The front door opened, and Leo leaned his head out of the kitchen. Ozir stepped down the short hall, keeping his hand on the ceiling as he ducked through.
"Hey, Oz," Leo said. "I know I invited you over, but the shop called. A shelf is broken. The Twins will finish up dinner."
"Can't it wait until tomorrow?" Ozir asked.
"It would look bad for the store to open with a broken shelf. Plus, I rebuilt most of the shelves, it won't take long for me to fix. Why don't you stay here with the Twins? They've missed you."
The Twins smiled at Ozir, faces painted with pointed teeth. Leo grabbed his coat, and Ozir pulled him to the side. He kept his voice low. "They make me uncomfortable."
"Why? They're just house spirits."
"No, they aren't. They're creepy murder spirits. I don't know why you let them stay here."
"They can hear you, you know?"
Leo pointed, and Ozir turned his head to the Twins. They snickered and scurried back into the kitchen. Ozir rubbed his stomach. He conceded but said he would call the shop if they did anything weird. Leo told the Twins to behave before he stepped out into the cold again. Night came fast in the winter, but darkness never truly fell with the ocean of stars that filled the sky.
But the village became so quiet that Leo's footsteps shouted. He walked so fast that he had to stop himself. His heart raced against the ragged jerks of his breath. Leo wiped his eyes; the silence forced his neglected mourning. He took a deep breath, shoved his hands in his pockets. The bitterness didn't diminish when he stepped into the store. It made his stomach knot, and his throat burn.
"Oh, Leo! Thank you for coming so quickly," Tallulah said.
Leo swallowed. "Sure thing." He picked up the broken wood, eyebrows furrowed. "It looks like someone took a hammer to it."
"Well, I tried to fix it and ended up making it worse."
"But the nails are still in place, and the wood is broken in the middle. It wouldn't just give way with the tea sets that sat on it."
Asher's voice flowed over his skin like water. Leo's mouth went dry. The click of the front door locking instantly made the room feel hot. He looked back at Tallulah, who gave him a sad smile that halted at her heavy eyes. Asher, on the other hand, looked like an animal ready to bounce on its prey. A mouse trapped by a cat.
Leo asked, licked his lips. What's going on?".
Tallulah's eyes drifted to Asher. He nodded at her and she stepped into the backroom. "We have some business that needs to be discussed now that your parents have passed."
"If I didn't make it clear earlier, I'm not interested in running the store."
"No. You see, your parents accumulated debt with me during their employment."
"Their house is full of valuables. Whatever they owed you, I'm sure you can get it from there."
"Oh, I have no doubt about that. However, the agreement I had with your parents was not to be paid with monetary means."
A sinister tone snaked into Asher's words. Leo's mind raced. His parent's never told them about any debts, then again, when did they tell him things? They always brushed off conversations about other family members or to stay home more often.
"What do you mean?"
Tallulah reappeared with a pot of tea, she walked passed them to a small table in the back of the room. Asher smiled. "Come, sit with me."
Leo followed, despite the argument of his better judgment. He sat, his hands gripped his knees. Asher's eyes didn't leave him. Tallulah poured the tea. Leo thanked her, and idly sipped his drink.
"You have a rather odd birthmark, correct? One that resembles a fox head?"
Leo choked - his hand shot to the front of his hip. "How did you know?" Asher's smile spread. He laced his fingers together, resting them on the table. Leo's eyes grew wide. "Wait. What does that have to do with anything?"
"Their payment to me is you."
Leo might have laughed if part of his brain hadn't computed the possibility. He brushed the thought aside. When his parents were around, they gave him the world. And smashed it when they left. Even so, they weren't malicious. Workaholics and maybe a bit careless, but they loved him.
"You say that like they sold me."
Asher tilted his head. "That is one way to put it."
Leo placed his shaken cup back down. It didn't make sense. His parents were irresponsible but kind. His turbulent mind questioned even that. "That would be illegal."
"A fact that only matters if brought to the attention of the authorities. Since there is no physical documentation. Any illicit action would be difficult to prove."
"Why not come get me when I was a baby then?"
Asher leaned back. "I hoped to have several children to choose from, but since your parents are dead, I doubt I will have other options. I am sure this is difficult for you. To be left with such a life because of your parent's foolishness; but your birthmark is proof of the contract."
"You don't expect me to believe this, do you? This morning you hit on me, and now you're conveniently threatening me."
"Are you implying that I am miffed that you rejected me?" Asher chuckled.
"Well, you seemed determined earlier today."
"I wanted to gauge my investment."
Ben and Faye Kingsley were reckless idiots, a fact that no one but Asher dared to say out loud. Leo wished others would because the thought crossed his mind often from the moment he was notified they died. Leo received a letter just days before that said they would hurry back to show him their latest find. In their haste, they were caught in a storm, and their horses fell from a cliff. The more Leo thought about it, the more his stomach sunk at the realization that maybe, he didn't know his parents at all.
"My parents were a lot of things, but they wouldn't sell their child."
"And yet, they did not seem to mind leaving you behind in a moment. There has been much talk about you in Sea Breeze. Most believe their deaths should make no difference to you since they were never here anyway."
Leo's breath caught in his throat like the air was knocked from his lungs. Frustration bubbled in him. Was it another lie? The gossip mill always ran in Sea Breeze. Most of what he heard about himself was from third parties, but the level of viciousness didn't surprise him. Did that mean Asher was telling the truth? Staring into those honey eyes, he might never know. But for some reason, a small, stupid part of him couldn't dismiss the spirit.
Leo hesitated. "What exactly do you want me for?"
The casualness in Asher's voice made Leo shudder.
"To be my lover."