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Chapter 23

“Haven’t ye ever heard the term ‘hidden in plain sight?’”

“I’ll no have my wife hidden in a…a…whore house while I’m away!”

“She may learn a thing or two—“

“Keep it up, and ye won’ be seein’ out of yer other eye either!”

I replayed the overheard conversation in my mind to better drown out the sounds of the brothel I was now hidden in. As much as it irked me, I had known Fletcher’s plan would work far better than any Jon could conjure. Fletcher bore the brunt of Jon’s anger in that moment, now sporting a black eye and swollen lip. Jon had had no choice but to eventually concede; Fletcher’s line of work put him in enough danger as it was. If I were to be seen and recognized, the outcome would be less than ideal. The bargain had been struck; Jon would only be gone five days in search of the murderer, one day for each victim. It seemed fair. Fletcher knew the brothel’s owner well, a fat middle-aged woman who wore red tint on her cheeks and lips. Her name was Coral, and Fletcher seemed keen to spend most nights holed up in a room with her.

I sat in my small room, staring out the dirty window into the fading daylight. At least my room faced the sea. My stomach growled, loudly enough that Bear perked his ears in my direction. I wasn’t allowed to leave my room after breakfast each day. That was when The Pearl would be open for business, though it was usually busier as the night went on. Coral, upon seeing me, had clucked her tongue and told Jon it was a shame he didn’t rent me out. She had mentioned her clients paid a pretty high price for women who looked like me. Jon had barely kept his temper at the comments. In my few days here, I’d seen and learned much more about the world I was now part of. The women here looked upon me with envy; either for my looks, or because I didn’t have to sell myself. A few had been kind and curious about me, but I was instructed to keep chatter to a minimum and leave the girls to do their work, lest I distract them from attracting customers so Coral could line her pockets.

There was a crash next door, followed by giggles turned to moans, interrupting my thoughts. Bear whined.

“Just two more days,” I said to him, my chest feeling tight. The last rays of sun caressed my face as the chill of the night settled around my shoulders. I moved from the stool, the legs scraping slightly against the creaky wooden floors. I fell back onto the bed, staring at the ceiling instead, alone with my thoughts. I felt hollow with hunger, waiting on Fletcher to pretend to buy me for the night so he could bring me food. I found I missed Jon, more so now than ever before. My mind kept running off to find memories of him. One that stood out more than others was our wedding night, when I saw his scarred legs. Hatred towards my family—my people—began to take root in my soul. It was ugly, but I couldn’t help it. I found I wanted justice for my new husband, for the man who had saved me time after time.

I sat up quickly, my head spinning, as a timid knock sounded on my door. Fletcher usually burst in unannounced, so whoever was on the other side was someone I likely didn’t know. I reached down to my sock and boot where I hid my knife. The knock sounded again. Bear only growled half-heartedly, not sensing a threat. I stood and delicately moved to the door.

“Mistress?” a timid voice called. My brow furrowed. At war with myself, curiosity won and I pulled the latch on the door, causing it to swing open a few inches. I was met with a pair of round blue eyes shaded by brown brows and thick, wavy hair. She stood a few inches shorter than me, obviously young and nervous. She held a tray with a hunk of bread, a bowl of steaming stew, a small wheel of cheese and a flagon of wine. My mouth watered at the enticing smell. Fletcher had only ever brought me his leftovers, of which there weren’t many.

“Umm, this is for you, from Mr. Fletcher, mistress. He says he can’t see you tonight, because he’s…umm, busy.” she recited dutifully. Still apprehensive, I waited a moment more to see if my room would be bombarded by men in an attempt to claim and kill the girl from the Mountain. The blue eyed girl swayed on her feet, wiry and thin and alone. I pushed open the door slightly more, allowing her to scurry inside. I closed it quickly. She set the tray on my table, then deftly maneuvered around a curious Bear to the hearth. She coaxed the fire into a steady roar, the warmth felt almost immediately. I’d been either too lazy or depressed to care enough to tend to the fire.

“Thank you,” I sighed, the smell of food wafting to my nose. She nodded tersely, not meeting my eye, and moved to scramble out.

“Wait,” I breathed, still curious as to who she was. She paused and bit her lip. She was young, maybe thirteen, reminding me of my sister. My heart lurched painfully. The threat of tears constricted my throat. I cleared it.

“Who are you?”

“R-Remi,” she stuttered.

“What do you do here?” my heart dipped low in understanding of her job. She was so young.

“I, well I serve the girls f-food and clean the rooms for g-guests, and I didn’t mean to b-bother you, I-I—“

I held up a hand to silence her, relief flooding my veins at realizing she was only a maid of sorts. At least, I hoped that was all she did. I bit my cheek in thought while she stared at her grubby shoes and wrung her hands continuously.

“Have dinner with me.” I demanded. Her eyes snapped up to meet mine. I quirked an eyebrow in silent challenge. She looked to the door, hearing the laughter and the thuds and the moans beyond, then back to me. She smiled.

Remi ate greedily with both hands, barely pausing for breath. No wonder she was so thin; Coral must never feed her. Her gaze kept straying to my knife on the table, apprehension obvious in her eye. It was a strange feeling, to have someone be afraid of you. I realized it was likely the first time anyone had ever been truly scared of me. I smirked into my glass at the thought. Remi shot a glance at a drooling Bear and nodded once at him.

“He’s the biggest dog I’ve ever seen,”

I reached down and scratched his head, Bear ducking out of the way so he could remain in sight of food. I ripped off a hunk of bread and tossed it to him. He swallowed it whole.

“He’s killed someone to protect me.” I reminisced.

Remi slowed her chewing and gulped.

“Why did your husband leave y-you here?” she reached for the wheel of cheese. My look soured.

“He had a job to do.” She nodded in silent response. I prayed he’d find the man and finish his job sooner than later.

“He’s the m-most handsome man,” she blushed, obviously taken aback at her own brutal honesty. I laughed.

“I think so, too.”

“A bunch of the girls here saw him ride by the other day. T-They almost clawed each other’s eyes out, fighting o-over him.” she smiled nervously, her cheeks dimpling. An emotion close to jealousy and pride swirled in my chest as my smile faded.

“I suppose I’m lucky he’s a good man, then.” I muttered, reaching for more wine. Shaking the depressed thoughts away, I turned the questions onto Remi. “How old are you?”

“Twelve,” she said around a mouthful of food.

“Why are you here? Where are your parents?”

She shrugged. “My parents died, and I was an o-orphan, so I work here to e-eat and have a place t-to stay.”

“Where are you from? You don’t sound like people from around here.” It was then I had noticed her accent, how it favored mine over Jon’s or Fletcher’s. Her stutter was an obvious nervous habit.

“I was born near the Mountain,” she said simply, still shoveling stew into her already full mouth. The room next to mine erupted into a cacophony of noises. I closed my eyes against the images swirling in my mind. I envied Remi’s nonchalance about her surroundings.

“You get used to it.” she shrugged, pushing her plate away and sitting back, sighing in contentment.

“Seems a dreadful thing to be used to.” I muttered, rolling my eyes and looking away.

“But your husband…I-I mean, doesn’t he, you know…” she gave me a knowing look. I pressed my lips together in embarrassment.

“We are married.” I said. She picked at the frayed sleeves of her dress. Despite her pointed question, I found I enjoyed her presence. I hadn’t been social with another wholesome person besides Jon in a while.

“Do you love him?” she asked. I was stunned into silence. I’d never considered the idea of love until I met Bane and Freyja, until I began to feel such strong emotions towards Jon. I never knew that certain kind of love even existed until recently. Did I truly love him? I missed him deeply, his touch and his smile and his warmth. I enjoyed his presence, his humor and selflessness. Was that enough to say I loved him?

“I…suppose I do, but I’m sort of new to all of this, so I can’t really say for sure.” I bit my lip, studying the crumbling bread on the table. Wind whipped past the window, blowing crusted snow from the roof into a flurry.

“I-I wish I could meet someone as n-nice as he seems to be.” she answered. My brow furrowed. She was much too young to be thinking about marriage or betrothal.

“Why’s that?”

“B-Because Coral, well, she makes me work sometimes for t-this one man, because he-he likes younger girls.” she shrugged again. Bile rose in my throat as white hot anger shot through my veins. My fingers twitched, longing to plunge my knife into Coral’s and the unknown man’s heart. I was simultaneously grateful for growing up in the Mountain, of never having to fear living a life like Remi.

Apparently hungry again, she reached for the last of the bread, unperturbed by her circumstance in life and sharing it with me. I swallowed the lump in my throat. The wind continued to rage outside, causing the shutters to slam against the windows. The room was stuffy but blissfully warm, and my belly was full for the first time in days. Sleep threatened on the horizon. Life seemed to slow to a crawl as the door to my room flew open. Bear rose to his feet as I whipped around in my chair. A tall, thin man stood in the doorway, his long black hair greasy and stringy. He wore a malicious grin, exposing his blackened teeth like they were fangs. Without turning to look, he heaved the door shut, sliding the bolt into its place. The one thing I’d forgotten to do.

“There ye are, ye wee bitch!” he spat, his eyes only on Remi. Bear’s growl began as my hand slid silently towards my knife. He caught the motion with his beady, black eyes. “I wouldn’t do that if I were ye,” he grinned. I then noticed the dagger clutched in his bony, ashen hand. The smell of salt water and fish emanated from his dirty clothes, making me want to gag. Remi made a small noise of recognition in the back of her throat. This must be the man who bought her from time to time.

I stood, trying to square my shoulders and adopt the menacing gaze Jon usually reserved for those he despised.

“Get out.” I seethed, Bear’s growl growing in volume. I knew what the dog was capable of. A shudder ran through my spine at the memory. He pointed the dagger at me, wagging it in thought as he squinted.

“I think I’ll save ye, because you look an awful lot like that Mountain bitch everyone’s been talkin’ about.”

My blood ran cold at the threat. My mind raced for a solution. The man was thin and didn’t appear very strong, but I knew looks could deceive. If I could reach my knife without him noticing, I may have a chance. Bear lurched forward unexpectedly. I wheeled around, grasping for the hilt of my knife. It was slippery in my fumbling, sweaty hand. Bear cried out, having been kicked hard. He slid back towards me on impact, his claws digging into the wood floor. Remi screamed as the man lunged forward, dagger aiming for my gut. My body reacted before my mind. I twisted to the left just as his dagger sailed past, slicing through air and hitting the table instead of me. Bear, having regained his footing, flew forward once again with a ferocious and thundering snarl. The sound vibrated in my chest.

He pulled his dagger from the table, ignoring Bear to come after me once more. He was more careless this time, bringing his dagger downward instead of under and up, leaving his midsection defenseless for a split second before the dagger came soaring down.

“Stab here,” Jon’s voice echoed in my ears from a moment that seemed it was from eternities past. He’d grabbed my wrist and drove the knife up, under the ribs. I now felt my own knife puncture the delicate skin, slide easily up and under his ribs. His eyes bulged as he stared at me in shock. Hot blood coated my hand. Stunned, he stumbled back a step, the knife hilt protruding grotesquely from his left side. The sounds of the brothel continued as if nothing had happened.

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