“How would you like to introduce yourself?” The merchant was asked when he settled in the center of a corner less hall. Bordering the walls, were segments of a ring-like table, broken into eight pieces, and arranged in a semi-circle. Each table, one or two two people sat, labeled. The two tables at either end of the crescent were half the size, and sat a single member. The room was fairly dim, for the one windowed wall shown the cloudy night. The council members surrounding him had a simple glow falling on them. It was enough light for the merchant to discern their faces, and read their names.
Mahana cleared his throat, and began to preform, flairing his hands about as he spoke. “I am a student of numbers, and history, eager to learn and help solve the riddles of the old world.” He finished with a bow, and kept his head down as a contradicting show of humility.
What followed was a near silence, with a stifled girly giggle.
He felt mocked, and in his exhaustion, snapped back towards the source of laughter. “I’m also an apparent entertainer. How would you like to introduce yourself?” He glanced from the name plate to the woman, “Rude Donna, perhaps?”
The woman at the sixth table showed no signs of insult, and patted her neighbor, labeled Bellatas, on the arm. Bellatas released a second effeminate giggle, and held out one open hand, apologetically, as his other covered his mouth.
In the center of the semi-circle, between the fourth and fifth segments, hung a massive black mirror, angled slightly downward. It was dark and still, with the two tables aside it seating only one member each. The one to the merchant’s left, was labeled Jules, and as he opened his mouth preparing to speak, the merchant saw the gleaming insides of another Golden Throat.
Jules voice was firm, and grating. “We would like to know who you bear allegiance to?”
“I don’t understand the question.” What the merchant didn’t understand is what kind of answer they were looking for.
With a tinge of annoyance, the right-most council member, labeled Caleb, bluntly asked “Where were you born?”
The question was one he had been asked before, but never knew a good answer “I was born in a caravan.”
The merchant turned to his far left, where a man tagged Eheratou, was humming and nodding his head. “A slight lie. Mostly true.”
The merchant looked to Eheratou, and gave a humble bow. “I was born somewhere, and sold to the caravan as a babe.”
“Mahana Malabar, of the Thirteen ranges.” Jules said in a monotone. He was bald with a teal plate embedded into his head. His eyes were soft, but his words were sharp. “You were not sold. Master Gargendell had you stolen, to repay a faulty debt. Repossessed, would be the term he would use.”
The merchant cocked an eyebrow, and sent a look stinking with indignation towards the blue-scalped Golden Throat. He was about to unplug his spite, when three sharp notes rang through his head. The sound came from within him somehow, and for a moment he forgot what he was going to fury about.
Jules finished, “I only mention this as we assumed you had no prior knowledge.”
The council member from the second table, named Zenophen queried “Are you loyal to Master Gargendell’s caravan?”
Hearing the name, caused the merchant’s stomach to roll queasy. “I haven’t seen or spoken to him in years.”
Eheratou hummed again, before speaking “And never again, as he has passed. But, do you feel a sense of duty, or a desire to help the other traders whom you matured with?”
He had left the caravan innocently enough, choosing to stay in the shadows of the cliff city. It was that or bore back east through the walls of dusty heat, which patched the dying plains. A decade had passed in his absence, and the only faces he would recognize belonged to the jaded, stubborn old, and the naive, ignorant pups like him. “I have no bonds with caravans anymore.” He hoped that was the right answer.
Eheratou only nodded, then looked left to Jules.
To the right of the central mirror, sat a lone woman. Wasilla sounded compassionate, “Can you name some of your friends, or loved ones?”
The words fermented insult in the merchant’s mind. ‘Can I?’ He thought to himself. He squinted, and remembered the last person whom he felt appreciation towards. “There was a charmer, just outside of Ka Rosha. We were friends. He helped me, uh, us.”
Wasilla and several other members smiled, and she pressed. “Can you name him?”
The merchant could not remember what he called himself. He had seen it written on the boards outside the charmer’s tent, but he never really read the overly-intricate text. He knew it started with a ‘M’, and was so many letters long, so he took a guess. “Margu-Shen.”
“Morgotoo.” The Golden Throat corrected him.
This time, the merchant wasn’t bothered. He was a bit baffled, as upon hearing the name Morgotoo, he visualized the charmer’s painted boards, and remembered again. “You know him?” He asked the Golden Throat.
Council member Orsimian, at the second table, smiled. “I do.” He shifted his weight to the other side of his seat. “You say he helped you… In return for nothing?”
“He helped me, and I gave him a gift in return.” He thought about why he lied. The merchant didn’t want to admit that he had to buy the assistance.
“What gift was this?” asked Zenophen.
Before the merchant could answer, Orsimian spoke to his adjacent member. “It was the mobile hand charger we gave to the RaHaZa.” He then turned back toward the mirror, and spoke towards the room. “Morgotoo has provided proof of it’s destruction.”
Upon hearing that last word, the merchant lost composure “Destruction? Why would he do that? They are so… urghh, ahhh.” The merchant grunted to himself as his innards slithered. He wrapped his arms about his stomach, as his face was pleading for someone to make some sense.
With a tisk, Storaway at the third table, harped back at a pained Mahana. “Oh. Please refrain from asking questions during this period. When you are approved, you’ll get many opportunities to sate your curiosity.”
“So you are approving me?” The merchant asked again with a grimace.”
Wasilla spoke before Storaway could, “We are trying. Will you let us continue?”
The merchant bowed his head, and held his hands as his back.
Bellatas asked next, with a voice light and airy “What do imagine this city can do for you?”
“Teach me.” Mahana said without hesitation.
“Teach you what? How to get rich? How to build an empire? How to steal, and trick?” Roland whispered his words, but in the still of the room, they rasped on.
The merchant was stunned. He had not expected the quiet one to be the aggressive type. “No, uh, I wasn’t. I’m not here to take from-”
Again Roland sprung back with a hush. “We know what you did at Mount Song. About the fire, the corruption, and the anarchy you stirred up.”
“Mount Song? That slaver’s mountain? That was an evil place. I, uhh, we had to get away. Do you know what goes on up there?”
Storaway gasped, and repeated the merchant’s words, “Do we know? You have the audacity to ask us what we know! We know much more than you would believe.”
Mahana was incredulous, “And you just let all those people suffer?”
“This is not your time for inquiries!” Storaway stood up, slamming his palms into the desk.
Jules was the one to break the tension. “Excuse us. Our friend from Sunrise has been awake for too many hours, and his temper is quite loose at this hour.” Jules’ eyes didn’t leave Storaway until he had seated himself again. “You have an aversion to slavery, and that is good. Did this form before, or after you were forced to wear chains?”
“Before.” The merchant spoke with conviction. “As you’ve said, I’ve been owned by someone else for most of my life.”
“Of, course… Have you ever sought out to own, or rule another person, like you experienced?”
The question would have been an easy one to answer on most days. He would have voiced a quick ‘no’, and been done with it. However, his memory had been sharpening up since he first stepped foot in the faux-atrium. In his mind, a boy whom he had worked hard to forget, was staring back. The eyes were dead. Open… but dead. His face was upside down, and his neck was limp and crooked. In his mind’s eye, the boy stared up. At him. At nothing. At the rocks that were placed over his body. The merchant cleared the dry clump in his throat, and answered with an honesty he didn’t recognize. “Once, a long time ago.”
Caleb exhaled with relief, “Kind council, I think we have a consensus here. Yes?”
“Not yet. Give him another chance.” Orsimian protested, “Just two more queries.”
Jules looked to Caleb, who resigned his opinion. “Quickly please. Rest is wanted and we have a few thousand others who are waiting for their chance.”
“Have you ever had a dream that came true?” Orsimian cocked his head aside.
“Don’t answer that.” Ordered Wasilla.
Orsimian rolled his eyes. “Alright. When was the last time you were with a woman?”
“Don’t answer that, either.” Wasilla was speaking to the merchant, but was shooting an annoyed look across the room.
Orsimian showed empty hands to Wasilla, and asked Mahana, “Do you believe in Gods?”
When the merchant shook head, Orsimian continued. “For the sake of the question, pretend you do. How would one God ask another for help?” Orsimian crossed his arms, and leaned back. His eyebrows crawled over his brow and switched places.
It sounded like a riddle, but Mahana was given silence to answer within. The merchant murmured the question to himself, before saying. “The God explains how the help would help all.”
A few council members began to murmur little words to each other, but as they were all noisy at once, Mahana couldn’t discern anything intelligible.
Storaway swatted towards his neighbor to his right. “Go on Ors, ask your last.”
Instead, Orsimian’s co-member from the Sunset quarter asked in his place. Zenophen held up an open palm before speaking. “A man of numbers is valuable out in the world, but redundant here. Knowing that those talents are so easily mimicked my our machines, what other boons can your presence offer us?”
The merchant had no answer, and that became apparent. He tried to stammer out some idea to do with folk-lore, but all he could say was “I’ over and over again.
He never got to construct a thought as Wasilla spoke over him. “Thank you Mahana Malabar, Please wait there.”
The merchant heard a sound like the brush of fuzz against stubble. It was the only thing he could hear. Looking around, he saw the mouths of the council members move, but there was no sound. He saw hands fall upon the table silently, and when he reached to feel his ears, he could not hear the scratch of his own skin. With wide eyes he looked back to Jules. The Golden Throat noticed his fear and made a calming gesture, a hand gently pressing down. The merchant tried to check what was being said about him, but he could only read the faces, and not the lips. Hope seeped out of him. The council members stopped their silent chatter, and looked back to him.
With a clear click, the ambience returned. Jules was the one to inform him. “You will be permitted to stay two nights in the Visitors quarter, under the domain of Wasilla. After those two nights, you will be given a pack, and sent out from our walls.” Jules glanced over to each member, looking for protest. The rest of the council seemed to accept the words. “That concludes judgments for tonight.” He finished and rose to his feet. A few of the other council members began to stand up, and move towards a passage that had opened under the black mirror.
The merchant was in a stupor. The words ‘two nights’ kept echoing in his head. He looked to Jules, who remained standing still, and watching him. “Will I get to see the city?”
Jules, turned to his left, and looked at Wasilla when he spoke. “Wasilla may only let you see the visitors quarter.” He looked back down to the merchant. “I understand your disappointment.” With that, he too rose, and turned toward the council member’s exit.
A flicker from above the doorway, caused the members to stop. The black mirror hanging above, began to glow grey, then white. A familiar voice drew the attention of everyone in the room. “Greetings council. Thank you for voicing your decision.” The black mirror opened a view to a tranquil brook. “I will be granting this man exception status, and accommodating him in Sunrise quarter after a one week acclimation. Sarenesse, Roland, this man will have leisure to find his place. Do you wish to object?”
The image on the mirror blurred, and re-formed as passing clouds.
The lady addressed as Sarenesse was still seated and mute. She looked to Roland, who was halfway to the exit, looking slightly concerned. His disposition inverted in a flash, and he grew a genuine smile before opening his hands and saying “Welcome!”.
Storaway grumbled. “Couldn’t you have told us before? Might have saved us some time.”
The mirror replied with the same tone, showing no perturbation. “I needed to know how he would be reviewed.” Then, in a challenging manner, the mirror added. “Do you find this task exhausting, Storaway?”
Storaway dropped his gaze, and answered with a defensive mumble. Storaway shuffled after the others through the back exit. Sarenesse was the last to depart, leaving Jules and Wasilla waiting under the mirror.
When it was just the three of them, Wasilla explained what was going to be expected of the merchant while he was living in her quarter.