He still couldn’t believe how soft fresh bread was. It was nice not having to crunch on something that tried to rip into his gums or having to find some type of liquid to soften it. After a moment of enjoying the loaf he paused to glare at the bread.
Wulfric’s frown strained to a thin line, fingers digging to break through the crust. After he ripped the loaf in two in his underlying rage, he shoved half of it into his satchel before he stood. He needed to find his next target, not marvel over the stolen prize he had managed from the baker’s shelf.
He bustled down towards the thickest part of Ennara. It was a large city square, and every morning the farmer’s brought out their goods to sell through the year. The Great Harvest was upon them, which meant the wider yearly variety thanks to just enough favorable conditions between nature and the local magicians. It was practically a festival, the way everyone treated it. People would be bartering to stock larders, meaning plenty of pockets ripe for the picking. He was so close to meeting what was needed for the ‘protection fee’ due at the end of the week.
With the harvest in full swing, not as many people were seeking the carnal pleasures with how exhausted they are after working a full day in the fields between selling. It should even out soon and return to normal, but it was still a problem now and he had been out overnight for three days so he could snag prime targets: People too busy to watch their purses and people too drunk to care nor remember.
The procurer was making her rounds tonight and his mother hadn’t managed to get the money they needed on her own. If they didn’t make the money his mother would be beaten by the procurer’s goons just like she had been last week when she was only a little behind.
Except this time-
The shadows ahead caused his heart to skip a beat. They stretched just like that night. The panting on his neck, the twist of his arm behind his back, the smell-
He struck out, kicking over a bin with all his might. Teeth gritting, back taught, he spun, ready to lash out-
The old farmer blinked in confusion at the sudden rage as the bin crashed at his legs. “Hey! Watch what you’re doing!”
The tension in Wulfric’s chest made it hard to breathe properly. Rapid eyes darted from the bin to the farmer and back before he turned his head to look around. He wasn’t in that stuffy, scarcely lit spare room at one of Oda’s quick stops for temporary relief, but had been walking along the side of the main street heading to the heart of Ennara. Quick to pull the hood further over his face, he jogged away from the farmer without looking back.
The scent - it was the Gale forsaken scent again. So many people smelled of body odor and dirt after a hard day’s work, and many of them smelled exactly like they did. He needed the memories to stop and the panic to quell so he could steal something of value without getting caught.
He would not be put in that position again if he could help it.
Oda’s smoking had already filled the room with a terrible stench by the time Wulfric arrived home. He really didn’t feel like getting hit with her jewel-encrusted cane for pointing out something ‘exotic’ and ‘cost a lot’ smelled like the back end of a pig.
“I see your boy is gettin’ up there,” Oda complimented, as much as one could count that as a compliment from the old bat. Wulfric dug out the coin purse and tossed it to the large goon who stood as large as he could behind Oda’s seat.
“Yes, his sixteenth birthday had passed recently…” His mother, Melissa, wrung her hands. Her eyes never left Oda; not even to address her son’s return.
“C’mere, boy,” Oda snapped her ring dressed fingers.
Wulfric’s jaw tightened, glaring defiantly as he did not move.
Oda’s old face seemed to carry more wrinkles as she frowned. She lifted her hand towards her goon, middle finger and thumb pressed together while staring Wulfric down.
If she snapped, he was going to be forced over by that lunk head of a guard, and probably a good scuffing afterwards.
Her pleased, triumphant smile really got under his skin as he stepped forward. “That’s a good lad. Now,” she stood up to be at closer height to him, catching his jaw. Her nails dug roughly into his skin as his head was forced this way and that. “He has your thin face, unfortunately, but those eyes are quite fetching. You could clean up pretty good. That skin color will fool people into thinking you see more sun than you actually do.”
Wulfric really felt like biting the thumb that traced up his cheek. He knew this look, that assessment of worth. She always reevaluated him whenever she felt the need to personally attend payday instead of sending a goon. With how old she looked he hoped she would croak soon, but with his luck she’d find a way to out-live the entirety of Ennara by hundreds of years by sucking everyone dry.
“He’s old enough to start working more regularly,” Oda released him, turning her attention to Melissa as Wulfric retreated to her side.
“It hasn’t come to that!” Melissa protested. “H-he paid you the rest of our debt, didn’t he?” She looked desperately up to her son, firmly gripping his hand.
Oda clicked her pipe against her teeth prior to taking the coin purse and count out the contents. With the proper amount there, she tucked the coins into her own purse, discarding Wulfric’s on the floor.
“Yes, it seems so. Of course, you’re not working with anyone else, are you?”
“No, Madam,” Wulfric defensively snapped. He didn’t like working under her thumb, he wouldn’t ever work for another procurer.
“Good. Keep it that way. ‘Cause if you’re working for someone else but living in my territory? I’ll make sure you pay me back double everything you ever earned.” Oda brushed off her skirts before fixing her boa. “Well, once you start falling behind, there will be an open spot for you, Wulfric. You pleased quite a few customers this last time.” She finally began for the door. “Of course, you can’t keep covering your mothers failing with petty pickpocketing.”
Melissa’s grip tightened on her son as she felt him tense up. “Yes, of course, we’ll keep it in mind, Madam Oda, thank you.”
Wulfric could hardly contain himself the second the door was shut behind them. “Really, mom?!” He whirled on her, yanking his arm away from her grip.
“I will not go back to work with her!”
“I’ll kill myself before I let-”
“Wulfric!” Melissa caught his shoulders and gave him a firm shake, “Please don’t speak like that!”
“Why not?! Just because you’re the one afraid to die doesn’t mean I am!”
“Wulfric, we’ve been over this!” She released his shoulders to grab his face. “I would have killed you myself if I felt it was truly the right answer, but it’s not! You must live, Wulfric, live despite all of this!”
Wulfric sneered, his body shaking in rage. “What kind of mother would let her kids go through this?”
He pulled away, ignoring the hurt in his mother’s eyes as he stormed across the room to the wardrobe. He banged on it twice in passing before finally discarding his satchel on the bed.
A few hours ago, before the procurer’s lackeys were due to arrive, their weekly routine was in play for payday.
Yvette had to do it every week like clockwork. She made sure to take her pillow and her bear and climbed into the wardrobe. She propped the pillow against the back so she could hide with some comfort, pulling the dresses over to curtain herself.
“Can you see me, momma?”
Melissa paused in her cleaning to look over. She had been fretting again, her eyes seemed sunken, and very dark. Yvette was always so sure momma was so pretty, but she always looked so, so tired with her thin frame.
“Your skirt is sticking out, dear.”
“Oh,” Yvette quickly brushed her skirt and fixed the dresses more. “Now?”
“Much better. Remember, no matter what you hear, be-”
“Be absolutely silent. Don’t worry momma, Wulfric told me, remember?”
Melissa smiled sadly before shutting the wardrobe.
Yvette fidgeted to get comfortable, cradling her old teddy bear for support. The dark made her nervous, but it was safe. It was always safe to hide here, the dark kept her away from Oda’s people.
Well, from her understanding it wasn’t Oda herself to be afraid of. It was what she represented. Momma feared her and rightfully so because Oda was cruel and wicked. She made momma perform for men and lots of them.
Some men were okay by Yvette’s standards from what little she’s met in passing. They were the ones allowed to make what momma called ‘house visits’, but Yvette had to go out to play, or hide in the wardrobe if it was too late and Wulfric wasn’t home.
They never liked talking to her, though, so she always felt awkward around them.
She thought, perhaps, one could be their new pappa.
Momma said no man who would sleep with her in such a way would make a good pappa.
Yvette and Wulfric never knew their pappas, though, so Yvette wasn’t sure what made a good pappa. She understood that they didn’t have the same one, either. It was just Yvette, Wulfric, and Momma, and that was okay most days.
Then there were the bad men, the ones momma never wanted her to be seen by. They hurt momma, they bruise and bloody her. But they paid, they always paid.
One didn’t, she remembered, because Wulfric went to make him pay. Momma was so upset he did it. She was so scared he was going to be taken away, but nothing ever came of it.
Momma always said she was such a pretty girl with her dark hair and light skin, that her blue eyes reminded her of her childhood home by the sea. But that was why Oda could never know, Momma says. If Oda knew, she would use that beauty, and men would pay a lot for it, so they vowed to keep her safe, locked away from that part of their lives.
Yvette never liked the sound of it and Wulfric was always so commanding about it. He was smarter than momma, Yvette felt. Momma meant well, but she was always so scared. Wulfric wasn’t scared and he was clever sometimes. He couldn’t always fight, but he found ways around things to make it work.
He used to always watch Yvette when she was a baby, but she didn’t remember that, but she did remember when he told her that any time Oda or her lackies were coming she had to hide in the wardrobe and remain absolutely silent no matter what she heard. She could come out when she heard two loud knocks.
For the last three years it’s worked pretty well. She hated the dark, but it was her known safety. She was always a good girl and would never make a sound. She’s heard some things, like talking, often arguing and pleading. A few times she heard her momma, and Wulfric, get a beating. A few times they took Wulfric away after the beatings, but he always came back so hurt and angry. She hated when they took him away.
Hearing the rapid knock on their little shack’s door caused her to jump before she buried her face into her pillow, readying to play the quiet game.
“Oh, Melissa, business must be slow if you can keep your house this clean. Or have you finally been putting that boy of yours to work?”
“Madam Oda! I-it’s such a pleasure, I thought it was just going to be one of your-.”
“Well it’s been a few months, and you’ve been struggling on and off so I thought I’d come see how one of my oldest girls are holding up.”
“O-of course. Would you like any refreshments?”
Oda’s laugh sounded more like a bark than a laugh and it sent shivers down Yvette’s spine. “I know you don’t have anything. No, lets go ahead and count the money.”
Yvette really hated how afraid her momma sounded. Where was Wulfric? He hasn’t been home in days. He promised he would never leave without her. She never knew what Wulfric did for work but she always feared when he was gone too long. What if he got hurt? Wulfric didn’t have an older brother to care for him. He took care of them so much-
“Madam, please, Wulfric will be here soon with the rest of the payment-”
“I do hope so. Though, depending on how short you are after his arrival, I know a particularly rich gentleman who has been calling after him. Lets just hope he doesn’t keep us waiting.”
Yvette clung harder to her pillow. What did that mean, exactly?
Was a rich man wanting to take Wulfric away?
She wouldn’t let him!
But what could she do? She was just a little girl.
Her fear would begin to ebb in the darkness with the droll of the conversation about the happenings in town.
The front door being opened stirred her from her dozing.
“I see your boy is gettin’ up there,” Oda’s voice was amused.
Wulfric was home!
Yvette sat up, listening as the conversation unfolded. Oda trying to encourage Wulfric frustrated Yvette. Why did she want to take him away so badly? She was so happy to hear Oda leave, but it didn’t last long as shortly after Wulfric and momma started arguing.
Wulfric was always mad about something. He and momma never saw eye to eye.
Yvette clung desperately to her bear. She wanted to scream out to break up the fight. She didn’t want to hear Wulfric talk about killing himself. If he killed himself he’d leave her!
But she couldn’t speak. Wulfric said she couldn’t. She had to stay silent. So biting back tears, she buried her face into her bear.
Suddenly two bangs on the wardrobe.
She could come out now!
She carefully creaked open the door, peeking out to see momma sitting in her old armchair looking quite defeated. Wulfric was getting changed by the bed they all shared.
Since Wulfric was busy, she crawled out fully to go to her mother’s side.
“Momma, will Wulfric have to leave?”
“No, honey, he doesn’t have to leave,” Melissa encouraged gently, picking up her daughter to set her on her lap so she may embrace her tightly. Yvette felt her shaking, so she wrapped her arms around her shoulders and buried her face into her neck.
“It’s okay, momma. We’ll be okay.”
The sudden rapid knocking on the door startled them all. Melissa quickly swooped Yvette back into the wardrobe.
Wulfric yanked open the door once Yvette was tucked away to find some pompously dressed upperclassmen’s messenger, but not one he recognized.
“I have a message for Miss Drasa,” the man showed his letter, sealed with a wax crest.
“Ah, I’ll take it for her,” Wulfric offered, but the messenger snapped it away from his reach.
“I’m afraid I must hand it to Miss Drasa herself.”
“It’s okay, Wulfric,” Melissa encouraged, gently pressing him to head back into the home. “I’m Melissa Drasa, I’ll accept the message.”
The messenger happily handed it over. “My lord is expecting a response, so if you will…?”
Melissa hesitated before reviewing the crest. Her body tensed tightly, before she broke the crest and opened it.
Wulfric watch as his mother paled the longer she read, before looking nervously to Wulfric.
“I-I see…” Her gaze lingered worriedly on Wulfric before she returned her attention to the messenger. “I-...I accept Lord Karolis’ terms…”
“Yes, Miss.” The messenger bowed deeply before he turned, walking briskly away into the night.
Wulfric scoffed as the door shut. “You know if you charge the ones with more money then you do the others, you wouldn’t struggle as much.” He knocked twice before helping Yvette out of her wardrobe.
“It wasn’t a john, Wulfric.” Melissa’s tone was unusually firm for once, catching Wulfric a bit off guard.
“Oh, then who was it?”
Melissa hesitated nervously, rereading the message in her hands before she folded it up tightly.
“Lord Louvel Karolis is your father, Wulfric, and he wants you to come live with him from now on.”