There’s a mangy dog crouched beneath the second-to-last vegetable cart. As a rule, I avoid mangy dogs. Especially ones with bloodshot eyes and a clearly infected paw. But this is a sad-looking creature, its narrow face streaked with mud and its coat thinned to almost nothing over its ribs, skin scaly and pink beneath the grime.
“Something wrong?” Ani asks as she switches her brightly woven market basket to her other arm. At her side, her little sister, Seri, dips a booted toe into a puddle left from this morning’s spring rains. The crowd around us shifts and moves, a sea of brown faces and bright clothing filling the wide town square to brimming. For a moment I lose sight of the dog as a group of older women push past, skirts flapping around sturdy boots.
“No,” I say, turning to my friend. “I’m just wondering where Bean is. Have you seen her, Seri?”
Seri looks up, twin black braids swinging. “Oh yes! She’s across by the horses. Should I go get her?”
Seri grins and scampers away after my own little sister.
“Seri! Watch where you’re going!” Ani calls helplessly.
“She’s quick,” I assure her. There’s not much harm a six-year-old can come to at Sheltershorn’s market day; for all the crowd of shoppers, almost everyone knows one another, and no one would be so stupid as to come galloping through on a horse. In truth, the biggest danger here would be the mucky puddles, and I’m pretty sure Seri loves running through those.
“Do you need anything else?” Ani asks, glancing into her basket. “Mama wanted me to find radishes, but I haven’t seen any.”
“Might still be too early,” I observe. “They should have them next week. Ours are only just starting to mature.”
Our home may be a horse farm, but Mama and my middle sister, Niya, make sure we have a few beds of greens and vegetables, and our early spring greens are growing strong this year. Really, the only reason we’re here at the first big market day of the spring is to catch up with our friends.
Ani and I are still chatting by the cart when Seri comes racing back, dragging the much taller Bean by the hand. “I found her!”
“I was busy,” Bean protests, nearly tripping as she jerks to a stop before us. At fourteen, she’s like a young colt unused to the way of her limbs, still awkward and liable to knock things over, including herself. “Couldn’t it have waited, Rae?”
I pretend to consider this. “But there’s someone under the cart there I thought you might be able to help.”
“Someone—?” Bean echoes at the same time that Ani swivels around to look under the cart.
“That thing is—it’s diseased!” Ani exclaims, reaching to grab Seri before she can dart closer for a look. “You can’t mean for Bean to approach it?”
“Bean has a way with animals,” I say serenely. Even mangy, red-eyed creatures that could scare away grown men.
“Oh, you poor baby,” Bean croons, squatting beside us. The dog looks over and wags its scruffy tail once, proving my point.
“Come on out, sweet baby.” Bean holds out an inviting hand. “We’ll get you cleaned up and then no one”—she spares Ani a hard look—“can call you mean names. And maybe my sister Niya can take care of your paw. She’s very good with cuts. And I know a thing or two about them as well.”
The dog, lured by Bean’s innate kindness, creeps out from under the cart and sits at her feet, earning a series of exclamations from the adults around us.
“Eh, Rae-girl!” the vegetable woman cries, her long silver earrings swinging. She’s known us since we were born, and isn’t the least surprised to see Bean with a bedraggled stray. “Take that creature away now. I can’t have it by my food.”
“Of course, auntie,” I say, dipping my chin in respect. “Bean, do you think the dog can make it to our cart? You know where Mama left it.”
“Sure she can,” Bean says, one hand buried in the patchy bit of fur about the dog’s neck, scratching vigorously. I wince.
“Just . . . make sure to wash your hands afterward, all right?”
Bean casts me a disgusted look and rises to her feet. “Come on, little lady. You can ride in our cart, and we’ll get you all cleaned up at home.”
“You aren’t actually taking that creature home?” Ani breathes. Even she doesn’t dare say such a thing loud enough for Bean to hear.
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