The town was nothing more than a blotch of dun in the dusty roll of the Acrylic desert. Bold, varicolored hills of sand swooped and poured down the low expanse into the waiting horizon, and - save for a few bristling spires of terra-coral - the landscape was absent of plantlife. Off in the near distance a pack of wirewolves prowled, their slinking coils leaving characteristic whisk-indents on the sand.
Princip Eugustus Caliphrage shifted in his saddle. Beneath him, the body of Ludmilla - his Basking Lizard - was still warm with stockpiled heat from the noonday sun. The sky was now the mottled red of a spreading bruise and the first tentative stars were creeping up to their perches. They would make for good fishing, Princip hoped, and prodded Ludmilla with his spurs.
Tines touched pebbled hide and electricity crackled. The Basking Lizard licked out a black flash of tongue and started forward at a slow saunter. Her body slouched to the left and the right as she moved, more jarring than soothing in its sway, but Princip knew better than to prod her again. Her breath was fetid with carrion.
The town's gates came to them in minutes, rising black out of the middle-distance. For what should have been a remote hamlet, they were well-defended. Both panels had been carved whole from tremendous panels of mahogany and they each crawled with the crude silver wards of determined but amateur Application. As he drew near, Princip felt the runes crackle and spit at him, dashing out darts of sparks as they tried to assess his intent. Several brightened with hostility, but the rest of them dimmed. Democracy overwhelmed dissent and the gates opened.
Princip let his hands slip back to his sides, away from where his wand and codex were holstered.
He could have cracked the gate like an egg - left it leaking lument yolk from its shattered hinges - and the tips of his fingers tingled with the thought.
At night, most towns bordering the desert withdrew into themselves. Villagers retreated to their hearths in ones and twos, whispering stories to stoke their Black & Lever fireplaces while outside the dark took on corporeal form and prowled. Inky fingers scraped down warded windowpanes and livestock left untended were discovered as puddles of feathers or meatless hide in the morning.
Princip was surprised to find, instead of shut doorways and silent lanes, a procession of blazing lampposts marching down the center street. Each one would have been a blinding beacon on a clear night, but the light they pulsed with did not seem to radiate. Instead, it worked itself into the spaces between buildings, gaps above doorways, and the creases among cobblestones, flowing like honey. No nichtlings sprouted from the places it touched.
In this light, men and women congregated. They carried stepladders and buckets, curved pliers and strange wooden rakes. All of them hung lamps from their belts. Unlatched and open, these lamps were dim.
Ludmilla's tail lashed, stirring varicolored dust from the cobblestones. She had never been comfortable with strangers. Or crowds. Princip slipped from the saddle and landed at her side, taking care to stay out of the range of a casual bite. "Good evening," he said, his voice sweet and low. "I have business that I believe you can help me with."
No one turned to him at first, but then a child pointed and screamed.
In a moment, the villagers' voices were raised and rising - agitated streams swimming up through the cool air.
Rabekka Trew was not one for ceremony. She chopped the mutton along with the driftmelon rind and dumped them both in the stewpot, absent the customary prayer. The public house's wards shuddered briefly with this breach of superstition, but they held.
As they should have.
After all, she had designed them.
No horrors from the collective mire of men's minds flooded her workplace and complicated the cooking, so Rabekka set down her cleaver and began to stoke the fire. "Once upon a time," she whispered to it, "there was a girl who grew up." Coals flared to flames where the narrative brushed them, tickling the underside of the iron pot.
"She had once thought the world was wide and vast, but all it contained was her little town." Standing back up, Rabekka brushed her hands on her canvas skirt. They left prints of ash and flour. "In the end, she never left it. There was nowhere else to go. She married and had children and lived until she died."
The flames in the fireplace muttered, unsatisfied, but Rabekka had no more time to spare on them. The harvest would be coming in and she would be needed to hold her father's ladder. The Black & Levers preferred more elaborate fiction, the kind with swordfights and treachery and at least one steamy tryst, but the real world wasn't the sort of place where people got what they wanted. The fireplace could learn to live with disappointment, Rabekka decided.
Unlacing her apron, she left it on a peg by the kitchen door. Custom demanded that she pat it twice for luck. The pub's wards thrummed again as she passed it by without so much as a cursory brush. From the kitchen she crossed into the common room where chairs sat upended on empty tables and a tremendous cat lounged drowsily on the mantle. One of its orange paws dangled like a pendulum, keeping time with the twitch of its dreams.
"Evening, Yarrow," Rabekka called to it. It flicked a ragged ear in acknowledgement but did not open its eyes. "Layabout," Rabekka muttered and turned to the door.
When it happened, the screaming did not take her entirely by surprise. There had been a nervousness in her bones for days. This was simply a prediction come to life. Marching over to the bar, she ripped a dark wooden rod off of a peg on the wall and strode out the front door, skirts aswirl.
The villagers of Skimmer's Notch were knotted in the center square, the way they would be on most nights. However, instead of the air around them being alive with chatter, a deathly quiet had fallen over the townsfolk. Ladders stood, not yet unfolded, leaning against shoulders and swaying in the lantern light. Before the rough semicircle of villagers, there stood a stranger.
"May the thunder in your ears be only outmatched by the shivering in your bones," Rabekka said, and pointed the rod at him before he could turn.
Amplified by the layered whorls in the wood and powered by the trough of lument she had left the rod soaking in, the curse roared out of its blasting tip and caught the newcomer at the waist. He rocketed backwards, cloak rippling in the air, and slammed broad-backed against a shopfront.
Rabekka flicked the rod, discharging a puff of sulfurous smoke, and oriented it again. "May-"
A puff of air exploded from her chest and the curse left her unfinished as something caught her by the side and bowled her over. Gray, pebbled skin filled her field of vision and teeth flashed inches from her face. She brought the rod out in front of her in a cross-body swing, connecting awkwardly with something that hissed and squirmed as she hit it. The scent of rotting meat was overpowering and she fought just to focus on her new assailant.
"A plague upon your every-" she began.
At the same time another voice shouted "Ludmilla! No!"
Hissing like an untended kettle, her attacker scrambled back. Its body was all sullen lashing and angry angles, and after a moment she recognized it as a Basking Lizard.
Sometimes the poorer caravaneers had used them as team leads, back when caravans had still visited Skimmer's Notch. They had never been a favorite of the merchants or the locals.
"Hold," the foreign voice was saying. Belatedly, Rabekka realized that it must belong to the man she had thrown into the wall. "I know it's been a long day," he was saying, "and this is all terribly exciting, but please don't disembowel anyone until I've spoken with them first."
The lizard froze still as a hunting hound, waiting with every sinew for the kill order to be given.
Rabekka used the opportunity to readjust her grip on the rod and think of another curse. She kept the weapon lying close by her side as the stranger approached.
He hunkered down onto his haunches a few feet away from her. His cloak was the color of a starless midnight and it pooled on the dirt just behind him. In the warm light of the lamps Rabekka could make out harsh, unshaven, and yet somehow childish features. He had eyes that glinted like raw-grade sapphires and an unusual smoothness to his skin. "Now," he said, as calmly as if he had not just been picked up and propelled into the woodwork, "suppose you tell me why you felt the need to shoot me."
"Bastard," Rabekka coughed. There was a soreness in her ribs. This day had been coming for more than a season now, but she had hoped to be other the other side of this exchange. "Don't act like you don't know."
"As it happens, I don't, and that's particularly unusual for me." Reaching to one side, the stranger lifted the corner of his shirt a few inches. A long white slash strolled lengthwise across his lean abdomen. "Nichtling, by the way. It was hungry. I was foolish." Letting the fabric fall back into place, he lifted the other side. A series of puckers marked the skin there like raindrops in dry sand. "Gang of Petalmilk swillers. They had me outnumbered. I was foolish." Thin fingers tugged down the collar of his shirt. On one side of his throat: a mark like a circular brand. "Some folks made a bargain with an Emissary of Cinders. I helped them to renege. Which was also foolish."
Rabekka realized that her eyes had gone wide and cautiously re-narrowed them. "Why should I care about your life story? Do you think it takes the sting out of losing everything we give to you people? Just kick us out into the Acrylic and have done with it. The least you thieves can do is learn to work your own harvest."
"I think," said the stranger, straightening up, "that there may have been a misunderstanding here. Tell me: who do you believe me to be?"
"Is this a trick?" Behind the stranger, his Basking Lizard was awkwardly swatting the elongated claws of one hand across its face, trying to rub away the bruise Rabekka had left it with. "It's needlessly cruel, if it is."
The stranger held his hands out. Open. Away from the weapons he wore at his sides.
From that position, even an accomplished duelist might not be able to ready a weapon before she could curse him again, Rabekka decided. A cool wind toyed with the tails of the man's duster and she thought about what it would be like to set him tumbling and broken again.
It would not solve the problem of the lizard, but it was a pleasant fantasy all the same.
"Fine," she relented. "You're with Wade Darron and his boys. Maybe hired talent. Maybe he's just been keeping you in reserve. You're here because you want more. Doesn't matter that our lamps are running on dregs. Doesn't matter that you squeezed all trade to a strangled stop or that without enough lument we starve. You have needs, chief among which is a particular desire to be rich, and that's worth more to you than our shoddy little township could ever be." Rabekka's chest was rising and falling fast, moving like a bellows to pump vitriol into the words. She had pulled herself into a sitting position and she crossed her arms in front of her, staring spitefully at the stranger.
"Caravans don't come through here?" he asked.
"Not for months. We rake lument onto the seed beds and we tighten our belts and we make do, but without that lument we'll starve. As you'd know if you'd ever done an honest day's work in your life." It would have been so easy to pivot. To shout a curse. To hit back, decisively, after weeks of silent compliance and sloshing buckets of starlight lowered over the palisade walls into grubby waiting hands.
To Rabekka's surprise, the stranger laughed. "You've got me there, I'm afraid. But about everything else, you're mistaken."
"Your saddlebags look thin," said Rabekka critically. "Did you come through the blockade?"
"No." The stranger shook his head. He had hair the color and gloss of a raven's back and it swished in counterpoint to the motion. "I went overland. Ludmilla is uniquely suited for that sort of trip and I didn't want to pass through the provinces of either of your neighbors."
Despite sitting in the middle of the Acryllic, Skimmer's Notch was technically also a border town for both the Principality of Angles and the Somnolent Caliphate. Both nations had been too tentative to try for a military toehold on what might, negotiably, have been the other's property, but they would nonetheless resent the presence of interlopers with a shared fury.
"I am from the south," continued the stranger. "Liscenia, to be specific. I am called Princip Eugustus Caliphrage by royals, but you may shorten that considerably. Princip, at your service." With that he bowed low, exposing the back of his neck as he did so. His dusky skin seemed to drink in the lamplight.
With great effort, Rabekka lowered the rod. She did not curtsey. "Why should I believe that?"
Princip straightened. "While I admit it must be tempting to think otherwise, I really am from far away. I have papers attesting to my diplomatic mission, if you'd care to see them. Proposed trade schedules. Request forms for goods and services desired by the Deuterarchy of Liscenia. Equivalent prices for common goods in gallons of lument."
"You're a merchant," said Rabekka flatly.
"And here I was afraid that you were going to call me a lawyer." Princip's teeth were neat; two tight ivory rows. "If it helps you feel better about attacking me, we can pretend that I had a menacing air about me when I rode in. I did not knock either, and that was rather rude of me. Plus: the beard makes me look a bit of a villain."
The other villagers of Skimmer's Notch were unfreezing by degrees. Now that it seemed the situation was not going to flash horribly into unrelenting violence, a few of them were even unfolding their stepladders and peering up at the night sky for the lowest, safest places to climb to. From their number emerged a weathered old man with a ladder still tucked under his arm. He walked over to Rabekka and turned slightly, putting the ladder between them and Princip.
"I'd like to thank you," he said, in the tones of someone who had been very quietly having a heart attack for the last several minutes, "for not harming my daughter. I don't know what I would have done if I had lost her."
"I wouldn't have hurt her," said Princip. "Not unless she-"
"I was considering poison," continued the old man. "Tasteless. Odorless. Just a few drops. You would have never known. But that wouldn't have felt very personal."
Princip stopped. "Beg pardon?" he asked.
"If I had lost her," the old man clarified.
"Fa's the mayor, by the way," Rabekka chimed in. "In as far as we have one, at least. Father, this is Princip. I'm fine and you don't need to kill him."
The old man nodded and spat on the ground. "Name's Lavrent Trew. This is Rabekka. Customarily, it's polite to wait outside a village's gates. Maybe announce yourself. Throw some gravel at the wards. Wait for someone to recognize you. But I suppose since you're here: welcome." Lavrent did not extend a hand.
Now that the crisis was over, men and women were beginning to settle their ladders into position. Working in teams of one spotter and one climber, they found familiar scuffed places on the cobbles, checked the open lanterns at their belts, and scrambled up into the dark. The ladders had been specially worked to bend distances and - although they seemed to climb no higher than six feet off the ground - their tops rested among the stars.
Taking a tiny wooden spigot from a belt pouch, a villager fitted it to a star. Pale blue light drooled out of the spigot and into the lantern at the villager's belt.
"Used to be that what we worked for was luxuries. Brighter lanterns. A new stove. Dream-sweets from the Caliphate," said Lavrent, watching the villagers work. "Now if we don't harvest, the lights go out. The wards fail. We would huddle indoors while our fears prowled the streets and we starved. Can't say as I care for the manner of your arrival, stranger, but at least it's timely. Why don't we go indoors and discuss your papers in greater detail?"
Princip waved to Ludmilla who fell into line behind him, and together the four of them walked back to the public house.