After a while, the boxes all began to look the same. Everything glittered in the sunlight, including the glass that kept the stones out of reach. Most of the gems that lay within the boxes were inferior; Medreal knew that simply because they were visible. Anything of real value would be stored elsewhere, hidden away where only serious buyers would be offered a look.
“Is the lady looking for something in particular?” The stall’s keeper smiled in the too-toothy, crinkle-eyed way of a man trying too hard to seem pleasant.
The smile she gave him in return was tight-lipped. “A gift,” she said, yet unsure how much she wanted to reveal. “Something my personal jeweler can set once I am sure it will suit its recipient’s needs.”
The man’s cheerful expression never wavered, but the glint in his eye spoke, too. He would lose money in his setting services, which meant the price he gave her on the stone would suffer. Still, she was unwilling to let unfamiliar hands touch the stone once she did what she must.
“And who is it you shop for today? A relative? A friend? And a special occasion?”
“A grandchild, for kindness. An heirloom to pass down.” It was all the more she would give him. Love meant that price did not matter; something to remain in the family meant she would not tolerate inferior quality. “I have a notion of what I would like, but none of these will do.” She waved a hand at the glass cases.
The merchant made a small, thoughtful sound. “What is your preference, then?”
“Nothing opaque. No jade or carnelian or anything of that variety. Masculine colors, a smooth cabochon or stone, no facets. Clarity without inclusions, or else it must be rutilated, or chatoyant.”
As she added to her list, the man’s face fell. “An unusual vision.”
Medreal smiled. “It is for an unusual child.”
“Hm,” was all the merchant said. He perused the boxes hidden beneath his counter for a time before he spread a cloth atop the glass display and lifted a locked container into view.
She waited, patient, as he jostled his keys and found the right one for the lock.
“Perhaps one of these,” the man suggested as he opened the lid and turned the box so its contents caught the light.
Medreal leaned closer to look. A handful of tiny polished stones waited inside, a combination of colors and qualities that offered nothing of interest. “Perhaps something larger?” She held her fingers apart an inch, suggesting a substantial increase.
“Of course.” He clapped the box shut and tried another. This one proved more promising. An array of rounded stones arranged on a tray of black wool felt greeted her eyes.
She reached for one, then paused. “May I?”
His too-wide smile returned. “Of course.”
She plucked an amethyst cabochon from the tray and held it to the light. It was good quality, relatively clear, but the few cloudy spots it contained ruled it out. “This is better,” she said as she took another stone from the tray. “Now to find something that captures the right spirit.”
A smoky quartz bore a bold crack inside; it caught the light in an attractive manner, but would respond to her work unpredictably. A dark blue corundum was closer, but smaller than she would have preferred. A medium-sized piece of tiger’s eye gave her pause, and she rested a finger on it for a long moment. The clear lines would offer natural direction for the flow of magic, allowing for a stronger effect.
“More?” The merchant removed a second tray from a box and extended it toward her. The iridescence of a stone in the center caught her eye.
“Oh.” Medreal plucked it from the wool.
The stone shimmered black and blue with tinges of green and yellow when she tilted it in the light. The striations hovered in a smoky translucent field.
“Pretty, no? Unusual enough?” A glitter in the merchant’s eye told her she’d been too eager.
With the way the stone buzzed between her fingertips, as if aware of her power and what she meant to do, she wasn’t sure she cared.
Nonetheless, she gathered her wits enough to reply. “You’ve oiled it.”
“To protect it,” the man said. “It’s a delicate stone, like opal.”
“Oil enhances the color of an inferior stone.” Not that this was inferior for her needs. It almost begged for her work.
“I cut that stone myself along the best natural facet,” he protested.
Medreal sniffed. “It could be hiding fractures.”
Chatoyancy would help, but a crack wouldn’t do. She lifted the stone to the light again, masking the way she explored it with her energy. It was whole, sound. It was perfect.
“Fourteen mainland quad,” the merchant said without further defense.
Medreal scoffed. “It’s worth no more than six.”
“I can offer you twelve.”
“Eight would be more than generous.”
“Eight would mean I work for free.”
She frowned at him. He stared back.
When it became clear she wouldn’t budge, he sighed. “Ten.”
She curled her fingers closed around the stone and removed her purse from her belt. It bulged, ready for the day’s needs, though she rarely carried more than necessary. Then again, she rarely ventured outside the palace at all. One by one, she counted the square copper coins into the palm of his extended hand.
“Nine,” she said as she placed the last one.
He waved her away, a sour twist to his mouth. He was unhappy. She’d still overpaid.
Regardless, the hum of the stone in her hand–the presence of its potential power, the magic she would coax to the surface–left her satisfied.
As she strode back toward the shadows cast from the spires of Ilmenhith’s palace, she lifted the stone to the light once more.
“To capture the spirit,” she murmured to herself. The stone shimmered and flashed, bright with fire that so reminded her of the fire in the boy. It changed colors when it tilted, from blue to tones of gold, then to nothing at all. “The essence of change.”
Medreal clutched the stone to her chest and allowed herself a sigh.
The stone was perfect, but she hated its necessity.