Chapter ELEVEN – Zan
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It was a pleasant evening along the wharves that flanked the tall iron gate into Blackwater, a pink sunset rippling over a serene bay as crews disembarked their vessels for the night. There was no hint of the unrest that was rumored to be brewing to the south and west. 

The Gidaran's tent was at the far end of the wharf, just past the more permanent stalls tended by fishmongers and others hawking their goods. Its brightly patterned silks billowed in the light sea breeze. 

Zan made his way toward his quarry, forming a backstory in his head as he walked. The dark-robed Blackwater guards paid him no mind, assuming him just another barbaric satyr out peddling goods. Changelings were so rare that Zan hardly ever invoked suspicion, even when he was doing something that might otherwise be perceived as sneaky. In that way, he was grateful for his strange singularity.

Voices pricked his ears as he neared the tent, one masculine and the other feminine, both in the guttural cadence of the Gidaran. The tent flap was closed, meaning either the occupants were with a client or chatting in private. Satyrs didn't possess keen hearing, but elves did, and thankfully it was a gift that persisted through Zan's transformations.

"Are you sure?" the male satyr asked whomever he was addressing, his voice like a sudden crack of thunder. 

"Indeed," a thin, reedy voice replied. It wasn't the female Gidaran. Zan couldn't tell whether it was a man or woman or something else altogether. "Neither the Witches Triumvirate nor the hidden Lightkeepers yet know."

"Who will you tell?" asked the female satyr. The sound of furniture shifting on hard ground met Zan's ears, and he imagined her leaning in, waiting for the stranger's answer.

"That is of no consequence to us. Fate has been set in motion, there is no undoing what will be done. We have all the time in the world."

"So you do." The male satyr barked out a staccato laugh.

"What will you give me for this story, Gidaran?"

"What do you seek?" the female asked with the air of someone thrilled to be approaching a negotiation. "We have stories old and new, from both far and wide. Do you desire to know who shares nights with the sleepless Princess of Sorrown? Perhaps you would rather hear a tale of the magnificent jewelry caches of the dragon elves."

Zan wanted to vocalize his disdain but held his tongue. The Yansu had no gaudy jewelry caches, that was a complete fallacy. Nor did they hunt and devour maiden princesses or burn cities to the ground for no good reason. Were these Gidaran complete charlatans, reciting bedtime stories from fairy books?

He'd come here seeking knowledge that would help him free his sister, but did these two have any such information? Perhaps he could get them to reveal what the enigmatic stranger had just told them. If the witches of Blackwater and the Lightkeepers would both desire to know it, then so did he.

"I am not after stories," the stranger said so softly even Zan struggled to hear it. "I desire truth. Truth and memories sustain me. Give me your hand."

"No funny business." 

The male satyr grumbled as bodies shifted in their chairs. Several minutes passed, the silence interrupted only by occasional chatter from the dirty stone streets or the lapping of waves against the seawall. Zan worried something awful had happened inside the tent, or that at any moment the flap would fly open and the three within would see him loitering. But he held his ground, and in due time clothing and furniture shuffled in a barrage of sound, as if someone–maybe even both satyrs–had fallen out of their seat. 

The female Gidaran choked on a deep, wheezing gasp.

"That was... What did you do, traveler?"

"I gathered my due. That will be all, thank you."

"What are you?" Fear and awe bloomed in the male satyr's breathless words.

"I am Nothing and Eternal." 

Zan was certain he'd never heard a more terrifying and confounding answer in his life. Who–or what?–was both nothing and eternal? Wraiths were the only creatures that came to mind, but they were not intelligent like this individual seemed to be. Perhaps this stranger with a voice like the wind was something Zan hadn't heard of, another gruesome result of the witches' overstepping their limits.

"W-will you be at the Revelry?" The female Gidaran's voice shook, at odds with the harsh tone of her voice. "Perhaps if you come across any further details, we could discuss them."

"I shall be there, but you will not know me. You have nothing else I need."

The tent flap rustled. Zan jumped behind a stack of shipping crates and waited with breath held as a slender, robed figure emerged from the tent in a mist of gray smoke that stunk of campfires and turned earth. They–or it–sauntered down the wide wooden boardwalk of the wharf, paying no attention to anyone and eventually drifting out of sight.

Zan waited several more minutes before emerging. He'd intended to call out, announcing himself, but the tent flap was still open and to his surprise the female satyr was standing out by the street, hands on her hips. Her round eyes were on the distant spot where the stranger had disappeared into the evening air like a ghost.

"Hail, traveler," Zan said, adopting the favored greeting of the Gidaran. He hoped the she-satyr would find no fault in his words or accent. If she suspected him, it would all be over.

She turned on her sandy hooves and regarded Zan, her head tilted to one side. The only clothing she wore was a leather vest, which left little to the imagination, and a matching belt tied around her waist. She was nearly the same size as Zan, and as full of hair and muscle, but that was typical of their species.

"Hail, traveler," she parroted. There was no trace of caution that Zan could detect in her voice, only curiosity as she assessed him. "Have we met?"

Zan shook his head, no. "I was passing through town when I heard there was to be a Revelry in Blackwater by week's end, and I thought to myself, I should like to attend one of these famous witchy affairs and see what the fuss is about. I stopped at that inn yonder." Zan pointed over his shoulder, toward The Elusive Catch, the cheapest place in town for a transient to rent, and the closest to the docks. The sign that hung over the door was missing a few letters, but anyone with half a brain could fill in the blanks. "Patrons over at the Catch told me I should come down here and offer a trade." He held up his hands in mock-surrender. "I'm not trying to compete with you, just stopping for a few days. Won't even be setting up shop."

The Gidaran narrowed scrutinizing eyes at him. Zan's palms began to sweat. Had he said something conspicuous? Did satyrs not patronize inns? He was pretty sure they did. Pretty sure.

"Who is it, Rika?" 

The male satyr ducked out of the tent, stretching to his full and unashamedly naked height. Zan's first instinct was to balk at the half-beast's sheer size. Until he remembered he was just as big and bad. For now. Temporarily. 

"I don't know." Rika shrugged, her reddish brown eyebrows raised in twin arcs. "Who are you, stranger?"

"Name's Ronin," Zan said, improvising. "I thought perhaps we could swap stories. I've a juicy one straight from the Coven."

"Nobody has dirt on the Coven, it's impenetrable." 

The male satyr pointed at the duo of black-robed elven guards standing attention at the gate. They appeared defenseless but were rumored to wield enough magic to thwart an entire army. Zan had never actually seen Blackwater guards use their magic, but he wasn't inclined to provoke them into a display.

"I can't reveal my sources, you understand," he said in an undertone, holding a beefy hand to the side of his mouth. "But it involves the Yansu."

"The dragons?" Rika's long canines peeked out behind her lips parted in surprise. "Surely they aren't in conflict with the Coven. The entire world would have heard about it, if we survived the battle."

"You can doubt me, or you can invite me in for the story of a lifetime."

The male satyr snorted, folding his massive arms across his chest. "Only a fool attempts to barter the story of a lifetime."

"Unless it's the truth." 

Zan shrugged as if it were their loss, then turned and made his way toward the inn, his steps slow and careful. He adjusted his coin pouch, making sure the pieces of copper inside clinked together noisily. It wasn't a lot of money, but it might draw their attention. Later on, he might show them the coins along with the other more precious piece of insurance he had brought along.

"Ronin, wait." It was Rika. A small grin twisted Zan's lips. "You tell us this tale of a lifetime first, and then we'll decide what's suitable payment."

"Hmm..." Zan played coy, counting on his strategy to pan out. "How am I to know you'll honor your word?"

The male Gidaran stiffened, a fire burning behind his deep-set brown eyes. "How dare you make such an accusation?"

Zan held up his hands again. "I don't even know your name, brother. Isn't that preliminary to the establishment of trust?"

So far so good...

"I am Sorar and this is Rika, my sister." Sorar jabbed his finger toward the female satyr, scowling. "We are honorable, as are all Gidaran of the Four Rings."

Zan gave a long-suffering sigh, as though they were twisting his leg. Actually, he was thrilled; they were playing right into his game. "Fine. I will tell you, but you had better not repay me with lies of dragon gold and flying hogwis."

Sorar clenched his teeth, bones standing out along his jaw, but said nothing. His sister snorted and waved a hand at Zan to follow them into the tent.

They sat down around a circular wooden table covered by a patterned silk tapestry that looked to be made of the same materials as the tent and its many pendant flags. Fabric partitions separated their personal space from the public area where the Gidaran did business. Gaudy displays of cheap jewelry and metallic ornamental decor–that the satyrs no doubt attempted to pass off as priceless artifacts to ignorant clientele–hung on fishing hooks at random heights and odd angles, garish against the jewel-tone silks.

The makeshift room smelled of smoke and something acrid Zan couldn't identify. He wondered if the strange smell was part and parcel to the satyrs' business or if it had something to do with the odd goings-on inside these walls a few minutes ago.

"Let's hear this story, then," Sorar drawled, his voice a deep rumble. As he leaned heavily on his chair, Zan noted their furniture was sturdy compared to what he was used to. It would have to be to support these behemoths.

Rika sat forward, her forearms crossed over the tablecloth, curiosity warring with doubt in her intense gaze.

"The events that precipitated the tale began several years back," Zan began. He was having trouble keeping his bulky thighs from upending the table. After a moment spent vacillating over what to do, he angled himself sideways and spread his legs, dropping his heavy arms between them. He clasped his hands in front of his loincloth, for lack of a better place to put them.

Sorar watched him, his thin lips twitching with suppressed mirth.

Did they think him funny, an oddball? To hell with it. They wanted the story, didn't they? Why should they care how he saw fit to make himself comfortable?

Zan cleared his throat. "As I was saying, this all started about twenty years ago. The Blackwater witches had been leeching power from the land for nigh on three centuries, and the land was running dry as darkness crept through Blackwater. Everything beyond the gate suffered. The trees became blackened husks, and the very earth crumbled to dirt underfoot."

"Everyone knows this." Sorar groaned, scratching his wiry beard. "That's how the Spindlewalkers infiltrated Blackwater. The wards had grown weak."

Zan raised an eyebrow. "Has it not occurred to you to wonder why their struggle to maintain the wards has greatly improved over the past several years, why new life was breathed into the trees and the earth is growing green?"

"That was the storms' doing," Rika said, picking at rough skin around her fingernails.

Were they growing so bored already? Zan would have shaken sense into them if he could, make them listen as intently as they should. His tale was true, and they were not likely to hear another of as much importance should they live another millennia.

"The storms replenished the magic throughout the land, as they always do," Rika said in the tone of someone repeating tired news. "It is the cycle of things."

With a deep sigh, Zan drew from the waning reserve of calm behind his breast. It wouldn't do to lash out at these gruff characters, not if he wanted to coerce them into revealing what their previous visitor had shared with them.

"That is what they want you to believe." He balanced on that precarious ledge between indifference and investment. He would need to tell this tale well to gain their trust, but he couldn't overdo it. "When have storms replenished a ravaged land as the witches would have us believe they have done? Untouched forests have not seen such success from a single stormy season, so why should Blackwater be any different...? Because it wasn't the storms, it was dragon magic."

"Dragon magic?" Rika laughed aloud, the hollow sound filling the small room like a cavernous echo. "You cannot be serious, brother."

Oh, but indeed he was. Zan had no qualms admitting to the predicament his sister faced. After all it was his mission to spread the tale far and wide, to any who would listen, in hope it would sow seeds of doubt and dissent in his fellow countrymen.

"The Witches Triumvirate stole the youngest Yansu princess from her bed and replaced her with the dead body of a changeling. When a changeling dies in a borrowed body, it's impossible to prove it's an impostor. The witches knew this. They also rightly counted on the Yansu to be too proud to entertain that their nest was capable of infiltration. So the Yansu declared their princess dead while the witches enslaved her, binding her magic to their dark purposes. But she is still alive. If you went to the Coven right now, you could see for yourself. Do you know what a Yansu looks like?" Zan paused, glancing between his listeners. Sorar remained silent and impassive, but his sister shook her head, admitting that they did not. "Yansu with dragon form are tall and willowy, considered the most beautiful race by many. They possess hair as dark as night shot through with ribbons of gold, and pale skin that glows as if cast in moonlight."

"Have you seen her yourself?" Sorar was becoming snappish. "What is her name?"

"Her title is Ayer'lora, or Ayer of Loradyn, but she prefers to be called Ayer. No one denies the princess was once very much alive. I have not met her, but the one who told this to me knows her well. He has been inside the Coven."

"And who is he?" Rika demanded. "This mystery man who has seen the captured dragon princess, what is his name and why should we trust his word?"

"He did not give me his name, and I didn't see his face beneath his hood. But he wasn't Yansu, he didn't share their lilting mountain accent. If I had to guess I would say he might have been an elf of northern heritage. Perhaps a spy, or a free Darkbane. A Lightkeeper."

Sorar grunted. "You offer a fantastical story with no proof and expect us to believe it. What do you take us for, brother?"

"It is a tale," said Zan, leaning awkwardly over his wide-set legs to throw his elbows up onto the table, "the same as any you might tell. How are we guaranteed any of them are true? This time, however, my source is trustworthy. That I am certain of."

"How can you be certain if you neither saw this source's face nor know his name? Deceit oozes from you more each moment. This is not the way Gidaran conduct business amongst each other."

"My brother speaks the truth," Rika echoed Sorar, eyeing Zan with heightened reservation above tightly crossed arms. "Have you nothing else to offer?"

Zan drew the coin pouch from his shoulder and laid it on the table, beginning to unthread the cinch. Sorar scoffed at him. "Gidaran do not trade each other's stories for coin! What clan are you from that does not know even this little? You disrespect us."

"Calm down, I'm not offering you coin." Their vehemence was surprising. Rika had looked intrigued when he'd jingled his money out in the street. Had he misread her?

"Then what is it?" Rika's enormous eyes narrowed, her critical gaze focused on the pouch. Zan put his hand into its shallow depth and pulled out his trump card, the shining jewel that would hopefully win their favor, and their belief.

"It's a shell..."

"It isn't." Zan held up the small pearlescent nugget, barely larger than his thumb. In his true form it covered his entire palm, but the satyrs were enormous and their sheer size dwarfed the item. 

Luckily its name spoke for itself. "It is a dragon scale, one of Ayer'lora's."

"Let me see that." Sorar swiped the scale from between Zan's fingers before he could react, holding it up to the lantern hanging from the center point of the tent. In the golden candlelight the scale appeared mostly white with hints of pale pink and green as it caught different angles, but in the midday sun it was a spectacular prism of color. Like a trapped rainbow.

"You say this is the dead princess' scale," Sorar murmured, analyzing it more closely. To Zan's surprise the satyr manifested a magnifying ocular lens from somewhere hidden in his lower furred area. He held it against the scale for quite some time, making no comment.

"Is it real?" Rika asked her brother, leaning across the table, inching ever closer to the scale. 

Zan was sure no one had traded them anything so grand, and tonight would be no different. He had no intention of relinquishing the scale. It was simply a talking point. "Yes, it's real," he assured them, pulling out the metal pin he also kept in the pouch. "Let me show you." 

When Sorar dubiously returned the scale to his custody, Zan demonstrated its strength. A shell or a fake scale would have borne dark etch marks from the pin, but dragon scales were extraordinarily tough. Nothing so mundane could mark them.

"What proof have you that this is a scale from the princess? It could be any dragon scale."

Zan chortled, shaking his head. "How much do you know about dragons, my friend? Precious little, it would seem. No two dragons have the same scales, they're like fingerprints. All it would take on your part is a small bit of research and you would have your confirmation that this scale indeed belonged to Ayer'lora. The informant traded it to me."

"That does not prove that she is alive and enslaved at Blackwater," Sorar countered.

Zan was becoming frustrated. What else did they want from him? He'd given them a tale that could spawn a generation of war, and yet they would rather doubt than run with it. What kind of Gidaran were these, that would happily trade false tales of dragon gold to terrifying strangers but would not allow themselves to be traded a more weighty and salacious story? Not even when he’d thrown a priceless dragon scale onto the table.

"So you won't trade with me?" Zan had a hard time keeping the indignation out of his voice. Patience was Ayer's inheritance, not his. "You owe me, do you not? That is how this works."

"Not a tale of the same caliber you posed to us. We have only one of those, and we would not trade it, as we know it to be true, whereas..."

"I have a dragon scale to prove my story. What do you have?" 

Zan's satyr fist slammed into his thigh. In his normal elven body it would have hurt to high hell, but in this one his bones were strong enough to absorb the blow.

"Be that as it may, we are not in agreement. We will give you..." Rika looked around the tent, eyeing the trinkets on fish hooks Zan could not have been less interested in.

"Don't insult me with your penny jewelry," he growled through gritted teeth. "I should report you to the Blackwater guards, have them forbid you from ever returning to these parts."

"Oh, really?" Rika's head slowly swiveled to meet his gaze, her thin upper lip raised in a lopsided smile. "And what will you tell them, that we denied you payment for rumors of a dragon at the Coven? That will go over well."

"I'd mention no such thing." Zan leaned back, making himself comfortable. "I would tell them about the visitor you let leave this tent tonight with knowledge the Coven should like to know."

"You dared to spy on us?" Sorar's voice was a low threat. His thick, furrowed brows cast his eyes into shadows. Rika hissed, "You have no proof." 

"I was waiting my turn," Zan said negligently, stowing Ayer's scale and the metal pin alongside the copper coins. He slung the leather pouch over his shoulder and prepared for a hostile exit. "It isn't my fault you two talk so damn loud."

"Get out!" Sorar bellowed, pushing the table toward the back of the tent and his massive body out of his chair in one ground shuddering movement. The giant satyr was prepared for a dirty brawl, clearly. 

Zan guffawed, as if he couldn't believe what was happening, as if he found it slightly amusing. It wouldn't do to let on that he was nervous. He might be as big as Sorar, but he'd never fought in a satyr's body and didn't much like the idea of an impromptu lesson. Especially when he was outmatched two to one. 

At the threshold of the tent he held out his hands in a show of indifference, but not one of surrender. Certainly not. "Someday, when you realize the mistake you've made, you'll wish you hadn't turned me away. Dragon scales are exceedingly valuable, and the goddess knows this pitiful tent is begging for a few upgrades." 

Zan heard their outrage and consternation rumbling through the tent's threadbare fabric walls as he tromped away. Good, he thought. Make them believe he'd been gearing up to give them Ayer's scale. Make them regret that they'd turned him away. Make them think he knew something of their secrets, that he might actually rat them out to the guards. 

The joke was on them, because a new idea had just bloomed in Zan's ever-scheming mind. Yes, he would get what he'd come for yet.