The streets in Vale were newly-cleaned, swept free of dust and debris in time for the opening of the market stalls. The new shipments, unloaded just that morning, were carted up from the docks in long, unbroken lines. Up and down the cobblestone path, small spaces were being prepared by families, weighed down and crowded with goods. Brightly dyed fabrics of every shade and design shivered with the small breeze that danced its way through the streets. Cinnamon, cardamom, cumin, roasting meats on spits, and the alluring aroma of freshly pressed perfumes washed the streets in a flourish of smells, all fighting for the noses of potential customers.

          She was very tempted to stop and view what was to be offered by the many market stalls, but if she was to make it home before the sun rose high she would need to be on her way through the gates of Vale. However, a few stops were in order before she put the tall gates behind her. Near the end of the street, pressed into a crowded corner, stood a familiar kiosk. She made her way to the counter, pulling out a coin purse from within her robes. A short, stocky man of a balding age waved to her from inside.

          “Arliss! I was wondering when I’d see you again! Here, look at what Old Jeb just got in!” From underneath the counter, he produced a large sack with drawstring chords.

          “Take a look at these,” he said proudly.

          As Arliss peered into the bag, her dark hair spilled forward and a bright smile pulled her lips wide. Within the bag gleamed perhaps twenty beautifully mouthwatering, ruby apples. Each looked perfect in its own right: juicy, sweet, and crisp. A woman to her left sidled closer and eyed the apples greedily.

          “They are indeed beautiful. How did you manage to get ahold of these so early in the season?” She placed four gold coins on the wooden counter.

          Jeb only winked and put a finger to his lips. “That’s a secret, but I also have something else that might interest you.” He disappeared behind a stack of crates, and then reappeared almost as quickly. In his hands were two brown tomes, worn around the edges and stained on the old, faded covers. “A man came by and traded me these for a piece of pottery -- robbed me, if you’d believe it -- but knowing how you collect these old things, I made the trade anyway.”

          He handed the books over, and Arliss ran a thin white finger down the spines. She smiled gratefully at Jeb, took out three more gold coins, and placed them on the counter with the others.

          “For your trouble,” she said gratefully. “They’ll have a good home.” She slid the books gently into her satchel.

          Jeb leaned his elbows onto the counter and squinted at her through the fiery light beginning to brim the buildings and pour into the street. “So you’ll be returning to that home today, no?”

           “After three months in a city like Vale, it warrants a return home.” Arliss looked up at him then and crooked an eyebrow questioningly. “How did you know?”

          “Well, it seems that the only time you stop by is before you leave Vale for that place you call a house out in the forest.”

          “It sounds like you disapprove.”

          “Somewhat," he said with a frown. "You never know what could happen out there-- wolves, bears and the like. Dragons too. No one is safe with those brutes stalking our skies.”

          "Dragons!” she exclaimed a little jokingly. “Really, Jeb, one of those beasts is more likely to stay hidden within its dim cave rather than to approach a Mage of the Valin Council. When has one last been seen anyway? You don’t put much faith in me, friend!”

          Jeb reddened. “I never said anything of the sort! I merely ask why you choose to live out in the middle of nowhere rather than in one of those plush rooms that Vale provides for you Council Mages. Purple cushions for evil brutes seems like a fair trade to me,” he said, motioning toward her beautiful hand-stitched mage’s robes.

          “Why?” Arliss paused as she picked up the bushel of apples, and she absent-mindedly fingered the emerald ensconced in a silver collar at her throat. “Perhaps it’s the reason why you get such beautiful apple harvests before any other trader here in the market,” she said, putting a finger to her lips and winking slyly.

          Jeb barked out a laugh and slapped the counter with amusement as she turned to leave. Through his laughter, he called, “Fair enough. Safe travels to you, Mage Faylore!”

          She laughed too and raised her hand in farewell. “And rich trades to you, Jeb!”

The End

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