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?”
The grasshopper tells tall tales of tall reeds. His home is far afield, under a bramble, by a stream. He lives with his wife and three children, all grasshoppers themselves.
“Normally we’s afraid of folks like y’all,” he says, gesturing to Fassn, with his gauzy wings. “Birds and the like’s wont to eat grasshoppers like us, stature or no.”
Fassn says, “I’m not a bird.”
“No, I suppose not,” the grasshopper says.
“I’m a devoted servant and appendage of Old Ajralan.”
“Who’s that now?”
Fassn looks to his companions, exasperated.
“A god Fassn believes in,” Shyan says.
“Spirit man,” Abia adds.
The grasshopper blinks his compound eyes. Fassn scoffs.
They camp for four days beside the gargantuan, apoplectic bird-thing. Unable to right itself, or even control its devastated form, it boiled with anger. “Poison, poison you sold me,” it said.
“It was a free sample,” Fassn replied.
They saw no other people in the desiccated city, until the fifth day, when they hear the undeniable sound of a wagon, drawn by a beast or burden. A grasshopper, Cang’s height, with an untamed beard and yet-wilder eyebrows, calls his horse to a halt.
“Howdy,” he says.
“Hi,” Fassn replies.
The grasshopper nods to the crates. “Thought I smelled liquors. Y’all sellin’?”
The gang shares a look. Fassn is least able to contain his delight.
“Perhaps,” Cang says.
“Well why not load ’em all up onto the cart and old Wilbur here’ll drive us back to the Jewel Farm. I’ll buy ’em pots off ya, and maybe you can gets to pickin’ a gem or two off the vines for yourselves. What do you say?”
“Old Ajralan,” Fassn says, and hops on. “May you have your fill.”