A bit of frothy nonsense for today’s prompt response. Also, my son and I were doing a bit of friendly competition, writing 2000 words in the last 24 hours. I made it to 2115 with this.
“That,” He gestured at the gleaming orb. “Is not a phoenix egg.”
“No?” Harnady cocked an eye at the object, watching the coruscating lights traverse its surface. “How do you know?”
Sheffley elevated his knife-blade nose into the air a little higher, and sniffed. “I know. Take it away.”
Harnady clucked at the small retinue of creatures who had carried the thing in, and they picked up the sling in unison. Gleaming artifact bobbing between them, they marched out through the archway and out of sight. Harnady watched them go, then turned back to his difficult client.
“My dear Sheffley,” he began, then hastily course-corrected as he saw the man’s brows start to contract. “I mean to say, perhaps that was a roc’s egg?”
“I don’t want a roc, whatever that is.” The man leaned back on the cushions. “I only want a phoenix egg. Or a phoenix, because I know how to get an egg out of it.”
“How? May I ask.” Harnady stifled his sigh. His diplomacy, never his strongest asset, was being taxed beyond its limits. Like the sikars of this city, who were driving the merchants away through their never-ending fees and fines. Taxes under any other name were still as onerous. Harnady himself had half a mind to relocate. If he could eke out just enough tact to squeeze this last commission, he would.
“You may not. It’s a secret.” Sheffley sat up again, bolt upright in the middle of the colorful cushions. “I say. I know you’re rather anchored to this moldy old place, what. Would you ever consider leaving here?”
Harnady blinked at his inner thoughts being reflected in this manner.
Sheffley ignored this and steamrolled on. “I don’t think we’re going to find an egg in the markets here. I mean, who wouldn’t snaffle one up as soon as it became known? No, we’re going to have to go out there,” he flapped a long white hand vaguely in the direction of the archway, “and find it ourselves.”
“Out there,” Harnady didn’t want to appear too eager, “beyond the city walls?”
“Yes.” Sheffley clapped his hands together and rubbed them. “That’s precisely what I need to do, and Harnady, you’re just the ma… er, facilitator to make it happen. I daresay dragging you away from all this seems like an awful hardship, but it will be an adventure old boy.”
“The funds…” Harnady murmured, his brain churning with plans to trickle his household out on this irrelevant quest’s premise, so the sikars never even noticed until it was too late for export fees, or gate charges, or whatever they had come up with last week.
“Pshah.” Sheffley brushed away this objection. “I’m not asking you to put anything up. The egg shall be all mine, you will simply serve as my factor. Too exhausting, negotiating with the locals. You earn your cut. But the egg is for me.”
More than a week had passed before Harnady stood up in the swaying palanquin and watched the column of bearers struggling to clear the gates before the hour’s bell struck and the second toll charge came due. He’d threatened to dock their pay for the amount of it, were they not all through in time. The men and women alike were trotting under their burdens, and as he watched one stumbled, only to be caught by three others who pulled him along willy-nilly.
Once he was satisfied they would indeed make his deadline, Harnady sat. He was now facing the rest of the column. His wildest dreams had been surpassed – not only his own household, but a goodly number of hired bearers were marching on with them out of the city. Selling his goods would have attracted too much attention in the market, so the original plan had entailed his reluctant abandonment of much, knowing the sikars would confiscate it once they discovered his treachery.
Now? Harnady chuckled to himself in delight at the thought of their dismay on finding only empty rooms. His proctors were, even now, selling what was prudent, with the tale of a bankrupted patron at the hands of Sheffley’s insistent demands for luxury on his travels.
The reality was that Sheffley simply wanted things to be as they had been. He’d been very comfortable at the big resort, and he expected the same level of care while he journeyed. Harnady meant for him to have it. For now. Once they were safely clear of the sikars’ demesnes? Things could change. After all, who would care if the man complained then?
By evening, when Harnady encountered Sheffley again, they had come only two leagues from the city. Camp had been set in a rented field, and the two of them reclined on the familiar cushions under a silken roof.
“This will not do.” Sheffley was almost lying on his back. He held a glass of amber wine in one hand, and with the other he thrust a finger toward the tentpole above them. “It will not. I say, Harnady,” he managed to sit upright with much agitation of his wine. Had the glass not been close to empty, it would have come to a sticky end. “Old boy, we cannot go on like this.”
The complaints were not unexpected. Harnady lifted his own glass to his lips. Sheffley kept talking without needing a response to prompt his explanation of just what was wrong.
“Two leagues in a day. After a very early start.”
Harnady contemplated the tinge of red in the ripples of his winglass. He knew the signs. He wouldn’t need to say anything while Sheffley was under this head of steamy indignation.
“I will be an old man before we find the phoenix. I realize it’s a hardship to leave all of this…” Sheffley swept his arm in an encompassing gesture, still holding his now-empty wine glass. “But I must ask it of you. We cannot be burdened and make any progress.”
Before Sheffley could expound on his proposed plan for a more speedy expedition, they were interrupted. First, by the sound of a woman’s voice raised in some agitation, and then, by the woman herself.
She plunged through the tent’s door, framed in loose hanging curtains to keep out the dust and flies. On her heels, Harnady’s majordomo, his eyes large and dark. He was wringing his long hands together, but if he was saying anything it was drowned out.
“I will not!” She drew herself to her full height, regaining her balance after the nearly headlong rush. “Be subjected to barbarity!”
“My dear girl.” Sheffley had somehow risen to his feet from the cushion nest. Harnady, not suffering from the same cultural strictures, had also come to his feet out of sheer surprise.
She clasped her hands in front of her chest, which was heaving with rapid breaths and emotions. “Have I found here some who will listen to my plight?”
Harnady eyed her with interest. That had sounded oddly scripted to him. He looked over his shoulder at the majordomo, who was shifting from foot to foot with evident agitation.
“Do go,” Harnady told him. “And bring refreshments for our guest.”
“Oh,” She looked at Harnady, “I thank you.” She looked at Sheffley, then back again. “Are you…?”
“Traveling?” Harnady played dumb. It usually worked.
“I am seeking assistance.” She dropped her hands to her side. Harnady tilted his head and studied her. A female, long skirts but practical fabric, very well tailored indeed. No hat, and the dark hair coiled atop her head was escaping in wispy curls. Still, it was clean under the layer of road dust, and her face was clear and healthy. She was moneyed.
“We would be happy…” Sheffley began.
“Perhaps you would like to sit?” Harnady cut him off ruthlessly before he committed them both to something. “You must be exhausted.”
She seemed to have deflated from the burst of high emotion that had carried her into their presence. “Thank you.”
Harnady joined her at the table, and Sheffley awkwardly tried to push her chair in over the rugs that kept them from the ground beneath. Harnady took advantage of this moment.
“Do tell us, Miss…?”
He waited, his head tipped to one side just slightly, in the manner he had learned humans found disarming.
“Miss Blackwell. Serena Blackwell” She leaned forward, plopping elbows on the table and then dropping her head into her hands. “I am at the end of my wits, you must forgive my lack of manners.”
“I am Harnady, and this is Sir Charles Sheffley.” Harnady completed the introductions. “We can see there is something very wrong, and will gladly hear your tale.”
He was not about to promise more than that, but it promised to be amusing. The tent door twitched aside, and a pair of his people entered with trays of fruit, glasses, and a selection of cheese. He nodded at them and they left the trays on the table. She stared at the food with wide eyes.
“I don’t know where to begin.” She sat up straight and took her arms away from the table with a little guilty jerk. “This has been a nightmare of a day.”
“Perhaps begin just before the nightmare?” Sheffley suggested. He handed her a glassful of wine.
Harnady countered this with a glass of iced water. “Here, begin with this. Then speaking will be easier.” He twitched the wine away, and she didn’t object.
“Last night.” She said after a moment. “My brother and I were returning to the city, after our expedition.”
“Ah, we are also on an expedition, but headed outward.” Harnady put a plateful of jeweled fruit, cut into ornate shapes, in front of her.
“I wasn’t sure…” She looked doubtfully at him. “It seemed almost like I had reached the city, when I came upon your camp. Ours was… rather smaller.”
“Oh, certainly. Sheffley and I were just talking about the need to pare down and travel more rapidly.”
She nodded. “We would have reached the city today, I think, had… Had it not happened.” She shuddered, her whole body shaking. “Something attacked us in the night.”
Both spoke at once, but with very different questions.
“Yes. I cannot tell you what it was. I awakened to a man screaming. Oh. It was terrible.” She was shaking again. Harnady pushed the glass of wine back to her, and she took it without looking at it when it touched her hand. “My brother started shouting, and I managed to get out of my little tent just in time to see…” She took a gulp of the wine. “To see him lifted off his feet into the air. He rose up, and then seemed to vanish when he was outside the range of the torches the bearers had been keeping alight around the camp.”
“By jove!” Sheffley exclaimed, half rising from his chair.
Harnady frowned and gestured sharply at him, and the tall human subsided again.
She didn’t seem to even notice the outburst. “I ran from my tent toward the fire. Toward where I had last seen him, and I wasn’t looking at the ground. I fell over.. Over what was left of one of the bearers.”
She looked pale, and finished her wine. “He had been bitten clean through by something like a massive scissors.”
Harnady didn’t ask her to elaborate, he had gathered what she meant by that.
She took a breath. “The bearers all ran away. My brother… never came back down.”
She looked at each of them in turn. “Whatever it was, it carried him off. I must find him. I must.”
“We are at your service.” Sheffley didn’t even look at Hornady before he pledged them. Hornady saw that familiar light of fanaticism in the man’s eyes, though, and held his peace. “We shall ride by your side until his remains are safely recovered.”
“First, however, you must be exhausted and greatly in need of rest, bathing, and more substantial fare.” Harnady turned and gestured at the majordomo who had been waiting silently by the tent door. “Please, go with Dranth. My odalisques shall attend to your every need. At dawn, we ride.”
Serena sat bolt upright. “I had hoped…”
Harnady shook his head. “You will do him no good if you kill yourself trying, milady. Rest and recover.”
She slumped and then rose, Sheffley matching her. Harnady sighed and got up. It was a human custom not his own, but at the moment it served his need to make sure she was being under watchful eyes and he could begin to prepare for this odd twist in their journey.
I was prompted by AC Young with “After a long search he finally found a phoenix egg.” and I do realize that I’ve mangled the prompt. Maybe next week the egg will be discovered!
I prompted Fiona Grey with “One step too far, and there’s no turning back.”
You can read all the responses, and play along yourself, over at More Odds than Ends.