"… and when that day arrived, she went to meet her fiancé in the town square. She went and waited and several hours passed. During that time, a merchant caravan, a funeral procession, and an impromptu parade went across the city's cobblestone square. Yet she did not see her fiancé. As dusk settled in, a kindly street sweeper came up to the woman and asked what she was doing. She told the sweeper she was waiting for her fiancé, and he asked her what was his name. She told him the name, and the sweeper frowned. He said that her fiancé had already come and gone. She called him a liar, since she knew her fiancé's face well, but the sweeper shook his head.
" "My dear," he said, "he did indeed come through here. But you could not see his face, for he was the one in the funeral casket." Then the street sweeper left, continuing to brush the trash off the cobblestones, leaving the woman to her thoughts."
The small crowd that had gathered stared mutely at the storyteller, a few women in the back row already crying. The storyteller inhaled and let out a slow breath. "And that, my friends, is the end of this tale." One man in the front row began clapping, which quickly resulted in the rest of the audience joining him in applause. The storyteller bowed awkwardly, the branches of her antlers brushing the concrete. One by one, the crowd dispersed until only a man in a casual, green suit remained. In one of his hands, he held a tape recorder, which had been on since the beginning of the story.
"Lovely story, Miss Luka," the man said, standing up from the makeshift seat of the steps leading to the Townsend Public Library, stretching his back. "Kind of depressing but lovely. I'm sure Mr. Wilder will be pleased; he's been sitting on writer's block for months now. Hopefully this," he shook the tape recorder, "will give him some inspiration."
"Glad to help," Luka smiled. She rose back up to all four feet, standing on the tips of her toes. "And if not, the story you supplied me with is more than ample compensation, Mr. O'Donal. I do hope that's not the case, though."
O'Donal stroked his stubble. "As do I. Stories are the lifeblood of us publishers. And I should send a copy of the finished novel to… Pueblo, Colorado, yes?"
Luka nodded. "That's correct. Thank you for your time, and have a nice day."
"Of course." O'Donal bowed and went his own way, off to give his recording to the author he represented. That's what Luka thought, anyway. Taking in a deep breath, she went her own way, as well.
It wasn't very far away, though, when she was interrupted.
"Geez… did you really have to take so long?"
Luka sighed at the familiar voice coming from the top of a fountain statue. She didn't even bother looking up as the source jumped down and landed in her branches, shaking some of the leaves loose. "That was the condensed version, Rupert. Mr. O'Donal only asked for the bare bones of a story, so I gave him just that."
"With a few extra flourishes… just for flair, I'm guessing."
She huffed at the goblin hanging from her branches. The tree spirit could feel his spindly hands wrapped around the bark, keeping him hidden in her leaves. All anyone else could see was a length of paisley cloth dangling from her antlers. "I'm a storyteller. It's what I do. The crowd gathered, so I elaborated."
"And made it boring as all Hell."
"Some would not think so… which reminds me…" Luka shook her head, flinging Rupert to the ground in front of her. "Your additions to the beginning of that particular tale were unwarranted and… just plain crude."
The goblin shrugged. "Not my fault you have a path from your ears to your mouth. I thought they liked it. Got a good laugh outta that O'Donal, too."
"I still don't like it. Next time you whisper in my ear while I'm telling a story, I'm throwing you to the ground right there and keeping you there." While she would never admit it, Luka did think that the alterations Rupert made to her story – by whispering things to her while she was talking, which she promptly and unconsciously said aloud – were actually quite witty. But telling him that would just encourage the goblin, so she kept her mouth shut.
"Promises, promises…" Rupert waved his hands about, making a passing lady yelp as a few long fingers caught and flipped her skirt. The goblin whistled at her… then turned back to see Luka glaring at him with harsh, violet eyes. "Yeah, I know. 'Grow up,'" he whined in a horrible imitation of the tree spirit's voice.
Luka sighed again, glad that the cobblestone square they were in was smoke-free. With the number of deep breaths she took, the tree spirit wouldn't dismiss the possibility of getting lung cancer from ambient, cigarette smoke. Lord knew how many humans lit up those disgusting little cylinders every day. "Yes. I'm going to get something to eat now, so if you feel the need…"
She didn't even need to finish that sentence as she began to amble down a side street, since Rupert quickly followed, swinging up onto her back using a nearby lamppost. No one bothered to reprimand him; Townsend was a small city – or large town – but they still had a goblin population. Instead, the nearby humans and stonekin just glared, giving him the standard goblin treatment.
And none of it bothered them.
A little ways down the street, the duo entered a 'tree-spirit' friendly coffee house – which meant that the building was large enough to accommodate adult tree spirits. Luka was still quite young, so the entire shop stood somewhere in that odd limbo between big enough and too big. Most of the occupants were humans and stonekin, gathered around hardwood tables and sipping lattes. Only a few tables on the lower landing had blankets laid out for tree spirits to sit on; they weren't common enough patrons to invest that heavily in appropriately sized furniture. Luka laid down on one of these folded blankets, and Rupert pulled a spare stool.
After a cheerful, elven waitress took their orders – white mocha for Luka, black coffee for Rupert – a few other patrons passed by, inquiring into Luka's Collection. A small audience quickly gathered as she told them she was a storyteller, much to Rupert and the waitress's displeasure. With a little coaxing, Luka relented and told a short story… in exchange for what a slovenly attired man promised was a great tale.
Most of the other patrons dispersed after Luka's telling was over. She, however, was more interested in what the man had promised to tell her. "That was my tale," she grinned, lapping at her mocha. Luka's mouth quickly turned into a frown when she discovered that it had cooled significantly. "You can start your tale any time; I'm listening."
Rupert huffed and folded his arms, his coffee already gone. "Great… more stories. Forgive me if I'm not enthralled by your droning." The goblin went to flicking small sparks of raw magic into the air around the centerpiece. He'd be over this slump in a day; Luka knew this from experience.
"Firstly, I loved that story. You hear it somewhere?" When she nodded, the man smiled. "You tell it good. So," his eyes flicked back and forth between the tree spirit and the goblin, "what're your names?"
"I don't see why it's so important, but mine's Luka." She could wait for him to get to the story. He had to have some good stories, if his appearance was any indicator. He was a human, a silph, with dark skin and unkempt hair. He wore very practical clothing – overalls – but no shoes. And he had a charming smile. Even if she never got anything out of him, just the encounter alone would be story-worthy.
"Rupert," the goblin stuck his tongue out. It looked a lot like a blood-red worm slithering out between his pointed teeth.
"You two really like stories, right? You'll love this one." Luka was about to point out that Rupert only hung around because he liked messing with her tellings, but the human man cut her off. "I'm Mudd… currently. Don't stick with one name for too long. It gets boring. But…" He leaned forward from where he sat, cross-legged. "I can't actually tell you a story. Nope, I've got something better."
Luka scowled. "I don't accept material things. It goes against my people's code to do so."
"Didn't stop you from taking that scarf," Rupert offered playfully, his smile seeming to eat his face.
"You tied it onto me before I could say 'no.' And it sometimes comes in handy; nothing in the code says I can't accept something that is useful." This was only somewhat of a lie; Luka didn't want Rupert to hear her say that the scarf, which he'd stolen and given to her, was a reminder of a story… her story. "But the point still stands. You promised me a story, Mr- "
"Mudd. You promised me a story, and I expect you to keep to your end of the bargain."
Mudd nodded. "Well… I can't tell stories like you can, but I can get you to a place where there are more stories than you could imagine."
"I can get to South America quite easily, thank you."
At that, Mudd let out a loud laugh and his smile persisted even once he began speaking again. "No, better than that. This place is in a book… a very important book. But it needs some – what do you call it – maintenance. So, you go in, fix the problem, and then you've got more stories than you know what to do with." He thumped his fist in his other hand, as if remembering something. "Oh yes… this'll help."
The man reached out and grabbed Rupert's scarf. The goblin hadn't been paying that much attention, but startled at the tug.
"This'll be a Function of Sight," Mudd said. In a heartbeat, the paisley pattern on Rupert's scarf shifted and opened, each paisley teardrop turning into an eye. Luka stood up suddenly, and Rupert stiffened from fear. "Okay, now you're ready. Go through the front door, and it'll take you to the Book." Mudd let go of the scarf and leaned back, looking at the duo expectantly.
Luka looked between him and the door. "Just like that?"
"Just like that."
Rupert, finally regaining himself, scrambled around the other side of the table and onto Luka's back. "Is he a wizard? He's a wizard, right? Must be. Can we trust him? Luka, are you listening to me?"
The tree spirit glanced back at the goblin. "Do we have a choice? Besides…" Her eyes lit up – more than usual. "A book of stories… imagine."
"You're setting yourself up for one Hell of a letdown, girl."
"Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Worst that can happen: we just walk out the door and we're still in Townsend."
Rupert was still trembling a bit, but he clung to Luka like a lifeline. "Sure. Let's think that."
Luka bowed her head to Mudd. "If you're lying, I'm coming back for my story."
"Of course," the man replied.
Luka tried to walk casually over to the door, but she couldn't help quivering in excitement. With Rupert holding onto her tightly, they walked out the coffee shop door.