Cassim’s hands fell on his shoulders, dragging him close. “Come with me, Alibaba. We need you – I need someone I can trust!”
Alibaba shivered. “I can’t.”
“Can’t?” That was a tear-stained growl. “If you think you’ve got a deal with this Jahan-!”
“It’s not about that!” Alibaba gripped Cassim’s hand, heart racing. “You need ships coming in. A lot more ships.”
“Ships!” Cassim shook him. “The nobles are grinding us into the dirt, and you’re worried about ships?”
“Yes, I am!” Barkakk’s lessons let Alibaba slip out from under strong hands, even as he grabbed the pouch of Desert Tears he’d planned to use as a sample. “Cassim, look.”
“Pretty.” Cassim’s lip curled as Alibaba poured out a small pile of shimmering blue-green onto the little stand hanging from the bulkhead. “We can’t eat beads.”
“Don’t think of them as beads,” Alibaba said firmly. “Think of them as cargo. Look. Say this pile is the Shadow’s cargo. Here’s what the dock-master took in fees.” He swept aside about a tenth. “Here’s what you took.” Another portion, swept off to the other side. “And here’s what the nobles will take when the cargo hits the market.” A third smaller pile. “That leaves this much,” Alibaba tapped the shrunken mound in the middle, “for everybody who’s just trying to get by.”
Cassim opened his mouth to speak. Closed it again, squinting at the piles.
“People in the market,” Alibaba went on. “The crew. Everybody who gets a piece of reselling or more business because what the Shadow brought in let them sell something else. You can steal more from the nobles,” Alibaba shoved some from the nobles’ pile to Cassim’s, a whisper of wood and the faint green-and-sand scent of a desert oasis. “But that doesn’t make the pile any bigger.”
Cassim snarled. “At least we can hurt them-”
“You want to hurt them? Really hurt them?” Alibaba said pointedly. “Then look at this. What happens when you get two cargoes in? Or three?” He poured out two more small piles of beads, and stepped back, daring Cassim to split them up the same way.
Cassim didn’t take the dare. “More cargo means the nobles grind more out of us.”
“Sure. And then you steal some of it back. And in the meantime, there’s more for everyone else.” Alibaba met that fox’s gaze, determined. “Want to know what I saw a month ago? I saw the noble in charge of Qishan crack. Like an eggshell. You know what did it? One kid. One kid telling him he wasn’t special.”
“Cassim, if you want to hurt these guys, then we need to get people on their feet, trading. So the nobles know we don’t need them. They’re not special. That’s what will hurt the bastards.” Alibaba drew in an unsteady breath. “If you want to take down the nobles, if you want to help your people, then we need to hit them where they notice it. In the coin pouch.”
Cassim stared at the separate piles. Reached out one finger, spinning a Desert Tear around and around.
I’ve said all I can. If he won’t listen to this–
“Are you telling me,” and that was a laugh in Cassim’s voice, tear-strained and thick but almost a giggle anyway, “you want to get people trading so I can steal more?”
I’m still crying, Alibaba realized, swiping away tears. Why am I still crying? “It… kind of works out that way?”