The eight streets of the Hunters Sector were busy. It was not a good night to be out. The weather was warming, and the air was sweetened, the ocean scent sharpened. The Others were enjoying the mildness of the evening, out in force, and thus, so were the Mate Seekers.
They had changed the fixtures of the streetlights to be brighter in an attempt to tame the wild behaviour of the area, but there was something in the air, and the revelry spilled onto the streets. The Others’ arms slung over the shoulders of Mate Seekers, staggering from tavern to brothel, laughing and spilling liquor onto the streets.
I dodged a fight, blood bright in silver hair - the woman laughed as her opponent went down.
The Flowershop’s sign glowed in colours no natural flower could sport. There was a queue by the door. Heath was evicting someone and caught my eye. He gave no indication of having seen me however, it was an unspoken rule that the flowers got anonymity outside of The Flowershop. He said something to Flint who manned the door, before retreating inside.
I turned down the narrow alley behind the building. A couple fornicating against the wall did not see me slip past them.
I knocked on the door, its bright green paint disguised beneath the grey grime. It opened, the smell of stale alcohol and sweat carried out on the air.
“You’re late,” Penn leered at me. He was a solidly built man of my people and was relegated to the back areas of the tavern when he would rather be in the front. He simply did not have the height and musculature of the Others, like Heath, however, and when the Other patrons fought, Penn could not intervene as effectively.
“No, I’m not,” I corrected, angling to pass him without coming into contact with his bulk. He always positioned himself just so, in order to score a free grope on the way, using his small amount of power over us.
“You’ll get docked,” he muttered, displeased that I had avoided contact.
“No, I won’t,” the hallway beyond Penn was empty. “The line-up is short today.”
The change room was bare too, except for Rose, painting her lips before a mirror. She glanced over her shoulder at me. “It’s a feral night,” she told me. The strands of her costume swayed with her movement, the petals floating featherlight.
“Yes,” I put my bag down on a chair. “I noticed coming in.”
“He’s in a mood,” she told me. “Hardly anyone showed. And the off-planet investor has arrived. Scary looking man.”
I sighed out a breath. “Great.” I shrugged out of my cloak, folding it away. Dress next. I wore my skins under - too many times had Penn walked unannounced into the dressing room for me to undress fully here. I kicked off my shoes as I painted my lips before lining my eyes and smearing black over the lids.
“Dahlia, you’re wanted on the floor,” Heath opened the dressing room door but kept his eyes averted.
“I’m not warmed up,” I told him as I positioned my half mask. “I’m not due yet.”
“It’s a short night, most of the acts haven’t shown...” he was apologetic. “The boss is here and Snow’s on edge.”
“Tell him ten minutes,” I took the costume cloak out of my bag and slung it over my arm.
He sighed heavily. “Rose, you’re supposed to be out.”
“I’ve been out, as you know,” she retorted, adjusting her breasts. “A girl needs a breather every now and again. They’re heavy-handed tonight.”
Heath widened the door as I approached, stepping back. He was not like Penn, waiting for any opportunity to grope. Heath was a gentleman. Strictly eyes averted, no groping. He was growing his grey hair out from being shaved to the skin, and it curled in a way that I knew he found embarrassing because Lily teased him about it. It was unusual to see one of them with short hair - most tended to wear it long or shaved. I wondered why he was making the change.
I moved down the hallway and put the cloak out of the way. I began to stretch where there was space to do so. By agreement with Snow, this area was kept clean and clear for this purpose. Lavender moved out of the way for me. She was doing her own form of warm up - singing her way through scales.
The tavern noise spilled through the partially open door. Feral night, I thought grimly. I could barely hear the musicians. The patrons would tip well, but they were likely to brawl with little provocation, and would be handsy. Lavender met my eyes; I could tell she was thinking the same thing.
Heath had paused in the hallway and was watching me. I met his eyes as I bent backwards, and he flushed, walking the rest of the way down the hall and through the door into the tavern, closing it firmly behind him. After a moment, Rose followed, her high heels clacking against the floorboards. She paused for a moment in the doorway.
“I don’t know how you do that,” she commented. “My bones would break.”
“Training from young,” I told her. It was a family trade, this flexibility and movement. Taught by my grandmother to my mother, and by her to my sister and myself.
“I wished my mother had trained me in anything other than keeping house,” she said bitterly. “I might not have to make a living lifting drinks and being groped, then.” She did not wait for a reply but yanked the door open and strode out into the tavern. I heard a roar of approval from within.
The door opened again, and Lily poked her head in. “Lavender, Dahlia...”
“Tell Snow that if he wants me to injure myself and not turn up for months, he can keep rushing me through my warm-up,” I told her, annoyed. “Or he can leave me be, and I’ll be out as soon as I am done.” Lily grimaced.
“I’m on my way,” Lavender added. Lily closed the door. “He was in a flap earlier,” Lavender told me. “Before the boss arrived, getting everything perfect ready for him, and then hardly anyone showed to work... I’m on my last set,” she added. “Though he’s trying to talk me into another. I might let him if the price is right.”
She strolled to the door, fixed her costume, and pulled it open. After a moment, I heard her begin to sing. There was a momentary lull in the volume of the patron’s chatter, and then it picked up again, drowning her out. I winced. She would not like that.
I finished my warm-up and collected the cloak, clasping it under my chin. I closed my eyes and took three breaths before I approached the door. I slipped through. Heath was guarding the door from the other side and met my eyes. It was worse than I had thought, the energy of the room made the hairs on my arms stand up.
I made my way through the patrons, Heath trailing me - a precaution because the crowd was rowdy.
The central table was fixed to the ground - it ensured it did not tip during my performance. He took my cloak when I handed it to him. The patrons at the table cheered, and cleared it quickly, taking their drinks into their hands. I braced against the table feeling stickiness and smelling the spilt alcohol; and lifted into a handstand, lowering my legs until they rested flat in the centre of the table behind my head and caught my ankles in bridge pose.
“F-k,” one of the women at the table exclaimed. “Have you got a spine?”
I braced my hands back onto the table and lifted back into a handstand with splits, before lowering for a chest stand head sit. A silver haired man gawped, meeting my eyes, and flushed with embarrassment. I smiled at him. I was there to be stared at, after all.
Someone made a lewd comment - it was inevitable someone would speculate about me sexually. The others laughed as if it were a novel concept which either indicated they were well in their drinks, or in general not very inventive.
There was always a point in a routine where the nerves settled, and muscle memory took over. The noise and activity around me faded away and there was just me, my breath and my body, moving through the poses as I had done since childhood. That people watched, mattered not at all... and then the routine was complete, and the noise returned. Sometimes they clapped, sometimes I might as well have not been there at all...
Tonight, they clapped and cheered as I lowered to the ground from the last pose. Heath handed me back my cloak. As I fixed the clasp at my neck, the crowds parted in just a way that the table where Snow entertained the new boss was revealed. Snow was talking enthusiastically, gesturing across the crowd.
The boss met and held my eyes. He was white haired like Snow, from the third home world, his hair braided back in their four-braids into one style, the chain of it long and thick over his shoulder. There was a scar running down the side of his face, just below his left eye to the corner of his mouth - unusual for one of them, I thought, as they had technology that erased such marks. It did not hurt his appearance, rather gave him a dangerous edge. I speculated that he had left it in place for that very purpose.
He had not needed to do so - the tattoos that crept up his neck, decorated the corner of his jaw on the left side, and curved above his right eyebrow more than did that for him.
He was not dressed in the close-fitting black fabric that seemed to be their standard uniform, nor, like Snow, in loose and layered, elaborate fabrics. What he wore was fitted, misleadingly simple but perfectly cut, unadorned, and the material was of good quality. Charcoal, not black - practical but not conforming. Not flashy, but wealthy, I thought.
Snow followed his gaze and gestured for me to come to the table.
Heath saw the gesture. “Snow wants you,” he said, his hand resting against my elbow.
“It’s my break,” I replied.
“Dahlia,” his voice was mild. “If you walk away, you’ll shame him in front of the boss.”
I sighed and began to move across the room; at least Heath’s presence at my back stopped the patrons from grabbing at me. He picked me up at one point, where someone had spilt their drink, placing me down on the other side of the spill.
“Thank you,” it flustered me to be handled, even though he did so impersonally.
“Bare feet,” he said in reply.
“Dahlia,” Snow stood, and indicated for me to take a seat.
This corner of the tavern had built in tables and benches upon raised platforms. I stepped up and slid onto the padded seat, glad to get out of the way of the patrons. The Others were big, and sometimes clumsy with it in their inebriation.
Heath rested his back against the pillar, waiting to escort me back to the other side.
“This is Dahlia,” Snow added unnecessarily, speaking to the boss. “She is one of our regular acts. Dahlia, this is Mercury. He owns this tavern, and several other businesses and buildings in the area.”
“Hello,” there was a wet patch on my sleeve, and another on my chest, I thought. Alcohol from the tabletop. I could smell the fumes.
Mercury considered me across the table, his eyes were a grey toned blue, and fringed by long white lashes. Iceman, I thought. It was funny how Snow had the same colouring, but his animation changed the impression greatly. Snow was far from icy, despite his name; his standard temperature was volcanic. Mercury, however, was cold through and through.
“An unusual ability,” Mercury commented. His voice matched his face, I thought. Dark and dangerous, and slightly hoarse as if his larynx had been damaged and he had not had it repaired. “How is it that you came upon this skill?”
“My family has practiced this artform for generations,” I replied. “We begin training during childhood.”
“What power do you possess?”
“I prefer not to say,” I could not look away from his eyes. By the time this conversation was done, I thought, I would have memorized the flecks of colour within his irises. The hair stood up along the back of my neck and my skin felt over hot.
“Why is that?”
“Amongst your kind, answering that is like revealing your underwear,” I told him.
He barked out a laugh. “True. You aren’t looking for a mate, then?”
“And why is that?” he wondered.
A fight broke out on the floor, tables flying. Snow and Heath leapt into the fray. A body collided with our table and I slid around the bench seat out of the way, colliding with Mercury. He was big and his body was hard, like all the Others. I knew they worked out vigorously to maintain their bodies. I had seen Heath and Flint do so up and down the street on the days I had come in to rehearse.
“It’s alright,” he said calmly. “This table will hold.”
“That’s fine for you to say,” I said to him, bringing my feet up onto the seat. “I get injured, I can’t work, and if I can’t work, I don’t get paid. No pay, no food.” And I had people dependent on me, but this I did not say to him.
“You won’t get injured,” he was certain.
Heath and Snow were moving the fight out of the tavern onto the street. I saw Lily and Rose perched on the bar, their different hued petals merging as they clutched each other. The centre table, secured to the floor, was about the only furniture remaining upright.
“You smell like a brewery,” Mercury commented looking down at me. I realised I was still pressed up against him and eased away.
“Tabletop wasn’t clean,” I replied absently. “Occupational hazard.”
“The table is fixed to the floor,” he frowned at it. “To stop it tipping?”
“Sometimes patrons get excited. If they knock me, I can get injured, falling,” I explained. “Snow agreed to fix that table to the ground for me.”
“If you get injured, you can’t work,” the blue-grey eyes considered me, the expression in them unreadable. “You always perform on the same table, why don’t they wipe it down for you?”
“Staffing issues,” I nodded to Rose and Lily who were climbing down off the bar. The bar staff were righting the tables and chairs. “If more flowers show up, they will sometimes wipe down the tables. It’s a feral night, however.”
“A feral night?”
I glanced at him in surprise. “Something in the air, bringing out the animal in people. Lots of fighting, lots of...” I arched an eyebrow.
“Indeed,” he was amused.
“On feral nights, lots of staff and acts don’t show. Too risky.”
“But you do?” He watched as patrons began to return, crowding the bar.
“If I don’t work...”
“You don’t get paid,” he finished, nodding. “And business is good.”
“Yes, feral nights are busy bar nights,” I agreed. “And we get a cut of their take.”
“Dahlia,” Snow caught my eye. He wanted me to perform my second act early, to re-engage the patrons. It was a common occurrence. Give them something to watch when they return, and they would be more peaceful.
“Excuse me,” I untied the cloak and left it on the seat, returning to the central table. The music started again, pumped out of the little devices set in the ceiling, some invention of the Others. Lavender must be on break or had gone home rather than work the fifth set.
Snow re-joined Mercury at the table. They continued to talk, but Mercury’s eyes were fixed on me. I saw Heath retrieve my cloak from him.
I let Snow talk me into a fifth set, before I went back to the change room and pulled my dress and cloak over my skins and wiped off my makeup. Penn was nowhere to be seen, so I let myself out into the alleyway. It was early morning; the fornicating couple had been replaced by a group waiting whilst one of their number urinated against the wall.
“Hey,” one of them called out to me as I passed. “Looking for some company?”
At least the Others were polite. I never had to fear them, they took no for an answer and left it at that. My own people were another story. I kept a wary eye out as I stepped out onto the street.
“Do you always walk home?” Mercury asked, stepping out from under the overhang of The Flowershop. There was no queue there now, and no one manned the doors.
I suppressed the start that his appearance gave me. “I could hardly fly there.”
“Snow doesn’t have one of the staff escort you?” He matched his pace to mine.
I had not appreciated how big he was, I thought. Of course, they were all big. Heath and Snow towered above me, too, and moving through the patrons was a bit like walking through a forest of ancient trees, but in the tavern, it was different somehow, to walking next to one of them on the street.
“Hardly,” I scoffed at the idea. I had a suspicion Heath would volunteer if his shift and mine ended at the same time. I was not entirely sure what to do about that. Luckily the situation had not arisen so far, perhaps by some trick of Snow’s – the manager was insightful sometimes.
“It’s not safe,” he was mildly reproving. “You could be injured.”
I was not about to deny it. “Are you planning on walking Lily and Rose home, too?” I asked him.
“On nights like this, it would be wise. I will speak to Snow about it in the morning. Is it always the three of you?” he asked me.
“Mostly. The others come and go.” I hesitated on the verge of saying something but decided to leave it to Snow’s discretion. I would say something if I needed to do so. I did not fear Heath taking advantage, but rather the awkwardness turning him down might cause.
“Why is that?” He wondered.
“I guess they get better offers or take mates.”
“No, why is it always you, Lily and Rose?”
I considered it. “We need the money more than the others.”
I shot him an irritated look out of the corner of my eye. “We may work in your tavern a few nights a week, but you do not own us. You want to know about Lily and Rose’s reasons for needing money, you ask them. As to my reasons, they are my own.”
“Is there a husband at home?”
“Maybe,” I said just to spite him. “This is where I turn off,” I gestured to the road. He turned with me. I stopped. “I appreciate the concern, but this is where we go our separate ways.”
The grey-blue eyes considered me for a long moment. “You have secrets, Dahlia.”
“I’m allowed to,” I replied. “Having them doesn’t affect my performance.”
“You’re down to work tomorrow?”
“Why do you ask?” I regarded him with narrowed eyes.
“The patrons come to see you,” he replied, his eyes skimming the street, identifying the shadows. There was an alertness to him that spoke of someone well aware of danger, but not daunted by it. “The flowers of The Flowershop. Now that I am on this planet, I plan on developing my investments here and I think Snow has hit upon a recipe for success. It has appeal to my people. I want to...” his lip curled slightly in something like a sneer. “Cultivate it.”
He was a dangerous man, I thought warily. But that did not mean he was dangerous to me. “I work every second night,” I told him. “As I have a day job that pays better.”
“I will match it,” he said. “You will work every night for me, five sets, like tonight.”
“I need time off,” I pointed out. “And I can’t just do this every night.”
“It’s less than a turn of work,” he argued.
“Plus, the hours of rehearsal and planning that goes into each set,” I retorted. “I don’t just go up and do the same thing every night, the customers would get bored of that quickly. To work out a new routine, I need to plan it out and practice it. I need rest days, it’s hard on the body, and sometimes I get injured...”
“Excuses. Come back tomorrow midday, and we’ll talk about it properly.”
“Quit the other job.”
“I don’t work the other job,” I hissed out a breath. “I watch my niece whilst my sister works the job.”
“Bring her with you,” he held my eyes. “I’m serious about this, Dahlia. I like your act. I want to know what else you can do. I can make you financially comfortable if you let me.”
I blew out a breath. Financially comfortable would be a change to the norm. “Fine. Midday.”
“Thank you. I will walk you the rest of the way home. Safeguarding my interests, so to speak,” he said.
I sighed but continued to walk the three streets to my building. The buildings grew steadily worse, and mine was the worst of the lot. Windows were boarded up with whatever the tenants could find, and the rats openly scurried along the pavement out front, weaving around the weeds.
He looked at it and then me. “This won’t do,” he said.
I almost laughed. “It’s cheap and has running water.”
He was frowning. “We’ll talk about it tomorrow.”
I did not argue with him. “Good night, Mercury.”
I contemplated not correcting him, but then... “Out here, it’s Clara.”
“Clara,” he repeated, and for a moment, there was a shadow of a smile that warmed his iceberg eyes. “Goodnight, Clara.”
The front door led into a narrow hall that smelt of urine. The lights from the street fell through the empty windows, lighting the way up for me. On our floor, I unlocked the door and eased in. I locked it behind me, and propped a chair under the handle, before tiptoeing through the darkened room. I checked in the bedroom. Josie and Emma were asleep.
I went into the bathroom and stripped naked, taking the skins into the shower with me, washing them free of alcohol as I washed myself.
I hung them over the line to dry, before creeping out to my room. I crept into the makeshift bed with a sigh. Emma crawled into the bed with me a couple of hours later, her small body somehow taking up far more space than seemed right. I opened my eyes long enough to nod at Josie before falling back to sleep.
“I’m hungry,” Emma prodded me awake mid-morning.
“So am I,” I agreed. I made her breakfast in the kitchen, noting our supplies were low. I would have to add a trip to the supply queue to my list of things to do. Rent was due. I checked the tin and noted it was light. “F-k Josie,” I muttered. Hopefully, she made it through the day at her job before she went to her dealer.
I showered again, taking Emma in with me, dressed us both carefully, and packed my bag before locking the door behind us. Outside the building, Daniel leaned against the wall.
“Rent is due,” he pushed himself off the wall and followed me to the road. “You could always work it off Dahlia.”
“We’ll pay,” I told him. “When it’s due tomorrow.”
“If you’re sure,” he made a lewd gesture.
“F-k,” I muttered under my breath. Emma did not comment. She was used to this weekly interaction with Daniel, and thought nothing of it, not understanding at such a young age.
It did not take long to reach the Hunters Sector. In daylight, it was a vastly different landscape - the revellers had long gone home, the spilt blood, alcohol and piss had dried, and the ocean almost overpowered the rank smell of the refuse that lined the edges of the alleyway.
I knocked on the green door. After a moment, Heath opened it. He was red eyed and dishevelled. He stayed in one of the back rooms, I knew. I had woken him from sleep. He grinned, however, his handsome face lighting.
“Dahlia,” he said, as if delighted to find me at the door. “And the little Petal.”
Emma giggled. We had come before, to rehearse, during the day, and she had decided she would marry Heath when she grew up sufficiently. I envied her, being so sure at six what I found confronting to imagine at nineteen.
“New boss wants a chat,” I said to him.
“Ah,” he nodded, closing the door behind us. “Petal and I will do some schoolwork whilst you chat.”
“Thank you,” I said with gratitude, whilst also uncertain, as always, what obligations his generosity would cost me.
He had never asked for anything in return for his many kindnesses, but I caught him, every now and again, watching me, and knew the day would come that he would approach me.
In the tavern, the upper windows were pushed open, and the blinds lifted, letting in daylight, and trying to air out the smell of alcohol and sweat. I put my bag on my table as I passed it.
Snow and Mercury sat in the back booth, drinks before them, and a device projecting lights into the air. They shut it off as I neared and rose to their feet.
“Ah, Dahlia,” Snow greeted me warmly. It was one of the rare times that he seemed calm and collected. Perhaps the influence of the new boss. I knew Snow had been relieved when an investor had been found. “Come, join us. Would you like a drink?”
“Just water, please.”
I sat on the padded seat feeling on edge. Mercury was more intimidating in daylight. Like all the Others, he was a handsome man, with a face that caught a woman’s eye, a strong, square jaw, and high cheekbones. There were other scars, a small one dissecting his right eyebrow, and one on his neck as if someone had drawn a blade along it there. There was a scar across his earlobe - he had worn an earring there once, and it had been torn free.
“You’re wondering about my scars,” he said, spreading his hands on the table. The knuckles and fingers were covered in them, too many for me to count. “I earnt my fortune not too dissimilarly to yourself. Fighting for the entertainment of others. There’s a certain point at which the treatment for the scars is just too time consuming to maintain, and vanity takes a backseat.”
“I find it unnatural to erase scars,” I told him. “If you earn them, keep them.”
His blue-grey eyes narrowed. “Indeed.”
Snow set the water before me. “So,” he rested his hip against the table. “Mercury wants to make more of a feature of your act.”
“Do you do anything aerial?” Mercury asked.
“If the pay is right, there are a number of things I can do,” I was careful. Aerial could mean different things to different people. I was not about to risk serious injury for a few coins.
“There are rooms above the tavern which are not being used,” Mercury took a sip from his drink. “We can convert some of them into accommodation for you, and that will be included, free.”
I chewed my bottom lip. It would be nice not to have to walk the streets each way each work night. “My sister and niece live with me.”
“So, move out.”
“I can’t,” I met his eyes. His blue-grey gaze seemed to see through to my bones. I wondered how long I could keep my secrets under such scrutiny and how much I was willing to risk that he would not fire and evict me when he found out the whole truth. “My sister is... unreliable.”
“What is she addicted to?” he replied, coolly.
“Whatever she can get,” I glanced over my shoulder, but there was no sign of Heath and Emma.
He followed my gaze, a small frown pulling at his brows. “I own the building next door. We can convert accommodation there. What I have in mind,” he gestured to the open rooftop above us. There had once been an open walkway from the rooms above, but a previous occupant had filled it in with walls. “Is reopening the top level, but not for public access to the rooms, but for the ceiling space. We’ll increase the number of regular flowers on the floor, male and female, and have a proper stage for the acts here,” he slid out of the booth and paced the floor under the open area. “We’ll have a few new acts through,” he was speaking to Snow now. “And Dahlia as a regular...”
How rich was he? I wondered. I could not imagine owning one building, let alone two. What sort of person provided free accommodation for employees and their family? Nothing was ever free, Clara, I reminded myself. Was I the only employee getting that offer? What did that mean?
“So, Dahlia,” Snow looked at me. He was excited, I could see it in his eyes. “What can you do that we haven’t seen?”
“Ring, ribbon, canes, and pointe work,” I said slowly.
“Well,” Mercury slid back into the booth, and his hand brushed against mine as he reached for his drink. I was not sure if he knew what any of those things were. “Let’s discuss what we need to build in for those.”
We spent an hour going over what was needed for the act. “As well as accommodation,” I decided to push the subject of pay. “What do I get in return for the increased risk and work?”
“Medical care, of course,” Mercury considered me, he did not fidget, like most people when they were deep in thought, but sat completely still, his hands palm down on the tabletop. I wondered if he had trained himself to do so. I knew gamblers who trained themselves out of tells. “For you and your family. Accommodation. All costume and clothing requirements. A paid childminder for your niece. And...” he slid the device over to me. The numbers were impressive. I glanced up at him, frowning; what did he expect, for what he was offering? “Do we have an arrangement?” he asked.
“I don’t sleep with customers,” I decided to say it outright, “staff or employers.”
There was the slightest eye movement. “I am not paying you to provide extra services, if that is what you are thinking.”
I breathed out. It was generous. “Alright.” What was there to lose, after all?