Harun eyed the soaking gunny sack distastefully, the piercings in his left brow and bottom lip shifting as his face settled into a frown.
"Cleaner work, Valya." He said simply. "It makes all the difference."
"Not when it's the sort of job that requires a drink both before and after."
"Fair enough." The tradesman produced fifteen shards. Val was almost too tired to count but knew that he would not swindle her anyway. Not because of any code of honour - their kind rarely had any to spare when money was involved - but simply because she was one of the few other mixed-bloods left alive, let alone one of the few willing to brave the deeper parts of the forest skirting the village. She knew he wouldn't chance defrauding her and losing her services when the spoils she brought in formed the bulk of his business.
It was in the grotto of the foliage just outside their little shanty village where the best secrets were kept. Secrets the authorities preferred not to divulge to the regular citizens but whose sustenance provided valuables worth the risk. They'd discovered these by themselves, when desperation and madness drove them into the thickets. In the darkness of the forest lurked creatures of myth and lore whose organs and marrow and bone were highly sought after by the merchants that passed through from village to village, circulating the black market. They were the heart that kept the human colonies alive when the scant monthly rations delivered by the Sarion High Court wasn't enough to sustain them. It was well worth the risk of venturing to the woodlands even if it was both illegal and dangerous.
Well, it was worth the risk when it wasn't Harun's neck tempting the hangman's noose.
But Val was disposable, unambitious in the ways of the cunning and he knew she only required honest payment. She knew a small part of him respected that. When the money exchanged hands, he cleared his throat.
Val looked down at the handful of shard-coins and studied them carefully. 'Coins' was an interesting word for them. They were certainly round. But they were not forged from precious metals or jewels like the currency used in the citadel. They were made from bone, cleaved from the bodies of the Razir -one third of the Triumvirate monsters that had enslaved humanity. On occasion, one would slip into the village and breach the patrol guard, usually leaving a trail of blood in their wake. And on occasion, a human might fight back, several more might be stirred up to join and a demon would be felled, taken skin for hide and bone for coin. That was how the black market currency began. Now it was a sport for merchants. Every coin and transaction represented a slap across the face to the citadel and their guard dogs. It was ironic, really. Proof of a death that carried with it a flicker of hope and promise of life.
"Val?" Harun's voice was neutral but Valya had known him long enough, one century to be exact, to pick up on the slight concern edging it's way into her name. She dropped the shards into her satchel and offered a lazy smile. She knew it did nothing to convince him.
"Tavi is doing alright. The medicine seems to be purchasing some relief from the pain. I've made arrangements for . . ." Her voice dropped to a confidential whisper. "For her to come and see him."
Harun's catlike green eyes widened. He was handsome and still bore the appearance of a boy no older than nineteen -a year younger than Valya in human years. His russet-brown skin and cheeky grin were only out of place in the sense of making him one of the most attractive men in a thousand yard radius. But his feline pupils were the only sign of his mixed Sarion heritage. That and the silver hair he constantly dyed to avoid attracting too much attention. But the eyes he could get away with. No one really maintained eye contact in the village of Shariat. Most of the villagers were hunched over by labour and dreariness, depleted of either the will or knowledge to seek out and recognize half breeds. And it had been several decades since the reapers had come looking for them anyway.
"Her?" He let out a low whistle. His eyes briefly darted to the waiting line behind Val, and when he was satisfied that no one was eavesdropping, he replied softly. "You can't be serious. You're really putting your faith in that witch?"
"She is not a witch."
"I swear, everytime that crone steps foot onto this soil, the birds retreat for weeks. Even animals know she's bad news."
"She's a healer, Harun. She uses the methods our ancestors did before we began relying on Sarion medicine." The words tasted of bile on her tongue. "Medicine that rarely works half the time and costs a month's wages. She offers her expertise for free and simply draws on the very soil you speak of to help people."
"She's odd. Something about her sends shivers up my spine. The bad kind."
"Funny. People used to say the exact same thing about us."
Harun's lips pressed tightly together. "It's your call. Your nephew, your money. Just be careful, alright?"
Technically, great-great-great nephew. But she appreciated the concern.
"I always am."
"And tell Tavi I said 'hi'. And that if he sprouts wings and gnarled talons or turns into a chamber pot or anything unseemly, tell him that I did warn you."
Valya chuckled. She knew he had more questions but understood there would be no time for their usual post-trade conversation. After a parting nod, the huntress made her way home.
"Aunt Val!" Despite the bone-deep exhaustion, Val couldn't keep the full grin off of her face at the sound of his voice. She'd barely stepped into their little single-roomed ramshackle house before her nephew tried rising to meet her. She quickly hung up her coat, slipped out of her boots and moved to greet him. It was getting harder for him to move around on his own. Recently, he'd been most comfortable just stretched out on the bed she'd managed to buy with the money she'd earned for her last hunt. Crudely built from oak, she'd done her best to make it as comfortable as possible with haystacks bound in hemp wraps and fur blankets. It had been expensive and Tavi had bitterly protested her purchasing it for him while she slept on the floor. But he'd become so fragile in the last few years that she wouldn't hear of it.
"How was the market?" Val leaned over and kissed the top of his grey head.
"Busier than usual. Harun sends his regards by the way. And a sage warning to stay away from the witch if you don't want to be turned into a chamber pot." She wiggled her eyebrows mischievously and Tavi laughed. The sound was immediately followed by a harsh, wracking cough and Val retrieved the waterskin kept beside the bed. After several sips, Tavi leaned back on the pillows, already tired. Val swallowed the lump in her throat and got up to find something to do.
"Aunt Val?" When she turned to face him, his face was beaming. She couldn't see the frail eighty-year old man with the leathery skin and balding head. She only saw the boy she'd raised from infancy, pink-cheeked and always smiling. She could still see him toddling around on stumpy legs, she could still remember the pride in his voice as he recalled his own first successful hunt. She could still feel his body heaving with sobs as she held him when his mother -her sister -abandoned them without so much as a goodbye. Tavi, the last living relative that she had left, had not inherited the gift of long life she and only a few others in their bloodline had been cursed with. He was all she had left and he was going to die.
"Aunt Val, it's going to be alright."
"That's why I'm bringing her here. To make it alright."
"Even if she can heal me from this illness. . . I won't be around for that much longer."
She shifted her weight from one foot to the other. This was a subject that had been brought up a thousand times before. It was not one she enjoyed discussing.
"I don't want to talk about it."
"You have to. Because you have to move passed this. Passed me. You need to begin thinking of yourself for once. I know you swore you would never have a family of your own and I understand why. But you have too much love in your heart to let it die with me."
"All I'm focusing on this moment is getting you well. Beyond that is none of my business let alone yours."
Before he could protest further, a knock sounded at the door. She'd arrived, the healer in whom she was placing all of her trust and hope. Val cleared her throat.
"Another time. We have a visitor."
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