by Pauline West
The floating market was always busy, but on harvest days, the enormous crowds made it easier for Isela to slip undetected among the commoners. She wore her cloak with its hood drawn low over her long, sculpted snout. Only her shining eyes were visible inside it. But her graceful walk attracted attention, as did the menacing Gilahawk perched on her shoulder. It had a red silk vine strung round its neck. Isela held the end of the leash loosely in one hand, but the beast clearly was not tame, and would savagely attack anyone who menaced her.
Isela loved the market. Especially at this time of morning, when moons still hung gleaming in the raw, early sky—it reminded Isela of her youth, and the mornings before her family would undertake a long journey. They had always visited the market first for provisions. Her father taught her how to handle herself in the dangerous crowd. “A crowd is an organism,” he’d told her once; “its members like so many cells. Each cell responds to changes in the collective whole, and you can read these shifts, Isela, as clearly as the Countess reads the cards.”
Rogues, traders, and thieves streamed past her while giant lifters, filled with the bounty of the Phyronisian fields, jostled invitingly just outside the banks of the crowd. Thieves admired her thick cloak, noticed her Gilahawk, and moved on. A group of young thugs were haggling lazily with a shopkeeper over the price of slings. It was a warm, tropical morning, and everyone seemed placid and relaxed, except for the fresh-skinned hatchlings who clung terrified to their lumbering mothers as they shopped.
Suddenly Isela felt discord ripple over the crowd: something was wrong. Something was coming. For her. All this time her right hand had rested over her dagger in its sheath; now she turned calmly to face her aggressor.
He was splitting through the crowd even as she turned. He was skilled in veiling his thoughts, but even so she could read his motions before he made them. He was a young junkie, strung out on zuulite. As he leaped toward her, Isela saw that he was so crazed he’d not even noticed her Gilahawk.
He flung himself at her, his thin jaws open wide, and flew... directly onto Isela’s waiting blade. She turned it inside him, unlocking the weave of his scales. Blood ran down her dagger as he tore himself away, screaming. His tongue was grey, covered with broken abscesses, his eyes rolling in his head as he staggered back. The crowd moved back thickly and stared.
Isela followed him, neatly slicing him again. Her cloak fell back, revealing her face. The crowd began to whisper, and the Gilahawk tensed on her shoulder. She soothed it.
“Stay,” she said. “He is done.”
The junkie pressed his wound, hissing at her. “I isssn’t done,” he said. “I iss just begun.”
Isela calmly wiped her blade and sheathed it. “I think not,” she said. He tried to lunge at her again, but fell to the sand.
“So cold,” he said, and lay his head down. Blood spread around him like unfolding wings; he watched her wonderingly as she stood there, waiting for him to die. The well-fed members of the crowd swept away, but the hungrier ones stood waiting to see if she would leave his body.
She did. They closed over it quickly, and the sounds of briskly ripping flesh and snapping bones overtook the quiet hum of the market.
Trace elements of the zuu would pass into his devourers, along with his flesh and skin, but this could not be helped. The substance was so expensive it would be difficult for any of them to form an addiction. She smoothly pulled up her hood, wondering how he’d been able to support his habit. Zuulite crystals were a valuable commodity, even among the wealthy. They were a main form of energy among her people, far too precious to be wasted by consuming them for recreation. Although the high must feel tremendous...
“A treat for your lazy bird, Countess,” said a familiar voice from the crowd.
She smiled and stroked the Gilahawk, which preened under her touch. “He isn’t lazy, only spoiled, Collison,” she said.
Collison was perched among his wares on a small lifter; surrounded as he was by silk vines and buttery skins, his shop was among the priciest in all the market. It would have been folly for the old Phyrnosian to operate alone, so he had six Gilahawks perched around the lip of the stall, each one watching the crowd warily. They were large creatures with beaks sharp enough to take off your hand, and toxic venom that would then cost you your entire arm, too. His Gilahawks clicked to Isela’s, which only stretched its leather wings in response.
“He thinks he’s a hatchling,” she whispered to Collison. “He’s practically harmless.”
“Gentle gods, girl, it’s a good thing you saw the devil coming.” Collison shook his head. “These are dark times. Everyone running out of fuel, and yet the young ones are pirating crystal to stick under their tongues? It isn’t safe for you to be here alone, Isela. Does Raptor know?”
She gave him a crooked smile and shrugged. “What he doesn’t know won’t hurt him.”
“It’s just as well, I suppose. He doesn’t care for me, after all.” Collison began rooting under a heap of Krystac skins. “I saved something for you, girl.”
“You know, I haven’t been a girl for some moons now,” she said.
“Ah, you’ll always be Greithing’s little one to me, Isela. Look at this!” He held out his palm for her to see. Something gleamed against his dull, cracked scales—she stepped closer. It was a tiny oblong nugget, the color of honey. She picked it up carefully and held it up to the light. Her Gilahawk strained to see, clicking its beak interestedly.
“This isn’t for you, you ridiculous beast,” she said. “It’s a jewel.”
“It’s called amber,” Collison said. “Look closely.”
A crumpled form was frozen inside, its thin legs bent at strange angles. “What is that?” she said, wondrously.
“They called it a spider. Spiders lived on earth, thousands of years ago, feeding on the flying insects of their fields. Amber bled down from the trees. It was a sticky substance when fresh, and sometimes it would trap a hapless insect. If the weather was just right, it would fossilize, preserving the bug forever.”
“Bug?” she said, tasting the word.
“Spider, bug, it’s all the same. They were not unlike the Insects in our own deserts,” he said. He was a little embarrassed to have gone on so, and now he busied himself shuffling his wares.
“I love it!” she said. She kissed his dry cheek. “Thank you, Collison. I’ll keep it safe. Someday, you know, I’d like to find a way to present these things to the public. They are things others should have the chance to see.”
“That can never happen,” he said, somberly, as she fished in her purse. “You could be executed, Isela. Greithing or no.”
She paid him with a few slivers of Gemicene. Collison shook his head. “I cannot accept this, Isela. It is too much.”
She closed his hand around the pearlescent stones. “For the risks you take for me, Collison. You are a dear friend.” She looked up at the sky. “It is late. I must go.”
“Be well!” he cried. He watched her wash away into the crowd. It was a pity Raptor was to have her, he thought. She was a rare soul. Theirs would be a sad house. He couldn’t picture Isela settling down to raise hatchlings. But then again, he thought, brightening--perhaps Raptor would be killed in combat and she could live freely. One could hope.
“A pretty for your lovely, my good dear?” he cried, to a passing pair. A mother and daughter stopped to coo over his silk vines.
“These are the prettiest I’ve seen,” the elder said admiringly, feeling one against her leathery cheek.
“Please, mama?” the daughter said. Collison smiled at the girl. Her horns were long and thin. She was no Isela, but she was a beauty. “They do bring out the lights in your teeth, my dear,” he said. The mother grinned proudly, and went for her purse. Collison helped the girl choose a vine as a rowdy line began to form behind her. Today was going to be a very good day, he thought. Maybe he’d take the rest of the month off, sail into the desert, take the Gilahawks hunting. Good things always happened in the desert.
Isela strolled through the crowd, longing to take out the lump of amber and peek at it again. She’d never seen anything so lovely. She could have it fashioned into a locket, perhaps, or placed as a centerpiece in a headband…but of course Raptor would never stand for such a thing. She sighed, knowing the gem would have to be hidden behind her bookcase with the rest of her treasures from Earth.
She drifted between stalls. It was late now, and she knew she ought to leave, but … what was she going to do at home? Putter about and daydream? She preferred to be out in the hustle and flow of the dusty market, part of what was happening.
A sly-faced runt sidled up beside her. She glanced at him, reading him in a heartbeat: conniving and heartless. He tugged unnecessarily on her cloak, and she drew back with irritation.
“My lady,” he said, “we have lovelinesses for you, such lovelies as you’ve never seen…such things as to be found nowhere on Phyrnos.”
“I need nothing, thank you,” she said.
“Lady, wait!” He put his face close to hers, so that the Gilahawk puffed up and hissed.
“Down,” she said to her pet.
The runt persisted. “We have ladies in thrall,” he said. “Human ladies. Come. You will not be… disappointed.”
She hid her distaste. “Where? Take me to them,” she said. Slavery was punishable by death under the Treaties; she would expose the sellers. She couldn’t believe he’d taken the risk of approaching her. He flicked his tongue with satisfaction and turned quickly, not waiting for her to follow. He darted through the crowd so swiftly she nearly could not keep up. He led her away from the heart of the market, towards darker stalls; more shiftless traders. And Isela Greithing began to wonder if she had made a mistake.
He came to a stop before a group of soldiers milling in front of a small, dirty tent. “Let her in,” he said sharply. With a bow to Isela, he dissolved back toward the main market to scout for other buyers.
One of the soldiers was taking his ease in a jewelled sling. He looked Isela up and down. A slow smile prickled over his thick teeth. “I know you,” he said.
“Yes. Let me pass.”
He nodded, and drew the dirty curtain. “As you wish… my lady.”
With a thinly veiled shiver, she stepped inside. It took a moment for her eyes to adjust, but the Gilahawk understood its surroundings immediately. It screamed, and jumped from Isela’s shoulder… into waiting claws. Another pair covered Isela’s face and wrists. “Don’t kick,” a voice said. “We mean you no harm.” There was a beating of wings, and then the flap of heavy fabric. “We will return your hawk at the door. There are no weapons allowed within these walls, gracious lady.” The speaker stepped back, releasing her. He was a soldier, handsome, with a tired, steady gaze. Isela was very still. A guard just behind the interior flap of the tent stood by, holding her hawk gently in a heavy sack.
She nodded, and let the soldier escort her within. Raptor was a commander. Did he know the military was involved in the slave trade?
Very probably. And it was just as likely that he didn’t care.
The acrid stink of illness, urine and unwashed skin hit Isela in a nauseating wave. The soldier took her arm and escorted her quickly past clumps of thin, dirty people, who watched the Phyrnosians pass with terror. The people looked extraordinarily vulnerable to Isela. She had read about human beings but had only seen three or four. Sometimes human ambassadors came to Phyrnos, but rarely to her city, Phayara. Even then she’d seen them only from afar. They were always dressed resplendently, and seemed brave and clean. These people were huddled against each other like broken animals.
“These ones are sick,” the soldier muttered. “There’s some better ones up ahead.” She followed him numbly. The tent was turning out to be a series of tents which wound in on themselves in a large spiral formation. The nugget of amber jingled with the Gemicene in her pouch; such riches seemed ridiculous now. To see the people of a great race fallen so low, reduced to vermin… a male Phyronisian passed them in the narrow hall, three small shrouded figures behind him. Slaves. He averted his gaze, nodded to the soldier.
The walls began to brighten. After a few steps more, they had stepped again into the sun. The circle of tents surrounded a small, scrupulously clean courtyard, where beautifully made up people stood on colorful pedestals in the blowing red dust. Isela caught her breath, and the soldier smiled shyly. “This is more what you had in mind, eh?”
He released her, and she wandered slowly from face to face. There were beautiful men who must have been soldiers themselves. Their skin looked impossibly soft and smooth. They were naked from the waist up, and she peered closely to see the strange hair on their chests.
The men flinched, but held fast. An overseer sauntered over. “Best slaves in Phayara, right here,” he said. “Make your household run like a clockwork dream. Hubby will love it. Want to touch one? Go ahead. He won’t bite…” he growled at the man, who shrunk back. “But I will. As this bugger well knows. He’s spirited, miss, but strong as hell.”
“That’s… not necessary, thank you.” Isela hurried on. She’d thought that somehow she might have been able to free these slaves, to end this travesty, but if the military were behind all this… what had she carried herself into?
Now she stood among women. They were more beautiful than the men. Their supple, oiled bodies gleamed in the light, and their long hair swung in the breeze like plumage. There were inky blacks and lovely russets, and even a few girls with hair the color of gold.
At the very farthest end of the line stood a sulky young girl with snapping eyes and brilliant red hair, cut on a slope with her jaw. She glared at Isela.
“Go away,” she said.
Isela held out her hands plaintively, knowing how she must look to the small, frightened girl. “I don’t want to hurt you,” she said. “I’m here to help.”
“Yeah? That’s a likely story.”
“No… it’s true, I am. It is an accident I even found this place. Slavery is a terrible, terrible thing.” Isela looked down. “There are many of us here who think so. Let me do what I can to help you.”
The girl sat on her pedestal, kicking her heels against it. She looked directly into Isela’s eyes. “Why? You don’t even know me.”
“Because everyone loves to be free,” Isela said. “What is happening here is wrong. But you must act naturally, as if I were buying you for ordinary purposes, so we do not attract attention.”
“Why should I believe you? And I don’t need you to help me, you know. I can get out of here all by myself, when I’m ready to.”
Isela furtively dug in her purse, and brought out the amber stone. “I’m sure you can. But I am… something of an amateur historian. I love everything about your world.” She pled with her eyes. “Please let me help you. It would mean a great deal to me.”
The girl whisked the stone out of Isela’s hands, and sat looking at it. Its reflection glowed in her eyes. “Wow,” she said. She looked up. “Wow,” she said again.
Isela smiled, cocking her head. “Sir?” she called. “I’ll take this one.”
The salesman ran over, beaming. “Excellent choice, madam. You’ve got lovely taste. I’ll get her all bagged up.”
“Oh! That’s not necessary. She can walk. We will need raiment for her, of course…”
He bowed deeply. “Right away, madam.”
Isela sighed and helped the girl down. In a moment he’d brought over a blue-black shroud that covered the girl to her toes. A thin strip of netting across the front of the garment allowed her to see, but scarcely.
The soldier led them back through the tents. Isela hurried the girl past the sick people near the front, but she felt the child stiffen there regardless. She only hoped that they were all strangers to her. Once at the front, they gave Isela her back her Gilahawk. She asked one of the soldiers to call them a buggy. It would be better to be driven than to walk home; they would attract far less attention. The girl could lie across her lap. From a distance she might look like a rug.
“What is your name, girl?” she asked her, distractedly, her hand resting lightly on the girl’s shoulder. She was afraid the little thing would try to slip away. That would end badly on hungry Phyrnos.
“I am Cat Starless,” the girl said proudly. “I am ten.”
“That’s a lovely name. My name is Isela Greithing. I’m glad we’ve found each other.”
They shook hands gingerly through the girl’s shroud. The buggy rolled up. As was becoming increasingly common, it was drawn by giant furry Evoks, which were less expensive than fuel. The fat soldier who had recognized Isela helped them into the tall buggy. As Isela stepped away from him, he leered. “Shall I tell Raptor we spoke, miss?”
“If it pleases you, Abtin,” she said, coldly.
“He’ll be delighted, I’m sure."
“Driver!” With a crack, they tore away from that place. Isela memorized it in her mind, but she knew that by morning it would have disappeared without a trace. She felt how thin the girl was against her. “Hungry?” she said.
“Don’t worry, little one. You will have plenty to eat soon, and whatever else you desire.”
The Gilahawk chirruped jealously. “And you too, my dear,” she said, chucking it under the chin.
Isela was surprised to find, as the buggy descended outside her home, that she was exhausted. She paid the driver and picked up Starless, who weighed next to nothing for Isela. The little girl was even more tired than she was. She unlocked her door with her palm print and stepped inside the rich green silence of her house, which was something of an arboretum. Isela loved plants. Starless immediately ripped off the shroud. “I’m free!” she cried.
Isela laughed. “Not quite, but nearly. You still must be very careful, Starless. Even just outside my door something terrible could befall you on Phyrnos. I’m afraid we live in a dangerous country. Here. Let me fix you something to eat.”
She busied herself in the kitchen while the girl watched, wide-eyed. It was incredible how much she could put away. She ate two salads and half a Krystac. The Gilahawk inhaled the rest, spraying giblets all over the countertop.
The girl watched, entertained, but obviously growing sleepy.
“Would you like a story?” Isela said. She knew that was something people did. Starless nodded. Isela carried her into the sitting room where she built up a fire. The room was filled with plants, and, having heard Isela’s steps, a large sitting cushion had already unfurled its leaves so it could seat both Isela and the girl together. With Starless situated on her lap, Isela cracked open a very old and gilded book, one of her favorites.
She read the familiar opening line with pleasure: “Squire Trelawney, Dr. Livesey, and the rest of these gentlemen having asked me to write down the whole particulars about Treasure Island.” The girl dozed off, but Isela continued to read on, spinning them into a very different world, filled with the rushing of the sea, with glinting cutlasses, wild men and buried treasures. She was so engrossed she didn’t hear the door slide open. By the time she heard Raptor’s footsteps it was too late. She shook the girl awake, covering her mouth. “Starless,” she said, “you must be very quiet. You must be silent, do you understand? Hide here until I come for you.” She gave the girl the book and closed her up inside the obliging sitting cushion, which sealed around Starless like an enormous bud. It folded back up against the wall with the girl curled breathlessly inside it.
“Love?” Isela called. “Are you home?”
He appeared around the corner, swollen with rage and glaring. She pretended not to notice. “I—I wasn’t expecting you.”
“So you decided to bring a skinbag into my house!” he roared in her face, his breath so hot it stung. “I had to hear about it from my men—you have shamed me, Isela!” He swept his hands around the room, indicating all their finery. “I provide you with—this—with everything you ask for! The things your proud family,” he spat, “can no longer afford to provide. This is how you repay me? You go behind my back and purchase little vermin. Illegal little vermin,” he drew out the word. “Where is it? I’m going to eat it.”
“Gentle gods, Raptor, have a heart,” she said. “It won’t happen again, I’ll get rid of her this instant.”
“Thank you, Isela, no, I’ll get rid of her myself. Two snaps and she’s finished.”
“Please, darling. Surely there’s… something I can do?”
It took a moment for him to understand. His face unknotted as he considered her proposition. Although they had been betrothed since before they were born, they did not yet live together, and Raptor had not consummated his possession of Isela. The highborn of Phyrnos mated only on ultimate solstice, which happened only every five years, when all the moons were equally high in the sky.
“Now,” he said.
“Let me send her away first, Raptor,” Isela said, firmly.
He roared again, but she stood fast before him. She had seen his tantrums before and knew he would not harm her. He relented. “You have two minutes,” he said. He began to lumber up the spiraling staircase, headed for her bedroom, which was the warmest in the house. She trembled and then ran for Starless. The girl had fallen asleep again. Claws shaking, Isela dialed the screen. It was several beats before her friend picked up. He looked preoccupied and tired.
“Collison?” she said, desperately.
“Isela! What’s wrong, girl?” The noise of the marketplace furred his voice; he was difficult to hear.
“I need your help, Joh,” she said. She never called him by his first name.
“Come to my house as quickly as you can. There will be a bundle outside. Help her--” Isela’s voice caught. “Get her to safety, any way you can. She belongs with her people, Joh.”
He was already covering up his wares for the flight. “I’m on my way,” he said.
She packed the girl a bag, filling it with food, water, and a pouch of coin. Then she shook her awake while bundling her back up in the cloth. “Starless,” she said, urgently. “My friend is going to take you to safety. You must wait on my doorstep for him. I cannot stay with you. Do not move from my doorstep, do you understand?”
The girl nodded, confused. “You’re my friend, right, Isela?” she said.
“Oh sweetheart. I am. I truly am.” Isela carried her outside and helped her to her doorstep. She hugged her tightly. She was pleased to notice that the girl was still clutching Treasure Island. She tapped its cover. “Be resourceful.”
The girl shrugged. “Yeah. Okay.”
Crouched outside on her doorstep, Isela heard Raptor roaring from her bedroom. He was rattling the glass in the windows. “I have to go. I will look for you, Cat Starless!” Someone was coming. She prayed that it was Collison. She ran inside, and sped up the stairs to Raptor, her Gilahawk fluttering worriedly up after her. She placed him gently on the balcony outside the door. “I’m afraid you can’t help me now, my little friend,” she said.
It chirruped sadly.
Starless sat outside, staring up at the sun, clenching the book the alien had given her. This Phyrnosian looked just like all the others, but it had been kind to her. Made her food, and fed her stories.
Sometimes things were not what they seemed, but it was always impossible to tell until it was too late to matter, she mused. Things would be better when she were older. Meantime, she would work to make herself stronger, and faster, too, so no one could tell her what to do. She squinted at the sky, and waited for hands to carry her away.
The old shopkeeper pressed his lifter faster and faster, hoping it wouldn’t break down. “Hold on, girl,” he thought. “Just hold on.”