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Through the narrow streets leading to the great plaza of Karth, swarmed a colorful crowd--buyers, idlers, herdsmen, artisans, traders. From all directions they came, some to gather around the fountain, some to explore the wineshops, many to examine the wares, or to buy from the merchants whose booths and tents hid the cobblestones.
A caravan wound its way through a gate and stopped, the weary beasts standing patiently as the traders sought vacant space where they might open business. From another gate, a herdsman guided his living wares through the crowd, his working animals snapping at the heels of the flock, keeping it together and in motion.
Musa, trader of Karth, sat cross-legged before his shop, watching the scene with quiet amusement. Business was good in the city, and his was pleasingly above the average. Western caravans had come in, exchanging their goods for those eastern wares he had acquired. Buyers from the city and from the surrounding hills had come to him, to exchange their coin for his goods. He glanced back into the booth, satisfied with what he saw, then resumed his casual watch of the plaza. No one seemed interested in him.
There were customers in plenty. Men stopped, critically examined the contents of the displays, then moved on, or stayed to bargain. One of these paused before Musa, his eyes dwelling on the merchant rather than on his wares.
The shopper was a man of medium height. His rather slender, finely featured face belied the apparent heaviness of his body, though his appearance was not actually abnormal. Rather, he gave the impression of being a man of powerful physique and ascetic habits. His dress was that ofa herdsman, or possibly of an owner of herds from the northern Galankar.
Musa arose, to face him.
"Some sleeping rugs, perhaps? Or a finely worked bronze jar from the East?"
The stranger nodded. "Possibly. But I would like to look a while if I may."
Musa stepped aside, waving a hand. "You are more than welcome, friend," he assented. "Perhaps some of my poor goods may strike your fancy."
"Thank you." The stranger moved inside.
Musa stood at the entrance, watching him. As the man stepped from place to place, Musa noted that he seemed to radiate a certain confidence. There was a definite aura of power and ability. This man, the trader decided, was no ordinary herdsman. He commanded more than sheep.
"You own herds to the North?" he asked.
The stranger turned, smiling. "Lanko is my name," he said. "Yes, I come from the North." He swept a hand to indicate the merchandise on display, and directed a questioning gaze at the merchant. "It seems strange that your goods are all of the East. I see little of the West in all your shop."
Normally, Musa kept his own council, assuming that his affairs were not public property, but his alone. There was something about this man, Lanko, however, which influenced him to break his usual reticence.
"I plan a trading trip to the Eastern Sea," he confided. "Of course, to carry eastern goods again to the East would be a waste of time, so I am reserving my western goods for the caravan and clearing out the things of the East."
Lanko nodded. "I see." He pointed to a small case of finely worked jewelry. "What would be the price of those earrings?"
Musa reached into the case, taking out a cunningly worked pair of shell and gold trinkets.
"These are from Norlar, a type of jewelry we rarely see here," he said. "For these, I must ask twenty balata."
Lanko whistled softly. "No wonder you would make a trip East. I wager there is profit in those." He pointed. "What of the sword up there?"
Musa laughed. "You hesitate at twenty balata, then you point out that?"
He crossed the tent, taking the sword from the wall. Drawing it from its scabbard, he pointed to the unusually long, slender blade.
"This comes from Norlar, too. But the smith who made it is still farther to the east, beyond the Great Sea." He gripped the blade, flexing it.
"Look you," he commanded, "how this blade has life. Here is none of your soft bronze or rough iron from the northern hills. Here is a living metal that will sever a hair, yet not shatter on the hardest helm."
Lanko showed interest. "You say this sword was made beyond the Great Sea? How, then, came it to Norlar and thence here?"
Musa shook his head. "I am not sure," he confessed. "It is rumored that the priests of the sea god, Kondaro, by praying to their deity, are guided across the sea to lands unknown."
"Taking traders with them?"
"So I have been told."
"And you plan to journey to Norlar to verify this rumor, and perhaps to make a sea voyage?"
Musa stroked his beard, wondering if this man could actually read thoughts.
"Yes," he admitted, "I had that in mind."
"I see." Lanko reached for the sword. As Musa handed it to him, he extended it toward the rear of the booth, whipping it in an intricate saber drill. Musa watched, puzzled. An experienced swordsman himself he had thought he knew all of the sword arts. The sword flexed, singing as it cut through the air.
"Merchant, I like this sword. What would its price be?"