Anina woke up before dawn, blinking away the remnants of a dream. The beams above her came into focus, and so did her plans for the day. She bit back a groan. A good night’s rest should have rejuvenated her, but she was still lethargic, her limbs too heavy to move.
Doubt crept into Anina's mind. What was the point of her journey? Sometimes it seemed that understanding her magic and getting answers weren't enough. These wouldn't bring back her family and her village. They wouldn't erase what she'd done.
Anina had dreamed again about that moment she had lashed her magic against the raiders. They'd been closing in on her, and she had magic-lashed anything she could pick up: fallen branches, pieces of rocks, broken pots. When she'd run out of those, she had resorted to the blocks of metal her village had been planning to sell. Heart racing, throat tight, Anina had lashed her magic through them with a fury borne out of fear. A horrible blast had knocked the living daylights out of her, and when she'd woken up, her entire village had been decimated.
Sano had said yesterday that Anina was risking her life by being with him, but perhaps it was the other way around. Maybe one of these days she’d lose her composure and unleash a lashing saturated with so much magic, King Bunawi wouldn’t be able to find a single piece of Sano if he tried.
Anina was a risk even to her own self. If her lashing had been powerful enough to obliterate her village, the rebound should have killed her. Those were the rules. So why was she still alive? Why had she never been as powerful again as she had been in that moment? What had caused that strange glitch in her magic?
A movement interrupted her thoughts. A corner of the curtain pulled back and Sano peeked through.
“Good morning!” Sano said in a bright whisper. “Is it time to find a job?”
Anina took a deep breath and prayed for patience. She couldn’t afford to be brash with Sano. He may be naive and callow, occasionally reckless, and the bearer of the worst misfortune that had befallen Anina in years – but unlike most people, he meant well. And for now, he was her only lead to the Hermit Mage.
Anina could never undo the past, but she could still ensure a safer future for herself. It would do her well to remember that.
Taking another deep breath, Anina mustered all of her will and finally pushed herself from her pallet.
When Sano and Anina entered the market, many vendors were already preparing for the day. The lodges led to the food section, and the air was saturated with the smell of garlic and steamed rice. Arranged in neat aisles before them, food vendors sat on blankets, selling fruits and vegetables. Others stood behind stalls where they cooked their specialty dishes.
“I’m going to get so fat here!” Sano declared.
Anina laughed. “You won’t. We won’t make that much money.”
They wove their way through the textile section, passing tables and crates overflowing with bundles of fabric as colourful as the food they had left behind. If Anina couldn’t find them a job elsewhere, they might end up here, but she didn’t prefer it. Most textile jobs didn’t pay much.
Instead, Anina took Sano to the woodworking sector, where they found themselves surrounded by stalls, tents, and piles of wood. The scent of freshly-shaved wood filled the air. Carving utensils glinted in the dawn light. The woodworkers milled about in dull grey aprons.
“Here,” Anina said. “This is where we’ll look for a job.”
She unwrapped her fighting staffs and inhaled deeply. She scanned the vendors to see whom among them she could persuade to accept some extra aid. She settled on a respectable-looking man who was just beginning to arrange his table.
“Good morning, sir,” Anina greeted in a soft, agreeable tone. The man continued to unload different types of scripted wood for his display. Anina tried again. Here in Gila, they preferred passionate, steady voices. “Good day, sir!”
The man finally looked up. “Oh, hello there. I’m still readying my stall but I’ll be with you in a moment.”
“Actually, I was wondering if you need any help for the day.” Anina offered the man her staffs so he could inspect her handiwork. “I am an experienced scripter. I scribe very quickly, and I can deliver effective anto scripts for almost any purpose.”
The man read the scribbling on the wood. Many of them were commands that Anina used while travelling, like manipulating the flow or temperature of air or water. She also had a command that filtered dirt from water so she could drink as long as there was a stream nearby. Both staffs also bore scripts for combat, like reinforcing the wood itself so it didn’t break whenever she deflected a blow.
The man returned Anina’s staffs. “Actually, I’m good for the day. I am training my son, and I think he could use the practice.”
Anina was about to thank him, when Sano sidled up in front of her. “Hello, good sir! I am certain your son will do a fine job, especially when he has such a great mentor! But my friend and I specialize in writing incredibly efficient scripts that can help you make more money by using less space. Take this for example.”
Anina stared in horror as Sano proceeded to point out all the flaws in the man’s displays, starting from how he was not reusing certain parts enough, or how he could replace some words with placeholders, or that a better phrasing of the command would make it shorter and require less magic to activate.
Sano was so focused on the scripts that he didn’t seem to hear the man protesting his observations. Anina snapped out of her shock, and shoved Sano aside.
“I’m so sorry!” Anina cried. The man scowled at them, hands curled into fists. His cheeks were red from Sano’s criticisms. “My, uh, cousin is not used to the ways of the market yet.”
“Seems like he’s not used to giving respect,” the man grumbled. Anina could only apologize again as she backed away, dragging Sano with her. The man, who had seemed so good-natured at the beginning, muttered “Katam idiots” before they were out of earshot. With hot shame spreading through her body, Anina pulled Sano away until they’d entered the next aisle.
“What’s the matter with you?” Anina snapped, suddenly burning with hostile energy. Her voice shook with the effort to keep it low. Yelling would only get them more unwanted attention.
Sano blinked. “I was just trying to help. I didn’t know the man would react that way.”
“You insulted him!” Anina shot back. Her face was numb with mortification. “You don’t talk to your superiors like that. We’re the ones looking for a job, and we need to impress these merchants enough to get one. You just told that man he has no idea what he’s writing. Do you understand why he’d be offended?”
Sano paled. “Yes... yes, I do. I’m so sorry.” He lowered his eyes. “I wanted him to need our help. It just didn’t come out right.”
Anina huffed. “Just let me do the talking from here on out.” She looked around the new aisle they entered, and began the painstaking process all over again.
They finally struck some luck when a merchant agreed to hire them for the entire day, with the sole condition that they were to stay in her tent, and not to speak to any of the customers. “Your accents are a little thick,” the merchant, whose name was Haraw, explained with resignation.
Anina agreed to the terms readily. “A day in the shade not talking to strangers,” she muttered, whipping out her knife from her belt. “Perfect.”
Throughout the day, all kinds of people strolled by Haraw’s stall – from nobility wearing the deep indigo popular among high-ranking Gilans, to merchants from different sections of the market, and even to slaves dressed in simple garb who purchased on behalf of their masters. Anina sometimes glimpsed foreigners from the Unconquered Lands and other nations of the archipelago.
Watching them come and go reminded her of her previous stay in Masagan. She had spent so many days just like this one, offering her services to anyone who would accept so she could eat at night and save a little for her travels.
Anina and Sano shared the tent with Haraw’s two children, both younger than them, who also helped with the commissions. Most of the customers came with household utensils, requesting certain scripts to be carved in them. Haraw and her sister managed the orders, while her husband sharpened carving knives behind the tent.
The day wore on, and Anina’s fingers began to hurt with the pressure of carving script after script. Haraw’s children took breaks, but Anina didn’t, except for when Haraw brought them sugared plantains on a stick for a midday meal. Anina discouraged Sano from taking additional breaks too. The last thing they needed was to have another vendor think they were idiots, or lazy, or something else equally unpleasant.
After they’d reached their quota of commissions and the other vendors began to pack up, Haraw decided to call it a day. Just as promised, she paid them each five grams of copper.
“I’m glad I took a risk on you both,” Haraw said. “You aren’t like other Katamans at all. You were even faster than the last helpers I hired, who were from Gila, and who only finished two-thirds of the quota you managed today.”
“Thank you. That means a lot,” Anina replied, the tightness in her chest slowly easing away. Haraw’s compliment watered down the potency of the man's insult from that morning.
Anina found herself much more relaxed when she led Sano back to the food sector to find dinner.
“We need five grams of copper a night to pay for rent,” she said. “That means we have five grams of copper to split between food and travel budget. Let's save three for travelling. Two grams of copper will get us a decent meal.”
Sano agreed, though he looked longingly at a simmering pot of beef tripe peanut curry, a delicacy in Gila. A bowl of that definitely cost more than a handful of copper.
“You’re right,” Sano sighed. He waved at the curry stall in a dramatic fashion. “Goodbye, curry! I promise I'll try you one day.”
They ended up purchasing a less savoury meal of garlic rice sprinkled with flakes of sun-dried salted herring. Anina thought it was fine, but Sano went overboard, declaring it absolutely delicious. It was obvious he was trying to hide his disappointment after she had crushed his hopes for peanut curry, but since she was in a much better mood, she endured his exuberance without complaining.
When they finished eating, Anina headed for their lodgings. Although their room was tiny, the thought of lying down and closing her eyes sent a wave of relief through her muscles. Being around so many people was exhausting.
“Are we retiring for the night already?” Sano asked.
“Yes. Don’t you want to yet?”
Sano gave her a tentative smile. “Actually I was thinking of exploring the market a bit. I would love to see more of it.”
Anina looked around at the half-empty market. Many of the remaining blankets were being rolled up, and the opened stalls didn’t look like they were going to stay open for long. “Now? There’s hardly anything to see now.”
“I don’t have time in the morning to roam around,” Sano countered. “This is probably the best time I have. You don’t have to come with me if you’re tired though.”
The thought of Sano going off alone made Anina’s palms sweat. What if he got lost? What if he tripped over a knife and impaled himself? “No, I’ll come along,” she decided.
Anina wasn’t much of a tour guide, but Sano didn’t need any commentary anyway. He gasped and gawked and gaped at the aisles they passed, even though all the best wares were packed away. The tables that displayed jewel-toned fabric that morning were mostly empty, but a few people lingered in the textile section. A group of women cleaned dye vats, and a few others rolled up leftover threads.
“Look!” Sano pointed ahead of them. There was a tiny table piled with cloths of faded beige and dry green and mud brown. Kataman colours. Anina had the urge to shrink away from it. Three young women sat behind the table, sisters judging by their looks. They chatted with an old man who did not seem very impressed. As Sano and Anina drew closer, she caught words from the conversation.
“...why would you think this is a good idea?” the man asked. He was old enough to be the girls’ grandfather, and his face was twisted into a mighty scowl. Anina gave him a wide berth.
“But good sir, last month you told us if we wanted to succeed in the market, we should weave something more original,” the tallest of the three girls answered. They seemed baffled, and the youngest-looking girl kept glancing left and right. The old man spoke a little too loudly even by Gilan standards.
The tall girl continued, “We wove those trendy Dayungan patterns last month, remember? The colourful, swirly kind. But you called us...” She trailed off, and the sister of middle height whispered, “Copycats.”
“And you thought I wanted to see Kataman colours and patterns instead?” The man’s voice had gone a few notes higher.
“Nobody else was selling them, good sir, so we thought your suggestion of originality would be a fine one to follow!”
“No, no, no!” The old man shook his head. “Don’t blame this on me! I said no such thing. I told you to be more creative, true, but what made you think these patterns would do well in a high-end market such as Masagan? What a foolish Kataman notion!”
“Er, aren’t you Kataman yourself?”
The man recoiled, snorted, and threw his chin up. “I’ll have you know that my great-grandfather happened to be a ferocious Gilan warrior!” He stomped off, head held high. The three girls followed him with their gazes, and when he disappeared into the thinning crowd, they turned their attention to Sano and Anina.
“Wow, what an old miser,” Sano mumbled.
The tallest girl sighed. “Ah, that's good old Sungid for you. Always makes a big fuss. Wonder how he manages his own stall, when he’s always poking his nose in others.”
“He’s right though.” Anina ran her hand across the soft cotton of the top fabric. “You wouldn’t get a lot of customers with this merchandise.” Katamans used to enjoy a muted sense of fashion that the rest of the kingdom deemed more appropriate for slaves. Crisscrossing lines in faded earth tones have quickly fallen out of favour in the last decade.
The tallest girl bit her lip, probably too shy to admit it was true. Then she gave Sano and Anina an endearing smile. “We don’t need many customers, just a few. Two, perhaps?”
Anina chuckled. “I’m sorry, but I don’t have any money.”
“We can offer you a discount,” the girl tried again.
Anina shook her head. Wearing Kataman fashion would make people think she was proud. She’d never get jobs that way. She was sorry enough she couldn’t hide her Kataman accent better.
The girl then turned to Sano, but he just smiled sadly. “Sorry, but I can’t afford to buy from you even with a discount. They’re beautiful though, and I think if my mother were here, she’d buy a bolt of fabric or two.”
“Well, I suppose that settles it then,” the tall girl said. “We’ll just have to weave Dayungan patterns again.”
The mid-height sister nodded. “It was just something we wanted to try. Things were going well back home when we last visited, so we decided to take the risk. But I suppose it’s time to go back to the usual.”
“Your family’s still in Katam?” Sano asked.
The tallest girl nodded again, as her sisters began packing up. “Yes, our family and relatives live in a village in central Katam. The crops haven’t been doing well lately, but last month, the village received...” She lowered her voice. “Luck baskets.”
“What are those?” Anina asked.
The girl made sure the vicinity was clear and answered in Kataman. “We heard from some other Katamans that sometimes a poor village will find food and other necessities in baskets. At first, people thought they were from travellers who misplaced them, but there’s been quite a few stories along the same lines, and I don’t think travellers are that careless.” Her eyes brightened. “Ours wasn’t even a basket at all. It was five huge sacks of rice grains! Left near the chief’s hut!”
The memory of Silim stashing away a basket of fruits flashed through Anina’s mind. She had also attributed coming across that basket to some strange stroke of luck, but what if something else had brought it in? Now that Anina thought about it, there had been rambutan among those fruits, and rambutan didn’t grow anywhere in the kingdom. Whoever was bringing those baskets to the Kataman villages was taking the contents from somewhere else.
Sano and Anina bid the weavers goodbye. The sun had already set, and they made their way back to the longhouse under the bluish glow of Anina’s half-powered scripts. Sano babbled about the market, but through their long walk back to their room, and even long after she had settled down on the floor, Anina’s mind remained on the luck baskets.