It was the last day of Mina. Soon, it’d be midsummer, when all of Mars would throw spontaneous parties. A trip into Ville was an all-day affair for Kaelyn, so she had to make it worthwhile. That meant going to market. It was one of the most profitable times of the year for merchants, but the line of people waiting to enter the market wasn’t any longer than normal. This definitely was shaping up to be a bad year.
Ordinary people had to pay an entrance fee before shopping in the market. It also got them a ration of water from Ville’s water pump, so nobody grumbled too much. The deal was fair, at least in theory. How much the fee was depended on the Mayor’s mood or how lenient the guards were willing to be. Merchants like Kaelyn fared a little better in that they didn’t have to pay the entrance fee. But in exchange, they had their own hoops to jump through.
Kaelyn approached the appraiser’s table. Every merchant had to go through the appraiser before selling anything in the market. It was the Mayor’s way of assuring quality, but some of the appraisers had weird definitions of quality. Just don’t tick any of them off, Kaelyn was told. Other than that, it truly was a game of chance.
Nils was today’s appraiser – a broad-shouldered woman with buzz cut hair and huge biceps. She wasn’t the worst of the appraisers as far as pickiness goes, but she never failed to make Kaelyn nervous.
“Next!” Nils shouted.
Kaelyn walked up to the table and flashed a smile.
The appraiser stood still, answering Kaelyn with a stare that could pierce lead.
Kaelyn pulled back the tarp covering her rusted, child-size wagon. She set her four crates of salvage onto the appraiser’s table.
Nils silently examined the contents of each one. She slid the glass jars and metal cans to one side. She took the light sword out of the third crate and rolled it in her fingers.
Kaelyn’s jaw fell slack. What was I thinking?! she asked herself. Why did she leave the light sword in her scrap metal crate?
“You got a buyer for this?” Nils asked.
Kaelyn shook her head and answered, “Jezper.”
Nils nodded, returned the sword to the crate, and slid it over with the other two. Kaelyn could finally exhale.
The last crate was full of shells. Nils took a handful and carefully sorted them on her palm before returning them. She took the crate and tipped it over, dumping all of the shells onto the ground beside her. “Next!” she shouted.
Kaelyn felt deflated. She had spent a month collecting those shells. She loaded her crates into her wagon – the scrap metal one first – and passed through the barbed-wire fence to join the ring of carts and tents around Ville’s water pump.
Kaelyn barely had time to hide the light sword inside her tarp before a crowd of twenty pressed forward, barter in hand, shouting their requests – two jars, three cans, one of each. She made trades as fast as she could, giving the barter she received a passing glance before dropping it into a pile at her feet. By the time they left, Kaelyn had two weeks’ worth of food, five packs of cigarettes, and a box of bullets. She didn’t smoke or own a gun, but one never refuses cigarettes or bullets. They could buy anything.
As Kaelyn counted up what little of her stock remained, a disheveled man in faded clothes walked up to her wagon. She met his sad green eyes and noticed the dark circles under them. He offered her a roll no bigger than his palm and said, “Bread for a cigarette?” His outstretched hand trembled, while the other played with the drawstring of his jacket.
Kaelyn took pity on him. This guy was clearly desperate, and heaven only knew what other bad luck he had run into. She traded his bread for a full pack of cigarettes.
The man’s eyes widened. He looked up at Kaelyn in disbelief.
She nodded, giving him a small smile.
“You’re an angel,” he said, opening the pack with practiced efficiency. He pulled out a cigarette and placed it between his lips as he walked away.
A couple of stragglers stopped by, buying up the rest of her cans and jars. As she packed up her wagon, Kaelyn heard heavy footsteps approach her. She looked up and saw Coltan, the Mayor of Ville. He was a large, imposing man with bronzed skin. He never went anywhere alone, unarmed, or without his studded leather jacket.
Kaelyn felt a wave of anger flood over her face. Her upper lip quivered. She set her tongue between her teeth.
Coltan touched the wide brim of his hat and asked, “Kaelyn, how goes it?”
“Fine,” Kaelyn answered coldly. She leaned protectively over her tarp-covered crates, her hands clenched into fists so tight that her knuckles turned white.
“Nils says you’ve got something interesting for me.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Kaelyn lied. She had stashed the light sword in with her food.
“What’s under the tarp?” Coltan’s bodyguard asked.
The bodyguard reached out to grab an end of Kaelyn’s tarp, but Coltan put a hand on their shoulder to stop them. “Well-earned, I’m sure.” He turned back to Kaelyn. “Nils said it was metal.”
“I collect a lot of metal.”
“But this thing was round and smooth and had carvings on it.”
Kaelyn said nothing.
Coltan stepped forward. He smelled of tobacco, sweat, and horse. “I don’t have to remind you of our deal, right?”
“No,” she said. She remembered the day well. Four years ago, Coltan discovered her diving in Lake Mitchell. He agreed not to ruin her business by telling everyone where she dove, if she would hand over everything interesting that she found there. “But you’ve never been clear about what you consider interesting.” Coltan opened his mouth to retort, but Kaelyn stopped him. “If whatever Nils saw was in my crate of scrap metal, I’ve already sold it to Jezper. You’ll need to talk to him.”
“Do you hate me?”
The image of Coltan killing her father in cold blood flashed before Kaelyn’s eyes. “I will always hate you.”
Coltan stepped back, saying, “I will find it, Kaelyn. And if I think you’re hiding it from me,” he pulled out a pistol from the holster on his belt, “I’ll reunite you with your father.”
©2019 Joyce Lewis. All rights reserved.