Beyond Price part II; short fiction by Rebecca P Minor

Missed part I? Read it here.

The torches blazed bright even as they burned low, all in a ring around the crowd of cheering
revelers that filled the center of the gypsy camp. Veranna squinted against the glare reflecting from the metal bowls at the stage’s edge, where lamps guttered and cast their glow on the line of dancers. She curtsied for the twentieth time that night, and the five dancers to both her left and right followed suit, though they all rose slowly. Though none of the troupe was as new to a full night of performances as was Veranna, they all looked just as drained as she felt, their gestures sluggish and eyelids heavy. The musky aroma of flowers past their peak mingled with smoke and spilt cider. Veranna wrinkled her nose during the final bow.
“Are they not vision from paradise?” Bodini yelled from the corner of the stage. He swung a substantial, hairy arm toward the troupe, then took a long pull from a flask in his opposite hand.
The crowd roared its agreement.
“And this one,” the caravan master continued as he strode heavily toward center stage. He snaked his arm about Veranna’s waist and yanked her against his side. “There is no caravan that brings greater delight. Show her you love her, eh?”
Many in the throng tossed silver—even gold—coins onto the stage, and Veranna gasped. Already Bodini’s pouch bulged with the coin he had collected in admission to the evening’s performances of sword swallowers, jugglers, acrobats, contortionists, and the dance troupe. But coins that hit the stage—those who performed upon it got a share of such earnings. The caravan master beamed while the coins arced past, glowing like shooting stars in the stage lights.

Veranna’s gaze tracked the coins as they landed and bounced across the planks of the platform. Perhaps, if her fortune as a dancer repeated itself in future performances, she really could help Mamá along. Dare Veranna hope she might lessen Mamá’s dependence on the base profession she’d been assigned in the autumn of her life, a time when a woman should be regarded a wise and worthy of reverence? Instead, running the bagnio, they still scraped for the barest necessities, thanks to Bodini’s take on all Mamá’s girls earned.
Perhaps she could even secret away some of the earnings so she and her mother could escape to a different sort of life entirely. Would such a chance mellow Mamá’s bitterness?
“Veranna, pay attention!” Bodini hissed in her ear, the stench of his sour breath clouding over her. “Another bow! And for Mikelos’s sake, smile.”
Veranna pasted a demure smile over her weariness, swept her skirt out to one side, and bent deep. She could be beautiful on cue, if doing so would usher in even a little hope.
Bodini and a half-dozen other gypsy men cleared the encampment of visitors before he sent the dancers about to tidy up the showgrounds. Veranna circled the expanse empty of spectators but now strewn with a litter of gnawed bones, rinds of cheeses, and orange skins. Spring peepers chirped in the distance, daring the briskness of the evening. She pulled the smoldering stumps of torches from their sconces on the wagons that enclosed the showgrounds and doused them in a bucket of sand she lugged on her other arm. The other performers swept through their tasks with practiced swiftness. Only a pair of them talked at all—the wee hour seemed to sap all the rest of any inclination to banter. On the stage, Bodini’s two body guards, twin brothers, gathered the gold and silver into a burlap bag.
One of the dancers who stood on the ground at the stage’s lip picked up a coin from the edge of the platform. In a fraction of a moment, a bodyguard slammed her hand to the boards and pinned it there with the flat of a knife blade.
“I—I . . . wasn’t going to take it, Khaldun, I swear.” The girl shrank back as much as her threatened hand would allow.
“You’ll get yours when it’s time,” Khaldun said. “Same as always, at the end of the stint here.”
“I’m sorry,” she replied. “I’ve never made extra before.”
Khaldun wrenched his knife away. “Get the grounds picked up. Don’t let me catch you within ten paces of the stage ‘til we’re done, or else you’ll be a one-handed dancer from here.”
The girl’s glance darted away from the stage, and Veranna avoided eye contact with her. The last thing she needed was another member of the troupe assuming she was staring or gloating. The showgrounds fell quiet.
Once Veranna had progressed three-quarters of the way around the wagon circle, her bicep cramped under the merciless weight she toted. She plunked the bucket down and extended her elbow. A voice beyond the wagon ring reached her ear, somewhere amidst the tents that crowded in a village of canvas and carpets—Bodini’s voice, slurring, slow, and jubilant.
“Hah. I love you as brother, Doza, but you are fool to even ask,” Bodini said. “You saw the bows.”
“I could make you a trade, plus the gold,” another man said.
Bodini scoffed. “Trade? You have half-elf who can dance like that for me? Until I die rich old man?”
“She’s a half-elf?” The second man paused. “That’s got its risks, you know. Some crowds will care. Some might even walk out over it.”
“Your bluff—is joke. I’ll take my chances on crowds caring about her ears. I have feeling that’s not what they’ll be looking at, eh?”
Bodini’s loud laugh rang in the night, and Veranna could picture him rearing back his head and holding his broad middle. The other man—Doza, she assumed—joined into the caravan master’s mirth. Her cheeks flared with heat, and she tightened her cloak around her body.
When the laughter had wound down, Doza said, “You’re not staying in town long, right? You’re killing me back at the tavern, you know.”
“Three days,” Bodini replied. “Then we head south. Find some sunshine, for Mikelos’s sake.”
The men laughed again, but their voices drifted beyond hearing. Once Veranna’s embarrassment had ebbed, perplexity washed in to take its place. Just what sort of transaction had Doza been trying to barter? How could he ask to buy or trade free people? Veranna grasped the final torch, thrust it into the pail, and allowed her exhaustion to shroud the questions in her mind like the darkness that blanketed the empty showgrounds.
The following two nights progressed much as the first, although the crowds grew larger, louder, and threw more coin at the dancers than Veranna even dared dream. At this rate, she and her mother would be able to run where ever they pleased with a tidy sum to establish themselves in some respectable trade. However, each night when Bodini stepped on stage to soak in the credit for his performers’ accomplishments, he gripped Veranna tighter and longer before he prompted her final bow. Smiles of gratitude for the applause grew harder to summon, restrained by her mounting disgust. But tinkling gold composed a musical strain of potential that strengthened her endurance of Bodini’s foul breath and creeping right hand.
On the last performance night before they set out for the next location, before Bodini sent the performers to strike the stage, he called them all into a group.
“My good troupe of great talents!” he cried, red-faced from multiple flagons of bayberry ale Veranna had watched him consume in the last half-hour. “You have outdone yourselves this time. You all earn tidy sum, which I would usually give you tonight, no?”
The sword-swallower, a rail-thin, vulture-necked man who stood shirtless behind Veranna muttered, “Usually? What’s the old boar getting at?”
“Because you all dear friends, I’m going to hold your gold in strongcart,” Bodini announced.
The sword swallower’s mutter spread and grew. The dancing girls all gaped at one another, mute and wide-eyed, but the men of the troupe dared a more vocal protest. The beast master, a muscle-bound gypsy who rivaled Bodini for size, folded arms covered in scarred bracers over his chest.
“You think we’re going to stand for that, Bodini?” the beast master yelled over the rumbling troupe.
Bodini’s bodyguards gripped the hilts of the shortswords they each carried on a hip. Khaldun’s weight shifted forward, his hard-eyed stare locked on the beast master.
Bodini shook his head at Khaldun, then met the protesters’ complaints with a frown. “You will see. I let you all count your earnings, and I keep them in lockboxes in strongcart. You’ll thank me eventually. The whole caravan knows your faces, and how many of them make no living aside from cutting purses? When, I ask you, has anyone dared steal from strongcart?”
The troupe exchanged glances, but no one offered an example.
“I even give you each deed so there’s no mistake what’s yours. You get it from me anytime. Bring your deed, we settle accounts.”
The threat of protest utterly fizzled, and tears welled in Veranna’s eyes. If Bodini held the purse strings, how would she ever get her hands on what was rightfully hers without--
“Hey, pixie-points,” someone said to Veranna’s left.
Veranna dabbed her eyes with one of her scarves before turning.

“You’re lucky you’re making us rich.” Merina glared at her with eyes so dark brown they appeared black, iris and pupil. “And you better hope you can keep it up.”

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