The problem with being famous was that people recognized you. Dani Botswana knew it all too well. She could not get through a shantytown without having men, women, gunslingers, merchants, and kids fawning over her.
Right before she exited the Fawren Ring Station docks, Dani Botswana made a stop at the ladies’ room to fix herself up. She didn’t need to refresh and powder her exquisite visage; she was already too beautiful. No, she needed to tone down on the magnificence that was her body.
But, even then, I’ve got so much charm, and grace, it’s pointless. I’d look good in anything. Dani played with her long, dark hair. She loosened the hairband around her dreadlocks and shifted the mass of her hair to form a bun over her forehead, there she tied the hairband and contemplated the result in a mirror. Most of her face was hidden by her falling dreadlocks, her eyes were almost completely covered.
“I don’t see as much, but it’s good. Looks different.” She moved from side to side before the mirror, admiring her reflection with growing enthusiasm. “I look like I have an octopus on my head.” She fixed a lock that obstructed her left eye. “A gorgeous octopus! Gorgeous! I’m ravishing as always. Now,” she tapped her satchel. “Let’s go sell this bad boy!”
The Fawren Ring Station shantytown was unlike most other shantytowns in Larragon. It was smaller and famously more upmarket than the dozen other shantytowns. It had extremely high ceilings and its lack of outside windows gave off the impression of being an inside cave below a planet’s surface like Jules Verne described in A Journey to The Center of The Earth. It had an enormous square at its center, about five hundred meters in diameters that was free from stalls, merchants, booths, and food carts.
It was a place of passage without furniture to rest on, so it wasn’t uncommon to find large groups of people sat on the ground conversing, eating or drinking. It was a community place for the folks of Larragon to meet and exchange conversations and meaningful sentiments. For Dani Botswana and her growing fame, it was a place to avoid like a pool of acid. I’ll be eaten alive if I stepped in there, she thought, wrongly so.
Dani certainly turned a few heads in her wake, but it was because of the ludicrous hairstyle she proudly exhibited rather than for who she was. Damn, these folks here cannot get enough of me. Pretty or ugly, they love me. Everyone loves Dani Botswana.
Now, elated by the people’s attention, Dani hopped rather than walked. She was a bouncy octopus ambling along the market streets of the Fawren shantytown. She was making such a spectacle of herself, despite her initial intentions to enter the shantytown incognito, that Lash, who had been trailing her since the saloon a few moons back, had no difficulty following her, even from a distance greater than a hundred meters.
Unlike Dani, Lash had entered the market looking like himself. He did not try to hide his conspicuous red breast armor that once belonged to the notorious Zenbouga gang, whose members now live in the collective mind and in the history books.
Zenbouga himself wore a full red suit of armor that covered him from head to toe. For a handful of years, his red armor and his small army brought terror on the rings of the Chang River. They shot to kill and killed for fun, making no distinctions between gunslingers, officials, merchants or peaceful Zigmuts. Soon, the merchants and natives of Larragon deserted the Chang train line in favor of the other river, the Yangtze. As a result of this exodus, most ring stations and moons along the Chang River turned into ghost towns.
To remedy this slow death, a few gunslingers got together and hunted the Zenbouga gang. Nearly two hundred gunslingers raged war on the Zenbouga gang. Half of them died in battle. It took seventeen gunslingers to fight and defeat Zenbouga himself. Lash was one of them. He wore a piece of Zenbouga’s emblematic armor as a token of his achievement and a reminder of the great debt the community of the Chang River owed him. Thanks to Lash and the courageous few, the Chang River could prosper again.
A handful of years later, the Chang River was slowly rising from the ashes but it was far from its previous glory days. Fawren’s shantytown was the exception, thanks to its high-exchange market it attracted a dense and varied population of merchants, traders and gunslingers.
Proudly exhibiting his red breast armor, Lash made a few heads turn on his own, and when they turned, usually those heads followed suit with a respectful bow and a kind word.
Two children who were kicking a ball against a wall interrupted their playing to salute Lash. Then they ran circles around him like chicken in a coop.
“Sir, can we ask to borrows ye’s gunblaster?” said one boy, and the other one quickly repeated the same question without variation of tone or words.
“You can ask, yes, but the answer is no. A gun is not a toy. It does not belong in children’s hands.”
“But I’s already eleven and Bly is almost ten.”
“Please, sir. We want to be gunslingers like ye.”
“And we’ll track and destroy baddies who terrorize the open space of Lar’gon, like ye.”
Lash kneeled down to be level with the two boys. “Say, what are your parents doing?”
“They’re… working, siree.”
“We’re not brothers.”
“Okay, but what work are they doing? Both of you.”
“Mom owns the flower shop of seventh street.”
“My mother imports mushra’ms from the Zigmut planets.”
“Fine. Take my advice, enter the family business. Merchants sleep better at night than gunslingers.”
“What if we get attacked, siree?”
“Then, you hire gunslingers to protect you, like all merchants do. Let those gunslingers have the sleepless nights and all the hurt.”
On these words, Lash patted the children’s head and hushed the pace to catch up with Dani.
Octopus-head Dani Botswana was mentally readying herself to haggle. She had reached the ‘bosque’, a secluded part of the market, where thirteen pillars formed three concentric circles. By each pillar, a merchant held office. There were no stalls, it was the riches market. What was sold there was usually too valuable to be transported. Prices were haggled without the merchandise ever being shown and the money exchange only happened upon delivery and acceptance of the goods. Those kinds of deals were referred to as ‘open-ends’, because they sometimes took months to complete and more often than not, resulted in a no-sale, when one seller hadn’t been quite as honest as it should have, or was too honest in its delusion, like Dani was. In her wonderful mind, there wasn’t the shadow of a doubt she truly possessed the hidden moon treasure.
“20,000 taels is my starting price,” Dani told the merchant on the third pillar. She was a youngish woman with a hunchback she made no effort to dissimulate. Her hair fell over her face in greasy, green strands, but when she spoke, she had a refined voice that contrasted with her shabby looks.
“Are you… offering me 20k?”
“What? No, that’s adorable,” she said as her right hand mimicked the flight of a faery.
“No, darling, listen, my business starts from 20,000 taels. Can you foot that bill? Because if not, I’ll move straight to the next pillar. I ain’t here to waste time.”
The merchant closed her eyes for a moment and twisted her sealed lips. “Tell me,” she started, speaking slowly. “Is this your understanding of haggling? If it is, you are…” The merchant wanted to say “stupid,” but she held back as to not needlessly offend a potential customer.
“You’re… what? Not too good with words, are we? Must be related to that hump on your back.”
The merchant had a look on her that spelled “kill.”
“Moving on then. Never mind. You don’t know what you’re missing.”
Dani moved on through the circular arrangement of pillars. Most merchants were actively engaged in conversations, but it didn’t stop Dani. She picked another female merchant talking shapes and sizes with two women in cloaks. Their noses were long and sharp, their eyes hollow and their complexion dark yellowish. They may have been twins.
“Hey, psst.” Dani winked at the merchant. And then she mouthed the words “moon-trea-sure.” “How about it, eh?”
“What did you say?” asked the merchant, hardly believing the rudeness of the intrusion.
“The moon treasure,” Dani proudly declared, towering over the two twins who dared not say a word and were on the defensive. “You’ve heard of it, right?” Then she mouthed “I’ve got it.” “It’s yours for 25,000 taels.”
“Wow,” the merchant giggled. The twins excused themselves and moved away, shooting poison arrows at Dani with their eyes. The merchant waited for them to be gone to murmur, getting close to the gunslinger’s ear. “Do you mean Reggard’s moon treasure?”
The name found no echo in Dani’s memory but she tapped the merchant’s shoulder and nodded her head gravely.
“It’s yours for 25.”
“25? Huh.” The merchant restrained a laugh. “Is this your first time here?” Before Dani could answer, the merchant said, “There’s rules here, at the bosque. First, you don’t step on a deal. These two elancers had a rare coupé to offload, but… anyway. Two, this is the bosque, but it’s still a shantytown. 25,000 taels? You live in a merry dream world. There’re no such deals going anywhere near the 10k mark, so for 25, you are lost. And wasting everybody’s time.”
For once, Dani actually seemed receptive. Her facial expression froze with her eyes staring at the ceiling.
“Where… where can I sell my treasure then?”
The merchant shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t know any merchants who will pay that kind of money for any deal. I can’t advise you on this, but my way of thinking is, if you want this much money for what is in your possession, you’ve got to go where the money is.”
“Okay. Meaning what?”
Now the merchant was exasperated by the gunslinger. Her eyes were already looking for a more serious deal to be made with the folks entering the bosque. “Look, it ain’t too hard, ain’t it? Who’s got the most money in Larragon? Think, there’s three of them. Take your pick.”
Dani thought so hard it made her forehead hurt. “The mafia?”
“Bingo, but I didn’t say it. And I am certainly not recommending you to them. Now,” she brushed the gunslinger to the side. “Off you go. I’ve got business waiting on.”
When Dani came out of the bosque, Lash saw by her body language that the deal had gone south; her shoulders sagged, her feet lagged, the spring taken out of her. Yet, the gunslinger was prompt to bounce back. Taking the direction of the square, she rearranged her hair to put even more dreadlocks before her eyes and increased the pace.
Lash matched her speed. Where are you going, Dani? What’s the plan now?
### End of Part 2 ###
Continue to Part 3