Equilibrium

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4: Questions and Consequences

Larke, 1182

Mama Jude had led me to a room off to the side, discreetly covered with a curtain. She swung it aside to reveal an elaborate walk in closet, filled to the hilt with any kind of dress or outfit a woman could desire. I suppressed a short sigh of delight – very rarely do I have the opportunity to wear fine silks, whatever the occasion. I elected to ignore the circumstances under which I was able to wear them now.

“Pick whichever you like,” she said, waving her hands towards the extensive wardrobe we stood in. “The men like confidence.” She grinned smugly; her lips pressed tightly together. “But they also like a little skin, darling.” She swirled around and left me alone to choose.

I browsed through the racks of clothing, caressing the soft fabrics. Oh, but I had expensive tastes. I finally selected a sleek, silk dress, a daring, dark purple number. The bodice was tight, and cut seductively low, which was unsurprising, and would serve my purposes tonight. The front of the skirt was short, while the back trailed long, and looked as if it would follow me as I walked, perhaps even drag along the ground. I paired it with stockings that went up to my knee, mimicking how some of the women were dressed when I’d walked in, and paired them with a set of black shoes, flat and nondescript. I didn’t want to be tripping all over myself. I was a warrior, and while I personally enjoyed the finer things, I hadn’t had much practice in the art of walking in heels. I had no interest in making this more difficult for myself. I let my hair out of its braid, cascading down over my shoulders. Men like long hair, right?

I got dressed as quickly as I could, feeling confident in the secluded dressing room. I stowed the items I’d entered with in a convenient trunk for that purpose. When I finished, I stood behind that curtain, unable to push it aside. The dress that I’d felt poised in a moment ago now felt as if I were playing dress-up. And I was, in a way – I was here to gather information from the unsuspecting patrons here. I wasn’t a prostitute, I was a Suryan Mage, the High Suryan Premiere, no less. How could I begin to fool anybody?

I took a deep breath to calm myself. Either this will work, or it won’t. If it doesn’t, then I’ll figure out something else out. But I won’t know until I try. I swallowed my sudden fears and brushed back the curtain.

Uncertain of where to go, I tried to hide my confidence with a sway of my hips and waltzed my way over to find somewhere to sit. There were no available chairs – the brothel was very busy this evening – and ended up sitting on the edge of the stage, off to the side. I wasn’t sure what to do. I watched the other women, how they preened themselves, presenting their wares. I crossed my legs and leaned back, thrusting out my meager chest, copying the other women. I didn’t have much; as a woman who made a living through combat, my body had zero curves. But the dress seemed to fulfill its purpose, and it was mere seconds before several men approached me.

The group of men were racing to be the first to grab my attention; two of them were obviously common folk, while one of them appeared to be higher born. I doubted a nobleman would have any knowledge on the Naga, although I would be curious to see what he knew. I directed my attention to the two other men, smiling coyly at them. The nobleman could wait. Frustrated, the nobleman eyed me warily and then walked away.

Victorious, the two common men approached me, not subtly.

“You’re new here,” said the one on my left.

They were leaning on the stage on either side of me, getting excessively close to me. I tried not to feel claustrophobic by their sudden presences.

“I would have recognized a beauty like you,” he leered.

I didn’t respond, and simply looked at the other man, waiting for his awful introduction he was bound to give me.

“I’ll make you rich,” said the man on my right. He raised his eyebrows at me a smiled a toothy grin.

I smiled back; that’s the winner. If I was going to make the most of my night, perhaps this was the way to do it. I hopped off the stage and grabbed the second man’s shirt by the neckline. It was loose, and a little dirty, but it allowed what I needed.

“Come with me,” I said sweetly.

“Yes ma’am,” the second man simpered, instantly love-struck.

I led the man by the shirt around the room and up the obvious stairs, noticing a smile of approval from Mama Jude, who had been sitting near the door. That must be her typical post; she had a comfy chair stationed there, with a table and a slew of drinks at her disposal. Dropping the man’s shirt, I instead grabbed his hand.

We made it upstairs. I found an empty room with an open door and allowed him to enter first.

“Make yourself comfortable,” I suggested, gesturing towards the bed.

He complied quickly, eagerly starting with taking off his clothes. Fool, I thought. He’s making himself so vulnerable. I smiled. If only he knew what was coming to him.

I locked the door with a click and focused my magic. I wielded it like a weapon, concentrating until what I imagined became reality. While the man was struggling with removing his shirt, stumbling around in his underwear, awkward from the alcohol and apparent natural clumsiness, I had made a magical dagger in my right hand.

Not waiting for him to finish getting undressed, I lunged forward and pushed him backward onto the bed. The back of my mind noticed the lush bedspread, thick and comfortable blankets on a soft, massive mattress.

“Aah!” the man screamed, taken by surprise, his shirt still over his face.

I chuckled. Men were so predictable. I straddled him on the bed, thankful I’d chosen this dress. While its intended purpose was for decidedly different results, it worked for me. My knees tucked his arms in tight, and he could do nothing about it.

I held the magical blade at his throat, nicking him a little. He couldn’t see, I knew, so I had to let him know what was going on.

“I have a knife to your throat,” I said cheerfully. “And don’t think I won’t use it.”

He whimpered. “What do you want?” he said, his words slightly muffled by the thin cloth covering his face.

“What do you know about the Naga?” I pressed the blade into the flesh, not breaking skin, but adding pressure as a reminder.

He gulped, making the magical blade tight against his throat.

“Uh, not much... they’re the local criminals...?”

I decided I needed to see his face to tell if he was lying or not, so I used my spare hand to pull his shirt the rest of the way over his head, exposing his terrified facial expression.

“I need more. I’m not a patient woman.”

“Um... oh! This place is associated with them, I think!” he supplied eagerly, eyeing my hand that was holding the magical knife.

“Associated? How?”

“I don’t know! Sometimes you see real shady folk here, exchanging money.”

“Shady folk like you, you mean?”

“No, I’m not shady!” he protested.

I gave him a doubtful look.

“Alright fine, point taken. Shadier than me, then. I saw somebody like that in here earlier, actually. But I don’t know anything else!”

I considered him for a moment, and after watching his face when he spoke, I determined he wasn’t lying. Satisfied with my questioning, I nodded. Still holding the blade to his throat, I leaned in close to whisper in his ear. “If you mention this to anyone, I’ll find you, and I will make you wish I’d killed you in this moment.”

I took the blade away, and he nodded.

“Before I get up, I believe I need to be paid for my services,” I said haughtily. A girl needs to know her worth, and I know mine.

He glanced at his pants, which were laying on the floor haphazardly.

“In the pockets?” I asked.

He nodded swiftly. Slowly, I got off of him, pointing my blade at him to indicate that he stays still. He did. I leaned down and picked up the pants. A small bag fell out, heavy with coins. I smiled again. He did hold up to his word – he said he would make me rich.

I threw the pants at him.

“Get dressed and never come back,” I ordered with a stern glare.

I had never seen a man get dressed so fast. He ran out of the room. I heard his footsteps as he slid down the stairs, and presumably, out the door. With a breath of relief, I allowed the magic to dissipate, the blade disappearing and my hand feeling hot. Blinking my eyes, I felt drowsy, but not overly so. The magical blade wasn’t an extensive use of my magic; I should be able to shake off the exertion easily.

Well, I’d learned something. This place did have ties with the Naga, if this man was correct. It’s possible that the brothel is one of their businesses. I straightened my clothing, ready for the next round, my pockets feeling heavier with the coins I’d just acquired.

I returned to the main room, exchanging a look with Mama Jude, who looked like she and I were in on a secret that only we knew of. I suppose we were, but not entirely, because if she knew I was robbing and threatening her customers, then she wouldn’t have allowed me to stay. I circled around the room, trying to catch someone’s eye. I had immediate success the first time, so who’s to say I wouldn’t on the second?

I scanned the room. Nobody caught my eye instantly, but there was a man in the corner, seated alone, drinking from a glass. He noticed me staring, and stared back, leaned against the chair he was in. The shadows made it difficult to see his face, but his stance oozed confidence. For whatever reason, I was drawn to him. I began to walk towards him.

Then, Mama Jude approached me out of nowhere. The woman was silent!

“You have a customer asking about you,” she said quietly, whispering into my ear. “They don’t know your name, but I’ve sent him up to room three. Don’t keep him waiting.”

She turned me around by the shoulders and pushed me back up the stairs. Mama Jude certainly didn’t mind putting her girls to work, I noticed.

I walked up the stairs, confident from my previous success. Which one was room three? When I’d come up here the first time, I didn’t notice the numbers on the door. They were labeled like addresses, in artfully wrought iron, hung over the door. I looked up. Room number three was the one to the left of where I’d just been. I supposed it was just as well.

I knocked on the door.

“Enter,” a quiet, masculine voice said.

The door creaked as I opened it.

It was the nobleman, thankfully still dressed. I’d half anticipated him to be ready for action, as it were. Instead, he was standing at a table, pouring from a decanter what looked like wine into two separate cups. I didn’t like wine. He offered me a glass, and I politely stepped up to him to accept it. Already, I was planning what strategy I would use to physically overpower him.

“You look like quite the confident lady,” he whispered, leaning close to my face to speak directly into my ear. “I like that.”

“Tell me what you want,” I said breathily, playing my part well.

He smiled narrowly in response, obviously very taken with me. The nobleman didn’t answer, but took a strand of my hair, lifted it, watched it run through his fingers as he let it fall.

Then he wrenched his fingers into my hair, pulling it down! I yelped in surprise – somehow, I hadn’t anticipated that. This was quickly going badly.

“You bitch! You chose a peasant over me? I’ll show you your place,” he snarled, throwing me down onto the ground.

I fell hard, the glass in my hand shattering and cutting me.

“Serves you right, slut.” He kicked me.

He had gotten me right in the ribs, and I couldn’t breathe! Larke, get yourself together! You were taken by surprise, but damn it you’re the High Suryan Premiere! You can’t let him treat you like this!

Gasping, I crawled away, focusing my magic as I had before. He prowled after me, confident that I was in his power. Again, I summoned a magical dagger. It was the easiest way to go – pure energy would possibly burn this place to the ground, and I had no intention of doing that. I had to be discreet, and hopefully, still get information.

He kicked me again, this time in the thigh. Goddess, that smarted. My muscles cramped in response. There would be bruises tomorrow. I grit my teeth, concealing my right hand from his view as the magical blade I’d made materialized. He took another step forward, leaned down, and grabbed my chin roughly.

“You’ll be free, tonight,” he spit, his eyes narrowing as anger overtook him, “and you’ll do whatever I say.”

That was it. Summoning all of my strength, I grabbed his shoulder with my left hand, and twisted, bringing my right hand up to meet the base of his throat. He fell backwards, and I landed on top of him, the momentum of our plunge driving the little magical knife deeper into his flesh. I stepped off of him quickly, angry that I’d had to straddle more than one man tonight. And, I didn’t want to get blood on this dress. That would be difficult to explain.

I stood once more, victorious, and seething with anger. What right did this entitled shit have to attack me? Staring at him, I suppose I may have been a bit rash. What if he knew something?

I crouched to his level as he lay on the floor, face up, and eyes blank as his blood pooled around him. Was he dead? I doubted it; I had hit a major artery, but it shouldn’t be entirely instantaneous. Once more, I allowed my magic to dissipate, the blade disappearing. He groaned as I manhandled him; ironic.

“What do you know about the Naga?” I questioned quickly; my window of opportunity was closing rapidly as he bled out in front of me.

He just choked in response, the blood filling his airways, his eyes unseeing. Ugh, what a waste. Now I had to hide a body and everything. I just needed it to be hidden long enough for me to talk to Mama Jude in the morning and see what she knew. I glanced around the room, unsure of where to put him. The blood was getting everywhere.

I settled on the large chest at the foot of the bed. It held some random clothes, what looked like a disturbing set of ropes and whips, which I was careful not to touch. But it would be empty enough to fit this man in. With some adjustments, of course. It would work, for now.

When I finally came back down into the main room of the brothel, I was exhausted. I had performed some magic, twice, had interrogated one man, killed another, robbed them both, hid the body in a chest that only slightly too small, and cleaned up the mess. I was spent. Fortunately, though there were still people milling around, it was becoming less and less busy as the men had either found a companion or passed out on the floor around here. Mama Jude walked up to me again, and internally, I groaned. If she gave me another customer to meet, I’d stab her too.

“Seems like you had a profitable night, sweetheart.”

I just nodded, too tired to say anything else.

“I see you’re simply fatigued, darlin. Go find the girls’ room and sleep for the night. Come down in the morning when you wake up, and we’ll discuss your cut.” She shooed me away, back up the stairs.

That night, I slept soundly, surprisingly enough. The working girls weren’t allowed to sleep in the nice rooms – those were reserved for customers – but Mama Jude had a room designated for her employees. It wasn’t large, but the room was lined with stacked beds, each one full. I had fallen asleep almost instantly. The atmosphere was comfortable for me; all of the noises were familiar. The breathing of several people in close proximity, faint snores, rustling of blankets as someone shifted in their sleep... it reminded me of my early Suryan days, sleeping in the barracks.

The morning came earlier than I expected, and I roused when the girls woke with the dawn. I received odd looks, as nobody knew who I was, so I made sure not to engage in any conversation and avoided eye contact as much as possible. Thankfully, I’d already changed out of the revealing dress I’d worn the night before and back into my own dress, so all I had to do was roll off of the mattress and get going.

Mama Jude was waiting for me, it seemed, in her station near the door. I wondered if she spent all of her time there. When I reached the bottom of the stairs, she waved me over. I paused a moment to look around the room. It felt different than it did last night, as if the daylight allowed it to transform into an innocuous room, empty of the lewd behavior and numerous sins I’d witnessed the night previous. Now, it was just a room. The lack of windows still kept it dimly lit, but there was no smoke filling the air, no music cutting through the silence.

“Sleep well, darling?”

I nodded, not in the mood for small talk. I had a purpose to fulfill. This madame surely knew something about the Naga, and I was going to get it out of her one way or another. I thought of the decaying man upstairs that I’d shoved into that chest and decided to make this quick. Hopefully, she’d be upfront about her knowledge; she had shown me kindness, and I really didn’t feel like cleaning up another pool of blood. I’d scoured those floorboards for what felt like ages, and I didn’t have the patience to do it again.

“Mama Jude, let me be straightforward,” I said, and I rummaged into the pockets of my dress. I found the bag of coins, which had become much fatter since my arrival, and slammed it onto her side table in between us.

“Oh, so you were just as profitable as I suspected!” she cooed, pleased. “I agree, dearie, let’s be straightforward. I get half.”

She emptied the coins and began to count. I watched her carefully as she did so. When she finished, she pushed my half towards me, and slid the rest into a coin purse she produced from her hip.

I slid mine back into my bag and replaced it in my pocket. I was much richer than I was yesterday, that’s for sure.

“Mama Jude, I’m in need of assistance,” I chanced, unsure of how exactly to best broach the subject. Would she respond to my sob story that I’d fabricated?

She rolled her eyes at me. “I noticed that, darling. Women of means don’t come here.”

“We’re farmers...” I said hesitantly. “I mean, we were farmers.” I sighed, laying it on thick.

She watched carefully, waiting for me to continue.

I opened my mouth and closed it again, considering the best way to phrase my search for sympathy. “I’m a widow, and my late husband’s gambling debt is... substantial.”

She still said nothing, just eyeing me warily, perhaps seeing through my thin lies.

I darted my eyes side to side, as if I were nervous to say this next part aloud. I leaned in close to the table, and whispered, “I hear the Naga gang is sometimes kind to those in need. Do you know where I can find them?”

She leaned in close to meet me, squinting her eyes. “I may know someone who can help you. Are you sure you want to go?” She lifted up her now-heavy coin purse and jingled it. “You could make a living here.”

I wasn’t convinced and shook my head. It wouldn’t serve my purpose, obviously, but I couldn’t tell her that.

“Mama Jude, surely you know this is a low point for me.”

She nodded sagely, and leaned back in her chair, thinking. I leaned back also, waiting eagerly on her words.

After a long pause, she spoke. “You’re too sweet to survive in this line of work anyhow, dearie. Profitable you may be, but you won’t last long here.” She stopped again, watching my reaction. “I’ll ask my contact if he can help you.”

“Thank you, Madame,” I said politely, bursting to the seams with excitement at this new lead, but doing my best to hold it back.

It evidently didn’t entirely work, as the madame smiled back at me knowingly.

“He likes to meet people at the original Serran Church, you know, the one near the town square.”

I knew which one she was talking about; it had once been the royal church for the city, funded by the Cerul family for hundreds of years. But of course, that had all been before the conquest, before King Zante had conquered Ryne for himself.

“Be there at the noon sermon today,” she instructed, “and I’ll make sure he shows up.”

She stood abruptly, and I mirrored her action. She extended her hand to shake, and I grasped it tightly before letting go. She was a sharp woman, this Mama Jude. I would do well not to cross her. Again, I remembered the dead man stashed away upstairs, and I turned away quickly. I had to leave this place before anyone discovered it.

“Be careful, darling. The world isn’t what you think it is.”

Those cryptic parting words left me puzzled, but I brushed them off as I opened the door to the morning light.

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