No Solicitation! No Reapers! declares the sign to Ammit’s Emporium in large, exaggerated gothic lettering. Below it, in meticulous hand writing, it says No Rat Reapers, Either!! The door tinkles when opened, a tiny death knell for the ethereal produce inside.
It shuts behind the man in the green cape like a coffin lid. The inside is still, almost sanctified with silence. The lone figure of the proprietor lounges behind a cash till. She does not get up when he enters, and does not give him more than a passing look.
“Can I help you with something?” she asks with practiced disaffection.
“I’m shopping for fair trade souls,” the man in the green cape replies.
Her eyes roll like petulant boulders tumbling down a mountain of disdain. They land with a huff, a moan of profound exasperation.
“There are no such things as fair trade souls. There are only the departed and the damned.”
The man wrings his hands.
“But surely, you must have some... accommodation. I am a peacelocke after all,” he whinges. There was a small silence between them where the clerk stares daggers.
“We’re a growing movement.”
“Growing what? Patchouli and hemp?”
The man in the green cape chuckles weakly, as if he were in on the joke. The proprietor’s hackles raise as she shakes her Anubian head. It is a curse. Living to see the diluted generations. The man pulls an ostrich feather from his cloak and waves it tantalizingly.
“Surely, there must be some arrangement we can make.”
The clerk bristles at the vulgar display of wealth, but her demeanor softens. It is hard currency, after all.
“I have a few pieces that might meet your standards, but,” she draws herself up, “No refunds. No regrets. Once the deal is signed, you keep your ethical dilemmas to yourself.”
The peacelocke licks his lips, “Sure.”
“Very well,” the clerk smiles, revealing a set of well-polished fangs, “Come with me.”
She takes the man to the back of the store where the fresh souls are kept in a walk in humidor. She unseals it with a delicate touch, the elegant charms of a studied hand. The man in the green cape follows closely. It smells of must and grave dirt. Fresh dead. The clerk takes a papyrus catalogue from its case.
“Magic is best aligned with a sympathetic soul. Is there a particular incantation you’re looking to power?”
The man fusses with his green cape.
“Nothing particular. Looking to spread peace, mindfulness, understanding,” he forces a cough. The clerk looks at him through eyes glassy and dark. Her fanged smile is fixed in her muzzle.
“I believe we can a accommodate that. You’ll need a strong soul to spread that kind of... positivity. Right here, we have a rare specimen. The life of this soul was full of valiant battle, clever stratagem, and luck. The soul was traded for a boot of gold.”
“Was he renowned?”
The clerk licks her chops, “Well, some considered him a war hero.”
The peacelocke looks down, “No, I can’t steal a hero’s soul.”
“It’s not stealing if he sold it.”
The man in the green cloak clears his throat.
“Very well. This lot right here comes from a talented artist. Fine fingered. He traded his essence for a string lesson. It was a playful tune. Beautiful harmony. It’s brought a lot of happiness to the world. Surely, it could spread more in the right hands.”
The man in the green cloak looks at the soul hungrily. It glows in the amber bauble encasing it. Shines golden in the dank half-light of the store. His eyes glimmer synchronously.
“An artist can do great work. Even beyond his time...”
“Oh indeed. I’m sure he’d love to extend his legacy.”
Red lines seem to crack the porcelain marbles in his sockets. The clerk is close to a sale.
“Did he know? Was it voluntary?”
“Well it was a dream. He understood, more or less, within the oneiric constraints, of course.”
He shakes his head.
“No, no. They can’t have been beguiled or misled.”
It slips through her fingers like the grains of sands of glass that has not yet been.
“This one, here, is a bit less prominent in accomplishment, but I believe that he meets your criteria. A Whanganui man traded his soul for a pizza. Surely that’s as transparent a transaction as can be.”
The soul glows softly in a small geode. Lacks the brilliance of its more august peers.
“Did he know?”
“He got the pizza.”
“But did he know it was more than a sales gimmick?”
She frowns for the first time since seeing the feather. Her flews sagged over the marbled canines of her glee. The feather is further out of reach now, and without it the chance to replenish her stocks.
“How about a banker. He traded his spirit for the ability to defraud thousands of their pensions, in order to generate a huge trading bonus. He said it was worth his weight in gold.”
She catches her breath.
“They were complicit. They still live in that mansion, employ pauperized neighbors as servants.”
His eyes bulge. She sees the desire. It is wanton, barely restrained. Magic is like dancing. It cannot be done without soul. And souls are a finite resource, must be harvested as surely as the paper for books or wheat for bread. It is more renewable than oil, more plentiful than sand. Many would take it without second thought, like sipping water. This man is caught in the trap of conscience.
“You must. You will need to, eventually.”
His lips are dry. His runs his tongue along their jagged edges. Scratches his chest and blinks more often than is normal. Salted tears pool at the corners of his sight. A misted border he could transcend with a simple affirmation.
The man returns the feather to his pocket. It is her turn to pant with want, tongue lolling.
“Perhaps there is something else I can interest you in? Something a little less controversial?”
The man pulls his hood up, draws the cloak closer around his shoulders.
“Thank you,” he says as he turns to go. She wishes to rage at him. To tell him not to deny this gift. To sip of the Bourassa and practice his boka with abandon, for tomorrow he might find the residue of himself imbued into a stone. It is the circle that sustains us. That empowers us.
“Of course. Return any time.”
He nods as he leaves. Stronger today. Seeking that loophole that allows him to live with himself. He will return, feather in hand, willing to pay any price for the dreams she hawks.