« Chapter One »

Things, Found in the Orange Tent

1000.10.15, Moonday, Full Moon, morning

Verra loved the smells of the Bridge Market. Unusually warm for late autumn, the morning air was filled with almost palpable clouds of aromas, constantly changing, as she stealthily prowled the Bridge Plaza. The Bridge Market was a monthly event, only held on the second Moonday of the month—the Full Moon Moonday—and Verra was humbly proud of herself for not missing a single one the whole year to date. Well, almost humbly. Sneaking out of the castle was quite difficult, even under a skeleton guard of late. The challenge was to slip unnoticed into the midst of maids and servants leaving the Castle for the market, and pass quietly through the Inner Gate. After this, all she had to do was to march over the Bridge to the Outer Gate, where none of the guards would pay any attention to her; their only concern being managing people trying to enter.

And then she was free.

She could go where she wanted, do what she wanted, and indulge herself in the multitude of sensational experiences presented by the Market. The motley crowd of vendors offered everything from puppies and hawk chicks, to rare perfumes and clockwork music boxes. She could buy an apple, which would be absolutely delicious—not at all like the exact same kind from the Castle’s little garden—and go explore the merchants and their offerings. She could run her fingers through exquisite silks, gently caress elaborate lace, try on rings with mysterious engravings that would allegedly bring the prospect owner health, luck, love and success in all endeavors. She liked to think of a story about each and every trinket and souvenir she touched. She would imagine the people who owned them before, if they were used, or, who made them, if they were new. She would give them names and visages, dress them in exotic costumes and hear them speak foreign tongues. She loved this little game she invented about a year ago, and it was one of her favorite pleasures of the market. Somehow none of the things in the castle ever inspired her in the way strange and unfamiliar objects did, and where else would she find so many, if not here?

Sometimes—regretfully, not today—there was even a traveling menagerie, set on the outer edge of the Market, so she could gaze upon the rare creatures of far outer lands, and observe their peculiar behaviors.

Or she could go see a puppeteer—she wondered if there was one today—and laugh with the crowd.

Or she could find a soothsayer and pay a little coin for a palm reading.

Yes, I should do just that, decided Verra. I want to be told all kinds of sappy nonsense about the love I am destined to discover. I want to be cheerfully lied to—right to my face—and I want to pretend to believe those lies, and play along and ask silly questions, for it is fun.

Verra turned around and started towards the South edge on the Market Plaza in search of the fortuneteller’s tent, keeping the hood of her cloak pulled over her face.

She passed the area occupied by merchants selling fabric and garments. The smells here were different, of course, but still pleasant and intriguing. Horses and other beasts of burden were only allowed on the Plaza to move the goods before the Market opened and after it was closed. During the trading hours, they would be put into a stable on the edge of Stormhold City one mile away, keeper fees waived for the occasion. This arrangement ensured that the Plaza stayed unsoiled, and allowed more buyers and sellers to fit into the space, which was nothing more than a paved circle a couple of hundred paces in diameter, with a road to the City at one end and the Bridge to Stormhold Castle at the other. On regular days, the Bridge Plaza was just a place for travelers to await their turn to take the Bridge to the Castle, but once a month it became the most prestigious trading place in the Region, where the richest merchants and most famous artisans would showcase their goods and talents. A spot on the pavement was not cheap, and the places on the trampled ground outside of the paved area were just a little more affordable, as the market spilled onto it more and more year after year. That is where Verra was now headed, looking for the palm reader she remembered seeing there last time.

Last month she was right next to the… what is this?

A huge tent of the most intense orange color was occupying nearly as much space as two regular ones, pitched between the cart of the arm smith and a vintner’s wagon in the very outer row of merchants. It was so bright in color, it seemed to be glowing. Verra was drawn to it like a night fly to a candle. She almost forgot to watch out for familiar faces in the crowd and nearly bumped into Lady Seyanna, who was leaving the tent carrying a handful of small glass bottles and looking very pleased with herself. She was followed by two maids, burdened by baskets filled with fruits, nuts, cheeses, smoked meats and other small gourmet indulgences. Lady Seyanna Hillborn loved to nibble. Verra swiftly plunged herself into a small opening in the crowd before the arms smith cart and pretended to examine a small dagger in a ruby-encrusted sheath. The rubies were small, but real, and the steel work was of very high quality. There was no story she could attach to it, though—maybe, because she was distracted. The smith, an old Ordthian with a long braided beard, high nose bridge, and bushy eyebrows, interrupted a lazy discussion with a young lordling in a dusty cloak about preferred points of balance for throwing knifes, and looked at her with mild interest, probably wondering why a young Castle maid would want a dagger she clearly could not afford and had absolutely no use for. Verra, absently wondering what his clan markings might look like—I have never seen an Ordthian in the moonlight—waited until Lady Seyanna and her snack squad gained a safe distance, flashed a coy smile at the smith, put the dagger down, and carefully slipped under the heavy flap of the orange tent.

The flap swung closed behind her.

It was suddenly quiet inside, and it smelled like pure delight. It was an overwhelming mix of everything she knew and loved; from oatmeal with cinnamon on a cold winter morning, to fir tree sap on a hot summer past-halfday, and so, so much more! It was strange, beautiful, and exciting all at once. She looked around the tent. Or tried to, for her gaze was instantly all but chained to the man, sitting in the center of the tent on a tall stool.

The man’s skin was as black as soot.

It was so black, that his features were indistinguishable in the orange-tinted half-light that filled the tent. Verra had never seen a real man of color before. Of course, there were Ordthians with their snow-white hair, creepy coral-red eyes, and skin so pale, it looked like marble with blue veins, and there were darker-skinned Zurbahnians, but even those looked somewhat like very tanned Wests, save for the big hooked noses and very dark eyes. The Highlanders did not count, of course, they were just big and bulky, and mostly rusty-haired, but otherwise, not that different.

This man, however, was.

She knew that black people existed, of course, she read about them, and saw pictures in books, but never in her nearly fifteen winters had she seen one in person.

He was very tall and sinewy, and every part of him was, for lack of a better word, long. Arms, legs, fingers, neck. He was so tall that he was of height with Verra, while seated. He wore an ankle-length, striped robe of many bright colors, streaming loosely from his wide shoulders and held around his thin waist with a golden chain, and sandals with golden buckles. His elongated head was closely shaved, his ears were heavy with an ensemble of rings, chains, and all sorts of gemstones.

Four large, wooden trunks with their lids open, surrounded the man, displaying trays with numerous small compartments inside. Verra remembered the bottles that lady Seyanna was carrying. Between the trunks stood several incense burners, releasing thin rivulets of smoke, each of a different color.

“Welcome to my homble shop, my lody,” said the merchant, baring two rows of huge shiny teeth, three or more of which were definitely made of gold. He stood up and bowed gracefully. He had a deep throaty voice, and he spoke with a thick, unfamiliar accent. His “l“s were soft, and his ”u”s were more like “o“s. “My noime is Ngale. How con I be of ossistance?” Some of his “a“s were also more like “o“s. The man’s upper eyelids were painted orange, which was a bit unsettling—when he blinked, it looked like he was still blindly staring at you.

“…my lody…” croaked somebody on her left. She turned, startled. A massive green bird with a hooked beak and huge yellow forelock, sat on a T-shaped post. A long chain, attached to a leather-trimmed cuff on its leg, secured it to its perch. The bird’s feet had two strong, clawed fingers pointing forward, and two pointing backwards. The talons were so long, that they crossed each other when the creature gripped the boom of its perch. The bird tilted its head sideways, until it was almost completely upside down, and, looking at Verra from this strange angle, grimly declared, “Ossistance.” After that it apparently lost any interest in making small talk, and engaged in preening itself. Its head, judging by the way it moved, was completely disconnected from the body and could travel around it independently.

“His name is Onnoquo, my lady,” said Ngale, making a slight emphasis on the first syllable, “you can touch him, he will not bite. He will like that. Give him this.” He reached into a pocket of his robe, then proffered something to Verra. His movements were wide and graceful.

Verra noticed with mild amusement, that while the backs of his hands were black, his palms were yellow. She took the treat—a small shelled nut of some kind—and carefully reached toward the bird, not sure what to do next. Onnoquo froze, suspiciously eyeing her with one round shiny black eye, then snatched the offering from her palm, ate it, and froze again. She carefully touched his green chest, trying to keep clear of the hooked beak. The feathers were rigid and springy, and gave a little under her light touch. The bird suddenly cooed gently, relaxed his wings to a half-opened state, and closed his eyes.

“Onnoquo likes my lady,” declared the man, “he would be absolutely delighted if my lady would scratch under his wings.”

“I am not a lady…” Verra said mechanically, proceeding to scratch under the bird’s wing, as if she was under some sort of compulsion. The bird cooed more, and pressed his head into her hand. She carefully scratched his forehead, to Onnoquo’s obvious delight. “What is this place? What do you sell?” Stupid question, that’s obvious enough. She corrected herself. “What fragrances do you sell?”

“I do sell some perfumes indeed, my lady. I have many that might interest you. But what I mostly have here are potions.” He spoke with slow and solemn gravity.

“Potions?” Verra turned to him, leaving the bird alone. “Any of them magical by any chance?” She flashed a teasing smile.

“Chance.” approvingly croaked Onnoquo, regaining awareness.

“All of them,” seriously said the owner. “What kind of magic is my lady in need of?”

That’s a very good question, she mused. What kind of magic am I in need of? Any kind I could make myself believe in, I guess…

“You are not from here…” she started, and trailed off.

Of course, he is not. Could I have made a dumber observation? I doubt it.

Verra blushed. “…I have not seen you before, that’s what I meant…”

“My lady is correct.” The man said. “I only recently arrived to this beautiful city, and this is the first time I present my merchandise at the Bridge Market.” He had a distinct air of kindness around him, and, despite his exotic appearance, she felt strangely comfortable and relaxed in his presence. I should be watching the entrance to the tent, what if somebody familiar wanders in and finds me here? She proceeded to examine the contents of the nearest trunk. “Please, stop calling me a lady, for I am not one… What is this potion for?… What kind of magic?” She teased, picking up a small, thick, white bottle with a red wax sealed stopper. Can I think of a story for this one?

“Belly ache,” gravely declared Onnoquo.

Ngale nodded solemnly, extending his hand to the bird in acknowledgment.

Verra huffed. “A medicine, really? You said you sell magic potions, how is this magic?”

“Why, magic has many forms, only being contingent upon one’s definition of it.” He answered willingly. “To most people, magic is simply something, they do not understand. And, thus put, life is, to me at least, nothing less, than pure magic all on its own, for the longer I travel along my Path, the more I realize, how little of it I understand. Why, then, would a carefully prepared concoction of finest and rarest ingredients, intended to prolong life, or enhance or better any aspect of it, be any less magical, than life itself?”

Verra turned the bottle in her fingers.

What can I think of? Candles, many candles. Dark room, darker than this tent, much darker. No windows. Warm. Hot, even. Big table, many little things, bottles, vials, pots, tiny brazier. I am alone, no one else is in the room. I am… making a potion, I guess. My hands are black, with long nails, painted bright blue. A woman’s hands. Something is boiling on the small fire. It smells sharp, but not unpleasant; alarming, rather. It needs to be handled carefully, but it’s safe, for I know how… The man just said something.

Verra snapped out of her story.

“…or, perhaps, an elixir, designed to… safely prevent a new life from happening, if by some unfortunate circumstance a young lady is forced to follow that route?…” The merchant stopped and looked at her, clearly expecting an answer.

She met his gaze, puzzled.

What route? His big eyes are kind and sad. He looks… sympathetic. He is indeed quite an interesting and unusual person…

Then she understood.

“Oh! I… Err… I am not… mmm…” Oh, no, I am not blushing again. Oh, but I am. Oh, this is embarrassing. I am, probably, not even red anymore, I am purple. In this light I must look black. Just like him.

She nearly giggled nervously at the awkwardness of the situation. Well, at least he considers me mature enough to be in that kind of predicament. The thought made her feel better.

“That shall not be necessary,” she managed, proud of how level her voice was. “What about the perfumes you said you have?”

“Perfumes.” Onnoquo issued enthusiastically in an unnaturally high voice, and than added in a juicy baritone, “Necessary.”

“Please, forgive me, if I made you uncomfortable, my… if you would be so kind as to give me your name, so I would not have to call you ‘my lady’ anymore…?”

“That shall not be necessary either.” She smiled, trying to smooth out any implied rudeness of her answer, then bent to put the bottle back in its padded compartment, but something stopped her. “Who made this potion?” she asked, to her own surprise.

“A friend of mine,” Ngale looked at her with a strange expression, as though he was trying to study her, “…she is just as skilled as I am, and her mixtures are of unsurpassed efficacy, otherwise I would never offer them alongside my own. But most of the elixirs here are made by me. As are all my perfumes, if you would like to examine them…” he made an inviting gesture to the trunk on his left.

Verra finally parted with the belly-ache medicine bottle and moved to follow his invitation, when the front flap of the tent opened, letting in some fresh air filled with festive market noises. She had wisely kept her back to the entrance all this time, and was now glad that the strategy paid off. Somebody came in.

“Good day, sir,” exclaimed Ngale, golden teeth blazing, “welcome to my shop. My name is Ngale. I shall be at your service within a moment.”

“Good day, master merchant,” answered the man. The voice was young and unfamiliar to Verra, with a faint strangeness in the way he pronounced his words; not even an accent, more of the articulation, as though he was a little too precise. “My lady?” She realized that the newcomer was addressing her, and turned, keeping her head low. Dim orange light gleamed on the hilt of a sword.

Noble. Hex.

She dropped into a deep curtsy, making sure that the Crest of House Stormhold was clearly visible on her white, starched apron. “Milord…”

“Service?” inquired Onnoquo, bobbing his head and quickly hopping from one foot to another.

The noble measured her a short nod—polite acknowledgment befitting a servant — then turned to the colorful avian, and, thankfully, away from Verra.

“Beautiful bird,” he said, “may I?…”

“Why, of course, my lord. Onnoquo is very friendly,” said Ngale.

“Onnoquo? Like the island East of Kuomoqo?” the stranger inquired, reaching to pet the bird, which was already spreading his wings and rolling his head around his body in an indecent display of near rapture. “Traitor…” Verra whispered under her breath.

“Exactly, my lord.” The merchant nodded with respect. “You know your maps…”

Verra carefully peeked at the young noble from under her hood, trying to be discreet.

He was slender and tall, only half-a-head shorter than Ngale. She saw him before, she realized, talking to the Ordthian arms merchant about throwing knives. He had an open and friendly face, framed by a closely trimmed beard. His light sandy hair was short as well, cut even shorter than peasants wore, but he had a simple tan leather headband across his brow. His face wasn’t handsome; comely, maybe, but not beautiful by any account. He seemed pleasant, definitely, yet not memorable. And not that many years her senior. The hem of his dusty cloak, picked up by the scabbard of the longsword, was quite worn, but the fabric was high quality, as were his fine leather boots of the Eastern fashion–with leather straps, lacing his ankles and calves. Spurs on, noticed Verra. Skillful work, she could tell, intricate steel snowflake of a spur, probably Zurbahnian. Traveling noble? That would explain the tanned skin and all the dust. Hands ungloved, sleeves rolled up to the elbows, like a working man’s, but the shirt is of an expensive silvery-gray silk. Definitely noble, but no visible insignia on the cloak. Verra now wanted the stranger to turn, so she could see him from the front, and, maybe, get a glimpse of the rest of his outfit. This game was even more interesting than the story-making. She knew all of the noble families in Stormhold—everybody did, there were not that many—and he did not belong to any of them.

Ngale returned to her, leaving the mysterious stranger to Onnoquo.

“Here are some aromas which—I should hope—might be to your liking, mistress,” said he, presenting Verra with four tiny vials of colored glass. “I have composed the fragrances myself, and they are absolutely unique. You will not find another scent like this at any other chemist’s shop. Pray, take your time to sample all of them, and tell me what each of them reminds you of?”

This is undeniably the best Market Day of them all, Verra decided, examining her newly acquired treasure. Now, which one am I going to open first?

“If you will forgive me…” Ngale bowed to her, smiling, and glided to the other customer. “What could I gladly do for you, my lord?”

“I have trouble falling asleep of late,” the man said, “have you anything to aid me? A sedative of sorts?”

“Most certainly, my lord!” The chemist reached into the same trunk where the belly-ache bottle came from, and produced another opaque white bottle, this one sealed with dark wax. “My own treasured recipe. One drop into your night cup of wine will give you swift and pleasant dreams within heartbeats after consuming the drink. It has no taste and no smell, so be sure not to use more than needed, for you will not be able to tell, my lord.”

“What would happen, if I accidentally use more than one drop?”

“After two drops—my lord would awake in ten or twelve hours, I would dare to estimate. But more than that, let’s say, four, might very well make my lord lose more than a whole day to sleep. I would not recommend any further experimentation with dosage.” Ngale sounded quite serious.

“How much?” The young man seemed satisfied with the chemist’s explanation. His cloak was open, partly revealing the hilt of his sword. The unadorned hilt was unusually long. Bastard sword? Those would have a hand-and-a-half long hilt, but this one is two-and-a-half at least, if not all three—very strange grip length for a not so long sword. Small pommel of dark metal. I can’t get a good look at the guard. I can’t see a guard at all, in truth. Very strange weapon. Zurbahnian, again? His accent is not Zurbahnian, and he does not look like them either. Highlander? Not likely… This is very intriguing.

“Two silvers, my lord.”

“Will you take akhars? It would be three of those, correct?”

“Of course, my lord. Anything I can do for my lord’s convenience.”

The young noble reached inside his cloak. A faint whiff of campfire smell reached Verra’s nostrils, as she watched for him to pull out his coin purse—now, that might have his coat of armor on it—but instead, he produced something that looked like a thumb-thick and foot-long metal cylinder. He turned it in his hand, and suddenly the cylinder fell apart with a quiet jingle, transforming into a necklace of coins. They were held together by a cord or string, going through the hole in the center of each. He unfastened three silver disks and handed them to Ngale, who took them with a bow. Verra’s eyes widened with excitement. At last! I know now, what the holes in Zurbahnian coins are for!

Both men turned their heads and looked at her.

“Are for!” Onnoquo confirmed, emerging from the petting trance.

Verra realized, that she uttered the last sentence out loud. Hex you, stupid goat, what are you going to do now? She curtsied belatedly. “I apologize, milord. I shouldn’t have had…”

“You have absolutely nothing to apologize for, child,” the young man said. Still crouched in an awkward bow, she couldn’t see him, but he sounded somewhat encouraging. Not angry or annoyed, at least. “And, yes, this is how Zurbahnians carry their money. They like to display their wealth at all times; also makes a handy weapon, a stack of coins on a chain. Please, rise. It pains me to look at you, frozen in such an inconvenient pose.” Hex it. Is there a limit to how many times I can blush within one hour? Apparently, not. Verra straightened her legs and back, still looking down, but noticing his wide friendly smile. “You are from the Castle, I see?”

“Yes, milord.” Keep your hexed eyes down, maybe, he will leave you alone eventually. She could see his sword belt buckle—still no crest—and the strange sword clearly now. There was a guard, where the long hilt met the blade, but it wasn’t the straight crossbar she was used to seeing on Western or Ordthian-made longswords, nor the complex and ornate wire basket of Zurbahnian scimitars, but rather, two small curved petals of the same dark metal from which the pommel was made. The sword seemed to be slightly curved, judging by the shape of the black scabbard, which was also unadorned, save for the folded sheet of metal worked around its throat so the two halves of it, shaped like the wings of a bat, extended down. It seemed to be of the same design as his spurs. Still no crest.

“I tried to gain entrance this morning, but was turned away by the guards,” said he. “Apparently, in order to be let into the castle, one needs a hereditary induction into the Order of the Eagle Knights of Norlay, or an invitation from an Eagle Knight, or an invitation from a member of the High Family.”

Verra could tell that he was still looking at her. She kept silence, staring at the four vials she still had clutched in her hand. Do not answer, unless asked a direct question. It’s hot in here, my palms are sweating. What do you want from me? And why do you even need to get into the Castle? There is absolutely nothing interesting there! Go pet the bird, would you? And ‘child’? Seriously?

“Is it always like this?” asked the young man.

Ngale came to her rescue.

“I was trying to get in as well, my lord, also unsuccessfully. I was told, that security was heightened because of the skirmish on the Western shore. Most of the garrison is away, led by the High Lord himself. The Young Lord is with him, too, only the Young Lady Heir remains, so they are being careful not to let any strangers in.”

“I heard about the fighting, yes… Seems strange to send a castle garrison to do a rank formation job, does it not?”

“I have heard that it was a matter of urgency, as well as of personal principle, my lord…”

You are right about that, thought Verra. It’s all about personal principle, in truth. And showing that imbecile, the Young Lord, what real fighting is about. As if it would miraculously turn him into a responsible adult of thirteen winters. Again, you are doing it again!—she realized, that she was openly staring at the two men, completely forgetting herself.

They didn’t seem to notice it, and she finally returned to her bottles. The red one?

She pulled out the stopper, almost as big as the vial itself, also made from red glass and skillfully sanded to fit neatly into the opening. She was doubtful that it would even be possible to smell its contents in the heavily scented air of the tent—but was proven wrong at once. The perfume was quite potent, and easily pierced thought the thick cloud of incense smoke. The aroma was surprisingly complex, and so tastefully balanced that there were no prevailing notes of any particular scent, but rather a harmonious choir of many different fragrances. It faintly reminded her of something familiar; pleasant, warm, and yet distantly dangerous, as if it could cause harm. A wave of heat was rising within her. She wasn’t blushing this time, no, she felt good, and different, as if she discovered another side of herself; stronger, bolder. Fierce. She caught herself smiling. I must look really dumb, grinning like a village idiot. The heat sensation was retreating, leaving a thin residue of pleasant warmth. She neatly closed the red vial. That was fun. Now, the clear one.

Once again, a powerful cascade of flavors, but the bouquet was radically different. It feels fresh, like morning air, a bit chilling, and sparkling, like new snow. Happy. Playful. Mischievous? Witty. Stop grinning, you nincompoop! Cork it, and behave yourself. That’s better.

Blue?… Wow, this is… cold, goose bump cold. Slow and heavy, but flowing; silky, clever. Purposeful and manipulating, powerful and ruthless. Dangerous, too. Addictive. Sorrowful. Close it.

The green vial, the last one.

A distant, piercing scream, slightly muffled by the tent walls, put an abrupt end to her explorations. Both men turned to the tent’s entrance, then looked at each other. Another shriek, shorter and quieter. The noble flung the tent flap open, and flew outside. Ngale was right behind him. Something had happened. There was no happy noise, rushing into the tent this time. The market was quiet. Verra followed the chemist, squinting her eyes in the sunlight, and pulling the hood tighter over her head.

The outer market aisle was empty, as was the aisle next to it, deeper inside the plaza. Although Verra could still hear the familiar noises of the market, they were now coming from a distance. As she stood in the suddenly deserted area, she caught a glimpse of movement between the tents, three or four aisles away. There were no more screams, but the hushed muttering sounded agitated and angry. Somebody called, “Guards, call the guards!” No guards, Verra thought. Please, no guards.

The young noble made a few fluid steps to the right, towards the abandoned arm smith cart with all the shining knives, daggers, and swords left unattended in plain view, then turned back to where Verra and Ngale were standing. He seemed even younger in the bright daylight, and he looked tense, scanning the abandoned market with quick eyes. You are just a boy, aren’t you? I seriously doubt you have more than a few winters on me. ‘Child’, ha. Look at yourself.

“Have you any idea…” he began, addressing Ngale, but the merchant interrupted him. “Yes.” He was looking to his left, alongside the winery wagon. Verra stepped forward to look. “Young mistress, please, stay behind me, or, even better, return to the tent,” he said softly, turning to face the direction he was staring in, unceremoniously extending his right arm to bar her. His eyes were still locked on the empty aisle.

“Well?…” started the young man, behind her. And stopped.

The enormous dusty-gray dog slowly stumbled into the curve of the aisle. It was huge, even for the famous Norlay wolfhound breed, of which it was. The beast was so big, that it could rest its square head on Verra’s shoulder without its front paws ever parting with the ground. Verra froze, staring at the dog over Ngale’s elbow. There was something wrong with the way the animal moved—it swayed and staggered, like a drunken man. Its head was hung low, nearly touching the ground, and its short fur was dull and matted.

“A dog? That is why half of the market ran away?” the young man sounded incredulous, but spoke quietly. Verra suddenly realized that he was standing right behind her, a mere thumb-width from her back. She could feel the warmth, radiating from his body. It felt awkward and inappropriate, yet somehow… safe. Not that she was afraid, of course, not. Why would she be?

The dog stopped and lifted its head, sniffing the air, a thick silvery strain of saliva hanging from the corner of its maw. It seemed to be looking straight at her, standing about thirty or so paces away. It was shaking and breathing heavily, she could hear its labored panting.

“Not just a dog,” whispered Ngale, “a very sick dog. Pray, stay behind me…” His long arms were outstretched at his sides at a slight angle, yellow palms forward, as if he was going to herd a flock of chickens into the pen. His hands were slightly trembling.

“Oh. I see.” The noble replied.

You see what, exactly? It is just a dog, isn’t it? Verra couldn’t take her eyes off the beast. It’s hurt—looks like there is a wound on its shoulder, covered with a crust of dry blood. She could now feel the faint, yet disgusting smell of festering flesh.

“I do not think it is going to attack,” he added. He was tense, but sounded calm.

“Does not look like it. But that can change any moment…” Ngale said quietly, “…whatever happens, make certain not to touch him, or his blood, or saliva.” Why? I don’t understand. She glanced at the chemist. His stare was locked on the animal. She looked at the dog. Why are its eyes so small, just thin slits in its huge head? And the eyelids are swollen. And all the saliva… All Lord…

Of course.

The dog is mad.

And it can kill all of us with no more than a drop of spit. It can kill me. It will kill me.

Her head spun. Suddenly, she couldn’t focus her eyes on anything, but the giant, mad dog. Her knees buckled, she careened to her right, and, in a failing attempt to keep her balance in her high-heeled shoes, grabbed Ngale’s arm. He swayed, startled, and momentarily took his eyes off the creature, in order to stay on his feet.

The dog produced a short, low growl, and charged.

“Get in the tent!” boomed Ngale, lurching sideways, and pulling her by the edge of her cloak. The cloak flew off her shoulders, leaving her behind. Ngale lifted up the heavy flap. “Now!” It was clearly too late. Verra stood, petrified, in the middle of the aisle. In a few powerful leaps the hound covered more than half of the distance between them. His movements were sloppy, but unexpectedly fast. Trampled grass flew from under his paws. Somebody screamed, far away. One more leap. She lost control of her legs, and this time, there was nothing to grab to steady herself. The world started to tilt. I am falling. She felt a sudden pressure around her abdomen and on the right side of her body—hip, shoulder and even the side of her head. The sight of the empty market aisle and the horrid creature attacking her, disappeared in a nauseating blur. I must be dead. She heard a loud sound, like the crack of a whip, but lower, then a thump, and the rustle of paws sliding on the dirt. Her back hit something taut, which gave a little. An angry growl, abruptly ending in a wet thwack. Another thump. The soft whispering of cloth in the wind. Her eyesight finally returned to her, still blurred.

She was slowly sliding down the side of the tent, facing the opposite direction than before. The young man stood in the aisle with his back to her, knees bent, legs apart, sword in a confident two-handed grip, pointing down. Blood was dripping from the curved dark blade.

The massive heap of something gray a pace in front of him, could only be one thing: the dog’s lifeless body. Its severed head was lying next to the still jerking hind legs, in a smoothly expanding puddle of dark blood. She could see small clouds reflecting in the oozing liquid. Verra’s stomach turned. I am going to be sick.

“Everybody all right?” asked the boy, straightening his back.

I am not all right. Her awareness was returning slowly, as if she was waking up after a nightmare. My hood. My hood is down.

The noble turned to her, now holding his weapon in his right hand slightly away from his body. The thick deep-red liquid was still dripping from it.

“Drink this, young mistress,” said somebody. Ngale. He squatted in front of her, holding a small golden goblet to her face. “It will make you feel better.” She obediently wet her lips. Water. “Thank you, Master Ngale,” she managed a gulp and a smile. I am getting better. I can almost think straight. My hood. She reached for it with weak hands, pushing back the tangled mane of her pitch black hair. No hood. No cloak. My cloak is lying on the ground, all trampled.

People started to pour into the aisle, carefully staying clear of the corpse and the unfamiliar young aristocrat with a naked sword, too, just to be on the safe side. “Make way, make way for the Castle Guard!” she heard. Oh, no. Not the Guard. Maybe they have not noticed me yet. “Master Ngale, would it be at all possible for me to rest inside your tent for a short while?” Hex, what kind of maid would talk like that?

“Why, of course, mistress,” smoothly exhaled the chemist, offering her his bent arm for support. She took it, and they dived into the aromatic safety of the orange dome.

“What happened?” Verra asked bleakly, after she was gently deposited onto a soft pillow, that Ngale quickly pulled from somewhere and put on top of the now closed fragrance case.

“You fainted, but the young lord rushed to whisk you away from danger, and then he slew the poor beast. Here, have some more water.” Verra took the goblet. “Please, forgive me. May I leave you here for a short while? I feel like I am needed outside. The corpse of the animal needs to be handled properly, and that sword must be cleansed before he sheathes it…”

“Of course. Thank you,” sincerely said she. Ngale stepped outside, leaving the flap closed. She felt relieved, being left alone. Whisked away? Sounds like something from a fairy tale.

The muffled murmur of the crowd, seeping in from outside, was getting louder and more festive. A woman laughed. Verra wondered absentmindedly if it was the same one who screamed. Somebody cheered. She heard Ngale, talking to the guards, and the guards, directing people to strike some tents and move the carts surrounding the corpse, and construct a pyre over it. I need to get back, she thought, Moona must already be waiting for me to sneak me back into the castle, it should be easy, now that everybody is distracted. What a day. Ha. I am lucky I didn’t pee myself. My hand hurts. She relaxed her clenched left fist. Oh, the vials, I still have them.

Ngale entered the tent, followed by the young noble. He carried his weapon, already wiped, but unsheathed. The left sleeve of his silk shirt was missing, leaving his shoulder bared. Verra noticed that the tan only reached his elbow.

“How are you, mistress?” he asked with concern.

“I am fine, thank you. Milord.” She felt better, indeed, just very tired.

“Milord,” muttered the bird. He seemed to be falling asleep.

“I would like to apologize for the way I handled you, but it was necessary to remove you from danger swiftly, and I fear there was no time to… ask for permission?” He grinned unexpectedly.

“That’s quite all right, milord.” She found herself smiling as well. “It’s a small price to pay for my life. Are you hurt? Your sleeve…” Oh, yes, I am undeniably better—I am blushing again, hex it!

“Master Ngale discovered some dog’s blood on it, so we cut it off. It’s nothing. Thank you.”

An overwhelming smell of strong alcohol filled the tent—the chemist was drenching several white cotton rags in it. He put the bottle down on the ground. “May I?”

The young man handed him his blade. His movements were smooth and effortless. Ngale carefully took the sword between two cloths soaked in spirits, and proceeded to thoroughly wipe it in smooth and sure swipes. “Beautiful blade,” said he, “Rim, I presume?”

“You know your steel.”

“Extremely rare to see one so far North,” continued Ngale, returning the purified weapon with a bow. “Especially one handled with such mastery.”

“I merely put down a diseased animal, hardly something that requires any recognition.” He sheathed the sword in an elegant sequence of several swift, yet caressing passes. Verra never saw a sword being sheathed like it was some sort of a ritual. First, the young man turned the scabbard curved side up and held it high close to his side, almost up to his left armpit—she saw the well formed muscles of his bare arm bulge—then, he extended his blade—hilt forward, edge up—in a right, underhanded grip, catching the tip of the weapon with the throat of the scabbard. Finally he, silently slid the blade in, and released the scabbard to its original position, hanging low at his side. All of this took him less than than three seconds. “Thank you for this.” he said.

Verra openly observed the exchange with growing interest. She was miles beyond caring about being proper.

Look at that, a humble noble. Ha.

“Of course. Now, your hands, please.”

“Is that really necessary?”

“No, not if my lord wishes to risk expiring painfully in two to four weeks.”

“Milord,” started Verra, after Ngale finished cleaning the young man’s hands and arms. He turned to look at her with a friendly smile. Wide shoulders. He moves well, like a dancer. What am I doing? “What is your name, if I may?”

“Dae Sandstream,” he replied easily. “At your service, …?” He stared at her, smiling wide in anticipation of an answer.

The flap of the tent swung wide open, letting in the restored merriment of market noises and the bulky figure of the Captain of the Castle Guard, Konratt Northhill.

“Apologies for the interruption, milord,” he barked energetically, bobbing a short nod to Dae’s back, and turning to Ngale. “Master, eh… N… eh… the pyre is almost ready to be lit. You might want to strike down your tent, for it’s a bit too close to…” he trailed off, and slowly turned back to Dae. This time he looked past him, directly at Verra. It’s not nearly dark enough here for him not to notice me, is it? Oh, well. She sighed and stood up.

“Your Highness!…” the Captain folded in the deepest bow he could manage without bending his breastplate. “Please, forgive me, I did not recognize you in the dark!” Yes, that was the point. Too late now. Father is going to be furious, when he learns about this…

“Verra Stormhold,” She said with a shallow nod, addressing Dae. “In your debt.” If he was surprised, he did not show it in the slightest. His smile grew wider.

“It is an honor to make your acquaintance, Your Highness.” He issued a deep and elegant bow, looking at her face.

“An honor.” Awakened Onnoquo cheerfully confirmed from his perch. The captain gave the bird a suspicious look. Verra stilled a simper.

Ngale, bent in a deep bow, stood behind his tall chair, meekly keeping his face down. Not that it would be possible to see the expression on its dark silhouette, anyway.

“Captain,” she said, taking off her apron. No need for that anymore. Northhill spread the flap of the tent. “I am sure you know of the role Sir Dae played in ridding us of that horrible beast. Please, meet Master Ngale, who was kind enough to offer me safe haven in this very tent throughout the entire ordeal.” Ngale glanced at her when he heard that, then lowered his eyes again. She continued, quite impressed with her own composure. “These two men are invited to dine with me tonight, unless they have other arrangements, of course…” she looked inquiringly at Dae and Ngale. Both shook their heads. No plans? I did not think so. “Perfect. Good day, then. Captain, please, see to them being welcomed upon their arrival with as much hospitality as such honored guests deserve. I am now ready to be escorted to the Castle.” She smiled at them and turned to exit, then, remembering something, turned back and stepped to the center of the room.

“Fire. Wind. Water.” She said, setting the fragrance vials, one by one on the empty chair in front of the remarkable black man. “I did not have a chance to sample the last one. I am going to keep it until the next time I see you, if you do not mind. Have a good day. I am looking forward to seeing you later tonight. Eight’s bell.”

“Castle…” thoughtfully uttered Onnoquo.

She turned and left, followed by the Captain. Two more guards flanked her, and another rushed forward to clear the way for their passage.

All the way to the Castle, she tried, quite unsuccessfully, to wipe the happy grin from her face. It was, decidedly, the best Bridge Market day she ever had.

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