Tensions were as high as ever the next morning. Rin and Shay were at each other’s throats once more, and now Aoife and Shay were at odds, though Aoife chose a tactic more familiar to her gender; the silent treatment. She refused to speak to Shay, no matter what he would say to her. He had tried apologising, joking, explaining, all manner of things but to no avail. He would have called her stubborn as an ox, but that wouldn’t have helped matters in the slightest.
Though no one wished to voice it, their proximity to Ankora was doing little to help their moods either. Shay had mentioned in passing that the Oracle had told him of her home town, and ever since they had been wary of the place. They had no idea what Oracles were truly capable of, and they weren’t at all eager to find out. Especially not Shay, considering his part in liberating the Oracle of her bonds. For all he knew, they’d strap him down and feed him to the dogs for it. Were there even dogs in the East? What if they had even more ravenous beasts? Maker preserve him.
They had hoped to rely on Rin’s interest in cartography to come up with a route that did not take them through Ankora, but his knowledge of the East was as vast as his knowledge of mining—next to nothing. Short of crossing the River Aur, which even they could tell had risen far too high in its banks to even dream of crossing, their only options were to traverse Ankora, or risk the uncharted desert that surrounded it. They would all sooner have taken the risk, but as poorly supplied as they were they were unlikely to last more than a few days, even in the middle of winter when the desert was at its least warm. They would have to stop in Ankora, if only to better equip themselves with food and water. Had they already been supplied with something to store it in, they might have risked collecting water from the Aur, muddied as it was from the Medaran goldmine.
As the trio crept into Ankora, they tried to draw attention away from themselves as much as possible. With all their money used up, they would have to resort to stealing to ensure their survival in the desert, but stealing in a town full of Oracles would perhaps be easier said than done. And of course, when they said ‘they’ would be stealing, in truth they meant Shay. The idea of stealing from a town that might already know of his intentions to steal from them wasn’t exactly a comforting one. Unless he got lucky and found another Oracle in search of freedom, there was simply no way around it.
Much like the rest of the world that they had seen, Ankora was something beyond their wildest dreams—something more of a nightmare in this case. Unlike the rest of the world, which chose to build its houses from wood or simple bricks, the buildings in Ankora were comprised entirely of sandstone. Their size and stature betrayed the quaint nature of the place, and gave the town an eerie feel to it, though the trio were already biased in their opinion of the place.
The sandy soil beneath their feet spoke ill of the rest of the desert. They had expected sand akin to something one might find at a beach—not that any member of the party had ever been to the beach—but instead they were presented with something that was neither sand nor dirt, but some fumbling mix of the two. The East was always used to spin tales of elegance and extravagance, but Ankora seemed to be lacking in both. Sandstone walls weren’t exactly the stuff of legend, after all.
“Anyone else got a real bad feeling about this place?” Shay asked his fellows, voice barely above a whisper.
Aoife and Rin did not need to speak for Shay to know they felt the same as they tiptoed through the town. For a place that was supposed to be brimming with Oracles, there was hardly anyone in sight. Were they locked up somewhere? Buried underground in a cave somewhere? It just didn’t make sense. Surely there had to be townsfolk as well? There was no way it could keep itself governed and fully functioning with just Oracles inhabiting it. How would they obtain money for food? Water? Shay knew they didn’t partake of much, thanks to the tales the Oracle had spun him of her childhood, but even small bites were costly when the number of mouths to feed was high.
Unlike Karasti—and Honeywell, now that they thought about it—Ankora was decidedly bigger than they had been expecting. It didn’t take them long to walk through the place, but it stretched on for miles, and each corner they turned was more barren than the last. They were almost starting to think that the Oracle had been mistaken and that the place was long since abandoned, but they finally caught a sign of life. One of the numerous sandstone buildings was lavishly decorated with deep blue ribbons, which were in turn covered in a thin layer of that sandy soil. Two large wooden barrels sat on either side of the front door, and looking strangely out of place amidst all the stone was a simple wooden sign above the door. A single word was carved into the wood, and had been painted the same blue as the ribbons adorning the place, but it was not a word either member of the party recognised; Albin.
“Any ideas, folks?” Shay asked as they hesitated across the street from the building.
Rin had reasoned that the blue focus certainly implied it was an establishment that traded in water, but he was certain the desert had been fitted with the same plumbing facilities as the rest of the world. Why should Ankora need an entire shop devoted to the sale of water, especially given their proximity to the Aur? He supposed he couldn’t blame them for not wanting to drink from it any further than Medara, though.
“I guess we’ll just have to go in,” Aoife said, acting the voice of reason for once.
Nobody wanted to make the first move. None of them wanted to be held accountable should their decision to enter the place be a wrong one. For all they knew, the Oracles had foreseen their arrival and had laid a trap for them, to lure them into some distraction or another.
After a few moments more hesitation, it was the young orphan that made the first move. She had never feared the unknown before, and in the few moments that she had given herself to really think about it, she had no reason to fear the unknown in that moment either. Nothing had happened since they had arrived at Ankora, and while she knew little about war and battle strategy, if anyone had wished to harm them then they surely would have come for them in the night, when they slept and left themselves defenseless. That was what she would do, at any rate.
The interior of the mysterious ‘albin’ was dark and musty, the floor lined with the same sand as was everywhere else and what little light was allowed into the place through two tiny windows at the front of the building was subdued not only by the ribbons adorning the exterior of the place, but by a set of wooden shutters on each window. Were it not for a few sparse oil lamps, the place would have been in total darkness. The walls of the shop were lined with glass bottles, though she couldn’t quite tell what their contents was. A flash of light from Shay opening the door to join her informed her they too were dressed in sand. Was the East windy? There was no other explanation for why everything was so thoroughly covered in sand.
“Perhaps it’s a wine shop?” Aoife said, walking over to one of the shelves stacked high with bottles.
“Shitty wine shop,” Shay muttered, joining Aoife in the apprehensive search of the place.
Rin, however, skipped searching all together, and made a beeline for the front desk. Much like any good merchant in Eturia, the place was equipped with a bell, so that customers could inform the owner of their presence without expecting to have to wait. If anything showed the divide between the three, both in class and custom, it was this. Aoife would have waited an eternity if she had to, and Shay likely would have grown bored and liberated a bottle from its resting place, if only to inspect it in the better light outside.
It took a few moments, but eventually the man Rin assumed to be the owner came shuffling towards them. He was an elderly looking man, with wispy white hair and a pointed white beard that ended just above his belt. In Rin’s mind, the man almost looked like a wizard, but he kept his thoughts to himself for fear of seeming insolent. Unlike the customary black seen in Eturia, the strange old man was clad in a deep blue suit, just a few shades off the ribbons outside, as if it had been washed too many times and had faded. All in all, he looked rather comical. Even more so when he reached the desk and pushed a pair of glasses onto the bridge of his nose.
“Customers this time of year?” the man said, speaking more to himself than to his guests. “How strange indeed.”
The man spoke with the same accent as the Oracle, though by comparison hers had been far more subdued. For Rin, an array of accents wasn’t such a strange concept. He could think of at least two from the Aur Valley alone, and he had heard several across the South. But to Aoife, the variation was astounding. She had thought each corner of the world simply had one collective accent, and variation was merely a matter of elocution.
“Pardon the intrusion, Sir,” Rin started, not entirely sure if the old man was listening or not.
In the corner of the room, Shay stood miming the Western boy and his middle class mannerisms. Aoife knew she shouldn’t laugh at it, but the caricature was so spot on that she had to stifle a few giggles here and there. She would apologise for it later, had it offended him.
“We aren’t from the area, you see,” Rin continued but he was cut short momentarily by the old man.
“I can tell that. Far too light, far too fanciful,” the old man muttered, once again directed more at himself than the trio.
Rin glanced back at Aoife and Shay, uncertain as to whether he should continue, but Aoife urged him silently onwards. Rin turned back to the old man and took a deep, nervous breath.
“As I said, Sir, we aren’t from the area, and your shop seemed to be the only place that was open, but… well, we aren’t entirely sure what it is you sell.” Or where everyone is, he wanted to say.
“Albin,” the old man said bluntly, as if it offered some sort of explanation.
“What… what exactly is albin?” Aoife asked, knowing Rin would allow himself to be lead in circles for hours otherwise.
“Water, girl,” the old man said sharply, making the orphan take a wary step backwards.
“Why not just say fuckin’ water?” Shay muttered under his breath, but from the scowl that was aimed in his direction it was evident the old man had heard him.
“How much is the water, Sir?” Rin asked, trying both to the distract the man and defuse the situation.
“For Ramela, it is free,” he said, doing little for the confusion the trio were already steeped in. “For Oracles, it is whatever they can afford to give. For yaban, it is ten crowns a bottle.”
They didn’t need to ask to know they came under yaban but that gave them little understanding of what had been said to them. They’d known there would be different slang in the East, not that Rin and Aoife were that well acquainted with slang in the first place, but they hadn’t expected to be faced with it this early on in their travels. And while Shay and Rin were disgruntled, but largely content to accept that had they had any money, the old man would have conned them out of most of it, Aoife would not take it quite so readily.
“That’s an extortionate rate,” she protested, reclaiming the step she had taken backwards. “What if someone can’t afford to pay ten crowns?”
“Then they have no business being in the East,” the old grumbled, clearly growing bored and frustrated by the three penniless youths in his establishment. “Tarşehir alone will bankrupt a person, and that’s if Gamzhe hasn’t already. The East is a frivolity to you , and it’s only right it should cost you what it costs us.”
Tarşehir, as Rin knew, was the makeshift capital of the East. While no one corner of Valara had its own capital, there were three cities that matched Olmaea—and Eturia, for that matter—both in populous and grandeur. Because of this, the three came to be known as capitals of their respective corners, but in truth were little more than well inhabited cities. To the North was Osova, the West had Arcana—though as Rin understood it, it had been Beechfield’s title before the last MacCleirk revolt—and the East called Tarşehir its capital. Gamzhe, however, he had never heard of. Knowing where they were headed wasn’t going to help them get any water, though.
Rin looked to Shay, a silent question played on his features.He was by no means an expert at this, and he knew it was likely Shay that would have to do the hard work, but with Aoife and the old man bickering about common human decency, it served to reason that they should use the distraction to their advantage. They were never going to raise enough funds for even one bottle, and now that he knew their faces, they wouldn’t be presented with a chance like this again.
Shay seemed to be of the same opinion. His attention never left Aoife and the old man as he freed a few bottles from their resting place on the shelf, concealing them as best as he could within his trousers and his rolled up tent. Seeing another fully lined shelf behind him, Rin sheepishly followed suit, albeit at a much slower pace than the seasoned thief. Once they had their fill—a measly five bottles between them—they let Aoife continue her argument for a few moments. Rin would sooner have made their escape immediately, but he trusted Rin’s judgement on these matters better than his own. As Shay would inform him later, a theft such as that required a certain amount of tact. When a distraction as prominent as Aoife’s unwitting one was put in place, a hasty exit would draw more attention than necessary. It was safer by far to see it to its end than risk the old man sending the law enforcement after them in suspicion.
For all the bottles they had stolen—or rather the lack of bottles they had stolen, in hindsight—they had little water between them, and no idea which way to head, other than not to their left, which would only lead them back to the River Aur which they could still hear faintly in the distance. Had they been able to steal more, they could quite easily have gone stomping off into the desert with little more than high hopes, and despite Aoife being certain she could distract the old man again, Shay was adamant that they be on their way as soon as possible. The old man would not stay ignorant to the theft for long, and the Olmaean wanted to be as far from Ankora as possible when he did. Still, with no idea which way to go, and no one save for the old man to ask, the trio knew they only had one option; they would have to find the Oracles.