Storyteller didn’t know quite how to respond. He merely stood frozen as the man in front of him continued to bark orders in a language he couldn’t understand.
“Ni xiang si ma?” the man yelled, grabbing Storyteller with his free hand. “Nimen quxi!”
“We don’t understand you!” screamed Archivist. “You can’t kill us because we don’t understand you!”
Another guard approached Pathfinder, trying to force her to the ground. “Knock it off!” she yelled, shaking free of his grasp. “We’re not raiders. We’re here to see Fanghuo.”
“Shenme?” The guard turned back to the others. “Nimen renshi ta?”
“Tuirang.” The men stepped back, lowering their weapons while still keeping all eyes on the three intruders. Another man stepped forward, gesturing for the others to hold their ground. He was a lean, dusky man with short dark hair, small but also well-built. His garb was similar to that of the scavengers, topped with a short cape embroidered with a large flower. A small revolver and a knife stuck out of his belt. With a deliberate pace, he approached Pathfinder. “How do you know this name?”
“We’ve met,” said Pathfinder. “I have an injured woman here. Will Fanghuo give us aid?”
The man paused for a moment, studying the group of outsiders. “We shall see.” He gestured to the other guards, who returned to their original positions. “I am called Lieren. Come, we will talk to Fanghuo.” Lieren looked at a nearby pile of refuse, pulling out a rickety but still usable wheelchair. “For the injured woman.”
After Storyteller helped Archivist into the chair, the four of them proceeded through the gates of the city. The darkness of the narrow corridor gave way to an city square, the streets filled with an unusual illumination. Despite the late hour, there was ample activity. The footpaths were lined with stalls selling everything imaginable – ranging from food and scrap material to books, artwork, and exotic products that Storyteller couldn’t believe still existed. The whole scene was lit with bare electric bulbs, powered by some unseen energy source. At the center of it all was a massive stone obelisk, its surface completely blank.
Archivist looked about in awe. “You have electricity here.”
“We have many things here,” said Lieren. He stepped towards a guarded gate, leading deeper into the city. “I must consult with Fanghuo. Wait here until I return.” He vanished through the gate, leaving the rest of the group to wait.
Storyteller turned towards Pathfinder. “How is it that you know so much about this place?”
“I’ve been here many times,” said Pathfinder. “Middle Market is a secret to most of the world, but it’s well known to scavengers and scouts. You’re standing in the home of Great Lotus company, the biggest trading concern in the known wastes.”
“So you know the person who runs this place?” asked Archivist.
“Everyone knows her. The question is if she remembers that we met.” Pathfinder took a seat on a set of stairs. “Most of the world calls her Orchid, but the people around here have a different name.”
“Fanghuo?” said Archivist.
“You know what that means?” said Pathfinder. “Fireproof. See, the story is that Orchid was in an airplane when the disaster hit. The plane goes down, killing everyone on board – except Orchid, who emerges unscathed. I don’t buy it, but they take it as truth around here. They worship her like some kind of goddess. And every year, a few more people find their way here, all of them looking for a place where their language and culture are better understood.”
“I’ve heard of enclaves like that in the wastes. I’ve just never seen one.” Storyteller stared down the well-lit street. “And I can’t imagine that many of them are this spectacular.”
“The Fireproof one brought the gift of cold flame,” said Pathfinder. “At least, that the way the people around here see it.”
The gates swung open, and Lieren emerged. “Fanghuo wishes to speak with you. Follow me, do not stray.”
The three of them followed Lieren through the gate. “Well, this is unusual,” said Pathfinder.
“In what way?” asked Storyteller.
“Middle Market is divided into three wards,” said Pathfinder. “That was the outer ward, where anyone can go. Ahead is the middle ward, which is usually just for members of the company. Sometimes they let some scavengers in, but never this quickly.”
“But that’s a good thing, right?” said Archivist.
“Possibly.” Pathfinder took a deep breath. “But you should be very careful. The people here worship this woman, remember. And Orchid herself is…not always so pleasant to deal with. Just watch what you say and do.”
The group emerged through the inner gates and entered the middle ward. This area was more organized, consisting of a series of restored buildings adorned with carvings or banners of the lotus. Connecting the buildings was a dais – some ten feet high – constructed from the wrecked fuselage of a jumbo jet, the wings bordering a set of stairs that led to another gate.
“One moment.” Lieren climbed up an unseen ramp to the top of the dais, standing beside the stairs. “Fanghuo Huangdi arrives. Nimen fucong ta de quanli.”
Everyone in the street stopped immediately, staring up at the gate. As it swung open, each of them fell to their knees penitently. Somewhere above him, Storyteller could hear the sound of footsteps, growing louder and louder. Finally, a figure appeared at the edge of the dais alongside Lieren. She was an older woman – older even than Storyteller – with shoulder-length black hair and cold almond eyes. She wore a long robe, embroidered with the flowers that symbolized her trading group. On her head was a crown, painstakingly wrought from an aquamarine stone that Storyteller could not identify.
Orchid silently examined the group from her perch. Finally, she spoke. “You are a trail scout, yes?”
“That’s right,” said Pathfinder. “You gave me permission to come here, remember?”
“No,” said Orchid, “but it’s acceptable for you to be here. What about the others?”
Archivist wheeled herself closer. “I’m Archivist, ma’am. From Westhigh?”
“She’s why we’re here,” said Pathfinder. “We were attacked by raiders, and during the fight she fell and injured her knee. We’d like to stay until she can walk again.”
Orchid sighed and shut her eyes. Several seconds passed before she spoke again. “…Very well. I won’t turn her out. But what about the man? He’s not injured and he’s clearly not a trader.”
“I am called Storyteller,” he said. “I was traveling with Pathfinder to Scrapland.”
“Storyteller?” Lieren turned to Orchid. “Zhengfu Zhe sousuo youren jiao Shuoshu Ren!”
“Wo sihu haipa ma?” responded Orchid, waving him away. She turned back to Storyteller. “What have you brought here?”
Storyteller glanced at Archivist’s backpack. “This is a collection of data discs. We were hoping to find a computer in Scrapland to read them.”
Orchid nodded. “And the smaller bag?”
“Merely my personal belongings,” said Storyteller.
“Come up here and let me see,” said Orchid.
Storyteller glanced at Pathfinder, hoping for some guidance. “Go ahead,” said Pathfinder. “She made a request.”
Reluctantly, Storyteller ascended the ramp to the dais. At the top, Lieren took Storyteller’s bag and opened it for Orchid to examine the contents. She reached inside and plucked out the notebook, flipping it open and studying it.
“Please don’t take that,” said Storyteller. “I’ve been through a lot to keep it.”
“Show respect!” shouted Lieren, shoving Storyteller back.
“At ease, Lieren,” said Orchid, continuing to flip through the notebook. “This is a work of fiction.”
“That’s right,” said Storyteller, staring tensely at his notebook. “I’ve been working on it for years.”
Orchid flipped the notebook shut. “You’ll get it back once I’ve had a chance to read it.”
“Well, I had not planned to stay very long,” said Storyteller. “I don’t think anyone could read it so quickly.”
“I can.” Orchid turned back to the staircase. “They’re your business, Lieren.”
“Yes, Fanghuo Huangdi.” Lieren walked down the ramp, gesturing for Storyteller and the others to follow. “We go to the living quarters.”
The group followed Lieren back into the outer ward and into a cluster of buildings. They had once been houses of some kind, but had been restored and repurposed into a communal gathering and living space. Lieren guided them into a small, lightly decorated room in the back of one of the buildings. It featured a bed, a few chairs, and a single light bulb, the controls wired into a panel somewhere outside of the room.
“Wait here. I will fetch a healer.” Lieren turned and exited the room.
Archivist leaned back in her chair, staring up at the light bulb. “This place is amazing…damn it, I wish I could walk around and see more.”
“I probably should go out, anyway,” said Pathfinder. “We’re out of food. Storyteller, want to give me a hand?”
“I shouldn’t leave Archivist here alone,” said Storyteller.
“Go ahead!” said Archivist with a smile. “Maybe I can’t see this stuff first-hand, but you can take it in and describe it to me. Come on, do me a favor.”
Storyteller laughed. “All right, if you insist.” He looked over at Pathfinder. “Is there anything else I should know?”
“One thing,” said Pathfinder. “Never smile. They take it as a sign of weakness.”
“Oh.” Storyteller’s expression immediately faded.
“I’m just kidding,” said Pathfinder. “They’re just normal people, and it’s just a normal place. Trust me, you’ll like it.”