Strings of red paper lanterns shifted gently in the cool evening breeze. Vendors, selling poor quality cloth and vases, crowded both sides of the street. They called out to me, thinking a pretty, young maiden would give them her coins for fooling her with their abysmal ware.
I passed by, discreetly covering my face with the painted fan in my hand, letting the shopkeepers drink in my nubile body clothed in an expensive silk dress. They would never know a stranger was among them, someone who intended to assassinate one of their numbers.
My wandering steps took me up an arch bridge built over a narrow stream that cut through the town square. Reaching the topmost point, I stopped, pretending to take in the market scene down below me. Closing my eyes, I waited for my magic to connect with Tuto, my pet ghost owl. The breeze lifted the stray strands of my ebony hair while I waited for the connection to take place.
When I began sensing sounds and smells other than the ones around me, I knew I was experiencing the same things as Tuto. My eyes fluttered open and the green depths of my irises turned a tawny gold as a different vision opened up before me.
I was perched on top of a small, round hole cut in the wall. There were no windows in the room down below. Most of it was cast in shadows except for the lit area in the corner. A young girl, aged around twelve, lay on a cot. Her arms and face were grimy and she wore a dirty, ragged dress of coarse wool. Red paper lanterns hung over her unmoving body, bathing her pale skin in an aura of scarlet.
“What place is this?” I murmured, looking all around the room.
I willed Tuto to sniff the air. Rich notes of perfume mixed with sweat wafted toward me. My glance fell on the mounds of brightly colored dresses in the corner. They were attractive but the fabrics were cheap. Only one place in this town of starving peasants would have such items discarded so carelessly.
“A brothel.” The word came out in a whisper from my lips.
Blinking my eyes, I cleared the vision away and broke the link with Tuto. I inhaled lungfuls of the cool air, knowing I would have to hurry before the girl became a prey to the monster I was out to hunt tonight.
Raising my head, I took a step forward and promptly collided with a hard wall. Moaning at the impact, I rubbed my forehead and looked up at a tall man. He was handsome and richly dressed in an expensive outer robe that fell down to his ankles. Locks of dark braided hair framed the sides of his face. He had high cheekbones but my gaze was drawn to his luscious lips which were curved up in a smile.
Desire curled up in my stomach as I gazed up at him. He was so different from the rest of the men in that town square. There was no meanness or desperation in his clear gray eyes.
“Are you all right, Miss?” he asked in a deep voice. The timbres of his baritone shuddered through my body, making me even more aware of my throbbing heart.
“F-fine,” I mumbled. I might be an assassin by profession but was still a virgin woman of nineteen. My heart fluttered but I suppressed the feeling. I couldn’t let myself get distracted while I was on a mission. Clearing my throat, I said, “Could you tell me which way I should go to reach the town’s brothel?”
Surprise flickered in his eyes. “Why do you care to know?”
“My friend asked me to wait for him there.”
“Would you like me to go with you?” he asked as concern clouded his features. This handsome man was warming my heart despite my struggle to stay aloof. Why did he have to be so nice to me?
I shook my head. “It’s not what you think.”
A soft chuckle escaped him. “Of course. I know you don’t belong there.”
My cheeks warmed as I looked away from him. Surprise flitted through me as I realized I’d never reacted this way to another man before. My curiosity heightened. Who was he?
He placed a gentle hand on my shoulder and turned me toward the western side of the town square. Extending his arm, he pointed in the distance. “Take that street and walk straight. You’ll find the place you’re looking for.”
“Thank you,” I replied and raised my head to look up at him. This close, I could smell the fragrance of peppermint on him. I inhaled deeply, memorizing his scent.
Mesmerized by his intense eyes, I could only nod.
“My name is Cain. Meet me at the tavern later tonight.”
He nodded. “It would ease my worrying. A young woman like you…” He shook his head, looking away from me. When he turned his attention back on me again, he said, “If it’s money you need, I will help you. Okay?”
I wondered what a man like him was doing in Oakhedge. Only peasants resided here and conmen roamed the streets looking for their next victim. He seemed like a prince from a faraway kingdom.
“I hope my work will be finished by then,” I said. “Either way, don’t worry about me. I can look after myself.” I smiled, hoping to reassure him.
“What’s your name?” he asked just as I was about to pass him by.
Turning back, I grinned. “Daria.” Giving him a small wave, I walked down the bridge and onto the crowded street below. Focus on the job, I told myself, fighting the urge to look back at Cain.
Following Cain’s directions, I walked to the western end of the square and entered a narrow alley. It was shadowy without a single lantern lighting the way forward. Only the brightly lit building at the end of the road illuminated the path. The stench of vomit and urine gagged me as I moved along, feeling dark stares upon me. My hand brushed over the bodice of my dress and a single poisoned needle came away, discreetly clutched between two fingers.
I kept my gaze focused straight ahead, ignoring the catcalls and jeers of the men who leered at me. They either showed me their dirty copper coins or grabbed their crotch.
“Hey, beautiful,” said a man, blocking my path. “You’re mine tonight.” I moved out of the way as his grubby hand shot forward. With lazy effort, I plunged the needle into the side of his neck. My movement was quick enough to go undetected by him and the men staring at our exchange. It only took a few breaths for the poison to act. Tottering like a drunkard, he fell to the ground, followed by loud jeers. I continued walking forward but this time, no one came to stop me.
The brothel was a four-storied structure. Red paper lanterns hung from the sides of the doorway as well as the tall walls that surrounded it. An air of lust and merriment hung over the place as drunken men walked in and out of the place. The stench of stale alcohol, vomit, and exotic perfume threatened to burn my nostrils. Unfolding my fan to its widest span, I brought it over my face and walked through the entryway.
My senses were blown away by the cacophony of noise and sight before me. Women in colorful garbs were surrounded by dozens of men, each fighting the other in a bid to get closer to them. The ladies laughed, clearly enjoying the attention. From time to time, they would leave with one of the men, probably the ones who promised to pay the most.
Keeping my face hidden by the fan, I walked through the crowd. No one seemed to mind my presence here. Everyone was too busy drinking or trying to attract a prostitute for the night.
Anger simmered inside me to think the way these peasants were spending their hard-earned wages while their wives and children were starving at home. Controlling the urge to inflict pain on them, I moved toward the wooden staircase in the corner.
I climbed it, feeling the gazes of men and women who dotted it. Still, no one stopped me, presuming I was heading upstairs to one of the rooms to service a client.
The staircase became dark after the third-floor landing. It appeared to be blocked off from the patrons as well as ladies working there. Discarded wooden boxes were stacked on both sides of the stairs.
This had to be the place Tuto found earlier. Making sure no one was watching me, I climbed upward, effectively melting against the shadows.
A single door lay before me. This part of the building was quieter. The noise from the lower floors faded away. My feet crept toward the rays of candlelight leaking through the cracks in the wooden door.
My ears pricked at the sound of soft, muffled cries coming from inside the room.
Fuck! Was I too late?
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