Strolling down the wide lane in front of the inn, he followed the smell of baking bread and cries of merchants to the marketplace in the heart of the town. The day had warmed as the sun rose, and the marketplace bustled with color and sound. Roland tried to take everything in at once.
“I could become used to this.” He chuckled softly to himself. “Freedom tastes like wine.”
As he sauntered through the bustle, the calls of the vendors rose all about him.
“Fresh fruit! Sweet as summer. Taste the springtime. Get your fresh fruit!”
“Silks like a baby’s skin. Soft as a mother’s touch. Dress like a king!”
“Knives sharpened. Grindstones, whetstones, flint and steel.”
The calls cascaded around him in an eddying stream, overlapping each other, rising to the surface then slipping back into the general bedlam. Roland examined the soft silks laid in inviting display across a counter and complimented the owner. The thought he could buy whatever he could afford, and no one stood at his shoulder to moderate his decisions, made him giddy.
As he made his way through the crowd, the prince absently fingered the coins in his pouch. He didn’t have much money–he had never needed to carry any–but what he did have should suffice to enjoy himself a little. He bought a ripe globefruit and bit into it, laughing with delight as its sweet juice ran down his chin. He swiped it away with the back of his hand and walked on. Savoring the taste, he continued his wanderings.
He drifted to a stall specializing in leatherbound books. The offered wares proved as good as any he’d seen in the shops of Crown Keep Township–it drove home the prosperity of Woodwatch Ferry yet again. As he browsed through them, he picked up a beautiful old volume of illumined ballads covered in soft forest-green chamois. This could be a sort of consolation present for Stefan, he thought. It will not ease the parting, but perhaps it will speed the recovery.
He glanced up at the bookseller, a stocky young man scarcely older than he was.
“How much for this?”
The shopkeeper glanced at the prince.
“More than you can afford by half, I wager,” he replied with a sniff.
Roland felt his cheeks heat up but forced himself to take a deep breath.
“I won’t know until you quote me the price.”
“It’s hand-tooled, that leather is, and them illustrations were done by the Brothers of the Flames.”
Roland was beginning to wonder about the shopkeeper’s choice of wares—he seemed no connoisseur of his own stock.
“Lovely. How much does it cost?”
“Three wheels and a talon.”
“I’ll take it.” As he reached for his purse. His hand brushed another, and he jerked back. staring down open-mouthed into a pair of eyes as green as his own.
The little cutpurse was short and slender, a tress of pale-blond hair falling over one eye from under his cap. He recovered with more speed than Roland, giving the prince’s pouch a hard yank as he slashed the strings with his dagger. He took off at a full sprint before Roland could gather his wits.
“Here! Stop, thief!” Roland shouted, chasing after the villain.
A burly tradesman stepped in front of the fleeing boy, making a grab for him. The thief dove and somersaulted between the man’s legs before scrambling back to his feet. Roland danced around the man, who still stood in the center of the path, staring after the boy with mouth agape.
The cutpurse darted into an alley, and Roland skidded around the side of the building after him. The stench of refuse bins billowed around him, and he gagged. The thief upended a barrel of garbage in front of him, but the prince vaulted over the rolling cask. He stumbled as he came down on the other side.
“Stop, you little wretch!” he bellowed. His temper flared as he began to tire. He was unused to such exertion, and the realization fueled his anger.
The boy didn’t waste breath in reply. He looked back over his shoulder, but his flying feet didn’t slow as he took another corner. They raced out of the alley and back onto a broader thoroughfare. Roland smelled the sharp, rich scent of horses, and guessed they were at the corral he had glimpsed on their way into town.
The boy slipped through the fence and dodged the milling animals. Roland leapt over the gate and followed, barely keeping his feet when his boot hit a clump of freshly deposited manure.
“Damn you!” he roared. “Stop! I order you!”
The little thief cared no more for his orders than the innkeeper had done. If anything, he ran faster than before. Roland felt a stitch in his side and had to stop. Head hanging, he panted, trying to catch his breath.
“If I ever catch you, so help me, I’ll—”
As if the prince’s sincerity at last registered on him, the culprit dropped Roland’s purse and disappeared into the crowded marketplace.
At the same instant, Roland sensed a flare of heat singe his finger. It felt like someone had dropped a live coal on his hand. With a startled oath of pain, he shook his hand reflexively then glanced down, catching his breath with a sharp hiss.
The ruby in his heavy signet ring glowed with an inner fire—the gold ring was so much a part of him he often forgot he wore it. Another inheritance from his grandfather, he’d never heard of such a phenomenon associated with it.
He stared wide-eyed at the glowing ruby then felt himself tugged forward; it seemed as if the ring propelled him. Curious, yet wary, he followed the urge, scooping up his purse as he passed it.
The compulsion led him to a sheltered corner where a jewelry peddler had set up his stall. His hand reached forward of its own volition, drawn to a pendant dangling from a length of gold chain. It swung in gentle arcs as the breeze teased it.
Suddenly, he realized he still clutched the book he had admired. Roland shook his head ruefully.
“I must be more careful with my cries of ‘Thief!’” he murmured to himself.
The prince shrugged—he would pay for the book on his way back to the inn.
Catching at the chain, he stopped the pendant’s swing. His ring flared crimson, the pulse mirrored by the buttery stone set in the amulet. He studied the piece more closely. It bore the likeness of a gryphon, worked in heavy gold, carrying a large topaz-like stone on its back. The stone glowed like the sun when it touched his grandfather’s ring.
“Find something you like?” a man asked at his elbow.
Roland dropped his hand so the other would not see the unusual glow.
“Maybe.” He shrugged, turning to the shopkeeper. “It’s a quaint enough piece.”
“Oh, aye, that it is.”
The middle-aged peddler was tall and tanned. His coal-black hair sported a prominent streak of silver, and his eyes were an unusual blue-green. He cocked his head, and Roland frowned. The gesture seemed somehow familiar.
“There are rumors it came from the elves,” the merchant whispered confidentially. “An ancient myth about a gryphon carrying the sun across the sky or some such rot. But o’ course, ’tis merely an old wives’ tale. The elves were conquered long ago.”
“What do you want for it?” Roland asked, falsely casual. In truth, the mere mention of that legendary race excited him beyond measure. The elves had vanished from the world when Crown Keep was still an empty hillside in an unclaimed land.
The merchant pretended to weigh the matter.
“I think five gold wheels might do. ’Tis a very old and valuable piece.”
“I’ll give you three,” Roland countered. He longed to have the talisman, but the man asked more than he carried in his purse. Heart hammering, he waited to see if the peddler would accept his offer.
“’Tis worth seven, young sir. I’m already giving you a more than fair deal.”
“It’s probably a cheap bauble you won at cards,” Roland scoffed, his voice tight with suppressed emotion, “but it’s a pretty thing. I’ll give you three and a half.” It would take nearly every coin in his purse, and was the highest he could possibly go.
The shopkeeper sighed.
“You drive a hard bargain, young master. Many customers like you, and I would be beggared for sure. Take it. It’s yours.”
Heaving an inner sigh of relief, Roland handed the merchant the proper coins and slipped the chain around his neck. He walked on, turning the pendant this way and that to watch the play of sunlight on the stone’s faceted surface. Then he settled the amulet inside his jerkin, deciding it was safer to secure the piece with thieves running so rampant.
As he headed back toward the inn, thinking about what he would say to Stefan, he saw the slim blond cutpurse lift a heavy pouch from a fat merchant leaning over a competitor’s stall. The thief casually strolled off between two lanes of booths, glancing back over his shoulder and catching Roland’s eye.
The boy started when he realized he’d been seen and began to run, weaving easily through the crowd. Roland started to follow him then glimpsed the volume in his hand.
I’m no one to judge. Mine may have been a theft of absent-mindedness, but theft it was, nonetheless.
The boy glanced back over his shoulder once more, obviously expecting Roland to raise a cry; but the prince shrugged and winked at him then continued toward the inn, lost in thought.
Did I make the right decision? Should I have intervened? He sighed, shaking his head. Let the boy go. He’s merely trying to survive. I wish him well, despite the ill nature of his business.
As he passed the bookstall, Roland stopped, laying the volume on the counter. The dealer grabbed his wrist with a grip of iron.
“Here now, you! What do you think you’re playin’ at?”
“I am sorry, sir. I was distracted, and I carried the book away with me by mistake.”
“You ain’t paid fer it yet.”
“I realize as much, my good man, so I am returning it to you.” Roland sketched a bow.
“Here, now! Do you mean you ain’t going to buy it?”
“I’m sorry. I’m afraid I can’t afford it.”
“So you lied to me as well, you thief!”
Roland twisted his hand free of the man’s grip before rubbing the feeling back into his wrist.
“If I were a thief, I wouldn’t have brought back your property.”
“You owe me three wheels and a talon!”
“I’m sorry I cannot complete our original agreement, but I can no longer afford it,” Roland repeated patiently. “Here’s a talon for your trouble.” He handed the dealer a small gold coin. “You make a bit of profit, you’re not out anything, and you can still sell the book to someone else.”
“But you owe me three wheels!”
Before Roland could protest further, an elegantly robed man with a scholar’s stooped shoulders stepped into the stall.
“What seems to be the trouble here, Tamos? I could hear you bellowing halfway to the inn.”
“This young wastrel is trying to cheat us, Master Newel. He took off without paying for that book, and now he says he ain’t got the money. All he give me was this.” He held out the talon.
“Tamos, sometimes I think you care for my business with more passion than I do myself.”
“I’ll call the watch, Master.” The clerk turned to leave.
The scholar peered more closely at Roland, and then laid a hand on Tamos’s arm.
“Hold a moment,” he ordered, hiding a smile behind the stroking of his snowy beard. “Take down that book there, Tamos.” He gestured to a high shelf behind the counter. “The big black one. Yes, that’s the one. Now, open it to the chapter on the Battle of Fangspur Cove. I know you like that story.” He winked at the prince.
Tamos laid the book on the counter with a suspicious look at his master. Opening the thick volume to a page with a detailed woodcut of the final battle for unification, he peered at the illustration. Suddenly, his eyes widened to the size of globefruits, and he gasped. He stared up at Roland, his face blanched.
“You bear a great resemblance to your grandfather, Your Highness,” said the old scholar, bowing to Roland. “I saw him once as a boy. He was a fine king.”
“Thank you, sir,” Roland replied. “I am sorry about the book. I did wish to buy it, but I was drawn away by a thief, and when I realized I still carried it, I no longer could afford it.”
“Please, Your Highness, accept it as a gift.” The scholar laid hand to breast and bowed again.
“Thank you, sir,” Roland replied sincerely. “It’s a present for a friend.”
“May he or she have joy of it.”
Roland bowed in turn and left the stall. He could hear Tamos continuing to grumble behind him but paid it no mind. As soon as the clerk realized he still had the talon, all would be well.
No longer charmed by the marketplace, the prince returned to the inn with all possible speed. As he climbed the steps, a chill raced down his spine, and the hint of a shadow fell over him. Squinting upward against the glare of the sun, he caught sight of a single bird wheeling high overhead. The soaring bird made him feel very vulnerable. He hurried inside.