The Grim Merchant

Loom shouldered her way through the thick Shira Hay crowds, ignoring the angry faces and indignant shouts as Deppash plowed his way through behind her. Behind even him, the kid’s freak horse stepped awkwardly through the crowds, to the stares and leers of many. It’s the only city in the biggest nation in the world, Loom thought, irritably. And it has the smallest streets in Albumere.

The fellow merchants peddling their wares eyed Loom. They were like hyenavultures, the whole lot of them: almost sycophantic in the presence of their betters, but jealous and territorial of others of their own kind.

They didn’t have anything to worry about from her, anyway. In their current state, her wares could not rival even the most meager peddler’s stock.

Loom swore as a scrawny cathound leaped over her feet. She eyed it for a moment, but ignored it. The amount of meat on that thing was not worth the effort of catching it. She shoved it out of the way with a leather boot, and the creature hissed at her before a snort from Deppash made it bound away.

“Men, women, beast!” shouted the closest peddler. He was holding a lacquered box of tabula high up for display- high enough, Loom noted, that none of the urchins could grab at it without significant effort on their parts. “Give me one chance to show my wares and you will be astounded by what you see! See here: a tiger from the Seat of Winter itself. Give me an open space and your attention and I promise you will be amazed!”

It was a familiar song, one that had taken some time to get used to but now rang of home. She wondered how the kid would appreciate them.

Loom shook her head, shooting a murderous glare at an indignant young couple as she shoved by. They passed without comment, ducking their heads when they saw her expression. Thinking about the kid and slaves in the same sentence rang a sour note, and made her stomach churn.

“Come all!” the peddler continued to shout, his voice fading in the squabbling noise floor of the Shira Hay bazaar. “Gentlemen who prefer anonymity, we may conduct business in private! I have beautiful springborn here from Da’atoa to Jhidnu, Hak Mat Do to Mont Don! I guarantee for the cheapest of prices that they will provide a night of unforgettable pleasure!”

Loom shut him out. Home it may have been, but she was beginning to remember how much she fucking hated home.

The street opened into a thankfully spacious plaza, the cobblestones ringed with the designs of the masons of the Twin Libraries. A stone fountain stood at its centerpiece, the fluting design graceful, yet bone dry. The dry season this year had been a harsh one, and even now there were whispers that the Ladies Summer and Spring were not gratified by the latest Sun Festival, which had been denounced by the electors as an archaic tradition.

Damn electors. Loom tugged hard on Deppash’s reins as they made their way across the plaza. She could see a few in the dark and smoky bar across the way, shouting and screaming, their ceremonial scarves and cloaks in disarray. Their “debate” would come to blows soon; the scholarly types of Shira Hay were well known for being loud, boisterous, and always willing to defend their point of view by any means necessary.

“Home at last,” Loom muttered, under her breath, and caught herself. Her attempts to become civilized had been strict and merciless, and civilized folk did not talk to themselves. It was a bad habit from her…inferior years.

The thoughts continued to bounce around Loom’s head, formless and shapeless without a voice to articulate them. Loom shoved those thoughts away, and looked around. She could never recognize the street where the old vipercrow lived. It was perfectly generic, just the way he liked it.

Loom spat into the dry fountain and walked on. A little red flag over the alley entrance, the Twin Libraries standing just to their right: that was how she remembered. By all the Ladies Four, she hated that fucking flag.

She wondered how Vhajja had fared while she was gone. He certainly wasn’t dead yet, that much Loom could tell. The old man was spiteful and would have hung on just to see her come back a failure.

It didn’t seem possible, but the alleyway was both empty and a tighter fit than the street before. The wagon scraped against both walls as they walked in, and Deppash moaned in distress.

“Hey, easy, Pash,” said Loom, tugging on his reins. “I’ll get you a treat once we’re home.”

The winter ox tossed his head in annoyance, but walked on, even as behind him the big guy got tangled in a line of laundry and shrieked in surprise as wet and dirty clothes flapped around it. Loom snorted. The thing was insultingly easy to spot and ate too much for its own good. The kid should have dumped it when he had the chance and gotten something better.

A puff of icy breath blew on Loom’s back. She looked back to see Deppash had paused, to pull out a sparse crop of weeds growing in the shade between the stones. His mouth slid sideways as he chewed, and he looked at Loom as if daring her to object. She sighed. She really couldn’t blame the kid for making the same mistake she had.

Eventually, Loom came upon the house. It had been months since she had been there, but it hadn’t changed at all. Then again, there wasn’t very far to go from rock bottom.

Shira Hay was not the wealthiest of Albumere’s twelve nations, nor was it the grandest of its thirteen great cities. It was small and weak, and its duarchs held very little sway in the conventions at the Seat of the King.

Yet, even that was no excuse for the sorry state the old house was in. Loom tried the door; it had somehow swollen with rot despite the fact that it was the driest summer Shira Hay had experienced in years. Splinters came off as she threw her shoulder against it, and she swore openly and loudly as she tried it again.

Ultimately, she gave up and went in through the single, broken window, if it could even be called that. She push at the frame leaning against the hole in the wall, and it flopped onto the floor on the other side with a glass tinkle. Loom opened the small fence leading to the smaller back lot, and ushered the animals in with an impatient wave of the hand.

She stopped Deppash when the wagon came close, though. She’d unhitch it later, but for now there was something in the back she needed to get.

It took a bit of rooting under the burned canvas to get the boy, who had been tucked neatly in-between the least soiled of the carpets. “Hey, lady!” shouted a voice, from outside. “Get a move on, will you?”

Loom emerged with the boy in her arms. The animals were blocking the road, and even though it was a small alley with nothing of import down it, someone else had still chosen that exact time to go in. “I’ve had a long day, asshole,” she yelled back. “If you could wait thirty fucking seconds, it’d be really fucking appreciated.”

Deppash plodded away into the backyard (well, it wasn’t so much a yard as the broken down ruin of the building adjacent, with a conveniently ox-shaped hole where the wall had once been), but the freak horse seemed hesitant to go into such an enclosed space.

“Oh, fuck off,” shouted the voice from the back. She couldn’t even see him for the freak horse’s girth. “What the hell are you doing bringing animals like this so far into the city, huh? Did you just come out of the hollow or something, bitch?”

“Get in there,” snarled Loom, pushing on the big guy’s haunch, and the freak horse nickered and ducked inside, its neck bent awkwardly to fit. She looked at the man waiting behind him. Thin arms, puffy cheeks. Fat. “You want to say that to my face?” Loom snarled.

The man met her eyes, and then shook his head. “Wasting my time anyway,” he muttered, flicking his hand in her face as he passed. Loom bristled. “Not even worth it.”

“Try a different way next time, fucker,” Loom snapped, and she hauled herself in through the window, careful not to bump the boy’s head as she made it through.

The interior was just as bad if not worse than the outside. Molded furniture, poor lighting, dirt and grime across the floor. The civilized world, as far as Loom was concerned.

She could see the candlelight before she saw the candle. Vhajja sat in his yellow sheets, reading some dusty book. Despite the fact that it was broad daylight outside, he had wooden boards across the windows and a tallow candle beside him. Old man liked ruining his eyes, Loom supposed.

“I would appreciate it if you didn’t antagonize all of my neighbors the first thing you do on coming home,” said Vhajja. He looked up, and Loom was surprised despite herself. The man had seen better days. His sunken eyes and quaking hands gave him away, and his skin had taken a gray tone. Loom found herself wondering just how old the man was. She wouldn’t have been surprised if he was going on a hundred.

“If you didn’t want me to do it, you should have come out and stopped me,” she muttered, laying the boy down on the floor’s carpet. The boy did not stir, as his eyes stared blankly at the ceiling and fingers wrapped tight around his tabula. Not his tabula, Loom corrected herself- the girl’s. The one the stupid kid held onto without using. Selling the thing would have given him enough to money to get a real life started in the city, but instead he toted the thing around like a fancy bauble.

Vhajja’s eyes followed him, but the old man made no comment.

“Feh,” snorted Vhajja. “That’s the sort of consideration I get from you, ungrateful child.” He put his book aside. “Well?”

“Well, what?” asked Loom, sitting down on the floor and taking out her water skin. She wouldn’t have trusted the water in this place even if Vhajja had any.

Vhajja’s tone grew dark. “I’m a patient man, girl, but you are severely testing that patience. Don’t make me ask again.”

“The shipment’s trash,” Loom said, simply. “We’re going to need something else to trade with.”

With a disappointed snort, Vhajja leaned back into his musty pillows. He didn’t seem surprised. Loom eyed him. He still made no comment about the boy.

“You’re bruised,” said Vhajja. A simple observation, but said in a way that almost sounded accusatory.

Loom stretched her back and laid on the floor. The carpet was from western Shira Hay, near Alswell; Loom knew because she had traded for it herself. It was thick and plush, made for resting and comfort. She laid next to the boy, watching him. Loom had given him food and water as best she could, but the boy hadn’t moved for two days. It wasn’t like Loom to be in hysterics over the health of other people, especially a stranger wild child she barely knew, but she was starting to get worried.

“You’re bruised,” Vhajja repeated.

“Some fuckers jumped me on the way here.”

“Civilized people do not swear,” Vhajja snapped, a bit of his old fire flaring again. He snapped his book shut. “Be specific.”

“Some slavers jumped me on the way here,” Loom growled.

Vhajja sighed, looking with rheumy eyes towards the cracks of light in the boarded windows. “Are these slavers still with us?”

“Haha,” said Loom. “You’re funny.”

“Pity,” said Vhajja. “They might have been friends.”

“They were upstarts. You wouldn’t have known them, you’re too old.”

Vhajja raised an eyebrow. “Correction: they might have been taught by friends. You die or you go broke, but you never get out of the game.”

“Give them your condolences the next time you drink honeyed milk and old man’s tea together,” she grumbled, turning over. It had been a long journey, and for now she just wanted to rest. She didn’t need the vipercrow’s wheedling rattle to keep her up. “I’m certainly not going to apologize. They should’ve known better.”

“My condolences?” Vhajja wheezed as he laughed, the sound squeezing out of his chest as if through a thin tube. “My condolences? I think I’m going to brag about it the next time I see them. See the looks on their faces when I make a crack or two about their dear old dead students.” His smile revealed toothless gums. “What did they look like? What tabula did they have?”

“Three in the crew. One woman, two men. Some kind of cockatrice and a summer lion. Sound familiar at all?”

Vhajja pursed his lips. “Well, I-.”

“Oh, wait,” said Loom. “I just realized something.”

“Hm?”

“I don’t give a shit.” She rolled over and closed her eyes, trying to ignore the smell.

“Your cheek is not appreciated, girl.” Vhajja spat yellow phlegm. “After all these years, you still have the manners and respect of a wild plainschild. Have I taught you nothing?”

Loom exhaled through her nose, her cheeks red, doing her absolute best to tune Vhajja’s voice out. She didn’t have to put up with him like that. With what little strength he had left, what would the old man do?

There was silence, and then the click of a cane on the floor. Loom opened one eye in surprise, looking back at the bed to confirm. She hadn’t realized that Vhajja still had the strength to walk. Her heart quickened. Perhaps the old man still had some left in him.

He walked at a snail’s pace though, leaning heavily on both the wooden cane and the cracked adobe walls. Loom waited for him to approach, making no move to help or assist him. Vhajja didn’t seem surprised by that, either; she was his destination, anyway. The old man stood over her, back hunched, knees shaking, but eyes bright in the dim light.

“Get up,” he said, his voice like the steel of an Irontower sword. Chilly, sharp, and dangerous.

She did not move.

“Get up, girl,” Vhajja growled, “Or I will make you.”

Loom hauled herself to her feet, holding her arms open as if daring the old man to assault her. “I’m up,” said Loom, irritated. “You have something you want to say?”

“Look at your elders when you’re talking to them,” Vhajja said. “And don’t use that tone with me.”

Loom just rolled her eyes. Vhajja turned and hobbled away, bending to pick up a chipped clay pot and light a fire in the stove. Loom shifted her weight, watching.

She snorted and walked to his side to light the stove for him, before grabbing the pot from his hands and pouring from her own water skin into the kettle.

“Tea, I find,” said Vhajja, as he dug a musty old packet of tea leaves from one of his many pockets. “Helps with my digestion.”

“See if I fucking care,” growled Loom, in a sullen, low tone, not looking at him.

Vhajja sighed, leaning on his mamwaari as he squatted on the cushions around it. The low wooden table was covered with a thick blanket, which he tucked over his legs despite the sweltering heat. “You are more abrasive than usual, Loom, even though I find that difficult to believe. Would you like to tell me why?”

Loom said nothing, just stood and watched the fire burn under the kettle. She glanced over her shoulder, just in time to see Vhajja give the boy a cursory look.

“Did you get raped while I wasn’t looking?” said the old man.

Loom twitched. “That’s not funny.”

“Feh,” said Vhajja. “I thought some low humor would get past your low mood. Evidently I was mistaken.”

Loom did not grace him with a response.

“May I ask who he is?”

Loom rolled her shoulders, trying to work out a kink in her back. “Just someone I met on the road.”

“Just someone…I see.” As he should. Loom had heard him say those same words to his business friends so many years ago. “And his affliction?”

“Dunno,” said Loom.

“Don’t use filler words. Be specific when I ask you a question.”

“He came down with something two days back. Ran off for a bit and when I went looking for him I found him on the ground. Won’t let go of that tabula. I reckon that has something to do with it.” Loom checked the kettle. How long did it take to boil?

Vhajja prodded the boy with his staff. The boy did not look, move, or respond in any visible way. He just laid there, stiff, staring at the ceiling, his mouth slightly open, his hands frozen in place. “Is the tabula his?”

“No, it’s someone else’s.”

Vhajja looked at her, an eyebrow raised. “Someone?

“She’s not with him,” said Loom, exasperated. “Stupid kid won’t summon her for some reason, hell if I know why. He has an animal of some kind, too. It’s waiting out back with Deppash. Speaking of which, I should go check on them.” She made for the back door.

“Stop,” said Vhajja. “The animals can wait.”

Loom’s steps slowed. She stopped.

“If you’re planning to use the boy instead, he won’t sell for much. If he truly has some sickness, you won’t be able to hide it from anyone who would give you-.”

“He’s not a slave,” snapped Loom. “He’s just…someone I met on the road.”

“You come home with nothing but wares that you can’t or won’t sell,” sneered Vhajja. “I should have known this would have been a waste of time.”

Loom stood in the doorway, anger bubbling inside of her. She clenched her hand and turned around. “I’ll find another way.”

“What other way? The medicine is expensive, and a healer’s touch more expensive still. The only way to get something of worth is to pay with something of worth, and you are clearly worthless.”

“Shut up,” Loom growled. She found herself moving towards the man with balled up fists, even though she knew it was a mistake. “I said I’ll find another way.”

“There is no other way,” said Vhajja. He did not look as Loom advanced on him.

“Then you will die.

“And I will take you with me.”

Loom roared, and raised a fist to strike. It did not matter that the old man was frail and sick. She wanted to hurt him.

STOP.

Loom’s hand froze in the air. Tears of frustration ran down on her cheeks as, despite all of her greatest efforts, she found that she could not move.

The hum of a tabula was loud in the sudden quiet.

“I made you,” said Vhajja, his voice low and shaking. “I gave you everything. I gave you a home. I gave you an education. I gave you a name. I gave you your life. It is mine to take away.”

Vhajja stood, and the ease with which the man both maintained his hold on the tabula and summoned the strength to rise was extraordinary. It was a slaver’s strength, one that even age could not erode. “I gave you a chance to save me,” he said, through gritted teeth. His breathing was labored, tinged with a desperate fury. Loom could not see his face. “I gave you a chance to pay back your debts.”

Loom just stood. She could barely even breathe.

And then Vhajja’s voice grew sharp. “Move to the counter.

Loom did as she was told.

Open the drawer.

Loom did as she was told.

Take out the knife.

Loom did as she was told.

Put it to your throat.

Every instinct inside her rebelling, every inch of her soul screaming for control, Loom did as she was told. The knife had been kept sharp. It glistened, tracing a thin red line against Loom’s neck.

Click, click, click, went the staff. The kettle whistled and screamed as it boiled. Loom felt Vhajja’s warm breath close to her ear, but was powerless to strike out against him.

Enjoy it.

And suddenly, the world was bliss. Loom felt warmth well up inside of her, a blessed peace, even as a fading voice screamed against it. She might have moaned from delight. This was happiness. This was joy. Nothing else could even compare.

The warmth vanished without warning, leaving Loom cold and empty and sickened by herself. “Never think to run, or hide, or fight back,” whispered Vhajja. “The moment my heart stops, I will make you cut your own throat. I will make you love it.” His wrinkled fingers traced her wet cheek. “Ah, me, you lost little girl. I’m not asking for much. Just a few more years, for all the years I gave you, and I may be tempted to change my mind.”

Click, click, click, went the staff. Loom felt Vhajja move away from her. She did not turn to look. She couldn’t.

“You will find a way to pay back your debts,” said Vhajja, hobbling back to his bed. “Or I will take away everything I have ever given you. You know me. I am a man of my word.” And the humming came to an abrupt stop.

The knife dropped to the floor with a clatter, just as Loom fell to her knees. She was free to move now, but did not. She just knelt, trying to hold back the tears.

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Posted on September 5, 2013, in Chapter 1 (Reap & Sow), The Grim Merchant and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Holy shit that old guy is scary.

  2. He did not look as Loom advanced on her. ==> He did not look as Loom advanced on him.

    Damn good story you’ve got.

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