The rich are the truest evil in the world but culture acts as their armor against accountability.
— The River Queen Sacrifice (Act 3, Scene 9)
Karin sat down in her now customary seat at Lilard’s. After three days, no one questioned her presence. It was early morning, but the bakery had been open for hours while they set out breads, sweets, and breakfast pies. The rich storm of smells surrounded her and she smiled. It reminded her of a previous life, back when she cooked herself.
“Good morning, Kar,” Lilian said as she brought over a cup of tea and a slice of apple pie. The usual cheerful tone was gone, leaving behind a subdued sound that Karin had never heard.
Lilian’s eyes were red. She parted her perfect lips to say something but then shook her head. “Sorry. Would you like your usual?”
“Yes?” Karin said warily.
Lilian smiled but it was obviously forced.
As Karin watched Lilian walk away, she frowned. It was obvious that the young woman had either a bad night or a worse morning. Her gaze drifted to the opening between the rooms. Steam and smells poured across the counter, adding to the atmosphere of the nearly empty dining room. On the other side, she heard Lilian’s father speaking in an excited voice.
Lilian wrote up Karin’s order and stuck it on a wooden spike for the back. “Order up,” she said quietly.
Turning around, the dark-haired beauty sighed before scanning the room. Her gaze stopped on the bowl that contained the song requests. Glancing up at the rest of the room, she reached over and pulled it off the counter before stowing it out of sight.
A prickle of concern raced through Karin. After listening to the sweet tones of Lilian’s singing, the relative silence felt like a knife against her ear.
Laughter rose up from the back room. She recognized Lilian’s father, but it was the second voice that caused the muscles across her chest to tight painfully. She had heard that laughter more than once since she had become a Rat Hunter: Tristoh da Lamaster, a merchant lord with a talent for funding the wrong thing.
Surprised, she lifted herself from her seat and peered into the back room.
Tristoh was shaking hands with Lilian’s father, the distinctive sharp point of his beard was unmistakable from a distance. He looked pleased with himself.
She sat down heavily. “Shit.”
Karin suspected a connection between Lilian’s sullen mood and Tristoh’s presence. She strained to listen to the conversations in the other room but it was too far away. She had to stew in her own thoughts until Lilian arrived to deliver her breakfast.
She reached up and rested her hand on Lilian’s. “What is Tristoh doing here?”
The muscles under her palm tightened and Lilian inhaled sharply. Then she looked up with a frightened look before leaning over. “You know him? Who is he?”
Karin frowned and then shrugged. “Me and the Rat Hunters had to clean up some of his so-called investments. The last one was…”
She paused for a moment as she remembered the giant mosquitoes that swarmed through the chimney of the farm house they had made their last stand. There was so much blood when it was over, too much of it was hers and she almost died from the attack.
After shuddering, she continued. ”… a few months ago. A mage he had hired to research a weapon had accidentally let a swarm of mutated mosquitoes into a village.”
Karin sighed and she stroked her finger across the back of Lilian’s hand. It was a selfish maneuver on her part, but the soft skin felt good against Karin’s scarred fingers. “Almost everyone died before we managed to burn the nest.”
“A-And Tristoh?” Lilian’s voice cracked.
“He got away clean. The law can’t really touch rich assholes like him. Every time, he walks away with a tidy profit and a fucking smile on his—”
A tear splashed on Karin’s hand.
Surprised, she looked up to see Lilian crying. “Oh, I’m sorry. What’s wrong?”
“H-He…” She looked back at the kitchen. Then she shook her head violently. “I, I can’t…”
She pressed a hand over her mouth before she let out a choked sob. More tears ran down her cheeks as she looked around. Then, stammering, she dropped her notebook on Karin’s table and rushed for the door.
Karin turned to watch Lilian race across the front of the store and out of sight. She swore violently and chased after her.
It took her only a few seconds to catch up to the sobbing young woman in the alley. The short distance had left Lilian gasping for breath between her cries.
Karin, on the other hand, had spent the last year fighting. She wasn’t even winded as she stopped in front of Lilian. She gingerly reached up to take her hands but then hesitated before pulling back. “What did he do?”
Lilian looked up, her eyes shimmering with tears. “He offered to buy my hand in marriage a-and my dad accepted it!”
Karin’s hands slumped down. “W-What in the…?”
“Last night! He came home and said I was to be married in a week. I haven’t even met him until this morning! He just… that man just bought my hand like a sack of flour! My father… he’s… he took the offer!”
Karin flinched. “A bride offer? What does he think this is, Tarsan? We don’t do that fucking patriarchal shit in Kormar! He should know that.”
“It can possibly be legal.”
Lilian let out a choked sob. “The bakery has been in our family for five generations. It was ours! But when I started to argue, my dad swore he would disown me if I didn’t m-marry that man.”
Karin spun on her heals. “Screw the gods on this one.”
“What are you doing?” asked Lilian but Karin was already out of the alley and storming back across the store.
Tristoh was in the process of leaving out of the restaurant when she reached the door. “Where is my lovely bride—?” he started, speaking loudly. The words froze when Karin stopped sharply in front of him.
She pointed a finger at his face. “What are you doing, Merchant?”
A scowl etched across his face. “I could say the same, Rat?” He reached up to rub the side of his shoulder where she once stabbed him.
Behind Tristoh, Lilian’s father stopped with a look of a surprise.
“Questioning your motives,” snapped Karin. “This isn’t Tarsan and—”
“I know we aren’t in—”
“—and you should know better than to even make an offer. What are you doing?”
Tristoh pulled himself up and pressed a hand against his chest. “I promise you, Rat, I have nothing but the best of intentions.”
Karin stepped forward. “The best of intentions? Did you have those when you told that mage not to worry about that blood sucker swarm? Or fired the guards on that zoo of yours before the monsters all escaped and started killing people.”
“Those were all mistakes of—”
“Of your fucking investments! Every single one, Merchant! Every single one ended in blood and death!”
Tristoh looked around at the gathering crowds. “You should leave before there is trouble… Rat.”
“I won’t let you steal this girl.”
“Why, just because you want her for yourself? Is she the peach pie you were hoping for?” Tristoh grinned and glanced to the gathering crowd.
Karin blushed. She didn’t need to look to know that Lilian had come up near her. Grinding her teeth, she shook her head.
Tristoh leaned forward with a smile. “At least I’m not a deviant lusting after a girl like her. Let me guess? Ask about peach pies the second you met her?”
“I have only the best of intents for her.”
“You only have the best of intentions for yourself and you know it.”
Tristoh straightened and brushed an imaginary dust from his shoulder. “Well, fortunately for you, this is none of your business. It’s between me and her father, now isn’t it?”
Karin pulled back her hand to do something stupid but then she heard guards approaching.
“Go on, Rat,” Tristoh said with a grin. “There are thirty witnesses and I’ll have your woman-loving ass in a jail cell before you get your second blow in.”
She ground her teeth together. Then she shook her head.
He smirked. “You won’t win this fight.”
Karin stepped back. She could see emotions painted on everyone’s faces: triumph on Tristoh, anger on Lilian’s father, and sadness and regret on Lilian. But she couldn’t do anything, not at the moment.
With Tristoh laughing, she turned and stormed back to the inn.