Shifting breeze lifted a sun-sparkled mist above the fountain in the bricked square. From somewhere a cascade of flute notes tinkled through the heat. I craned past the crowd of barter-day shoppers, scanning the vendors for a likely binding present.
Awnings covered the stalls on both sides of the square, running toward the steps of the closed hall. From the dim haven of shade a gleam of brass and copper shone among the rich-colored stacks of early produce. Baskets of scarlet ki-berries, big as your fist, overflowed into the sun at the edge of the veranda boards, flashing like the heart-jewels of Amaveura. Emerald-green melons from the seacoast spilled over the top of a low bench. A streamer of amethyst silk rippled from a supporting beam. Beneath its beckoning gesture, piles of cloth overflowed the tables in rainbows of brazen scarlet and pearl gray, hot orange and lustrous ebony, fresh green and night-dark indigo, and the gauzy flutter of a shimmery turquoise-blue, like the lri’an feather in the crystal egg.
I followed its summons.
Carrying my bag across the hot bricks to the shade, I stepped up onto rough boards and threaded my way past the crowded tables of the local women. The boards sagged under the weight of gleaming jars of fruit and vegetables, fresh herbs in bundles, woven mats and straw hats, hand-stitched bonnets, patterned quilts, painted miniatures, ceramic jugs, homemade toys.
I paused to peer over the shoulders of a knot of matrons and children who were exclaiming and laughing. On a table in front of her shelves of hand-carved, jointed wood dolls, a middle-aged woman set down a miniature, painted metal milker. It raised and lowered its head, uttered a low bleat, then wobbled across the table on its four small hooves.
The children screamed in delight. I smiled and dug into my pouch for credit-chips to buy one for Marda’s children. The vendor handed me a wrapped one and I was about to move on when I stopped, staring again at the toy being demonstrated. There was no windup key on it. And when the milker turned its head, I caught the flash of tiny amber lights in its eyes.
It was contraplan. It had to be.
“Don’t worry, Matron.” The vendor smiled serenely. “It’ll walk forever if you just connect it once in a while to the recharging clips of a rollcart. Aren’t they silly, now? But when I saw them at the regional fair, I thought the local children might just go for them.”
I muttered some answer and turned away, nearly knocking over a short matron.
“Oh, I’m so sorry!” I picked up her parcels for her and walked on, staring at my little package. The gadget, like Sam’s camera, had no place in the Poindros worldplan. Where were they coming from? And why weren’t they being detected and reported?
I found myself standing beside the tables of the silk merchant, staring at a rippling corner of the dark turquoise. I blinked and pulled out the shimmery silk. It was lovely, thin and gauzy, glinting with highlights of green and rich blue. It would have made a beautiful dressing gown for Helen, with her hair gleaming loose against it. But I knew she’d say it was too bright, that her hair was gaudy enough. I held the fabric against the light, seeing the lri’an’s vivid flight, and I didn’t want to part with it. It was too sheer for a wedding gift to a woman I didn’t know, but I impulsively tucked it under my arm. I’d keep it for myself.
For Marda, I chose a soft peach with a subtle pattern to its weave. Helen had said she was dark-haired, and I thought it would suit.
As the vendor extracted another customer’s IDisc from a portable transactor certifier, a pearly glint caught my eye.
I caught my breath and pulled out a cloth incredibly soft and light. It was dove-gray, woven with secret threads of dream, rainbows and clouds and spirit-wings. Its quiet surface only hinted at colors locked in its depths, but they shimmered elusively from a fold or at the chance touch of sunlight. I had seen such cloth before, among the spinners of Sethar. It was said that the beauty of the durable cloth brightened or dulled to reflect the soul of the wearer. It only waited for Helen to give it life.
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