Arrival, part one

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Harbend Garak was a long way from home, even a long way from his storefront in Hasselden. But with the western raiders plying their trade along the shores again he didn't dare ship anything all the way to distant Khi.

Years now. I know Verd better than Hasselden by now. Strange turn of luck. He remembered the tedious hours at late evening spent studying the outworlder language. Paid off in the end they did. One of only five independents to get outworlder clients. Guess I should be happy. Of course he was never awarded contracts as often as he would have had he represented a trading house, but he was content. That opportunity and his skill allowed him to avoid sharing the destiny of several other independent traders who found themselves destitute as trade became increasingly difficult under the pressure of the raiders.

Being a foreigner to Keen himself he found the outworlders to be just another group of strangers with peculiar customs. He eventually made faster progress in understanding their wants and needs than his fellow merchants, almost all native to Keen.

He slowly looked around himself wondering what this group of outworlders would be like and how eager they would be for local jewelry and other items of art.

A desk, behind which a female outworlder clerk sat, was a work of art, a wonderful item of pear tree almost certainly crafted in Erkateren by a skilled magecrafter.

He coughed quietly in his hand, stretched his back and rose. Waiting was always tedious, especially during summer when the heat sometimes made the terminal building almost unbearable.

The hall wasn't very large, maybe twenty paces east to west and thirty north to south. The glass sliding doors facing west were still in place, opening and closing by themselves whenever a merchant happened to walk past them. To the left of the doors were two sofas, with four merchants seated in them, three of which wore the green round-hat typical of the trading houses of Krante, a large town an eightdays ride southeast from Verd, three days with coach.

The last seat was occupied by a woman Harbend had proposed for invitation into the group of merchants allowed to trade with the outworlders half a year earlier. She belonged to a minor trading house in Verd.

Harbend greeted her silently with a slight bow and was rewarded with a smile of recognition as she stretched her booted legs under the table. Not a beautiful woman, he thought, but competent. She was stocky and always looked out of place, more so with her strange taste for wearing men's clothes. She was also one of the few merchants he had come to know during his years here.

He started searching for Olvar de Dagd, master of the richest trading house in Dagd, and always present whenever she was. It was no secret they shared more than their profession, and Harbend wondered what made Master de Dagd take the plump woman to his bed.

Harbend, concrete wall to his back, looked across a dirty carpet, once red but now worn to a muted brown, and found the master merchant among a group of seven. They stood in the leftmost corner closest to the pear tree desk rather than using the hard chairs lining the walls.

Olvar's bright blue contrasted against the gaudy yellow shirts the others wore. Yellow and green, yellow for Verd and the green added for a cosmopolitan touch. They all wore silk, probably imported from Khanati and dyed in Ri Khi, and very, very expensive.

One merchant leaned over the desk exchanging friendly banter with the blond outworlder woman sitting behind it. Her white blouse lacked adornments of any kind and the absence of jewelry made Harbend think of a meal served without a proper wine. At least she had added some color to her face creating a contrast to her blue or maybe green eyes. Properly clothed she was probably beautiful. The outworlders always seemed to prefer drab servant's colors, a fact that still amazed him.

The remaining three merchants sat immediately to Harbend's right, one sharing the leather sofa he had just left, and the two others occupied in a conversation almost lying in the last sofa. One had placed his hard heeled shoes on the polished table, making Harbend wince slightly. Behind them he saw the doors through which only outworlders were allowed. In difference from the entrance those doors were not made of glass but of a solid metal so deep blue that it was almost black. The metal alone was worth a fortune here, but then the outworlders seemed to have an abundance of it.

Turning his attention to his shoes he noticed a mark and dug for a handkerchief in a pocket. He polished the silver band hiding the laces. They were good shoes, sturdy but still elegant, and he kept them in good shape with a mixture of fat and perfume he always bought whenever he had a reason to visit Hasselden.

He traveled too much to like the idea of breaking in new footwear. Blistered feet could ruin an otherwise perfect day. When he was finished Harbend saw that the outworlder traders had arrived into the hall and were heading for the desk.

He listened absently while outworlder traders were paired with local merchants and made their way through the glass doors. Fifteen names, fifteen traders but still no Gregory Sanders. So, he was to be assigned the last out of sixteen as usual.

A sudden commotion closer to the desk made him look up with more interest. A middle-aged man clad in something horribly shiny and red with impossibly blue hair crowning the nightmare, immediately caught his attention. The unseemly sight transfixed him until the woman behind the desk broke the spell.

"Oh my Gooooooooood! It's Arthur Wallman! Oh my Gooooooooood!"

The screeching all but brought Harbend to his knees. The stranger flashed a perfect but pained smile to her while a small horde of outworlders flocked around him.

"Autograph, please!"

"Could you sign my color-screen? For my son, you see."

"A signature on my hat? Yes, right there. Thank you Mr Wallman."

During the madness the stranger regained his composure and Harbend felt strangely drawn to the almost unnatural air of confident charisma radiating from him. Then the aura of confidence vanished as soon as it had appeared, and Harbend gasped at the expression of utter desolation taking its place.

Whoever this man was, he wasn't one of the regular traders, but Harbend accepted the strange man as his client even though the name, Arthur Wallman, didn't correspond to the one Harbend had been assigned.

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