#1 – The Merchant and The Minstrel

The heat had been hard to acclimate to. The merchant’s eastern-born skin blistered on his dry knuckles. His wide, floppy hat and lime-colored, draping shawl had spared him most of the sun, but his continual reaching out towards the customers, had been enough exposure to burn his fingers. He endured the pain for the satisfaction of a full purse, and an empty inventory.

He had avoided looking at his hands, and kept his eyes busy by scanning the crowd that entered through the northern gate. He had been forced to hawk his wares in the exposed open of the plaza, after he was accused of selling stolen goods. He was too much of a foreigner for any noble to vouch for him, so he was evicted from his stall within the trade hall. His only hope for more opportunities to garner any decent profits was to intercept a trade wagon before it passed on to the underground warehouses.

The city of Ka Rosha was the third of the six ‘sun-soaked’ cities, and its position in the middle of the trade-string brought lots of travelers passing through. The people emerging from the wall’s tunnels walked slowly. The afternoon had just passed, and the worst hours of the day were good at sapping enthusiasm.

His guard was down when he felt hands placed on his shoulders. His flinch was met with a terrifying smile from Haleet. The merchant tried not to stare into the man’s maw. Haleet’s teeth were an assortment of shades and shapes, some were plated in silver or gold, others were pale or blackened. Haleet turned the merchant back towards the moving crowd and whispered from behind “How’s my favorite fence doing?”

The merchant stiffened under the pressure of Haleet’s fingers as they dug into his shoulders. He kept looking at the gate and spoke toward the crowd. “I’m alright.”

“That’s not what I meant.” Haleet’s hands shifted closer together, and squeezed a little harder. “How’s my favorite fence’s business doing?”

“Poor.” He was about to add ‘thanks to you’ but thought better of it.

“Well, it looks like you need me again, then.” His laugh was shallow and subtle, the kind of suppressed laugh thieves train for. His right arm let go of the merchant’s shoulder, and his left then reached around the nervous man, holding a sack against his chest.

As the merchant took possession of the bag, the thief’s hand reached through his shawl and quite obviously removed the merchant’s purse. It was everything, there was no secondary purse hidden away, no rings on his fingers, no chains around his neck, no coins in his boots. Every scrap of wealth he accumulated in his three months traveling among the sun-soaked cities had just been removed from his person. He was draped in cloth, and yet, without his purse, was naked. The surge of insecurity paralyzed him. Before he turned to fight for his coins he remembered the stories of dead men and their rifled homes.

When he had finally unstuck his feet, he realized that he was alone again. The merchant took his new sack to a shaded ally to inspect its contents. He huddled against a wall, and spilled out four objects. Once he saw them for what they were, he grimaced with regret regarding his rough handling. Haleet had gotten the worst of the deal by far.

The black mirror alone could buy him a ship and crew for a year. Old legends about the mirrors persisted over the centuries, fueled by occasional, self-professed witnesses. He had seen only two others in his thirty-one years of life, but he had never met anyone who had heard one speak. The merchant wasn’t one of fools who believe in magic.

The striped, toy bear was another relic, and the windable charger that complimented it was prized everywhere. The final item was a necklace of black gold featuring a diamond the size of his thumbnail. On its own, any merchant would assume the necklace was a replica, but when grouped with the three other riches, its validity was suspect. Only an appraiser could confirm, but he dared not reveal its presence to anyone in Ka Rosha. He would have to sell something to afford to leave the city, and that predicament made him sweat even more. With the necklace tucked in with his nethers, and the other three treasures back in the crude, rough-spun sack, he ventured to the last place he should go.

The trading hall was a squat, colossal building, taking up a space equal to seven of the thirty cooling towers which loomed over the city. The hall was nearly a whole circle, with the only exterior entrance a crescent-shaped divot in the north end. The six layers of curtains that comprised the threshold were each decorated with the stories and colors of the different sun-soaked cities. The merchant passed a loose gaggle of eastern tourists who were taking time to admire and decipher the images woven into the drapes. He swept himself through the final curtain, which was customarily decorated with the hosting city’s chosen viasge, and was encased in a refreshing wave. It was the early-afternoon peak time, and the aisles were bristling with shoppers. The air was cool and moist in the high-ceiling hall, fitting a perfect contrast to the arid heat outside. Vats of water were everywhere, pulled from the chill, aquifer river.

He knew what kind of target he needed, someone newly wealthy, who was on a frivolous buying spree. His luxury goods would garner a fortune if the buyer could afford it, but he doubted whether anyone in the trading hall would carry enough coin for a fair trade. Most of the inhabitants were looking for a meal or supplies for the road. He knew that some were looking to steal or snatch. The merchant lowered the brim of his hat, and held the sack under his shawl.

He was weary of proposing to anyone who wasn’t a serious buyer so he spent nearly an hour pretending to be a consumer, while hiding his face from the watchmen. The crowd was beginning to thin, and with fewer people for the watchmen to oversee, he felt his disguise running thin. The trading hall was a priviledged position for watchmen, and those who earned a shift where they could be safe from the sun, worked hard to prove themselves worthy. He tried to keep himself casual and evasive, in spite of a growing paranoia. He took a ninth pass around the jewelry section, and finally saw a worthy mark.

The minstrel was dressed in a gown of silver scales, likely a gift from one of her admirers. Her finger nails were individually styled, and her feet were fitted into polished, black leather sandals. Her auburn hair was sculpted with gilded pins shaped like snakes. Ornate bracelets hung from both wrists. She meandered along the isles, not venturing deeper into any stores.

The merchant watched behind her, but could not identify her escort. He sneaked ahead of her, and then turned around to walk into her path. He smiled his earnest smile, made a generic sound to comment on her beauty, then reached into his bag, and pulled out the black and white striped bear. Her eyes darted to its metallic sheen, and she stood still before him. With his flaking fingers he held out the toy, and handed it to her. While the minstrel inspected the bear’s perfect curves, he drew out the charger and began to crank it. It whirred with his rhythm, and the hair on his arms and head stood in salute. The loose strands of the minstrel’s hair began to push away from her head, and the bear came alive in her palm. It wiggled in her hands, bracing itself against her finger tips, then began to dance and wave. The merchant watched the minstrel bend down. She put the bear on the ground, and while she knelt, her hand brushed open the sack at his feet. He cranked faster trying to draw her attention to the lively bear, but it was too late. The minstrel pulled out the black mirror.

He had hoped to leave the city with the mirror, and sell it to some distant minister or king for a ransom. Her fingers were tracing the straight symmetrical lines, moving with careful grace. She began to turn about, tilting the glass, trying to catch the reflections of different colors on its surface. He reached out for her, and before his cracked and flaking fingers grasped her upper arm, a spark leapt and shocked them both.

She turned back apologetically, and he held on to her. He was about to take back and then conceal the mirror in his sack when he witnessed a phenomenon. The mirror’s surface began to glow a dull blue. In the dim hall, the light stood out. The blue changed into a strong white. Specks of green manifested and clustered into shapes. Trees took shape, and white clouds in a blue sky were seen through the glass. Both stood mesmerized. His fingers released the charger, and it fell to rest at his feet.

“Hello!” The black mirror spoke, excited and friendly.

The minstrel stifled a scream, and the mirror spoke again “I’m sorry, sweet girl. Have no fear of me.”

The merchant, still latched on to the minstrel’s arm, pressed “Who are you?”

A soft chuckle proceeded the mirror’s declaration. “I am the adviser, within the tower.”

The merchant thought of the clustered skyline above, “Which tower?”

“The tower, within the island city.” The tree and sky, shown through the glass, morphed into a living view of a walled city broken from the coast by a shallow strip of blue sea. “The connection is fading. You will always find me here.”

The merchant reached for the black mirror, and tried to pry it away from the minstrel but her hands were of formidable strength. Other shoppers were gawking. The merchant heard gasps and looked around. He caught the eyes of a guard. Recognized the mirror, the watchman’s eyes went wild, and he roared for others. When the minstrel turned to face the alarm calls, she pressed the mirror to her chest possessively.

The watchman drew out a knife, and spat out a black gob before he spoke, “You thieving foreign cats!” He was looking at her, but he was speaking to both of them.

The merchant tried to take back the black mirror, but the minstrel had the glass tight in her stiff, panicked arms. “Run, you silly flute!” said the merchant as he pushed her through the wall of onlookers. He dashed back to the bear and charger, and knocked them into the empty sack.

She was now alert, and swiftly shuffling through a maze of bodies. Her hands held the flat precious relic to her belly. He swam after her, grabbing onto cloaks and shawls, pulling himself through the throngs. When he reached a clearing at the thoroughfare’s intersection, he glimpsed a slip of silver scales sliding amongst the gateway curtain. A second later, he had escaped the attentive crowd and had followed her into the draped foyer. Two veiled crones in the passage shrieked at his abrupt appearance. He dashed on with waving hands, parting the fabrics with fury. His sack swung wildly with its contents, almost tangling in the folds. The sunlight struck his face, and he stopped to find himself standing over the silver scaled beauty. She was on all fours, convulsing. On the ground ahead of her was a pile of black shards.

“What a waste.” He murmured to his god of ill luck.

Remembering his pursuers, he raised the girl to her feet, and groped through her pockets unobstructed. She had no purse, and in his mind his god was smirking. Most likely, one of her aides carried her wealth, but the trading hall was now too hostile to go back. He pulled her along, while she resisted and kept reaching for the broken pieces on the ground.

They had crossed the plaza, and turned into a narrow alley before they heard the furious shouts of the watchmen. “It was that northern whore, the one who plays at the Hiding Moon. She’s wearing silver. A bounty for her head!”
She paled, and slumped against the stone wall. He had to pull her along with running speed. They navigated the unseen ways towards the eastern gate, hoping they could beat the news. The guards at the tunnel took no extraordinary notice of them, and were lax at their posts with the two portcullises down.

He pleaded for them to raise the gates with his best nonchalant demeanor. They expectantly ignored him until he bribed the captain with the striped bear and the bracelets off the minstrel’s wrists. Outside the walls, they rushed along the outer road until they got to the aquifer river path, south of the city.

A fanfare was down the caravan trail, within sight of the city. A self-proclaimed charmer was pandering to the people passing by, displaying his tricks of shaping vines. The merchant knew the man, and had sold him some of the wires he used. When their eyes met, the charmer gave a knowing grin, ended his performance, and waited for the crowds to contribute then leave.

The charmer collected his earnings, and waved the merchant over. The minstrel followed him into the showman’s tent.
The charmer undressed and laid his white robes on an unrolled, rot-wood mat which functioned as his bed. He began to scrub his skin with a dry cloth as he spoke. “I know why you run., Ka Rosha is coming for you.”

The merchant and the minstrel exchanged worried looks.
“How did you know that?” The merchant asked.

The charmer faced him and grinned, “I told you. I have powers. You never believe.”

The merchant looked away doubtedly. “Yes, fine. We need to leave. To Siemiten, or maybe Terabi.”

The charmer laughed and shook his head, “Nowhere in the sun-soaked cities, will you be safe. That black mirror belonged to the RaHaZa. All the cities are bound by the deep river, and you desecrated against the caretakers of the water. They will ensure that all sun-soaked hunt for your blood.”

“Back to the east, then.” The merchant slumped in his stance with disappointment. “Can you buy us food and water for the road?”

“No road. Riders will catch you both in a day.”

“What else can we do?” The merchant asked rhetorically.

The charmer winked, and stepped outside. When the merchant followed him, he saw the charmer staring out to the west. He looked aside to the merchant, and then nodded back towards the sky. “My friends will take you. They pass by real soon.”

The merchant followed the charmer’s gaze and saw the ship. A gleaming dot just above the horizon, drifting closer. “They will come down to get us?”

“No. You will go up to them.” The charmer turned to face the merchant, and his somber eyes were skeptical, “For a price.”

The merchant opened his sack and produced the charger, praying that he wouldn’t need to dig out the necklace.
The charmer clasped a hand over the winding box, concealing it from any strangers with wandering eyes. He looked around to see who might have been watching and spoke softly, “That will do.” He moved toward his tent to see the minstrel, disheveled, and clueless. He spoke loud enough for her to hear. “We must start now. The climb may take a while. The RaHaZa won’t waste any time, and my friends won’t fight the winds for you.”

 

Chapter 2