As Gredin waited, a piece of fabric that rested on the bottom rung of a ladder near the entrance snagged her attention. The bright lighting seemed to ignite the scarlet material, making the color appear so vibrant that Gredin half expected to feel it give off heat as she knelt to examine it more closely.
The weave was tight and sleek, as smooth as liquid when she stroked it with a single fingertip. Slipping her hand beneath the top layer, she saw the color alter, shading from the lively red of galen berries down to a scarlet so deep-hued that it almost appeared black. The effect was beguiling, and she tilted her hand, watching the play of light.
A shadow fell, dulling the color.
A second shadow followed. Then a third and fourth and fifth, in rapid succession.
“Pretty lady,” a voice whispered in her ear, and the phrase repeated like an echo – pretty lady pretty lady pretty lady pretty lady – as tiny fingers touched her sleeve, her braids, her cheek, her hlao.
Gredin, recoiling violently from their touch, overbalanced and tumbled sideways, knocking one of the cloth-laden ladders over onto herself. It bumped against her head and shoulder, burying her beneath its fragile burden of material, and all the while she felt the little fingers continuing to pluck at her. Deeper in the maartza, she heard the blue-furred creature roar in surprise and anger, then shout in hoarse Tradetalk, “You! Out! Out! You go out!” Keegan was calling her name, his voice sharp with alarm, and she opened her mouth to answer, but then she felt a small finger snag on the cord that secured Dreff’s flamestone pendant around her neck.
“No!” She tried to lunge to her feet, but she was tangled in the ladder and the lengths of fabric, her vision obscured, her body weighed down by grasping hands that pulled her one way while another set of hands tugged the cord in the opposite direction, straining it close to the snapping point.
In panicked desperation, Gredin Sent.
Her destination was the nearest vacant space she could clearly envision: the area just outside the huge doors of the Traders’ Market—
—which, she realized in horror, wasn’t an empty space anymore. Flailing as she fought to get her feet under herself, she collided with someone and stepped down with unintended force onto something so brittle that it made a noise like kindling sticks being broken to length.
A piercing shriek split the air, making her ears ring. Strong claws dug into her arm, piercing her skin through the fabric of her jacket, jerking her sideways as a hot wave of vertigo flashed through her. Knees buckling, she hung in the painful grasp, blinking against a flood of tears. Then she heard the resonant rumble of a Prett voice as it commanded, “You, Hesch. Let go that one.”
“No,” came the thin, nasal reply. “I, Nitikikani, say this one you take. Take and hold. I claim–” And it spoke a further word of Tradetalk that she didn’t recognize.
“What name you?” the Prett demanded.
Claws bit more deeply into Gredin’s arm, and the thin, nasal voice of Nitikikani of the Hesch demanded, “Speak! Tell Prett. What name you?”
She hadn’t realized that the Prett’s question was aimed at her. On a gasp of air, she said, “Gredin. Gredin te Balamont. Vennan. Please, I talk Director, I talk Wyve.”
The Hesch made a cackling sound. “Oh yes, Vennan. I talk Director, also. I claim—” The unfamiliar word slid past again, something guttural that sounded like gegitt or kekitt. “You talk Director? He talk you. He talk you much and much.” Another spasm of pain jolted through her as the Hesch’s claws bit deeper into her flesh. “Prett, you take this Vennan,” the Hesch demanded. “You hold this Vennan good. We go talk Director. Now!”