In Serein

2-7-3 Pertineri Market

Chay Catena speaks.

Trying to speak to the Duke of Solland was grating sand between your teeth. He was so – ah, he just had no sense of humour at all. Frankly, the Lord Tremain is more of a laugh himself!

Man, that’s saying something, what.

The Lord of Darkness is more fun than the Duke of Solland.

I do the best I can to keep it going, and finally I find a connection. He, too, has lost someone to Trant that was as near to him as Ty was to me and I wonder if I would have turned this dour and bitter if she hadn’t been there when it happened to me.

Then, she called me.

At last.

I know she has this weird thing going on with Lord Tremain, but I damned well know she likes me, too. And I don’t care if she is a witch or what she is, she is also a woman. I know she is. I can see her lips parting and her nostrils flaring when I’m around. And I haven’t given up on making her mine. Give me a bit more time, highborn ladies and gentlemen all. Sometimes a city wall takes a few attempts to finally surrender!

She speaks into my mind and I actually like that. I like her. I like her touch in my head. She does it carefully and gently and tells me to go into that walkway and make sure no-one sees me.

Now this is getting exciting! A secret meeting, no less!

I am grinning to myself and it’s a hell of a relief to make my excuses to the Lord of Solland and to get out of there as fast as possible.

I shoot out of the door and damn, I can’t find my way around. It all looks the same to me, there must be miles and miles of corridors and doors in this maze. I try a few turns and corridors and then I give up and try and call her back. I make a picture of her face – hmmm, I remember a time when we used to play at sword fighting, before she gave me that farewell present of all farewell presents, she was leaning against the stable wall, in the shadow, breathing heavily, moist with clear sweat, and …

She hears me and I swear there is a touch of excitement there as well as her usual amusement when I’ve done something foolish, well what she considers foolish, but see if I care. I don’t think she, or any other woman for that matter, actually dislike it when you make mistakes. I got this idea that it makes them feel more fondly for you and that, as they say, is a good step in the right direction.

She gives me directions and it’s like she is in my head the whole time I find my way to that wide walkway with all those sparkling candle holders on the walls.

Next thing I know, there’s a huge crunch in my head and I’m standing – damn it, in her bedroom, would you believe! And there is this red haired woman, a servant or something, and she turns around and it is her!

She laughs at me and my surprise and tells me she wants to go to market and not be recognised, do I like the hair, the dress? Am I fooled by her appearance?

I look at her carefully then. Her hair is a bright strawberry red, thick and curly, unbound. She is wearing what would be a serving girl’s best – a plain grey dress, not low cut enough for my liking but quite nice, you can just see the beginnings of her breasts.

But you know, I say to her, I would know you anywhere, by your eyes and your face, and she stops smiling and looks down at her hands. I wonder what happened to that ruby she used to have. You could have bought yourself an entire public house with that. I guess I’ve got to be a bit more subtle, a bit more careful and not spook her.

I make a joke and say that she looks so much like a serving wench, she’ll get offers for indentures right off the street and it breaks the ice and she smiles at me again.

Chay, she says, you’ve got to get out of that uniform. It will attract too much attention. There’s some clothes in the wardrobe there, pick something plain and I’ll change it to fit you.

I am never quite sure if she’s reading my mind but I really can’t help but think that she is giving me a great big come on here. She gets me in her bedroom, now she’s getting my clothes off. There’s something going on here for sure, even if she’s not ready to admit it to herself yet. I take off the jacket Lord Tremain got for me to make a nice entrance for the fight and shake my head. What is it with the womenfolk? They should stop trying to make out they’re so unavailable and just go with it. They damn well want to.

She damn well wants to.

She’s watching me getting undressed and I make it nice and slow but not too slow that she’ll catch on and get the barriers back up.

I guess I pushed it a little, either with thought or action, but she stops me and says, actually, Chay, just the jacket off is alright. You look fine like that and it’s a warm enough day.

Half of the lady wants me like crazy and the other half is fighting it.

Well let’s take it nice and easy and carefully smuggle some ammunition to the side of that war I want to become the winning side. Softly and steadily does it. I made a big mistake with her when I jumped her back at Headman’s Acre, but damn, I been going mad for her, waiting for her, a whole year wanting the same woman, now what is that?

She asks me about Dory and I tell her that we parted company because she wanted to get married and I did not want to leave Headman’s Acre and live on some dirt farm. She left in a huff and next thing I know, she’s wed her second cousin and is expecting again.

She is a bit surprised by this and asks me if I’m not concerned with the child at all. I shrug and say nothing. Hopefully, somewhere along the line someone will give me some pay as well as a pretty title and a good looking uniform and I’ll send it to Dory. She can buy a dress for the girl.

I tell her that Pertineri is a pretty big place. Where do you want to go?

Have you been here before, she asks, surprised. I guess she takes me for a complete country grunt and I tell her a bit about when Ty and I first met up, which was right here at a hiring fair. He had come from the Sea Kingdom and me from the Westlands. We met up and we went to the soldiers together because they gave you a gold crown. Man, did we get drunk!

She laughs and listens with delight and for a moment there, I think that she is the only one who knows of Ty now apart from myself. That is still there, you know. I still miss him but I know if he was here, he’d just grin and tell me to go for it, man! I don’t know if she catches that from me but she half smiles and asks me if we should walk or go on horseback.

It is a big place. I ask her how much time we can spend and really, I’m wanting to know when Tremain expects her back. She says that we have till nightfall so I suggest we look at some of the buildings, the avenue of statues and so forth, the slave market which is always great fun, and then the main market on horseback first and then she can choose what she wants to do.

She claps her hands and nods and leads the way out of the room, down some stairs and when we get outside, there are two nice little horses standing in the yard, one golden brown and the other a darker brown with nothing like the ostentatious saddles and tack she and her Lord usually prefer.

I go to help her up but she does it by herself, adjusts the stirrups and ignores me. Fair enough. I take the dark brown which is really quite racy and perfectly trained, very responsive, and we set off towards the fallen wall. I keep back a bit and watch her and can’t help but wanting to be the saddle clenched firmly between her legs. She turns around and laughs at me but tells me too to keep a grip on myself and starts talking about the city, asking me questions, keeping my mind off other things, it seems.

It doesn’t work. I talk with my lips but my eyes are on her slim hands on the reins, on her neck, on her mouth.

There is something different about her again and I can’t put my finger on what it is. She has changed since last I saw her at Headman’s Acre.

There, she was all full of virtue and Lord Tremain this and Lord Tremain that. She was all cool and collected and more or less impervious to my advances. It’s different here, today. I set to wondering what might have made that change. Perhaps she was getting tired of him? I grinned as I considered how marriage seemed to do that to a lady, just as it did that to a man. You get to think of what else might be out there, what you might be missing out on. Well I don’t want to blow my own trumpet – haha! – but it must be said that I’ve never had any complaints in that department.

“Do you ever think about anything else, Chay Catena?” she asks me with an exasperated undertone as we cross the parade road and turn left so I can show her the Avenue of Statues which leads directly to the most famed buildings of Pertineri and the great plaza where every day is market day unless there’s a state festival.

“I don’t know, my lady,” I answer her and go for honesty. “It seems very hard today, more so than usual.”

She flashes me a quick glance that makes my pulse go faster and the motion of the horse beneath me get to feel dangerously pleasant. I’ve got to make an effort to control myself here or else she’ll spook and run. Concentrate, Chay. Tell her a joke, pretend she’s just a serving girl I’m taking out on the town for a good time.

Soon, there’s the first of the great statues of the kings and heroes of old, and they’re really something. They make you feel like you were a small kid in comparison. They are huge, some standing, some sitting, all made of white stone and with bits here and there gold leafed which shines like lamps this day so you can hardly look at them.

She is delighted and looks here, there, everywhere. She points and laughs and now and then, our legs brush against each other as the horses slowly pick their way through the traffic of people on foot, with handcarts, coaches and loaded wagons of one kind and another. In the gaps between the statues there are street traders, jugglers, story tellers and their audiences.

Oh Chay, she says, I want to stop everywhere, see everything.

Damn she is beautiful even with that weird disguise of that curly red hair. And it isn’t her face so much, it’s her inside lighting it up. I shake my head. Careful old son, I say to myself. We don’t want to be going back to those damn nights last winter when she was all you could think of.

To take my mind off her, I start looking around to note other women. This city sure is full of them. They are everywhere and the warm spring morning has them reveal their arms and necks, no woolly scarves and cloaks amongst the young ones this day. I see one, a blonde, high stepping it, hip swinging it, and her breasts bouncing. I purse my lips and the Lady Isca follows my glance and says, “Have you ever been in love?”

“Ah, my lady,” I say, “I fall in love a dozen times, every day!” and she laughs in delight at me.

When we get in line for the bottleneck of the great arc that separates the Avenues of Statues from the main plaza and slowly shuffle forward, she stands up in her stirrups and points excitedly to the right.

“There! The Guildmaster’s house! Let’s go there first! We have an errand!”

I’m not that familiar with Pertineri; I’ve been here a handful of times, enough to find my way around the main attractions but that’s about it. To her, there’s no point pretending about it, either. I couldn’t get away with it. I tell her I have no idea to get from here to there and she laughs a bit sadly and says that she knows Pertineri like the back of her hand but just didn’t want to go look in that place where the knowledge was kept. I remembered then what she told me about having Lord Tremain's memories and I also remembered what a state she’d been in when she’d tried to go inside them. I express my concerns.

She flashes me another one of her amazing smiles and says, “Let’s get lost then. So what? Can’t be that  hard to find the building, we just keep aiming for the spires!”

We’re right in the middle of a packed crowd of  people and horses and there’s no way out for now; so we have to go under the arc and it will take a while. I ask her what she wants with the Guildmasters and she tells me about a valuable object that used to be hers and was stolen during the upheaval of Trant’s dethronement.

“I had a vision where it is now,” she says. “It is in a house overlooking the Guildmasters Building with a big formal garden.”

Slowly, we shuffle forward.

“What happened, anyway,” I ask to make conversation, “How did the fight go? What happened to the Palace?” and immediately wished I hadn’t because it wiped the smile right from her face, all the happy excitement from her body and she turned dark and sad in an instant. She looks at me and says, “You haven’t heard the rumours, then,” and I’m wondering what she might mean and shake my head. “No, my lady. I came straight down from Headman’s Acre.”

She turns away and we can move forward again, out the other side and everyone disperses and speeds up. She moves her horse forward faster. I follow, and she turns into a side alley, then another and halts. It is very narrow and out of the sunshine, too narrow for both the horses side by side. She dismounts and comes to stand by my horse’s head, stroking its nose slowly.

“I have to talk to you,” she says, “I have to talk to you before we can go on any further.”

I slide off and stand with one arm over the saddle, waiting for her.

She keeps on stroking the damn horse and finally, she says, “I can’t give you what you want. If you truly are my friend, you have to stop trying for me.” She’s not looking at me at all and she sounds so sad.

I say nothing because I really don’t know what to say. Damn but she is confusing. She gives me all the signs and then its like she turns off like someone’s blown out the candle.

“Chay,” she says and finally looks at me, and damn me, she looks sad. “Chay, my … body wants you but my mind does not. My mind says no. I like you in so many ways, it doesn’t make it any easier. But I cannot, must not, love you in that way.”

I move a little closer to her and have the urge to just take her in my arms. I wait for her to withdraw or something like that but she doesn’t, so I give in and take her by the shoulders, turn her towards me and draw her close. Ah but she feels so good, smells so good. I hold her tightly.

Against my shoulder, she says, “Please don’t make me do this. Please.” And then she starts to cry.

I don’t understand you. It’s no big deal. What could be more natural? I want you, you want me, let’s just go with the moment and be together. He doesn’t need to know, needn’t find out …

Of course he knows, she says straight into my head and I catch something from her, the strangest sense of sadness and loss and confusion, and somehow I get it that it won’t make her happy to give in to me.

I don’t understand this, I have never understood her at all. I am feeling a sadness now that could be hers or mine, I’m not sure but I say to her, “Whatever you want from me, my lady,” and somehow find it in me to let her go. I step back and look at her, crying under that strange curly disguise.

I try and make light of it. I push her in the shoulder with my fist, just a little push, and say, “Come on, it is a beautiful day. We’re in Pertineri. Let’s go see some things, do some things. This is not a day to be crying.”

She smiles through her sniffles and wipes her nose with the back of her hand. I have to smile back at her. She is so damn real, not a lady, no matter what titles he might be heaping on her or what jewels. Under all that shit is a real young woman bursting to come out. I shake my head because that – whatever he is, that old demon’s never going to get that from her, not even close to letting what she is come out and be set free. I’ve seen him with her and there’s no way he could really get her to let go and be what she could be.

I sigh and think, with me. What she could be with me. She stops smiling and looks sad again; I must try harder to keep my thoughts together when I’m with her. It doesn’t do, she’s right. She’s in this thing and until she changes her mind, there’s nothing I can do.

I say to her, “You must know that if you change your mind or you get tired of him, that I’ll be there.”

She smiles again then and says, “If ever I do, you would be the only one I would come to.”

It give me a little gladness to hear her say it and not a little hope. She’s not been with him that long and she’s already this sad and tired of it all – ah, stop, and think something else.

“So shall we make for the Guildmasters and look for your ornament?” I ask and she nods, seriously and gratefully. We have to walk the horses in single file through the alley until we come to a yard space where we can turn them and take another tight roadway in the direction she is indicating. She leads the way with unerring security, as though she was born and bred here. She must have gone to his memories then to do it and that would account for her silence and darkness.

Before I can stop myself from thinking it, I’ve already thought again how Lord Tremain is no good for her at all. I would hate to think that any woman who shared my bed would turn into …

Think something else, old son. Think of the crowd calling your name at the fight. Man, that was something. You think you know what life has in store for you, and look what can happen. I got a knighthood, in all damnations, just by being in the right place at the right time. But I’ve always been lucky. Right down to switching sides with Ty about a second before the spear hit him square on. I shake the thoughts out of my head and concentrate on following her through the maze of alleyways, passing by staring paupers and dirty children who have to flatten themselves against the walls so we can squeeze by. Sometimes we must duck for there are rags strung across our heads to dry in the shadow and at one point, just escaped a dousing as someone above throws waste water from a window hole. Finally, she leads us out into a much wider roadway and across from us, there are the spiral towers of the Guildmaster’s building. She halts by the gutters and I draw up next to her.

“We’re on the wrong side,” she says and stands in the stirrups, squints at the building. “We need to go around the other way.” She leads off again, intent and in a world of her own. We make our way across the never ending stream of people and animals that populate this city. It is exciting to be here, and to be escorting a great lady this day.  She is urging her horse to a trot and now a canter which isn’t a safe thing to do but she doesn’t seem to care that people are hastily scattering and dropping their belongings and swearing at us as we force our way through the throng. She turns the corner and shouts, “There it is! That’s where it is!” and in the middle of the road, brings her horse up sharp, nearly causing mine to crash into it and jumps from the saddle as quick as any soldier would.

Before I know it, she has simply disappeared, leaving me there with the two horses and a group of women staring wide eyed in shock and making signs of warding off at me.

I shake my head and lean down to get the reins of her abandoned horse, ride up closer to the place she has indicated.

It must be a very, very rich person’s house.

Right smack in the centre of Pertineri, and it has a garden.

I ride up to the high walls that surround it and dismount, look through the big double gate of stout iron with the spikes on top painted gold.

Two guards in fancy green uniforms stare back at me unflinchingly, armed with lances, looking not at all friendly. I don’t want to get into trouble, so I just get the horses close to the wall and out of the way and stand there like an idiot, looking after them, waiting for her to return.

It gives me the opportunity to think freely for a moment. She said, so you haven’t heard the rumours then. I resolved to make my way to one of the mess halls and do a bit of drinking after she was through with me and get a bit more information on what had been going on here. All I knew was what Tremain had told me, and that had been two sentences, if that, before he ordered me to stand in as the regent’s champion for Trant’s trial by combat: “Trant is vanquished. I need your skills. Get your cloak and follow me.”

Man, I cannot get my head around that. Yes, sure, I was there. Yes sure, I killed him. But how can that possibly be? How the hell did any of that happen? Are they gonna write songs about me now?

I lean against the wall and close my eyes. They will write songs about me. Hell, they’re probably already singing them in the taverns now. About me. Who would have thought?

So I stand and think my own thing and I wait and finally, there’s some noise, and the gate opens, the guards step aside and my lady walks by them as though they weren’t there at all.

She looks yet again like a totally different person, older, colder, unapproachable until she sees me and it all falls apart and she smiles and becomes a young woman again. She runs the last few steps to me and holds out that bird thing she had at Headman’s Acre like it was life itself with both hands, “Look, I got it back! I got it back!”

I try to show some enthusiasm to please her but for the life of me, I don’t know what she sees in the thing. Marani thought it was wonderful too and talked about it for ages after they’d left, oh dear, he’s such a great magician! Oh dear oh dear you should have seen that wonderful bird!

“Chay, jealousy doesn’t become you,” she says and laughs at me and snaps me out of it. Ah well. She’s happy now and that’s all that matters. I watch her carefully put the damned thing into her cleavage, settle it down deeply between her breasts and draw the dress up higher. Doesn’t she have any pockets in that dress of hers?

She smiles at me again, radiantly and says, “Now let’s find a market! I want to buy some things, I want to buy some special things.” I hand her the reins of her horse when she stops and says, “Do you have any money?” I laugh at her and say, “No, my lady. The last time I even saw some was when I gave the few coins in my pocket to the kids up at Headman’s Acre for the spring festival.”

“Ah, no matter,” she says and looks around.

At the corner of the street stands a beggar woman who is purportedly blind, holding out a wooden bowl for alms.

Lady Isca walks on over to her and takes the bowl from the astonished woman’s hand, tips it up. I drag the horses closer so I can see what she’s doing.

There’s a handful of brass and copper coins, not enough to buy a tankard of wine even, in the palm of her hand.  She looks down at them and a ripple of light passes through them and they’ve turned to gold.

I have to shake my head again. It’s not as though I haven’t seen her do this kind of thing a hundred times but it never occurred to me that she could turn copper into gold, just like that. I wonder if its real or some kind of illusion and she looks up and tuts.

“Of course it’s real. What do you take me for?”

I just grin and think loudly, Sorry! and she smiles as she receives it loud and clear.

The so-called blind beggar woman is staring at Lady Isca’s hand with her mouth open wide. Lady Isca puts one of the coins back in the bowl and holds it out to the old woman; when she just stands as frozen, picks up the old woman’s hand and places the bowl within it, turns to me and says happily, “Now we can go to the market.” Behind her, the beggar woman slides along the wall and then runs very swiftly from sight. I grin to myself. That one golden coin must be worth a whole year of standing at street corners.

Lady Isca takes half the coins and holds them out to me. I’m surprised and a little shocked. She laughs and says, “How long have you been guarding my house? I must owe you a dozen times that, easily.”

I take it from her and laugh back at her. “I think you over-rate my value,” I say and she stops smiling instantly and says into my head, I cannot rate that highly enough for all the gold in all the kingdoms.

I can’t know what to say to that so instead I hand her the reins to her horse and mount mine. She puts the golden coins into a pocket in her dress and gets on her horse as well, easily and lightly. She is a fine rider, even hampered by the long skirt she’s wearing there is an air of such experience about her; it must have been another one of the Lord Tremain’s skills she’d inherited. I wonder then what else he might be good at but the thought is not altogether pleasant so I’m glad when she sets off at a brisk pace and we make for the market in the main plaza.

I have seven gold coins burning a hole in my pocket.

I’ve never had so much money in my life.

Man, I could spend a year in a good quality amusement house!

That thought earns me a mental tut again but there’s a laugh with it too, and she asks me what I would want to buy.

The first thing that springs to mind is to get some new boots, and a decent sword and scabbard. A horse, too, now that would be a fine thing.

I ask her what she wants to buy and she laughs and shakes her head.

“Let’s just see what there is,” she says, “lets get rid of the horses, I want to look at the stalls properly.” For a moment I am confused as to where she would get rid of the horses, then I remember that they can make them disappear at will. We dismount and the horses just flicker out of existence. Once again, only a very few people actually notice and no-one says anything about it; Pertineri is like that. You can have your throat cut in broad daylight and people will walk right by and pretend not to notice.

Walking with her at ground level is a whole new experience. On horseback, you’re above the crowd and above everything in a way; here, shoulder to shoulder with all these strangers, there’s a strange buzz that is infectious.

We walk along the many stalls displaying wares from all over the kingdoms; food stuffs such as you’d never want to see or smell, never mind let anywhere near your mouth, weird fruit and meats with flies buzzing around them, and soothsayers, story tellers, songsters interspersed between them.

She is good to take to market. I’ve gone with women who spend hours on a single stall, picking up everything, ooing and aaing over this, that and the other; she just walks by at a good speed and looks at things swiftly before searching for the next stand that might be of interest.

We’ve been walking for quite a while when all of a sudden she stops dead and then rushes to a stall that belongs to travellers.

She stands in front of it and I can see that she is really taken aback.

I follow her glance and see a glass case with many rings with gemstones, and I recognise them immediately. They are just the sort she is wearing – old, heavy, with a big oval gem, she used to have a red one when I first met her which she changed to white and now it’s a washed out greeny white instead.

There must be two dozen of them, at least, in that case displayed on black velvet, all different colours but not a red one there, and neither is there one that looks like hers. There’s different blues, greens, yellows, and one of dark orange. I wonder how the travellers got hold of those, where they came from.

Lady Isca touches the case with an outstretched fingertip and has become very white and very quiet.

I’m not sure if I should say something to her so I just stand and watch her as she talks to the traveller woman behind the stall. She is asking about stones, ah yes that must be the ones they have at Headman’s Acre, the ones the children use for magic practice. I never wanted anything to do with any of it. It just wasn’t my type of thing. Mind you, having seen her do that with the coins, I was now beginning to wonder.

The traveller woman brings a bundle of fabric and moves some knives aside to make room to unfold it. Inside, there are a number of whitish round stones, the largest one about the size of a man’s fist.

Lady Isca looks at them carefully, each one in turn and then points to a one that is about the size of her palm, round and flattened in the middle. The traveller woman says something that makes Lady Isca smile. She moves in closer and then holds out her hand. The stone rises and floats right up and into it, settles there and a strange shudder goes through her entire body and she closes her eyes with a sigh.

Then she turns to me and when she looks at me, there is a great tranquility about her.

“You should have one of these,” she says. “There’s really nothing quite like in all the world.”

I can’t help thinking that I’d far rather like one of those rings. Fit for a knight, those are. But probably worth a lot more than seven gold coins.

She looks deeply into my eyes and says, “Are you sure you want one of those? Do you know what they are, where they have come from, and what they mean?”

I have no idea what she is talking about and just say a bit lamely, “You and the Lord Tremain wear them.”

She half shakes her head and asks me again, “Are you sure you would like to wear one of these?”

This is making me uncomfortable. I just thought they looked grand, expensive, special. I don’t know what she wants to hear from me.

She keeps looking at me, and then, with a sigh, indicates the traveller woman to open the case.

“Pick one,” she says.

I hesitate. “Surely, we don’t have enough money?” I say to buy some time.

“If you want one, pick one,” she says. “But be sure that you really want it. You cannot take them off once they are on your finger, you know.”

There is something very weird going on here and I’m not sure I like it. I feel the hair on my arms raising. Yet I can’t help but look at the rings again, now open to the sunlight and they are dancing with colour and brightness.

The dark orange one keeps drawing my attention; it is not a colour that I particularly like even but it is perfectly beautiful and I can see it on my hand. I shake my head and force myself to look at the other ones, the darker ones, more suited for a soldier as I am; yet strangely, I keep coming back to the orange one.

She knows, of course, and picks it out from the case, holds it up to me.

I look at it and can’t stop myself from wanting to touch it. It tingles lightly and I really desire it now, this is a strange thing. I’m not one for such expensive decorations, even if I could have afforded them.

I look to her for some explanation, help with this. I don’t understand magic.

She is extremely serious and has a crease between her brows I have not seen before.

“Chay,” she says, “this is some kind of old magic. I don’t understand it either. But you wanting it like you do, perhaps you should have it. Although it will not please Lucian too well.”

I look at the ring again, and again, I can see it already on my hand.

“How will we pay for it?” I ask her, and damn it, I even feel a fear that it won’t be mine, after all. This is getting too weird for my liking by far.

“It is already paid for,” she says and holds the ring between index finger and thumb.

Without wanting to, I stretch out my left hand.

She looks at me, shakes her head again and, with a sigh, slides it onto my middle finger. It fits perfectly, then it becomes warm or so it seems.

“There,” she says and takes a step back. “Whatever this is, it is now done.”

I stare down at my hand with the ring, the gem flashing deep orange gold and it is exactly as I saw it before and all I can say is that I felt like a real knight then, as though it was all made real in that moment and I was no longer a common soldier at all, but in truth the champion of the regent.

I looked up at her and saw her smile at me, benignly, sadly, and lovingly.

“Thank you,” I say and my head feels strange. I have to put out a hand to steady myself against the stall. The sensation only lasts for a short time and then it is gone.

She sighs and works at putting the flat stone into her other pocket. She gives the traveller woman a single coin in exchange for the stone and the ring – that is never enough, nowhere near? - and the woman doesn’t argue, in the contrary, she clasps her hands and bows deeply to my lady who just turns away and holds out her arm to me. I take it and we walk on, through the noisy market, companionably side by side and I’m thinking she is steadying me because I can’t seem to think straight at the moment.

But it does pass and we buy some things – she buys a large silken scarf that lies prettily across her shoulder, with patterns of swirling blues and greens; I find a lovely sword that is not new but actually, I think that makes it better still, wonderfully well made with a custom scabbard, light, perfectly balanced, beautiful. She tries it too and approves of my choice and I spend a time haggling with the merchant although we both know I’ll pay whatever the price for it, I’ve made up my mind that this is what I want.

It feels great to belt it around my waist.

We eat sweetcakes and drink wine and water from a street trader and I’m getting to think it must be one of the best days of my life.

I want to take a turn around the slave market.

I remember that we always used to come here, Ty and me and usually a gaggle from our headman’s group and we would look at the women for sale and fantasize and tell each other stories until the guards would chase us away.

The slave market is in a wide road that leads off from the square and ends up at the steps of a big temple building they use for festivals and ceremonies and plays and such. It’s strictly ordered according to price and position – the further away from the temple, the cheaper the slaves.

So, when you first enter, what you see is single owners with an old woman or an old man and the like, hoping to get a few coppers and be shot of them. Then the stands get better, and you get a mixture of private vendors and small time traders, midrange wares of families, or slaves with some flaws, a bit too young, a bit too old, lame, bad teeth, that kind of thing. As you walk on towards the big temple, it slowly shifts into professional displays and now you get the guards from stopping the likes of us gawkers getting their poor mitts on the wares. The stands are tents here, to shield the occupants from sun as it is today, or rain at other times, and they have special men in silken robes that do a lot of talking and convincing. They always made my flesh creep.

It sure is different today, with her and that expensive sword instead of being in a gang of laughing soldiers.

For starters, the guards don’t give us much trouble, but she is also not really in the mood of things. I don’t think she’s been to a proper slave market before and I find that she is appalled at some of the things she sees.

I try and cheer her up and point at a young man, about my age, well built but a bit vacant looking, in the requisite loin cloth and shackled by his ankles to a cart. I say, “Hey you could buy him and take him home, you got enough money left.”

She looks over to him and goes all still and dark on me, then turns around and says, “That could be you, don’t you know.”

I laugh at her and give her a little push. “Sure it could,” I say, “that’s why you got to be careful to always be on the winning side.” But she doesn’t see the joke in it and shakes her head, sighs.

Perhaps it wasn’t a good idea to come here with her, after all. I take her arm and make a quicker pace so she hasn’t got time to brood on things too much. She’ll be alright when we get to the luxury part, right by the steps.

These slaves aren’t shackled, you see, and they have an air of disdain about them – well look at me, I’m so perfect, I’m worth bagfuls of gold, no-one would ever pay that much for you, you lousy grunt.

They recline in luxury on couches under their tent shadings and eat small delicacies from expensive bowls.

You want to see breathtakingly beautiful women, well, there you can.

That’s about the only time you’ll get to see that kind because their new owners will keep them well under wraps as soon as they parted with their purse for them. You won’t see those in the street, after the trade’s been done; I guess you don’t even see them at court or at the ceremonies because to that, their owners would be taking their wives and daughters instead.

She looks at these beautiful ones and her expression is such that I have to ask her what she’s thinking.

I’m not prepared for her intensity nor for her words when she says, “How can he ever want me if he could have those instead?” and her voice is quavering as though she’s about to start to cry.

I really don’t get her.

“How can you ever want that old demon if you could have one of those instead?” I ask in return and wave my hand at three perfect males, taller than me each one, scar-less, perfect bodies and full of that disdainful grace that I can’t even begin to aspire to.

She is confused, looks at them, looks at me, looks at them again and then she shakes her head and starts to laugh, a little bit at first, then a whole lot until her body is shaking.

“Oh Chay,” she says, “you’re the best,” and actually hugs me.

Now I do like that!

I’m glad I have managed to restore her mood although the creator knows alone what it was she thought I said, and arm in arm, we turn the arc beneath the temple steps to return to the main plaza, back down the gradings of perfection and she keeps herself quite calm this time around, only startles a bit when we get past a bunch of stalls that specialise in children. I guess that can be a bit hard for a woman but then I see a small naked girl being looked over by a fat old man and think of Dory’s daughter and it’s my turn to grit my teeth.

Just before we leave the market, she stops and looks at a large cart on which a collection of bodies lie.

“What is this?” she says and I tell her that this would be the fire cart, collecting unsellable slaves for disposal. Sick, half dead, that kind of thing. If you waited too long to sell them on, you actually ended up having to pay someone like the man who was sitting in the driver’s seat, half asleep in the drowsy mid afternoon, to take them away.

She stops and looks at the cart and goes all bleak and silent again.

Through the rough wooden bars you can make out what seems to be a couple of old women, and an old man with a leg missing. There’s also the body of a man who’s a complete mess of sores all over – yuk! – and across him, a dead woman, middle aged, thin. Those in the cart who are still alive and able to do so have crawled well clear of him. I shake my head. They needn’t worry about catching anything, not now, not anymore. But life is like that. You keep on trying, don’t you. Right to the bitter end.

My lady is riveted and when I gently try to steer her on, she won’t budge.

“Lady Isca,” I say to her, carefully. “Come on now. It’s over for them, now, or soon enough will be.”

Without taking her eyes off the cart, she says, “That man, I can heal him.”

I follow her glance and yes, she’s looking at the guy with the sores. I thought he was dead.

“No, he isn’t. He’s fighting in there. He’s fighting still. He doesn’t want to die,” she says with such sorrow that it touches me and I take a closer look at him and then wish I hadn’t.

Man, he’s got maggots in his sores. His face is – well not even there, really, you wouldn’t know what was eyes and what was nose, if you know what I mean.

How can he be alive? But if she says he is, then he must be. I’ve seen her heal, I know what she can do.

I shake my head. “I don’t know,” I say to her, “he’s – pretty far gone. Might be kinder to get him out of his misery?”

She says again, “He wants to live. He is fighting to stay alive.” I say nothing then and just keep my eyes on her and she snaps aware and looks at me.

“Buy him for me, Chay,” she says.

I stand speechless for a moment as all the reasons as to why I couldn’t possibly rush through my head all at once and then I just go, can’t do anything other, that look in her eyes, what can I say?

I shake my head as I walk over to the owner and push him to wake him up. He can’t believe it when I tell him what I want and I have to force it out through clenched teeth. I give him one of the golden coins and that makes him very co-operative although he clearly thinks that I am totally insane. He goes around to the back of the cart, opens the gate, climbs up. He shifts the woman’s corpse easily enough but doesn’t want to touch the man and I can’t blame him. With the corpse out of the way, you get a full view of what’s left of him.

“That will do,” says my lady in a voice like I’ve never heard before from her. “Stand aside.”

The owner climbs down from the cart and he and I both do as we’re told. There’s a few onlookers now, just people like me and her on a stroll around the market, wondering what’s going on. There’s a communal cry as the mangled body of the man lifts clean off the back of the cart and slowly moves by itself through the air, straight and true, just like she lifted Ty that day.

She lands him at her feet and kneels by his side, raises her hands, palms towards him, and closes her eyes. There’s more onlookers now, from the corner of my vision I can see more congregating, making a circle around her. I move closer then and stand behind her, with my back to her and facing them. I don’t have to see what she’s doing, and what she’s doing is reflected well enough in the faces of those who are watching her.

When their curiosity turns to wide eyed astonishment, then to horror and finally a gasp comes from them all, I know she’s finished and briefly look around and damn me, there lies a naked man, brown hair, asleep or so it seems, perfectly restored and healthy looking, if perhaps a bit too pale for normal skin to his type. Man, but she is good. I have to shake my head in admiration. I’ve seen her do things at Headman’s Acre but no-one ever turned up there who looked like that. Ah dear sweet creator. If only I had brought Ty faster. If only there had been still the slightest bit of life left in him, she could have fixed him.

Just as she takes her new scarf off her shoulders and spreads it across him to cover his nakedness, three big guards push their way through the assembled crowd. I tense and my hand finds the hilt of my new old sword and it feels better then. I step into their way.

The leader, a short squat man with a very square chin, demands to know what we’re doing. He’s aggressive, spoiling for a good kicking, probably bored with a day of nothing here in this market.

I consider all options and although I full well know I could probably behead all three without breaking a sweat I go for the most quiet one and I lie and say, “Our newly bought slave had a fit. I’m sorry we caused a disturbance, Sir.”

He holds my eyes for just a moment then he laughs and says that I am a big fool for having bought such a one, tells me to get going and not to cause any more trouble, and then they all set to pushing and shoving and shouting at the onlookers to make them go away.

Luckily, their remonstrations and attempts to tell what really happened fall onto totally deaf and uninterested ears and soon enough, I can kneel next to my lady in some kind of safety and say to her urgently, “We better go before they come back.”

She looks up at me and there is that strange clarity and stillness about her again.

“I can’t translocate all three of us from here, not even with a stone,” she says and I’m not sure what she is talking about but nod anyway.

“He can’t be awoken yet and I don’t want to leave him here. Can you get some clothes for him?”

I am loathe to leave her by herself and she catches that and smiles at me. Well. Of course she can look after herself well enough. But still …

“Just help me get him out of sight, behind the cart,” she says, still smiling, and I make to drag him under the arms but find he weighs absolutely nothing and nearly fall. She’s floating him just above the ground and I’m just pretending to move him for the spectators. I grin to myself as well then and move him so he is lying between the huge rear wheel of the cart and the wall of the building behind. The owner is on his perch again, staring down at us with his mouth open. He doesn’t have many teeth left and I must say I’d rather be a slave myself than in his line of work.

I leave her and go to find a trader in the main plaza who sells clothing. I get a plain pair of trousers for the slave and a simple shirt. I take it back to her and she has him floating off the ground whilst I wriggle him into the clothes. I button up his shirt and the guy looks just – well, just ordinary, really. If his temper was even, I’d have no objections to sharing a jug of wine with him. I would judge him to be a few years older than me but not much, you could say he was a man in his prime. I can’t imagine how he got to be where he was or where he had come from. He could be anything, anyone. An ex-soldier perhaps who didn’t get away in time, a bonded serf, or a slave born and bred. I smiled to myself. Or a knight, or anything at all.

I wondered if my lady knew much about him and before I have a chance to ask her, she shakes her head. “He was too far gone to be thinking anything at all apart from that wish not to be dying, and that wasn’t even a though, more like a state of being.”

“What are you going to do with him?” I ask her. I can’t think that Lord Demon would be too pleased to have this one around with his wife.

“Lucian, for the creator’s sake,” she snaps at me out of nowhere. “His name is Lucian. Or Lord Tremain. Give him his name, damnation!”

I’m taken aback and a bit hurt. You don’t expect to be jumped on for every thought, do you. It’s not fair.

She takes her scarf and puts it around her shoulders again, sighs and gets up.

“Sorry, Chay,” she says and I can tell she means it. “It’s not just you. I get it wherever I go. I get tired of people calling him all these things.”

I nod a bit but am still cautious as what she would have me think of or not think of. We both end up looking down at the slave again.

“He needs a little care and rest, and some time to get over what happened,” she says more to herself than to me, then she brightens and smiles.

“I know someone who will take care of him for a payment,” she says, “It’s a courtesan, the Lady Delessa, she calls herself. She’s the only person I know in Pertineri who would do that. We get the horses and take him there.”

I shrug my shoulders and nod. Well why not. Some of the nicest women I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing were whores. Like all  professions, you get good ones and bad ones. And, to find a good whorehouse in this town …

I snap myself out of it with some difficulty and find that the great lady is grinning at me and wrinkling her nose. I can’t help but grin back at her even though it is not such an easy thing to keep my thoughts under control at all times.

“It’s a wonderful thing that you don’t, and I’m really sorry I shouted at you,” she says and touches me on the arm. “It is wonderful to be with someone who thinks like normal men do.”

We get busy then. She calls the horses in an empty corner of a yard behind a building and brings them out, and we load the unconscious man over the saddle of mine like a sack of grain. She’s none too happy with that but it’s the best we can do for now, and I point out he’s a whole lot better off now than he was just a few minutes ago.

She rides and I lead my horse and we make for the palace road so she can find her way to the courtesan’s house from there.

By the time we get there, the afternoon is drawing to a close and I’m starving and so thirsty, I could bury my head in a horse trough.

That place is like no whorehouse I’ve ever been in. This is one for the very rich, it looks like a palace and there’s no girls anywhere to be seen, which is disappointing. I get to carry the slave over my shoulder up the stairs and into a bedroom that is plainly not designed for the sick.

Lady Isca fusses over him, pulling the sheets, fluffing his pillow and I’m shaking my head and notice I’m actually quite jealous.

Then, in comes the Lady Delessa.

Damn the hells, but now that is a woman you could lose your sleep over.

Basically, in my experience you get three types of whores.

The first is best avoided. They’re in it and hate it and they hate you.

The second type is alright if you’re drunk enough. They just don’t care either way.

But there’s one type that is the best, and there’s one of those right here in pink silk. These ones are whores because they love the work. They’d rather do that than anything else, they get a kick out of it. They can make you feel like a god come down from the heavens.

I can understand why rich men will pay a fortune to spend time with her. She is gracious and a walking invitation. She gives me one look and I’m melting. Yeah. One look and I’m feeling in my pocket to check how much I’ve got left of the money that Lady Isca gave me and wondering if it’s gonna be enough.

Lady Isca looks at me sharply and I shrug my shoulders at her, think loudly, what can you do?

She shakes her head and looks sad, then talks with that apparition in pink. I see them both standing there together, and as they stand and talk Lady Isca’s hair unfolds back to it’s original colour and state and she moves her neck and rubs it with her hand.

I nearly faint with the notion of both of them together and have to hurriedly rub my hands together which reminds me of the ring and I find a strange relief in looking at it. Its like it is wiping other thoughts from my mind and leaving an empty space that is relaxing.

They argue for a bit about money in the background, Lady Delessa not wanting to take any and Lady Isca insisting that she do; in the end they settle it so the slave gets the money to get himself out of the city and to a new life of his choosing.

This well and truly was his lucky day. I look at him in the bed and smile. His and mine both. The creator has a strange sense of humour, that’s for sure.

Lady Isca calls me over and introduces me formally to Lady Delessa. I kiss her hand and our eyes meet for an instant recognition. I have to force myself to let it go.

Lady Isca watches this and then says that she would be much more at ease if I would remain and guarded the slave who should wake up within the next few hours. He might be violent, she says, who knows, and I would that no harm came to Lady Delessa or her household.

In a way, I am hurt by this. It would have been nice if she had been a little jealous. She hadn’t been over Dory, either, no matter how hard I tried to play that card.

I think about it and then say that I’d be glad to oblige and stay.

She nods and thanks me and then does that thing where she just disappears into thin air. I find it highly disconcerting.

The Lady Delessa looks at me and there’s a smile on her lips that recognise well enough. I smile back at her.  She asks if I would like some refreshments, some wine perhaps and I thank her gratefully.

“We should see to that now, before the slave wakes up,” she says and I am thinking much along the same lines.

As we leave the room, she touches my arm hot through the thin shirt and says mysteriously, “Your Lady Isca has an excellent taste in men.”