Andrea squeezed Palan’s hand as she turned around to look at the gatekeeper’s back. She tilted her head as the two walked along a jagged stone road covered with sand. Her foot caught against an uneven rock and she stumbled.
“Hey,” Palan said as he held her up. “Watch your step. Always pay attention to your surroundings.”
Andrea nodded. “Why doesn’t he let everyone else in?” she asked and turned her head towards Palan.
“He gets paid to keep unruly people out,” Palan said. “Troublemakers aren’t allowed in town. The boss decides who stays and who goes.”
Andrea blinked as she stared at Palan’s chin which was still covered in blood. “You’re not a troublemaker?”
“Nope,” Palan said and ruffled her hair. “The boss is a greedy glutton and I happen to be very good at feeding gluttons. This way.” Palan tugged Andrea’s hand and pulled her into a one-story building. Inside of the building was a counter with a middle-aged woman sitting on a chair behind it, chewing on a plant’s stem. A torch hung next to her on the wall, lighting up an assortment of clay jars on the shelf behind her. The woman raised her head when the door swung open, causing the torch’s fire to flicker.
“H-hello,” the woman said and stood up, knocking her chair over. She removed the plant stem from her mouth and placed it on the counter. “Buying or selling?”
“Both,” Palan said and placed his leather sack on the counter. “I know the market price for everything in here. Cheat me and I’ll kill you.”
“U-understood,” the woman said and nodded. Her hands trembled as she untied the sack and revealed the contents within. Inside were a few roots and jars, releasing earthy-smelling fumes, along with a pouch that contained animal teeth of all sizes. The woman weighed everything with her hand and sniffed the contents of the jars while peering inside. After ten minutes, she nodded and wiped sweat off of her brow. “I can give you 327 stones for this.”
Palan stared at the woman and she bit her lip. Three seconds passed before Palan nodded and held out his hand. The woman bent under the counter and wrapped a bunch of glittering stones inside of a pouch before she rose back up and handed it to Palan. Her hands trembled as Palan weighed the pouch and stuffed it into his sack. “I need two jars of poison. 100 stones.”
The woman nodded and took two of the clay jars off the shelf and handed it to Palan. He opened it and sniffed before letting out a cough. He nodded and handed the woman the payment as he wiped his now-bleeding nose. He grabbed Andrea’s hand and the two left the store. The woman let out a sigh of relief and collapsed into her chair, placing the plant’s stem back in her mouth.
“Why was she so scared of you?” Andrea asked after the duo left the store. They walked along the road, towards the center of the town.
“All the shopkeepers are cowardly,” Palan said and readjusted his bag. “It makes it easier for the boss to control them. He provides them a safe place to live and they work for him. Speak of the devil.” Palan pulled Andrea closer to his leg and stopped walking. A man with leathery wings and two pointed fangs jutting out of his upper lip walked towards the pair of siblings.
“Oh, if it isn’t Palan,” the man said and smiled. He raised his eyebrow and shifted his gaze to Andrea. “Did you bring me another snack?”
Andrea hid behind Palan’s leg. He narrowed his eyes. “Not today, boss.”
The man frowned and shrugged. “Ah, that’s a shame. Some other time then,” he said and licked his lips as he looked beyond Palan towards the gate. “I already do have quite a feast waiting for me. I mustn’t keep them waiting.”
Palan stepped to the side and the boss smirked as he sauntered towards the entrance. Andrea stared at the wings on the man’s back as Palan pulled her forwards. She asked, “He’s going to eat them?”
“Some of them,” Palan said. “He’ll eat the aggressive ones and use them as a lesson for the cowards.”
“Did he try to eat you?”
“What makes you think that?”
“No one thinks I’m aggressive.”
“Because you killed everybody who thought you were.”
Palan smiled and ruffled her hair. “I’m glad my sister’s not stupid. As a reward, you can pick out whatever you want here.”
Andrea smoothed out her hair and looked around at the town square lit up by a fire. Vendors sat with their wares displayed in front of them. Women stood in alleyways on the fringe of the bonfire’s light radius. People were wandering through the square, inspecting the items. Multiple guards stood near a watchtower with bone spears in their hands.
“Those guards look strong,” Andrea said and pointed at the cluster of armed men. “Can you beat them in a fight?”
“Of course I can,” Palan said and snorted. “Who do you think I am?”
“What if they all attacked you at once?”
“Doesn’t matter. I can beat anyone.”
Andrea tilted her head. “Is that your pride talking?”
Palan didn’t respond and shifted his eyes away. He pointed at a stall with roasted scorpions impaled on a stick. “Look, don’t you love eating those? I’ll buy you some.”
Andrea followed his finger and her stomach gurgled when she saw the poor scorpions. “I want twenty,” she said and weaved through the crowd of people while pulling Palan along. Moments later, the duo left the stand with Andrea gnawing on a scorpion.
“I just need to trade in these animal skins for some clothes and we’ll go home,” Palan said as the siblings walked to another stall with leather garments on display. Palan engaged the shopkeeper while Andrea’s eyes wandered throughout the square.
“Pst, little girl,” a voice said from next to the stall. A man was squatting with a plant stem in his mouth. “Have you ever heard about the angel’s world? They live up there.” He pointed towards the blue and green moon.
Andrea shook her head. The man grinned and a line of saliva leaked out the corner of his mouth. He asked, “Do you want to hear about it? Just one scorpion and I can tell you all about it.”
Andrea glanced at Palan who was preoccupied with his bag. She shook her head. The man’s stomach gurgled as he frowned. He said, “Hey, don’t be like that. I’ve been there before. I even have a stone from their lands. See?” He pulled out a rock and covered it with his hands. A faint pale glow shone through the gaps in his fingers.
Andrea’s eyes widened and she nodded. “One scorpion, but you have to tell me first,” she said.
Palan glanced downwards at the man after handing his animal hides to the vendor. “Oh, this story,” he said and pulled Andrea away. “I can tell it to you better than he can. You can’t believe everything you hear; he’s a well-known liar in this town.”
The man clicked his tongue and chomped down on the plant in his mouth. He mumbled, “Just wanted one…”
The vendor handed Palan a bundle of clothes and peered over the side of her stall. “When did you get here?” she asked the squatting man. “Trying to scam children again? Do it somewhere else; it’s bad for my business.”
The man grumbled as he stood up and walked down an alley. “The angels were much nicer,” he said and spat out the chewed up stem on the floor. “Damn brats, think they know everything.”
Andrea watched the man leave before looking up at the moon. The blue surface almost looked like it was moving.