His front hooves were neat and dexterous and opposable, and his back hooves were the size of dinner plates and had unassuming steel shoes. He had a pale grey hide and pale pink nostrils, and ears like enormous fringed fans, and if you lifted up his cowl far enough, you would find large, slightly worried brown eyes, with the devastatingly long eyelashes reserved for beauty queens and large ungulates. He was a small, neat-footed donkey who kept his elbows tucked in and could vanish into a crowd much more easily than a bipedal donkey wearing a yellow robe with checkerboard edging had any right to do.
He had a goldfish in a plastic bag. She was a small, neat-finned goldfish with kinder eyes than are usual among fish. Quick was only guessing about the “she” pronoun. He wasn’t sure how to tell the difference, or if it mattered one way or the other. Well, it probably mattered to another goldfish. He wasn’t sure if the kindness of the goldfish’s eyes was really there, or if he was starting to go—-well, not crazy, per se, but a little off, the way people get when they haven’t talked to another person in a long time, and the things inside their head start to take up entirely too much space. It had been a stressful few weeks. He wasn’t sure how many weeks, but he was definitely sure they had been stressful.
He wasn’t sure of much else, these days, particularly not how the ripe pear and the assassins fit into the whole situation.
He was quite sure that he’d heard the fish talking the first time, though. The other times, yes, it had been dark and a little crazy and if you shoved a copy of the Book of Muses under his hoof, he couldn’t have sworn to it. But that first time, when he’d seen the forlorn little plastic bag laid out on an aging carpet, the fish had definitely spoken to him.
The aging and dingy carpet had been in an aging and dingy bazaar, with an aging and dingy man sitting cross-legged on it. The carpet was an indeterminate grimy red and frayed badly at the edges, and the man had thick half-moons of dirt under his fingernails, and toenails that looked more hoof-like than Quick's. The rest of the carpet had been taken up with elaborately curved knives with paste jewels and cheap Pakistani steel, and large, ill-defined contraptions of brass and nozzles and looping hoses. Amid all the dirty brass and gold paint, the goldfish had been so non-onstentatious that she stood out immediately, like a single peahen in a flock of peacocks.
Quick did not need a tourist knife, and suspected that if he knew what the multi-nozzled brass contraptions were, he would not need one of those, either. He definitely didn’t need a goldfish, which is the worst possible sort of pet for a desert. He had only slowed down out of surprise at seeing a goldfish bag on a carpet, and his hooves were carrying him past the carpet with the cheerful clink of steel shoes on cobblestones, when the goldfish spoke to him.
“Are you pins?”
Quick paused. The voice had been right there, as if someone had leaned over and whispered directly into one long white ear, without stirring the delicate fringe of hair that lined them.
“Are you pins?”
It was a very odd question to ask someone, thought Quick vaguely, although “pins” might conceivably be slang for just about anything. Are you looking for a good time/a bad time/drugs/a live chicken/a dead chicken/a political revolution/a new religion/a game/a room for the night/a budget assassin? Are you pins, man?
“Are you pins?” the voice said again, a small, sad, female voice. And then, “No, you’re not. I’m sorry. I can’t see very well. Where is pins?”
Quick wheeled around, his ears swiveling, and yet there was no one there. There were people in the bazaar, but not a crowd—-it was too late in the day, getting on dusk, and not yet getting busy again with the tavern crowd.
“Who said that?” he said, almost to himself.
“Me,” said the voice, with a watery, glurghing rush of a noise. “Is pins there? I haven’t seen him in a long time.”
Ah, thought Quick, Pins is a person. One mystery solved, although where the voice was coming from was still anyone’s guess. He turned around in place with a clitter-clatter of hooves. There was still no one there.
The man with the dirty fingernails opened one eye, looked at Quick with vague disinterest, and closed them again, exhausted by this effort. The odds of such a meek, feminine little voice emerging from that scabbed and unwashed throat did not seem good, although Quick had heard stranger things in his life, and didn’t feel it was his place to judge such things.
“Excuse me?” said Quick politely. (He was a very polite donkey, having been raised by a redoubtable tyrant of a greataunt, who wielded courtesy with the lethal weight and pinpoint accuracy of a three-hundred pound ninja with a sledgehammer.)
The man ignored him. The brass contraptions gleamed inscrutably.
“Pins…” said the little voice sadly.
“Did you say something?” asked Quick again.
The man with dirty fingernails, without opening his eyes, spat with remarkable precision on Quick’s left hoof.
“I said it,” said the voice, and the goldfish jumped into the inch of free air in the top of the plastic bag and fell back with a small gloop!
“Excuse me?” he said, almost to himself.
“Me! Here!” said the voice, and the fish jumped again, and circled agitatedly inside the bag.
Quick found that he had nothing to say. Either the goldfish was indeed talking, or it had been a bizarre coincidence, or someone was playing an elaborate joke of inscrutable purpose, or, entirely without warning, he’d gone stark raving mad.
No matter which it was, he found himself at a loss for words.
“I haven’t seen him in days,” said the goldfish mournfully. “I want to go home.”
Quick stared down at the goldfish. It was an unremarkable goldfish, remarkable only for being a goldfish, in a climate more suited to camels and lizards and bat-eared foxes. It thrashed its translucent tail and turned its back on him.
“How much for the fish?” he heard himself ask.
The man with dirty fingernails spat, again with closed eyes and great accuracy, on Quick’s right hoof.
“Sir,” said Quick, with tight control, “I would like to buy something. How much is the goldfish?”
“In’tfrsale,” the man muttered. His voice had a thick, bubbling quality, forced up through clogged and unhealthy lungs, nothing at all like the goldfish. If there was a ventriloquist about, it probably wasn’t him. Of course, the bazaar, despite being half-closed down, was full of faded tents and thick hangings, heavy pots and baskets and half-empty wagons, and could have hid an entire army of rogue ventriloquists, and any pet elephants they happened to have on hand.
Unseen in the depths of his cowl, a faint, irritated line formed between Quick’s eyes.
“What about this...brass thing...on the end, here?” One hooved hand emerged from his wide sleeve and pointed at one of the brass contraptions at random.
“Sixhun’red suls.” The man did not open his eyes to see which one Quick was looking at, which was admittedly a neat trick.
“I could buy most of a camel for that.”
“G’buy ‘unthen,” gurgled the man.
“I’ll give you three hundred for the brass thing, if you throw in the goldfish.”
This isn’t like me, thought Quick. I don’t need a goldfish. I don’t have any place to keep one. I have five hundred and twenty suls to my name. No possible good can come of me buying a goldfish. “Five hundred for the goldfish, and keep the brass thing.”
“N’tfrsale!” said the man again, getting incensed enough to actually open one eyelid.
“Why not?” asked Quick reasonably. “Why do you have it out, if it isn’t for sale?”
“Dwantn’buddystealin’it,” gurgled the man angrily, and hawked again. Quick, having heard the sound twice already, sidestepped, and before he quite knew what he was doing, he had reached down, snatched up the top of the plastic bag, and taken off at a dead run.