Jacky loved eyes more than anything else.
She moved through the market, watching the eyes. The men, she could see their hands, their necks, their beards, their ears, their long hair braided outside of their white robes. The women, all she could see was the eyes.
Eyes watching eyes: all over the market, all across a square mile under the highland sun, people were watching people’s eyes, as they bartered, as they bantered, as they pondered how to get along or how to get around each other. They had lived here for thousands of years, lived just this way, these people with their brown eyes and their black hair and their white robes and their little horses and their scrawny sheep and their bright curved knives. Thousands of years: Jacky had not spent three weeks in the same world in many—well, in a long time.
She scanned, she watched, she glanced. She looked up: she was moving past a little booth with a little patch of shade from the merciless highland sun. A man with a long stringy grey and brown beard was watching her with a disdain that bordered on malice. As soon as she met his brown eyes, he switched his face to a smile, but the eyes remained disdainful. He held a length of whitest cloth.
She bowed a little to him, and pulled her scarf a little forward over most of her own black hair. She put her hands together, palms up, and said, not letting go his eyes, “May I?”
Those eyes warmed ten degrees. “Of course,” he muttered.
She took the cloth and felt it, pulled it through her hands. She had spoken his language, she had reminded him of her concession to his people’s ways; he was never going to not know she was from away, so why cover her work shirt and jeans and boots in a robe just to talk to him? He knew all this. She looked at the cloth, and then she met his eyes again. He smiled. She smiled.
“If the lady would wait just a moment,” he said in a low voice, as if speaking something shameful, “your humble servant has a bright cloth she might wish for.”
“A print?” she asked.
He almost laughed at her. He quelled his mirth and said, “A tapestry. It is from Mahash, over the mountains. Shall I?”
“I would be honored,” said Jacky.
“Just a small moment,” said the man. He turned and pushed back through a curtain, which gave him what must have been a tiny inner booth. She looked around.
The eyes were on her. There were many, as always. Brown eyes, almost black or almost amber, women who showed no more than eyes and the bridge of a young nose, men whose eyes hid deep in wrinkly faces, children, boys and girls, who ran with smiling eyes or scared, suspicious eyes, the big eyes of small horses, the strange eyes of goats and sheep.
Jacky looked across that optic panorama. She was not challenging anyone’s eyes, not today. She who had challenged the eyes of the Lady, Lakanth in the heart of Sinafror, she who had met the eyes of the schoolmaster Photius, in conference or in conflict, she who had met and defeated so many eyes, she who had fallen in love with so many eyes, she who had fallen in love so many times.
A woman’s eyes smiled. A little ways away, a young stone seller’s eyes smiled. A pair of children smiled, with eyes and mouths, then laughed and ran on. She smiled at them.
She scanned to the left. There. Those eyes.
They vanished. Her heart jumped into her throat. She stepped left, still holding the white cloth. She held it up, then let it unfurl a little.
She had a spell ready: she had several, actually. She needed no wand: she had long disdained such stuff. But here, in the middle of the market, under this unforgiving sun, under all those eyes: no, no spell.
Jacky bent to lay the white cloth back respectfully on the table. She put her hand down to her boot.
She stood and looked a little further to the left. Those eyes, those green eyes, between horses.
She unfolded. From her right hand flew that little paring knife of hers. The young man selling stones and one of the women: their eyes were fast enough to follow that paring knife, which Jacky had used just yesterday to cut up an apple. They saw what it did, and then they looked back at Jacky, changing their appraisal again.
She turned back to the man with the beard. He had just come back through his curtain, carrying several folded tapestries over his arms. His eyes went from where that knife had flown back to Jacky’s blue eyes.
“Perhaps,” he said, setting down his burden and lifting one tapestry, of a hunt with a lord and a lady with bows, “this might be what one is looking for?”
“Yes,” said Jacky, giving it a fair assessment. “Yes, I think this would be excellent.” She smiled at him: they were the same height. “I prefer not to haggle,” she said, finally fully meeting his brown eyes. “Name your price.”
Paul J Gies, 19 August 2016