Seller of Dreams
Just B. Jordan
Ahaden was a dwarf who dreamed, waking and sleeping, but not because he was idle or lacking of mind. He dreamed to survive.
He created their reality, and they fell under the intoxication of his visions.
The sun hammered hot upon the earth. It was a dull presence lying beneath the chatter of dwarves at market and the screams rising from the games taking place at the nearby amphitheater. Those sounds were dull in comparison to the stench of sweat in the dusty street, the smell of animal carcasses from a stall two spots up, and the rot of yesterday’s spoiled goods, thrown out behind the booths for the orphans and cripples to pick through.
All of this was dull when placed next to the cautious fear which reined in Ahaden every moment of the day and the waking moments of the night. If he did not dream the best dreams, he would have nothing worth catching. If he had nothing to catch, he had nothing to sell. And if he sold no dreams, the master would sell him. To the lions. His death would be the cause of the screams rising in new fervor from the amphitheater.
He would never escape this fate. He could only delay it. A cord, enchanted by some other singer, was tied around his ankle and to Master’s stand. This, and the symbols burned onto his chest, one marking him a slave of Nef-Ese, the other marking him a singer—a slave of special ability—kept him from believing in escape.
But even his fear was dull in wake of his dreams.
“Ahaden,” Theti, a highborn and common customer of the Master’s stall, called out before he reached the booth.
Ahaden put aside the earthen jar he was shaping and wiped his hands as clean as he could. A small pride pressed in his chest as he reached for the jar he had prepared for Theti. Ahaden was the only slave in the market that anyone remembered the name of.
Theti stopped in front of the Master’s stall and squatted, almost meeting Ahaden’s level. Some of those passing by gave him looks varying from surprise to disgust. No one in Nef-Ese met a slave’s level, especially when the slave was sitting on the earth.
Some did not notice Theti’s breach of bloodline. Those were the ones like Theti—those who had experienced Ahaden’s dreams and fallen under their spell.
Ahaden likened the effect of his dreams to that of the beltashek root. Chew it once and enjoy it. Chew it twice and want it again. Chew it thrice and need it to keep yourself sane. Sane to oneself, at least. Looking at Theti’s eyes, Ahaden knew he was lost to reality, dependent on the joy of dreams as the beltashek eaters were dependent on the root.
“What dream do you have for me this day?” Theti’s breaths was rapid, his gaze on the small jar sealed by hide and cord.
“The journey of the sun,” Ahaden said.
Theti’s expression became wondrous. Ahaden let his fingers caress the side of the jar, knowing he would part with the dream soon. It was not that he was obsessed with them, as Theti was, but they were the only children he had ever had. Still, he knew there would always be more dreams to dream.
“The waking of the morning in Nabba,” Ahaden continued, “cool and fresh and full, the sunlight kind. The strengthening of the day and the seasons until it shines hot and cruel upon our backs in Eljihatt, and the slow waning of its anger until it once again finds the sweet embrace of Nabba.”
Theti reached to his golden belt and pulled forth a small pouch. He dropped it at Ahaden’s feet, reaching for the jar that contained the story of the sun. “Three silvers, as Mose said.”
Ahaden felt mild alarm. Master had raised the price of dreams yet again. And the highborns were happily paying it. Not gold now, but silver. Because of its properties against creatures of dark power, it was more valuable than even gold. And Nef-Esen’s loved their gold.
“I will know the sun,” Theti said more to himself then Ahaden. His words were lustful. “No, I will become the sun.”
Ahaden nodded. His dreams were strong, vivid. As real as life while they were being dreamed. He handed the earthen jar to Theti, who held it tightly and stood, his gaze breaking from Ahaden now that he held what he had come for. He hurried away without another word or glance.
Consumed by the desire to dream.
Just then Master returned. A loaf, a fish, and an onion were in his hand. Seeing the purse Theti had left at Ahaden’s knee, he stooped to pick it up. He set aside his meal and took his place to Ahaden’s right before opening the pouch and counted its continents.
“Finish tomorrow’s dreams today, before the falling sun hour,” Master said.
Ahaden, having picked up the jar he had been working on before Theti’s arrival, let his hands become still. There were three other dreams that were ordered specifically for today, and over half a dozen small dreams that Master would hawk to passerby’s. There were to be two dreams tomorrow: A young girl traveling the Khul River with her mother and siblings in the cool of Nabba for a highborn’s sickly daughter—a simple dream to dream—and a lion hunt that turns foul, all warriors but one falling to the king of beasts, until the final dwarf—a certain young highborn—emerges victorious. Bloody and bloodthirsty, but victorious.
Ahaden did not care for dreaming violent dreams. They disturbed him. He saw enough of it on the street, heard enough of it coming from the amphitheater.
And yet they were the most sought after by many highborns, and even the common people. Winning wars, a gladiator match, a lion hunt…there had even been a request for a dream of killing the demon-dwarf, Adisa. And one for a vengeful slaughtering of the witch Raizel.
Fame, honor, pride. Many would pay much to have such things, even if just for the span of a living dream.
“They are being purchased a day early.” Ahaden made it a fact, not a question. Questions earned him nothing but vile words in return.
“The dancer has entered the city,” Master said.
Dancer was a title that in recent time, along with the names Adisa and Raizel, had become cause of great wariness.
“The one with the griffin,” Master said, taking note of his expression, “not the river dancer.”
He meant the traveling dancer whose name was becoming widely known. “Melzena, the silent one,” Ahaden said.
“She came this morning. Word spreads in the streets. Many will come to see her. She has not come so far as Nef-Ese in many a season. The buyers of the dreams will surely come to see her, and after her dance it is likely they will visit us for their dreams—slip by in the large crowd where few will heed them.”
Ahaden felt anticipation rise in the hot air. It filled the street. Word was spreading quickly. Ahaden felt his own anticipation grow, though he knew he would never see the dancer. He could not leave the stall, and she would not dance on this street. Not where the stench of slaughter drifted.
He had heard that her dancing was different from any other entertainer’s. As if it were filled with some sort of magic. But magic—calling upon things best left untouched to gain power…if Melzena used magic, Ahaden did not want to see her.
But from what was said of her, he did not believe it could be magic. She was special, yes, though she could not be a singer—inborn with abilities, as Ahaden was. She was mute. She could not sing. And she was no slave.
“What do you sell here?”
Ahaden looked up. A…man, perhaps—he was no dwarf—stood in front of the stall. Ahaden stared. He had never seen a race other than dwarf. He was strange, yes, but somehow not nearly as different as Ahaden had thought a man would be.
“Ah-h-h.” The man picked up a jar. “Dreams.” He looked down at a cloaked figure squatting at his side. “He sells dreams. Living dreams. Do not purchase any. They will steal your mind.”
Ahaden was at a loss with words. The man’s tone was jovial. He set the jar down and grinned at Ahaden.
“Master sells them,” Ahaden said, for he must say something. “I only dream them.”
Only then did he look from the man to the crouched figure. She was watching him, her face visible under the hood of a Jaakan cloak. An old one, and much too large for her, but she was either an Eth’Ail or an Arisca dwarf. Her skin was too dark to be from any of the other nearby tribes.
Ahaden found himself staring at her. This was Melzena, he was sure. He glanced about the street. No one else had noticed, not even Master. They did not think they would see the dancer wearing an old, bulky cloak on a street such as this, and thus looked over her. Even though a man—he would be Zapadne—was beside her.
She was smiling now. Her hands left the folds of the cloak, making brief gestures Ahaden found peculiar. She brushed a knuckle up her throat to her chin, her thumb across her forehead, three grouped fingers touching her cupped palm as if setting something there, her hand becoming a fist. Her eyes never left his.
“Would you have a dream?” Master moved closer, having seen the two’s apparent interest in his wares. He held out a small jar no longer than half a hand, its mouth no wider than a finger. “This holds the birth of a lotus flower in the Khul River.”
He had matched the correct dream to the jar. Of all the small dreams waiting to be hawked, he had chosen the best suited for a female. He was a cruel dwarf at times, but he was smart. Ahaden could deal with the cruelty. Having a dim-witted master would have angered him more.
Zapadne lifted his hand, putting it between Master’s and Melzena. “Good dwarf, she does not want a dream.”
Master’s veins grew thicker where they stood out on his arm. Ahaden willed him to keep his temper in hand.
“Ah-h.” Zapadne frowned at Master. “She wishes to speak to your slave.”
Master set the dream down in its proper place among the others. Carefully, so as to not break it. Ahaden knew he would soon drive away Zapadne and Melzena.
Melzena took hold of the corner of Zapadne’s robe. He looked to her, lifting his shoulders in apparent confusion. Melzena made another motion with her hands.
“Ah-h, a wise thought.” Zapadne’s hand went to a purse tied at his side. “We will pay you the price of a dream to speak to him.”
Master laughed. He had not expected to be paid to let his slave speak. Neither had Ahaden. “I will take it,” Master said. “Seven gold pieces.”
Ahaden kept himself from smiling. If Master knew who these two were, he would have known they could afford more than the price of a mid-dream.
Zapadne withdrew his hand from his purse and held it out to Master. Seven gold pieces fell from his fingers. Master counted them over before turning back to the display of dreams.
“Several minutes are all you have purchased,” Master said. “Ahaden has dreams to dream before the dancer Melzena comes within our city.”
Melzena’s cheeks laughed for her. Any whispering doubts Ahaden had about her identity skittered away as if chased by the wind. Melzena knew he had figured out who they were—easy as it was to figure—and inwardly laughed with him at the secret.
“Melzena said she cannot speak, but tells stories in her dance,” Zapadne said quietly. “And you are a slave, but your dreams bring you a freedom many will never experience. She also wishes to know how they are contained within clay jars.”
Ahaden looked to him in surprise. Melzena had been still as kindness.
“It was what she said before he interrupted.” Zapadne’s head tilted toward Master.
“Your hands speak.” Not a question. An observation. Ahaden had never seen or heard of speaking with hands. He looked to Zapadne, feeling sudden-bold in their easy manner with him. “How do you hear so much from so little movement?” He lifted his hands to mimic one of the gestures she had made.
Zapadne smiled. It was the pleasantest smile of pride Ahaden had ever seen. “Most of it is in guessing. Some in a knowing of her character, and some in an understanding of her hand-speech. If I guessed wrong she would have pulled my sleeve.”
Melzena nodded, her hood sliding farther over her face.
“I dream the dreams while I shape the jar.” Ahaden was happy to explain as much as he knew. He put his hands back to the one he had been crafting. The clay mixture felt content beneath his fingers. He gently pressed it into shape, rounding its bottom. Sharp angles were too susceptible to cracking. “You cannot see it,” Ahaden said, “but the dreams are transferred by my fingertips.”
He began to hum, and he saw the sand colored dream come from his fingers, though no one else could. Its shape was like that of water, but it did not run or drip away. As he created the jar the dream grew and took on color.
Ahaden almost lost himself to the dream. He brought his thoughts back and found the words to continue his explanation.
“It covers the outside of the jar.” His fingers moved of their own accord, pinching and coiling the clay into the shape he wished. “The jar is put in the fire to harden, and the dream draws itself to the inside. When it is taken from the fire, the dream is held within, but unable to be dreamed by anyone but me.”
They were raptly intent. It put joyous wings in his stomach to have someone interested in his craft, and not just the dreams he could give them.
“That is when I grant the dream permission to belong to someone else.” Ahaden wiped his hands of as much wet clay as he could, reaching and picking up one of the small dreams. “Still, no one else can see it, but it is no longer bound to the clay. Now it is contained. As water would be.”
He tapped a finger on the small piece of hide that stretched over the mouth of the jar, secured by a thin hemp cord. “It must be covered or the dream could spill. This is when we sell them. Whoever drinks the dream will see it clearly as reality before their eyes. It draws them in and consumes them here and here.” He pointed to his head and his gut.
Nef-Esen’s believed the soul resided in the gut, but Ahaden thought he should explain further. Melzena was not a Nef-Esen dwarf. “It takes control of your thoughts and emotions, immersing you in the dream.”
Melzena pulled her hood back by a thumb span. Her gaze was intent. Her hands moved, and Ahaden looked to Zapadne for translation.
“Where do you find your dreams?” he said.
“All around me. The world is filled with dreams, if only you watch for them, take them in hand, and breathe life to their souls.”
Melzena stared at him. Her hands made several swift movements, and she stood. Ahaden felt a sharp weight in his chest. She was leaving.
Zapadne looked surprised for a moment, his gaze going from Melzena to the crowded street around them. Then his smile widened. He looked down at Ahaden, brows raised. “Melzena wishes to give you a dream.”
Melzena pulled back her hood and swung the large cloak from her shoulders.
Ahaden felt his eyes widen. In his shock he almost cracked the jar he held. Melzena the dancer was performing here. In this small, stench filled street, for him.
“The dream of the wind,” Zapadne announced, arms spread.
For already notice was being taken. Voices raced down the street. Dwarves were beginning to cluster.
Melzena’s hair was black, braided in rows from her forehead to near the nape of her neck before falling down her back in tight curls. Three golden strands lay between the top braids and mixed into her loose hair. Two loops of gold rested across her forehead.
She wore loose, colorful trousers that cinched tight at her waist and ankles. Her top piece matched in color, leaving her shoulders bare. Floating, transparent fabric draped from where sleeves would have been attached. It split over the top of her shoulders and fell free, doing nothing to cover her arms, though the drifting fabric was tied at her wrists. She lifted her arms out from her sides, making them loop from wrist to shoulder.
Master was at Ahaden’s side. “Melzena,” he said.
Zapadne shaped the newly formed crowd so the span of street in front of Master’s booth was empty except for Melzena. He took a seat in front of their stall and drew a small wooden instrument from where it hung on his sash, hidden in a fold of his robe.
He put it to his lips. The street took on a silence it had never found before. Everyone waited. Melzena’s left foot slid across the sand, knees bending, her left arm curving in front of her, her right rising above her head.
A heart thieving melody flew into the air, grown from Zapadne’s lips. No one dared to whisper. To shift their weight from one foot to another.
Melzena danced to the aching tune, slowly at first, the personification of balance and harmony. It gave her form a fluidity. A smile found her lips as she moved.
The wind stirred, running from the west. It caught the fabric draping from Melzena’s shoulders. Ahaden blinked.
Melzena was dancing perfectly to Zapadne’s music, but she was also dancing to the wind. It not only captured and swayed her clothing, but she herself.
Melzena had become the wind. Whispering and kind.
Her dance became faster, her steps more intricate. Zapadne’s music rose, rapid, urgent, pleading. As did the wind. It filled the street. Most were too absorbed by Melzena’s unearthly dance to notice, but Ahaden did. Melzena was not moving to the rhythm of the wind.
The wind was moving to the dance of Melzena.
She spun. Her smile found him, wide across her face. And Ahaden knew why it was said that Melzena’s dancing was magicked.
It was more powerful than any song a voice could sing. Zapadne’s accompaniment only heightened it. Her dancing drew forth deepest emotion. It spun new tales and rebirthed old ones. It was a freedom that could not be purchased. And it was Melzena’s unspoken heart.