Despite his cocky attitude, Anny felt much better having Kit nearby. He was overbearing, to say the least, but he sure knew his way around the Market. Even at its peak, when the crowds were rushing to get the best deals, he knew exactly where to turn. She let him hold her hand, much as it displeased her, and obediently followed as he led her through the busy streets. This time, she could get a better view of the Market in its entirety.
Most shops that she had noticed before had a second or third floor. She wondered what they could be for, but guessed that the extra levels were residences as she glimpsed some families enjoying the view from their second-story balconies.
So the Goblin Market wasn’t strictly a market, it was also a town. At the same time, she didn’t see any homes on the first level. All the apartments in view were on the upper stories. It seemed that commercial space on the ground floor was high in demand. Anny wondered why. She also wondered about the crowds.
“Where do all these people come from?” she asked, yelling above the noise.
“Aboveground,” said Kit, also yelling. “And some of them live here, too. But most are buyers.”
It was truly a crowd of all colours. Anny’s gaze jumped from person to person, attracted by their bold and curious outfits. It was almost like being at a costume party. She wondered if it was normal for goblins to have such a crazy look about them. Considering Kit’s orange hair and her own head of silver, she assumed that goblin genetics were naturally unpredictable, especially as she recalled the red eyes of the guard she had seen back at the Arbiter’s Tower.
Directing her gaze upwards, she watched the tree branches sway back and forth in the gentle breeze. “Where does the wind come from?”
“I dunno,” said Kit, pulling her along the crowd.
“But how are there trees growing here?” she said. “I mean, how can they grow without sunlight? Or rain?”
“I dunno,” he said.
Again, she wondered at the great underground expanse. “How do they keep it all from caving in?”
“You’re the crappiest tour guide ever, you know that?” It was hard to believe that Kit actually lived here without knowing how it all worked. Anny, for one, was dying to know. But that curiosity gradually vanished as the two wandered deeper into the Market. There was just too much going on to think about the background stuff.
Without warning, Kit yanked her down an alley, escaping the throng of greedy buyers. “There’s a shortcut down here,” he said, catching his breath. “I think it’s some type of tea shop now, where the old herb garden used to be. The crowds are thinner up ahead.”
It was at that moment, by the light of a nearby lantern, that Anny caught the glint of his golden eyes. She had to look away as she remarked, “You know your way around here, eh?”
“Don’t you doubt it for a second,” he said, gesturing for her to follow. “I grew up here.”
“I believe it.” Chaos born from chaos.
When the two came onto the street again, the throng had thinned out. This part of town wasn’t as bright or enticing as the street they had just come from, but the ambience had an appeal of its own. There seemed to be a multitude of restaurants and hangout spots, rather than open shops and stalls. Gone were the rowdy sellers loitering by their stands, shouting at those passing by and hoping for a sale. On this street, the doors to shops were left open, allowing music and atmosphere to tempt customers into a potential visit. There were bakeries and cafés, restaurants and candy shops… She wanted to go into every one she passed. Everything looked so strange and unfamiliar, in a way that was utterly bewitching, much like the sheen of a poison apple. She couldn’t help but chuckle as they passed by a tavern, noticing a sign that read, The Poison Apple. The Goblin Market was undeniably aware of its less-than-innocent charms.
All too soon, their journey came to an end. Kit stopped before a small shop front, glancing at a sign above the door.
“Timothy’s Teas.” He snickered. “Cute.”
Anny wouldn’t have described it as cute. The door was large and seemed quite heavy, and the arched windows on either side made the place look like a shady pub rather than a tea shop. She should have felt anxious, reluctant to enter, but as Kit stepped inside, she didn’t hesitate. She was eager to see more.
Exclusivity was the atmosphere. The environment was secretive, or at least, it felt that way. Like a hidden rendezvous for a criminal crowd. Maybe it was the whispering, or the green glow of the lanterns overhead, but Anny couldn’t remember ever entering a tea shop like this one. The walls were covered with high shelves of exotic tea leaves and chocolates, along with other enticing goods. The counter at the back of the shop also had a shelf behind it, but this one housed large kegs of hot water, along with something else. It was hard to tell what they were filled with; there were labels on each barrel, but the scarce light made them difficult to read.
Dark as it was, the shadows were held at bay by the strange teas in customers’ cups. Anny had to look twice to assure herself that, yes, it was the tea that was glowing. As they walked past the tables and suspicious patrons, she couldn’t help but stare at all the colourful drinks. Some were blue, some were purple, some were housed in large mugs, and others in dainty teacups. The individual aromas of each drink mingled together in a cloud-like steam that hung over the shop.
Once again, Anny was seized by the desire to taste something of the unexplored delicacies. But Kit seemed immune to the temptation. He swept past the tables of customers and strode right up to the counter, taking a seat on one of the stools. The barman had his back to the pair, preparing another round of drinks for a woman waiting off to the side.
“Hey,” said Kit, speaking a little too loudly, “could you help us out?”
The man turned around. He looked young for a shopkeeper, his dark eyes hinting at a boyish timidity that seemed out of place for a man so tall. He straightened his corduroy jacket before dropping his gaze to Kit’s.
“My, my, hello there! Of course I can help out. What is it you need?” He seemed to know the pair had not come for tea.
“We’re looking for Saphira Lazuli,” said Kit. “Is she around?”
He seemed surprised. “I, uh… y-yes! Yes, of course!” His words came out clumsily, paired with a shy sort of smile that only added to his awkwardness.
But Anny still found him to be approachable. “Can we see her?” she asked.
“Of course, of course!” he repeated, removing his paddy cap. “She lives here, of course. Just upstairs.”
He turned his head to a curtain on his left, and then back to the woman waiting for her drinks.
“Forgive me a moment,” he said, apologising to the two kids.
With the swiftness of a trained professional, he prepared a tray of bubbling-hot teas, glowing a deep shade of red. He placed it in front of the woman and returned to the waiting pair. Opening the curtain, he motioned for them to enter.
Through the curtain they went, stepping into a room even darker than the last. Anny could make out the shape of barrels by the wall and strange plants hanging from the ceiling, but it all passed out of sight as they came to a staircase and rose to the second floor.
The man stopped at the top and knocked on the door. “Saphira? Someone’s here to see you.” There was an answer from the other side, and the door was opened.
So this was the residence on top of Timothy’s Teas. The apartment was brighter than the shop down below, with soft lights overhead rather than the green lanterns they had seen upon entering. A desk, a telephone… The furniture was simple, and even the piano in the corner was smothered by piles and piles of books. Organised chaos, but with an endearing sort of charm. There was even a little fireplace burning contently in the corner.
By this fire, curled up on the couch, a young woman lifted her gaze. Her eyes widened in surprise as Kit and Anny made their entrance.
“Hello,” she said, offering a warm smile. She rose to greet them, setting her book aside.
Anny was stunned. This was certainly Saphira Lazuli, judging from the photograph, but her plain appearance was such a stark contrast to the outrageous colours of the Market.
Saphira wore a plain white dress that stopped at her ankles. No sleeves, no frills, no lace. Her face bore testimony to her experience, but her size and stature made her seem much younger. Anny had to remind herself that they were most likely the same age.
“Were you looking for me?” said Saphira, after a few seconds of silence. “Can I help you?”
“Uh, yeah,” said Anny, stepping forward. “I came to see you because I’ve got some questions.” She wasn’t sure how to proceed, with Kit and the stranger in the room. “Bellator told me to find Saphira Lazuli.” After a pause, she added, “My name’s Anastasia.”
“Oh!” Her eyes grew even wider. “Oh my goodness… It’s you!”
“Do you know these two?” asked the barman, still standing behind them.
“Yes.” But she stopped and shook her head. “Well, no. I mean, I guess you could say Anastasia and I are…” She smiled. “Old friends. We have a lot to catch up on.”
“Ah,” he said, pulling his cap back on. “I guess I’ll leave you to it, then.” He placed a hand on Kit’s shoulder. “Why don’t you come downstairs and have a cuppa, young sir? Give the ladies a chance to chat.”
Kit raised an eyebrow, reluctant to leave. But he shrugged soon after. “Yeah, okay. Just don’t be too long, eh?” He cast Anny one last look as he and the stranger exited the room.
Saphira smiled again, about to say something else. But she was interrupted by a loud bang from the stairwell. Alarmed, the two girls turned to the door. And then they heard the barman’s voice from below.
“I’m okay!” he called. “We’re both okay!” Anny could hear Kit laughing downstairs.
“Timothy…” Saphira sighed. “He’s a gentleman, if you can look past his clumsiness.” She glanced at the door. “And I suppose he can’t be blamed, for being a little nervous. I think he’s still adjusting to Market life.”
“Market life?” Anny couldn’t help being curious. “Did he just get here, too?”
“He’s been around for a few months, from what I understand. He was looking for someone to help around the shop, and we happened to bump into each other.” She laughed. “He had a hard time convincing me to move in, but I’m glad I did. He’s been very kind.”
Anny nodded, still standing awkwardly in the middle of the room.
“Oh, but I guess that’s not really important right now,” said Saphira. “You’re Anastasia Greene, right?” She reached for Anny’s hands and clasped them in her own. “I’ve been waiting so long to finally meet you! How are your parents? Your adopted parents, I mean. My parents. How are they?” She spouted the questions in a flurry of excitement. “You know, that’s my reason for coming to this Market. I knew it was close to where you live. I wanted to go aboveground to visit, but Bellator told me that I couldn’t yet, that it was too early. But now that you’re here–”
“They’re dead,” said Anny.
Saphira froze, still grasping her hands but saying nothing. The smile fell from her face. She looked as though she was about to say something, but she hesitated and shut her mouth again. Her eyes traveled to the floor, her arms dropped to her sides.
Anny regretted her words immediately, realising she had crossed the line. But it was too late for her to take it back. The damage was done.
“I… see,” said Saphira, her voice low and quiet. “Of course, it makes sense. Why else would you be down here?” She drifted back towards the couch. “And that’s why Bellator sent you here… Of course.” Her feverish energy had disappeared.
Anny wasn’t sure what to say. She hadn’t expected her words to have such an effect on Saphira. After all, it wasn’t as if she had ever known her parents. Not the way Anny had known them, anyway. Why was she so upset?
“Sorry,” she said, taking a seat opposite to her. “Maybe I shouldn’t have dropped it on you like that.”
“No, that’s all right. Really, I should be the one apologising. I’ve been quite… insensitive.” Regaining her composure, she straightened out and asked, “Would you like a cup of tea? If Bellator sent you here, there’s no doubt you have questions.”
“A million of them.” She wasn’t all that fond of tea, but didn’t move to stop her as she rose to prepare a cup.
Stepping past the living room to a small adjoining kitchen, Saphira tried to lift the mood. “I don’t think you’ve ever been to the Market before, have you? How much did Bellator tell you?”
“Not much,” she said, unable to disguise her irritation. “He told me about, uh… goblins. And he told me that I was a changeling, that my real name was Saphira Lazuli. And that’s about it.”
She came back into the room, holding in her hands a hot mug steaming with a bright, pink drink. The scent alone was intoxicating, though Anny noticed Saphira’s own cup held ordinary tea.
“Truly?” she exclaimed. “How terrible of him to do that! It’s strange for Bellator to be so unkind. This must be a shock for you.”
“Yup,” said Anny. “Shock is a good word for it. It’s crazy. I’m still waiting to wake up.”
She offered a sympathetic smile. “I can only imagine how surreal it is. I understand that life is very different aboveground. In any case,” she set her cup aside, apparently disinterested in it, “I’ll do my best to answer your questions. Where do you want to start?”
That was simple enough. “Why were we switched? What was the point?”
Shutting her eyes in thought, Saphira waited a moment before speaking again. “The answer… I suppose it’s a fairly long one. I’ll have to start from the beginning, if you don’t mind.”
“Go ahead,” she said, getting comfortable as she took another sip of tea. “I’m all ears.”