The First One's Free! - Chapter 1 of My Story For Your Perusal

Hey there everyone. I recent wrapped a new draft of this massive novel (think 150,000 words) that I've been working on for over a decade. It's a story that I've had in mind for a long time and no one aside from myself has read any of it.

Until now!

Here on this site, I'm going to post the entire first chapter so people have a chance to read it. I want and hope that people read it and that there can be some great feedback from this. If you do read, first of all thank you so much for doing that. Second of all, if you want to give me feedback and are interested in being a beta reader or, even better, a sensitivity reader, please reach out to me on Twitter @benergizer1 and hit me up. This story is very long, so being a reader for a story like this is a huge ask, but I would genuinely appreciate it beyond what words can really say.

I did my best to give the dramatis personae diversity, because I find a book where the majority of the cast is white men typically very boring to read and incredibly boring to write. However, as a white man myself, I fully admit that my visions for these characters may fall into bad and harmful stereotypes that I am blind to. So if someone with more of an eye for these things than what I have would be willing to help, I would be forever in your debt for making my story better.

And now on with the show!





“Stop, thief!”

Ewan didn’t stop, of course. He wasn’t an idiot. He kept running as fast as he could, pushing through the crowd of people when he couldn’t get around them. They called him all sorts of things in all sorts of languages, but he wouldn’t have apologized even if he wasn't being chased. There just wasn’t enough time in the day to be sorry about everything, and a few bruises or bumps was really not much to apologize for.

He stuffed his prize away down the front of his shirt. He didn’t need to risk dropping it as he ran and spoiling the whole thing. What a waste of time that would turn out to be. As he did, he elbowed past an old man who was walking along the side of the road and knocked him off his feet. The man hit the ground on his backside and hollered something about kids his age having no respect, the same sort of stupid thing they always said.

He had to get off the street, if he got out of sight he could lose the guards. But the street was not the only place that was crowded. Every alley he turned to run down was packed with people, auto-carts, or with a street vendor’s booth, everything was packed in and full, every bit of street was being used by someone for something. So he had to keep running. And the whole time, he kept hearing the shouts from behind him.

“Stop! Stop that boy!”

No one did, of course. They were all strangers here, they had no reason to try and stop him, it wasn’t their business, it wasn’t their things that had been stolen. In fact, a few of them got out of his way as he approached, probably afraid that he would steal something from them as well. He was a bogeyman with sticky fingers, something everyone in a crowd like this was afraid of running into.

His legs were starting to ache a bit, but it was pretty easy to keep running. He was used to running. Plus, he knew what would happen if he got caught. When you had a jail cell on one side and a guard’s baton on the other, running away was easy. The problem was figuring out where to go. He had already passed by a few of his favorite spots to get out of sight in, and they weren’t options. So he just needed to keep running until he figured out what options he had left. There were not many places left in the city that he knew where and how to get to that the guards would not be able to follow him.

There were two guards chasing him, Loomis and Oliver. Oliver was big, round, and couldn’t run much faster than a zebu could in anything but a straight line. He was hard to dodge around, though, and he didn’t give up easily; Ewan could hear him panting and gasping between shouts, and he could imagine his face lit up even more red than usual. The other one, he was the reason Ewan had to run fast. Loomis was mean, he was thin and quick on his feet, and there was nothing he enjoyed more than busting Ewan for stealing something. It was almost like that was his job. He didn’t shout as much as Oliver did while they were chasing him, but when he did he always sounded closer than he was before.

“Grab him! Stop that thief!”

Something struck Ewan on the side of his head, a stray elbow, maybe an outstretched arm. He stumbled forward and couldn’t get his feet flat again, so he fell into the street. He did not fall all the way down though; his body was used to being knocked down, it knew what to do. He hit and folded up and rolled to his feet with one motion. When he got up, he could taste blood in his mouth, like he had just licked something made of iron. He wiped his mouth off with the back of his hand and started running again. He wasn’t sure what had hit him, but he was not about to let it stop him. An auto-cart rumbled out in front of him, its driver waving at him to stop, but Ewan wasn’t about to listen to him, either. He put his arms out and braced himself for the impact against the cart’s wood and metal side, then kicked his feet down and went into a slide. There was enough room under the cart for him to fit if he were on his back or belly, so he slid along underneath it and popped back up to his feet on the other side.

The street he ran through met another just ahead, the intersection was even more crowded than the street itself was. It was the perfect place to get away from the guards. If he did not get lost in the crowd, maybe he could get lost up or down the other street. Maybe if he turned the right way, he could reach the edge of the city and get out. If he got out of the city, maybe he could find somewhere else to lay low for a while.

He would never do that, though. This was his city, he’d been born here and he had lived his whole life, and he’d probably wind up dying here, too.

Ewan started running again. The intersection was just a few strides away, he was almost there. And then he was hit again, this time in the face. The hit was so hard that his teeth rattled together, and this time he did fall, launched forward by his own momentum. His face hit the ground and slashes of pain dug into it as he slid a good few spans before stopping completely. He got his hands down on the ground to push himself back up to his feet before something hit him across the back to knock him down again. A weight planted itself in the middle of his back and kept him from getting up at all.

“Don’t move!” The voice said loud and clear from above him. A voice he knew and had hoped to never hear in a time and place like this. He groaned, but he didn’t move.

Two other voices came panting up behind him, standing right over him after a moment of catching their breath. “You got him, Chief.” One, a heavier, wet voice said. “You got him.”

“Good work, Chief.” The other voice, a thinner, nastier voice said.

“It was luck.” The Chief said. Her voice was clear and strong, the sort of voice that was easy to pick out of a crowd like the one they were in. And a voice that didn’t take any crap from him or anyone else. “Now, fill me in. What happened, and what did he steal?”

“Caught him pulling the purse from someone down in the main market by the food shops.” The heavy voice said. “Soon as I tried to call him out, he bolted.”

“He’s a quick little bastard boy, this one.” The thin voice sneered.

“Easy, Loomis.” The Chief said.

“What? I’m not wrong, his old man-”

“It’s not his fault what his parents did, Loomis. What is his fault,” Strong hands grabbed Ewan’s arms and hauled him up to his feet. He was face-to-face with the Chief. She was taller than he was, wore a uniform with leather armor sewn in, had her dark hair trimmed almost to her scalp, and always seemed to be scowling, making her sepia-toned jaw and forehead flush a more russet color. In fact, she always looked ready to rip him in half whenever they happened to meet up. Of course part of that was him being around her daughter, but still. She also only had one real arm, her right; her left arm was a weird construction of bones and metal and wood. That was probably what she had hit him with. It always weirded him out, it didn’t look at all real, yet it moved and acted like it was.

“What is his fault is stealing from a visitor to our city.” She poked the spot on his chest where his stolen goods was hiding with one of her fake fingers. “Give it up.”

Ewan looked at her from under his brows. He could feel blood running down his face from where it had scraped on the ground. His back hurt where she had put her boot down to keep him from getting up. The knot on the back of his head where she had hit him was already throbbing and making his eyes hurt. None of that made him want to do what she said. So he stood still and did nothing.

She sighed through her nose, then jammed her right hand down into his shirt to retrieve the coin purse. She shook it around to hear the gold inside then nodded, her mouth a grim line. “Loomis, take him to the station. Oliver, get this back to its owner.” She tossed the big guard the purse. “This day’s already long enough without you causing trouble, Ewan. You’re going to spend some time in the cell to think about what else you could do around town that wouldn’t make me angry with you. I’ll figure out what to do with you later.”

“Keeping me all for yourself, then huh?” Ewan said to her. He smirked. “Didn’t Lilith tell you I’m not that kinda boy?”

The Chief looked at him for a moment, nostrils flaring and eyes wide with anger. But she just gestured to Loomis, the skinny guard behind him. “Get him out of here.”

Loomis grabbed Ewan’s arm with one tawny bronze hand and hauled him over with force enough to almost pull him off of his feet. “With pleasure.”

Ewan had won. Getting that kind of reaction out of the Chief, that was always worth it. He walked along beside and a bit behind of Loomis, the skinny guard growling and grumbling about the boy making him run across the city, and pondered how he could escape. Loomis was not a particularly strong man, not as strong as the Chief or his counterpart Oliver was. He was pretty quick on his feet though, so Ewan had to plan ahead a bit. It was going to be a long walk to reach the guard station where the jail was, almost all the way across the city, and eventually Loomis would make a mistake. Maybe he would loosen his grip for a moment, or maybe he wouldn’t be watching closely enough. Then, Ewan could make a break for it.

But where would he go? That’s what he needed to figure out now. There were people everyone, the parts of the city that were usually deserted were full of people now. It was the festival, or whatever you might want to call it. Market Season. It brought people in from all over the world to buy and sell and filled the city up to the point where it just about burst. Every hotel, tavern or rental home was occupied. Every formerly deserted or vacant lot had a dozen booths or tents thrown up in it. Even the abandoned buildings had squatters crouching in them for a few days while they were working. There was no place for him to go once he had escaped the guards, and he couldn’t just keep running, that didn’t work once, it certainly wouldn’t work twice.

Loomis yanked him around two groups of travelers who were walking along with a cart they had filled with metal implements, pots and pans and utensils and other such things. The auto-cart trundled along without a person or pack animal to pull it along, a dull purple glow denoting the magical energy that kept the wheels turning despite the heavy load stacked on top of it. It was not quite as well built as the one that Ewan had collided with, it looked like it had come from far away and taken quite a lot of wear and tear. Ewan almost pushed into the side of the cart so the things in it fell over to create a commotion, but Loomis was still too close and would probably just kick him or try to knock him down again to keep him from running away. He needed to be smart.

So Ewan waited, and watched. The streets were still thick with people, and people who were not taking much caution. He could see coin purses hanging out on belts and in hands that made his fingers itch. The city having such a close guard around to watch for pickpockets seemed to put them all at ease, which made it easy pickings for someone who could avoid the guards. It turned out that Ewan could not avoid the guards, at least not the first time around. There were too many guards around now, the entire force was out in, well, in force. Next time he would need to have a better plan than just to run away.

The fact that these people were from all over the world only made him angry. People traveled by foot, by wagon, riding on animals, drifting down the river or even driving up it against the current. They brought in their goods: food, metalworkings, jewelry, livestock, clothes, furniture, and of course plenty of gold to buy everything with. And there was so much, so many things, from so many places, all of it coming here, all of it stuffing the city full of strangers who were excited to be here and explore it like it was somehow a strange and mysterious place.

Ewan purposely stepped closer to Loomis and put his shoulder in the man’s side. He knew it would not hurt Loomis with the armor that Loomis was wearing, just like the armor that all of the guards wore, but he wanted to make a point. Loomis reacted as most people reacted to Ewan: swearing at him and then hitting him. Loomis’s hit was a cuff to the side of the head, which might not have hurt except that his face was still cut up and the bruise on the back of his head was still throbbing. But he wanted to take it, because he wanted to make sure that Loomis knew he wasn’t going to go quietly. Plus, he knew that if Loomis had an excuse to hit him he was going to take it, but maybe one hit was all he would be interested in. Now, he would act like he didn’t want to fight anymore, let Loomis think that he’d won.

So, while he waited for the ringing in his ears to stop, Ewan did a bit of looking around. Mainly he was looking for places to potentially run away from the guards, but he was also looking at what there was in this area to make his next target.

This area was full of vendors from foreign places, each of whom had set up temporary berths under canopies or on top of wooden stalls. All of them were brightly decorated with streamers and banners and rugs, trying to draw buyers in with color in the same way their voices tried to draw them in with shouts. Their language was sometimes broken, sometimes fluent, Ewan had no idea what other languages they were speaking in but it certainly wasn’t the one from around here. They knew enough Kaznian to get by though, enough to get people to respond to their shouting. The street was crowded with people standing shoulder to shoulder, looking into each vendor’s wares, bargaining for a cheaper price, hauling off their new goods to see what was offered further on to make room for the next in line.

Most of what was being bought it sold was not of much use to him, not worth the effort or risk. Useless trinkets, medicines or herbs, household decorations. It wasn’t worth nearly what people were paying for it, except that it came from somewhere far away which for some reason made it more desirable. Ewan would just as soon rather to go to one of these places, any of them, where these things could be had for much cheaper. Although it was not as if he was going to pay for them either way, at least when things were less expensive there was less a chance that the previous owner would raise a stink about it going missing.

Something that did catch his eye, though, was a single shop set up the block the mouth of an alleyway between two larger, old buildings. It was a booth with wooden walls on the sides, but none on the back, just a cloth curtain hanging down. And the top was a trio of suspended poles that had red and yellow cloth stretched across, but not cloth like the sort usually bought or sold here in the city, it was not rough leather or wool. This was smooth and shiny, so fine that the sunlight danced off of it like water. And the booth itself was stocked with more of this fabric, bolts and bolts of it, of all sorts of colors as well, not just red and yellow. There was blue, orange, pink, green, and of course the deepest, most royal purple. From what Ewan saw, it was being sold for a very reasonable price, so the booth was swarming with patrons.

But it was not just the wares or the busyness that caught his eye. It was the person running the booth. All alone there was a girl, running back and forth to bring out what people asked for and to take their money away. She was dressed in a very humble outfit considering the colors and quality of her wares, just a dull red and brown layered cloak that draped all around her like she was worried about being burned by the sun. And despite her busyness, running all around and people constantly shouting at her or to her she did not look tired or angry. But, she was fully occupied and distracted.

A plan started to form in the back of Ewan’s mind.

He looked around the street again. All he needed was a suitable distraction, something to take Loomis’s attention away from him for even just a moment. With such a crowded street, there were all sorts of opportunities. But he knew Loomis, and he knew that Loomis hated only one thing more than Ewan himself: charlatans. Fakes. Frauds. If he could just find one with possible cause here on the street, Loomis would not be able to resist a good bought of righteous anger. And then…

“Here we have the treasures, magics of the Shintain realm! Come see, some see, there are things here of all sorts, for whatever ails you! A crystal to take away your aches, a bit of herb to ease your mind, some of this and of that! Magical implements, brought to you from far away to relieve you of your troubles!”

“Hey Loomis.” Ewan said, just loud enough to be heard over the crowd. “You hear all that?”

Loomis grunted something without words and kept walking, pulling Ewan along with him. But Ewan could see his narrow cheek flush with anger.

“You’re gonna let him get away with that?” Ewan asked, sounding as sincere as he could manage. “You bust me for stealing one gold purse and you let him get away with stealing gold from everyone? Not very good at your job, are you?”

“Quiet, thief!” Loomis snarled at him. He focused forward with such an intensity that Ewan knew he had him on the hook. All he needed to do was reel him in.

“Look, we’ve got to go all the way across town to reach the jail, with these crowds it’s gonna take all day. Why don’t we just stop right now and you can toss that guy out and then we’ll start walking again after.” Ewan paused for just a moment before continuing, “I won’t run, I promise. I wanna watch this happen.”

Loomis stopped. He turned and glared at Ewan. “I don’t believe you.” He said.

“C’mon, Loomis. You think that I’d pass up the chance to see you shouting at someone other than me for once? Besides, with this crowd, you think I’d be able to run away at all? I couldn’t get away before, could I?”

The guard took a few long breaths and he put a finger into Ewan’s face. “If you run again, I will break your knees. That’s a promise.”

Ewan put his hands up, as much as he could with Loomis still holding his arm. “I believe you. I’m not going anywhere.”

Maybe it didn’t fully convince him, but it convinced him enough. Loomis turned them around and headed across the market in the other direction, toward the rows of booths, in search of the man who had been shouting to the crowds about magical items for sale. The city was open to all sorts of trade, all sorts of goods and services to sell. But magical implements were absolutely not allowed without a license from the lyceum or approval from the city guard. Trade in magic in general was tightly controlled in Karina, the guards didn’t like anyone to have it except the people they approved of having it. So Loomis was not just acting out of anger, he was acting out of duty. But there was plenty of anger behind it as well, Loomis was kinda stupid about getting way too personally invested in whether people got caught for doing something he didn’t like. Which meant, at last, that he was not paying Ewan much attention.

So as soon as Loomis reached his other hand up and shouted at the booth, Ewan broke for it. Loomis’s grasp was just loose enough that he was able to slip free and then jump backward and deeper into the crowd, out of sight, and out of grabbing range.

“Ewan!” Loomis screamed. He tried to fight his way back through the crowd, but people were packed in too tightly for him to get around and get away. “You little pissant! I knew you were lying! Get back here before I tear you in half!”

Ewan just kept running. But he did not run upright, he ran crouched, ducking down below the line of sight for Loomis, and for the crowd. He stayed low, kept shifting back and forth between crowds, and kept from making too much of a commotion. The less he got people’s attention the better. He worked his way back across the street and toward the booth that he had seen before. The lines were still thick and heavy around the booth, but he went around them rather than through them, and most of the customers were too occupied with keeping their place to bother with him. Reaching the side of the booth was easy, and he paused for just a moment to check over his shoulder and see if anyone was looking his way. For that moment, no eyes were on him. With a leap, he scrambled up the wooden board that was the side of the booth, clambered over the top, and leaped down into the alley behind the booth.

When he landed, he was hidden behind the curtain wall of the booth and in the shadow of the old brick buildings the booth was propped up between. Ewan flattened himself back against the wall of the building on the left and crouched down as low as he could. He still heard Loomis screaming, and people in the crowd were talking and muttering as well. But the sounds were not moving toward him, and no one seemed to be coming after him. He sat still, he waited, he listened, and he got his heart and breathing to slow down. He was obscured from the street and people in it by the racks and racks of hanging fabric strung over the booth, and those who had seen him jump over the booth apparently decided that it was not worth the effort to figure out what he was doing.

Loomis was gone, moving on, looking for him elsewhere. No one else was around, the other guards had other things they needed to do. The Chief, if she heard about any of this, would never be able to get there in time. But Loomis might not even tell her. He had let Ewan slip away on his watch, it wasn’t something that he would want to admit. He would search and search and search and find nothing, and it was only after he had admitted defeat that he would get any help. By that point, Ewan would be so far away no one would find him. He was free again and could go back into the markets at his leisure to look for more purses too heavy for their own good.

“Hello?”

Ewan jumped and looked up. A face was peeking at him through the curtain of fabrics, the face of the girl who had been working at the booth. She looked at him like she was looking at a stray animal that had wandered into her home, her eyes wide and forehead frowning in confusion. Now that he was closer, he could see that she had green eyes, a startling sort of bright green that seemed almost out of place, below arched black brows and goldish beige skin, and he could just see some wavy black hair around her shoulders under her cloak.

“Shh.” Ewan put his finger up to his lips. He had hoped she wouldn’t notice him, but since she had he needed to talk fast. “The guards are after me. They think I stole from someone but it’s not true. They’re only blaming me because they can throw me in jail and no one will miss me.”

She looked at him while saying nothing for a long moment. He almost wondered if she had heard him or maybe she didn’t speak his language. Then she said, “Are you going to steal from my booth?” Her Kaznian was a bit accented, but it was clear and clean, and her voice was gentle but carried further than he would have expected.

“No.” He spread his hands with a wry smile. “I’m not a thief, and besides, what use’d I have for some fancy cloth? I’m not in that kinda business.”

“Good.” She paused again, clearly considering something before she spoke again. “In that case, I have a deal for you. I will not tell the guards that you are here, and in exchange you will help me with maintaining my stock and keeping my customers from growing too angry with my delays.”

Ewan blinked. “Wait a second. You want me to help you in your booth?”

She nodded. “Your city has been good to me, but business is too good for me to handle all of the requests myself. I need help.”

“And you think that I’m going to help you?”

“I do not have anyone else volunteering.” A shout came from over her shoulder and she glanced back toward it for a moment, then looked back at him. “They are restless, so you have another few seconds to decide. The other option you have is to run, because I will be telling the next guard that I see about your being here.”

“I just told you, I didn’t steal anything.”

“You cannot prove that. You are also running out of time.”

Ewan licked his lips. He tried to think of a way to get out of it. The idea of working all day in a booth like this, it was not exactly appealing. In fact it sounded very much like something that he would hate after only a few minutes. But at the same time, it was something that would get him out of Loomis’s way, and out of the way of the guards in general. If he stayed busy, then that kept him off of the streets and out of sight. After a point, they would have to lose interest in him. The city was so big, and there was so much going on, that chasing after one thief who had disappeared into the crowds hardly seemed worth the effort.

He tried to guess the girl’s intent from her expression, but her face was like a mask. She had no expression, only her eyes seemed to lock on to his and refused to let him look anywhere else.

“Okay.” He stood up, gave her a smirk, and spread his hands out to his sides. “You’ve got me. What do you want me to do?”

She reached through with one hand and grabbed his arm. It wasn’t the same sort of grab that Loomis had, hers was more gentle but just as insistent. She pulled him through to the other side of the cloth curtain and into the face of ten or more waiting, expectant customers. There were a lot of angry faces, and a lot of angry voices as well. “I need you to hand me what I ask for.” She said, “You need to do it quickly, because people are waiting.”

“Alright, I can do that.”

She pointed to one corner of the booth. “The bolts of cloth in primary colors are here.” She then pointed at the other. “Secondary colors are there. The special blends are here in the middle around you. I tell you a color and a number of bolts or folds, and you hand them to me. If we start to run out, let me know and I will tell you where to find more.”

“What about the gold? You’re collecting all of that yourself, I assume?”

“If I need your help with the gold I will let you know. Now, I need two yellow bolts, please.”

“Yellow bolts, got it.” Ewan turned to the primary color bundles, where he had seen the yellow bolts earlier, and pulled two free. When he turned back to the girl, she was already in amongst the customers, talking and haggling and seeming to ignore the fact that he was even there. But when he held his hands out with the cloth she had requested, she turned and took it from him and handed it off to one of the customers without even pausing in her conversation. “You’re good at this.” He said.

“I should be, this is my line of work.” She said as she turned between him and two other customers without pausing. “A bolt of blue, please.”

Ewan had to hunt for this one, the few colors he had seen had not included blue. When he found it and turned it over to the girl, she took it just as quickly as she had taken the first. “You’re a what? Cloth-maker?”

“Clothier.” She corrected. “As well as a tailor, I work on selling the garments you can make from this sort of cloth, not just the materials. It does run into additional costs and charges of course, because I have to attend to them while I am not here at the booth. Two greens, please.”

This one was on the other side of the booth, so he had to hustle over to that stack and pick out the deep emerald-green fabric from the stack of other blended colors. A customer shouted something at him that he ignored. “So, you make clothes?”

“Not clothes, you do not make clothes with silks like these.” She shook her head between two different sales pitches to two different people before continuing to speak to him. “Clothes are worn, and they wear out. Silk is for decoration, for the fancy and the occasional. Gloves, scarves, the sorts of things someone wears when they want to be fancy, that is what you use silks for.”

“Someone’s going to make gloves out of that green cloth?” Ewan grimaced at the thought. “That sounds… awful.”

“That would not be my choice, either. Three reds, please. It would not be something that I would make, but if someone wishes to buy the cloth and make something like that themselves, that is their choice.”

Ewan fished out the red cloths, and as he did he watched her a bit more. Despite the business, despite the constant noise and screaming of the customers, she seemed just as poised and focused as she had been when he had first seen her. And she was holding a conversation with him at the same time. Just how ridiculously competent was this girl? How much gold was she going to pull in over the day’s work just by herself?

He had to stay now. Maybe, just maybe, there would be a chance for him to slip away later. But right now he had to stay. He wanted to see more of how she was working, he wanted to watch her manage everything. Besides, if she had a lot of gold at the end of the day, he could think of plenty of things to suggest for her to help spend some of it here in the city. And if she had too much gold, well, he could certainly help with that as well.

He handed her the three red bolts of cloth. “These are the last of the reds, is there more somewhere?”

“Yes, right around the corner there.” She turned just long enough to take the cloth from him and point with her eyes to the back corner of the booth behind the curtains. “The top boxes are all red, I brought a lot because it is the most popular color.”

Ewan moved back behind the curtain; he noticed the stacks of wooden boxes there, each of them closed. When he opened the lid of the one the girl had indicated, he found it packed full of red cloth, just as she had said. He brought a stack of them out to her and set them in the pile where the reds had been before. “Where did you come here from?”

“Shintai, across the desert.” She told him, “It was about a month’s journey, but so far business has been good enough to make it worth the effort. A purple and a pink, please.”

“It took you a month to get here?” Ewan’s mind was boggled. He had never been more than a few minutes’ walk away from the city, and here he was talking to someone who came from an entirely different part of the world. He almost forgot to pick up the fabrics for her. “How’d you travel, on foot?”

“I was a part of a caravan with other merchants. Many of the ones set up here on this street, in fact.” She took the cloth and turned to the customer, dealt and gave and took her pay in turn, and for a moment, for a slight moment, there were no customers in front of her. She took a breath and looked back at him. “It took us some time because we set up small bazaars along the say to sell to travelers. Even so, this is the first time I have been this far from my home.”

“Yeah, I’ll bet. A whole month of travel. And you had to cross a desert, you said?” Ewan scratched the back of his head. “That’s a long way to go just to sell some cloth in a city market.”

“It is, but as I said it has been worth it so far.” The girl took the next moment to straighten her hair, neatening it by running her hands along the sides of her head and tucking it back behind her ears so it fell behind her shoulders. “What about you?”

Ewan tried to deflect. He didn’t want to talk about himself, he wanted to learn more about her. He was not looking for a new girlfriend, but at the same time this girl was so exotic and different, he wanted to learn as much about her as he could. “What about me?”

“Are you from this city or are you a traveler like me?”

He wanted to say no, he wasn’t, but the intensity in her eyes made him hesitate. Her voice was gentle, she wasn’t interrogating him, yet he felt like he couldn’t lie to her. Not a bald-faced lie anyway. “I’m from here. I mean I was raised here and I live here. So, yeah. I’m from this city. I don’t really like it, but I don’t have anywhere else to go so I’ve never left.”

“Why do you not like it?” She asked with a slight tilt to her head. “Is there something about the city that they do not tell visitors?”

“Well, the guards like to pick on little bastard orphan boys like me, but aside from that I guess not.”

The girl blinked and looked at him. To his shock, Ewan saw sadness in her eyes. “I am sorry.”

“Why? You’re a stranger here, you don’t even know me.”

“That is true, but I am still sorry for you. Your parents, do you know what happened to them?”

Ewan felt something close up around his insides and he turned to look away from her. He could feel her eyes boring into the back of his head and looked around for something, anything to distract her. A woman with a basket walking up to the booth was perfect relief. “You have another customer.”



The girl turned and went to address the new customer with her customary grace and efficiency, as if their conversation had never taken place. Still, Ewan had the distinct impression that it was not over.

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