The Eyes of Hemshat

“The Eyes of Hemshat”

by K. D. Julicher

Siandra rolled back the protective leathers from the sides of the trade booth as morning sunlight slanted down into Merchants’ Square. She  kept one eye on the travelers entering the city as she worked.

 The first merchants passed in through the great white gate, under the carved eyes of Laruk, Goddess of Lies, and her consort Hemshat, Lord of Justice. Siandra wiped the sweat from her already-overheated face. Today promised to be sweltering. The neighboring stalls were already up. Their owners shouted offers to the arriving merchants or stood about drinking steaming chiat and gossiping. Siandra struggled to fold and stow the booth cover. It was a job for two, but Aunt Ionne had sent her alone this morning while the family held conference. The family. Not her. Just because she couldn’t cast a decent fantasm, they treated her like an idiot child and sent her out to tend the stall while they discussed important business.

 Travelers streamed into the city, seeking to sell their goods in Piam’s markets.  Aunt Ionne had forbidden her to conduct business on her own, saying that a girl who couldn’t make fantasms couldn’t bicker right either, but if Siandra could make a deal before Aunt Ionne arrived, her aunt would have to treat her like a proper member of the family.

Most of the morning arrivals were local farmers, their wares loaded onto donkeys or trundled in on barrows. One poor cabbage-monger trudged along pushing his load as his wife worked her fantasm, but the only thing she managed to convey was the odor of cabbage. Siandra’s empty stomach churned at the stench. No doubt the woman tried to add hints of the flavor of the vegetables, or the sustenance they offered, but it fell badly short.

Besides, she didn’t care about cabbage merchants. She needed to find something special to prove herself to Aunt Ionne.  For years, Siandra had endured the trades-women whispering as she went past. Siandra the useless girl without fantasms, a drain on her family, who would have been tossed into the streets years ago by any woman with less of a sense of duty than Aunt Ionne. Siandra ached to prove them all wrong. She didn’t need fantasms to do something worthwhile. All she needed was a chance.

A young man leading a single camel wandered through the gates. He wore ragged undyed wool robes with a vibrant red sash that shimmered in the sunlight, surely silk. His sandals were worn and his hair needed a trim, but gold rings flashed on three fingers of each hand. How odd. Was he rich, or poor? No matter: he was a stranger, and more interesting than the cabbage farmers. Siandra waited as he led his camel into the square, keeping one eye on him as she went about her accustomed tasks. She laid out the exotic trinkets that Aunt Ionne thought would attract attention from far-off merchants, checked that the wax tablets were prepared for the day’s transactions, and finally brought out the wicker tray of coins and valuables. Small bargains could be made right here in the square, as the gods looked down. Larger bargains might begin here only to conclude at the Temple of Lies and Justice, under the watchful eyes of a Truthseer.

The odd young man had led his camel over to the fountain. Water cascaded down from a spout set into the market’s inner wall into a low pool, providing refreshment for the merchants’ animals. The man urged his camel to kneel, then bent over beside the creature and scooped up a handful of water himself.

 He was going to run afoul of the Lugal’s guards at this rate. Siandra called, “If you don’t have a token from the Lugal’s scribes, your camel may only drink for as long as it takes a man to run around the market.”

The man turned to her. He was not much older than herself, she thought. Certainly not near thirty yet. He had laughing dark eyes and curling hair pulled straight by the dust that caked his locks. “Which man?”

“What?” she asked.

“You said, as long as it takes a man. Where’s the man, so I can be sure to finish before he does?”

Siandra flushed. Here she was making a fool of herself in front of a stranger. “Any man.”

“Very well, then I shall find a man and ask him to run for me lest I fall afoul of this law.” He gave her a short bow.

Her cheeks warm, Siandra lowered her face. So much for doing him a favor and then finding out what he had to sell.

Mayim at the shop behind her booth threw back her shutters. “Join us for breakfast, Siandra,” she called. “I’ve almost finished the lentil porridge.” Her fantasm was nearly done too, from the feel of it. The prickling feeling intruded on Siandra’s awareness, like the way air felt right before a thunderstorm.

“I’m waiting for customers,” Siandra said.

 “Come have a bite,” Mayim said. “I’ll give you the seat here by the window so you won’t miss if a thief tries to steal your aunt’s bangles.”

 Siandra wanted to refuse, but her stomach rumbled. “All right, but only because your lentils are the best,” she said.

“My fantasm of lentils, maybe,” Mayim called back, disappearing back into the shop. “The real lentils are the same weevily lot your aunt sold me last week.”

Siandra ducked through the rattling bead curtain into Mayim’s shop. She sat at the scrubbed wooden table, resting her hand on the window-ledge. The small window carved into the thick clay wall only gave her a view of the booth. She couldn’t see the gate from here. A caravan might arrive without her noticing — but her growling stomach interrupted. She needed to eat.

Mayim busied herself at the kettle by the hearth. The smell of lentils and vinegar and camel dung smoke wafted through, but as Mayim worked, the lentil scent drowned out the rest. There was a hint of something else in it. Rich fatty pork and cardamom.

Siandra said as Mayim ladled out bowls, “Don’t you think your fantasm is a bit too grand?” she asked. “It’s just lentils.”

“They’d have pork belly and spices in them if I — or you lot — could afford it,” Mayim said. “Don’t tell me you wouldn’t like that.” She balanced a half-dozen bowls on her arms, carried them across the room, and slid them down the tables. Siandra caught a bowl. Mayim turned, grabbed a platter of hot flatbread, and dropped it in front of her customers.

Siandra reached for a piece of bread. Tearing off a chunk, she dipped it into the stew, then brought it to her mouth. Lentils, pork, and spices exploded in her mouth. The fragrance of saffron made her nose itch. “Seriously, Mayim,” she said. “I think you overdid it.” Underneath, the lentils were a bit withered. No one else seemed to notice. They shoveled down the food, smacking their lips as they ate.

 “I’ll add less saffron-scent tomorrow, maybe,” Mayim said cheerfully.

Siandra wolfed down the food, keeping half an eye on her stall. Aunt Ionne would be along soon with a day’s worth of chores for her, and Siandra would miss her chance to prove herself yet again. Wiping out her empty bowl with one last scrap of bread, she rose. “Thanks, Mayim,” she said. She squeezed past the scribe and back out into the square, settling back into the booth refreshed for a new attempt to make a bargain.

Now here came a prize, a whole string of camels through the gate, accompanied by handlers in red and blue dyed wool robes. The caravan mistress wore rings on her fingers and in her ears, and Siandra could smell the perfume drenching her.

“Good lady, good lady!” Siandra called. “Bring your wares to us. The House of Hadad makes deals all over the empire. We can trade you goods from Chorame, Emmer, Priyal, Kidash… Any trade you like, we can make happen!”

 The caravan mistress wandered toward her, camel-crop in hand. She eyed Siandra’s wares. “The House of Hadad?” she asked. “I know that name.”

“All of the lands under the eyes of Hemshat know our name,” Siandra said. She waved her hands, as other women did when constructing fantasms, even though she knew it was useless. “The House of Hadad is a thousand years old. My mother’s mother’s mother’s mother is the descendant of Divine Laruk herself.”

“I myself am one of Laruk’s greatdaughters,” the merchant said, sounding unimpressed. “What sort of deal do you offer?”

“What do you bring?” Siandra asked.

“Mostly dried fish from Kidash,” the merchant said. “A few other items already promised to traders here.”

Siandra’s heart sank, though she kept a smile on her face. Piam’s fishers, though few in number, caught enough that fish were hardly a luxury item in the city. It wasn’t the impressive score she’d hoped for. Not enough to show Aunt Ionne her worth.

She caught up a jar of powdered cumin. “Spices from Priyal,” she said. “Kidash can never get their fill of spices.”

“You are trying to tell me my job?” the camel-mistress asked.

“Of course not, revered lady,” she said. She bowed and snatched the tray of jewelry. “Perhaps, these keenly-worked bronze ornaments. Here is a small sample of what we have to offer. Rings fit for a man, bracelets that would grace the eyes of the most beautiful of women….”

The camel mistress peered at her. “What sort of insult is this?” she asked. “Why does an ancient house like Hadad have their ugliest daughter waiting on me? You keep prattling on without actually showing me the possibilities.”

Siandra bit back a curse. Might all the woman’s camels be struck with hoof-rot! Aunt Ionne would have the woman imagining rich women bedecked with these bangles, or housewives fighting for just a pinch of the spices she’d declined. Ionne would let the merchant smell the cumin without even opening the jar, even taste it. Aunt Ionne was the most accomplished fasmist Siandra knew.

But everyone was better than Siandra was.

The merchant shook her head. “House Hadad is fallen on ill times,” she said, and turned away.

“Noble lady!” she called after, but the merchant was gone.

Siandra slumped back onto the low three-legged stool. She leaned her forehead against the counter. So much for her dream of impressing her aunt. She couldn’t even manage to buy a few baskets of flaking fish.

Someone rapped on the counter. “So what are you offering?”

Siandra looked up and found herself face to face with the stranger from earlier. “You!” she said. “What do you want?”

“What, no ‘revered sir’ for me?” the man asked. His camel leaned its head over his shoulder and began nibbling at a pot of flowers Siandra kept at the booth to help attract attention.

He’d got her off-guard, and she’d just been shown how poor her bargaining skills were. “I fear you waste your time with me,” Siandra said. She took a deep breath and tried to compose herself. “My aunt will be along in a moment, if you wish to wait.”

“Even a moment is longer than I care to wait.” The man spread his arms to both sides and bowed so low, his hair swept the table. “Rishan of Joppa. Master merchant.”

“Joppa?” Siandra asked, frowning. Even a backwater like Joppa wasn’t so primitive that they send their menfolk out without a woman to negotiate. “I fear I know nothing of Joppa.” She caught herself sounding hostile, and stopped. If by some chance the stranger did have valuables, this was her last chance to win them before Ionne arrived. “Tell me, master merchant, what have you brought on your one camel?”

“A chance for us both to profit,” Rishan said, perhaps not noticing her mild sarcasm. He dropped his voice. “Lady, may I beg your name? And inquire under which star you were born? For I daresay that star danced last night, to bring you such a bargain today.”

“Siandra of House Hadad. My stars are my own,” she added, though she felt the appeal of his warm words.

“Siandra,” he said. “Of an ancient house, one known throughout these lands, even in far Joppa. Well-met, great lady. Hemshat’s eyes and Laruk’s tongue be yours today.”  There was something odd about this fellow. He waved his hands back and forth as he spoke. The hairs on Siandra’s arms stood up. It felt like the moment before a thunderstorm, or before a woman unleashed a fantasm.

That was impossible. No man could cast a fantasm. He wasn’t trying to soul-press. When a man was sending the impression of the deepest truth he knew, to underscore his words and prove his worth, it felt to Siandra more like the first drops of rain on a cool spring night. Though when she’d mentioned it to other people they’d stared at her, puzzled, before changing the subject.

Rishan had convinced his camel to kneel. He loosened a pack and pulled it off the beast’s hump. A pair of white-robed Truthseers stopped to watch. The male Truthseer stared at Rishan as his supervisor lifted her belt of office and began tying knots in one of the loose cords, recording what she experienced so she could produce a fantasm later, if necessary. Rishan paid them no mind, and as he unrolled the pack and revealed what he carried, Siandra forgot them too.

Gold glinted in the sunlight. Siandra gasped and leaned forward, her hands gripping the rough wooden edges of the booth. The lumps of ore were dirty, none larger than her hand, but the glints there were gold, she was certain. “Let me see that,” she said.

Rishan handed her a lump. It was heavy. She scratched the ore with a fingernail. Gold flaked away. Siandra turned it over and over in her hands.

“My house was once as prosperous as any,” Rishan said. “My older sisters ran our dealings, ruling over our underlings like goddesses. Then we fell on hard times.” He sighed, far too emphatically. Siandra kept an eye on him as she examined the gold ore. “One of my sisters was forced to marry into another merchant family to pay off a debt. Another sister perished in the plague. Only my eldest sister remains. So we were forced to raise money.” Rishan spread his hands, his fingers gently moving back and forth. “My family owns a valuable gold mine in the mountains of — well, I shall not divulge more. In recent years we have not been able to exploit it, so I spent a season digging along with hired workers. I have three dozen loaded camels on the way to Piam, and came ahead to make arrangements.”

Siandra had to swallow twice before she could get her words together. “The Lugal of Piam has declared no foreigners may sell gold in the city,” she said. “They must have a local agent.”

“I know,” Rishan said. He bowed his head. “This is why I sought out the assistance of a great merchant’s house. I wish to sell all my gold before the rest of the camels arrive, so as to avoid any legal entanglements.”

 Siandra said, “My aunt is the foremost merchant in the whole city.” And would give her right eye to make this deal. If Siandra managed it herself then even Aunt Ionne would have to acknowledge her worth. She’d finally earn her place in the family.

 Siandra’s hair was standing on end, everywhere from her head to the backs of her hands. She looked down at the lump of gold…

And realized that this excitement, the sizzling feeling, was not her own. Siandra dropped the lump of ore. It fell to the counter and bounced.

Rishan’s confident smile slipped. For a moment, he looked panicked. Siandra reached for the ore but he snatched it back. “Where’s your aunt, then?” he said. “Since it seems you lack the confidence to make the bargain yourself —“

“That’s not gold at all!” Lumps of rock coated in gold dust, perhaps. She had seen what she wanted so desperately to see, aided by a strong fantasm… Siandra glanced around. “Where is she?”

“What?” Rishan stepped back. He looked genuinely puzzled. The prickling sensation vanished.

“Your partner.” Siandra kept searching the square. The truthseers had strolled to the other side of the square, but the male of the pair still eyed Rishan. Merchants sold goods to passersby. No one looked out of place.

 The best fasmists she knew could manage a distance of ten yards, perhaps. Rishan had been alone when he entered the city.  “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Rishan said, his voice full of conviction. Siandra’s arm-hairs stirred. She still saw no sign of Rishan’s partner.

Well, he couldn’t be —

She stared at him. “Are you doing that?” she whispered. “Are you a fasmist?”

Rishan said, “Look, maybe I’d better —“

She leaned across the booth and grabbed his wrist. “Are you?” It was impossible for a man to make fantasms. Just as impossible that a woman could fail to produce them. Perhaps he held the key to unlocking her own powers?

Rishan jerked away. “I don’t know what you mean.”

“Siandra!” Aunt Ionne’s voice cracked from across the square. “What in Divine Laruk’s name are you doing?”

Siandra let Rishan’s wrist drop. Ionne came striding across the square, her three sons in tow.

Rishan turned and bowed low to Ionne. “Great merchant,” he said. “I am a humble seeker from another land, seeking for help in my hour of need —“

“He’s lying,” Siandra said, annoyed, as Rishan used the same honeyed tones on Ionne that he had applied to her a moment ago.

“Siandra,” Ionne snapped as she came around to the back of the booth, elbowing Siandra aside. “Help Ayyad go finish the goat-trade with House Buryin.”

Siandra’s heart sank. That trade was already negotiated, its details pressed into a wax slate. All that remained was an exchange of soul-presses between her cousin Ayyad and a male representative of House Buryin. Nothing for her to achieve, there, except the pretense that she was directing her cousin’s actions. A mere social nicety. “Aunt Ionne,” she said, keeping her voice respectful, her hands folded carefully in front of her, “This man was just trying to fool me into thinking his worthless cargo was valuable.”

“Is that so,” Ionne said, her tone cold as night rain. She didn’t even bother to look at Siandra as she said, “Good sir, I do apologize for my worthless niece’s outburst.”

“Noble lady, never apologize for a relative,” Rishan said. “I never do. However, please, allow me to prove my trustworthiness before I beg another morsel of your time.” He raised his hands and held them together, fingers touching, in front of his chest. He closed his eyes.

A sense of absolute trustworthiness, of complete honesty, washed over Siandra. A normal soul-press. Except that the sensation pressing against Siandra’s skin was prickling, not the feel of raindrops.

“He’s not soul-pressing!” she said, loudly enough that a pair of wool merchants paused on their way past the booth to stare at her. It was useless. She’d tried discussing how soul-pressing and fantasms felt different, a few times, only to be met with blank stares.

“Don’t be a fool,” Ionne snapped. “Now, girl, do as you’re told. I have business to do.” She smiled at Rishan. “Good sir, perhaps we should conduct business over a cup of tea. I have a load of the freshest spices, newly arrived, at my home. Would you care to join me there?”

“Of course, noble lady.” Rishan looked at Siandra. His expression was odd; he almost looked apologetic. “Great lady, your niece cares about your family’s well-being. Do not be harsh on her, for is it not a proverb — “

Ionne held up her hand. “I think this has no bearing on our discussion,” she said. “Please, noble visitor, accompany me.” To Siandra she said, “Why are you still here? Go!”

Cousin Ayyad, as it happened, had a whole list of errands that he required Siandra’s assistance on. By mid-afternoon she’d been all over town twice at least. Her sandal-strap rubbed raw against her foot. Every place they’d gone, Ayyad and other men exchanged soul-presses. Every time, she’d felt the sensation of rain on a cool evening, not the sizzling energy that made her hair stand on end.

Maybe Aunt Ionne had seen through Rishan’s lies. Her reputation as Piam’s foremost merchant had been hard-earned over the last decades. She knew better than to believe another merchant’s fantasms. But if she didn’t believe Rishan was using a fantasm — and how could he be? That was women’s magic. The same as soul-pressing was men’s magic.

“You seem troubled,” Ayyad said as they finally turned toward home, leaving the grand, stone-paved boulevards for smaller side-streets where the upper floors of the buildings stuck out over the road, throwing the street into shadow. All around, people gathered on their roof-tops. Laughter and the scent of roasting vegetables and stewed dates floated down to her.

Siandra turned an odd notion over in her head. “How do you soul-press?” she asked.

“What?”

“I mean, what is it you do when you’re doing it?”

Ayyad’s forehead wrinkled. “Why do you care?”

“I’m curious,” Siandra said.

“I guess I just sort of focus on what it is I know is true.” Ayyad licked his lips, eyes focused on the end of his nose. “Then I just… push.”

That was what Siandra had always tried to do with fantasms. Only focusing on her imaginings, of course, not truth. It never worked right. When she pushed, nothing seemed to happen.

She focused down on the center of her being, as they walked, trying to ignore the soft slapping of her sandals against the baked dirt street, the dried sweat on her skin, and just focused. What truth did she know? Well who was she, anyway? Orphan. Pathetic scion of a noble house. Hard worker, if unappreciated. Then with all of her might, she pushed.

Ayyad let out a short exclamation. “Sorry!” Siandra said.

“Huh?” Ayyad shook his head. He glanced at her. His eyes softened. “I get it now,” he said. “You really can’t make fantasms. Mother always said you just weren’t trying hard enough.”

Siandra’s stomach flittered. “You mean you believe me?”

 “Why would you lie about that? I mean, if you can’t make fantasms you just can’t make them. That’s all there is.”

Ayyad had never believed her before. None of the family did. Siandra walked along in a daze.  Could it be that she was a soul-presser and not a fasmist?

That made no sense. Women didn’t soul-press. Men weren’t fasmists. But she would have sworn that Rishan had tried to use a fantasm on her. And just now, she’d convinced her stubborn cousin of the truth, after years of tears and angry shouts over the matter.

They reached Aunt Ionne’s compound and slipped through the small side-gate into the garden. The mud-brick walls shut out the sights and sounds of the city. Palm trees shaded the garden paths. Siandra rinsed her face and drank from the sparkling fountain in the middle of the garden, then followed Ayyad into the house. She slipped on house-slippers, removed her outer garment to leave just the linen shell beneath, and dipped one finger in the tiny pot of myrrh beside the door. Ayyad followed her lead. They both dabbed the sweet oil behind their ears, then went forward to the salon.

Siandra half-hoped Aunt Ionne would still be doing business with Rishan, but there was no sign of the stranger. Ionne and her other sons sipped tea as the fading sunlight fell in long strips from the tall slit windows. A plate of figs and goat-cheese sat on the floor in front of their cushions. Siandra and Ayyad bowed, then took their seats. Ayyad sat cross-legged. Siandra folded her legs up under her.

Aunt Ionne poured tea into clay cups and handed it to them. Siandra inhaled cardamom. She sipped. This was no fantasm. Aunt Ionne could afford the best.

“Well,” Ionne said, sounding pleased. “Despite your poor manners, Siandra, I have successfully concluded a very profitable deal for our house.”

Siandra tried to set down her cup, but in her hurry she knocked it over. “Aunt Ionne!” she protested as she found a cloth to soak up the spilled tea that ran down into the thin cracks between white slabs of marble. “Not with Rishan?”

“I will not have you take that tone with me, girl,” Ionne snapped. “The young man and I were able to help each other. As foreigners are not allowed to sell precious metals in our city, I paid him for his shipment of gold. It will enter the city as our property. I expect a forty percent profit.”

“You bought the gold sight unseen?” Siandra asked, horrified. Even if Rishan had managed to use an impossible fantasm, that was ludicrous behavior for her cautious aunt.

“Of course not. Only twenty percent now, the rest on delivery. If the ore is not as rich as he believes, we can renegotiate.”

“But there might not even be any other camels,” Siandra protested. “And I don’t think that ore was real at all, I think he faked —“

“His soul-press was entirely satisfactory,” Ionne said. “There are thirty more camels arriving in three days.”

Somehow all her previous efforts to be appreciated by her aunt were caught up in this moment. If she could persuade Ionne that Rishan had swindled her, her aunt would have to see Siandra’s worth. Siandra concentrated on her feelings of frustration and worry. She focused on how  Rishan was fooling them. With all her might, she pushed at Ionne.

This time she felt the rain-in-spring sensation, even as her feelings rushed forward. Her aunt gasped.

 “Aunt Ionne, I think we should ask that Rishan stay where we can watch him until his camels arrive,” Siandra said.

Ionne rose. Her eyes shone, her face contorted with fury. “You think? You! Ungrateful girl who I have raised as my own daughter despite your lack of any spark of talent, for the merchants’ business or fantasms both. You sit there and doubt me? You think I could be fooled by some, some man?” Her voice rose in wild fury. “Get out! I will not have you in my house any longer!” She stabbed a finger at the door.

Siandra’s limbs were leaden. She stared up at her aunt. “I,” she began.

“OUT!” Ionne shouted. “You’ve taken advantage of my good nature for too long. You are no member of House Hadad.”

Siandra rose. Her hands trembled. She couldn’t feel her bare feet touch the floor. “I – ” and then her words deserted her.

She fled.

Evening painted the sky as Siandra wandered the marketplace. The scent of stew and roast goat filled the air. Restaurateurs called from the doors of their shops, offering her dinner. A madam in yellow silk and golden jewelry plied her fantasms, offering dancing girls and sweet-smoke to weary travelers if they would only come to her establishment.

What was she going to do?

All she had to do was prove she’d been right all along.  Siandra leaned against a nearby shop and thought. If Rishan was still in the city — and he surely would be, he’d be wanting to spend Aunt Ionne’s money before he fled — she’d find him and… and…. Well, she had to find him first.

She poked her head into restaurants and shops, lingered outside dancing girl houses hoping to catch a glimpse of him, visited three tea-houses and a barbershop, but there was no sign of him. Siandra wandered up and down the market, but her hopes faded with the light.

Maybe she should find a place for the night and start again in the morning. She turned and trudged toward Mayim’s establishment.

Siandra stepped into the shop, and there was Rishan, sitting at the farthest table in deep conversation with two women and a man. There was gold on the table in front of them — not ore, but coins. One of the women and the man were focused intently on the gold. The other woman leaned back against the wall, studying Rishan, her dark eyes hooded. Her gaze flickered to Siandra, then back to Rishan.

Siandra’s rage boiled over like a pot of lentils ignored on the fire. “You!” she said, striding forward.

Rishan looked up. For a moment he looked pleased, then worried, then he settled back into a pleasant expression. He rose. “Fair Siandra,” he said. “Has your aunt sent for me?”

“What trick are you playing now?” she demanded. “Selling non-existent camels again?”

“Lady Siandra, the camels are your aunt’s possessions now, and they will be here in three days,” Rishan said. “I merely seek to improve my house’s fortunes.”

“I don’t want to hear, I want you to…” Siandra’s words failed. She hadn’t actually thought this through. So she focused on her hatred of Rishan, her certainty that he was a swindler, and her anger at being cast out, and then soul-pressed wildly.

The people with Rishan shied back. His face went pale. Mayim, over at the hearth, looked up. “Siandra, what’s wrong?”

Rishan’s comrades rose. “Noble sir, I fear we cannot reach a bargain while you have this… matter… to deal with,” one of the two women said.

“Next time don’t throw over a girl til you’re ready to leave town,” the man with them said, escorting his companions away.

The last woman, the one who had looked up as Siandra entered, swept her eyes up and down Siandra. There was a small furrow in her brow. Rishan started to say something. The woman pressed her lips together and followed the other two out.

“Siandra,” Mayim said, “I’m glad your fantasms are improving but,” she shook her head, “don’t do that in my establishment.”

“I wasn’t,” Siandra began. “I don’t.” She looked at Rishan, who was staring at her as though she had two heads. “My aunt threw me out,” she said, “because I tried to warn her about you.”

Rishan said, “I’m…” He looked at Mayim and shook his head. Then he stared right into Siandra’s eyes and said, without a hint of fantasm or soul-press behind his words, “If you want to talk, I’m going to the parlor across the street. I’ll wait there for a while. After that… I’m gone.” He turned on his heels and left.

Siandra stared after him. “What was all that?” Mayim asked. She slapped rounds of dough down onto the baking stones, ready to cook for the morning meal. “I don’t know what’s wrong, Siandra, but I think you’d best go home.”

Siandra’s shoulders slumped. “I suppose you’re right.” She trudged out of the shop.

The smoke-parlor across the street was well-lit. It wasn’t the sort of place a girl from a noble merchant house entered. Squaring her shoulders, Siandra marched across the street and straight in. The hazy air, redolent with sweet-smoke and a hint of too many unwashed bodies in one room, choked her, as did the way the proprietor wove her fantasm. Siandra blinked until she could see past the fantasm. The sweet-smoke scent dissolved a bit.

Rishan had a table near the back, thankfully without a smoke-pot on it. Siandra shoved her way through the parlor, bumping into obliviously smoking patrons and low tables, and plopped down on the cushions across from him. “So,” she said. “There aren’t any more camels.”

“No,” Rishan said. He pushed a wooden cup toward her, then filled both hers and his from the clay pitcher in front of him.

“But you soul-pressed that there were.”

“Did I.” He sipped from his mug.

“She thought so.” Siandra waited, but Rishan said nothing, just sipped again. Irritation bubbled up in Siandra. “You made a fantasm. How?”

Rishan set down his cup. “I don’t know. And you should try the wine, it’s good. I’m not trying to poison you.”

 “You can weave fantasms,” she said. “But you’re a man.”

“You recognized what I was doing,” Rishan said. “And just now, across the street, you soul-pressed.”

Siandra took a deep breath, almost coughing from the smoke. “How is that even possible?”

Rishan shrugged. “Years ago I learned that no one knows as much about the world as they think. But if you tell them so they tend to get upset. So I find it’s best to play along with their misconceptions.”

“You swindled my aunt.”

“I swindle a lot of people,” Rishan said. He sounded tired, not boastful. “Honestly? There’s not much else you can do when you can’t actually soul-press truth. I tried weaving a fantasm that was absolutely true, once. It didn’t work.”

“Why not just tell people you make fantasms?”

“Who would believe me?” he asked. “I tried, once.”

The note of despair in his voice matched her own experiences so well. Sympathy welled up in her. If this wasn’t just another of his scams, then he really did understand what it was like not to have the magic everyone expected you to know. 

Rishan refilled his cup. “Is today the first time you ever soul-pressed?”

“I didn’t know what I was doing, I thought I just couldn’t make fantasms.” She glared at him. “I tried soul-pressing Aunt Ionne and she disowned me. I’m homeless, thanks to you.”

Rishan said, “My family threw me out when they learned I couldn’t soul-press properly. Been living on my wits ever since. You don’t… mostly I don’t think about what it does to other people.”

“Now I’m supposed to believe you care?” She had to work to sound skeptical, when all she could think of was how Aunt Ionne had always treated her. Throwing her out on the street today was the last in a long line of insults.

“You’re different.”  He sounded so awkward, she had to turn to look at him. Rishan didn’t meet her eyes. “I noticed you right away today. When I first arrived. Before you even spoke to me.”

Her resentment of Rishan faded. He was just trying to make a living. To him, she was just another stranger, a potential mark. It was her family who had ignored her all these years.

“I’m supposed to believe that of all the girls in this city you’d notice one as plain as me?” she asked.

“If you’re like me — you can see the edges of the fantasms, can’t you? When everyone else is just tasting the spice, you can taste the gruel underneath. When they cover their faces with a mask of glamor, you can see the buckteeth and bad skin.”

“Yes,” Siandra said. She leaned forward. “You mean everyone else can’t? I thought — I thought we all just pretended not to see the ragged edges.”

“They don’t see it,” Rishan said. Now he met her gaze. His eyes sparkled. “They can’t. I was surprised that you’d seen past the fakery on my gold, earlier. Then I realized you’re like me.” He let out a long breath. “You don’t know how good it is to finally meet someone like you.”

Her own heart beat faster, but she shook her head. “Forgive me if I don’t care much. You got me thrown out of my family.” Not that she’d ever really belonged in that family. But a scrap of charity and a roof over her head was better than living in the gutter. Maybe she should go and apologize to her aunt.

 “I know how it stings when they throw you out but you’re better off without them. You’re better off with me.” He reached a hand across the table. Siandra jerked her arm back before he could touch her. His eyes dimmed. “Sorry. I got too excited,” he said.

“I shouldn’t have come here. Forget it,” she said, starting to rise from her low seat.

“Listen. We can help each other. You have three choices.” As Rishan spoke, Siandra settled back into her place. “You can go back to your aunt, apologize, and hope she lets you in. She won’t be pleasant when she realizes I really did swindle her, you know.” He held up a hand, ticking off fingers. “You could find something else to do. This is your town, I imagine you’d have a better idea than me what sort of opportunities you have.”

Siandra lifted the cup to her lips and sipped. Opportunities. To beg for her meals, or sell her body. Not much else for the abandoned daughter of a merchant house. “Or?”

“Join with me.” Rishan raised his own cup, holding it near his face but not drinking. “I’ve already thought of half a dozen schemes I could pull off with your aid.”

“You mean lie? Steal. Cheat.” She tried to sound disgusted but after the day she’d had, she found it hard to care.

Rishan shrugged. “I only cheat people who think they’re cheating me,” he said. “Your aunt offered me half what she thought my gold was worth. I sell worthless trinkets to people who think they’re getting priceless treasures for a pittance. You can’t cheat an honest man. Or at least I don’t try it.”

Siandra said, “These are people I’ve known all my life…”

Rishan rolled his eyes. “How many do you actually care about?”

The idea of crawling back to her aunt made her stomach twist. “I don’t know…” she said, the words drawing out of her reluctantly. Her heart beat a bit faster. Maybe it was Rishan’s flattery. Was she really that desperate to believe someone could actually need her?

Rishan grinned and leaned forward. “Drink, I’ll talk. I’m good at talking.”

 Rishan sauntered around the corner and joined her in the alley. “It’s all set.” He leaned back against the alley wall. They’d spent most of the night talking, then caught a few hours’ sleep on the smoke-parlor’s rooftop with the rest of the drunks. She hadn’t even tried to eat breakfast. Her stomach roiled as much as her head.

“I can’t believe you talked me into this,” Siandra said. She fished around inside her robes, looking for the little statue Rishan had given her earlier.

“Nothing to it. The junk dealer believes you’re going to come in and try to sell him something worthless for too much money.”

“But that’s what I am doing,” she said, turning the little brass monkey-figure over in her hands. Her head swam. All Rishan’s talk had convinced her to give this a try, but her own good sense warned she was making a terrible mistake. She’d be recognized, she’d be caught, she’d never be able to pull it off.

 Why had she agreed? It wasn’t Rishan’s quick words or easy smile. No, it was the excitement she’d felt as he drew her into his plans, making her an indispensable part of them. No one had ever treated her like that before.

 Rishan sighed. “It’s a simple con — right. I told him I was a Truthseer in disguise and that I’m trying to catch you, but I have to see you make the deal. I gave him an amulet and told him it’s magic and will let him see right through fantasms. You go in and start making a deal. Pretend like you’re doing a fantasm. I go in and arrest you. Then later I go back for my amulet, but I let him buy it off me for a nice price. He’ll think it’s worth its weight in gold, and by the time he realizes it doesn’t actually work, we’ll be gone.”

“I don’t know if I can do this,” Siandra said. “I feel sick.”

“It’s completely foolproof. I’ll be right outside. Just act like your Aunt Ionne and when I come in, be surprised.”

Siandra swallowed down the lump in her throat. “All right.”

Rishan flashed her a smile, and Siandra felt better. She smiled back and left the alley.

Holding her head high, she crossed the bustling market. Across the way was her aunt’s stall, one of her cousins busy setting it up for the day’s trading. She felt a savage stab of pleasure about how Ionne would rage when she learned she’d been swindled.

Rishan was watching from the shadows. She could feel his eyes. It was nice having someone who thought she could actually manage to do things. She didn’t like the idea of stealing peoples’ money, but… this feeling of confidence, she could get used to.

Siandra ducked through the shop’s bead curtain. The beads clacked back into place behind her as her eyes adjusted to the gloom. The room smelled of oils and metal and decaying cloth. Across from her was a counter, piled high with debris. Siandra called, “Hello?”

A small thin man appeared from the back. He cracked his thin hands together. “What have we here, my dear?”

Her heart beat so loudly, it pulsed in her ears. “I have something to sell,” she began. She set the bronze monkey-statue down on the counter, in the small open space.

“What is this?” the man asked. He picked up the statue and peered at it.

Siandra began to weave her hands back and forth, like other women did when building a fantasm. “It’s gold. Been in my family three generations. I hate to sell it but we need money for our…” her words dried up as the man looked up, peering at her through rheumy eyes.

“Aren’t you Ionne of Hadad’s niece?” he asked.

This could still work.  “I was, my aunt threw me out because… because she didn’t approve of my suitor,” she said, the words coming to her in a torrent. “This was my mother’s, I just need enough coin to get us out of the city somewhere we can start a new life. It’s worth quite a bit, I…”

“Yes, I see,” the man said, peering at it. He glanced over her shoulder and Siandra resisted the urge to turn. The beads jangled. That must be Rishan coming in.

“It’s solid gold,” Siandra pressed. She held her breath and focused, then soul-pressed wildly at the man. He blinked, frowning.

A hand grabbed her shoulder. Siandra started. She turned, arranging her face in a surprised look.

The man standing behind her wore a Truthseer’s robes, and was not Rishan. He scowled at her. Siandra’s stomach dropped out. “Sir,” she began desperately.

“Honorable Mukim, we have the other one as well,” the Truthseer said. “Thank you for your assistance.” He searched Siandra’s face. “Aren’t you Ionne of Hadad’s niece? Your aunt will be disgraced by this scandal.”

“I’m just — ” she began.

The Truthseer shook his head. “None of that, now. Come along.”

Siandra stared down at the paving-stones as the squad of Truthseers marched her and Rishan away. She had known better than to get mixed up in something like this.

The Temple of Lies and Justice loomed above them. Siandra caught glimpses of the feet of the statues that lined the road. All the gods were scowling down at her. At the foot of the steps leading to the temple stood the great statutes of Lady Laruk and her consort Hemshat, the Goddess of Lies and the Lord of Justice themselves.  That would be where Siandra would face judgement. A fine? Her aunt wouldn’t pay. Her hand cut off? Her head? Her stomach was an empty pit and she fell deeper into it with every step.

The Truthseers halted, and Siandra halted too. She looked up. Two men and a woman, all dressed in purple-edged robes and carrying the pair of bronze eyes that were the emblem of High Truthseers, came down the steps. The woman looked vaguely familiar. Her robes sparkled with a gold thread woven all through them. Whoever she was, she must be important

Rishan cursed. “Of all the damned luck,” he muttered. “She was there last night.”

Siandra recognized her now, the woman at the table when she’d encountered Rishan again. She wore Hemshat’s Eyes, but High Truthseers were men, chosen for their ability to soul-press to a crowded city square all at once. There were no women in their ranks.

Now was not the time for Siandra to worry about anything except what was going to happen to her.

“You found them both,” the woman said to the Truthseers. “Well done. Report.”

“These two were trying to swindle an honest merchant, as you suggested. I have sent a runner to Lady Ionne, asking her to come and give a statement as well,” the Truthseer said. “Eyes of Hemshat, you have once once again found vipers in our city before they could strike.”

“Perhaps. We shall see what Ionne says,” the woman replied. She descended the stairs, cupping the bronze eyes in one hand as she inspected Siandra and Rishan. “You must think Piam’s Truthseers are easily fooled,” she told Rishan. “We spotted you the moment your sandals crossed the bounds of our city. Foreign fool. You’ll find Hemshat’s justice swift and powerful.” She turned to Siandra. “You, now. Niece to Ionne of House Hadad. The girl who interrupted us last night as I was deciding what should be done with this swindler.”

Siandra pressed her lips into a line. Nothing she said here could possibly help her.

“Eyes of Hemshat,” Rishan began, “We are merely —“

“Silence him,” the woman said. The guards stepped forward, poking their spearheads against Rishan’s robes, and he closed his mouth. “I know what you are,” she told him. “You will not be permitted to speak except in the presence of a trained Truthseer. And not at all, right now. It’s the girl that interests me.” She turned back to Siandra. “Ionne’s niece.”

Siandra lowered her head. “I am,” she said.

“Who cannot make a fantasm to save her life,” the woman pressed.

“No.”

“But what you can do…” The woman reached out and took Siandra’s chin. She forced Siandra to meet her eyes. “You can soul-press, can’t you?”

Siandra started. “Eyes of Hemshat, you… that is…”

“Can you or can’t you?” The woman held Siandra so she couldn’t look away.

“I can, Eyes of Hemshat.”

“And more than that, can you — no, we’ll get to that later. I’m certain you can see through fantasms.” The woman nodded decisively. “Praise Hemshat! He has sent me my apprentice at last.” She dropped Siandra’s chin and stepped away.

Siandra’s ears must have misheard. She burned to ask the woman what she was talking about, but the Truthseers on either side of her were menacing presences.

“Eyes of Hemshat, what of this one?” one of the guards on Rishan asked, poking at Rishan with his spear.

“Dungeons. He can see the headsman tomorrow,” the woman said.

Rishan started to speak. “None of that,” the guard snarled, and smacked the back of Rishan’s head with the butt of his spear.

“You, girl, with me, we’ll have your aunt brought along soon enough.”

“But,” Siandra protested, as the guards dragged Rishan away. She watched them go, torn between hope for herself and pity for Rishan. She’d met him only a day ago, and he’d brought nothing but misfortune to her since. But she shuddered at the thought of what would become of him.

“Come along, girl,” the woman said.

Siandra followed, sparing a glance behind her. Rishan and his guards were already gone.

The woman led Siandra up the long marble steps into the temple, a squad of guards trailing them. Siandra tried not to gawk at the enormous marble statues, the gold and ivory mosaics on the floor, the constant flow of priests carrying censers of incense. She had never been invited into the holy place before. That was for high merchant women and important people, not her.

“Over here,” the woman said briskly, leading her to a small parlor off the great hall. She addressed the guards in the same tone of voice Aunt Ionne used to order Siandra about on meaningless tasks. “When Ionne arrives, send her in. Oh, very well, you may leave a pair of men at the door but do you really think this little girl is going to hurt me?” She shut the door and turned to Siandra. “Where were we? Sit down, girl.”

Siandra sank onto one of the low couches scattered about the room. The marble floor-tiles fit together with barely a crack between them. Lamps burned on niches set in the wall. So much opulence here, in just this one room.

“Do you know who I am?” the woman asked, standing near the door.

“They called you the Eyes of Hemshat.”

“Yes, that’s my title, but do you know who I am?”

Siandra shook her head. “No. I’m sorry.” The woman reminded her of Aunt Ionne. They both had the same driven personality and haughty manner.

“That’s as it should be,” the woman said. “My name is Kalinde. I am the First High Truthseer of all Piam, advisor to the Lugal, Beloved of Hemshat Himself.”

“But High Truthseers are men,” Siandra said.

Kalinde laughed. “That’s what I want people to believe. The Lugal knows who I am, and Hemshat’s servants tremble at my voice.  No man can see through a fantasm the way you and I can. They call themselves truthseers but we are the ones who see with Hemshat’s eyes.”

Rishan had said he could see through fantasms too. Siandra bit her tongue. It didn’t seem like Kalinde was going to order her thrown into jail. “I don’t understand.”

“You soul-pressed at me last night,” Kalinde said. “It took me a few hours to realize what you’d done. Then I had to hunt down witnesses… your Aunt Ionne will be the last. But it’s true, isn’t it. You can soul-press, and you can see through fantasms.”

Siandra bent her head. “Yes.”

“Don’t say it, show me,” Kalinde snapped. “Soul-press me.”

Siandra found herself obeying before she’d had time to think, years of Aunt Ionne’s conditioning rising up. She gathered herself and pushed. It was getting easier with repetition.

 Kalinde blinked. “Holy Laruk above,” she gasped, “and you’re this strong already? Praise Hemshat.”

“I don’t understand what you want,” Siandra said.

“I want you to be my apprentice, of course,” Kalinde said. “We’ll wrap up this little matter of this foreign swindler tomorrow and start you on your training.  I’ll have you soul-press exactly what happened to the whole court of Truthseers. The swindler will be executed, you’ll be publicly pardoned, and then we get to work. I can’t tell you how long I’ve been looking for you. I run myself ragged, trying to be everywhere at once.”

“How can that be when I didn’t even know you existed?” Siandra asked. “I’ve never heard of you!”

“You listen to your aunt too much,” Kalinde said. “The most important people in the world are rarely the ones who are spoken of frequently. I haven’t much time to spend on you today, if we could just – ah.” A knock interrupted Kalinde’s words. “Enter.”

The door opened, and Aunt Ionne strode in. Her gaze fell on Siandra. “You!” She turned to Kalinde. “Forgive me, my wayward niece clearly has no notion of her proper place.”

“Ionne of Hadad,” Kalinde said. “In my official role as the Eyes of Hemshat, I am obligating your niece to the service of Hemshat.”

“Lady,” Ionne said, “I don’t know who you are. I apologize for my niece’s behavior but she is my family’s problem, no one else’s.”

“I have no time for this,” Kalinde said. “She’s mine now. One of my scribes will see it done, you can send for one of your sons if you must.”

“But Eyes of Hemshat, I —“

“Are done here. Your niece is my concern now.”

Ionne turned to Siandra, spreading her hands wide. “Siandra?”

“You said I was no member of your house,” Siandra said, enjoying her aunt’s discomfort. “Now you don’t need to worry about me any more.”

“Enough,” Kalinde said. “Be sure to offer incense to Hemshat and Laruk on the way out for their grace in having blessed your family with such a marvel.” She shooed Ionne out the door, then turned to Siandra. “There. I think you’ll come to appreciate the directness here, in time. The bickering of merchant-women is so grating, isn’t it? You’ll be above all that, now. For a change they’ll have to listen to you.” She bared her teeth and Siandra drew back. “Oh yes, I know what it’s like to have them look down on you because you can’t make fantasms. My dear, that life is over. Everything is about to begin, now.” She paused and tilted her head to one side. “Well?”

“You said, your apprentice…” Siandra began. “And that I belong to you, now.”

Kalinde shrugged. “You see through fantasms. Once in a generation, perhaps, a girl is born with that power. After you train, if you please the god, you will have my place someday.”

A place, a wonderful place, handed to her like a bunch of ripe dates without her even having to stretch out her hand and pluck them. It was such a gift — but the one unripe fig in the lot left a sour taste in her mouth. Rishan had brought this on himself but it still didn’t seem fair that she was honored and he, executed.

“Rishan sees through fantasms, too,” Siandra said in a rush. “If it’s truly such a gift, you should spare him and make him serve too.”

Kalinde’s mouth twisted, as though she’d bitten into a sour plum. “Who needs a man who can’t even tell the truth?” she asked. “Fasmists are worthless to Hemshat, and his life is forfeit for his crimes. This unpleasantness will be concluded quickly.” She dusted her hands together. “I have a thousand errands. I’ll send one of my attendants to get you settled. Tomorrow you’ll testify against that ragged scoundrel, and then your new life will begin.” She swept from the room. The door banged, and a broad silence descended.

Siandra sat where she’d been this whole time, barely able to breathe.

Everything had changed so fast. From yesterday morning til now, a dozen upsets in her life. Nothing was ever going to be the same.

Kalinde knew what she was! Wanted to train her and give her a place. She would be important, she would be needed. Respected. She could serve the gods and the people. No one would ever dare suggest she was broken, again.

She rose, a smile spreading across her face. Kalinde wore the finest robes. Her jewelry had gleamed with a dozen gemstones. The acolytes and priests leapt to do her bidding. That would be Siandra’s lot now.

As soon as she soul-pressed and condemned Rishan to death.

No, it was his own actions that would lead to his death. He had lied and cheated and swindled. It wasn’t her fault.

But she’d been willing to aid him, when she thought it was that or being forced to apologize to her aunt.

There wasn’t anything she could do. She didn’t even know where he was. Even if she wanted to help him escape, she couldn’t. She’d be caught and then what? Executed herself?

But Rishan had offered her a chance when nobody else had.

Kalinde offered her a chance, too. No. Kalinde claimed her, didn’t even ask what she wanted, just snatched her up out of the market like a fat lamb for the table. Rishan had offered her friendship and respect. He’d asked her, persuaded her, to go along with his schemes, not told her what was best for her like everyone else she’d ever known.

Siandra balled her hands into fists. “I am not going to give this up for that ruffian!” she said aloud. Let them cut his head off and stick it on a spear as a warning to others, she —

Siandra rushed from the room, the door slamming behind her, her heart as loud as her footsteps on the marble.

“Stand aside!” Siandra commanded as she approached the guards at the door to the dungeon. Their leather greaves bore the device of Hemshat’s Eyes. If they knew what Kalinde’s power did, she had a chance.

They lowered their spears. “Who are you?” they asked.

She focused everything on them. “I am apprentice to the Eyes of Hemshat,” she said, and soul-pressed that morsel of truth as hard as she could.

Both bowed low. “Yes, lady,” one said. “I see that you are. What may we do for you?”

“Bring me the prisoner,” she said. “The one caught in the market, earlier.”

“Yes, lady.” One of the guards vanished into the cell-block.

Siandra drummed her fingers against her arms, hoping desperately that they didn’t ask any more questions. She had soul-pressed the one piece of truth that she could use as a weapon, and now she was out of tricks.

The guard reappeared, dragging Rishan. He blinked blearily through a black eye. “Where shall we take him?” the guards asked.

Siandra hadn’t actually expected to get this far. “He’s in my custody,” she said.

“Lady, he’s dangerous,” the guards said.

“Not to me,” she said, and soul-pressed again.

The guards nodded. “So be it. We do not question the Eyes of Hemshat.”

Siandra seized Rishan’s shoulder and pushed him toward the door. “Come on,” she hissed, and he picked up the pace.

They were out in the temple courtyard now. Siandra let his shoulder go. “Hurry!” she said. “We can’t risk them noticing you. Try not to look like you’re escaping.”

Rishan squared his shoulders. His pace picked up. “Where are we going?” he asked.

“Out of here. We’ll figure out the rest as we go,” Siandra said. She squashed a brief pang of regret as they passed out from the temple along the road lined with the statues of gods. Kalinde’s offer had been so tempting. But this felt right.

At sunset, they snuck out of the city gates as the last peddlers left with the unsold remains of their loads. Rishan’s camel had enough supplies to reach the next town, he said. They’d go from there.

“You know,” Rishan said, “I think I know exactly what we did wrong that time.”

“You mean trying to play tricks in front of a Truthseer?” Siandra said.

“Well, yes, but what I meant was that we can do a lot better next time.”

“Next time?” Siandra shook her head. “You’re thinking too small. We have a lot more we can do beside play tricks. You can make fantasms, I can soul-press. That makes us a powerful team. Why, think of all the honest deals we can make.”

“True,” Rishan said. “And they’ll underestimate us. We can take advantage of that.”

“Maybe a little,” Siandra agreed. She laughed as the walls of Piam receded behind them. It felt good to leave the city, good to have a friend, to make plans for the future. Probably they’d do a little bit of lying, a little bit of telling the truth — but whatever the results, she has a partner now. Someone who respected her.

And that was going to change everything.

_______________

K.D. Julicher lives in Nevada, where she collaborates with her husband on writing stories and raising children. She has a passion for bears, hats, and bug fixes. Her work has appeared in Writers of the Future, Deep Magic, and Intergalactic Medicine Show.

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