The sun bared its fangs down on Sally, slavering and hot. Sweat poured off of her as she stood a few feet behind Glisten, using her air magic to hold a parasol above her master. It was almost a joke, her master's massive body was barely shaded by the tiny parasol suspended above her. Sally had been there for hours. Glisten was a huge beast of red, blue, and yellow butterflies. Her form was bipedal, yes, a common fashion in Oasis for the shapeshifting races but it was also gargantuan. Her legs were considerably small and stout compared to her great belly, her arms large and hulking-- too long for her torso, and the tiny shapeless head sat atop fat shoulders with a halo of yellow butterflies flying in a circle above it.
Glisten was speaking to the other two Swarm Senators in her own garden, their forms making Sally's skin crawl. She would not look at them and kept her face turned down. Not only out of fear but also out of respect for her stature in the world. It was well known to she that looking someone directly in the face was a sign of being an equal which she was not, not to anyone. No, she was a destitute servant and a thief and a human tuboot. The lowliest creature on the totem pole in society. There she would stay, pouring sweat, until perhaps like her mother she would die, never to see success in this slave's hell.
Just as Sally felt her attention wavering, the parasol bobbing in its suspension, her eyes closing and opening while burning from sweat in the intense heat, finally Glisten was finished with her rendezvous. With a clap of her hand Sally folded the parasol using her telekinesis and pulled the object back to her, resting it in her hand. Without looking she could feel Glisten's gaze upon her as the butterfly-being spoke.
"Yes, you held up just fine today. I am most proud. Last time you passed out and knocked a few of my swarm-lings out of form with that parasol. I must say you have gotten stronger."
She passed a hand from the top of Sally's head to her chin, regarding her. Sally refused to meet her master's gaze, looking down to the side and visibly uncomfortable.
"Ah one of my finest specimens. Indeed. Well, have the rest of the day to yourself, enjoy."
With that, Glisten lumbered away, leaving Sally behind. Waiting until her master had fully left the gardens she double checked no one was around, then dashed for the fence and hopped over the side. Pressing the button on her collar in a prism of light she was squeezed and transported back to the Fringes, directly in front of her house.
'Freedom at last.'
Sally thought to herself patting her aching skin, she was tired. She swept up the sand off of her sagging porch, then sat in front of her door on a rickety chair while skinning a native fruit she had stolen a few days prior. It was starting to go bad, as she skinned it the juices spilled over and onto her hands. She drank the juices greedily and bit into the flesh. Having no thoughts then, she was grateful for the respite.
The Fringes were not a safe place for anyone. However, some had become safer than others by the sheer force of those in power. And the Barrel was one of these. The Barrel was one of the most stable of the Fringes, for it had the protection of the Harbor to its south. But more importantly the Barrel was controlled and protected by the Winds, and had been for nearly three hundred years now.
If you asked the government about the Winds, they'd call them a gang. If you asked those who lived in the neighboring Bratoris, the bordering Outer District, they'd call them terrorists. If you asked any of the many other gangs in the Fringes, you wouldn't hear them utter a single word in response. The Winds were the most powerful of the criminal enterprises that controlled parts of the Fringes. They were also the only group that claimed an entire Fringe District.
And they achieved this through two major methods. The first was giving the strongest protection of all who lived in the Barrel, for they chose who lived there. The Winds profited from those in the Barrel, but they never harmed them and never exploited them. They reserved their more unsavory profiteering methods for outsiders. But the second method for their success was their scorched earth tactics for any who challenged them, or even uttered a bad word about them. In their 300 years of control of the Barrel, they had completely wiped out multiple gangs that had considered encroaching on their interests.
The Winds considered all ground in the Barrel theirs, and living there required their permission. In exchange for a piece of ground and their protection, they took a flat 25% of any and all profits or goods earned or made, from everyone. Children in the Barrel are exempted, but when they turn into an adult, they require the same permission as anyone else. But there is one type of person that they will always accept, will always find space for.
And that was how they made room for Sally. Her shack wasn't much, but the plot of land was hers in right, and she needn't even worry about locking her door. A man, blue-green in skin, but by all other rights appearing human was walking by Sally's shack. He was eating something purple in flesh, grilled upon a bone skewer. He sauntered right on up to Sally's porch, "I don't know whose bright idea it was to build your home outta reedwood, but man, they were dumb."
His name was Seryn, and he was Sally's neighbor. "You makin' any money from that Bugger yet?" He also worked for the Winds. He pointed his meat skewer at her, "Want some? From Manny J's, so ya know it's the freshest cactus rat around."
Blank in mind she devoured the fruit like a dog with a t-bone steak. Her pale face was covered in its orange juices as a familiar person sauntered up. There was little reason for her to cower as his words were pure and good, but still Sally shied away as he spoke and wiped the last of the fruit off her dirty dress. She looked sheepishly at him and then away before saying,
"The house stands up well enough. I don't have a problem with it."
Face turning a bright pink she shook her head at his question.
"No, you know well she doesn't pay me. My debt is time alone. That fat bug may never let me be free, but still time will only tell."
At the offer of his skewer though, she greedily nodded her head and accepted a portion, eating it with her bare hands. Licking her fingers clean after stuffing her face she turned the conversation back to Seryn.
"Good work lately? I hope nothin' too dangerous, hate to see you not come home in one piece."
With all the common people like her she had a tentative relationship, but the one between Seryn and Sally was somewhat familial-- for her standards. He was kind enough to her in a world where it seemed waiting and pain were her only ally. Then an idea struck her and she rushed into her shack, returning in a moment with something in her hands.
"Check out this, I found it recently in another district. Shiny right? Maybe you can sell it for me?"
A singular necklace made of a copper metal, dangling a large red stone from its chain. Found was her word for stolen, a merchant wouldn't miss just one-- would they?
She thought about confiding in him the recent development in her relationship with Glisten, the missing time, the physicals, but couldn't bring herself to just yet. What could he do? Offer her pity, she had pity enough for herself. Indeed, it would be for nothing to show such a vulnerability. If he was keen he may notice the momentary discord on her face and even then she may not tell him. Wringing the necklace in her hands for a second she handed it out for him to inspect. Her burden was hers to carry alone.
Seryn could only grin. He knew that Sally was stuck under that Bugger, and likely would be for a long, long time. Debt slaves rarely ever got freed. The owners of them often found reasons to add to their debts, keeping them indentured through generations. And being enslaved to a Senator? There was no freedom from that level of power and influence.
He winked at Sally, "My work is always good. Someone has to make sure you get meat from time to time." Then he chuckled, "And the danger keeps it interesting."
He watched on curiously as she rushed into her home, and came rushing out with something she "found". He took the necklace from her. He sniffed at it, tapping it at very points with a finger. He couldn't find any identifying marks on it, that was good. "Either spill what you gotta say or stop suckin' on a spike-lemon."
Seryn was a people person, paying attention to their mannerisms was second nature for him. "If you'd like, I want to take you to meet someone we hire. If you continue to... find things, you'll need them. Do you have time now? We'll do it on my coin."
This would be the first time Seryn had ever offered anything in the way of a professional courtesy or extension to Sally. It was widely known that Seryn was part of the Winds, but very few people knew the specifics of his work, and he preferred to keep it that way. Even with one like Sally. Still, his duty was to his gang first and foremost, and Sally was one of those they'd been keeping an eye on since she moved in.
Bristling at his remark, Sally straightened her back and relaxed her face like she would had she been reprimanded for not "looking cheery" during her servitude. She wouldn't tell him now of what was on her mind and made no inclination back to her feelings. Instead, greedy eyes watched him inspect the trinket. She hoped it was worth good coin. Then, he said something she didn't expect. They had never been anywhere together, maybe said hello at the market or some other common area, but their relationship was his visits to her home and that was it. To actually go somewhere, together, as a unit, Sally was impressed. On his coin too?
"I should have time, Master Glisten can call me back at any moment. Though I don't expect her to need me until morning."
'Hopefully, unless she wants to drug me again.'
A shudder ran down her spine.
He returned as he said he would with two rented mounts, dust runners. Dust runners were as large as a traditional camel but were canine, resembling jackals. Instead of whiskers each side of their face had one long, independently moving antenna that was as long as the length of their body. A brightly colored saddle sat on each of their backs, the vibrancy of it all showing it was a rental. These creatures were notoriously fast, Sally wondered how far they had to go.
Following Seryn the duo took off, dust runners kicking up a cloud of sand which was unceremoniously deposited on her freshly swept porch. The ride was in a word, unpleasant. She had little use for a mount either being transported by teleportation or using her fast legs to run on the neighborhood roofs. Nowhere she went with her legs was too far from her home, this was all new to her. In the saddle she held on for dear life until eventually they slowed down enough where she wasn't clinging and mentally calling for a savior. Calling up enough composure she asked him something she had asked many times before.
"I have to ask and I know you've given me an answer before. But why am I exempt from the Wind's tax? Why did I get special treatment for land and a home? I want to say I feel honored, but most of the time I wonder if I truly deserve it. I'm a nobody, Seryn."
"Well I won't keep ya out all night then," Seryn said as he laughed heartily. "I'll grab us some rides, be back in two shakes and a wank."
He disappeared down a side alley, and was back a few minutes later pulling the reins of Dust Runners. They were one of the more common modes of transportation for those with a few spare coins in the Fringes. The creatures were widely native and available around the local sands, and there were several herds managed by the nomads. Sometimes they traded domesticated ones to the Fringes for greatly raised prices.
Seryn jumped up into his mount with a practiced ease, winking over at Sally. "You'll always be sore after your first time, but I promise ya won't forget it." He whipped the reins and led the way, knowing that Sally's Dust Runner would follow his. The Dust Runners were incredibly fast, and were nimble, jumping over and around people as needed, and the pair of riders crossed the grand, stone Korva Sanda't, the large circular road that separated the Fringes from the Outer Districts.
Seryn steered them down the road, ducking around the many beasts and carts, until he led them to a garden of almond trees, growing on top of one of the many apartment buildings here. Seryn pulled a bone carved whistle from a pouch on his hip and blew on it. No sound came out.
Then he turned to Sally, having dismounted now, smirking at her question, "Nobody's a nobody. And it's not exactly a secret why the Winds take you in, or any of the others." Still, he didn't give her a straight answer.
Eventually a man crawled over the outer edge of the building, pulling himself up into the rooftop garden. He was dressed in loose robes and sandals. Skin sunkissed but not especially dark. He smiled broadly when he saw Seryn and he brought himself over. His four arms extended wide as the men embraced in a hug, the newcomer speaking softly to Seryn, "#$*&#%&(#."
Then he turned, smiling at Sally, now speaking in Common, "May the Sun smile upon you and your kin, friend of Seryn. It is my pleasure to meet you. My name is Goril Avors. Might I be graced with yours?"
After she responded, he continued, "I take it you are looking to sell to me? If that's the case, we'll need to agree to rules three." The man smiled playfully, "Rule the First, we never speak lies. Rule the Second, we do not discuss our business with anyone else. Rule the Third, we only deal in coin."
The man opened his arms to Sally, smiling, "But first, tell me about yourself, my dear. Our friend Seryn is a bore, I fear. What brings you to my humble business? What do you bring, is it precious?"
Cryptic of him but nothing surprised her anymore. She said nothing in reply, biting her tongue hard in her mouth. Nobody's a nobody he said. Seemed idealistic to her but she would give him no rebuttal, instead only nodding her head and taking in her surroundings. They were in an almond grove that much was true, her thighs and ass muscles ached like hell too.
As she rubbed the inside of her thigh he brought out a whistle and blew it but it made no sound. The only surprise to her was how mundane the item was. Coming from a place like Glisten's mansion she was used to extravagant oddities, this though was so plain and unassuming. It was making her second guess the decision to ride along with him and come here. It wasn't intuition geared towards something being "wrong". It was the realization of being on the precipice to something unknown. She hated speaking and meeting people.
Just like that her worst fears came alive, a many armed man emerged from the side of the building the duo stood on top of. He was handsome and she had the first impression of him as something foreign, wise maybe or worldly, but dangerous. They hugged and spoke some words she couldn't understand or hear, then he regarded her. Sally refused to look him in the eyes and she was as stiff as a board with her hands clasped in front of her, her feet pulled tightly together.
"Greetings Goril Avors. I'm Sally. The sun does shine this season, thank you."
Stealing a glance up to him she took in his features in a quick subtle movement of her head as greeting, she pressed her lips into a thin smile as her head shot back down. Goril rattled on a list of Rules which she drank in, nodding after each one to show she had heard him. Then he did something people rarely did, he asked her about herself. What could she say? She had no talents or merit, just a slave. That was what she told him,
"I'm afraid there isn't much to say. What little time I have outside of my indentured servitude," her hand unconsciously rested on the prismatic, glowing collar around her neck, "I spend at my home. Although, that's not entirely true..."
They were here selling stolen goods. The human girl's face turned bright red as she paused to reflect. A silence came between them as she found the rest of her words.
"From time to time I may or may not 'find', or rather steal, items from shop keeps. I have a few here and there, mostly things I need. New clothing, shoes, once I found a book. This though," she brought out the necklace, "It was prettier than what I usually lift. I just wanted it. I'm not even sure why I showed Seryn, but I would take any offer you make. I don't have much." Another silence as she thought, ringing the necklace in her pale and clammy hands, "That climbing you can do, I can do some of that as well. I'm fast and agile, I haven't been caught yet."
It felt wrong to speak like this, her skin was crawling and it wasn't just the Season of Fire making her skin burn. The girl felt as if a poker was being prodded under her skin over and over again. It would be obvious she was writhing in her flesh to anyone who had working eyes.
Goril listened carefully, attentively. He never interrupted, taking it all in. And while she felt there wasn't much to say about herself, her words, her body language, and what she didn't say spoke volumes to the man. He could see she was uncomfortable. He was used to having that affect on people, particular those of Oasis. These city folk were certainly a delicate lot.
He waved off Seryn, "Go be comfortable, my friend. I'll see her home safely."
Seryn never needed to be told twice. He knew quite a few speakeasies here. He winked at Goril and disappeared silently. "Sally, walk with me, if you please."
He led her out of the garden, not looking to see if she'd follow, though he suspected she would. He walked slowly, comfortably, one set of arms tucking hands into pockets, the other set being used to accentuate his speaking.
"I ask these things of you not to make you uneasy, nor to profit from what you say. No. What I ask of you will protect us both."
They were able to overlook the entire city from here. This road set atop the city proper, separating it from the Fringes. One could see miles and miles of buildings, ending in the gigantic Lake Aina, and the Senate building directly in the middle, and the city stretching onward beyond it. It was the only city people knew. "This city is not one of kindness, you know this all too well. There is far too much of value here, far too many who seek to exploit. To take from others. To be exploited, to be stolen from."
He stopped in front of a few small market stalls, one of jewelry, largely copper, without any precious stones; one of fruits, somewhat bruised; and one of blank scrolls made from reeds, inks, and various writing tools. Each stall was operated by one person. The jewelry stall was a woman, kind in face and wide of hips, a human. She had bags under her eyes, and she was wearing a simple, ragged set of robes. The fruit stall was manned by a large Stone Bone man, bare chested, a pair of linen trousers and a grouchy look. The writing stall had a dark skinned Suntouched, in the shape of some feline creature with wings.
"So tell me Sally. What here is the most valuable among these stalls three? And what here is the most dangerous?"
Standing here alone with this stranger, Seryn gone, was frightening for the human. While Seryn had never done her wrong before this man could possibly be unpredictable. As it was with new people. Sally fit into no mold she had ever encountered and so found every new person or social aspect unpredictable and frightening. The wink Seryn gave to Goril as her friend walked away was concerning to say the least, making Sally frown.
She followed anyway, obligated to. Goril lead her to a veranda and told her to watch the stalls. So Sally did, and noticed what was there to be seen. She said nothing to his words but simply nodded, not looking him in the eyes instead she drank in his words as a Gods. He was here to help them both, to protect her somehow, and that was a kindness she hadn’t been afforded often-- if at all.
Drinking in the scene she took her time before answering.
“The most important thing is the food vendor. I would know, because I am often hungry.”
But what was the most dangerous? She shook her head.
“I cannot say what would be the most dangerous, though that Stone Bone looks like no one I would trifle with. Jewelry, if I had to say, because people treasure their items more than any simple parchment.”
Goril nodded at Sally's reply. "You make a strong argument for these. And truly, there is no correct answer, so to speak, for the answer shifts as often as people do. For instance, I view the people, the vendors themselves, as both the most valuable and the most dangerous. People are powerful tools, seemingly unlimited potential worth, regardless of status and station. And that is why they are dangerous."
He then led her down the road, to look at another set of stalls. And then he spoke, "I will be shopping here along this road for the next hour. That is your time frame for your audition, so to speak, for I do not go into business with just anyone that Seryn brings along, as rare as that is. Bring me one thing from each of those three stalls we were just at. And be prepared to tell me the story of the piece you wish for me to sell on your behalf. And do not bring attention my way, that would end very badly for one of us."
Goril then stepped forward, producing a couple coins in exchange for some smoked meat in a flatbread topped with vegetables and a spicy sauce. He didn't even bother to elaborate or watch Sally, for he was shopping now, and was clearly standing within earshot of these new vendors, chatting idly with them as he ate.
The one hour had begun.
It was clever the way she chose her prey. Being tasked with the opportunity to explain why she chose each item was a daunting thrill in her eyes. No one ever listened to her thoughts or cared about what she chose to do period, unless she made a mistake. Mistakes were less about her mannerisms though and more about why she was wrong. Indeed, she was feeling quite the rush as she sized up her first opponent, the jeweler, and watched from across the street at a tobacco stall. Someone had been there for quite some time deliberating and thinking about what to buy. A woman in middleclass wear, face flushed and hot when the human vendor would ask her questions. Not being particularly charismatic herself an idea struck Sally.
"Why not this one? M'lady? I apologize I shouldn't speak out of turn but I think this one would look lovely on you."
Sally didn't meet the woman's eyes, instead smiling at the ruby red metal chain next to the woman.
"I'm not so sure."
The half-breed replied. She was clearly a mixed race by the way her skin on her arms looked clammy in the sun. The vendor spoke up as well, she looked tired.
"Yes, though I need you to chose quickly, m'lady. I'm going to be packing up shop soon."
That piece of information was what Sally needed. She nodded and smiled, a cracked sort of thing, at them both and slunk away. This one would take time, but she was certain of what her plan was now.
Stealing from the food vendor was second nature to her. A large Yaxxas was picking out one of the sad looking meat-fruit at the stall. Sally merely crouched behind the flap of the other stall and using her sleight of hand she tipped over a bowl of the fruit beside the Yaxxas, unbeknownst to either party. A lot of yelling began.
"How DARE you!? Clumsy oaf!?" Came the Stonebone vendor, extremely perturbed. The Yaxxas growled in response but Sally paid little attention to them.
While the two carried on Sally slinked up and stole three of the better looking meat-fruit from the stall, stowing them away in the sack she had wrapped around her waist.
At the ink stall Sally was stumped. The Suntouched cat was lazily taking in her fill of the sun's rays. No one had stopped by to look at her wares in quite sometime as Sally scoped the scene. She hastily looked back to the jewelry vendor who was almost all packed. Not to mention the time was running short for her hour as well. She would have to do something daring.
In broad daylight Sally climbed on the roof above the paper stall. Using her telekinesis ability she called upon the winds to blow the stall's contents to the ground. The winged cat took to the air, crying in their native tongue, as they swooped and gathered the floating papers and scrolls. Using her stasis ability Sally took a risk and drew from the air a scroll to her. Without looking she stuffed it in her sack and quickly huddled low, as the flying Suntouched swooped over head to gather a paper which had taken to the wind high above. The shadow darkened for a second and Sally felt the wind from the Suntouched wings', drawing in her breath she stayed still-- she then ran from the building and scaled it down to the ground below. The shadow darkened above her again as she headed towards the jeweler. That was when something crashed into her, pinning her down.
It was the jeweler. They had ran headlong into each other. There was little time to spare, but this was Sally's opening. Jewels and trinkets were strewn hither and thither around the sandy ground glinting in the sunlight. Sally began "helping" the woman, who was apologizing and thanking Sally in the same breath, put away her jewelry back in their reed container. She snagged a bright gold medallion and stuffed it in her pocket. When it was all said and done the woman ended up tipping Sally five coins, Sally didn't thank her. Instead she was rushing to find Goril, headed back to their rendezvous.
"The first, the fruit. Was chosen in three, one for you, one for me, and one for the one who you would sell to. I was able to distract the vendor by tipping over a bowl of fruit."
"The second, this scroll. I used my wind abilities to blow away the stall and grab this for my own. Was-- wait?" The scroll had writing on it, upon closer inspection Goril would find it was a ledger with dates of shipments. "I'm sorry, I am so sorry. I didn't know this had writing on it." Sally was frightened, but continued on.
"The last, a medallion. I stole it while helping her clean. I had to run from the scroll vendor and ended up headlong into the jeweler. It was easy enough to fake helping her so I could grab this item. I'm really very sorry you can't sell the scroll. I hope this doesn't affect anything, I couldn't quite see in the mess what I was grabbing and was running out of time."