Every person that Hoz knew had warned him not to marry Nila. Even Hoz himself, though stubbornly optimistic, was well aware of the reputation of his betrothed. But for the sake of love, he set that reputation aside and chose to love her anyway.
Hoz shook the dust from his tunic and pushed open the door to their townhouse, rolling his head on his neck, loosening the muscles after a hard day's labour. The household depended on him, and he savoured each ache and pain, letting it fill his heart as an act of love towards his wife. This is for Nila, he'd tell himself with each pulled muscle. As the door closed behind him, he let out a wary breath. Home. A sanctuary. A place of rest. A place of comfort.
The evening had started to descend, a red sun beaming in through the window as Hoz tossed his leather pack on a wooden chair. The rough wooden floorboards creaked as he made his way through the house.
A scent wafted to Hoz's nose. His eyebrows rose, recognizing the exotic fragrance. It was Nila. The scent she wore for him on their wedding night. And on every anniversary afterwards. And she was wearing it now.
Hoz grinned, giving his neck muscles one last stretch, and strode for the bedroom. His heart fluttered in anticipation, the bounce of his steps became a little lighter. The bedroom door pushed open with a slow creek.
Hoz frowned. His brow wrinkled in confusion as he eyed the three dresses laid out on the bed. A few pieces of gold jewellery were laid out on the bed, as if they'd been tried on and discarded.
No reply came from anywhere in the house.
A sickening feeling washed over Hoz. His frown became deeper, his stomach wanted to retch. That familiar dizzy feeling filled his head. Again, he told himself, plopping onto the bed. He stroked the fine silk of one of the dresses, thinking fondly of his wife. He took a deep breath, blowing it out slowly through the nose.
As is often the case when someone overlooks a glaring red flag in a relationship, Hoz was used to getting burned. He tried not to keep count of how many times Nila had slumped back into those old habits of letting her wandering eye and free spirit get the better of her. Choose to love her, he told himself. Over and over, no matter what she did or who she did it with. Choose to love her.
And he forced those words through his lips again. "I choose to love her." Sitting on the edge of the bed, Hoz picked up one of the gold loop earrings, rolling hard metal through his fingers. A tear rolled down his cheek as he tried to force his breathing to stay smooth and steady.
He pressed his lips tightly to keep his chin from quivering. They'd moved past this before. They would do it again. But none of that relieved the pain at the moment.
Giving his head a shake, Hoz rose from the bed. He blew out another loud breath of air and slapped his hands against his thighs. "No good dwelling on it." And he put the dresses back in their wardrobe, and collected up the pieces of jewellery and stored them away in their velvet pouch. He sauntered over to the wood box in the corner of the room and picked out some choice splits of logs. Settling them in the woodstove, he blew over the glowing coals.
"There." He smiled, warming his hands for a moment. "I want the room comfortable for when she comes home."
Snurl cracked his greasy knuckles as the carriage clattered to a halt in front of him. His blackened teeth peered through his grin, watching the new inventory being unloaded. His thumbs tucked into the belt of his brown tunic.
"We have a good selection this week," said his assistant, Lial. "A bit of everything, it seems. Some strong, some soft, some males, some females..."
"Are they wore out?" Snurl said, lifting his chin. The first three items of stock unloaded from the carriage were grayed with age, hobbling as they walked.
Lial cringed a little, pulling his shoulders up. "Some are. But we have newer issues as well."
Snurl grunted. "People are very unwilling to pay for old ones lately. You get two, three seasons out of them at best before they give out."
Lial nodded in agreement. "They do require more care."
"Care?" Snurl glared at his assistant. "Nobody buys debt bonds to put care into them. They're supposed to provide work, not take it up themselves."
"Of course, sir."
Then a female was unloaded from the carriage. Her face was downcast, caked with old makeup and black streaks running from her eyes. She wore an expensive gown, far more elegant than something typically worn by the strays Snurl picked up. She quivered, hands bound with rough rope. Snurl took a couple of steps forward.
"What her story?" he asked, not taking his eyes off the stock.
Lial scrambled through a stack of papers in his hands, picking out one and squinting at the words. "Picked up from the mining camps in Western. A suspected prostitute. She's accused of withholding fees from her employer. Sixty thousand credit debt."
"Sixty." Snurl repeated, his mouth salivating as he calculated his commission should he be able to fetch such a payment.
"The consignor said he'll settle for fifty."
Snurl's grin widened. "We can do much better than that." He turned, facing Lial and leaving no more than an inch between them. "Ensure she is polished up. Flawless. We're going to push hard on this one. This could make our year."
Lial nodded frantically. "Of course, sir."
Nila shook, sitting on the wooden floor of her cell. They called it a "display room", but Nila knew was it really was: a prison to hold her until she was sold.
Another woman was let into the cell, carrying a wooden slat bucket full of supplies. The woman grabbed a brush from the bucket and began combing out Nila's hair.
"Don't touch me," Nila said.
"Sorry, miss," the woman replied, proceeding to brush the silky black hair. "Orders."
Nila's eyes softly dropped, realizing that this woman was as much a captive as she was. A servant, held by a fictitious debt to someone trying to make a filthy wage. The stroking against her hair lulled her into a comfortable sadness. A tear rolled down her cheek as she thought over the past few days.
I was so stupid, she thought, reliving the moment she stepped out of the house. She thought it was only fun. She'd done it dozens of times before. Her husband was always forgiving. Too forgiving. A tinge of guilt formed like a stone, hard and painful in her chest. She had taken advantage of his forgiveness. His kindness was a mercy, not permission to continue. But each time she would go again, hoping not to be caught, but taking comfort in knowing that even if she was, he would forgive her.
"I choose to love you again," were the words he used each time.
The words were kind. Said with all sincerity. It melted Nila each time and reminded her why she had fallen in love with Hoz. She didn't betray him because of a lack of love. No, this was just a bad habit that she couldn't shake. An addiction, some might call it, that lured her away from the man she loved in order to pursue a man she lusted. Harmless fun, she had convinced herself. Harmless until a wretched creature saw her, used her for his pleasure, and then saw an opportunity to make some money. Thinking about it now made her want to throw up. Her skin crawled as she replayed the scene over and over in her mind. How he told her to wait in the bedroom. How he came back with the ropes. The hours of silent blackness, before a stranger came with a carriage.
"You're being put up for auction." That was all they had told her. A chill had sliced through her and still lingered.
Nila knew that debt bondage was still practiced throughout Sanctum. But even north of the mountains, where money rules and the laws of the capital were poorly enforced, Nila could never imagine that she would be kidnapped for such a purpose. Her protests went unheard. The man who consigned her to the auction house needed no proof of any debt. Just a payment juicy enough to get attention.
"What will they do to me?" Nila asked the woman, still combing her hair. "The one who buys me."
The woman frowned, accentuating the deep wrinkles in her face. "A girl your age..."
The silence was crushing.
Then the old woman continued, giving a slight shrug. "Perhaps they will make you a housemaid. Cleaning and cooking. That sort of thing."
"Do you think so?"
The woman paused from her duties, looking Nila in the eyes. They held each other's gaze for what felt like an eternity. Then, the woman gave a slight shake of her head. Nila's heart thudded in her chest. She knew the reality of what would happen to her, but she clung to any hope.
"At least lie to me," she begged the old man. "Tell me it will be all right."
The woman resumed brushing Nila's hair. "What’s your name?”
“Nila,” the woman echoed, nodding with satisfaction at the name. “Remember your name. Don’t let them give you another. You are stronger than them, Nila. Don't let them break you."
It was hard to keep track of time, but evening must have crept up. Nila was led from the display room out into the chilly night air. She was still in her dress, smooth and silky. Far too nice for a place like this.
A thick armed man pulled her forward, through the dusty paths. Then, with a violent shove, Nila was thrust onto a platform. About fifty people stared back at her. Each one dressed neatly, with black coats and tall hats. Each one rotten with money, and seeing her as an object to be purchased.
"This is a fine maid," a booming voice called out from the side of the platform. "A new issue, only twenty-two years old. As you can see, she is in very fine condition. Well built for whatever duties you might need doing around the house." The announcer gave an exaggerated wink to the audience, who responded with sickening laughter. "Bidding starts at ten thousand."
Nila sucked in a breath. Ten thousand. That was an obscene amount of money. She knew that for a price like that, the purchaser wouldn't have her sweeping floors. You could buy a debt bonder for a couple hundred if all you were looking for was a tidy house. The bids came in a flurry, shouting bursting forth from random points in the crowd, each one like a bomb going off in Nila's ears. She flinched every time, as the price rose higher and higher. Twenty. Fifty. Sixty. Eighty thousand. And still, it continued. Each time a bid was shouted, Nila's heart sank. Like a nail being pounded into a coffin, the shouts closed in around her. One hundred thousand. One ten. One thirty.
Nila shut her eyes, squeezing them so tightly she saw spots. She became so dizzy, she swayed, almost tumbling over. This wasn't happening, she repeated to herself. But one after another, the bids kept going.
Then, like a crash of thunder, one voice boomed out over the rest, silencing the crowd.
"Five hundred thousand."
The announcer froze, paralyzed by the silence that had fallen over the crowd. Perhaps he hadn't heard correctly.
"Say that again," the announcer said, leaning forward towards the bidders. He cupped a hand over his eyes as if it would let him see better.
"Five hundred," the voice called again. It was a familiar voice. A powerful voice. A loving voice.
Nila's skin began to tingle, starting in her heart and spreading outwards until it covered every inch of her skin. Five hundred. She couldn't believe it. A number that large effectively ended the bidding. Nobody else even dared to speak. She opened her eyes.
The crowds began to part, letting the winning bidder move forward. It was so quiet, Nila could hear nothing but the crunching of gravel against the man's boots. He continued forward, pausing in front of the platform. Nila looked up, trembling. Her eyes filled with tears as she looked at the man who had offered up five hundred thousand credits to rescue her from the unspeakable horrors. A man who had forgiven her countless times before. A man who she had hurt repeatedly and deeply.
"Why?" she forced out, the words coming as not much more than a breath.
Hoz reached out a hand, holding on to Nila's and cupping the other hand over top. "I choose to love you again."
Nila fell forward, her legs finally giving out. "But I've done nothing but hurt you."
"I forgive you," he said softly. Releasing her hands, he held a finger to her cheek to wipe a tear.
"Five hundred..." she said, looking down. “Why would you pay for me? What is already yours?”
Hoz ran the finger down her cheek until it rested under her chin. He gently pushed her chin up so that she was looking straight at him. "There's no price I wouldn't pay for you. I am your husband, Nila. I vowed to love you forever, and I will. When it's easy, and when it's hard. I will choose to love you."