She was safe.
It had been hours ago, but Latika still found it hard to believe. It had been a day like any other – her dance master clapping the beat, the jangling of her jewellery filling her ears, the peace that came when she felt her body move fluidly with the music but always undermined by the knowledge that the better she danced, the quicker she would be given to some man. And then there was a sudden shout, a voice calling her name, and two boys tumbled into the room, eyes bright.
Latika hadn't been surprised when Maman showed up before they could leave. It was too good to be true. Maman had spies everywhere; even if they had left they would have been caught, sooner or later. What nearly surprised her was Salim's gun. Then again, she ought to have expected it. Jamal was Jamal and Salim was Salim.
She heard again the sound of a shot, and saw the man who had controlled her life sprawl on the ground, like a puppet whose strings had been cut, and suddenly he was not Maman, only a man who could die like other men. It was the first time she had seen death, but there was no room for shock or pity or delight. It was one of the first rules she had learnt. Out there, only money mattered, and it was lying in front of her. She picked it up. No room for sentiment.
Jamal, she saw, still hadn't learnt. His eyes were wide and he stood there, staring at the crumpled body. She felt a twinge of pity – he was a sweet boy, he shouldn't be exposed to all this. Only later did she realise the oddness. Jamal had once taken care of her, but she had grown up, seen things that he had not, and their roles were reversed, almost. Things were different now.
Salim understood, though. He was backing out, never taking his eyes off the other men, calling for his brother. Then they were out, running in fear mingled with exhilaration.
It was only when she stood in the hotel room as the door swung shut that Latika understood what it meant. She was free, free from the life she had always known was waiting for her, a life filled with greedy men with greedy eyes and greedy hands who saw her only as a possession to be used. And Jamal had come back for her.
The thought warmed her. She tilted her head back, hot water trickling down her body, and she smiled.
Latika stepped out of the shower cautiously, but Jamal had his eyes firmly squeezed shut, even turning his head away. She looked at him and saw his earnest, honest face, and she smiled and said what she had thought earlier. "You're a sweet boy, Jamal."
Later, they lay on the mattress, talking. She weaved her hands through the air, the habit hard to break. Jamal propped himself up on his elbow and watched her hands move, a dance by itself. She didn't mind him watching – she felt safe with him. She could trust him.
She didn't remember when they fell asleep.
Latika smelt the alcohol before she opened her eyes, and Salim was there, standing over them, his eyes only on her.
She knew that look, and knew what Salim would demand of her. Jamal didn't understand at first. He still thought he could reason with Salim.
"I am the elder," Salim said harshly. "I am the boss. For once, you do as I say. Now get out!"
He bent towards her and held out his hand in an almost friendly gesture. "Come on. I saved your life, didn't I?"
She said it anyway, knowing it was useless. "Salim, please."
And then Jamal understood, and he sprang up and threw himself at Salim. Even though Salim was drunk, he was still stronger than Jamal, and once he recovered from his shock, he grabbed Jamal and threw him out of the room, slamming the door shut, and then she was alone with Salim.
Jamal was pounding on the door. "Salim! Salim, open!"
Salim turned to her, that look still in his eyes. He moved towards her, but Jamal's yells seemed to penetrate the alcoholic haze. Pulling the gun out of his pocket, he flung open the door and held the gun to his brother's head.
"I'm giving you five seconds. One...two..."
Jamal was defiant. He didn't believe Salim would pull the trigger, but Latika had seen things like these for years. Salim would do anything right now, anything at all.
Latika knew what she was going to do, as though she had planned it for years. She couldn't let Jamal die. Not Jamal.
She reached the door in a few steps, and gently pushed the gun down. She felt Salim's eyes on her, but she only looked at Jamal. "Go, Jamal," she said.
Shock and disbelief warred in Jamal's face. He still hadn't grown up, but she knew he would. After tonight.
She stepped back into the room and Salim closed it behind her, a vaguely satisfied smirk on his face. As he came towards her, she thought, was it so very bad after all? She had been brought up, she had been trained for this.
Still, it wasn't easy to know that she had returned to the life she had thought she had escaped forever in the nick of time, and so when Salim's body crushed her into the mattress and his snoring sounded in her ears, she cried.