The marketplace was half-asleep by the time I reached it. A good half of the shops had little ‘closed’ signs in the windows, a good half of the people still wandering the place were yawning. The space itself was structured like a large, long hallway, with shops carved into each wall underneath a tastefully charm-lit arched ceiling.
The shops were interesting to peek into, but I very quickly found a problem. I had a purse full of the little copper coins that circulated in Scorched Rock, but none of the shoppers I saw used anything similar. They all used little strips of paper, instead. A few people shopping at a butchery seemed to be bartering, trying to get the butcher to take a bundle of hand-sewn clothes in exchange for a chunk of weird-looking meat, but even then all I had on me that might buy me anything was my piece of amber, and that wasn’t getting traded away no matter what.
Instead, I just wandered from shop to shop, marveling at how familiar yet different everything was. The animals strung up in the butcher’s were unrecognizable, but the fruits in the grocery were all normal. The clothes people wore seemed normal, but none of the regular blues or greens I was used to seeing showed up in them. The charms in the charmworks were all the usual ones I recognized for light or cleanliness or the like, but instead of the little stones or statuettes they got carved into at home they were all carved into wooden plates.
I was poking through a store selling odds and ends, looking at an interesting crystal that caught the charm-light from the ceiling and then sent it spinning out in striking shades of purple when somebody clapped me on the shoulder.
“Hey, you can’t sleep either?” I heard, and turned to look. It was a guy maybe a year or two older than I was, with a rakish grin and the muscles of someone who’d been doing labor all his life. His grin waned as he saw my face.
“Oh, sorry. Thought you were someone else,” he said. He put a hand sheepishly behind his head, and stuck his other one out for me to shake. “Hiller. Nice to meetcha.”
“Grace,” I said, and shook his hand.
“I haven’t seen you around before,” he said. “Are you from the east side? I don’t talk to east side folks much. Blues the new thing over there?”
I looked down at my clothes, suddenly having the distinct feeling of being an ill fit for a place that I used to feel hanging around the other kids back home. “No,” I said, “I’m actually from, um, from Scorched Rock.”
“I’ve never heard of that neighborhood,” Hiller said, “But then again, if I was any worse at directions my uncle would probably just lock me in the carpentry workshop so he wouldn’t lose me.”
I almost corrected his thinking that I was talking about a neighborhood, but I also didn’t want to reveal exactly how much I didn’t fit in. He might not talk to me if he knew I was Grace, the weird charm-girl from the chilled wilderness. Instead I asked, “Do you want to look around together?”
He said, “Sure, I’ll even buy you something to eat,” and that was that. We walked and talked. I did most of the walking, moving from store to store to peer into each one’s interior, and he did most of the talking, about his work or his uncle or his friends, and this division of labor satisfied both of us.
Eventually, though, he said something that made me pause. “Yeah, it sucks. Ever since my aunt, well, you know, my uncle has been meaner than ever.”
“You know?” I asked, midway through peering at a little glass statue in a glassblower’s shop. “Know what?”
“Oh, come on,” he said. “Like you haven’t heard.”
“I haven’t,” I said, feeling my pulse quicken.
“They closed, like, the whole first floor because of it. At least, over here they have been. Has this not been happening over on the east side?”
“Um, no,” I said. I needed more information. Details, descriptions, some idea if this was possibly connected to the guest room having been destroyed. “What hasn’t been happening over on the east side.”
“The disappearances!” Hiller said. “The creepy rumors I’ve heard about rooms where if you enter, you never leave. The reason why they’ve been closing up so many of the shops.”
I looked around me. “Wait, these shops don’t close normally?”
Hiller gave me a funny look. “Do shops close normally on the east side?”
“Um. Yes,” I lied.
“What neighborhood did you say you were from, again?” Hiller asked.
“Scorched Rock,” I said. I could almost feel his suspicion rising.
“And in Scorched Rock, shops close. And it’s a regular thing.”
“Why do the shops close?”
“Well, the owners need to sleep, right?” I was sweating now. Talking to someone this much was unusual, lying on top of that made my nerves all want to scream.
“Why not have the apprentices mind the shop like normal, then?” he asked, and suddenly his face was very close to mine, and his eyes were squinting as though that let him see through lies, and I gulped.
Then he leaned back, and said, “You’re an outsider, aren’t you.” It wasn’t a question.
“Yes,” I said. I had used up all of my lying to make it this far, no point in exhausting myself further and digging myself in deeper.
“You’re an outsider.”
“I am,” I said. His gaze turned hateful and angry.
“Uncle always told me outsiders would gladly lie to get what you have. I didn’t realize outsiders would look like anyone, use anyone, to get to you too. How old are you, even? Were you born here, and when the outsider charmed your mind away did it erase that too?”
“What?” I was suddenly as confused as I was fearful.
“I’m going to get the Crowns. Run along, little outsider-slave, and when you get back to your master tell them they’ll rot in the roots with all the rest of you lot.” Then Hiller ran.
Not wanting to find out who the Crowns were, I ran in the opposite direction, back to my room.