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Dream of Starlight on Still Water

Chapter Text

Location: Somewhere in the Featherdale region of the Dalelands

 

Dream dashed ahead of the Traveler caravan, as much to avoid getting road dust in her fur as to breath in the fresh scents of the meadow and explore where they would set up camp, just outside the settlement. Her tail whipped back and forth with excitement. The river nearby flowed deep and clear, and the summer grass and wildflowers grew half as high as a wagon axle and smelled of clean earth. A lucky sign for their troupe, it must have been at least two or three months since the clearing was last occupied. They should be well-received.

The first of the brightly colored wagons left the road, pulled by a dappled horse with Leader Guaril’s son Chal holding the reins. He waved as she returned to her family’s wagon. The human youth and Dream had been playmates and best friends ever since she was a cub and her parents joined the troupe. Her father, Rain and mother, Ripple, had wished to continue their travels away from the True World, but with the added safety afforded by traveling with the troupe.

But seventeen years later, Dream was almost an adult. After the troupe made camp and hosted the people of this settlement for trade and entertainment, their next destination was the Gathering of Travelers, where Chal hoped to find a mate now that he was of age. Dream’s family would say goodbye to their Traveler friends, and travel as a three tabaxi Hunt, roaming and exploring wherever their curiosity led.

Dream wove back through the trees bordering the road to the last of the twelve wagons, where Rain walked alongside the black mare pulling their wagon. Unlike her father whose dark rosette pattern stood out handsomely against his light brown fur, Dream’s fur was almost as dark as the mare’s, the pattern of spots noticeable only in sunlight.

Dream waited until the wagon had almost passed her, then leapt onto the roof and lay on top. She hung her head over the open back to regard her mother. Ripple carefully stowed the finely made lute she’d brought with her from Maztika in its case, humming the tune from a ballad she was still composing. Dream waited until her mother secured the lid, then swung into the wagon.

Ripple nimbly sidestepped Dream’s pounce just as the wagon lurched and Dream almost landed on her backside. Ignoring her daughter’s chagrin, Ripple smoothed her sleek fur, almost as dark as Dream’s. “Would you prefer to help set up camp, or go into town with me and Guaril to announce the troupe’s arrival?”

“Are you kidding? A new town, new people?” Guaril was a good leader, everyone worked together like a well-rehearsed acrobatics act and could put up or take down camp in a couple of hours. Predictable, organized, and boring.

“Your father might need your help. This could be his last attempt to out-trade our friends.” Ripple’s ears twitched with humor.

By all measures important to her tabaxi family, Rain always outsold the other Travelers in the troupe, collecting stories, fascinating trinkets, and the occasional magical item. Their Traveler companions – humans plus one halfling and two dwarfs – were satisfied to receive silver or gold coins in trade. Not that coins weren’t useful, but Ripple earned enough of those with her music.

“I’ll help him when we get back,” promised Dream. The wagon came to a stop, and Dream dropped lightly to the ground. The wagons had come to a stop in a circle that would define the Travelers’ personal space. Outside the circle, Travelers would perform on an improvised stage, and sell their crafts on folding tables. Just like every other camp.

Ripple climbed out of the wagon gracefully, carrying the somewhat battered lute she favored for bad weather and uncertain situations, the one she’d been teaching her daughter to play. Ripple insisted that Dream had natural talent if she would only apply herself. Although Dream knew the basics and could play a reasonable accompaniment, the world was simply too full of distractions far more interesting than practice.

Rain finished unhitching the mare just as Guaril and Chal joined them.

“A Traveler’s path is made by walking, and by walking he makes a path,” said Guaril, reciting a Traveler proverb. “Ready?” Dream noticed a new crop of gray hair among the black on his head. In her opinion the hair on their heads was a human’s best feature.

Ripple said, “Dream wishes to go with us.” She didn’t ask for permission, nor did she assume Guaril would agree.

“Does she now.” Guaril folded his arms, regarding Dream and his son, and for a moment Dream thought he would tell her to stay behind. “The two of you watch each other’s back and stay out of trouble.”

Dream tried to catch Chal’s eye and share a smirk, but he ignored her and bowed to his father, serious and respectful. “Yes sir.”

The walk to the Settlement, known as Pinebrooke, didn’t take long. As they crossed the outskirts the buzz over newcomers rose immediately and grew, following their relaxed pace along the house and business-lined road, toward the town center. Travelers were usually welcome, but Dream observed individual folk surreptitiously, watching for any signs of hostility or disapproval. Soon they reached the heart of Pinebrooke, the market square where townsfolk were already gathering.

Ripple began playing a well-known dance tune on her lute and climbed up on a platform with Guaril.

Dream and Chal stepped back into the growing crowd of mostly humans. Some swayed with the music. She heard remarks speculating about the performer – her mother’s – race. Behind her, a little human girl’s voice said, “Momma, that Traveler has a tail!” Dream swept her tail in close against her leg and stepped away before the child grabbed hold of it.

Ripple finished the dance tune and transitioned into the first verse of a traditional sing-along. When the people around her took up the refrain without the need for Dream and Chal’s voices for encouragement, Dream knew their Traveler Troupe would be welcome here.

Ripple led the refrain twice after the last verse, and Guaril filled the rapt quiet that followed with his voice. “Dearest friends, old and new yet to be met, I thank you for your welcome. Our small group of wanderers invite you all to visit us and share our hospitality this evening and tomorrow.” And because every Traveler knew that residential folk preferred temporary guests, he added, “We shall take our leave from your lovely home the day after.”

The crowd broke into chattering groups of three or four, while others hurried off to spread the juicy news to their neighbors. So far, so good. Now that Guaril had made the announcement, he would return to camp with Dream’s mother. She and Chal had a little time to explore.

“Come on,” said Chal.

“Where first?” Dream had her eyes on a door with the enticing stink of stale beer and clandestine meetings. Must be the local pub, where if she were lucky she might find an old drunk blabbering stories and gossip.

“An apothecary,” said Chal. “We’re out of medicine-grade spirits, and…”

Dream only half-listened as Chal recited the list his mother Tasaria had given him. Here they were in a large settlement that was probably completely ordinary, except that it was new to her. And instead of exploring, they had errands to run.

Dream was about to suggest they split up when her hackles rose and she turned to see a human woman with long dark hair watching them with more than idle curiosity. Instead of looking away, she approached them.

“Good day.” The woman’s symmetric features made her quite attractive by human standards of beauty and Dream guessed her age close to her own. She wore leather armor and a bow slung over her long cloak. She moved with a feral grace. “Did I overhear you say you were looking for an apothecary?”

“Yes, thank you,” replied Chal. “Would you be so kind as to point us in the right direction?”

“I’ll show you.” She reached out a gloved hand, eyes fixed on his face, and moved quite close to him. “My name is Kamali, a pleasure to meet you.”

“I’m Chal, and this is Dream,” he said, clasping Kamali’s hand briefly then stepping back.

Kamali seemed surprised by Chal’s reaction and turned to Dream, offering her hand. “A strange name, Dream. Are you tabaxi?”

Dream accepted her hand, claws retracted. “I am. My full name is Dream of Starlight on Still Water.” Up close, Dream noticed blades sheathed at Kamali’s hips. Dream’s curiosity peaked. She had to know more about this strange human.

Kamali released Dream’s hand. “Follow me.”

Dream and Chal followed her down a side street, then Kamali ducked down an empty, shadowed alley and opened a door halfway down. Chal hesitated. “I don’t like this,” he said.

Senses alert, Dream swiveled her ears, and opened her mouth to taste the air, whiskers back. The shadows held no danger that she could see, smell, or hear. Only the strong sweet scents of lavender and mint, and the tang of darker herbs wafted from the open door. “Smells like an apothecary.”

“Best one in town,” said Kamali, stepping inside. “Serving exclusive clientele only.”

Dream and Chal paused at the threshold. Inside was the most cluttered and stocked potions shop Dream had ever seen. Chal exhaled with delight and hurried in, all caution forgotten. In the corner sat an elderly woman Dream didn’t notice until she spoke.

“Introduce your guests, Kamali.”

“Grandmother, this is Dream and Chal, from the Traveler troupe,” said Kamali. From her tone, Dream was not certain if Grandmother was her relationship to their guide or her title.

While Chal and the old woman inspected the contents of jars, discussed potion recipes, and haggled, Dream perused the prepared potions. In addition to the usual health potions and temporary enhancements, she found poisons. What kind of a shop was this?

“Did you travel all this way from Maztica?” asked Kamali. “What’s it like there?”

Her round human pupils were slightly dilated, as curious about Dream as she was about her. “I was born in Faerun. My parents left Maztica before I was born, that was my mother playing in the square. Have you always lived here?”

“I’m what you might call a regular visitor. Father’s business brings us here from time to time,” said Kamali.

Merchants usually didn’t associate with Travelers, and their daughters usually wore fancy dresses and expected to be waited upon by those unlucky enough to share the road. “What is there here, of interest to visitors?”

Kamali grinned. “The chateau on the hill an hour’s walk from Pinebrooke is said to be haunted, with great treasure chests beneath, filled with gold. Count Sarnusk lives there and never leaves, and even though he’s older than Pinebrooke they say he doesn’t age. According to gossip his heir, his great-great nephew, will never inherit.”

Dream’s tail swished. She didn’t care about gold, but Kamali had her interest at haunted chateau. “Have you ever been inside?”

“Nobody gets in without an invitation. The chateau is guarded by fifty soldiers split into two shifts. Today, the most interesting thing in Pinebrooke is your troupe.” Kamali didn’t even sound disappointed.

“Dream,” Chal interrupted. He held a large cloth-wrapped package with both hands. Dream regarded the package. It seemed like an excessive quantity of alchemical supplies. “Can we afford all that?”

The old woman handed a scrap of folded parchment to Kamali. “Here is a list of items Chal has agreed to send back with you as the remainder of my payment.” She turned to Dream. “I understand your father has some skill in identifying the purpose of magical items. I want him to take a look at this.” She held out a thick circle of silver, too large to be a bracelet, too small to be a necklace or crown.

Her father would be thrilled by the challenge, and he might even let Dream help him investigate. She unsheathed the claws of her right hand and carefully took the circlet without letting the metal touch her skin, but she felt the prickle of magic along her finger-pads anyway. The old woman chuckled and held open a cloth bag. Dream dropped it in and accepted the bag. “Rain will be happy to oblige,” said Dream. “What do you know about it?”

The old woman shrugged. “Nothing. I found it... left behind in my shop.”

“Thanks again,” said Chal. Turning to Dream he quoted another Traveler saying, “The first step is a journey’s greatest delight.”

Chal was getting to be more like his father every day. Dream followed him out of the shop, and they made their way back to the Traveler camp accompanied by their new friend, Kamali.

Chapter Text

The scent of roasting deer, shot by one of the Traveler dwarfs earlier that day, greeted them as they neared camp. Everything appeared to be set up already, the trading tables, the stage, the fire pit where the venison was cooking. A few townsfolk had arrived early, to be entertained by two apprentice jugglers.

Dream and Kamali followed Chal to his wagon and stood by as his mother opened the package. Clearly impressed by the contents, Tasaria pursed her lips and said, “The coins I sent with you weren’t enough to pay for all this.”

Chal said, “The woman at the shop sent her granddaughter with a list of items she wanted in trade in addition to the coin.” Chal's face fell. Dream knew her friend was proud of the trade he’d negotiated and disappointed by his mother’s reaction.

“I’m Kamali, it’s good to meet you.” She handed over the parchment.

Chal said, “We have everything on the list.”

Tasaria shifted uncomfortably as she looked over the parchment, then spoke to Kamali. “Travelers do not make unfair trades, young woman. This trade disproportionately benefits us. I cannot accept.”

Chal flushed. “But mother-“

Kamali interrupted, her tone persuasive. “There is more. Grandmother sent a magic item for Dream’s father to decipher. This service is very valuable to her.”

“I see.” Chal’s mother still looked unconvinced. “If I know Rain, he’d pay you for the opportunity to study a new magical device. But I will accept the trade, this time.” Tasaria gathered together a much smaller package and presented it to Kamali.

All four of them bowed, acknowledging the agreement. Then Chal and his mother said in unison, “I must prepare.” Chal hurried off mumbling something about helping his father, and his mother ducked between her wagon and the next.

“Let’s find my father,” said Dream.

She led Kamali around the circle of wagons to her own, where Rain was still arranging his wares and deciding what to put on the table for sale. Objects he’d chosen so far ranged from simple and practical to strange and fantastic. “Father, this is Kamali.”

“Please call me Rain.” He bowed deeply, then said, “Dream, I’m glad you’re here. You’re so much better than I at deciding what may interest our guests.”

“I will. But first-“ Dream dropped the cloth bag with the unknown magical item on the table. “Kamali’s grandmother needs you to investigate what this does – as partial payment for a trade Chal negotiated for the troupe. She said she found it in her shop.”

Rain’s chest rumbled with pleasure, and he eagerly opened the bag and tipped the silver circle onto the table. He crouched and stared at it for a moment, turned it over using his claws, and examined the tiny runes scratched into the edges. His whiskers drooped.

“What’s wrong?” asked Dream. Surely he could figure out what the ring was.

Kamali said, “How long will it take to analyze?”

“I already know what it does.” Rain looked up at Dream and seemed to regain a fraction of his enthusiasm for her sake. “They function in linked pairs. I came across a set once before, in the True World. Let’s see if I can make it work.”

He selected three items of about the same height. A charmed cup that turned any liquid it contained into pure water. A beautifully carved wooden box with no magical properties at all, and an air-tight tin can. He balanced the silver circlet on top of these items so that the area beneath the circle was open. “It doesn’t matter what you use to prop it up,” said Rain, “just that there is space above and below the circle.”

He touched the pads of his forefingers to a rune on each side of the ring, then to another two runes. The circle defined by the inside of the ring went black, and a lump of dirt fell from it to land on the table.

Kamali gasped. “What happened? What am I seeing?”

Rain’s whiskers perked toward Dream. He said, “What do you think?”

Dream considered. “You said linked pairs. Are we seeing what’s on the other side of this ring’s twin?”

Rain’s chest rumbled again with approval.

“The dirt on the table, the darkness,” said Kamali, “The other ring could be buried somewhere.” She reached out to put her hand through the ring.

“No!” Rain’s hand darted out and grabbed Kamali’s by the wrist. “Wait. Don’t touch.” He ducked into their wagon and emerged with a broken leather strap from a halter he’d recently mended. He held the strap by one end and lowered it into the center of the black ring where it disappeared. He stopped half-way. “Now I’m going to pull it out.” Rain lifted the strap, but the part that had disappeared was permanently gone.

Kamali went pale.

“She could have lost her hand,” said Dream.

Rain dropped the remaining piece of leather over the circle, and it was gone. “With the matching circle this is a dangerous but useful tool that could be used to send messages, or transport small objects. By itself, it’s just dangerous.” He touched another pair of runes on the circle’s edge to disengage the magic, then put it back in the bag and handed it to Kamali. “Warn your grandmother to be careful.”

Before Dream cleaned the table, Kamali scooped up the dirt that had come through the circle and added it to the bag. She seemed in no hurry to leave, and together they helped Rain select which pieces to display for sale.

More townspeople ventured into the meadow as the sun dipped lower on the horizon. Dream accompanied Kamali to watch Chal narrate a play while other members of their troupe acted it out. It had been a long time since Dream had really listened and watched the routine performance. Chal was almost as good as his father at projecting his voice and infusing it with emotion. She clapped along with Kamali when it ended. The sun had dipped below the horizon, and when Dream got up to walk the perimeter, Kamali joined her.

“So, you and Chal… are you a couple?” asked Kamali.

“What?” Dream sputtered. Then she saw how Kamali looked back at Chal. “No. Not at all. He’s more like a sibling. Besides, he’s human and I’m--”

“Tabaxi?”

“Female,” said Dream. She stopped walking and stared at the human woman, ears forward.

“Oh.” Kamali blinked. “Ooooh. I thought… never mind. Do you have a talent, do you perform?”

Dream resumed her walk, scanning the darkness around camp with all her senses. River and forest on one side, the road and farmland on the other. Sometimes townspeople saw a Traveler troupe’s presence as an opportunity to take revenge on an old rival or settle a feud. A townsperson would be murdered or robbed, and the troupe blamed for it. “In a Traveler troupe, each of us fills in as we are able. I help with costumes and props in some of Guaril’s plays. I help with the hunting when we camp between settlements. I help my parents and they teach me their skills.” Dream avoided mentioning that she did perform sometimes, but only for other Travelers.

“And you keep your camp secure,” said Kamali.

This human was exceptionally observant. Dream completed her first circuit of the night, and inhaled. “Chal’s mother will be serving roast venison. Are you hungry?”

“I should be getting back to Grandmother,” said Kamali, her voice thick with regret. “And Father will want to know what I’ve been doing.”

“Of course,” said Dream. She liked Kamali, and a female companion close to her own age was a pleasant change, even though her friendship was temporary. “Will you come back tomorrow? You could bring your father.”

Kamali swallowed. “I’m pretty sure he’ll be here.”

After she left the remainder of the evening was unremarkable. Dream found the retired mayor passed out among the trees where he had apparently gone to relieve himself after drinking several pints of beer. Arrangements were made to discreetly carry him home on a pallet. Soon after, Dream interrupted a married couple – each married to someone else – drunkenly disrobing in the farmer’s field. By midnight, Guaril had sent everyone home. Dream took a blanket from the wagon and settled in to sleep next to the fire in the inner circle of wagons, near Chal.

Chal whispered, “I’ll miss you when you and your parents go off on your own.”

Except for meeting Kamali, this settlement was no different than the last boring settlement, and the one before that. Dream could not wait to set off on their own, and yet she really did love Chal as a brother. “I’ll miss you too.”

The next morning, Kamali was not among the townsfolk that filtered into camp -- mostly parents with young children who had not stayed late the night before. Dream helped supervise the children -- residents and Traveler -- playing together, mindful of their apparent fascination with her tail. Just because they didn’t have tails of their own was no reason to allow them to abuse hers.

The morning and afternoon crowds had gone home and the evening crowd assembled, but Kamali still had not returned. Dream was kept busy helping with the costumes for another of Guaril’s plays, when an unusual group of humans entered camp. Six riders on horseback, five wearing matching armor and weapons and the sixth a decade or so younger than Kamali’s father and dressed in regal finery. The uniformed riders dismounted, and two assisted the nobleman off his horse. The townspeople kept their distance.

Guaril approached the newcomers, poised as usual, and bowed deeply. “Welcome to our humble camp. My name is Guaril, the leader of this troupe. Please partake of what modest food and entertainment we can offer.”

Quieter words were exchanged, but Dream was engaged in final preparations for the play and couldn’t listen. When Guaril began reciting the introduction, the nobleman occupied the fancy chair from Guaril’s wagon in front of the improvised stage, surrounded by his five guards, all standing. The townsfolk -- who would otherwise be sitting on blankets and cushions spread on the ground -- formed a semi-circle several feet back.

The play was one of the troupe’s favorite productions, a comedy of mistaken identity involving a nearly constant flow of costume changes and adjustments. Dream deftly prepared her Traveler friends for their roles, nimbly navigating buttons and ties, her fingers fast and dexterous. Ripple and the other musicians performed their accompaniments without missing a note, and despite the somber demeanor of the noble audience, the townspeople laughed, cheered, and gasped in all the right places. After the finale, the performers assembled together and bowed. Dream stood to the side behind her mother and looked for Kamali in the crowd.

The nobleman got to his feet and approached Ripple. “Impressive,” he said.

Ripple shifted her Maztican lute to one hand and gave him a low, respectful bow.

The nobleman reached out and caressed her head like she was a house cat.

Ripple recoiled with a low growl, her tail bristled. Rain appeared at his mate’s side, and Guaril stepped between.

The nobleman jerked back his hand and laughed – a sound that sent a shiver down Dream’s back and bristled her tail. “So these are tabaxi. I’ve heard stories. My great uncle Count Sarnusk visited Maztica in his youth.” His gaze lingered for a moment on Dream, then he faced Guaril and declared, “Your entire troupe shall be welcomed at our chateau tomorrow and perform for my uncle and me. You will, of course, be well paid.” Without waiting for an answer, he turned away.

Guaril attempted to protest, but the uniformed guards blocked him. In moments the young count had mounted his horse and was gone.

Dream joined her parents as the adults of the troupe gathered around their leader. Guaril was calm, as usual. Rain was taking deep breaths and exhaling slowly, his tail and Ripple’s still bristled.

“What do you think?” asked Guaril.

“We should not go,” said Tasaria.

One of the actors said, “Rumor is the count has fifty men and horses. He might take offence if we don’t accept.”

A noble that took offense might send his soldiers after them. The Travelers looked at each other, imagining that worst case scenario. A dwarf said out loud what they were all thinking. “We can’t hide or outrun them.”

After a moment’s hesitation Rain said, “The invitation could be motivated by simple nostalgia or curiosity about my family. He mentioned that his uncle visited Maztica.”

“The uncle may be satisfied with a few songs,” said Ripple uncertainly.

“We’ll discuss this more later,” said Guaril. “For now we have guests to attend to.”

Townspeople were leaving, as though the soldiers had announced an early end to festivities. Dream wanted to speak to her parents alone, but Kamali suddenly appeared with an older human man who wore leather armor similar to hers.

“Kamali,” said Dream, “I was afraid you wouldn’t come.“

“This is Tariq,” said Kamali formally. “Father, this is Dream of Starlight on Still Water.”

Dream’s tail swished with delight that her friend remembered her whole name. She bowed to Tariq. “A pleasure to meet you, sir. Please call me Dream.”

“The pleasure is mine, Dream.” Tariq turned to Kamali and said, “Tomorrow.” Then he walked away.

“What does that mean?” asked Dream.

“He has business to take care of, and I hoped I could stay overnight with you since you were leaving tomorrow. Then I heard what the Count said. Do you think your people would mind if I went to the chateau with you?”

“Uh,” said Dream. “We’re not so sure it’s safe.”

Kamali shrugged, looking away from Dream and in the direction her father had gone. “Why wouldn’t it be safe? I’ve heard the old Count is a recluse and has all those guards because he’s paranoid of being robbed. His nephew is probably trying to earn some approval by bringing in entertainment.”

“No Traveler would steal from anyone, especially a Count,” said Dream. Maybe they didn’t need to worry. “If we go, I see no reason why you can’t come along.”

Only a few townspeople stayed late, and that night Kamali slept close to Dream and Chal next to the inner fire.

Chapter Text

The caravan of travelers was packed and ready to leave by sunrise, but any plans Guaril and the Traveler troupe had made to avoid the chateau were curtailed by the arrival of twenty armed and mounted soldiers. The leader informed Guaril that the young Count had sent them to escort the entire troupe to the chateau.

Dream’s parents tried to send Kamali back to town, but the soldiers wouldn’t believe she was not one of them. Kamali assured Rain and Ripple she could return to town after the troupe performed, and walked with Dream next to their wagon.

Dream’s usual pleasant anticipation for a new place was tempered by anxiety. Even though the chateau was only an hour’s walk from the settlement, worry gripped the troupe like road dust and slowed their steps. The troupe encompassed a wandering lifestyle for some, a way to make a living while expressing their art for others. Travelers valued freedom above all else. This performance at the chateau felt forced and wrong.

The Traveler caravan arrived at the gate in a high stone wall by midmorning. The chateau itself was the largest and most magnificent house Dream had ever seen surrounded by an expanse of turf and gardens larger than the settlement. The leader of the guard escort directed them to leave their wagons just inside the gate and move whatever props, musical instruments, and costumes they would need to a courtyard in front of the house. Grooms from the Count’s stables took charge of their cart horses as soon as they were unhitched. The guard captain announced that each of them must not go near the chateau – not under any circumstances.

Kamali worked alongside the Travelers, moving items from the wagons to the courtyard.

At one point the young Count appeared on the great house’s shaded veranda, watched them while he drank a glass of wine, then disappeared.

Guaril set the program right away, announcing they would perform a drama and a comedy – both consistent crowd-pleasers, with a musical performance between. Dream found comfort in the familiar preparations, her thoughts full of scripts and set logistics and costume organizing. Finally Guaril informed one of the guards that his troupe would need a break to rest and eat, then they’d be ready to perform.

Servants appeared with trays of baked bread, roasted pork, and cool pitchers of beer. Dream filled her plate with a generous portion of pork, a tabaxi favorite according to her parents, and sat with her parents on the manicured lawn. She had finished her mug of beer and eaten most of her food when she noticed that Kamali was not among the Travelers. Dream remembered the last time she saw her friend, Kamali was helping Chal carry gear from the wagons.

A commotion on the veranda grabbed Dream’s attention. Two men in courtly dress sat on throne-like chairs, one the young count and the other she assumed was Count Sarnusk, and yet he was not ancient and frail as she’d expected. At a distance the elder human appeared only about twenty years older than his heir, and in good health.

Guaril clapped his hands and Dream’s companions scrambled to take their positions. It was time to begin.

Ripple strummed her lute and sang the opening chorus. As Guaril began the drama’s introduction, Dream saw Kamali exit her family’s wagon and join the small group of servants granted permission to watch.

It was the strangest performance the troupe had ever given. Their audience on the veranda made no gesture or sound of appreciation at the usual places. The servants would lift their hands as though to clap, then glance furtively at the veranda and fold their hands together silently. The old Count would lean forward whenever Ripple played, and when Rain was speaking or singing. After the comedy, which did not elicit even a single laugh, Ripple played one last time, a Maztican lullaby she’d often sung to Dream when she was little.

Guaril called all troupe members to the courtyard stage and they bowed in unison. Dream found herself between her mother and father, their tails loosely entwined.

Count Sarnusk stood and stared down at them in the silence, then he turned and went into the chateau.

After the door closed behind the elder Count, the young Count left the veranda and walked toward the troupe. He handed Guaril a heavy purse. “My uncle was pleased. You may spend the night here and leave in the morning.”

Calm and respectful as ever, Guaril said, “That is a very generous offer, my lord. However if you would allow, my companions and I would like to be on our way. We are expected at our next destination, you understand.”

Dream held her breath. The young count did not answer right away. He turned in a slow circle, looking each of them up and down like he was deciding their fate. He faced Guaril and said, “You may go, if you insist.”

The Travelers wasted no time packing their wagons and hitching up their horses, brushed and fed by the Count’s grooms. Relief filled Dream’s heart as the last wagon rolled out the gate. They were free, and nothing bad had happened.

Rain and Ripple sat together on the wagon’s bench seat, and Dream and Kamali walked next to the mare. Too soon, they were nearing the crossroads where Kamali would leave them to return to the settlement.

“Was the chateau what you thought it would be?” asked Dream. “I’m sorry we didn’t get to look around inside.”

“Yeah, uh... I’m really glad I got to know you, Dream. And I’m sorry,” Kamali hesitated, then swallowed. “That is, I’m sorry we won’t have more time together.”

“I feel the same,” said Dream. “But maybe we’ll see each other again. My parents left Maztica to explore the continent, and now that I’m older we plan to continue as a family Hunt. If you tell me what towns your father has business in, maybe-”

Guaril signaled a halt and announced a brief rest and the chance to rearrange any gear that had been hastily stowed. Dream started to resume her sentence, but Kamali had just swung into the back of the wagon.

Dream sprang into the wagon behind Kamali just as she dropped a crumpled blanket. Dream’s parents faced them from the opening at the wagon’s other end. Rain held up a golden flask the size of his hand, held by his extended claws. “Looking for this?”

“Give it back,” said Kamali. “Please.”

Rain pointed to markings etched into the gold. “This container is from Maztica. Imbued with magic.”

“You didn’t steal that from the chateau... Did you?” asked Dream. Is that where she’d gone?

“I swear, I didn’t steal it,” said Kamali. Her fur-less face turned red. “The young count promised it to Father and told him where I could find it.”

Dream’s parents looked at each other and Ripple said, “You mean the young Count hired a thief to steal from the old Count.”

Dream’s tail curled around her leg, her head and ears sagged. Kamali had used her friendship to get inside the chateau. She didn’t even try to deny that she was a thief.

“Do you know what it does?” asked Kamali.

Dream’s ears perked up, and she could tell from her father’s expression that he wanted to refuse to say, and yet he couldn’t help responding to curiosity about a magic item.

Rain unscrewed the lid. “You fill the flask with water.” He closed it again, and gently withdrew a stopper from the side. “And you add a drop of some more precious liquid to this compartment. The water in the flask is changed, to duplicate the drop.” He replaced the stopper and tossed the flask to Kamali.

She caught it in her gloved hand and looked at it with a disappointed frown.

“Travelers do not welcome thieves,” said Ripple. A deep growl rumbled in her chest.

Kamali hopped out of the wagon. Dream hesitated, then leapt after her. Kamali was gone. Her scent lingered and Dream could track her if she wanted, but she didn’t.

Dream’s mother and father were by her side a moment later, holding her between them. “I thought she was my friend,” she murmured against her father’s soft, furry chest.

“A human girl like that,” said her mother, “Maybe she isn’t capable of friendship with anyone.”

Rain said, “The Cat Lord appears in many forms.”

The Traveler caravan continued its journey and made a private camp as the sun began to set. Dream felt small and foolish when her parents explained how Kamali had tricked her to Guaril and the other adults.

But then Ripple changed the subject of conversation and entertained the troupe with a story from Maztica, about a fabled secret place near the headwaters of one of the many rivers flowing out of the central mountain range of Far Payit. It was said that brave adventurers, who survive crocodiles, venomous snakes, little folk with poison arrows, wild jaguars and monsters, might be rewarded with access to the Fountain of the Gods. One drink from the magic well could grant unnaturally long life.

Dream sat by herself when her mother’s story ended. She loved the stories her parents told about the True World, and someday she would go there with them.

Chal knew her well enough not to try and cheer her. He settled nearby, keeping her company under the stars.

Chapter Text

For the second morning in a row, soldiers arrived at their camp.

Ripple was playing her Maztican lute and Dream had just finished grooming their mare when the horses galloped in, trampling the remains of the troupe’s breakfast, then surrounding the wagons. Dream thought they were the same riders who escorted them to the chateau, except this time seven held crossbows at the ready.

“What is the meaning of this?” demanded Guaril.

The captain scanned their faces and called out, “Where is she? Where is the thief? She was with them.” He pointed to Dream and her parents. “The tabaxi.”

“Gone,” said Rain. “She returned to Pinebrooke.”

The guard captain glared at him, then gestured to two soldiers. “Search their wagon.”

Dream had to stand calmly by with her parents while riders pointed crossbows at them and two soldiers climbed into her family’s wagon and tossed their possessions to the ground. Jars broke. A box of trinkets scattered. Clothing torn. The old practice lute smashed. Dream’s whole childhood strewn across the ground like trash. All to find the stolen magic flask that did nothing more than duplicate expensive spirits. Finally one of the two soldiers said to their captain, “It’s not here.”

“Of course not,” said Guaril. “Go back to Pinebrooke and search for your thief there.”

“Count Sarnusk gave me specific orders. If I don’t find his stolen property, I must bring the tabaxi thieves to him. All three of them.”

“No,” said Guaril. “We can’t let you.”

“If you don’t give us the tabaxi, the Count has ordered us to kill every last Traveler in the caravan and take them anyway. Dead or alive.”

A chill ran down Dream’s spine and bristled her tail. He spoke like Guaril owned them, like they were animals. And the crossbows were now pointed at her companions, her extended family. Guaril looked like he might put them all in peril for her family’s sake.

Ripple said, “No Guaril. Don’t risk anyone else.”

“We’ll go willingly,” said Rain. “This is just a misunderstanding.”

The soldier who had just destroyed Rain’s work grabbed him and tied his hands behind his back. The other soldier yanked Ripple’s Maztican lute from her hands, looked inside the soundboard, then carelessly tossed it on top of the pile before roughly tying together her hands. For a brief moment, Dream considered darting away into the forest. She could escape, she was certain of it, but then what would become of her friends, or her parents? Dream held still while they tied her hands together, palms facing so that if she unsheathed her claws they would cut her own hands.

“We’ll wait for you,” said Guaril.

A soldier lifted Dream and threw her across the back of a horse on her stomach. It was the most uncomfortable position she’d ever been in. Then the horse started to trot, and her discomfort intensified until she passed out.

#

Dream woke when her body hit the ground.

She opened her eyes to see her mother and father crouched over her. They were at the chateau again, in the courtyard below the veranda. Their bindings had been cut, but they were surrounded by soldiers holding crossbows. The two Counts looked down at them.

The young Count spoke. “Where is the flask?”

“We don’t have it,” said Rain.

“You know the thief,” said the younger. “You must know what she did with it.”

“Kamali befriended our child to get access to the chateau,” said Ripple in her persuasive voice. “But then she left us to go back to the settlement. That’s all we know.”

The young Count smiled unpleasantly. “She’ll be long gone by now. How unfortunate for you. Guards, lock them up.”

“Wait!” gasped Dream. “I can find her and get it back! I just need to go to Pinebrooke.”

He sneered. “I’m not letting you go. Guards-”

“No!” Dream fell at the feet of the elder Count. “Kamali didn’t steal it, your nephew gave it to her! If you want the flask let me find her. I’ll bring it to you--”

Pain exploded in Dream’s midsection, as the young Count kicked her and shouted, “Liar!”

Rain and Ripple dropped beside her, protecting Dream with their bodies.

“Hold,” said Count Sarnusk, speaking for the first time in a low raspy voice. “Guards, escort this young tabaxi to Pinebrooke.”

“Uncle, you can’t seriously believe this creature.”

Dream got unsteadily to her feet with her parents’ help, clutching her stomach. “When I bring back the flask, you’ll release my parents?”

“Bring it back by sunset,” said the old Count.

Dream’s mother and father embraced her together. Rain whispered in her ear, “Don’t return. Run away. Keep yourself safe.”

“Don’t worry about us. We’ll be fine if we know you’re alive and free,” whispered Ripple.

Moments later Dream was on a horse’s back again, this time in the saddle though the guard captain had taken her horse’s reins. For the first time in her life, she planned to willfully disobey her parents.

The young Count followed them to the gate. “Don’t let the tabaxi escape,” he said to the guard captain. “And if you find the thief, kill her.”

For the whole ride to the settlement, Dream distracted herself from worrying about her parents by thinking of ways to ditch her escort – the captain in front and two guards behind. Kamali would never let her get close with these three oafs in tow. “We’ll start at the town square,” Dream told them.

As they entered the settlement, people stared at her from the houses and businesses that lined the narrow street, a tabaxi on a horse with the Count’s soldiers. Her escape could not be stealthy. Dream started to sing a well-known ballad, one that was hated by Traveler minstrels because of the frequency of its request. People in the street took up the song, about a returning adventurer searching for his lost love. A few onlookers even followed them, probably expecting something worthy of gossip to happen.

Closer to the square, a cart driver came toward them, and the guard captain shifted his horse to the side to let it pass. Dream patted her horse’s neck and kept singing as they approached an overhanging roof about eight feet above her saddle, a smaller jump than the roof of her family’s wagon. As fast as she could, Dream pulled her feet up under her and balanced on the saddle for a moment, then leapt.

She landed lightly on the roof and turned to look down. People jumbled around the horses to avoid the cart, all looking up at her. She sang the ballad’s final stanza and bowed with a flourish, while her three would-be escorts wrestled with their crossbows and their horses.

Cheers and clapping followed her as Dream dashed over the rooftop and jumped across an alley to the next roof. At night her dark fur would make her nearly invisible to anyone without darkvision, but in daylight she stood out like a fly in ointment. Luckily humans rarely looked up. She had to find the apothecary shop run by Kamali’s grandmother.

Dream headed back toward the square where she and Chal first met Kamali to get her bearings, then she dashed across rooftops to the alley. The apothecary’s acrid herbal scent confirmed her location, and she dropped to the ground in front of the door. Kamali’s grandmother opened it and beckoned her inside.

“Is Kamali here? Please, I have to find her.”

“Come with me.” The old woman leaned on a cane and walked through a curtained doorway to a room in the back with a desk and a thick rug on the floor. She tapped the rug and lifted the edge with her cane. “Here.”

Dream folded back the rug and found a trap door underneath. She pulled it open to find a ladder leading down into a dark tunnel that smelled of earth and stale smoke. Dream started down the ladder, and the moment her head dropped below the floor, the door slammed shut.

Even with darkvision, she could barely see the ladder, much less what was below. She counted the rungs as she descended. Thirty-seven when her feet touched the dirt floor. Dream followed the passage until she came to a place where it split in three directions – left, right, and forward. She was in a maze. Dream took a few steps down each passage and sniffed the air but could detect only the charcoal scent of an old fire, as if someone had wandered the corridors with a burning torch. She went back to where the passage split. If this was a thieves’ den, there could be traps. She examined the corner walls and found symbols she traced with the pads of her fingers. Directions and warnings, she guessed, in code.

Travelers used coded symbols, to warn other Travelers of settlements that were welcoming or hostile to their kind, to identify safe campsites, clean water, and places to hunt. Dream thought carefully about the symbols and the similarities and differences to Traveler codes and chose the left passage. She did the same at each crossroads. It was slow going, but less chance of getting lost.

Finally, firelight lit the passage up ahead, and muffled voices sounded the way. Dream emerged near the top of a large cavern with wooden stairs leading down to stacked crates, one open and full of spears. In the center sat Kamali and her father Tariq, surrounded by six people -- four humans, an elf, and what she assumed was a half-orc.

Dream took a deep breath and descended the stairs.

“Ah, Dream,” said Tariq. “You made it here in record time for a newcomer.”

She bowed to Tariq, who seemed to be the leader, and addressed Kamali. “The old Count sent his soldiers to our camp to find you. He's holding my mother and father hostage. Please. The flask you took from the chateau -- I have to bring it back so the old Count will free them.”

Kamali bent her head and didn’t answer.

“Dear Kamali was only a courier,” said Tariq. He held up the flask. “The flask is mine. Part of a service I’ve agreed to provide for the young count.”

“Please give it to me.” Dream took a step toward him and the six thieves around him drew their weapons. Her voice broke. “I don’t know what he’ll do to them if I don’t bring it back.”

“This is a valuable item,” said Tariq. “What will you give me in trade?”

Dream’s whiskers drooped. She hadn’t thought of that, but he was human so of course he would want payment. “I don’t have anything to trade. I could get coins. What do you want?”

Tariq’s mouth twisted in a smile that was genuine, but not quite kind. “You will work for me. For three years.”

They were thieves. Dream said, “I don’t know anything about your, uh, profession.”

“You’ll learn. Kamali will be your first teacher.”

Her parents wouldn’t like it, but at least they’d be free. “Alright-“

“Don’t be stupid,” interrupted Kamali. “Bargain.”

Dream glared at her. She was the reason her family was in trouble. “For my mother and father?“

Kamali huffed. “First lesson.” She faced Tariq. “Six months.”

“Two years,” said Tariq. He was smiling.

Kamali said, “One year.”

“Eighteen months. That’s my final offer.” Tariq walked toward Dream, hand outstretched. “Swear it.”

Dream took his hand, claws retracted. “I accept, and I swear that I will work for you. For eighteen months.”

Tariq pressed the flask into her palm and released her hand.

Magic prickled the skin beneath her fur. She had the flask. She could save her parents. “I need to get back to the chateau as soon as possible.”

“Kamali will show you the way,” said Tariq.

Dream followed her ex-friend through a doorway behind Tariq and down a corridor lit by wall sconces. The passage ended at a stone wall. Kamali hid whatever she did to make the wall slide open. They entered what appeared to be the basement of a large building and the stone slid shut.

“This is the Wolf’s head tavern,” said Kamali. “Come here when you return from the chateau. Don’t make the mistake of thinking you can skip out on your agreement with Tariq. He never forgives a debt.”

Dream followed Kamali up the stairs. She should be asking questions. She should try to get a better idea of what she’d agreed to so she could explain to her parents. But she couldn’t think about anything except getting to the chateau before sunset.

Kamali led her through the kitchen to the back door and the stables. From the sun’s position, it was already evening. The tavern was at the edge of the settlement and the horse she had ridden from the chateau was there, ready to go.

“How did this horse get here? Where are the Count’s guards?” asked Dream.

Kamali shrugged. “They were distracted looking for you in the crowd. You have a nice voice.”

Dream opened her mouth to acknowledge the complement, then closed it. This human girl was not her friend. She mounted the horse, holding the reins this time, guided it to the road and kicked it into a canter.

Chapter Text

The sun shone low on the horizon when she arrived at the chateau gates, but it had not set. The horse was lathered and spent, and Dream hoped she had not caused it permanent damage, but she’d had no choice. The guard captain met her at the gate and she dismounted as he opened it. Dream showed him the flask. “I demand to see Count Sarnusk.”

He looked at the flask without expression and nodded once. She half expected him to take it from her, but he turned and strode toward the chateau. She followed. They climbed the steps of the veranda and entered through the great double doors. Inside the chateau was so ostentatiously grand she could barely take it in. A marble staircase, golden fixtures, exotic vases, and silk draperies. She followed the captain down a long corridor lined with paintings and through a doorway into an opulent wood-paneled dining room, where the two Counts sat at opposite ends of a long table with the remains of their meal laid out on an array of plates, glasses and cutlery.

The elder Count stared at her and said, “You see, Nephew, the young tabaxi has returned.”

“I brought the flask,” blurted Dream. “Before sunset.” She approached the elder Count slowly and set the flask on the table next to him.

The old Count scooped it up eagerly. “So you did. Guard, show her to the other tabaxi.”

Dream nearly collapsed on the floor with relief. She’d done it. Soon she’d be leaving the chateau again, with her mother and father. She followed the guard down the hall, past more paintings and closed doors to the kitchen, where servants looked up at her from their meals then looked away. Dream remembered she hadn’t eaten since that morning.

They stepped outside into the light of the setting sun and for a moment, Dream couldn’t see. She smelled blood. The guard led her across an open yard to an outbuilding where the scent of fresh blood got stronger. Dream’s hackles raised, and her tail twitched with fear.

Around the corner of the building, the first thing she saw was two animal hides, stretched out on frames. Dream froze. Black rosettes on light brown on one, the other black on dark gray. And blood. So much blood. To the side, a large human wearing a bloody smock heaved a cleaver down, butchering a carcass-

Dream screamed and fell to the ground. Her mind retreated from the horror she would not - could not comprehend.

The guard yanked her hands behind her back.

“We’ll put her in that cage,” said the other man. Now they both had her. “I’ll butcher this one in the morning.”

Dream was barely aware of getting picked up and thrown into a box made of metal bars. She huddled on the floor and pressed the palms of her hands against her ears to muffle the cleaver’s chop. Her mother and father were dead. These monstrous humans had murdered them and desecrated their bodies. It was her fault they were here at all, and she had failed to save them. The thought of food sickened her, but her throat was dry. She faded into fevered, grisly dreams about people she cared about, dismembered.

Dream awoke in the dark to the sound of far-away shouts that were suddenly cut off. Another nightmare? She dozed and was again awakened by her name spoken aloud and the rattling lock.

“Wake up.” It was Kamali, her face lit by a torch.

Dream roused. There was blood on her fur and tunic. Her mother’s or father’s blood. “The butcher--”

“I killed him,” said Kamali. The lock opened. “That’s how I got the key.”

Dream crawled out of the cramped space and stretched her sore limbs, trying not to look where her mother and father’s remains were still on display. “I don’t trust you.”

“I wouldn’t trust me either.” She handed Dream a water skin.

Dream drank. “Where are the guards? The servants?”

“The servants and guards that surrendered are together in the courtyard. The rest dead, including both counts.” She glanced in the direction of the mounted skins. “I’m sorry, Dream. The young Count betrayed Tariq. It wasn’t supposed to happen like this.”

Dream resisted the urge to slap her with unsheathed claws. Instead she faced the horror. “I need to build them a funeral pyre.”

Kamali stood by without speaking while Dream cut down the frames holding her mother’s skin with her claws, then her father’s. Her mind had gone numb, she barely controlled her overwhelming grief focusing on the one task. Dream said, “I need to find… the rest of their… remains.”

“I’ll ask the servants,” said Kamali.

Other thieves who were with Tariq in his lair appeared. The half-orc was particularly kind, and Dream found that sympathy was easier to accept from him than from any of the others. All of them helped her assemble the firewood, away from the house. Kamali and another human searched the kitchen and returned with several linen bundles that smelled like meat. Dream couldn’t bear to open or even touch the bundles. The half-orc placed them on top of the skins for her, and together they poured two bottles of strong spirits over the pile.

Within an hour, Dream stood next to the pyre holding a torch and surrounded by Tariq’s gang – her gang. She spoke in a loud clear voice her mother would be proud of. “I honor my beloved mother, Ripples from a Dropped Stone of the Mountain Lake clan, and my beloved father, Shelter from Pouring Rain of the Waterfall Cliffs clan. Mother and Father, you will never be forgotten. I will continue your exploration of Faerun, and someday if I’m able to avoid the Cat Lord’s notice, I will return to the True World with your memory.”

Dream tossed the torch onto the pyre and it burst into flame.

The half-orc patted her shoulder gently. “Not all humans are evil.”

She thought of Chal and Guaril, and the rest of her extended family of Travelers and mumbled, “I know.” Then she pressed her face against his rough orcish shoulder, and wept.

#

Two days later at midday, Dream returned to the Traveler campsite where she and her parents had been abducted, but the troupe was gone. Her family’s wagon was still there. She dismounted the gelding Tariq had loaned her and found broken bits and pieces on the ground around the wagon. Inside, someone had replaced their belongings and restored some semblance of order, but her mother’s Maztican lute was not there. She collected her father’s tools, her mother’s grooming kit, and a few practical items like clothing and a water skin. But tabaxi did not make a habit of keeping material objects. She left the rest.

Dream secured the few items to the gelding’s saddle, telling herself it was a relief to find that the troupe had moved on, away from danger. Then she saw something across the field move. No, someone. Chal was walking toward her. Dream dashed across the field and nearly toppled him in her enthusiastic embrace.

Chal hugged her back. “I waited. I knew you’d be back. Where’re Rain and Ripple?”

“Dead,” said Dream. “It’s only me.”

He was quiet for a long, sad moment. “They will be missed. Come on.” Chal walked into the trees, and Dream followed. He’d made a small camp, where her family's black mare grazed on a nearly depleted copse of grass. “The troupe is only about three days ahead of us. We can catch up. Look, I have Ripple’s lute.”

He handed her the case. Inside, the lute appeared unharmed. “Thank you, Chal. I’m afraid I can’t go with you. I took an oath and I must honor it.”

“What happened?”

Dream told him the events as they happened to her, reliving her grief, and adding the missing parts Tariq and Kamali had filled in later. The young Count contracted with Tariq for the old Count’s murder, but first he wanted to learn his uncle’s secret to an unnaturally long life and suspected the flask was the key. Count Sarnusk discovered the flask was missing, and the young Count blamed Kamali. After Dream left the chateau, the young count ordered her parents killed to stop them talking, and the old count wanted their pelts. Tariq would not tolerate a second betrayal when the young Count took Dream prisoner. Not only did Dream owe Tariq a debt of service, she was now under his protection. When Tariq himself entered Count Sarnusk’s private chamber, he found the Old Count’s withered corpse in a chair, the flask in one hand, and a broken crystal bottle in a puddle of water on the floor. Tariq had added a drop of poison to the flask’s side compartment before he gave it to Dream.

“Then I told Tariq the story my mother told that last night, about the water of the Fountain of Gods in Maztica,” said Dream, finishing her story. “That might be what was in the bottle, but we’ll never know. Some business associate of Tariq’s has already moved into the chateau.”

“I’ll tell my father and everyone the story,” said Chal. “Are you sure you won’t come with me?”

“The language of friendship is made of shared paths and shared stories, bonded with understanding,” said Dream, quoting a Traveler proverb. “It would honor my family and the memory of my parents if you take the mare and our wagon. Go, Chal. Catch up with our… your troupe.”

“You’ll always have a home with us.”

Dream helped Chal hitch up the black mare and watched from the gelding’s back as her wagon-home moved away. Then she nudged the gelding into a trot back to Pinebrooke, to her new life as a thief.

END