“Order, order!” Gazlok, the Merchant King’s page, pounds a wooden mallet on the podium. Sprawled in front of him are dozens of merchants. Most sit under the massive tent, a few stand along the edges. The din fades, but not much. Gazlok grimaces, snaps the fingers of his charred black right hand and it bursts into flame. He points his burning hand towards the huge tree that serves as the tent’s center pole and a geyser of fire licks the wood. The gathered merchant’s fall silent. Gazlok smirks and grunts. A couple of the merchant’s along the path of the fire check their hair or hats.
“First things first. We’ll hear from the six of you that traveled the farthest this year, hear your reports, then we’ll have the annual banquet, after that King Hooket will give his speech. The next few days there will…Whatever, it’s all there in your pamphlets. Most of you know how this goes.
”First to speak is…let’s see here…oh my, yes. All the way back from the eastern reaches is Yon Chay. Put your hands together for Mr. Chay.” The tent erupts with applause.
Yon bows his head as the applause continues. He waves his hands, trying to quell the noise. “Thank you,” he says too quiet to even hear himself. He bows his head a half dozen times, says a few more inaudible Thank yous. The sound dies down.
“Yes, thank you,” Yon says again. “As Gazlok said I am recently returned from the eastern reaches. The land of spice and fine, they say. I did trade in spice, much. Cinnamon, cardamon, lavender, nutmeg”—he pulls papers from a satchel at his side, lifts them. “Figures here with…mmm, not too interesting to read this I suppose. Later, come see me if you like to learn the rates. Ah,” his eyes dart over the merchants. His pulse begins to rise. “Most of my trading is done one-on-one, I’m not used to large crowds like this. I apologize. You’ve seen my steed, I’m sure. Salloo, she’s a gentle one for the most part. Quite imposing, no one has dared tried and steal from me since I’ve been traveling with her. Able to carry great weights too.”
Leaning against the tent’s center pole is a man wearing fine silk robes and a scarf so big it covers have his face. He pulls the scarf down and calls, “What’d you see, Yon? Tell of the eastern sights. Did you see the grand towers?”
Yon nods, “Yes…Yes-yes, I did. They’re even bigger than you’ve heard stories of. Ten times, no…No, a hundred times as tall as this tent.” He looks up along with the others. “I swear it’s true. When you’re under them they’re so tall you can’t see the tops, only from five miles away, on a clear day, can you see them in full. Two warriors carved from trees the likes of which no longer grow. One holds a sword and shield, the other a spear. When you pass between them their toes are as tall as this tent’s center.
Yon talks for another fifteen minutes, talks about a deal he brokered between two princes and the huge profit he earned in the process. He mentions the specialty coffee he bought and sold for twenty times what he paid. Another of the audience attempts to get Yon to talk more about the things he saw and less about facts and figures, but Yon isn’t much of a storyteller.
Gazlok returns to the stage, thanks Yon, and leads him back down.
“Thank you for that, Yon. The eastern reaches sure do sound interesting. I’ve not seen the grand towers myself, but maybe one day. Alright, let’s see who we have next. Mmm, hmm, oh yes. Berril. Berril where…oh, there, come on—”
Berril runs a hand over his face. “Thanks, Gazlok. Didn’t give him a chance to say where I went, but I figured I can handle that myself. All the way out to the crimson sands and back. Didn’t make it to last year’s meeting because I was out there, running water and sauce for the most part. Oh, ah, liqueur. Booze. Hooch. Sand folk call it sauce, maybe about it making everything taste better? Or go down easy? They have a strange lingo out there where one word can mean a bunch of things depending on how’s it’s used. I picked a few things up—uh, yeah?” Berril points and nods to a woman with raised hand.
“I heard the word for mother is the same one as dog and kitchen sink, is that true?”
Berril chuckles, “Yeah. Ousam. Means totally different things depending on how it’s used. If you wanted to say you were going to give your puppy’s mother a bath in the kitchen sink you’d hear that word, ousam, three times." Berril rubs the lower half of his face again. “Days are hot out there, scorching hot. Dry too. Your throat feels like it’s made of dust. You drink and drink and drink, but you never feel like you can have enough water. Good money in trading out there though. My steed is native to that climate, part of the reason I wanted a desert ox.”
Berril moves to step off the platform, then says, “Oh, if you ever decide to visit the crimson sands make sure you find Kamalkas. It’s a roving tent city, more beautiful than you can imagine. You have to see it to believe it.” He smiles at some memory.
Gazlok shuffles papers, his eyes flit across the gathered merchants. Some in the audience have begun to pulls snacks out. “Our next speaker agreed to take the stage with great reluctance. Not much of a talker. You know him as Honra of the shadow brokers, everyone that’s not a merchant just calls him Spook. I’ll be asking him some questions, maybe even take a couple of yours, as he isn’t willing to ramble up here like our other speakers.” Gazlok looks off stage and motions, “If you’re ready, Honra?”
Out of the shadows steps a small figure, with his horns he just passes the four foot mark. His face is hidden, a dark hallow, beneath a cowl. The only thing to be seen are the bone-white horns that curl out from the hood and two beady eyes that glow like white hot coals.
“Honra, thank you for this. I think this might be the second time ever that we’ve had a member of the brokers grace this stage. I have here that…mmmhm, yes. You spent the last six months alley stepping, is that right?”
“That’s correct.” Honra’s voice is like huge snakes crushing rocks. Behind the smoothness is a heavy grinding. As if his lips and tongue craft delicate letters from the dense material his throat produces.
“Everyone’s familiar with ally stepping right—oh, no? A few…hmm, I’m seeing a few hands. Okay. Honra, do you mind explaining?”
“The simple answer is that alley’s all share the exact same entrance and exit. They’re always the space between. Between homes, between fences, between buildings. Shadow brokers know how to enter one alley and exit another, because they’re all the same once you know what to look for.”
“Right, well, I’m sure there’s a lot more to it as—”
“Mm-hm, moving on,” mutters Gazlok. “What did you trade?”
“Contraband. Figured that was a given.”
“No, it is. Of course. But what exactly.”
Not a detail a shadow broker would typically divulge, but under this tent there are no trade secrets. The merchants share all to help each other. The king’s spell makes lying impossible. To enter the tent is to agree to total disclosure and complete honesty.
Honra adjusts the cowl, pulling it a little lower. “Pets are the main thing.”
“Pets, huh?” Gazlok’s lips turn down in mock frown as his eyes widen. “What sorts?”
“The sorts folks can’t get anywhere else.”
“Uh…oh. So those dragon sightings? Might have been your doing?” Gazlok asks and Honra shrugs. “Uh-huh, interesting.”
“Not just dragons. Spy birds, feeder crows—”
“Eh? What’s that? Feeder crows?” Gazlok shakes his head.
“Good for disposing of the dead.”
“Oh,” Gazlok clears his throat. “Out of sight out of mind, hmm?”
“More or less.”
“Well, that’s…I think that’s good for now. I’ll take one question from the audience. Let’s see. How about…there, Jorn, what’s your question?”
“I thought the speakers had all gone far away. How far did you go, Honra?”
“All the way to the space between the Emerald Downs and Dusk Field.”
Jorn and many of the others nod with wide eyes.
“Let’s see who’s next here. Ah, this is a treat. Back from their five year trip to the Cragmaw Mountains, please put your hands together for the Kouzous. Banna and Tea’a.”
“Thank you, thank you. Alright, thank you. That’s enough. My-my, what a welcome.” Banna chuckles, his thick white mustache and beard shake. His daughter, Tea’a, stands by smiling.
“Please, that’s enough.” Tea’a waves her hands trying to quite the crowd. After a short while the applause dies out.
“What a welcome. Can’t tell if it’s because you’re happy to hear us speak, or because we’ve been gone for so long,” Banna laughs, hand on stomach. Tea’a shakes her head. Someone yells, We’re happy you’re back. “Well thank you, it’s good to be back. A lot of new faces here, a few missing, many we know. I could stand here and extend thanks and all that, but you want to hear about where we’ve been.”
There are shouts of Stories, Tales, Tell us what you saw.
“So many things. Five years is a long time,” says Tea’a. “We set off not knowing what we’d be selling, only decided to head to the Cragmaws because dad has always wanted to see them. Figured we find business once we got there.”
“And business we found, my-my-my,” says Banna. “Fish, would you believe it?”
Tea’a nods. “That’s right. Fish, believe it or not. Have any of you heard of the cut pools?”
“Lakes in the mountain?” someone calls out.
Banna points in the direction of the voice. “That’s right. Long tunnels carved into the sides of the Cragmaws. Cave lakes they call the cut pools. The fish there haven’t seen the light of day for…oh my, how long do you think, eh, dear?”
“Thousands of years? Tens of thousands?” Tea’a pulls a satchel at her side to her front, opens the flap and digs out a dried fish. “We bought these, dried them ourselves, and sold them to the foothill villagers. They value these little buggers more than anything. Each cut pool has a small supply, the fish population in each pool is monitored and only so many fish can be sold a month.”
“We have a couple dozen with us, enough for everyone here to have half. They taste like nothing you’ve ever had before. They’re incredible, full of minerals. They pack a punch.”
“What my dad means is that you can eat one of these buggers and not feel hungry for a solid four days. It took us a month to get here from the Cragmaws and between the two of us we ate six of these, a small wheel of cheese, four loaves of bread, and some fruit and vegetables we got along the way. That’s it.”
The pair answer a few questions, tell about the incredible view of the night sky from atop the Cragmaws. They talk about the winter festival where residents slide down long stretches of the snow covered mountain on small boards. Some race, others try and outdo each other with flips and twists in the air.
Once they finish, Gazlok takes the stage again, thanks the pair, and says it’s time for the second to last speaker.
“Kogo is here, back from Labyn Valley.” A murmur goes through the crowd. “Put your hands together for Kogo.” Gazlok heads off the stage.
Kogo might be a child, impossible to say since their face is hidden under the huge straw hat. Beneath the hat is what looks to be a bundle of rags that shuffles up to the center of the stage. Instead of standing next to the podium Kogo makes their way to the top of it. The rags move in a way the suggests more than two arms and two legs are doing the climbing.
“Tell Gazlok not talk long. Answer question, not give detail. You ask, I say.” The voice doesn’t seem to originate from under the hat. Somehow it fills the tent, everyone in the audience hears the voice at the same volume, as though the sound is coming from inside their own head. If any of them pause to consider this (and a good number do) they can’t tell if they’re thinking the words or if the words are arriving from someplace outside of them.
From the audienc,e someone calls out, “Kogo, Gazlok said you went to the Labyn Valley. I’ve heard it’s a maze, is that true?”
“If you walk, yes. If you ride, yes. If you go on animal, yes. Get lost easy.”
“You didn’t—how did you get around then, don’t you have a wagon?”
The rags move, pushed about from inside in far too many places to conceal a humanoid body. “Have wagon, yes. Use animal, no.”
“What did you trade in the valley, Kogo?”
“Pig? What do you mean?”
“Buy pig. Sell pig. Make money. One more question.”
Many of the merchants are rubbing their heads or massaging their necks. Being spoken to from inside the mind like this takes a toll, it’s uncomfortable.
“I’ll ask the final question,” says Gazlok coming onto the stage. “This one comes from King Hooket himself. He would like to know something I imagine many of us are wondering. What are you, Kogo?”
Kogo’s rags rumple and rumble, the mass makes its way down the podium and over to Gazlok. “No answer,” says Kogo at a whisper inside everyone’s mind.
Gazlok shakes his head and scowls as Kogo leaves the stage. “Well, alright then. To each their own. There are no lies here, but we can’t force anyone to answer a question they don’t want to. No rules against that. And now it’s time for the ban—”
Behind Gazlok a black hole the size of a hand appears and tendrils of thin smoke begins to pour through. The smoke rises, following the angle of the tent, climbs to the highest point, and exits the top where fabric connects to the center tree. The black hole grows bigger until it’s the size of the podium, then it doubles, and does so again until the entire backside of the tent is black. So dark all light seems to get trapped, so dark it’s hard to look at—almost painful. Staring at the darkness for more than a few seconds causes a burning sensation right behind your eyes. Most of the merchants look away, at their hands, into their laps, at each other, or close their eyes.
The black smoke draws back towards the darkness, pulls into itself, and grows in mass until a huge figure stands on the stage. A bit over eight feet tall and five wide—even without the snake—stands Urvan the underworld merchant. Seller of dark arts, thief of secrets, peddler of lies, and trader of all things vile, rotten, and forbidden in all seventeen territories.
“You were going to call a close to your little shin-dig without inviting Urvan?” The demon laughs, his massive horns bump into the tent behind him where the black hole had been but now there is no sign of.
“Urvan,” says Gazlok. “Why’re you here?”
“Your speakers are supposed to be those that traveled the fartherest. Who’s gone farther than Urvan? Anyone? The Cragmaw Mountains, the Labyn Valley? Please. Urvan has spent the last eight months in Halde, underworld realm, home to the demon hordes. No one has gone that far before, no one but Urvan. Wouldn’t you all like to hear about that, huh?”
“Urvan,” says Gazlok. He takes a tentative step towards the towering demon.
“Little Gazzy,” Urvan plants hands on knees and leans towards the goblin. Urvan’s snake tastes the air in front of Gazlok. Vials hanging from the snake’s neck tinkle, shifting colors swirl within.
“You were not invited because no one knows how to reach Halde.”
“Oh I don’t know about that. I’m sure King Hooket knows a way or two.”
Gazlock clears his throat, “Anyways, why have you come?”
“To tell my story. To tell you all about Halde, trading darkness for shards of light. Do you have any idea how much you can get for a single fiber of angel’s feather? A whole feather”—Urvan laughs—”you’d be richer than half the merchants in this room. And you know what else? The angels buy demon’s blood, did you know that?” Urvan looks out across the tent. “It’s true. I sold two vials…well, traded. Two vials of demon blood for two angel feathers. Kept one in case something nasty happens to me. Traded the other for…eh, haha, can you guess what? Mmm? Anyone ah you there, oh no, just rubbing your face huh? Okay. Anyone else? What do you think I got for it? Here’s a hint, I didn’t sell it.”
“That snake?” someone calls from floor.
Urvan laughs, “Very good. Yes, that’s right. Always hungry, didn’t think about that before I got him. But that’s alright. He’s how I got here. Able to open doors to almost anywhere.”
“Urvan, you really do need to go. You didn’t get an—”
A figure as large as Urvan steps out of the shadows. Once seen the thought all the merchants share is how they could have missed him. A hushed murmur rolls through the merchants. King Hooket is known by them all. Almost never seen outside of the annual banquet. For him to come onto the stage is a rare event.
“King Hooket,” Urvan bows their head. “I’m honored.”
“No, Urvan—well, maybe, I don’t know—but what I do know is that you’re formally invited as of this moment. All merchants are welcome here. You’ve been gone so long we didn’t think you cared to come back. You’re quite changed since the last time I saw you. I doubt anyone else remembers what you looked like before.”
“I remember,” says the voice of Kogo in all their minds. “Was small, almost a child, and not like that. Sad dwarf before digging to Halde.”
Urvan spins, looking for the voice. “Who spoke? Why is there a—”
“No-no,” says Kogo. “No need to say anymore, Urvan. Let’s be friends here.”
“Friends with a—”
“Another time,” says King Hooket. As I just finished saying, all are welcome to the merchant tent. You handle your differences beyond this forest, another day. The banquet is set, let’s eat. Sit next to me, Urvan. I want to hear about your trip to Halde.