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Bain loved to visit the marketplace on each world Sunsinger visited. Lin teased him by saying that after the first hundred worlds, every marketplace looked the same. Bain had lost count of their stops maybe twenty worlds ago, but he doubted he would ever lose his fascination for visiting the long rows of stalls full of colorful clothes and strange music spilling through the air, intertwined with spicy, sweet, bitter, strong, sometimes oddly sickening aromas of food and perfumes.
Today, the marketplace on the industry-based world of Nofac smelled strongly of hot metal sizzling in mineral-heavy water. It bit through the mouth-watering warm smell of cooking meat and the thick sweetness of peach pastry coming from a cooking booth just around the corner. Bain dodged three men dressed in the flowing, grimy robes of Galdrian, a member-world of the Conclave. Just ahead, down a short aisle and to the right, was a stall that sold sheet music. He wanted to get some new flute music for Lin for her birthday.
Nofac had a rumbling undertone to the sounds of people talking and laughing, shouting and singing and bartering at hundreds of stalls, all at the top of their lungs. The marketplace sat between the long rows of factories and the spaceport. The steady, day-and-night thumping of the metal presses and kilns and assembly lines made the ground buzz under Bain's feet. He could feel it through his feet and deep in his chest, even when the people around him grew noisy enough to make his ears ring.
Was it only Bain's imagination, or did the marketplace seem more crowded than any he had seen in the last year?
It was only two months now since he and Lin hadfollowed the crippled Mashrami ship to the aliens' home world. Only two months now since the Commonwealth had learned the Mashrami could be dying out as a race. Captain Gilmore and his Rangers had decided to keep the discovery secret until the Commonwealth Council could send scientists to study the world in detail and know for sure. Could the news have spread despite the secrecy order?
People certainly seemed happier now. They bought as if preparing for parties and laughed and joked with each other as if there was nothing to fear anymore. The war wasn't over--it wouldn't be truly over for many years--but people acted like there was no war at all, and never had been.
Bain sidestepped to avoid three red-faced men, so fat and short they were wider than they were tall, and turned the corner. Five steps down the musicians' aisle would take him to the stall. He saw it from where he stood, waiting to cross the flow of pedestrian traffic.
"Bain," Ganfer said, speaking through his collar link. "Lin wants to know how much longer you're going to be."
"I just got here." Bain tried not to notice when four boys, all at least five years older than him, stopped and turned to look at him. His face started to get hot. He didn't think it was odd for Sunsinger's ship-brain to talk to him while he was away from the ship. Other people did, though, and Bain didn't like it when they stared.
Those four boys stared. They wore dirty, loose pants and vests with no shirts. Their dark hair was long and shaggy and tangled. Their square, tanned faces and pug noses and thick-lipped mouths showed they were brothers. They wore no shoes, not even thongs to protect the bottoms of their feet on the gravel pathways between the stalls. They stood only a few meters away and watched Bain, arms crossed or fists clenched and jammed into their waists. One sneered, another grinned and shook his head, another looked angry, and the fourth looked totally confused.
"Lin wants you to find out if Mogran Haeffer has come to sell gisreg fruit from Aramar yet. He always sets up a stall for two weeks at this time every year."
"Does she want some?" He hoped Ganfer would say no. Those four brothers were still watching him. Their hands looked dirty, like Toly Gaber's hands looked when he picked up rocks and gravel to throw at smaller children.
"No. Mogran is a friend. She helps him do safety checks on his ship whenever she sees him."
"I'll ask," Bain promised, and crossed the now clear pathway to step up to the stall.
The brothers followed him and settled down in front of the next stall, which was closed, to watch. Two leaned against the carved stone pillar with direction signs for different areas of the marketplace. One stayed standing, and the other squatted on the dusty side of the pathway between the stalls.
"Can I help you, Spacer?" the thin, red-haired lady in the music stall asked. She smiled and gestured with draping green sleeves at the shelves filled with printed sheets of flimsy--opaque plastic sheets used for permanent storage of documents. "Is there something special you seek?"
"Flute music. For my captain. She plays." Bain swallowed a groan. He hated when he sounded like he didn't know what to say.
He did know what to say; he just forgot most of the words when people were staring at him. He could feel the four brothers staring hard enough to drill holes in his back.
"What kind of music?"
"Uh ... happy sounding. Classical. But new. A new composer, I mean." Bain clenched his fists when he heard someone snicker behind him.
"Do you play?" Her smile softened and she turned away to pull a stack of sheets off a shelf at shoulder-level.
"Not the flute. I have a harp."
"Now that's an instrument I've always wanted to try but never had the knack--or the patience to build up calluses." She put the stack on the counter between them and started flipping through the individual sheets. "Are you good?"
"Branda says I'm good."
"Is that your captain or--" She stopped and held up a hand, her smile growing wider. "Branda Moli? You know her?"
"She gave me my harp."
"You must be Bain, then. Don't tell me it's time for Lin's birthday already?"
"You know Lin?" Bain grinned, even as he felt an odd sense of losing his balance. Did everybody in the Commonwealth know Lin?
"We're very distant kin, Branda and I. Lin found me while she was looking for Branda. Family is important to Spacers."
"Well, Bain Kern, I'm glad I finally met you. Branda has told me to look out for you, if I ever heard Sunsinger was at the same port where I am. I'm Chryssa D'Tali." She held out her hand and they shook. "Now, let's find something fun for Lin, with just enough challenge to make her growl a little bit."
Bain laughed. That remark was very clear proof Chryssa did indeed know Lin.
He had forgotten about the four brothers by the time he picked out three pieces of music. Chryssa would only charge him half-price for them, as her birthday gift to Lin and because she said Branda would be furious if she charged him full price. He thanked her and invited her to visit Sunsinger. Lin hadn't said how long they would be in the spaceport at Nofac, but it had to be at least for two days.
"I'll certainly try to visit Sunsinger. Even if it's just to hear Lin growl." Chryssa giggled. Her laughter sounded like chimes, moving up and down the scale. "Do me a favor?" She waited until Bain nodded. "Don't tell Lin you met me. I don't want to spoil the surprise."
She glanced beyond Bain and her hands moved at double speed, wrapping the plastic sheets in bright blue paper. Bain turned around and saw two customers approaching the booth. It was definitely time for him to get moving on. The dinner hour was approaching, when many stalls would shut down either for the meal, or for the night. He had to find Mogran Haeffer before the fruit merchant shut down.
"I won't tell Lin--but what if she asks where I got the music? What if she wants more?"
"Then let her come and see me for herself." Chryssa handed him the packet.
"Thanks. It was nice meeting you," he managed to say without his tongue tying itself into knots. Bain thought he heard someone snicker behind him.
"It was nice meeting you, too, Bain. Fi'in bless you." Then Chryssa turned to the two new customers, nodding to them, wearing a smile only a few degrees less warm than the one she had given Bain.
The four brothers stepped out to meet him when he moved into the aisle between the booths and headed back to the main walkway through the market. They grinned and stood shoulder-to-shoulder, blocking the aisle.
Bain stopped with three paces between him and them. He met the eyes of the tallest brother and waited. Somehow, he didn't think Lin's trick of growling and showing a fierce face would work. She had years of practice behind her. Besides, two of the four brothers were bigger than him. No one was ever stupid enough to attack a Spacer captain, but Bain was just crew, and just a boy.
"Running home, little boy?" the tallest one asked. He wore a dirty green cap tilting off the side of his head.
"No." Bain took a breath. "Do you know where Mogran Haeffer's stall is? I have a message for him from my captain."
"Yeah, we heard," the shortest one said. He stood to Bain's right. He didn't look quite as nasty as his brothers.
Bain waited, but none of the others added anything to their brother's admission. Chryssa was still talking to her customers, so Bain couldn't go back to her for directions without being rude or looking afraid.
He was definitely afraid. Lin said it was all right to be afraid--it was a sign of intelligence--but the trick was not to look afraid.
What would Lin do? What would she do that he could do without looking ridiculous or making trouble?
"Ganfer?" Bain touched the collar link. His hands didn't shake, though he trembled inside.
"Yes, Bain?" the ship-brain answered.
"How soon does Lin want me back at Sunsinger? I'm almost finished with my errands and I can look for Master Haeffer now if she wants."
"In an hour at the latest." Ganfer paused for three long seconds. "Lin says to stay out of trouble and don't pick any fights. She says to remember you have an unfair advantage because of all your free-fall exercise."
"I know," the boy said with a groan. He bit his lip to keep from grinning. Somehow, Ganfer understood he was in trouble. Or maybe Lin was listening in? Bain didn't care how either one knew. "I'll be back in one hour."
"What's free-fall?" the oldest brother asked. He pushed his green cap far back on his dirty hair, so it threatened to slide off.
"That's when you're deep in space and there's no gravity," Bain said.
He took a deep breath and started walking. The brothers stepped aside and he walked through the gap between them.
They turned and followed him when he had only put four paces between him and them. Bain hugged the wrapped packet of sheet music close to his chest and said a quick prayer. Fi'in had to protect him and keep him out of trouble--if only for the sake of Lin's present!
"What's it like?" another one said. Bain glanced over his shoulder to see the one who spoke. He was second-tallest and wore a blue vest that looked almost new. It was cleaner than his clothes or his bare arms and chest.
"Like swimming." Bain saw the sign for the food aisle and turned left there. He hoped he hadn't made a mistake. Gisreg was a fruit from Aramar, not a kind of medicine or bread or a tool--wasn't it?
"Yeah, stupid. Don't you watch the video adventures?" the fourth brother said.
Bain heard sandals scuffle in the gravel behind him. One brother grunted. Another one slapped someone. More sandals scuffled in the gravel and someone fell. Bain glanced over his shoulder and saw the brothers poking and slapping and pushing at each other. He tried to run without running.
He was so busy listening for the sound of running feet pounding behind him, Bain got to the end of the first aisle before he really looked at anything. He stopped and glanced over his shoulder. The brothers weren't there anymore. Did he really want to turn around and go back up the aisle and take the chance they were hiding in the shadows, waiting to ambush him?
Two more aisles filled with fresh food stalls waited, one to the right and one to the left. Bain looked back and forth between the two and decided to take the right-hand one first.
Now for the next problem. What did Mogran Haeffer look like? What did gisreg look like? He knew it was a fruit, it was expensive, and it was imported from Aramar. Aramar was one of the lost colonies, from the civilization before the Downfall. The Conclave wanted Aramar to join them and the Commonwealth wanted Aramar to join, and according to Lin the people didn't know what they wanted or didn't want. She said it would probably all blow up into a war before anyone decided.
That still didn't help Bain figure out what gisreg looked like or where Mogran Haeffer's stall would be.
"You look lost, young master," an old man called from a stall piled high with golden and green and red and pink and lavender apples.
At least, Bain thought the purple globes were apples. They were shaped like the other fruits in the baskets and barrels.
"Excuse me, sir." Bain licked his lips and stepped up to the stall. "Do you know if anyone is selling gisreg fruit here today?"
"Gisreg?" The man frowned, which made his thick, bushy white eyebrows dip down over his nose. He scratched at his chin through his curly, snowy beard and nodded once. "Only one fool makes that long trip to Aramar. Old Mogran Haeffer. His stall's down 'way at the far end." He pointed back down to the end of the other aisle.
"Thank you, sir. Are gisreg bad?" Bain couldn't help asking.
"Bad? No, boy. They're delicious if you know how to eat them the right way." He chuckled.
"Then why is he a fool?"
"It's a long trip to Aramar. All for a hold full of fruit that might be out of fashion by the time you get it to market. But that old Mogran, he's a rich fool." He chuckled again. "Go on. Hurry, boy. He sells out quickly."
Bain nodded his thanks and hurried. He couldn't run without risking knocking people over. The sight of people dropping fruits and vegetables in the gravel and watching them roll through the dust might be funny in the videos, but not in real life. Not when people wanted to eat that food for their dinner. Besides causing trouble and getting people angry at him, he might draw more attention to himself. The four brothers might show up again. They could be looking for him right now.
When he reached the end of the aisle, Bain stopped and looked and said a silent prayer for success. The sooner he found Mogran Haeffer, the sooner he could leave the marketplace and head back to Sunsinger.
Bain grinned and almost laughed aloud. On his right, a stall had a big sign hanging from the awning. The sign read, Fresh gisreg from Aramar. Under the sign sat blue woven baskets filled with golden and dark purple fruit the size of Bain's fist. They glistened with moisture. Just looking at them made his dry mouth start to water again. Bain wondered if Lin liked gisreg. He still had some debit chips left from buying her sheet music.
"Welcome, young master," a reedy voice chirped. Half a second later, a short, elderly man skipped out from behind the counter. His hair was pure silver, cascading to his shoulders in thick curls. His beard was just as thick and curly and solid silver, and grew to a point halfway to his belt. The man wore bright, deep blue the same color as his eyes--tunic and long robe and boots and round pillbox hat. Even wearing the hat, his head didn't quite reach Bain's shoulder. He smiled at the boy and gestured at his baskets of fruit with a sweeping bow. "Have you ever seen anything so magnificent?"
"No, sir," Bain said honestly. "Are you Mogran Haeffer?"
"Ah, you have heard of the excellence of my wares. How many kilos of fruit would you like today?"
"I--no, sir. Thank you, but I can't buy much." He dug out his handful of coins. "How many will this buy?"
"Oh, enough to eat yourself sick." He chuckled, his eyes sparkling brightly.
"They're not for me. It's Lin's--" Bain stopped and took a deep breath. "Captain Lin Fieran of Sunsinger asked me to find out if you were here on Nofac."
"Lin is here? My darling little girl always looks out for me. What would I do without her? Here." Mogran skipped over to the counter and stepped around behind it. He abruptly stood taller, so that he towered over the baskets. Bain decided the man had to have a ladder or step-stool behind the counter. "Take. All you want. Nothing is too good for my Lin."
"I can't." Bain held out his hands, showing the precious flat parcel holding the sheet music. "I can't wrinkle this. It's for Lin's birthday."
"Why, yes. It is her birthday, isn't it?"
"Lin would probably want you to eat with us tonight." As soon as the words left his mouth, Bain wondered if that was true.
He and Lin had spent the entire morning working on overhauling the control board connections in the dome. They had both been hot and sticky and cranky from the strain. Lin had let him run off to the market while she claimed she was going to sleep and read and be lazy for the rest of the day. How would she react to an unanticipated guest?
"No, no." Mogran shook his head and waved his hands and jumped up and down on the platform behind the counter a few times. "You two must join me. You are her crew, yes? Not her son, no. My Lin would have invited me to the wedding if she had married, and would have invited me to the naming ceremony if she had a son."
"Kin," Bain interrupted. He had a sudden vision of the little old man carrying on like this for half an hour, giving all the reasons why 'his' Lin would have invited him to important ceremonies and events. "Distant cousins, and crew."
"Of course. Now, you run back to Sunsinger and tell Lin I demand she bring you to dinner with me tonight. She will know how to find me. I won't tell you, no. Lin will have to hunt. That's her penalty for playing games with an old man's heart, yes it is." Chuckling, he plucked two gisreg and tossed them to Bain.
"I'll tell her." Bain scrambled to catch the gisreg before they hit the dusty, gravel-pocked ground. He almost choked when he heard the plastic sheets crinkle in the packet of sheet music. He didn't think the sheets had wrinkled. He hoped not. "Thank you," he gasped, and clutched the fruit close.
They were chilly and solid and smelled faintly of honey and over-ripe peaches.
"Go on with you, now. Not much daylight left to the day." Mogran chuckled and ducked down behind his counter.