Monthly Archives: July 2017

Fractures 2.11

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Most of the Changed, those who could, learned to hide their nature as best as they could. You covered up the fur, drew attention away from inhuman eyes, whatever it took to mask the Changed features. It didn’t work, of course, but it reassured people.


The outfit Livia had provided for me didn’t so much hide the Change as flaunt it. The scarlet robe I wore left the fur exposed. The ribbons woven through my hair drew the eye to my canine ears. The collar said I was less a woman than a beast, and the leash they clipped to it to lead me out said I was one as much controlled as tamed.


Oddly enough, it reassured more than it upset me. In its own way, it was no different from what I normally did. It was all about the show, the spectacle. It was about telling them that I understood what they wanted from, that I was what they wanted me to be. It was just in the opposite direction from what I normally did.


The man who led me out was one of the bouncers, a heavily muscled man head and shoulders taller than I was. His head was shaved, which only made the bristling beard and bushy eyebrows more pronounced. He had smiled at me kindly before we emerged from the back, but in the front of the building he was all business, grim and glowering. He had his own spectacle to put on.


I had been in no uncertain terms informed that if any unpleasantness broke out, I was to leave the resolution to him and his fellows. I was working as a dancer, not a bouncer; if a fight broke out, I was to let him do his job and quash it. Similarly, if anyone gave me trouble, the bouncers were the people I was to go to for help.


When the door opened, from the back into the front, there was a good deal of noise coming in. It was a riot of noise, music and raised voices and movement. It was a bit like Corbin’s inn had been, on its very busiest days, but more so.


The door into the back of the brothel was behind the bar, which was huge, semicircular, and made of polished steel. It had as much resemblance to the bar at Corbin’s as a rowboat did to the vast seafaring ships I’d seen out at the harbor of Aseoto. Within the bar was an island of relative calm. Everyone was wearing the black and silver uniform of the brothel. Servers hurried back and forth with trays of food and drinks, while bartenders poured the latter in a seemingly endless stream.


Past that was chaos. The room was absolutely packed. There were a scattering of tables, and the bar, and a great many more people crammed in standing. Every sort of person was represented somewhere, it seemed–men and women, old and young, of every ethnicity and every style of dress. They mingled, jostled, and shouted over each other to be heard.


The only pockets of relative stability and sanity in the crowd were the other workers. There were a number of them that I could see, out in the crowd. Most were clearly dancers–standing on elevated platforms, performing routines as varied as the crowd that watched them, they were unmistakably trained dancers. I would have liked to have watched them for a time–there was a great deal to be learned, I thought, in watching dancers from traditions and teachings other than my own. But the bouncer was leading me forward with the leash, and I had no time to stand and watch.


The crowd pressed in tight around us, clearly ogling me, though none of them tried to touch me or stand in our way. Clearly the severity of breaking that rule had been impressed upon them as thoroughly as it had upon me. There were no interruptions on our way to one of the raised platforms which was currently empty. It had a tall steel pole on it, which I could see was screwed into a recessed hole in the platform. Clever, that; it meant that they could simply unscrew it and cover the hole when the platform had a dancer that didn’t require it.


The bouncer clipped the leash around the pole, putting me on a fairly short tether. That was good, in a way. The challenge of having the tether, of having the pole itself in the way, would give me something to focus on. Added difficulty made it easier to not think about the crowd of people pressing in around, the noise, the heat.


I got the distinct feeling that not thinking about that was a very good idea right now.


For a second I froze, staring out at the crowd, my throat locked up so tight that the rule against me ever talking out here was self-enforcing. I had never in my life danced in front of a larger group than the class I had studied with, certainly not in a context like this. And never with anything like the stakes that were riding on this performance.


When I took the first step forward, I wasn’t sure whether it was to dance or to run. But the second foot followed, and almost without thinking I was flowing into a dance, one that I had learned in childhood. It was quick and light, suitable for the rapid tempo of the drummer near my platform. I’d seen him when I walked up; he was hard to miss. A shirtless dark-skinned southerner, his impressive muscles glistened with sweat as he hit his massive drum with an equally oversized drumstick, as much a visual display as an auditory one.


My instructor had always taught us that when we were dancing, nothing else mattered. Not the people watching, not the fatigue we felt, nothing. Nothing even existed but the dance, the movement, the beat.


I’d never really been able to reach that state before today. But now I was feeling it, riding the wave of the moment without worrying about the trough. Step followed step, flowed into pirouette into leap into snarling spin, and it all felt easy. I could barely even see the men and women staring at me, let alone anything past them. The world outside my platform was blurred and distant, unimportant.


At some point I heard the music change, and the steps of the dance were slower now, fitting the new music. It was slower, sadder, a violin played in a way that brought out all the wailing sorrow the instrument was capable of. Each step was a shudder, now, a story. Every leap left me about to fall, every step seemed about to make me stumble. This dance told a story, one of sorrow and survival, every moment on the edge but never quite falling.


I knew, in some distant part of my mind, that I had never danced this well in my life. Call it luck or fate or simple necessity, I was making movements that I’d never thought myself capable of, and it felt easy.


Finally, with a last, drawn-out wail, the song shuddered to a stop. My dance came to a close the moment after, as I swept seamlessly from a leap around the pole into a low bow. Then I stood up, feeling dizzy, blinking against the light. Now that I wasn’t moving the fatigue hit all at once, my legs all but trembling with the difficulty of holding me up.


A few seconds later, I had to work to keep the shock off my face. Rose was sitting beside my platform with a violin cradled in her arms, and a man in the black and silver of the house stood beside her, looking bemused. Her expression was almost guilty, and when she saw that I was looking at her, her eyes dropped to the floor. “I, I’m sorry,” she said, though who she was speaking to wasn’t entirely clear. “I saw it and…I haven’t played for so long….”


“Well, well,” Livia said, materializing out of the crowd as swiftly and unexpectedly as Black had been able to appear from the forest. “It looks like I found two entertainers today, and not just one.”


The cheer from the crowd was deafening.

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Fractures 2.10

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The meal was good. Not as good as the one Erik had treated us to, but the thin slices of meat, served in a slightly sweet and tangy sauce with the rice that was so ubiquitous here, had an appeal of their own.


I still struggled to keep it down as Miles and I walked to whatever it was he had in mind. All my instincts, the wariness that I had developed back in the refugee camps, were telling me to run. Everything about this situation was wrong.


Unfortunately, he’d been right about at least one thing. I didn’t have the luxury of saying no to an offer, no matter how suspicious it was.


I tried to keep track of our route, but the maze of streets and bridges were so convoluted that I quickly gave up trying. A week did not make one an expert on a city. I managed to track our general direction northwards–further from the coastline, and deeper into the city. Beyond that, though, I was at a loss for our exact direction when he turned into a narrow alley.


I paused and looked at him suspiciously. He seemed to sense it, because he paused and turned around with a smile that didn’t reach his eyes at all. “We’re using the back door,” he said. “Avoids the…awkwardness of going through the front.”


I shrugged, followed him into the alley. I was already over my head; what was a few inches more?


He stopped at an unremarkable spot of the alley and turned to his left. His fingers found purchase on one of the planks of the building beside us, and he pulled open a door.


I gaped at that. It was a masterful piece of work, that door. I’d just watched him open it and I’d still have sworn that door was a part of the wall.


Inside, Miles led me down a narrow hallway. The walls were a red wood I didn’t recognize, and the floor was covered in a thick black carpet. Alchemical lights cast a soft glow just bright enough that a human wouldn’t have to worry about stumbling.


The hallway branched once before ending at a door of some wood darker than the walls. Miles opened it without knocking and sauntered inside; not knowing what else to do, I followed him.


Inside, a woman who looked to be in her forties was sitting at a desk made from that same dark wood. She was looking at a heavy book on the table in front of her, and didn’t look up while we walked in. There were no other chairs in the room, so I was left standing uncertainly by the door.


“Go away, Miles,” she said, still not looking at him. “Some of us have work to do. You may be familiar with the concept.”


“Ah, but I’m here to help,” he said, with a grin that was more mischievous than his earlier smiles and just as fake. “I think I found your new dancer.”


At that, she did look up, quickly focusing on me. “Hm,” she said. “Changed might work. And she’s got the look for it. Can you dance?”


I nodded, and she gestured imperiously. Miles moved away, leaving enough open space in front of her desk for me to move around.


I was terrified, as I took that first step, that I would misstep or fall. That fear hung with me for the next half-dozen or so, as I hesitantly moved through the steps of a simple dance I’d learned in my youth. Most of the dances I’d been taught were intended for pairs, but I knew enough solo dances to pretend I knew what I was talking about with them.


After a few moments, I felt the old rhythms settling in over me. I’d expected to be clumsy at it, but I wasn’t. Once I got into the motion, the memories came rushing back. I could almost smell the sweat and pine of the dance hall where I’d learned and practiced.


At that point, the steps started to come faster and faster. I found, to my surprise, that it felt not only natural, but easy–far more so than it had back then. I supposed that the things my body had been put through in the years since had left me far stronger and more agile than I had been then. I’d had to be, just to survive.


It was several minutes before I came to a stop, sweeping a leg around and then standing up sharply. I was facing the desk, and I was surprised to find that I was sweating. And not just from the heat, either. I’d pushed myself through that dance.


I had a made a few missteps, I knew that. The rhythm and speed had been erratic.


But I’d finished the motions of the dance, and I hadn’t fallen.


The woman behind the desk considered me sharply, and then nodded, once. “You may have finally brought me something useful,” she said to Miles, though there was less bite in her tone than had been there before. “What’s your name?”


“Silf,” I said, panting slightly from the exertion of the dance.


“Foreign name,” she said. “Sharp. Northern?”


I nodded.


“Northern, Changed,” she said, as though to herself. “We can work with that. Where did you learn to dance?”


“The Whitewood,” I said simply. I wasn’t sure what the name of the studio had been, and it wasn’t as though it mattered anymore. It was gone like the rest.


She nodded. “I think you might have finally found someone who’s worth a damn,” she said to Miles. Then, to me, “Did he explain what we do here?”


I shook my head.


She sighed. “Typical. Well, I won’t pretty it up for you. This is a brothel. We cater mostly to people who have a certain…taste for the exotic, shall we say. Now, we’re looking to hire you as a dancer, not as a whore. Anyone tries something that’s out of bounds, you talk to me and they’ll be banned for life. You try something that’s out of bounds, and the same happens. Understood?”


I nodded, once.


“Good. Now, here’s the deal. We’re open every day, eighteen hours per day. The day is broken up into six hour shifts. You work six of those shifts per week, divided however you please. For that, you get a set of rooms here in the back, and you keep half the tips people give you. Cut that to a third of the tips, and you also get board. Any questions?”


I shook my head. It seemed strange that a sixth of the tips could be worth board, but I wasn’t arguing with it. Not after seeing how expensive things were here.


“You don’t talk much, do you?” she asked.


“Can’t,” I said. “More than a few words hurts.”


“Good,” she said. “Well, not that it hurts. Good that you have a theme of sorts. Well, if you’re ready to start, I can give you a trial night tonight. You’ll work one shift, and since it’s your first time, you’ll work graveyard. Does that sound all right to you?”


I nodded eagerly. If this worked out, I wanted it to start as soon as possible, before she could change her mind. And if it didn’t, well, it was just as well that I know that as soon as possible as well.


“Excellent,” she said. “My name is Livia. I look forward to working with you, Silf.”


“Have to get a friend,” I said. I hated that I was speaking in such crude syntax, very nearly baby talk. But between my throat having a particularly poor day and the foreign language, I wasn’t capable of much more. “Staying with her. Can she stay here?”


Livia shrugged. “If she doesn’t cause trouble, I don’t care. Hurry up, though. We still have to work out the details of your show.”


I nodded and turned around. I wasn’t even surprised to see that Miles was already gone.

Getting back to the brothel required more time than I’d have liked, but not as much as I’d feared. I only got lost three times, and one of them was Rose’s fault.


Once there, it took a couple tries to find the door that Miles had used off the alley, but eventually I managed it, and went back to the room where we’d been earlier.


Livia was still inside, with a heavy book on the desk in front of her. She made a few notations in the ledger, and then looked up at me. “Ah,” she said. “Welcome back. Come on, let’s get your persona together.” She pushed her chair back and stood up, walking past us to the door.


“This is the back of the building,” she said, as she led us back past the side door and down the hallway. “No customers allowed back here. This is where your rooms will be, same as the rest of the help who stay here. When you aren’t working you can either stay in your room or in the communal room back here. No going out to the front when you’re off shift, we don’t want them seeing you except as a dancer.”


I nodded, more than slightly relieved. Having a space set apart from the customers seemed like a very good idea.


“And this,” she said, stopping and opening a door off the hallway, “Is our closet.”


I gaped. The contents of that closet were…impressive, in several ways. The first was the sheer volume of clothing within it. The closet was absolutely packed with them, and it was not a small closet. The second was the expense. There were so many fabrics in there it was hard to count. Not just wool and linen, either, but silks, the thin fabric Corbin had called cotton, even a few that looked like woven metal.


The third, of course, was what they were intended to cover. Or, rather, weren’t. Most of them looked to be skimpy at best.


Livia looked me up and down with a critical eye. “We’ll want to flaunt the fur,” she said aloud, as though musing. “It should look exotic, though….ah, of course. Try this on.” She grabbed a thin silk robe of sorts off the shelf. The silk was dyed a deep blue. She handed it to me, and I started to put it on, only to be interrupted by a gentle hand from Livia.


“Not over your clothes, dear,” she said. “It won’t fit properly. Just undergarments underneath.


I flushed slightly, but did as she said, stripping almost to the skin before pulling it on. It still fit snugly, though the skirt of the robe was loose enough not to impede my movement.


Livia considered me for a moment, and then said, “Not quite, I think. Too dark, it doesn’t contrast with the fur. Try this instead.”


The next hour and a half was spent trying on different pieces of clothing, all of which were dismissed for various reasons. Most of them Livia felt weren’t appropriate, but there were a few that I rejected myself, mostly because the fit wasn’t right.


Finally, we ended up with something that we could both be satisfied with. It was much like Livia’s first idea, but the robe was a bit shorter and looser. The color was the main change–rather than blue, it was a brilliant red, almost the color of blood.


“All right,” Livia said, stepping back and looking me over. “Not perfect, but good enough for tonight. Now for the hard part. Like I said, we mostly cater to the exotic. That means that the dancers have to have something to set them apart. In your case, the easiest thing to work with is that you’re Changed. We want to play that up, make you seem as much beast as human. That means you don’t talk in front of customers, not ever.”


I laughed, just a little. As demands went, that was one I felt I could confidently manage.


“And then there’s this,” she said, holding out a heavy leather collar. “Try this on.”


I hesitated. There was something deeply unsettling about that. This wasn’t even the style of collar that a slave would wear. It was the sort of thing you would expect to see more around the neck of a hunting dog than any human.


The notion of wearing it, of making myself out as an animal, was…upsetting. I’d already heard more of those comments than I’d ever wanted. Anyone who was Changed heard some flavor of it. And I looked enough like a canine, with the fur and the ears and the teeth, that it was where people’s minds tended to go when they went looking for insults.


But we’d already established that I didn’t have the wherewithal to say no to this offer. And there was no way out but through. So I grabbed the collar from her, and buckled it around my neck. It was surprisingly comfortable; the heavy black leather was already broken in, and fit snugly around my neck without pinching or squeezing. I could almost forget that it was around my neck.




“Not bad,” Livia said. “We’ll get you tailored clothes if you get taken on, but that should do for tonight.” She smiled a little. “Well, Silf. I think you can keep that name for the show if you want; it sounds suitably harsh, very northern. You have some hours before it’s time for your debut. You want some time to practice and get ready?”


I nodded. All things considered, I was pretty sure I could use all the preparation I could get before this.


“Excellent,” she said. “Your room will be upstairs, third room on the left. It’s unlocked. There should be enough room to practice in there without anyone interrupting.”


I swallowed hard, the motion making me feel the collar more strongly, and went looking for the stairs.

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