The wagon creaked slowly across the cobblestones, jerking the group of women back and forth randomly. Anla could hear the clopping of the horses’ hooves clearly. She closed her eyes and pretended she was back in Naustis’s dray beside Al and Telbarisk.
It wasn’t enough to drown out the excited conversations between the other four women. From what she overheard, being chosen was something of an honor for tourists. One of the women had been to over a dozen wench auctions and had been accepted for her first time that night. None of them seemed concerned about their fate, so Anla was left to guess that worrying about it wasn’t worth it. She was still concerned over the chalice’s influence, though.
“Girls, I think we have a mousie,” the woman in the red skirt said.
Anla opened her eyes and saw they were all looking at her. “What’s your name again?” one of the others asked.
“Anladet,” she said.
“Have you ever done this before?”
“No. This is my first day in Calaba.”
The woman who had tried fourteen times crossed her arms and frowned. The woman in the red skirt spoke again. “Nothing to be worried about, dearie. The good captain is going to bring us to the jails up the hill and put us inside. If the good townsfolk are kind enough to donate ten gold by midnight, you get to keep it and go free. If not, then he keeps it and you’re released with fond memories only.”
“What if I want to leave early?” she said, thinking about the spell again.
The woman frowned. In fact, they all looked displeased at her question, one woman turning to another and saying “killjoy” quietly.
“Well, mousie, you’re free to go whenever you please. Just know that many women would have given their only bodice laces to be in your spot.”
Anla nodded and forced a smile. “I was just…curious. I think it will be good fun.”
“There we go, love,” the woman said, patting her knee affectionately. “A pretty thing like you is sure to get your money by the witching hour.”
The thought had merit. She was tired from the long day of travel, but her instinct to make money was still strong. This was a show and she was well practiced in that. How exactly should she go about luring the crowd in?
She continued to think about this as the wagon began to turn up the hill and went past the mile mark. Al might have gone to the tavern for his free drink, but at least one of the others was smart enough to follow her. She thought it was likely to be Telbarisk. Anla relaxed and looked out the half windows that lined the side of the wagon.
“Where are we?” she asked.
“This is Old Town,” red skirted woman answered. “Where we started is the new section, added after the pirate attacks occurred.” Anla appreciated she had mostly dropped the act. “You can see that this area is more fortified than the rest, more like a castle carved out of the rock. It’s difficult to reach the beaches from here, even after we simplified the pathways. And our more important buildings are here: the jail, the bureaucratic buildings, and the temples.”
Anla moved her face close to the bars and saw what she meant. Most of the buildings had a clean, commercial look to them in cream stucco or yellow brick. There were plants, but they were in the tops of barrels or in small diamonds on the ground. Lanterns swung from high positions that would be difficult for people to light daily. And, of course, they were kept in the best shape possible. With a booming trade in tourism, there were no broken windows or crumbling bricks here, like she had seen in quieter places like Wyok.
“What’s that?” she asked, pointing to a building of dark wood that didn’t match the rest of the neighborhood.
“That is the Library of Cyurinin. It’s also the Hall of the Brother for Calaba.”
Al had once told her that Mikros never had his own temple; his followers always jointly built or added on to another temple. “He’s purely about cooperation,” Al had said, “so He won’t work alone. The problem is many of the other gods prefer things to be all about Them, so only a few of Them are willing to share. Cyurinin is the one with the most joint temples, both in Gheny and Noh Amair, since He’s not a conceited god and They have a lot in common.”
The wagon stopped and a torch was shoved in front of the window. The face of a man with a large, hooked nose, scars, and rotten teeth appeared suddenly. No, his teeth weren’t rotten; they were just black from some paste. And his scars were really just black ink. It was a costume, though Anla didn’t think there was any cosmetics in Yine that could help him with that nose.
“Avast, me pretties! It be time to see if ye be stunning enough to get yer gold. What say ye, boys?” The crowd behind him cheered. He pretended to unlock the door and swung it open wide. “Wait ye turn, Birgetha! We’ll let this pretty little wisp go first.”
The man offered his hand and Anla was helped down the steps and onto the street. He escorted her to the farthest cell in a concrete framework that was independent from any surrounding buildings. There were conveniently six, each with bars to the front door, a wooden bench chained to the wall, a table with watered wine and a light meal of bread and fruit, and a hidden door in the rear. Anla explored her cell before settling in the back, out of the light of the lantern hanging in between her and Birgetha’s hold.
When all six were locked away, the man yelled, “Make the men smile, lassies, or else ye’ll be sailing for Mouerta Ki in the morning!”
There was a mad rush as men, and some women, ran forward to help with the cause. Tink-ta-tink went the buckets that collected change. “My loves!” yelled Birgetha. “I’ll be free in no time with your help!”
Anla heard the other four women start their own pitches. She tried not to judge, but they were pathetically overt in that they kept yelling “Save me! I need to get out and I need some coin to do it!”. After ten minutes or so, their pitches took either whiny or defeated tones while Anla still hadn’t said anything.
Piscarins were known for several things. They had tonics and potions for this malady or that injury. They had spells readily available to curse your enemy or make someone fall in love with you. And they told fortunes, which were usually the best way to make money. The latter needed an investment piece like a crystal ball or cards that could be used over and over again. And, best of all, they were showier, drawing in curious crowds who would convince themselves while they watched. Of course, Anla had no crystal balls, or cards, or even the runes she usually used. There was, however, a piscarin technique she had used when she started out that didn’t need any of those.
She waited until there was a group of young men gathered outside her cell. “Is this one free already?” one asked. “Hello?”
He turned to talk to his friend and that’s when she moved into the light, wrapping her hand around one of the bars. He turned back and startled. “Hello,” Anla said, looking up from her eyelashes.
“Hi! Why are you so quiet?”
“I was conversing with the spirits. They told me to wait for you.”
“For me?” he asked. “Wait, you’re a piscarin?”
“Shh,” she said, grabbing his hand lightly and lifting it to the light, focusing only on it. “We wouldn’t want the pirates to think I’m valuable.”
“What are you doing?” He tugged lightly until she moved his cuff up his arm and massaged his palm.
“You’re strong. That’s unexpected of you.” She looked down for a few moments then back up into his dark eyes. “You often surprise people with what you have hidden. A kind word in a sea of trouble, a smile in a sea of sorrow, a gentle hug in a sea of loneliness. It’s noticed. You have secret admirers that appreciate your friendly gestures.”
He relaxed and she moved her fingertips over his palm. The other hand held his, her thumb resting gently on his pulse point. “You can really see that?” he asked.
“I can see that and much more. I’ll admit, it’s not easy to see in this light. I might be more accurate in a well-lit place, like those steps over there.” She pointed to the Sea Moss Beard, a bustling tavern that had patrons spilling out into the group and pulling some in as well. “I will do my best, though.”
She took a theatric breath in and began to trace the lines of his hand with more care and calculation. No calluses, no scars, no tan lines from rings. He looked too young to be married, anyway, but he might have a sweetheart somewhere. It would be unwise to assume anything. “Do you have a question?”
“All men have a question that burns deep within them. They ask it aloud, in their minds, on paper; if they don’t, their dreams take over and ask it for them. What is your question?”
He looked over at his friends, then dipped his head in towards her. “Should I fight my father over my inheritance?” he asked lowly. “He says he’s going to give it to my younger brother if I don’t start showing ‘initiative’, whatever he means by that.”
She peered at his palm again, running her finger along the lines. “Oh, do you see this?” she said, pointing to a spot. “This is the spark, a star in between your heart and your head lines. Soon your mind will change and you will want what your father wants to give you. Not the comfort it brings, but the opportunity that comes with it.”
“But I don’t want to be a printer,” he said. “It’s all so…boring. Lining up type, testing inks, gods.”
“That’s what your father does?”
“No, but he says that’s what I have to do until I learn patience.”
“Hmm,” she said, purring out the syllable. “A farmer must know everything about the crops he plants. He can’t expect to sow his fields and reap in the fall; it takes more mastery than that. This is what he wants for you: mastery over the mundane, so that you can master the complicated.”
The man looked stunned. The crowd of friends around him were quiet and watched on in interest. “What…what should I do?”
“Do as he says. Do not complain, ever. It will take some time to earn his trust, but you will know you have it when he starts to give you different work. Then, you will start to love it. Find out what about it you’re interested in.” She tapped the spot again. “That’s when things will start to come together for you. You will impress him and he will change his mind.”
Without another word, he pulled change out of his pocket and threw three silvers into her pail. It was followed by a shower of coins from his friends, tink ta tink tink tink tink ta tink, who waited in line to be the next to have his palm read.
A crowd soon formed to watch. People put coppers into her pail just to watch her read other people’s palms. Just like in Iascond, she was attracting a following.
The hooked-nosed man walked through every fifteen minutes to check that state of things. Three checks passed quickly, but Anla wasn’t interested in spending the rest of her night in the cell. Her shoulders and arms were aching and she would prefer to sit.
After her last reading, she pressed her fingertips to her temples, then rubbed her eyes. “It hurts to read in this light. I’m sorry, but I don’t think I can do any more.”
The crowd around her cell gave dismayed sighs. One man looked at the box below the pail and said, “She doesn’t have much left! Just a gold and a half. Do you think you could do it if we moved you across the street?”
“Oh,” she said, “that’s so thoughtful. Yes, I think if I was in better light, I could see people’s hands more clearly and wouldn’t have this headache.”
“Fifteen silvers, ladies and gentlemen.” He held out his hands and used them to collect the necessary money, flooding the pail before calling the man over. “Sir! I think she’s ready to be freed!”
The hook-nosed man walked over, pulled the coins out from below, and counted them quickly. “Aye, this lassie is free!” he said. The crowd clapped and he made a show of pulling out the right key off of a ring and opening the cell door.
The rest of the evening was more comfortable. She was moved inside the Sea Moss Beard and her crowd took up several tables, ordering beers and wine. They gave her a Chieri Rose after she complained she was getting hoarse. She wouldn’t dare take anything stronger, since there was a reason why she had switched to runes long ago; men often took her tracing of their hands as a caress and tried to interest her in making more coin on the side. She doubted any in this group would try it, but she also never gave her full trust to strangers.
Ladies and men both sat in front of her and paid ten times the amount she normally charged. Someone had scooped out a plant and gave her a pot to put her coins while she tended to the spirits.
It was late in the night, sometime shortly past the bells from the temple, that Anla stifled a yawn into a deep sigh. “I feel the spirits may leave me soon,” she said. “I can take one more person.”
Some walked away in disappointment, but a few stayed to see her take on her last client, a young woman seeking love like many had throughout the evening. She stood and bowed in gratefulness when she was finished and stepped outside into the fresh air.
The wind picked up and whipped a salty, warm breeze around her as she began the long walk back to the hotel. I wasn’t strong enough to put out the torches that lined the districts still in business. Some stepped in line behind her, then walked next to her. “You almost had me fooled,” the woman said.
It was Birgetha and she didn’t sound pleased. Anla said nothing and let her continue. “That helpless lost mousie act, ‘oh, I don’t know anything about what’s going on’, then that. I can’t recall a time I’ve seen a woman get released that fast, even if she’d worked with us before.”
Much to Anla’s relief, Birgetha laughed. “You are some hustler. Are you actually a piscarin or a really good fake?”
“Isn’t it the same?” she asked and Birgetha laughed again.
“Mmm. I like you. It’s been a while since we’ve had a good, convincing piscarin in our show. And you’re pretty to boot. We’d have to change your look, make you into a proper Kitstuaran moon girl, but you could make a lot here in Calaba. Are you interested?”
Anla gave it a few moments, to appear as if she were giving the thought some gravity. “I appreciate the offer, but I actually am married. We do a lot of traveling, so we wouldn’t be able to stay in Calaba for very long.”
“Sad to hear it. When are you leaving?”
“The day after tomorrow.”
She held out a pouch. When Anla went to take it, she yanked it back a few inches. “This comes with an agreement. The entertainment in this town is run by one company and we don’t appreciate any encroachment. No more piscarin stuff, unless you want to join us. You savvy?”
She reached out and took the pouch. “I’m savvy. I was thinking about enjoying a leisurely day by the water anyway.”
“I’m glad we understand. Enjoy your stay in Calaba.”
Anla placed the pouch inside the pot and held it in front of her. The streets were quiet. There were a few stragglers meandering on the wooden walkway or dozing on the benches, but mostly everyone was inside the pubs or in their hotels asleep. She began to relax and enjoy the evening when a man stood up from a bench and approached her. “Hello, miss. Lovely night for a stroll.”
“It is,” she replied.
He matched her step, then tapped on the side of the pot. “Do you need any help carrying that back to your room?”
She gave him a hard smile. “No, thank you. It’s not much farther for me.”
“Oh, where are you staying?”
“I don’t remember the name. It’s not far from here, on Collins Street,” she lied. She took a deep breath and forced her shoulders to relax.
“I’m staying at the Mermaid’s Purse right over there.” She tensed as he put his arm around her shoulder, to turn her body to see it. “Come for a drink with me. I’ll buy, and you can be on your merry way to your place afterwards.”
“No, thank you.”
“Why not?” He moved to stand in front of her, walking backwards and slowing her pace. She didn’t care for how his muddy brown eyes were watching her, the way that she had seen con artists look at marks. “It’s a lovely evening. I’m giving you a free drink and asking nothing more from you than your company.” He stopped. “Is it because you think I’m homely?”
“No,” she said. “It’s because I’m married.”
“Married?” he said, chuckling. He grabbed her hand and held it up. “Let me guess, you forgot your ring on your dresser? You don’t need to lie to me.”
Anla moved to her right, hoping her body language would be obvious enough. She was tired and wanted to go to sleep and didn’t want to have to explain to this fervid that she wouldn’t have been interested even if she were in the best of moods.
He darted in front of her, halting her movement again. “Why won’t you at least tell me…” He looked beyond her and startled before turning tail and leaving as quickly as he had come.
While she was afraid to turn and see what has spooked him, she was more curious. Not ten feet behind her stood Raulin, his hands moving away from the knives he had just sheathed. He caught up to her and waited for her to move.
“Thank you,” she said, but he didn’t give any reply. Nor did he say anything on the way home. He was walking in his sharp and attentive way, the one he had adopted as soon as he had stopped speaking to them. They walked to the Dusty Lantern in silence, without incident and without camaraderie.
They climbed the stairs to the shared hallway. She stopped before entering her room and turned to face Raulin. “I miss the old you,” she said before she went in.