In A Flash: The Face of the Empress

Blan was known to all in Agash for the sweet confection of fruit, candy and shaved ice he sold, called h’al-h’al. He worked at stall near the market where traders would pass by. Agash lay on one of the salt roads, so merchants and strangers were the norm. But Blan had never seen someone like the woman who appeared at his stall one afternoon.

It was a particularly hot day and her face was streaked with dust from the road. She purchased a cup of h’al-h’al from Blan, paying with an old coin. In studying it, Blan did not recognize the empress stamped upon it.

“How much is this in standard? I don’t know what change to give you.”

The woman waved him away. “No matter. I’ll have no need for it soon enough.” She spoke with an odd accent, a lilt that Blan was certain he had never heard before. Her eyes and her dress were strange as well, even by the standards of Agash, where it was said the known worlds passed by. It was an old phrase, and no longer true, for there was only one world now.

“I hope you’re not in any trouble.” Blan said, though he didn’t know why. He knew better than to involve himself in the lives of strangers. Doing so led to problems, and those he could not afford.

She gave him an odd smile. “We’re all of us in trouble, more or less. Some of us just realize it better than others.”

Blan gave a wary shrug. “I guess. You like it?”

“Delicious,” she said, still smiling, and asked for his name. He told her, after a moment’s hesitation. “I will see you soon, Blan of Agash,” she said, and took her leave.

 ***

Everyone knew there was not one world, but many. It was the ways between them that were lost. Forgotten by the slow entropy of time, or—some said—hidden by those who wanted the power kept for themselves. Regardless, the gates remained closed and concealed. Even the maps and ancient texts that referenced them, provided no illumination on their location. They led to meadows and cliffs, lost villages where once people had lived, and the middle of coursing rivers.

The world had changed in the course of millennia, and with it the location of the gates, that much seemed evident, though how that could be possible no one was certain. Most accepted this as the lot of the fallen times in which they lived. There were far more important matters to concern them. Empires and Republics that rose and fell. Plagues and pestilences. Crops that flourished and failed.

Blan knew about the known worlds, but gave them no thought. They were like the strangers who came to Agash and promised him this and that, only to disappear without a word. He remained, going about his days as always.

That night, as he returned to the quarters he shared with his parents, the woman was waiting for him near the door. He was tired, already thinking of his bed, and did not see her as she emerged from the shadows.

“Blan of Agash,” she said. “How was your day?”

He froze, unsure how to respond and deeply unsettled by both her question and her appearance here. “How did you know where I lived?”

“Ask a few questions and you will receive answers in this town. Especially if you have strange coins no one knows the value of.”

Blan thought of his own coin. “Are they worthless?”

“Priceless. You will not find another like it in the known worlds.”

Blan frowned. “What do you want?”

The woman appeared to be in no hurry. She looked up at the sky, studying the various stars. “They’re all so dim here. It’s strange. I hadn’t thought they’d be different.”

Blan took a step toward the door, feeling annoyed now, and not wanting to waste anymore time with this woman. “You’re going to tell me you’re from the other known worlds. That’s impossible. Everybody knows.”

“I am,” she said, her voice sounding loud in the quiet of the street.

“Do you know how many madmen come through Agash claiming this and that. None of what they say is true. Neither is this. Go away and leave me alone. I have to be up early tomorrow.”

“I am a madwoman, of that there’s no doubt. But it’s also true that I came from another world.” Her manner changed. She was abrupt and desperate.

Blan narrowed his eyes. “And why should I believe you?”

“It doesn’t matter whether you do or not. I had thought.” Here she paused, looking at the sky again. “It’s too bad I don’t have more time. I’d hoped I would. And so you see, it doesn’t matter whether you believe me or not. You’ll know the truth soon enough.”

“I see,” Blan said, feeling confused, which along with his exhaustion made him angry. “Can I find out the truth tomorrow, when I’ve had a night’s sleep? You can come find me at my stand and you can buy another h’al-h’al with one of your fine coins and tell me all about the known worlds.”

The woman smiled. She seemed older than he remembered, but perhaps it was just the darkness of the night shadowing her face. “This is the last time we shall ever chance to meet Blan of Agash. Keep that coin close. Whatever happens, don’t let anyone else have it. It will see you through the rest of your days. That I guarantee.”

“I will. I promise,” Blan said, more to end the conversation than out of any real intent on his part. “Now I must go to bed. I wish you good luck in your journeys.”

“And I wish you more luck in yours than I’ve had in mine.”

Blan was about to say that he was not journeying anywhere—poor foodsellers like him did not go on journeys—but she had already turned to go and he hurried in to bed.

***

The following day, as Blan sat under the awning of his stall to hide from the afternoon sun, two officials approached, along with a third man who was dressed as oddly as the woman had been. Behind them, two servants dragged a wagon along. Blan leapt to his feet, ready to prepare h’al-h’al for all, but the officials waved at him to stop. “We have questions for you,” the first said.

“Do you recognize this woman?” the second said, gesturing to the wagon.

He went over to peer over its side and saw the woman lying there, her eyes closed. Blan looked at the two officials and nodded. They in turn looked to the stranger and nodded, gesturing to him to proceed. He did, stepping forward to study Blan with his hard eyes.

“I understand the woman came to your stand. What did she say to you?” the man said, his voice as hard edged as his eyes.

Blan quivered, but did not look away. “Nothing. She bought some h’al-h’al. She liked it.”

“And that was the last you saw her?”

Blan hesitated, remembering her words to him last night. “No,” he said. “I saw her going home last night. She said she was going on a journey and I wouldn’t see her again.”

The stranger frowned. “There was nothing else?”

Blan shrugged. “She said the sky seemed different here. I didn’t know what to think of that.”

“Indeed,” the man said. He smiled and Blan had to smother the shudder of horror her felt at the sight of it. The stranger did not appear to notice. He turned away, about to say something to the officials, when he stopped and turned back to Blan. “What did she pay you with?”

Blan was taken aback. “A coin, sir.”

“Obviously. What coin? I would like to see it.”

Blan blinked, recalling the woman’s words to him the night before. Keep it close. It seemed sensible advice. He fished into his pocket and pulled out one of the tarnished crowns a trader from Nar had given him that morning.

“It was something like this,” he said, handing it over.

The man looked at it. “You are certain this is the coin.”

Blan gave an elaborate shrug. “One coin is much like the other.”

The stranger looked at him, his lips curling into a snarl, and he threw the coin away in disgust. He strode away, the officials scurrying behind him. Blan watched them go, fingering the woman’s coin in his pocket as he did. When the officials and the stranger were gone, he wandered over and to pick up the crown and sat down to await his next customer.

In A Flash: read a new story every Thursday…

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