Part 17 – Everybody Lives
‘That,’ said the man, ‘Is a thong and a garter. The tools of my trade.’
Jala picked up the objects. She had held larger seeds. She looked from the scrunched fabric to the optimistic face of her potential employer.
‘So,’ she said eventually, ‘You want me to display myself?’
She stared at him.
‘It pays well, if you’re good.’
‘What did you say your name was?’
‘Sequious. Mr Ovith Barquock Sequious. A great pleasure to meet someone as striking as yourself.’
Sequious bowed his head slightly. Jala’s hand twitched. When his head rose again she had put on her least threatening smile.
‘Well,’ she said, ‘How could a girl say no?’
Kru’s city was like her child. Not literally, those whelps could go hang for all she cared (in fact, one had, by her hand).
What do-gooders and idealists never understood was that the shadowy organisations who ruled over the lives of the many did so for the greater good. Ends justify the means, and an absolute, objective morality was about as practical as a chocolate arsehole. Kru loved this land unconditionally, its successes were a reflection of her, and so she wanted it to prosper. That this generally brought happiness and well-being to the inhabitants was merely a convenient by-product.
Not one of them would be able to point her out in a crowd. She could, for someone so striking, be difficult to recollect precisely. Despite this, she had many lovers, but she also had many enemies. The Venn diagram of these was a tad embarrassing. It also meant that there were quite a few people with the potential to find and trap her like this. She was fairly certain she would have remembered her captor, had she seen them before. This led her to conclude that either she was working for someone else, or she was capable of similarly powerful magic to Kru.
Kru really, really hoped it was the former. She knew of no-one approaching her equal left alive in these lands – though admittedly she had been out of the picture for a while – so the potential for it to be a stranger was troubling. They could well have her at a disadvantage, knowing the limits of her power as she remained ignorant of theirs. She was relying on Marek telling her something, anything that could improve her situation.
She, Kru Nak To, was relying on a stoat.
How times had changed.
As if in answer to her cynicism, Marek limped back into the room, squeaking feebly, before settling himself in the corner and doing a big shit.
“Can’t do stairs,” he explained. Kru forbade him from hiding in her dress.
In hindsight, she thought, it might have been a mistake to wish for a minor accident to befall him.
There were two options left to her: to wait and see how things panned out, or to do something very, very drastic.
The outside of the building advertised it as a bathhouse. Inside, however, no plumbing could be found (There was a well out back, apparently). The main room was long and low ceiling, with timber supports at a good height for Jala to hit her head. At the far end was a small platform, almost like a gibbet without the overhanging beam. To the side were numerous small rooms, often containing a single stool, and something to sit on.
There was a room behind the stage. In it were four women, listlessly applying make-up and squeezing themselves into view on the small, cracked mirror-glass that hung slovenly against the wall. They noticed Jala being led into the room and sized her up. The pouting one dismissed her instantly, but the dark-skinned woman, bronze rings binding her strangely long neck, offered a smile. The tall blonde one waved. The short brown-haired girl offered a hand in greeting. A friendly group, they took Jala in and asked her what her act would be. The pouting one, it turned out, was mute. She could not tell them her name.
‘I haven’t decided,’ said Jala, ‘I’m not really sure I want to do this.’
‘That’s how we all felt,’ said Krista, the blonde woman. ‘After the first time, it got easier. Not, y’know, easy, but easier.’
‘Some nights it’s fun,’ said Altryz. She had been a Gombodian priestess, but bandits had dragged her across the seas and into servitude. Relatively speaking, she was better off than she had been in a long time.
Satra, a slight, pretty girl from the villages on the other side of the mountains, said nothing.
‘Wait til you see her dance,’ said the others, ‘She’s got them then.’ Satra blushed, and mumbled something inaudible.
Jala waited. There didn’t seem to be much else to do.
Sequious waited by the door, eyeing them and the customers up. Jala suspected the grease on his body would be enough to maintain the hinges on these doors for decades.
‘Not changing?’ he asked her.
‘Not yet,’ she replied. ‘A slow removal of clothing, perhaps, might be the way to proceed?’
Sequious giggled, then clapped. ‘Yes. Oh yes,’ he said. ‘Tantalise them. And me, of course. You will be on third this evening, after Altryz.’
‘Am I last?’
Satra’s voice barely carried to the doorway. Sequious’ face creased as he tried to work out what had been said.
‘Yes,’ he said, breaking into a smile as it clicked, ‘Yes, of course. As always. Keep the best til last.’
He turned to Jala.
‘You may have to go into one of the booths when Satra is on,’ he said, ‘I hope so. It means they like what they see.’
The next half an hour was one of the longest of Jala’s life. She tried to summon up the part of herself that let her deal with situations such as this, and found it tired and unwilling after her trip through the mines. She barely noticed as she walked on stage, an encouraging whisper (probably) from Satra as she left, and a wink from Krista as she was led into one of the side rooms of the hall.
The stink of beer, sweat, and…yes, other fluids pervaded the bathhouse. Jala tensed as she surveyed the room. Men of all ages, sizes and colours filled the room. Two women, at the back, in deep hoods, not wanting to be obvious. Then, at the side of the stage, grinning hugely, was Sequious. He was shouting to the audience, building them up, encouraging their lusts and imaginations. A huge bellied man with a moustache like a lazy bat slapped his thigh in anticipation. It kept moving.
She heard her name being hollered, and it was then that the lust consumed her too.
Jala undid the clasps on her jerkin slowly, ignoring the hooting and the lobbed tankard that ensued. She turned around, her back to the audience, and continued. She caught Sequious’ eye. He looked back, not trying to hide his arousal.
Jala danced. Jala spun. Jala cut his purse, balls, and bulb off with her knife. He screamed, and then passed out.
The mustachioed man was pinned to the bench, and the rakish scholar had his palm broken through. Limbs were slashed at, muscles snapped, and blood spilled across the bathhouse floor like dirty water.
A tiny, tremulous voice interrupted the silence that followed.
‘Does this mean I’m not going to be dancing?’ asked Satra.
‘You can if you like,’ said Jala, ‘I don’t know if anyone’s in the mood to appreciate it.’
The booth doors opened. Krista, Altryz and Nameless stood agog as their customers ran for it.
‘Holy fuck,’ said Krista.
‘What have you done?’ said Altryz.
Nameless said nothing, but her eyes widened. She ran to the final door on the left side of the hall, and emerged with heavy looking bags of coin, before running back to the changing room.
‘You’re free to go now,’ said Jala.
Altryz glared at her, and walked back to the changing rooms. Krista headed for the cash, stopping only to hug Jala. When she let go, her skin was speckled with crimson. She returned fully clothed and grinning, saying that Sequious had been cleaned out.
That left only Satra.
Satra stood crying behind Jala. The warrior walked closer to hear her murmurs better.
‘…my baby…’ she said. ‘How…how will I…?’
Jala felt the weight of the purse in her hand.
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