IT WAS A VERY dirty shop.
Marra had long since given up trying to keep it clean. The dust of San Cris was the stuff of legend – and not in a good way. It had to be cleared out of your nostrils at the end of the day, or sleep was impossible. It clung to your hair, which was a reason so many women wore it short. Men wore their hair long, seemingly not to care that the sand actually lightened the shade. Most females preferred being clean.
Marra's dark red hair was long, and she spent a lot of time brushing the sand out. Some thought she was vain, and perhaps she was about the one thing that proclaimed she wasn't born in San Cris. But long hair was strength, the strength of warriors. And for Marra, it made her feel safer.
She wanted to feel safer.
At least it was a beautiful day, with that intense blue sky the desert had in the early morning, before the sun bleached the air white. And it was a Comet day. If she hadn't already known there was a Comet match this afternoon, the bustling street outside would have told her so.
She listened to the crowd noises now as she scraped the tiny leaves off the crys bark. And managed to scrape her thumb. Quickly she yanked away from the bowl, before the blood could ruin the herb.
And as she stood there sucking her thumb, in walked Drail, Leader of the 'Hand of Victory'. They must be playing today.
She snatched the injured finger from her mouth, covering it with her other hand.
Drail strode to the counter, getting bigger with each step. “Do you have an energy potion?” His eyes scanned the shelves behind her. And she blushed at the lack of wares.
There were herb jars, of course, but few mixtures. Marra was supposed to be an apprentice, learning the power of herbs, the alchemy of powders and potions to heal and enhance. But Mistress Britta had died five weeks ago – just a year into her studies. And Snark, the Mistress's brother, had proved ignorant in the art.
“I'm sorry. Only a health tonic – to strengthen the digestion.”
Drail's eyes roamed the shelves slowly, as if expecting to find some great elixir hidden amongst the cactus needles and crys bark. Marra wished there was something there to satisfy him, but she knew there was not.
“How long to make one?”
She stared back, unable to think of a reply.
“Please.” He clasped both her hands with one of his, and she stared at the sheer size of his fist. There were rumors that Drail wasn't Trumen at all, but Skullan. Few really believed that, of course, for no Skullan would pretend to be other than Skullan. Besides, Drail had hair. Thick, brown hair tied in a long tail down his muscled back. Skullan had hairless bodies, and were much bigger than Truman.
Drail was certainly big. And persuasive. “Please,” he said, smiling at her. He leaned close enough she saw the brown flecks in his gold eyes. “Do you know what today is?”
“All of San Cris knows, sir. Comet Day.”
He shook his head. “All the Comet Days together would not equal this day. A Skullan team has entered the Game.”
Marra stared. “No Skullan would play a Trumen.”
He shook his head. “Actually, there were at least six known games where Trumen faced Skullan. All six losses.”
Marra had never heard such a thing. But she realized if anyone would know, it would be Drail. His whole family was legendary gamesmen.
“What's your name?” His eyes were sparkling – with excitement, she realized. No fear at all.
“Marra, seven is my lucky number.”
Her own gaze dropped away from the sheer power of his. And alighted on the tome behind the counter.
It was Britta's Book, the mistress's handwritten collection of potions, balms, and notes. Snark had shoved it at Marra initially, but her reading skills were weak, and the old woman's handwriting poor. Marra now lifted the heavy book onto the counter.
The Book opened as it always did at Britta's leaf-mark. On the BIRR ELIXIR.
“Yes!” Drail said, pointing at it.
“Exactly! With that we will win!”
Marra had always assumed Birr was some sort of herb. Drail must know otherwise. Scanning the recipe, she saw only herbs she had. Except for something called Myrrcleft.
“Thank you, little Marra.”
Her protest melted under his warm smile.
When she read it again, she realized that this Myrrcleft was probably the active ingredient. She could use basil. Basil had great mixing powers and could often be substituted, but if this was some sort of energy potion that may not be enough.
Then she remembered the Trevor seed. Mistress Britta had a two-fist sack filled with a tiny grain-like thing she called Trevor seed. Britta had said it 'boosted' things, made a potion more so of whatever it was to be.
Marra ran back to fetch one tiny seed. She crushed it with the mallet, releasing a sweet oily puff, and hastily dropped it into the elixir. Then she heated it as indicated, but not quite to boiling. Trevor seed lost potency in boiling, she remembered.
She poured the steaming liquid into a glass flask. Glass was expensive, but Britta had marked it must be so.
Hands grabbed her shoulders – she whirled to see Snark behind her. Something in his eyes made her stomach plummet.
“Special order,” she nodded at the flask. “I have to take this to the field.”
“Later,” Snark stared at her blouse. He had been doing that lately, and it made her skin crawl.
“Drail said before the game – or no payment. It's for the Hand of Victory.”
Snark's fingers slid over her shoulders. “I'll take it. You wait here.”
“He said I must bring it myself.” That was her second lie, and she winced inwardly. She'd never lied in her life until Snark became her boss.
But the lie worked.
“I bet he did,” Snark grinned evilly. “Go, then. But don't be long. He's got game in an hour.”
Marra raced out into the sunshine.
Travelers often referred to San Cris as outlying, which to Marra's mind meant small. It was one of the Sandy towns, out on the Flats of Beard. San Cris's population was less than two hundred Trumen total. And today it seemed twice as many were crowding the street, laughing and eating baked cactus treats. It was a Comet day, and San Cris was the host.
For an instant Marra paused, weighing going back for her shoes against the possibility Snark would change his mind. To be barefoot marked one as poor indeed, but then that was pretty much what she was. So she defiantly tossed her long braid back over her shoulder, and hurried on.
She weaved her way through the crowd, then was suddenly snatched up off her feet as if she were a Comet ball herself.
“Cute little Truman,” a booming voice said. Marra found herself face to face with a giant of a man, his head bald and the hollows surrounding his eyes painted dark green. His skin was pale – with patches of burning pink sunburn on his nose. And he had a spider tattooed on his cheek.
He had to be Skullan.
She'd never been so close to one before. By the Desert Crane, she'd only seen three of them in her whole life. Skullan were said to despise the desert almost as much as they despised Trumen.
“What a nice little prize,” the Skullan leered. “You may warm my mouth now, and warm my lap later.”
He pulled her closer. Marra instinctively braced both her feet against his chest. “You defy me, girl?” he asked softly. And she saw Bender, the old shopkeeper from down the street, lower his head and scurry past.
No one, she realized, was going to do anything to help her against a Skullan.
Her feet thrust out again before her brain could stop them. One foot skidded down his massive chest, scraping his nether region. He doubled over; Marra dropped to the dust.
Startled at his reaction, she hesitated but a second before seizing her good fortune. She scrambled to her feet and took off as his companion laughed.
She didn't slow down until a rock in her heel demanded attention.
The Comet Field was a huge circle of combed sand, with four perimeter posts set on the four compass points. Today those posts were decorated with streaming cloths of color tied to each. Marra passed the first post, with a dark green cloth the same shade as the Skullan eye paint, and quickly moved on to the red cloth, where Drail and three other Trumen warmed up. They were swinging powerful arms, kicking imaginary balls. When Drail saw Marra, he tapped a friend before striding toward her.
She stared up at him. He had seemed so large in the shop, before she'd faced a Skullan. Drail had looked like a warrior in a tale come to life, but somehow seemed more human now that she'd witnessed the mass of a Skullan up close. She wanted to ask if he realized just how big they were. If he truly understood how difficult a game would be against such giants.
He must be the bravest man on the continent.
“Do you have it?” he asked with his easy smile. For all the world as if he'd forgive her if she didn't. Wordlessly she plucked the flask from her pocket, and only just realized how easily it might have broken in her scuffle. But it hadn't.
Drail removed the cork stopper, and glanced at her. “How much do I drink?” Most potions were intended to drink the whole amount at once. This one, she remembered, had been marked by the circle with the cross in the center.
“A quarter of it only.”
“Perfect.” Drail pulled a good drink from the flask, closing his eyes, savoring the feeling. After a moment he nodded. Marra hoped that meant it was actually working.
He then handed it to a teammate, a man even taller and with wild hair. When that one turned, she spied a lonely blonde curl dangling over his temple. Almost cute – if everything else hadn't been sinew and muscle.
“Manten. Drink a third, and pass it on,” Drail told him. To Marra he tossed four coppers. “We offer you the post seat. You'll have a great view to watch your elixir at work.”
She stared at the coins in her palm. “Too much, sir. It's only a copper.”
“Four men. Four coppers.” Drail gestured grandly toward the post, and she found herself moving before thinking. Behind him, his men donned Comet leather, chest-jackets with a crudely drawn hand and a red “V”. The sign of Drail's team – the 'Hand of Victory'.
Snark was waiting for her in the shop, and Marra trembled at the notion of disobeying him. But nearby spectators cleared the way before her, allowing her both the post spot and an unimpeded view. It was a true honor. A sort of respect she'd never experienced before.
There'd be hell to pay, of course. But that would come later.
And this was Comet, after all.
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