Excerpt: Isabel 2

The second level offered very different wares. 

Bliss was on sale, along with ecstasy and adrenaline highs. These were not actual drugs, though they could function that way. Rather, they were experiences, memories, dreams, thoughts, and inspirations of the sellers, stored mentally and sold as commodities to people who would experience them as if personally living them. One teenage girl sold the experience of her first kiss. A vibrant young woman hawked the adrenaline rushes of her near-death experiences while skydiving and bungee-jumping. A disheveled, wild-eyed man offered the surreal images of his dreams and inspirations, speaking in a bizarre style: Every other sentence was a repeat of the prior, but with the words reordered in reverse. He clearly had spent far too much time on this side of the Shroud. Various people sold emotions and sensations from the bedroom, the highs of narcotics and hallucinogenic drugs, and other risqué commodities. Isabel saw none crossing the forbidden line, but everyone knew certain experiences could be found deep within the black market, from soul-stealing to murder and worse. 

An expression of disdain crossed Kurst’s face. At times, he averted his eyes from merchants. He looked uncomfortable, though Isabel wondered if she was projecting her own feelings. People could do what they want with their lives, but she didn’t have to like it. 

The market’s third level proved far less populated, and they found their mark in an isolated corner, lying in a striped hammock woven from a dozen colors. Utari cut an unobtrusive figure in worn blue jeans and lightweight sneakers, her dark hair hanging straight about features derived from somewhere in the cross-section of southeast Asia and Oceania.

“I came to find a Finder,” Kurst greeted her. 

The woman tilted her head back, opened her mouth wide to laugh, then abruptly stopped, shut her mouth, and erased all expression from her face. She and Kurst stared at each other, then he shrugged, and she snickered as she slid from the hammock. 

“What are you offering, clever boy?” she said.  

“Maps, artwork, a guided tour anywhere in the Cardinal Realms, two fists to the face of your choice,” Kurst said.

“So, the usual.” 

“I’m a simple guy, Utari. I do a few things, but I do them well.” 

Utari chuckled softly. “That you do. Too bad I don’t need any of them.” 

“It was fair payment last time.” 

“And the face you hit hasn’t crossed the Shroud since.” 

Kurst shrugged and smiled. 

“Offer me something new,” Utari said.

“Two minor boons from cartographers,” Kurst said. 

Utari scoffed. “Don’t care.” 

“A map of the East’s underground passages, with all the hidden paths through the Curtain of Fire and the underwater city.”

“Not going to the East.” 

Kurst’s eyes glazed with rumination. After about ten seconds, he said, “A trip beyond the Cardinal Realms.”

Isabel shot a look and her thoughts toward Kurst. She is not coming with us, Isabel called. An alarmed look flickered across Kurst’s face before he slammed his mind shut like a door. Isabel could easily penetrate the mental barrier if she liked, but she let it be. 

“Chaos storms are enough Boundless for my taste, thank you very much,” Utari said, oblivious to the mental exchange. “Sorry, Kurst. You have nothing for me.” She looked past Kurst toward Isabel. “What’s your friend offering?” 

“I’m the customer,” Kurst said.

“I like a woman who can speak for herself,” Utari said.

Isabel considered Utari. Finders were rare, their innate Art impossible to teach, but they seldom had other useful abilities, meaning they generally had to trade on it. This was haggling. Utari would feign disinterest in everything. They would leave. Utari would wait for them to return. It was a game, a dance. Isabel had no time for it, but she did have certain currency in the bank. 

“Major boons for trade,” Isabel said.