Dalia Abrantes hated working in the stifling heat of her booth in the marketplace. But there was one thing she hated more: Working in the stifling heat of her booth in the marketplace while a customer complained. Dalia sighed as she tried in vain to cool herself down with a hastily made paper fan. The paper snatched in her dark hood. She directed the fan a little closer to her face.
"Three stones for a pound of nanfruit? Do you know how big these nanfruit are? Big enough for one to be a pound. You are essentially selling each fruit for three stones," said the customer in which all of Dalia's annoyance was directed. The woman in bright blue silk held onto a round and large red ripened nanfruit as evidence, her gold marking gleaming in the sun. Dalia sighed again and fanned herself harder. The paper drooped in her hand.
"Blame the ever-fluctuating economy, woman. Now are you going to buy some nanfruit or not?" she asked, a little bit of her annoyance edging in her voice. With a huff and reddening cheeks, the woman picked up her basket and set off to the next booth. Dalia groaned.
"Thank you for shopping, come again!" she called out to the woman, hoping that the lady will come again, knowing that she wouldn't. There went another potentially good customer. If Dalia's mother were here, she would have told the woman that there was a shortage of nanfruit due to its high demand, and that these were the best citrus in all of Argentum. She would give the woman a free yukefruit for her trouble; an incentive for the woman to come back. Her mother was always the tactful businesswoman. And in this case, the complete opposite of Dalia.
"For a Silver, you always have acted as arrogant as the Golds," a voice proclaimed behind her, deep and amused like thunder. Dalia whipped around, her body's motion causing a crate of yukes to tilt beside her. Faron Abrantes reached out and steadied the crate before it crashed to the ground.
"Faron, this is your second time this week sneaking up on me like this. I'm beginning to think that you startling me is a fun pastime of yours." Dalia crossed her arms and raised her dark brows. Her brother always had been quite a bit of a joker. Faron held his thick arms up in a surrendering gesture.
"Alright, I'm guilty," her brother confessed. "But knowing me, you should have figured after the first time I would do it again," he chuckled deep and throaty. Then his eyes caught on the hood over Dalia's head. His dark brown face turned serious. He reached and flicked the hood from around Dalia's face. As it fell back, she moved her long mass of curly hair over her cheek."You shouldn't hide your scar, Dalia." Now wishing another buyer would come, she turned away and started reorganizing the already organized citrus on her crates.
"Mother says that I should leave it on. Otherwise, it makes the customers uncomfortable. And uncomfortable customers don't come back to buy more produce."
"That is ridiculous. Everyone knows it's your temper that scares them away." Faron's voice held a hint of a smile. Dalia smiled too. It was a small smile. Unmistakable in its genuineness and secretive in its wistfulness. With her back to her brother, she let that wistfulness creep out a little more.
He was right of course. She shouldn't hide her scar. Yet she could find a dozen other reasons why hiding it was not such a bad thing. Mainly, It served as an escape from the churlish stares she was not strong enough to face with indifference. It was always a constant presence on her face - much like the three small button shaped pieces of silver embedded in her dark skin on the outer corner of her eye. The scar led from the top corner of her mouth, curving up across the right side of her face where it clashed with a piece of silver. A mark of punishment and a mark of worthlessness that deemed her lowest of the low. Two things she would rather live without. Two things that were permanent.
"What are you craving today, sour face with a little bit of teeth erosion?" Dalia asked, jolting out of her introspection.
"Actually, yukefruit for Hana and Callaway," Faron responded. He picked up a fruit and examined it. His silver embedded skin gleamed around his wrist. "Callaway says I need to buy two yukefruits to prove I can be a good step-father."
"You and Hana have been bound for four years, isn't that proof enough?"
"I'll buy the fruit anyway."
Faron unfolded a small basket by his feet and began sorting through the crate of yellow prickly yukefruit, picking out the prickliest looking ones. Faron glanced up.
"How much?" he asked.
"Four stones," said Dalia. Her brother frowned. He dumped his large hand in his pocket for coins.
"Mother's citrus is expensive," he produced the stone coins and handed them to her where she dropped them into a tin box on a small stand. Dalia's brother stood up holding the basket in hand and smiled lopsidedly at his sister. He reached out with his free hand and rubbed Dalia's messy hair. "Give mother my best regards," he said. Then he was off, disappearing through the people milling about the marketplace. As another customer approached her booth, Dalia pulled her hood up over her head, engulfing half of her face in shadow.
The late afternoon light shone on rocky walls of buildings as Dalia trudged her way home pulling a cart of citrus picked over from today's buyers. Her hood was down and beads of sweat rolled down her face. Her mass of black curly hair swung and bounced in her line of sight. Other vendors headed in various directions carrying their own loads of goods. Mostly Argentumnians with a myriad of silver pieces embedded in their skin.
Dalia was told that magic caused the silver and gold impressions in people's skin. That it was used to distinguish between the valued and unvalued, and whether they got to live in the city of Areum or the slums of Argentum - gold or silver. Now, where that magic had come from, only the vast, ancient black sand beneath the people's feet knew. Its constant shifting in the wind was whispering shhh's and mhmm's; its mysterious language unknown to mortal ears. All anyone knew was that the magic caused fear in every individual it touched. It was not fear of the magic. It was fear of the obscure. The fear that some otherworldly source had the power to know who had worth or who had none at all.
As Dalia left the marketplace, she could not help but think what it would be like to live inside the metallic walls of Areum. She would be immersed in fine silks, obtain unspoken privileges, bathe in sweet-scented water. Oh, how she could almost feel it. Almost. For a time like this, the luxury of imagination always blew away in the current of reality. Dalia shivered.As she turned a corner, the hard pavement gave way to the black sand and the buildings gave way to adobe houses. Shhhh the sand sang, it's sad story unknown and wordless. In the approaching dark, candle flames illuminated and flickered in windows and entryways. She pulled up her hood as she passed people readying their carts for the next day's purchases. The sound of unsheathing metal made everyone stop their activities. Dalia swung around. A man in fine bright clothing held a sword up to a child's throat. A woman in a red silk dress stood behind the man seething in anger. They were Aureums on their way back to their city. The poor child, face half silver, stood frozen in fear. The woman spoke, pronouncing each word carefully.
"Give it back or my escort might have to slice your hands to get it." The man nudged the sword closer to the boy in warning. The boy stood frozen with his hands behind his back, his breath coming out in spurts. In that small moment, a crowd accumulated around the scene. Dalia moved - her long legs in control. She stopped. The sword point now leveled dangerously close to the vulnerable flesh of her neck. The black sand shifted restlessly.
"I'm not here to make any trouble. I just ask that you would not harm the boy." Dalia held her hands up in what she hoped was a peaceful gesture. Her heart pummeled in her chest. The woman narrowed her eyes at her.
"Then the boy should give back what belongs to me and no harm will come to him."
"Give it to her now. Now," Dalia hissed between clenched teeth. "Do you think they wouldn't kill us? They won't give us a backward glance if we die," she stared hard at the boy, dark eyes wide with fear. The boy's bright eyes wandered to the puckered lines of Dalia's scar. "No taste of worthiness can amount to the price you pay for being unvalued," she whispered.
The boy unfroze and slowly brought his hands from behind his back. A tattered piece of red silk unfurled between his small fingers. He thrusted the piece of cloth into the woman's waiting hand. The sword's presence left Dalia's neck. With a superior swirl of bright fabrics and gold, the man and woman continued their route to Aureum. The crowd dispersed.
"I only wanted to give it to my mama," the boy said. Numb and without words, Dalia reached into her cart and handed the boy a nanfruit. She proceeded her trudge home in the now dark; scar burning with familiar memory and the cart's wheels jerking to and fro.