“To follow a principle is to ascribe value to it, and value always has worth that can be quantified. Is to value quantifiable worth above all, therefore, not to follow the greatest of all principles?”
– Extract from “Bought and Sold”, a collection of the teachings of the Merchant Prince Irenos, founder of Mercantis
It was the second time Indrani was made to serve at an auction of the Closed Circle and she knew better than to hope it would be the last. She was exotic. The word came even more often than pretty and mannerly in the mouths of Honoured Guests, as if the colour of her skin had made her some wild animal instead of a nine-year-old girl. Merchant Lord Septim had been complimented too many times on how much of a coup acquiring her had been for Indrani to ever think he would not continue volunteering her as a servant for the evenings. It was rare occasion, at least. The Closed Circle never held auction more than once a year, and it was not guaranteed to. The nature of what was put to auction forbade it from being regular occurrence. The masked men and women of the Circle called it ‘an auction for which that cannot be bought’ but Indrani had already grown used to the way Mercantians slathered drama over everything like honeyed glaze. The Closed Circle, as far she understood, put up for trade things that couldn’t be bought with gold. It was barter the way slaves like her did in the pens, but with enough goldleaf and expensive wine involved they got to pretend it was different.
She hadn’t been there when the goods for auction were announced, but by milling around serving drinks she got to overhear enough conversations to piece together a few. There was a letter that could ignite war in the Free Cities, the secret to earn the love a Proceran princess and the greatest shame of a Callowan baron. Strangers things too, a glimmer of Arcadian moon and a sword without a blade forged by a Praesi emperor. The last, she knew, had been traded at the last auction. She’d not seen it, but they said the Warlock had been there looking for an ancient song that revealed the lay of some lesser Hells. He’d offered something from the vaults of the Tower in exchange, which had gotten the Merchant Lords excited. The Dread Empire sat on the greatest troves of treasures in Calernia, it was said, but these days rarely took them out from the warded rooms where they were hidden away from Creation. Indrani didn’t give a fuck about what the Easterners got up to in their deserts, but the owners being in a good mood was good for her as well.
Septim wouldn’t sell her until she’d flowered, he’d already said as much, but when he felt generous she got a few hours out in the city instead of remaining bound to his estate. Once that had been one of her rare delights, but tonight the notion she might see her leash loosened felt empty. Indrani had been careful, hoarding what she could and stealing when she was sure she could get away with it – the trick was to steal from free servants, there was almost never a tracking rune on their possessions – and paid for one a questor to find her parents. She’d had to go to the lower city to find one whose fees she could afford, but after two years of scrounging finally she had managed. It had been pointless. Her mother was already dead, assassinated as part of a squabble between Merchant Lords. Her father had been sold in Ashur and died in a mine collapse as a ‘free’ member of its lowest citizenship tier. The questor told her that was a committee’s fault, higher tier citizens debating for a week on whether it was worth digging out the people in the collapsed shaft or not.
Eventually, lack of air had settled the question where words failed.
Indrani wondered if she was supposed to swear vengeance on their behalf. Feuds were not rare between Mercantians, though always short-lived, but there were Callowan and Praesi slaves in the pens that still stole knives to kill each other over things their peoples had done hundreds of years ago. There wasn’t much, she thought, to seek vengeance for. Her father she’d never even met, and she barely remembered her mother. Warmth and the smell of spices, that was all. The name she’d been given by the woman had been kept since Merchant Lord Septim thought it would make her more authentic, but the way it was spoken was different from what little she remembered. It was spoken in Lower Miezan, not whatever tongue was spoken by the people of her parents across the Tyrian Sea. All the girl could muster was a vague sorrow at would could have been. It was left formless because her life already had form: she was to sing, to learn the Three Dances and the Seven Tongues and earn great profit for the man who’d snatched her from her mother’s arms at the cost of a small fortune.
She’d gone quiet and her smile had lapsed as she thought, she realized. Indrani force da cheerful smile and dearly hoped no one who had rivalry with Septim had seen her. All it would take was a single comment to humiliate the Merchant Lord and she would have earned a caning. Luck might be in her favour, for there were few Mercantians at Closed Circle auctions. A third of the people in attendance were fat Merchant Lords and Ladies, but the Consortium kept light presence at events like this. The Merchant Princes of Mercantis had long ago ordered as much, to ensure it would be powerful foreigners that came to the City of Bought and Sold for the ineffable prizes offered. Indrani, a sweet smile painted on her face, presented her silver platter to the closest Honoured Guest. A woman, though not like she’d ever seen before. She had the skin of the honey-coloured Yan Tei but her face was different and her ears were pointed. Her red dress alone was proof she was wealthy enough to be here, silks that could only be had from Praes and Ashur. The rough leather boots stood out from the perfectly presented rest, a stain on the jewels and beauty. The Honoured Guest considered her for a long moment before claiming a goblet of Helikean pale.
“Well now, a yamin-ine,” she said, “Where did the fat ones get theirs hands on one of you?”
“This one does not understand what you speak of,” Indrani replied.
“I imagine your parents made it through on a Baalite ship before Fate fucked them bad enough you ended up here,” the Honoured Guest mused. “Your peoples don’t often cross the Tyrian Sea, girl. They never learned the routes.”
“This one was born in Mercantis, Honoured Guest,” Indrani said.
“You can drop the slave talk,” the woman said, rolling her eyes. “And that platter as well. You’re interesting enough an oddity you’ll be fetching me drinks for the rest of this bore. Send your owner to me if they object.”
The slave swallowed noisily. She wasn’t an idiot. She knew there were men and women that were… interested in girls her age. She was pricey enough a commodity that Septim had never made her available for those kinds of deals, but for an Honoured Guest? No one got in this hall without being powerful enough to curry favour with. Could she run? The rune carved into the back of her neck would start boiling her blood if she went too far from the anchor, but it might be worth it if she could avoid this. The woman drained the cup and dropped it on the platter, reaching for another. She’d just drank, Indrani knew, a vintage worth a boy of working age in good health. Like it was water. The waste was like a slap in the face, utter disregard for the wheels of value and interest she’d been taught ruled the world.
“Whoever decided there’s need to mingle for an hour after the prizes are announced should be shot,” the Honoured Guest sighed. “I’d burn the invitations if they didn’t occasionally have useful stuff.”
“The Closed Circle is pleased to provide for all your needs,” Indrani said.
The woman snorted.
“Did you know your people abduct the salamdeul who wander too close to the border?” she said. “Rip out the hearts in some pretty grisly rituals to the Gods. Having one of you in slave livery is like putting ribbons on a tiger.”
“This one knows not what you speak of,” Indrani said, desperately reaching for the phrases she’d been taught. “Are you enjoying the auction, Honoured Guest?”
“Praesi highborn speak just like that,” the woman said. “They put accents on different parts, but you’re coming from Baalite bastard talk and they from Wasteland tongues. Their nobles think they’re being distinguished, but they forget Miezan envoys were always slaves. Mercantis was founded by exiles, you see, you keep the traditions closer to true.”
“This one was not taught history,” Indrani tried.
The Honoured Guest smiled strangely.
“I know a man who once said ignorance of precedent is the doom of empires,” she said. “Though you’re too young for romance, I suppose.”
The girl hid her relief as well she could. Those particular duties would not be asked of her, it looked like. The stranger patter her shoulder as one would pat a pet. Some owners were like that, liked to think of themselves as benevolent.
“Most of the time, more trouble than it’s worth,” the woman said. “It’s the exceptions that fuck you, mark my words.”
“This one will, Honoured Guest,” Indrani replied.
It was toothless enough, as far as babbles went, and she’d been forced to smile and nod and much uglier stuff.
“Ranger,” the woman said. “Call me Ranger.”
The slave stiffened. That was not a name, it was a Name. The half-drunk guest at her side had been granted mantle by the Gods themselves, whether Above or Below. She stood in the presence of greatness, and greatness was helping itself to another cup of wine and downing it so quickly she must barely taste it. Indrani glimpsed a tall silhouette coming from behind and felt cold fear course her veins. Merchant Lord Septim was young, barely thirty, and had yet to gain the fat that Mercantians influential enough to vie for the title of Merchant Prince uniformly wore. His tan face was leathery and desiccated, a match for those hungry empty eyes that she had learned to fear. Whims were rare in the man, and generosity ever passing.
“Lady Ranger,” Septim smiled. “I see you’ve taken a shine to my Indrani.”
The honey-skinned woman glanced at the Merchant Lord like he was waste scrapped off her boots.
“Speak in my presence again and I’ll slit your throat,” she mildly said.
The Merchant Lord paled.
“Shoo, copper-counter,” Ranger said. “My patience is already running out.”
Indrani did not smile. When the Honoured Guest was gone, she would still be a slave – and one who had witnessed Septim’s casual humiliation. There was a beating for her in it, waiting around the corner. The memory of the barely-veiled fury on her owner’s face wouldn’t do much to take away the dull throb of a caning’s aftermath.
“Merchant Lord Septim is said to be the foremost candidate for the princeship, in a decade,” Indrani warned quietly.
“I could open the little shit up from balls to throat and all the Consortium would do is send me a bill,” she said. “Everything’s for sale here. Even the city, famously, though no one’s ever had the coin for it.”
The girl did not reply, for she had nothing to say. Mighty as the Named was, she would be gone soon enough. The sun set every night, no matter how warm, and never rose twice the same. Attachment to the transient was the way of dead slaves.
“Wekesa’s little trinket should be interesting, but the loafer in the Tower wouldn’t let anything too useful of her grasp,” the Honoured Guest said. “The only thing worth a second glance here is the invitation.”
“I know not of what you speak, Lady Ranger,” Indrani admitted.
“A written invitation to Skade, made from the soul of some poet the Winter Court took fancy to,” the woman explained. “I could carve my way into Arcadia, but that takes a while, and my gate’s even more finicky.”
“This one was unaware that your hallowed self kept friendship with the fae,” the girl said.
“Oh, I don’t,” Ranger smiled. “You might say I’m fond of their jewellery, but that’ll have to wait until the seasons change.”
Indrani smiled as if she understood. The woman seemed amused but not fooled.
“So what did they train you for?” she asked.
“This one has been taught to sing, and still learns the Three Dances and the Seven Tongues,” she said.
Lady Ranger laughed loudly and unapologetically, as if it was the funniest thing she’d ever heard.
“Gods, singing,” she gasped. “Child, your people gouged out the eyes of a Minister of the Left and sent them to his Emperor along a demand for half his southern territories. My father sacked Sing Du twice, burned An Yang to the ground and still lost to the Striped Fleet. There was a century where the Ashokas bled the high chief of the Onogur as their coronation ceremony. A drop of your blood has more war in it than half this continent put together.”
She might as well have been speaking in tongues, for all the difference it made. Names of peoples and cities beyond a sea but a handful knew how to cross, never to be seen or even heard of again. What did it matter to Indrani that some kingdom she’d never heard of and she shared the smallest sliver of kinship with was mighty? She had never left Mercantis, hadn’t even seen most the city. The stranger was marching in with her colourful stories, and by night’s end would march out and leave a mess behind her – a mess Indrani would pay for. She hated that, hated it like poison. She also craved it. It was the difference between one who had power and one who did not.
“None of those names mean anything here,” Indrani harshly said. “My blood even less.”
“So you have some fire in you,” Ranger smiled. “Good. We’ve got some fate, you and I, but I’ve no patience for hollow dolls.”
“We have never met before,” Indrani said.
“My father would never have been exiled, had he not lost to your people,” the Honoured Guest shrugged. “Would never have met my mother. That gets you a second look, at least.”
“I am not for sale,” she bitterly said. “Will not be for years yet.”
“What the lords of this place deem to be law matters very little to me,” the woman said. “Have you ever used a weapon?”
Indrani shook her head.
“Mercantians do not keep war slaves, my lady,” she said. “Only Stygians do. To lay hands on a blade here is killing offense, save for the pit fighters.”
“Let’s see if you have it in you, then,” the Lady Ranger said. “Follow.”
They were noticed. Indrani felt like flinching. Slaves should not be noticed, no good ever came of it. The Honoured Guest elbowed aside a dark-skinned Praesi who bowed and offered her manifold apologies, not that she bothered to listen, and she snatched a hilt without a blade from atop marble pedestal. She pressed it into Indrani’s hands, who winced as she held it. Moments passed without anything more than the sensation of cool metal against her palm. The absence stung harder than she’d thought it would, and the girl damned herself twice for having hoped. Hope is the bitter brew, hope is the usher of despair. One day at a time, never looking back or ahead. I will survive this.
“Sorcerous was a real prick anyway, as I hear it,” the Lady Ranger mused and dropped the hilt back on the pedestal. “Wasteland aristocrats always like to talk about sorcery being the best thing the Gods bothered to shit out, like it ever saved them from a knife in the throat. Steel, girl, always wins. Remember that.”
Indrani nodded and the worthless advice and followed the madwoman. They came to stand in front of another pedestal, this one bearing a horn bow with carved images along the length of the arc. The eyes of everyone in the room where on them by now. There would be no escaping the consequences.
“Lycaonese,” Ranger told her. “They’ve always liked these, nothing quite like them to kill ratlings from a wall. This little piece must be older than the Principate, back when the Iron Kings still ruled.”
She’d spoken with a degree of respect, but handled the bow like it was a tool instead of a literally priceless artefact. She strung it casually and pulled, eyeing the bend with a critical eye before handing it to Indrani. The girl’s fingers closed around the bow and found it fit just right. Perfectly, as if it had been made for her hand. In the background she heard a masked woman of the Circle tell Ranger it had been crafted by Peerless Artisan and the enchantments on it would never lapse, but the words passed her by without taking hold. Indrani’s eyes remained on the bow and she let instincts she should not have guide her hands. She looked ahead and pulled the string, feeling the weight of an arrow that did not exist take hold. It felt… it felt like what her mother should have felt like. Coming home. Closing a circle. She shivered, and only returned to herself when the Honoured Guest put a hand on her shoulder. The woman leaned close.
“If you could loose an arrow at anyone, who would it be?” Ranger whispered.
Indrani was careful not to look for Septim, not to remember painful throbs and bruises that were allowed to swell before magic was taken to them. The Named chuckled.
“And after him, the rest?” she said.
Indrani slowly shook her head.
“A debt,” she said. “Not a cause.”
Ranger smiled and took the bow from her hands, placing it back on the pedestal. The absence left her hollow.
“What’s your name, girl?”
“Indrani,” she replied.
“Indrani,” the Ranger repeated, mulling over the word. “It will do for now. Come along, duckling. We’re leaving.”
“I’m not for sale,” the slave replied, alarmed.
“Consider this your first lesson, duckling,” the Lady of the Lake said. “Rules should only be a concern when someone is able to enforce them upon you.”
Indrani saw a wild glint in those eyes, and her fate writ in it. Never looking back or ahead, she thought.
She smiled, and for the first time in a very long while it was genuine.