Sunday, 24 March 2013

In Which Saeed Impresses The Master Of The Market

The sound of horse's hooves rang against the stone of this desolate market hall and a gigantic black horse came riding out of the mist. Sat upon the back of the horse was a knight in black armour, an enormous dark sword sheathed at his waist.

It is a very good thing, thought Saeed as he followed Joshua across the bridge, that I am not afraid of high places.

High places are one of the natural habitats of the souk thief, so Saeed had spent many years climbing, clinging and hopping. Sometimes standing in wide open spaces made Saeed feel a little giddy. He was at home in places where toeholds were plenty and vertical surfaces begged to be scaled. Even given his history Saeed found the bridge that spanned the Bloodvane Gorge caused a touch of vertigo. The mighty structure was the nearest point to Joshua's home where one could find passage to Bridgetown.

Joshua had assured Saeed that any quest worth undertaking should pass through Bridgetown. Saeed had never heard of the Patchwork Market but he had not travelled far from the souk in Afsana during his brief life. The only stories that Saeed had ever heard were the old ones from the storytellers who eked out a meagre living in the corners of the bazaar.

Of course Saeed knew that there were lands beyond Araby. There were stories of invaders, after all, and invaders had to come from somewhere. The home of the invaders was rarely discussed in such tales. Invaders spoke strange tongues, wore strange clothes, wielded strange weapons. In every story invaders were represented, overall, as, well, strange.

Saeed knew full well that men would sometimes present themselves as heroes to the world. All the while they would steal, cheat and murder. He also knew that men of noble heart could find themselves exiled by insults and baseless accusations. Saeed was a street rat, people did not mind their tongue around a rodent.

Saeed had seen the hypocrisy of the men of Araby, he did not believe that men in any other land would be different. Some men were noble, like Joshua, some were evil, most were a mixture of both.

The Bloodvane gorge was a huge gap in the land about a day's foot journey from Joshua's home. They had come to the bridge on horseback, setting out early in the morning. Saeed sat behind Joshua as the horse cantered along the road out of Bloodvane.

By noon they had arrived at an inn built a short distance from the end of the bridge. Joshua had paid to leave his horse in the inn stable and they had set out on their journey to the market.

The bridge was thin, about wide enough for three men to stand shoulder to shoulder. It construction consisted of huge columns and ropes suspended over the bottomless span of the gorge.

Looking back as they passed into the mists, Saeed saw many waterfalls spewing water down the rocky walls of the gorge. Lush vegetation sprouted on shelves of rock here and there. Saeed even believed he could see animals leaping from shelf to shelf, living their lives on the hard surface. One day, Saeed thought, I would like to see what lies at the bottom of the gorge, if it has a bottom.

The mists which cloaked the centre of the bridge from view drifted upwards from the floor miles below. Rainbow lights wheeled and spun within the clouds of water mist. The air within the mist cloud was cool and smelled of fresh vegetation.

For a short distance Joshua and Saeed were surrounded by the white mist and coloured sparkles. As the rainbow mist receded the far end of the bridge became visible. The day on the other side of the bridge was neither as bright nor as warm as on the Bloodvane side. The mist appeared to congeal into flat, grey clouds. A covered area lay at the far end of the bridge. Underneath the canopy were sights Saeed felt were more familiar to his eyes.

There were the sounds of calling traders, the scent of spices and roasting food. Underneath it all rose the unmistakeable stink of many unwashed bodies crammed into too little space. The Bridgetown Market was a grand bazaar. Saeed's skin prickled with homesickness as they stepped down off the bridge onto the stone floor of the market hall.

No sooner had they set foot within the limits of Bridgetown than a small boy with a dirty face accosted the pair.

"Penny for a guide, squire?" the boy addressed Joshua, not appearing to notice Saeed at all.

"Not today," Joshua said to the boy.

"Are you sure sir?" the boy persisted. "I can show you parts of the market no one else even knows exist. I'm one of the oldest guides here. Don't be fooled by my appearance, there's, uh, more to me than meets the eye."

The boy stuck his hand out towards the enormous stone column that held up one side of the bridge. His hand passed into the rock and then out.

"See, sir," the boy said. "Few people have the opportunity to retain the services of a ghost guide."

Joshua turned his attention to the boy now, his brow furrowing. "Why do you beg for pennies?" Joshua asked him. "What does a ghost need with money?"

"I'll tell you for a Grand Age gold piece, squire," the boy said with a cheeky smirk. "Finding something in the market, that's just a penny."

"Suit yourself," Joshua said, clearly irritated at the ghost's reticence. "I have no need of a guide today, however, you can have this penny to take my young companion where he needs to go." Joshua produced a small, brown coin, plucking it with great precision from thin air. "Do we have a deal?"

"Indeed we do, squire," the ghost boy said holding out his right hand. "Just drop it here."

Joshua dropped the penny toward the ghost's hand. As it hit the boy's outstretched palm there was a spark of white light. Accompanying the flash was a sound like a small coin dropping into a jar of other small coins. The boy smiled.

"Patchwork Jack will be happy to guide your friend wherever he needs to go, have a good day, squire," the ghost said.

Joshua turned to Saeed.

"I don't need to warn you that some people in the market are not as honest as they would have you believe, do I?" he asked.

"Oh no, Mister Joshua," Saeed replied. "I have much experience of these things."

"Well, then," Joshua said. "It looks like it is time for us to part ways. I must thank you again for your earlier assistance and would wish you every success in locating your mother."

"Many thanks, Mister Joshua," Saeed replied. "Let us hope that I will have the opportunity to complete my journey an honest man. I will steal to make my way, for that is my nature, but I will not enjoy being forced to do so."

"I would be especially careful of stealing in Bridgetown," Joshua warned him. "This is the biggest market, well, anywhere. They have harsh penalties for those caught interfering with trade."

"I understand Mister Joshua," Saeed said. "I will do my best to honour my mother and remain clear of acts that would bring me to shame."

With that, the saturnine man who had offered Saeed such help and generosity disappeared into the market crowds. Saeed was left in the company of his phantom guide.

"So, where to, squire?" Patchwork Jack asked.

No one Saeed knew from the souk would entertain the idea of trafficking with the spirit of a dead person. The superstitions were clear, the spirits of the dead were ill omens, cursed. To even acknowledge them was said to place one in danger. If Saeed knew one thing it was that stories and superstitions were often ignorant lies. He would make up his own mind on the matter, and what better way than to allow this spirit to guide him onwards?

"I am not entirely certain," Saeed told the ghost. "I am on a journey to find the spirit of my mother so that I may beg her forgiveness for lying to her while she was alive. Joshua brought me to Bridgetown to begin my search. He told me that this is a place where many threads of the great weave cross in ways they would not elsewhere. Is there anywhere that you could take me that could help me with this quest."

"I can think of one place," Patchwork Jack said. "I don't think you'll want to go there, though."

"What I want is not important," Saeed replied. "You must take me to this place."

"Well, just remember," Patchwork Jack said. "You asked. Follow me."

The ghost turned and lead Saeed through the maze of stalls that made up the market. They passed among the nest of coloured canvas awnings that marked out stalls. Traders sold all manner of goods, from oil lamps to easels, from pumpkins to bonsai trees.

Before long they came to another bridge. This bridge was much shorter than the one from Bloodvane, only a street length across. It was also much wider, wide enough to allow a horse and cart to cross it with space to spare on either side.

Saeed and Jack crossed from the first part of the market to the second. In this second area there were even more stalls. Here were sold books, glass flasks, stout wooden staffs and items of gaudy jewellery. Further along were other places selling powders and coloured liquids out of jars. The various substances piled high on dangerously tall sets of wooden shelves.

As Saeed passed the stalls the traders watched him go with suspicious eyes. It appeared that even in this place, a merchant had a nose for a thief. These merchants were not dressed like those in souk, and many of them were paler of skin and were relatively clean shaven. They still had a pinch of the brow and a twitchiness of manner that marked them out as tradesmen.

"Don't mind the goblin traders," Patchwork Jack said. "They can smell a pauper by the absence of gold in their pockets. Poor people in the market offend them. The way they see it you're occupying space that could be better used by a paying customer."

"I am familiar with that attitude," Saeed said. "I have lived most of my life in a place such as this."

"Oh, I doubt that you have," Patchwork Jack responded with a cheeky grin. "I very much doubt that indeed."

With that the ghost took a sharp right between two more stalls and lead Saeed across yet another bridge. This one was clearly a footbridge with metal railings coming up to the top of Saeed's head. It was only wide enough for one person to cross comfortably at once. Saeed peered through the railings to see down to what was below the market. The floor was invisible, cloaked by the same thick, rainbow sparkling mist that had covered the end of the gorge bridge.

"There's no below in Bridgetown," Patchwork Jack grinned. There are cellars, that's where the merchants live and sleep. But there's no streets, not real ones, on this side of the crossway, anyhow."

"Crossway?" Saeed asked, he had not heard the phrase before.

"Crossway," Patchwork Jack repeated. "To the world of men. Bridgetown here is a candlestreet, a town that maps onto many gateways to the mortal realm. The Patchwork Market is tied to a human city. Sometimes people wander across, that's always good for a laugh. Most of the market is upstairs and mortals live all their life on the ground, they hardly ever look up. Probably for the best, most mortals are very stupid, they never like it here, it confuses them."

Across the next bridge were more stalls, these ones smelled strongly of exotic foodstuffs. The stalls were laden with smoked meats, produce, vegetables, sweets, savouries, pickles and spices.

"How many of these little bazaars are there?" Saeed asked. He had thought that Bridgetown would be like his home in Afsana but the further they walked the larger this place appeared to become.

"Nobody knows for certain," Patchwork Jack said. "Not even me. Probably the Master of the Market knows, after all he is, well, the Master. He wouldn't tell anyone though. I know, I tried asking him once, the answer I got was very rude and not even slightly informative."

"Oh, I see," Saeed said, bewildered.

The pair carried on across many islands, connected by bridges, each one crammed with market stalls. Somewhere in the teens Saeed lost count of how many bridges he'd crossed. The Patchwork Market was too full of sound and smell, life, heat, fascinating and colourful displays. Saeed was used to the souk at Afsana and even he found this place confusing.

By the time they reached their destination a storm had begun. Rain drummed upon the roof of every market place. Saeed had to hurry across the open bridges to save from becoming completely soaked. Eventually they reached a quiet market where there were not so many stalls. Most pitches were occupied by coloured tents promising a variety of esoteric services. They offered such oddments as fortune telling and maps of geographically non-specific areas.

At the back of this island a spiral staircase wound downwards into the basement area. Patchwork Jack and Saeed descended the staircase. They crossed another old metal bridge onto a small empty square market island surrounded by the rainbow mists. In the distance great, slow-drifting, clouds sank and spun in what looked like shafts of moonlight. Saeed thought he could make out the shape of a bridge wreathed in the thick mists.

The sound of horse's hooves rang against the stone of this desolate market hall and a gigantic black horse came riding out of the mist. Sat upon the back of the horse was a knight in black armour, an enormous dark sword sheathed at his waist.

"Halt strangers!" called out the knight. "Give account of yourselves now to the Keeper of the Way and I shall set the price for passage upon the Turnaround Bridge."

"Don't be scared," Patchwork Jack said. "It's just his manner. All I would say is that you should not try to cross the bridge without paying his price."

"What is the price?" Saeed asked.

"Ah, well, that's always the tricky part," Patchwork Jack said. "You'd better make your case, then you'll find out what's what."

"I don't understand," Saeed said.

"Price is different for everyone. Tell him where you want to go and he will set you the price for passage. It's old magic, very old."

Saeed nodded, understanding at last. He turned to face the Keeper of the Way and, before he spoke, he gave a little bow.

"Please, Great Keeper," he said. "I wish to go to a place where I may find the spirit of my mother. I brought great shame to our family while she was alive, greater still because I lied and kept it from her. I seek a way to redeem myself now. I understand that you may give me passage to such a place."

"Ay," the Keeper rumbled. "That I may, Saeed Ibn Abihi, wanderer from the souk at Afsana. You have already journied far and I can tell you that your road will not be straight or easy. To take this step you must bring me the Seal of Kalico, then you may set foot upon the Turnaround Bridge. That is the price, the Keeper has spoken."

"Ouch," Patchwork Jack said. "That's not going to be easy."

"I do not understand this price," Saeed said to Jack. "What is the Seal of Kalico?"

"You remember I mentioned the Master of the Market?" Jack said. "That's Kalico. His seal gives a man freedom of the Patchwork Market. He doesn't just hand them out to anyone. You have to provide him with a great service."

"Then I will have to go to see this Kalico," Saeed said. "I will have to get the seal no matter what the cost."

"Alright," Jack said. "It's stretching the value of a single penny but I'll take you to the Master's Quarter, after that, you're on your own."

Patchwork Jack lead Saeed back up the spiral staircase and across several more bridges. Eventually, they came to a place where the market stalls were bigger. Here the barkers selling goods were louder and wittier. The installation of these stalls looked to be more permanent than those at the edges. This was the Master's Quarter. Patchwork Jack explained that merchants here paid the highest fees. In return they occupied the most lucrative pitches anywhere in the whole of Faerie.

Patchwork Jack displayed evident pride in the place he called home. As he did so Saeed admired the grandeur of the Master's Quarter. A troupe of masked jugglers putting on a show in a small square captured his attention. They were the kind of jugglers who eschewed regular balls and clubs. Instead they proved their skill at more dangerous displays, with lit torches, swords and axes.

As Saeed looked at the showmen throwing their blades back and forth he saw that one of the troupe was sneaking into the crowd. The set of his shoulders and the way he turned his head, looking to see if anyone was following him, marked the man out as a thief. Saeed had seen hundreds of such rogues in Araby. Catching a thief would surely impress the Master of the Market.

"Friend Jack," Saeed said to the prattling ghost. "I think I have spotted an opportunity to gain Kalico's favour and I must go my way alone. Thank you for your assistance today, I hope that one day we should cross paths again."

Patchwork Jack stopped talking and turned his head to look at Saeed but the Afsana street rat had already gone. The young thief had pulled himself up onto the canvas of the nearest stall. He was even now hopping up to grab a ceiling beam crossing the high roof of the Master's Quarter.

Skipping from beam to beam Saeed watched the masked juggler slip through the crowd. The masked performer looked like some predatory fish wrapped in black silk. The thief had skills but Saeed took the advantage in height and speed, he was confident that he was not observed.

The juggler was not dipping his hands into the pockets of people he passed. This lit a spark of concern in Saeed's breast. If this rogue were not about the business of theft then he must be up to some other kind of mischief. The juggler slipped between two large stalls into a space marked out by the rear of a wide circle of pitches.

In the centre space was a small yard, strung with laundry lines and playing host, currently, to a large glass tank. Saeed was amazed to see a beautiful young woman with the tail of a fish swimming back and forth within the tank.

The masked juggler waited until the mermaid flipped in the water. Waiting until her field of vision was away from the thin alley between the market pitches. Then the juggler dashed forward and hid himself behind the mermaid's tank. The mermaid flipped again, swimming back to the end of her tank. She passed within inches of where the juggler hid, obscured by the metal wall at one end. Then she flipped again to swim up to the other end once more.

The juggler took a fish from a knapsack at his waist and dropped it onto a plate at the edge of the tank. Then he slipped through a gap behind the tank and back towards the market.

The mermaid flipped again and came swimming up to the end of the tank where the fish on the plate became visible. She saw the plate and swum up to the surface of the water, looking about her to see who had left this gift.

"Tabarnas?" the mermaid called. "Did you leave me this? I didn't think it was dinner for another hour. I didn't hear the Market Crier call for close down."

There was no answer for a moment, then a girl came out of a flap at the back of one of the stalls. The girl had long dark hair in plaits and was wearing blue trousers.

"Was that you, Eos?" the girl asked. "Look, Tabarnas found me some new clothes, better for the market. Do you like these trousers? Tabarnas called them dungarees."

"They are very nice, Rachel," the mermaid, Eos, replied. "Did you also leave me this fish? I thought it wasn't tea time yet."

"Oh, well, of course I was coming to eat with you but it shouldn't be time, I don't think. Maybe Cressidia bought it out."

"Really?" Eos asked. "Would she do that?"

"No," Rachel said. "I don't think she would."

Saeed could not stay still any longer. The masked juggler was getting away. At the same time he could not risk letting the mermaid eat the fish. He dropped down from his perch onto the top of the tallest stall and slid down the guy rope of that stall into the small yard.

"Please, esteemed young ladies," he said to the shocked little girl and the mermaid. "Do not eat that fish, I do not think it is a good gift. If we want to know more then I should get after the person who did leave it. Please excuse the rudeness of my entry and the speed with which I must leave."

He gave a tight little bow from the waist, ran up to the mermaid's tank and scaled a ladder up the side. At the top he pushed off with his left foot from the edge of the tank to land on the top of another pitch. He used the spring of the canvas as a trampoline to gain access to the roof beams again and set off after the juggler.

He could see the masked thief a few stalls away slipping around to rejoin his companions. He could also see two men with long pikes dressed in light armour towards the edge of the square. Saeed had learned the look of market guards and he made his way along the beams to stand above them.

"Gentlemen," he called down to the two shocked guards. "I believe that Kalico may have some questions for that masked individual over there. Questions about his intentions towards the mermaid Eos."

The guards looked up at Saeed, amazed, and then looked over to where he was pointing. The juggler had heard Saeed's call and looked back to see the two market guards looking in his direction. The juggler, panicked, tried to slip away into the crowd. The guards gave chase but they were slow and clumsy, the juggler would easily avoid capture if Saeed left it up to them.

He nimbly skipped over the beams to catch up with the fleeing juggler and, having no better plan, dropped from the roof onto his head.

The juggler and Saeed landed in a tangle of limbs on the market floor. In a matter of moments the market guards apprehended them both.

"I think Kalico will be keen to talk with both of you," one of the guards said.

The guards took Saeed and the juggler to the first building that Saeed had seen in the market. A small tower that reached from the market floor up into the vaulted ceiling. The building had no windows and a single entrance through a stout wooden door.

"Let's see what Kalico has to say about this," the Market Guard said and knocked upon the door.

The party entered a small room where various types of merchandise stacked up against the walls from floor to ceiling. Behind an enormous table piled high with gold coins was a man dressed in fine coloured silks. He had a jeweller's eyepiece stuck into his left eye, trained upon a sizeable ruby.

The man was bald. He wore a single pearl earring in his left ear. He had a neatly trimmed goatee beard. Saeed believed that the man may have come from somewhere in Araby.

"What is this that you bring before me? Thieves?" the man asked. Saeed recognised the ring of his voice. This man had come from Araby indeed.

"Not sure, Master," the Market guard said. "This one," he motioned at Saeed, "fell on the other from a great height. Seems to think the masked one is up to no good."

Kalico removed the eye piece and looked over Saeed and the juggler with gleaming eyes, sharp and cunning in the low light. He inspected the juggler first, then Saeed, then  the juggler once more.

"So, little thief, what do you think this one has done? Why should I believe a word that comes from your liar's mouth?" the Master of the Market asked.

"It is true that I have all the skills to be a thief," Saeed said. "But I have made an oath on the memory of my mother that I shall never lie. Not until I have had a chance to unburden myself of the shame of lying to her when she was alive. This juggler here tried to trick a mermaid into eating a fish. I am not sure, but I think he laced the fish with poison."

Kalico sucked in his cheeks, he looked as if he were savouring Saeed's words.

"I believe you, little thief," he said. "We come from a land where swearing an oath by our mother means something. You are fortunate that we share ancestors. As for you," he said approaching the masked juggler. "I have an instinct of suspicion that comes upon me whenever I see someone cover their face."

With that Kalico reached out and snatched the mask from the juggler's face. He revealed an angry expression on a pretty young woman.

"So what have you to say for yourself?" Kalico asked the young woman.

"You don't understand," she spat, her cheeks darkening red with anger. "None of you. If I did not do I as I was told they promised to murder my brother. Now I have failed. My brother is dead."

Kalico raised his eyebrows.

"Mystery in my market," he said. "Bad for business. And I dislike anything that is bad for business. How to deal with this matter?"

"Please, sir," Saeed said. "In exchange for your seal I will undertake to resolve this matter. I need the seal to continue with my quest. You have already seen my skill in such matters."

Kalico smiled broadly.

"Set a thief to save a rogue?" Kalico said. "I suppose, if nothing else I can rely upon you to keep things quiet. You have a deal young man. Either you will resolve matters with discretion or you will end up dead. In either case, I still go back to business as usual." Kalico turned to look at the juggler. "Looks like you have my assistance. Poison anyone in my market again and I will not let you go free a second time. Do we understand each other?"

"You can't be serious?" the young lady said, looking down at Saeed with contempt in her eyes. "This little insect will not be able to help me."

"Oh no?" Kalico asked. "He caught you out, so that shows how much you know. Would you prefer my way of dealing with things?"

"Do what you will," the young lady said.

Kalico did not respond to her petulance. He turned to his guards.

"Put these two outside. If you see them making trouble again, arrest them and we'll do things my way."

Kalico's face was hard. As the two guards manhandled the young lady and Saeed toward the door Saeed swore the Master of the Market dropped him a wink.

Out on the streets once more Saeed did indeed rescue the girl's brother. He helped restore peace to the squares of the Patchwork Market but that is a story for another time.

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