Before he took my eye permanently to sell, Besovi would often take it with him for lessons.
I was twelve at the time, early on in the same year I gave him my eye. I was small, and awkward, and still plagued by a stutter Besovi promised to cure me of once I had become what he called a True Disciple. I was not yet a Disciple to his standards, merely a lesser Acolyte, barely one step above a common Believer (though Believers in Besovi were not common at all, as I was the only one alive at the time to my knowledge).
We were in the garden shed at the edge of the apartment complex, and Besovi was starting a lesson. We sat in the near-dark, with the only dusty light spilling in from the high shed windows, filtered through the grime and yellowed newspapers plastering the cracked glass. I was afraid of the spiders lurking in the ceiling and other corners, but Besovi assured me that none would come near me provided I maintain my focus on his teachings.
"Today you will learn more of the Merchant House of Tha," he declared. The seven crowned reptilian heads he possessed that day looked down at me from atop the hood of a riding mower where he sat. His lizard-like tail fell down beside him, just long enough for the tip to touch the concrete floor.
Sometimes Besovi liked to pretend that he was a dragon.
I bowed my head, but said, with my mouth dry and my face towards the ground, "I-I th-th-thought t-today you were g-go-going to gi-g-give mme a mmiracle?"
"It is not the place of an Acolyte to question their god," he said. The crown on the rightmost head began to slip. Besovi tried to grab it before it fell, but his ungainly dragon arms were unable to reach. The crown clattered loudly to the concrete floor of the shed.
Besovi is not a dragon, at least as far as I know now, but I wasn't certain then. I knew he could change his shape the way others changed clothing, but I was never certain which was his "real" shape, or if he had one at all. However, even if he had been a dragon, I knew that this particular dragon form of his wasn't real. He had copied it from my foster mother's Bible one Sunday after church, after a particularly brimstone and fire fueled sermon by Pastor Dale.
Besovi had thought it hilarious that he, a god of love unending (though also carefully partitioned. Not too much, after all. Never too much) would take the form of a diabolic would-be god of hate. It was, he assured me, the greatest irony.
I apologized for my transgression.
"My love forgives you," he said. In movements like liquid, he poured himself from the top of the mower and was human-like again before his toes touched the ground. He stepped in front of me and said, "I will need your eye."
My heart fluttered in my chest and I sat up, though still on my knees. Did I get to Witness that day? I asked him.
Besovi smiled at me, and my heart flooded with warmth. "Yes," he told me. "A much better use of time than any miracle," he said. "Hold still."
I held as he placed his hand over my face and, after a moment, drew his hand away. Sitting in his palm was my right eye. For the brief seconds his hand was open, my mind received conflicting information. I was seeing him, standing before me in all his implike grandeur as if he were a king in a court rather than a low Luminary in a garden shed. But I also saw myself sitting on my knees, looking up at him in wonder and awe, a thin trail of blood trickle from the hole in my head where my eye used to be.
He turned the eye in his hands to examine it, and my world whirled sickeningly around me. Quickly, I shut the eye still attached to me, and the nausea ebbed. I saw the world solely from the eye in his hand.
Besovi placed the eye in the air over his shoulder, where it remained floating in place.
"Can you see?" he said.
He held up his hand. "Enough. Use your mind from now on. Now, pay close attention."
Besovi stepped past my body and went to the door. My hovering eye followed him and watched intently as he waved his hand over the doorknob, then made a few quick gestures in the air. Orange light trailed his fingers and hung in the air, only to fade into nothingness a second later.
Then, Besovi opened the door.
That morning, the air had been springtime-cool, with cloudy skies and the tell-Tale electric tension in the air that came from it being about to rain. When Besovi opened the door, a wave of dry desert heat flooded the room. Even with most of me focused on being Besovi's witness, hovering over his shoulder, I felt my body on the floor begin to sweat.
"We will return shortly," he said. And we stepped out into a busy desert street.
Gone were the apartments, gone were the carefully tended lawns and shrubbery, and gone was the early morning sun. In their stead was a road of tightly packed red dirt lined at either side with buildings reminiscent of Pueblo adobe homes, all built on top of each other out of red and brown clay and stone in such a way that the flat rooftops were as populous and well-traveled as the street on the ground. And people. Hundreds upon hundreds of people. People wearing medieval style tunics and breeches, people wearing finely embroidered robes or finely tailored suits, people wearing strange clothes that were a mixture of all of the above and more, all garish and brightly colored.
The denizens of Kyphrios are multitudinous and myriad in number and kind, but the most common folk (if such things could be considered common) were the beings of stone and celestial fire, the Petronash: humanoid figures in flowing robes or strange armor who, at first glance, appeared to be made of stone. Figures who, upon second and third and fourth glance, still remained stone-- aged, cracked slightly, intricately carved or crafted to resemble human skin, or reptile scales, or the feathers of birds down to the finest detail. Their stone bodies could be of any kind and color, and some walked with limbs of different make from replacements past. Some had arms and legs of simple circular pillars, some had thin branches of stone intricately carved with patterns, and still some had fragmented pieces of rock hovering just close enough together to give the impression of wholeness. Their torsos ranged from stick thin and full of porous holes to entirely orb shaped. Their heads showed the same amount of variety as the rest of their bodies; some had one floating rock head hovering just above their necks, some had two or three. Some had no head, some had heads that were cracked or had parts broken off, and others had what appeared to be random shaped objects-- floating cubes or glowing pyramids.
The Petronash filled my vision in splashes of blues and greens and reds and whites and blacks when Besovi stepped out of the portal, but they were not the only Denizens on the street. Lizard-like people with cobra hoods and black robes bartered with a fat shopkeeper whose six meaty arms were crossed in indignation. An enormous giant of ten or twelve feet sat against the roof of another stand and was being yelled at by the bird-headed merchant, whose layers and layers of beaded necklaces jangled with every indignant squawk.
All of this I saw as Besovi wove his way through the street, his hands in his pockets, walking with a comfortable slouch. My eye floated above him in plain sight. This was not an unusual thing in Kyphrios; many denizens had floating extremities around them: hands were common, but so were assorted shapes of unknown purpose. Some were conjurations comprised of spellwork, some were inborn implements bestowed upon the bearer at their creation, some were complex mechanisms of technology and magic combined, and still others were concoctions of spirit or mind.
Which circle are we in? I thought. And then, a split second after, I smiled. No stutter.
Which circle harbors the Merchant Lords? Besovi responded without speaking. He crossed the street, and my eye was pulled along by his magic.
Good. Recite. Who are the Merchant Princes of Tha?
Uh. The question caught me off guard, and I tore my eye away from a hydra-headed mother and her squabbling infants.
Baghera Tha Altor, he of many voices, first of the Merchant House of Tha.
Ta'Alomi Tha, the ivory queen of bones, the second Merchant Prince.
Sorius Tha, the merchant lord witch and third prince.
Kelas Tha Nict, the black blade of the Tha House.
And Terasi Tha, the weeping prince.
Uh. Did I get those right?
Sorius is the Merchant Witchlord, but you've got the important bits.
Are we visiting a Merchant Prince? I thought.
No, no. Best not to deal with the high Tha lords. Never ends well. Besovi went up some steps built into the side of a ground-level home. Today we're visiting my contact Baumin Tha.
The Fence! I thought proudly.
Yes, that's the one. He reached the second level of the market, then went up another set of steps. The crowd that walked with us began to thin as others found their destinations.
Why are we visiting him?
What did I say about questioning your god?
Back home, back in the shed, I flinched. Sorry.
My love forgives you. Be silent so that I may focus. The Fence's market is sometimes difficult to track.
He went up the next set of steps, murmuring something under his breath, little half-words I couldn't catch the meaning of. At the next level, instead of going higher up again, he instead moved along the rooftop path, passing decorated shops and plainer doors to what looked like homes.
Eventually, he stopped in front of one of the plain doors and said, "Here we are."
From the outside, the market had looked like the entrance to someone's home. I half expected it to turn out that Baumin Tha was running an underground trade ring from his living room. But the room inside the door was small and sparse: same Adobe wall as outside, but no windows or other rooms. It was just a near-empty cube with two flimsy chairs and a coffee table.
Where's the Fence's Market? I thought.
It's around. One just needs to know how to get there.
Besovi turned around, back towards the door we'd come in. He closed it, then opened it again, twisting the knob in a strange pattern, back and forth and back again. The second time he opened the door, we had arrived at the Fence's Market.
The streets of Kyphrios had stunned me, but the Fence's Market took my breath away.
We were inside a cave. An amazingly large, mind-bogglingly big cavern whose sides stretched as far as the eye can see, and all of the wall that was there was carved in with shops. The door we had taken had led us somewhere near the top, and winding stairs cut into the rock wall itself sprawled out below us. Out in the middle of the cave were pyramid-like constructs, stepped towers that were circular instead of triangular, with winding paths that led to the top. On top of those seemed to be larger shops, or strange lounges where people were sitting around and drinking from strange bottles. Along the paths winding up the pyramids were more market stands, as well as hollowed out crevasse on the sides of the stepped towers that held larger shops inside. Some of the taller towers were connected with makeshift bridges at the top. Just as it had been outside in Kyphrios proper, the entire place was swarmed with people.
Despite being inside, the entire market was lit by what appeared to be a sun that hung from chains at the highest point in the cavern's ceiling.
It is a sun," Besovi said, apparently sensing my thoughts. Baumin got it off an Astrifides courtier in a bet. He's very proud of it. And, in case you're wondering, we're in a hollowed out mountain on a Tha owned world. The main entrance leads to Kyphrios, but this way they avoid any. . . messy issues of legality. He slouched down the steps with his hands in his pockets. This way the Tha House gets what they want, Baumin gets what he wants, and the Five get what they want.
It took me a moment to realize he meant the Five Judges of Light, who governed the law in Kyphrios. I wanted to ask why the keepers of law were okay with the obviously illegal market, but was distracted by a massive woman whose shoulders were covered in parrots, and whose three floating hands were juggling knives that glowed different colors upon contact.
No, no. Your foster parents won't let you have a pet, and I won't let you have a knife. Besides, her prices are ridiculous.
Besovi made his way down the steps with my eye in tow. Here a Petronash merchant demonstrated the sharpness of the knives he was selling. There a man who looked like a dragon displayed metal dishes that could withstand the heat of a volcano. Here a six-eyed woman with insect wings shouted about the usefulness of her astrolabes. There a four armed man with the proportions of a pear sold bottled shadows to spider-like people in armor.
Who are those people in cages? I asked as we passed some.
None of our concern, Besovi replied. We're here for one thing.
While I tried to take in all the sights, Besovi strode confidently to the tallest of the mountain-towers, whose winding path was blocked by two Petronash guards of red marble. Each guard had four arms, and each arm held a naked sword.
"gentlemen," he said with a nod of his head. "I'm here to see Baumin. He's expecting me."
The two guards exchanged looks, then stood aside to let him pass.
They know you? I thought.
Of course, Besovi replied. Everyone knows me.
We went around the tower steps until reaching the plateau at the top. There, a few dozen people were gathered around, some sitting at tables, some lounging on chairs, and some standing and talking. At the edge of the plateau, set up on an even higher ledge, was a kind of high-domed tent-like structure. It had metal screens in the side that served as walls, and its metal ceiling and sides were draped with heavily embroidered cloth curtains. The structure was massive and sat atop the highest point on the plateau, with steps leading up to it. In either side, four Petronash guards in shining silver armor stood watch.
Inside the structure--
Palanquin, said Besovi, apparently poking into my head. It's a special kind of palanquin.
--inside the palanquin were enormous round cushions and chest piled high with things. Gold and stringed pearls and jewels were the most immediately recognizable valuables spilling from the chests, but others had shimmering cloths and shining orbs and strangely shaped rocks and metal gadgets and just strange things, all of which appeared to be of high worth. In the center of the palanquin, resting on the largest cushion was a massive creature.
Like some of the Petronash, he was huge and round, like a beach ball someone had attached legs onto. Unlike the Petronash, he was made of flesh, not stone, with splotchy gray-blue skin. His head was huge and bulbous, disturbingly super-proportioned to his body so that they were almost the same size, and with two small horns protruding from his skull. His robes were black and red with gold patterns, and it took me a moment of watching to realize that like some of the other Denizens of Kyphrios, he had four arms: two crossed at his chest, one resting lazily on his knee, and the other holding a staff upright. His three eyes gleamed yellow in the light.
"Baumin Tha," Besovi said loudly as he approached, "I've come to trade."
"Besovi Courtless!" the big man said, opening all four arms in welcome without actually getting up.
Besovi bowed before him. "Effulgence Tha," he said.
"What's that you have there?" Baumin said, all three eyes on mine.
"Paltry vanity," Besovi said. "Mortal eyes come in lovely colors-- I thought this one matched my aesthetic."
Baumin laughed. "Need one in red," he said. "Or gold. But it's an interesting trinket. You willing to trade?"
"Maybe later," Besovi said. "I've got something more interesting."
Baumin chuckled. "What have you got for me today, you old scoundrel?"
Besovi snapped his fingers, and a small vial full of colored liquids appeared in his hand. He held it out for Baumin to inspect, bowing slightly as he did.
"The finest of mortal dreams," he said. "An even mix of nightmares, inanities, and bliss, all harvested fresh from the mortal realms."
Baumin grabbed the vial and popped the top. He brought it to his nose and inhaled greedily.
"Excellent," he breathed. "You never disappoint," he said. He capped the vial and stuffed it into a pocket on his robe.
"Nor do you," said Besovi. He held out his hand.
"Right, right. Of course." Baumin snapped his fingers, and a tiny Petronash guard, barely going up to Besovi's waist, came forward with a small box.
"In there you'll find coordinates to the alleged Artifact," Baumin said. "I make no guaruntee of the artifact still being there, that's just what my scout reported. As always-"
"No take-backs, understood." Besovi tossed the box into the air, and it vanished in a flash of orange light.
"Besovi, before you go-" started Baumin.
He didn't finish. Just that moment, two Petronash guardsmen, each ten feet tall with the proportions of bears portaled into the room, off to the side of us, stepping out of thin air. Between them, clasped in their metal-work hands was a small Kyphrionic Denizen who might have looked human if nor for the absolute whiteness of his skin, the pointedness of his ears, his unnatural thinness, or the metal plates that made up the back of his head and exposed neck.
In the blink of an eye, Bauzin's sizeable form leapt to his feet with unexpected grace. The weight of him shook the ground, and caused lighter tables on the plateau to rattle. He strode imperiously to the guards and began talking to them in a low voice. Occasionally, he pointed at their prisoner in an agitated way. Then, he knelt down to talk to him.
Hoo boy, thought Besovi.
Who is that? I asked.
By the looks of it, a dealbreaker, said Besovi's voice in my mind. They have dragged him into the Market because it is the domain of the Tha Merchants. If he had been elsewhere, then justice would have been completed at the hands of the Judges of Light. Because he is here, the wronged Tha can mete out punishment as they please. Watch carefully.
Baumin stood again and went to the center of the plateau. He waved his hands, and the star above us blinked off, thrusting the entire market into darkness. Some screams went up, but before they could even be completed, the star flickered back on. Then off again. Then on. Then above us, an image appeared that spanned a sizeable chunk of the ceiling so as to be visible to the whole market. The image was of Baumin as he stood on the plateau. in the background, Besovi and I and the little Petronash were barely visible. Besovi quickly stepped to the side, out of view of the projection.
"Attention, please!" Baumin said. His voice boomed around the cavern as though blasting from a thousand speakers. "Beauteous shoppers, I am loath to interrupt your dealings, but I am afraid a serious issue has come to my attention and must be addressed post-haste! Beloved clientele, by my right as Immediate Tha, by my right as Host of the Market, by my right as Effulgence, I call to judgement Luminary Vaisru Natemp and officially denounce him as a dealbreaker." Baumin pointed dramatically with the words, and the image above us shifted to show the shackled prisoner.
There was a small gasp from the people watching. A small murmur went over the nearest crowd, while some looked on with solemn faces. Vaisru made a strangled noise and said, "No, wait--!"
"Silence!" bellowed Bauzin. "As Market Host, I decree by my right that all present serve as Witnesses to the proceedings!"
Besovi sighed and collapsed heavily onto a cushion behind him. To me, he thought, I hate jury duty.
Around him, others appeared to be having the same sentiment. Everywhere, market goers were finding places to sit or finding places to lean. All were turned with a focus towards the images of Bauzin and Vaisru.
When Bauzin was satisfied that everyone had settled, he began. "Luminary Vaisru Natemp, three and four times ago this moon promised to pay his substantial debt in full. This baseless wretch, whose mere existence serves as an insult to all of the Lower Houses, to all with whom he shares a Court, to the entirety of his Circle, owed me substantially for services rendered and goods exchanged. Time and time again I have given him leniency to pay his debt- more time to collect with only the most minuscule of fees attached for the generosity- and time and time again he has failed to bring me what is rightfully mine.
His latest plea to settle his debt was that of his daughter. He was to sell her to me as Thrall. But what happened?" Baumin asked the haphazard court with mock shock. "Where is the girl, Vaisru? Where is she of such splendid beauty and kindness, whose "innocence unmatched" were sure to beguile and entertain?"
What's a thrall? I thought.
A slave, came the answer. Be silent and watch.
Vaisru remained quiet, his eyes downcast.
"Answer, knave!" Baumin said. A guard near Vaisru gave him a swift kick in the side.
"She ran away, your Effulgence," Vaisru gasped, clutching himself. "Devilish girl, spiteful girl, she learned of my intentions and fled with some Middle House rogue who fancied her. Surely the betrayal of a daughter softens the debt?" He added pleadingly. "An honorless girl refusing to aid her ailing father? A countless girl abandoning her flesh and kin?"
Baumin dropped to one knee in front of Vaisru and still towered over him despite it. He used his glowing sword for balance, sticking its pointed blade into the ground and resting against it like a walking stick. The light from the sword illuminated Vaisru's frightened features clearly.
"Vaisru, Vaisru, Vaisru," he said, like a chiding father. "You wound me. You promised me a threefold payment. You promised me a beautiful girl thrall to serve as my pleasure or the pleasure of whatever valued customer I sold her to. You promised me the betrayal of a loving father, the pain of a man giving up his beloved child. And you promised me the undying loyalty of a daughter, the sacrifice of a girl willingly releasing her life to the whims of strange men in order to protect her family. And yet here we are." He gestured around the platform. "There is no girl thrall. There is no daughter's sacrifice. And while there is certainly the betrayal of a father, you are no loving man. Your betrayal is that of a self serving leech, not a knight. Your betrayal is worthless."
"Please, Baumin!" Vaisru said. "I have many children! Vatana was just the most beautiful. I can offer you more! I have son who is also pleasing to the eye and of kind temperament! I have two lesser daughters! I can give you all three-"
"Enough of your bleating," Baumin said in an irritated manner. He snapped his fingers and Vaisru's mouth shut. He clawed at his face while Baumin rose to his full height.
"I've given you more than enough time and warning, and even now you insult me with empty promises of handsome boys and willing girls. My mind is made up, but let us see what my esteemed audience has to say. Witnesses!" he shouted. "You have heard his crimes and have heard his testimony. In the Market Court today, what say you?"
"Guilty!" shouted the crowd, Besovi included.
I thought you loved everyone? I said.
I do, he answered. But his guilt is unquestionable. Loving a person does not excuse them of their crimes.
Truth be told, I would have also cried guilty had I been there. The sniveling little man disgusted me, and I was glad to know his daughter was somewhere safe. I only hoped that his other children were in better hands, or were able to look after themselves.
"Then we are in agreement!" Baumin said. "And what shall be his punishment?"
The crowd went mad with suggestions. Their roars and screams and anger rose onto a caucaphanous tangle where I could barely make out a fraction of their words- something not helped by the fact that I did not understand many of their suggestions.
"Exquisite Flesh!" was one response I recall. "Soul Sunder!" "Bottled Flesh!" "Enthrall!" were others.
Baumin listened to them all, two of his arms crossed, two relaxed and open, as if welcoming the suggestions. His eyes were closed, and his expression peaceful.
At length, when it seemed everyone had gotten a word in, he opened his eyes.
"Excellent suggestions, my beauteous witnesses. A decision has been made.
"Because you have reneged on your promise of a thrall, I find it only fitting that you should take that place. Before the eyes of the Market Court, by my right as Market Host and wronged party, I declare you now Thrall of Sacrifice."
"No!" Vaisru screamed. "Please Lord!"
"Be silent!" Baumin snapped. "Store him away somewhere until he's ready for harvesting."
The two stone guards bowed to Baumin, then grabbed Vaisru by his arms. He struggled weeping between them as they dragged him off the dias. The crowd parted for them as they made their way across the Market until they came to the painted wall, which they continued through as though weren't there and vanished.
Baumin smiled and clapped his hands. "Esteemed patrons, I thank you for your service as Witness! Time is the most precious commodity, and I thank you wholeheartedly for yours! In my gratitude, I am now offering 5% off on all purchases for the next half hour. And," he added with a sly grin, "if anyone here is in the market for fresh meat, we will have some shortly courtesy of our friend Vaisru. Once again, I thank you for your duty. Shop well!"
He went back to his makeshift throne of cushions and goods, and everyone started getting up, going back to whatever they were doing before the so-called trial had started.
Besovi, likewise, rose and stretched.
Well, I believe that is enough excitement for one day, he thought to me. He started down the steps from Baumin's tower.
What's going to happen to him? I said. Are they really going to eat him? I thought they made him a slave?
They did. There are two kinds of thralls in Kyphrios. We made it to the steps on the cavern wall, the ones that led to the door we'd come in.
Which are? I asked. We passed the woman with the parrots again, and I watched them go by sadly.
Thralls of Service and Thralls of Sacrifice.
Outside, through the door, the city was unchanged. Throngs of people and creatures moved like waves, and the burning not-suns in the not-sky lit it all evenly as though no time had passed.
What's the difference? I asked when it became apparent that he would say no more.
Besovi didn't actually sigh, but I felt the desire to do so and the exasperation that accompanied it inside my head. Thralls of Service are recognized as beings of worth. They possess skills or qualities that render them useful, entertaining, interesting, or otherwise worthwhile. To be a Thrall of Service is to be only one step below a citizen, albeit a long step, and is not unheard of for such Thralls to earn their place legitimately through impressive acts, buying themselves, or by currying favor of benevolent lords. They have a few rights, as least as any individual in our wondrously corrupt Kyphrios can, though they may still suffer abuses from their superiors. There's usually a fine though, he added thoughtfully. And it's bad manners to kill them if they belong to someone else.
And the other one? I prompted.
Thralls of Sacrifice are chattel. Beings who have been deemed unworthy through their lacking or through their misdeeds. They are food for courts that celebrate the cannibalistic joys of the Devourer, or for sacrifice for those to whom blood is the true form of worship, or they are brutalized for entertainment for those who find the pain of others as the purest bliss. They exist only to be harvested.
I fell silent. Back in the garden shed, I felt my stomach starting to turn.
Is it just people who deserve it? I said. Just bad people like Vaisru?
Besovi laughed out loud on the street. Deserving is such a mortal concept, he said.
It did not make me feel better.
Fear not, my Acolyte, he said. I would never allow such a fate to come to you. Acolytes are precious things, and I treasure the ones I have.
Besovi opened a seemingly random door on the street and stepped into the garden shed. I saw myself sitting on the floor, looking a little ill, my eyes still closed. Besovi plucked my eye from the air over his shoulder, and I felt him press it against my face while the world went dark. When he had finished, I blinked and rubbed it, making sure everything fit properly. Tears streaked down the right side of my face where the eye had been pressed back in.
"Today's journey was more educational than I had planned," he said. "What lessons have you learned today?"
"W-what a Th-th-thrall is?" I said, still feeling sick.
Besovi frowned. "That was not the lesson today. You could have learned that from a dictionary. What is the lesson from the market?"
I bowed my head. "I-I'm ss-s-orry, I d-don't nn-know."
He leaned over and tapped my head with his knuckles. "The lesson you should have gotten, little one, is that you never try to cheat a Tha, especially not one as morally dubious as the Fence."
I nodded. "Y-Yes B-Bes-B-"
Besovi sighed. "Brian, go to school. The bus will be here shortly."
And with that, he vanished. I was alone in the shed.