With every city they pass through, traveling by cart gets a little less smelly, but no less unsettling.
“Ugh, this thing looks like a mummy,” Beau says, poking the manticore head still lashed to the side of the cart with her stick.
“‘Least that means no more bugs,” Fjord replies, climbing into the back behind Jester, Molly, and Yasha.
“Can’t we clean it up? It’s freaking me out.”
“If it’s freaking you out, it’ll freak any more bandits out too,” Caleb replies, climbing into the cart behind Fjord. After a second Beau follows, giving up the issue of the big smelly head for now.
“I’m driving!” Nott calls, clambering up into the driver’s seat and taking the reins, her previous trepidation around the horses nearly gone, “We’re going to the north gate, right?”
“Yes, north gate,” Caleb says.
“Alright. I’ve got this, just watch,” Nott says, turning back to the horses. She takes a breath and gives the reins a good snap.
“Eey-ha!” she says, her voice cracking a bit, though it’s good enough for the horses who trudge forward down the street.
Jester stifles a laugh.
“What? I got it this time!” Nott says.
“No, no, you were perfect,” Jester giggles. She takes a breath, “I mean it, good job.”
“Thank you,” Nott says, still indignant, but no longer offended.
The sounds of the city fade from an endless flow of unreadable chatter, to the gentle ruckus of children and working wives, to far off calls of farmers in fields, to hardly any sounds at all except the birds in the grass and the crunch of gravel under the wagon’s wheels. The sun is high in the sky, passing in and out of cloud cover. Patches of roving light ripple over the hills in the distance.
Jester amuses herself trying to draw as the cart bumps over rocks and dips in the road. She stares intently at Fjord gazing out at the landscape and thinking about nothing in particular. Finally she snorts and taps him on the arm. She holds up her sketch, giggling.
“Look, it’s you,” she says.
Fjord smiles at the mish-mash of crooked, shaky lines that look as though they were being viewed through a bucket of water, or a particularly warped cathedral window.
“Yeah, maybe if you hit me with a cart a few times,” he says.
“Molly, you want me to try you next?” she asks, looking over at the other tiefling.
He lifts his head up and looks over at her.
“What are you going to do to me?” he asks.
“Look,” Jester says, holding her sketch book over to him.
“Oh god, I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy,” Molly says, “Is that supposed to be the manticore head?”
Fjord laughs, and Jester soon follows.
“You’re right, it does look kind of like that,” she says, “Maybe I’ll try drawing you later, when we’ve stopped. There’s already enough going on there as it is.”
She waves her hand haphazardly in Molly’s direction. Molly smiles but doesn’t reply.
“You should draw me,” Yasha says, “I want to know what I’d look like as a mummified corpse.”
As she turns back to her sketch book, Fjord glances over at Caleb whose head is leaning against the back of the driver’s seat, eyes closed. Frumpkin is curled up on his lap, quiet and still except for the occasional flick of his ears.
“Is Caleb asleep?” Fjord asks.
“Yeah, I’m amazed he managed it,” Molly says, “He’s been out since we left the outskirts.”
“Can’t say I blame him. It’s been a hectic trip,” Fjord says.
“If someone else is keeping watch, I might join him.”
“Yeah, I’ve been keepin’ an eye out.”
“Oh, I can keep watch too,” Jester pipes up, “You go ahead and go to sleep, Molly. We’ll be fine.”
Molly pauses and briefly considers asking Jester why she’s suddenly so eager to keep watch, but in the end the tired fog in his head wins out. He shrugs.
“Alright. Suit yourself.”
He swings his legs up onto the bench, right over Yasha’s lap, and leans back against the driver’s seat. If Yasha minds the sudden invasion of her personal space, she doesn’t show it. The cart falls silent again. Jester continues to work in her sketchbook, her eyes never once looking at the road. Fjord looks out into the hills again, eyes peeled for anything of interest. Five minutes pass. Then ten. Then fifteen. Jester’s scribbling stops and she puts her charcoal down.
“There, what do you think?” she asks, holding the drawing up to Yasha.
The sketch has bolder lines than the one of Fjord. Darker shadows. However, the wobbly lines that struggle to hold their own shape still plague the drawing. A slight smile flicks across Yasha’s face.
“Looks like a demon with its head caved in,” she says.
“Yeah, but I think it’s pretty good for what it is,” Jester says.
She closes her book and looks over at Molly again. She studies him for an uncomfortable few seconds before carefully tearing a small piece of paper out of her sketchbook. She wads it up and flicks it towards him. The crumpled ball bounces off the top of his head and lands in the bottom of the cart. His face twitches, but he doesn’t move. Jester looks at Yasha.
“You think he’s asleep?” she whispers.
“I don’t know,” Yasha says with a shrug.
“Molly, are you asleep?”
A second passes. Then another. No response.
“Jester, leave him alone,” Fjord says, not taking his eyes off the road.
“I’m not doing going to do anything,” Jester protests, like a child brushing off a nagging parent. She puts her sketchbook down on her seat and stands up, “I’m going to talk to Nott.”
She carefully picks her way past Molly and Caleb and climbs into the driver’s seat next to Nott. Nott looks over at her, her bright yellow eyes wide with surprise.
“Oh, hi Jester,” she says.
“Hey, Nott!” Jester says, “How’s it going? What are you up to?”
“Um...driving,” Nott says, a nervous hitch in her voice.
“See anything cool? Any bad guys? Any people riding dragons?”
“No, not really.”
“Ok, that’s cool.”
Jester leans forward, watching as they near the crest of a hill. She takes a breath and scoots a little closer to Nott. The goblin visibly tenses and glances over at Jester out of the corner of her eye.
“Nott, can I ask you something?” Jester asks, dropping her voice to a conspiratorial whisper.
“Um...what?” Nott asks, copying Jester’s tone.
“You and Caleb are friends, right?”
“Uh, yeah. Yeah, he’s kind of my...my best friend, I guess.”
“Has Caleb ever...I don’t know, talked to you about anyone, like, in particular?”
“What you mean like…? Like those guards who blew up Frumpkin back in Zadash? He told me about them.”
“No, no, not like that. I mean like…” Jester pauses, her expression brightening, “like one of us. Like someone in the group.”
“Oh you mean like how he told me not to go through Fjord’s stuff again?”
“No, not like that.”
“Like...like anyone he likes,” she says.
“Well I think he likes all of you. Most of the time,” Nott says.
“No-tt,” Jester whines.
“It’s true, I think he likes you guys. What more do you want from me?”
“You’re the worst gossip ever,” Jester continues, pouting.
“I really don’t know what you want me to say,” Nott says, starting to laugh.
“Ok fine, fine,” Jester says. She lowers her voice again, “Has he said anything about Molly? What does he think about him?”
“Um...I don’t know. I think he likes him? I’m not really sure.”
Jester gives Nott a playful nudge.
“Come on,” she said, “You’re not holding out on me are you? Come o-n…”
“I don’t know, honest. All I know is sometimes he gets real nervous around him, but he gets nervous around everyone. I get nervous around everyone,” Nott says, “Why do you ask?”
“Nott, come on, the tension between those two is ridiculous,” Jester says, her voice dropping to a low mutter as she jabs her thumb towards the back of the cart, “Molly flirts with him all the time, and I know Caleb notices.”
“Does he?!” Nott asks, everything finally clicking into place. She cranes her head behind her, but Jester snaps her fingers.
“Shh, shh, eyes on the road,” she hisses.
“I guess I never noticed,” Nott whispers.
“Well it’s driving me crazy. Those two need to do something about it,” Jester says with an empathetic flourish of her hands, “Problem is I don’t know Caleb very well, and if anyone’s going to be the problem here, it’s him.”
“I don’t even know if Caleb likes men.”
“Really? You’ve never tried to steal like a smutty romance novel from him or something? Does he have any of those on him? We could find out!”
“No! No, I’ve never tried that. I don’t even think he has any books like that right now. We’ve been traveling really light up until now.”
“This is going to be so difficult,” she murmurs, resting her chin on her fist.
“Why don’t we just ask him?” Nott suggests.
“If we just come out and ask him, he’ll get suspicious! If either of them know what we’re up to, then the whole thing will be ruined.”
“I don’t know, if someone asked me what I was into I wouldn’t immediately thing they were trying to set me up with a party member.”
“That’s because you’re you, Nott.”
“What have you guys been whispering about up there?” Fjord calls.
“Just how nice you are, Fjord, and how cute your butt is,” Jester calls back.
“Um, t-thank you?” he replies, the blush obvious in his voice.
Jester smiles. She looks back at Nott.
“Ok, I’ll come up with a plan. You just be ready to move when I tell you,” she says.
“Um, what exactly are you planning to do to them?”
“Well I don’t know yet, that’s why I said I’ll come up with a plan. Don’t worry though. I’m sure it’ll all be fine.”
They reach the next town just as the sun starts to set. As they pass the smallest houses and farms on the outskirts, they see lanterns lining the winding dirt streets are already lit in preparation for the night. There aren’t many people around as they wander past the small stone houses closer to the center of town, and before long they can hear the lively sounds of an accordion and a violin.
“Sounds like a party,” Beau says.
“Let’s park the cart and check it out,” Fjord says, “Oh, and, uh, we should probably leave our weapons here. No sense in scaring anyone.”
“Ok, but I’m still keeping my stick,” Beau says.
They get as close to the source of the sound as the can and stop. The music is clear and bright now. They can hear the voices of dozens of people, talking and laughing. Underneath the steady hum in the air, they can hear footsteps moving in time to the music. Bright torch light flickers just around the corner, and from her position in the driver’s seat, Nott can see the shifting shadows cast by people moving through the large town square ahead.
The group climbs out of the cart as Nott brings it to a halt next to a closed shop. Caleb lingers for a moment, silently instructing Frumpkin to stay put, before following the others. Once the horses are tied up and their weapons are stowed and hidden under blankets, they proceed around the corner and into the lively crowd.
Fjord taps on a woman’s shoulder.
“Hey, what’s goin’ on here?” he asks.
She turns around, opening her mouth to speak, but she stops when she see the group. A look of confusion passes over her face, but she dismisses it and smiles.
“Oh, hello. You’re not from around here, are you?”
“No, ma’am,” Fjord says, “We just arrived.”
“You just caught us in the middle of our harvest festival,” she says, “There’s food on the other side of the square if you all are hungry, and of course we’ve got music and dancing and all that. I think Mr. Carver may have set up some games too. Mostly for the kids, but I’ve seen a few of the adults playing too.”
“Much obliged, ma’am.”
He barely finishes thanking the woman before the group breaks off, making a beeline for the food.
As they break through the crowd they get a better look at the square. Decorations are sparse, and most of the effort is put into elaborate embroidered banners hanging out the windows of nearby shops depicting scenes of village life. Some of the banners are faded and frayed while others look only a few years old. The lanterns in the square are lit, as bright as they can be, and extra torches set up throughout the square provide additional light. A violinist and an accordian player sit on a low stage near the center of the square while villagers dance nearby in the center of a dense crowd of onlookers. A long banquet table standing at the far end of the square holds a wide variety of meat, vegetables, and baked goods. Close to that bean bag toss and bobbing for apples are set up. A human man with graying hair stands by the games, a bucket of sweets in his hands, which he passes out to kids as they score points.
“Oh my god this food looks amazing,” Beau says, staring at the spread on the banquet table. The smell of rosemary, garlic, and thyme mingles with the hearty smell of roasting meat and cooked vegetables. Close to the banquet table it’s enough to overpower the smell of sweat and heat coming from the center of the square.
“Ooh, Jester look,” Beau continues, “Looks like they’ve got some kind of pastry thing over there.”
Jester gasps and immediately rushes to the other end of the table. Next to Beau, Nott’s tiny green hand reaches up and snatches a corn cob out of a basket. Everyone grabs something to eat and sits down on a low wall on the edge of the square. There’s very little conversation as they tear into the only real meal they’ve had since leaving the city.
“Well,” Fjord says as he finishes off a turkey leg, “I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m thinking the dancing over there looks like fun. Anyone want to join me?”
Beau pauses, a contemplative frown on her face.
“Yeah sure, why not,” Yasha says.
“Ok, yeah sounds like fun,” Beau replies.
“I’m going to get more food!” Jester says, springing up and heading for the banquet table.
“Nott?” Fjord asks.
“Uh, I don’t know. I don’t see many me-sized people I could dance with,” she says.
“How about I just put you on my shoulders? I think that could work.”
“Oh ok. Yeah, I guess that sounds like fun.”
“Alright, let’s go.”
As Fjord, Nott, Beau, and Yasha get up and head for the center of the square, Molly stands and looks at Caleb.
“What about you? You comin’?” he asks.
“Oh, no, I’m not a very good dancer,” Caleb says.
“I bet most of the people out there aren’t either. I’m not. Or at least I’ve been told I’m not.”
“Well, it’s...not just that. Crowds make me a bit nervous.”
“Ah, right. Do you just want to watch? I’d hate to leave you all the way over here by yourself.”
“Uh...ok. Yeah, ok, that’s fine.”
“Well come on, then,” Molly says, nodding his head towards the crowd.
They push their way to the front where the rest of the group has congregated, waiting for the current song to end before jumping in. The last few notes play, the dancers stop, the crowd cheers, and there’s a moment of chaos as the musicians start to gear up for the next song. People rush to leave the circle, and new people sweep in to take their places. Fjord scoops up Nott and puts her on his shoulders.
“Ok, let’s go!” he says, hurrying into the center.
“Yasha?” Molly asks, holding his hand out towards his friend.
She accepts without a word. Beau shoots him a dirty look, but he just smirks at her as he and Yasha join the rest of the dancers. Beau follows them and finds a villager to partner up with, leaving Caleb alone at the edge of the crowd.
The musicians start playing again, a jaunty tune that Caleb doesn’t recognize. The older villagers immediately start into a quick, but simple dance that reminds him of the polka. The less experienced dancers catch on soon enough, and soon everyone is spinning and swaying in tight, controlled circles around the square. He walks a little ways around the circle, watching the feet of the dancers and trying to memorize the pattern. For a moment he taps his foot along with the music, but he stops himself as soon as he notices what he’s doing.
“Caleb, what are you doing here all by yourself?”
He jumps a little bit as Jester’s voice floats over the din of music and feet flying across the hard-packed earth of the square. He watches as she comes around the edge of the crowd, two pastries in her hands, and stops next to him.
“Oh, um, I’m not really one for dancing,” he replies.
“Even Nott’s dancing though, look,” she says.
She points to the other side of the circle at Fjord and Nott. His movements are completely out of sync with the rest of the villagers due to his lack of a conventional dance partner, but he’s smiling, and despite her precarious position, Nott seems to be enjoying herself too. Beneath her mask, her eyes betray a broad grin.
The musicians whoop and holler as the first stanza of the song comes to an end. The whole circle shifts and people start changing partners. Fjord panics as a woman comes spinning towards him and is forced to stop when she realizes her new partner still has his old one. Fjord looks over at Molly as the tiefling clumsily passes Yasha off to one of the villagers.
“Here, Molly, catch!” he calls.
“Whoa, whoa, wait wait wait!” Nott cries as Fjord lifts her off his shoulders.
Her protests go ignored as Fjord tosses her into the air. Caleb’s breath catches in his throat as his friend arcs upward, arms flailing, but Molly reaches up and snatches her out of the air before she can hit the ground. The movement almost throws him off balance, but he recovers long enough to keep moving the circle of dancers along.
“I gotcha, I gotcha, relax,” he says.
There’s a bit of a back up in the dance line, and almost everyone gets off time, but as soon as Nott is sitting securely on Molly’s shoulders, everyone finds their rhythm again. Some of the dancers laugh at the antics of the newcomers, others eye them with suspicion and annoyance. Jester laughs and takes a bite out of one of her pastries.
“I’m not sure I would call that dancing so much as flailing,” Caleb says.
“Well it’s more than you’re doing,” Jester says.
“You’re not dancing either.”
“Well I was going to , but I’m still hungry. Here, do you want some?”
She holds the untouched pastry out towards him.
“No, I’m alright, but thank you,” he says.
Jester shrugs and takes another bite. They watch the flickering shadows cast by the torches as the dancers continue to shift around the circle. Some villagers tag out and let new people in, spinning in and out of the group without missing so much as a step. The musicians keep playing, and the smiles on their faces only grow as the song continues. The next switch goes about as well as the first when Molly realizes he can’t just throw Nott at some random villager. He ducks out of the way and switches place with the couple in front of him as Fjord’s partner moves forward in the order. Nott’s hands move awkwardly around Molly’s head, trying to find something to hold onto as he weaves around the villagers. Eventually she grabs onto his horns, which only makes him laugh.
“I’m not sure how well this is working,” Nott says.
“Well we haven’t been knocked over and no one’s thrown any food at us, so I think this is working perfectly,” Molly says.
“Do people often thrown food at these things?”
“Depends on the party.”
Nott looks up and spots Jester and Caleb watching from the sidelines. She catches Jester’s eye and they both glance towards the musicians as the stanza starts to wind down again. A mischievous smile creeps up Jester’s face, and she tucks her pastries into the side pockets of her backpack. She looks at Molly.
“Molly, throw Nott to me!” she calls.
“Oh no. Um, Molly-” Nott starts.
“I’ll catch you, Nott, don’t worry about it!” Jester says, holding her arms up and jerking her head towards Caleb.
Nott narrows her eyes in confusion before she remembers their earlier conversation.
“Oh! Oh, uh, yeah ok!” she says, “Go for it!”
The last few notes of the stanza play. Molly picks Nott up off his shoulders and tosses her out towards the crowd. Jester pitches forward, and for a moment time seems to slow down. Her hands find Caleb’s back, and she shoves him towards the dance circle. Nott’s eyes widen and she starts screaming as she realizes there’s no longer anyone waiting to catch her. Molly freezes for a moment as he realizes he just threw a goblin at a crowd of strangers. Caleb shouts in surprise as he loses his footing and stumbles forward. He locks eyes with Molly and there passes a moment of mutual understanding that they’ve both been had. As Nott tumbles across the ground into the legs of several onlookers, Caleb catches Molly’s shoulders, barely avoiding knocking the tiefling over, and the two of them are swept back up in the swirl of dancers.
“Hey, are you alright?” Molly asks, grabbing onto Caleb’s waist and pulling him out of range of the couple behind them.
“Scheiẞe, Jester, you little-!” Caleb exclaims, glancing behind him before realizing he can’t see her or Nott anymore, “Sorry, yes, I’m fine.”
“You know I was hoping I’d be able to coax you out here before the night was over, but this isn’t quite what I had in mind,” Molly says, “Also, we’re going to get walked right into if you don’t start moving your feet.”
“I don’t know this dance,” Caleb says, his eyes darting across the other dancers, wondering just how poor form it would be to bail in the middle of this. He takes a breath and looks down at his feet, trying to remember how the steps went.
“I’m pretty sure as long as we keep time it’s not going to matter,” Molly says. He takes one of Caleb’s hands still in a death grip on his shoulders and pries it off, holding it gently but firmly in his own, “Though fifty percent of your hands landed where they’re supposed to be, so that’s a good start.”
“Great, we can do twenty-five percent of a dance.”
“Hey, you could have ended up with worse partners. Yasha stepped on me twice.”
That coaxes a laugh out of Caleb.
“Yes, I can only imagine how it would have gone if Jester pushed me into her.”
“Buffoonery. Carnage. The children would need years of therapy to recover from the sight of it.”
“Oh, and you’re so much better. We’re completely off time now,” he says.
“Yeah, you guys suck,” comes a familiar voice ahead of them.
Caleb peers around Molly’s head and sees Beau and Yasha. Molly glances over.
“Beau, how the hell did you end up in front of me?” he asks.
“My partner tagged out,” Yasha says.
Beau shrugs and returns Molly’s earlier smirk.
“Molly, you’re doing a lousy job of showing your partner the moves,” she says.
“Do you want to take him?” Molly asks.
“Nah, I think I like my partner,” Beau says.
Molly looks over at Yasha. She shrugs, but she wears the slightest smile. Molly turns back to Caleb.
“Sorry. You’re stuck with me.”
“Well, like you said,” Caleb said, “There are worse partners.”
“Consider me flattered.”
“I-...well I just meant…”
“I know what you meant,” he says.
For a moment they fall silent, trying to find the beat again. Caleb fumbles a bit but eventually he remembers how the villagers were dancing and figures out where to put his feet. He gives Molly a few corrections on his form, and the two of them manage to get a rhythm going.
“‘Not a good dancer’ my ass,” Molly says.
Caleb just shrugs, trying not to look too happy about the complement.
“By the way, I’m really sorry about this. Do you need me to pummel Jester when this is over?” Molly asks.
“Normally I’d say yes, but...it’s alright,” Caleb says, “This isn’t the most uncomfortable situation I’ve ever been in.”
“Don’t tell me you’re having fun. If you have fun, she wins.”
“Well maybe I can let her have this one. Just this once.”
Molly smiles and opens his mouth to speak, but is interrupted as the music stops and the dancers finally come to a stop with it. Couples start to seperate and the crowd claps and cheers for the musicians. Caleb is distracted for a moment by the musicians taking cheeky mock bows before he realizes he’s still holding onto Molly. A rush of warmth flows through his face and he lets go.
“Oh, shit,” he says with a start, “You threw Nott at a bunch of people.”
They break away from the circle and head back to the edge of the crowd where they last saw Jester and Nott. The crowd still seems a little miffed and more thinned out than they left it, but those who remain seem to have already forgotten about the goblin bowling into their feet. Nott stands next to Jester, nibbling on a pastry.
“Nott are you alright?” Caleb says.
“I’m so sorry. I really thought Jester was going to catch you,” Molly says.
“It’s ok, I’m alright, really,” Nott says, “It was kind of funny actually.”
“Oh it was hilarious!” Jester says, “This old guy got really pissed and said something about demons plaguing the village.”
“Yes I’m sure you got a good laugh,” Caleb says.
“I’m sorry, Caleb, I didn’t mean to freak you out. I just wanted you to have a little fun.”
“What, no apology for me?” Molly asks.
“Oh shut up, I know you were having fun,” Jester says.
“You’re right, I was.”
Caleb takes a breath.
“Well, it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be, so I’ll forgive you this one time,” he says, “but don’t do it again.”
“You got it, no more shoving,” Jester says, nodding her head and giving Caleb a comically serious frown. She glances behind them and watches as some of the dancers start heading for the refreshments table. She grabs Nott’s hand.
“Nott, come on, let’s see if they have any donuts,” she says.
Nott barely has time to agree before she’s whisked off into the crowd. Molly watches them go, shaking his head. He glances over at Caleb.
“So have you figured it out yet?” he asks.
“Figured what out? That Jester has no tact?”
“Jester has no tact, and she pushed you into me. Specifically.”
“She...oh. Oh, alright.”
Caleb’s face goes red all over again. He takes a breath, trying to will it away.
“I heard them talking about us on the road while you were asleep,” Molly says, “She and Nott aren’t exactly subtle.”
“No, not at all,” Caleb agrees.
“So here’s what I’m thinking. We could just tell them to knock it off, but telling them to stop wouldn’t be nearly as effective as conveniently disappearing together, thus making them believe their little stunt worked, and we’ve suddenly acknowledged our burning mutual lust for each other. Plus, messing with them is more fun, and, I think, entirely warranted.”
“Oh, yes, I agree.”
“I think...eh, maybe an hour? I think that’ll be enough.”
“Probably, but that gives them more time to find and spy on us, which you know they will try to do.”
“It won’t matter. They’ll be on us within thirty minutes.”
“I don’t know, I think we can cover our tracks better than that.”
“Five gold says you’re wrong.”
Caleb pauses and taps his chin with his finger.
“Alright, you’re on,” he says.
He looks back out at the crowd, no sign of either Jester or Nott.
“Alright, they’re not looking, let’s go,” Caleb says.
“Wait, wait, hang on,” Molly says, putting his hand on Caleb’s shoulder.
They pause and watch the crowd. A second later Nott’s head peeks out from between two tall half-elves. Her eyes immediately land on Caleb and Molly. Molly smiles and gives her a cheeky wave. She immediately darts back into the crowd.
Molly grabs Caleb’s hand and whips around, pulling him into the crowd and away from the festival.
“Your time started thirty seconds ago, by the way,” Caleb says.
“Oh, I know.”
They turn down an empty street, passing out of the flickering torch-light and into the dim, steady glow of the lanterns. The sounds of the crowd are muffled by the buildings, and the heat of the square is all but gone. Despite the starlight above and the houses on either side, the wide empty street feels like a deep cave. Molly releases Caleb’s hand and straightens his coat.
“We have at least five minutes to ourselves, maybe a little more, but we should hustle in case we’re both wrong,” Molly says.
“I’m sure they’ll expect us to go somewhere kind of dark and quiet where no one’s going to stumble across us accidentally, which would be closer to the shopping district and the mayor’s office, so let’s try going in the other direction,” Caleb says.
“Sounds good to me.”
They turn down a smaller side street, heading towards the cluster of nicer houses adjacent to the downtown area. As they walk the lanterns become fewer and further between, replaced instead by the glow of candles in windows. Sometimes a figure will stir inside, but the street is quiet. In the distance the music is faint, and only the occasional bout of cheering can be heard clearly.
“So, since it’s your money riding on us being sneaky, I’m going to give you a fighting chance, and let you pick where we hide,” Molly says, “Though I would prefer it if we didn’t hide in any barrels.”
“How likely are we to get arrested if we climb onto someone’s roof, do you think?” Caleb asks.
“Alright, so that’s out.”
They wander further down the street, taking random turns, but not straying so far from the town square that they couldn’t find their way back. Before long they come across an empty square, a fourth the size of the town square, populated by small shops. At the center is a simple stone well. Caleb scans the square and his eyes eventually land on a low wall jutting out the side of a large tavern. The windows of the tavern are dark, and a sign hanging on the door reads “closed for festival.”
“Over there,” he whispers.
They skirt around the well and duck down behind the wall among the empty supply crates and broken chairs discarded by the tavern. Molly sits down and watches as Caleb peers over the top of the wall.
“I think this is good,” he says, “Although I am tempted to put some warding down in the square so we’ll know if they’ve followed us.”
“How long would that take?” Molly asks.
“Not long. Just a minute or so.”
“Alright, sounds like a plan. Make sure you get the far edges by the buildings.”
Caleb nods and climbs back over the wall and into the square. Molly can’t help but laugh a bit to himself as the absurdity of what they’re doing hits him. He peeks over the top of the wall and watches Caleb remove the spool of wire from his coat and string it across any side streets leading into the square. With a snap of his fingers, each piece of wire disappears, and he heads back to the wall.
“That should do it,” he says, sitting down and putting the wire away.
“We’ve got about fifteen minutes until they show up, I think,” Molly says, “give or take. And once they find us, they’ll probably run off, which means we have forty-five minutes to kill. Either we’re going to have to find something to talk about, or we’ll have to make up some kind of game to play.”
“You don’t have cards or anything like that?”
“I have tarot cards. Little hard to play poker with those.”
“You should have done some readings at the festival. We could have made some money.”
“Eh, it’s alright. I’m sure this town is being terrorized by some kind of monster we haven’t heard about yet. Those always pay well.”
“Maybe we’ll find it. Two people alone in the dark with no one else around.”
“Well, if we get eaten, it’s been a pleasure knowing you, Caleb.”
He shakes Caleb’s hand and smiles. They lean back against the wall and fall silent. Somewhere by the well crickets chirp. Another cheer echoes off the buildings, faint like the voice of a spectre. Caleb glances down at Molly’s coat and the finely embroidered symbols that cover it. He recognizes a few, but most are foreign to him, and he wonders if they’re just for decoration or if together they actually mean something. He takes a breath and looks back out at the buildings and then up at the night sky.
“Hey Caleb?” Molly asks, startling Caleb out of his thoughts.
Caleb frowns and sits up, scanning the area.
“Did he not follow us?”
He looks over at the crates, at an empty wagon parked on the street, over the wall and back at the square. No sign of the cat.
“Oh no, that’s right,” Caleb hisses, “I left him in our cart. Shit. ”
“I told you. Thirty minutes. Half of which will be spent remembering that the cat is literally psychically linked to you,” he says.
“I know, I know,” Molly continues, “Ok, in the interest of fairness, how about you owe me a favor, and we'll call it even.”
“I could still shoo Frumpkin away as soon as he’s in range.”
“Oh come on, where’s the fun in that? We still don’t know if they’re going to figure it out.”
They freeze when they hear a soft scritch directly in front of them. A broken crate wobbles, and they both tense. Molly instinctively reaches for a sword that isn’t there, while Caleb’s hands go for his pockets. A second later a bright mrrrup? comes out of the darkness, and Frumpkin jumps out from behind a pile of junk. Caleb breathes a sigh of relief.
“You silly cat,” he whispers, reaching out and scratching Frumpkin behind the ears.
Caleb and Molly look back as Jester’s voice carries through the square. Molly sits up just high enough to peer over the wall, then ducks back down.
“They’re on the other side,” he whispers.
“Nott, I can’t find him. He just ran down this street and disappeared,” Jester says.
“Shh, what if they’re close?” Nott whispers.
“What, like in the well?” Jester asks sarcastically.
“No not in the well, why would they be down there?”
“Jester, he’s not coming back.”
“Well what are we supposed to do now? We’ve lost our guide cat.”
“Well...I don’t know. They both disappeared, isn’t that proof enough that it worked? And besides, if they see us, they’re not going to be happy.”
“No I guess not,” she says. She pauses, “Oh but Nott, what if Frumpkin isn’t looking for Caleb at all? What if he got confused and now we’ve just lost him?”
“Oh no, I didn’t think about that.”
“And if we run into Caleb and Molly we can just say Frumpkin got away and we were looking for him. Which is true, since we don’t know where he went.”
“I guess so.”
Caleb feels a little ping in the back of his mind as Jester and Nott walk into the square. He looks down at Frumpkin, quietly snaps his fingers, and points towards the square. The cat obeys, jumping onto the low wall and down onto the street. They hear Jester gasp.
“Frumpkins! There you are!” she coos.
“Wait, if he came back, then where’s Caleb? And Molly?” Nott asks.
“Frumpy did you find them? Hm? Did you find them? Were they making out?”
“Jester, what if they’re in the square? If they’re here, they definitely heard us.”
“I’m so tempted to jump out and scare them,” Caleb whispers.
“Shh,” Molly hisses, stifling a laugh.
“Let’s just go,” Nott continues, “They’ll come back soon enough.”
“Oh, alright,” Jester says, “but if they run away together or get eaten by some kind of monster, don’t blame me.”
They wait until Jester and Nott’s footsteps fade away before peering over the wall. The square is empty again. No one but the two of them and the crickets. Caleb and Molly glance at each other, smiles breaking on their faces before they both burst out laughing. Molly sighs.
“They came so close,” he laughs.
“You know, technically I won,” Caleb says, “They didn’t actually find us.”
“Well they might have if you hadn’t sent Frumpkin back out. They made it to the square.”
“Yes, but they never actually saw us, therefore I think I won this one.”
“No, no, you cheated.”
“I did not!”
“You definitely did.”
“Ok fine, let’s call it a draw then. We were both a little right and a little wrong, so how about we just owe each other favors now.”
“Alright, I can agree to that.”
They shake hands and stand up, the need for stealth gone.
“Well, what should we do now?” Molly asks, “It hasn’t even been half an hour yet.”
“Well we could go for a walk I suppose. I’m very interested in those symbols stitched into your coat, there,” Caleb says, “Perhaps you can tell me what they mean.”
“Alright, I think I can do that.”
“Is that going to cost me my favor?”
“No. No, save that for a rainy day,” Molly says with a wink.
They walk out of the square and down another small street. They walk a wide circle around the center of town, talking about magic, symbols, and myths, the names of gods, old and new, and the surrounding kingdoms they belong to. Eventually their conversation shifts to folk tales and legends. Caleb tells the story of a legendary hero well known in the Zemni Fields, one who supposedly held a flooding river back with their bare hands. Molly reciprocates with a folk tale he learned while traveling with the carnival about a foolish king who traded half his kingdom to a wizard for a fake magic ring. As they finish their stories, they realize they’ve made a complete loop back to the square with the well. Down one of the adjacent streets, they see a small crowd of people who appear to be leaving the festival. In the distance the sound of the music has stopped.
“I guess that’s our cue,” Molly says, “When the others inevitably ask where we were, I think we should just say something completely outlandish.”
“Like we got attacked by hill giants or something like that?”
“Exactly. Very small hill giants that no one noticed but us.”
“So of course we had to take care of them, and you know there was just no time to tell anyone else.”
“Yes, it was a good thing we were here.”
They laugh and start walking back towards the main square. As they leave the smaller square, Molly stops.
“So I’m about to look like a hypocrite since I told you to save your favor for a rainy day, but I think I’m going to call mine in now,” he says.
Caleb stops, glancing down at the ground suddenly.
“Um, sure, what is it?” he asks.
“Nothing serious, I just want to do this.”
Caleb tenses in surprise as Molly leans in, his hand gently cupping Caleb’s jaw. He plants a quick kiss on Caleb’s cheek and releases him.
“Oh,” Caleb says, unsure of what else to say, “Ah...was that it?”
“Don’t sound so disappointed.”
Caleb tries to give him a withering glare, but he can’t help but smile. The sounds of footsteps and chatter from villagers going home for the night grow louder, echoing off the stone buildings. He puts his hands in his pockets, and the two of them disappear back into the din.