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Winter’s day at the Market

I bunched my shoulders up under my ratty, worn, mostly-burgundy-beneath-the-mud cloak and hurried in to the market, trying to avoid bumping in to any of the adults around me. I say “adults” as if they are some kind of other, but truth be told I’m not sure how old I am. My best guess is somewhere in my mid-teens. You don’t celebrate a lot of birthday parties (or anything really) as a street kid. I’ve arrived at “mid-teens” as a probabilistic age through a combination of comparison to other kids, memories of being out in the cold for many winters, and biology.

When you don’t have much, you take every opportunity you can. That’s how they found me – desperate for, well, anything. Food. Shelter. Love. You name it. They offered me enough food to last Josie and I a month. In return, all I had to do was drop off this… object in to one of these stalls. I was carrying on me a bundle no larger than an apple, wrapped in simple gray cloth, and I was to drop it off inside a stall with an aqua awning and purple beads dangling from the front. I was told that inside this stall would be an orange vase with markings that looked like a wolf’s fangs imprinted in to the side, like an artisan’s signature.

I kept my head low and tried to remain inconspicuous as I made my way through the market, peering in to the backs of any stall that even vaguely matched the description I was given. Unfortunately, because I look the part of a street dweller, you could be forgiven if you thought what I was doing was scoping your stall out for later burglarization. These furtive glances earned me the ire of the merchants, and after about an hour I could feel the shift in the quality of the admittedly sparse local law enforcement: from indifference to careful observation. Great, they think I’m here to rob these people.

Which, on any other day, they wouldn’t be wrong. Heck, I hadn’t even decided if they were wrong _today_. But they were wrong _for now_.

Whatever, it didn’t make a terrible difference to me. I was used to being watched with suspicion, particularly around goods that could fit neatly in one’s pocket. Well, if the cat was out of the bag and word had gotten around that I was “of note”, there was no real reason to maintain a low profile. I pulled my hood back and flared out my unkempt, reddish hair, letting it fall most of the way down my back. I ran my fingers through it a couple times, trying to work as many knots out as I could, and smoothed my clothes out as much as I was able, straightening my back out as well to reach a towering five foot six.

I tried to casually scan the stalls around me, but it probably came across as more nervous than I would have liked. I don’t like being watched. I spotted a stall with an inoffensive older couple, selling various kinds of fish and seafood which smelled…_shudder_ heavenly. My stomach growled involuntarily as I began to approach, being drawn in almost magnetically by the smell of woodsmoke drying out the catch of the day, fish oil dripping on to the logs below and sizzling.

As I got closer I wiped at the drool that had begun to collect at the corner of my mouth, and as I lifted my head I met the gaze of the older woman tending this stall. Her face was a little long, as if slightly bored and impatiently waiting for this part of her day to be over, but her eyes smiled at me as I approached. I glanced past her at who I assumed was her husband, an older man hanging smaller fish over the fire they had going. He was also cutting long strips from a rather large fish that he then hung up and smoked.

I swallowed, partly from nerves and partly from the drool that had begun to collect in my mouth and asked the woman: “E-excuse me, ma’am, I’m looking for a specific shop. W-would you be able to help me find it? It’s important.”

Her mouth broke out in a smile that matched her eyes, her face almost radiating warmth and motherly affection. “Oh my dear, yes, of course I can try and help you. What are you looking for?” She acted as if I asked for more of her special home-made cookies, in that way that grandmothers have of making you think _you’re_ doing _them_ a favour by enjoying something they have created for you.

I gave her the details of the stall I had been given and, as I did, she furrowed her brow slightly. “That’s a peculiar description. Most folks who come through here want what’s _in_ the shop, they don’t much care for the colours decorating it. Do you know what they sell, dear? Do you know what the owners look like?” Her tone was one of concern, though not in a patronizing way. I shook my head in response to her questions, biting my lip slightly, mostly to contain all the drool as I stood within mere feet of the most delicious smell I had ever encountered. She looked heartbroken as she visibly wracked her brain trying (unsuccessfully) to dig up any information about this mystery shop.

“S-sorry for bothering you ma’am. I’ll be going. Have a nice day…” As I turned to go her husband let out a small grunt from the back of the stall and ambled up to the counter. He was a bit taller than me, bald but with grey remnants of what once was still clinging to the sides of his head, cut short. Skin so weathered and leathery you could bind a book with it. He peered at me with beady black eyes for a minute, scowling. I took a furtive step back as he approached, as if the force of his glare had physical properties.

His wife made a reproachful sound as she saw how uncomfortable her husband’s glare was making me. I assumed she was about to tell him off as she opened her mouth, but he began before she could get out a word: “Now why,” his voice came out gravelly, “would you want to go there?” He continued his glare, which did nothing to help loosen my tongue. I tried to answer, choked, swallowed as now fear-based saliva had joined the party, and choked _again_ before he went on: “You have no idea who you’re working for, do you?” His glare continued, but his tone has gotten considerably lighter. I shook my head.

He exhaled a long, slow breath, and as he did, his glare evaporated. He wasn’t _smiling_ now, but it was a significantly less hostile look than the one I had been treated to previously. He pursed his lips, looked to his wife, who gave him that mix of pleading and commanding that only married couples can use on each other, and turned back to me, leaning forward across the counter.

“Alright, miss. I’m going to tell you where to find this stall you’re looking for. But you have to promise me something: you do what needs doing and then you **get out**. No second looks. No dawdling. And you never contact the people who told you about this place. Ever. Got it?” I stared at him, somewhat awestruck as the force of conviction behind his words hit me like a wave breaking against the shore. Even his wife seemed shocked to silence at his intensity. I was able to regain my composure enough to close the distance between us a bit, nodding.

He regarded me for a moment, nodded, and quietly directed me to a back corner of the marketplace, close to where the market ends and it becomes proper docks again. As he was talking, my body betrayed me: my stomach growled. His wife cut across him and asked seriously “when was the last time you ate?”

“Umm, last night. Sorry. The fish smells so good…” Before I had even finished replying, the wife had bundled up two large pieces of fish she had removed from one of the strips I surmised were smoked earlier. They were wrapped in wax paper and must have weighed at least five pounds each. As she pushed them in to my hands I looked down at them with confusion and stammered out “oh no I’m sorry I don’t think I could afford this.”

She cut me off with a “Tsk tsk. It’s on the house. Look at you, you’re skin and bones. And by the sounds of things…” she glanced aside at her husband “you could use a snack.” I stared at the packages in my hand, which were probably more food than I’d eaten in a week, and contemplated the term “snack”. I bowed my head and muttered a thanks as I unwrapped one of the packages, pulling pieces off with my fingers and eating it. It was still warm. It was delicious. The look on my face and the rather un-ladylike noises I made while eating said volumes more than words ever could.

I thanked them both again as I began walking away, stowing the other portion away for Josie. She was going to lose it when she saw this. I smiled to myself a little at the thought of her tearing the packaging off and devouring large chunks of this meal from heaven. Josie might not _actually_ be my sister, but she might as well be. We’ve been through it all together, always had each other’s backs. She was a couple years younger than me (again, assumptions, see formula above) and was my only constant in this world. She deserved a little joy.

Well, she deserved a _lot_ of joy, but we don’t always get what we deserve.

As I thought this rather depressing thought, I rounded a corner and saw my quarry at the end of a rather empty row of shopfronts. Maybe, at least for the next little while, she will get what she deserves.

As I approached the unoccupied stall, I rubbernecked quickly to see if anyone seemed to be tracking my movements. Of the handful of people in this part of the market, none of them seemed to be paying me any mind. I kept low and moved as nimbly as I could around the back, which let out on to some kind of staging area for the docks, with a smattering of crates of various sizes, as well as barrels and ropes waiting to be loaded on to a waiting vessel. I stuck my head in to the back of the stall through a set of curtains and looked around.

It was fairly empty. Maybe a dozen vases of various colours and shapes – including an orange one bearing the mark I was looking for! The fishmonger was right! I started digging through my pack and fished the object I had been given out and dropped it carefully in to the orange vase. It made a dull _thunk_ sound as it landed, like a stone.

As I was scanning the interior of the shop for anything valuable that could easily go missing without too much fuss, I heard someone shout over my shoulder “Hey! What are you doing in there!?” I pulled my head back from the stall and looked towards the source of the shout.

Shit. It was one of the guards (or what passed for a guard in the Roost). And he was running.

Fast.

At me.

My legs started working before my brain fully processed what was happening and I ended up back inside the stall. I scrambled over the counter and spilled out in to the interior corridor. No one acted like they had heard him, so I took off running in a straight line directly away from the stall. I chanced a glance over my shoulder and saw he had a considerably harder time getting over the counter, but he was able to right himself more quickly and was already picking up speed.

“Stop! Thief!” He was shouting after me. Okay, good thing about a society founded by pirates: they have a healthy disdain for the law. There were some half-hearted attempts to slow me down, but they came with a smirk and a wink. I kept running straight, but I knew this was a losing proposition: he was taller than me, with a longer stride, and we were heading back towards his fellow guardsmen. Their attempts would not be so half-hearted. I needed a way out, now.

There was a T-shaped intersection at the end of this corridor, and I feinted left before turning right and continuing to make my escape. Just after I rounded the corner though, I was stopped by a bear of a man standing outside of his shop. I basically crashed in to him, and while I was still trying to recover my bearings, he wrapped an arm around me and dragged me briskly in to his shop. He shoved me back a ways, shuffling his wares around to somewhat conceal me if I crouched down. I did. He gave me a shushing gesture before returning to face the front of his store.

I could hear the guard round the corner and slow down, having lost sight of me. He began questioning some of the passers-by if they had seen me, but no one seemed to volunteer any information. I was breathing hard, both from nerves and from my flight, but I tried to steady my breath and breathe through my nose as I heard the guard begin to question shopkeepers. He would make his way here shortly, and the stalls were not that big. I was no more than seven or eight feet back from the main thoroughfare.

I had mostly gotten my breathing under control as he approached the stall I was in. I tried to remain as still possible; I didn’t even look at the guard for fear the whites of my eyes would stand out too vividly against my surroundings. I heard the man-bear who rescued me converse in a low tone with the guardsman, giving him a similar treatment as everyone else seemed to have. As the guard began to reach the end of his line of questioning, he stood up a little more straight and started smelling the air.

“Is that…smoked fish I smell?” My heart dropped. Every muscle in my body tensed. I began feeling around at the back of the stall, hoping it had a similar false-back as the aqua one – no such luck. I turned my head towards the front of the stall, hoping to gain insight in to whatever the guard was about to attempt to give myself a micro-edge. As he began leaning forward in to the stall, the shopkeeper crossed his arms rather poignantly.

Something on the shopkeeper’s hand caught the guard’s eye, and he straightened up almost immediately, seemingly struck by fear at whatever he had seen. My saviour grunted “You’re smelling my lunch. What’s left of it, anyway.” The guard seemed placated by that, nodded, and quickly left the stall I was hiding in. I could feel my body begin to tremble as all the adrenaline that had been dumped in to my system started escaping.

The shopkeeper waited for probably five minutes after the guard left before turning around to address me. He didn’t say anything, he just stared down at me. He was rather tall, easily over six feet, hairless above the neck except for bushy brown eyebrows flecked with grey. He had thick arms, covered in hair of a similar colour to his eyebrows, and a good helping of scars. His eyes were grey, sort of inhuman looking…almost canine. He looked at me like one assessing if something is a rival or food.

He seemed to have settled on “not food” for now and offered me his right hand. I looked at his left one as I was standing. He had a simple ring on the pinky finger, gold, inlaid with a black stone. Well, not black per se. It was…darkness made real. Nothing I had ever seen in my life had been that dark. It looked like he had captured a region of the night’s sky far away from any stars and set it in to his ring. As I stared at it, my hands tingled a little. I thought of the package I had just delivered.

Recommend0 Simily SnapsPublished in All Stories, Fantasy, Fiction

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