“How does this one work?” A young woman rolled a ceramic vial with a purple stopper between her fingers. She was wearing a ghastly yellow dress and hoop skirt that had fallen out of fashion, and was kneeling in the dirt carelessly.
Faine leaned back against the rough wood of an old chair he’d found sitting outside an abandoned shed. Before him lay a shabby blanket he’d lain in the shade of the tall elm that marked the edge of the market square. It was covered in ceramic vials with earthy colored stoppers. A handwritten card labeled the brown ones “stamina potions,” and another labeled the purple ones “health boosters.” He’d awoken at dawn to finish concocting them, and had expected to sell out by nightfall, as the potions were somewhat rare, and always popular. He pulled a worn and yellowed fan from his pocket and beat humid air towards his neck. Unsurprisingly, it did little to cool him, considering the oppressive sun shone through the leaves of the elm without effort.
“Sir?” she prompted. When she smiled at him, he could see a fetching look of innocent curiosity in her eyes that complimented her youthful features.
“You just drink it, same as the rest,” Faine smiled tiredly. She was pretty, decidedly so, but a large purple scar across her face indicated that she was not the most beautiful woman in the world. He’d have to continue on his quest, after all.
“The purple ones prevent illness. The brown ones wake you up in the morning,” he explained. “They’re especially popular with farmers in small towns like this, where there’s not enough spare coin to hire extra hands.” The woman hummed absentmindedly, and set the vial down beside the blanket.
“I’ll take a couple for the early mornings. How much for ten?”
“Fifteen bills.” Faine watched as she turned a discerning eye to the brown vials, and plucked a few she deemed worthy off the blanket.
“Oh, and what does this do?” asked the young woman, beaming excitedly. She held aloft a lilac so tiny that it was nearly engulfed by her calloused palm.
“That’s a flower,” said Faine, struggling not to roll his eyes. He took the bills offered to him by the young woman.
“How much?” she asked.
“Fifty coins each, miss.”
“Then I don’t want any,” she scoffed. She clambered up, swaying on her heels in the heavy dress, and stalked off.
“Thank you, tell your friends!” called Faine. Just as he thought he’d have a break, another man approached. He had on a silly, floppy hat that hung dangerously low to his left shoulder, his long, sandy blonde hair sticking out of it comically. Faine tried not to stare.
“A traveler?” said the man. He approached to study the vials. “What’ve you got?”
“The purple ones prevent illness. The brown ones wake you up in the morning. The flowers are just flowers,” he said. The man nodded absentmindedly, gazing at the vial in his hand, before turning to Faine.
“You’re new around here,” said the man. “Weren’t here yesterday, so you must have arrived this morning. Wha-”
“Faine Harlowe,” he said, offering his hand. The man shook it, looking pleased despite the interruption.
“You can call me Arthur,” he beamed.
“I’m on my way to Flenton,” said Faine, good-naturedly. “I’m hoping to be gone by nightfall. I just ran out of money on the road, and figured I could sell some of these potions quickly enough.”
“You just happened to have quality potions on you?” Arthur raised his brows in surprise.
“No, I brewed them at home and brought them with me with the intention to sell them if money got tight. It just took a bit of boiling to finish them, which I did this morning,” explained Faine. “My mother taught me how.”
“Oh, your mother, of course. Lovely woman, I’m sure,” Arthur smiled in a friendly manner, but the corner of his mouth quirked suddenly, giving Faine the distinct impression that he was holding back something unpleasant.
“Of course…” Faine hesitated. He had set up shop away from Market Center, where the town’s few merchant guild members conducted business in the largest booths, in the hopes of avoiding hefty licensing fees. He wondered if Arthur had been sent by the guild members to collect payment. He didn’t want to talk about his mother too much, either, since her untimely passing was a subject best left untouched.
“And where are you coming from?” pressed Arthur.
“Craig’s Landing...” said Faine. “Why does this feel like an interrogation? Did I do something wrong?” Arthur sighed in an overly dramatic fashion, as if to convey that being caught was very tiresome.
“I’m with the local authorities,” he said self-importantly, and struck a cocky pose he must have thought was subtle. “You are aware the production and sale of any and all products of witchcraft is strictly prohibited, and punishable by law?”
“This isn’t witchcraft!” said Faine, indignantly. “And these potions are all on the Governor’s list of approved items. I would think an officer of the law would know that! Come to think of it-how do I know you’re with the local authorities, anyway? You’re not in uniform, and I don’t see a badge!”
“Sir, please calm down,” Arthur raised his hands placatingly. “You are not under arrest. If you would come with me, we can discuss the matter of your fine, and how you wish to pay it,” said Arthur. He stepped forward, reaching for Faine’s arm, but Faine shrugged his hand away.
“Shove off! I don’t even know who you are!” yelled Faine. Arthur was saying something scolding when Faine noticed a pair of men in dark uniforms and leather armor walking towards them. They each had a large insignia of a badger emblazoned across their chests. Nightsticks hung off one side of their belts, and short swords hung off the other.
“Hey! You two! This man is harassing me!” called Faine. The men turned to look at them. One of the men, a dark skinned man with dyed blonde curls, groaned upon seeing Arthur, and placed his head in his hand. The taller man with a stern face started towards them. Arthur looked relieved, Faine noted worriedly.
“Arthur, why are you out of uniform?” demanded the tall man. His long black hair was drawn back into a ponytail as long as Faine’s own.
“I’m undercover,” announced Arthur, proudly.
“Undercover?! Who authorized that?!” cried the annoyed man. “You can’t just decide you’re undercover, Arthur!”
“Hush, Lionel,” scolded the tall man.
“Sorry, Captain,” muttered Lionel. The captain then turned to Arthur.
“We are to wear our uniforms at all times, Arthur,” he frowned. “Report to the barracks immediately and wait for my return.”
“But what about my prisoner?” protested Arthur. “He’s under arrest for the illegal sale of magical potions!”
“I am not!” shouted Faine in panic and frustration. The men all turned to him in surprise. “They’re not magic potions; they’re just potions off of the approved list! See?” Faine stooped, pointing and jabbing at the offending vials.
“The purple ones prevent illness. The brown ones wake you up. And the FLOWERS. ARE. JUST. FLOWERS!!” He held up the flowers and shook, weak petals falling off and drifting lazily to the ground. The men looked at him like they wanted to back up and go home, but they didn’t. Now, it was Faine’s turn to be disappointed.
“And you said I wasn’t under arrest!” he pointed at Arthur accusingly. Arthur took some offense to that, judging by the look on his face. Behind him, Faine could see another guard in armor approaching. He was shorter than Faine, who was an Asian man of average height, dark skinned and bald. The sword that hung from his belt was noticeably longer and heavier than the others’. The man remained silent, as if he were merely a curious bystander.
Faine observed his surroundings as the others exchanged meaningful glances. The slow traffic of farmers wandering into the marketplace had ceased, but voices could be heard up the street speaking pleasantly. The oppressive heat of midday had not let up. Athur turned to his captain instead of engaging Faine.
“There, you see? He admits it! He’s been selling potions to our people all morning!” He waved a hand in Faine’s direction, like he was drawing attention to a particularly nasty bug on the ground. Lionel shook his head disapprovingly, mouth gaping like he couldn’t believe what he’d heard.
“Captain, please…” he begged.
“Arthur, stamina potions and health boosters are on the Governor’s list of approved magical items. Their creation and use are perfectly harmless, and do not require magic to brew,” frowned the captain.
“I don’t remember that,” the new man spoke up. “How can you remember a list as long as my arm off the top of your head?”
“Because it’s my job, Danabi,” he said through grit teeth. Either Danabi didn’t notice, or he didn’t care about his captain’s opinion of him.
“We should check,” Danabi continued. “We have the full record at the station. We should check, rather than simply let a criminal go.”
“I’m not a criminal!” protested Faine.
“Danabi, don’t question me in front of civilians. I am your captain, so obey my orders,” Captain appeared to be quickly losing his temper. He stepped forward threateningly, hand on the hilt of his sword.
“Can I go?” Faine tried. He didn’t want to be caught in the middle of an interoffice argument. Lionell placed a hand on his shoulder, and pushed him back gently. Arthur looked around wildly, his hat beginning to slowly slip off his head. Danabi grinned.
“Obey your orders? Even when you let criminals go? I can try, but I don’t know if my outstanding moral compass will allow me to do that,” he said, and gave a big, theatrical shrug.
“I will not stand for your blatant insubordination yet again today,” Captain’s voice steadily rose, slowly drawing his sword. Danabi grinned in return, and drew his own. From this close, Faine could see two long grooves along the dull edge of the sword, signifying that Danabi was a Swage. Named for the tool that shapes the grooves, the Swages were wealthy new recruits that supported the new contender to the crown. Faine didn’t know much else about the Swages, as news travelled slowly to the border towns.
“Whatever happens now, I’m only acting in self defense. You three can bear witness to that,” he cast a haughty look at Faine, Lionel, and Arthur. This infuriated the captain, whose face turned a vibrant red. He suddenly swung a heavy blow at Danabi, who blocked it easily. Arthur yelped and reeled back in alarm, knocking over Faine’s potions and crushing a few. The pleasant scent of caramel permeated the air.
“Hey!” Faine cried, lunging for the vials.
“Careful!” Lionel shouted, grabbing for Faine as Danabi pushed the captain back toward them, and the captain’s foot came close to stomping on Faine’s head. Faine managed to scoop up his pack and a couple of vials as Lionel tried to pull him up. Arthur stumbled back into the grassy area behind the tree, his hat finally falling off his head. He caught it as it fell and clutched it tightly to his chest.
Faine pushed Lionel’s hands off of him with a grunt, and reached for another vial. Lionel only had time to scowl at him before Captain backed into him, nearly knocking him over. Lionel pinwheeled to catch his balance, inadvertently giving Captain a hard shove in the back. Captain fell into Danabi, who tried to step out of the way, but only managed to fall on his rear end. Captain caught himself before his face hit the ground, but his sword flew out of his hand. Lionel rushed forward and kicked Danabi’s sword out of his hand. Danabi cradled his hand, looking up at him sheepishly. Lionel was unamused.
“You’re free to go!” Lionel tossed over his shoulder at Faine, then crouched to eye level with Danabi. He tried ripping Danabi’s badge off his uniform, but it was sewn tightly into the fabric. Lionel muttered something before loudly informing Danabi that he would be spending some time cooling down in lockup. Faine looked miserably at his mud-trodden blanket and broken vials. He pocketed what looked undamaged at first glance, and decided to leave the rest, despite not selling all of his product. The morning’s sales would last until the next town, if he hunted as well.
“Thank you,” he nodded his thanks, cast one last glance at Arthur, who was looking around with wild excitement from behind the elm, and quietly hurried toward the shadows of the large house across the street. He didn’t plan to hang around long enough for anyone to have a change of heart. Beyond the large house, he reconnected to the main road and made it through town without attracting any significant attention. The town’s dirt roads were dry, almost dusty from overuse. Midsummer planting for fall harvest wouldn’t start for another fortnite, so the Market Square-which Faine skirted around carefully, but curiously-was bustling with people barking orders at various fruit, grain, livestock, poultry, fish, clothing, dishware, or woodwork stalls. The kinds of spiced wines Flenoria was famous for were displayed in the large guild booth, identified by the banner of a ruby dice, that Faine glimpsed before hurrying out of the market.
The houses he passed on his way out of town were nicer than the farmhouses he had passed on the road into town. They looked to be made of sturdier wood, and were generally wider and squatter. Large potted plants sat atop porches filled with gardening tools and rocking chairs. The walls of every house Faine saw were a light sandy color, their hipped roofs spruce, giving an overall charming, if a bit boring, look to the town. The path led out of town and back into the forest, albeit a cleaner, well maintained version of the dense woods Faine had been travelling the past few weeks. The tall trees provided shade that Faine was reluctant to leave, but he continued on the path for another hour before it led him out of the forest again. Wheat fields stretched as far as the eye could see. Long golden stalks swayed in a light breeze that provided welcomed relief from the dense humidity.
Near midafternoon, Faine reached a crossroads. Neither path was particularly distinguishable from the other, both leading towards more wheat fields, and no buildings or establishments in sight. Frowning, Faine unshouldered his pack and reached inside for a crudely drawn map. It depicted the country of Flenoria in the royal rouge. Locations all over the map had been circled with blue ink, including a spot near Craig’s Landing, Faine’s home. As many of the smaller roads near the border towns had been left out, he had yet to find it to be of any use. So, he decided to trust the signs.
The sign standing over the path to his left read “Flenton” in clear, bold lettering. The sign standing over the path to his right was much older, and splintering. The ink was faded and smeared to the point of illegibility. Underneath, a clearer sign read “BEWARE: MONSTERS.” Relieved, Faine shouldered his pack, but not before pulling out a vial with a blue stopper. As he set off down the path to his right with a spring in his step, he pulled out the stopper and chugged the acrid potion contained within.