Kerrana’s heart was drumming in her ears as she followed the healer through the bazaar in full veils. She had exchanged her robe for one of her mother’s grey ones and looked like a widow. No one would spare her a glance. It was respectable to be a widow, and the men believed it would bring them bad luck to ogle a respectable woman. It worked in their favour.
“Watch out! The curse-born are amongst us! Watch out!” an old beggar-priest shouted to a small crowd. Since when had this topic become so dominant? There were even posters the capital officials had come to put up the other day, reading things like: “Beware of the stench of fish”, “Don’t let their songs ensnare you” or “In league with the enemy – shame on the mothers of water vixens.”
Kerrana felt scared.
They ducked away from a pet dragon’s flame that singed a sign saying “no weapons and combat magic allowed” and entered the caravanserai, the most prominent building of the bazaar. With its many stories whose embellishments showed the changing of styles through the times, it towered over the bazaar. It must be a marvellous view from up there, the cluster of rooftops and the fabric roofs running between them, shading the narrow streets so the sun barely touched the ground. Here, it was, not exactly cool, but bearable. The city had stood its ground for centuries, if not more and the foundation of the bazaar was older than even the temple. It was whispered that down in the dungeons, even old murals of the water tribe remained. Of her tribe. Before they were banished and cursed.
They made their way through the tavern, inquiring after the travellers in town. Money changed hands and they were given directions to a certain northern gentleman’s quarters. As they passed out again into the large square that was surrounded by the caravan quarters, Kerrana found herself holding onto her sister’s amulet again. There was a queasiness in her stomach that had nothing to do with her water tribe infliction or the coming-of-age ceremony or the fact her mother wasn’t her mother any more. If things went according to plan, she would be married to a man she’d never met. “Only for practical reasons,” she told herself. But emotions weren’t usually practical-minded.
The square was filled with camels and desert lizards and other means of transport. Fabric-roofs held up by sticks sheltered the camel boys from the sun as they passed the time watching their charges with a little gambling. Their laughter echoed across the yard. Hovering high above was the red cloud buffalo that had broken their laundry line. If only she’d known, she would have made a different wish. For a wild moment she considered running over to catch its shadow but that certainly lacked dignity.
After making sure no one paid them any heed, they entered the arch to the front patio of the traveller’s abode. The healer knocked.
“You stay here,” she told Kerrana who sat down in a shady corner of the patio where she would not be seen from the outside. A string of profanities followed by steps could be heard inside.
“Who is there?” a voice barked. Kerrana all but jumped.
“It’s me, Amba the healer.”
“What do you want?” The voice sounded hostile, at best.
Kerrana snatched the healer’s hand. “Is there nobody else?” she whispered, gripped with fear.
“No one I can hope to bargain into this that I can at the same time trust to keep his end, no.” She peeled the younger one’s fingers off.
“I have a business proposition for you,” she said aloud. A few clanks from the inside and the door opened. Kerrana caught a glimpse of a face before the door shut again. She heaved a sigh of relief. At least, he was young.
The door closed and Kerrana was left to wait. Her head turned with questions and no answers and her skin started itching despite the moist bandages. She sang under her breath to calm herself.
The shadows wandered a good deal before anything was heard from within. Then the door opened and the healer motioned for her to come in. “He wants to see you before agreeing to anything.”
Her sight blurred again from getting up too fast as she was pulled in. After she had blinked the blackness away she realized she must have stood right in front of the man for a long moment. His green eyes startled her. He stood there, looking at her slightly impatient with tousled hair, the hint of a beard and a curiously curved set of ears. “The keen-eared of the northern mountain passes,” she whispered under her breath. She cleared her throat and, hands shaking slightly, lifted up her veil over her head. She’d never felt as bare in her whole life and the embarrassment crept up in her cheeks as she looked down on the books spread on a thread-bare carpet. “A scholar,” the healer had told her.A stretched silence ensued. Then the man said brusquely: “You’re a fish, I see.” Kerrana’s eyes shot up. They’d agreed there was no need to tell him! Again, his green eyes startled her. She threw an accusing glance at Amba, but the healer just slightly shook her head.
“Or the cat has gotten your tongue?” the man proposed. Kerrana registered the wicked amusement in his eyes as he threw a fluffy brown lock from his face with a flick of his head. He was making fun of her! The blush of embarrassment changed into a flush of anger. Unfortunately, anger did not tend to make her more eloquent.
“Of... Of course I can talk!” she blabbed.
“Alright, it’s a bargain.”
Kerrana stood gaping as her fate was sealed with a magic oath between the healer and the traveller.
“I don’t even know your name!” Kerrana finally managed incredulously. She didn’t know how she felt about marrying a man whose only requirement in a woman was that she could talk. Then again, maybe she should be glad.
“It’s only a bargain. Not a real marriage,” she reminded herself.
“It’s Sanjeer. Sanjeer Serav. Will you do me the honour of becoming my wife?” he said. Again, he was teasing her.