Tremayne (Part 1)
The cold, early morning sunlight cast a watery amber sheen over the grey tiled roofs of Tremayne. The light hadn't yet managed to seep into the narrow alley ways of the Shanty District, and even the wide open area that was the market square seemed reluctant to cast off the dank shadows that clung to its eastern side.
The sun had been up for barely an hour, but already a few early morning customers were beginning to drift into the square. They hugged their capes tightly around them, hunching their backs against the sharp bite of the early salt breeze that wafted inland from the harbour.
Perrick knew these people. They were the same in every town. Always the first to leave their houses, they threaded their way like predators between the stalls which had been set up while the market square still huddled under the blanket of the previous night's darkness. They'd peer and prod inquisitively at the colourful merchandise on display. These were not casual shoppers. These were men and women with business to conduct: local shopkeepers looking to replenish their stocks; keen-eyed collectors hoping to spot a rare item before any of their rivals; and the occasional government official on the lookout for anyone attempting to trade illegally.
"Fifteen," said Perrick, trying to sound welcoming but finding his voice not quite able to shrug off the gruffness he felt at having to be up and about at that unnatural time of the morning.
The woman who'd been handling a glass ball among the jumble of curiosities at the far end of his stall looked up at him, apparently startled. In sharp contrast to the other grey-shrouded shoppers, she wore a full-skirted dress and had a lace shawl pulled over her head. The shawl was a deep shade of green, beaded with tiny red stones. The dress was golden and, even in the pale grey light of the early morning, it shimmered as she turned to face him.
"Shillings?" she asked. "For this? Fifteen shillings for a paperweight?" She was, even to a Tharn like himself, strikingly attractive. A mane of wild, black hair tumbled out from beneath the shawl and nestled around her shoulders, as sleek as if newly painted in ink. Her skin radiated an inner warmth at odds with the time of day.
Perrick smiled as warmly as he could. If there was a trade to be done here, he needed to be a lot sharper than he was currently feeling.
"Ah, but that isn't a paperweight," he corrected her with a practised smile. "It was made in Grielle, a small island far to the north of here. A rich, luxuriant island full of exotic mystery. What you have in your hand there, is known locally as a witchglobe."
The woman laughed, and his head filled with the sound of a dozen tiny bells strung on a fine silver cord.
"Well, now I know you're teasing me," she said. "You surely don't mean to tell me you believe in witches? A well-travelled man such as yourself?"
"I'm just telling you what I know," Perrick protested, his face a picture of hurt. "I assure you, I bought that globe from one of my most trusted trading partners. And he'd just returned from Grielle, not three months before." He was a thin man but tall, perhaps a little under seven feet and, like many other men and women from the island of Tharn, had turned bald before the age of thirteen. In a sweeping, theatrical gesture, he bent at the waist and bowed low, bringing his angular, bird-like face closer to hers. Then, in a low, conspiratorial voice he added: "You know, it's said the women of Grielle use witchglobes to enhance their natural beauty. Now that's worth fifteen shillings, surely?"
The woman laid one hand on his arm. As heavily wrapped against the cold as he was, he could feel its warmth through the sleeve of his long, leather coat. His skin tingled. Then, with graceful ease, she slipped the shawl from her head and let it drape over her shoulders. She was shorter than Perrick, barely reaching his shoulders, and she had to tilt her head to look up into his eyes. Hers, he noticed, were green; her pupils large, impossibly black and speckled with tiny points of light like stars.
"Are you saying my beauty is in need of enhancement?" she chided him. "Don't you think that's a mite ... ungallant?"
"No, I ..." Perrick groaned inwardly. Instinctively he knew he'd allowed her to seize the advantage. He was on the defensive now. He couldn't afford to let the other traders see him bested, or he'd be a target for every chiseller looking for an easy mark. He needed to get her away from his stall as quickly and as quietly as possible. "Look," he countered, "you can have it for twelve, okay? Twelve shillings and not a penny less. Even as a paperweight, it's worth that."
"Ten," she said, still smiling. "And that's only because I liked your story about witches. Why, Tad Lerman's got a stall full of pretty objects I could use as paperweights, and not a one of them costs more than eight."
Perrick looked down at the woman's face. He couldn't remember the last time someone had so comprehensively outmanoeuvred him. There was no denying her eyes were exceptionally beautiful, but he'd been in the game long enough to be on his guard against a pretty face.
"Fine," he conceded. "Ten. But don't come back tomorrow looking for more bargains. Go do your shopping at Tad Lerman's. Ruin his business instead."
The woman dropped the globe into the small green bag hanging from her wrist. She took a ten shilling note from her purse and folded it into Perrick's hand.
"It's been a pleasure," she said and pulled her shawl back up over her head, the red stones glinting briefly, like so many eyes winking mischievously at his scarcely concealed irritation. With a swish of her skirts, the woman turned on her heel and began walking away towards the stalls lined up on the far side of the square. Perrick felt his mood blacken as he watched her go.
This was one trade he had no intention of sharing with the rest of the crew. If Naylor heard he'd been out-haggled by some over-dressed woman from a backward island like Tremayne, he’d make his life a misery all the way from here to Brael.
(C) David A J Berner, 2011. All rights reserved.