The air was as thick as soup, it seemed to her, and just as warm. In the open grasslands, up north, the Flood Season had brought her pleasure; now, it only seemed to compound the grime of city living. Her apartment had a leak which she had tried and failed to patch over many times. There was no choice but to keep the tiny window open – she felt she might suffocate if she did not – but she swore that she could smell the fish all the way from Carptown, carried by the heavy, wet breeze.
The Flood Season, though, meant business. If she felt lethargic, the city was the opposite, energized and buoyant. She’d never yet seen a summer in Thul’ka, but the fall and winter had seemed lively enough; it was the liveliest place she’d ever been in, and now that the temperatures were rising, it only seemed livelier. Her competition, the mercenary companies, were thriving: the Vein was stirring, the merchant oligarchs of the city raising their heads in search of profit. There was not a place in Thul’ka, not a place in the Eastern Erg, it seemed, where some deal wasn’t being made, where somebody did not need their precious goods guarded, swords to escort a caravan, someone out of the way so they could fill the vacuum. The whole city bloomed with power and opportunity.
And Niusha was guarding a tiny bakery in Windward Market.
It was one of the hottest days she’d seen this year, to boot. Stalls crouched all along the street, busy with bright awnings that rippled in the warm wind; shopkeepers sat and fanned themselves. People in all colors and manners of dress thronged along the street, poking their heads into stalls, chattering and laughing with one another.
Niusha had grown accustomed to the clamor of Thul’ka’s mercantile districts, the chatter of so many voices like a knot through which she could not even follow a single thread. For the most part, she had stopped trying, though she often wondered if it would hurt people to speak more slowly and clearly when they wanted to be understood. She understood Estuan very well – signed it more eloquently than many native speakers – but in a place like this, with the buzz all around, she could only catch snatches of words and phrases; she struggled to parse the language, had to shut her eyes and think of the words and sign them to herself before she understood. She was getting better, but throw Mugrobi and Riverword into the mix, and she was terribly confused.
Alin pez Kaveh’s wasn’t exactly the hardest establishment to guard, however – nor the worst place to spend your time. Even outside, you could smell baking bread from the opened windows, along with the pleasant, yeasty smell of rising dough; occasionally, you’d catch a whiff of nutmeg and honey and cardamom. A few freshly-baked loaves sat on a table near the door, looking crusty, flour-dusted, and perfectly imperfect. Niusha stood nearby, just underneath an open window, feeling sleepier and sleepier in the late afternoon heat.
So she leaned back, swatting a gnat that’d had the misfortune of landing on her arm. She rolled her shoulders, feeling them crackle with tension and then relax. Every once in awhile, she’d lean her head back against the wall, feel herself drift off… and then jerk awake again, scanning the street with keen eyes. Coughing and shifting from foot to foot, as if she’d never dared to drift off.
And then she would shut her eyes again.
A man’s sharp voice came swimming out of the market chatter: “Rhokesh?”
Niusha’s head jerked up; she grunted, blinking. The door to the bakery was open, and in the doorway stood pez Kaveh, face flushed deeply, apron and hands dusted thickly with white. Niusha stared at him for a moment, then inclined her head, resting her hand on the hilt of the knife at her belt.
“Huh.” With a raised eyebrow, the baker went back indoors.
Sighing, Niusha settled back against the wall. The smell of nutmeg was growing stronger from the window, and she wondered idly what had just come out of the oven. Something good, no doubt. With her palm still resting – loosely – on the pommel, she shut her eyes again.