Snake Charmer

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The ghosts come out when the sand grows cold. They gather to the fires at the city gates and warm their pale hands at the flames dancing to the music of the west wind. They come for the warmth, for the gossip of the soldiers, and the dreams of those stupid enough to leave their windows open after the shadows fall.

Dalia told me that. She sits at the doors of the inns and coffee houses, telling strange stories to men who press coins into her wrinkled palm. She tells her stories to me whenever I pass, although I never give her any money. She says I’m a luck-charmer, that I carry spirits in my pockets and know the names of the stars.

I’ve only ever named one star. I named it for my Amma while she was dying, but the gods took her anyway. I don’t believe in naming stars, or carrying spirits in my pockets, but I listen to Dalia’s stories anyway.

Perhaps even a snake-charmer needs a little luck now and again.

The slave market is well-lit. Torches are staked into the sand all around the wooden platform, and a fire burns in the pit behind it. I’m late coming, and it’s so crowded that I can’t find a way through the crowd. I have to be in front, right before the platform if I want to be heard and seen tonight, because who listens to a girl with the tattoos of a slave on her wrists and throat at an auction? Besides, I really do have money. Most slaves don’t carry it, but Emir says I’m not so much his slave as I am his apprentice, so I can carry his money whenever I like.

I try to push my way to the front, but the other buyers are all men and all taller than I am. One of them doesn’t like being shouldered aside by a female slave, and he slaps the back of my head so hard that I taste blood. I’d curse him for it, but I don’t have time.

Savina leaves her pouch when I whistle for her. She slithers up my tunic, coiling around my left arm and my throat, and her smooth scales rasp against the necklace Emir makes me wear for the crowds. The man who slapped me glances my way, and his face loses its color as Savina raises her head, swaying to my almost noiseless humming. He backs away hurriedly, and a path to the front clears as if by magic. I pick my way through slowly, careful not to jostle her against shoulders or hips, and the rich merchants at the platform edge inch away from me, giving me more room than even they allow themselves.

Even wealth bows to a cobra.

The slaves are lined up in a long row on the platform, linked together with a rope around their throats. Most of them are men, a few are women.

And one, one is a child.

I can see every one of his bones, count his ribs. He can’t be more than six or seven, but I can’t find any trace of fear in his face when the trader pulls him to the front and starts the bidding. No, he’s looking at us as if to decide who he would like best to take him—or who would have the most money to steal. He’s a thief, this boy, caught in the markets and sold rather than branded or hung. Emir saw him get taken and knew at once that he wanted to be the one who bought him.

A good thief is notoriously hard to find. And employ.

He doesn’t go for much. Only one other merchant wants him, and he isn’t willing to go as high as I am. Emir was very clear when he sent me. Bring the thief home, or find a grave to sleep on.

I’ve slept on enough graves in my time. Better to spend a little extra money, and lift the difference on the way home.

The boy smiles at me when they bring him out. The artless, innocent smile of a born liar. “Don’t worry, mistress,” he tells me. “I swear, I won’t ever steal again.”

I roll my eyes. “If that’s true, I’ll have to leave you behind. Emir doesn’t keep people who don’t pull their own weight.”

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