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The day was hot, and lines at the public well in the marketplace were long. Brown faces shone with sweat, save where the dust had clung, turning bronze skin a shade paler. In the distance, false oases beckoned, their shimmering heat lines tricking the unwary into traveling just a little farther, just a little more.
People talked, among themselves, haggling with merchants, or crying their wares. Horses jangled their tack, blew and stamped impatiently. The reek of horse and dung vied with the rich fragrances of cooking meats, the tangy scents of fresh fruits, and the sweet, heady aroma of a variety of incense and spices.
This marketplace was the most elaborate in the land. Merchants came from all over Arukan to sell their goods. In one booth were fine daggers and swords, with intricately carved hilts and embroidered sheaths. In another, an artisan displayed carefully crafted jewelry to high-caste women. Unable to afford a booth, a man in his middle years had spread out a carpet in front of the jewelry seller. His pots were beautiful, but he did not appear to be selling many. By contrast, the weaver's booth across from the potter and the jeweler was crowded, and customers exclaimed over her blankets, carpets, saddle tack, and horse regalia.
By far the most popular vendor, today as every day, was the wizened, toothless little man who crafted charms. The jeweled pendant, cleverly fashioned to look like an amber eye with a slit pupil, would make the Great Dragon, guardian of the Arukani, look upon one with favor. And the necklace that was a small mirror would reflect the evil gaze of the demonic kulis. It also, as one woman was proving, was useful for making sure nothing was lodged in one's teeth.
Other things were for sale, too — roasting meats, fresh and preserved fruits and vegetables, breads, clothing, toys and games, and services of all varieties.
Kevla took a small sip from her waterskin. An unkind soul might have used the word "scrawny" to describe the ten-year-old, but there were muscles beneath the loose rhia that draped her body. Her hair, reddish in the harsh sunlight, was pulled back into a braid that fell the length of her back. Her eyes, almost too large in her small, sharp face, missed nothing. Kevla knew the visitors to the marketplace well, and if Keishla had earned no coins today, the girl knew that it was hardly her fault.
Kevla had been calling since the first vendor opened for business shortly before dawn, and her parched throat was testimony to her hard work. She could, of course, stand in line for water at the well as others did, but that would take her away from her prized spot at the intersection of the two main streets. She might miss a customer. Better the thirst than her mother's wrath.
Keishla carried herself with a quiet, regal air. She was sometimes unexpectedly gentle, and when she smiled, Kevla thought her beautiful. But more often Keishla would sit silently, her thoughts far distant from the present, and if Kevla interrupted her mother at such moments she knew Keishla would turn upon her, as if Kevla were the cause of all her pain. Kevla didn't understand, but she was wise enough to recognize these moods and be quiet when they were upon Keishla.
She permitted herself another miserly sip. The bag would have to last her throughout the day, and it was only mid-morning. Kevla retied the goatskin bag around her tiny waist, dragged a hand across her sweat-dappled forehead, took a deep, dusty breath, and resumed her task.
"Hey-la, hey-lo," she cried in a singsong voice. Her feet stamped in the dust, and her little body swayed with the rhythm of the chanting. "Hey-la, hey-lo! Sweeter than wine are the lips of Keishla! Keishla the fair, Keishla the wise, Keishla who knows what a man desires! Soft are the thighs of Keishla, and the dance of pleasure played out between them is known only to the most fortunate of men!"
She was engrossed in her cry now, and spread her arms, lifting the folds of the shabby, oft-mended rhia to reveal the toes of her bare, dirty feet. It was as far as she dared go. If she lifted the rhia to reveal a glimpse of calf or even ankle, she might be accused of practicing the same skills as her mother. That would not do. Those skills could be peddled in the marketplace, yes, but the actual conduct of business needed to be done in private. And Kevla, despite her words and knowing moves, was not skilled in such matters.
So Kevla, her eyes bright and darting about for anyone, male or female, who might be a potential customer, kept the rhia at its proper, yet tantalizing, length.
"You there, uhlal," she cried, invoking the term of high respect, "you look like a man who would enjoy sampling Keishla's charms!" She pointed a finger at him, flashing teeth that were remarkably strong and white considering her poor diet.
The man looked about, stammering, "I — I — "
"Come, sir, lay your mighty staff in the sweet honeyed nest of passion!"
The man turned crimson, and too late Kevla realized that behind him, blocked from her short-statured view, walked a woman who was undoubtedly his wife. Quickly, the girl changed her approach.
"Hey-la, uhlala!" she addressed the woman, making a deep obeisance. "The beautiful Keishla will gladly teach what she knows to any woman, for the right fee. Will you come with me, and learn how to keep that man by your side from straying for all time? It is a small price to pay, hey?"
It was a desperate attempt to salvage the situation, and Kevla was not surprised when the woman glared at her and reached to clutch her husband's arm, steering him away from temptation.
Kevla sighed. But when the man cast a furtive, apologetic glance over his shoulder, her spirits lifted. Perhaps tomorrow, or the day after, he might come back and sample Keishla's "wares."
In the meantime, she was not finding her mother customers, and without customers, she would not eat. Kevla cleared her throat and was about to resume her chant when a flurry of movement down the wide, hard-packed dirt road caught her attention. A few stalls down, everyone was falling to their hands and knees, heads touching the ground, heedless of the dust. That could mean only one thing. A very high-ranking uhlal had decided to visit the market today instead of sending his servants. It happened, from time to time, and Kevla rejoiced. Occasionally, the uhlals, especially a khashim, one of the clan leaders, felt generous and scattered coins and jewels to the lower castes. Keishla had once spoken with scorn of the practice, claiming she'd rather keep her pride than scrabble in the dust for a khashim's amusement.
Kevla, who had been gnawing on a dried piece of three-day-old bread at the time of Keishla's statement, had said nothing. But she thought that one single gold kha would have bought a week's worth of food, and a week's worth of food just might be worth scrabbling in the dust for a khashim's amusement.
Praying to the Great Dragon that the approaching uhlal was in a generous mood, the girl quickly fell to her knees. She heard the clopping sounds of the horse's hooves as it approached, and strained her young ears for the tinkling of tossed coins.
That hoped-for sound did not come. Instead, the horse stopped in front of her. She stared at its hooves. Suddenly afraid, Kevla did what tradition and the mercilessly strict caste system practiced in her country absolutely forbade her to do.
She looked up.
And met the gaze of a tall, handsome man who seemed all the taller for being perched atop one of the most splendid horses Kevla had ever seen. The beast's sand-colored coat gleamed with careful grooming, not yet dulled by the dust of the day. It mouthed its bit impatiently, revealing gold-tipped tusks. Its striped legs and face were a rich loam hue, and its tack and saddle were decorated with beads and jewels. Its rider's fine clothes and proud pose bespoke his high caste.
He was clad in the man's short rhia, and the powerful legs that gripped the horse were covered with snug-fitting white silk breeches. Belt and boots were of finely tooled leather, and his dark hair was protected from the harsh rays of the Arukani sun by an embroidered kerchief. His face was clean-shaven, proof of his rank, for only khashims shaved their beards. Gold earrings glinted, catching the sparkle of bright eyes that were now trained intently on Kevla. Fastened to the leather belt were an expensive sword and matching dagger. At a respectful distance, mounted on their own horses, two servants waited and watched.
"You cry the services of a halaan," said the khashim without preamble. His voice was a rich, deep rumble, quiet and self-assured. When Kevla stared up at him, transfixed, he gentled his tone further and said, "You may answer truly, child. None will punish you for your...impertinence."
Kevla swallowed hard. If her mouth had been dry earlier, now it seemed as vast a wasteland of drought as the Arukani desert itself. She tried again.
"Most honored uhlal, great khashim, I do indeed." A thought occurred to her and she ventured in a hopeful voice,
"Perhaps my lord is interested in Keishla's services?"
The khashim smiled at that, a smile that seemed to Kevla to be somewhat sad, which made no sense to her at all.
"Not her services, child, but I am indeed interested in Keishla. Are...are you her daughter, perchance?"
His dark eyes roamed her face. Almost, she could feel his gaze like a physical touch as it glided across her small nose, large, dark eyes, and soft mouth. For an instant, she knew fear. Perhaps the man would want her instead of her mother. Some men, she knew, liked young flesh — very young indeed. Keishla had promised her daughter that she would never be used in such a manner. But if a khashim came asking, with gold and jewels to offer...?
For the first time, Kevla was grateful for her mother's stubborn sense of pride. If Keishla would not go diving in the dust for coins for a khashim's amusement, then surely she would never give her daughter over for one's pleasure.
"I had thought as much," said the khashim softly, more to himself than to Kevla. He straightened and seemed to shake off his melancholy. "Take me to her. What is your name, child?"
"Kevla, great khashim."
A blush of shame rose in Kevla's cheeks. She hesitated for a moment, then replied softly, "Kevla Bai-sha." She hated the name. It literally meant "female without father," and was as unkind an epithet as "halaan." Bai could and sometimes did hold various positions in society, but never high-ranking. They were permitted marriage, but only among themselves. Few Bai knew trades; who wanted to teach them? Most begged for the food that nourished them, counting on the shame of those who had perhaps fathered such misfits.
"But I think, great khashim," continued Kevla, "that you knew that before ever you asked."
Again he smiled that sad smile, and nodded. "You are right, Kevla." He deliberately did not utter her mark of illegitimacy. For that she was grateful. Bad enough she had to suffer the jeers and taunts of others daily. Somehow, she felt very strongly that she did not wish to hear this large, powerful man calling her "Bai-sha."
He turned in his saddle toward his servants and said, "Leave us."
"But, most honored lord — " one protested.
"I said, leave us. And no word to your mistress. She need know nothing about this, and as I understand, both of you have families to feed."
The meaning was clear. The two servants inclined their heads and turned their mounts back toward the marketplace.
Kevla watched them go and smothered a smile. "Shall we go?" said the khashim.
Kevla nodded, stepping forward into the dusty street to lead the way when suddenly she was seized and hauled upward. She had just tightened her limbs to struggle when she was plopped down in front of the great khashim himself. Startled, she craned her neck to look quizzically at him.
"We will make better time mounted," he said simply, as if he was not aware that he had just granted her status inappropriate to her caste.
"Great khashim," breathed Kevla, truly meaning the word now, "might a humble girl inquire as to your name?"
"I am Khashim Tahmu-kha-Rakyn, of the Clan of Four Waters."
Kevla's heart skipped a beat. The Four Waters Clan was the most powerful clan in Arukan. Their monopoly on the land in which two of the largest rivers of the country intersected granted them that status, and from all she had heard, Tahmukha-Rakyn was a worthy leader. What exactly Tahmu wanted from Keishla was still uncertain, but Kevla permitted herself to hope that it might bode well.