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.