A shiver ran through Veranna’s body, and she sank to her knees, burying her face in her hands. After a moment of shock too great for tears, a familiar softness enrobed her shoulders. She lifted her face to find Mamá draping an angora blanket over her. For a moment she was childlike again, and her mother possessed tenderness for her, not just wearied exasperation. A black and blue knot rising on Mamá’s cheek shattered the memory.
“What was he talking about, Mamá?” Veranna asked. “What’s his . . . what we deserve?”
Mamá avoided her glance. “I don’t want to talk—”
“No!” Veranna clutched the blanket closer. “What is this ‘arrangement?’ Is there some way to keep me from having to dance in this? It’s beautiful in some ways, but . . .”
“It’s alluring, not beautiful,” Mamá said. “There’s a difference.”
“Why is Master Bodini acting like he can sell me?”
Mamá’s resident look of pain resurfaced and contorted her face. “Because he can.” The words came out so quietly that Veranna nearly missed them.
Her mother dropped her head back on her neck and blinked bloodshot eyes. “When I was very young, and very foolish, I met your father. Here, in Armaghan. He was the captain of a Celevonese sailing ship, and he met me peddling perfumes in our bazaar. Why he took a fancy to me, I’m still not sure. But he was young, and quick with a smile, very mysterious—and best of all . . . not a gypsy.”
Much of this, Veranna already knew, though she did not admit having sleuthed it from scraps of journals in her mother’s trunk. She drank in the most Mamá had shared with her in decades.
“We wed in secret, for more reasons than I will burden you with right now. And since he would be at sea many months of the year anyway, it mattered little that I remained with the caravan. Ours was a mutual agreement to love from a distance and to enjoy each other in the rare times we could.
“On the caravan’s third return to Armaghan to perform, I spent a little too much careless time in town, and rumor worked its way back to our people that I had a secret bridegroom. Bodini had just taken over the mastership of the caravan, and he was outraged. He normally would have had me hanged right away, but I pleaded with him. I told him I was with child—you—and that if he would spare me, I would pledge your service to him.”
Veranna gasped. “You bought your own life with mine?”
Mamá’s tears flowed freely and twisted her mouth into deep creases. “Don’t look at it that way. Circumstances can change. Some caravan masters end up with a knife in their backs scant months after they take charge. We had just been through a stretch of five years and four caravan masters.
“I counted on the leadership changing before it mattered, since Ryathil explained to me how long you would remain a child. But Bodini has proven a master of wills, shrewd as a viper. And so he still leads after all these years.”
“Ryathil?” The very sound of the name, pregnant with significance, buzzed in Veranna’s mind.
“Where is he now, this father of mine?” Veranna’s heart thundered. Was there some faceless savior in the world, waiting to ride in on a courser and rescue his wife and daughter from scoundrels?
“We lost touch,” Mamá said. “He sent many letters in the beginning, feigning to write them in my brother’s name. But Bodini learned the truth and began to intercept them.” Her posture crumpled. “It has been twenty-five years since I heard from him, and Bodini has made a point of avoiding this region, though performing here pays well.”
“But we’re back now,” Veranna said. “Why?”
“I can only assume it is because Bodini sees any danger to have passed. Four decades will have left Ryathil unchanged. But me . . .” Mamá held out her wrinkled hands and inspected them. She scoffed.
A terrible option flitted around the outskirts of Veranna’s mind. “Wouldn’t Bodini flog me if I refuse to dance tonight?” she whispered. No one would want to watch a scarred dancer.
“He would flog us both.”
Her grim hope deflated. “Why both of us?”
“Because part of our contract stated that I would ensure your dutifulness, or else share in the penalty if you rebelled.” Mamá clenched her teeth. “And if I ever stood in the way of his demands, he would cane you.”
“So if I resist, we both wear the wheals for it.” Veranna clenched her fists. Even with the strained nature of their relationship, Veranna could never be the cause of her mother’s flogging. The few enactments of gypsy justice she had been forced to witness had left the victims with backs laid open, a hair’s breadth from flaying. Years of hard living had left Mamá too frail to survive such a beating.
“I promise to hunt for a way to save you from this, my Veranna, my precious emerald. There is no getting around your dancing tonight, I am afraid. But what if . . .” Mamá paused, the workings of her mind kindling a spark in her dark eyes. “What if we proposed to move you to fortune telling instead? It’s possible you could subdue your visions to reading fortunes.”
Veranna cringed. If dancing for profit had seemed a misuse of her talent, fortune telling was outright blasphemy, though she had never been raised to honor any god who would take offense. Still, the deep part of her that sang for the sheer joy of beauty when she danced also spoke in a profound voice when she sought to perceive the hearts of others. “Mamá, I think that would be wrong.”
“Mikelos spare me!” Mamá cried. “You cannot refuse everything.”
How could Veranna explain a tie between dancing and inner sight that she herself only perceived in the most veiled way? “There must be another solution.”
“Well if you find it, tell me. I’m no fan of dabbling with the great beyond, but there’s good money there. That is, if you can learn to say everything in a way the customer wants to hear.” Mamá glanced toward the tent flap and groaned. “The sun’s getting high. For now, you must wash, and then to the stage with you. Getting used to that skirt is going to take all the rehearsal time you have.”
When Veranna arrived at the showgrounds for the morning rehearsal, strains of music played upon a hammered dulcimer reached her ears. She dashed into the arena. As she feared, the troupe of ten dancers all swayed in unison on the stage. They each wore variations of their usual skirts that now bustled higher on one leg, but with little other change. Even with their show of calf and knee, the other dancers looked dressed for a monastery compared to what little crystal-laden fabric lurked under Veranna’s cloak.
“One, two and three, four—no Shialla, flexed foot there, not extended!” the dance mistress snapped. “Nine, ten, eleven . . . stop. No, no. Go back to count five.”
Veranna clapped a hand to her temple. Had she somehow missed that there was a new routine to learn today? Maybe she had earned herself a flogging without refusing to dance. The music and the choreography the troupe rehearsed were wholly unfamiliar and unabashedly suggestive. Just the sort of thing Bodini might devise.
Bodini. He stood halfway between her and the stage lip, his chin in his hand as he faced the stage. Veranna tightened the belt she had buckled over the cloak she wore atop her new costume. She hung her head and hugged the edge of the arena as she made her way to the stage, mentally assembling an apology as she went.
Bodini marched straight over to her with a huge grin on his face. He stepped in front of her and blocked her path to the stage.
“Such smart girl!” he said. “You know Bodini’s mind to keep costume magnificent surprise.”
“With all due respect, Master Bodini, I see I am late for rehearsal.” She craned to see around him and discover if the dance mistress had a scathing rebuke poised for launch. The woman still counted and tapped her walking stick on the ground, aiming all her scrutiny at the troupe.
“No, no, my confection—no mistake,” Bodini crooned. “This rehearsal is for other troupe girls only. We have special solo dance planned for you. Will rehearse after.” He turned his head toward the stage and raised his voice. “If these tromping rock-trolls ever make this worth watching!”
From the center of the line of dancers, Merina shot Veranna a deadly look.
Perfect. A solo in this partial costume. That will improve just about everything. Veranna received Merina’s glare with a wide-eyed expression of innocence.
Bodini faced Veranna. “You will practice with long tunic over new costume.” He pulled from his belt a huge, box-shaped garment that would easily hang from her shoulders to her mid-calf. “This new choreography—audience would have to be dead not to love it. Come.” He clapped a hand onto Veranna’s shoulder and steered her around the stage. They slipped through the narrow passage that emerged in the cramped backstage area. Empty crates ringed the space, but someone had piled them enough to clear a patch of grass about fifteen paces square.
Bodini’s bodyguards stood from where they sat on the far side of the clearing and bowed as Veranna and Bodini entered. Silently, they swept over to the passage. Khaldun stood back to back with his brother, and for a fleeting moment, he studied Veranna—a moment long enough to raise gooseflesh on her arms. Both guards assumed their on-duty posture—feet spread shoulder width, arms folded, chins up, and eyes steely.
Veranna’s nerves thrummed like a hummingbird’s wings. This was dangerous. Why was there no dance mistress or assistant? Her glance flitted about the semicircular cart wall that hemmed her in, and then to the rear wall of the stage that rose three forbidding stories at her back. Could she climb the carts if Bodini embarked on unwelcome amusements?
“We wait here,” Bodini said. “And while we do . . .” He retrieved an eight-foot easel from against the stage wall. Already a bright watercolor painting ringed the edges of the stretched canvas, featuring the usual: trained beasts, juggling acts, a mysterious woman hovering over a crystal ball, but the center was empty. “The middle is for you, my brightest star. When is done, we parade it in town on the back of mastodon, and you see. Audience will come. You will pose, like this.”
Bodini turned his back, twisted to look over his shoulder at her, then stretched his arms in what might have been a lovely pose if Bodini were a dancer and not a giant, bearded man with a boulder’s physique. Veranna stifled a laugh.
“Will look ravishing when you do, not me,” he said. “Now, stand here, like I did, only better.” He pointed to the center of the opening. “And take off cloak, of course.”
The moment of levity blew away like ash. Veranna swallowed and stepped to place. She slipped the cloak from her shoulders and dropped it in a heap off to her side. The heat of a flush roared over her like a brushfire. In avoiding Bodini’s stare, her glance lit upon Khaldun, who no longer maintained his stoic guard’s façade. Nor did he indulg a gaze her way. Rather, his eyes lowered to rove the trampled grass. Curious . . .
“Come now,” Bodini chuckled. “The pose.”
Veranna turned, then twisted a forced smile back to the caravan master. Although Bodini was renowned for his speed as an artist, he could not sketch and paint fast enough for Veranna’s taste.