I told him who I was, here by the authority of the King of Eislandia, which was only a slight stretch of the truth, and also by the Queen of Venda to investigate treaty violations.
He didn’t try to disguise his slow perusal of me from my boots to the sword and knives belted at my side. His gaze lingered there. “Don’t know anything about violations.”
Sure you don’t.
I moved closer and he eased back a step. Apparently even he knew of Rahtan. “As an enforcer of the law for your king, I instruct you to tell us anything you know.”
He shook his head and shrugged. Nothing. I was ready to twist the little weasel into a braided loaf, but it was too soon for that. I had bigger game to hunt. “There are Vendans here in town buying supplies. Have you seen them?”
He seemed relieved to see me on my way. “Sure,” he answered, now eager to talk again. “Saw them headed that way this morning.” He pointed down an avenue across the plaza. “There’s a mercantile there—”
“Where Vendans have the privilege of paying double?”
He shrugged his indifference. “Don’t know anything about that either, but I’ll tell you, folks here are loyal, and the Ballengers own this town. They always have.”
“Interesting,” I said. “Are you aware that Hell’s Mouth is part of Eislandia, and not the Ballenger dynasty?”
A smirk lifted the corner of his mouth. “Hard to tell the difference sometimes. Half those here have some relation to them, and the other half are in debt to them.”
“Really. And which are you, Magistrate?”
His taciturn demeanor bloomed again, and he only grinned. I turned and left but was only a few steps away when he called after me. “Just a friendly warning. Be careful whose toes you go stepping on.”
I gathered up Wren and Synové, and we asked a few questions as we made our way to the mercantile. The responses we garnered were similar to the magistrate’s. They knew nothing. I wasn’t sure if it was because we were Rahtan or if they were too afraid to speak about the Ballengers to any form of law.
Outside the mercantile, a striped awning stretched over barrels and crates brimming with food—grains, dried beans, salted meats, pickled hocks, colorful fruits and vegetables—all displayed in neat rows. The abundance surprised me, but it always did when I traveled to other cities. Inside, the store appeared to sell more food and other wares. Through the windows, I viewed shovels, bolts of fabric, and a wall full of tinctures. A dray pulled by an old draft horse was parked nearby, and I wondered if it belonged to the Vendan settlers. As we approached, I watched a clerk chase off children who were playing near stacked crates of oranges. My tongue prickled. Bright, luscious oranges. I had tasted only one in my whole life—when I stole into the home of a quarterlord. I was searching for something else but found it sitting on the middle of his table like a revered ornament. I sniffed it, then joyously peeled it, scattering the dimpled skin across the tabletop so the quarterlord would see that his treasure was appreciated. With every tear of the peel, I breathed in the heavenly spray of its scent. As soon as it passed my lips, I knew it was divinely inspired and had to be the first food the gods ever created.
My cheeks ached with the memory of golden wedges bursting in my mouth. Even the way it was fashioned had fascinated me, impossibly organized into neat little half-moons packaged in gilded perfection. It was the first and last time I had had one. Oranges rarely made their way to Venda on Previzi wagons, and when they did they were a luxury reserved only for quarterlords or governors—usually as a gift from the Komizar—like the other rarities that only he could conjure. I understood the children’s lust for the mysterious fruit.
A woman leaving the mercantile called to the children, and they ran to the dray, jumping into the back, taking the goods she carried from her arms. Once the goods were stacked, their eyes turned longingly back to the oranges.
Wren called to the woman in Vendan, and her eyes immediately widened, surprised to hear her own tongue. Here they spoke Landese, which was essentially identical to Morrighese, the predominant language of the continent.
Once we were close, Synové asked, “Are you from the settlement?”
The woman glanced nervously around her. “Yes,” she said quietly. “I’m afraid we had some trouble. Some of our provisions in an outbuilding were burned, so we had to come to the city for more.”
She told us that this had used up the last of their money. I heard the fear in her voice. Her group had come here to avoid the starving seasons of Venda where life could not be scraped out on the devastated and fallow land. A colossal Vendan army had been disbanded in hopes of something better, but the something better was turning into something else for them, a harshness of a new kind.
I explained that we were Rahtan sent by the queen to check on their welfare and asked about the raiders. Her story was the same as Caemus’s—it was dark so they couldn’t see—but the Ballengers had demanded payment. “Where are the others you came to town with?” I asked.
She pointed down the street and said they were gathering what they needed from various shops and they all planned to leave as soon as possible. When I asked if the mercantile had charged her double, she looked down, afraid to answer, saying softly, “I don’t know.”
I eyed an empty burlap sack in the back of the dray. “May I borrow that?” Her eyes pinched with worry but she nodded.
I shoved it into Wren’s hands and signaled for her to follow me. She immediately knew why and rolled her eyes. “Now?”
“Oh, yes. Now,” I answered, and walked over to the clerk who supervised the merchandise under the awning. I pointed at the crate of oranges.
“How much?” I asked.
His response wasn’t quick, instead inventing an answer just for me. He had seen me talking to the Vendan woman and by now had probably guessed I was Vendan too.
“Five gralos each.”
Five. Even as a foreigner in these parts, I knew that was a fortune. “Really,” I replied, as if contemplating the price, then I grabbed one and tossed it into the air. It landed with a firm slap back into my hand. The clerk’s brows pulled down in a deep V and his mouth opened, ready to bark at me, but then I grabbed another and another and still another, juggling them in the air, and the clerk forgot what he was going to say. His mouth hung agape, his eyes twirling along with the spinning oranges.