They arrive in the glaring mid-afternoon sun, but Basheera had seen them on the road from Al-Johara and hurried down the road on her surid, leaving the date baskets up in the shack, her mother was so angry and had her running back and get them, but by then the whole town knew - Weberknecht's Carnival was on its way.
A few had opened their carts for customers upon arrival, just as the sun reaches the horizon, those who brought wares from the north, from Al-Amara and Thuer and further, unimaginably far away, beyond the date trees and the sand and the white buildings growing out of it like teeth and scales.
You throw a passing glance at the ironwares on one cart, and slip through. The maurid don't mind you, they had a long day pulling the carts and the people and now just want to drink, eat, and sleep. You recognize the paintings on one of the carts, the owner sells the most delicious sweet pastes, but right now he lies on the roof and smokes.
You jump over another maurid tail and scoot under a cart and out on the other side, then take a sharp right turn and pass between some more. Some old mother hollers after you. A turn left, and you come across a fireside, with a cauldron hanging over it. Right next to it is a person with four eyes, coiled up, squinting, hair and skin and coat white as clouds, eyes night-black, they yawn, and reveal a pair of long fangs.
You're out fast.
The next evening, the carnival is in full buzz. You hurry with your homework, and hurry down as the last rays of the setting sun paint the sky in all colours, gleaming, shifting, bright and warm from the day, with the first cool winds coming. It smells of dung, of wood, of sand, overlaid with a thick sweetness, oozing, you can almost taste it. Colourful glass lanterns light the paths between the carts and stands. Fabric ruffles and occasionally glitters, coin beads jingle softly, the scent of roasting lizard meat wafts through the sweet haze and makes you mouth water as you imagine biting into it.
No one notices when you cut the line, just a little. The lizard is as delicious as you imagined it, and so is the bread that soaks up the juice that almost runs down your chin.
There's a commotion farther down, past the incense cart and the chimes, past the sweetpaste, but it's all jammed.
The sweetpaste merchant sees you, and beckons you over.
Galiyah, he says, what are you doing down here? You're missing the show!
Mudar, grandfather, you reply, there are too many people, I can't see.
Then climb on the cart, Galiyah. I know you won't fall down.
You grab the lizard and flatbread firmly between your teeth and climb up. The warm wood creaks.
Below, you see the person with the four eyes again, shrouded in flowy, thin fabrics, all white, around them simple coal braziers, giving little light. Their eyes are like an abyss, just without the stars. Somewhere in the shadows a lute starts playing, and they move. It's like they don't have bones or weight, flying over the earth with their bare feet, and then, you see. Every touch, every twist of an ankle, and a line glows on the ground, softly, almost invisible in the flickering fire and shadows.
Every jump, every twirl, and a picture forms under them, white and ghost-like like themself, and then, the outer circles dissolve in colour and light, washing over the audience and the braziers, and the braziers flare, flare high and blue and red and green and black and sparks fly through the air, billows of rainbows rise from the ground and in between, in between darkness and light and music and sparks, the dancer flares up their scarves once more, like Neferon's clouds, and bows.
The crows erupts into cheers, but the dancer has already melted into the shadows.
You notice you let your lizard fall down. No saving it now.
The Mudar lightly touches your shoulder, and offers you a basket.
It contains jars, filled with delicious sweetpaste. Hastily, you dig out the coin satchel you got from your mother, and ask, how much?
He chuckles. Three bronze towers a jar, as the sign says.
You eye him incredulously. I've been buying your sweetpaste since I was a little kid. One tower.
He returns your expression. I have a maurid to feet! Two towers and three tin snakes.
You widen your eyes in disbelief. But Mudar, my mother has been buying from you since she was a little kid! And we always buy so much! A tower and five snakes.
He raises an eyebrow. Two towers.
You grin, and nod. Deal.
You pull out two silver moons and ten bronze towers from your satchel, and give them to the Mudar. He eyes them approvingly, and let's them disappear into his own.
I'll be dropping by tomorrow again, you promise. Mother wants to buy fabric and threads and things and I want some, too.
He grins. Old Layali won't be so easy to barter down, child.
Mother has more experience than me, you shrug. But I need to go now, Mudar. Keleheu be benevolent unto your night, Mudar.
Keleheu be benevolent unto yours, Galiyah.
The basket is heavy, and you can't climb up to see, but then a spindly man in glittering yellow rises above the crowd on a web of dew-thin ropes, swaying between high poles in front of the night sky, then a second, then a third, and as the first one perches atop the web, they climb on his shoulders, the third one saltos off, a fiery whirl of orange and red and reflecting coin beads. The second places his hand on the first one's head, and lifts himself up, in flowing shades of green, the net sways, the men sway, they must fall any second now -
They do not, even as the first rises, first to his feet, to one, to the toes, he balances on the tip of his big toe, the second one raises his palm, then little finger, the ring finger, the middle finger, then the thumb. The net sways, they are like palm trees in a sandstorm, firm.
When the white dancer from before breathes red fire to him, he twirls it around his wrist, and throws it into the fire bowl on the other side.
That night, you dream of sweetsmelling fire, of twirling through the oozing flames and you hear a distant, dark crowd cheer...