“As a whore, she won’t fetch more than a hundred marks,” the Tribesman says in his hypnotic lilt. “I need two hundred.”
The slaver snorts, and I want to strangle him for it. The shaded streets of his neighborhood are littered with sparkling fountains and bow-backed Scholar slaves. The man’s house is a bloated hodgepodge of arches and columns and courtyards. Two hundred silvers is a drop in the bucket for him. He probably paid more for the plaster lions flanking his front door.
“I hoped to sell her as a house slave,” the Tribesman continues. “I heard you were looking for one.”
“I am,” the slaver admits. “Commandant’s been on my back for days. Hag keeps killing off her girls. Temper like a viper.” The slaver eyes me the way a rancher eyes a heifer, and I hold my breath. Then he shakes his head.
“She’s too small, too young, too pretty. She won’t last a week in Blackcliff, and I don’t want the bother of replacing her. I’ll give you one hundred for her and sell her to Madam Moh over dockside.”
A bead of sweat trickles down the Tribesman’s otherwise serene face. Mazen ordered him to do whatever it took to get me into Blackcliff. But if he drops his price suddenly, the slaver will be suspicious. If he sells me as a whore, the Resistance will have to get me out—and there is no guarantee they can do so quickly. If he doesn’t sell me at all, my attempt to save Darin will fail.
Do something, Laia. Darin again, fanning my courage. Or I’m dead.
“I press clothes well, Master.” The words are out before I can reconsider.
The Tribesman’s mouth drops open, and the slaver regards me as if I’m a rat who has begun juggling.
“And, um...I can cook. And clean and dress hair,” I trail off into a whisper. “I’d—I’d make a good maid.”
The slaver stares me down, and I wish I’d kept my mouth shut. Then his eyes grow shrewd, almost amused.
“Afraid of whoring, girl? Don’t see why, it’s an honest enough trade.” He circles me again, then jerks my chin up until I am looking into his reptilian green eyes. “You said you can dress hair and press clothes? Can you barter and handle yourself in the market?”
“You can’t read, of course. Can you count?”
Of course I can count. And I can read too, you double-chinned pig.
“Yes, sir. I can count.”
“She’ll have to learn to keep her mouth shut,” the slaver says. “I’ve got to eat the cost of cleanup. Can’t send her to Blackcliff looking like a chimney sweep.” He considers. “I’ll take her for one hundred and fifty silver marks.”
“I can always take her to one of the Illustrian houses,” the Tribesman suggests. “Underneath all that dirt, she’s a fine-looking girl. I’m sure they’d pay well for her.”
The slaver narrows his eyes. I wonder if Mazen’s man has erred, trying to bargain higher. Come on, you miser, I think at the slaver. Cough up a little extra.
The slaver pulls out a sack of coins. I fight to hide my relief.
“A hundred and eighty marks then. Not a copper more. Take off her chains.”
Less than an hour later, I’m locked inside a ghost wagon that is heading for Blackcliff. Wide silver bands that mark me as a slave adorn each wrist. A chain leads from the collar around my neck to a steel rail inside the wagon.
My skin still smarts from the scrubbing I got from two slave-girls, and my head aches from the tight bun they tamed my hair into. My dress, black silk with a corset-tight bodice and diamond-patterned skirt, is the finest thing I’ve ever worn. I hate it on sight.
The minutes crawl by. The inside of the wagon is so dark that I feel as if I’ve gone blind. The Empire throws Scholar children into these wagons, some as young as two or three, ripped screaming from their parents. After that, who knows what happens to them. The ghost wagons are so named because those who disappear into them are never seen again.
Don’t think of such things, Darin whispers to me. Focus on the mission.
On how you’ll save me.
As I go over Keenan’s instructions again in my head, the wagon begins to climb, moving achingly slow. The heat seeps into me, and when I feel as if I’ll faint from it, I think up a memory to distract myself—Pop sticking his finger in a fresh jam pot three days ago and laughing while Nan whacked him with a spoon.
Their absence is a wound in my chest. I miss Pop’s growling laugh and Nan’s stories. And Darin—how I miss my brother. His jokes and drawings and how he seems to know everything. Life without him isn’t just empty, it’s scary. He’s been my guide, my protector, my best friend for so long that I don’t know what to do without him. The thought of him suffering torments me. Is he in a cell right now? Is he being tortured?
In the corner of the ghost wagon, something flickers, dark and creeping.
I want it to be an animal—a mouse or, skies, even a rat. But then the creature’s eyes are on me, bright and ravenous. It is one of the things. One of the shadows from the night of the raid. I’m going crazy. Bleeding, bat crazy.
I close my eyes, willing the thing to disappear. When it doesn’t, I swat at it with trembling hands.
“Go away. You’re not real.”
The thing inches close. Don’t scream, Laia, I tell myself, biting down hard on my lip. Don’t scream.
“Your brother suffers, Laia.” Each of the creature’s words is deliberate, as if it wants to make sure I don’t miss a single one. “The Martials pull pain from him slowly and with relish.”