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.