Imagine the gloomiest city you have ever visited, or even seen. Then add incredible tall, dour, featureless buildings. Cover it with a thick cloud of cloying, sickly green-black smoke. Add towering, bare and ebony mountains. Cut it with a mournful, almost molasses-like river. And the piece de resistance, a population of humorless and cruel people; cold to the bone as they went somberly about in their gray cloaks, like they did in the City of the Dead. Yes, this was it. Welcome to Braghia, city of a thousand disappointments.
Braghia, the city of shadows, is renowned throughout the lands as having the best slave market to be found on the Olthan Sea. And, despite not having seen any before, I could not help agree. It has been claimed that the Gods made seven times seven times seven races of Men, and a fair number of them must have been represented here. Small, lithe Mariners, the elegant Narmosh, wiry Highlanders, Dust Men, and even some Forest Dwellers slowly wilting as they were being kept away from their precious soil, and many more besides. There were strong, healthy men, prisoners of war having made the unmanly choice between drowning and bondage. Beautiful women of all colors and shapes, with long shimmering hair down their backs, bred to the arts of pleasing men, or raided from their homes. I found it all disgusting, but nevertheless I was here to purchase one. The problem was, I just did not know who, and why.
The slave market was one of the few places in Braghia where one did not feel the claustrophobic pressure of the narrow, winding streets and the incredibly tall buildings, some rising more than twenty stories into the air. Worse perhaps, it was a place where the noise and jostling and stink and voices of a crowd of customers, vendors, and merchandise made me want to retch. It did not matter; whether in a shaded alley or a thick crowd, a knife could still be slipped into my back by a firedancer.
From the most alluring queen to the oldest, disease-ridding wretch, there were slaves available for any need and purse, and the local Twilighters were circling around like buzzards considering their next morsel. How could I find the one the prophecy had urged me to buy in all this? And would I be able to stand the impact of the perpetual, raw misery of the goods on display without fleeing.
Then, after a few minutes I found myself feeling conflicted emotions as I passed from holding pen to leashing post to metal cage. On one hand the despair of the slaves affected me, but on the other ... Why did I feel so strange watching a prospective buyer examine a woman on a leash like she was a horse? What attracted me to this display of disregard for humanity? As I stood there, my ears red from shame, I heard another potential buyer discussing the advantages and disadvantages of a slave with her owner.
"This slave does not please neither my senses, nor my eyes," the customer said. He was a native Twilighter, and with his pale white skin and jet dark hair hidden in his deep gray robes he did not look like a kind, welcoming master. Few of them did.
"But look at those big black eyes!" The owner held the slave, a young woman locked in a cast iron cage with a few other wretches, by her leather collar, forcing her face close to the bars. With his free hand he pointed at her eyes. She looked like one of the Sea People, the vast, olive-skinned majority of the lands to which her owner also belonged. She looked like it, but she was not. There was something curious about her, apart from the fairly obvious things such as...
"I told you, if I want someone to dally with, I will find an attractive, well trained specimen. A Green-eye, taught to fear the touch of men, for example. This ... thing will be set to menial work, if she can be trusted, with that thieves' cross marring her face."
"But that is the only blemish on an otherwise perfect skin. Look at the golden texture of it, sir!" The owner seemed oblivious to the rancor of the customer.
"Yes, on a bald head, nonetheless. She is revolting."
The aforementioned big black eyes fixed in fury on her tormentors. I drew closer, somewhat intrigued by all of this.
"It will grow out," the vendor said, and added: "Seven krakens."
"I'll give you three," the tall, pale customer added.
I felt my pouch, for some reason that I could not explain. I had exactly five krakens and seven spiked wheels left to me in the whole world.
"She's got a lovely smi-" the owner started, but then stopped short.
"She does?" The sarcasm dripped off the customer's voice like puss from a festering wound. "Then let me see it."
"No, never mind," the vendor said hastily. "Six krakens?"
"Yes, I do mind. Let me see the perfect teeth of this pretty thing!"
The young woman tried to pull away, and the official would have let her, but the customer stuck one hand into the cage and grabbed her neck, using the other to force her mouth open despite her vicious protests. I was now just a few feet away, and could cleary see the blinding white, even ivory of her mouth, marred only by a hole in the middle where her two front teeth should have been. With a display of ferocity the small, slender slave snapped out of the Braghian's grip and used her incisors to bite down on his hand, making him pull it away, clutching at his wound. With an oath he pushed the cage with all his might, making the woman tumble backwards, before he stomped off in furious anger.
The official swore and gave the woman who was now struggling to rise a tongue-lashing while he loosened a leather whip from his belt. Her eyes narrowed, her face fixed in a grin caught somewhere between fear and resolute determination.
"I-If you put another blemish on her, I will deduct a kraken from what I am willing to offer," I replied.
The pair of them became aware of me now, the woman's face turning even more conflicted with emotion. But when her eyes met mine I felt a sensation of ... Connection, maybe? A tinkle of recognition? Attraction? That beneath the scars, baldness, and missing teeth there waited the most beautiful woman in the world ready to spring forth into full bloom. Or if not the most beautiful woman in the world, then at least the woman I would hold in such a high esteem. There was no question now as to the true reason I had been sent to this slave market. I had to have her.
"And how much are you willing to offer, sir? Snow Man, are you? From up North then, I guess?" He put down his whip and smiled at me, as he started making an professional effort to become friendly. "Cold there now, as always? Never been there myself, though."
"Yes, I am," I replied. "Just arrived in this fine city. A little confused by all these tall buildings they have here and the crowds in this place..."
We chatted a little, the purpose of which was to make the other feel bad about being harsh in the upcoming bartering. The shadow of the sky reaching, black Tyrant's Tower passed slowly across the market, letting everyone know that in the end they were all his slaves. The dark gray walls of the city had seen many a poor sinner being hunted down and punished by the Shades, the sinister sorcerer-guards who maintained a cruel order in Braghia.
"Now, about this beauty here," he finally said and we turned to look at the slave. She stood upright, looking as proud as any caged, little woman can possibly do under the gaze of two big men.
"Her owner wants a full dragon for this one, but I feel bad for her and know you will take good care of her, sir, so I will let you have her for seven krakens."
"Not too bad," I replied. "If she were whole, that is. Let's deduct one kraken each for the baldness, the thieves' cross, and the teeth. I'll give you four."
"All right, I'll deduct one kraken for the cross," he replied with a smile as the woman stared blackly at me. I did not like that very much, and neither did I like words that were coming out of my mouth, but I had to get the price down to match my purse. "But you can just put a wig on her, and her mouth can stay shut, can't it? Nothing like a silent woman, eh?" We laughed, but I groaned inside as the woman's eye flung black fire at me.
"All right, add the wig. But if she can't smile, then I will have to look at this silent frown for years and years instead," I gestured at her mask of fury.
"Then we split the last kraken in half," he said and extended his hand towards me, "for a speechless and smile-less woman. Five krakens and six spiked wheels."
"Deal," I shook his hand. I had just bought myself a slave.