When Cloudhawk ate and drank to his satisfaction, he returned to the emporium.
There he found Gabriel, his clothes ruffled and lipstick smeared across his face. He was enveloped in a cloud of booze stink and perfume. The look on his face was one of shame and resentment.
Cloudhawk tried to explain away his guilt. “Gabby… eh… I forgot to tell you about a friend of mine who works at the bar. We lost track of time catching up. Did you have fun with the ladies?”
He could hear Gabriel grinding his teeth. “What do you think?”
“Come on now, don’t be like Caspian. I arranged the finest girls for you, full-figured with everything a hot-blooded guy would like. Quality goods like that are very rare in the wastelands, you know. Outside of the Sandbar you could pass through ten outposts and not find the like. C’mon, I did you a favor. Don’t repay my kindness with attitude, alright? Show a little respect.”
“There is nothing funny about this situation!”
“Don’t lose your temper over this small stuff.” Cloudhawk wasn’t the least bit concerned that Naberius might rear his head. On the contrary, he walked right up to Gabriel and patted him on the shoulder. His voice was sincere. “Listen to me. Your life in Skycloud is in the past. You’re never gonna be a pious believer, it’s better to accept a life of freedom and sin out here in the wasteland.”
Cloudhawk was a simple man with a soul as stained as anyone else out here, but his words weren’t completely nonsense.
A man lived a hundred years max, and it was a rare man who was able to live for himself. The ideals and morals of the old world were gone. It didn’t make sense to live by their restrictions any longer. Those girls were just doing whatever they could to get by, so that they could live the best way they knew how. Wasn’t what they did a form of kindness?
No one knew what tomorrow held. Out in the wastelands, every minute you kept breathing was a gift. With the limited time you got, you went for the things you wanted. The world was different now, and the way humans lived was forced to change with it.
Of course, Cloudhawk didn’t start to wax philosophical with Gabriel. The elysian would learn all that on his own the more he experienced real life. He would have to.
Cloudhawk called out as they walked into the store. “How are the preparations?”
One of the shop assistants replied in a soft voice. “Relax boss, we have everything ready. We’ll be all set to open tomorrow morning.”
“Good. Do what you can, I’m not a slave driver.”
The two girls who looked over his shop were on the young side – seventeen or eighteen years old. The little one with white skin and a pretty face was called Neve. The other, less attractive but plump in all the right places, was Jasmine. When Cloudhawk and Gabriel first got to the Sandbar, they came across a slave trader while walking the streets. The two helped the girls get free from their cruel owner.
Even though the outpost had come under elysian control, there wasn’t anything they could do about the wasteland’s thriving slave trade. But it wasn’t like the slave trader Cloudhawk stole from could lodge a formal complaint, since most of his corpse had already passed through a wolf’s digestive system. The dead weren’t known for vocal opinions.
Cloudhawk really was conscientious of his new charges. He didn’t exploit them or force them to do anything they didn’t want. He even paid them a salary and provided lodging. They were free, or close enough for it not to matter.
He gave them as much freedom as they desired. If they didn’t want to be here, they were free to leave at any time. But the girls cherished this opportunity to work, especially when they say that even elysian soldiers feared their boss. With him, they felt like they had found a safe and reliable benefactor. In the wastelands, beauty became a liability. Without the strength to defend oneself, or a haven where safety was promised, beauty became a matter of life and death.
“Elysian goods will fetch five times their price out here, maybe more. We’ve got full sets of armor, swords, bows – stuff that would fetch five gold in Skycloud will earn us twenty a piece in the wastelands.”
“The guns, ammunition, and old tech we got for dirt cheap will sell for twice the price, too. The higher to can sell ‘em for the better. At the end of the d ay we’re the only racket in town, so people will accept or prices or go empty handed. We’ll have a monopoly on the city’s black market in no time – and that’s when we loosen Adder’s stranglehold. You ladies got it?”
Cloudhawk had his ideas set. He was determined.
The slender Neve replied in her gentle voice. “Don’t worry, boss. We’ll make sure everything runs smoothly.” Jasmine – darker in complexion but with a body that made blood race – nodded in agreement.
The difference between the two ladies went deeper than their appearance. Neve was sharp, and with time and opportunity she would grow to be a shrewd business owner. Jasmine was quiet, laid back, but Cloudhawk saw she was a talented control meta-human. Eventually he would train her on how to use weapons.
Aside from the juxtaposed beauties, there was also Gabriel.
Cloudhawk was confident their business would be fine. If something untoward should happen, they had the city’s Magistrate in their corner as well. His emporium was just the first step in Cloudhawk’s plan to corner the Sandbar’s black market. Cigarettes, drugs, guns – everything except slaves, he was willing to deal in.
Legal or illegal, it didn’t matter.
The Warden used his influence and connections to have goods delivered from the elysian lands. Things like medicine, which were effective and had a market out in the wastelands. Elysian medicine wasn’t banned for sale, like weapons. It was still restricted, but most normal drugs were free to sell with the proper permissions.
One of the current elysian army officers – Drake Thane – still owed Cloudhawk. A connection like that couldn’t just go unexploited. He also had the Magistrate wrapped around his finger. Eventually becoming an established, reputable and legal merchant company wouldn’t be difficult.
On the other side he could trade wasteland minerals, leather, and other rare animal parts back to the elysian lands. With Cloudhawk’s abilities, it was only a matter of time before he established himself here in Sandbar Station.
“We don’t really have very much, especially elysian goods. What happens when we sell out?” Gabriel wasn’t as confident as his commanding officer. The longer he spent with Cloudhawk the less reliable he found the wastelander to be. “Armor, for example. We only brought a few sets.”
“There’s plenty!” Cloudhawk was full of confidence. “You still don’t trust me? It’ll all be fine!”
The next day, Cloudhawk’s Emporium was open for business.
Magistrate Seacrest’s unsuccessful raid the day before had served to advertise the place, and that it was above the law. They sold what they pleased and the elysian soldiers did nothing about it.
The only other person in Sandbar Station Hammont turned a blind eye to was the barkeep, Adder. For better or worse, the guy kept a low profile and traded in intelligence. What a bold thing, then, that this new stranger would so openly challenge Adder’s established dominance.
The anomalous circumstances earned a fair amount of suspicion from buyers. This had to be a trap, right? To flush the bolder heretics out into the open. Once the store began welcoming customers there were many who came to peruse, but no one brazen enough to make a purchase. After two or three days, Cloudhawk still hadn’t sold a single thing.
Cloudhawk wasn’t so confident anymore.
He’d sunk all his assets into setting up shop. Paying off his debts – indeed, having money to live – all depended on the success of Cloudhawk’s Emporium. His inventory was solid, but no one was willing to buy. It was all rather awkward.
He spent days, from morning to night, ruminating on how to solve the problem. As he pondered, a pretty scent came in on the breeze. Cloudhawk’s keen sense of smell picked it up right away. This wasn’t the sort of stuff prostitutes wore. It was a naturally sweet aroma.
The other patrons stared with wide eyes as the green-clad figure appeared. She was beautiful, so beautiful she would have turned heads in the middle of Skycloud city. Her clothing was unique and out of touch with rugged city; a well-tailored green gown was wrapped around her, and her face was hidden behind a thin veil. The quality of her gown’s material wasn’t elysian-grade, but it was a far sight better than the stuff typical for the wastelands. It was hard to tell where she was from based on clothing alone.
Half the woman’s face was hidden beneath the veil. The cute shape of her nose and her plucked brows were clear, and the pig-tail braids on either side of her head added a youthful charm. Everything about her was mystifying, alluring, like a beautiful lark appearing from a deep forest. There was none of the rigorous elysian intractability about her, nor the rough crudeness of the wasteland.
The girl’s eyes traveled along the walls, lingering on the soldier’s equipment hung there. She seemed especially interested in the rapid-fire crossbows. Her voice dripped like shimmering pearls. “I’m interested in purchasing in bulk. Do you have enough?”
“I do!” Cloudhawk perked up when he realized she was a potential customer. “How much do you need?”
She lifted a delicate finger and pointed at several items. “Three hundred… oh, no. Five hundred sets.”
The shop assistants were struck dumb, as were the lingering window shoppers. Cloudhawk mirrored their sentiment. Five hundred sets? She had to be joking! That was enough to outfit a small army, what did she need all that for?
Cloudhawk paused and looked the woman over. She was definitely unusual, but she didn’t look loaded to him. Anyway, she could stuff enough gold for five hundred sets of weapon and armor in her dress. Cloudhawk rolled his eyes at her. “The lady seems to know quality. These are elysian goods, you won’t find the like anywhere else in town. One set would be full body armor, a sword and a crossbow – fifty gold coins total. This includes five bolt cartridges and a hundred white crystal arrows.”
None of this fazed the woman, who nodded without hesitation. “Alright. When can I pick them up?”
Was this bitch crazy?
One set was ten times the cost she would find in the elysian lands, but that wasn’t outrageous. But five hundred? That was twenty-five thousand golds coins! That was an outrageous sum even for elysian nobility. And this chick didn’t even attempt to bargain.
Cloudhawk began to suspect there was something wrong with her head. “Yeah, we got it. The problem is your order is too large. You’ll need to leave a deposit.”
“I don’t have any gold.”
She said it without a hint of concern.
Her revelation was met with quizzical expressions. Cloudhawk almost kicked over a table in frustration. She was fucking with him! He was preparing to throw the audacious woman out on her ass when she pulled a bulging parcel from the folds of her dress. She pulled the cloth aside to reveal its contents, and everyone froze.
Pitch black stones were nestled inside, each one a neat little cube whose shimmering faces caught the light appealingly. They shimmered like gemstones and drew the eye mysteriously.
The girl carefully picked one from the pile and handed it to Cloudhawk. “As I said, I don’t have gold. However, my mother assures me these could fetch you as much gold as you need.”
“What is it?”
“This is eboncrys.” Gabriel approached, taking the cube from Cloudhawk’s hand. “It really is eboncrys – an energy crystal. They use it to power equipment in Skycloud domain. A cube like this will go for a couple hundred gold, easy.”
This little cube, a couple hundred gold? He had to be joking! If he hadn’t heard it from Gabriel’s mouth Cloudhawk would have called bullshit. But he trusted his companion.
“My name is Autumn Draper.” The girl in green covered the eboncrys crystals back in their wrapping. “Is that enough for a deposit? When can I expect my order to be ready?”
Cloudhawk swallowed. “Give me a few days.”Previous Chapter Next Chapter
That's one hell of an order... Autumn Draper's original name was 纱木旻, - cotton/muslin wood skies. We went with the surname Draper due to the cotton/cloth links, and Autumn for the leaf-filled skies.
I'm particularly proud of Xiao Lai coming up with 'eboncrys'; in Chinese, the title was the rather unimaginative 黑晶, literally 'black jewels'. Eboncrys sounds much better.