by Shalanna Collins
The festival float was intended, according to Jalial, to look like a beehive. A beehive made of flowers and woven grasses. A man-sized beehive with wheels, pulled behind two beautifully bedecked white horses, true; but still, a recognizable beehive, representing one of the principal products of Ladenia.
Sarina was no artist, and had never claimed to be one--although her uncle had, apparently, told Jalial so when he'd hired Sarina out as a worker for Festival week. So far, her handiwork hadn't transformed the wooden wagon into anything resembling a hive. Perhaps more of an anthill. A muddy one into which horses had trampled a faded bouquet or two.
And the market parade was tomorrow morning. She'd already been at this for hours. The incessant back-and-forth shouts of her neighbors, from their perches atop successful wagons that were looking more and more like works of art, were irritating, but even more awful than the joyous noises constantly ringing out through the festival's preparation area was the unrelenting humidity. All morning she'd felt as if she were in a steambox at the public baths.
Sarina pushed her damp hair back and out of her face for the third time since the last bell. This infernal float just wouldn’t start looking like anything but a stack of crushed hayflowers. These might be the Mayor's prize-winning blooms from his maze-garden, but you couldn't tell it by her. She hated roses--especially red ones--and the stink that came with them. A sneeze took its good time coming out of her, and she didn't even bother to lay her finger under her nose or cover her mouth.
No one could say she hadn't done her best on this blasted wagon, pinning fresh roses and peonies and leaves and those hand-pricking garlands of speargrass into the wood in the patterns her employer had marked on the paper, but it wasn't taking on the shape of anything pretty. The more she fiddled with it, the worse it looked. The old, rotting wood of the wagon itself would not take the pins most of the time, and she couldn’t make anything stick by force. She turned away from the mess and looked around for her mistress.
No sign of Jalial. But what she did find was that the afternoon had aged much later than she’d realized. Already the evening festivities were gearing up, vendors and strollers alike bustling past with an air of eagerness. The Festival would, by sunset, be in full blossom.
She smelled hot chestnuts and roasting meat as a vendor rolled past, readying his cart for set-up. Her stomach growled again as she caught hold of the loose pins one by one, pulled off the fading flowers, and placed them back in the basket. Jalial had told her this morning, "You won't eat until you've earned it," so she sucked her tongue and wished for at least a mint leaf to quench her thirst. She didn't want to leave her post without telling Jalial, but she was about ready to head to one of the vendors who was opening up with a wagon full of delicacies and spend some of her own coin on a joint or a palmful of nuts.
She turned back for a moment, gaining a new perspective as she caught sight of the wagon from slightly further away. She wasn't prone to giving up easily. Perhaps she ought to try a different approach. Just tying on the garlands and the ropes of woven grass--now, that she could do. Jalial could live with that. Because sticking them on this way wouldn't work, not without a touch of magic. Which Sarina didn't have, thank goodness. She had enough to worry about.
She picked up a rope of grass, shaking her head at her own frivolity. Magic, indeed. Talk about something that often--usually--turned on its own masters. She just needed to buckle down to work, that was all. She'd figure this out.
She felt somebody’s hand land on her shoulder and start squeezing. Jalial was back; Sarina winced. Well, she'd explain, and her mistress would understand. She turned.
It was a sergeant in the city guard, or at least he wore the uniform of that office. But he looked terribly young, too young to be certified to work the festival, probably sixteen as compared to her twenty-two years. Maybe she misjudged the skinny rack before her; after all, he might be older than he looked. Hair sprouted from his ears and nose like an old man's. But he had the spotty complexion of a youngster.
"Yes, sir?" She lowered her head and tried to make her attitude subservient. He probably wanted a bribe. Which would be standard practice, she supposed, but which should be paid by Jalial, not her employee. Sarina sighed and started to reach inside her tunic for her purse, but he stopped her by grabbing her arm roughly.
His eyes gleamed. He had breath like a mule and teeth to match. "Not so fast. May I search your pockets, miss?”
It wasn’t a request one could actually turn down.
"Might I ask why, sir?"
He grinned. "You are hereby accused of stealing a magical dagger."
She gaped. "By whom, sir?"
He pointed. Standing on the stoop of the tavern was a group of men, looking cranky. "On yonder tavern steps. These men say you came and pickpocketed them, but the only item of value that they want back is the dagger."
Her heart began to thumpa-thump as she realized this wasn't just a fancy way to demand a bribe. Frantically Sarina scanned the crowd. She could make out the figure of Jalial standing on the steps of the tavern near the men, which was odd, because it wasn't a typical place anyone would expect to find a respectable merchant woman like her. She seemed to be smiling. Sarina waved frantically, but couldn't catch Jalial's eye.
Sarina pointed her out to the guardsman, carefully avoiding any quick movements that might make him think she was reaching for a weapon or planning to strike a blow. "There's my employer, sir. Surely she can vouch for me."
"It doesn't matter what others say about your character. Street urchins like you turn to crime suddenly." He grinned as Sarina smarted under that appellation. "Will you submit to the search, or shall I take you to the guardhouse and have you face the captain?"
She'd taken nothing and done nothing wrong. What choice did she have?
She submitted to the search, feeling confident.
It was humiliating, but things went well until the man--really, the boy--reached her purse, a leather pouch tied under her tunic. He pulled out a dagger, glistening sunlight chasing the length of its blade. Sarina's heart filled with dismay. She realized he must've planted it. She was about to become the latest victim of whatever scheme this young cad had going.
If you'd like to read the rest, the story is up on Amazon Shorts. Ask me for a free copy by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org anytime!