Episode 13: Shrimp Dumplings (Intermission)

      Vestria turned off the mechanical quill as Sionis Sepher stood by his stove. The story, as engaging as it was, had ended.

      “Why stop now?” she asked.

      “From here out, my time in the frozen realm becomes… complicated,” Sionis answered.

      “You still haven’t exactly explained how this impacts the story of the wand,” Vestria added. “To be frank, this is all rather complicated already.”

      Sionis smiled. “I suppose it is. Regardless, if I’m going to talk about my experience with the Ayla and the truth of the Yunai, then I want to be well fed beforehand.”

      Vestria was surprised. “So you actually faced Ayla?”

      “No,” Sionis said, looking sad. “I merely got in her way.”

      “Okay, sure. Now I’m interested again. So, what can I get you?”

      “Gillian shrimp dumplings,” Sionis said, looking thoughtfully upward. “Yes, I don’t think I’ve had a good shrimp dinner in some time.”

      “Alright. Where do I go for that?”

      “The Zinji farm them. I have a seller in the Dorsal Village that’s bound to have the best pick.”

      “Wait,” Vestria said, trying to remember the landscape of this region. “Isn’t that along the eastern coast? That’s like… at least a full day of travel each way!”

      Sionis nodded. “Are you interested in my story, or should we stick to farming?”

      “This is exploitation,” she grumbled. “Fine. I’ll get your shrimp.”

      “Excellent. I’ll make a list of the other ingredients you can pick up too.”

      Vestria thought about complaining, but she bit her tongue and waited for the Flamecaller to write up his list. She wasn’t brave enough to ask Sionis for a portal, so he snatched up the finished list and headed outside, turning toward the east. In town, she hoped she could get get a ride on someone’s travel cart, or pay for a trip to a closer area.

      Either way, the shrimp were going to have to taste fantastic to be worth it.

      The eastern shore, she discovered, was a beautiful place. Many of the areas in Patnah had a mystical charm to them, but none so much as the rich bamboo forests and ancient stone statues that littered this area. The bamoo grew so thick and tall that the light filtered through them, giving everything a surreal glow, and the old structures looked like they had stories to tell that would rival Sionis’.

      Despite being an outsider to most of the Patnesh here, Vestria was treated with kindness and respect, even when she had done nothing to deserve it from them. The man who had let her ride in his cart of sweet melons even offered up a blanket to keep her warm through the night as they traveled from the market to Dorsal Village.

      Along the way, she had instinctively began chatting with the cart driver, and he instantly realized that not everyone had an interesting life tale to share with him. The cart driver, a Patnesh named Changpien, lived a life of beautiful simplicity, taking over his delivery service from his father, after his father took it from his grandfather, and so on and so forth reaching back at least a few centuries.

      He even had enchanted images, living art, reflecting the proud day of this family tradition reaching back as far as his lineage could trace. It was all well documented, Vestria respected that, but it lacked the shock or awe of the adventures that Azirin citizens had come to live with each day.

      Indeed, Patnah was a place where time itself seemed to have simply… slowed down.

      “Have you ever been to Dorsal Village before?” Changpien asked as he pulled on the reins of his yaks, slowing them for the approach.

      “I haven’t.”

      “The Zinji are mystics, and they delight in it. Many have become… distant since the Yunai came to our world. It would be wise for you to limit your speaking. I will bring Shaoshu to the cart and he can give you the items you request.”

      “Okay, sure,” she replied. “Whatever works.”

      When the cart reached the village, Vestira quickly realized that this place was more of a loose collective of Zinji citizens populating ancient structures, rather than a proper town with amenities or anything that she might have expected.

       Changpien pulled the cart up to one of the stone buildings, then stepped off and reached up for Vestria’s list, which she provided. The Patanesh headed inside, leaving her alone in the cart. She leaned back, trying to get comfortable, but the plain wooden seats of Changpien’s cart were anything but accommodating.

      “Excuse me,” a voice said from the far side of the cart. “Excuse me, Vestria.”

      She jumped, shocked to hear her name, and turned to see a Zinji had approached the cart. He was a tall and slender man, though his skin looked mottled and had a weathered texture to it. His face had what looked like vestigial fin-like appendages that dropped down to his neck. On his shoulders, Vestria noticed the man had scales.

      “How do you know my name?” Vestria asked.

      “You speak with the timeless one,” the Zinji said. “I hear your name in the waters.”

      “I don’t understand.”

      “The timeless one speaks. You listen.”

      “You mean Sionis?”

      The Zinji nodded.

      “I’m sorry, how do you know who I am, or what I do?”

      “The waters tell us of the timeless one,” the Jinyu said. “The waters tell us of the Collector. We know of your origins, Vestria. We know of your past and—”

      “That’s enough of that,” Changpien’s voice broke the Zinji’s concentration. He stepped away from the cart before Vestria could stop him. He wandered off and Changpien ignored him. Instead, he began loading a crate of goods into the back of the cart. He waited for a few other Zinji to emerge from the building where he’d been, and they quickly began unloading the melons that he had brought.

      As they did their work, Changpien climbed into the front of the cart, next to Vestria, and eyed the wandering Zinji for a moment before turning his attention to her. “You alright?” he asked.

      “I’m fine,” Vestria replied. “He was just talking.”

      “That one is a Waterspeaker,” Changpien explained. “They use a magic that’s deeply tied to the lands of Patnah. They can hear the land and the water, the world, I suppose. They use it to listen for whatever they may want. The Besherman say they might have some kind of neural link to the Grid in the world above. That’s all too much for me.”

      “He knew my name.”

      “Have you spoken your name since you arrived in Patnah?” Changpien asked.

      “Once,” she confirmed.

      “Then it is no secret to the Waterspeakers. The river carried it here, and these mystics listened.”

      “That’s… incredible.”

      “It’s more harm than good,” Changpien said, clearly expressing his opinion.

      Vestria looked out after the Waterspeaker, watching him vanish inside one of the other ancient structures. She thought about Sionis, about how the mystic had called him the timeless one. There had to be something to that, right? She couldn’t help but wonder how deep the Flamecaller’s adventure really stretched.

      She heard two thuds on the back of Changpien’s cart and the Patnash man smiled. “A successful delivery. Now, we can return.”

      After handing off the shrimp to Sionis, Vestria watched him go to work on the supplies. The Flamecaller had clearly gathered some of his own materials from the market while she was away, and soon enough the small farmhouse smelled like a dream.

      The rice, the dumplings, and even the shrimp… it was all a heavenly combination of flavor that Vestria instantly appreciated. She ate plenty, and Sionis had plenty more to make. In fact, as the day went on, it became apparent that Sionis planned to cook well into the evening, and soon enough the normal crowd of farmers, merchants, and travelers began to make their way through the Sepher farm to get their meals from the man’s kitchen.

      Vestria was impressed.

      Sionis had lived an interesting life, and soon he would share the story of how he came face to face with the fallen Princess, but despite the grand adventures and deep mysteries, here the man lived and worked, part of a community that clearly respected and appreciated his skills, but oblivious to the real man that lurked in the past.

      As she bit into another shrimp dumpling she couldn’t help but wonder if that was exactly the way Sionis wanted it. A life forgotten, a time forgotten. Perhaps that’s what the Zinji had meant when he called the Flamecaller timeless. He existed outside of his own story, a simple cook and farmer that knew nothing of the time that had passed.

      Or maybe he just really liked cooking.

      Right now, she didn’t’ care. She just wanted another serving.

      The next morning, Vestria arrived at the farm still feeling full from the big meal she’d had the day before. She found Sionis at work, as usual, cleaning the massive pile of dishes that he would pull out for his big meals. It was here that Vestria saw just a peek of the man’s magical powers. The dishes, while numbering in the hundreds, were all neatly stacked in a cupboard that stood only a few feet tall. The pots and pans sat in buckets of water while sponges scrubbed magically to wash them. Sionis still did a lot of grunt work, but it was clear he could have conjured the plates up in an instant and disposed of them too, if he really wanted to do so.

      “Good morning,” she said as she took her place at the table and started retrieving a new pile of scrolls.

      “What did you think of the meal?” Sionis asked.

      “The best one yet.”

      “I agree. I was most pleased. How was the trip to get the shrimp? We never talked.”

      “The trip was good. I like Changpien.”

      “He’s a kind one.”

      “There was a mystic there, in the village… a Waterseeker.”

      “Uh huh.”

      “He called you the timeless one.”

      Sionis stopped scrubbing, only for a second, and then went back to work. “That’s odd,” he added. “I’ve not been called that before.”

      “Do you have any idea what it means?” she probed.

      Sionis shrugged. “I might have an idea. I can’t say for sure, but perhaps we’ll all find out… in time.”

      “More mysteries,” she grumbled.

      “Don’t skip ahead,” Sionis reminded her. “Today, we can pick up where we left off. My time in the Basalt Dalles had slowed my drive and made me lose focus on the real prize, but all of that was about to change. Our successful attack on Arugan had finally caught the attention of Princess Ayla. She was no longer going to sit by as we progressed. Are you ready to hear the next chapter?”

      “Always,” she said cheerily. “Let’s have it!”

      The Flamecaller turned back to his scrubbing, and then began. “It was colder than usual…”


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