you love to judge strangers' karma

POSTED: Sun Dec 01, 2019 12:12 pm

Snow showers like the one preceding her visit to Trader’s Alley had finally given way to an absolute deluge of heavy, wet snow. Smaller homes were threatened with collapse, and even the sturdiest of carts now had trouble navigating impromptu pathways from one edge of town to the other.

Quietly, Clementine could not help but feel some great sense of relief in this. Her return to Salsola — not quite empty-handed — had been postponed, her nights of bunking in with her siblings resumed. At night they watched the snow fall, huddled in their blankets and their furs, whispering animatedly. It was almost as if they were children again; sometimes she looked for a fourth party before remembering and returned her gaze to the heavens above.

She smoked a cigarette with Lyra and Baltasar, and nearly coughed her lungs up, much to the amusement of her brother and sister. She’d seen Odalis do it so many times; it should have been easy, but the next time she begged off.

On one particular evening, she helped Indra collect firewood. Clementine watched her, the way she hurried, some urgency propelling her along the narrow, vaulted pathway through Treble.

Do you need to be somewhere? She asked finally, arms leaden with wood.



With —

A thoughtful pause grew into genuine silence.

With? Prompted Clementine, a slightly disconcerted smile twisting her face.

with… Lilia.

Whatever she’d been expecting, it wasn’t that; and yet, she hadn’t realized in all this time that there was genuine feeling between them, her mothers. Somehow, her purple-eyed mother seemed the softer of the two, gentler maybe.

Indra did not seem the sentimental type; it hadn’t occurred to Clem that coming to Salsola proper would cost her so much.

How did you do it?


Marry Lilia. Surely…

Words failed her, a rarity. Her grandmother, Indra’s mother, had been betrothed; even the Lord Commander and Gamekeeper were not above such things. The Crown had a heavy hand. More peculiar than this, Indra offered a very small, very rare smile.

It was all the answer she would get, she knew this, but couldn’t accept it.

Together they stacked the wood, for a while anyway. At some point, the Arbiter realized she was alone, abandoned to the cold and wet weather. Inside, she could hear laughter. Laying the last block, she dusted her hands and slipped inside. Lyra and Baltasar had their rooms, but hers was a mixed-use space now, and among the furs and stacked items, she struggled to find what she sought.

Changing from a borrowed cloak, she opted for a high-necked piece with thick, white fur around the throat. Over this, a different cloak, half cape, half proper outerwear. It was a little different than her usual fare, something sophisticated that she thought might have been intended for her sister, or a gift for Lilia.

Out in the cold again, it didn’t lay such a heavy hand. She considered Cooks’ Den, with its vibrant fires, but disdained the thought of serving herself and paying for the privilege to do so. Living within a kingdom for so long had imparted a heavy air of righteousness in her, which occasionally bordered on arrogance.

Mullen's Bar, then.

It was pedestrian, but then, the weather invited revelry. More so than usual, she soon found out. There was music (or as close as they could make) and dancing among the usual jostle for food and drink. In this she excitedly took part, whirling from partner to partner, eating a little, drinking less.

And yet she was tipsier than her parents might approve of, only a little less than she appeared. Collapsing into the only remaining empty seat breathless, head spinning, the final note of a laugh dying on her tongue, eyes bright.

Do you dance, mister? Asked the merchant; she was Antiope Scali tonight, but even this dual façade immediately questioned the wisdom of that final word, finding that the man opposite her was neither young nor old.

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POSTED: Sat Dec 07, 2019 11:15 pm

The little stone could have come from anywhere. It was smooth and white and nondescript, unremarkable in all ways except for the symbol carved on its face. He turned it in his fingers while he watched the room quake with thunderous merriment. Firelight made shadows of them all.

Keep it, Ivren said.

A dancer stumbled and righted himself on the edge of his table. Valan slipped the stone into his pocket, and with his other hand tipped his drink to the clumsy gentleman.

"Two left feet, aye?"

"Apparently so," the man grinned, and they shared a brief but knowing look with each other before he was dragged off by his partner. Dancing wasn't for everyone, Valan observed as the two men whirled and laughed and came together at the end, but they all made concessions for the people they loved.

The musical number drew to a close, and he began to pick out details from the dispersing crowd. Across the room, the bartender waved at him for another drink. He was on his fourth miserable, watery ale, and he did not have enough to trade for a fifth - at least, nothing unimportant. So it came again, this moment that was his nightly dilemma. He could leave the warmth of Mullen's and brace the cold of another sleepless night, or continue to pawn off the rest of his keepsakes and prolong his relief, which had all the consistency of his drink.

It never occurred to him that there might be another option.

A woman fell into the empty seat across from him. She couldn't have been much younger, but she named him by the impressions she grasped in that dizzying, dying whir of elation. He seldom saw himself and so could not verify it, but he imagined she was not wrong in placing him as someone who had seen and carried far more than most at his age.

"I do," Valan replied simply, and made no effort to follow up his claim with proof. He had danced in the mountain halls, but no more than once or twice. The war had stolen the rest of his opportunities.

"And do you—" he considered his inflection, "—ma'am?"


POSTED: Sun Dec 08, 2019 10:55 am

The revelry wouldn’t last — someone would break a mug, stumble into the wrong person, or start a fight — and then the bouncers would make swift work of them all, deciding who was allowed to stay and who wasn’t. This was why dancing typically wasn’t something found in Mullen’s; it led to too much trouble, that and the simple fact that there wasn’t really enough room.

Her original seat was long gone, the table across the room now occupied by a pair of women chatting animatedly. Her empty mug had been shunted to the side, replaced with two new ones.

When he spoke, his voice wasn’t at all what she’d expected. It betrayed him as someone who wasn’t quite as old as she’d originally thought, less than a year older than her if she had to guess. Unsure if he was mocking her by calling her ma’am, or if she’d annoyed him by calling him mister, she thought carefully about her response.

When I can, Her mothers had taught her, more specifically Lilia. Indra could dance, she knew, having been trained by Osrath during a time when the hunter had favored her. but that doesn’t happen very often.

Everyone understood this.

There wasn’t enough time in the day to do everything that needed doing, but they needed to find time for themselves. This was the reason she’d come; a little fun never killed anyone, after all, and she’d earned it despite a brief period of relative inactivity during the hot summer months.

She was the highest-ranking member of her family, past and present, and that was worth celebrating.

A bartender circled – his irritation was plain; this impromptu revelry was utterly unwelcome – and she’d begun to shake her head in a firm ‘no’ before reconsidering. A pin was coming loose from her hair due to all the twirling; pushing this back into place, indecision flashed across her face, albeit briefly. He would move onto other customers in a moment if she couldn’t decide.

Tea, I think — Clementine smiled apologetically, looked over into the young man’s frothy, empty mug, and shrugged. — and another beer.

The tapster huffed in the affirmative and moved on. If they didn't know who she was, exactly, they knew enough to understand that her word was as good as gold. Before she left, whether it be tomorrow or the next day, her tab would be paid in full.

Without missing a beat, she turned to grin across the table: Consider it an apology for imposing.

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POSTED: Sun Dec 08, 2019 2:27 pm

"When I can, but that doesn't happen very often."

"Then tonight is special." He surmised, leaving it to her to find the question and answer it if she wanted.

They lived in a world so riddled with difficulty that claiming joy, no matter how brief, felt like an act of rebellion. Valan understood this. Although he sat at his table alone, subdued in a way that might suggest envy, he did not begrudge the revelers for their revelry. They had their reasons to celebrate, and he did not.

In truth, moments of pleasure felt like a betrayal to the memory of the people he left behind.

He reappraised her. She had the look of someone well attended, but her remark hinted at some other quality that hid behind the rest. Raised among the mountain clans, Valan knew how to find value in seemingly ordinary things, or at the very least, perceive it. He straightened in his seat. A few drinks, especially of the watery kind, did little to dull his senses — he was a larger creature than most. It would have made him a good smith if the world hadn't ended when it did.

His dilemma came around again and cast an impatient look between the two of them. Time was up. Before he could answer, she intervened. Valan leaned forward, perched to chide her for the order, but she was once again quicker to the punch. His mouth opened, and then he had to laugh.

"Good company's no imposition," he told her. Neither was a free beer. Now understanding that she was person of haste, he stole the moment to extend his hand across the table in both a gesture of thanks and greeting. "I'm Valan."

The server circled through with a tray loaded with drinks barely contained to their vessels. Without spilling a drop, he passed their orders to the table with the chaotic grace of a marksmen taught by experience alone. Valan handed off his empty mug just as the first few notes of the next song went keening through the bar. His ear lifted, and he looked at her with a wistful grin.

"Your duty calls."


POSTED: Sun Dec 08, 2019 3:32 pm

Her world was ever-shifting, kaleidoscopic; shift it one way, and it could be stiflingly aristocratic; turn it upside down, and it was full of promise. She was no stranger to puzzles, either, or men of mystery.

Then tonight is special, he said.

It practically begged for a clever turn-of-phrase, a coquettish smile, or an intelligent quip. Debating this, her smile disappeared, reappeared, shifted, and changed. Some part of her wanted to be that person who said those things, effortlessly knowing if, when, and what to say at all times.

Special? A moment of bought time, a second in which to think. She thought of the important moments in her life, good and bad, then nodded in agreement. Magnus’ death, her Cueponi riddle, leaving for the Kingdom, becoming her aunt’s ward, becoming an Arbiter; these had all been important moments in her life, and seldom had she had a moment to reflect upon them. There was always another step, another goal, an endless horizon.

If we don’t celebrate the little things, we might not celebrate at all. This was said with a glance around the room; many of them were doomed to dull lives, and some would never venture beyond Portland. This was their life, forever, and their threshold for celebration were as small as their goals. A good harvest, a net full of fish, a snowstorm that left them unable to work.

This wasn’t her life, but she could imagine what it might be like in stark black-and-white terms.

Deftly, he — Valan, she now knew — disabused her of the notion that her company was unwelcome, offering his name and his hand in the same breath, both of which she took. The latter she shook firmly, being no stranger to such introductions. Trade meant frequent introductions and re-introductions.

Antiope Scali. Was her answer, but she left off the oh so common latter half, thinking more on his good manners than her own false identity, which was now so much a part of her that it didn’t even feel like lying.

Their drinks came then, hers steaming, his nearly overflowing with foam. Breaking apart, she retreated to her side of the table, watched as the drinks were skillfully laid. Not a speck fell though, not a single spot. Music, sharp and vibrant, leapt around the lingering dancers, and his voice rose to accompany it, prompting a grin. She knew what to say this time and didn’t give herself a moment for doubt.

And yours. Already rising, she extended her hand this time.

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POSTED: Sun Dec 08, 2019 9:16 pm

The little things. His mind went to the weight in his pocket.

He could have lived one of those little lives full of little celebrations. Valan was not so complicated; he had relished the simplicity back when it was all possible. There had been no grandiose plans or even a world outside of the mountain. Then the world came to him, and one by one all of those standards of progress were razed by a violent wind.

Like many of those displaced by disaster, it left him to wonder what mattered. When he'd been young, crafting the finest sword had been his highest ambition. Now, he couldn't look at his own blade without a sense of revulsion.

She wasn't wrong, however. Word was that King Iomair had survived. It was what brought Valan out of the dust and ash of a fallen civilization and so far east, this little sliver of hope.

Their palms met, and her grip was firmer than he expected. She was full of these little hints, like the gleam of crystal through a cracked stone. He smiled at her. Antiope Scali, she offered — it was a name as foreign as the color of her hair or the manner of her dress. He wondered at its meaning, if there was one. It amazed him how many of their kind lived in a state of transience, where their histories, their families, their culture was made and forgotten in a lifetime. Perhaps his true parents had been such people.

Valan welcomed the interruption of their order. He could cast away the shadows of introspection for the drink ahead of him. As he began to lift the frothy beverage to his mouth, she stood up. Expecting her to flutter off, as pretty and gentle things often did, Valan was caught by surprise when she extended a hand. It took him a beat to consider the offer, and another before the rising tempo ushered his decision. He took it.

The man who had bumped his table earlier, now standing with his partner at the corner of the bar, flashed him a grin and a small thumbs up. Valan felt a sudden pang, not unlike the feeling at the start of battle.


POSTED: Sun Dec 08, 2019 10:56 pm

Antiope Scali was not so terribly different from Clementine Salcedo; they were – by-and-large – the same person, and it was only the name that differed. Of course, they lived different lives. One was an errant merchant’s daughter (these two things were nearly a tautology, which she enjoyed) and the other a prominent member of an upper-class family.

And then there was Salsola and all that it entailed.

Few, very few, knew of what went on within the rigidly structured pack. There were rumors, of course, but many had been hand-crafted by the upper echelons and then propagated throughout surrounding territories for the sake of the thing. Rumors were powerful in the right hands. She had partaken in some of this herself.

The rest of it, the slaves and the secrecy, these were the things she could not be connected to. Such concepts would prompt even the dourest of strangers to an emotional outburst.

All of this made it easy. It was only a name, and she could live without that for a little while.

Leading him to an outer circle of the throng, she shied away from the promenade. Uncertain of his skill, she felt anxiety jump at her throat when additional notes were forthcoming from the musicians. No test was this, they had begun to play in earnest now. The tempo was neither fast nor slow, and she noted that some were unsure how to approach this.

Some were moving side-to-side, others were incorporating swift turns, but a few fell into what she recognized as being a waltz. It made her smile to imagine the lives of these strangers who, by contrast, should not have known the difference between the different styles. Some, like herself, must have been taught by mothers or grandmothers, fathers or uncles.

This close proximity with a stranger should have made one or both of them uncomfortable; she credited her skill with people for her lack of nerves and wondered belatedly if she wasn’t asking too much of him. He smelled like metal and cold stone and watered-down beer, and she decided that wasn’t at all a bad thing.

She meant to ask him if this was an imposition but murmured something else entirely.

This seems like one of those things we were talking about. Not worth celebrating, maybe, but perhaps it could stand on its own.

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POSTED: Mon Dec 09, 2019 12:49 am

There was always a kind of self-consciousness that leapt at the moment of pleasure. Awareness of the thing never made it easier to quash, but there was a greater part of him that no longer submitted to the world of convention. The wild had grown where the mountain had crumbled, and there was nothing anymore that made him so nervous.

If there was any hint of discomfort, it was that the the dance they took up was unfamiliar to him. He scanned the room for an indication of how he should stand and saw that some were very close. A little warmth sprang into his face as he placed his hands, one beneath her shoulder and the other raised, clasping her own. They came together without much difficulty, and standing still, he felt an ease as if they had partnered in lifetimes past.

She hadn't told him why tonight was an exception, but he found this made it easier to forget himself for a while. For a moment, he too could don an alter-ego and act as a participant in her story, sharing in whatever cause she had for celebration. He looked closely at the pretty way she looked down, all lashes fluttering and hairpins askew, her words spun in a delicate whisper. It seemed suddenly very clear to him what Antiope might want, even if all they had exchanged were names. Straightening one of the pins in the manner he had seen her do earlier, he considered her with a small smile. "There," he murmured, satisfied. Now it was special.

It occurred to him that she was such a little thing. Women of the mountain were strong, thick creatures, but Antiope was a willowy branch, all air and curls and softness. Some primal, foolish part of him wanted to lift her up just to see if she was as light as she looked. He moved her forward instead, commencing the elegant, whirling gait of their dance. Special attention was paid to the pattern of their steps, though it meant at times he lost the posture in his arms and drew her closer. He didn't mind this, he found — she was warm and smelt of meadows, and reminded him of the better days of summer.


POSTED: Mon Dec 09, 2019 12:57 pm

The reality of it was that this would have been her life under any other circumstances. If the ice hadn’t cracked that day, if Magnus had not died, she would have stayed here; might have even decided she liked it enough to stay permanently, never leaving the fort.

If, if, if.

Life was rarely so kind. It certainly wasn’t easy, not for most. Clementine Salcedo was one of the lucky few to have been born into a position of great wealth and possibility, with the only limit being her imagination. As it was, she had been armed — blessed, really — with a creative mind and a flair for drama. Equipped with these two things she was a gifted salesman.

So good, in fact, that she could nearly convince herself of the clever lie that she would be content if resigned to the life of an everyday merchant.

Her ambition, that madman’s disease, never would have allowed for such a thing to come to pass. Without a driving desire to rise higher, go farther, she would be a glass half empty, a candle in the wind. In that alternative version of events she would not shine so bright, smile so quickly, or be so bold.

That girl would not be here dancing, heat rising to her cheeks when a boy fixed her hairpin. It was such a small thing, the barest breach of impropriety, but then again, she was a girl with few real friends; anything more was unthinkable. The sense of reproval from afar dawned, slowly then all at once. Here was an Outsider who, if he knew the whole truth, would run as far away as possible as quickly as his feet could carry him.

For now though, he was her captive audience.

Is that all it takes? She wondered aloud, at once genuinely curious and afraid that it was so.

He was the first who did not seem inclined to fall at her feet, something she found she enjoyed. Before, when her youth had stood her in good stead, it had been answer enough. Now... well, the excuses were thinner.

Clem had come here under the impression that it would lead to intimate conversations between herself and her family, and yet everything was quips and snippets, vague comments about the state of the town, or her siblings wanting to know what Salsola was like. There was no seriousness, no heartfelt confessions, no passing obsessions.

Glancing to their table, their drinks, she realized belatedly that his would warm and hers would cool. For one moment they might even meet in the middle, before continuing on their ways up and down.

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POSTED: Mon Dec 09, 2019 3:19 pm

From the people they could have been, to the people they were now, a world of possibility folded open. Valan had no preconceptions of her kingdom, and she had none of his own — to his knowledge, at least. Where they intersected was all that he had to judge, and in the end, if or when the pages filled in, those moments were all that would matter.

"Nothing more, nothing less," he replied, without realizing his answer worked for two questions: the one she asked and the one he thought she was asking.

Attraction often worked that way. In an instant, everything was different, like circling a sculpture or waking one morning to find the world blanketed in snow. There were countless tales of how it could happen and no single one could encompass the entirety of the moment for its suddenness or its graceful turns, nor how it seemed to lead both parties to bend and swivel on currents of their own making. Without either partner, the dance did not exist, and yet they were as helpless to the movement as if it was entirely beyond them. The music played and they craned to listen.

Candlelight and her fire-red hair, the fine arch of her lily white neck, the rhythm of her breath in tandem with his own — these were the impressions he would keep when all was said and done.

Once more, the world came to meet them.

Glancing up, he saw the helpless gentleman from before now spinning with his partner. Thus far, Valan and Antiope had done a fair job avoiding calamity, narrowly dodging the usual pitfalls of dancing on uneven floorboards and far too little room, but their luck seemed predetermined to end. Valan could not throw himself at the feet of others any more than a mountain could bend at the middle, but he could be the steadfast structure against which one might find their balance. Or, better yet, he could be the one who lifted them from the perils of clumsiness. In that moment, he became both.

Just as expected, the left-footed man took an awkward step and forfeited all composure. Moving with prescient haste, Valan wrapped an arm around Antiope's slender waist and brought her up from the floor. She was as light as he imagined, just a sliver of the moon he might return to the sky.

The man came crashing down, and Valan turned on the ball of his foot to shield Antiope from the worst of the mishap. The blow was no more than a frail wind buffeting against a fortified structure, and Valan's back was as fortified as any, even without the padding of a fine wool jerkin. It was more than likely she barely felt a tremor of the collision.

"Oh my goodness, I am so sorry," the man laughed breathlessly. Everything else he said faded into the clamor of applause. The song had ended, and Valan could only see Antiope in his arms.

"Are you alright?" He asked, not yet cognizant of the way he wrapped her closely nor how near their faces seemed to be.