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?”
“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.