The trading party from Sunset Water arrived late in the evening. There were no queens along, just warriors and Arbora, so there was no reason for the royals to greet them formally tonight and Moon wouldn't have a chance to see them until the next day. Rushing down to the greeting hall and demanding to see everything they had brought immediately was just not done, Jade had told him. They would have a formal presentation late tomorrow morning, when everyone could be dignified and pretend not to be as interested as they actually were.
Moon would have been fine with this, or at most only a little impatient and annoyed, if Chime hadn't come up to the queens' level to tell them how exciting it all was.
"They have a groundling with them," Chime reported, practically bouncing as he sat beside the hearth in Jade's bower. "He's -- I suppose it's a he; he hasn't really said one way or another -- is from a species that lives in the southern Reaches. The ground between the mountain tree roots is very swampy there, and these layers of fungus grow about a hundred or so paces above the ground level. These groundlings build their towns inside the fungus, because of course there are so many dangerous predators in the swamps. But they trade with the other groundlings who live past the Reaches in the lakes to the south and he's been traveling from court to court, and--" Chime ran out of breath and waved his hands. "I can't wait to see what he's brought!"
Moon stared at Jade. She said, "Don't look at me like that. If we go down now, the Sunset Water Arbora will know how anxious we are and we'll give away our advantage."
Moon jerked his head toward Chime. "Right, because our Arbora and warriors aren't down there right now giving away our advantage."
"We are not!" Chime was outraged. "We're very experienced at this."
Past history led Moon to doubt that. "How many courts did you trade with at the old colony?"
"Just Sky Copper, mostly, and sometimes Wind Sun," Chime admitted, "But they were very canny bargainers. One time I had to trade a dozen unworked onyx lumps for the herb cuttings I wanted."
Moon could tell where this was going. "How many herb cuttings?"
"Almost a double handful," Chime said. At Moon's expression, he added, "What?"
Moon just looked at Jade. He had lived in places where a dozen unworked onyx lumps would have bought enough food for a small village for half a turn. Jade shrugged and said, "Herbs are for simples and healing. Onyx is for baubles."
Moon sighed. "I know." Every species, every different community, had its own ideas about value and trade, but the Raksura's ideas were odder than anything Moon had ever encountered in any of his travels, and that was saying a lot.
"What?" Chime demanded again.
By mid-morning, no one could wait anymore, so the reigning queen Pearl, with Ember and her favorite warriors in tow, wandered down to the greeting hall and acted mildly surprised to encounter the trading party from Sunset Water. Jade and Moon followed, and things started to get underway.
Pearl established herself and her entourage at the bowl hearth set into the floor of the greeting hall near the waterfall, with seating cushions and the best tea set. There she made polite conversation with the oldest Arbora and the oldest female warrior from the Sunset Water party. Instead of setting up a rival camp, Jade strolled around the hall with Balm, which allowed Moon to wander around and get a look at everything.
The trading party was nine Arbora, with twenty warriors to transport them, their goods, and the groundling who had tagged along. The Sunset Water trade items were set out on grass mats on the floor of the greeting hall, as the Indigo Cloud Arbora hauled their items up from the lower levels of the tree. Everyone was in groundling form, except for a few warriors who were helping to carry things. The queens kept their wings, though, and didn't shift to Arbora.
Moon had always liked markets, though even when he had the means to trade, he had never been able to carry many possessions. He had never bought much of anything except food, and the few items necessary to pretend to be a groundling. He had still liked looking at all the wares, and seeing what other people bought. He just liked looking at other people's stuff; it was one of the best forms of free entertainment that groundling communities offered.
The Sunset Water traders had brought the usual seeds, bulbs, and plant cuttings that courts commonly traded, but they had also brought more interesting things. There were spices, including little red balls dotted with black spikes, that Blossom, hovering nearby, told Moon was a special peppery spice that was also good for upset stomachs. There were dark-colored cakes of tea and powdered minerals that could be used to make inks and dyes. There were also some bundles of paper wrapped in waxed leather sleeves, that were copies of books from the Sunset Water libraries. Heart, Merit, and the other mentors clustered around that mat, intently going through the books, asking occasional questions of the Arbora who had brought them. Moon saw Chime hover nearby for a moment, then shoulder in to look too. Heart didn't even glance up, just passed him one of the books.
More interesting to Moon were the raw lumps of various kinds of ore and some uncut lumps of gemstone, chiseled out of the outcrops on the forest floor, hundreds of paces below the platforms of the suspended forest. Gold and Merry and some of the other Arbora artisans were deep in whispered consultation over them.
The Indigo Cloud Arbora had retaliated with their own array of seeds and plant cuttings, polished snail shells, and some bolts of the dyed cloth made at the old colony. They had been reluctant to trade the cloth at first, but the Arbora had finally gotten the plants needed to make it to grow on one of the tree's largest platforms, and there were good indications that they could expect a harvest next turn. The Arbora were also experimenting with making bark cloth, which Moon thought was almost as fine.
But the groundling and his goods were obviously the real attraction. He had a mat to himself, and was setting out a number of small bags. His hairless skin was white mottled with gray and black, and his ears and nose were concealed behind heavy frills of delicate skin. Sucker-like pads sprouted from his cheeks, and continued down his arms and legs. His clothing was a loose tunic that looked like it had been woven from moss. Moon could believe his people lived in the layers of fungus that sometimes sprouted from the lower levels of the mountain tree trunks. It sounded unpleasant, but it was probably much safer for them than the forest floor. The Kek lived on the ground among mountain tree roots, but then their skinny bodies were practically made out of sticks, and few predators bothered with them.
And if the warriors of various Raksuran courts were willing to cart the groundling around from colony to colony, whatever he brought with him must be choice.
Arbora were already starting to gather around him, waiting impatiently. Moon joined the back of the crowd, easily able to see over the shorter Arbora. Stone wandered up beside him, and Moon asked, "Have you ever met a groundling like this before?"
"Probably." Stone shrugged. "His name's Iglen. He's not a talker, like Delin."
Their favorite Golden Islander had a wealth of information and stories. Moon had been hoping for something similar, but from Stone's lack of reaction, Iglen was either reticent or boring. "Were you down here last night?" he asked, aware it sounded accusing.
Stone gave him a look. "Believe me, it wasn't that exciting."
That was probably true. But Moon would have still preferred to be bored himself instead of hear secondhand about it. "Did he say what he had to trade?"
"No. He mostly talked about fungus."
Somehow Moon doubted that. But then Iglen pulled a bag out of his pack and emptied it onto the mat. The Arbora pressed closer, gasping in awe. Moon craned his neck to see.
Spilled across the mat were small smooth lumps that ranged in color from dark honey to a pure grass green. The Arbora stared, fascinated, the warriors edging closer to look over their shoulders. Stone made a disgruntled noise and wandered off. He had clearly been hoping for something better. Moon had been hoping for something better too, and he couldn't think why the others were so excited.
Jade stepped up beside Moon, and he said, "It's amber. They've seen amber before."
"Yes, but we never had that much." She was stretching to see too, though her expression held studied indifference. Moon shook his head. It was a good thing the groundling traders of the Abascene would be too terrified of Raksura to attempt the journey here. Raksura were lousy traders.
"It's hardened tree sap," Moon pointed out. "You can't walk across open country in Kish without tripping over it." He thought the lumps of ore from Sunset Water, dug out of the rock of the forest floor with great difficulty and yielding harder and brighter stones, were much more valuable.
Jade lowered her voice. "Yes, but it's pretty."
After a while, everyone had had a chance to admire the amber and most of them had wandered off to take care of their own trading. Jade had gone to see to the more important business of the seed and root stock trading. Moon had just turned to head back over to see if Chime and the others had been able to get any new books, when Rill edged through the last of the lingering warriors. She plunked down at the edge of the groundling's mat and upended a bag of small lumps of polished pearl.
Moon elbowed a few warriors aside and sat on his heels next to her. "Rill, what are you doing?"
"I'm trading my pearls for some of these stones," she said brightly.
Yes, that's what Moon had been afraid of. "Do you remember when we traded five pearls for the right to use the Golden Islander's flying boats?" He pointed at the amber. "That's not the same as a flying boat."
The groundling Iglen watched in disapproval. In passable Raksuran, he said, "I didn't know warriors took an interest in trade."
Rill turned to Iglen, tilting her head ominously. She didn't shift but the heavy muscles tensed under her brown skin and it was suddenly almost possible to see the ghost shapes of the scales, sharp fangs, and sickle claws of her other form. She said in a flat voice, "He's a consort."
Iglen sat back, holding up his hands. "I apologize!"
Moon managed not to roll his eyes in annoyance. Even fungus-dwelling groundlings had opinions on his lack of suitability as a consort. He said, "That's all right."
Rill regarded Iglen a moment more to make certain he was actually sorry, then turned back to Moon. "These are small ones, though, and those were big."
Moon held up one of the glossy lumps of pearl. "Rill, somebody had to swim out to a sea kingdom and risk drowning and being eaten by angry sea creatures to bargain for these. Who knows what they had to trade to get them. Stone could fly somewhere and get you all the amber you wanted, just by picking it up off the ground." Stone heard his name from across the hall and looked around, spotted Moon, and eyed him narrowly.
Rill snorted. "But Stone won't do that."
Moon ran his hand through the bag. Some of the pearls were a tawny color, some almost pink, and he had never seen anything like them. Rill could have started her own trading empire in any number of eastern cities just with this bag. "Because he doesn't need to, because what you have is better."
Iglen said, "In the other courts, the consorts did not take this much interest in trade."
"Moon is different," Rill told him. "He used to live with groundlings."
Iglen's frills lifted. "Oh?"
"Near Kish," Moon said, pointedly.
Iglen's frills drooped. "Oh."
That, more than anything else, convinced Moon that Iglen knew exactly what he was doing. Stone was over there encouraging Blossom to trade handfuls of sunstones for cakes of pressed tea leaves, but that was to another Arbora, who was just as likely to trade the sunstones for wooden beads, or seeds for an unusual kind of berry. Iglen would eventually take Rill's pearls outside the Reaches where they could probably be traded for all the available goods in a medium-sized groundling town. Moon asked Rill, "Where did you even get all of these?"
"I traded for them turns and turns ago from Wind Sun, to make jewelry for Pearl. But she doesn't like them. And they wouldn't look right on Jade, or Ember, or Stone." She held one up to Moon's face and squinted at the result. "Or you."
"Make something for yourself, or somebody else."
"I don't like them either," she admitted in a whisper. "They aren't very good to work with. And I want the pretty green amber."
"We'll get you the pretty green amber," Moon told her. He shook out a few of the lesser pearls, then tied up the rest in the bag.
"But consorts aren't supposed to trade--"
"You'll do the trading," Moon said. He fixed a pointed, meaningful gaze on Iglen. "I'll just sit here."
Iglen's ear-frills twitched in dismay.
That evening the Arbora prepared a special meal in the greeting hall for the visitors, with baked spiced roots, fruit, and bread along with the usual raw grasseater meat. Moon sat with Jade, Chime, Balm, Heart, and a few other warriors and Arbora, sprawled on the cushions and currently stuffed with good food. Everyone seemed deeply satisfied with the trading, and both Indigo Cloud and Sunset Water seemed to feel they had come out the winner in the exchanges. Moon supposed they both had, by Raksuran standards.
"Everyone certainly got a lot of that amber," Chime said, gesturing around at the Arbora who were showing their trades to each other. "Even some of the warriors."
Balm nodded. "The leader of the Sunset Water Arbora told me that Iglen has never had to trade so much of his stock to get so little."
"Yes, it's funny how that worked out," Jade said, gazing thoughtfully at Moon.
Chime frowned at Moon. "And why were you over there all afternoon? I thought you didn't like amber."
Moon's attempt to appear innocent and only mildly interested was clearly failing, so he said, "I like amber fine. I don't like traders that take advantage of people." Iglen wasn't obligated to play fairly. But Moon wasn't obligated to let him get away with it, either.
Jade flicked a spine. "Well, when they make a lot of amber jewelry for you, you're just going to have to wear it."
If you enjoyed the story, please consider a donation to help pay for the site hosting bill. You can donate any amount you would like, or nothing at all. Suggested donation is $2.00 US.
© Martha Wells 2013
[ Compendium Main
| The Stories
| The Forest Boy
| Wind Ship Escarpment
| Missing Scene
| Missing Scene II
| Missing Scene III ]
| About the Author
| Contact/Agent Information
| Buy Books Online
| Live Journal Blog ]