The 38 Lands (Jiskastya X LeighaMoscove)
The great castle seemed to glow in the bright light, less pure than a blinding white, but still so radiant as to make someone unused to the sight avert their eyes from its glory for a second. Sanja had experienced such an experience earlier in the week, when her weary feet had finally touched the bottom steps of this great monument.
It had been a long climb up the steps, but it seemed to her, with every step, the weight slipped off her shoulders. She carried herself with more pride, seeming to wear the dirt of travel with the grace usually only associated with royalty.
Finally, she was beginning. Her old life, a life of being constantly scorned, shunned, treated as a freak, was coming to an end. All she had to do was pass this test, and she would be on her way. And there was no doubt in her mind that she would pass. She had made it this far, and she certainly wasn’t going to be turned aside now.
She hadn’t cared about the narrow face watching her with greedy eyes as she stepped into the archway. All of her heart and soul was focused before her, on the beginning of her journey to life.
Now, however, the grand city sprawling before her did not seem so grand. The test had taken more than she would have believed, and if this was only a sample of what was to come, well, a small part of her almost wondered if she wouldn’t have been better off staying in the little village she had never called home, hundreds of miles away from her present location. But she had time now, plenty of time, and her small doubts were crushed under the pure joy of knowing that, no matter what, her life had now changed forever.
She whirled about suddenly as she sensed the figure creeping up behind her. The same man who had been watching her enter the cast almost a week ago now stumbled to a halt, eyes wide with surprise. He had been too far away at the time to see before, but now he was forced into the sudden realization that the person before him had no face.
Well, perhaps that wasn’t completely accurate, he acknowledged. She wore a mask, completely solid, and it was made all the more unnerving by the fact that she had turned around before he could even get within twenty paces of her. He had wanted to be closer before he had started talking, wanted to make sure that the person wouldn’t run away, and ruin this perfect opportunity, but there was no going back now. He would have to make the best of it.
He put on the winning smile that had charmed so many before, silently wondering whether or not this woman could even see it, and whether it would make any difference. Just in case, he put an extra note of honey in his voice. An old friend, coming to talk to someone they held dear in their heart.
“Did you do it?” he questioned excitedly. When that elicited no response from the cowled figure, he continued. “Did you pass? Are you on your way to the grandest adventure that anyone could ever begin?”
She nodded slowly, her covered eyes seeming to stare right through him. She had faced many such people before, people who knew when there was a potential advantage to be gained, and who only cared about their own person. This sleazy little merchant had no good in store for her, but there was little he could really do against her. He jigged out a little step, a wide grin splitting across his face.
“Oh my, oh my.” he giggled. “It has been far too long since someone has passed the first test, and now two, in as many weeks.” He paused to giggle again, trying to gauge some sort of reaction from the stranger. She held perfectly still, not even a small intake of breath to show that this knowledge held any surprise for her.
She had known that someone else was in the castle, being tested like her, but she hadn’t dreamed that the strange man would pass as well. But there was something in the excited and harmless looking merchant’s face that made Sanja pause. Why was he even bringing this up? A part of her told her that the best thing to do at this moment would be to simply walk away. Leave the merchant where he stood, a dumbfounded look on his face. And maybe that would be the best course, but a small amount of curiosity had been piqued within Sanja, and she saw no reason not to see it out to the end.
“What do you want, exactly?” The merchant flinched as Sanja spoke. He didn’t know what he had been expecting, but it certainly wasn’t the incredibly melodious voice that issued from behind the mask. A part of him hadn’t even been sure that she could speak, what with her face being covered by a mask, and everything below her nose covered by the cowl. But her voice was beautiful, and the merchant suddenly longed to rip the mask away from her face, and behold the angelic face that must accompany such a voice.
It was an easy enough impulse to beat back, however. She had passed the test given by the High Court, so she was not innocuous. If they believed she had even a chance of being able to complete the quest than she could surely eliminate one simple merchant without even batting an eye. No, it was time to move on, and propose the offer that was the whole reason he was here.
“Want?” he said, acting aghast. “Want? My dear lady, I don’t want anything. I am here to make you an offer.” He paused, grinning, expecting one of the several usual reactions that came with such a statement. Curiosity, dismissal, anger. She offered nothing, and he continued on, slightly flustered, but quickly slipping back into his winning mannerism.
“My caravan will be leaving in just a couple of days, loaded with luxury items for the court of Ortak, the god of Partnership.” He paused, head tilted sideways. “But, alas, the road is fraught with dangers, and no one wants to help poor Pijavic on his road.” Once more he paused, waiting for the offer, or the dismissal that was so common at this point. He was greeted only with silence.
“But you,” he continued, trying to prompt some reaction. “You might just be heading in such a direction, and, by yourself, it could be a journey of many weeks. But, such a fate need not come to pass!” Sonja shifted slightly, impatient, already able to tell where the merchant was going with this, and wishing he would simply get a move on.
“If you came with me,” Pijavic hurried, sensing his audience’s impatience, “for the simple fee of protecting this caravan, a week could easily be shaved off your journey, not to mention the comfort of warm meals and a set camp, and the companionship offered by conversation from good friends.” Little of that was actually true. he doubted that traveling with the caravan would cut any time off of her trip, it could very well lengthen it if the caravan got bogged down anywhere for a length of time. The people that were traveling on the caravan would also have little interest in talking to the strange, mysterious woman. But there would be a warm, if simple, fare provided along the road.
Sonja was no fool. She knew that the merchant was only looking for a free bodyguard. But she had no reason to refuse, for the harmless little man would not be able to do anything to her. And the guards that patrolled the borders between the lands could be a harsh lot, keen to extract anything they could from a lone traveler. She could sneak by them, but they would offer leniency to a merchant that was as well off as Pijavic, leniency that Sonja could turn to her advantage.
Pijavic was growing wary of the woman’s continued silence. Despite his attitude, he was unwilling to relinquish such a fine prize, and one that he could likely take advantage of without severe repercussions. She did not seem particularly intelligent, but that she was a fine fighter would not be doubted if anyone knew that she had been blessed by the High Council. He was about to start talking again, but bit off after a single syllable as the hooded figure spoke.
“I’ll come,” she agreed softly. A wide, and honest, grin split Pijavic’s face. That had been easier than he had dreamed.
“We leave from the west gate at dawn in two days,” he crowed, before turning and quickly scampering away. That should give him enough time to work on his other target. This was going to be such a profitable journey.