"Hey! Hey up there! You want this gold or not?"
The farmer who'd bought Jeb stood at the foot of the platform. His face was puffy and cross in the heat. Behrin looked down, dazed by the interruption.
"Oh. Yeah. Yeah,here you go." Behrin pushed Jeb towards Clive, who walked him over to the steps and his new owner.
"Good luck mister." Behrin thought. He watched the man count out two gold pieces and hand them to Clive. Behrin knew he'd see this farmer again once all the ale Jeb had drunk wore off. In fact, he might see him tomorrow after Farmer Clem Clodhopper went out to check his new purchase and found him stripped naked and eating his own shit. But he would just have to deal with it. By then Behrin would be in route back to his settlement and besides, he didn't give refunds.
"How are we doing,Clive?" He asked. He squinted at the other man through reddened eyes. Clive studied the marks he'd made on the rough parchment. His nut-brown face was solemn with concentration.
"Well, you've sold seventeen children, nine of those girls. They brought a higher price than the boys but the average on all of them was around fifteen, twenty coppers a piece."
Clive shook his head.
"These hayseeds know they'll have to pour a lot of food into them before they can earn their keep. We did better with the men. Thirty men, averaging about three or four gold pieces each."
Behrin wasn't a mathematician but it didn't take a genius to figure out it wasn't the fortune he'd originally thought. He resisted the urge to slap his hand against his cheek in mock horror at the low figures. He had no one to blame but himself.
If he hadn't been so busy woolgathering he could have cajoled a little extra coin on each sale but this bullshit had dragged on long enough.
"I wouldn't worry about it though." Clive said hurriedly,his eyes on the crowd.
"They're here to buy women. That's where we'll make up the difference."
Behrin nodded, suddenly tired. All the exhilaration that had driven him to this point disappeared. It left him drained in the unrelenting heat. Behrin looked at Clive and something happened that had never happened before or would again.
The great unnameable force that had molded him into whatever he'd become, stepped away. In one clear moment he knew he was about to make a terrible mistake.
"You want me to start to bring them up?" Clive asked. Behrin was looking worse and worse. His chalky skin was fire-red and his fine, patrician nose had swelled up like a tomato. The watery eyes turned on Clive with a blank,pleading look.
"The women. You want them brought up?" Clive slowly repeated.
"Yeah. Let's get this over with." Behrin replied.
The moment was gone but a resonance lingered. Behrin fell back on something his mother used to say (and live and breathe): Nothing is ever as bad as it seems. Childish? Yes. But it offered him comfort far below the surface of his burned skin.
He stretched his dry, cracked lips into a smile and held his hands out to the crowd.
"It's time for what you've been waiting for. I've a good-sized group so let's bid 'em fast. I don't know about you but I've had my fill of this sun."
He grinned and gave them his here-we-all-are-living-in-each-others-pocket smile. They cheered loudly.
Alora hadn't meant to stay so long but a certain, shameful curiosity seemed to hold her rooted to the spot. What she was seeing was an insidious evil. One which was as sly as the memory of another woman lying silently between a husband and wife in bed. She watched the parade of women mount the steps, stand, then walk back down.
Could it be possible that true evil existed on planes other than her own? That it was more then just a single path made for her feet alone?
Could it be she was only the surface and not what lay below?
It was a powerful revelation but one cheapened by the ignorance of the people she was watching. They shouted and shelled out coins for people that Behrin called slaves but looked suspiciously like themselves so was evil dependent upon how many people recognised it as such?
In simple, unphilosophic terms why was Behrin the bees knees in every town he frequented, dragging his slaves behind him, and she was regarded more like a suddenly discovered booger underneath a church pew?
It was an unpleasant thought, complicated by the need for more extensive excavation but she didn't feel like digging while she sat on her drunk horse and watched Behrin peddle flesh.
Loki was dozing, his velvety black nose a bare whisker above the ground. His hooves were planted firmly in an effort to keep himself upright. It was time to head back to the Livery. She should take advantage of all the vendors though and stock up on travel supplies. She'd pull her own fingernails out before she'd eat fish for three days in a row again.
Her fingers had started to tighten on the reins and Loki had raised his head a fraction of an inch when something on the platform caught her eye. She paused.
Behrin stood there on the platform with his next soon-to-be financial windfall but all of his puffed-up bullishness was gone. The sun was not only bright; it was clarifying and it wiped the lines of his face with one quick breath of mortality. What was left behind was someone so hurt and bewildered they didn't know which way to turn. She'd never seen him that way before and she sat back, amazed.