This is a prequel to The Ever Spirits and it’s due to come out December 2018.
Perhaps I should begin this by saying ‘Before I was a toy to the spirits…’
But when have I not been their toy?
The vendor eyed me as if he knew a secret.
Silver-haired like all Deminians, he hovered in the shrouded shadows of his stall, surrounded by brightly polished blades, feathered helms and slim gauntlets that glimmered on display. They hung from nails on the wooden walls around him, their metal winking like steel demons. On the counter between us lay leather gloves, metal bands, and curved daggers.
A warrior’s paradise, not a place for a simple Ilinian farm girl used to hoeing dirt, and yet I had stopped here, in this sunlit but silent corner of the crowded market where Deminians murmured and rustled their way behind me.
Their perfumes swirled around my senses, one woman exuding the sweet fragrance of cloves, another the tangy scent of apple pie; a man beyond her brought heavenly sugar and vanilla, and the man beyond him the fresh scents of basilica and thyme.
Those perfumes proved a feast of sensation, clouding the air and flavoring my every breath, one of the reasons I loved that Papa always brought me on his monthly trip to the Demin markets to sell his crops.
Today, though, my sixteenth birthday, I’d begged for freedom from peddling at our stall.
Papa had set me loose with a softened smile, even his customary stern warning less astringent than usual. Rather than cursing all Deminians and advising me to punch one in the gut sooner than get involved with one, he said merely, “You’re a woman now, Alynah, and you know the rule; don’t interact beyond what’s necessary.” Then he’d loosed me like a bird so I could rove the market as I would, and I had.
I’d chased the trail of gold and scarlet silks, the shiny slips that beckoned from ribbon-sellers’ stands. I’d followed the teasing traces of hot caramel and crisp apples to stalls where caramel-doused apples gleamed next to glazed honey cakes under sparkling domes of glass. Grinning bakers sold the treats to little silver-haired children alongside sugar-spinners whose confections sparkled in pink clouds.
Not that I could purchase anything. The aromas, though, transported me to a future where I might walk here side by side with my husband—whoever he might be—and he would purchase me sweets with an indulgent smile and a sweet kiss. Whatever you’d like, my love.
Perhaps it was a boring dream.
Perhaps that was why the inexplicable enticement of this stand had captured me away from that daydream and drawn me here instead.
To the unassuming dagger next to a line of ornate sword hilts.
The dagger didn’t belong here, just as I didn’t: the farm girl in trousers, short tunic, muddied boots and copper hair. I didn’t even truly belong in this rich crowd of Deminians in their quality leathers and vibrant indigo- and lemon-hued surcoats. They shone like gemstones on the dirty cobblestone street while I blended in with it, a backdrop to their jeweled splendor.
The dagger blade wasn’t much to look at, either. It had dimmed from someone’s disregard, the glow of the few sapphires embedded in its faded golden hilt subdued, like a woman lowering her voice and whispering, whispering until I heard them: otherworldly murmurs gathered in the air, intensifying, mixing…
No. My imagination played tricks on me.
But something knotted up my frivolous mood and imbued me with tension I could not explain. It settled in my belly, heavy and unwelcome.
But I could not step away from the dagger.
The vendor cocked his head to the side, surveying me and my extended silence. “That dagger saved our overlord’s wife from a betrayer close to her heart, you know.”
His preposterous words set me on firmer ground.
“Your overlord’s wife?” I scoffed. “I highly doubt that.” A dagger of such reputation, one that the queen of Demin had wielded in her hand in her husband’s royal palace, ending up here in this paltry monthly market on the border of Demin and Ilinia?
“You wonder how it got here, do you not?” The vendor stroked his neatly cropped gray beard, his dark eyes lively in a broad, even-featured face too young for his silver hair.
I crossed my arms, unimpressed with his mindreading. Vendors, after all, studied the tricks of their trade from birth and learned how to extrapolate their buyers’ desires through shifts of lips and eyelids, through quick movements of fingers and the altering of stances.
For him, skepticism rode in every line of my crossed arms, my tilted head, and my half-smirking mouth.
Not that I understood why he’d waste his time lying to an Ilinian girl. The warrior perusing the swords on the other side of the stand probably provided a greater chance of a sale than a foreign girl whose Papa had left her no money.
But the salesman merely cocked his head to the other side like a bird, his eyes bright, his not-quite-smile making him seem shrewd. “Why would our queen keep it? Would you keep a blade that had killed a betrayer you loved? A blade that slew your own family? Or your lover?”
“I’ve never heard such a tale.” And I’d listened to them all. The nobility of Demin fascinated every Ilinian. The intrigues and often vicious fighting between the sons of royal families, all taught swordplay because Deminians were a hard nation, and not even birth in a royal palace exempted them from learning to fight and fight well.
The vendor’s grin broadened under his perky beard. “Have you a spare moment to listen?”
“Perhaps.” It sounded coy. For a moment, it made me feel mature. I touched my finger to the velvet lining of his display table, concentrating for a moment on the customers streaming past behind me, their voices a muted rumble through the backs of my shoulders. They each brushed a new scent over my senses: mint, sage, rosemary, the fertile scent of various plants distilled into fragrance.
I had no wish to come across as coy, though. I straightened and pulled my hand away, my tone brisk now, brooking no argument. “But time is of no essence, for I’ve not coin to spare anyway. And I’m certain that such a dagger would be far beyond the means of an Ilinian farm girl.”
“The dagger is not for sale.”
“Then why waste time on—”
“It is a gift.” The vendor bowed his head toward it. “Would you like it?”
It unbalanced me. “I couldn’t accept—”
“Perhaps you must.” This time his tone was coy, but simultaneously solemn, matching his too-correct posture. “This dagger has been searching for the next lady who will need its services for quite some time.”
I frowned at how he spoke of the dagger as sentient. It was some sort of trick, I thought, but I detected no hidden amusement in him, only alertness.
Unease slid along my spine. “That lady can’t be me.”
“I’m just a simple girl.”
“Are you?” His eyes flicked to my coppery hair where it streamed down my shoulders, shimmering like molten red gold where sunlight hit.
Left loose today for vanity’s sake because I was prone to flaunting my worthiest attribute, it usually made me feel lofty. More grownup.
Not to mention its unmatched vibrancy entranced so many it sometimes created the impression that I was a walking enchantress. Even travelers from abroad – Ilinians more than Deminians – would gawk while riding past on their horses. Warriors would do double-takes, one even staring so long he ran into his comrade’s horse while his friend was tethering him.
Supposedly only the Ilinian overlord and his daughter had hair of such a blazing-rich coppery red, but having met neither, I could hardly vouch with any certainty that mine matched theirs. Truth to tell, I knew next to naught of the royals, only unfounded rumors that meandered far to the south of the capital to my home village: reports of a cruel princess and her common-born, power-hungry lover; of the young queen, the overlord’s new wife, hoping for an heir to replace the overlord’s malicious only child; and of the overlord himself, obsessively in love with his queen and laying at her feet all the indulgences and extravagances that a lady desired.
Now this vendor eyed my hair as if that was the secret he knew, believing me an illicit Ilinian princess disguised as an ordinary Ilinian girl traipsing about this Deminian market.
Well, let him think it. I could preen as well as our cruel princess, for sure.
The warrior on the other side of the stand lifted a sword. “This one.”
The vendor held out his palm without dragging his gaze from me. “Five golds.”
“Five…?” The warrior muttered but dug his hand into his pouch. Coins clinked into the vendor’s hands.
The warrior swept past me—and stopped right at my back, his head bent so close to me I went still as a rat. His words came right near my shoulder. “That dagger is meant for a queen, girl. But don’t take its gift as a blessing. You could end up queen of a shit world.”
But the warrior was sinking into the mass of Deminians at my back, his cape sweeping around his body and taking him into thin air—into nothing.
No. I shook my head. It couldn’t be. It had been a trick of broad daylight, the sunrays in my eyes.
The vendor’s smile was strained, his hands once again empty of coin and folded politely over his slight belly, just above the leather belt over his brown tunic.
Where had he ensconced the five golds? Did Deminians wield ancient magic that hid coins in a fold of air?
Or could they weave an enchantment that allowed a colossal warrior to vanish in a crowd of passersby all a head shorter than him?
No. To spiral into thin air.
“There are few objects of magic left in our kingdom—” the vendor read my thoughts again “—but they are there, if one knows in which shadowed nooks to find them.”
“Like your shadowed nook?” I hoisted my copper brows at him, insolent even though my heart beat in my throat. That warrior couldn’t have simply vanished.
I twisted again, my eyes scanning the crowd and darting from face to face, but no broad shoulders rose above that swarm.
“See you any shadows here?” The vendor gestured to his stand.
“Perhaps the shadows of a salesman’s deceit?” My tone was tart and my belligerence got me a twitch of his lips under his beard, something that might almost have been a smile.
He bowed his head, either to hide the smirk or to acknowledge my feisty jibe. “True. Aside from my wiles, no shadows lurk here. Not even in your eyes.”
The word hung so thick on the air, I could swear he’d spoken it although his mouth remained straight.
Foolish ideas. I’d had enough.
The day was bright and I was frittering it away playing word games with this illusionist.
But when I tried to step away, my feet wouldn’t move a single step, my boots rooted to the dirty cobblestones. The garbled words of the throng streamed past as if from a great distance now, the vague hammering of the smithy hardly ringing above the muted thrum of hundreds of voices, and through the air thickening around me, I barely smelled the scents of hot caramel mingling with the liquid iron of the forge. It felt like it was all fading away.
“What magic have you cast over me?” I whispered. Elbows no longer knocked into me, as if their owners had been slashed off by some magic that trapped me with the vendor in this cut-off pocket of the world.
The vendor’s eyes shone. He hunkered forward, gripping the counter displaying his wares. “No one has noticed that dagger for eight years. I’ve traveled to every corner of Demin, and not one of my countrywomen has taken a second glance. But you, a girl not even looking its way, suddenly veered aside and stopped in front of it, attention riveted. You tell me which magic is at work.”
“I have no money to spend.”
“The cost of this dagger is not money.”
“The cost is a life.”
“Then I definitely don’t want it!” But my feet remained rooted.
“It’s not your life it will cost.”
“That’s supposed to make it more acceptable? I’m not killing anyone for—”
“The price will come later. As it did for our queen when she plunged it into her own brother’s heart. Who will betray you, I wonder? A father, a mother, a brother, a friend? A lover?”
I wrenched at my feet again. “Let me go!”
“That’s your own fate holding you, not me.” He stepped back and raised his hands. His empty palms faced me, bearing tattoos there of ever-watching eyes. “Take it and you’ll be free.”
“Let me go!”
“Take it!” he hissed. “Take it!”
The eyes on his palms were glowing, shining like some demon within.
Magic tingled from my fingertips: tiny lightning bolts sparked between them and the dagger, visible even in daylight.
The dagger slid closer and my fingers closed over the handle. Shocking rightness jolted through me.
My feet loosened, the hook the cobblestones had on them shaken free. My muscles relaxed, relief sinking through my body. My grip convulsed more tightly on the dagger.
The vendor lowered his hands, his form slumping, too. “Take it.” He sounded exhausted, his head hanging. “And know it cannot cut you. Even if an enemy steals it and turns it on you, the slash will slice them instead.”
The portent of what had happened trembled through me, unreal and yet more substantial than anything that had gone before. The crowded market dwelt so far away from this bubble of mystery that I couldn’t fathom how moments before I had belonged to that same normalcy.
“The dagger cannot be turned against you. Anyone that tries will find it will cut their own flesh.”
I stared at it resting in my hand, its weight lighter than I’d expected. As I watched, its dullness seemed to wash clean with water before my very eyes, leaving its silver blade gleaming like the Deminians’ pure silver hair, and the hilt: the sapphires embedded there danced in beds of brightening gold. The weapon became something fit for kings and royalty… not for a farm girl’s grubby grip, the dirt under my nails incongruous with the extravagant craftsmanship.
“I will wake and this will be a dream,” I murmured.
“You can hope.” The vendor rubbed his eyelids. “But that dagger brings fate, not dreams.”
“I just want a simple life like my papa.”
The vendor lowered his hand and looked away. “Perhaps you will get it.”
His sudden loss of aura unsettled me – the slithery salesman now almost apologetic, as if he’d stepped into things beyond his comfort.
“The tattoos.” I gestured. “Where did you get them?”
His eyebrows scrunched together. “Tattoos?”
“On your palms.”
His eyebrows shot up to his hairline and he tilted his hands up.
Showing his un-tattooed palms.
He stretched them out to me, frowning. “What tattoos?”
“They were there.”
“What was there?”
“Eyes. You had eyes tattooed there, watching me take up the dagger.”
He curled his fingertips inward and drew his hands away. “The spirits are watching you.”
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