He's cute for a Sun lord, Ardent thought, stealing a glance in the stranger's direction. She liked his face: he had kind eyes. Kind, anxious eyes. Wonder what's gnawing on his bones? Ardent dismissed him from her thoughts to focus on her intrepid mortal traders. She couldn't help admiring them. The fey shard had synchronized with their world less than two weeks ago, for the first time in over a hundred years. Yet here they were already, braving their "Cursed Lands" to see if the stories were true.
Here I am, boys. The stuff of legends. Disappointed? Ardent thought at them, smiling fondly. The youngest of them, Finquio, had lost his fear entirely, and was relating a story about his great-great-grandmother. She had braved the Cursed Lands to ask for help, and returned home with Ardent and two other fey. They'd saved the village from a plague, a flood, and an ogre. "I remember her," Ardent said, when he finished describing the climactic fight. "Diquio of Aki-by-the-River?"
Finquio's eyes lit as if he hadn't really believed until that moment that the satyress seated before him was the same one from his family legend. "Yes!"
"Her brother and father had the grippe and several other villagers were sick with food poisoning from spoiled grain. They'd had a bad rainy season, and we helped them barricade the river by their village when it was going to overflow. I don't recall the ogre, though. Been a long time; must've slipped my mind."
Next to her, Relentless chuckled and said in the fey tongue, "Maybe they mean Depths Pouring. Did he go with you?"
"Oh, no, I don't remember. I hope they didn't turn him into a villain. Poor Depths. But probably it was someone from the Moon Host that we asked to leave, and it got exaggerated like the rest." To the mortals, she added, "All the ogres I know 'round here are friendly. So what brings you folks round? No plagues, I hope?"
"No, no plagues," the middle-aged mortal, Mifinto, replied with a smile. His two comrades looked taken aback by her remark on ogres. "Not that we would say no to a fey healer! There are always the sick and injured. But Aki-by-the-River is a large and prosperous city now. We hoped to learn how long your people will be ... reachable, here in the Cursed Lands. And exchange goods and services while you are here."
Huanato, the last member of the delegation, added, "And there's the matter of the children."
"Here we go," Relentless muttered to her in the fey tongue. "Children?" he asked in the local language.
Huanato flinched despite Relentless's mild tone. "Yes. A young girl, Intia, from Menoti-on-the-Hill, is missing, and -- "
"We don't steal children," Relentless said, curtly. "What use do you think we'd have for a mortal brat, anyway?"
Ardent leaned forward and put a hand on Relentless's forearm. To the mortals, she said, "This is the village of Try Again, gentlemen. We can assure you no one from Try Again would ever hurt or abduct one of your children. Are you worried Intia strayed into the Broken Lands and got lost?"
Huanato looked relieved. "Yes, great lady."
"Then we'll keep an eye out for her. We find her, or any other mortal, and we'll bring them back to you. Anyone else missing?"
He bowed deeply. "A boy of Quintao Keep, and an infant girl from Ovindia-of-the-Valley."
"A baby. They don't think a baby 'got lost', Ardent," Relentless growled in fey.
"I know, sugar."
"Bet the mother drowned it and blamed us."
Ardent sighed and repeated to the mortals, "I'll let our folks know. Try Again isn't the only village in the Broken Lands, though, and I can't speak for the others. I'll send word around about it."
"Thank you, great lady." Huanato knelt before her and pressed his forehead to the ground at her hooves.
"Sure thing -- no, sugar, it's fine, don't do that -- " Ardent leaned forward and took his shoulder to help him to his feet. "It'll be all right. There now." She dusted off his robe and he bowed again, drawing back. The five of them moved onto details of potential trade. Try Again had access to magic -- granted, only trivial magic without making the journey to an Etherium, but they could still do things the mortals could only dream of. What mortals could offer the fey was less obvious: some barbarian fey would be interested in building materials, cloth, and imported labor, but in many ways it was easier to go to an Etherium for those needs. Ardent was more interested in new breeds of crop plants -- the hardier, the better -- and books. History, philosophy, fiction, whatever they had. Mortals were so much more numerous than the fey that they had a much larger variety of art and knowledge. Even when the things they knew were of little practical value, they were still interesting. Translation was always an issue, but this was the Old World, and the local written language hadn't diverged from the fey tongue nearly as much as the spoken had. A fey with an interest could pick up the written language in a month or two.
The mortals wanted to know if any fey trade delegations -- or healers -- would come to their lands. "That kinda depends on you folk," Ardent said. "As I remember it, my last visit to Aki-by-the-River did have a few problems with your official-types. From whoever your governor was ... Ifilio? I forget. Nothing insurmountable -- flea's-sneeze matters -- but I think we'd want a whisker's more assurance we were welcome. If we are. If not, we can stay home and you can come to us, sugar."
The mortals nodded understanding and Finquio apologized earnestly for the inhospitality of a governor who'd doubtless died more than half a century ago. They exchanged thanks and assurances of future visits and mutual profit. "Can I foist these folks off on you for entertaining, Relentless?" Ardent asked in the fey tongue after they'd covered the basics. "I want to see what our Sun lordling guest wants." The slender fey man had been waiting quite patiently on the far side of the park, within eyesight but out of earshot of them. Not that distance would stop a fey fresh from the Etherium from eavesdropping if he chose, but it was polite for him to pretend he wasn't listening. Of course, he probably didn't speak the language and nothing she'd said was a secret anyway.
Relentless eyed the Sun lord warily. "As you like, Ardent." He invited the men to his home for dinner, and the four of them departed as Ardent rose to walk towards her curious stranger.