“The Asking Price” by Christie Yant
The price will be negotiated.
Negotiations began a moment ago, when you decided to seek her out—the moment you knew that you could not survive without what she has to offer. You may yet have breathed, your heart may have continued on doggedly pushing blood through your veins, but without her protection, the person you are would be destroyed. You were wise enough to know that person is worth preserving, and so your heart spoke her name—which until that moment you did not realize you knew—and with a wish and a hope you made your opening bid.
The rules are simple, and you’ve known them all your life, the way that you know the taste of honey or the scent of your cat when she comes inside on a chill night, fog clinging to her coat.
Take with you the single coin of the highest value you possess. Sew it into the hem of your coat or hide it in the bottom of your shoe; do not spend it or let it be lost.
Choose one thing you treasure, no larger than your fist. Stow it well in your pack, somewhere disguised and safe.
On the first day of your journey, keep an eye on the ground. When you find the stone you like best, put it in your pocket.
When you arrive, her griffins will greet you—treat them kindly. They are excellent judges of character, and she takes their advice in most matters.
Once you have passed the gate it will be time to pay the price.
First, give her the stone. She will ask you a question—answer it honestly, or her griffins will know, and you will be short the payment of the stone.
Next, offer the coin. Again, answer the question that follows truthfully, for coins are harder to come by than stones.
It is up to you whether to offer the other item. She will provide you with armor for the price of the coin and stone. She is not greedy; she does not covet the possessions of others. Listen to your heart; pray, if your gods will listen. What you are buying will change if you make this offering, but for good or ill, no one can say.
Offer her the item with the words, “For you, my Lady, in good faith.” Or if you choose to keep it, do not insult her by displaying and withdrawing it. Instead say only, “I leave my payment, and will return in three days as our compact requires.”
Listen carefully to what she says next, and if she gives you instruction, follow it to the letter.
Now you have three days to wait and to reflect on the Armorer’s questions.
You paid for fear with stone.
“What,” she asked you in a voice like mist, “do you fear most?” You gave your answer, whether it was “my brother,” or “death,” or “God.”
With the coin she asked, “What are you most proud of?” Your first place medal at tournament, your eel pie, your wife, your skill on the flute? The eulogy you gave for your father last summer, where you praised him for a virtue displayed only for others and withheld from you?
It’s a thing to be proud of, setting aside your own pain to preserve a cherished illusion for others. It shows a strength of a very particular kind.
With the stone, the material your armor would be made of was decided. With the coin and your answer, you bought the shape of it.
What was the third item that your brought along, no bigger than your fist? A carved wooden knight, its colors faded from years of play, a memory of more innocent days? An embroidered kerchief that once belonged to your mother? It might have been cheating a little to bring the kitten, though she’s small enough. Or was it a jewel, a holy thing, a symbol of your gods? Whatever it was, it was personal.
Did you give it to her? There is no shame in keeping it hidden. You paid the asking price already. And no one could begrudge you the company of a kitten on a cold night.
But if you did, if you were able to look at your treasure one last time and part with it, then you were asked one more question, in a voice like fracture ice:
“What is your shame?”
In this moment knights are made, queens are crowned. If you went this far, if you took that extra step, you will not leave this place unchanged.
Doubt may seep into your heart as you reflect on these things. Remember that you walked through two thunderstorms, a hard frost, a dense forest, and a sucking swamp to reach her. There are other armorers who would ask no questions, who would take no payments in kittens or stones. But you came here because you know that only she can give you what you need to protect you against the enemy you face.
You might wonder what gold would have bought instead of silver. Would you have been asked the same question, or given the same answer? If not, would it be because gold is worth a different question, or if you had gold, you would be a different person?
Of your shame, you think nothing. It is best forgotten.
At dawn on the third day you are greeted again by the griffins. You are surprised to find that you are not alone. Ahead of you is a girl, no older than your little sister. Her expression is so serious, you don’t think you’ve ever seen a more solemn child. You wonder what has brought her here so young; what she needs such armor for.
Beyond her stands an old man, bald and bent, leaning against a post. He will surely never see battle again. But here he stands, his face empty and his eyes sad. You think that whatever his price was, it was too high.
There are others. You watch each one as they go with their bundles and a new light in their eyes, and your doubt gives way to hope.
The sun is high when your turn finally comes. The door opens and the armorer steps outside, a wrapped bundle in her arms, and your heart flutters with anticipation.
She smiles and places the bundle in your hands, and then retreats, shutting the door behind her.
You pull back the rough cloth to display your purchase. For a moment you think there has been a mistake; this armor was meant for someone else, for some other fight, bought with more valuable coin. Disappointment twists your stomach as you struggle to pull it on over your worn clothes, but the fit is too tight. You shed them, stained and soiled scraps of yesterday, and find the fit is now perfect.
In the window a tiny kitten no bigger than your fist is asleep on the sill, between a jar of pebbles and a reflection you barely recognize.
You have what you need now. As you begin your journey home, you reflect again on her questions, and you realize—
You always did.
|Christie Yant writes and edits science fiction and fantasy on the central coast of California, where she lives with a dancer, an editor, one dog, three cats, and a very small manticore.|