A Reasonable Trade
Needle in... Needle out...
Needle in... Needle out...
Needle in... Needle out...
Needle in... Needle out...
Needle in... Needle out...
Needle in... Needle out...
Jorene threw her embroidery down with a disgusted sigh. "No one is going to want to buy me," She said, "I can't even make my best dress look good enough." She wanted to use those horrible phrases and words she learned from the men of the city, but she had to learn to watch her tongue. The lords and ladies would punish her, no doubt, if they heard.
Her mother, Daela, did her best to mask her broken heart, but the tears that began pooling in the corner of her eyes were unstoppable.
Jorene would be the second daughter
sold into slavery – into service – rather. That was the term that
the lords used. 'Service' wasn't forbidden by the pact of kingdoms.
Even the fact that those of the lowest caste must 'serve' for fourty
years were not law, but taxation. There was no chance for them to
make due for themselves, or start their own trade. Unless, of course,
they could buy themselves – a fanciful idea – but some tried to
fuck their way to freedom. If they sold enough children they could
buy into the ninth caste and start a business. Or fail and return to
the tenth, spending the rest of their days in 'service'.
"I'm sorry, mother," Jorene said, picking up the old dress and silver thread; She knew that they had saved to buy it so, "I... I can do this."
Daela dabbed her eyes with a dirty rag and left the kitchen, stained skirts swishing as the went to her bed in the corner.
She returned moments later with a small coinpurse of shiny green and violet fabric. Though it was aged and poorly patched, it was clearly once quite fine.
Jorene looked up from her needles and raised her left brow at the sound of metal coins dancing. "We have a little extra. It should be enough to buy a simple new one," Daela said. Careworn and ashen haired, she looked every bit as a matron one could be.
Her eyes lit up as she accepted the
purse in eager hands. "I'll clean the entire house!" She
said, bouncing to her feet. It wasn't untrue that she would rather
scrub every inch of their small hovel before sitting there, pricking
her fingers trying to embroider birds that turned out looking more
like odd fish.
"See Seamstress Arailene in the mid-city," Daela said, taking Jorene in her arms and squishing her face into her round bosom. "You remember her, don't you?"
Jorene looked up at her and nodded, and her mother thumbed a smudge from her cheek. "Tidy yourself up first, Jori, and pick something nice, dinner will be here when you are ready."
She raced to the mirror and basin that stood in the corner and hurriedly scrubbed her face clean.She pulled the cloth over her eyes and down her face in one final swoop. She looked into her eyes, slate in color, and remembered how she truly felt. The excitement of getting a new dress - something she hadn't had in four years - was melted away in memory that it is for dressing her up to be sold. Her copper hair hung loose and curling around her shoulders until tied it into a vaguely respectable bun.
She stopped and kissed her mother, who knelt by the cookpot in the fire, on the cheek before making her way out the door.
The lower city of Kelth-Michari was dark, and
the smell of sewage and refuse nearly knocked her over from the cold
contrast to her home. She checked the small dagger tucked away in her
belt - there were no guards in the low city. It sat at the very
bottom an ancient, teired quarry that was used to build the grand
cities of Dyfed and Algarond. The poorer you were, the deeper down
you lived. There were even deeper parts, but mostly they served as
massive labyrinthine cisterns for the rains and water that drained
from the upper cities. She preferred to think of it as just water,
The wide stairs at the end of the lower city were worn smooth from over a thousand of years of travel. Soon they would need to have the sculptors come and start recreating the edges before people begin sliding all the way down.
By the time she reached the top flight of the middle-city, she was winded. With a glance back at the undercity - Swathed in shadows as always - she heaved a sigh. It was a miserable existence, but she had always had her mother, father, and brother.
She made her way through the bustling streets of mid-city - known as Ethecari in official records. While far less shifty than in the low city – Tathecari - the merchants and folk moving about their daily business cast their distrustful glances at those not dressed as fine. Pickpockets were common, but knew better than to go near those who could afford their justice.
Arailene's shop was at the far end of the city, near the stairs to the upper city, where dwelt many lower nobles and those of the upper castes still beneath them. She pushed her way through the streets, paying no heed to the unsavory scowls and wayward elbows. Especially elbows, it was just days until she would go on display - a black eye wouldn't work out so well, and a dress alone wouldn't help her. Being thin, with her rather bold nose and sharp angular features, she wasn't quite the prettiest girl, but her skills in song and dance more than made up for it. The truth was that she was thankful she wasn't pretty. It's mostly the men who buy the pretty ones - and sometimes they're never seen again.
She crossed over a bridge that spanned over a narrow rivulet and quickly scurried around a corner, only to stop so quickly she nearly toppled forwards. He heart dropped to her stomach - there were none so unpleasant as the coterie of young nobles that approached. She quickly tried to turn away to dodge through an alleyway, but her eyes locked with Lord Val Dowitcher, the chinless, perpetually nettled fool. He gave a grin that split his face in two and rushed to her, beckoning his fellows to follow.
Before she could react - she was surround. She recognized the others, too; Lady Harain Wren, Lord Jome and his sister Lady Gerda Vireo, Lord Egaas Perula, and Lord Kels Ania. They circled her, wearing their smug smiles betrayed by the predatory gleam in their eyes.
Jorene gave them a sweeping curtsey. "If you'll excuse me, M'lord, M'lady." She said as she tried to slip through, but they tightened their semicircle shoulder to shoulder, leaving her back against a wall, themselves between her and the street.
"We caught ourselves a pidgeon!" Dowitcher said. "A pidgeon called a Kestral."
Jorene's blood froze. Pigeon was a harsh slur for those who fell fell beneath the seventh castes, but it was not the insult that caught her, but their recognition. Kestral was a spurned name – even three generations could not conceal the memory of their attemtpts to kill the king and usurp the throne.
Kels grabbed her by the shoulder and pushed her back while she
tried to slip through. "Did we dismiss you, pidgeon?"
Dowitcher said. Jorene dared not raise her eyes to meet his, lest the
fire in them earn her more of their wrath. She had spent the last
several months learning to control her temper, but this was one
moment she couldn't let it slip. "Well? Did we?" He
"You did not, my lord," She said softly as she dropped another curtsy.
"Well, aren't you going to apologize?"Lady Vireo said, her tones haughty.
"Yes, my lady, I apologize." Jorene replied. "I am running an important errand."
Lady Vireo raised her brow. "There is nothing a filthy pigeon could be up that can honestly be described as important." She said.
"My, look at that, Gerda, her purse!" Lord Dowitcher said, pointing at Jorene's belt. Her hands flew to her side, instinctively covering the small purse of coin and wandering towards her dagger. "It matches the green of your dress perfectly, she didn't steal it from you, did she?"
Lady Vireo let out a fake gasp of
astonishment, her eyes glimmering in malice. "Oh, what a tricky
pigeon." She said, jabbing her hand forward, palm up. "Give
Jorene backed all the way the wall, her temperance slipping, she struggled to keep her lips pressed tight and not slip into a snarl.
"Well?" Lord Dowitcher barked.
Jorene opened her mouth, unsure of what to say - but the fire that burnt away at her insides knew exactly what words it wanted. "Isn't it such a shame my grandfather's plot failed? He would have had had the Dowitcher line ended." She said, her fire turning to icy words. "The world would have been better without little shi-"
Before she could form the last syllable Val Dowitcher's hand sought her neck in a tight grip from his outstretched hand. Her hand shot to her blade, but Egaas was faster and pulled free her entire belt. She struggled and fought, but she could not escape. He could feel him starting to drag her as she struck out, her vision starting to waver. "I think she needs a bath." Dowitcher said. Another wave of horror came to her as she realized she was bringing her towards the drainwaters
"No!" Jorene cried, but all
that managed to come out was a strained squeak. She looked to the
other folk who were in the streets - those that did not turn away and
continue about their days gawked on. Fools, all of them - this is how
they get their power - people doing nothing. Her hearing was fading
and darkness crept deeper into her vision – all she wanted was to
Suddenly she fell to the stone ground with a loud grunt, taking deep breaths to make up for what was lost.
"How DARE you?" Dowitcher whined, "It is a crime to lay hand against the noble-blooded!"
Jorene looked up to see the commotion. A broad shouldered man garbed in armor of chains with a seaform green tabbard stood before the group of nobles. His head was shaven bald, and his flesh a dark olive - Varsunian by her best guess. The emblem in the center of his breast - three crescent moons around a blazing - marked him as a Celstion Knight. Warriors of legend in service to all the kingdoms, bringing balance and protection for all. Never had such principals been more needed.
The knight arched his brow at Dowitcher
and shook his head. "There are no laws you are above," He
said, "Though you may think you are exempt because of the graces
of your father," he continued. "Now, I don't know your true
intentions of what you were doing to the poor girl here, but I can
only assume the worst." His hazel eyes fell upon her. "Come
here, they cannot hurt you," he whispered.
Jorene scrambled to her feet and dusted off her skirts before standing at his side. She fought to keep her eyes down. She wanted to set them alight with her angry gaze.
"Our word here is the law,"
Harain said defiantly puffing her chest, "Our allegiance to the
Celstion is tentative at it's best."
The knight's brow shot up even further. "Oh? And do you seek to void the compact of nations, signed five hundred years ago to secure your own protection?" He said, "If you would like, I can bring you to the high council yourself - they would love to hear what you have to say on the subject."
The knight paused a moment, his mouth still open."Yes, even in Kelth-Micari the law remains that I can bring you before a tribunal - through force or by your own will."
Harain paled, but it did little to her
stature as her fists remained clenched at her side.
"Tell me, girl," The knight said, turning to Jorene, "From what I saw while down the road they took something from you."
"My belt, with blade and purse." Jorene said. Raising her eyes to find Gerda and point to her, who stood doe-eyed with her hands behind her back to hide ill-gotten prize.
The knight's polite smile slipped into a grimace as his attention turned to the deceitful noble. "You lot are truly pathetic," He said and he made his way to Gerda, standing before her in just two purposeful strides. He took her arms and tugged it forward, wringing the tattered belt from her hand.
"What right have you?" She gasped, raising her hand to strike the knight, but he caught her hand a fair distance from his face. She wrestled her hands free before shrieking "Ruffian!"
"Fool!" Her brother Jome said, drawing the rapier from his side. "How dare you lay a hand against my sister!"
Knight gaped at them. "What in the Black Moon's Shadow is wrong with you lot?" He muttered. "Indignation at being called for your own crimes? Have you truly gone so long without knowing right from wrong that you - those of the richest - will rob the poorest?" He shook his head and let his hand rest on the hilt of his sword.
"Come near me with that blade, Child. I dare you to," The knight continued, "I was sent to help these lands with relieving the banditry - I never thought to find it in the city."
Jome lowered his slender blade, but his scowl was just as sharp.
"Just leave, the lot of you."
The knight commanded. "It is a punishment of death to threaten a
Lord Knight of Celstion, and I'd rather not enact such a law and
stain the streets with filth."
Dowitcher sneered. "We will leave because you have bored us." He said, turning on point and gesturing the others to follow. The knight let slip a snorting laugh, which clearly bristled Dowitcher as his shoulders rose.
As they rounded the corner, the knight turned to Jorene with a concerned smile. "Are you well, child?" He said. "That fool had you by the neck pretty tight." He reached forward, touching her face and tilting her head up. She blushed more red than any rose - he was not an exceedingly handsome man, but his confidence, bravery, and apparent kindness stirred a sense of affection. "What is your name?" He asked. "Does it hurt to speak or swallow?"
"I'm Jorene," She said, "No, it just aches a fair bit. What is your name, Lord Knight?"
"My name is Amarna," He said with a wry smile, "And I am not a Lord Knight. I just stated the fact that it is indeed a crime to threaten one, up to one's death in some cases."
Jorene couldn't suppress the chuckle. The gall of this man. So many just stared and gawked - some even seemed excited to see a fight - but not brave Amarna. "How did you become a knight?" She asked.
Amarna shrugged. "I chose to initiate myself as a young boy - despite the tense relations between the Celstion and Varsune - my parents approved and sent me off with a merchant's caravan," He said, "Where are you going, I shall walk you there."
"Arailene's store - The Seven Needles." She replied. "I need to buy a dress... for a special occasion."
The tall man placed his hand on her shoulder and followed her lead. After a few moments she slowed her pace and looked to him. "Why are you here?" She asked.
"I came to chase off the bandits - as well as to figure out why there are so many more than there ever were," He said, casually, "But if what I had just witnessed is any indicator, than the problem is astonishingly clear."
Jorene nodded and made an affirmative sound, as if she understood what he meant. "Do you think I could ever be a knight?" She asked after a few more steps.
"It is possible," Amarna said after a moment's hesitation, "But one requires a sponsor, and the funds for their own equipment."
Jorene let out a sigh - perhaps she
would find a way, but it was unlikely. Surely a dress of steel costed
a fair bit more than a dress of shoddy cotton - and even that was a
stretch for her. "That's the shop," She said with
resignation. The small storefront held a sign in the shape of a
stylized spool of thread and carved with the name 'The Seven
Amarna turned to her and gave a graceful bow despite his armor, and stuck out his other hand which seemed to be clutching something. Jorene placed her open palm beneath his hand and he dropped three large, jeweled rings. Jorene's eyes bulged and she tried to speak but the words tangled as they left her mouth. Surely they were surely worth more than her family had ever owned - though the glee was slightly marred by that the thought that it still wasn't enough to buy her from servitude.
"Where did you get these?" She said after a moment, turning them over in her hand. "Why did you give them to me?"
Amarna gave her a sly grin."When that girl slapped me and I caught her hand, they slipped free," He said, "Her fat-fingered mother isn't going to be too terribly pleased with her when she finds that she lost them." Amarna tilted his head, contemplating. "I'd recommend prying the gems and having the gold melted down. I hate to admit that I learned that from the bandit's I've been hunting."
Jorene nodded and clutched the rings to
her chest. She could feel tears starting to well in her eyes. "You
are a hero to me, Amarna," She said softly, "I don't know
how I could ever repay what you've done - would you like to join my
family for dinner? It would be an honor for us all.""
"Thank you, child, But I must resume my patrols on the Greenmarch road this night,"Amarna said, his grin spread into a beaming smile. "Do good things, girl. Be a kind person and raise up those around you," He said, thumbing her cheek, which brought blushing to her face once more, "That is all I can ask of you."
She bowed her head, both hands folded over her chest.
"Though I have one question," Amarna said abruptly, "Might you know the location of a shop owned by Hulas Finch? I had recovered some property of his."
Jorene turned, acqaunting her directions for a moment before pointing eastward towards the stairs further up. "It's on a road called 'Moth-haven', he is a kind man." She said.
Amarna patted her on her shoulder and said "May Annoura guard you and Tanaru guide you." He turned away and strode in the direction she had pointed. She let out a heavy sigh and let her shoulders slump before entering the seamstress' shop.
The door creaked open with the
chiming of a bell, bright lamplight spilled out, causing her to
"Welcome - Is it?" Arailene exclaimed, "Jorene! How lovely it is to see you!" She rushed to her, Emerald green skirts swishing and white-streaked golden curls bouncing in excitement. She was an imposing woman - tall with strong features. Few knew the reason for the thin gloves she always wore; the deep burns brought by her old master's jealousy. He would have faced no penalty if she had not... garnered much favor with a rival lord who blackmailed him into paying her off.
Before Jorene could could even respond, Arailene had her up in the air in a tight embrace, planting kisses on her cheeks. She laughed, setting her back down. "I apologize my dear Jori, I forget you're not a little thing anymore - though the last time we met - you were." Arailene said, rubbing her back.
She looked around the shop - many different dresses sat on carved wooden forms. All colors and styles, some simple and others solid embroidery. There were a number of men's coats along the other wall as well in just as wide a variety. "Business must be well," Jorene said with a smile, "Your work is beautiful!"
Arailene frowned and tilted her head before shaking it. "Alas, we've been a bit slow. All you see is what I've been meaning to sell," She said quietly, looking at the two girls who sat in the corner conversing as they stitched together panels of fabric. "Cotton has doubled in price, wool nearly so," She continued. "Silk is up to four times it's previous cost. But it is no matter for you - I know what comes in two days. Stand back at let me take a look at you."
The smile gave quickly faded as she looked Jorene over."What happened to your neck?" She said, again rushing to her - this time pushing her chin up to better see.
"I was mugged." Jorene said truthfully. "But a nearby stranger was kind enough to help."
Red hot anger flashed on Arailene's face, quickly replaced with relief. "While I am glad you're alive, there is a fair chance will bruise," She muttered knowingly, "We'll need to get you a high necked dress"
Jorene shrugged. "You're the expert," She replied, giving her a feigned excited smile, "Let's see what you've got!"
Of the many dresses she had - there were few Jorene liked actually on herself. Some were either quite unflattering in figure or otherwise left her looking washed out - as most lighter colors did with her pale complexion.
After what felt to be well over an hour Arailene brought another dress from the back. It was blue as dark as the night, with swirls and stars of silver detailed from shoulder to elbow and at the hips. As Arailene looped the last button at the neck in front of the tall mirror, Jorene smiled. It was nearly perfect, needing only two small alterations to accommodate her height and less than feminine figure.
"Come by tomorrow, and it will be ready. You can pay me then." Arailene said, beaming as Jorene put on her old dress and made her way for the door. "And send your mother my love until then!"
The bell jingled and she stepped out into the cold streets. The sudden contrast felt as if all the light in the world guttered out once more. Bitter cold air, wary stares, and the sinking weight of the high city looming over them in the pit.
She pulled her cloak shut and hurried
through the streets, keeping her eyes down until she slipped through
the creaking door of her home. Seeing her brother and father's
smiling faces brought more warmth to her than the crackling fire. The
two looked quite alike, though her father was seeming more gaunt
these days with a worsening cough – as was known to happen to
stonemasons in their later years.
Before the cloak left her shoulders, her mother had starting pouring her bowl of stew and eagerly asking if she found something she liked for the auction.
"Yes, I'll be picking it up tomorrow." Jorene said, pulling a seat at the table. She looked to her family, who smiled back at her. Smiles that veiled the pain, wrought by tradition.
"Well, I'm sure you'll be the prettiest by far." Her mother said. She settled into her seat and tore off a chunk of the stale bread and tossed it to her. It wasn't true – She had seen enough mirrors to know.
"Assuming she doesn't bite anyone." Said her brother – who like her fell degree short of handsome. But he was strong, serving tirelessly in the city watch. It was not all that often that he had a free day to dine with his family – he probably wanted to bid her farewell. She didn't know who would buy her – where they lived or what she would do; or if she would ever see her family again after the second day passed, just like her sister serving some far off estate.
The thoughts consumed her as she found herself staring bleakly into her stew. What WILL she be doing? What life would she be living, a servant? A cook or scullery maid? She'd rather take up blade and watch the city with her brother – but the only reason he was able to obtain such a position with a cursed name as theirs was through great favor with a captain.
"Jorene?" Rung her father's voice. She looked up to find them all staring at her, concerned. "I'm fairly sure I made a daughter and not a sculpture."
Jorene cracked a faint smile and began to spoon the stew into her mouth - it had already grown cold.
Her family resumed their conversation and she half listened, giving them the ocassional nod or chuckle depending on everyone else's reaction. After the food was gone and merriment had calmed down she pardoned herself. "I am going to rest," She said, "It was nice seeing you again, Kalas." She got on her tiptoes and gave her brother a kiss on the cheek before giving the same to her mother and father.
They continued their conversation quietly while she lifted the tatty blanket and curled up on the old straw mattress. Part of her wanted to laugh at the idea of missing such an uncomfortable and unpleasant thing.
She lay there, her eyes closed while time slipped by. The conversation passed into quiet contemplations, and soon after they retired; her mother coming to her bedside, lingering for a moment before giving her a gentle kiss on the cheek and walking over to her and father's bed. Kalas slept on the threadbare rug by the ember-filled fireplace, already snoring quite loudly.
All the while, her mind bounced wildly.
The thought of being bought up by house Dowitcher burned in her mind.
They had to wealth to buy the entire market if they wanted. The
thought frightened her, and she rolled over. Then rolled again. The
cycle repeated until surely the hour had fallen between the mid of
night and the waking hours. She sat at the edge of her bed and looked
around the room - all were asleep. Her fingers wrapped around the
three jeweled rings that still hid in her beltpouch, which she then
placed on her pillow. Her family would only get a small fraction of
what she was actually bought for - their value may well be more than
what they would get from her sale- she didn't know.
Much to her chagrin, her ankle let out a crack as she tried to sneak across the room to where her brother's gear lay. She spied the sheathed sword and gently pulled it away from the padded leather armor. Her shoes – clunky and leather but tough - were waiting by the door along with her cloak.
She was going to track down that knight - and he was going to take her to the Celstion one way or another.