Chapter Thirteen
Sea of Trees

... OR RESUPPLY, ...

...... "It doesn't look like we'll be visiting the Grand Bazaar, after all," Willi commented, while clutching a backstay for support. He was standing on the polished railing, looking down the hillside at the dozen ships which formed a crude circle over the floor of the valley. "That's only half of Merc's fleet. I wonder where the other half is?" He paused to shake droplets of rainwater from his wet hair.
...... "Out looking for us, I should imagine." Xyly pulled the hood of her cloak tighter around her head, brushing rainwater from her collar. "You're correct in saying that we won't be visiting the Bazaar here right now. Because it's not here," she laughed. "A fact which Merc undoubtedly is only just now finding out." She looked upward, as a rope creaked loudly to the pull of the wind.
...... "That lost mast put us behind schedule." He shrugged. "Then that submerged rock, where we crossed the river, finished it." He shifted his footing on the slick woodwork. "I tried."
...... "I'm not complaining about anything." She tapped him on the leg with the back of her hand. "So you needn't either!"
...... "I wonder why none of those ships down there are flying any signal flags. No matter, I guess." He jumped down from his perch, sliding and almost falling on the wet timbers of the deck. "Well, if the Bazaar's gone, can we continue on to Center, like I asked?"
...... "Not quite yet." She stood with both hands on the railing, leaning out over the side and peering into the thin rain. "The Bazaar is not ended, only moved. Over that way, specifically," she added, waving toward the farther end of the valley. "As near as I can tell from here."
...... He turned to stare doubtfully in the indicated direction. "That's where you want to go now?" he morosely asked.
...... She nodded agreement with a slight smile.
...... He took two steps toward the helm, stopped to look up at the sails, and turned to stare into the distance again. "Then we'd better sail back down this ridge, back the way we came. If the fleet comes this way, we can lose them after dark." He looked up at the sails again, motioning with one hand. "Tomorrow, we can circle around to where you think the Bazaar is. If it's still there, then," he sourly added.
...... "An excellent plan." Walking away, she stopped beside the aft hatch. "Might I leave the deck to your command?"
...... "That sounds like you have more office work to do," he grumbled. He glared at the gray sky and the slowly falling rain. "All right! You go send your letters, or whatever it is you do. I'll get us out of here and anchored somewhere safe." He struck a pose to wave an admonishing finger. "But you take the first night watch tonight! And you be up here first thing tomorrow morning. So that you can tell the helmsman which way to go. Because I sure don't have any idea!" He waved his hand in a brusque dismissal of everything.
...... "Certainly. And right at daybreak," she agreed, before stepping onto the ladder down.

* * *

...... An hour before twilight, the multiple columns of the traveling Grand Bazaar marched over another heavily-forested ridge and began to spread out along the narrow river among the many trees of the valley.
...... Halting to lean against a large boulder, Justin rubbed his ankle. He peered around at the the thick shrubbery, the numerous tree trunks, and the many small brooks. "This place doesn't look any different than the last valley." He frowned at the dripping leaves overhead, then scowled at the crude mend in his pants leg. Finally, he shrugged his bulging knapsack to a better position.
...... Misty stepped out of the way of another group of travelers who, loaded down with bundles, were scurry for the best sites farther down the trail. "Don't argue with the Powers-That-Be," she laughed, pointing her thumb over her shoulder. "It's like trying to teach your packhorse there to sing."
...... He moved his scowl from his pants to the loaded packhorse, merely shaking his head. "I suppose someplace for our tent is the next requirement," he suggested. Leaning away from the boulder, he tested his boot sole on the mud-coated, pebbly surface of that portion of the trail. "It'd be nice to get in out of this eternal rain."
...... "Doesn't that boy over there look like one of the errand boys from our last camp?" she suddenly asked, pointing with the end of the tether.
...... "I haven't got the slightest idea," he chuckled, catching one hand in a knapsack strap to ease the ache in his back. "Just another of the crowd of identical kids to me."
...... She waved her hand to catch the child's attention.
...... Having hurried over, the grinning boy provided directions to where their previous landlord was setting up his roped enclosure.
...... Renting space there again, they set up their patched tent at the corner of the encampment, where the sparseness of the trees permitted a magnificent view of the river below. After the fire was started and fresh water procured, Justin led the unloaded packhorse down the trail to locate a place for the horse to stay.
...... Sitting in front of the tent, Misty was busy sorting through personal articles from her knapsack, while minding the campfire and its slowly warming kettles, when Justin trudged back up the muddy, litter-strewn path.
...... After returning a friendly greeting from the campground proprietor, he sat on the thick grass beside her. "I found the blacksmith again and made the same arrangements as before for selling my work," he reported. "The previous stable manager has gone somewhere else, but the blacksmith has a cousin. You know how that goes", he laughed, then gestured toward the steaming kettles. "I thought we were going to go look for dinner next."
...... "I'm too tired. So I bought some food from a trader who was going by. After those cold leftovers last night, even your stew recipe sounds good right now." She pushed items back into the knapsack and buckled the top. "I'll cook tonight, and you can wash up afterwards." Pausing, she looked past him. "Yes?" she inquired, raising her voice.
...... A big man stood a few yards away, nervously rubbing his hands together, as the rain pattered down around him. "I know it's late, Scribe, but there's a letter I have to send," he explained in a soft, apologetic tone. "It's very important to me. If you could . . . ?" He held out several copper coins on his palm.
...... She sighed tiredly, while Justin laughed: "Go ahead, Little One. It's okay. It's a professional's duty." He reached over for the knapsack, while holding out a hand to help her up.
...... "Tonight, I'll cook and wash up, both. And you'd best take the candle-lantern with you," he advised, moving closer to the fire. "It's getting dark fast."
...... She smiled her thanks, before ducking into the tent for her penbox, a sheltering cloak, and the small lantern. Crooking a finger at the nervous man, she led the way to the quietest corner of the enclosure and seated herself on the nearest flat rock. Using the threadbare, patched cloak to protect herself and the writing paper from the dripping of the tree leaves, she waited for the man to begin his letter.
...... Glancing over after checking the stewpot, Justin chuckled as he saw a middle-aged woman hurrying toward the secluded corner. She stopped several yards away, counting her coins in the dim twilight while she waited. A minute later, an older man stopped behind her, craning his neck to see over her shoulder. With a long laugh, Justin turned back to his cooking.
...... When the kettle was sufficiently warm, he carried a large mug of hot tea to her impromptu workspace, putting it down and returning without interrupting her work. He busied himself with sewing new patches on the old patches on the tent, for as long as the twilight lasted, then mended the newest rips in their meager assortment of travel-worn clothing, sitting in the weak, flickering light of the campfire. The slight rain continued to drip from the many overhead branches.
...... Two hours later, tired and hungry, her penbox tucked under her arm, Misty walked up, the lantern dark in her hand. She held out the empty mug. "More, please?"
...... "In there," he ordered, pointing toward the tent.
...... She was snuggled under the blanket, her clothing in a wet heap in the corner, when he pushed aside the door flap and stepped in. He carried a huge platter of bowls, mugs, hot bread, cheese, and sundry utensils.
...... "Finally finished?" he chuckled, setting his burden down between them.
...... "Ran out of paper again," she laughed, as she spooned the steaming broth. "Thanks for this. I see that you've been working on the tent. Thanks for that, too."
...... "The duties of a profession," he repeated, while cutting thin pieces off of the dark, crumbling cheese. "Never ending. Yours, I mean." He stacked them alongside the slices of bread.
...... "Both of us," she corrected between swallows.
...... They ate in silence, listening to the rumble of the fast- moving water in the riverbed below, while the rain slowly dribbled down the slope of the tent fabric.
...... By the time he had washed up, put everything away for the night, and returned to the tent, she was fast asleep. He hung up her wet garments, added his own to the line across the top of the tent, and eased himself under the blanket beside her.

* * *

...... The next gray morning, after a sketchy breakfast of warm bread and tea eaten while sheltering in the tent from the rain, they hiked down the trail to the commercial section of the newly set up Grand Bazaar. Justin went to work once more at his rented forge, and Misty returned to her circuit as itinerant Scribe.
...... Four knives pounded out and three sales later, Justin paused for a cup of cool spring water, while sitting on a half-log bench beneath the nominal protection of a canvas awning which hung from ropes tied to tree limbs. The rain dripped from the thick foliage in a slow but constant stream, keeping the path in a state of thick, dark, gooey mud.
...... A continuous line of travelers marched by with their heads down to watch the footing and their backs bent under big loads of every conceivable type of merchandise.
...... As he sat idly watching two people vigorously bargaining with the blacksmith over the purchase of a large campfire tripod, the half-finished cup of water was plucked from his hand.
...... "Thank you." Misty edged in under the fabric roof, finished his drink, and handed him the empty cup. "I happened to be going along this way. How's your business been doing, this morning?"
...... He slid to the end of the crude bench and gestured to the space, then motioned with the empty mug. "More?"
...... Remaining standing, she shook her head. "No time really, right now. I've run out of paper . . . again! So I'll go shopping until lunchtime. See if I can find some more around here somewhere. Somebody must have some!" She waved toward the flames in the forge. "Whenever you're finished for the morning, we can go to lunch. There's a nice little place I've found down the way a bit. Not fancy, but good cooking." She turned to go, glancing up at the dripping leaves. "After that, we'll go clothes shopping and look for another groundsheet."
...... "Okay. That sounds good to me." He left his seat to hang the cup from a black metal hook, which had been lashed to a tree trunk which acted as one awning support. "I'll let the forge fire die down in another hour, and then start sharpening what I've hammered out. That way, I'll be ready whenever you are."
...... After demanding and receiving a long kiss, she hurried out into the rain, her head down as she watched the many puddles and slippery mud patches. The cloak, which she wore, billowed out in the short gusts of wind.
...... Within the hour, she was back at the smithy, lugging a heavy wood box in her arms.
...... "That was quick," Justin said in greeting. He put the ragged knife blade and the whetstone aside. "You can leave that thing here. It'll be safe enough. Ready to go to lunch?"
...... "Not quite yet. Look what I found." She carefully placed the box on the workbench, snapped open its ornate locks, and took off the lid. "It was mixed in a bunch of junk at one of the second-hand traders' shops. They were trying to sell it cheap, so I took them up on it."
...... "Okay." He peered over her shoulder at the contents -- dozens of long, white, smooth surfaced artifacts, sitting in scalloped wood supports. "Looks like a bunch of artificial sticks. So what are we going to do with them?"
...... "They're Everlast Candles." She carefully picked one up and examined it closely, running her fingers lightly along its length. "And I think most of them work. Maybe, even all of them. They're not active, but I can take care of that." She put the object back into its form-fitted opening, pushing it gently into place. "However, we can't start this business until dusk, it'll likely run all night, and I'm going to need your help for it. So how about getting cleaned up, we can have a snack, then go back home and go to bed. Is that okay with you?"
...... "Sure." He started to put away his tools and materials. "The fire in the forge is down, and the coals can tend to themselves." He stopped to tug at his poorly-mended sleeve but only shrugged.
...... She carefully put the lid back on the box and fastened the latches, shaking each one to see that it was secure.
...... In a few minutes, he waved to the blacksmith. "I'm leaving for today," he called over the rattle of the rain on the awning.
...... Picking up the box, she looked out at the rain. "And, if you're a particularly good boy this afternoon," she softly added, "I might even let you have a short nap before night."

* * *

...... Right at dusk, as the other merchants were lighting their candle-lanterns, they ambled through the most densely populated section of the Bazaar, looking for a good sales location which was available for rent for an evening. Misty carried a large, poorly-tanned, leather satchel, which contained several knives and a few other small items purchased specifically for trading purposes, while Justin followed with the cumbersome box of Candles supported on one shoulder. He glanced idly at a clothing stall on the other side of the trail.
...... "Don't think about that now," she declared, noticing. "When we're done here tonight, we'll be able to afford having a tailor stop off at our tent. A bootmaker, too." She shook rainwater from the end of her braid and pushed it back behind her.
...... "I'll settle for a new tent. There's no space left for the stitches to sew on new patches." He shifted the Candle box from one shoulder to the other. "Doesn't anything around here look okay to you?" He picked his way around a puddle to avoid the slippery edges.
...... "Not yet," she laughed, scrapping mud off of her boot onto a convenient rock edge. "I know exactly what I want. A small stall, complete with an awning and a counter, right on the main trail in the middle of the Bazaar. Preferably, with food sellers adjoining it." She shooed away a persistent seller of small household items with an absent-minded gesture.
...... At long last, a suitable place was found and rented for a small fee from the area manager.
...... With a long sigh, Justin lowered the heavy box onto the dilapidated front counter. He rubbed his hands together, while looking at the steady stream of rain, which ran off of the canvas roof and into the many puddles blocking the mud-filled trail.
...... Assigning him to stand guard at the front corner of the sagging fabric structure, Misty went around behind to enter the sales stall and drop her satchel onto the crudely fabricated plank counter. The empty cash box went on the ground below the counter, and the box of Candles went beside it. The knives and other tradegoods were spread across the timber plank.
...... Finally, she unfastened the box latches and removed the lid, reaching in to bring out four of the unlit Candles. She stood them along the coarse fabric wall at the side of the counter. "Ready?" she asked. "We're now opening for business."
...... Taking each device in turn, she stroked the side of the slender rod, then cupped the end in her hands. Each time she moved her hands away, there was a tiny white flame at the tip. Satisfied with her work, she stroked all four Candles up to medium brightness.
...... The Candles filled the trail in front of their market booth with strong white light, their brilliant backwash illuminating the stalls of the surrounding grocery vendors. Wind-rippled puddles reflected the brilliance in rainbow halos, while indistinct shadows danced on the breeze-blown foliage of the forest. The raindrops left little trails of fluid silver.
...... "Very effective," Justin murmured. "Now I see why you were so particular about this location."
...... "So frustratingly picky, you mean," she giggled, rearranging the other tradegoods. "Which is why I wanted to put you into a good mood this afternoon." She straightened slightly and raised her voice. "What can I do for you?"
...... He looked over the heads of the first customers, who were sidling up. "No comment!" he laughed.
...... The casual passersby, who were using the path, swarmed up to the counter to inquire about the price of the Candles. In minutes, a shuffling crowd of potential customers, with the usual pushing and shoving, were lined several deep across the front of the booth. Occasional scowls from Justin, as he adjusted his swords, were sufficient to keep the people orderly.
...... In spite of the high price demanded, the Candles sold as quickly as Misty could activate them. The purchasers hurried away with the fragile flames shielded from the rain by any stray fragment of cloth which they had.
...... She refused to sell more than two Candles to any one person, which caused several vociferous arguments, but she only had to ostentatiously look toward Justin to immediately halt any overly persistent bargainer.
...... "Save one for us," he suggested over the buzz of the crowd, when he saw that for a moment he had her attention.
...... She nodded in answer, without interrupting her multiple debate with several buyers.
...... In less than an hour, all of the stock Candles were gone.
...... Their small market stall was in darkness again, except for the thin candle-lantern backwash from the neighboring booths. She put the storage box up on the counter and took out the last inactive Candle. After activating it as a test, she flicked the tiny flame out with a brush of her hand.
...... Picking up the large satchel, she put in the one Candle and began to load the unsold knives and other tradegoods, which had provided a commercial-looking background to her sales operation. Glancing up, she noticed another person strolling leisurely out of the darkness. She started to speak with an apologetic smile, then suddenly jumped, startled.
...... "Well, hello. Good evening, Lady Tallpinin," the woman remarked, casually pulling back the hood of her cloak. Ignoring the rain, she shook out her short, well-kept hair, fluffing it with her fingers. "I hadn't expected to find you here, but so many people were talking about the Scribe, who was selling Candles, that I thought we'd stroll down this way to take a look." She glanced at Justin, then turned back, folding her hands in front of her. "You do seem to be very well known in this group, but only as a Scribe." She nodded toward the empty box. "And now, as a FireStarter."
...... "Good evening to you, Lady Xyly," she quietly replied, obviously not sure of what else to say. She finished loading the satchel. "I didn't expect to see you here, either."
...... "I've been to the Bazaar many times before, but not in quite some time. It is a fascinating place." Xyly peered around once more, idly tugging at the edge of her soaked, richly-woven cloak.
...... "Yes," Misty answered, closing the big buckle on the satchel. "Fascinating."
...... Xyly turned back and motioned with a forefinger. "We all have wondered where you were. You do look fit and well, so perhaps this life agrees with you. But good WindCallers are hard to find and long to teach. You still have unfinished work, back home, which you promised to do." She paused to gesture into the distance. "So we all have been wondering . . . when will you return to the Temple to resume your many duties?"
...... Justin stood quietly at the corner of the booth, listening.
...... "I . . . that is . . . I intended," Misty stammered, while studying the empty Candle box, idly turning it around and sliding it along the rough counter. Suddenly, she smacked her hand on its side. "When those dumb idiots in the Council rescind that stupid decree giving me to Mercadoratius as some sort of female slave! That's when!" She shoved the box to the end of the wood plank, almost pushing it over the edge. "I'm very sure that my many duties at the Temple can easily wait until that's done!" She looked up. "If you or any one of the other Administrators had stopped that ridiculous decision, like you should have, this never would have happened!"
...... Xyly reached out to nudge the empty box back onto the plank before it toppled. "Marriage was what I thought it was called," she answered with a little laugh. "Many people are involved in it, quite happily." She paused, resting her hands on the edge of the warped wood. "Is it that repugnant to you, Child?"
...... "Yes!" she retorted through clenched teeth. "With that . . . that fool Mercadoratius, yes, it is!" She made a wide sweeping gesture with her open hand.
...... "Well, you'll have to show up at Center, sometime soon. Both to resume your duties at the Temple and to argue your case before the Council." Xyly stepped away from the counter, tugging her cloak more solidly up on her shoulders. "When do you propose to do that?" She pulled the hood over her head again, fussing with its exact placement.
...... "Whenever I can get a ship, I suppose," Misty allowed in a harsh tone. Her braid flopped over her shoulder, and she angrily shoved it out of the way. "We . . . Justin and I, are ready to move on now, I guess." She picked up the satchel, then put it down again. "There doesn't seem to be anything to hold us here any longer, after this, today."
...... From deep shadow beneath the dripping trees, a man moved across the puddle-strewn trail and eased up to the counter. "You can buy passage?" Willi asked. He paused for a long appraising look at Justin.
...... From beneath the counter, Misty brought out the cashbox and dumped its shiny contents in a noisy cascade across the plank. The feeble light from the other stalls cast bright reflections on the mound of polished silver coins. "At the moment, right now, I can buy a whole ship!"
...... Willi reached out, hesitated, then clasped both hands behind his back. "Renting was more what I had in mind," he offered in a husky voice, pausing to loudly clear his throat. "We . . . Lady Xyly and I, are on our way to Center. More or less! We merely stopped off here for the night. For some reason!" He quickly looked at Justin again, before turning to gesture extravagantly. "We'll . . . Lady Xyly and I, that is. My ship anyway will be leaving again in the morning. At daybreak. I think so!"
...... Misty only leaned on the counter, listening with a doubtful expression.
...... "It's a very comfortable vessel, well kept, nicely furnished, quite safe," Willi continued with his sales talk. "If you wish to buy passage for yourself and your, uh, friend, I'm sure some sort of arrangement can be made." He looked down at the jumbled mass of silver coins. "I've no doubt something suitable can be arranged!"
...... "I suppose so." Idly pushing at a few scattered coins, she scowled at the thick forest beyond the mudpuddles. "For me, Justin, our packhorse, and our tradegoods. All to Center!"
...... "No problem!" Willi assured, staring at the heap of silver. "No problem at all!"

chapter twelve CHAPTER THIRTEEN chapter fourteen

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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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