Saturday, March 3, 2012

Handmaidens of Petra: Merchant's Square

Merchant’s Square
Sollus had just crested the far ridges of the Altan Tepes by the time Jasna made her way to the gates of the temple quarter. It was nice to actually walk through them, rather than have to climb the scrubby lemon tree by the wall. She had to be extra careful in the winter, what with the branches being bare. 
She was glad to be out of the stuffy dining hall, breathing the cold, crisp morning air. The sting of the cold against her cheeks was invigorating, and chased away the last of the stickiness clinging to her thoughts that the past night’s dream had left. Surely, the dream was just a remnant of the memories in the tombs beneath Krakatos. 

Jasna shook her head, and sucked in a deep, biting breath of air. It did no good to think of the fire and terrors beneath the ruins.
Beggar’s Way was her first stop, and she counted the bundles of shelters before she came to the fifth. She pulled the flap of canvas aside, quietly, and deposited the handful of kopecs the steward had given her on the way out of the dining hall.
She rose, turning, to see one of the bundles rise, the elderly man blinking up at her.
“Two days until I can get to you, Yosef,” she told the man. “And if you smell of wine, I’ll give you nothing.”
“You’re an angel sent from Chardastes,” the man mumbled. “Bless you, child.”
Jasna smiled, but made her way quickly from the alley. If Chardastes really did watch out for those men and women, surely they would not be there, but would have homes and families, and livelihoods. She wiped at her eyes. If the Immortals would not look after them, somebody needed to.
She made her way to the market square, dodging carts and mules and men and woman pushing barrows or balancing bushels. Many of the stalls had already gone up, and Jasna slipped among them. Four apples. Two turnips. She filched another, since the late harvest was rather scrawny. She glanced again at the list. The drawing wasn’t clear. There were letters next to it, but even when she strung them together, she didn’t recognize the word.
Another of the matron’s tests. It would mean she’d have to actually speak to some of the merchants. They would want coin, once they knew she was looking for something. It wouldn’t do to go back to the Beggar’s Way and take back a few of the kopecs. She bent her head against a stall canopy post, berating herself for not having done more than glance at the list before she left the orphanage.
It meant she’d have to steal money. For whatever reason, townspeople got more angry at that than theft of things like bread, or hotpies.
Her stomach grumbled. She knocked her head against the post again, this time for thinking of hotpies on an empty stomach. Hotpies, maybe with some clotted cream, and a leaf-baked yam.
She squeezed her eyes shut, wiping at her lips.
Khoronus, she prayed, give me patience. A patient thief was less likely to be caught, the old priest of Koritiku had taught her. 
She opened her eyes, blinking in the sudden brightness. There, across the plaza. The young man’s stance was all wrong. The way his eyes moved, she knew he wasn’t a local. The locals knew where all their favorite stalls were set up. He was looking at all of them, indecisive. His boots, though scuffed, were certainly not travel-worn. The sleeves of his undertunic still had creases in them. Most importantly, the purse at his belt was velvet, not canvas or leather, the drawstrings not even tied.
Who said the Immortals didn’t answer the prayers of the needy?
She had to time it just right. A trip, a nudge, and one or the other of them stumbling towards a cart would be enough distraction to get her hand near his belt. Jasna readied herself, paced the next cart coming down the Market Way.
“Jasna!” a familiar voice called from the driver’s bench.
She didn’t glance up, skipped a few steps ahead of the cart.
“Oi! Jasna!”
She darted a glance over her shoulder. Petra smiled and waved, pointing to a gap in her teeth. “Look! It finally fell out! Oi! Jasna--”
Jasna skipped further ahead. The skip turned into a running step. She’d have to make like she was going to dart out ahead of the cart to cross the way. One more step…
Her stomach growled again, and the tall young man turned at the sound. The velvet pouch slid to the side, and Jasna’s fingers slid along a length of supple leather belt. The young man’s eyes widened, going from her face down to her hand, then back to her eyes, his own narrowing. One hand closed -- painfully -- over her wrist, the other reached for the dagger across his other hip.
Jasna didn’t even have time to swallow at the dread threatening to crawl up and out her throat. She felt the blush creeping up her cheeks.
“No plan is ever perfect. When one goes bad and you can’t run, don’t bother trying,” the old priest had taught her.
She let her breath out as a shout.
“Guards! Somebody, please help me!”
Sergeant of the Guard Arthol Yurinov scowled at the three youths before him. Two of them he knew, one much better than the other. The other, a tall, dark-haired youth, he didn’t think he’d ever seen. The hand-shaped welt across his cheek didn’t help much in identifying him.
“So,” the watch sergeant said, “let me get this straight. You, Mistress Morozovna, wish to charge this young man with assault with intent to draw blood. You,” he pointed to the young man, “wish to charge her,” he pointed back to Jasna, “with theft and assault, and this one,” he pointed to the smaller, gap-toothed girl, “with assault? Is that right?”
The young man raised his hand, pointing towards the welt on his cheek. Red marks, with a noticeable gap, dotted the back of it. “That one slapped me, and she bit me!”
“I’ll bite you again if you try to hurt my sister!”
“Threats!” the young man said, his voice rising. “You heard her. She threatened me. Threatening of a nobleman is a high crime.”
“Yes, about that,” Arthol said. “Where was it you said you hailed from again?”
“My father is-- is… a very important man in… Penhaligon!”
“You’re an awful long way from Penhaligon,” the sergeant said. He leaned to the side, looking around his small desk. “Let’s have a look at that cloak again.” He grunted as the young lord stood. The bottom hem showed a series of long, irregular cuts.
“Newly Sheared. You’re no longer a part of your father’s family. His influence can’t help you here.”
The young man’s face paled. He sat down heavily, clutching at his cloak. “It is a stupid tradition,” he grumbled. He sighed. “All right, then look through our possessions. See if what you find there won’t change your mind.”
Arthol opened one of the small boxes on his desk, rummaging around in it. “Well, I can see why she chose you as a mark. You must have half the Grand Duke’s mint in your coin purse.”  He rummaged around again, came across the heavy gold ring on the chain.
“Are you certain you want me to take this… evidence… into account?” the sergeant asked. “Perhaps you’d like to take it up with the baron himself?”
The young man squirmed again. “I… no. No, I don’t think that necessary.”
Arthol lifted out the coin purse and shut the box with a hard snap. “Very well then. Guards!”
Two red cloaked guards peeked through the doorway. “Yes, Sarge?”
“Deposit this in the town treasury.”
One of them stepped forward, giving a surprised grunt as he took the purse.
“You can’t take that!” the young man said, rising to his feet.
“Entering town without surrendering your weapon to peacebonding is a fifty coin fine. Assault with that weapon is a Class 4 crime. You can keep your coin, if you like, and spend a year in the Baron’s dungeon instead.”
“A year?” The youth sat down hard. Then he pointed towards Jasna. “What about her? What punishment does she get?”
“You all three agree that she didn’t take any money. So what, precisely, did she steal?”
“Then what about this?” He pointed to his cheek again, and then at the smaller girl. “She bit me! That’s a… Class 1 crime. Unarmed assault!”
“I was merely defending myself, and Petra also acted in my defense. Sergeant Arthol,” Jasna said. “I believe you call those extenuating circumstances.”
The sergeant rubbed his eyes. “There is only one place a girl could learn those words,” he said with a sigh.
Jasna smiled brightly. “The Matron insists that education is a way of keeping us wayward girls out of trouble.”
“That wasn’t precisely to whom I was referring,” the man muttered.
A commotion in the outer office drew his eye towards the door. Two more blonde heads peeked around the guard attempting to block the doorway. The girls wore long brown skirts and cream colored serving aprons.
“Jasna! Petra! You weren’t answering our calls! We thought you might be in trouble. Thank the Heaven of Waters you’re all right!”
Arthol waved a hand at the two girls seated before him. “Off you two go.“ He pushed two of the boxes towards the edge of the desk, and Jasna and Petra collected their few personal belongings, each slipping pendants bearing red stones over their heads. “Those trinkets better not invite any more trouble for you girls,” the sergeant said, as they made for the door. “Though, Ixion knows there are adventurers aplenty here in town this week, if you need rescuing again.”
“Not today, Sergeant,” Jasna said. “And these,” she dangled her pendant on a bit of the chain, “are meant to keep us out of trouble.”
“I see how well they work for that,” the sergeant said with a roll of his eyes.
“What about me?” the young man said. “You took all my money! What am I to do now?”
“You can always run along home to your father,” Arthol said, with a pleasant smile. The smile fell. “Perhaps you can explain to him why you were to draw steel on young girl, and how you forfeited your coin to pay the heavy fine because you couldn’t be bothered to follow town law?”
“In the city, at court--” the young man began.
“This is not the city! And you are not at court! This is a peaceful town that abides the Grand Duke’s laws. Now I suggest you get out of my sight and find some day work so you can pay your way out of here by tomorrow morning.”
“This is it? Only four of us?” Jasna asked, as they walked up the Market Way from the garrison’s house.
“Magda’s pig is about to farrow,” Anya said. “Irina is still snowed in at Verge. And Evelina thinks she can do more good by sticking close while the baron talks to those knights.”
Jasna pursed her lips, nodding. “And I suppose it is a bit early to expect the girls from Eltan’s Spring.”
Petra tugged at the girl’s sleeve. “He’s following us!”
Jasna sighed, and stopped, turning around, her hands on her hips. The young man took three more steps before he finally stopped, still well out of arm’s reach.
“Stop following us,” Fiala said.
“W-we’ll call the guard again,” Anya said, glancing to the left and right. Save an old man and a donkey drawing a cart more than a block away, they were alone on the street.
“I am not following you. I have to return to the inn, so I can fetch my belongings. I have a few things I can sell. Unlike some people, I won’t stoop to stealing.”
“And just what do you mean by that?” Jasna asked.
“That chain is good gold. You can tell by the way it swings. And the stone… Well, those rubies might be on the small side, but they would probably still fetch a decent price.”
Jasna closed her hand over the pendant at her neck, as did the other girls.
“I would never sell this!” she gasped.
“They aren’t rubies,” Petra said. “Silva says they’re called ‘dragonstones’ and they are rarer than cockatrice teeth!”
“Petra!” the two serving girls pinched the younger girl’s arms.
They turned, and started again up the Market Way, at a somewhat faster pace. The boot steps behind them were also noticeably quicker.
Jasna turned again. “What?”
The young man nearly ran into the girl. He stopped, his nose nearly brushing the top of her head.
“I--” he started, and swallowed.
He stepped back, placing his hands behind his back, like the soldier Varis would sometimes stand.
“I would also… like to… apologize. Though you might have been a thief, you are still a… a lady. And a gentleman must never treat a lady with disrespect.”
“All right,” Jasna said. “And I am very sorry, too.”
“You are forgiv--”
“I am very sorry that I got caught. We could have had a very nice lunch with what I planned to lift from your purse. Now I shall have to rely on the good graces of my friends.”
As if on cue, her stomach growled. It was echoed by that of the young man.
His cheeks flushed, and he turned, straight-backed, and began to march down the Market Way.
Fiala frowned, and nudged Jasna. Anya did the same, from the other side. The other girl sighed. “Fine,” she muttered.
“Oh, come back!” Jasna called after the young man. “It’s unladylike to let a gentleman starve his first day in town.”

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