Another story set in my D&D campaign setting, specifically in the central city, known as Kopno’domas, and involving a character who has tangled with my players on occasion. This tale is also incomplete but it’s all I was able to write tonight. More at some later date.
“If it’s alms you need then tell me a tale.”
Palloi sat, eyes forward, and looked. He saw fine leather boots, rising to the knee, above which were green silk breeches. Hanging beside the leg a slender well-smithed short sword, both decorative and functional – and worth dozens of golden coins. The boots, dark almost black, stood in a muddy street. Whatever was above the pants he could not see beyond the edge of his hood. The street was in the slums south of the walled city, and the mud was a result of the showers of rain that were a familiar sight in this, the latter part of the year. Beyond the legs were more legs, tall and short, some not human, all on their way to or from some other place probably as muggy and miserable as this one.
Palloi raised his hand to the hood that shaded his face and pushed back. His dark eyes searched upward; black and yellow fine wool tunic, black leather vest decorated with gold buttons… and a dark, leathery face under a tight green turban with a hawk’s sharp nose.
“What kind of story do you wish to hear, sir?” Palloi stage-whispered at his interrogator. “Happy, sad, adventurous or tragic?”
“All stories are tragic when taken to their final conclusion, boy,” the standing man said. His voice was deep and resonant. “What I want to hear is your story. How came you to this low status? I look at you and see a thin boy covered in dirt and rags, kneeling on a muddy street in a decaying and fallen city long after the splendor of Empire has passed.” He paused and chuckled quietly. “Though that may be going farther back than you’re willing to tell.”
Palloi smiled. “Or farther than I remember, sir. I am just trying to get to the end of the day, same as any gentle creature. I need a few coins to purchase some bread and a bit of wine and to keep the night chill away for another sunrise.” Palloi scanned again his well-dressed audience. Maybe I need more information…?
“What’s your name, good and kind sir? By your dress you are not a native of Kopno’domas, if such a thing exists. You are dressed for warmer, dryer weather – and more civilized folk, if that silver frogsticker is all you need to defend yourself.”
The man nodded to himself. “Very well, you may call me Thyme. Like the spice.” Thyme started to kneel, thought better of it, looked back and forth along the street. “I will buy you a drink and a meal in exchange for an hour of your time.” Palloi smirked and started to decline, but Thyme interrupted him. “I’ve no interest in you in that manner, boy. Truly, simply all I wish is a tale from you.”
Palloi stood and gathered the small bag stuffed with his meagre possessions. “There’s a tavern just a street over. Megasia’s place, wonderful cider or stout ale. Do you know of it?”
Thyme waved Palloi ahead. The boy led his new employer across the street, past a gate into a small alley, where they emerged on a smaller street with only a few ragged folk in sight. Turning left past a long-dry fountain they came to a wide spot where several other streets and alleys converged. Palloi entered a door under a tiled sign showing a woman’s graceful form and a fat stout bird – The Dancer and Grouse.
The common room was large and wide. A fire pit in the middle was putting out heat and flames, even on this warm muggy day, but the cross breezes from the unshuttered windows along the walls made it comfortable, rather than oppressive. In the fire pit there were sausages being cooked, and a whole goat, and two large kettles of stew, along with some late summer corn on the cob. A dozen tables were on the floor on all sides of the pit, and along the left-hand (or north) wall was a long oak bar – the only nice piece of furniture in the room, the rest being simple unremarkable wooden chairs and tables.
Palloi led Thyme to a table along the wall, near a window but not in direct line of sight of it, and sat facing the rest of the room. “Oh, forgive me,” he said, “I should have waited for you!” Despite his apologetic tone, he did not get up or move at all.
Thyme pulled out a chair and sat. His eyes narrowed and he scanned left and right, and shifted nervously, but did not object.
The boy caught the eye of the woman behind the bar and called her over. The two men looked at each other, silent, the younger man smiling, the older one scowling.
“Magasia, my lady, some corn, some sausage, and two mulled ciders, please.” The lady, a round red-faced woman of past child-bearing age, dressed in a purple velvet robe, waited patiently while Thyme counted out some coins and laid them in her palm, then went back to collect their order.
“No bread? You mentioned bread,” Thyme said pleasantly if impatiently.
“Bread actually upsets my guts,” Palloi said. “But feel free to try it! I’m sure Maga could use the money.”
Silence again fell while the woman set down two plates and two copper mugs full of spiced warm drink, along with a fork and a small bowl of melted butter. “Anything else you need, ask,” she grunted and walked back to her perch behind the bar.
As soon as the food was in front of him, Palloi began picking at it and stuffing morsels in his mouth. The corn, still on the cob, was warm and sweet and yellow; the sausage was black on the outside and grey on the inside, and greasy even in the wan light from the nearby window. Palloi ate steadily, but quietly and with little drama. His elbows were tucked in, his head down, and he wasted no food by spilling or dropping it.
Thyme picked at his sausage but ate little. He watched the boy for a moment, then cleared his throat. The boy’s dark brown eyes flicked up, he stopped in mid-bite.
Thyme’s eyes smoldered.
“Aha. Yes. A story.” Palloi wiped his chin with his arm, took a quick swig of his spiced cider, and then leaned back in his chair. Where to begin?
“This sausage is mostly goat,” he started. “Grown on a farm between the Mage’s hilltop castle and the flowing great river. I’ve been there. The farmer is the younger sister of Maga, and is lovely to look at in spite of being in such a low profession. Maybe it’s all the hard work of raising goats and growing corn and keeping all the farm hands in line that keeps her in such fine shape,” and here Palloi used his hands to outline the shape he spoke of,”and many of her neighbors take time from their busy farming schedules to go chat with her and, discreetly, take in the view of the farmer. Her name is Chalakosi, or Chala, and she is fair and young despite her years.
And she grows the tenderest goats in the entire Vale, and the sweetest corn, and the tartest – most tart? – apples. As you can plainly attest to, good sir. And the best of the best get brought here, to the Dancer and Grouse. The rest, and there’s not much, get sold to the highest bidder, and that, generally, is Lord Captain Grenjolm. Or should I say, was sold to Lord Captain Grenjolm, because that man has been missing for nearly a year.
I hope I’m not jumping ahead in my story, or revealing something out of turn [Palloi continued] but I’m reasonably sure that Grenjolm is my father, and I’d like to think that Chala is my mother, although she denies it if I’m so gauche as to ask her directly. “A boy as sweet and as quiet as you are surely sprang straight out of a corn field, fathered by the Fay and placed there by the Eld” she’d say. But I don’t have pointed ears and my shadow doesn’t move of its own volition, and my blood spills red and I have no mind for magic, so I’m pretty sure I’m human. But who knows?
Be that as it may, I don’t have much of a connection to them as parents. I was raised at a temple in the Djurwalk neighborhood, sweeping the floors and polishing the statues and avoiding the holy men and women. I had a warm bed and a roof over my head and not a moment of freedom at all in which to enjoy myself. And when Uraga Bo, the highest priest of all, decided one day to castrate me to see if I’d sing pretty, I ran away and found a nice warm pile of hay in the alley behind this tavern because the food smelled familiar. It smelled familiar, I found out later, because Chala and Grenjolm were penitents at that temple; they’d stop there every few weeks, fresh from the farm, each of them separately and never together, and they were always kind to me. Sometimes as much as a few silver coins kind, sometimes only a taste of sausage or a handful of corn or a fresh sweet slice of apple kind.
It seems obvious in retrospect, doesn’t it?
Well, ol’ Maga tried to scare me off the morning she found me sleeping under her window. But her heart wasn’t in it, and I talked her into letting me stay and clean dishes and reset the tables after a rowdy evening’s crowd. That was nearly three years ago. This is as close to home as I’ve ever felt. I’ve visited Chala’s farm, and even though it can smell delicious, it’s not home. I prefer the alleys and streets. And that’s how I came to be here.
Thyme shifted in his seat. “That’s almost too pat,” he said. “You’re clearly improvising. I wager there’s no Chala and no Grenjolm and no temple of diddling priests and priestesses. But it’s mildly entertaining and it killed the time, so you’re welcome to your sausage and corn and cider.” Thyme pushed his plate across the wooden table. “And you’re welcome to mine, as well.” He stood up and turned.
Then turned back, a golden coin with an ornate eye embossed on it, unlike the locally-made golden dragons and suns. “Will you take me up on the wager?”
Palloi paused, mid-bite. He had returned his attention to the food (he was very hungry after all) when it looked like his companion was going to leave, but this surprised him. He was cynical enough not to take any offense at being called a liar, but cautious enough not to leap at the small fortune being dangled in front of him now. “Wager? About… Grenjolm and Chala?”
“Aye. You said Grenjolm disappeared. Is this Chala still around? Could you introduce me? Or at least prove she exists outside of your fevered imaginings?” The coin slipped between the older man’s fingers, flashing in the pale light. “This and, say, 9 more like it are yours if you do.”