The festival grounds were busy with people preparing. Shop stalls, food venders, and tents were set up in a half crescent. Circles made of rope marked off small performance spaces for acts and entertainers along the path ways to tables and seats. In the center was a stage with an opening for dancing. Musicians were already practicing a few jigs while children danced. Drina smiled from the entrance, watching the children bump into each other carelessly, laughing and cheering.
It was easy to view the entire grounds from the street outside the city. Little fence lines of royal purple flags with gold trim led you right to the giant welcome banner. Each flag had the Steaua Lunii symbol, a full moon with a wax and waning moon connecting on each side. The string of flags hung from poles around the entire fair ground and hung in front or beside each structure.
Slowly Drina made her way through the fairground, nodding at those who stopped working to observe her presence. There were still a few hours before the festival would officially begin, so many villages weren’t allowed to roam the grounds unless they had official business. To Drina, she felt at home. Walking freely at her own pace, unafraid of those around her, and willing to make eye contact with confidence. She knew they would know in an instant she was one of them. Not many people would brazenly walk among them without fear or judgment.
Very soon, Drina was greeted with smiles. A few of the elders would kiss the tip of their fingers, offer it above them, then extend it out towards her. It was a traditional greeting of blessing, then Drina would reply by kissing her own fingers, offering it below and across. “Bless the heavens above, and the lands below you.” Although being able to interact with her people felt nostalgic, Drina knew to be wary.
In the very far back part of the grounds, Drina could see several carriages and the tip of a large tent. It was most likely where the bands of gypsies slept. Close to the pathway ahead sat two shaggy looking dogs guarding it. As she approached, the mutts sat alert, watching her every move. Behind them, several more appeared out of the shadows to roam around.
Oh a traveler's life, Drina huffed flatly. Memories of her childhood began to flood her of the times she moved around with her family band. Constantly living in small herds, clustering in safe havens with other bands, still keeping to themselves while protecting each other. And then there were the Travellers mutts. Gypsy dogs were a special kind of breed that looked like a regular canine to the naked eye. You could never tell what specific mixed breeds it had, and often they would come in various sizes of cur. For those who knew better, they weren’t just any mutt; they were spirit dogs.
In the dark, a glow within their eyes flickered dimly, revealing their nature of shadow and magic. Any Traveller worth their salt had one. However, mutts were the most troublesome breed to handle. Mutts didn't eat physical food, instead they feasted on their owner’s soul well, the source of their power. If Drina wasn’t constantly worrying about money, food, or shelter for the two of them, she would consider a mutt for herself. The wealth of her soul-well was deep and the mutt would offer security while being out in the wild. Irrationally, she argued that the reason she didn’t want one was because of her fear to contain and control her power. The truth, however, was because she hated dogs. Had they been ravens instead, she would’ve bought one in seconds.
Without stopping, Drina walked between the two mutts. A small shiver ran up her spine as she passed, but they did not move. Continuing down the path, it ran between several clusters of bands, each one represented by different sigils and crests. So far, there were none that she recognized, which also didn’t give much comfort. Several mutts in between clusters would step out of the shadow to pause and watch, their eyes glowing red. Finally up ahead, Drina could see the central tent with three dogs on guard, expectantly waiting for her to approach.
Drina had an inkling that the owner was within. Judging by the presence of mutts he was either an incredible businessman or very powerful. She stopped several feet away from the entrance and immediately felt several mutts surrounding her from behind. With a deep breath, she slowly lifted her right hand and pushed her left one down. Drina then motioned her arms into a wide circle and as her right hand descended, she placed it just behind her hip. With her left hand, she continued to extend it above her head while sliding her left leg forward to bow. Looking up at the dogs, she waited. The middle mutt stared intensely at her, before licking at his lips. In the palm of her left hand, Drina pooled her energy into a small blue orb. With a cold snap, the orb split in her hand and the mutt turned around to walk instead.
Even after her father taught her how to deal with spirit dogs, facing one still terrified her. Drina followed it, pushing past the curtains. Inside was a divider hallway that led to a small opening. Several men spoke in her mother tongue on the other side, laughing and telling crude jokes. She stepped up to the opening and took a deep breath. Shielding herself, she straightened her back and stepped out confidently.
There were four men, three crowded around on the left side and one sat behind a cluttered desk. It was covered with piles of paper scrolls and a large stack of assorted coin bags. Some of the coins had slid off the table and littered the ground. The chair behind the desk was built like a throne, fitted with large soft purple pillows hemmed with golden thread seams. Her sudden unannounced presence silenced the room. Drina wore the biggest grin she could muster, stepping up to the desk.
“Good day lads, I’m here to find work. I heard there was some to be found here.”
A thin, square-chinned man slouching in the chair sat up with a glare, his face red with surprise and rage. His common tongue was heavy with accent, a dead giveaway of his lineage.
“How did you get past the dogs?”
The other men stepped forward, waiting for the word to dispatch her. This must be Mr. Gafrald, the man Lulu told her about. He wore several rings and chains around his neck, practically screaming his wealth. Crossing her arms, Drina tried to act tough.
“I know how to deal with your kind and am no stranger to your ways.”
With a hard front, Gafrald examined her clothes and hair. It wasn’t exactly the style of a Traveller, since she preferred to avoid attention, yet he seemed to relax. Anyone stepping past a gypsy dog would need to know a thing or two, else they would be dead.
“We have no room for performers.”
“I’m not here to perform. I can read fortunes.”
The man chuckled humorlessly. “Oh, like we don’t have hundreds of those.”
The other men chuckled along, ridiculing her. Typical, Drina thought. They were mocking her. She pulled out her fan from her side pouch, holding it high enough for them to see the chain dangling from it.
“Care for a sample before I take a booth?”
The look in the man’s eye softened, he recognized the embroiders right away before focusing on the small beaded rose. It was the Travellers’ rose from Scion, a mark any gypsy leader would know with a glimpse. Not only did her fan have her kin’s crest, it was a tool well known within her family’s bloodline. A few men shuffled uncomfortably, and one leaned in to whisper in Gafrald’s ear. He spoke in their mother tongue, assuming she couldn’t understand.
“Could have bought it at a market. A lot of mi’riquals are murdered and plundered.”
Gafrald sighed, leaning back into his chair, “Ay, she could. Call more hounds and prepare to clean the place up. Can’t risk letting her leave alive.”
Drina felt herself losing her cool. How dare they insult her. Mi’riquals was a term used for those who abandoned their bands. They gave up their traditions and often lived as the tyrant kings’ citizens. Meaning, they chose to betray their kin. Drina would never betray her family or her friends. They were the ones who betrayed her. Gritting her teeth, she interjected.
“How dare you.” The men stiffened, turning pale. “I’m no Mi’riqual. You accuse me, then threaten me? Is this how you treat your own?”
Drina’s fist shook, the air quickly turning cold around her. Shadows dripped down from the corners of the room, dimming the light in the room as whispers bounced off the walls.The men looked around, backing towards Gafrald. It was bad enough to insult a fellow gypsy, but worse to insult one with power. Holding up his hands, Gafrald stood up and signaled for everyone to calm down.
“My apologies, please. You know just as well as I do, just protecting our own.”
Drina glared, watching his hands before she took a deep breath. The shadows receded as she exhaled, returning the light to the room. Gafrald smiled with genuine interest, lowering his hands to the desk.
“Good good. How may I make amends, sister.” His breath puffed in the air as he spoke.
“Give me a booth and a 90% cut of the profits.”
“Ha! I wouldn’t give my pap that much. Look, 60% and you’ll get a prime booth.”
Drina wasn’t going to settle easily. If she was going to risk exposing herself, she was going to make it worth her while.
“85% and I will give you a seance. I may not be a performer, but I’ll give you a show to the likes you’ve never seen. All ticket sales are yours and I keep the tips.”
She allowed a moment for him to consider before extending her hand. “Do we have a deal?”
Gafrald tapped the desk a few times before bursting into a hearty laugh. Reaching over, he took her hand, shaking it with a firm grip. Looking at the other men, he wagged a finger at her.
“Ehh, a true gypsy here! Knows how to barter like a true Brynian.”
Drina chuckled. He must’ve been comparing her to his own band. Each band had different names, giving them strength in trade while traveling. The stronger the reputation, the better deals they would get with goods. He sat down, pulling out a ledger and pen.
“Alright, and what name should I put you down as?”
This was easier than she thought, half-heartedly giving her a false name. “Drina Forest.”
Gafrald sharpened his gaze, his smile curling sinisterly. Chills colder than the room ran up Drina’s spine. She recognized that smile.
“Your real name. There is a lot on the line for me with this type of deal. I need assurance that I am not going to be played a fool.”
Pulling out a contract, he slid it across the table towards her. Drina felt the blood draining from her face. It was a contract she was well aware of, the kind that was not just a legal binding of laws. This was a blood-bind. She should’ve known better. Gafrald propped his elbows up and folded his hands, waiting for her to take it before continuing.
“You’ll perform tomorrow night, at the full moon’s peak. After the show closes, the contract will expire and release you.”
Drina swallowed hard, glancing from the paper to the men around her. “My name.. You won’t sell it, right?”
Gafrald snarled. “What kind of a businessman would I be if I sold my clients' names? I’m not scummy like those back home. You have my word.”
His word meant nothing, just like hers. Gafrald held out a long thin needle. It was a special kind of tool for blood-binding. Staring at the tip of the needle, Drina felt conflicted. The voice of her mother echoed in her mind.
“My child, whatever you do, no matter what the cost,” Drina reached for the needle and poked the tip of her finger. The clear vessel filled with blood. Next, she held it like a pen, her hand shook as she held it over the signature line. Closing her eyes, she moved her hand.“Never. Sign a blood-bind.”
After the last scratch on the paper, the needle snapped loudly and shifted to dust. It crumbled within her hand when she opened her eyes to see the red ink of her name on the paper.
Lana Kisaiya Pearsley
It was done, he had her name. If it had been a false one, the needle wouldn't have broken and he would know she was lying. Gafrald stood up, holding his hand out. Drina rolled the contract, hesitant to pass it along to him. Not that she could do anything with it, once it signed there was nothing left but to complete the agreement. Hers was to perform.
Holding it tightly, she pressed it into his hand. Gafrald didn’t rush her, while she held the scroll. It was never an easy choice to sign a blood-bind. Immediately after she let go, he tightened the roll harder then pressed it flat. He poured wax over the seam and stamped it with his seal. Lifting it to show her, Gafrald reassured.
“If the seal is broken not by your hand, your name will disappear but the contract will still be valid. This is for your security.”
It was an extra precaution, giving Drina a sense of comfort even if it was a lie. He opened a chest, placing it on top of several others in the same manner. With the box slammed shut, Gafrald nodded to the man at his side. He grabbed a bag of coins, tossing it at her. Drina was surprised by the weight as she caught it. Opening it she fingered through the coins while the owner spoke.
“This is an advance. Buy whatever you need to prepare. Any money you don’t make up for with work, you will have to pay back out of pocket. Spend it wisely.”
With a cheeky grin, Drina pulled the strings of the bag closed.
“Don’t worry, I’ll be expecting another bag this size or more before the festival is done.”
Not waiting for his reply, she turned to walk out of the room. As soon as she was around the corner, her knees buckled almost sending her to the ground. From head to toe, she was shaking with fear. How did she manage to pull it off? Covering her mouth, she could hear the men in the room laugh.
“She’s impressive, I’ll give her that! I’m excited to see if the family reputation exceeds her. We must keep an eye on her for sure! Send the brutes to set the big tent up. We’ll sell a full house pronto.”
Pushing to her feet, Drina quietly left the tent. The cool air nipped at her skin, refreshing her. Sweat drenched her back from the stress, her heart pumping hard as she ran down the path.
What was she going to tell Ocian? That she signed her name away for more coins than her worth in weight? How the hell was she going to pull off a seance? If she wasn’t capable of that, how was she going to even save Hestar from death? All these things she had never done before and just like that, she impulsively made reckless choices. Drina stopped near a carriage band, panting as she held her sides. The thoughts spiraled making her head spin. Hiding behind the carriage from the festival grounds view, Drina threw up on the wheel.
She fell back on her ass before wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. Panting, Drina crossed her legs and buried her face into her hands. What a mess. A year of hiding in forests, sleeping in ditches, and avoiding major cities, Drina did everything to keep Ocian safely away from danger. If she hadn’t pushed so hard to walk so far, if they had stopped in the last town instead of walking all night to this one, she wouldn’t have stayed at the hostel. She wouldn’t have met Hestar and read her fortune. Drina wouldn’t have even concerned herself with participating in the festival.
Tossing her head back, Drina looked at the moon already peaking into the sky. It was brightly illuminating against the pink and purple hues of the evening sky. Steauna Lunii Festival, a solstice celebration that peaks for three days before waning. Of all nights to do a seance, at least it was the best time of the year.
A thought suddenly dawned on Drina, it was the solstice. Of course she would be able to pull it off. How did she manage to forget that the veil between the living and the dead would be at its weakest? She perked up. It didn't solve her pending dilemma with Hestar or Ocian, but at least she had a plan.
For now, Drina needed to gather some supplies. She stood up, brushed herself off and made her way to the fairgrounds. Taking a quick look at some of the vendors, she found several who sold various candles, incense, herbs and scarves. It was refreshing to shop around for specific items she needed without having a hard time bartering for a good price. Every vendor she spoke to didn’t put up much of a fight either, almost happy to give her their wares for cheap. They would smile warmly, just happy to help a fellow gypsy.
Checking the materials she finished shopping for, Drina almost ran into a man standing before her. Startled, she paused, then recognized him as one of Gafrald’s henchmen.
“Oh.. uh, did I forget something?”
The man nodded, his face hard as he crossed his arms. “Yeah, come with me.”
Nervously, she followed him. He didn’t lead her back towards the tent, instead it was towards the festival entrance. They approached a small tent when he stopped, holding the flap for her to step inside. There was a small table, a few pillows to sit upon, and an incense burner hanging from the middle. It was just enough space for her to set up a few things and have guests join her at the small table. The man entered behind her, offering a smile.
“This is where you will be working. Mr. Gafrald always keeps his promises.”
Drina was impressed. Prime real estate indeed! Close to the gates and easy to access, making coin will be easy. The man continued. “We will make up a sign for you in the next few minutes and you should be in business. Fel’astie.”
“Fel’astie, and my thanks to Mr. Gafrald.”
With a nod he left. Once the flap closed, Drina let out a giggle and looked about her tent. This was going to be a snap, she thought. Quickly she set up her area to prepare for the evening, placing a green velvet cloth down with a few crystals at the four corners. Taking her tarot deck out of a small pouch, she placed it in the center. Usually, Drina would use her fan, but with all the gypsy around she thought it would be best not to draw too much attention just yet.
They may be far from their old region, but the oligarchy king had eyes and ears everywhere. News that he was using Traveller’s as tools in his war spread far and wide across the country. It made sense why Gafrald and his men would think she’d be a traitor. Until she fulfilled the contract, she needed to be wary of them too. Not all Traveller’s bloodlines held power, especially like Drina’s, but it didn’t stop the king from hunting them down.
Wrapping up her hair in the scarf, she finally finished setting up. Scanning the table, she clasped her hands excitedly. How long had it been since she got to play a traditional role of a fortune teller? All that was missing was some tea and she would be set for the night. This was a luxury she couldn’t afford, although it was a lovely notion. Now to wait for her work to walk in.