The main marketplace of Tarin was more vibrant and colorful than Leta even remembered – crowded with shoppers, food carts, vendors, bright window displays. The last time Leta had visited this place, this square had been empty save for three drunk friends, yelling and laughing, slumped over the fountain …
It was a happy memory, but nothing could stem the paranoia and concern flowing through Leta’s chest. She weaved through the sea of people, purpose in her step. Gripped in her hand was a crumbled piece of paper, a note, that Fiearius had left her. Fiearius, of all people.
She’d discovered the note on the desk in her room, right after the ship had landed this morning. The landing was odd in itself: the Dionysian had been bound for Archeti just yesterday. Leta had even made plans to meet Corra there since the Beacon also had business on the planet. Yet they had suddenly landed on Tarin with no explanation or warning, only short a cryptic note that read in its entirety:
North east side of the squar.
The words bewildered her. For a moment, she thought it was a trick — but she recognized Fiearius’ untidy, child-like handwriting on the page; it really was from him. But since when did he leave her notes? Since when didn’t he bark orders at her when he needed her? Since when did he request her presence off-ship alone?
Perhaps it was for personal reasons. The air between them had been politely stiff as they had avoided one another for the past week. In painfully equal measures, Leta missed his company terribly and simultaneously wanted to avoid the bridge for the rest of her life.
But if it were truly about that, why would he wish to talk with her about that away from the ship?
Immediately, she’d brought the note to Cyrus. He’d read it three times, then shrugged in confusion. Curious and weary, Leta felt she had no choice but to grab her satchel from her room, stock it with a weapon and medical supplies, and leave the ship.
Whatever this was, she was expecting the worst. A job that had gone bloody, maybe. Or perhaps he was hurt. She couldn’t help herself: after months aboard a pirate ship, paranoia followed her like a shadow.
Mind churning, Leta spotted Fiearius at last, his disheveled hair visible over the top of the crowd. On the edge of the square, he leaned against a brick building, picking at a plate of noodles in his hand. Clearly, he’d stopped by a food cart.
Without pretense, Leta approached and said sharply, “So how much trouble are you in, captain?”
He looked up from the plate and squinted at her face. “There you are. What took ya so long? And who said anything about trouble?”
“But you are in trouble, aren’t you? How much? More than usual? What’s this about, why’d you call me here?”
Fiearius frowned, like he’d never heard anything so preposterous. But then he admitted, “Mm, we’re in a little trouble,” and pushed himself away from the wall. He handed her the plate of half-eaten food, which she took in her hand automatically. “Here. I actually have a job for us to do. One you’d be good for I think.”
“What kind of job?” asked Leta slowly. Images from previous jobs filled her mind: gunfire zinging over her head, bodies falling to the ground, pools of blood at her feet …
“No way,” she said sharply. “Not this again. Not a chance. I’m not helping you.“ She dumped the plate of noodles into the nearest bin and turned to march back to the ship.
But he caught her by the elbow, his warm laugh filling her ears as he steered her back around. “No no, not that kind of job,” he said. “More like an errand. See, I need to get a gift. A classy kind of gift. And you’re a classy kind of person so I thought maybe you could help me out.” Releasing his hold, he started to wander back into the crowded square, leaving Leta staring after him.
So perhaps it wasn’t devastating news he had to share. And perhaps he didn’t want to blame her for all the discomfort of the past few days. Their rapport felt the same as always — relaxed. Easy. Natural, terribly natural. It was something of a relief.
Reluctant but curious, Leta followed in spite of herself and fell into step beside him. “A gift? You want me to help you pick out a gift? For who?”
“Someone with refined taste. I’m a bit hopeless when it comes to this, y’know, so any suggestions are appreciated. Money’s no object.”
“Fiearius,” said Leta, half-weary, half-amused. “You don’t have any money. You’re completely broke. When was the last time you paid your crew?”
“Like I said.” A grin filled his face. “Money’s no object.”
Well, things were making sense now. Leta breathed a heavy sigh, but not without the faintest of smirks. “So you want me to help you steal something.”
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“How about this?” said Leta, coming to a stop outside a shop window stacked with glittering bottles of wine. Straight from the vineyards of Agnos, according to the sign. “A nice bottle of wine. Or whiskey.”
They’d been at this for nearly a half hour now, but each suggestion Leta offered, Fiearius dismissed for one reason or another. He seemed to be quite enjoying turning her down. They passed carts of fruit, books, colorful scarves, and yet …
“Nah,” he said absently, picking up a dusty book from a nearby stall and skimming through it. “No alcohol.”
“Why not? It’s classic. I’d certainly like that as a gift.”
“Good to know,” Fiearius said, walking ahead and putting the book down on the table of an entirely different stall. “But it’s not for you.”
“Who is it for, then?” Leta pressed, drifting away from the window and following Fiearius, but he ignored her question as they fell into step along a row of carts, full of tacky souvenirs.
“Supposedly,” Leta mused, pausing to examine a stack of postcards, “a key to gift-giving is to get the person something you’d love to receive yourself. But I don’t know if that applies here. Considering. Uh. It’s you. But what is it you’d buy yourself?” She lifted her eyes up to his. “If money and time and circumstances were truly no object.”
Fiearius looked skyward, as if contemplating her question. Then he said, “This,” and nabbed the nearest trinket off the display rack in front of him. “I want this. Just this.” After examining it for a moment, he frowned and muttered, “Actually no, this is for you,” dropping it into her hand.
It was — it was — well actually, Leta didn’t know what the thing was, but it was some kind of grotesque clay sculpture. Leta couldn’t decide what it was supposed to resemble: an animal of some kind? A bear? A fish?
“This,” she announced, “is the ugliest thing I’ve ever seen.” Nonetheless, after turning it over for another moment, she slipped it into her satchel and kept walking after him.
“You know, you didn’t really answer my question.”
“Right,” he agreed. “For myself. Hm. Probably a new oven for the Dionysian. Or maybe a cactus. I’ve always wanted a cactus. I could put it above the console on the bridge. And then when we’re landing, it can fly off and hit me in the face. No, that’s a terrible idea.” He glanced down at her and grinned mischievously. “Could get some of those nice twinkly lights Corra had up in her quarters.”
“Interesting, but none of that is helpful here,” said Leta. Her eyes roamed over the sea of vendors. “Especially since you won’t even tell me who the gifts are for … But what about artwork? The carts over there have some really nice pieces.”
This time, interest brightened his face. “Now there’s an idea.”
Tapestries, paintings, sculptures and jewelry filled the artist’s tents. Leta paused to examine a watercolor painting when she felt Fiearius’ attention wandering elsewhere over her shoulder. He was shifting his eyes over a piece everyone else in the tent was passing by.
The painting was filled by geometric shapes of subtle earthen tones with a splash of bright red and orange. It looked like it should have been showcased in a gallery, and for good reason: curiously, she reached to examine the pricetag, and her eyebrows lifted in a discreet display of surprise. The price of it would have stocked the Dionysian’s kitchen pantry for a week. No wonder, then, Fiearius only wanted a potted plant for himself.
“It reminds me of home,” he said simply, tilting his head at it and then down at Leta. “What do you think? Not that we could even smuggle it out of here, it’s huge…”
Leta glanced at him, a subtle note of mischief in her voice. “Of course we could.”
He arched his eyebrows in intrigue.
“It’s just distraction is all,” she went on, passing a look over her shoulder toward the artist tent’s chief vendor. He was a man in his thirties, in deep conversation with a customer. Clearly, judging by how he kept over-enthusiastically wringing the person’s hand and beaming, he was a salesman, just finishing up an expensive order. Leta observed him for a moment.
“Just stand behind me and be ready when I hand the painting over to you, all right?” she muttered to Fiearius. “For the record, I don’t normally condone stealing from anyone who isn’t rich and flirting with me in a bar. But we’ll call this an exception.”
With that, she oriented herself away from Fiearius, turning her back to him as easily as if they had never seen one another before in their lives. At once, she was a stranger, losing herself in the wonders of another expensive piece sitting nearby. Predictably, it wasn’t long before she felt the vendor’s eyes on her. After all, she was a wealthy-looking young woman looking to make a purchase.
“I’ve always loved that one,” stated the vendor purposefully, coming closer and gesturing to the forest landscape Leta was pretending to consider.
“Mm,” was all Leta said, quickly averting her eyes to the next painting. The next piece was a swirl of pewter gray; it reminded her a bit of Vescent on a foggy day. Actually, Leta did rather like this one, but she only winced at it.
“That one, too — ” said the man, chuckling lightly. “Did you know, only ten pieces in the whole span? I traded it from — ”
“That right?” interrupted Leta disinterestedly. She could feel Fiearius’ smirk from here. She moved onto the next painting, this one streaked with horrifying shades of neon orange.
Immediately deciding her fake persona had terrible taste, Leta nearly gasped, pulling her hand away from her lips in surprise. “This one — where have I seen it before? It’s beautiful, I never thought I’d — ”
“Ohh, yes!” the man gushed, stepping forward quickly. “This one’s iconic, you see I — ”
Much to the man’s obvious delight, Leta began to dig purposely in her satchel for her wallet. After all, how could she resist this treasure? Certainly, her expression registered nothing but interest when, abruptly, a handful of credits slipped from her fingertips and scattered across the ground at her feet by clumsy accident.
Just as she predicted, the vendor gave a start, then dropped to his knees. “Let me help you with that!” he cried, immediately beginning to dig in the dirt for her.
Inwardly, Leta felt like rolling her eyes. This was so easy that it almost wasn’t fun. Almost. And in the millisecond before Leta lowered to retrieve her money, she put her hand behind her back, seized a corner of Fiearius’ preferred piece of artwork and slid it toward him.
In the next second, she lowered to her haunches and retrieved the last of her money sheepishly. “That painting had quite the effect on me huh?” she said sheepishly to the vendor, who chuckled in appreciation.
“I don’t blame you one bit, and would you know it, the artist behind it, Arten Calihoun, this was his final piece before he — ”
“Wait,” interrupted Leta, lifting a hand sharply and rising to her feet. “Calihoun, you said?”
“Why, yes,” said the man, nervously smoothing his beard, “He’s an artist from — ”
“I know who he is,” Leta spat with sudden disgust. “I,” she stated significantly, “will never buy his work. Haven’t you heard?” she demanded, inventing wildly now. If there was anything life in an emergency room taught her, it was how to think on her feet. “That man’s no artist, he’s an impostor! All of his ‘best’ pieces were entirely taken from his art professor — ”
In the corner of her eye, she could see Fiearius melting back into the crowd of people, painting safely in hand.
“He — really?” said the vendor pleadingly. “Well in that case, miss, perhaps we could — ”
“No, no, I’ve seen enough,” Leta growled. Mostly for her own amusement, she couldn’t help but add darkly, “I won’t support this — this — petty theft.”
Brushing forward arrogantly, she walked straight out of the tent. Once she was ten feet away and her back was to the man, she snorted.
Fiearius was waiting on the other edge of the square, the painting resting against the wall at his side. Even from several feet away, she could see the proud smirk on his face.
“That,” he said, “was good. Knew you’d be the right person for the job.” With a flourish, Leta took a bow.
“Well done, kiddo. Now let’s go deliver this thing.” He heaved the painting under his arm and started down the street away from the bustling marketplace. “Aren’t you so glad I dragged you out here to run errands with me?”
Leta almost didn’t answer at all. But then she felt herself smiling slightly. “There are worse places to be.”
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