert life stretched time into itself. Days deteriorated into something elastic. They expanded, bled into each other. The monotony of the desert was so powerful that it managed to cover any new or unusual events, and sometimes, people.
The boy was such a person. Lanky with elbows that seemed to poke out of whatever he wore, jaundiced eyes and a mouth entirely unfamiliar with smiling. During the day, the desert was hot but he still wore long sleeve shirts with collars, partially to cover up his neck. He didn't speak much but when he did his voice was as firm as the man that traveled with him. Usually he nodded or shook his head to questions when they were asked of him. There was little need of this, townsfolk in the plains of Horith where they currently were, directed most questions towards the more conspicuous of the two.
Often overlooked but rarely dismissed, the handler was not, a person quickly dismissed. Overlooked, perhaps, but anyone who saw him, truly saw him, began asking questions. His clothes were well worn with the dust of his surroundings, but townsfolk who looked long enough noticed the designs under the dust. The paisley handkerchief. The handmade floral patterns in the shirt under a crocodile jacket. Which raised the question, where did he get a crocodile jacket from? That was if the townsfolk of the Plains of Horith had even seen crocodile skin. Most of them had assumed the handler's jacket was warped leather--extremely warped letter cured by some deft tanner able to make such handiwork.
Perhaps most conspicuous about the handler wasn't his clothes, or even the collapsible crossbow that stuck out awkwardly from the back of his pants but rather the box he carried. Harith townsfolk had simply never seen one. The only thing that shape that they had ever see were bricks and cake. Yet the size and weight of the box suggested it was neither. Slightly less strange was the leather cover draped over the box. It, was made out of a rough fabric that looked like an antique mirror-- if mirrors could be folded. The box's cover had a hole out of which the box's handle stuck, to be grabbed. For a region that hadn't seen miracle or magic, it was quite a wonder, and every now and again, a presumptuous clerk barkeep, or tavern drunk would hobble to their table, push past the boy, and ask,
"What's on the box, sully?"
The handler's response came without eye contact and usually through a mouthful of bread.
"Your eyes, you degenerate."
The handler gave this answer whether he thought the listener knew what a 'degenerate' was or not. Then he would look up at the person who asked and wait for them to understand that, regardless of what he carried, the situation had been dangerously misread, and that they were not to be trifled with. This usually worked: anyone who had seen the fabric and wondered what it covered had seen the bulge the crossbow left, too. When the attitude didn't work, there was always the crossbow, which of course, was not an ideal solution for any dispute. It might have been a Torquast collapsible crossbow, but the handler's bolts were nearly copper. Once, after an incident with a man trying to steal his horse, the handler had stumbled out of the inn half-dressed, lined up his shot, and released the bolt. The crossbow snapped and the bolt hit the thief in the back of the head. The eyes that saw his shot applauded it while the handler cursed. It took him a long while to retrieve the bolt out of the thief's head, a task made nearly impossible by the thief's thick skull. The boy slept that night but he didn't. They had passed through three other towns before the nightmare stopped.
He thought of this now, his boots up on the unoccupied chair at their table, as now as he played with a copper bolt, turning it between his thumb and forefinger. The lobby of the inn was mostly empty save a couple drunks, staring at no one in particular. The sun had just set, but the handler had a feeling the men would be there well into the early morning, mourning another year of inexplicable drought and livestock death.
"Do you think of Aristode?" the boy asked, bringing another spoonful of stew to his mouth.
The copper bolt stopped moving. The handler frowned at the boy. The boy was becoming increasingly aware of the handler's thoughts. He didn't like it.
"Finish your meal, Kerr," the handler chided and then, in a withdrawn tone, "yes, I was thinking of Aristode," he said.
"Could you have done anything else to stop the thief with our horse?" Kerr asked. "He was riding away by the time you had your pants on."
"My horse," the handler corrected. "And yes, I could have. I could have put a dagger in the man's hand when I saw him staring at it while we spoke to the innkeeper the morning before."
"You would have done that?" the boy said, lowered his spoon. "You're no common mercenary."
"And you're no soothsayer, so why don't we leave the reflection to me, hmm?" the handler said in a sweet pitch. "Finish your stew, boy. We've got a long night ahead of us."