For someone unaccustomed to the great city, the commotion in the marketplace would have been overwhelming. Thousands of merchants gathered daily to the trade quarter to show off their wares. Here at the great fountain traders in lavish robes shouted their rhythmic sale cries trying to attract the attention of the wealthy. The air was filled with a potpourri of exotic spices, fruit tobacco and incenses. The square at the very center was the most luxurious section of the trade quarter. This was where the travelers would look for fine cloth, exquisite jewelry and other goods to bring back with them to their homelands. This was also where one was most likely to be ripped off and for Danel one of the less interesting parts of the bazaar.
As he moved away from the center toward the narrow southern alleys where the locals got their food and daily items, the atmosphere gradually changed. The noise had been loud previously. Now the sounds of chicken, camels and yelling peddlers were absolutely deafening. Instead of the sweet fragrances of the wealthier neighborhoods, here less pleasant odors were in the air. One could distinctly smell the cooked food and coal smoke from the braziers and stoves littering the small shops. And behind that was the nauseating smell of fish, vegetables and manure rotting in the afternoon sun. Even the strong scent of sandalwood incense would not cover it. The foreigners, many of whom might feel uncomfortable even at the fountain square, would steer clear of these parts of the city.
None of this bothered Danel. Quite the opposite. Somehow the quiet halls of the academy and the reserved scribes preferring their tablets to everything else had never felt entirely real to him. Here all that seemed like another life long ago and somewhere else. In these parts he was at home. This was the place where the soul of Baalqan and its people truly lived.
He sat down in one of the small, crowded tea shops and let the waiter boy bring him a nargile water pipe. Smiling serenely amidst the tumult he inhaled deeply from the sweet apple vapors.
When Danel returned to the fountain square things had already started to quiet down. Having lost his sense of time he had been away longer than he had intended. The sun had already set. Western sky shone in rich shades of orange and purple. The sea below the high cliffs was calm now. First stars were already visible. As he scanned the sky he thought he regretted not having learned more astronomy. There were the Claws with Oldstar on the right one and between them on the Spine the North Star shone above him. Even with this much light still left, it was unmistakable and divine. The mariners would have no trouble navigating tonight.
A handful of older men and young boys were still wandering the plaza as the last merchants covered up theirs stalls and carriages. Most people had migrated to the northern quarter where all the best places for enjoying a splendid dinner and even better company were located. It was the time for night life.
Hanno was nowhere to be seen. He had probably come and gone already, Danel thought, although one person sitting at the fountain seemed familiar. He was certain he had seen this elegant young woman with fiery red long curls earlier. She was dressed in a ruby colored, richly embroidered robe and carried a small unlit brass lamp tied to her silver belt. It was the girl Hanno had been so excited about. Too bad he isn’t here. This would have been an excellent chance to find some excuse to approach her. Then again, Hanno was so timid he couldn’t even get his mouth open when ladies were about. It would be of no use. Danel gave out a sarcastic chuckle. The chances of that guy ever getting married were slimmer than getting a fair bargain in this bazaar.
At that moment Danel heard the sound of firm, rapid footsteps approaching from the direction of the academy. As he turned, he was surprised to see it was Hanno. So he had only been sulking this long. “Hey man,” he began, “Look, I’m sorry about what I …” Hanno brushed past him without so much as a glance. He was headed for the fountain, staring intently at the red haired girl.
“Peace of the Living God,” Hanno said to the girl as he reached her. “Do you mind if I rest here for a while. It’s such a beautiful evening,” he continued in a deep harmonious voice.
Danel’s jaw dropped.
The young woman looked up at Hanno. She appeared surprisingly unsurprised and in the soft evening light, and even more beautiful he had realized. “Please do. Peace of the Living God to you too, master,” she answered. That voice could bring kings on their knees, Danel though.
Danel watched from some distance away as Hanno went on talking to her in a friendly, confident manner. By the flames of jinni, what the hell is going on here, he though in bewilderment. That cannot be Hanno. Not the feeble, useless Hanno who was jittery even about choosing which kind of soap to buy. And yet it was.
At first Danel thought to intervene, but as the discussion went on, he was increasingly starting to feel that it would be a bad idea. His brain was hurting and his legs felt weak. Covering his mouth with both of his hands he looked down. Then he turned around to leave. This isn’t happening. I’m going to need wine. Yeah. Wine will help. A bottle of wine. No, a barrelful of wine. The young man looked smaller and frailer as he staggered away.
Hanno stormed out of the doors of the great academy building. He felt different from anything that he had ever experienced before. He felt strong. He felt determined. And he felt in control. With one hand in his pocket he could feel the coarse texture of the strip of a papyrus he had torn from one of the shelved scrolls. That was an unthinkable crime among the scribes – to destroy the ancient texts, even a papyrus. Still he couldn’t bring himself to care in the least.
The events of the last hour were a jumble in his head, and he was already starting to forget. All that had happened was becoming cloudy and then being washed away from his mind. There had been red light and … fire? Someone had run. Had it been him? It was so hard to remember now. Something about symbols … It was extremely important. What was it?
He could recall that one of the styli had been singed. He had ripped a piece from the closest papyrus he could find. Then he had used the blackened charcoal tip of the destroyed instrument to scribble the letters burning in his mind onto the back side of the thin sheet. Soon after that the images had faded. The strip in his pocket felt unnaturally warm to his touch. That could wait. There was something more important to do right now. A satisfying resolve took him over.
He was aware of Danel’s presence as he headed toward his goal. He chose to ignore him. Danel had nothing he wanted now. Talking to him would be waste of time. This young woman next to whom he now sat was another matter altogether. She was important in ways he couldn’t begin to describe. As time passed he understood that was exactly and literally true. He really wouldn’t have been able to describe her importance even if he had tried.
At first he thought it should have been irrelevant, but there was a reluctance within him. He was here talking to her and at the same time he was not entirely there. There was this eerie sensation that something both inside and outside of him was looking down on them. Someone he had never seen before and yet someone he had always known. It was as if this presence was observing him as he spoke with her on the fountain’s edge. Unseen, waiting and scrutinizing patiently.
Her name was Elissa and she was wonderful. They talked for a long time. When the last merchants had left and the night had fallen, they were still talking. She had been most welcoming and incredibly lovely from the start. And she was curious about him. No-one ever had been. He couldn’t really understand why that was, but he didn’t care. She spoke softly in a melodious, enchanting tone and her mesmerizing light blue eyes seemed to reach right through him into the deepest reaches of his soul. He had never felt this comfortable and tranquil.
She was so close to him already. As she asked him to tell about his dreams and hopes he gladly complied. This beautiful, incredible, unparalleled woman was everything he could ever hope for. Talking to her, merely being here at her side was the best thing in the world.
He told her about his family and childhood. He spoke about his friend and his work as a scribe. He admitted how he wanted to read and study everything that had ever been written and to learn all the secrets there was. He even confessed that he would take upon himself all the pain in the world, if it only meant that others wouldn’t have to suffer. As he said this, Elissa smiled and gently took his hand into hers.
Her skin was so smooth and warm. Trembling, he closed his eyes and felt a glow radiating from where she touched his arm. It spread through his body until he was enveloped in a euphoric solace.
Then she asked, “What did you see in the fire?”
The question shocked and scared him, although he didn’t quite understand why. He opened his eyes. The heat was shrinking away from his body. “I …” he started ready to tell her about the strange symbols and the piece of papyrus in his pocket. He wanted so much to tell her everything. His only desire was to please her, to make her happy.
But there was something inside of him. A calm voice, yet blazing and red hot. It told him to hide this knowledge. It said that it was absolutely crucial that he spoke nothing of it. He knew it spoke the truth. I will not tell.
To Elissa he said, “I can’t remember.”
With that decision, he felt immeasurably guilty and sad and angry with himself. Tears were welling up in his eyes.
“Hush,” she said softly and caressed his cheek wiping a rolling tear away. “It’s all right. It’ll come back to you,” she comforted him. When she smiled, he felt the warmth starting to fill his body again. He closed his eyes and sighed in pleasure.
Only when the guards came to light the night torches did she let go of his arm. Standing up she looked him deep into his eyes and spoke, “Thank you, Hanno. I’ve had a wonderful evening.” Then she kissed him gently of the cheek. Before he could recover, she stepped back and beamed a lovely smile at him, “You will come here to see me again, won’t you?”
Seeing she was about to go he stared her, frozen. Clearly amused, she let out a dainty, joyful laughter, then spun around and sprinted into the night. He watched the young woman run with amazingly effortless grace in almost total darkness. He was about to call out for her, but it was too late. The young woman had already vanished into the shadows.
As he stood alone in the shrouded square he started to feel more like himself again. After a couple of minutes everything that had happened seemed almost like a dream. Hesitantly he touched his cheek to make sure it was still moist from her kiss. Or was it only his tears? No. He knew the thing inside him was no dream and everything else tonight had also been very much real.
Then he yawned. The evening had passed so quickly, but now he realized how tired he was. He would have to think about all this tomorrow, but now it was time to go home. He looked at the dark, looming towers of the great academy and started to walk back.
Although the young man didn’t know it himself, his steps were light and he was softly humming as he ambled homewards.