Eighteen years. That was how long I’d been waiting for Benjamin Novak to show up at The Tavern.
It had all started when I’d lost my parents and four siblings to a fire. It had been a warm summer night. I’d decided to sleep in the neighboring farmer’s barn to get relief from the heat. Had I not, I would’ve died too when our bungalow went up in flames. Although I’d been only fifteen at the time, with my whole life ahead of me, on many a day in the aftermath of their death, I’d wished that I had burned with them.
I had no immediate relatives who were willing or able to help me, and with all our belongings burned in the fire, the thin nightdress I wore was the only possession I had in the world. I didn’t even have shoes.
Within the span of several hours I found myself without my family or a roof over my head, and facing the prospect of sleeping that night on the street.
The only thing I could think to do was find work as a maid. I was willing to do any cleaning work, no matter how menial or laborious, to put food in my stomach. But dressed as I was, I didn’t even know who would employ me.
By some mercy, the family who owned the farm next door took pity on me and allowed me to stay with them. I offered to work for free in exchange for food and a room. And so a little room at the base of their farmhouse became my home for the next few months… until one night the eldest son of the farmer slipped into my room and tried to force himself on me.
I narrowly escaped by striking him with the lantern that hung near my bed, but then I found myself without shelter yet again. I tried for the next three days to find another job in the nearest town, asking in shops, pubs, even private homes whether they could use some domestic work. Due to the state of me, people took me for a tramp and nobody would invite me in.
After three days without a meal and drinking the drabs of clean water that I managed to come across, I arrived outside a building I’d hoped to never enter. The town brothel. But if I didn’t eat soon, I was going to pass out.
Even then, as I walked through the door into the narrow, dimly lit entrance room, I was afraid that they would reject me. But as it turned out, I never got far enough into talking with the lady behind the desk to receive a rejection from her. I’d begun to explain my predicament and what I was willing to give up in exchange for a bed and a meal when a man I hadn’t noticed interrupted our conversation.
Turning around, I was taken aback to see that he was a white man. I’d grown up in a remote and rural part of China, and this was the first white man I’d ever seen in the flesh.
He was… beautiful. Tall, broad-shouldered, with skin as pale as ivory. He had intense dark brown eyes that almost matched the color of the thick hair that touched the sides of his chiseled face. As I gazed at him, I found myself short of breath.
He spoke my language and asked if he could have a private word with me outside. I couldn’t tell from his accent where exactly he was from, but it sounded soothing and exotic. I agreed, not sure what else a girl in my position ought to do, and he took my arm, his skin bizarrely cold against mine. He led me outside and told me that this wasn’t a place for a girl like myself. That I deserved better. He wanted to take me home with him, with the promise of a hot meal and a soft bed.
This man could’ve been the devil, but I didn’t know what other kind of monsters I might meet during a stay in that dark, dingy building. I figured that it was better to go with the devil I knew—or at least had met—than the devil I didn’t.
And so I agreed.
He pulled up his horse—a towering black steed—caught my waist and placed me upon it before climbing up himself. As the horse sped up, I clung to the man’s chest, feeling taut muscles through his shirt beneath my fingers. As he rode with me away from the town, he asked me what my name was and told me his. Hans Manson. And those were the only words we exchanged as we traveled along a remote, winding road, further and further away from any signs of human settlement.
A wild forest came into view in the early hours of the morning and we embarked along a narrow path that wound through the dense mass of trees. As I felt close to fainting from hunger and the exhaustion of holding on to him, we arrived in a clearing in the midst of the forest and I found myself gazing up at a… castle. A castle I hadn’t even known existed in these parts. It was strange to see such a type of building in China. It had wide turrets and was distinctly European in design.
Entering the building, he led me up a grand staircase. I would never forget how nervous I felt walking up the steps with him. I was fully expecting him to take me straight to his bedroom, to have his way with me even before he fed me. But he didn’t. He led me to a bedroom, but it held only a single bed. He told me that it would be mine so long as I wished to stay here. He left me alone so that I could take a shower and change into a set of clean clothes that were already laid out on the bed—a beautiful silk gown. Though it was too long for me, I was grateful for it all the same. Then I returned downstairs to find him waiting to greet me. He led me into a dining hall where there was a long wooden table, already topped with food. It was simple food—hot bean stew, rice, and warm flatbread—and it couldn’t have tasted more delicious.