Grinding my teeth behind tightly-closed lips, I glare at her. “It wasn’t that I didn’t remember,” I bite back, “but that I’m always trying to forget.”
There’s a loud crash and the shattering of glass as another servant girl carrying wine who had walked past Nora falls to the marble floor; she and Nora tangled in a sloppy mass of bare legs and long hair; the servant’s dress covered in red wine. Every pair of eyes in the room dart our way, and the many conversations that had been going on all around us cease in an instant.
“Forgive Aya, Master,” Nora says as she goes to push herself to her feet, stepping around the wine. “A-Aya didn’t see the girl.”
Jumping back into my role—and that’s exactly what Nora was trying to achieve by tripping the servant with the wine tray—I reach down and collapse my hand around the back of Nora’s neck, yanking her to her feet. Afterward I take up my briefcase from the floor.
Miz Ghita is next to us, pulling the servant girl from the floor, but with a little less roughness. “Go to your quarters,” she demands, “and get out of your soiled clothes. Stay there until Emilio grants you permission to leave.”
“Yes, Madam,” the girl responds, bows her head and leaves quickly.
Two women, who look more like housekeepers than slaves, come in behind her with a mop and broom and a dustpan and begin cleaning up the mess. The rest of us step out of the way. Already most of the guests have grown bored with the display and are returning to their conversations—seems the fake Francesca has disappeared from the room entirely, though I don’t recall seeing when that happened. I guess my little spat with Izabel threw me off worse than I thought. What the fuck is wrong with me? I’ve never broken character before, or been distracted enough that it could blow my cover.
“Apologize to Madam Ghita,” I tell Nora.
She turns toward Miz Ghita, who is looking down on her with those fierce vulture eyes, and Nora says, “Aya apologizes, Madam, for being so clumsy.”
Miz Ghita looks only at me now, saying nothing to Nora.
“I’m beginning to think, Mr. Augustin, that we do not have a girl suited to your needs, after all. Missing fingers, scars, the grace of a fawn learning to stand”—she glances at Nora with disgust, then looks back at me—“I hope this one will be punished accordingly.”
“I’ve only been Aya’s master for a couple of months,” I explain. “This is her first public showing, so I’m sure you can understand her incompetence. But yes, she’ll be punished accordingly later, that I can assure you.”
Believing me, and granting us some slack now that there’s an acceptable reason for the display, Miz Ghita nods at me slowly, glancing at Nora in a sidelong manner.
“The showing will be held in the ballroom in ten minutes,” Miz Ghita says. “It is expected to last one hour; after that I’ll take you to meet privately with the Madam.” She starts to walk away, but turns around and adds in a low voice so only the three of us can hear, “So far it seems you check out, Mr. Augustin, but you should know that if you’re a fraud, here for any reason other than what you claim, we will find out.”
I smile slimly, my eyebrows crumpling in my forehead. “Well, thank you for the warning,” I say. I laugh, brushing the whole thing off as ridiculous. “Does this kind of stuff happen around here a lot? You seem paranoid, Miz Ghita—no offense.”
Her weathered mouth remains tight; her harsh eyes never blink.
“The Madam’s time is more precious than my own,” she says, ignoring my question. “You’ll have thirty minutes to speak with her, so make them count.”
“I intend to do just that,” I say, and tip my head to her.
Ten minutes later we follow a large group of buyers down one expansive stretch of brightly lit hallway toward the ballroom; flanked by towering pillars on either side made of white marble trimmed in silver. White. There’s so much of it; any other time I’d find it too sterile, but the color suits the mansion, and the classic, sophisticated look the designer was going for: white-and-gray marble floors, white ceiling, white paint on the walls; even the flower arrangements in the arch windows lining the hallway have white petals. And when we enter the sizeable ballroom, the white still goes on forever, across the shiny marble floor, up the steps of a stage at one end of the room; the long flowing curtains on the windows are white and gray—OK, maybe it is too sterile; I’m starting to feel like I could go snow blind in this place.
Out ahead, placed in a half-circle, are dozens of white-and-silver chairs facing the stage; three rows of them. We’re all ushered toward the chairs by men in black suits and bow ties, urged to make ourselves comfortable. I and Trevor Chamberlain are asked to sit in the front row; I take a seat, putting my briefcase on the floor; Izabel sits on a chair of her own next to me; Nora sits on the floor at my feet, her knees bent and her legs tucked underneath her ass, her hands in her lap, her head lowered, her posture straight. No one sits with Mr. Chamberlain, but that’s why he’s here: to buy himself a girl. Just like myself and every other buyer here, men and women alike, a few others with their property also sitting at their feet just like Nora.
Izabel sits quietly at my side, also with her back straight and her hands folded on her lap, but she’s looking straight at the stage. This will be her first test—when the merchandise is brought out. I hope like hell she can hold it together. We’ll be watched by unseen eyes—we’re being watched right now—because we’re new and no one trusts us yet. Don’t recoil, Izzy; keep that composed face throughout the next hour and give them no reason to question you.
I know I can handle it. I just need to focus on two things: the identity of Francesca Moretti, and finding Olivia Bram.
But something doesn’t add up about this whole situation where Olivia Bram is concerned. I know how these things work, I’ve been there, sitting at the master’s feet, sitting next to Javier in a chair of my own just as I’m sitting now next to Niklas. I know what’s going to walk out on that stage in a few minutes, because I’ve seen it. I witnessed hundreds of purchases just like I’ll witness tonight, in elaborate mansions just like this one, surrounded by wealthy deviants who are, in their own way, above the law. They’re here for slaves who haven’t been spoiled, young beautiful men and women so subservient, so well-trained that nothing can break them…because they’ve already been broken.
But what doesn’t add up is that if Olivia Bram was fifteen when she was abducted, she would be twenty-two now; seven years in captivity is a long time not to be deflowered, raped repeatedly—I know this from experience. There’s no way Olivia Bram would still be considered fit for purchase in a showing like this one—especially like this one. You don’t have to actually see the slaves to know that they’re of the highest quality, which includes few to no sexual partners—virgins would go for three times more than any other girl—exquisite beauty, complete obedience, and most of all youth. Olivia Bram, at twenty-two, already on the market for seven years wouldn’t meet the criteria of being up for bid in a place like this. Even myself and Nora wouldn’t be good enough to be sold on that stage.
So where the hell would Olivia Bram be in this place?
It kills me to think it, but my gut tells me that she’s not here at all, and that for as long as she’s been missing, there’s a good chance she’s already dead. She was likely sold years ago, on that very stage—there’s no telling where in the world she is now, if she’s anywhere.
Positive. Think positive, Izabel. You were held captive for two years longer than Olivia Bram has been missing; if you were strong enough to stay alive, then Olivia could be, too.
Yes, she could still be alive…but nothing much can convince me that she’s anywhere in this mansion. And I get the feeling Niklas already knows this; he’s probably known it all along. The only reason we’re here right now is for Francesca Moretti. Only after we find her can we find Olivia Bram. Alive, or at least a trace of what was once her when she was alive.
Valentina Moretti steps out onto the stage and makes her way to stand in front of a tall glass podium with a microphone affixed to the top. I knew that particular lookalike played a bigger role than the one she played in the great hall. And I knew there was something more important about her, something different that sets her apart from the other decoys. This particular woman definitely has some kind of power around here; she wears it in the way she walks, the way her dark eyes pass over the guests as if they’re her prey—she wears power and confidence like a coat, and that is reason enough for her to be my prime suspect.
When the voices of the guests fade and Valentina has everyone’s full attention, she speaks into the microphone.
“Good evening. As always we are delighted to have you join us for the weekly showing; and as always, we have quite a collection for you to bid on tonight—we think you’ll be thoroughly pleased.”
Thankfully she’s speaking English; there may be a diverse group of buyers here from many different countries, but English is one the most vital languages in the world to learn, especially for those who want to thrive in business and academia—this is where I actually envy my backstabbing brother: he’s fluent in many languages, and took to learning them like a shark learning to swim; I was never so good at that shit.