The old man's eyes grew wide, as if after all this time, he'd lost all hope of selling the bird. He counted the coins again and again, testing them each in his teeth to make sure they were real gold. Finally, he noticed Toadmila tapping her foot impatiently in front of him. Slowly, almost reluctantly, he took out his wand and tapped the cage three times. There was no lock and no door, but at the third tap of the wand, the cage split open, letting out the human-shaped bird.
The raven had opened his eyes, round, dark eyes that looked at his new master in wonder. He straightened his back. Toadmila had been right: he was more than a head taller than her.
“You'd better keep him chained,” the old man said. “He's gonna try to run away.”
“He can go wherever he wants,” Toadmila answered stiffly.
The raven tried to take a step closer to the stairs, but his legs didn't seem to be listening to him. He stumbled, and would have fallen if the old man hadn't caught him with a steady hand.
“We might have let him walk a bit, stretch his legs, keep them fit, if we'd thought anyone would buy him,” the old man said.
“I thought you said the cage was perfectly adequate,” Toadmila said. “Perhaps you should take better care of your wares.”
“The precious ones get to live in the wild until they are sold,” the man answered with a shrug.
“Everything has value for someone,” Toadmila said. “Or am I wrong?”
The old man bowed.
“We will keep than in mind for the others,” he said.
Toadmila's left eyebrow was twitching in spite of herself.
“We have two more familiars that have been difficult to place. A cat and a dog, both imperfectly transformed. Nothing like this work of art, but we have been unable to reverse the spells. And the dog might be of some interest. He has a similar spell, one that keeps him from aging. He's been a puppy for twenty years now. Quite adorable if you like puppies. I find them exhausting. Would you like to see them?”
Toadmila nodded. She felt a lump in her throat at the thought that she didn't have enough coins left for two more purchases.
They left the raven leaning against a stone pillar, and went further on. The cat and the dog were not caged, but chained to the wall, close to each other. The cat was a girl, looking about as old as Toadmila, and instantly recognizable by her large cat ears and her yellow eyes. The dog looked like a little boy, with one green eyes and one blue, and a brown spot on his face around the green eye. A dog tail was visible, coming out of the back of his clothes, which seemed to have been tailored specifically to let it show, and the tail began to wag when they approached. Unlike the raven, they were dressed in good clothes that looked almost new.
“The cat ages in human years, slower than a normal cat,” the old man said, bringing the torch closer.
The cat pulled herself back against the wall. Toadmila half-expected her to hiss.
“I'm Patch,” the puppy said, coming as close as his chain would let him. “Are you here to adopt us?”
Toadmila's heart clenched at the thought of having to leave one of them in such a place. She looked from the puppy's wagging tail to the scared cat and back to the puppy.
“Their transformations aren't as impressive,” she said, trying to sound aloof.
“No, but I find they look better this way,” the old man said, rubbing his hands.
“And yet you have been unable to sell them,” she pointed out coldly. She threw a glance at the familiars. The cat had retreated deeper into the shadows, but the puppy was still there, looking at her with large, confident eyes, wagging his tail.
“To a connoisseur,” she added, “an imperfect transformation is still imperfect.”
“Perhaps,” the old man said, “if you cannot decide which one to take, I might consider a small discount for the two of them bundled together.”
“A small discount?” Toadmila asked, confident in her ability to sound unimpressed by the offer. A small discount, she was certain, was not going to be enough.
The old man gave her a long look, as if he could see through the fabric of her purse and count the coins inside.
“You can have them both for six gold coins,” he said. “A real bargain.”