A/N: Updated March 20, 2008, critiqued and edited version.
Chapter 2 is done. I'm waiting on editing at AW.
So now I learn whether I get to eat. I run my fingers through my hair and gaze at the necklace in my other hand. It's not perfect. This one is sort of dismally bad, but it'll do—I hope. I rub it between my hands. Just a little more oil might polish it up better than I already have, and if that's the case, it's worth the few seconds' effort.
A few of the traders are watching me with politely offended looks on their faces. It's funny how they always notice me, even when there's so many people around. Maybe I have some sort of sign above my head saying 'thief.'
I'm not a thief. I'm anything but. My momma taught me good morals when she was alive.
A young couple brushes by me. The lady glances down, quickly averts her eyes—then by some magnetic force I guess they come back to me. I don't see what's so special about me anyways, everyone always stares at me when I come to sell, but whenever I look in the mirror I never see anything interesting. But she won't take her eyes off me. Creeps me out, so I move away.
I hear them talking.
"She's so…" The lady purses her lips and shakes her head, like no adjective could ever describe me. Well, fine, lady. I'll give you a few to play around with: how about hard-working, or independent? Those good for you?
But I don't say that. I know better.
The man nudges her and nods discreetly toward the traders. She has her mouth half open, like she wants to either catch a fly for dinner or say something that could be offensive but you're never really sure until it comes out. Then she closes it and nods back at the man, hooking her arm around his as they turn away from me and dive back into the mayhem of bodies.
I clutch my necklace close to my chest. Whenever those types of rich people come around, I can't help but notice the jewelry they wear. It's so much better than mine, but what can I say? In my defense I don't use any special tools or magic things to make everything just the perfect shape. I know they have better resources than me, but I still can't stand to look at my own work after seeing something that perfect.
The roar of voices around me is loud, but not deafening, since if it were deafening I wouldn't be able to hear them. It's funny when a few conversations blend into each other. But I won't repeat them because that's not polite.
Another trader is looking at me. He has jewelry on the table in front of him. It's got this tan cloth over it—a little frayed around the sides but not that bad—so the silver ones kind of blend in, but the gold ones are awfully pretty.
On second thought, he's looking at the necklace in my hand. Maybe he wants to buy it from me?
He twists the hairs of his brown beard between two fingers. "Hey you, yeah you, what's that you got there?"
I lock eyes with him, and move past the rush of people to approach his table. I'm careful not to let my gaze sweep across his merchandise because that makes traders all nervous and jittery when I do that. I concentrate on gripping the necklace enough so if anyone tries to snatch it out of my hand without permission they won't be going far with me attached to it.
"You like it?" I ask. "It's for sale." I play calm, not too forceful, but not shyly offering it either, because if I sound too meek he'll likely think he can rip me off, and that's no good.
He holds out his hand. "You wouldn't mind letting me see it, would you?"
Trust is a tough thing. If I were to hand it over to him he could convince any guard it was his, and I was attempting to take it without paying. So instead I hold it up higher so the lights can catch it. "Do you like it? I made it myself."
His eyes shine under the artificial light too. It's kind of eerie. "You made it? You're pretty good. How old are you?"
That a business question? I don't see what it has to do with my selling. But I answer it anyway, just to be polite.
"I'm fifteen, sir, and I've been making these necklaces out of topaz bird stones for the past three years." For a moment I think about telling him that's when my momma died, but I don't, because I don't want him to think I'm asking for charity or anything.
"You started when you were twelve?"
"Yes, sir." I wasn't aware fifteen minus three could equal anything else but twelve, but maybe he just wants to make some civil conversation.
"You're pretty good," he repeats.
I nod, but I don't say anything. I want to make him hurry up and offer, but I don't want to sound desperate. I can't move my necklace for a reasonable amount if I do. And I know the penalty if I don't. My stomach rumbles to make sure I do know it.
"So you're looking to sell it, huh?"
"That's right, sir."
I shuffle my feet. When they drag it on like this I can't help but do that. He's taking his time, scrutinizing at every bead. I kind of wish a guard was close, so I could tell him it was mine in the first place, and the trader is just looking at it to buy.
"You take packets, I assume?" the trader asks after the long silence.
I nod. "That I do, sir."
He goes silent again. Then, much to my surprise, he turns and nudges the trader next to him. It's a fat old guy with a hat on his head. It makes him look like he's got a tiny face. The trader I was talking to doesn't seem to notice, but it takes my entire willpower to not stare at the other man's tiny eyes.
"I heard you were looking for one of these," the first trader says to the new one.
The other trader leans forward and gestures for me come near. You wouldn't think going from one table to next would be hard, but somehow this sort of people density makes it that way. I have to squeeze between an old couple and a young boy to get to the other table.
"That a topaz bird necklace?" he asks.
"That it is, sir," I say, holding it up so he can take a better look at it. "I found each one on the borders of the forests. I shine them up, then I make the necklace out of the stones."
I half expect him to try and snatch it out of my hand, but he doesn't. Instead he leans forward and practically spills his gut on the table (maybe he wants to sell that?) to get closer.
"That's quite a rare find," he says, his eyebrows scrunching together all peculiar like. "Those topaz birds—they've been hard to find lately haven't they? Our crew hasn't found any in a while. The shadows are eating them all, you know. But I think you do know. But I'm saying… you managed to get five—no, six—of the stones all by yourself? And you didn't go into the forest, did you?"
That's an awful lot of questioning for one necklace. I bite my bottom lip. "No, sir. I didn't go into the forest." But I know might have to start going out there. "Were you interested?"
"Interested!" he exclaims, throwing his hands in the air like a kid who just saw their parents coming home with a new toy. "Of course I'm interested. You don't see topaz necklaces around here very often since the shadows came and took up half the land. Someone ought to do something about that, you know. Who's the one who governs these parts?" He speaks the last bit to his friend, the first trader I talked to.
The other guy makes funny hand gestures like he doesn't know what he's supposed to think. "Oh, I don't know, I don't come from this region! Or was it the same as last time we visited?"
"That was five seasons ago, wasn't it?"
Despite my wish to stay focused, my stomach rumbles again, reminding me why I'm doing this. My eyes slide over their tables and find the food traders only a few meters down. One of them has a nice crate of thick white mushrooms with brown tips—I haven't even seen that many mushrooms before! Where he gets them, I don't know. Forest, maybe. But why take the risk?
I tune back in—the traders are talking about something.
"You think Harper Pass is still blocked?"
"Probably. Been a while since we could get to Gale, hasn't it?"
The first trader harrumphs. "Gale's full of cheap rats. The only things worth seeing there are the mines. And that's not even much a pull. I'd go to Borough in a heartbeat. Hope they fix Harper soon."
They suddenly stop talking and look at me again. "So how much you want to sell that for, girly?"
I tense at the name. "How much would you value it at?" I know I could live off one packet. But maybe they'll offer a little more.
The first man I talked to holds out his hand. "I'll make an offer, but I got to see what it's worth first." His other hand disappears into his pocket, then comes out with a magnifying block.
I look at the necklace in my hand. This moment always comes. I search his eyes, wishing I could see his intentions through them. His body language says relaxed, as much as I can read it.
The necklace plops into his hand. I watch his fingers curl around the silver and blue; it's all in slow motion, like I'll be looking back at it in a few seconds and realizing I made a plum big mistake. But he's smiling as he looks at it. Smiling all wide and everything, and it's not the greedy sort of smile—no, I know that kind. He plops the magnifying block against his eye and peers at the necklace through it.
"I want it," he says. I see him squeezing it, like he needs to make sure it's really there and won't go disappearing on him. "I'll give you—I'll give you two packets for it."
Two packets! But a little more would make sure I could eat like a farmer. I calm the muscles in my face, like when you're playing a 'don't laugh' game and someone's saying something real funny-like, so you clear your mind and let your expression fall limp so you won't lose. "Sir, it's yours right now, no problems, for three packets."
He bites his lip and rolls the necklace between his palms, like I did.
"I've got to have it, I've got to have it," he repeats to himself, probably thinking he's saying it too softly for me to hear, but I do. He turns to the other trader. "I found a buyer up by Greensbourgh. You know how those folks are."
The other trader has his head cradled in one palm, elbow on the table. "If you've got a buyer, then just accept her offer. Why you asking me for? You know what to do." His tone's so impatient I have to suck in a big breath to make sure I don't laugh at him.
The fat man gets an indignant look on his face. Then he shakes his head and turns back to me. "All right. You drive a hard bargain, girly. I'll take your offer for three packets. But I got a question for you first."
I blink. What could he possibly want to know? "Yes, sir?"
"You make one every season?"
"Good. Good!" His tiny eyes widen slightly. "I'll be buying one every season. You'll have one for me girly, won't you? One every season?" He keeps repeating himself like that, licking his lips.
The other trader rolls his eyes. "You're going to scare her if you keep that up."
I'm about to reply when the lights above flicker—the warning. The setting sun's now on everyone's mind; they're staring up at the sky. I tilt my head back also and regard the pink hues of the sunset. But none of it gives me a good feeling. It means it's time to go inside and make sure you got lights on so the shadows won't come in.
The border patrol is getting ready also. Three of them walk past me with unlit torches in their hands. They go toward the stakes. I watch them. The stakes are lined up around our village differently tonight, about three meters from where the forest starts—but why have they changed it? Maybe they were thinking it was too far away last time…
"Girly!" the man shouts, but not unkindly. There's nervousness in his voice.
I jerk in place. What was it he said before? "So you wanted to buy it at three packets, right?" I say, the words coming out so fast they squish together.
A moment later he's thrusting three packets in my face. They're always weird, coming from traders. Upscale's the word I think of. The packets are made from a sort of stiff paper, and have an emblem on the front. It looks like a diamond with a sword stuck in it, but I don't know where it's from, or what it means.
"Here," he says, dropping them in my hands.
I quickly pocket them. As it gets darker, things disappear. That's the way it goes around here. "Thank you, sir. I'm glad you like it."
But he's not even listening to me anymore. He's packing up his table, so are all the others. I pause for a moment out of politeness to see if he'll respond, despite the etiquette that you don't talk once the warning goes off. You just don't do it. But he of course doesn't, so I back away and rush home.
No one gives me a second glance. Without the necklace, I become invisible.