Appendix A: Chapter 2

[Editor's note: Chapter 2 of my 2008 NaNoWriMo entry.]

Roland slowly made his way through the the marketplace. The shrine stood a few blocks away from the far end of the main street. The morning walk from there to the booth the Order had rented out for him for today had been easy enough, but that was before the throngs of villagers, farmers, traders, travellers, and everyone else had descended upon it. Now, what had already been a narrow avenue between two rows of squat buildings was reduced to a wall of bodies alternating between crowding around stalls and shops and pushing their way through everyone so they could start crowding around somewhere else.

Wearing a suit of armor, one might think, would be an asset in such a situation. Roland had quickly learned from experience in the villages he had stopped at in the preceeding weeks, however, that it didn’t work nearly so well in practice. Granted, peasants were hardly eager to jostle or shove someone in full armor and wearing a sword on his belt, if only because simple physics assured the jostler would feed more of it than Roland would. Roland enjoyed a slim envelope of empty space immediately surrounding him as he creeped forward, one step at a time. But Roland couldn’t hardly press his advantage by forcing through the crowds, at least not without sparking a dozen tails of a paladin rampaging through a marketplace full of innocents, and even in an outlying area of the kingdom such as this word would soon reach his superiors.

So, Roland contented himself with moving forward a foot or two at a time, taking any opening to progress that presented itself as people shifted around one another. He considered trying his luck navigating side streets and back alleys instead of the main avenue, but the town map he had studied briefly the night before showed this to be the only remotely straight path available. In a testament to the need for effective village planning, buildings had been packed in haphazardly all around the marketplace with no apparent underlying logic or pattern, and Roland was hardly in the mood to risk getting lost until he got out of his armor.

It did give Roland an opportunity to take in the local culture, such as it was, as he waded through the crowds. The windows of each storefront were crammed with their finest wares arrayed on colorful shelves. These stores tended to stock jewelry or ornamental goods or anything else that wouldn’t hold up to the harsher environs of the vendor stalls.

Unfortunately, Roland noted, only rarely did food vendors opt to set up shop anywhere but an open stall, unprotected from the dust and flies and grubby hands that invariably accompanied the hundreds of people that passed by. The aromas that drifted across the street did smell appetizing, but Roland decided to stick with the less risky, and lamentably equally less appetizing, food available at the barracks mess.

And just as open-air booths were squeezed between the shops wherever possible, sometimes a makeshift table could be found crammed between two booths. These tended to be the domain of hucksters and confidence men trying to swindle passersby out of their coins. Here, the popular tool of the trade appeared to be the classic shell game. Roland had seen the con enough times in other towns to know that the man behind the table was never the only one involved. He noticed that either the player always hit a sudden winning streak or the man behind the table would suddenly take a break from the game, if not outright bold down the nearest alley, whenever Roland passed by.

And when there wasn’t even enough room to fit a table, street performers could be found, plucking an instrument and sitting next to an upturned hat. Individually, they didn’t sound too bad — though Roland expected a couple of the “performers” were little more than beggars holding a lute so as to avoid trouble with the town guard — but the different strands of music clashed jarringly the rare times more than one performer could be heard over the commotion of the crowd.

So far, none of this had been terribly different than what Roland had found in the towns he had passed through before arriving here. But then he came across something that he had rarely seen, at least not openly: a street magician. Roland inched his way towards the edge of the clump of people watching.

The young woman behind the table was in the middle of a trick when she entered Roland’s view. She was holding three large silver rings chained together. She was saying something Roland couldn’t quite make out over the background noise, but he watched as she held one ring in her right hand and shook it gently as the other two hung from it and swayed in response. She then grasped the bottom ring with her other hand and brought it up with the first, then reached down again and took hold of the remaining ring. Staring intently at the rings, she brought her hands up to the same level, two rings in one and one in the other, and shook them slightly as she slowly pulled them apart until the rings were free of one another. She quickly clanged the rings against one another to emphasize the point and bowed.

It was at this point when Roland first noticed the plunging neckline of the performer’s red and gold dress.

Roland found himself able to move slightly deeper into the audience to be within earshot, and heard the unmistakable clink of coins being tossed into a hat somewhere on the ground.

“Thank you, thank you,” she said as she dropped the rings someplace out of sight behind the table. She then picked up a deck of cards and with a sweep of her arm spread them face-up across the table. “Here as you can see I have a perfectly ordinary deck of cards.” With another sweep she gathered them back up and began shuffling. “For my next feat of mastery over mind and matter alike, I shall need the assistance of one of you. But not just anyone, I fear, no, it must be someone I feel a strong psychic connection with,” she continued, closing her eyes as she reached out towards the audience with the hand holding the deck of cards. “Someone whose thoughts are calling out to mine, someone like… you, sir, in the second row!”

She opened her eyes and gestured with her outstretched arm for the man to step forward. After a couple seconds, he pushed his way through past the person in front of him.

“Yes, thank you sir, now, before we begin,” she continued as she resumed shuffling the cards, “can you verify to everyone else that you and I have never seen one another before today?”

The man nodded.

“Excellent, excellent, I could tell you had an honest heart about you. Now, I will riffle through this perfectly ordinary and thoroughly shuffled deck of cards, like so… and you will tell me when to stop. Ready?”

The man nodded again. The performer riffled through the deck until the man said, “stop.”

“Ah, perfect, you do that like a pro, good sir,” she said, lifting the top half of the deck, placed it on the table, and handed the remainder of the deck to her newfound assistant. “Now, when I turn my back, I want you to take the top card, the one you just selected at random from the middle of the deck, take a good look at it, memorize it, and show it to the audience. OK? Good.”

The performer turned around, and the man lifted the top card, stared at it for a few seconds, and then showed it to the audience. The queen of clubs.

“Ready? Now please put it back on top of the deck so I can’t see it. Done? OK.” The performer turned around. Now, I want you to think of that card, see it in your mind’s eye, put everything else out of your mind and focus on it. Good. Now, I will use that psychic connection between us, the one that called out to me when you were in the crowd, and I too shall see what card you have chosen.”

She leaned forward and placed her hands on either side of the man’s head. She stared into his eyes, then closed hers and took on a look of deep concentration.

“Good, yes. I am beginning to see… a card… your card… a black card… spades, perhaps? No, no, not spades, clubs. Come on, now, I told you to focus,” she gently chided him. A few in the audience snickered, and she continued, “OK, now, I’m seeing a face card, yes, definitely a face card… it’s a… a queen. You picked the queen of clubs, didn’t you?”

She released the man’s head and straightened up. She then lifted the top card back off the deck, looked at it briefly, smiled, and turned it towards the audience. They applauded, and more coins dropped into the hat.

“Phew. It’s a good thing you did such a good job, sir, otherwise I only would have had a one in fifty-two chance of pulling that off. Thank you! Please, give him a hand too!”

More applause, until an old man’s voice shouted out from the back, “a witch! She’s a witch!”

“Ah, sir, please,” she smiled, “if you saw how my home looks, you wouldn’t even believe I owned a broom. Besides, if I really were some kind of which, don’t you think that paladin over there who’s joined us would have done something about it by now?”

The crowd turned to look at Roland. Luckily, wearing a suit of armor means no one can ever tell when you feel uncomfortable.

“But, you know what? I really shouldn’t do this, but since it’s my last day in this town, and you’ve been such a great audience today, why don’t I show you how that last trick is really done? Sir, why don’t you come up here and do the trick with me. After all, if I really was using a psychic link, it would surely fail this time, right?”

The old man resisted, but the crowd started cheering him on, and a few began nudging him forward until he finally made his way to the front.

“Ah, it’s great to see you’re such a good sport about this, sir.” She bend down to reclaim the top half of the deck, brought the cards back together, and began shuffling. “Now, ‘magician’ is just another word for ‘professional liar,’ after all. The real trick is completed before I ever start pretending to read the volunteer’s mind. Remember how I was holding the deck when I chose my last volunteer? I held it at just the right angle to see the bottom card. See?”

She held the deck up to show the audience the bottom card: this time, the nine of spades.

“Now, when I started shuffling again, like this, I did it in such a way that the bottom card ended up at the top of the deck, like this.” She showed that the top card was, indeed, now the nine of spades. “Unless you were watching very closely, you’ll have to figure out how to do that part on your own. The second part of the trick comes here, when the volunteer ‘picks’ a card, like this.”

She riffled through the deck again. She reached the end, cleared her throat pointedly, and tried again. This time, the old man grunted when she was part way through the deck.

“OK, now, with this top half, the trick is to quickly take all but the very top card and remove it from the deck quickly, so that the top card is still the top card of what’s left. Like this.” She put aside the top half of the deck and lifted the new top of the deck to reveal that, yes, it was also the nine of spades.

“So as you see, I knew what the card was going to be before I had even picked the volunteer. No magic, no mastery of the mind, just mastery of matter. OK?”

The old man looked grudgingly satisfied and moved back into the audience.

“And now that my shocking secret is revealed,” she smiled, “just promise me you won’t all run out and try it tomorrow, OK? Well, with that, I shall bid you good day. Thank you all once again for your generosity and attention!”

She bowed, triggering another round of applause and more coins dropped into the hat. Roland figured he had lingered long enough, and resumed working his way down the avenue towards the shrine.

Chapter word count: 2,139 (according to wc)
Total word count: 3,982 / 50,000 (7.964% complete)

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