We bid farewell to the guard who, I swear, chokes up a little as we leave. I think the fact that I find his kindness so unsettling says more about me than it does him.
“He was super nice,” Nom remarks as she takes in this strange new town with wonder.
“Yes, he was,” I agree, and can’t help but glance back to make sure he’s not sprouted fangs and is scuttling after us or something.
He’s not, but he is watching us leave and gives a little wave.
I wave back.
Much like Ash End, the geography of Gold-Under-Shadow is simple. It follows a warm stream up a gentle hill. Unlike Ash End however, after about half a mile of town, there’s a sudden steep incline with a massive, wonky tall building sticking out of it.
It looks like a weird alien monolith which, since it’s a crashed spaceship, it sort of is.
I’m not sure of the logic of the various great golden cables strung from it to the woven buildings on the ground. They can’t be supporting it. If anything, they’re more likely to pull it down. I can’t deny they look good though, vaguely reminiscent of some of the cable suspension bridges we have back home but prettier, bigger.
Suspended above us on criss-crossing cables are the blobs of the other smaller buildings.
I watch them nervously as we approach.
The closest building is shaped like a squat teardrop and is the size of a large barn. Its walls are made from layers and layers of woven rope, braided elaborately to create a doorway big enough for a truck. About two thirds of the way up, the same braiding technique has been used to create oval windows dotted regularly around it. I can’t see how the building’s fixed to the ground. The taut cable running from its roof to the monolith looks like it could twang the whole thing heavenwards at any moment.
I’m getting a few looks and double takes, probably because of my height and the fact that I’m a stranger, but none of them are hostile. If anything, the most common reaction is… pleasant surprise, I guess. Quite a few even nod, smile or say: “Good Day.”
I smile uncertainly back at them, I’m not sure what’s expected. Even back home people just tended to scowl when they saw me. This friendliness is peculiar and unsettling.
People are coming and going out of the building, so it must have some communal purpose.
“Shoo!” Nom grabs my hand and pulls me forward. “Let’s look inside!”
I let her drag me. We pass a middle-aged blue woman who looks up at me to share an indulgent smile, “They’re so full of life and curiosity at that age,” she says.
Again, I just smile, biting back responses that are rude, aggressive, and sarcastic until I come to a weak: “they sure are!”
You blue weirdo, stop being so nice. What do you want?
Gods, I kind of want to stab her. I think I’m broken.
Nom drags us into the domed interior. There’s strata of smoke and incense hanging in the air through which dusty lemon light from the small, high windows streams in bars. It feels a bit like a church in here. The large circular interior is sprinkled with stalls and there’s the mumbled chatter of a few dozen people out on their morning shop.
“It’s a market!” Nom says in delight. She lets go of my hand to run the nearest stall.
“Don’t eat anything!” I call after her.
That includes people’s pets or other children, I just about manage not to say.
I catch up to her as she’s staring shyly up at the stall holder, a fat blue fellow with grey mutton-chops. His stall has lots of ornate figures woven from the golden straw. He looks surly and mistrustful I notice with relief. Finally! Someone normal.
“Hello,” Nom says uncertainly.
His face erupts into a big friendly grin.
Ah. He was being mock stern to amuse the kid.
Gods damn it.
“Well, hello visiting princess,” he says. “Welcome to Gold-Under-Shadow! Are you having a nice day there? I hope so!”
“You bet your arse!” Nom says enthusiastically. He raises an eyebrow and glances at me as if her potty mouth is my fault (it is) but he keeps smiling. Nom points at his stall. “You’ve made little straw people!” she says, like he might not have realised.
“I have,” he admits. “I have been blessed that I get to make them for a living.”
“Couldn’t you get a real job?” Nom asks.
His genial smile falters and he glances my way again. I squirm. Luckily, he seems more amused than anything else by this. “Which one is your favourite, then?”
“Ooo! Um…” Nom peruses the figures seriously.
While she’s doing that. He scrutinizes me properly, with an easy smile on his face. I stare back at him. I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do. Should I smile? Say something pointless about the weather? I feel like I need to defend myself, but I don’t know from what. Once again, I kind of think I should stab this person. Obviously, I know I shouldn’t.
At the same time, part of me is thinking better safe than sorry.
“You’ve been through it, eh?” he says.
“What?” I ask.
“Seen your look before. Ready to twitch,” he says matter-of-factly. “No reason to here.”
And he smiles at me again, easily again, as if he’s showing me how easy it is.
I try to smile back but I think I just show him my teeth.
“Snake!” Nom appears holding up a fat, cuddly snake made from straw. “The snake is the best one!”
“Correct!” he says. “I knew you’d choose the right one. You’re amazing!”
“Yeah! No… I’m… what? I’m… amazing?” Nom says, shocked. (Nom was raised in a mine by people who disliked her in a town full of cannibals. He called her amazing. Prior to this, the best word she could have hoped for would be ‘succulent.’) “Am I… amazing? Am I?”
“You bet your arse,” he tells her.
“Yay!” she says.
“Yeah!” he agrees.
I think I’m still showing him my teeth. Or not. Gods my face feels numb, I can’t tell. I reach up a hand and rub it. No, we’re all good.
“Do you take plastic?” I ask.
On the journey, I rummaged through Daisy’s pocket of never-ending tat until I found several very small plastic items. Anything too large I put back. The ones I could snap, I broke into bits. I rubbed them in mud, so they look old and worn, and put them in one of my normal pockets.
“Plastic?” he chuckles. “Chance would be a fine thing.”
With a furtive look left and right, I step in close, put my finger to my lips and hold up a small piece of snapped red plastic. It’s half a plastic frog. Like you might find in a really crap festive cracker. It’s smeared in mud and has a bit of brown leaf attached to it. I think it’s leaf.
“Burn me!” he whispers and given how everything around here is made of straw and therefore likely flammable, that’s probably a worse epithet than it seems. He leans in. “You could buy my stall thrice over for that.”
I press the tiny bit of tat into his hand and close his fingers over it.
“We’ll take the snake,” I tell him. “And whatever cash you’ve got.”