In Which Is Bemoaned The Destruction of Main Street, IRM
I found myself glad that I didn’t often use phrases like “riot of color”… because anything I might previously have described with that term paled before the spectacle that was the Enwich bazaar. Enwich wasn’t just a college town, it was the largest settlement halfway in between a lot of places, and convenient to the Emperor’s Road. The little village markets I’d attended growing up hadn’t prepared me for anything of this magnitude.
Everything seemed to be on sale… weapons, ornamental and practical. Alchemical concoctions. Exotic animals. Perfumes, cosmetics, and glamours. Music. Food. Toys. Clothing. Armor. Home appliances.
Empty clothes–mostly in the older styles, though there were a few name brand jeans among them–modeled themselves, bowing courteously and beckoning to passersby. Books inside of glass cases shuffled their pages every few seconds, showing off their contents without giving anybody a useful eyeful. There was a carpet with a pyramid of second-hand TVs, some decades old and making the gaudy treasure box-style one in our dorm lounge look tasteful.
At one stall, songbirds twittered in gilded cages, their cacophony drowned out when one big parrot positioned prominently by the de facto street between stalls opened his beak and perfectly imitated a jazz trumpeter, startling a man who’d been walking past with his arms full of boxes. He dropped one, and it went skittering away. He chased after it, cursing.
At another space, which was ringed off by four tables arranged in a square, a woman pulled miniature squashes out of a crate. They began to regain their normal size as soon as they cleared the rim of the box. There were a lot more crates stacked up behind her, and the four tables held what I imagined were representative samples of their contents. It was all very ordinary fare, except for the sheer variety she was able to offer… and except for the wares at the end of each table, which included a strawberry the size of a coconut and a coconut the size of a watermelon.
Inside the pen labeled “Fret’s Semi-Dangerous Pets”, a mock basilisk glared ineffectually at a rather kittenish fire-lizard who puffed smoke from the corners of its muzzled mouth, and something that looked like a cross between a crab, a spider, and a rock skittered from side to side, its pincers bound in leather bands that looked distressingly stressed.
Children crowded around a sandbox-sized enclosure, in which hordes of enaction figures battled and brawled with each other. I chuckled to see a girl’s fashion doll get slugged by a big burly troll thing, only to get up and start hammering on it with her purse.
“Look, sweetie!” Amaranth said, tugging excited on my arm and pointing at a group of circling Mecknights. “You have that one! And that one!”
I turned scarlet and tried to say something about the collectors’ value, but realized that one, nobody had been paying enough attention to be shocked and amazed at the sight of the grown woman who still played with toys, and two, there were several guys my age or older clustered around the stall and negotiating purchases.
My embarrassment returned when one of them, noticing the sign on my head, asked Amaranth how much I cost. She smiled sweetly and said I wasn’t for sale, and we moved on… me once again intensely aware of peoples’ eyes upon me, though there were plenty of things to distract me when it started to get unbearable.
Not all the stalls made use of magic or offered magical goods, to be sure, but the ones that did certainly stood out, and were common enough that you couldn’t look anywhere and not see one.
“You know, it seems so much smaller,” Steff said as we wandered up and down the aisles. “I was kind of afraid of that… with the new, larger Walled Market drawing sales away from the bazaar, not as many merchants can afford to do business here.”
“Yeah, well, without the Walled Market driving prices down, some of us couldn’t afford to do business here, either,” I said.
“You know, I’ve read the arguments on both sides of that debate,” Amaranth said, “and I think that the Market’s impact is more complicated than can be covered by a straightforward determination of good or bad.”
“I don’t know, it seems pretty straightforward to me,” Steff said. “It’s not just the itinerant merchants of the bazaar… when the Walled Market comes to town, long-standing shops are forced to close and skilled tradesmen find the demand for their skills goes way down.”
“Merchants who offer something the Market can’t or won’t manage to do alright, and gain business because the Market brings more people and more money into town,” I said. “How can that be bad?”
“How can you say stifling competition is anything but bad?” Steff asked.
“Well, how can you say that offering stuff at a lower price than the other guys is anti-competitive?” I countered. “Last time I checked, that was pretty much the definition of competition.”
“Not when it leads to a monopoly,” Steff said.
“What exactly do you call it when there’s only one grocer in town?” I countered.
“Ooh, will you quit snapping at everybody you disagree with?” Amaranth cried, stomping her foot with a kind of full-body up-and-down gesture that probably would have riveted my eyes if I wasn’t too distracted by the fact that she was angry with me again… or maybe I should say “still.” She turned and strode a few paces away, transparently pretending to browse a stall that sold polearms.
“You think she still might be a little steamed about the way you went off at the circle meeting?” Steff asked sardonically.
“But we talked about that,” I said. “She forgave me… she took me back.”
“People don’t usually manage to forgive all at once,” Steff said. “Strong feelings don’t just change like magic… give her time, though, and I’m sure she’ll figure out a better way to work through the anger than biting your head off every time you voice an opinion.”
“Or I can just learn to keep my stupid mouth shut,” I said glumly.
“Don’t!” Steff said, as sternly as I’d ever heard her say anything. She couldn’t quite manage Amaranth’s voice of command, though it was a reasonable enough approximation. “Amaranth wants you to be assertive with your opinions, so long as you remain respectful of the opinions of others.” She paused and kicked at the cobblestone pavement. “Even if your opinion is stupid and wrong.”
“She sure isn’t acting like it,” I said, trying and failing to keep from smiling at the small joke.
“Yeah? Take a good, hard look at her,” Steff said, jerking her head towards Amaranth’s back. “Looks like her feelings might be more complicated than you think.”
I realized what Steff was talking about. As I watched her back, Amaranth’s shoulders rose and fell in a kind of punctuated rhythm… as though she was sobbing, and trying not to.
“What’s she crying about?” I asked, since Steff seemed to know what was going on better than I did.
“Think about it: she came to college and lost her best friend…” Steff said.
“You’re her best friend,” I said.
“I might be someday,” Steff said. “For now I’m just filling a Barley-shaped void in the life she expected to have here. Anyway, she can just manage to stand it because she found you… and then she thought she almost lost you, too. Is it any wonder that her judgment clouds a bit when you do something that reminds her of that?”
“So, I really should stop just speaking up, then,” I said.
“No! I’ll go talk to her,” Steff said. “Because once she’s been cheered down and calmed up, or vice versa, she’ll need reminding that as your Dom, she’s got to be extra careful what she says in anger. You take Two and browse around a bit but, um… don’t let her out of your sight, okay?”
“Why not?” I asked. I certainly wouldn’t ditch Two, but the way she said it made me curious.
“Pretty girls walking alone in the market make good targets,” Steff said.
“For what?” I asked.
“For whatever,” she said.
“Okay,” I said. “Well, I wouldn’t leave Two vulnerable.”
“I was talking about both of you,” she said, rolling her eyes. “Stay buddied up. We’ll come find you when Amaranth’s feeling better.”
“I guess it’s just you and me, then,” I said to Two as Steff hurried after Amaranth.
Two stood there. Her face was impassive, her arms down at her side… almost. Her right arm was raised ever so slightly, her hand turned sideways.
“Do you wa… would you like me to hold your hand?” I asked, remembering how Amaranth often lead her around the campus this way.
She gave the slightest nod of her head. Her eyes started to widen and I noticed her hand was trembling. I took it quickly, and she relaxed.
“Thank you,” she whispered.
“You’re welcome,” I said automatically.
We started walking… strolling, really. The bottom part of my brain kept reminding me that eighteen year old girls… grown women, really… did not walk around in public holding each others’ hands. I ignored it. Two did not seem to be drawn in any particular direction, or to any particular stand… which suited me fine. People might stare at the two girls holding hands (and both of us with markings on our foreheads, I realized… labeling her a golem and me a toy. What would people make of that?), but if we stopped and browsed, then at the very least we’d have a vendor talking to us.
Better just to amble a bit, I thought.
“Two, what are you most afraid of?” I asked her finally.
“Not knowing what to do,” she said. “Messing up. Being thrown away again.”
“You weren’t thrown away, Two,” I said. “You were set free. That was a good thing.”
She looked at me, and her eyes were filling up with tears.
“I never know what I’m supposed to do and nobody will tell me,” she said. “I got thrown away and I turned into a person. What happens to me if I get thrown away now?”
“Two, people don’t get thrown away,” I told her.
“I’m s-sorry,” she said, the tears spilling out. “I was… I was m-m-mistakennn,” she said, the first part of the word destroyed by a sob and the end swallowed up in a wail.
I stood frozen staring at the crying girl for far too long before I realized I should hug her. I castigated myself inside my head… it didn’t matter if her fear of being discarded was rational or not. It was hers, and it was real.
Two, being lately come to the act of crying at all, had still not mastered the art of crying like an adult, and I knew we were becoming a sideshow attraction in the circus around us. All around us, people would either be staring or resolutely looking everywhere else… crowding around or going way out of their way to get past us.
I didn’t care.
Well, I didn’t care much.
I felt the intense urge to let go of the wailing, screaming girl and go bury myself beneath the skirts of a produce stand table, but I ignored it and pushed it away. If I did nothing else right this day, I would not abandon Two.
I heard and felt somebody drawing close on both of our sides. Before I could decide to break away from Two, I felt arms encircling us… were we being seized for making a disturbance? No… our embracing forms were being embraced, by Amaranth’s warm naked softness and Steff’s surprisingly strong arms.
Two’s sobs slowly subsided
“Two, how are you paying for college?” I asked.
“Scholarships,” she said. “A Chattel Creature Re-Education Act grant. I tried to work as a maid, but they said I needed… I needed too much supervision.”
“Have you thought about a job at one of the fast food places in the student union?” I asked.
She shook her head.
“The way I understand it, it’s mostly following directions,” I said.
“It is?” Two asked, a quavering note of hope in her voice.
“Oh, it totally is!” Steff said. “I did some of that shit over the summer, and I couldn’t stand it… even when you’re dealing with a customer, they tell you what to say, how to say it, when to say it… and you have to do everything exactly like they say. Forget one little thing, like asking if they want a combo or whatever, and you’ll hear about it. I finally threw up my hands and quit when my bitch of a manager dug up some bullshit corporate policy and told me I had to get a haircut. Like, what-ev-er.” She stopped, realizing that she was ranting. “Oh, but it’d be perfect for you,” she said to Two. “I even said, when I told her I quit, ‘A golem could do this job!'”
“I’m a golem,” Two said.
“When we’re back on campus and you have time, find out what you need to do to apply, and do it,” I said.
“Okay,” she said. “Thank you.”
Our little huddle broke apart, and most of those who had still been staring quickly moved away, but one man… a big, barrel-chested figure whose body appeared to be approximately half blubber and half corded muscle, stepped forward. He was dressed with faded splendor in an elegantly tailored suit that looked to be at least a decade old, with a broad-brimmed hat that held a drooping, bedraggled-looking ostrich feather.
“Forgive me, I don’t mean to intrude, but I couldn’t help overhearing your friend’s crying bout, and the conversation which followed.” he said. “Recently freed golem, I take it? And not adjusting too well to her new status?”
“I don’t see how that’s your business,” Steff said icily. “Whoever you are.”
“I do hope to beg your pardon… my name is Master Hrothvar,” he said. “I am an agent of a prominent labor acquisition firm.”
“Oh, you work in human resources?” Amaranth asked.
The man called Hrothvar chuckled.
“You might say that,” he said. “Though, of course, I’m sure you’d agree that term’s a bit racist. Now, finding your little friend there a bit of gainful employment is a wonderful idea, in terms of solving her… freedom conundrum, but perhaps I could offer the little lady a more… permanent solution?”
I could tell from her puzzled expression that Amaranth still hadn’t clued to what Master Hrothvar was getting at. I could almost hear Steff going rigid beside me, though. Two started to take a step forward, but I tightened my grip
“Do not take any instructions this man gives you,” I whispered fiercely to Two.
Out loud, I said, “He’s a slaver.”