As I made my way toward the edge of the square, a small man jumped out in front of me, scaring me half to death.
His stomach was round enough to block the entire path, and he wore a long orange overcoat that was too big for him, the sleeves bunching up around small manicured hands, and the bottom falling all the way past his knees. The coat was much more vibrant than the average peat-colored tunic worn by most others in the square. I did not have any idea where this man was from, but I could tell almost at once that he was different from the rest of them; he stuck out like a flamingo in a flock of geese.
“Hello miss, come look at Anton’s wares.” He gestured at himself, to show that he was indeed Anton, and apparently also speaking about himself in the third person.
He’s an Outsider too.
I was surprised with how easily the term had already ingrained itself into my subconscious. I looked down at my own clothes, embarrassed that I was still in my pajamas, and wished I was wearing a leather tunic too. This is how I must look to them.
Without waiting for a response, he reached out to put an arm around me. “Anton gives special discounts to other Outsiders, our little secret.”
I glanced back towards my companions. Ko’sa was continuing to haggle with some old lady over the selling price of one of the wooden figurines she had carved. Dalton was waiting at the food stalls for a second lunch. “Sorry, afraid I don’t have much money to spend.”
“Sure, sure, yes Anton hears this lots, but after one look at his fine prices, one finds that it would be wrong not to buy. He will make you a deal you cannot refuse. One look, yes?”
“Alright, fine,” I said, more to satisfy his persistence than anything else. He led me over to a carpet on the ground covered with a variety of goods and knick-knacks.
I browsed through the odd assortment of items. There were mismatched pieces of clothes, rags of cloth that I guessed were some sort of scarves, a rusty knife, a few bits of jewelry, several old leather bags and…
I stared down at the last item in his display in disbelief. Alongside the other items, the sleek silver weapon looked ridiculously out of place.
“How much for that one?” I said, pointing at the gun.
Anton’s face brightened. “Ahh, excellent choice miss. That is a great antique, crafted by the ancestors, of this I am sure. Very decorative- will pull any room together. Or, one can melt down the steel to use for tools…endless possibilities! Anton will sell you this for say…ten gold?”
I picked the gun up and turned it over in my hand. I didn’t know much about pistols, but it sure looked like a real, functioning fire-arm, not a decorative antique. “Where did you get this?”
He frowned. “Anton does not remember. But that is great price, yes?”
“I don’t know. Does it come with any bullets?”
“Bullets? Do not know of this.”
I put the gun back down. “Sorry,” I said. “Not today. I don’t have ten gold right now.”
“Well, come back later then,” he said, with a wink. “Anton always sells his wares right here, so you know where to find him.”
I turned away from him and started to walk back towards Ko’sa and Dalton, my mind racing.
What was a modern hand-gun doing in a medieval city? What the hell was this place, anyway?
Once we left the square, the streets twisted and turned, jutting in and out at odd angles and re-converging at weird junctures, as we made our way towards the palace gates in the center of the city. I scanned each of the street signs as we passed. Most of them had odd names that meant nothing to me, but one of them caught my eye.
“Magi Row,” I read aloud. I pointed it out to Ko’sa. “What’s down there?”
She smirked. “Well, if I had to take a wild guess, I would say that’s where most of the free-lance wizard’s set up shop.”
“Wizards?” I asked. “Like magicians? Perform magic tricks and illusions and the like?”
“What, you don’t have wizards in the Outside? Figured the bastards was everywhere.” She wiped her brow, which was slick with sweat from the sweltering sun. “Yeah, you know, conjurers, alchemists, all that lot. Wielders of the arcane arts is what they call themselves.”
“But magic isn’t real though. It’s all just a scam, right?”
“Well of course it’s a scam,” Ko’sa said, “but that don’t mean it ain’t real. We got whole quarters dedicated to those who make a living as magi, after all. They wouldn’t all be so filthy stinkin’ rich if there wasn’t at least a little truth to it.”
“I want to take a look,” I said, needing to see with my own eyes to believe. “Let’s cut through.”
“Alright,” Ko’sa said. “Just don’t agree to any of them services if they offer em to ya. All of it is well out of your price range, I guarantee.”
The three of us turned into the narrow alley and began to walk down the road, hampered by uneven stones. Tons of differently shaped signs hung from buildings that towered up as high as seven or eight stories, giving the the feeling that we were walking through a dark, tight canyon. Most shops had lines of people spilling out the doorways. Everyone waiting outside was wearing clothing much different than Ko’sa simple leather: they wore dresses of soft fabric or shirts made of silk. I read the signs as we walked past.
Cheek Bone and Jaw Molding Specialist!
Skin Repair and Smoothing!
Hairline Reconstructions- Inquire Within
“Ko’sa,” I said. “These shops, they’re all…”
“Cosmetics?” Dalton jumped in, finishing for me. “Yeah, magic is more for the nobles to indulge down here than anything else.”
“Is that all wizards can do? A variety of magical cosmetic surgery?”
He shook his head. “No, they got a few other uses, but the ones that are really powerful or dangerous are pretty rare, so people with those skills will get scooped up real quick by the Crown, the Church, or some guild. The wizards here are all solo entrepreneurs.”
“So these are the wizards that nobody wants?”
“Well, sort of. Somebody found out a while ago that there are two real money-making methods for wizards that nobody will hire. First was cosmetics. Second was preservation of valuables. They say nobles value beauty and treasure more than anything else in the world, so makes sense I guess.”
I looked a bit closer, and found some smaller signs advertising the preservation of antiques and gold as well, although the lines of people for those shops were much shorter.
“Wild,” I breathed, although I still wasn’t fully convinced. “So how’s it work? You decide you don’t like your eye color and go to one of these guys to change it to something prettier?”
“Bad example, but yeah. Most wizard’s won’t touch the eyes though, too easy to mess up and then you just spent a fortune to end up blind.” We passed a couple of older ladies decked out in frilly dresses, peeking into the window of a shop advertising discount breast enhancement. “Usually you have to get a painter to draw the improved version of yourself first; they need something to model you towards. The more skilled the wizard, the closer they can come to your vision. They say the practice has gotten a lot better in recent years, which is why this alley is thriving so well now. ”
I thought back to the painting of the queen I had seen a couple hours earlier, with her surreal, fake beauty. “The queen, did she…”
“Oh yeah, totally. She had a whole team of wizards dedicated to making her look as good as possible. People say she was insanely insecure about her image, probably cause the younger sister got all the looks in that family.”
I saw a shaft of light break through the winding alley of tall crooked buildings, signaling its end. As we neared it, Ko’sa jumped out in front of me.
“Close your eyes, Miss Jill.”
I looked at her, concerned. “Why? What’s going on?”
“Just do it. Trust me.”
I closed my eyes, and felt Ko’sa’s hand grab mine. She tugged me forward and I followed blindly, for about fifty paces or so. “Almost there.”
After a few more steps, her grip broke apart and I stopped. She placed a hand on each of my shoulders and turned my body in a new direction. “Okay, you can open them now.”
I opened my eyes.
I was standing on steps leading down to a massive sprawling grass lawn, extending about a mile in every direction. The grass might have once been green, but it had seen so much traffic that the few visible patches were dead-brown and trampled flat. In the center of the lawn was a massive rectangular man-made pool, crossed in the middle with a railed footbridge. The entire area was packed with people, a sea of bobbing heads and tan limbs mixed with earthy colors pushing downstream towards the far edge of the lawn. The crowd was larger than any outdoor concert that I had been to in my life- I was not great at estimating, but there could have been 100,000 people filling the square alone.
Twin roads ran the length of the lawn, starting on either side of me, dotted every few yards with statues and fountains spitting white water. They both ended at a set of stone steps opposite me, way off in the distance, that walked up to twin-cathedrals. The identical buildings were shaped like Egyptian pyramids, each one the color of red sandstone and marked by a golden steeple at the tip.
In between the cathedrals sat the massive Royal Palace in all its glory; tall, thin, and the color of dark shale, shooting up into space. Huge black banners were hanging from the enormous doors of the Palace Gates, flapping and unfurling in the wind.
“Welcome to the King’s Front Lawn,” Ko’sa said. “We’re here.”