The market was truly what put Gillamer on the map. People traveled from all over Astana, and even from Ostheather across the border, to buy or sell fine spun wool, sample golden bread and amber mead, or to show off the best of their produce. Inventors marked their tables with prayers to Aditi and then put their latest experiments on display. The smell of sweets wafted through the air so that the entire excursion felt pleasant and light.
The night market was lesser known, or at least, its appeal was less wide. It was only open once a week, and any attempts to add to it had been quickly shut down by Gillamer's alderman, who couldn't quite manage to shut down the night market for good. Parents warned children to stay away from the night market, that there were tricksters and fae and witches who would steal them away for simply glancing at their merchandise.
They were right — about all but the child theft (usually). But that was what made it exactly Nissa's kind of place.
Under a canopy of stars, sorcerers demonstrated their latest, most colorful spells — often more for show than for function. It was the show that drew customers in to learn about the more useful spells. Young girls purchased tonics for their amorous adventurers, whether to make themselves more appealing in the eyes of their lovers or to protect themselves from pregnancy.
Nomadic minstrels played their newest songs with their winningest smiles directed at the prettiest customers, while inventors captured those songs in a bottle to be played at inns and taverns later, no minstrels required. Occasionally a fight broke out between the two, just to make things interesting.
And there were fae. More fae even than Nissa had seen during her time in Edrait. They would be regarded warily and mistrusted at the traditional market, but here no one was fully regarded with trust, so elves and centaurs, imps and the like were welcome to make their deals with desperate or curious customers or merely to enjoy the revelry. Here, no one looked at Nissa's short tapered ears and mistook her for an elf. They could tell the difference.
At the Night Market, it was just as common to dance through the aisles as it was to stroll them, glittering in the surrounding sorcery and the taste of potential in the air. Every mortal at the night market was so eager for a taste of magic that their faces shone…and so did their coins.
Nissa wasn't sure there was anywhere in the world that made her happier, and that was a rare truth about herself. She would have enjoyed merely attending, but she didn't hate working it, either. She sat underneath a beautifully painted (if she could say so herself) purple sign that read, "Madame Ja'ella Sees All" with a price point just a hair below Madame Tasaria's across the way. The apostrophe in the name had moved once or twice over time, but the mere presence of it added to her mystique.
If she was smart about it, fortune telling required no magic at all. As long as she paid attention to the person in front of her, she could get a sense of what they wanted to hear. The boy with the pale cheeks whose eyes drifted away from Madame Ja'ella's gown to the girl shopping at the flower stand across the way wanted to know that his love was returned. The inventor with no smudges on her hands wanted to know that she would find inspiration over a quiet lunch next week. The middle aged bachelorette wanted to know that she would live to a ripe old age surrounded by her children. It was easy money. Sometimes she was even right, though it was purely by accident.
Design was everything, though. That was what reeled people in, and Nissa loved a good, cohesive aesthetic. Her cards were self-made, painted with purple water colors but laced with gold filigree so that they looked both ethereal and regal. Her crystal ball was in fact crystal, nicked at a fancy dinner party just before she left Ostheather, and she kept it polished. Her wig of long, reddish brown curls looked almost real.
Her rival, Madame Tasaria had a louder voice, experience, and a way with words. She paid urchins to run throughout the market and tell others about her connection to the netherworld and the secrets it whispered to her. But her plain table and faded supplies were lost under the moonlight. Nissa had no interest in falling to the same fate.
She was, however, very interested in the girl who had just passed Madame Tasaria's table. She was clearly a wilder. Her skin was albino white, a stark contrast to her eyes the color of the sun. Her hair was deep purple and fell loose to her shoulders, but when it was brushed back in the breeze, Nissa saw white petals sprouting from both sides of the girl's neck. She wondered how much it must itch or whether it hurt if one of the petals were plucked.
She wondered so much that the the girl almost passed her by. She didn't linger on anything, wholly unconcerned with what happened around her. But her step slowed just enough when her eyes fell on Nissa's pretty booth. Not enough to stop, but enough to be curious.
"Care for a glimpse into your destiny?" Nissa called.
The girl stopped. Something flashed in her fiery eyes. She walked over to Nissa's booth slowly, placing a hand on the crystal ball. Her nails were kept short with a bit of grime beneath them, though nothing Nissa hadn't seen before. "How much would that glimpse cost me?"
"For you?" Nissa grinned and pushed her curls over her shoulder flirtatiously. "I'll give a discount. Seven cogs and a few moments of your company."
The girl raised an eyebrow and tilted her lips down. "Your discount sounds more like an up-charge."
"As clever as your aura is bright." Nissa laughed, a real one. She already liked this girl. "Sit. Madame Ja'ella has already seen that you will do so."
The girl lifted her hand off the crystal ball and crossed her arms. Nissa worried for a moment that she had overstepped with that trick. But then the girl shrugged, though she looked no more pleased than before. "Why not?"
She flipped the tails of her coat in a way that made Nissa like her even better as she sat. The coat was nice, but it didn't quite fit her — the sleeves came up a little short, and it was too tight to button. Nissa held out her hand.
"I don't need the cards to tell me that there's greatness in store for you. A palm reading will be far more helpful to see the particulars."
The girl's hand, while alabaster pale, was surprisingly warm. Warm like her eyes. The sleeve of her shirt slipped back, revealing dark, jagged lines along her arm. Charred like burns, but flat like a natural extension of her skin. Under the starlight, Nissa saw slight flecks of red.
She ran a finger along the girl's palm, slowly and flirtatiously. "I see a powerful lineage. And pride that comes with that power. You know you are not meant for small things, that you stand out from the crowd. You both love it and you hate it." Nissa glanced at her cloak. "A taste for finery…but also independence. You wish to strike out on your own, find where you belong. You search for your true origins."
"And will I find it?" the girl asked, eyebrow quirked in surprise.
Observations were easy. Predictions were a little trickier. They required knowing what the person wanted to hear (something Nissa was particularly skilled at) and good luck (something that did not always seem to favor Nissa). Then again, sad though it might be in the case of this girl, Nissa often never saw her customers again, so if she was wrong, it was little risk to her.
She closed her eyes and leaned back, clutching the girl's warm hand. "You will find what you seek," she said with a dramatic gasp, snapping her eyes open. "Though it may not be in the way you expect it. It is hidden in plain view of the familiar you've always known."
The girl's eyes widened. "The hunchbacked housemaid in my family's home…the one who cared for me when I was a baby?" This was trickier still. Nissa nodded. Sometimes the customer did all the work themselves. "She really is my mother, then?"
"My vision is often distorted," Nissa said with a helpless sigh. "Fate will keep her mysteries, even from those she gifts. But it is possible. I see that a conversation will not go amiss."
"But how can that be?" the girl asked. "Since she's not able to speak?"
Nissa was beginning to feel a good amount of sympathy for this housemaid…and more for herself. "There is more than one way to have a conversation. You must converse in a way that she can reach, rather than expecting her to come to you."
The girl nodded, processing the information slowly. Finally, she said, "May I ask one more question?"
"As many as you like."
"You never asked my name. I can only assume it's because fate has shown it to you. Can you tell me what it is?"
Oh, she was good. Nissa was a skilled liar herself and she thought she was good at reading people, and she had to appreciate someone who had even her going. She scrambled to try to think of another way around this.
"I see only the answers to the questions on your heart. Your name is not among them."
"Isn't that for me to decide, though?" She tilted her head, her eyes narrowing knowingly. She had dropped the curious facade entirely, leaving only the fiery girl who knew she had won. "Madame J?"
Nissa's hackles rose for just a moment. "Who are you? What brought you here?"
The girl leaned back and crossed her arms. "Some psychic you are."
But then she laughed and loosened her posture, leaning an elbow on the table and her chin against her fist. "Really, I just wanted to see how far you would go before giving up. I assume I don't owe you a cog, since I was promised a glimpse into my destiny, and all you did was spew some bullshit based on my appearance. If you want the truth, I have no family. Haven't for as long as I can remember, and I'm certainly not interested in finding anyone. I don't even care about finding my 'destiny,' so no hurt feelings there."
Nissa leaned back and put her hands together. "Well played. The pleasure was mine, really, provided you don't spread the word throughout the market."
The girl who remained nameless smirked. "And what if I do?"
Nissa shrugged. "You could, I suppose. And I suppose there might be some fine gentleman looking for his coat somewhere and he might appreciate a helpful seer who can tell him where to find it."
The girl's smirk faded to a look of flat displeasure. "He knows where to find it. And he won't come after it."
"Oh, he knows where to find it," Del said. "And he won't come after it."
Nissa had never been so delighted in her frustration with someone. "You still haven't told me your name. Or would you still like me to guess it? Ember, perhaps?"
The flat look turned now onto her, the eyes giving the full burn. "No."
Nissa held up her hands. "Your call. At any rate, it's always nice to meet another wilder."
The girl raised her eyebrows. "Is that supposed to be funny?"
"Not at all. All sincerity."
"I don't think you have a sincere bone in your body," she snorted. "And I know what a wilder looks like. You're lucky I don't give a fuck about any of that business. Others might take offense."
Nissa bit back her own hurt feelings. It was an understandable response. "Not everything is what it seems, least of all me. I can call my sprite to me in an instant. I've yet to see yours.."
"Good for you," the girl said tightly. She stood. "We're done here. Feel free to delude others all you like, but keep your own delusions to yourself."
Nissa watched as she pulled her coat tighter against the chilly, dry air and left. She watched so intently that she almost missed the wrinkled man in an oversized hat and a bouquet of flowers making his way over to her booth. He didn't even sit before he began to ask questions about the faithfulness of his paramour. Nissa pulled her attention to him, reluctantly, for just a moment, and when she looked back, the girl was gone.
"Yes, of course he loves you," Nissa assured him dismissively. "No, he doesn't mind your age in the slightest. He only minds the feeling of missing you. You should go to him now."
The zest was gone from the game for the night. Every other customer was too easy, and she realized it had been far too long since someone had seen through her bullshit and called her out on it so easily. She put up a sign that read "consulting the stars" and left the booth, whether to look for the girl or just to see the market as a patron.
She didn't have much time to do either before a flitting shadow caught the corner of her vision. She stiffened just slightly, hoping it wasn't enough to be noticeable, and she continued to move through the aisles. As she did, the shadow followed. Finally, she turned just enough to see a slight woman with a long, dark ponytail and a familiar brand on her arm, suddenly pulled into a conversation with an aggressive troubadour.
She took the chance, not even stopping by her booth to collect her things. She had left more behind in the past, and she could find it again. Instead she walked as briskly as she could out of the market and in the direction of the inn.
It was times like these when she thought briefly about casting a spell to help hide her, or at least distract the woman with the dark ponytail. But knowing herself, she was only likely to draw more attention that way — and probably break something. Instead, a storm rumbled overhead. She glanced up and blew a kiss to a particular storm cloud, one with outstretched wings like a bird. Then she tossed her wig, pulled up her hood, and picked up her pace to a run as the rain started to pour.
The Nightingale Inn was blessedly busy — it was the perfect time of night for drinking, and any musicians who couldn't find an audience at the night market had made their way here to weave through the tables or simply drown their sorrows. Soaked though she was, few patrons gave more than a passing glance to Nissa as she hurried through the hall and up the stairs to her room.
She piled all her clothes into a bag, a few books, and a box of other disguises. She glanced at the fine sheets on the bed. She had been so happy to treat herself after a recent score. She might as well take a memento with her. She peeled them off and stuffed them into her bag as well. Nothing she hadn't needed to do before.
When she turned around, she saw the woman from the market leaning against the wall beside the door, cleaning her nails with a small knife. She glanced up at Nissa casually, who let out a soft, "Fuck." She had forgotten to close the door behind her.
"Leaving town already?" the bounty hunter asked. "I'm told you have a job to finish here."
"Were you?" Nissa asked. "Well, it didn't work out. The alderman threw me out before I could get any closer to the bell. These things happen. Figured I should know when to cut my losses."
"Funny. The alderman seems to have misplaced his bell all the same, and so soon as he misplaced his sweet new assistant."
"Well, you know, there's always a risk with high profile prizes like that," Nissa laughed, backing towards the window. "My regrets to your employer."
The bounty hunter was faster. She was on Nissa in a moment, pushing her up against the wall, knife to her throat. The blade was still dusted with flecks of dead skin and dirt from the nail cleaning.
Nissa squirmed. "If you kill me," she gasped, finding it difficult to breathe without cutting herself, "I can't tell you where to find it."
"If you don't tell me," the bounty hunter said, "then I have no reason — and no instruction — to keep you alive." She grinned just a little. This was not a bounty hunter who would be wracked with guilt over the decision.
"Well, that puts us in an awkward position." Nissa shrugged with her shoulders pressed against the wood paneling.
The bounty hunter hesitated, pushed the knife in just enough to nick her, then backed away. "Fine," she said. "You have five minutes."
"Well, it's not here. So this would be a pretty disappointing job for you if you had to kill me before you got to it."
The bounty hunter considered this, knife tapping against her cheek. This was just another job on her long list of jobs, and the Dekkel was quite a choleric employer, Nissa knew from experience. Would it be more efficient to be done with it now and face hell for it later or to take another few minutes and be able to fully check this one off the list?
"Alright." She shrugged. She returned to Nissa, wrapping an arm around her and pressing the knife to her side beneath her cloak. "Take me to it. Now."
"At this hour?" The bounty hunter shot her a look that said not to press her luck.
Nissa led her out of the inn and began a trek down the now damp street, around the market to the quieter areas outside of downtown. She walked slowly, and the bounty hunter noticed, because the knife hugged Nissa's waist a little tighter.
"You know what he wants it for, right?" Nissa asked. "He's going to use it force that poor girl to marry him. She's already rejected him thrice."
The bounty hunter shrugged. "It's not up to me what he does with it once he has it."
"How dully nihilistic of you," Nissa retorted, rolling her eyes.
"Spare me. You didn't take it because you wanted to save some strange girl. You have your own reasons for it."
"Can't it be both?" Nissa argued. "I don't like the idea of anyone in a cage."
The bounty hunter gave no answer.
They reached the end of the street and Nissa looked down both ends. The bounty hunter looked at her expectantly. "Which way?"
She was about to say that she was trying to remember, or that she had approached it from another angle the day before, or that it all looked so different at night. But the sound of chaos coming from behind them stopped her from having to make a decision.
First, it was the grinding crack of pavement, accompanied by shouts and shrieks. All distant, out of sight. Nissa felt the ground beneath them shake a little, as if a carriage were passing. Then it was so violent that she stumbled, reaching out for the nearby building. The bounty hunter loosened her hold on Nissa, just a little. Nissa wrapped an arm around her, as if to catch herself. They both ducked.
They seemed to miss the worst of it. The ground shook around them and dust showered from the nearby buildings. A street sign sank into the ground. But no deep fissures appeared, shaking them into the earth. Fault lines cracked around them, and one through them that never quite deepened. And then, after half a minute, it was over.
The bounty hunter just barely started to lift her head to get a sense of what was happening. Nissa took the opportunity to grab the knife and pluck it from her hand. She pushed the bounty hunter back, causing her to fall on a bit of uneven pavement.
The bounty hunter started to snarl, but Nissa was already turned and running, fast as she could. She put some distance between herself and the bounty hunter, but the other woman was faster. She was trained to be, after all.
The sky rumbled as Nissa's storm cloud trailed behind her. As the bounty hunter stood up to begin to chase after her target, lightning struck the ground in front of her, deepening a scar left by the earthquake. Nissa ducked around the building and took a few more turns for good measure. It was harder to run in the earthquake's aftermath, but if it was hard for her, it would be hard for the bounty hunter.
She reached into her pouch and wrapped her hands around the warm bell still resting there. As if she was ever going to let the Dekkel have that, no matter how much he'd paid her.
Running back downtown would be a mistake. Back to the market, she'd only find other bounty hunters. So when she heard the sound of screams again, rather than running from it, she found herself running towards it. What she found there was fire.
Not a serious fire, one that posed a threat to anyone. A wooden sign advertising the inn behind it that had caught fire and a crowd of the innkeeper and nearby spectators was gathered around. A girl had fallen to the ground, palms spread across the pavement as she backed away while the innkeeper shouted at her. Not just any girl. The girl from the market.
Now Nissa understood what she meant about her sprite. Her sprite was a fire. No wonder. But the girl, likewise, had not seen Nissa's sprite.
The lightning struck again, not close enough to hurt but close enough to send the others cowering back. Rain poured down on the sign, putting out the fire. In the chaos, Nissa reached forward and grabbed the girl by the wrist.
The girl jerked. "Don't!" Her voice was shrill with fear, quite unlike the cool girl at the market. Nissa continued pulling her away until she realized that fire didn't follow them and started running, too.
The storm trailed behind them. "Did you do that?!" the girl shouted, sputtering in surprise.
Nissa laughed. She'd told her she was a wilder. "Now will you tell me your name? Even a fake one."
"Why?" The girl slowed as they hid around the corner, panting to catch her breath.
"Because I need to get out of town," Nissa said. "And it looks like you do, too."
Her fiery eyes still narrowed in suspicion, but finally she said, "Del."