Onyx hadn’t needed a map after all. An eye and an ear would have been enough. The show that Pudd had described–over her only meal in days–was as he explained, loud and clear.
After ducking out of the heroes plaza, she wound her way down sidestreets and byways to the wares district. She was amazed at how easy it was to know where things were in a Celn town, when one understood the Celns. It didn’t seem to matter the size of the settlement, everything split off of the main square and predictably so. She made her way around and through an alley that smelled of rotting cabbage and onions, mounds of which were piled up on wheeled carts. Their venders stood behind each pile of vegetables on small wooden stools. With hopeful eyes and dirty faces, they called out to her.
The alley was devoid of shoppers. Quickly she made her way through, pulling the grey cloak down over her face. She strode out purposefully into the bizarre. At first she thought it was empty too. But then she looked right and saw that a large crowd had assembled around a rickety wooden platform set up near the north end of the square. On it rested a table of some kind, and on that rested a blue hat. A crowd was talking excitedly all around it.
A man in ridiculously loud and colorful patched garb was talking to a boy wearing an equally ridiculous noble tunic and leggings. Together they marched to the top of the platform, their heads held high. The crowd around them settled into a quiet patience that felt awkward to Onyx, at least for a street show. It was the patience part of the scene that surprised her most. These two-bit magic shows were a copper-a-dozen in every town across the great Realm of Cellinor-inner and outer wilds too-and no one waited patiently for any of them. Citizens of Cellinor were notorious skeptics and a show was just as likely to end with accusations of fakery as it was to end with applause. Cellinor had become a tough crowd lately. This one looked less so. Either the crowd was far more gullible here in Cillandar than she had expected–which she doubted–or Salaman’s show was far better than she had been told.
The man waved his hands behind him and a little flash of smoke followed a small popping noise. There was one or two ahs! But that was it.
Onyx approached the platform cautiously, but without looking like it. As a leaf does when it meanders down a creek, she approached from the outskirts in an ever tightening spiral, pretending to take in the wares and other magical and non-magical trinkets for sale. She spotted no guards, which made her uneasy. The crowd seemed composed of mostly vagabonds, and a few pretend nobles.
The extended hairs on her neck settled, and she walked out towards the platform just as the old man in the patched robes was asking the crowd for a volunteer.
“In each of you breathes a warrior!” He pointed to a small human child standing by his father in the front. “In you, lies the great spirit of Lord Taryn! Whether ye know it or not!” Onyx could see the boy’s face light up. The child looked back at his father, who instead stared at the old entertainer to let him know that he wouldn’t be fooled as easily as his child had been.
“But you don’t need to be a whole man to know man’s virtue–his courage!” Cried the younger man on the platform. His presentation and manner was nowhere near as slick as the elder–who was watching him intently from the opposite side of the hat. The younger stuck a finger out through his embroidered sleeves at a faun in the back. “For mighty Thrak himself, he of courage and ignorant bravery lives in all halves. You my good half-man are made whole by Celn goodness!”
The old man introduced himself as Salaman the magnificent, which seemed laughable to Onyx and in stark contrast to the modest show. But none did laugh. He asked for a volunteer to begin the performance. He did not call it a performance though. He called it a “Test of the Virtues.”
“I volunteer!” Cried a willing voice. Onyx saw the man walk up the platform with a hop, and instantly she felt the little hairs on her arms and neck stand up again. Something was wrong. She had no idea what it was. But like her other thoughts, she knew she trusted them.
‘Magnificent!” Cried the man in the robes, and with a little flash he turned the volunteer’s skin green, his tunic purple and his hair yellow. This finally excited the crowd enough to cheer.
Onyx paced around the outside of the crowd, listening to the voice that told her something was wrong. Outside, she heard the entertainer speak on the virtues of the four and it seemed as though each portion of his act was dedicated to a show of magic relative to each. The show was now in full swing and the crowd, as any rogue like Onyx knew, was at it’s most vulnerable. She moved closer to the score, slowly and deliberately processing the scene. How she was doing it she never knew, but things began to come to her in piecemeal bite sized chunks, like they had these last couple of weeks since waking on the battlefield. Eyes now fixated on the blue hat, while her cloak covered just enough of her face to cover where her eyes looked, she studied the blue hat. But she was thinking of the volunteer.
First, the voice told her, the volunteer had been far too eager. No one is that eager to volunteer in these things. City magicians are often magic school outcasts or worse, rogue students of rogue mages. Magic, like a sword, is not something one wants to be near when wielded by an amateur. Why would someone voluntarily risk possible disfigurement or worse, for no compensation? They wouldn’t. And something else, the volunteer had glanced. That was it! He had glanced aside. It was subtle and seemed to make sense in the moment, but Onyx knew better. What most people would see as a gesture of embarrassment, she saw as a signal. Why would the volunteer send a signal? Was it part of the show? Onyx didn’t think so. And then there was the volunteer’s clothes. He wore rags and yet they were far too clean, and they hung far too loosely. He was too well muscled inside of them. Rags were for the skinny, for the starving, not for the well muscled, the maintained form. This was a fighting man, wearing rags of a beggar, volunteering for no reason to be a part of a show, he shouldn’t need to see. Onyx would have assumed he had been just a plant. Every magic show, every street show had them. Someone in the crowd who volunteered when no one would, who laughed or started a round or two of applause here and there. But plants didn’t look like this man. Nor did they glance around as if they were a part of…
Onyx stopped behind a broad-shouldered minotaur. There was a shack behind the platform. She hadn’t been able to see it at first, but walking around it came into view beyond the crowd. Salaman the Magnificent was currently making the volunteer’s hair take the form of combatants fighting one another, and the crowd was enjoying it immensely. They hadn’t seen the shack’s little cloth flap flutter, but she had.
Damn it Onyx, she told herself. This is not your score! Stick to the hat, she tried to tell herself. Her belly rumbled in agreement, but she found herself moving towards the shack anyway. You fool Onyx! But another voice seemed to call to her then and before she knew what she was doing, she squatted down low, and backed up to the entrance. Feeling unseen, she slipped inside backwards as low as she could.
And that was why the broadsword hadn’t swiped her head from her shoulders!