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The customary sunglasses blocked out the little light the moon granted. I took care to continue tapping my white cane against the sidewalk. Stepping with the peculiar gait of the unsighted took concentration. The worst part of my blind woman ruse was noticing but not responding to everything my eyes saw. My eyes gave away my heritage with their metallic glint, and this was my best way to hide them. I made my way toward a candle flickering near the far end of the park.
“Little late in the day for sunglasses, darlin’.” His familiar sneer showed teeth.
I should have kept my eyes closed so I didn’t react to his expression. “Don’t you have something for me, Jared?” The candle made a nice cover for our meeting. From a distance it appeared like a romantic rendezvous.
“Always with the business. Can’t you take some time to enjoy my company?” He leaned in close to me, too close. His breath overpowered me.
My throat closed around the odor. “I’m not that good an actress.”
Jared frowned. “You should be more polite. I always get the best for you.”
He wouldn’t appreciate my reasons for rejecting him, so I held my tongue. Aside from his customary physical stench, he was a thief and a liar. I dealt with him because of his ability to procure things I needed, but the lying annoyed me more than the smell.
“We’ve been meeting this way for a year. Won’t you give me your name? I know you hate my little nicknames, honey.”
Then why did he keep using them? “Names are power, Jared. You might not be able to use it, but one of your other associates might.”
“That hurts, babe. You know there’s no one for me but you.”
He couldn’t see me roll my eyes under the dark glasses. “Let’s see what you brought me.”
He was quiet long enough to make me wonder if I’d hurt his feelings. I had no apology for the truth, so I let it be. After an awkward pause, he reached back for a long, dark object that glinted in the low light. He brought it forward slow enough to ease my mind he wouldn’t attack.
I wondered where the caution came from. He hadn’t displayed it before. The shovel in his hands seemed like a weapon, but he held it gently to lessen the threat. Who had Jared been talking to?
“Are you going to keep up the blind charade? I can lead you to where we’re going.”
“That’s not necessary. I’ll follow.” I couldn’t stand even the thought of touching him. I folded and tucked my cane on my belt beneath my jacket.
He shrugged, then led the way out of the park. He slowed at the cemetery, threading between the gravestones.
I wanted to remind him that I had no use for the dead. He ought to know that by this point, but he had blind spots in his mind he refused to accept, like I might not be interested in him. Full humans bored me anyway, and Jared disgusted me more than most. It wouldn’t kill me to wait until he unveiled his prize, but I hoped he would hurry. He carried the shovel in one hand, dangling like a shotgun.
Jared stopped in front of a crypt marked Porter. He put the shovel down outside the door and picked the lock. He pulled the door open.
I couldn’t see past him into the inky depths. He fumbled inside the door, then lit a portable electric lantern. Two brunettes, seated and tied back to back, sat in the middle of the open space. At least they didn’t look dead. The one facing the door shifted and looked up at us. I guessed her age at sixteen.
“I’m back, Emily.”
The girl blinked. She cringed away from both of us. I hoped he hadn’t done anything to hurt her. It wasn’t part of our deal. If Jared had taken liberties with her, I’d take it out of his hide.
“Emily, this is the lady I told you about it.”
I didn’t know what he told her, but she’d be safer with me. “Where’d you get her, Jared?”
“The streets, just like the last one. I think she’s a runaway.”
Her tattered clothes fit the story. She didn’t look hurt or malnourished. “Emily?” She never looked away from Jared. She met the description from one of my clients, or well enough. Some of them didn’t realize I couldn’t make them from scratch. “I’ll take her, Jared. Who’s the other one?”
Emily put her head on her knees. She looked relieved. It might be that she thought I looked easier to escape than Jared because I was a foot shorter. Her fear of him bothered me.
I followed Jared to face the other. The girl was smaller, slight in a way that suggested youth.
“She won’t give me her name.” Jared prodded her with his toe, but she didn’t look up. “She looked like someone you’d be interested in.”
I shrugged, not wanting to drive up the price. I wasn’t fond of dealing in teens, and she didn’t look old enough to be even that old. “She’s pretty young. What makes you think I have a place for her?”
“Check her eyes.”
I took the child’s chin and lifted her face. Her eyes blinked open, lavender with a hint of metallic shine. Lavender instead of jade, but otherwise just like mine. Questions circled in my mind about her – I wouldn’t get the answers from Jared. “All right. I’ll take both. Standard price, delivered to your account.”
“The kid’s worth double.”
“She’s underage. I can’t sell her ‘til she’s legal.” I couldn’t give away how much I wanted her. Who thought I’d meet another like me?
“Double for the little one and we have a deal.”
I didn’t have the money. Not for someone I wouldn’t sell. “You can’t keep her, Jared. You’ll get arrested.”
“If you want her, pay up.”
He untied their feet and held out the lead. Both girls trembled, but I wouldn’t hurt them. Emily would do better with my client than as a runaway on the streets. The order for her resembled a pampered house pet. Superior intelligence not required and prized innocent looks. Emily fit well enough. She’d have to do some light chores around the residence, but my client treated humans like they treated their dogs.
Emily shied away from Jared. The younger girl watched him. I offered my hand to Jared to seal the deal. He took it, and I got flashes of his intent through the contact. If I didn’t take her, their fates would end with his shovel. My stomach turned.
As I led them through the door, I grabbed Jared’s shovel and pushed the girls to one side. I swung it around toward Jared. The blade dug deep into his thigh. He crumpled. The light showed blood and broken bone sticking out of his leg. A hit to his head and I finished him.
I searched myself for remorse, but I couldn’t find it. There would be plenty of people to take Jared’s place in the underworld. I’d find more contacts to fill my client’s orders. Next time I’ll try to find someone a little less unsavory.
The crypt door swung shut. I took the leads of the girls in the hand that didn’t hold the shovel. Emily shook, but the younger girl showed no reaction. I needed a safe place to examine both of them for trauma, inflicted by Jared or someone else. Twisting the travel-ring around my index finger, I willed us to the unclaimed lands instead of the Market. I could charge the ring while I checked them over.
Unclaimed land was neutral territory, and the one I found felt empty. I breathed deeply in the magic-laden air. Emily dropped to the ground. I laid a hand on her forehead to assess the damage. Shock and fear made her faint, but Jared hadn’t laid a hand on her. Her family had kicked her out after emotionally abusing her. Given time, she’d make my client a good pet. She could use the pampering after such a difficult start.
The other girl regarded me with her lavender eyes sparkling. “Come here. Let me see.” She took a step toward me, which placed her within arm’s reach. I untied her arms and placed my hand on her forehead. While Jared snatched her from her family – two human parents, so there was more to be uncovered there – he had not hurt her, either.
The ring sparked with full charge. I untied Emily and roused her. “Time to go.”
She wavered on her feet. She looked like she had been pushed beyond her limits. When she stood she was taller than I, but she leaned heavily on her shorter companion. I took their hands and twisted the ring to the Market.
The Market entrance had gates at each of the five entrances. I had access to three of them, and I chose the one most amenable to the humans in my charge. Center Gate didn’t faze Emily, but the other girl watched everything.
I dragged them across the short path to my stand, past the critter dealers. The dragon in the next booth over quirked a smile in our direction. He grabbed a rabbit from the box in front of him and stroked its ears. I borrowed his felt-tip pen, which fit oddly in my fist like a jumbo crayon, and marked my initials on the younger girl’s forehead. I handed it back to him. The little RC sparkled in the Market’s light, a badge that she had been claimed.
My client arrived in all her blue splendor as we did. I pushed Emily toward her. “She’s had some trauma but is physically unharmed.”
Her eyebrows lifted. “Do you want to come with me, child?”
“Her name is Emily.”
“Emily?” Her hand extended toward the girl. “I’ll take her to Lirga. The calm waters will heal her heart.”
I nodded. The blue woman led Emily toward Rare Gate and away.
I sat in my booth with the younger girl. Taking a deep breath, I reached to her as a friend. “I’m Rue. We’re in a neutral place at the Market, and I want to go home. Will you go with me?”
Her grave eyes blinked. “Madeline. They call me Mado. What about my family?”
“I’d like to show you my world, then I will take you home if we can find it.”
She nodded and put her hand in mine. I led her out of the market to my home through Common Gate.