Ruby Red and Gentilberry Green: A Fantastical Romance - Part XXIV

in #fiction6 years ago (edited)

This is the twenty-fourth part of an ongoing serial. Here are Parts One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Six, Seven, Eight, Nine, Ten, Eleven, Twelve, Thirteen, Fourteen, Fifteen, Sixteen, Seventeen, Eighteen, Nineteen, Twenty, Twenty-One, Twenty-Two and Twenty-Three. Updates every two days, barring minor mishaps.

"I... I'm not running anywhere."

It was technically true. Anne didn't even know if you could run through a planesgate, and she didn't particularly feel like asking. Not now, when Uncle Matt’s eyes were etching lines into her pained brow like scratch awls. She swallowed.

All things considered, there were more pressing things to be nervous about, particularly when she was just about to jump realities based on a deliberate misdirection. A lie, in other words, or at least half a lie. But she liked to think that she was an honest liar, no matter how guilty it made her feel. Half-truths were better than no truth at all…

Weren’t they?

“Why would you even think that, Uncle Matt?”

The stern gaunt man peered at her even harder, then grunted and turned his attention back to the reins.

“You know what I’m talking about,” he said. “You’ve been so quiet these past few days, I can hear you think. You’re running away, girl. Don’t even think of denying it.”

“I… I’m not!”

The quiver in her own words astounded her. What was she so afraid of?

Being caught?

At length the line moved. They trundled through the high gate of Heltria, into the noise and bustle of the city proper. The houses were squat and square, thatched with dry straw. Street-orphans and couriers ran through the crowds on either side of the carts, criss-crossing the way to market.

“Charms, votives, potions! Blessed by the High Priest himself!”

“Succulent redweed! Juicy nettlegrass! All the bluestalks you can eat!”

There was technically a law against unlicensed hawking, but like almost everything else in a great city, this was both too widespread and costly for anyone to actually enforce. The hawkers sat and sang in the shade of the houses, crying their wares, ensconced in blankets or garlanded with children.

“If we didn’t have this cart, Uncle Matt, maybe we could do that instead. Just sit on the side of the street and avoid…”

She stood up again, leaned over the baskets, and peered out at the whickering, champing, creaking mass in front of them.

“All this.”

For a moment, she was afraid that he wouldn’t respond. But at length he gave his familiar grunt, and she heaved a sigh of relief.

“We’re paying far too much for the Mayor’s Seal,” he said. “Best not to court trouble if you can afford it.”

She felt the sudden urge to remind him that she was here not to help with the wynberries, but to take the planesgate back to Necristo’s world. Then she remembered his blunt tone and the lie she’d told, and the feeling passed.

The minutes turned into more minutes. She soothed her irritation by muttering imprecations, rubbing her haunches, and scowling. This was even worse than the actual journey. For one thing, they’d already arrived.

“Uncle Matt, where will you stable Star and Sleet?”

The paving-stones and gutters were slick with the smell of manure, which she found comforting. It just didn’t seem right to hear and see horses without smelling them, too.

“I know an inn,” said Uncle Matt. “The Laughing Mage. Once we get to market, we’ll untie the cart, you’ll help me unload, and then I’ll take Star and Sleet to the Mage.”

“Oh, I see,” said Anne. “That won’t take forever.”

It was a slip on her part, an accidental, habitual puff of flame. She turned away and looked down, suddenly, berating herself all the while. Stupid, stupid, stupid! Why hadn’t she…

“It’s your tongue,” said Uncle Matt, looking as if he saw her discomfort. “Your Aunt Mattie was the same way. A lily with thorns. You know that, don’t you?”

“I’m sorry,” said Anne.

Uncle Matt’s face stayed even as always, but there was a flicker in his eyes. A strange, dancing spark, like a tiny drop of life.

Amusement?

“Put a halter on it,” he said. “We don’t want you parading down the street in a scold’s bridle, after all.”

“Yes, sir.”

“And before you do that, stretch your legs. We’re here.”

Anne jumped to her feet and stared out into the market. It was a vast square, larger than almost anything she had seen save the All-Shrine. Pavilions and tented shelters filled the square in rows, guarding everything from heroes’ relics to old books to ground dragon-bones. The noise was an overwhelming hubbub, a cacophony of accents and loanwords and sounds from all across Raglia. Women led donkeys through, laden with packs, and boys argued passionately with the merchants. On the ground by each seller’s wares, displayed prominently, was the seal of Heltria, a red cockatrice with golden feathers and beak, carved into a painted block of clay.

“We have our own,” said Uncle Matt, and to prove it, he pulled it from his pack. “Our stall’s just ahead.”

“How much are we paying for this, anyway?” asked Anne, still feeling slightly overwhelmed. “This place is gigantic.”

“The left finger of the great swordsman Brandon!” came a shrill cry. “The left finger of the great swordsman Brandon! Peace and blessing to your children and your children’s children!”

“Enough,” said Uncle Matt. “I hope you’re ready to do some lifting, girl.”

Anne tested the weight of the nearest basket. Her fingers caught, her arms strained, and very little happened. Then she sighed, stopped her eyes from rolling, and resigned herself to her fate.

“I’m ready, Uncle Matt. I’m just not sure my arms are.”

“I’m sure they’ll forgive you,” said Uncle Matt dryly. “Up and at them.”

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