Characters: Kotryna Rayn, Carl
World: Black Flames
Rating: R, for language and sexual things. No explicit sex.
Word Count: 2,633
Total Words: 2,633/20,000
The little girl was a stinking pile of rags and bones when Carl got ahold of her. But he’d heard the orphan sing and the purity and beauty she possessed stirred even his twisted old soul. “Come here, child,” he coaxed. She shuffled toward him, gait that of the meek and weary. “Look me in the eye. Have some fucking dignity.” She tensed, but slowly met his eyes. Her sallow face was tight and her large brown eyes bugged out underneath a matted mess of dark blonde curls. “Can you dance as well?”
“Yessir,” she told him, volunteering nothing else.
“Turn around for me. A full circle. Slow. And raise your arms.” She obeyed, turning for him so he could properly examine her. “When was your last bath, you filthy thing?”
Ashamed, she broke eye contact and stared at the ground. “Sir, I’m sorry. I don’t know.”
“You reek like horse shit.” Carl leaned forward and grabbed her, pinching her ribs. She jumped, but bit back her protest. “How old are you?”
“Ten years, sir.”
“Hmm… You look like you’re fucking six, except you’d be too tall. Are you a good dancer?”
“I have been called exceptional, sir, but I have been taught not to brag.”
“Dance then.” The girl stood awkwardly, looking unsure. Frustrated, Carl barked, “What, girl? You a damned liar? Or are you just a coward?”
She quickly shook her head and glanced around. The headmistress was watching from one of the doorways. Many other boys and girls of all ages were milling around, failing to hide how they were watching her, wishing that this man with a pocket full of gold was paying them notice, asking them to perform their special talents. Maybe he would whisk her away to a life of glamour. “There isn’t any music,” she told him, meeting his eyes again.
“You have to make your own music, girl.” He began a rhythm with his foot, tapping to an old folk song from his home country. He added a gruff humming to it, nodding in time. Sensing her opportunity, the little blonde orphan began to sway to the music. She shifted into a slow, almost sensual dance, strange for a girl her age. He was cynical, though, and understood the way these places worked. They trained their boys to be nimble and strong for a life on the streets or seas, picking pockets or leading a pirate crew, or else going into the more noble choice of the military. The girls learned how to seduce, from the beginning. They’d be prostitutes, most of them, but a lucky few would go on to perform in one field or another. Some would pull themselves up and work as maids and governesses. They may marry well enough for a life on a farm or the arm of a merchant. All goals where one might need the survival and seduction skills, of all varieties, in order to succeed.
The way she moved was sinuous, serpentine. She had grace and beauty in her muscles, despite the malnutrition. She may turn into a beautiful little thing down the road, if he could fill her out a bit. His song faded out and she closed her dance, ending in a flourished bow. As she straightened, she met his eyes and he saw a fire burning in the lifeless orbs. “How did I do, sir?”
Slowly, he nodded. “You’ll do. Can you speak Illanian?”
“No, sir. Well, very, very little.”
“Hmm… Well, that will have to be remedied. Eventually.” He leaned forward conspiratorially, beckoning for her to come in as well. “How would you like to come with me?” he whispered.
“You mean… adopt me?” she whispered back, eyes wide.
“Mmhmm. I run a performance troupe. You will be a star.”
“Oh, yes!” she exclaimed, clapping her hands and forgetting to whisper. “Yes, please!” But her broad grin suddenly vanished and what color she had in her cheeks washed away seconds later, eyes moving back to the ground fearfully.
Carl felt a presence next to and slightly behind him and turned. The headmistress hovered beside him, tall and imposing. He wasn’t intimidated, even though when he stood she towered about eight inches above his own head. A slow, wicked smile cracked her ancient features. In another life, the two may have been perfect matches for each other. “Madame Headmistress,” he greeted, just barely nodding his head enough to indicate respect and deference.
“Director,” she returned, indicating his position within the troupe. “I see you’ve met our Kotryna.”
“Yes. An exceptional talent.”
“Indeed, she is special.”
“Unfortunately, it seems you may not have a morsel or a drop of soap to spare on her. I have room in my group of… associates. I could certainly take her off your hands and under my wing.”
Danger flashed in the woman’s eyes and Kotryna kept her gaze locked on her dirty feet. “We’d certainly appreciate this thoughtfulness. Of course, there is a small adoption fee. We can’t have our precious wards going to just anyone, you understand?”
For a long moment, Carl contemplated his options. He’d won this fight before with a warden, albeit one that was arguably one of the thickest people he’d met in this business, but this woman knew what kind of person he was. Oh, sure, he ran a world-renowned performance troupe, but he was also a thief and a pimp. They knew there were no angels descending upon these orphanages, looking to rescue the little mockingbirds from the hellish pit they barely survived in. “Fine. Twenty gold.”
She guffawed mockingly. “It’s two hundred a head for the girls. Always has been.”
“There ain’t no fucking way she’s worth that. Not even if her voice made angels fly up and weep.”
“They aren’t cheap to—”
“To feed? To clothe? To run a bath more than once a year? I see the way you look at me. I know what you think of me, you wretched bitch. But all this little girl is is skin and bones and one set of some fucking good pipes. I can see your fat arse hasn’t had too hard of a time finding scraps.”
The headmistress turned stony-faced and glared at him. He met her gaze with as much resolution. After a long moment, she finally conceded, “One-seventy-five.”
“You’re going to make a lot of money off this one. You know it.”
“Not for years. Forty.”
“She’s a lark. Beauty will come later. Look at the bone structure.”
“All I see is bone.”
“No. I’m done.”
Indignantly, she exclaimed, “Even the boys cost one-twenty-five!”
He shouted back, “I’ve seen them, too! You should count yourself lucky to get thirty gold for those little urchins. Buy a little food! Scrub ‘em off a little! The little fuckers will be a much better presentation and you can triple it. As it is, I can’t guarantee she’ll survive the ride to my camp!”
“One hundred gold, and she’s yours. And that is it.”
He contemplated the price as though he had a hard decision. He’d come in willing to take one or two for one-fifty, but seeing the state they were in, he’d almost left until being convinced by one of the kinder caretakers to take a listen to some of the girls’ voices, swearing there was something alive in them still. Most had the generic voice of a child, adorable and worthy of attention by more generous patrons, but the scrawny yellow-headed one had drawn his attention. Her voice was full and controlled, a skill the others lacked, with a power the others lacked. And then she’d proven she could dance. She would make him real money, even if she was never beautiful like they promised. He glanced around and saw they had garnered an audience, groups of children and caretakers staring at them with wide eyes. He imagined few people ever took the time to look past the emaciation and grime anymore. Even fewer probably stood up to the tall, imposing headmistress. Finally he replied, “One hundred gold.” He looked at Kotryna, still as a statue. “Girl!” he barked. “Go fetch your things, if you have any.”
“Yes, sir!” and she dashed off before the headmistress could say anything. Buried deep in the hay of her mattress were a few pages of parchment that she’d scribbled music onto and her one most prized possession, a single gold charm set with an opal, which she’d been told she’d been clutching as a baby when discovered. It had once been an earring, but had long ago lost the hook it was attached to. Its shape and elegant detailing in the metal made it perfect for a necklace, but she’d never been able to have one, of course, and had strung it at one time on a rough piece of twine. She tied it, now, around her ankle, putting on her only pair of pants and slippers beneath her threadbare dress, as it was getting cold outside. They were thin, but a little too long, having been handed down from an older girl, so they covered the charm.
Just in time, she heard the pattering of little feet and a few girls appeared at her door. “Are you really going, Kotryna?” whispered one, as though afraid to risk being too loud and jinxing it. Grinning, Kotryna just nodded. “Oh, I hope one day I will find a mother or father…” the girl sighed wistfully.
“Oh, you will, Sarai. I promise!” Kotryna assured, rushing over to hug the girl. Sarai was approximately a year older then Kotryna and had arrived with her and a handful of other children at the same time. While at eleven, it looked as though the girl would be beautiful with dark curls, light brown eyes, and a pale face, she had no exceptional talent yet, besides her love of reading, however few books they had. She could sing fine, but not as beautifully as Kotryna or even many of the other girls. At eleven, she had lost all hope of finding a new family, as the kind-hearted but barren mothers who came with hearts and purses overflowing often wanted only babies, or at least very small children. At fourteen, Sarai would leave with no family, but Kotryna whole-heartedly believed with the faith of a child that her “sister” would find a home, too.
“Kotryna!” came the shrill call of the headmistress and they all jumped. “Get down here this instant before your father leaves without you!” she finished scornfully.
Your father, mouthed Sarai excitedly, hugging Kotryna again. The other half-dozen girls quickly got hugs in as well, before dispersing, not wanting to be caught holding her up.
“Are you hoping for one last whipping before you go?” The voice was closer now. Kotryna grabbed a too-small cloak, her only other article of clothing, in the hand not holding the sheet music and raced downstairs.
“No, headmistress,” she answered as she blew by her and to Carl’s side. Kotryna saw a hungry gleam in the headmistress’s eyes as she looked down at a purse of coins that Carl must have given her. In her excitement, she missed the same greedy look in his eye. “I am sorry. But I'm ready to go now… father?”
He grinned, nodding. “Yes, I am your father now, aren’t I? I signed the fucking papers and everything and you have been adopted.” He squatted down to her eye level. “Do you know what that means?”
She shook her head warily.
“You obey me. Daughters obey their fathers, no matter what, or they will be punished. Can you do that? Can you obey me?”
She nodded fiercely. “I promise, sir!”
“Anything I say?”
“Good girl. Let’s go home, then.”
Years ago, she had lain awake each night in her bed, praying for someone to come and rescue her, adopt her and give her a home and a family. Carl had swooped in and been that hero. He’d plucked her out from the crusts of bread and cold nights and shown her the world. She had food now, enough to hide her ribs, at least and leave her full many nights. She had beautiful clothes, of all colors and fabrics and for all seasons, and baths several times a week. He’d gotten her to camp that day and the older girls had swooped down and stripped her bare and bathed her. They cut off all her hair and cleaned her head more thoroughly than had been done her entire life at the orphanage. It grew in much lighter than when it was caked in grime, a beautiful color. It hung down her back, a mass of gold that brought her attention wherever they went. Instead of it being taken from her like she’d feared, Kotryna was allowed to keep the charm and was given a shiny golden chain to wear it around her ankle when she danced, becoming a trademark. She’d never imagined such richness. She performed with them for kings and emperors, merchants and lords. She was the beautiful golden angel and helped bring them more fame and glory. She loved her life and her new family of performers.
She was happy, always happy, until her twelfth year. She was already beginning to look a little more like a woman than a girl, now that she had ample food and the older girls taught her how to paint her face and gave her perfumes and dancing clothes. One happy night after she’d performed a spectacular singing and dancing solo for a festival back home in Naioi, he’d come to her alone in the woods near their camp where she was supposed to be gathering firewood and looking for healing and cooking plants. He found her and he reminded her of her promise, her promise to obey him as a loving and faithful daughter. He told her that an obedient girl would love him so fully she would lay down and let him take her whenever he wished. He told her how beautiful she’d become, how he’d known she was special the moment he’d seen her in that orphanage. She didn’t fight him, she didn’t scream, she only cried a little. When the other girls saw her face as she returned to camp afterward, they knew without asking. She was taken aside, comforted, and promised it would get better, easier. Even the handful of men in the company were kinder to her for a while.
After two years, it hadn’t become easier. She hadn’t adjusted and love for him had not grown. As she began to obtain a woman’s shape, he began to favor her more and more. The only good thing she could see in this was that as he preferred her more and more, he did not send her out to other men, as he did many of the other girls. Another of his many diverse services…
Kotryna had once lain awake praying for a savior to take her away from there, to love her and protect her and be her family. Now, a fourteen-year-old girl, she would lie awake night after night, listening for Carl, praying that he would stay away that night, listening as the camp all went to sleep, waiting until she knew that he was not awake himself still, before finally falling asleep. And on the nights he came to her, telling her of her beauty and his love for her, she would lie awake afterward until the sky began to lighten before finally drifting off, swearing over and over that someday, somehow, she would gather the courage and kill him.