Chapter 1 – The Street of Antiquities
The Present – 532 by the Conclave Calendar
Crowds gathered thick in the market street, pressing in tight around Kathri as she made her way along it. She was as much carried by the crowd as made her own way, so tight packed where they. Pushing against the flow would have been a major struggle, but they were headed in the direction she wished to go and so she did not fight it, even if it was against her nature to be pushed around by others or to enjoy it. The noise of the crowd, of talking and shouts and laughter swirled all around her, a cacophony of many languages all blending into a solid mass. She shut it out the best that she could, concentrating on trying to pick a path through the throng.
A space opened up before her and she squeezed through it, to the side of the street. Shops with bright coloured awnings lined the street, and before many of them were stalls that displayed the antiquities of the ages that Ciosala was famous, or infamous, for. Merchants stood behind the stalls, calling out to prospective clients while hulking, brooding eyed guards stood watch. Kathri tightened the grip on her pack. Thieves often lurked in that part of the city, drawn there by the potential wealth that could be made, despite the harsh punishment handed out by the authorities, and the harsher ones meted out unofficially by the merchants and their guards. The authorities turned a blind eye to such events for the most, letting natural justice take its course. It in general proved cheaper and more effective as a deterrent.
It wasn’t just the thieves that one had to be careful about. As the crowd ahead of her ground to a halt, Kathri was forced to stop before a stall, one typical of the type that could be found along the street. Old pots and coins were displayed upon it, along with small carved figurines, some of stone, others of wood or bone. There were bits of jewellery and fragments of scrolls and parchment, small shards of painted earthenware and clay tablets inscribed with ancient languages. Behind it stood a portly merchant, one with the tanned complexion, dark hair and aquiline features common to a Vigosan.
“Esteemed lady,” he called out to Kathri in a strong voice, “I have the finest of Aethalyr Air Crystals on offer. Come, look at the quality.”
Kathri turned at the call, looking over the merchant first, rather than the crystal. He had an open, friendly, honest looking face. Few others could have picked it as the facade it was, put on to lure the unsuspecting into trusting him. His eyes spoke different to her though, being shrewd and calculating.
A typical merchant.
From the merchant, she looked to the crystals on display, three delicate items that looked like they had been woven together like crystalline lace, a pale blue in colour that picked up the sunlight and shone it back. Kathri picked one of them up carefully and turned it over in her hands, inspecting it closely.
She set it back down again gently and turned a smile upon the merchant, one that held a knowing edge.
“These are not air crystals. Tsaha down on Channel Street makes them, which means either you were fleeced when you bought then, and I can not see that happening, or you are in on it.”
The merchant looked sharply at Kathri for a few seconds before bursting into laughter, his belly heaving. “You know old Tsaha then. I had at first taken you for a foreigner given your looks, one come to the city and looking for an artefact to take home.”
“We all hide our natures, friend. It is part of the game.”
The merchant grinned and held out a hand. “I am Gaudo il Antos.”
“I am Kathri,” Kathri replied, taking the offered hand.
The disguise has held up. That is good.
It had taken near three tendays to travel down from Vas Madreso, travelling down river first by barge and then, when the river had broadened when tributaries had fed it, by ship. She had sold the ring for passage on the barge and boat, and later, when she had reached the outlying parts of the Conclave Kingdoms, the horse. There weren’t many that could afford a prime Digaran horse and though she had sold it to a minor noble she had deal with before, it had not been as much as the horse was worth. It had still provided her with more than enough to live on for a while. Nearing Ciosla, she had dyed her hair black. The copper hair, along with the golden skin and ochre eyes made her stand out, drawing unwanted attention to who and what she was, to her blooded ancestry. The skin colour was close to that of the Tsiali out east and by adopting their hair colour she could pass as one. They had a distinctive accent as well, one that saw them roll the r’s and h’s. She could imitate it with some fair accuracy, enough to allowed her to be seen by most as a Tsiali, just as the Gaudo had done at first.
“It is a shame about old Tsaha. He did such fine work.”
Kathri looked up from inspecting the table to Gaudo. “What happened to him?”
“You did not hear?”
Kathri shook her head. “I’ve only just arrived back in Ciosala.”
“The Mages took him away a couple of tendays back.”
“Whatever for?” Kathri asked, a silvered flash of surprise crossing her eyes. If Gaudo had spotted it, he made no comment. “The Mages have long tolerated the counterfeiters, even encouraged them if you believe what many say.”
“No one knows,” Guado replied, shrugging his shoulders. “Not just him either, and not counterfeiters alone. Many others involved in the game have been taken away into the inner city. I have not heard of any coming out either, but nor has there been word of any punishments. The Mages appear to be on edge about some matter, and it in turn is causing concern among the city. It is a dangerous time to be in Ciosala, friend Kathri, if you are in any way caught up in the game.”
“Thank you for the warning, Guado. I am merely passing through, trying to catch up with an old friend.”
“In that case, while you are here why not buy a little something for them,” Gaudo said, a pleasant, hopeful look on his face.
Kathri laughed and looked back to the wares on display. “No doubt you will claim that you have a wife and twelve starving children to feed. Do people still fall for that?”
Gaudo patted his ample belly. “It is hard to fathom, but they do. It must be my trusting nature.”
Kathri smiled and picked up an item from the table, a small ring of silver set with a golden stone. Into the stone had been carved a small letter in what looked like the Aethalyr language. “Another of Tsaha’s?” she asked.
“I didn’t think so. It looks like whoever made it must have done so from description alone without ever having seen one before. Who is responsible for it?”
Gaudo frowned as he looked over at the ring. “I am not sure, actually. I got it a few years back in a collection of items from a man in a hurry to get out of town before the Mages caught up with him. He didn’t get far as you can imagine. Most of the items were junk quite frankly but a few were of a standard that I could pass them on to unsuspecting tourists.”
“It does look rather nice,” Kathri mused. “Don’t get me wrong, it is still a poor fake. The man would have been better advised to stick to legitimate work. Still, it would do well for my sister. I will give you four parts for it.”
“Four parts? Are you trying to drive me to ruin?” he asked. The grin on his face indicated that he did it more out of formality than a genuine desire to haggle. “As a friend of Tsaha’s I will let you have it for eight.”
Kathri bounced the ring on the palm of her hand. “Six and one half she countered.”
Gaudo considered it for a moment then nodded. “Done and done.”
Taking out her money pouch from within her pack, Kathri fished out six small silver coins and a smaller copper one, passing it over to the merchant. “A pleasure doing business with you Gaudo.”
“Likewise, esteemed lady,” Gaudo replied, touching a hand to his heart and bowing in the manner of the Tsiali.
Slipping the ring onto her finger, Kathri pushed back into the flowing crowds, continuing along the street. Only once she was out of sight of Gaudo did she smile to herself.
He really had no idea what he had there.
Among all that had been on display, only the ring appeared genuine. She would have it checked out, but if it was as she expected, an Aethalyr ring, then it would be worth far more than she had paid. If not, she did not doubt that she could get at least as much as she paid for it, if not a little more.
The news of trouble in the city was a concern though. With that weighing on her mind, she continued on towards her destination.
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