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Last Stall on the Left

Flash Fiction Challenge: The Flea Market from Terribleminds:

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For a terrifying moment, I was sure the guard was after me.  Angry shouts rose from the market’s edge and without taking proper stock of the dark interior, I dropped to the dirt and squeezed under the tent’s side wall.  The door flaps had been secured, sure indication the seller was off conducting business elsewhere.  Dust coated my already sore throat and I muffled a cough against my shoulder.  Getting caught in here would guarantee an accusation of stealing.  If that happened, I’d likely loose an ear.  On the other hand, staying outside didn’t hold more appeal.

I’d have no way to lose the guards out there–hiding places were scarce amongst the open market stalls.  This particular tent had not only the advantage of dropped sides, but also the deterrent of vile-smelling fare.  As one of only two food stalls in a market filled with tin pots and bolts of cloth, the seller didn’t seem overly concerned with spoilage.

“What you doin’, boy?”  I jumped at the sound of the gravely voice, bumping into the display table and jostling the pastry in question.

“Wasn’t filchin’.  Swear.”  I shrank back, edging toward the side wall, wondering how fast I could escape.  A callused hand snatched my wrist and dragged me into an errant seam of sunlight.  Sweat, brought out by heat and fear, made my grimy forehead itch.  The seller had only to shout and the guard would haul me to the market’s center.  The chances for reprieve would be slim–nothing was better for business than the spectacle of someone losing an ear.

“You come in here to steal from me?”  Thick fingers tightened around my wrist and I couldn’t stop the injured squeak.

“Please,” I begged, lifting my gaze to his face for the first time.  I hated doing it, not here.  It was risky to try such a thing on someone I didn’t know, especially without an Elder’s permission.  The vendor stared at my eyes, his bushy brows lifting.  It was the first reaction of most–everyone seemed caught off-guard by the mismatched color.

I concentrated carefully, waiting for his puckered surprise to melt into a stupid, sagging expression–sure confirmation he was going under.  The tightness left his face, and I started my push.

“I’m not here to take anything,” I told him, straightening, all traces of the ignorant urchin gone.  “Let me go and I’ll leave you in peace.  I swear I’ll not return.”  The seller’s large head dipped once in confirmation.

I sighed in relief and pulled on my arm.  His grip didn’t give.  “Let me go,” I said again, deepening my thin voice, trying to infuse it with more authority.  Nothing.  Instead, regretfully, his clarity returned.  “Let me…” I began with more force than before.

“No, boy.”  In a blink, my hand was free and the seller was perched an undersized stool backed into a dark corner of the tent.  I’d heard there were those who could resist the gift.  He didn’t match with my expectations.  “Sit.”  He gestured to the dirt floor.  “Where’d you come on a fancy trick like that?”

“Boy?” he prompted at my silence.  My lips ground tighter and I sank to the floor next to the table of pies.  I ran through my options.  Accusations of stealing would be bad, but I’d live through it.  Accusations of witchcraft carried a far stiffer penalty.

“Saw eyes like that before.  Blue and Brown, like.  Grab you the same, too.”  He pulled out a small knife and began paring his grimy fingernails.

I dropped my chin, an automatic posture–one beaten into me and designed to keep my gaze to the ground.  My voice had taken hold once, and failed.  I had to use caution from here out, or court disaster.  The vendor waited for me to speak, but the only sound in the tent was my belly calling out in protest.

“Hungry, then?”  He hadn’t looked up.  I took a tentative sniff at the air, heavy with meat and spice left sitting in the sun since dawn, protected only by a heavy crust.  I shook my head.

“Won’t take it if I’m giving it away.  That how it is?  Stealing’s fine, but you’re too good to eat an honest man’s food?”  I snatched a pie from the table, realizing a moment too late he’d been goading me.  I had to eat it now.

“I didn’t take anything from you.”  The pie went down hard, even saturated with a pig’s worth of grease.

“Guard’s after someone today,” he sniffed, back to trimming his nails.  “Wonder if it’s to do with that new vendor.  The one with the blue-fire moonstones.  Wonder if he’s got wares gone missing.”

I suppressed a smile.  This, one on one, I could manage.  The guard, ever convinced of their own importance, were a different story.  I even gave him my gaze again, knowing he’d never meet it.  “I’ve taken nothing, sir.  Search me if you like.”

He flashed me a look, his eyes focusing on a spot in the middle of my forehead.

I blinked, “I’ve done nothing wrong.”  I turned out my pockets and skimmed bony hands down my sides.  My shirt was so thin, I couldn’t have hid a copper.  “I’m sorry for sneaking shade in your tent.  I give thanks for your food and beg your leave to go.”

He sniffed again, considering the matter.  My heart pounded.  His decision could force an unpleasant outcome.  “Go on, boy,” he said finally.  “Don’t show those eyes around here again, mind you.  Next time, I’m likely to have a church-man come take a look.”

I nodded respectfully.  He wouldn’t see me again.  No one here would.

I slid out under the side wall, careful and quiet.  The guard would still be searching.  Of course, for now, the moonstone was safe in its hiding place.  But, like the meat pie working its way free, it wouldn’t stay hidden for long.

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