Change of plans, part six

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The entrance hall was filled with people, all dressed up for the evening, but Arthur didn't recognize any of them. He was among people without Harbend to translate for him for the first time since his arrival and felt a bit handicapped.

He had rushed to the theater to enjoy some solitude for a while, but now it didn't seem such a good idea any longer. The crowded entrance was hardly a place to be alone in. Then he saw a familiar face and pushed his way to the stairs where the man was standing, muttering excuses no one would understand to anyone he pushed aside.

"Arthur? What a pleasant surprise."

"I was about to say the same, William," Arthur admitted. "Beginning to feel like an idiot."

He gave William Anderson a long glance. Like almost all Martians he was tall and thin, as if the lower gravity there made humans soar when they grew. He had taken to wearing local clothes, short, yellow jacket and red trousers both sporting pink details to honor his origins.

The man was a professional trader, one of the few true adventurers who made a living from trading with Otherworld. Famous enough for Arthur once to dedicate an entire holo show episode to the daredevil's slightly illicit pursuit of a trading license, and he didn't know how William would take this attempt at striking up a conversation.

"Strong legs," Arthur tried, suddenly at a lack for anything else to say. Almost as soon as the words were out of his mouth he wished them unsaid.

Damn, facing a person isn't always as easy as facing the camera.

William straightened his blue, silken coat and grinned.

"Spend most of my time on ships and very little planet side on Mars. Wouldn't be able to stand Earth otherwise."

Arthur smiled thinly in response. He didn't have anything to talk about, and hinting that clumsily at the difference in gravity between Mars and Earth was impolite enough to make him feel like an idiot.

"Don't worry. No affront." William chuckled at Arthur's discomfort. "Feeling alone are we? I've been here dozens of times and still feel shut out."

"You tell me," Arthur agreed recalling the days that had passed. "How much of their language do you understand?"

"Very little. Enough to make myself understood and to get a general feeling about what they're talking about, but not much more." William moved aside to allow an old man in blue and green to climb the stairs.

Arthur thought about what William had said. Harbend was always there to translate, and only Arthur's interest in anything having to do with language made him pick up bits here and there. He looked at William only to meet a wide grin.

"You're a fast one, aren't you?" William said. "Can almost see the wheels spinning in your head. Wasn't until my fifth visit here I understood they're deliberately keeping us away from other people." He raised a glass of wine, sipped a little and continued: "Yes, we're led around and meet people, but the merchants here do all the talking for us."

"That's bloody awful!"

"That's sound," William retorted flatly. "This way they control our movements and if we stray we can't communicate with anyone anyway. That's the real reason we can't bring any communicators here, or at least the result of that ban."

Arthur looked at the man with new respect. There was something still untold.

"But you've found a way around it?"

"Sure as hell I have." William laughed. "To begin with I never ask for a specific house. That way I'll be represented by different people every time I'm here."

"Why would you want that?" Arthur wondered.

A liveried servant passed with a platter containing dried fruit and Arthur mutely accepted one and sent the woman away with a nod.

"Because then they won't learn my habits." William paused to swallow the piece he'd grabbed for himself. "Always hire an extra translator who doesn't belong to any of the trading houses here, and I intend to keep that a secret for as long as I can."

"How's that possible?"

"Merchants are not omniscient. May seem so to us, but they're not. Keen has a system of houses for all kinds of business. One for making weapons, one for writing and printing books and so on."


"Guess you could call them that. I'm a trader, not a historian. Word's familiar to me, but it's ancient history anyway."

Arthur laughed. "Important history for the likes of us, but I won't pursue the matter any further."

William gave him a quizzical look and shrugged. "Whatever. Anyway, there's a money trader's house, or there has to be more than one, but one I know of. They're not part of the trading houses but run their own internal system." William made as if to let Arthur squeeze in a question.

"Go on, I'm listening."

"Very well. As such they're cut off from any direct contact with us. At least they were until I lucked out and got in contact with one of them." William paused and looked thoughtful. "I've got the gold and silver they're interested in and they've got the alternative source of information I'm interested in. Don't think they'll sell me out."

Arthur pondered the information for a while and shook William's hands. "I'd very much enjoy your company at a later day as well. I've been shown a truly marvelous restaurant and if you wish we could dine there later."

"Take it your Harbend's arriving here now." William nodded at the entrance and Arthur looked over his own shoulder.

"You're correct. I live at Two Worlds. You can reach me there. I suspect you'd prefer not to be recognized by Harbend here."

William grinned in agreement, returned Arthur's handshake and climbed the stairs leaving Arthur to his own thoughts. He strode to the entrance with a newborn awareness and met Harbend just inside the great doors.

"There you are, Arthur. I hope the waiting was not too tedious for you," Harbend greeted him. "There are some people here I absolutely must introduce you to," he continued and led Arthur away to an elderly couple standing by a marble statue at the edge of a small fountain.

Arthur followed him and enjoyed the charade with new eyes.

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