Written for Chuck Wendig’s Pick a Sentence and Go flash fiction challenge.
Many thanks to kirajessup for the opening line.
The emerald ring was pretty enough, but the man offering it wasn’t. Helen stared at his crooked teeth, a piece of a dark green plant stuck between the front two of his pearly yellows. The sun glinted off the golden crowns that replaced his fangs. A sudden gust of the wind that hit the man’s back and tousled the wisps of his thin gray hair carried a sickly sweet smell of rot, and Helen suppressed a shudder.
“How much do you want for this?” She nodded at the ring lying on a greasy black cloth. Around them, the crowded market bustled with activity, but the man and his old wooden cart seemed to exist in a bubble of empty space. Nobody was in a hurry to approach him, not even a young fishmonger encroaching on the baker’s stall.
“Fifty Dragons, madam.”
“Fifty?” she scoffed, disbelief coloring her voice. “That’s a hefty price for such a simple trinket.”
“Fifty Dragons and not a coin less.” He picked up the ring and twirled it between his fingers, his dirty, too long nails clicking. Unlike the rest of the sellers, he didn’t look like a person inclined to haggle, the mulish set of his jaw attested to that. Still, she had to try.
“It doesn’t cost more than twenty-five, and that only if I’m generous. This isn’t even a precious metal,” she said with an aloof expression on her face, hoping her tactic would work.
The man’s grin widened. A knowing look in his eyes. “Take it or leave, it’s your choice.” Click-click-click. “I’m not going out of business just for a cute face, even for one as lovely as yours.” He leered at her, a slow up-down-up again evaluation that made her skin crawl. It felt like a sheen of oil covered her from head to toe.
She always hated the smell of oil. Her mother had always used canola, both for cooking and light lamps, and when it burned, the stench was so repulsive, Helen often had to leave the house for fear of being sick. Now she had the same impulse, but instead of turning around and walking as far away from the man and his cart as possible, she grimaced. Helen didn’t have a choice but to deal with him. She needed that ring.
Its metal was, indeed, nothing special, a silver and iron alloy, but the emerald sitting in a clawed paw at its center was, in fact, one of a kind — the green stone of Empress Cecille’ prized collection that someone put into a cheap frame, probably to better disguise it. Five years ago someone had broken into the treasury and stolen the rainbow gemstones on her, Helen’s, watch, and since then, she had been hunting the gems one by one. It was a slow process that took her across the whole country, crisscrossing the map in every direction. She had spent years chasing rumors and barely-there trails, but Helen was nothing if not doggedly persistent. She had to be, for returning the gemstones was her only chance to earn the Empress’ forgiveness, and the allotted time was running out. Were she to fail in procuring them and show up empty handed, Cecille would not have been pleased, to say the least, and her wrath was (in)famous across all lands of Talmorra. This was Helen’s first success, her first find, and as luck would have it, she didn’t have the funds for it, damn it.
“Thir—” A wheezing cough interrupted her speech, and she doubled over, feeling like her lungs caught fire. When the fit ended, she found herself leaning on the cart, gasping for breath and rubbing at her throat. Silently, she cursed her rotten fate.
“Seems like you don’t have that long, madam,” the man said. He didn’t look disturbed by her illness as a lot of people did nowadays, nor did he step away from her. Not that she was contagious, of course, but most folks treated her like she was cursed with a Walking Bomb — like they expected her to explode at any moment and shower all bystanders with her tainted innards. Not this man, though. The only noticeable change in him was the narrowing of his eyes. “The Plague kills in what, three months on the outside? And you, how long ago have the fits started?”
The Wasting Plague, the disease that had appeared out of nowhere last year and hit without rhyme or reason, had chosen Helen its victim almost five weeks ago. No one knew how it came to be or even how it spread. An ox of a man that never had a cold in his life would start coughing, and soon, he was a shade of himself, gaunt and thin, and weak as a newborn kitten. Some said it came from Lando, the evil trickster god that cursed people with magic, others — that it was a punishment from Dash’aala, the Earth Mother. Either way, the result was the same: it was decidedly deadly.
Helen wiped her mouth; her hand came away bloody. “It doesn’t matter. I still have time enough to say goodbyes.” If she returned to Rual, the capital city of the Tiasan Empire, and that she could do only if she had the stone. That’s why she needed it so desperately. She couldn’t waste time sending for money or even doing odd jobs around the village. She felt so tired, aching to the bones, and soon she wouldn’t be able to even stand without support. In another month, she’d be all but immobile, wheezing almost constantly and unable to hold a cup in hand. She had to get home before that. She had to.
“I have something for it, you know,” the man said, his voice quiet and even. “Something special.”
“Don’t jest, everyone knows there’s no cure.” It was too good to be true, but a tiny hope weaseled its way into her heart all the same.
“And yet” — the man opened his arms wide, then clasped his hands, the sound thunderous and ringing, like a steel blade hitting a bell — “I have it.” And now, on his open palm was a small vial.
A magician, doing a parlor trick? Helen looked at the bottle, transfixed. It was made of emerald glass, the same color as the Empress’ gemstone. A breeze caressed the back of her neck, cooling her sweaty skin. Or could he be a sorcerer, a true mage?
“What will you choose?” The man’s voice was slick, oily.
She glanced up, meeting his dark eyes, and for a moment, she could have sworn she saw them turn sky blue; suddenly, all she could smell was the stench of burnt oil. Then she blinked, and everything went back to normal, the odor of fish once again assaulting her nose. Must be my imagination, she decided. A shiver made its way down her underarms, her back. The blazing sun did nothing to warm her. A cold, hard lump coalesced in her gut. She licked her dry, chapped lips.
“How much do you want for it?”
“Seventy Dragons, madam.”
Helen’s thoughts raced, her heartbeat speeding up to match. Coming across this man in the first place was an unexpected bit of good fortune. She came to the market more out of habit than any real expectation of success, having run out of leads to follow quite a while ago, and now he offered her the only thing she wanted even more than the emerald. If she bought the cure, she would live, which meant she would have time to find the money for the first of the stones she had spent so long searching.
As if reading her mind, he said, “You must decide now, madam. Me and this cart won’t be here much longer, and then you won’t find us again at all.”
Somehow, she believed him. This was her only chance, then. If she bought the ring, she could go home, see her mother again, if for one last time, but the cure… What would her life be? Her honor would be forfeit, but was preserving it worth dying for? Her mentor would have said yes, but… To fall in battle was one thing — honorable and honest, a straight way to Dithron’s Hall of Eternal Flames; to succumb to illness was quite a different matter. She would have to run with no promise of ever returning, she knew that. She wasn’t the only agent of the Empire in these remote parts — the members of her Order had eyes and ears everywhere, and word of betrayal tended to travel fast. Besides, Cecille never tolerated failures. A pain in Helen’s chest intensified. As much as she missed home, she didn’t feel ready to meet her distant ancestors just yet. She made a decision.
“The cure,” she said on the exhale, voice barely rising above a whisper.
The man nodded. “Good choice.”
She bit her lower lip. “I only have fifty Dragons, messire. Will you take my brooch?” She unclasped the white flower that marked her as a sister of the Tanutel Order, the Empress’ special force, and held it to the man. It was the only expensive thing — aside from her sword and armor — that she owned; without it, her short red cape seemed bare. He took it.
“You drive a hard bargain, madam.” Tossing the brooch up, he snatched it, twisted his fist counter clockwise. When he opened his hand again, the flower had disappeared, thus severing her ties with the Empire. “But I will take it. You have a deal.” His last words seemed to resonate with a strange, heavy finality, and Helen knew there was no going back.
A purse with all her money changed the owner. With trembling fingers, Helen uncorked the vial. It didn’t occur to her to question where did he get it, or why wasn’t its existence made public knowledge. All she asked was, “Will it work?”
The man’s gaze was piercing, like a spear going through her chain mail straight to her heart. It was a gaze that saw everything, all her hidden hopes, dreams and desires laid on display. Unable to stand it, she averted her eyes, just as the man said, “It will.”
Quickly, before she changed her mind, Helen swallowed the liquid. In the distance, a crow cawed, and the Temple of Dashaala’ bell started tolling.