about 86,000 words
Naya stuck out her chin and tried to match the expression of controlled calm her father always wore. Everyone said the things the necromancers brought back from the dead looked and acted like ordinary people. All she had to do was ignore the walking corpses and they’d do her the same courtesy. Probably.
The press of the crowd trapped the afternoon heat, making her head spin as she searched for a street sign. She paused for a moment to think over the directions her father had given her. Market Street to Sunset. Right at the inn with the sign that looks like a fish. Uphill, then left where the road splits to four round a fountain. She’d deliver the documents to the wool merchant, ensure he signed the contract, and be back on the ship in an hour. Come dawn tomorrow her father’s Gallant would clear the lip of the bay and turn its prow north towards Talmir, towards home.
A whistle shrieked as she tried to take advantage of a gap in the crowd to cross the street. Naya turned in time to see a rune powered tram barreling towards her. She jumped back, her nose only inches from metal and wood as the single boxcar rattled past. Someone laughed behind her, obviously amused by her near encounter with death. Naya's cheeks burned as she hurried on. How could the brightly colored chaos of Bellavida have looked so enticing from the deck of her father’s ship?
Well, no matter. She wasn't here for pleasure. Though she was already past her seventeenth name day, today was the first time her father had let her finalize a contract alone. It was a test, one she could not fail if she was ever going to prove herself worthy of the gifts he’d given her. Most wealthy merchants would never consider acknowledging a bastard daughter, much less supporting her. But not her farther. After Naya's mother died he’d taken her in and raised her as his own. He’d forced the Royal Academy to admit her despite her questionable blood, and taken her as his apprentice when she graduated. She would not, absolutely would not, fail. She tucked a damp brown curl back into her braid and hurried on. If she passed this test maybe her father would stop treating her like such a child. If she failed … Naya winced at the thought. Her father was a level headed man, but she would rather have faced rage than the icy disdain he reserved for those who failed him.
People stared at her as she turned off the main road. It wasn't hard to imagine what they must be thinking. Foreigner. Her dark olive skin and brown hair could have let her pass for local. But her clothing made her stick out like a barnacle on a well-scrubbed hull. The people of Bellavida wore loose, bright colored cottons. Men and women alike favored brass-buttoned vests that stopped just above the hips. Even the poorest embroidered their hems and cuffs with elaborate geometric designs. A drop of sweat trickled down Naya’s back and into the hem of her gray wool skirt. She fought the urge to tug at the high collar of her blouse where it itched her neck.
Naya walked a little faster. Her father’s directions led her towards the hills that dominated the eastern half of the city. The cobbled road sloped steeply up, and before long her calves began to burn. She passed by wood and stone houses painted bright blues, greens, even purples. Why had her father sent her all this way? Ordinary merchants might be expected to meet with clients at their shops, but her father was no ordinary merchant. He was Hal Garth, one of only a handful in the Royal Merchants Guild who’d been granted a writ to trade with the necromancer country Ceramor. So why hadn't this wool merchant come to them to finalize the paperwork? Doubt touched the edges of her thoughts, but Naya squashed it down. This was probably just another part of the test.
Her breath was coming fast by the time she spotted the Jumping Cod, a red two story inn with a wooden fish leaping over its doorway. A narrow lane branched away to the right, overshadowed by wooden tenements. Naya took a step towards it, then paused. The lane turned and disappeared after only a few feet. She glanced back at the inn. This had to be the right way.
Thirty minutes later she wasn't so sure. The city below was laid out in a proper grid. But up here the streets looked like they’d been mapped by wandering cows. Blind cows, Naya thought as she glanced over her shoulder and down the hill she’d just climbed. The shimmer of the bay was still just visible above the rooftops. Up ahead the road she’d been following ended, intersecting with a much wider street lined with large houses. She didn't see any shops, and no sign of a fountain. Naya had almost decided to turn back and try to find the stupid fish again when something dark moved on the edge of her vision. She turned, but all she saw was a narrow alley half-clogged by a pile of crates. Probably just a cat, she thought.
“Are you lost?”
Naya turned back around. A woman with long black hair stood just a few paces behind her. She wore a flowing skirt and a pale green vest with brass buttons. In the crook of her right arm she carried a large woven basket. The woman had asked her question in the local tongue. Naya opened her mouth to answer in the same language, but the words dried up in her throat when her eyes fell on the runic tattoos circling the woman’s neck and wrists. She’d heard about marks like those, they were part of a soul binding tying the woman’s spirit to her formerly dead body. She’s one of the undead.
“I…um…” As Naya tried to come up with something to say, the woman’s face tensed in an expression of annoyance. Naya swallowed. “I’m looking for a wool merchant’s shop, White Fleece. It’s supposed to be around here somewhere…I think.”
The woman raised her arm and for one terrifying second Naya thought she was reaching out to grab her. She took a step back, almost tripping. The woman pointed back the way Naya had come. “I know the place. You’re not far off, but you've come too high. Go back down and take your second left. There’s a big street there with shops. Just listen for the fountain and you’ll find it.”
She walked away before Naya could gather up her wits enough to say thank you. A blush burned at her cheeks for the second time that morning as the woman turned out of sight. What was she doing letting her fear turn her foolish?