Coming back to their hometown to visit, Sharra had always claimed these markets, these rows of stalls in this strange town in a strange country, were magical. He’d always thought it was only the sort of hyperbolic claim you made when there was enough of the exotic in the air to make your head spin with wonder, but here, in the midst of it, he was suddenly not so certain anymore. The air smelled of cinnamon and cloves and a dozen other spices he couldn’t name. The merchants offered their wares in voices raised to carry over their neighbors’, a parrot-like cacaphony emphasized by the colorful, embroidered silks they wore.
That all could fall into exotic, addle-your-mind-with-wonder mundanity. But beneath it, carried on the tune of unseen drums and bells and güiros, was that undefinable quality that had made Sharra return again and again, like a whiff of another reality, just barely out of his nose’s reach. He wandered down the dusty, beaten dirt, weaving around the natives going about their business as though he didn’t exist, marveling at the offerings in the crowded-together stalls to either side and fancying he had to look to the locals a little bit like a savage seeing a string of glass beads for the first time.
But no sign of Sharra.
All he could do was follow the not-scent of the magic, hoping that it might lead him to the same thing that had lured her in. It was starting to make the hair on the back of his neck tingle, and sweat was breaking out in his hairline – several times he had to stop and wipe it out of his eyes – as though the haunting tunes that teased him along were working his body into a fever pitch. Tongue dry, he stopped at a stall nearly at random – the woman-he-thought behind it was wrapped in so much silk he could only see a pair of soulful, heavily-lashed sapphire eyes, and the embroidery seemed to depict a forest whose snow-white denizens disappeared out of view if he tried to look straight at them. A strange technique, that; he’d never seen a pattern like that anywhere before.
She handed him a cup that he took for well-polished tin at first, her hands hidden by the long sleeves of her curiously-patterned garment. In it sloshed a liquid slightly thicker than water, whose color seemed to change much like the white creatures on the woman’s clothes moved – whenever his eyes or his mind seemed to settle on one color, it started seeming more like another. Red, orange, yellow. He took a sip, tasting like life and sunlight and warmth, spreading a tingling sense of spring-sun energy through his limbs, all the way to his fingertips. Green, blue, it tasted like nature, like the fields and forests and glittering rivers of the countryside he’d arrived through. Indigo, violet, the flavor of the sky, of night, of the moon and stars.
“Drink up,” the woman urged, and her voice was another harmony to the magic-music, so much stronger now, its scent almost within reach. He couldn’t resist that command, tilting the cup back and tipping a dizzying swirl of colors down his parched throat, feeling them dance through his every fiber.
The natives walked around him without seeming to see him. The woman wearing a forest of secrets smiled, beckoning him closer, and he followed as though in a dream.
She brushed the fabric covering her face aside for just a moment, and her kiss sent star-bright pain lancing into his forehead. The market around him blurred and spun, turning into the same rainbow swirl as he’d swallowed out of her cup, until he could stand it no longer and squeezed his eyes shut, sinking to the ground in front of her stall and finding nobody rushing to his aid. Was this what had happened to Sharra? Had she been poisoned by some strange veiled native woman?
He lay there, and didn’t die. When the bustle of the market died down around him, and he could feel the cool moonlight caress his cheek, he opened his eyes. Gone was the market, leaving not even the traces behind that would have been there in night-time. In its place were trees like the ones he’d seen embroidered, curling and alien like the tapestries of a darker age, but strangely comforting.
He heard water, a singing brook, beyond the nearest stand of trees, and walked towards the sound because it provided him with a direction. The brook was crystal clear and cool, and fed into a pond that reflected the night sky through the latticework of artfully interwoven leaves and branches that leaned over the water. Looking down into its mirror face, the gaze that met his was unfamiliar yet filled him with a sense of triumph.
He’d found the magic, Sharra’s magic. He was the magic.
Covered in fur as white as starlight, with a golden-crystal spiral horn on his forehead and dainty, split ivory hooves, he’d not only found but become this land’s marvelous secret. His long tail had the noble grace of the lion whose characteristics it built upon, and his mane, a fine rainbow silk, was the stuff from which dreams were woven.
He had a long drink of the brook’s water, then started walking. As long as she waited for him, he knew he could find Sharra.