Chapter Eleven
Sea of Trees

... OR SUBSTANTIAL DELAYS ...

...... As he stood, half-hidden beneath the protection of the high, fitted stone pillar which marked the dock's beginning, Igthorus watched the dimly-silhouetted ships of the fleet nose into their assigned berths. Tiny waves, retreating from their wakes, sloshed against the stonework where the first of the crudely shaped pilings met the shore.
...... He shrugged deeper into his drenched cloak, while the cold night wind tugged unceasingly at its edges. Wind-driven red sparks from the torch, high above him, showered out to die on the soaked ground. The drenching rain pelted down and splattered, hiding the view of nearly everything.
...... Accompanied by the heavy tromping of his thick boots, Merc strode along the wharf and stopped at the limit of the planking, three yards away. "I want all my ships resupplied immediately," he demanded, tossing his soggy cloak back over his shoulders. The garment hung heavily, straight down, from the weight of the water. "I'm leaving at dawn. Right at first light. Everything must be ready then. Everything!"
...... "I received . . . and acknowledged . . . all of the many letters which embodied your innumerable requests," Igthorus coolly retorted. "You might have noticed the large number of people presently laboring upon the wharf." Ignoring the mud, he stepped closer to the pillar and what little shelter it offered against the rain.
...... "Then hurry them up!" Merc snapped, peering around. The rain and darkness concealed everything beyond the feeble, wavering light of the drowning torch. "About Michelle Tallpinin . . . ."
...... "She has not been found," Igthorus brusquely interrupted. "The increased reward has brought nothing." Shivering, he folded his arms beneath his cloak. "Likewise, the pirate seems to have disappeared from this area for the present time. Also, the other SeaLords have been warned against trespassing here. And finally, the wandering Scribe has not yet located the Grand Bazaar." He frowned up at the rainy darkness. "At least within the confines of the forest, the man is comparatively warm!"
...... "That Scribe's unimportant." Merc waved it away with an impatient gesture. His boot sole squeaked, as he shifted his footing on the soaked wood. "I know where the Bazaar is."
...... Igthorus maintained an obvious silence, while the wind whistled along the fissures in the pillar, and the rain hissed on the torch. Cold water was creeping through the seams into his boots.
...... "Close enough, anyway," Merc add, displaying another fast gesture which forced water from his saturated cloak to drip into the pool at his feet. "I'm leaving at dawn to raid it. Which is why the fleet has to be ready to sail the instant there's enough light to see by." He peered upward in blatant displeasure at the downpour.
...... "All of your requests will be fully taken care of by dawn," Igthorus assured him in a quiet tone, partly obscured by the sound of the wind and rain.
...... Merc paced along the edge of the planking. "How many Scribes can you have here by morning?" he demanded, stopping to turn.
...... "Six or seven," Igthorus decided, after a minute's consideration. "Plus your own ship's Scribe." He tilted his head to shake some of the water out of his hair. The rain showed no sign of slackening, and the air's chill was becoming worse.
...... "Plus yourself," Merc included. He stood for a moment at the water's edge before pacing back. "Not enough, but it'll have to do. Have them here at dawn, all of them. And ready for a long voyage."
...... "They will wish to know why," Igthorus countered.
...... "I refuse to depend on signal flags for anything as important as this attack." Merc yanked his cloak forward, shrugging it around his shoulders again and pulling it closed in front. He hooked the heavy metal clasp. "Organize the ships into groups of three, and put a Scribe on each lead ship. Then we'll have some sort of communication at night. Or if we should need to split up for some reason."
...... "As you order," Igthorus agreed simply. He frowned upward, as the torch finally died beneath the battering of the rain.
...... "Be here at dawn yourself," Merc ordered, out of the darkness from the direction of the path to the watchtower. "You'll sail as the Scribe for my ship."
...... Igthorus stepped away from his tiny bit of shelter. "That will leave the office unattended," he loudly complained, his voice carrying easily over the wind and rain.
...... "Never mind that," Merc shouted from somewhere in the distance.
...... Shivering again in the wet coldness, he looked toward the watchtower, its lighted windows invisible in the downpour.
...... "And that demand most conveniently solves that problem!" he declared, speaking aloud to the emptiness of the rain. His smile was as cold as the storm. Sniffing, he rubbed his nose, before hurrying onto the dock to discuss the arrangements with the night-time workers.

* * *

...... Kneeling on one leg beside the trail, Justin solemnly presented their small servant boy with a tiny belt knife, its sheath set off with bronze studs. Just as solemnly, the child thanked them, before scurrying off to show his new gift to his relatives and friends.
...... "That wasn't necessary," Misty advised. The corners of her mouth were turned upward in the faintest of smiles. She looked away at the mass of strange dwellings in the distance.
...... All around them, the shouting was a continuous din above the general loud racket of the caravan as it broke up. Business partners were telling each other the news, and relatives were meeting again after long separations. Friends were asking of other friends not since seen.
...... In the middle of it all, the long line of heavily-loaded packhorses was dispersing with their handlers -- many of them splashing through the shallow ford of the river to the other shore and the encampment on that side. Only a thin drizzle was dripping down on everyone.
...... Standing, he wiped at the mud on his pants leg. "That's true enough. But I've learned not to put off little things like that. The boy reminds me of . . . but that was years ago." He waved a hand. "So this is the Grand Bazaar. It's something, all right." He peered around at the conglomeration of people and structures, which were mixed in among the trees, then glanced upward at the narrow gaps between the dripping leaves. "It would appear that it's too late in the day to do much of anything practical. So what would you like to do?"
...... "Need you ask?" she replied, using her most provocative tone. She tugged on the ropes which held the tradegoods on the pack-horse, before turning to stare again at the many nearby people, who were milling around wherever there was any vacant space.
...... "I was thinking about the couple of hours between now and then," he dryly retorted, retrieving the packhorse's tether from her hand. "I suppose, first of all, we need a place to pitch the tent. And some canvas scraps to sew patches on top of the other patches! I used the last length for the new end flaps."
...... "We need, first of all, dinner!" she commanded. "If we can find a shop, somewhere in this jumble, which looks okay."
...... "I won't object to that decision." He added a quick bow and a wave of his hand to the nearest opening in the crowd.
...... Arms folded, she nodded her head toward a small gap between the makeshift dwellings, which were crammed tightly together among the trees. A few people from the caravan had gone that way already.
...... "I think this rut may be what passes for the main trail. We'll go this way, and let these entrepreneurs try to swindle us. We might run across a decent restaurant somewhere close. You can lead the horse," she added.
...... He tugged on the leather lead, already in his hand. "And you shall show me the correct way through all of these hazards of civilization," he teased. "Being only a poor outback yokel myself." After a pause, he added: "A hungry poor outback yokel." When a burst of rain water from overhead landed on him, he scowled upward. "A wet hungry poor outback yokel!"
...... She turned only long enough to glare at him, while murmuring inaudibly and laughing.
...... Following the loops of the shallow river, the trail of hard-packed soil, and its many users, twisted among the trees and the hundreds of diverse dwellings. Everything was represented -- from simple, coarsely-woven fabric sheets hung on a slanted rope, to complicated houses which had been assembled from portable, prefabricated, wood-sheathed walls. Virtually all of the vines, ferns, grasses, low shrubs, and lower tree branches had been cut for use in some other place. Near most dwellings, confined by a short wall of piled stones, a small campfire burned to add heat and a thin smoke to the slow breeze.
...... Except on the trail itself, something had been erected in every space between the trees, usually using the tree trunks themselves, and each dwelling had some sort of sales area out in front -- from blankets spread on the ground to elaborate shelf and counter combinations, protected by awnings from the rain. Every conceivable form of lantern decorated the dwellings' eves or tree limbs, already prepared for the coming of night.
...... The constant foot traffic had churned every inch of ground, except the hard-packed trail, to adhesive mud.
...... "All of my life, I've heard stories about the Grand Bazaar," she remarked, while climbing over a flat boulder between two trees -- the only space left for the trail. She whipped a hand at a shred of fabric, left by some unfortunate previous user of the path. "I never expected to be here myself."
...... He only nodded, as he herded the packhorse over the obstacle. Behind him, a party of three adults and four children patiently waited for the way to be cleared. Each of them was loaded down with bundles.
...... "It's far larger than I'd thought it'd be," she continued, waiting for him to catch up. "Many more people. Much more spread out. Talk about a fable come to life!"
...... All along the trail, various merchants were shouting their demands that the travelers must peruse their wares, which were the best in the Bazaar, before continuing onward. In addition to the merchants, dozens of men, women, and children hurried up, offering to show the fastest way to the best establishments for virtually any service. On top of that, several people were renting themselves as guides, walking and talking roadmaps to the whole of the Grand Bazaar in its newest location. Above it all, the tree branches formed a nearly impenetrable mass.
...... Justin waved away one unusually persistent merchant. "Is there anything here not for sale?" He kept half his attention on the tradegoods to avoid a loss from swift hands.
...... "For you, yes!" she laughed, then lowered her voice. "In both senses!" She shook her head at a clothing seller, who immediately hurried to the next party of travelers. "That can wait," she murmured, absently rubbing at a roughly-mended tear in her stained shirt.
...... "Did anyone ever tell you that you have a voracious appetite?" he chuckled, then quickly looked down as he stumbled on a loose stone half-buried in the hard ground.
...... "No, never!" she answered over her shoulder. "Because, up until you, I never did." She ostentatiously sighed. "But we have chores to do, and we're on our way to dinner, remember. If we find a place. Or ever get there!" she growled, waiting for a snarl of people and pack animals to untangle themselves at another obstacle on the path.
...... After half an hour of slow walking through the noisy commercial chaos, dodging salespersons, inspecting dubious temporary cafes, and waiting on other travelers who were negotiating the many obstacles of the trail, they arrived at what appeared to be a main crossroads of sorts.
...... "If I understood those . . . characters," Justin stated, ignoring the shouts from the surrounding stalls. "The right path goes to another ford and the market area beyond. But if we turn left here, we'll reach the largest of the general housing areas." He studied the vague trail which climbed upward along the ridge.
...... She nodded agreement, moving aside to let another party of travelers go by. That group selected the path to the ford and were quickly out of sight.
...... "Those sellers were so busy, telling us where all of their places are, that they pretty well told us exactly how the Bazaar is laid out." She looked up at the sound of faraway thunder. "And finding a campsite does seem like a great idea about now. It sounds like it's really going to rain."
...... "How unique!" he sourly retorted, yanking on the tether as he started forward onto the left path.
...... Within five minutes climb, the forestland became more sparsely populated and much less stripped of its lower greenery. The trail had become softer and muddier. The hillside was just as noisy, but the type of noise was different. Here, craftsmen and manufacturers had put up living space and shops. The odors of fresh wood, hot metal, and charcoal intermingled in the wisps of wind beneath the canopy of tree leaves.
...... "It's a definite improvement over the salespeople, farther down," he conceded, dodging around one loop of a small brook which had intruded onto the path. A tiny bird, which had been fluttering at the water's edge, flew up into the safety of the foliage.
...... Ducking under a low branch, she only waved a hand in acknowledgement.
...... The narrow trail continued upward -- and, followed by the packhorse, they hiked along the slope with it. The noise of the Bazaar lessened. The distant thunder sounded nearer, and the wind became cooler, flowing as cold drafts through the humid warmth.
...... The path came to an abrupt end in front of a large mudpuddle.
...... "Look over there." Justin pointed to a gap in the closely packed shrubbery, which opened out onto a large clearing.
...... A pleasantly green area, surrounding a fast-welling spring, had been marked off with long ropes. Inside that quiet square, far uphill from the craftsmen's sites, were several dozen tents in orderly rows. People sat in front of their canvas dwellings, leisurely working on handicrafts while talking and gesturing to each other. Small cooking fires glowed in front of several of the plain brown-fabric tents.
...... From a tiny square enclosure just inside of the entrance, a small fat man -- not unlike the caravan leader -- bustled out, gesturing as he walked.
...... "Hello. Welcome." He halted beside the muddy pool. "This is the finest camp ground in the Bazaar," he recited, enhancing his spiel with elaborate gestures. "Not to mention, the most reasonable. And the most comfortable. Close to everything. Cool, comfortable, plenty of water, quiet, safe. And occupied only by discerning people such as yourselves. There are several excellent, very comfortable sites still left." At the sound of the thunder, he looked upward. "It won't be long now," he observed. "An excellent time to erect one's tent."
...... From inside of the ropes, two small boys stopped at the entrance to stare out at the visitors, before retreating noisily into the safety of the bushes. A small, furry animal fled the shrubbery from the other side.
...... Justin grunted acknowledgment and ostentatiously peered around at the location. "Looks expensive," he stated.
...... "Pretty far uphill," Misty added. She turned to stare down the trail. "A long walk to the market."
...... The packhorse jerked at the tether, then began to graze on the vegetation at the edge of the overgrown mudpuddle.
...... The proprietor was not deterred by their brusque responses, seeming to have a long-winded answer for any criticism.
...... In time and after much discussion, accompanied by the thunder and a rising wind, Misty concluded a rental agreement with the proprietor, who supplied in addition to his staked-out space, several convenient services -- water carrying, firewood procurement, errand running, and most importantly, a permanent guard for the residents and their belongings.
...... Trailed by the packhorse, they selected the empty site farthest from the entrance, back where the rocks rose in a high wall, and began to make camp. The people, who sat in front of nearby tents, stared at them and murmured among themselves.
...... "This place may turn out to be very nice," Misty said, as she unpacked some of her personal items. She pushed the canvas flap out her way. "And thanks for sewing on these end pieces to make a real tent out of ours." Her voice was muffled by the fabric wall. "We'll fit right in with the rest of the population here."
...... "That was generally what I had in mind," he agreed, nursing the last knot into stability, as he finished anchoring their tent. "I don't want to stand out as a tourist." Turning away from the chore, he paused to frown at the murmuring spectators in front of the other dwellings.
...... After helping to unload the packhorse and set up the camp, the talkative proprietor recommended, among dozens of other things, a stable -- one only a few yards down the path on the other side, coincidentally operated by his cousin. Justin stood silently to one side, as Misty argued the cost of the necessary care for the packhorse. A mutual agreement was reached, and Justin handed over the coins.
...... "Next step is to find a sales location," he decided, as hand in hand, they ambled down the path to the busy valley.
...... "Scribes don't need locations," she reminded him. "We all are itinerant businessmen." She looked upward at the continuing roll of thunder. "The storm's slow in getting here."
...... "I'm not complaining," he retorted.
...... At the indistinct border where the craftsmen blended in with the sales tents, a muscular man stopped to ask about Justin's two swords. He was a blacksmith and did some trading in weapons. Following a short conversation, another deal was concluded -- the blacksmith would sell Justin's wares on a commission basis and also would rent time in the forging shop for Justin to craft more pieces to sell.
...... "Another item taken care of," Misty laughed. "You have to admit, things work fast in the Grand Bazaar." She squeezed his hand. "Just don't you join the trend . . . nights anyway."
...... He answered with a tug on her braid and a quick kiss on the top of her head.
...... The camp site proprietor also had suggested a small, family- style restaurant -- which just happened to be run by his sister- in-law. They found it easily, a dozen crude tables set out under a sloped awning hung from ropes between the trees. The thrown- together cashier's desk was managed by a young woman. From behind the fabric wall, which set off the kitchen, came the crackle of a large fire and the noise of chickens. Sweet smelling gusts of steam eddied over the breeze-rippled wall.
...... There were three tables free, and after receiving the flat meal payment, the woman conducted them to the nearest one. The small crowd of diners quieted to watch them walk past behind the manager.
...... "They may not know you," Justin grumbled. "But they seem to recognize a BlackRider."
...... "Provincials!" Misty replied in dismissal, pulling one of the three-legged folding stools back from the rickety table. She flicked a dried leaf from its battered top.
...... The cafe's menu was the meal of the day, the manager's husband was the chef, and his brother was the sole waiter -- but it was excellent cooking which the owners accomplished under such primitive conditions.
...... Sitting to face the trail outside, they idly watched the many groups of people hurrying along. Most of them were carrying bundles of various goods, and nearly all of them were raggedly dressed, although clean and neat in appearance. One young girl was tugging along a goat, while a slightly older boy carried four chicken cages on his back.
...... "I'd almost forgotten what real plates and utensils are like," Misty said, picking at a salad of purple leaves, green roots, and white garnishes. "It's amazing what they do here, considering all this can pick up and move at a moment's notice." She waved her fork in a small circle.
...... The rain broke with a deluge which was over in minutes, leaving small pools, new running brooks, and a dripping awning over the diners. The humid air took on a dank odor, mixed with coolish drafts. The waiter ignored it all, slopping through the puddles, his mind intent on the meal service.
...... "You must miss the big town," Justin suggested, as he scooped up a fork full of thick, flat, yellow noodles. He looked out at the hurrying travelers, who walked head down to watch the slippery footing on the wet, hard-packed trail. "Center, I think you called it. It too must be quite a place."
...... The waiter, thoroughly soaked by the rain, ducked into the dining area to serve portions of the main dish -- a meat and rice casserole, still steaming from the cookfire.
...... "In a way, I do miss living at Center." She made a face, before spooning brown rice onto her plate. "Roughing it out here has lost it's charm. Not that it's all that bad, but the novelty has worn off. Life in a tent and food boiled over a campfire is not something I'd want for permanent."
...... "What's Center like?" he inquired, intent on chasing thin- sliced vegetables through a thick brown sauce.
...... She waved her fork and swallowed. "It's built in a narrow, long valley, not much different from here. But there's a lake at the northern end, and the town climbs the ridge behind it. It's all cultivated land. The forest has been cleared away. The main road runs along the lake and through the bottom of the town, then goes on north to the pass." She paused to slice large chunks of vegetable. "That's where I found out all about the real Grand Bazaar. When I was living in Center. I'd met someone who'd been here." She gestured to the passersby and the dwellings beyond. "There are all kinds of legends about this place, mostly from marketplace storytellers. What's the town like where you live?" she asked, mixing rice into some of the leftover brown sauce.
...... He shrugged, while mopping up the last of the sauce with a raggedly-torn hunk of dark bread. "It's not much of anything. Just transient housing for transients like me. A glorified version of this tent city." Setting his utensils on his empty plate, he pushed it forward to touch the empty platter. "Then this bazaar is really something new to you, also. Doesn't Center have a marketplace?" He ate the last of the bread chunk and wiped his fingers on a stained, well-washed fabric napkin.
...... She nodded, finishing her meal. "I've seen civilized marketplaces, and we've looked through several of the little bazaars. But the Grand Bazaar is something special." She placed her empty dishes on the platter and stacked his dishes on top of those. "Stories about this place have been circulating since well before my grandmother's time. But I still never expected anything as elaborate as this."
...... The harried waiter scooped up the stack of crockery, as he rushed past toward the kitchen area.
...... "Something to talk about with your friends at Center," Justin suggested, as he stood. He pushed his hard, heavily scored, wood stool back against the table, out of their way.
...... "I suppose so," she answered in a quiet voice, standing and taking his hand. She pushed her seat back with one foot.
...... They joined the throng of pedestrians and walked farther into the more congested area of the Bazaar, while the thunderstorm boomed its way into some other valley. Involved in the business of acquiring their next meal, the busy inhabitants of the market had ignored the storm and its driving rain. Some of the candle lanterns were lit, to cast wavering reflections on the dripping foliage and shallow mudpuddles.
...... Twilight had closed in as tree-shrouded darkness, when they strolled by the front of a marquee, which was lit by two large torches. The trees beyond the gate were hung with an immense number of colored lanterns, casting multicolored shadows on the crowd surging below them.
...... "An amusement arcade," Justin noted, halting at the entrance to the enclosure. He read the sign over the short table. "Not very expensive, Little One. Would you care to be amused?"
...... "I certainly would," she laughed, squeezing his hand. "But it's too early yet. Let's go in here, and look around first."
...... He only glanced sideways at her and tiredly sighed.
...... The teenager at the gate accepted one copper coin for each of them, and they walked through the mud-floored entrance and into the noisy throng.
...... The arcade was three long aisles of small booths, set among the trees -- and was filled with people, several of whom had been with their caravan. Everyone bustled along the narrow aisles and crowded the fronts of the booths, intent on their hurried quest for idle entertainment at the end of the workday.
...... Stopping at a booth which offered hand sewn, animal rag dolls as prizes, Justin tried his hand at ring toss and won his choice off of the shelf. He fluffed up its bear-like ears and formally presented it to her.
...... "To remember you by," she murmured, smiling sadly. She held the animal figure up to the light of the two stub-candle lanterns at the side of the booth. "With that twisted line for a mouth, I think this must be the only disgruntled teddybear in the world," she laughed, then glanced at him. "So very fitting," she added.
...... Hands clasped, they wandered along the main aisle past the other booths -- half of them food sellers of some kind, and half gambling games of some sort. Wherever they sauntered, the people around them grew quiet and moved away, until they had passed by.
...... "Charlatan," Misty commented with a light laugh at the booth of a Fortune Teller. At the farther end of the main aisle, a clearing had been roped off and was lit by four sputtering torches. Thin trails of acrid smoke floated above the jabbering crowd beneath the dripping tree leaves.
...... According to the nearby, garishly hand-painted poster, Roldoff the Magnificent was challenging all comers at a few coppers apiece. The prize for defeating the professional warrior was twenty silver pieces. The original lettering of ten had been painted over, replaced by the new offer.
...... "Twenty silver pieces," Justin mused. He craned his neck to look over the heads of the yelling crowd at the make-shift ring and the two contenders presently moving around within it.
...... "Hey! Don't go getting ideas," she warned, strolling with her arm looped in his. She gestured at him with the teddybear. "You're already booked for tonight."
...... Two men were in the center of the ring -- the smaller man stripped to his pants and walking boots, the larger man wearing only small shorts and knee-length boots. The larger man was sweaty, heavily scarred, very heavily muscled, and most obviously the warrior Roldoff the Magnificent.
...... Using fists, elbows, and knees, the smaller man was putting up a reasonable battle, to the cheers of the audience. But he obviously was no real match for his larger, more experienced adversary. In one corner of the marked square, a tiny, bald-headed man was jumping up and down, while yelling contradictory instructions -- Roldoff's manager.
...... Justin watched the action for a few minutes, while Misty alternated between hasty glances at him and stares at the surrounding, impassioned crowd.
...... "He's not very good," Justin decided, absently patting her hand. "He doesn't truly know how to fight. Not very much sophisticated at all."
...... "Justin," she quietly called, tucking the teddybear under her arm. "Don't you go getting any such ideas, as what I think you're getting." She ignored the crowd, which surged against her in the packed area.
...... "Twenty silver pieces," he replied, continuing to absently pat her hand. "That could go quite a long way."
...... "That overgrown lump of muscle looks good enough to me at playing battering ram," she argued in a higher voice. She pulled her hand away and wrapped both her hands around his upper arm. "It's not wrestling. It's not even fist fighting. It's some sort of free-for-all slugging match. You don't know these people, Justin." She pulled at his arm, her fingers sliding on his worn leather sleeve. "Listen carefully to me, Cutie! I've got plans for you tonight. I don't want any bruises except those I cause!"
...... "You don't leave bruises. Only teeth marks," he laughed, turning to look directly at her. "And it's not a matter of beating that thug over there. It's making it look like some semblance of a real fight for the audience. Which it most assuredly will not be. Not against me. But the spectators will demand to see something for their time here."
...... Accompanied by a collective groan from the crowd, the amateur warrior landed on the foot-packed, forest floor with an audible thump. Exhausted, he raised his hand in defeat. Roldoff backed away, to be greeted and cheered only by his tiny manager. Various people in the crowd paid off other people. Standing slowly, the defeated challenger collected his belongings and shuffled through the ropes into the audience.
...... In time, the bald-headed manager motioned his huge partner away into one corner of the square, stepped into the center of the ring, and reeled off his standard announcement. People looked around at each other, murmuring, but no one stepped forward to accept the manager's potentially profitable challenge.
...... Justin shifted his weight, scuffling one boot toe.
...... "Justin," she demanded. "Justin!"
...... Patting her hand again, he gently pulled loose from her grip and shoved his way through the spectators. Ducking under the ropes, he sauntered into the ring. He tossed the required copper coins to the manager, who quickly counted them before backing off and signaling to his massive partner. The crowd quieted so much that the few people making bets could be clearly heard over the crackling of the smoky torches.
...... While carefully appraising the huge warrior, Justin pulled off his weapons and shirt, yanked off his boots, and set it all aside just beyond the rope at one corner. The big fighter stood grinning at his new target, but the tiny manager took one long look at Justin's muscular torso and his smile faded.
...... Chewing on her lower lip, Misty stood next to the tree trunk which supported the corner of the rope barrier. His swords and clothing were heaped at her feet. When she noticed Justin looking at her, she offered him an anxious smile.
...... He returned a wink as reassurance.
...... Justin leisurely ambled into the center of the ring, and Roldoff came after him. Slipping each of the big man's blows, while carefully feeling his footing on the scuffed and slippery ground, Justin allowed only enough contact to make it appear that a real fight was going on. Likewise, he hit out with his fists but pulled his punches, luring the bigger warrior into following him around the ring in exhausting circles.
...... Surrounding the square on all sides, the audience was shouting an uproar of encouragement.
...... Each of Justin's punches left small flecks of blood on the big fighter's body and face, and the huge, slow-moving man seemed to become enraged at his inability to close in. Finally, breathing in heavy gasps, Roldoff abandoned his fist fighting and made a rush for a wrestling throw, diving for Justin's legs.
...... Having waited specifically for that action, Justin leaped upward, causing the larger man to miss his grip, while landing himself on the warrior's broad back in a heavy but fast roll. The huge fighter twisted and tried for another wrestling grip, but his slow movements were eluded easily.
...... In the middle of his roll, Justin landed four hard punches to the warrior's kidneys, then fell to the ground and seemed to try to scramble to his feet. The crowd saw Roldoff catch one of Justin's ankles and started shouting even louder.
...... Concealed by the dim, flickering illumination from the tree-mounted torches, using the huge warrior's own grip as a stable base, Justin kicked out with his other foot -- slamming his heel in a carefully calculated blow to the other fighter's head, just behind the ear. The big warrior lost his grip and was down on hands and knees, shaking his head to try to clear it.
...... Spinning around and using a few more light boxing punches, as cover for the audience, Justin lined up his hand and struck with its tensed edge right across the warrior's thick neck. Roldoff fell over onto the packed dirt of the clearing, unconscious.
...... In a roaring din, the crowd yelled their overwhelming approval.
...... Instantly, the tiny manager was in the middle of the ring, standing over the mud-smeared and sleeping Roldoff. "That wasn't fair!" he screamed over the noise of the crowd. "I don't know how you did it, but it's against the rules." He quickly looked around but found no support among the spectators.
...... Justin stared down at him, calming wiping sweat and dried leaf fragments from his chest. "What . . . rules," he slowly retorted, then raised his voice in demand. "The silver, if you please. I have an appointment to keep. Twenty silver coins, immediately!" He held out his wet, dirty hand, palm upward.
...... Peering down at his large partner, who was softly snoring, the manager shuffled his feet. "I don't have it," he admitted. "We're broke."
...... "You what?" Justin demanded, slowing walking forward.
...... Hands held out in front of him, the tiny man backed up, then suddenly stiffened and froze motionless.
...... Standing just inside of the roped-off square, Misty held one of Justin's swords in her hand, pricking the bald man in the exact center of his spine. The second sword in its sheath was tied across her back. "Turn right around, and step out of the ring," she coolly ordered, giving a small jab with the weapon for emphasis. "We have to see the Bazaar King."
...... The parade marched out of the arcade. First, the tiny manager, followed by Misty with the sword still poking at his spine. Then Justin, reclothed and shod, amused and unquestioning -- followed by a recovered but still-dazed Roldoff. Then a crowd of over a hundred people, the original audience plus everyone who happened to hear the gossip in time. The arcade was emptied completely, including the tenders of the various booths, leaving only a few guards and the unending dribbles of thin rain.
...... The Bazaar King -- the administrative head of the elected council, which operated the Grand Bazaar and effectively ruled its many temporary inhabitants -- sat at a letter-cluttered portable table in front of her own ornate tent. She glanced up only momentarily, as the murmuring crowd assembled at the edge of her audience arena.
...... When she had completed the business at hand, she motioned for the cavalcade to step forward into the circle of light from the one Everlast Candle, which hung from the tree limb above her table. The spectators stayed back at a respectful distance.
...... Misty explained the situation in a few sentences, as her words were taken down by the two, young, dictation scribes, who sat on flat stones behind the King.
...... Idly plucking at her sleeve, the King asked a few questions of Justin, then turned to the tiny manager and his hulking partner. "I believe I warned you last time of what might happen, if you did not take sufficient heed." She sighed and waved one hand in resignation. "Obviously, you did not take heed."
...... No one spoke.
...... Pausing to drum her stubby fingers on the sagging table, she glanced at the throng, who silently stood in the darkness among the trees. Finally, looking back at the manager, she announced her judgment in a strong, carrying voice.
...... "Because you cannot pay the offered prize, and thereby have committed fraud, you will be sold into slavery and the proceeds distributed to your various creditors." Preemptorily, she gestured toward the hulking warrior at the edge of the circle of bright, white light. "Your own servant there is a slave, as I recall from the last time. According to the law of the Bazaar, that a slave cannot own a slave, he is now free and is not a part of the chattels in question." The resident auctioneer was summoned from his camp by the river to take charge of the situation. He herded the manager down the slope -- closely followed by Roldoff, Justin, Misty, and all of the crowd, now increased in size by another fifty or so curious individuals. At his site, he lit the candle-stub lanterns, climbed onto the rock which acted as his platform, and in a bored tone called for the first bids.
...... Even with such a large crowd of potential buyers standing there and watching, no bids were offered.
...... Justin glanced over his shoulder to see Roldoff standing behind him. The huge man grinned shyly and looked down at his feet. Apparently, the professional fighter had nowhere to go and no idea of what to do with his freedom.
...... "Two coppers!" Justin suddenly shouted to the auctioneer. He stepped back beside the warrior and whispered: "You call out three coppers."
...... The auctioneer repeated the bid with an audible sigh of relief, as the crowd shuffled and muttered among themselves.
...... Roldoff looked at Justin with no animosity. "I don't have money," he explained with a perplexed frown.
...... "Three coppers," Misty called out loudly over the murmur of the throng. She grinned impishly and waved a finger at the men, while absently tugging on her braid.
...... "Four coppers," Justin called to keep the bidding in motion. Shaking small copper coins out of his belt pouch, he handed a dozen to the huge fighter. "Yell five coppers," he ordered in a low tone.
...... "Five coppers," the warrior instantly complied. He held his massive hand open, just looking at the coins in the dim yellow light of the lanterns.
...... "Six coppers," Misty bid, before the auction could be closed.
...... "Seven coppers," Justin immediately followed. "Yell, eight coppers," he demanded in the warrior's large ear.
...... "Eight coppers," Roldoff shouted, obeying.
...... "Nine," Misty bid.
...... "Yell, ten," Justin hissed.
...... "Ten!" the big man yelled.
...... Going -- and gone. The huge warrior was hustled up to the auctioneer's table to hand over ten coppers and to receive with undisguised delight his new purchase. After a very slow and surprisingly dignified speech of thanks, the fighter led his ex-manager off, happily shaking the light chain leash.
...... "I think we lost on that deal," Justin admitted, as they hiked up the path to their campsite. "But we did win most of our own money back, even after the creditors got their cut." He looked up annoyed, as a raindrop landed on his head.
...... "He'll get back," she absently replied. "The manager, I mean." She detoured around a newly-fallen branch.
...... "Most likely," he agreed. "But perhaps the man'll be a little more appreciative of the situation by then."
...... A single lantern marked the entrance of the camping area. Walking in and waving to the proprietor, they sauntered past a row of tents to the back of the lot and their own tent. Outside of it, wood already had been stacked for a fire, and a bucket of fresh water stood next to it.
...... Silently pushing into their travel-worn tent, she sat on the edge of the sleeping blankets, her legs pulled up and her arms wrapped around them. She stared out of the triangular doorway at the sparse raindrops, while the spring burbled quietly in the background.
...... "I thought you'd requested an appointment," he suggested in a mild tone, sitting down beside her.
...... "I don't feel like it," she returned, still staring out at the slow drizzle. From somewhere on the site, a burst of raucous laughter broke into the silence.
...... "I apologize for displeasing you," he offered with a chuckle. "What did I do?"
...... "You about got yourself beaten to a pulp!" she snapped, glancing quickly at him before looking away again.
...... "Not really." He scooted closer to her. "I think I remarked about not worrying about winning, merely needing to make a good show of it."
...... "Bravado!" She refused to look at him. "All men are stupid."
...... He paused to watch one of the errand boys lug a water bucket past. "Not really," he softly countered, stroking her arm. "You should know by now that I'm not careless. I don't take many risks. Except this one," he laughed, momentarily hugging her.
...... She struggled halfheartedly for a moment to communicate her wishes, then let it be. "You kept getting hit," she stated. "For a good ten minutes."
...... "More like five," he argued in a light tone. "Less, really. But if I'd decked him in ten seconds, which I well could have, the crowd would have thought that it was a put-up stunt and jeered." He gestured inward. "And he never managed to hit me hard enough to be particularly noteworthy. Want to check for bruises?"
...... "Bravado," she repeated, continuing to stare at the slow rain. The drops were thumping heavily on the fabric ceiling.
...... He watched in silence as the camp owner hurried by, deep in loud conversation with a companion. Another errand boy followed them, carrying a candle-lantern on a short pole. "My dear Lady Tallpinin," he finally answered in a forceful, brittle tone. "You might not think much of my intelligence, but please give my superiors credit for some foresight. I was not picked out of a Cracker Jacks box! My masters spent as much time and trouble in selecting and training me for my task, as your own teachers spent training you for yours!"
...... She watched the rain for another minute, then shifted position on the blankets. "You're sure you're not hurt?" she asked, finally turning to face him. "I was so afraid."
...... "My fault! I should've emphasized what I'd said, made sure that you understood." He wrapped his arms loosely around her waist. "My fault, and I'm sorry. But if, as perceptive as you are, you thought it was real and not acting, then it's highly likely that everyone else thought it was real, also. A small mitigation for frightening you so. I am sorry about that. Forgive me, please."
...... "It was so unnecessary!" she complained, more sharply. "The fight, I mean." She pushed a fold in the blankets out of her way. Somewhere in the distance, people again loudly laughed.
...... "It was very necessary," he countered, gesturing to hold her attention. "These people share your people's prejudice against BlackRiders. Now, they not only know who I am, they all will allow me the respect due an equal. For us here, that is absolutely necessary." He glanced upward, as the noise of the rain tapered off. "It was the only effective way to advertise."
...... She silently studied him for another minute. "I suppose you're right." Then she shook her head, making her braid whiplash. "That won't do! I need to be honest. I must say that I know you're right. I hadn't thought the whole thing through, like I should've." She let out a deep breath, then suddenly giggled. "I'm surprised that you didn't have to discuss it with your packhorse first."
...... "I didn't dare," he chuckled, tightening his arm around her waist. "He would've agreed with you." Brushing that away, he added: "He's rather taken by you, you know. It was he who insisted that I pick you up in the first place."
...... "Don't keep trying to blame all of your troubles on that poor dumb beast!" she laughed, pushing against his shoulder. The rain was back, hammering on the fabric overhead and trickling down the distant rock wall with the sound of a tiny waterfall.
...... "Little do you know, Little One." Laughing, he waved it away, also. "But really, it's entirely my fault that you misunderstood. I should've done better. Truly, I am sorry."
...... She stared at him, while nibbling her lower lip. "It has provided one interesting experience. I've been sitting here, watching the rain, angry with my lover, and wanting to be comforted by my lover, both at the same time. Talk about mixed feelings!"
...... He kissed her on the ear. "I can't say I particularly want to waste a good rainy evening," he agreed. "Doin' anyone tonight, Little One?"
...... "Sure you're not bruised too much?" She stroked his arms, where they were wrapped around her. "That fight appeared very real."
...... "I'll let you look for yourself," he repeated.


chapter ten CHAPTER ELEVEN chapter twelve

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PLEASE NOTE: The above story is fictional - the characters and situations are imaginary. Resemblances to actual persons are accidental (and in some instances appalling!)

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