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.