Originally published in Flame Tree Publishing’s Strange Lands short story collection.
♦ ♦ ♦
Benjamin set out for the Endless Bazaar at midnight, hands shoved in pockets to stave off frostbite. It was a bad night to be out–the entire city of Monroe had shut down in anticipation of a bomb cyclone. Winter winds pierced Benjamin’s coat; snow tore at his flesh like razor blades.
He shivered and tucked his neck deeper into his collar. There were bigger things to worry about than the impending storm. He needed medicine for his younger sister, Addie, and this might be his only chance to get it. The Bazaar only opened one night a year, and there was no guarantee Addie would make it through until next year.
Addie had fibrodysplasia, a rare disease that transformed muscle into bone. She’d taken a tumble while learning to ride her dayglo-green bicycle that summer and several of the muscles in her back had ossified. Grandma had refused to let her touch the bike since. Anything from a poorly-timed fall to a bad case of the flu could cause her condition to worsen. If her jaw fused or the muscles around her ribcage ossified….
Benjamin wouldn’t let that happen. There had to be a cure, regardless of what the doctors said.
He ducked down an alley that led from Front Street proper to the Front Street Riverwalk. A red-painted door with a green-tinged copper knob sat wedged into a brick wall, surrounded by litter, errant snowdrifts, and loose bricks. The door was poorly proportioned for the building it peeked out of, small enough that anyone over four feet tall would have to duck in order to make their entrance.
Would this really work? It was a long shot–an urban legend, a fairy tale passed down by his grandmother. She’d claimed you could find anything you wanted at the Endless Bazaar if you were willing to pay the cost.
Benjamin sucked in a sharp breath. Better to try and fail than never to take the chance.
He turned the copper handle. The door creaked open. He braced, expecting to see a musty building interior. Instead, the door opened onto a mirror-like reflection of the very alley where he stood. Sunlight poured through the doorway; the hum of distant voices carried on a warm breeze.
Benjamin took a deep breath and stepped through. Daylight hammered at the backs of his sun-dazzled eyes. A blanket of cloying heat enveloped him; humidity clung like a second skin. Heady perfumes and spices wafted through the air, intermingled with the scents of caramelized sugar and roasted meats. The clamor of vendors echoed over the murmur of a distant crowd. Benjamin followed the alley back to the otherworldly reflection of Front Street.
Booths and stalls sprawled across every street, equal parts flea market, art fair, convention, and funhouse mirror. Two-foot-tall goblins perched atop shoeboxes to hawk their wares; stone giants hunkered down so they crouched face to face with more moderately-sized clientele. The customers were every bit as unusual as the salesmen. Fishmen bumped shoulders with animate ice sculptures; tree people walked arm in arm with sentient shadows. In such vibrant company, Benjamin’s human face and tattered clothing stood out like a sore thumb. He’d always been big for his age, but the grand spectacle of this place left him feeling small and unimportant.
Navigating the Bazaar proved a challenge. The booths were arranged in no particular order; there were no maps, guideposts, or brochures. Benjamin pushed past jewelry tables, clothing vendors, and food carts. He kept his head on a swivel, looking for a purveyor of exotic medicines.
After an hour of searching, he found a booth where frosted bottles lined ornately carved shelves and dangled from the ceiling on leather cords. The woman behind the counter smiled at him. Pronged horns, gazelle ears, and a mop of gold-and-black curls framed large brown eyes and doll-like facial features. “You have the look of a lion on the hunt, boy. What are you after?”
Benjamin couldn’t help but smile back. Warmth pooled in his chest. “I need medicine for my sister.”
Gazelle Girl clucked her tongue in disappointment. “I don’t sell medicine. I sell memories–first days at school, sweet sixteens, that trip to Disneyworld you’ve always wanted.”
Hope evaporated like fog in the face of sunlight. Benjamin frowned and shoved his hands back in his pockets. “Whatever.” He turned to walk away.
Gazelle Girl leaned across the counter, her face spreading into a grin. “I said you’ve come to the wrong place, not that I can’t help you. I can sell you memories of the Bazaar. They’re better than any map. You’ll know exactly who to ask for what you want. Takes out all the guesswork.”
Benjamin pursed his lips. This would eat into the funds he had saved up for Addie’s medicine, but it was a safer bet than wandering the Bazaar until his route home closed. He pulled out his wallet. “How much?”
Gazelle Girl held up a hand and shook her head. “Currency’s useless–money’s an idea, not anything of actual value. Everyone here in the Bazaar deals in barter. You’ll be trading one memory for another.”
Benjamin blinked. “How’s that work?”
Gazelle Girl held up a vial with a clear liquid inside. “Put this in your mouth, swish it around a bit, then spit it back out. Once you pay, I give you the vial that holds your desired memory and you drink deep.”
“How do I know what memory I’m trading?”
Gazelle Girl’s smile became guarded. “You don’t, but the spell always ensures it’s an equivalent trade. One day for another, an event for an event, a person for a person, a place for a place.”
Benjamin sucked a breath in through his teeth and let it out slowly. He had no idea what something equivalent to the memory of this Bazaar might be. How was he supposed to know if the cost was worth it, if he didn’t even know what he was paying? “I’m not much for gambling.”
“This isn’t a gamble. It’s a sure thing. No one here sells maps of this place. The booths shift from day to day. Locations are first come, first serve. The people who run the booths, though, those rarely change.”
Benjamin chewed at the inside of his cheek. This was risky to be sure, and the idea of drinking someone else’s backwash didn’t appeal to him, but if it got him what he needed….
If it helped Addie, it was worth it. He nodded. “Okay. You’ve got a deal.”
Gazelle Girl handed him the clear potion. He poured it into his mouth and swished it around. It tasted like water at first, but quickly developed a strong peppermint flavor. He spat the liquid back into the vial; it shimmered, a bright neon green.
Gazelle Girl traded the freshly-filled vial for one that shone like gold in the sunlight. Benjamin slammed it back without a second thought.
Skeins of memory spooled out in his head–the names and faces of every booth owner in the whole of the Bazaar, and the most common locations where they set up shop. Benjamin smiled at Gazelle Girl–Singh, her name was Singh–and gave her a grateful nod. “Thanks.”
Singh’s face twisted into a knowing smile. “Don’t thank me yet. Just because you know where to look doesn’t mean you’ll be able to afford what you’re after.”
“I’ll figure it out.” Benjamin’s pulse raced. He left Singh’s shop and worked his way deep into the bowels of the Bazaar, in search of Diamond Jack–the best physician and pharmacist in this world or the next.
♦ ♦ ♦
Diamond Jack stood tall and lean, encrusted head to toe in living diamond, accented with gemstones of every color. The only parts that didn’t sparkle were his eyes–dull black lumps of coal in hollow sockets. His medical tent contained a rusty metal bed with a thin mattress and rows of shelves stacked top to bottom with everything from ginger root to crow feathers. A rainbow-stained table in the center of the tent supported a graduated cylinder, a series of test tubes in a rack, and an assortment of stands, tripods, and bunsen burners.
Diamond Jack looked up from the table, scanned Benjamin with a practiced eye, and grunted, “Keep walking, kid. I don’t treat humans.”
A chill ran down Benjamin’s spine. “I’m not here for me. My sister is–”
“Still human. Not interested.”
“But you’re the only one here who can make the medicine she needs!”
“Then I guess you’re just out of luck, aren’t you?”
Benjamin sucked in a deep breath. He wanted to scream, threaten, or beg, but that kind of behavior wouldn’t help. This was too important to screw up. He couldn’t afford to go home empty-handed, not after all the work he’d put into getting here–
He couldn’t remember how to get home. He knew the layout of every street in the Bazaar, the name and face of every vendor, but he had no memory of what the exit looked like or where to find it.
Oh God, was that the memory he had traded for knowledge of the Bazaar? His stomach clenched. How would he ever get home if he didn’t know the way out?
Calm down. Breathe. One problem at a time. He needed the medicine before he could go home, anyway.
Benjamin focused a steady gaze on Diamond Jack. “Why don’t you treat humans?”
“I mean, I used to, but I got bored. It’s always diabetes this, cancer that. I like me a good challenge, and humans just aren’t up to snuff.”
“Can’t you make an exception? Just this once? Addie’s got fibrodysplasia, her muscles are literally turning to bone.”
Diamond Jack licked his lips with a ruby tongue. “Haven’t heard that one before. I’ve got to admit, that does sound like a challenge.” He studied Benjamin for a long moment, then nodded. “Just for the sake of argument, let’s say I take the job. Work like this isn’t cheap or easy. It’ll cost you five years.”
Benjamin narrowed his eyes. “Five years of what? Labor?”
“Five years off your potential lifespan. You might not live long enough to miss them. Car accidents, drug overdoses, so many ways to end a life early.” Diamond Jack waggled eyebrows made of smoky quartz.
Benjamin crossed his arms and frowned. “How do I know your cure will even work?”
“Human medicine has no cure for this condition, but you still visit the doctor, right? And you still pay him regardless. That’s because you’re not paying for a cure–you’re paying for the time and effort expended to search for a cure.” Diamond Jack grinned from ear to ear. “Your sister’s condition shares some similarities to the maladies caused by basilisks and gorgons. Flesh to stone, petrification, isn’t too different from ossification. Different enough to make it interesting, though. I can’t guarantee a reversal of the damage that’s already been done, but I’ll be able to at least slow the transformation process.”
“For how long?”
“Might get five months, might get fifty years. It all depends on how well her body takes to the medicine.”
Benjamin chewed on his lower lip so hard that he tasted blood. He wanted to help Addie, but at the cost of his own life? Not his whole life, he reminded himself fiercely–a few years at the end that he might never have seen anyway. Five years off his lifespan would be worth it to extend his sister’s, potentially by decades. He took a shaky breath, then nodded. “Okay. Let’s do this.”
Diamond Jack navigated his tent with a dancer’s grace. He hunted down empty flasks, opaque jars, packets containing roots and powders, and vials of cloudy liquids, then laid the ingredients out on his mixing table. After half an hour of mixing, distilling, and God only knew what else, Diamond Jack approached Benjamin with a murk-filled flask in one hand and a sewing needle in the other. “The final ingredient is three drops of your lifeblood. Has to be fresh.”
Benjamin held out his left hand, squeezed his eyes shut, and turned away. He’d never liked the sight of blood.
A sharp pain lanced through the side of his index finger. Diamond Jack squeezed out one drop, then two, then three.
Benjamin opened his eyes warily.
Diamond Jack capped off the flask and shook it vigorously. The potion swirled and shifted colors to a cherry red. He uncapped it, took a tentative sniff, and smiled. “That should do it. Now it’s time to extract your payment. Hold still.”
Diamond Jack touched a finger to Benjamin’s forehead and recited an incantation that sounded more like an avalanche than any human language. When he removed the finger, a glistening thread made of interwoven gold and platinum pulled away with it. He measured out five hand-lengths and cut the thread with his teeth.
Benjamin’s whole body shivered when the thread was severed. The noonday sun beat down overhead, but it did nothing to offset the wave of cold that rushed through him.
Diamond Jack swallowed the severed piece of soul-thread with an ecstatic moan. Then he waggled the potion between his thumb and forefinger. “This is meant to be taken orally, by the way. I thought about getting creative with the method of application, but you’ve been reasonably polite, so I decided to return the favor.”
Benjamin’s jaw twitched. “We’re even, right?”
“Oh, absolutely.” Diamond Jack held out the flask with a self-satisfied smirk.
Benjamin snatched up the medicine and rushed back the way he’d come, down streets and alleys toward Singh’s shop. If he couldn’t get back home, his entire journey would be for nothing.
♦ ♦ ♦
A massive griffon–Haris, a Bazaar courier–sat in Singh’s place inside the memory shop. Her hulking frame and widespread wings barely fit inside the booth. Benjamin rushed up to the counter. “Where’s Singh? I need to buy a memory.”
Haris blinked nonchalantly at Benjamin, licked a lion-paw, and used the glistening saliva to prune the eagle-feathers that adorned her head. “Singh is gone. Some idiot human traded her a memory of how to leave this place, so she sold me her booth and went on her merry way.”
The blood drained from Benjamin’s cheeks. He clenched white-knuckled fists as the full ramifications of Haris’ words hit him. Singh had stolen his memory of how to get home, and he had no way to get it back.
Haris chortled. “I take it you’re the idiot.”
“I have to get home. My sister needs me!”
“You can’t leave the Bazaar unless you know the way out. Some of the peddlers have been here so long they forget how to leave entirely. Or they trade the knowledge like you did, not knowing what it costs them, or someone steals it, or–”
“Okay, okay, I get the picture.” Benjamin let out a frustrated huff. “Do you know the way out?”
The griffin ruffled her feathers and fur proudly. “Of course! Every courier knows at least a dozen ways to and from the mortal realm.”
“Can you take me?”
Haris thought on the matter long and hard. “I could, but I’d want something in return.” She licked the edges of her beak. “Your heart.”
Benjamin swallowed hard. “What?”
“I want your heart. Don’t worry–you won’t die, there’d be no fun in that. You’ll simply care about things a bit less.” She tilted her head to the side. “As far as the cost for leaving goes, it’s pretty light. You’re worth more to the Bazaar if you stay and trade off every bit of yourself, piece by piece. I simply want to claim the choicest meat for myself before I show you out.”
Benjamin stared at Haris, eyes wide. “Are you going to eat it?”
Haris let out an indignant grunt and puffed out her feathers. “What I do with my personal property is none of your business.” She studied Benjamin with unblinking eyes. “Do we have a deal?”
Benjamin took a shuddering breath. He didn’t want to do this–every fiber of his being screamed that he should say no–but without a guide he might wander the Bazaar for the rest of his life and never find the way out. The door only opened one day a year, and what were the odds that he’d find himself in the right place if he didn’t know where he was supposed to be? He clenched his jaw and nodded assent. “Okay, but you have to take me to the exit first.”
“I suppose that’s fair.” Haris pulled a shutter down over the front window and locked up the booth. She approached Benjamin on all fours, rubbed up against him, and chirped, “Follow me.”
Benjamin fell into step beside Haris. She led him through the maze of shops, down an alley, to a small unassuming four-foot door.
“Wherever you entered, this door will return you there.” Haris lifted a paw, claws glistening in the sunlight. “Now, take off your shirt.”
Benjamin’s pulse thundered in his ears. Haris had said that losing his heart would make him care about things less. What if it changed how he felt about Addie?
He couldn’t afford that. Nothing was worth that price.
He dove past Haris and rushed toward the door, clutching his sister’s cure like a lifeline. Haris snarled and jumped past him, blocking the doorway. “Cheat! Liar. You can’t skip out on a bargain like that!”
“It’s not a fair trade!” Benjamin swiveled and ran down the alley toward the riverwalk.
“You agreed to it. Fair doesn’t matter!” Haris tore after him, claws ripping up cobblestones in her haste.
Benjamin broached the mouth of the alley. The riverwalk stretched past him on both sides, littered with almost as many stalls as the main road, though this area received considerably less foot traffic. A wrought iron fence was all that separated Benjamin from the water.
Haris pounced at him, beak wide, claws akimbo.
Benjamin ducked and rolled away from the water, breathless with panic. Haris slammed against the fence and tumbled into the river with a surprised yelp. The splash soaked Benjamin’s back and shoulders as he retreated into the alley.
Benjamin pulled the door open. Frigid cold blasted his face. He sucked in a deep breath and dove through the doorway. He felt Haris’ breath on the back of his neck and ducked behind the red-painted wood, using the door as a makeshift shield.
Haris’ wide shoulders slammed against the doorframe behind him, too broad to squeeze through. She thrust a massive paw through the opening and raked her claws against the frame in an attempt to widen it. “Get back here, you dishonorable wretch! I’ll hunt you to the ends of the earth!”
Benjamin threw his full weight against the door and slammed it against Haris’ forelimb. She let out an agonized yelp. He rammed his weight against the wood again, and again, until her paw disappeared back through the doorway. He shoved the door closed, grabbed a brick from the alleyway, and banged it against the knob until it broke off. He scrambled out of the alley and ran down Front Street.
♦ ♦ ♦
Benjamin kept a breakneck pace all the way home. The winter winds froze his sodden jacket into an icy mold of his shoulders. A particularly strong gust slammed him against the railing of the Macomb Street bridge. Quick thinking and a firm grip were the only things that kept him from toppling into the river.
He reached his house just before sunrise. He snuck in through the back door and shrugged off his frozen jacket violently, shivering and gasping. The kitchen’s marbled linoleum floor tiles and mint green cabinets looked dismal compared to the riot of color he had witnessed at the Bazaar, but the familiarity of the place soothed him. He braced himself against the kitchen counter, took a moment to steady his nerves, and pulled the potion from his jacket pocket.
The flask was cracked. Half the medicine had already seeped through the fracture in the glass, staining the interior of his jacket a deep, bloody red.
Benjamin fought back angry tears. There were only a few swallows’ worth of medicine left. Hopefully, it would be enough.
He poured the remains of the potion through cheesecloth into Addie’s favorite cup, a neon-orange plastic tumbler. Once he was sure it was free of glass fragments, he carried it upstairs.
Addie’s bedroom door was decorated with My Little Pony decals that frolicked around a biohazard symbol. Addie had coaxed Benjamin into putting up the latter in the wake of her diagnosis. It was their own private joke–her condition wasn’t contagious.
Benjamin knocked on the door. A sleepy mumble echoed from within: “Go’way.”
If Benjamin wasn’t so worried, he would have chuckled. “Come on, Addie. I’ve got some medicine for you.” He opened the door slowly, wary of potential toy pile-ups. Addie’s room was rarely clean, and he didn’t dare spill another drop of the precious liquid he was carrying.
“Eew, no. Medicine’s icky.” Addie sat up as Benjamin entered the room; she winced at the shift in positions.
Benjamin navigated through the maze of plush toys and pony playsets, then sat beside Addie on the bed. “Come on, kiddo, it’ll help you feel better.”
A shadow encroached on the room from Addie’s bedroom window. A loud thump echoed through the room, accompanied by the cracking of glass. Benjamin jumped, jostled the cup, and took a moment to steady himself before looking.
Haris perched on the snow-covered roof outside the window. She glared at him through the glass, eyes practically aflame with rage.
Addie sat up straighter and grinned. “Look! Look! It’s Gilda!”
Benjamin felt warmth drain from his cheeks. “That’s not Gilda, kiddo.” He pressed the cup to Addie’s lips. “Come on! You have to drink this, now.”
Haris reared back and slammed her shoulder against the glass. The window’s wooden frame cracked; broken glass pelted floor and toys alike. Snow whirled into the room on icy winds.
Addie’s eyes widened. She screamed and dove off the bed, away from the window.
The cup jerked forward. Benjamin yelped and tried to steady it, but some of the potion splashed on Addie’s pillow. There was one swallow left–maybe two.
Haris lunged a paw through the window and raked massive claws across Benjamin’s shoulders. He screamed and pulled away, cradling the cup against his chest. He dove behind the bed with Addie.
Addie squatted against the wall, eyes wide, unable to bend down enough to slip completely out of Haris’ sight. “Benji? Benji, what’s going on?” She hadn’t called Benjamin that since she was two years old.
Benjamin swallowed hard. “I made a mistake, but I’m going to fix it.” He pressed the cup against Addie’s lips, fighting back tears of pain and desperation. “Please. Just drink this. Please.”
Addie stared at him, confusion in her eyes. She opened her mouth and drank.
The change was instantaneous. Color flooded her cheeks. Her posture, always so stiff since her biking accident, relaxed as she slipped into a proper crouch. Benjamin grinned and ruffled her hair. “Good girl.”
Haris snarled. “You can’t hide from me forever, boy. If you stay in there, I’ll break every door and window in the building so you freeze to death.”
Benjamin’s jaw twitched. He couldn’t let that happen. He stood up and gave Haris a level glare. “You don’t need to do that. I’ll give you what I promised. I just had to make sure my sister was safe first.”
Haris tilted her head to the side. “Sister?”
Benjamin nodded. “I needed to get her medicine, and I was worried that if you took my heart I wouldn’t care about her anymore. But she’s better now, so you can take what I owe you.” He pulled off his shirt; his skin puckered at the cold. He took a shaky breath and walked around the bed until he was within Haris’ reach.
Haris blinked, then cackled. “Stupid boy, thinking you could trick me.” She poked at his chest with her index claw. “This lump in your chest isn’t your heart.” She pointed to Addie, who was peeking up over the bed. “She is.”
Benjamin’s breath caught in his throat. “No. She’s not my heart, she’s a person. You can’t–“
Haris puffed up her crest and roared, “You dare tell me what I can and can’t do? You, who tried to rob me of my prize? If you hadn’t tried to cheat me you would have gotten off easy, but now I know you. Now I know her.” She took a moment to calm herself, then spoke to Addie, her voice saccharin-sweet. “What’s your name, little girl?”
“Come now, don’t be shy. You want to help your brother, don’t you? He certainly helped you.”
Addie swallowed hard. “If I go with you, will you leave him alone?”
Addie walked around the bed and stood beside Benjamin. Even as she trembled, she held her head high. “My name’s Addison.”
Haris reached out a paw, claws retracted, and enticingly.
Benjamin wrapped his arms around Addie, buried his face in her hair, and held her tight. “Don’t go. Please don’t go.”
Addie squirmed around to face him, kissed his forehead, and smiled. “It’s okay.” She looked at Haris. “He can visit, right?”
Haris smirked at Benjamin. “Once a year.”
Addie bit her lip, took a shaky breath, and nodded. “Okay.” She disentangled herself from Benjamin’s grasp, wrapped her rainbow-colored patchwork quilt around her shoulders like a cloak, scooped up her favorite plush unicorn, and climbed into Haris’ waiting paw.
Haris tucked Addie against her chest where feathers met fur and leapt from the roof. She plowed through the storm, her flight pattern chaotic but strong. Numbness settled into Benjamin’s chest as he watched them fly away.
It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t right!
But he could make it right. He had a whole year to prepare. He knew the names of every vendor in the Bazaar. He knew their wares. More than that, he’d learned the cost of doing business.
Benjamin stalked out of Addie’s bedroom, fists clenched. He had a lot of work to do if he was going to win his sister back.