Never again, Rakaar thought as he approached the village, yanking his scarf up to block a ribbon of windswept sand.
For the first sign of civilization in weeks, Gendi was rather underwhelming; Rakaar had expected a sprawling trading hub, full of music and culture and diversity, and was instead greeted by a rusting fixture in its dying throes of relevancy. The outpost was little more than a clump of low mud buildings connected by a few narrow streets. There was no city wall, not even a gate; one simply meandered right into the village, unchecked, and hoped it wasn’t another mirage. Skirting the edge of the impassable Wastelands—Rakaar went around by the coastline, like every other land traveler and caravanner—he’d seen a lot of things that weren’t there, tempting him toward oblivion. Passage by ship to Southern Cerulis was prohibitively expensive, but next time he might risk poverty and heaving up his meals to avoid—
No, he corrected himself. I’m not doing that again, no matter the mode of travel.
Of all the places Rakaar had wandered, crossing to Istrianor had taken the most out of him. Northern Cerulis could boast its own extreme climates; the Wastelands were something else.
Hot gusts of wind sent textiles dancing along the laundry lines connecting Gendi’s low buildings like a spiderweb. Children were nowhere to be seen, and adults who braved the streets ran from one destination to the next to escape the sandy tempest. Signs in the common tongue marked the services one might expect to see on the other side of a long journey—food, clothing, stables, an inn—but the paint was faded and peeling.
Sweat beading on his forehead, Rakaar strode for the inn with one hand fighting to adjust the scarf he’d wrapped around his head and neck. He brought an unwelcome wave of sand with him when he entered, despite how quickly he closed the creaking door behind him. Inside was cool, dark, and hazy with sweet-smelling smoke that pooled near the ceiling.
Rakaar blinked, his eyes focusing through the gloom, locating the bar on the left side. Most of the rickety tables were unoccupied, save for one in the far corner, where a man with a pipe blew smoke rings toward a cloudy window. At the bar, two women laid down a few colored glass discs—the standardized currency of Southern Cerulis—and stood to depart.
Rakaar couldn’t have said what it was, precisely, that caught his eye: perhaps it was the glint of jewelry, or the rich onyx of their matching outfits, or the striking makeup they wore on their faces. He stopped just inside the door, dumbstruck, as the women turned around.
Their outfits were akin to some he’d seen in his travels across his home realm of Draserune, a place that took plenty of cultural influence from the South—sleeveless tops cropped at the ribcage, with a back that scooped dramatically low, held together at the bottom by hooks and between the shoulder blades by tying two long strings that ended in decorative tassels. The women’s midriffs were bare, and they wore voluminous, floor-length skirts of expensive onyx silk that swished every time they moved. Intricate gold thread embellished the hems.
The style wasn’t unknown to Rakaar, but the quality of the ornamentation certainly was: the tassels looked to be crafted of pure gold and were shaped like a poisonous-looking flower he thought he’d seen once before. Golden bangles adorned the women’s wrists, and bands studded with amethyst encircled their upper arms. Twisted, spiky earrings began at the top curve of the ear, the cartilage, and curled all the way around to the lobe. Dark brown hair fell down their backs in gleaming tresses, but it was gathered back from their faces by shimmering headbands of gold and amethyst. Their dark, captivating eyes were lined heavily in black; onyx colored their lips as well.
At first glance, the women could have been twins. Rakaar had been staring at them long enough to know they weren’t. And before he could tear his gaze away, for propriety’s sake, one of the women caught him.
Isi, he cursed.
She flashed him a coy smile that was completely devoid of innocence. Had Rakaar been anything but dazed, he might have blurted something to make it seem like he wasn’t leering; he wasn’t even attracted to women, as it went. But then the woman and her friend rounded him to exit the inn, and they were gone, leaving a flowery and enticing scent in their wake.
“Something I can get you?” the bartender asked in the common tongue.
Rakaar hadn’t noticed her when he first walked in—the other women had simply overshadowed her. He hesitated for another moment by the door, then ran a hand over his face and slid into a seat at the bar. The bartender eyed him. She was older than he was and plainly dressed, with her hair pulled back for practicality and no makeup to smudge with sweat.
“Necromancers,” she said, gesturing to the entrance with the bottle of clear alcohol in her hand. “We don’t see them much in these parts, but they’re all like that. The outfits are some sort of uniform.” Her mouth twitched. “You should see the men.”
“I’d heard about necromancers,” Rakaar said—rather breathily, he thought. “But I didn’t expect them to be so … glamorous.”
Her slight smile lingered. “Your accent. You from the North?”
She had already placed a clean glass in front of him and was hovering that bottle of clear alcohol over it. He nodded, both to her question and the drink, and cleared his throat.
“I used to travel a lot up there,” he said. “I was in Draserune last.”
“You must not have heard that this place is dead,” she said, capping the bottle. If she had an accent, it was subtle and hard to distinguish—although the markers of Istrianori were said to be neutral to a northerner’s ears. “Gendi’s been replaced by an outpost closer to the coast.”
“No one said.” Rakaar took a sip of his drink and coughed. “Do you have any water?”
“Not that you can afford,” she said. “You’re better off with alcohol. Didn’t you notice the caravanners turning west?”
“I did, but none of them mentioned anything when I told them I was heading for Gendi.”
“People used to be kinder on the road,” she said, leaning her hip against the bar. She flipped her hand palm up on the surface and began to trace the lines with one finger, her gaze focused on the only other patron in the inn, the man by the window. He was lighting his pipe to fill the bar with another cloud of sweet smoke. “I can give you a room, but you’ll want to be moving on. Most of the luxuries have gone west or south. I’m only here because I own the place and the locals keep me afloat. Most of the locals are only here because the horses keep them afloat.”
“I could afford water on the coast, I’m guessing.”
She was still tracing the lines of her palm; Rakaar had seen a few other southerners do this on the road, often when they were thinking.
“Maybe even a horse to get you to the next outpost,” she said. “The ones they herd here go straight to the queen’s cavalry. Not for sale, in other words.”
“Can I resupply, at least?” Rakaar said.
“Oh, well enough. The walk to Manaka isn’t too bad, and you should be able to fill your water skin at the general store. The old man has a soft heart, and so few travelers come this way anymore. He’ll take whatever money you give him. I’d be more generous, to be honest, but I’m running low for this part of the season.”
Smoke drifted between them. Rakaar took another drink and didn’t cough.
“What do you think necromancers were doing here?” he asked.
The bartender stopped tracing her palm and met his eyes.
“I thought the Conclave outlawed necromancy,” Rakaar added.
“The Conclave doesn’t have much power this side of the Wastelands.” Turning her back to him, she began to fiddle with the dusty bottles lining the shelves. “Besides, those women don’t answer to Novis anymore. Their kind set themselves up in Eakkonor. And unless they do something dramatic, something bad for the public perception, the Conclave won’t bother them.”
“Don’t people—” He paused. “I mean, what if they used a dead relative of yours?”
She scoffed, but she didn’t turn around. “They’d be hard-pressed to find any relative of mine.” She tossed a look over her shoulder. “Don’t get me wrong. I don’t support what they do. But it’s different here. People are different here. We keep our judgements to ourselves.”
“You say that as if we don’t do the same in the North,” Rakaar said.
She shrugged and said, “Maybe you don’t. You’re the wanderer. But here—people who don’t have anywhere else to go, they go here, where they won’t be bothered. It’s always been like that in the South.” She rotated to face him. “What are you doing here, anyway?”
Rakaar blushed, though he felt foolish an instant later. What was he doing? Meeting someone, technically. A handsome merchant with a big and loving family—a life too important to abandon for a fling with a traveler in Draserune. Rakaar dropped his gaze, wringing his hands.
It was impossible not to feel foolish. He didn’t have much, but he had his knowledge of the North, gathered over twenty years. And he’d abandoned all of it for this. In the South, glamorous necromancers would be the first of many things he’d never seen and didn’t quite understand. Northern and Southern Cerulis might as well have been separated by an ocean—or perhaps the Wastelands, that seemingly endless swath of unforgiving desert, was simply an ocean by another name.
But it’s time for something new, he thought. I decided that before I left. And I am not making that crossing again. Not unless they throw me out.
“It’s really none of your business what I’m here for,” Rakaar said, lifting his eyes to the bartender, who’d been watching him with her eyebrows raised.
With a wheezy laugh, she flashed her teeth. “No,” she said. “It isn’t.”