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Nelsa Thorn sipped her drink and flashed a radiant smile at her companion.

"Twenty thousand, Alric, not a credit less. You don't meet my price, Edwin will. His agent has already called. Testing the waters, you know."

"Damn you, Nelsa!" the trader grumbled. "Must I throw in a shirt off my back too? Ah, damn, the things I do for an old friend."

Nelsa's eyes measured Alric over the brim of her glass. She thought, "As if I'd ever count you among my friends, you greedy cheating son of a bitch. Still, I'll call you 'love of my life' if it helps to wrench another thousand out of you."

"I'll give you nineteen and something extra. Specially for you. On my word, you'll love it." Alric opened his office door and shouted, "Get him over here!"

A servant pushed a blond youth into the office, bowed and closed the door behind him.

Nelsa almost choked on her drink. "What the hell?"

The youth was almost naked. The trader grabbed him by the shoulder and made him turn around a few times.

"Just look at him. Isn't he lovely? A real angel, missing only wings. And his innocence." Alric snickered. "I bet he's the prettiest boy in the known universe."

That was just the word. A boy. Well-built, tall and muscled for his age, but still very young — no more than eighteen. Handsome, or rather pretty: blue eyes, golden lock falling down on his shoulders, full lips, eyebrows like exquisite strokes of ink, eyelashes long and thick like a girl's. He was dressed only in a loin-cloth which left very little to imagination (not that she'd let her imagination wander that way). His graceful limbs were adorned with gold bracelets — fake, Nelsa noted with practiced eyes. He looked every bit his occupation which was rather excessively confirmed by the tell-tale tattoo on his forehead. A bedslave.

"Sell him to a brothel, for twice the price, once you are through with him. My generosity sometimes astonishes even myself. Must be your feminine charms or whatever. Deal?"

She looked at Alric, hardly trying to hide her disgust. "You know I don't deal in slaves."

"So keep him. He'll remind you what it's like being a woman, not a cash counting machine. Maybe you'll stop being so damn stubborn in business!" guffawed the trader.

The boy stood still, ramrod-straight, eyes fixed on something invisible. But his cheeks flushed slightly. Surprisingly shy, considering what he had been doing for a living. She felt something akin to pity, but tried to suppress the feeling. She was a smuggler — by no means a law-abiding and respectable trade. Yet she had never touched slave-trading and had no intention of starting now.

"Say yes, Nelsa! Just imagine this gentle and clever little angel doing your every bidding. Unlike most men, he doesn't care about your face. He will adore you simply for being his mistress."

Nelsa smirked. Did this piece of shit really think he's found her sore spot? Yeah, right. She had been sporting her scars for a good decade by now. Any mention of her disfigurement had stopped rankling her long ago.

"Cut the crap, Alric," she drawled. "Do you really want to get rid of a nice pliant slave?"

"You wrong me!" Alric tried for injured innocence, but his shifty eyes betrayed him. "First-rate item, won't find anything better. Of course he is a little spoilt and lazy, but you are a harsh mistress, to be sure. You'll get him to keep in line in no time."

"He seems off, and his pupils are dilated, I can see even from here. What did you pump him with?"

"Nothing serious, just a harmless aphrodisiac. To make sure he is able to perform on demand. You just need to caress him right here..."

Alric groped the boy between the legs. The boy flinched, his nostrils flaring. The young slave didn't seem to adore his present master.

His eyes, turned to Nelsa, were no longer unseeing and distant. They were filled with despair. That look, so forlorn, so lost, burned her.

Bloody hell, Nelsa, she said to herself, why do you care for anyone's problems, you've got a pile of your own. It's not the time or the place to get emotional. Do you fancy yourself being a slave rights activist? Not the first poor boy you see, not the last. Get you money and get out. Twenty thousand and no bloody slaves. Go on, say it.

"Nineteen point five and the boy," she said.

Alric haggled some more, purely for appearances' sake. He complained of his being too agreeable, her being too greedy, the inflation rate too high, the life too hard and finally ordered to bring the money and the bill of sale for the boy.

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