Arsag, the merchant, looked up when the bell above the door rang. Motes of dust danced in the shaft of light cast by the open door. He climbed off of his stool and positioned himself behind the counter, perching his spectacles on the end of his nose.
‘Why is it so dark in here?’ came a strident voice from the doorway.
Arsag suppressed a sigh; he could already tell what sort of customer this would be.
‘It is to protect the dreams, madam,’ he answered, blinking at the silhouette in the doorway. ‘Please, come in. How may I assist you?’
‘We want a dream.’ A middle-aged woman stepped into the shop, dragging a pretty, young woman behind her.
‘Of course, madam,’ Arsag said, fake smile carefully plastered in place. ‘What sort of dream would you like?’
‘We need to know who my daughter will marry.’
The older woman wore a dress and cloak of high quality but they were old and a little threadbare in places. The younger woman’s dress fit well but was of a simple design and plain fabric. So, a well-to-do family, down on their luck.
‘I can do that, of course, but it will be expensive.’
‘It doesn’t have to be long – she needn’t know her whole future, just enough to identify her husband.’
‘And is that what you want, miss?’ Arsag looked to the daughter. She looked as if she wanted to say no, but at a harsh glance from her mother she lowered her eyes.
‘Very well. That will be five gold.’ Arsag usually charged eight gold for a prophecy but he had a soft heart.
The older woman hissed through her teeth.
‘Perhaps another type of dream would suit you better?’ Arsag gestured to the shelves, filed with glass bottles that pulsed with different colours and shades of light. ‘Inspiration is always very popular, and it has been known to make a difference to a family’s … circumstances.’
‘What are you implying? Have you heard something?’
‘Not at all madam, I’m merely telling you of my wares.’
‘The prophecy will be sufficient,’ the woman said, pulling a small coin purse from her bag.
‘You can pay on collection,’ Arsag said. ‘The dream will be ready in five days.’
‘Prophecy is a delicate business, I am afraid. I must wait for the right conditions. And I will require some of your daughter’s hair.’
Four nights later, the moon was finally in the correct position for prophecy. Arsag mixed up a potion in a small bronze bowl, chanting in a low voice as he mixed. He held the bowl up to the moon and petitioned the Queen of Night to grant the vision that had been requested. Finally, he dropped in the single hair that he had taken from the daughter’s head. He drank the potion and lay down in the centre of an intricate design painted on the floor.
Arsag had only just unlocked the shop door the next morning, when the young woman entered. She glanced about the shop, looking at the glass jars on the shelves with child-like wonder. Of course, she was barely more than a child. Arsag felt sorry for her; it was clear that the hopes if her family were being put on her shoulders.
‘I’ve come for the prophecy,’ she said to Arsag, when she noticed him standing behind the counter.
‘Are you sure this is what you want?’ he asked gently.
‘It doesn’t matter,’ the girl answered. ‘It’s what Mother wants.’
‘We can always tell her that the prophecy didn’t work. You could go far with a good dream of inspiration.’
The girl looked torn but then straightened her shoulders. ‘Just the prophecy, please.’
‘Very well,’ Arsag said, pushing a bottle that glowed with a violet light across the counter.
The young woman stepped forward and emptied her purse onto the counter, carefully counting out silver coins to the value of five golds.
‘You must have wonderful dreams,’ she said wistfully.
‘Only on the shelves, my dear,’ Arsag said, sweeping the coins from the counter and tucking them away in his lockbox.
‘Whatever do you mean?’ the girl asked, frowning.
‘I do not dream, miss.’
‘But how can that be? We all dream.’
‘It is the cost of being a dream merchant. I gave up all dreams for the rest of my life, in order to learn the art of creating and capturing dreams for others.’
‘Do you miss it?’ she asked. ‘I know I would.’
‘I do not really remember what it is like to dream and so I cannot miss it,’ Arsag lied. ‘Be sure to open the stopper just before bed. When you sleep, the dream will come to you and you will have the answer you seek. I wish you well, Miss.’
Arsag busied himself behind the counter as the girl left, trying not to feel jealous of her. He had made his choices and his life was very comfortable, more comfortable than hers would be if his suspicions about her mother were correct. But she had something that he would never have and he could not help but envy her – for Arsag knew that only in our dreams are we truly free.
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