“Thank you Tyterus,” Zyteus said, looking to his son. Aphella rarely heard Ty’s full name spoken, and usually that was when he was in trouble, never with such a neutral intonation.
“It is good to see you well, Aphella,” Warka said, smiling warmly. “I am sorry I could not be quicker out the gate to help you.” She gestured to an empty seat opposite hers, near at hand to the strangers. “Please, have a seat.”
Aphella nodded and sat in one of the wrought chairs, leaving two empty between herself and the large, grey-haired dim-man.
“We were lucky Frey and his caravan happened to come along when he did,” Zyteus said. He cast a glance toward the white-haired traveler. “Otherwise you might have lost even more chattel on your watch. Perhaps even the whole herd.”
Aphella felt a rush of blood around her neck and face. She clenched her hands under the table. “We lost one snuffler,” Aphella said. “Just one.”
“Not terribly difficult reparations to pay, which is why I said it was lucky,” Zyteus said, his voice almost affectionate in its condescension. “Your father has a sizeable portion of the herd, does he not?”
“Surely you cannot expect your watchman to pay reparations for a dreadtusk attack,” Frey said, his voice deep and soft.
“Our laws are what they are, and I am the keeper of this law,” Zyteus said. “Your concern, though I’m sure appreciated by Aphella, is misplaced. I have always been able to find amicable ends in arbitration. I do not broker conflict, but resolution.”
“I’m sure you do,” Frey said. “But if I had lost some merchandise to a dreadtusk I would not be so hasty as to place blame on my guard.”
“Perhaps if she had been more attentive,” Zyteus said. He turned his impassive stare to the trader opposite him.
“We cannot say it was the fault of inattention,” Hamon said to Zyteus. He then looked Frey in the eye. “Nor have we begun any arbitration.”
Frey nodded. “Aphella has slain a dreadtusk on her own, yes?”
“Yes,” Hamon said. “It was dead when I arrived. Though, how she manage it-”
“Perhaps, then, a feast for the town would pay for the loss of just one beast,” Frey said.
“A feast is usually a gift,” Tyteus said.
“A gift – Aphella, is it? – has not yet given,” Frey said, looking to his right with a smile.
“Do not pretend to know our laws and customs,” Zyteus said.
“I assume you adhere to the laws and customs of Bolaya,” Tyteus said.
“Such at it is,” Zyteus said.
“Indeed,” Frey said. He still held a smile. He stared again at Zyteus, occasionally glancing sideways at Aphella. “Perhaps the people of Twillanya would be willing to make a small donation for the meat of the feast, to the heroine, and that could pay for the loss of your moss eater.”
“I cannot compel such a thing,” Zyteus said.
“I would not expect you to,” Frey said. “Dreadtusks are also valuable. I have three kills of my own-”
“Of your own?” Zyteus said.
“It surely was not us who killed them,” Shaenyll said.
“Like I was saying,” Frey continued. “I have three kills of my own, and I have only limited capacity to pack and transport the meat. I could donate a pound or two.”
“One dreadtusk will feed every man woman and child in town, with plenty left to spoil,” Sabon said.
“Then perhaps I could teach you a bit about cold-bringing,” Frey said. “Or you could ask your Heroine for a lesson.”
Aphella caught another glance her way. Above Frey’s smirk, shimmering eyes lingered on her, just an instant too long, and yet the look made Aphella uneasy. She shifted in her seat, straightening the folds of her long skirts.
“Yes, why exactly did you ask for her?” Shaenyll said, pushing herself forward and glaring at Frey.
“One thing at a time,” Frey said. “Do we have an amenable arrangement? I would think it would be…”
Zyteus sighed. “I suppose.”
“Do I have a say?” Aphella said. “It is my kill, like you said.”
Frey glanced up at the hanging crystal lamps as he spoke, which flickered slightly and tended toward a pale green, losing their white hue. “I presume to treat with you, not speak for you.” He smiled as Arda breathed more life into the lamps.
Aphella took a breath. “I’ll go with your proposal, stranger, if it means no arbiting.”
“Good,” Frey said, smiling. “I’m glad I could assist in resolution. Now as I to why I asked for you. As you know, I am humble trader-”
“Humble enough to hire a fleet of soldiers for protection,” Hamon said.
“We are humble men too, by our standards,” the grizzled dim-man said.
“I am a humble trader, but,” Frey held up his finger as if preaching, “but! I also am a searcher. For what?” He gestured toward Aphella. “Rare talents.”
Zyteus raised an eyebrow as he looked at Aphella. “Rare?” He shook his head. “Common.”
“You either do not see what I see, or else hide what I seek very well,” Frey said. “No matter. I know a rare find when I see one.”
“What do you want with me?” Aphella said.
“What do I want? Nothing, really, but the empress is seeking exceptional lightweavers for her audience and court.”
“The empress?” Shaenyll said, leaning forward. “What empress?”
“Ah, so I see I am not only seeker, but messenger,” Frey said. “Illuminare has been taken back from the dun-men, thanks in no small part to the powers of Apotalla, who has been named empress, among other less official titles. The old empire has been re-established, and the old ways of court and council have come again. The dim have come back out of the hills and hot springs and re-occupied the outlying cities. Gold flows again with the spreading light. Bolaya and this village were once tributaries the empire of light. They would be again.”
The elders looked one to another, and whispered softly. Hamon spoke up after a moment, “We have not agreed to pay tribute to anyone, certainly not an empire so distant to us and our neighbors as to be unknown to us.”
“The empire does not demand taxes or tribute in way of money or goods,” Frey said. “It asks – merely asks – that you be a tributary, as a spring flowing into a river. The trade roads are open, though as we have seen, they are not totally safe just yet. Trade is what is needed now, not conquest or tribute.”
“And why do you act as messenger?” Arda said. “Why do you seek our daughters on behalf of this empress?”
“Money, of course,” Frey said. He chuckled. “I am nobody so noble as to love political ambition for its own sake. I receive a stipend for each talented youth I bring back, able to be enrolled in the re-founded academy or enter directly into empress Apotalla’s service. It’s not a terribly large amount, but it helps, and it more than pays for the cost of transporting the individual.”
“A rank profiteer,” Shaenyll said.
Frey looked from the man next to him to Zyteus. “We all must work for a living, yes?”
“Yes,” Zyteus said with a sigh. “What if we refuse to let Aphella go?”
“Then she misses an opportunity, nothing more,” Frey said.
“What opportunity?” Zyteus said.
“The opportunity to study with the greatest in the empire, and to put her skills to use in ordering the land. Perhaps even battle or adventure, if Aphella desires it,” Frey said. “But I am a trader, not a thief, nor a slaver. I compel nobody to come. It is merely an offer.”
“That is good,” Hamon said. “I do not broker threats.”
“Nor do I – either as seller or purchaser,” Frey said.
“Again you are all talking like I am not here,” Aphella said.
The elders sat silent for a moment, looking to each other. “We are merely considering what these things mean to the community,” Zyteus said.
“And your elders should have a chance to council you,” Shaenyll said.
“And I always do business in the open,” Frey added, looking to Aphella. “Nor do I desire for you to be hasty. My men and I will be here a few days, doing what business we can. Take your time to consider council, if you wish. I have an official writ in my wagon, should you desire the more eloquent words of the empress.”
Zyteus nodded to Aphella. “So it is done. Now, we have other business to negotiate, which does not concern you.”
“So now you want me to leave while you speak of me,” Aphella said. She clenched her fists and stood up from the table.
“It is not like that,” Warka said. She reached across the table and touched Aphella’s hand. Aphella pulled it away.
“With your blessing, let me excuse myself,” Aphella said. She did not wait for a response, but strode out of the room, letting the iron door slam behind her.
“She’s a good girl, but perhaps too willful,” Zyteus said, squinting at the closed door. “Are you sure you want her, even if we consent?”
“Absolutely,” Frey said. He looked questioningly at Arda who was frowning.
She caught his eye and said, “It’s the crystal of these lamps. It keeps going dim before its time. I’ll have to replace or repair them soon.”
Frey nodded and stroked his beard as he looked into the pale green globe above him.