“Is this another representation?” Toadmila asked sharply, arching one eyebrow. She left the path between the pillars and came closer to the cage to inspect it.
The man was very pale, as if he hadn't seen sunlight in man years. Yet he looked young, his sharp features not marked by age lines. His hair was long and black, and clumped together in a peculiar way that reminded Toadmila of feathers. He didn't open his eyes to look at her as she approached, and his face bore a look of stoic resignation.
“This is a storage place for pieces that we have difficulty in selling,” the old man answered, bringing his torch closer to the cage.
“Do you sell people too?” Toadmila asked outraged.
“A remarkable transformation, isn't it?” the old man said, bringing the torch even closer and moving it about so she could see the captive from all angles. “Can you tell what species he really is? Most spells that turn familiars into human form are imperfect, they leave out some detail, a tail, or a set of ears, or perhaps pointier teeth. Most wear off too. But he's been like this for over a hundred years, and not a single change, not a single feather has grown back, not a single finger changed into a claw, even his voice is perfectly human, if only you can get him to speak.”
Toadmila narrowed her eyes, trying to see the strands of residual magic that would be left by such a formidable spell, but after a hundred years, they seemed to be all gone.
“He's a raven,” the old man went on. “A very special one. He had several spells placed on him. One was to make him human. The other was to keep him from aging. He might even have a spell on him to make him immortal, but we haven't checked. His first master didn't tell anyone about the spells. She had no children, and no one close to her. When she died, a distant relative found him and brought him here. Quite a rarity, of course, so well transformed. We paid a good price for him. But no one knows how to change him back. And it seems even the most ardent bird lovers prefer cute hatchlings to a grown bird, in whatever form.”
Toadmila studied the raven closely. His face hadn't changed since the beginning of the conversation. He didn't seem to be listening, yet, in spite of keeping his eyes closed, he seemed to be awake.
“How often do you let him out of the cage?” she asked.
“We used to keep him with the birds upstairs,” the old man said, skirting the question. “But he spooked customers. And he tried to run away. It's a perfectly adequate cage for a raven.”
Toadmila figured that the raven was at least one head taller than her. Even had he been in the shape and size of a bird, the cage would not have given him enough space to spread his wings.
“How much?” she asked.
The old man licked his lips.
“Five gold coins,” he said.
Toadmila raised one eyebrow.
“For a bird that you haven't been able to sell for a hundred years, a bird that spooks your customers?”
“We paid a high price for him,” the old man said with a shrug. “But since you are so fond of him, I'll let you have him for four gold coins.”
“You should be glad to be rid of him for free!” Toadmila protested.
“We never give things for free,” the old man answered. “Everything has value for someone, you just have to wait for the right customer to walk through the door.”
Toadmila gave the raven another look. He seemed entirely unconcerned with their conversation, and she wondered if he hadn't heard it all before and if he hadn't grown used to expecting a certain outcome, one that would leave him in his cage, and have the customer stomp out of the dungeon in a rage at such a blatant attempt of being swindled by the old shop keeper. After all, he'd been here for a hundred years. And, she realized, they could keep him here for a hundred more, if they needed to, until the right customer would show up. If that spell that kept him from aging was that good, they could keep him for a thousand years.
“Four gold coins,” Toadmila said, counting the money into the old man's palm. “Now open the cage.”