10 September 1380 C.E.
The group seemed strangely quiet as they left the colosseum for the Souk al-Madinat. Quinn had grown accustomed to Moria’s silence, had even learned to share it, but he couldn’t remember ever seeing Nyleth go this long without saying anything. The slavery they’d just witnessed – and it was slavery, no matter what the Hammaddi called it – disturbed her, more than she’d let on. “Suren a shame that sorta thing is tolerated here,” he hazarded. “They git tae watch ‘em fight, but don’t have tae see how they’re treated down below. Outta sight, outta mind, I guess.”
“Perhaps,” Nyleth said, as if she’d been waiting for someone else to break the silence. “Though I think they may have just been accustomed to it. Which is, well, a shame. Everyone has different ideas about what is normal and what is not.” She deftly avoided an oncoming cart then regained her position near Quinn. As crowded as the souk was, he still caught the scent that always followed her… jasmine, he thought, with the tiniest smudge of vanilla…? He shook his head; trying to figure it out always distracted him.
“So, are they condemned criminals, or jist slaves? Or d’ye ken?”
“Mmm. Usually a combination of both. I mean, the criminals usually are the Hammaddi, the others are slaves. It… turns my stomach, to be honest. One of the few things about this culture that bothers me.”
“Law is Law, an’ I’m sworn tae respect it.” His head swiveled at something that smelled wonderful on a nearby food cart, then back to Nyleth. “But I dinnae have tae like it.”
“Nor do I! And … were those chestnuts?” Nyleth’s face suddenly regained its glow.
“Smells like it. Let’s git some.”
Nyleth approached the merchant, chattering quickly in Hammaddi before prodding Quinn into completing the transaction. The Spellknight’s vocabulary was improving, but she corrected his inflection more than once. Moria, who’d been lost in thought, rejoined them as Nyleth claimed three paper cones packed with roasted nuts. “Ecoriel, would you like some chestnuts? They smell delicious!” She held a cone out to the wizard, smiling brightly.
“Thank you,” Moria said, accepting the cone and crunching on the tasty treat. Quinn grew increasingly sure of two things: that Nyleth was going out of her way to find nice things to say to and do for Moria, and that Moria was finally catching on to it, and starting to show his appreciation. Maybe it had been Quinn’s words as they entered al-Jebail that had done the trick. The thought brought a smile to his face. He’d have to ask Nyleth about it when the opportunity arose.
“But of course!” Nyleth replied. “What fun are new cities if you don’t try all the food?”
They snacked on the chestnuts as they moved through the souk, keeping their eyes open for interesting booths. “I haven’t had these in so long,” Nyleth sighed. “I forgot how yummy they are.”
“Oh, aye?” Quinn glanced at Nyleth. “How long ago was that, then?” He still had only the vaguest understanding of Nyleth’s history.
“Hmm,” she said, idly brushing bits of shell from her gown. “Twenty years or so? I think? It’s difficult to keep track.”
Quinn saw that Moria was now glancing at Nyleth, too. “Truly? I didnae think ye were older’n me… ‘less ye were jist a wee lass then.” His mother had given him enough sense to keep from just asking Nyleth’s age…
She laughed gaily and ate another chestnut before speaking. “That is kind of you, Quinn. But I’m a little older than you, I think.”
Moria leaned around Nyleth. “You’ve seen what? Twenty-three summers, Quinn?”
“Twenty-five.” The Spellknight slowed to peer into the windows of a closed perfume shop. Suren they’d have somethin’ fer Pastanti, he thought. Not that anyone’d smell it in th’ Koritsi Kai Kalukas… Course, ye might have her tae yerself someday. The very thought made him blush, and he gratefully allowed the elves to pull him away from it.
Moria nodded sagely. “Ah. Even I am five years your senior, though I look teenaged to human eyes.”
“It’s different for Faerie, though,” Nyleth added, smiling at Quinn. “When we are home, things don’t change. When we leave, they change imperceptibly…” She glanced at the vials in the perfume shop window, pressing her face to the glass.
Quinn scowled. He could barely speak Hammaddi, let alone read it, but there was no sign or other explanation for the shop’s closure. “Seems busy enough in the souk. Why’s it closed, d’ye…” Quinn trailed off as Nyleth pulled away from the window, a tiny smudge of sand on the tip of her nose. Pointing at his own nose, Quinn said, “Ye, um… ye got a bit o’…” Nyleth crossed her eyes, trying to see her own nose. Wiping his own nose, the Spellknight added, “Jist go like this.”
“Like this?” Nyleth rubbed her nose on the wrong side. Quinn saw Moria staring, momentarily transfixed by the dust-nosed bard. The mage blinked after a second, turning to look down the street. It was the sort of sight that could set a man’s heart aflame if he looked too long…
“Other side,” Quinn said, readying his own hand to move in if she missed it again. Nyleth finally wiped the dust away, then sneezed – a sudden, high-pitched squeak. “Saints preserve ye,” Quinn said automatically.
“Curious expression,” Moria said, turning back to face them as Nyleth gave thanks. “I have often wondered about its origin.”
“I think they used tae think that a sneeze was yer soul tryin’ tae leave yer body. Th’ blessin’ keeps that from happenin.’ Mostly I jist say it tae be polite.”
Nyleth giggled suddenly. “Why would your soul want to do that?”
“To go on walkabout.” Moria affected a strange accent for this observation.
Quinn shrugged his shoulders, clinking every scale in his mail. “I think I’ve mentioned that Dalesfolk are superstitious.”
Nyleth popped the last of her chestnuts in her mouth, the first of them to finish. “So superstitious that they worry their souls will fly right out?”
“Welp, if they git loose, th’ Devil might grab ‘em.” It sounded even stupider when Quinn said it aloud.
Nyleth gave Moria a slightly amused look. “Methinks that the folk of the Dales need to find more hobbies to entertain themselves. No offense intended, Quinn.”
The Spellknight raised a hand. “None taken a’tall. Ye’ll also notice I left there soon’s I could.”
As they walked away from the perfume shop, Moria said, “I wonder if this Master of Games is working for, or with, Amirandi.”
Nyleth nodded, the bells on her turban jingling. She tapped her lip thoughtfully. “I have a feeling, though it might just be my instinct, that they’re all working together.”
“And whom do ‘they’ include?” Moria replied, inclining his head.
“Welp, we got Amirandi, an’ the Settites, fer starters,” said Quinn, eating the last of his chestnuts.
“Local and foreign Settites, it seems,” Moria sighed. “And I worry that exposing Mhutaa ibn Abud al-Fi will not endear us to the Beyah. We will need to approach this delicately, I think.”
“I’ve been very, very worried about the same thing, Ecoriel.” He let Nyleth call him by his Faerie name; that was not lost on Quinn. The bard continued: “The Hammaddi are very… polite… and interested in keeping relations smooth between houses. I’m afraid that, if we pick a fight, that we’ll not only be out on our bottoms, but also in serious danger. And brought danger on our hosts, as well.”
“Finding the stolen goods first would be best.” Moria was always smart enough to see the whole picture. “If we can link the man to their theft, all the better.”
“Moria’s right. Suren the law kin set things t’ right, if’n we jist shine a light where it needs tae be shone. We cannae accuse anyone without proof, though.”
Moria nodded in agreement. “And what of these murders, that have the nobility as frightened as rabbits with a wolf about?”
“Also confusing,” Nyleth said. “Ecoriel, do you think they could all be perpetrated by the same person?”
“Hard to say. As much as I would like to lay all these woes at Amirandi’s feet, it seems unlikely. Still, he is a powerful transmuter, and might be able to disguise himself. That’s a magic-user who can change his form,” he added for Nyleth’s benefit.
“Hells, he kin walk through walls. That ain’t first year magic.”
Nyleth’s eyes widened just a little bit, and she paused in the middle of the street. “If he can change shape, how will we know when we find him? Or if he’ll see us coming?”
“We might not,” Moria admitted, looking like he’d bitten into a bitter chestnut. “I should be able to keep us unseen should the need arise, but…”
“Th’ other problem is that we cannae jist kill ‘im.”
Nyleth looked slowly between the two men. “This… may be a silly question, but why not?”
Quinn didn’t think it was silly; if Moria did, he gave no sign. “Because he is the only one who knows where Alyssa is.”
“An’ he may be th’ only one with a notion of how tae remove ‘er curse, too.”
Nyleth nodded. “I know you’ll do whatever you can to keep us safe, Ecoriel. I never worry.” The look she gave the wizard seemed fraught with hidden meaning.
“Indeed,” Moria said slowly, making Quinn wonder how effective elven mystery was when employed against other elves.
They started walking again. Quinn and Moria talked Nyleth out of buying a camel, diverting her attention to a textile merchant. “So,” she asked as she examined different bolts of cloth, “what are we going to do? I don’t know where to start.” A tiny frown played at the corners of her mouth.
Moria watched the bard shop, still as a cat. “First things first. We find out if Arad was telling the truth about al-Fi, and try to recover the goods. Then we will have something to leverage for the Beyah’s resources. Perhaps she can tell us something of Amirandi that will allow us to find the man.”
“An’ if she’s truly so afeared of ‘im, suren she’ll want our help dealin’ with ‘im. An’ we kin always go lookin’ fer Yorba if’n this trail goes cold. Thass a good color fer ye,” Quinn told Nyleth, who’d been fiddling with a voluminous gown at the tent’s edge.
“Do you think?” She pulled the shimmering green-blue fabric across her torso.
“Suren I do. Brings out ‘er eyes, dunnit?” he prompted Moria. C’mon, man, tell ‘er she looks bonnie.
Moria wasn’t ready for the change of topic; Quinn knew him well enough to see it at once. The mage focused on the question, critically eyeing the fabric for several moments before raising his gaze to the green of Nyleth’s eyes and holding it for a moment. “It does, yes,” he said softly.
Nyleth smiled, and Quinn was sure that he saw her blush. She held the dress’s sleeve up. “It changes color in the sun, Quinn! I wonder if they have some in crimson? Think of Pastanti’s hair with that…”
“D’ye think?” The very idea was almost more than Quinn could bear. Even in the garb of an oiketes, little better than rags, Pastanti was as beautiful as anything he’d ever seen. To clad her in something so elegant would slay him, as surely as a knife. His mind began to slide the dress from the flawless skin of Pastanti’s shoulders before coming back to reality. “Ahh, who’m I kiddin’. When would she e’er git tae wear somethin’ so bonnie.”
“After you buck social mores and find a way to free her from her ridiculous near-slavery.” Moria popped another chestnut into his mouth. How is it he still has chestnuts?
Quinn gave it some thought. If anyone could come up with a way to put Pastanti in such a dress, it was these two elves. “How d’ye say ‘crimson’ in Hammaddi?”
“Quimsee,” Nyleth and Moria said together. Quinn said it to himself a few times, then zipped off to find the merchant, leaving the Faerie still holding the garment. He paused when he heard them talking, and looked for a spot to observe them without being detected.
“Hopefully he’ll be able to describe her size,” Nyleth said, as if filling the silence.
“She’s about your size, is she not? A bit taller, perhaps?” He sounded uncertain.
“Thereabouts? A lot taller, though. I’m not exactly human-sized. More to her bosom, as well.” She looked intently at her hands. “Do you really like the color?”
“I do,” Moria said simply.
“Then I think I’ll get it. We may yet find an excuse to wear something so lovely.” She carefully took the dress down and started inside the tent. “Would you care to help me haggle?”
“I fear I would do more harm than good, unless blinding the merchant is somehow productive.”
Quinn scrambled away from the entrance as they came in. “Do you think I should try it on?” she asked Moria.
“Seems prudent,” the wizard said pragmatically.
Quinn described Pastanti to the seamstresses, largely relying on hand gestures, until Nyleth paused to clarify the Spellknight’s statements before vanishing behind a screen. Quinn thanked Nyleth, then shot a wink in Moria’s direction. The mage quirked an eyebrow at him in response; he started crossing the room to explain, but the shopkeep held the dress up in front of him.
“Did you find what you wanted, Quinn?” Nyleth called from behind the screen.
“Ay, I believe I have.”
“That’s good! All right, here I come.” Nyleth poked her head around the screen, then stepped out into view. “What do you think?”
As lovely as Nyleth and the dress were apart, together they made for something far lovelier. “A fairer vision than I had in the Temple of the Legacy.” He aimed an encouraging look at the wizard.
Moria blinked. Aye, so he’s gobsmacked too. C’mon, Moria, she’s doin’ this fer ye! Put it inta some bonnie words. “Lovely,” he said. “You look… lovely.” He smiled, as rare and welcomed a sight as any Quinn had ever seen.
Nyleth’s blushing was plainer to see this time. She tried to catch Moria’s eye for a moment. “Thank you! I think, then, that I’ll get it. And Pastanti’s as well!” A sudden shyness came over her, and she ducked back behind the screen. “I’ll hurry, I promise!”
“Thass too kind,” Quinn demurred, not in the mood to argue with Nyleth about who was buying what. “Ye should let me git ye some shoes tae go with it, or somethin,’” Moria cleared his throat and mouthed Shoes? but the Spellknight could only shrug, not sure what prompted him to say such a thing.
“No need!” Nyleth announced. “I have lots!” She idly flipped a sandal Quinn had never seen before around the corner of the screen. “Or this,” she said, holding up a pair of slippers.
“You mentioned your vision,” Moria said to Quinn once it became clear that Nyleth needed a bit longer. “But you haven’t said much about what you saw yet.”
Oh, that. “Oh, that,” Quinn sighed. “I didnae see nothin’. I jist sat by a reflectin’ pool. The ceilin’ was open tae the night sky. Th’ stars was all a’twinkle, like I could reach doon intae th’ pool and jist scoop ‘em all oot. But I dinnae have a vision, no epiphany. Jist serenity, watchin’ the heavens wheelin’ above me all night intae the dawn. ”
“Ah,” was Moria’s whole reply.
“Cleared mah head ‘til we got back tae work, anyway.” Why was I so suren I’d have an illumination, anyway? I ain’t what ye’d call disciplined, an’ it seems like everythin’s jist distractin’ me from bein’ all spiritual…
Nyleth reappeared, carrying a bundle of clothing toward the shopkeeper. “Did you feel any calmer, at least?” she asked him.
“Oh, aye, Nyleth. More at peace then I been since leavin’ Mystral. An’ at least when things git hairy fer us, I can cast mah mind back there an’ try an’ catch some o’ that calm.” It might not have been the experience Quinn had hoped for, but the time had definitely not been wasted.
Money changed hands, and Nyleth stuffed both dresses into her bag. “Shall we? I’m sure we can find other things to purchase for Pastanti.”
“Aye, I think we’re done ‘ere. Suren Moria’s had enough pretty things fer now.”
The wizard cleared his throat, but said nothing. Nyleth gave Quinn an odd look. “You can never have too many pretty things, Quinn,” she said earnestly.
Quinn’s mind drifted back to the only pretty thing he wanted as the group returned to the streets. As they discussed their plan for speaking to the arena master, Nyleth mentioned that she knew a spell for locating objects, in case the dialog proved fruitless. When Moria expressed interest in the spell, the bard smiled broadly at him. “I’ll show you next time we’re somewhere quiet, then. I would assume you’ll be a faster study than I? Either way, perhaps if we figured out one of the missing cargo items we could try it out, and avoid the difficult conversation altogether!”
Th’ Faerie sharin’ a quiet moment together? Quinn thought. I gotta help make that happen. But Nyleth was already rummaging around her bag, coming up with a tattered journal. She flipped toward the end of the book and showed it to Moria, every inch of the pages covered in flowing, needlessly loopy Faerie writing. “Here is what I have been working off of. Am I reading it incorrectly? It seems that I need a very clear mental image.”
Moria scanned the page, swiftly absorbing its contents. “If I’m reading this correctly, then there may be some… wiggle room. It’s all a matter of how you think about the item you seek.”
As the bard considered this, Quinn slowed to look at a display of hairpins in front of a jewelry shop. He’d seen several Hammaddi women, including Hada ar-Ri, use them to keep their hair up; Nyleth has also mentioned that a woman could defend herself with the stouter pins. Now thass the kind o’ thing Pastanti kin really use. Moria and Nyleth were still talking about the spell as he wandered into the shop.
“He seems rather driven, don’t you think?” Nyleth asked, as the elves watched Quinn peruse the different styles.
Moria paused, considering. “I suppose that’s true. I hadn’t thought about it much.”
“I think it’s sweet.”
Quinn started waving his hands around his head, presumably illustrating Pastanti’s hair to the shopkeeper. “Oh, dear,” Nyleth sighed. “Should we go help?”
“You go,” Moria said with a nod.
Nyleth started for the entrance, then paused. “Will you be close by?”
“I’ll be right here.”
She smiled at Moria. “I’m glad,” she said quietly before disappearing inside.
Quinn was examining an iron hairpin with a little garnet set into the end when Nyleth appeared beside him. “Oh, that one’s lovely!”
“Thanks. I think it’s this one or nothin’.” He told the shopkeeper the same thing in his wobbly Hammaddi, and she went to wrap it up.
“Your Hammaddi’s improving, Quinn. And you’ve made a fine choice, I think. Would you like me to show you how you fix your hair up with it?”
He smiled. “Well, no’ my hair, but aye, that’d be mos’ helpful. I dinnae ken if a Lavinian lass’d know how.” When Nyleth pulled out a single long silver pin, Quinn felt himself wince. “That thing looks dangerous.”
“Oh, it’s not so bad.” Nyleth pulled her turban off and undid the braid in her shining blond hair. “I’ve only hurt myself a few times with it. All right, it’s fairly simple.”
“A few times?” He shifted from foot to foot.
“Yes, well, I’m clumsy, though, Quinn.” When Nyleth shook her hair loose of the braid, it fell nearly to her waist.
“You ‘n me both,” the Spellknight muttered. As Nyleth gathered her hair in a loose bun at the back of her head, Quinn decided this was as good a chance as he was going to get. “Listen,” he said. “I, uh, I dinnae mean tae pry. But is there anythin’ there, wi’ ye an’ Moria?”
Nyleth froze and looked at Quinn, her eyes a little wide.
Oh, dammit it, ya daft bastard, did ye go an’ put yer foot in it agin? Trying to ease the tension, Quinn said, “I was jist wonderin’. Those little moments ye share. I seen how ye been tryin’ to tell ‘im. Suren if it’s none o’ my business ye kin jist say so.” When she said nothing (and Nyleth saying nothing was significant all by itself), he added: “He’s mah friend, d’ye ken. And ye are too, now. I’d like tae see ye both happy is all.”
Quinn had never seen her at such a loss for words. “I, um… I would, maybe, like that?” She busied herself with her hair anew, twisting it all up into a compact bun.
“Nothin’ wrong wi’ that,” he said, smiling until she returned the gesture. “An’ I think Moria feels th’ same way; he jist ain’t figured it oot yet. Ye ken how he’s hurtin,’ and suren ye ken why.”
“I do. And I haven’t… said… anything… just hints, because I dare not hurt him more.”
Quinn glanced at the window, where Moria stood with his back to the shop, watching the passersby, then back to Nyleth. “An’ suren I unnerstand that. But ye might also be able tae help ‘im with it.” As she considered this, he said, “Just dinnae wait on ‘im tae say anythin,’ cos he ain’t the type. Well, no’ the now he ain’t.”
“I… won’t. I did. Well, I made something for him. I hope he likes it.” Nyleth expertly pushed the pin through the base of her bun, twisting it and the bulk of her hair upside-down and driving the hairpin back through. “Ta-dah!” she said lightly, framing her hair with her hands.
“Wow. Gods, I hope I kin remember all that when I give it tae her. When I give ‘er the pin. The hairpin.” He could feel blood rushing to his face. “I’m, uh, gon’ stop talkin’ for awhile now.” He settled up with the shopkeeper and headed for the entrance.
Nyleth laughed lightly, paying for the ornament still stuck in her own hair. “Tell her I’d be happy to help her with it. Women can get away with things like that.”
Quinn clapped Moria on the back, not too hard, as they emerged, earning a frown from the wizard as he fell in behind them.
Women kin git away with damn well whatever they please, Quinn thought. “S’gonna be a good day,” he announced.