Monthly Archives: September 2017

Fractures 2.13

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Over the following weeks I learned more than I had ever expected to know about the operation of a brothel. One of the first things, and perhaps the most surprising, was how little of it had to do with sex. The Comedy had a seemingly endless number of ways to part customers from their coin, and most of them had nothing to do with its apparent nature.


The process started at the door, where customers paid a fee to the doorman for the privilege of entering the establishment. The precise value of that fee varied; during quiet shifts it might be as low as a bronze penny, while when it was thronging with customers it cost ten times as much.


Once inside, he–or she, though there were significantly more men than women among our clientele–would likely sit at one of the tables or the bar. If he wanted something to drink, and most of them did, he would order it from the house bar. The bar was stocked with an array of liquors that made even Corbin’s old collection seem sparse, and few of them were cheap. All of them, of course, were sold at a higher price than their real value, the difference going straight into the house’s pocket.


If he wanted food, that was also available, from the same kitchen that served the staff their daily board. I quickly learned to be glad for that, because the kitchen produced food of the same excellent quality as I had had in my first meal in Aseoto. Unsurprisingly, they specialized in the exotic, and even the staff were allowed to order food to suit their own taste rather than being given a set meal. Whether it was exotic spices from the distant south, strange methods of preparation, or simply combinations of flavors that I would have never thought to try, I almost always had the chance to try something new.


While he ate and drank, he would most likely take advantage of the entertainment on offer, which changed each night. There were always dancers and musicians, as I was well aware. While these were in principle free, far more customers than I would have expected gave us tips. Sometimes this was as a simple recognition, but more often they wanted something in trade for them. A man might want a dancer to move closer and give him a personal show, or to dance in a particular style. A woman might ask for a particular song to be played. Whatever the case, the money flowed freely.


There were also other forms of entertainment, of course. There was almost always some sort of game being played, and on the third day of each week it went further and there were dozens of types of gambling on offer. The house, naturally, took a cut of every pot. The fifth day of each week was a masquerade, and the house rented masks to those who didn’t have their own. So on and so forth, always with an eye towards profiting the establishment.


A customer could quite easily spend an entire purse of coin at the Comedy and never touch skin at all.


The next thing I noticed, and one that was harder for me to adjust to, was how much alchemy was simply a part of life. It wasn’t just that it was everywhere, though it was. It was that it was taken so much for granted. The food was kept cold in an alchemical icebox and heated on  an alchemical stove. Many of the drinks were either brewed or prepared with some alchemical component. The light was from alchemical lights. Even the clothing that was delivered at the end of my first week incorporated alchemical materials in the fabrics and dyes.


It wasn’t even noticed, I thought. These people were so used to alchemy being a ubiquitous part of their lives that they didn’t even realize how extraordinary it was. The amazing became so commonplace that it was no longer a remarkable thing.


Anywhere else, the sheer variety of alchemy that a citizen of Aseoto used on a daily basis would be available only to the highest ranks of nobility, and even there it would be an extremely expensive luxury. Here, it could be had for a bare handful of coins.


In my second week in Aseoto, I allowed Lyssa to drag me out to go shopping when neither of us was on shift. This wasn’t like the trip to get clothing, which has been all but enforced by the establishment. No, this was just to pick up creature comforts to make my suite of rooms more livable.


I didn’t have the heart to tell her that this was already as well as or better than I’d ever lived before.


It took hours to go everywhere she’d put on the list, and most of them were on different islands. It was the first time I’d been off of Ukiyo since I started at the Comedy. The island we spent most of our time at was closer to the mainland, and large; I saw only a fraction of it as we strolled around the streets, followed by the bouncer Lyssa had pressed into carrying our purchases. I got the impression that people mostly did what Lyssa asked. She was just too…cheerily insistent to refuse.


Thus assisted, we visited one shop after another, ranging from alchemists’ shops to simple furniture makers. We bought alchemical lights to cast a milder light than the harsh light of the lamps in my rooms. We bought alchemical perfumes that were unnaturally stable–Lyssa assured me that they would stay on, unchanged, through a full shift of dancing. A jeweler had some simple jewelry that I could wear without interfering with the feral look I was using at the Comedy. At the furniture shop I bought a pair of simple chairs to be delivered later, and a woven mat that I could use as a bed without hurting my back.


All of this I bought and paid for out of my own pocket. It wasn’t even hard. The brothel’s customers were not shy about sharing their appreciation. Bronze and even silver were beginning to seem commonplace, and Lyssa told me she had once even been tipped a full gold crown by a visiting noble from the south.


It seemed impossible. For most of my life even iron and bronze had been hard-won and spent only reluctantly. Here the coin flowed like water. I wondered idly whether that was where the name for the water trade had come from.

Two weeks later, I was dancing on stage. It was the night shift, easily the busiest of the three daily shifts, and the brothel’s main room was packed. People pushed and shoved to get closer to their favorite performers. There were three other dancers on the floor right now, and two musicians. One of them was playing near me, pounding out a rapid staccato beat on a large drum. The other was on the other side of the room, playing a song on her harp that seemed to weep with sadness. It was a strange pick for a brothel, but then, this was the Comedy. That was rather the point.


The dancers were arranged on the small stages around the room. One was a southern woman whose dance was profoundly sexual in nature, as she writhed and twisted around the pole on her stage. It was a southern dance style, though I expected the foreign nuances of the dance were mostly lost on the customers. The other woman was Tsuran, but her movements were stilted and stylized, almost alien in their stiff, strange motions. She had only one eye, with neat scars suggesting the other had been surgically removed. I had yet to interact with her, unlike the only man of the group. A comically muscular man from the eastern jungles, he was trading on exoticism as strongly as I was, if in a different way.


I had been dancing for hours already, and the fatigue was setting in, bone-deep weariness seeming to drag me down. I’d had another nightmare the previous night, and between that and the exertion of the dance, I wanted nothing more than to sit down and rest.


I didn’t let that show, though. I kept my movements energetic, ferocious even, as I danced around the stage, making sure to spend time on every side so that all the customers packed in around me could see. A man tossed a coin with the telltale gleam of silver onto the stage, nudging the man beside him with his elbow. Friends, I was guessing.


Another dancer would perhaps have done a pirouette for him, tantalized him with the view of skin he would never touch. I lunged at him, teeth bared in a silent snarl, coming up short when I hit the limit of the leash. I had learned what worked, and for me it wasn’t tenderness and delicacy. The people crowded in around me were there for ferocity, for the promise of a feral, inhuman appearance that was more unsettling than classically beautiful. Whether or not it was what I liked, I knew how I looked, I knew what they wanted, and I knew how to play to the crowd.


Sure enough, I was rewarded with another coin and a delighted laugh. I had to choke down a smile as I spun and leapt to the next side of the stage. A part of me, I had to admit, did like it. I liked not having to feel like I had to fit in with the crowd, to pretend to be something I wasn’t. I liked being able to wear my Changes openly rather than try desperately to cover it up. That man might have laughed, but he wanted me, and there was something very powerful about being wanted.


An interminable amount of time later, I spotted a bouncer heading my way from the bar. The crowd pressed into each other to get out of his way, opening a clear path to the stage. He climbed up with a grunt, and unhooked my leash from the pole it was wrapped around.


I could have done it myself, of course. But that wouldn’t have fit the narrative I was presenting to the crowd. I had to be feral, and that meant that a bouncer was always sent to escort me off stage by the leash.


He led me back to the bar, with more than a few whistles and hollers following us. No one came even close to touching me, though; Livia hadn’t been wrong about that. We reached the bar, and I walked through the door out of sight.


As soon as I was, I straightened and unclipped the collar, rolling my neck. The collar wasn’t unbearable, but after a few hours of wearing it my neck got stiff and sore. I was just as glad to take it off and scratch the skin under where it was.


“Package got here for you,” the bouncer said, before heading back out to the floor. His shift, after all, wasn’t over yet. We always staggered shift times slightly between people, so that everyone didn’t leave the floor at once. The other dancers would be coming off shift over the next half hour, as the graveyard shift for the night went out to take their places.


I walked to the common room, where the package would most likely be waiting for me. Either way, I was planning to sit and rest there. It was a very cozy room, all soft couches and muted colors, and I wasn’t ready to go to bed quite yet.


The common room was fairly full, as it often was at this time of night. Lyssa was lounging on one of the couches, and even Rose had come out of her rooms and found a seat in the corner of the room. I knew most of the rest at least by name, and I’d spent some time talking to several of them. A pair of twins were among the brothel’s actual whores, as was the Changed woman whose Change manifested in ways that were much subtler and more beautiful than mine. The only other dancer in the room was a slender androgynous man with tattoos covering much of his skin in swirls and abstract designs.


Lyssa hopped to her feet as I walked in. “Silf,” she said. “The rest of your clothes got here. I had them bring them to your room. But first, here, we got you a present. Close your eyes and hold out your hands.”


I did so, more than half expecting a prank of some kind.


Instead, I heard light footsteps approaching, and then something soft was pressed into my hands. I opened my eyes to see smooth black leather with gleaming steel. It took a moment to process what I was seeing and realize that it was a collar, one which made the house collar I’d been wearing look crude by comparison. The leather was incredibly soft, with a smooth, silky texture. A broad, thin band covered the neck, with a thick band around the middle to reinforce it. Steel rivets held it together, and steel loops could be clipped to the chain leash that was in my hands behind it.


“Try it on,” Lyssa urged. I did so, my hands shaking slightly as I held it up to my neck and slid the strap through the buckle. It fight perfectly, and once it was on it seemed almost to disappear, the leather fitting snug as a second skin around my neck.


She grinned and hugged me, and the rest of the workers in the common room followed suit, all but burying me. I knew that I was truly one of them, now, and I found to my surprise that I liked it.

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Fractures 2.12

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The rooms they appointed for us were far better than I had expected–better, I privately thought, than we merited. My suite was at least as large as my rooms back with Corbin, and far better appointed. Oh, it wasn’t anything obvious; it seemed to be a simple set of three rooms. One bedroom, one sitting room, one bathing room which had the same indoor facilities that I’d gotten used to back at the inn. On the surface, no more than might be expected.


It was when you looked closer that you saw the subtle signs of wealth and luxury. The mirror, taller than I was, and without any blemish in its reflection. The bathing facilities, using alchemical devices that I was sure Corbin would have understood, provided hot and cold water with no more than the turn of a handle, and carried away waste with similar ease. The writing desk in the bedroom was made of some dark, heavy wood I didn’t recognize, and it had colored inks as well as black, a true luxury in the north. The bed was large enough for two to fit comfortably, and soft enough that I spent the first night sleeping on the floor, because anything softer would trouble my back.


I couldn’t entirely wrap my head around the extravagance of my new rooms. It was as much as most nobles in the northern provinces might have, given to a simple dancer–and one who hadn’t even danced yet beyond a trial, at that. The enormity of the implications were staggering, and they weren’t lost on me.


If this was how a common dancer lived here, how on earth did the wealthy live? What kind of luxury did the nobles enjoy, here in Aseoto?


I had a feeling I literally couldn’t imagine it.


Rose, at least, was able to simply enjoy her new status. I found that I got more pleasure from seeing her in her new home than I did from my own. She’d never once lived in anything more luxurious than a simple hut at the edge of a failing farmer’s village. She’d spent weeks on the road, and then most recently in a cheap room in a cheaper inn.


If I’d had my doubts about this arrangement before, seeing the pure, childlike delight in her eyes as she explored her rooms settled it. I couldn’t say I liked this arrangement, on a number of levels. But it was worth all the mental discomfort, all the worry and distaste, just to see that.


The next morning found us on our first assignment–which proved, somewhat to my surprise, to be an entirely agreeable one. Livia had met with me in her office shortly before noon, and explained that while the dancers were allowed to use clothing and props from the brothel’s closet, it was also allowed to have one’s own. She’d further told me that she had a tailor who often did work for the brothels and was familiar with our needs, and that the house would front me a loan to purchase clothes and jewelry if I wanted.


I knew how to take a hint. I’d promptly replied that I would go immediately, and had the reward of seeing a slight smile on Livia’s face. Yes, I knew how the game was being played here. The right kind of suggestion was better than a command.


Thus I found myself, feeling somewhat bemused at this rapid turn of fortune, at the tailor’s, some time between noon and evening. I had an escort, at least, another dancer to show me what to do. Rose was on a similar trip to a luthier and another tailor, escorted by a musician.


The dancer’s name was Lyssa, a northern name to go with her northern features. Despite this, I knew she was a Tsuran native, born and raised in Aseoto. Even if she hadn’t told me so herself, I could have told from the thick accent she had when she spoke Skellish. Even living in an area for a long term didn’t give you that sort of heavy lilt on every word.


“I’m classically trained,” she explained, as we walked to the tailor. Her tone was friendly, with none of the suspicion I might have expected towards a newcomer. “It’s what makes me a novelty–a northerner dancing in the classical Tsuran style. It’s not as much to work with as most of the dancers, of course. You have to make yourself a novelty to last long at the Comedy, and I’m not nearly as exotic as most of the dancers. But I make it work.”


I nodded, noting the name she’d spoken–the Comedy. Presumably that was the name of the brothel I now worked at. This was the first time I’d actually heard it.


Aside from that tidbit, the talk on the way to the tailor was fairly inconsequential. Most of it was gossip about other workers or customers whom I, of course, didn’t know at all. I mostly nodded along attentively, and tried to keep names straight so that I would know something about the people when I met them.


“We’re all glad to have you, of course,” Lyssa said, as we approached what was clearly the tailor’s shop–the bright clothing visible through the large window in the front of the building gave it away. “It’s been weeks since Anna left, and we’ve all been working extra shifts. There were a few people who tried out, but none of them could dance worth anything. I’m pretty sure they were just whores who were tired of bed work.” Her tone had a hint of disdain to it.


Ah, so that was why she was so friendly. I wasn’t taking their work, I was filling in an empty position. I could easily see why they weren’t keen to work the extra shifts, as well. With room and board covered by the six mandatory shifts per week, extra shifts only earned them the partial share of the tips that they were entitled to.


Lyssa opened the door of the tailor’s shop without knocking, and proceeded in with the confidence of someone who had been here many times before. The shop was brightly lit, a pair of alchemical lamps complimenting the sunlight coming in through the window. It was lined, wall to wall and floor to ceiling, with clothing and the materials to make it. There was more variety of fabric than I’d ever seen in one place, everything from rough-spun wool to silk and cotton.


More remarkable, at least to me, were the colors. White gods, the colors. It seemed everything was dyed, in a rainbow of colors that I’d never really thought about seeing in clothes. There were reds as rich as flowers, rich as blood. A blue-green silk resembled the ocean’s waves as it rippled in the breeze coming in the door as we stepped in. Violet that I’d never seen in anything but a flower, and rarely there. Even fabric that looked to be woven of molten gold.


I stopped and stared, and in the time I was standing the tailor appeared. A short man of stooped years, he had the sort of face that would make someone trust him on sight. His fingers were stained, indelibly stained, with colors that had a strong resemblance to the fabrics on display.


“Clarus, this is Silf,” Lyssa said, nodding to the tailor with a friendly smile. “She’s just starting at the Comedy, and Livia wants her to have a basic wardrobe.”


“Of course, a pleasure,” Clarus said, nodding. He looked me over, and it was the strangest sort of gaze. I felt like he was undressing me with his eyes, and yet there was nothing lascivious about it. It was more like a merchant assessing livestock, or an artist looking over a blank canvas. “She will want to emphasize the fur, I assume.”


“Yep,” Lyssa said brightly. “We’re going for a Changed theme with her, especially since she’s northern. Oh, she can’t talk much, I’m afraid, so I’ll mostly be talking for her.”


Ah. That would be why I’d been sent with an escort, then, or part of it. I wasn’t sure whether to be touched or insulted.


“Excellent,” Clarus said. “I have some things that I can adjust to fit her for the moment. Others will take some time, as I have to make them from whole cloth. Give me a moment to look over my stock.” He walked back into the depths of the store, through a door behind the counter that hadn’t been readily visible until he walked through it. The curtain covering it blended in remarkably well with the fabric draped all around the room.


“Clarus is excellent, you’ll like him,” Lyssa assured me while we waited. “Some tailors don’t like working for us. They can get really nasty about it, in fact. But Clarus just sees it as a challenge. He’ll love working with you, just for the novelty of a really tricky job.”


I smiled. “Thanks,” I managed, hoping to convey shades of meaning in tone that I couldn’t in words. Apparently it worked, because Lyssa smiled back at me and nodded before turning her attention back to the door.


Several minutes passed before the tailor emerged from behind the curtain once again, this time carrying an armload of fabric. “Come here, please,” he said. “Behind this screen, yes. You’ll have to strip, I’m afraid, and we’d rather you weren’t in full view of the street, wouldn’t we?”


I didn’t particularly care–I’d been seen in worse circumstances by worse people, before. But I did as instructed, stepping into a corner of the store hidden from the main area by a tall rice paper screen. Lyssa followed me in, while Clarus sat on a wooden stool just beside us.


“Down to your underclothing, please,” he said, setting the fabric down beside himself. I did as instructed, trying to conceal the uncomfortable feeling I still felt at disrobing in front of strangers. I would have to break that habit, after all.


“Excellent,” Clarus said, once again looking me over. “Strong colors will suit you, I think. Crimson, gold, deep greens…I think also violet and some blues. Pastels are in fashion now, but stronger tones suit your coloration better, and to go against fashion is not a bad thing in your profession. It will make you stand out better than slavishly following the masses without consideration for your own assets. So, let us begin.”


What came after that was another round of dressing up, though it was far more to my taste than the one I had endured with Livia. For one thing, I wasn’t forced to constantly put on and take off clothes. Mostly Clarus seemed interested in color and fabric, and held up swatches of one after another to check against my skin, my fur, my eyes. He seemed particularly taken with these last, and tried several green fabrics before settling on one that complimented their shade.


“Like emeralds,” he said, once he was satisfied. “Remarkable in their shade. Your condition is not easy to bear, I am sure, but neither is it without its rewards.” It was the first thing he’d said directly to me in some time, though he and Lyssa had kept up a steady stream of gossip through the process.


I managed to restrain the comment that came to my tongue after he said that. He meant well, I reminded myself. He just…didn’t understand, couldn’t understand, the implication of what he’d just said.


I estimated that an hour passed before Clarus was happy with color selections, and the next stage began. This part did require me to try on clothing, because now that colors had been settled on, he was deciding what styles and cuts fit me well. He had me try on seemingly everything, from vests with breeches to long gowns, scandalously short dresses to floor-length robes. After each one, unless he dismissed it out of hand as unsuitable, he had me stand, turn, and perform some simple movements to see how the cloth moved with my body.


I rejected some few as being too restrictive myself. I was supposed to dance in these, after all, not just to stand around at a party. I had to be able to move freely.


Finally, after easily another hour and a half, Clarus was satisfied. Now that I had grown thoroughly bored of the initially-amazing array of fabrics and colors within his store, it was finally time to collect measurements. He measured my body with the smooth, professional detachment of a carpenter measuring a board. Even when he had to press the tape tight into my crotch, or wrap it around my breasts, there was still nothing untoward in his behavior. It was simply work, the same as any other.


“Excellent,” he said, once he’d finally finished that. “Now, it will be some time before the full wardrobe is ready, as I said. Probably several weeks, as I have some other orders that have to be completed first. Some of these will fit you already, though, so you can leave with a handful of garments today. Others will require only minimal alterations and should be ready within the week. For the full set…two and a half silver lilies.”


I gaped. Two and a half crowns–or lilies, as he’d called them, for the insignia on the reverse of the coin–was an absurd amount of money. A bit of quick arithmetic suggested it was over five thousand iron pennies. It wasn’t just more money than I’d ever seen in one place, it was more money than likely everyone in Branson’s Ford had ever had put together.


“A pleasure doing business,” Lyssa said, reaching for the coin pouch she was carrying.


I grabbed at her hand. “I can’t pay that,” I said.


“Don’t worry,” she said, though she didn’t shake off my grip. “It’s a loan from the house, remember?”


“Can’t make it back,” I said. I had no intention of them using this “loan” to force me into virtual slavery.


“It’ll be easier than you think,” she said. “You aren’t used to Aseoto. Things are expensive in the city. Now, let me make you a deal. If you haven’t made enough to pay it back by the time the last of the clothing is in, I’ll pay the loan off for you. Deal?”


I hesitated, and then let go of her hand. I wasn’t sure I could believe her, but…she was right. I still wasn’t used to the city. I’d noticed that things were more expensive, of course, everything seemed more expensive than I was accustomed to, but…that was still half of a gold crown. An absolutely enormous amount of money.


But there was a sort of calm certainty in her voice that convinced me. Lyssa absolutely expected me to be able to pay off that absurd sum of money in just a few weeks.


She passed the money over to Clarus, and we began bundling the clothes that were ready today up for travel.

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