They marched him through the streets, and when he fell, they dragged him. "Each year, the festival to Qahalas is to be held on the second Full Moon of the rain season." A flurry of sensation: all white light as his toes are crushed against a sharp rock, the hands in his armpits hoisting him back up before he can even experience the relief of collapse, sweat gliding over where his skin once was. There isn't a cloud in the sky, he thought. A smile inside.

"Merchant's burden." The mumbled words come out with the taste of blood. Small spike in his back: "Don't talk." He recognized the voice as his cousin's but it could have been his own, and the ground seemed to him as one vast table, prepared for feast. The faces of children poking from houses, lining the streets - some scowling, some giggling, some afraid. "The conclusion of the first day's events is to be marked by the Feast of Merchants." His eyes were caught on the smooth dark skin of a little girl, and a tear pumped from somewhere deep inside. Qahalas, where is my skin? his mind screamed out. Jhin clung to what little hadn't been flayed off as they pushed him forward. How much is left? Half? Quarter? Qahalas replied that it was more than a quarter. More than a quarter of his skin.

Something sharp on the ground reflected sunlight into his eyes, and it seemed to evaporate his fear. There hadn't been much sunlight these last two days, between the rain and his pit. "After eating well from the finest bounty of the land, the Merchants will draw a Fruit from the basket prepared by the Elders." The sharp object was a piece of bone, white and brittle on the dry dirt. The dead know no pain. But they have no skin. The Elders sometimes told the story of Bkau, the man who had dared to escape the pit on the morning of his glory. Bkau had been transformed into a demon as he leapt from the pit and smashed the skull of the Elder in the guardhouse. Doomed, he ran into the mountains. It was said that for the next several years, Bkau would return on the eve of the festival and murder a child. Tentek, an Elder's child, was beaten with a stone and dragged away. The next day, Tentek's father discovered the boy's skin hanging from a tree, flesh and bones gone. Bone-eater.

Jhin slumped onto the ground in a pile. No hands, no spike. The order for rest had been given. Jhin coughed, shook; more blood swelled up from inside him and he hated the taste so much this time. "Inside one Fruit will be gold. This Fruit has been given to the Elders by Qahalas. The chosen Merchant will pick up the Sacred Fruit, and the Path to Glory will begin." For twelve years, Feast Day was Jhin's favorite day. He was not especially well-off, and the Feast food was the best in the land. Crab and monkey made to special recipe, spices, strange fruits and reptile eggs - his family could eat like kings for one day a year. They will not eat eggs anymore, he thought, because this year, he had picked the Fruit. The beautiful gold nugget, the honor of being chosen by Qahalas as his preferred sacrifice... it was so much to celebrate! This is my dream. Now it was his reality. Jhin was beaten too badly, and he couldn't control his bowels. He would have been ashamed if he could have been. But in all honesty, it felt good to shit like an animal.

"Okay Jhin, let's go. Only a little more." As he moved to get up, he saw his arms and what skin he had. More than half. Dark skin, and more than half. Jhin's eyes grew fierce and he spit blood. "After two days of pit orderal and final preparation, Qahalas's Merchant will be marched to the Waiting Hill to be burned. This should be celebrated in every good house." Shivering, naked, looking to each in attendance, Jhin was on the verge of seizure, and to many, he looked about to die before reaching the top of the Waiting Hill. I wonder if the Bone-Eater is still alive. A gull shrieked. "The wife and children of the Chosen should be honored on that day." Jhin looked at his wife. Her eyes were wild, full of the wind, and the sunlight shone on her brown skin, and she didn't really like eggs. Jhin cried out and ran, ran like the eagle soars, ran on broken bones and frayed flesh, ran like the fish swim...

RRRRRRRRRRIIIIIINNNNGGGGG!! *Click* A dream. A dream. He lay covered in sweat, eyes wide open.

"So, all you have to do is sign here, Mr. Peterson, and that should be it. Of course, our board of directors reserves the right to back out of this deal, should they fail to drum up enough support for the idea at the next shareholder meeting. However, I don't think that will be much of a concern... Mr. Peterson, are you okay?"

Peterson slowly stood up, putting the pen down. "I have a better idea. Why don't you come up with a deal that doesn't totally screw us? And you know what? I don't think I like you very much. Now if you'll excuse me, I have a business to run. Without you."

"You're only hurting yourself! This is ridiculous - the deal was done! This is bullshit! What is it you want?"

Peterson walked to the door, looked back over his shoulder, a glimmer in his eye and a wide, toothy smile from ear to ear:

"I'd like to reserve the right to club you and eat your bones."

It was two minutes before anyone in the room even considered breaking the silence.