Sunday, 4 December 2011

Abhorrent Practices - Chapter 2.3

Tremayne (Part 3)

By midday the market square was alive with shoppers bustling about their business, forming queues at the shops and crowding around the stalls, now festooned with banners, pennants and flags of every size and shape; mostly orange and blue, the colours of Tremayne's city crest, but punctuated here and there by the greens, purples and reds of the banners flown by foreign traders.

Perrick was in a good mood now. Around him traders from a dozen different island states barked, cajoled and entreated potential customers to examine their goods. This was what he lived for.

He'd been doing a brisk trade all morning, and had even managed to sell a particularly ugly vase he'd been forced to buy in order to secure some much needed food supplies some three months earlier, back on Sharrow's Bluff. A local antiques dealer had given him thirty-six shillings for it, more than twice the sum he'd paid. That trade alone had almost banished the distasteful memory of the woman who'd purchased the globe earlier in the day.

"All the way from the exotic String Islands," sang Perrick to the elderly man poring over a bundle of yellowing sheets of parchment. They were tied together at one corner by a ribbon of black lace. "Exquisite, aren't they?"

"Are they genuine?" grunted the old man, holding the pages up to his face, scrutinising the simple black illustrations closely. He had his nose pressed against a drawing of a landscape, a grassy plain lying scorched under a setting sun.

"Can't you tell?" enthused Perrick. "Just look at the penmanship. You won't find artistry like that anywhere in this hemisphere." He hesitated. A member of the City Guard was approaching the stall-holder to his right. Keeping the guard on the edge of his field of vision, he turned his attention back to the old man. "Every page a masterpiece in miniature. But you already know that, I can tell. A distinguished gentleman like yourself ... You have an unsurpassed appreciation of the fine arts."

The old man raised his eyes briefly, exchanged a glance with Perrick and turned his gaze back to the yellowed pages in his hands.

"You got a licence to trade here?" The guard stood before Perrick's neighbour, his hand resting on the hilt of his sword.

"Again? Really?" The trader threw his hands out in a gesture of exasperation. "You know damn well I've got a licence. I showed it to you just yesterday. Is it because I'm from Brael? Is that what this is about?"

The guard tightened his grip on his sword.

"I'm sorry for the inconvenience, sir. But I still need to see your papers. It's nothing personal. We'll be asking to see all the traders' licences."

A young servant girl handling the vegetables on the trader's stall looked up. She wiped her hands on her apron, already streaked with the grime and grease of a hard morning's work in the kitchens of one of the Hillside mansions.

"Is it about the Grand Marshall?" she asked. "Down in the Shanties, they're saying he's dead. That his nurse found him. Is that true?" The guard shifted uncomfortably under the woman's questioning.

"I can't comment on that, miss. Our investigation is ..."

"So, he is dead, then?" The merest hint of a smile flickered across the trader's face. He wouldn't be shedding any tears over Harlan's death but here, in the centre of Tremayne, wasn't the safest place to show the sense of satisfaction he felt. Harlan had been responsible for so much suffering. "Well, he'd been ill for a long time, I suppose."

Perrick allowed himself a discreet glance at the group gathering by the stall next to his. The prospect of overhearing scandalous gossip was already beginning to attract quite an audience. The trader was rummaging among the contents of a leather satchel slung low over his left hip. He withdrew three folded sheets of beige paper and passed them to the guard who squinted at the merchant’s name.

“Aker Dunbridge,” he said, reading the merchant’s name from the first of the permits. The merchant shrugged.

“Same as it was last time you guys checked it,” he muttered. The guard grunted something in reply that Perrick couldn't quite hear. Whatever he'd said, his irritation at the trader's casual attitude was evident.

"No, I mean is it genuine?" repeated the old man, turning another page of the bundle of parchment in his hands. "These pictures; do they work?"

Perrick didn't answer. His attention was focused entirely on the servant girl now. She was clearly excited, her eagerness to share what she knew growing with every person who joined the group around them.

"Illness had nothing to do with it," she replied. "Old Minette who works at a mansion just across the street from his, she said he was found with an eighteen inch blade stuck right in his chest. Had both his hands wrapped around the handle, she said."

"You're kidding!" Aker’s shock was clearly genuine. "He committed suicide?"

The guard shuffled his feet uncomfortably and glared at the girl. Loose talk at a sensitive time like this could easily lead to more serious unrest.

"We don't know that," he growled at her. He lowered his eyes from the trader to scrutnise the crumpled papers in his hand. They'd obviously been inspected many times before. "As I say, the investigation is ..."

"As if!" scoffed the maidservant. "He was weak as a kitten. Couldn't even hold a soup spoon, Minette said, so there's no way he could stick a bleeding great knife in his own chest. The blade went in six inches, I heard!"

Perrick felt a tugging at his sleeve.

"The pictures," persisted the old man. "Do they work?"

"Hmm? Yes, yes," confirmed Perrick. "Of course they work." Perrick was torn now. He did not wish to risk losing the sale, but he dearly wished to hear what more the girl had to say.

"You're not saying he was murdered?"

"Well, it looks like it," continued the girl. "But here's the funny thing: there was no sign of a break-in. Minette says ..." She cast her eyes around her audience, enjoying her chance to play to the crowd. She lowered her voice to a whisper. "Minette says the guards suspect witchcraft!"

A gasp ran around the assembled onlookers.

"Superstition!" snapped the guard. "Tremayne hasn't had a confirmed case of witchcraft in over thirty years!" He thrust the trading permits back into Aker Dunbridge’s hands and turned to Perrick. "You!" he snapped. "Show me your papers."

Perrick obediently handed the guard his permits and licences.

"Still," he said," they do say it's quite common on some of the more remote islands."

"I know," grumbled the guard. "Like Grielle. Supposed to be rife there. But we don't get many visitors from those parts. If there are any in the city, they'll be rounded up soon enough." He ran his eyes over Perrick’s papers. The necessary stamps and signatures were all in order. "You know these are only valid for two more days?" he said.

"Sure," nodded Perrick. "I have to meet a buyer in Canto by the weekend. If I don't leave in the next couple of days, he'll be gone before I get there."

"Fine." The guard returned Perrick's papers. "Don't miss the tide," he said, and marched briskly off to question the stall holder standing to Perrick's left.

As the guard moved, Perrick's gaze fell on the cafe opposite. The owner had placed a few wooden tables outside, and a motley selection of individuals sat drinking the kind of coffee they only sold in self-important states like Tremayne: overpriced, as thick as treacle and strong enough to dissolve the lining of your stomach. At one of the tables a small man wearing a pair of round spectacles had lowered the newspaper he was reading to watch the guard's progress.

"Show me," muttered the old man, thrusting the sheaf of parchments in Perrick's face. "If these are genuine, you show me how they work."

With the guard gone, Perrick took barely a second to compose himself.

"Nothing would give me greater pleasure!" he said, his face beaming. "It's not often my humble wares attract the attention of so discerning an art-lover as yourself!" He glanced at the top drawing in the man's hands. It was a clever rendition of two ferrets, caught in the coils of a large and very menacing reptile. "Ah, one of my favourites! I'm always astonished at just how deftly a few simple lines can capture a moment like that. The look of ecstasy in the hunter's eyes; the fear and anticipation on the faces of his prey ..." He then leaned towards the old man, bringing his face so close, they were almost touching. "Now, turn the page anticlockwise and look at the picture again. Don't look at the lines. Focus on the spaces between the lines ..."

The look of consternation on the old man's face slowly gave way to a salacious grin.

"I can see two women!" he chortled, his delight at the discovery obvious. "And they're ... Oh my!" He looked hurriedly up from the parchments and offered them back to Perrick. "Oh, I don't think I could buy these!" he said apologetically. "They're a little too ..."

"Racy?" suggested Perrick. "I can see how they might seem that way. At first. To someone without the benefit of your obvious sophistication. But to an educated man, to a truly enlightened connoisseur of the fine arts such as yourself, to one who appreciates such things solely for their artistic merit ..."

"Ten shillings," said the old man.

"Twelve, and I'll gift-wrap them for you. Anyone seeing you carry them home will assume you've just bought a box of Sharrovian sweet meats."

"Eleven," whispered the old man, his eyes darting around to see if their conversation had been overheard.

Perrick took up a pair of scissors and drew out a length of scarlet ribbon from a spool hanging just above his head. He motioned for the old man to place the sheaf of parchments in the centre of a large sheet of paper lying on a stool to one side.

"It's been a pleasure doing business with you," he smiled, his quick hands already at work wrapping the parcel.

(C) David A J Berner, 2011. All rights reserved.