Andrus entered the market at dusk, just as the craftsmen and traders were beginning to put away their wares. To his left, a stolid matron argued prices with an older woman; neither sounded angry, but they both looked tired and strained. Further ahead, a young man was making arrangements with a coppersmith, while the gleaming wares lay spread on the rug between them. This, it seemed, was a larger job, and they must have already settled on a price; they were discussing suitable times for delivery. Looking closer, Andrus identified the young man as Merius, a trader who taken over his father's concerns and seemed to be doing well by them. As traders went, he was said to be honest enough -- and very reliable.
"Eggs, father?" asked Avilius, walking steadily at his side. The boy was big enough to keep up with Andrus' pace without seeming to hurry, but still young enough to consider an outing with his father a special event.
"If there are any left," answered Andrus. "Keep a sharp eye, son."
Avilius nodded seriously -- at this age, he did a lot of things seriously -- and set to watching the stalls around them as they walked.
Ahead, Andrus spotted old Melissa, stooping to gather the bowls and packets of herbs she had set out on her selling-blanket. He turned automatically, and Avilius followed. For all her years -- and she must be approaching a full century -- she saw them immediately and sat back as they approached. Her hair was white and thin, and her features ruinously old, but her eyes, like her thoughts, remained dark and sharp.
"Young Andrus," she greeted him, "and Avilius, more handsome by the day, like your father."
Andrus answered with an amused grunt. He was no elder, but nobody else in the city would call him young. His build was still neat and solid, and he still moved easily, but his hair was thoroughly gray and years in the sun had given him a weathered face covered in a roadmap of wrinkles. Avilius, of course, grinned and stepped closer, kissing old Melissa once on each cheek. The grin they received in return was wide and fierce and joyful, brightening the gathering evening. "Is there anything you need?" she asked.
"You have sage? Or Saffron?" Andrus took a seat across from Melissa, and Avilius promptly planted himself at his father's side.
"Both, as it happens." Melissa leaned forward, conspiratorially. "The gods favor us both, I think. You, for you'll have some of the best around, and for myself it's a bit of money and less to carry."
"Watch your tongue," Andrus said, but the words weren't sharp. "There's only one proper worship, and the trade inspectors may not realize that you jest."
Melissa met his eyes for a single, fraught moment. He knew she wasn't jesting, and she knew that he knew. She was old enough that she had little to lose, but she knew he had a family to protect. After a moment, she lowered her eyes. "Too true. They aren't known for their sense of humor. A silver, then?"
Andrus nodded. It seemed high, but he knew Melissa would never cheat him. No, everything was more expensive, and there seemed to be less available every year; they paid more and more for less and less. What misfortune didn't take, the governor's taxes or the merchant's exorbitant prices did. Small markets like this one grew emptier, quieter; he wondered again what sort of world he was leaving for his children, and what he could do to change it.
With a sigh, he reached for his purse. As his hand came back up with the silver piece, another hand fell on it. Andrus went still: this hand wore a heavy leather glove, with copper disks to protect the back, and the arm above it was covered in a copper bracer. Trade inspectors, or their guards. Same things. He sat still, waiting.