Chapter 10
The Grand Market

After practice with Tyresian, Tanis found himself wandering the streets of the city. The clouds that had drenched him and Flint only hours before had dissipated. The heavy gold of afternoon slipped toward the deepening purple of twilight, and the air was sweet with the scent of spring blossoms.

To the north, the Tower of the Sun glittered. In the city’s center, the Hall of the Sky opened its arms to the heavens.

On the west side of the city, however, was what might have been, at least to some, Qualinost’s greatest wonder, and it was there that Tanis found his footsteps leading him.

Built into a natural hollow in the earth was a vast amphitheater. The only seats were the gentle, grassy slopes themselves, encircling a great platform in the amphitheater’s center. The circular area was laid with the type of tiled mosaic that Qualinost was famous for; this mosaic depicted in sparkling hues the coming of Kith-Kanan and his people to the forest of Qualinesti. The mosaic spanned the surface of the circle, and Tanis had always believed it must contain as many glimmering tiles as there were stars in the night sky.

Here, after sundown, in the flickering light of a thousand torches, the ancient dramas would unfold, works written by the poets of Qualinesti long ago for Kith-Kanan’s own eyes. Philosophers, too, would walk upon the circle’s surface to speak their oratories, and here musicians would ply their art as the folk of Qualinost looked on.

By day, the amphitheater served in another incarnation—the Grand Market. There the finest craftsmen in Qualinost came to display their wares on cloths spread upon the ground while brightly colored silk banners snapped in the breeze. On market days, the mosaic of Kith-Kanan was obscured by a sprawl of green silken tents, wooden stalls, and woolen carpets spread out on its surface, laden with all manner of wares imaginable: pungent spices, lacquered boxes, bright daggers with jeweled hilts, and fresh-baked pastries still steaming faintly in the damp air. Common artisans also brought their goods to sell here. There were basket-makers, potters, weavers, and bakers, for not every elf in Qualinost was lucky—or wealthy—enough to take a place in the court of the Speaker. While no mouth ever went hungry and no back ever went unclad in Qualinost, as in any city those who possessed both wealth and power were few, and the simple folk far more numerous. However, most of these elves looked on the glittering court with only vaguely curious eyes, content to let the nobles work their petty intrigues and courtly amusements, as long as it didn’t interfere too much with their own day-to-day lives.

Most of the elves at the market were the common folk of Qualinost. The nobles tended to avoid the Grand Market, except on the most important festival days, and instead sent their servants or squires to purchase anything they required. However, this tended to suit these same servants and squires quite well, for it gave them a chance to escape their noble masters or mistresses, at least for a time.

Although all of these folk were as fair of feature and spoken word as any courtier in the Tower—though their manner of dress tended more toward soft buckskins and bright woolen weaves than toward doublets and gowns and golden robes—a warmth seemed to radiate from them that always made Tanis feel more at ease in the market than he did in the expanses of the Tower or the corridors of the palace. And while Tanis received stares for his exotic looks here, just as he did at court, the gazes tended to be curious rather than disapproving. At any rate, in the market a stare was far less common than a cheerful smile or nod.

As Tanis entered today, the market was just beginning to break up in the low light of the sun. He descended the stone stairs leading down to the tile circle where the merchants were gathering up their wares. He tried on a copper bracelet and examined a quiver filled with arrows painted yellow and green, but he had left his small purse of coins at the palace, so he was forced to disappoint the merchants hoping to make one more sale before the day ended.

He was just leaving the market when a tall, familiar figure caught his eye, recognizable even at this distance and in this crowd because of her luxuriant blond hair and lithe figure. It was Laurana, and her brother Gilthanas was with her.

Tanis sucked in his breath and tried to edge behind a potter’s booth, but an old elf gently pushed Tanis back.

“The shop is closed,” he informed the half-elf.

“But …” Tanis said.

“The market is over,” the elf said firmly. “Come back tomorrow.”

Tanis stumbled backward, but before he could turn and dash away, he saw Laurana’s green eyes gazing at him, and he swallowed hard. He couldn’t run now, not when the young elf lady had seen him. Even now, her coral lips had parted in a radiant smile and she was hurrying across the tired marketplace with an astonishing mixture of determination and grace. Marketkeepers, both men and women, paused at their work and watched with respect and admiration as she moved by. Gilthanas trailed behind her, looking less pleased than she.

“Tanis!” Laurana called as she drew close to the half-elf. Her voice was resonant as a bell. She reached out slender arms and caught Tanis in a brief hug, then turned to Gilthanas and said, “I haven’t seen Tanis in nearly a week. I think he’s avoiding us.”

Gilthanas, flicking his golden hair away from his eyes, looked as though that would be fine with him.

Tanis sighed and shifted uncomfortably, acutely aware that the Speaker’s daughter continued to hold one of his hands—and just as aware that the people around the trio were noting the exchange and raising their eyebrows. He tried to back out of her grasp, and Laurana released him; a faint frown creased the skin between her eyes.

Surprisingly, it was Gilthanas who diverted Laurana by asking if Tanis were going to the Tower for the big announcement the next day.

“What is it?” Tanis asked. Laurana shifted back a step and pouted slightly, then appeared to change her mind and join in the conversation. At age thirty, she seemed to be half-woman, half-girl, and Tanis never knew which part of her personality would be in ascendancy when he spoke with her. As a result, he had been avoiding her.

“I don’t know what the announcement is,” she said. “Father won’t tell anyone. All I know is that he looks worried and Lord Xenoth looks pleased, which always concerns me.

“You look wonderful today, Tanis,” she said suddenly. Her green satin dress shimmered in the deepening sunset. All of a sudden, he was tremendously aware of his human blood. He felt huge and ungainly. Although she had years to go before she would be considered “grown up” in elven culture, she had attained her full adult height; still, she was so slight, bright, and quick that he felt like an ogre next to her.

Gilthanas, looking annoyed, put one hand on his sister’s arm and said, “Laurana …” warningly. Tanis blushed and looked down at the outfit she’d praised: a sky-blue shirt under a leather vest fringed with feathers, and brown breeches woven of softest wool. He still preferred beaded moccasins to the more customary elven boots; it was a habit he’d found difficult to outgrow.

Laurana flounced, and Tanis suddenly saw the spoiled girl she’d been only a few years before. Her voice, however, was that of a woman. “Gilthanas, I will do as I please,” she snapped. “We have discussed this. Now leave it.”

Tanis felt awkward. The days he and Gilthanas had spent together, running about the city or trekking deep within the forest, seemed shadowy and far away now, as if they were a dream rather than something that had ever truly been. They had been friends. Now Tanis couldn’t think of anything to say, and he shifted his weight from one foot to the other.

Gilthanas nodded shortly at the two of them. “I’ll leave, then.” He wheeled and stalked away, threading through the departing merchants and their carts.

“I am sorry,” Tanis said, more to himself than to Laurana, but the elven woman didn’t appear to have heard him. Instead, she took his hand and drew him along with her through the Grand Market.

“I don’t know what father has planned for tomorrow,” she complained. “All I know is that no one in government ever simply comes out and says anything. Even the most ordinary proclamation has to be accompanied by sheaves of parchments, yards of ribbon, and gallons of sealing wax.”

Tanis found himself smiling. Adjusting for a certain amount of hyperbole, Laurana was right.

“Perhaps they are declaring tomorrow National Elvenblossom Wine Day,” he suggested.

Tanis was so rarely whimsical that it took Laurana a moment to match her mood to his. She laughed. “Or passing a resolution urging every elf to eat quith-pa at every meal?”

She giggled again, and suddenly Tanis felt like a child—not the sullen youngster he had been, but the carefree child he could have been under different circumstances. The thought made him both happy and sad.

As always with the half-elf, it seemed, sadness won out. “Most likely, it has to do with the tylor,” Tanis said.

Laurana shivered. “That’s probably true. Palace guards were out all day, but none was able to find the creature.”

She appeared to lapse into deep thought, and he wondered what conversational shift she was making now.

They had reached the edge of the Kith-Kanan mosaic, leaving the clamor of the Grand Market behind them. Laurana drew him up the stone steps and through a break in the blooming lilac bushes at the edge of the mosaic, into a small clearing. The bushes dulled the sound from the public area; suddenly, Tanis was aware of how alone they were.

Laurana pulled a small, tissue-wrapped package from the pocket of her dress. “I have something for you,” she said. “I’ve been carrying it around all week, hoping to see you.”

“What is it?” he asked, puzzled, but Laurana only smiled mysteriously. At that moment, she was not at all a child, and Tanis shifted uncomfortably.

“You’ll see,” she said, and then suddenly she stood on her toes and kissed his cheek, ignoring his incipient beard, her touch as cool and soft as the spring air. A scant moment later, she had slipped through the lilacs and out of sight, only the faint fragrance of mint lingering where she had been. Bemused, Tanis touched his cheek, unsure what she was up to. With a shrug, he unwrapped the small parcel.

A sudden coldness sank deep into Tanis’s stomach despite the warmth of the spring air. On his palm, in the sunlight filtering between the new leaves of the trees, glimmered a ring. It was a simple thing, fashioned of seven tiny, interlocking ivy leaves, gleaming as bright and gold as the hair of the elven woman who had given it to him. It was lovely, delicate, a ring one might place on the hand of a lover. Tanis shook his head, clenching the ring in his fist.

Still shaking his head, Tanis emerged from the lilacs moments later, slipping the slender ring into the pocket of his vest until he could ponder its meaning.

“Interesting,” said a cold voice.

Tanis whirled. Standing at the top of the steps, shaking in anger as several laden tradesmen watched and waited to get by, stood Lord Xenoth.

“Tanthalas Half-Elven,” the elf lord said portentously. “You will come to regret this.”

As Tanis, blinking, watched Lord Xenoth stomp away in indignation, he had no doubt that the elf lord was right.

Kindred Spirits