The inn is quiet, save for the sounds of gambling, and the honky-tonk piano of a frail old woman, who at her age is plainly just going through the motions.
The piano stops when the group of friends walks in lugging their scuffed and filthy crates. Snoring can be heard from a fellow passed out at the bar.
With the inn’s attention on them, Shyan says, “We’re looking to sell. Bottles, phials, the like. There a chemist in town?” A murmur passes through the patrons.
Cang flashes a sign to the bartender, who begins pouring drinks. A woman in indigo robes of a delicate cut stands, throws back her hood. She has an untamed mass of ebon hair, and behind it, a hairline scar running across her forward. She slams another shot of murky brown booze before clearing her throat. “I,” she says, with a suppressed hiccup, “am an alchemist.”
Old Ajaralan does not, indeed, have his fill, for eleven days and twelve nights.
Thereafter, the team stumbles, parched, starving, and bubbling with the last vestiges of fury yet extant after nearly a fortnight bearing crates, by hand, along a dusty and deserted road.
Now, they arrive, filthy, to a mud-smeared cluster of thatched-roof huts. The huts gather around a central square where a large cookfire smolders before a rickety gallows. Lean villagers in roughspun stare at the newcomers with frank distrust as they muddle through their daily tasks.
“Inn,” Fassn rasps.
“Are those wings on your back?” asks a peasant.
The peasant scoffs to her companion. “Outsiders.” She gestures to one of the huts, alike in aspect to the rest, if somewhat larger. “Sleep it off, wingboy,” she says.
The grasshopper sets his jaw. “This is a dangerous place,” he says. “I’d feel far mo’ comfortable if y’all could just stay on the wagon.”
Shyan’s echoing voice rings out across the broken landscape. “Stop!”
The grasshopper’s beast of burden comes to an abrupt halt, despite its master’s protestations.
“Thank you,” Shyan says to the beast. She hops out and works at unloading the crates.
“Shyan, we’re getting out right here?” Fassn asks. He gets no more reply than a determined grunt as Shyan works.
“Well we’s nearly at my home,” the grasshopper sputters. “If y’all change yer minds, take a right at the reeds over yonder, go for six half-kims, and you’ll find my hidey-hole.”
Cang, Fassn, and Abianarin reluctantly remove themselves from the wagon. As it pulls away, it leaves a cloud of dust over the remaining crates, and the travelers themselves.
With an air of deep, slow regret, Fassn says, “Old Ajralan, may you have your fill.”
The group stares down the grasshopper, awaiting an answer.
“We don’t like surprises,” Shyan says.
“Well, the surprise, really,” the grasshopper says, his legs rubbing out an anxious, reedy tone. “Is that there is no surprise! See!”
The beast of burden let out a deep whinny, and a fart.
“I just get lonely out here on the road, jus’ me an’ ol’ Bus, here, an’, well, y’all seemed like such nice folks I figured it’d be awfully fun to talk to ya.”
Cang’s face flattens like that of a card player. “So there’s no buyer?”
“There ain’t no no one,” the grasshopper says. “I live alone and hardly ever see anyone.”
“Stop here, please,” Shyan says.
The grasshopper doesn’t reply, which makes Shyan nervous. “Where are we going?” she asks again.
Cang catches on, puts steel in his voice. “Best to speak up, insect.”
“Back to m’ home village, ‘sall,” the grasshopper says. “Plenty of folks what’s willin’ to buy alchemic concoctions like ya’s have in them crates.”
“And who are these mysterious buyers?” Cang asks.
“Fellow bugs?” added Fassn.
The grasshopper’s compound eyes glimmer. “Plenty of odd folks about in the village,” he says. He dry-washes his humanoid hands, without letting go of his beast’s reins. “Best not to spoil the surprise.”
“Gods,” Cang says. “Can we never simply get paid?”
“And this god of yers is a birdman like y’self? Goodness, is it the big fella what’s grumblin’ in anger, back where I picked y’all up?” The grasshopper rubs his legs together, producing a wiry sound.
“Old Ajralan is no ‘birdman,’ grasshopper,” Fassn says. “He is the worlds’ connoisseur, an aesthete of highest order.” He bows. “I am Fassn, his fingertips, his eardrums, his taste buds.”
Cang snorts. Fassn whirls on him. “Something funny little man?”
Cang bristles and by instinct his hand finds his dagger’s hilt. “Watch your words, taste buds,” he says.
“Boys, boys, I won’t be havin’ no fightin’ on my wagon. My old beast of burden’s fickle, like to stick and run as pull on through, gettin’ up into her years as she is.”
Shayn sits up. “Where are we going?”