The main marketplace of Black Talon Gate was bustling with activity; men and women alike were shouting out various bargains to the passing buyers, some of whom would stop and try to haggle the prices further. The aromas of spices and cooked meats filled the air, and children were running back and forth between the numerous stalls – some were playing, others were carrying large parcels on their backs as they ran deliveries for various merchants.
Most buyers present at the market had a fairly rowdy disposition and sometimes arguments would break out over the items for sale. The fights were usually resolved fairly quickly, either by the fighters themselves or by the patrolling guards the town provided to help safeguard the merchants’ wares.
Despite the town’s remote location, the merchandise for sale was of fairly high quality and a lot of money changed hands every day here. Of course, the merchants wouldn’t be allowed to keep all of it – a tenth of their profits had to be paid as taxes to the town Lords in order for them to be allowed to set up their stalls within the town walls and enjoy the protection of the guards.
Then again, not everyone in the market had any money to trade with or any services they could offer. Revealing the dirtier side of the market, several beggars were loitering around asking for scraps to survive another day. Most ignored them, but once the food stalls closed for the day, the beggars had a chance to get lucky and receive whatever left-overs that wouldn’t stay fresh till the next market day.
Adapting to the role of “street urchin” perfectly, Raven sat nibbling on a stale piece of bread, not far from the baker who had tossed said piece of bread on the ground moments earlier. Raven looked like all the other broken little boys roaming around as she ate her bread with apathy, but in reality her ears were strained to their limits in order to hear everything that was said around her.
“One silver for a Frost Berry Pie!” the baker shouted.
“Hey, don’t touch it if you’re not gonna buy it!” reprimanded another salesman.
Moments like these she really missed her spirit connections. Before, she would have been able to easily hear almost every voice within the vast market, but now she was limited to a couple of hundred meters. She had regained almost 150 of her connections but they were still far from returned to their former glory. Even worse, the recovery rate had started to slow down a bit, as every connection needed to come in contact with more spirit essence to be reformed.
“Tui, go get more herbs from the carriage!” a young woman in her twenties ordered her daughter.
“Buy a lovely hairpin for a lovely lady – who knows? It might seal the deal!” hollered a fat man selling jewelry.
Despite the lessened range, a multitude of voices still drilled into Raven’s ears, and she calmly sifted through what they were saying, taking note of any interesting information she came across. She had already learnt a great deal.
It would seem like, at the moment, two large and four smaller caravans of merchants were present in Black Talon Gate. Among these, only three of the smaller ones were headed towards Rock Wren Prefecture, whereas the rest had the now renamed Black Talon City as their destination. The fat accessories salesman, located across from the baker, was the leader of one of the smaller caravans and would, according to rumor, head out tomorrow.
His name was Heron and he had the unusual reputation of being very considerate, and from what Raven could tell, the reputation seemed warranted; he had on several occasions during the day given a copper or two to the beggars that passed his stall. Of course, coppers wouldn’t get you very far – the one silver Frost Berry pie the baker sold would require a hundred coppers to buy – but it was better than nothing.
At the moment Raven was waiting for an opportunity to strike up a conversation with the man, in hopes of convincing him to let Raven join his caravan. After she’d been sitting in her spot for nearly an hour, and the darkness of the evening was starting to descend, a small smirk crossed Raven’s face.
‘Finally. . . .’
The reason why Raven rejoiced was an approaching man draped in fine silks. He looked very regal as he elegantly swept down the street, glancing at the various stalls with feigned disinterest. At a glance, the man looked very refined, but his body language was slightly off – as if it had been altered from his normal routine.
As the man reached Heron’s stall he slowed down his pace and started examining the displayed merchandise loftily.
“Fine sir, are you looking for anything in particular?” Noticing the man’s stare, Heron naturally engaged with the possible buyer.
“My wife and I have an anniversary coming up but I have had some trouble with my Hawks, so I fear I will miss it.” The man’s left shoulder shifted slightly as he spoke. “I wish to make it up to her.”
“He’s lying?” Hoatzin asked, puzzled.
Raven nodded. “He’s fairly good, but yes, he is lying.”
“Ah, then you have come to the right place!” Heron beamed. “How about this golden hair pin with inlaid pearls? Nothing says happy anniversary better than gold and pearls.”
A well executed look of disappointment filled the man’s face.
“Don’t you have anything more unique? She already has plenty of golden jewelry.”
Heron on the other hand showed genuine excitement – few customers complained that his finest hair pins were too ordinary. Happily he brought out one expensive item after the other, the price steadily increasing, but the refined man was not to be satisfied. Finally, Heron ran out of wares and the silk dressed man sighed deeply.
“I’m afraid this won’t do. . . . I will have to keep looking.” The man placed his hands on his back and started to walk away with a dejected expression on his face.
Even more dejected was poor Heron that watched his potential money trove walk away without buying anything.
“Can I also get a hair pin?”
A small voice peeped next to Heron. The merchant looked down on the dirty boy standing in front of his stall, holding a half-eaten loaf of bread in his hand.
“No, boy, you have to pay for those.” He sighed and started fishing into his own purse after a copper coin.
“But that man didn’t have to pay. . . .”
Heron froze. He inspected his table to make sure that everything was accounted for, but . . . “The hair pin!”
Heron first turned deathly pale and then red with rage.
“Guards! Guards! Stop the man in silks, he is a thief!” With surprising agility the fat merchant jumped out from behind his table and pointed at the departing burglar who had started running when he heard the angry shouts.
“It wasn’t a gift?” The disappointed voice turned Heron’s attention back to the little boy. “Well that’s not right.”
The kid bent down and picked up a palm sized rock. “You have to pay money if it isn’t a gift.”
Lifting his front leg and both his arms, much like a baseball player would, the boy fixed his eyes on the escaping man. Suddenly, he stomped down the raised foot in front of him and lobbed the stone at his target. The stone flew through the air so fast it caused the air to whistle as it passed. In an instant the stone arrived and hit the fleeing man right in his left knee fold, causing him to fall to the ground with a pained wail.
“Haha! Well done, kid!” Heron laughed and slapped the boy on the back before he ran over to the fallen thief. By now the guards had arrived and they soon found the golden hair pin tucked into the silken sleeves of his robes.
“You were right, again.” Hoatzin’s pleased voice rang out in Raven’s head, as she watched the drama unfold from where Heron had left her.
Raven just smiled. She knew that, most likely, she had gained her way through the two gate towns.
Once the guards had dragged away the thief, the fat Heron waddled back to his stall with a pleased smile on his face and the golden hair pin in his hand. When his eyes fell on the patiently waiting Raven his expression grew more serious.
“You have a good aim, boy!” Heron smiled and patted Raven’s shoulder. “Are you from around here? I don’t think I’ve seen you before.”
When Heron had started speaking, Raven had looked up at Heron pridefully, but when he asked her where she was from, a brief expression of fear flashed across her face. She hesitated a bit before she answered: “No, I just don’t come to the market very often. . . .”
“Oi, Sister, can’t you lie a bit better than that? Even I can tell that you’re being dishonest. . . .” Hoatzin reprimanded in her head.
‘That’s kind of the point. . . .’ Raven thought back, but her brother couldn’t hear it.
Naturally, Heron had also caught on to that Raven was lying, but he wasn’t surprised by it; few people in Black Talon Gate would be honest about their past. Instead he continued probing.
“Then, are your parents around? I want to thank them for raising such a good kid.”
At the mention of parents, Raven lowered her gaze and looked away as she clenched her jaw slightly.
“They’re dead,” was all she said.
Heron raised an eyebrow in surprise. He wasn’t surprised about the kid being an orphan – most kids roaming these streets were – what surprised him was that the child before him showed clear signs of shame and anger about the parents’ death; most kids would feel sad rather than ashamed about losing their parents.
“Well, you’re a good kid, nonetheless.” Heron’s smile grew warmer, as if he was trying to comfort Raven. “And skilled, too! I’m amazed that you saw the man stealing – I usually don’t miss such things.”
Heron was telling the truth. He was a seasoned merchant and was used to dealing with all sorts of customers; catching someone stealing was an important part of his trade.
Raven lifted her head and looked up on Heron with renewed pride.
“Thanks! I was the best of th-. . .” Raven stopped speaking mid-sentence, and fear flashed across her face once more; “. . . ah, I mean, I’ve seen a lot of hungry people . . . stealing food.”
As if to prove a point, Raven nervously held up her loaf of bread and made it disappear into her robes with a sleight of hand. The movement, however, caused her robes to lift slightly and revealed the Limiters around her ankles.
Heron, who was a lot taller than Raven, had already been looking down on her and therefore directly saw the two shackles. Understanding filled his face.
‘So that’s it,’ he sighed to himself. ‘The kid is an escaped bandit slave. . . .’
It was a fairly common thing around these parts. Smaller villages, that had trouble putting enough food on their tables, would occasionally sell off younger children to bandit crews. That way, they would gain some money to feed the hungry mouths with, and fewer hungry mouths to feed as well. The bandits would then first teach the kids how to pick pockets and then how to fight. Eventually they would become the next generation of bandits. Of course, not all slaves were sold; some were stolen, but the risk that the kids would rebel was smaller if they were sold. After all, why rebel only to return to a village that betrayed your trust in the first place?
Raven pretended not to notice the merchant’s stare and instead retrieved her half-eaten piece of bread and started nibbling at it yet again.
“So, can I get a hair pin?” she asked between bites and looked up at Heron with expecting eyes.
Heron stared blankly at the kid before him and started laughing.
“Haha, kid, how about you start working for me instead? I could use an extra pair of eyes guarding my goods, and tomorrow I’m heading back to Rock Wren Prefecture – I’m sure my daughter would appreciate it if someone her own age joined us for the journey.”
Raven’s eyes widened. “You’re leaving?”
“Yes, and if you do well on the way, you can become my apprentice once we reach my home town.”
Heron wasn’t sure if he’d actually take the kid in as an apprentice, but if he stayed in Black Talon Gate it would only be a matter of time before the bandits found him and took him back. As long as the kid was wearing those Limiters, their owners would sense them if they got close enough. Removing them would be for the best but, as long as the owner was alive, it was a nearly impossible task, at least in back-water towns such as the two gate towns.
Of course, Heron was assuming that the Limiters were the less complicated version, which were simple weights combined with a bit of tracking – why waste spiritualist Limiters on a kid that didn’t look much older than seven? Spirit Limiters used on spiritualists could not be removed by any force; if the owner didn’t die then all you could do was keep cultivating and hope to one day, surpass the owner to the point where it didn’t matter if the Limiter was on or not.
As Heron expected, Raven barely hesitated at all before accepting his offer, seemingly very keen on the notion of leaving Black Talon Gate.
“Good, good! If you have anything you want to bring, go get it now, otherwise you can get to work right away by helping me keep an eye on my goods.”
“I have nothing to get,” she said and walked in and sat down in the far corner of the stall. The stall wasn’t very big, barely two square meters, so she still had no problem seeing out on the street.
“Hehe, aren’t you a straightforward one.” Heron muttered before he joined Raven in the stall.
Even though the stall was small, it should be more than big enough for two people. However, Heron filled the stall quite efficiently by himself so it suddenly became fairly cramped.
“It’s lucky I’m stuck in this ring or we wouldn’t all fit in here,” Hoatzin teased.
The day progressed without any bigger incidents; Raven pointed out one more thief before he had a chance to do anything and after that future thieves seemed to choose other targets.
Once darkness fell, Heron was joined by two large guards who helped him close his shop and then stayed to guard it during the night. Heron and Raven, on the other hand, walked off through the town until they reached a relatively fancy inn, called Song Bird Inn.
Raven looked up at the familiar nightingale bird that had been carved into the sign above the door and smiled a bittersweet smile.
“At least they haven’t been forced to change this sign…” Hoatzin sighed within his ring.
Raven nodded slightly as she followed her new employer into the inn.
The interior was neatly decorated in varying shades of brown and red fabrics, which somehow managed to remind Raven of the houses in Nightingale City. All in all, the inn had a homey feeling without being too extravagant. It was most likely one of the more expensive inns in town, but that said more about the town than the inn.
Just as Heron and Raven walked through the door a high-pitched voice rang through the room and a slightly chubby little girl in a pink dress came running down the stairs to the hallway.
“Mayeri,” Heron clucked happily and lifted the girl into the air. “Where is your mother?”
“Taking a bath,” the girl said, smiling.
“I see.” Heron gave her a kiss on the cheek and put her back down.
He walked over to the lady sitting behind a counter not far from the door.
“This kid will be staying with us for the night. Is that okay?” Heron asked in a polite tone and waved at Raven.
The lady behind the counter leaned to the side in order to observe the dirty kid standing quietly by the door. She frowned slightly, but quickly replaced the expression with a present smile.
“Of course, sir. It will by five extra silver for the food and lodging for the child and an additional silver if you wish for him to take a bath.” Her tone was very polite but no one would have missed her underlying opinion: the boy needed a bath.
Heron fished six silvers out of his purse and returned to his daughter, who was eyeing Raven curiously.
“Mayeri, let me introduce you to my new assistant, this is . . .” Heron paused; “haha, I guess we never got to the name part. . . . Kid, what’s your name?”
“Raven? Good name, it fits you! I am Heron and this is my seven-year-old daughter Mayeri. You will meet my wife later.” Heron patted his daughter on the back. “Go on, say hello to the boy.”
With no more encouragement needed, the pink girl’s curious eyes sparkled and she bounced over to Raven. She was used to her father going out of his way to help less fortunate souls, so she felt neither fear nor disgust for the young boy she greeted.
“Hello, Raven!” she laughed happily with dimples appearing in her round face while she reached out a hand for Raven to shake. “I’m Mayeri, let’s be friends!”
Raven observed the seven-year-old in front of her. She was, contrary to Raven, fairly short for her age; barely over a meter tall, her features were cute but fairly round. As the girl stood there, with her small hand promptly stretched out before her, Raven couldn’t help but sigh inwardly – she always had the hardest time dealing with bubbling, straightforward personalities like the girl in front of her. No doubt, Raven would get few calm moments during the coming weeks.
Nonetheless, after pausing for a moment Raven grabbed the girl’s hand.
“Hi,” Raven said with a half-hearted smile.
To the side, Heron smiled more wholeheartedly. If he had guessed right about the boy’s past, then that half-hearted smile of his was a very good start.