By: M.J. Haag

I wondered if that meant we would be moving soon. The thought stopped me. Would I be moving with him? I was of an age where I should marry. However, where once I thought marriage something to look forward to, I no longer did. The memory of the baker pinning me to the lounge as he thrust down on me gave me shudders.

For how long could I ask Father to keep me as his dependent? I cringed, thinking of how he’d struggled to provide for his grown daughters so far. Yet, what other options did I have?

I contemplated the possibilities for my future often; there wasn’t much else to do with my time.

Father left one morning and came back a short while later with a package. Inside, lay a plain, coarsely spun dress. Nothing fancy, but entirely suitable for leaving the house, unlike my shirt and pants. I knew my seclusion needed to end for his sake; so, I smiled my thanks and went to his room to change.

When I emerged, he offered to walk with me to the market street, but I declined. Content to keep my solitude, I left the house alone.

Memories continued to haunt me and not just of the baker. As much as I’d tried to lock away my thoughts of him, the beast dwelled in my mind. I’d always known he would forget me, but hadn’t realized how quickly, and I missed his mercurial presence.

Needing a distraction, I walked to Bryn’s new home to see how she fared as a bride. When I stepped in the storefront, I was surprised to see her wearing an apron and assisting customers. She looked tired, though it was still early morning. I moved to the counter to see if she would have time later to talk.

Bryn caught sight of me and marched over.

“Your kind is not welcome here,” she said with a malevolent hiss to her words.

A woman next to me gasped and took a step back as if I were in quarantine again.

“My kind?” I asked, puzzled by my sister’s hostile attitude.

“Whore,” she spat. “We heard what happened in Konrall. How could you refuse the baker’s offer after lying with him? Get out.” She thrust out a finger, pointing toward the door.

I stared at her, my temper spiked and spiteful. She called me a whore? She had another man’s babe growing in her belly. My gaze flicked there, and she paled. Her hand trembled.

“Have care with the titles you bestow me,” I said, then turned to leave. Only the babe’s future held my tongue. The innocent child she carried need not feel the sting of her parent’s misjudgments and cruelties.

Word of the incident quickly followed me home. Father said nothing when I closed myself in his room once more to sit on his bed and consider my fate. I had no skills other than my education; and with my new reputation as a whore, no one respectable would want me teaching their children. The only unrespectable place to teach—the Whispering Sisters—was out of the question because of Aryana’s betrayal. Discounting a teaching post, I reflected on my other skills. I could hunt and fish, but not well enough to make a profit to pay for a home. Enough to eat, though.

I shouldn’t have shunned the occupations that my sisters had learned. Skills such as cleaning and cooking would have been useful to gain employment as a maid; yet, the effort I’d put into restoring the beast’s estate made my incompetence at those skills painfully obvious. What did my future hold for me now?

After bundling my shirt and pants in a pack, I left the room. Father looked up at me with a slight frown of worry.

“You need to go back to teaching, and I need to figure out what I will do with my life,” I said with determination.

He nodded slowly, opened his mouth as if he would say something, and paused.

“What is it?” I asked.

“I want you to be happy,” he said with a sigh. “Would returning...” He cleared his throat. “Did he make you happy?” he asked tentatively.

A sad smile curved my lips. He had. While he was the beast.

“He made life interesting, but there was more danger there than I’d realized.”

I left through the back door before he could say more.

Skirting around town, I headed south, wandering aimlessly through the woods until I felt I’d hiked far enough from town to set traps. I walked a long circuit twice, gathering as I went.

Time had passed quickly while at the manor, changing the seasons, so the forest provided several herbs and berries that I used in the traps. Three rabbits found their ends in my snares before I returned to an empty house.