hankar Dayal took the main road toward the castle of the Darkling, his mare’s iron horseshoes clicking against the cobblestone roads. She was a beautiful horse, of the breed they called the Gypsy, and that was what he’d named her. Her coat was dappled gray, her well-kept mane and tail white, her socks black up to the knees. It had taken him work to maintain her, to make her fur glossy again and put weight back on her bones after he purchased her for cheap from a farmer in a lean year. But as most beasts, she trusted him; he spoke to her in soft words when they rested in the dark forest the night before, and she carried him out of it in confident safety.
He had heard from the boars who had harbored him the week before that the king of these lands was good to those who others considered strangers, monsters. He had met several along the way who would be considered monstrous in the surrounding petty kingdoms. Orcs, moontouched, goblinkin – those who would be cast out for what they were, what their people had done. And the king, he was told, was a great lover of music and the arts.
His own music was of course more loved for being exotic than for being good. The sitar hung from his back, his tabar at his left hip, his totem dagger on his right. One saddlebag carried the goods of his survival – his rations, his rope, his bedroll, his tinder, all of which would need to be replenished before he left tomorrow. The other contained his more civil livelihood, the tools of the mason and stoneworker. He looked exotic, a foreigner from a far-off place, and people watched as he passed with whispers and murmurs. When he had stopped to lunch, he had been asked for stories of his homeland, and he had obliged with the tales he kept prepared for such occasions. He was welcome for his outlandishness, high and low.
Today, the sky was threatening a storm, so he was aiming high. He was sure that word had already spread of his visit – and, if it hadn’t, it likely would soon. Merchants like those set up along either side of the road were notorious gossips, which he used to his advantage with both soft questions about the king and expectations that they’d pass word on to anyone making deliveries to the great rectangular castle that sat at the crest of the hill, perched as it was like a great bird surveying its territory. He had little doubt it would see him before he let Gypsy’s hooves touch the bridge that led over the moat, in view of the guards atop the portcullis on either side. A traveling mason – more importantly, a traveling musician with his sitar visible, would usually be welcome at any hearth long enough for the storm to pass.
There had been a small commotion inside Dealg Dubh. Word had passed by mouth to the ear of King Walsh himself of a mysterious man with a strange instrument who was making his way toward the castle. The mention of an interesting instrument had caught Ethan Walsh’s attention. He had long played host to musicians and artists. It always seemed that one would show when his moods were low. Having just sent Sabrina away under false pretenses, he found his mood lower than usual. A musician would be welcome.
He was in his study when Saoirse had come to him. “My lord, the stranger has arrived.”
Ethan stopped what he was doing at the words of his steward. He smiled softly and nodded to the high elf, who bowed to him. He waited for the man to retreat before he stood from the old oak desk. His coat was thrown over the nearby armchair, and he retrieved it, slipping it on with precise and easy movements. He paused for a moment afterward, closing his golden eyes. He sighed softly and ran a hand through his long curls. He returned to the desk and found a length of black ribbon, pulling his hair back. After it was thoroughly pulled back, he finally left the study.
As he walked through the halls of the keep, he was greeted by many of the staff and their family members as they walked. He gave polite nods and smiles to all of them, his tired eyes never hovering for long. He had, after all, only just woken up, and so he was not quite ready yet to be seen or to see others.
Yet, he walked, walked all the way to the entrance of the keep. Gathered there, he found his advisors, his steward, and his paladin. All five of them gave soft inclinations of their heads toward Ethan, which he much preferred over the years when they had given him full bows. Bows felt… too official.
The young king made his way to his chair at the end of the great hall, and then, after making sure he was seated how he wanted, he gave a small nod to Malachite, who pressed his fist to his chest in response. The genasi made his way toward the great doors at the front of the keep just as they opened. As the doors opened, Ethan was just able to make out one of the young stablehands talking to the stranger, likely offering to bring the house around to the stable for him.
Ethan steeled himself. He had to, as the wave of anxiety swept over him. He was eternally afraid of what might happen every time a new person set foot in the keep. Every time he caught a new scent, and the way that made him feel, he was reminded of why that was.
As the doors opened, Shankar gave a handful of coins to the boy, with another soft admonition to treat Gypsy well. The horse was tame under most hands; but he still whispered a few words to her in the voice of the woods, soft reassurances that she accepted with knowing eyes. Then she was gone, and the stranger in a strange land turned toward the castle he hoped would harbor him.
He was a tall man, strongly built but not broad enough to be threatening, even with the thick stone ax on one side and the feather-laden dagger on his other. His skin was many degrees darker than the people native to the Isle, but rather than the piercing black eyes typical to such a complexion, his were a vibrant green, full of a beautiful light and strange energy. He wore his black dhoti skirt wrapped like the local trousers; over his cotton shirt was a green silk kurta tunic that fit him impeccably, embroidered in lighter green with constellations and heavenly bodies. An oddly unmarred white hooded cape was fastened about his neck, and his beaded jutti shoes were soft leather with long, curling toes. His curly hair was uncovered, tied back behind his neck with a narrow piece of cord, and the curly beard was neatly trimmed close to his face. He was someone from afar, welcome for his foreign face and ways across courts and countries.
But he did not depend on reputation. Each visit, each king, was different; each had different standards to which he would be held. And so, as he entered with a slow, feline gait, he offered a soft smile and inclination of his head to the knight within, the neck of the sitar on his back bobbing with the movement.
“A greeting, friend.” His accent was odd. He lisped on some diphthongs, and caught the consonants on their hardest edges. It gave his voice an almost muffled tone, but not mumbling; clear enough to be heard and understood.
His expression was focused on the Genasi man, as if he did not dare so much as look inside without invitation. But there was no fear in his straight posture, in his calm eyes. “A storm seems to follow in my footsteps. I seek refuge from it, for tonight. I can offer the song of my lands, or masonwork, if song is not enough payment, in exchange for a place to sleep until the sun rises again.”