The Winking Nymph was always flooded with patrons after the Burnings.
The atmosphere wasn’t the same as it would be on a busy night at a regular tavern; the dim lighting fed rather than banished the shadows, encouraging them closer, leaving pockets of space where patrons could lurk without being recognized. Men – and the occasional woman – drank, sometimes in groups, but for the most part they didn’t engage themselves with singing bawdy songs or telling dirty jokes. Perhaps the place was debauched enough on its own and so they didn’t feel the need.
Women drifted in and out of the shadows, flirting with the light as it caught on their spangled wrists and ankles and throats, and at the front of the room a beautiful redheaded girl sang with a voice as sweet as sun-warmed strawberries. It was going to be a big tipping night; the city was beginning to bulge with visitors attending the treaty celebrations, and the moon cycle holiday had beckoned them all to the streets, thrilled by the morning’s violence and drunk on bloodlust.
I was eager to get out on the floor, but Madam had saddled me with initiation duties, so I was instead lingering in a corner by the bar, doing breathing exercises with the novice.
Aalin’s perfume was thick, a ghastly confection of jasmine, violets and something sugary that made my head ache. I could pick a new girl a mile away – they wore thick makeup obscuring their faces, chains and sparkles everywhere one could hang a jewel, and gowns in gaudy colors that revealed more than they concealed. They thought they were channeling desirability, but in reality, all the decoration was just a screen to hide their nerves behind.
I was long past those sorts of naïve assumptions. I’d worked at the Winking Nymph long enough to know that calculated vulnerability earns more than donning the generic armor of maisera. Aalin wasn’t ready to hear that, though. That night she just needed to feel like she belonged, and all that perfume was a part of the uniform.
‘They’re just men,’ I soothed as she chewed on her lip and smoothed her dress over and over again. ‘And they’re mostly drunk men. They want to be pleased. And they’ll be excited to see a new girl.’ I tucked a lock of wiry hair back into her updo.
‘I don’t think I know how to be sexy,’ she admitted in a small voice. ‘I thought I did, but now that I’m standing here…’
I ducked behind the bar and collected a bottle and two glasses. Pouring a generous helping of clear liquid into each glass, I pressed one into her hands. ‘Here,’ I said. ‘This will help.’ I knocked back my own serve, wincing as the gin scorched its way down my throat. Madam Luzel didn’t like us drinking on the clock, but one drink to fortify against first time jitters was surely justifiable.
Aalin brought hers to her lips, and I gently pushed the bottom of the glass, forcing her to take a mouthful instead of a sip. I grinned as she coughed and spluttered. With her wide, dark eyes, smooth skin and perky tits, she looked impossibly young. I hoped she wasn’t as young as she looked. Madam wasn’t exactly thorough when she checked things like the age of her new hires; she was an expert in plausible deniability. If the king’s soldiers decided to raid her, they’d never pin her doing anything she shouldn’t be. Though, with one of the king’s generals currently lounging in a private booth and drinking on the house, I doubted it was a decision they’d be making anytime soon.
‘See him over there? With the bushy beard?’ I leaned closer to Aalin and pointed out a bear of a man seated by the stage. She nodded, taking another sip from her glass. ‘He’s a regular, he’s friendly and he tips big. Go and ask him if he’d like you to pour his drinks for him. He’ll look after you.’
‘But what if he…’ She trailed off and her gaze shot down to the floor.
‘If he?’ I pressed. When she seemed unable to continue, I finished the sentence for her. ‘If he wants more than just his drinks poured?’
She nodded at the floor.
‘If anyone expresses an interest in booking you privately, you have two options. Either direct them to Madam Luzel and she’ll organize on your behalf or deflect.’
She looked back up at me with wide eyes. ‘Deflect?’
‘Playfully. In a not now, but maybe one day sort of way. This is a suvoir, not a flesh house. They know you can turn them down.’
She took a deep breath. ‘Okay,’ she said, swigging the last of her drink and taking a deep breath. ‘I can do this.’
I watched as she edged over to the man I’d pointed out, her posture slightly stooped, like she was trying to make herself less visible. When she was greeted with a broad grin, I knew she’d be alright. As I picked up my lute and took to the floor myself, I felt not even a whisper of nerves. A part of me envied Aalin her anxiety, envied the adrenaline that would come with it. I had been just as nervous on my first night working the floor, if not more so. At some point the job had become routine, had lost its thrill of doing something wicked, something that would shock my prudish mother. It still paid better than I could earn doing almost anything else in Lee Helse, though. No more shivering through the winter for me, I kept the fire in my room burning as long and hot as I liked.
I began circling the room, immediately checking in with Lord Bernier, the governor of a minor estate north of the city. Balding and wrinkled, with his body bulging out of clothes that seemed to shrink tighter around him by the day, he was a regular and I flashed him a coy smile as I picked up the bottle on his table and refilled his glass.
‘Will tonight be the night?’ he rasped. ‘Will you let me take you away with me?’
‘How you tease me, my lord, with your pretty promises. My poor little heart can’t take it.’ My tone was light, but I danced out of the reach of a hopeful hand.
‘I could arrange everything. A set of rooms on Peak Street. An allowance. All the fine clothes you could dream of.’ His droopy eyes blinked up at me hopelessly, his offer spoken with all the weight of air.
‘All the fine clothes I could dream of would bankrupt the king himself. Now hush with your temptation or Madam will throw you out for trying to steal away her staff.’ I blew him a kiss and moved on, resisting the urge to roll my eyes. He had a wife and five daughters to support on the income of a handful of tenants and a small, unproductive landholding. He couldn’t afford to rent rooms anywhere, let alone Peak Street, evidenced by last year’s jacket he’d had altered to fit this season’s fashions. But he liked the fantasy of being a big man about town, and we all did our best to simper and fawn over him. I had never accepted him as a private client, though he’d requested me from Madam often enough. I was beyond the days of trysting with men who repulsed me.
I moved about the room, peddling songs and refilling tankards, taking the measure of anyone I didn’t recognize. A table of three drew my attention the way an act of violence does, the way the mind recognizes and catalogues a threat. I’d never seen them before and I assessed them quickly: all three were broad and muscled, with bulging shoulders and thick necks. One caught my notice for his dirty-blond ponytail, a length not common amongst men in Lee Helse, and I watched as he stared at Aalin across the room, his mouth curled with greed. His companion to his right had a silvery scar running from the outer tip of his eyebrow all the way to the corner of his mouth, and the third seemed younger than the other two, with razor nicks marring the stubble on his chin. They looked deep in their cups, aggression rolling off them like heat. Unease prickled down my neck as the youngest reached for his drink and I caught sight of a length of black cord wrapping his forearm. Binders. They tended to be a sinewy, brash sort, with tempers as short as their lifespans. And if they were hot off the back of a sale, they’d have money to burn on liquor.
I kept a wary eye on them as I continued my rounds, even when I was called away to serve a private booth full of cloth merchants conducting a deal. A few rounds of drinking games later, and I still caught the moment the blond stood to intercept Aalin on her way to the bar. I was already on my way over before he’d laid a hand on her. I made eye contact with Cotus, one of the brawny men waiting on the fringes of the room, ready to keep order and manhandle patrons when necessary. He nodded in acknowledgement, letting me know he was watching.
Aalin smiled shyly at the hulking man in her path and ducked past him, but he snaked an arm around her waist from behind, pulling her against him. She cried out in alarm at the unexpected contact.
‘Do you need someone to break you in, gorgeous?’
She protested timidly and struggled to free herself, but stilled as he said something in her ear. The girl’s eyes grew round as coins and the blood drained from her face.
‘Hands off her. You don’t touch unless invited,’ I barked as I reached them, my voice containing enough force and venom to momentarily shock him into slackening his grip, allowing Aalin to break free. His eyes met mine.
‘I want to book time with her.’ His voice was rough, brutal, as he shifted his gaze back to Aalin. ‘What do you say? You can make more than you’ll get collecting tips if you take me upstairs.’
The girl shook her head, her expression creased with anxiety. An ugly scowl cut across his face and he looked as though he was about to reach out and grab her again.
‘If she’s not available, then she’s not available,’ I snapped, standing my ground as he turned his attention back to me, squaring up and moving close enough that I could see the grit in the pores of his nose.
‘How about you then, pretty?’ he said, assailing me with the smell of sour liquor. ‘How about we go to a private room?’
My anger simmered slowly, not hot enough to burn just yet, but enough to make me wrinkle my nose and reply, ‘not with that breath.’
A few patrons nearby snickered, and his eyes snapped to them, his nostrils flaring. If I’d checked to see that we had an audience, I might not have said it. Asking such a man to handle rejection and public humiliation at the same time was not a smart move. I should have known he was going to try and take back the power I had just stolen from him. With a speed I wouldn’t have expected from him in his state, he reached out and snatched a handful of my hair.
‘I thought the whole point of a whore was being available,’ he snarled. I dropped my lute and it clattered to the floor as I grabbed his hand with both of mine, holding it to my scalp so he couldn’t pull any harder, and ducked behind him, twisting his arm until he let go of me with a yelp.
I waved at Cotus, who was already crossing the room to place his burly hands on the blond’s shoulders. ‘I think you’ve had enough for tonight,’ he said, and the man seemed ready to put up a fight until he took Cotus in properly, assessing his towering height, his broad shoulders, his scarred face. Clearly realizing this was an opponent he couldn’t beat, he turned his attention back to me.
‘You’re going to wish you treated me better,’ he spat.
‘Unlikely,’ I sang, wiggling my fingers in goodbye as he was steered firmly towards the door, his face growing puffy and red with rage.
I felt Madam Luzel’s tight-lipped frown from across the room before I saw it, and I slowly lowered my hand, taking Aalin’s arm instead. ‘Let’s take a break,’ I said, leading her towards the bar.
Her big eyes were bright with unshed tears and she kept them fixed firmly on the floor.
I suppressed a sigh as I assessed her. ‘That’s going to happen from time to time,’ I said. ‘Try not to take it personally. Men are brutes.’
‘I should have taken him upstairs,’ she mumbled. ‘Madam Luzel will get rid of me now.’
‘Not a good idea. Girls with bruises can’t work. Nor can dead ones.’ She stared at me, and I shrugged. ‘It happens all the time. You’ll learn to pick what men want from you. Some want to fuck, some want you to stroke their head while they tell you about their mother, some want to beat you within an inch of your life. Avoid the last sort.’ I peered at my reflection in the mirror behind the bar, smoothing at my dark hair and ensuring the pigment around my eyes and on my lips hadn’t smudged.
‘Rhiandra, someone in the southern booth has asked for you.’ Nataya, who went by the floor name Orca, had been working at the Winking Nymph longer than me, and my curiosity was piqued by her flushed cheeks and bright eyes. She seemed flustered.
‘For a song?’ I asked and she blinked, her face going blank for a moment.
‘I didn’t ask.'
‘I suppose I’ll find out myself.’
She lurched towards me to grip my arm. ‘Rhi,’ she whispered breathlessly. ‘He’s gorgeous.’
I raised my eyebrows. ‘Is he rich?’
She touched her hand to her mouth, as though trying to keep in her excitement. ‘You won’t care either way when you go over there.’
‘I doubt that.’ I looked around for my lute, catching sight of it still lying where I’d dropped it to the floor. I swooped in to rescue it before heading for the table in question, reflecting on the flicker of unease I felt as I did.
Two men sat in the booth, but one drew my immediate attention. The first thing I noticed about him was the way the shadows seemed to cling to him, bathing him in a deeper darkness than was usual, even for a dimly-lit suvoir. His eyes cut through that darkness with a needle-sharp gaze, and when he pinned me with it my step faltered, before I mentally shook myself and kept walking, assessing him with more interest now. He held a languid pose, his arms sprawled out over the back of the bench seat, one foot crossed over his knee, tapping out a measured rhythm in the air. Disheveled dark hair fell about a sharp-jawed face and he was smirking slightly as he cocked his head at me, watching my every step. I would have called him vicious before I’d called him gorgeous. I’d seen all sorts in my time working at the Winking Nymph, and I could tell a dangerous man when I saw one. I could tell an unnatural man when I saw one, too, though I couldn’t have told you exactly what gave him away. Perhaps it was the sense of wrongness about him, like he was overlaid on the scene, not quite belonging to the same world as the rest of us.
‘I hear you'd like a song from me?’ I said, smiling invitingly as I neared him. He subjected me to a slow, lingering examination, his gaze dawdling from my face to my breasts, my waist, all the way down my legs and back up again. I was used to being looked at, of course. What I wasn’t used to was the hot, fluttery feeling that bloomed in my abdomen. My heart beat just a little faster and my skin suddenly felt flushed and sensitive. I was attracted to him. Well, that was unexpected.
‘This one?’ His companion’s tone was incredulous, and I shot him a glare, remembering to smile just a fraction too late. He was a reedy specimen, with a flop of sandy hair and hands that seemed too big for his body as they nursed his drink.
‘This one,’ the dark-haired man answered as I returned my attention to him. ‘What’s your name?’ he asked.
‘Vixen,’ I replied, leaning against the table and strumming my lute. My name was not Vixen, but Madam liked us to call ourselves after the seven sacred animals of the Aether, which was an odd quirk, given that she wasn’t a soil smearer in any sense. She tended to mutter curses under her breath when she saw those white-robed, mud-covered figures in the street promising absolution. I suspect she chose the names because she knew the value of taboo when it came to titillation, or perhaps she just possessed a sick sense of humor. Whatever the reason, it usually meant I was not the only ‘Vixen’ working the shift. That night, I could pick out at least two others floating around the room.
He raised an eyebrow. ‘Vixen,’ he purred, the sound rolling over me like the rumble of distant thunder, prickling my skin. ‘What a fitting name.’
‘Is it?’ I asked, continuing to strum my lute, fumbling a chord as he ran a thumb along his bottom lip.
I needed to get a hold of myself. I was not the sort to fawn over a stranger, and I usually found the whole ‘untrustworthy’ aesthetic a deterrent. There were girls on the premises who seemed to be drawn to thieves, mercenaries and binders like iron filings to magnets, but I wasn’t one of them.
He flicked his fingers at his companion. ‘That sorry lump over there is Lester.’ He pulled an arm from the back of the chair to grasp at my hand, freezing my strumming. His fingers were long, cool, calloused, and my entire body seized up at the contact, my lips parting slightly. ‘And I’m Draven.’
‘I’m booked,’ I spluttered, yanking my hand back and stumbling away from the table. When I was out of arms reach, I paused and tried to collect myself, to smooth over how rude the reflex to escape him must have seemed. The last thing I needed was a complaint against me. Madam would be waiting to chastise me over the scene with the binder as it was. I didn’t need to lose her any more money. ‘I’m sorry, I’m very busy. I’ll send someone else over.’
‘Busy insulting patrons?’ Lester asked, surprising me. I’d forgotten he was there. ‘We saw your little show down by the stage.’
I narrowed my eyes at him. ‘In case you didn’t notice, the scumbag had me by the hair. He deserved a lot worse.’
‘He did,’ Draven said, shooting a look at Lester that made him slump back in his chair and scowl into his tankard. ‘You handled the situation well.’
‘It won’t be the last you see of him, though.’ There was a confidence in this comment, like he was stating an absolute fact. ‘Where did you learn to break out of a hold like that?’
Chewing my lip, I considered him. I wasn’t sure what his aim was, why he was talking to me, asking me these sorts of questions. Did he have a kink for violent women? It wasn’t unheard of, though if he wanted to be tied up and spanked then there were other girls in the room far more experienced in games of dominance. ‘It’s a good idea to be prepared for anything in this business,’ I replied.
A hand brushed my arm, causing me to jolt with surprise. I hadn’t even noticed Aalin approaching me. ‘Madam wants to see you,’ she whispered, and I sighed. My grace period seemed to be up.
‘I have to go. Perhaps I’ll see you again,’ I said, my words stilted and awkward, my body tense at the idea of turning my back on him when the instinct to keep him in my sights rang through me as clear as a bell.
His mouth twitched with a smirk. ‘You will.’
Madam Luzel watched me cross the room and jerked her head towards her office. Not a good sign, but I held my head high as I followed her.
Her office was furnished with all the luxury that her considerable wealth afforded her, and I always felt the sting of resentment whenever I entered. She was not a generous woman by any measure, though her terms of employment were admittedly fair, which was more than could be said for other suvoir in the city. She paid a base rate, let us keep our tips and, most importantly, never forced us to take clients to bed, though she did keep forty percent of our earnings when we did. However, that forty percent was all I saw when I admired the heavy oak desk, the supple leather of her armchairs, the gleaming crystal decanter and glassware perched on a sideboard by the window. I could afford to be picky with who I took to one of the upstairs rooms now, but I hadn’t always had that luxury. It would never feel right that she took a cut of the nights I endured at the hands of violent or repugnant men.
She sat in the chair behind the desk, steepled her fingers and pursed her pale lips at me. In her heyday, Madam Luzel had been a great beauty and the memory lingered in her high cheek bones, long-legged figure and penetrating blue eyes. ‘Tell me you weren’t insulting another of my patrons just now.’
‘What makes you think I was?’
She tapped her fingers against each other. ‘You weren’t playing or dancing or serving drinks. You certainly didn’t look like you were flirting. And since you’ve already provoked violence tonight, it fits your particular pattern.’
I clenched my fists by my sides. ‘You were the one who asked me to look out for the new girl.’
‘I asked you to show her the ropes, not to become her white knight. She needs to learn to manage those situations herself, hopefully in a less antagonistic manner than you do.’ She considered me for a long moment while I bit my tongue against the desire to justify myself. I knew she wouldn’t care. ‘I’m having this conversation with you too often, Rhiandra. Perhaps you need to take some time off to reflect on whether you wish to continue working here. You may be popular, but no amount of popularity can make up for chasing away paying customers.’
I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. She was right – I was letting my temper get the best of me too frequently these days. I needed to show her I could be as calm and restrained as she was, because working at the Winking Nymph was all I had, and I’d pinned every plan for my future on it. I didn’t want to be a maisera forever. What I wanted even more than putting a few brutes in their place was to have enough money and influence to do as I pleased. And Madam Luzel was the most direct path I could see to that goal. After all, she wouldn’t live forever, and madams often selected their successors from amongst their girls. She herself had inherited the suvoir in the same manner.
‘You’re right. I’m sorry. Maybe I just need to rest for a few days.’
She relaxed as I said this, her frown softening into not quite a smile, but at least a slightly friendlier expression. ‘You do that. I don’t want to lose you.’ She didn’t need to add but I will if I have to. I already knew I was a commodity to her. She had plucked me from the streets when I was a scrawny teenager, letting me work washing glasses and wiping tables while tutoring me in the arts of entertaining, flirting and fucking, shaping me into one of her perfect temptresses. But she was a businesswoman, and I had long since paid out my indenture. Our history meant nothing if I turned out to be a sour investment.
‘I don’t need you on the floor tonight. You can go,’ she said as she began shuffling papers around her desk.
I wanted to protest, to ask for another chance as I envisioned the tips I would miss out on, but I bit back my words. My dignity was worth more than a few tips. I withdrew from her office and headed straight for the bar, pouring myself my second helping of gin for the night. Another notch against me, but I needed to rinse the bitter taste out of my mouth.
‘I’m heading up early,’ I said to Nataya as I washed out my glass and replaced it on the shelf.
‘Do you have a booking?’ she asked, waggling her eyebrows at me. I smiled and gave a half nod. Better for her to think I was up with a client than that I was being sent to bed early like a naughty child. She shimmied her shoulders, her eyes bright with excitement. ‘Let me know if he’s as gorgeous with his clothes off.’
I frowned at her in confusion, before I realized she was talking about the man in black. Draven. ‘Yes. Sure,’ I mumbled, waving goodbye and taking the stairs behind the bar that lead to the rooms above.