Dawn sunlight cast cool rays over the plaza, illuminating the few merchants who set up their stalls in the early morning. The fruit vendor packed her fresh apples into wooden boxes, propping them up at the front of her display. Deep purple plums took their space next to the apples, followed by mouth-watering peaches and various other fruits. Across the way, the butcher hooked rabbits to the roof of his little box then sharpened his knives. They scraped against his whetstone, shattering the eerie peace. Despite repeated washings, his white apron retained brown stains from the butchered animals. Each one he’d received fresh that morning from a hunter who met him on the way to the market and he cut them when the customer ordered right in front of them. At least they knew what they were paying for up-front. His easy manner and cheap prices brought in people even from the Kairen center.
Lucia kicked some refuse out from behind her stall and set her bag down on the shelf underneath the display. Gold and jewels glittered in the weak light, chains whispering against each other like metal rain. Untangling a few of the pieces, she placed them gently on the display. Adjusting her hat to sit more gently on her ears, the woman waited for another boring day with no sales. Her green dress fluttered slightly in a breeze. Pockets covered the sides, stuffed with all manner of rags and polishing wax. It was made of low-quality cotton and ran down to her shins.
Fingering the cloth, she remembered the peasant woman, Astrid, who made it for her. Lucia traded the old peasant lady one of her best items in exchange for a few dresses. Astrid’s daughter was getting married and the mother wanted to give her daughter something nice to wear on her special day. Though the dresses weren’t nearly worth as much as the piece she traded, Lucia loved having something new to wear. It also lacked the undercoats that classier ladies loved in their clothes, making it much more bearable to wear during the summer months. Lucia liked the green; it matched her eyes beautifully and didn’t look bad with her raven-coloured hair either. The hat she’d cobbled together herself out of cloth and leather scraps. It looked horrendous, but it kept her head nice and warm during the winter and fall months.
Grabbing a polishing rag out of one of the pockets on her dress, she tended to the newer pieces she’d picked up last week. One especially caught her eye; A large sapphire, dazzlingly cut. Underneath all the gunk on the gem and the tarnish on the gold, she knew it would fetch quite a price for anyone who could afford it. She absently rubbed at it while the plaza started to come alive. Kairen had more than one marketplace. This one nestled between the middle-class area of the city and the poor area. Everyone here charged less than the central marketplace could afford. To sell in the central market, a merchant had to pay a sizable membership fee. Every night the store-keeps from this market filtered one way or the other, returning to the filth-ridden slums or the cheapest nice area. Here, nobody had need of Lucia’s goods, but she couldn’t begin to afford membership costs of the high-class market.
Her cloth caught on a particularly stubborn piece of gunk. Scrubbing at it extra hard, her mind wandered further. Occasionally middle-men would buy from her at criminally low prices to re-sell where people would pay top-dollar. It was better than starving. Her ears twitched against the fabric of her hat, tickled by the rough-spun fabric. Mumbling a curse, she gave up on the gem and began the arduous process of removing the tarnish from the chain. If she could fix it up, it could buy her a week of meals. If. Hunger gnawed at her belly. She really needed a sale today.
A loud tap sounded. Lucia jumped, all her hair standing on end. In front of her stall stood a minotaur, seven foot tall at the very least. Once she had Lucia’s attention, she smiled. “Hey Foxy!” The minotaur’s warm, brown eyes crinkled with amusement. “Don’t you ever take a day off?”
“Hey, don’t call me that so loud, Marina.” Blushing in embarrassment, Lucia pulled her hat down lower. Her foxlike ears squished up against the fabric uncomfortably. “Someone could hear you.”
Marina chuckled and patted Lucia’s shoulder. “You know I don’t mean anything by it.” Resting her elbows on the display, she squatted down so her friend could look her in the eye without craning her head. “Just checking in on you to make sure you’re still kicking. You really should visit us more often, you know."
"I would if I had time," Lucia trailed off a little uncomfortably. Though she loved Marina like a sister, she always felt too poor to visit her closer to the city center. Not only had the minotaur married a rather influential businessman, but her carpentry shop also made quite a bit of coin. "Work keeps me busy, you know?"
Marina nodded, her cow-like ears flicking up, "I have to go now, Lucia. I have my husband watching the shop, but you know how he can be. Good luck today!”
Just as quickly as the minotaur appeared, she vanished, tail fluttering in the wind of her passing. Lucia rolled her eyes. Marina always had been one to rush over other people, even when they were kids. The not-quite jeweler went back to trying to clean her best item.
Now that morning truly set in, the other stall owners arrived with their own wares to hock. The florist, Vanessa, and her sister, Lana, had two petite stalls adjacent to each other. Lovingly painted signs above each flowed into each other: “The Earth’s Bounty.” Blue-purple hydrangeas, red-gold chrysanthemums, soft white magnolia flowers, stunningly pink orchids, red-throated lilies with pure cream petals, and dozens of multicoloured roses lined the older sister’s stall, a splotch of bright against the drab greys and browns. Violet eggplants, crisp green lettuce, ripe crimson tomatoes, and other vegetables lined the younger sister’s stall. Natalie, the fruit vendor, always kept a close eye on her, wary that she would stray out of bounds and into fruit territory.
Almost butting up against Lucia’s own stall, a soap vendor set up her wares. The cheapest of her soaps had charcoal bits in them, better for scrubbing away filth the hard way and very cheap. Even from here, the more exotic soap scents tingled across her nose. Juniper and fir, almond, a faint whiff of orange here and there, relaxing pine and bracing peppermint. The most expensive, however, were delicate soap carvings. Flowers with filigree-like etchings, birds with bright red feathers, bears, even dragons littered the small, glass-protected box settled on her stall-top.
The sun rose high and the market exploded with activity. She could tell by the way they walked which ones were confident. It made them easy targets, too. They assumed nothing bad could happen to them, living their lives in a bubble of certainty. Some of them even wore their money out in the open. If she had faster fingers, Lucia would have tried her hand at pick-pocketing instead of running an ailing “business.” Instead she watched them pass, ripe for a plucking.
Just like every other day, the only people to come to her stall only looked or came to beg. The sun inched further towards the horizon, settling comfortably on the skyline. Dusk settled and the shopkeepers gathered their leftover goods and packed them up. Lucia sighed, shoving all her products back into her bag. Another day with no sales.
Her stomach rumbled uncomfortably. Stuffing her things into the shelf behind the counter of her stall, she looked towards the center of the city. Eyes downcast and hidden beneath the slight brim of her hat, Lucia set out for the bakeries in the rich part of the city. They tended to produce the most - and tastiest - bread in Kairen. Night hadn’t set in just yet, so the city guard merely tipped their heads when she passed. Her cheeks burned during the trip, but she made her way to the closest shop. Pastry Perfection’s gaily painted sign advertised warmth, a hot drink, and a friendly smile to all patrons. Shuffling off to the side and behind the shop, she squashed behind a wooden bin and waited for the tell-tale noise of a door opening. The sun finished its journey behind the horizon, laying its blanket of stars across the sky.
Hinges creaked open and someone stepped outside. He –the timbre of his voice suggested a man, anyway- grunted and mumbled something unflattering about the owner. Apparently she’d been stingy with pay lately. Lucia crushed down even smaller. A soft whump reached her ears, shortly accompanied by the hinges creaking again. Shuffling out of her hiding space, the woman looked for the rough sack she knew she’d see. It lay there, crushed against the alley wall, waiting for the morning disposal crew. Tight twine held the top shut. Frowning, she knelt down next to it. Pressing her teeth into the fabric, she started grinding the fibers apart. Minutes ticked on while she gnawed at the bag, trying to get at the stale bread inside. Tearing a small hole in the sack, she ripped at the edges with tooth and finger until it was just large enough for a hand to slip through.
Grasping the first thing her fingers touched, she pulled out a small loaf of bread. A corner had some sickly green-white mold on it, but the brown crust looked too delicious to put it back. Lucia’s stomach growled angrily, leaving her with little choice in the matter. Tearing off the moldy section, she chewed the stale bread. The crust bent, no longer crispy, while the inside tasted disgustingly stale. To the hungry girl, it felt like heaven on her tongue. Pulling something else out of the sack, she hit gold. A peach danish! A little bit of icing still remained. The fruit smelled slightly rancid, but she didn’t care. Shoving it into her mouth as fast as possible, she scarfed it down. The sudden sugar rush made her dizzy. Taking a last few pieces of bread from the sack, she started on her way home.
Chewing on the extra bread while she made her way back to the marketplace, she furrowed her brow. She might have to head back to Witch Lake soon to grab more pieces for her stall. Goosebumps crawled across her skin just thinking about it. Kairen locals considered the place cursed, and for good reason. Just thinking about what lurked down there made her queasy. Without the gold to buy her own jewels though, it remained the only option open to her.
Shaking the cobwebs out of her head, Lucia realized she’d already made it back to her stall. Marina built it for her when she’d first started selling accessories. Through several winters and the roughest of weather it stood tall, a testament to the minotaur’s skill. Dark knots swirled in the wood, breaking up the creamy brown cypress. A very thin layer of finish kept the worst of the rain from rotting the wood. A few planks warped over time, giving it a rickety, worn-down appearance up close. Unlike the other stalls, she couldn’t afford a special sign. Instead she simply painted on the lettering with some supplies Marina gave her: “Hidden Pearls.” In a few years, Lucia needed to retire it and get a new one built. A few times she’d seen people turn away from it. After all, what kind of person who can’t repair their own business sells real jewels? Picking up her bag from over the counter, she started the long walk home.
Her nighttime vision exceeded a human’s by enough to make the trip safe. Picking her way through the slums carefully, Lucia stopped at the gates of the city. The wall rose dozens of feet, an imposing sight at the best of times. Unlike the front gate however, the stonework here was cracked and parts of the wall sagged slightly. Discoloured, graffiti-smeared sections still hadn’t been cleaned. The night guard wore a heavier, less ornate version of the standard guard armour. Though the council seemed happy enough to let this section of Kairen rot, they cared about making sure their guards didn’t receive a shiv to the back for their troubles.
Nathaniel waved at her as she approached, his plate clanking against itself. “H’llo, Lucia. Going home a little late today, eh? No trouble, I hope?” He flipped up the visor on his helmet so she could see his eyes. Almost every night he pulled back-gate duty, and almost every night he let Lucia out. In the past he’d always asked for her business at the gate, but they’d chatted enough for him to drop even the formality.
“Yeah.” She tugged on her hat nervously. “I just had to make a stop by a baker on the way home for some fresh bread.” Lucia flashed a fake smile, but it fooled the well-meaning guard in the dark. “It’s late though, so I can’t stay to chat.”
He looked a little put out, but he nodded and walked to the gate house. Hauling it open, he waved to her again. “G’night lass! Stay safe out there.” Lucia waved back to him and stepped out of the city.
Trudging through the dark woods outside the city, she arrived at her shack. Creeping from the earth an azalea bush added a splash of magenta to the dark greens and browns of the woods. Its wild, gnarled branches curled up against the edge of her home. She’d never felt safe in the slums so Marina made her this tiny, one-room lodging. Each of the planks had been sanded down to a perfect smoothness and a clear varnish sealed it against the rain. Unlike her stall, this wood had a darker colour, a warm, comforting brown. Without any windows it seemed small and cozy, easier to heat in the winter too. The whole place smelled like the forest; sharp pine scent, a whiff of the incoming storm front, loamy, fertile earth. Through the walls nighttime animal calls reached her ears. Crickets, the occasional scream of a fox, owl hoots. It seemed like a personal animal symphony, just for her.
One straw-stuffed pallet lay in the corner, snuggled up against the wall. Made from filched sackcloth stitched together by novice hands, it provided little comfort, though much better than sleeping on the floor. A worn eggshell cotton blanket covered it, offering some warmth for the autumn and winter months. Outside, burnt black rocks marked her fire pit. In another corner a wicker basket held all her clothes. Next to it, she’d haphazardly propped up a washboard.
Rain pattered against the roof. Drizzle transformed into a heavy downpour, adding a soothing backdrop to her nighttime routine. It would make the trip back into the city muddy and irritating tomorrow, but the rain always calmed her.
Ripping off her hat and tossing it into the corner, Lucia massaged her sore fox ears. The soft white fur felt amazing against her fingers. They flicked out of her grip, so she settled for scratching near the base for a bit. Stripping to her underclothes, the kitsune sat down on her bed and started to brush the disarrayed fur of her tail down. Maybe that’s why she never got very far in life; a kitsune with only one tail was a kitsune with nearly no power. Even two would be better. Amateur adventurers had three at the very least. With each tail, both magical and physical power increased. Right now, Lucia could only summon up a spark or soft light with her magic. No matter how hard she struggled she couldn’t conjure up anything more. Hell, she couldn’t even handle a weapon! The tales of six and even seven-tailed kitsunes always excited her. Gently brushing a snarl out of her tail, the woman frowned. A one-tail didn’t even deserve to call themselves a kitsune. Sighing, she flopped down on her bed and curled up. There was always hope that tomorrow would bring better luck.
Closing her eyes, Lucia snuggled into her blanket. At least there was always tomorrow.