"Does it matter how they died?"
Whist's voice is soft against the crackling of the fire. Bonded, the boy thinks. As if her voice were part of the natural order of things, no different than the sand.
He shakes his head. Nearly imperceptible amongst the quavering shadows cast by the fire's glow. He doesn't know what set the coggins free, only that they were put there by Captain Janix and her seers. If you chain someone to a boat and the boat sinks, you don't rage against the water or the boat. You don't shake the chains.
"And where do you come from?"
The man was younger than Whist. Not as strong, the boy noted, but he exuded an undeniable sense of youth.
Thin. His arms and legs were thin. His entire body more closely resembled the trees surrounding the oasis than anyone else he had ever seen in a traveller. As if his time spent in this sanctuary had transformed him into something of the oasis, and not just something passing through. There was a permeance to him. He and Whist would pass through this place like the rest of the travelers, but the man would remain. An integral part of the natural order of this place. Nourishing travelers with stories, informing them about the shifting times. A band of raiders seen to the north. Smuggler traffic was up in the south, he had heard. But that was two passages ago, he'd warn. Two passages in the desert could be as brief as a sip of wine or as long as a cursed life. Travel south at your own risk.
Whist answered for the boy. "We come from the east." She left it at that. As most travelers did.
"Met a woman once from the east. Passing through here, she left this behind." He held up a tarnished ring. Its band worn down, as if the very sands had blown against it for all those years, dulling its glint. "Terrible man who gave her this. Killed their children," he added, his voice dropping to a conspiratorial whisper.
Whist had warned him against such people. Impossible to know how much they said was true or not. Or how much they believed was true. Most stories were constructed on little more than a wish, a whisper of truth bolstered by a thousand lies to push up the price.
When neither of them reacted, he slipped the ring back into his pocket. When his hands returned, illuminated by the fire, they were holding a recently polished glass.
"This touched the lips of an ancient king."
At that, Whist blew air through her lips. "That no more touched the lips of an ancient anything than my ass graced the thrones of Aki'zor."
The boy had been resting his hands on his knees. At this he lowered his head, tightened his arms around his legs and pushed his knees together to better stifle a laugh. A fortress of limps to keep himself from insulting anyone.
For a brief moment, the man looked upset. Shadows from the flames danced against his face and buried there, the boy thought, he saw the man's true face. A demon face of hate and disgust. Had he come here expecting a luxurious life among the fronds? A harem of women at his beck and call. Former travelers seduced from their journeys to stay here and attend only to him while he entertained the Gabbi's most notorious names?
Only to watch as year after year, the winds blew that away as it did everything else. Dulling the edges of his dreams the way it had dulled the gleam of that ring. Had it belonged to him? Had he offered it to a woman only to have her laugh, shake her head, and drop it at his feet where it sank into the sand?
Then it was gone. Replaced again by that amiable smile. Mischievous, yet inviting. Let me tell you tale, it says, and in listening, we'll be joined forever.
Another voice. This from across the fire. Squinting, the boy tried to make out the owner, but in the darkness of the desert he could only make out a mangle of features. A twisted nose. Sun-chapped lips. Pockmarked cheeks.
"I can't see you, sir." The storyteller held his hand to his face and moved his head about as he tried to harness the light of the fire to help reveal who had spoken to him.
"I can see you," the voice said, and it carried with it a threat.
The boy's eyes shifted to the storyteller. Surely he'd backdown, apologize profusely to the caravan then move on to one of the other camps.
But he continued to look, his head and hand moving in rhythm with the fire as he strained to see past it.
"Pray thee, sir. Let me get come closer and see you better."
With that the storyteller stood up, bowed his farewell to Whist and the boy, then strolled over to the other side of the fire where the boy could hear him talking about another object. This time a tattered book left here, he swore, by a beautiful poet. She had inscribed her name, here, the boy heard him say, and he could picture the man's bony fingers pointing to an indecipherable scribble on