In the morning, I put on my favourite outfit, tied my dagger to my thigh and strapped my scimitar on my back. I was able to fit an extra pair of clothing and some food into a small sack. I was almost ready to leave without a goodbye, but Veniece burst through my bedroom door.
I expected her to be crying, or at least somewhat distraught. I wasn’t sure what to do when her lips pulled up into a big smile. “I’m free! I’m finally free.”
“Free from what?” I asked cautiously. Maybe she didn’t know about her father yet.
“He fell from one of the bridges last night,” she explained. “Stupid fool. Who knows what he was doing.”
“And this makes you happy?” I watched her with a frown. If one of my parents had died… I couldn’t imagine what I’d do.
“Of course! I can finally leave this place. I can find my mother and live a life of peace. I’ve always wanted to be a dancer. Perhaps I’ll do that.”
I couldn’t help but smile. “I’m happy for you.”
She noticed the sack I had packed. “Are you leaving?”
“There’s no reason for me to stay,” I told her plainly.
“Where will you go?”
I shrugged. “I’m not sure. Wherever Motish leads me.”
She grew serious at my words. “Be careful. It’s a tough world out there. You could come with me if you like. I have more than enough wealth to share, thanks to my father.”
It was kind of her to offer. I admit, it was tempting to accept, but I refused. “No, I need to learn how to survive on my own.”
With nothing else left to say, we said our goodbyes. Veniece had surprised me. She was nothing like her father. I truly did wish her happiness.
No one tried to stop me when I left. No one cared. It took me almost a full day to reach the part of town that was once my home. The sun was beginning to dip below the horizon as I came to the hut I’d grown up in. Two children played outside, while their mother kept a watchful eye. My mouth curved up a little. I was glad my old home went to a family with a fresh beginning. It gave me hope that my parents were out there somewhere far away and doing well.
I moved on towards the center of the town. I came across a baker’s shop. The sweet smell of sugar filled my mouth with water, but I had nothing to offer in exchange for food. I’d left all of the jewels I’d worn behind, so I continued onward. It wasn’t hard to find water. There were plenty of wells and rain barrels to drink from, but food was another matter. I knew I’d have to steal if I wanted to survive, but I wanted to make sure it was from someone who could afford to lose. I found homes with flourishing gardens and gathered myself an assortment of vegetables. I slept outside on the hard earth, waking to aching bones each day when the sun shone its bright face down upon me.
One night, I was awoken by the sound of footsteps. I opened my eyes to find the shadow of a man looming over me. As he reached down to grab ahold of me, I pulled out my scimitar and got to my feet.
He froze, eying my weapon before turning and running away.
“That’s right! I’m no helpless girl!” I shouted after him, slipping my scimitar back into its scabbard.
A drop of water hit my face, and I gazed up at the sky. Dark clouds blocked out the moon. White lightening flashed in the distance. Great. With summer coming to an end, it was time for the rainy season to move in. That meant once the rain began, it could continue for days on end.
The water began to fall harder. I gathered my sack of necessities and went to find shelter. I came to a spherical shaped building with a domed rooftop. Leaning against a curved wall, I dropped my sack and sank down. Water still splashed off the ground and wet my feet and legs, but it was the driest spot I could hope for at the moment. Exhausted, I passed out against the wall some point during the night.
Pressure on my shoulder where Motish’s mark was woke me. I cracked opened my eyes and saw a young girl poking me with her finger. She noticed I was awake and quickly backed away as though I was a dangerous predator.
I placed a finger to my lips to keep her quiet, which had the opposite effect.
“Saaafiiiyaaaa!” she called, bolting inside the house.
I stood up and picked up my sack, ready to run back out into the rain, which was now a drizzle.
“What is it?” asked an older woman who appeared through the doorway.
She had shiny black hair with silver streaks, which framed her face. Fine lines fanned out from the corners of her eyes and sat above her top lip. She was older than I, but not nearly as old as Nenet. She still moved with grace, and the beige skin on her bare arms was not yet wrinkled.
“Sorry, I was just leaving.” I explained to the woman.
“In this rain? Nonsense.” Her forehead creased as she studied my appearance. “Dear goddess, you look like you’ve seen better days. Come inside.”
Her invitation surprised me. She didn’t know me. I could be dangerous like the little girl had feared. I did have a scimitar strapped to my back. I decided she was either stupid or confident in her ability to deal with threats. Who was I to turn down such an offer?
I nodded and stepped through the doorway. What I saw inside was like nothing I’d ever seen before. The room was decorated in shades of grey and pink. There was so much pink, it appeared the goddess of love and sex had made her mark on the place. “What is this place?” I asked in wonder.
“Welcome to the House of Minyota,” she said, standing beside me.
That explained it. Minyota was the goddess of love, sex, and desire. She was represented by the colour pink.
Women of every age and size were sprawled around the room. Some were so thin they’d probably blow away if they went outside during a strong wind. Others unconsciously rubbed their pregnant bellies. Many sat on cushions on the floor conversing with one another. Some had draped themselves over soft loungers and were enjoying a late morning nap. I later learned these women worked through the night as servants of Minyota. A hearth burned low in the center of the room, keeping the chill from the rain outside at bay. I heard a baby’s cry from somewhere in the house.
“You look like you could use a warm meal and fresh clothes,” the woman who’d invited me in indicated.
I gaped at her, still unsure of why she’d invited me in. “Who are you?”
“I’m Safiya, the head of this house, and who are you?”
“I’m Malyi, faithful servant of Motish.” I put emphasis on the goddess’s name to ensure she understood.
Her eyes darted to my shoulder before settling back on my face. “Minyota loves all. Besides, I don’t believe you’ll harm those who aid you.”
I relaxed a little. “No, I won’t harm anyone... unless they try to harm me first,” I added, hearing the threat in my own voice.
“Good, then it’s settled. You may stay here as long as you want. Go with Affie,” she gestured to the girl who’d found me. “She will show you to the bathing room and get you some soup. I’ll find you something clean to wear. Okay Affie?” She turned to the little girl with big brown eyes.
Affie nodded eagerly.
I hesitated. “I prefer to wear my own clothing.”
Safiya smiled. “Just until we can clean and dry your own clothes then.”
“Alright.” I surrendered.
Affie, who came only to my waist, led me away.
Growing close to a hallway lined with rooms with curtained doors, I heard babies crying, moans of pain and… someone vomiting? Scents of body odour covered up by strong incense made me gag. I covered my nose with the back of my hand.
“Sorry, Mistress Malyi. A lot of the women here are sick,” Affie explained.
“Are they contagious?” I didn’t want to stay here if I was at risk of falling ill.
She stopped and peered up at me. “Not unless you lay with them.”
“Oh.” I immediately thought of khaviss. I didn’t say anything though. Telling anyone about the potion would be a risk to my life. I kept my mouth shut as we descended a stairway to a most luxurious bathing room filled with pools of clear, steaming water.
A couple women were washing each other in one of the small pools. Affie took me to a pool on the other side of the room. “Disrobe and I’ll wash you.”
I studied the reflective water. “Is the water clean? I’ve only bathed in water that’s been brought from outside and is dumped afterward.”
“Safiya says these pools clean themselves,” she explained.
I wrinkled my nose but accepted her answer and got out of my clothes.
Safiya had another woman bring down a white robe for me while Affie scrubbed me free of dirt.
“You bear the mark of Motish,” the woman who’d brought the robe stated, her eyes glued to my tattoo.
“Yes.” It was no secret. I’d never deny the mark that gave me power. I’d accepted my role as Death’s mistress.
“We have enough troubles here without the presence of her.” She raised her chin, showing off her long, slender neck.
“Well, your head of the house said Minyota welcomes all,” I countered.
Before she could answer Affie got up from washing me, stood in front of her, and placed her hands on her hips. “Safiya says she can stay. Take it up with her, but leave us alone,” she glowered. She was small, but she was fierce, and I had to bite my lip to keep from laughing.
The woman snarled at Affie but turned and left us, probably to seek Safiya out. I wasn’t worried. Surely Safiya would let me stay regardless of that woman’s wishes.
Once I was clean and wearing the fresh robe, I sat enjoying a big bowl of fish soup. The salty flavours that hit my tongue had me moaning with pleasure. A few women cast strange looks my way.
Safiya did as promised, and both of my outfits were clean and dry the day after my arrival. I shared a room with a mother and her newborn baby, which often kept all three of us awake by screaming through half the night. Sounds of pleasure mixed with sounds of suffering also filtered in through the walls. I felt sympathetic for the women. Some were so thin their dresses hung like curtains off their frail bodies. Others were so pregnant they could hardly move. With new babies being born all the time, there wasn’t enough space for them each to have their own room. Those who were healthy, didn’t have a baby, and weren’t with child were the only ones who did. They were the top choices for clients so they had priority.
I noticed there were no young boys in the house and asked Affie about it one night while we sat by the hearth.
“If a boy is born at this house, his mother has to find him a new family or leave with him by the time he can walk. Males aren’t allowed to live here,” she explained, adjusting her position so her legs were tucked underneath her.
“That’s harsh. Do most find new homes for their sons?” I asked.
She shrugged. “Some mothers return, claiming they found a good family for their son. Some never return at all. I’m not sure if they survive or not. A lot of boys are taken in by the temple of Bebik.”
The temple of the Bebik protected all knowledge of our gods and of our people’s history.
“What happened to your parents?” A girl her age should have someone to care for her.
“My mother died here giving birth to me. My father… I don’t know who my father is.” She looked into the fire with longing, as though she could find the answers within the flames.
I winced. Her story was so similar to Tavah’s. I really needed to stop asking these kinds of questions. “I’m sorry, Affie.”
She looked at me with a small smile. “It’s okay. You can’t miss someone you never knew. Safiya’s like a mother to me. She is to us all.”
“Someone help me!” a shrill voice cried from one of the curtained rooms.
Affie jumped to her feet and took off towards the cry.
“Affie, wait!” I tried to stop her, but she was already gone.
I grabbed the fire iron and followed her. I found her holding one of the curtained doors open. She stood wide-eyed as a tall man with bulging muscles stood naked with his hand around a mistress’s neck.
“Let her go!” Affie’s voice cracked with a sob. I admired her courage.
The man threw the tawny-skinned mistress to the ground and placed his foot over her face. “She won’t do what I asked of her. I’m a paying client!”
“Please don’t hurt her,” Affie pleaded, the curtain clenched in her small first.
The man, who had a large scar running down one side of his forehead, glared at Affie and pressed down harder with his foot. By then, a group of women had gathered around us.
His laughter was cold. “What are you going to do about it, ladies?” He swung back his leg to kick the woman on the floor.
By some kind of instinct, I tightened my grip on the fire iron, ran at the man and swung the iron. The iron connected with his head and made a loud CRUNCH! He crumpled to the floor without another word; the blood that pooled beneath him evidence he no longer posed a threat.
The woman who’d almost had her own skull crushed rolled over onto her hands and knees and wept. I dropped the fire iron and gathered her in my arms. The others still stood in the frozen in the doorway, their feet stuck to the floor as though they were statues.
“What’s going on? My goddess! How did this happen?” It was Safiya who asked the questions, breaking the stunned silence of the others.
“That was unnecessary,” another voice said. It was the woman who’d brought my robe the day I’d arrived.
I raised my eyes to them. “He was going to kill her.” Couldn’t they see that? I’d just saved one of their own.
“No client has ever come to harm in this house,” the robed woman said in an accusing tone. “We have a reputation to uphold.”
“Silence!” Safiya commanded, and everyone went still again. Safiya crouched down beside me and the upset mistress. She rubbed the woman’s back, like a mother would its child. “Kali, what happened? You need to tell me.”
The woman was finally able to stop sobbing enough to choke out the words. “He—he wanted to torcher me w—with that!” She pointed with a shaky finger to a whip that laid beside the bed.
Safiya picked up the strap of leather. She ran her finger over the three metal spikes on one end. Her eyes flashed with anger. “That’s a line we do not cross here. You were right to refuse him. Still, we have a mess to clean up now. Hopefully no one comes here looking for him.”
I stood up. I’d felt sure I’d done the right thing. Now I was worried that I’d made an even bigger mess of an unpleasant situation. “I’m sorry, Safiya. It was either him or her.”
“It’s not your fault. You saved the life of one of my mistresses. I thank you for that.”
I bowed my head, my hair falling like a curtain around my face.
“Ladies, take the body to the garden. We’ll burn it,” Safiya ordered, helping Kali to her feet.
As Kali made her way past me, she threw her slender arms around me. “Thank you!”
My lips curved upward. I really cared about these women. They were faithful devotees of Minyota, and they deserved better. That was the moment I swore I’d protect the mistresses of the House of Minyota. It became clear to me what I had to do next.