The bedroom was sparsely decorated, with an old mattress on a low cracked wooden frame next to an occasional table with a single small chair. Charlotte put her bag against the door after she closed it, then put the pistol on the table. She sat on the mattress, which was creaked as it sagged under her weight, and clenched her fists in an effort to get her hands to stop shaking.
“Sorry I got rattled,” she said, staring into her lap. “I knew this would be dangerous. I guess I just wasn’t prepared for the violence.”
“Don’t be sorry. It’s not something I would have you get used to.” Rone sat down and began unlacing his shoes, the fine leather caked with mud and other things Charlotte did not want to think about.
“Are you used to it?”
“I thought I was,” Rone said. He craked a smile as he pushed his shoes off. “Ah, much better.” He rubbed his feet through his grey socks. “Pretty things are rarely comfortable, eh?”
Charlotte smiled in spite of herself. “That is where you are more than a bit wrong. The finest things always look the best and feel the best. Of course these are not the finest things.” She reached behind herself and pulled on the knot, hidden under a wide ribbon, that held the built-in corset of her dress. It refused to release.
Rone stood up and unbuttoned his doublet and took it off, revealing a sweat-soaked undershirt. He saw Charlotte struggling and walked over. He leaned past her and pulled apart the knot. She felt an immediate rush as the ties up her back released.
“Thank you,” she said. She leaned down to remove her soft shoes, now soaked and torn in a few places. A dull ache in her ribs replaced the release of pressure.
Rone smiled and took his shirt off as he walked back to his pack. “Sorry, but we haven’t the time or space for modesty,” he said. He slid his pants off and opened his pack, rummaging for his heavier clothes. Charlotte paused and looked at him. She had peeked at him impulsively as he bathed the night prior, but she had not been able to see much while hiding behind the curtain at the inn. What she saw now disturbed her.
His body was pale, drawn in shades of white like hers, but everywhere she could see his skin was mottled with discolored scars of pink and purple. Whip marks crisscrossed his back, and the evidence of smaller wounds dotted his limbs. A single long cut ran along his ribs, old and faded. And yet beneath these scars his skin was taught on a sharp physique; layers of knotted muscles were built onto a frame that looked made to endure.
She tore her eyes from him and stood up. The loosened the laces the cinched her dress at the waist and pushed it down to the ground, taking her soiled underskirts with it. Her bare breasts felt suddenly tight as the night’s sweat on them chilled in the open air. She stared at the crumpled dress below her slip for a long moment, then glanced back up at Rone. She locked onto his yellow-green eyes for a moment before he turned away and worked at lacing up his pants.
Charlotte felt herself immediately begin crying again, with a shuddering sob wracking her shoulders. She fell back down to the bed and buried her face. Rone turned about and walked to her.
“Are you alright?”
“I’m sorry… I’m sorry that I brought you into all this.”
“I’m the one who brought you here. I’m the one who drug you across the highlands, if you’ll recall. I’m the one who brought you into the city.”
“You know what I mean.” She looked up at him with reddened eyes. “Ardala… and now you. You’re going to be killed. I know it. I should have just stayed where I was.”
“No. You cannot count willful choice on your own conscience. I agreed to take you back to your home as my own choice.” He knelt down in front of her and placed his hands on her . “Ardala made her own choice. I at least have the excuse of money, she didn’t. Don’t take her choice away from her.”
Charlotte laid her hands on either side of Rone’s neck, then pulled him into a kiss. He hesitated for a moment, then impulsively gripped her side above her hip. He pulled back, withdrawing his hand, then looked into her still watering eyes. She wrapped her fingers through his hair and pulled hard, forcing his face back onto hers. There was no resistance this time, and Rone pushed himself up and further in, wrapping his arms around her bare back.
After a moment, she slid her head onto his shoulder, and held him in a hug.
“Because.” She felt his scars. “Because it’s my choice. Because you’ll in all probability be dead soon.”
“Have more faith in me than that.”
“Then because I wanted to kiss a man for once in my life of my own volition.” She felt him hug tighter.
“You shouldn’t have. It pollutes everything.”
“Don’t tell me that.”
He nodded against her shoulder. He stood up, letting her arms drag around his neck, and looked down on her. His face was hard, but around his eyes a softness lingered, a squint that held back more. Charlotte made no effort to cover her chest. “We should get dressed. That ship will leave at dawn without us.” He retrieved her pack and opened it up. She stood up and began to clothe herself again in drab brown duck and leather. A bittersweet smile lingered on her lips.