The old lady’s smile was a rubbery gash in her face, all pink and gummy and hiding a dark cavern behind the lack of teeth. “What’s this?” asked Whiff apprehensively as he poked at the moldy lump on the driftwood table between himself and the elderly merchant. She wheezed in his direction and it took a moment for him to realize that she was laughing. “This one, tongue of dragon. Preserved.”
“Dragon tongue?” Could the empress possibly have a use for that? “What’s it for?”
“Face. Good for skin.”
Whim made a face. “Eyuck. Let’s go.” She grabbed Whiff’s upper arm and started to steer him away from the stall.
The Market of Nine Lives is an underground network of tents, carts, and cubbyholes, a city unto itself. It is only accessible during the twenty-second hour of the day, and one may only enter through a trapdoor in the woods that bind the town of Wingworth to the edge of Blind Falls. Below ground, the market never sleeps as the merchants haggle and barter their wares, keeping the stream of goods ever circulating. Consumables, ingredients, exotic creature, and desires quite invisible to the human eye — all of these and more may be found in the Market, if you can afford the price.
The two youngest members of the empress’ consortium wove their way in and out the narrow gaps in between the territory each merchant had staked his or her claim on. Before either of them realized, they were surrounded on all sides by all kinds of fabric, every texture and combination of every shape and colour imaginable. As they tried to force their way back out into the main square, they were buffeted about by bales of cloth that resisted their frantic heaves and shoves. “Why do we always end up in textiles?” Most of Whim’s words were punctuated with gasps. “It has to be some sort of… curse. That, or the Fates are trying to tell us something.” She elbowed her way through a waterfall of drapes, Whiff struggling to keep up with her.
Then, suddenly, fresh air. They tumbled out into the warmth of the market square, flailing like a couple of carp but greedily sucking at the breeze. “Masks!” A man in a pinstriped waistcoat bellowed at them before they’d even peeled themselves from the tiled floor. In his hands, he held a thin, translucent sheet with holes cut in it for the purpose of allowing the wearer to see out of and to breathe. “A demonstration, young man, young lady.”
Whim felt compelled to stay, and ignored Whiff’s insistent tugs on her sleeve. The pinstriped vendor pressed the mask to his face and immediately, it seemed to bubble and thicken, adhering to his face like hot wax. Taking on the colour of flesh, it started to harden into a passably realistic visage of an old crone, complete with warts and wrinkles in all the sneery places. “Whad’ya think, kids?” The mask merchant leered at them, twisting his voice to complete his performance.
“Urp,” said Whiff. “I think we’re in the weird part of the market again.”