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“Girl child, this is the third day in a row I’ve caught you passing by here.” I was helping some of the attendants plan out the rows for the fall herbs when I spotted her. She came to a full stop on her bicycle, touching one ankle booted toe to the smoothed over cobblestones.
I had her pegged for some manner of nobility or another right away. Being able to spot big spenders or potential customers comes with the job. I couldn’t place her school uniform, though, and the lapse in memory nagged at me. After the seventh or eighth time she had hovered by the outer gate of the manor house, I finally realized she was from the very best of the private schools crouching along the edge of the Oslo Plaza just the other side of the highway. Every one of those uniforms carried money in their pockets, and everyone in the Garden knew them on sight. She wasn’t wearing the usual girl’s uniform, however, with its lace-trimmed pinafore and a thousand layers of petticoat flaring out toward the knee like a particularly delicate mushroom. It was the gray twill jacket and vest of the boys’ uniform with a long skirt instead of pants. I didn’t blame her for choosing the one over the other, but it was of particular note that she was able to get away with it. Worth further investigation, at least.
“What are you doing loitering in a place like this?” I talked to her over the chest high fence surrounding the estate.
She didn’t hesitate.
“It’s the fastest route between my school and my house. The Plaza Line swings through Uptown and takes forever. It’s easier to get off at the station near the Barstow building, bike across the bridge, and pick up the Starlight Line.”
“That’s not a very good excuse.”
She made a pretty little crinkle between her light brown, bottlebrush eyebrows. Up close she was really a rather cute kid.
“It’s the truth.”
“Of course it’s the truth. But there’s a reason the tram lines go out of their way to avoid the Flower Garden, and all the good little boys and girls know that.” If I was lucky, I could gently shoo her away but not leave a bad taste in her mouth. We really didn’t need minors hanging around. Their money was good after they turned eighteen, however,
The straight line of her mouth flicked into a smirk that glinted with a flash of metal. “Well, perhaps I’m not a good little girl.”
I tilted my head at her. “Say that to me with your braces off, and I might believe you.”
She pursed her lips together to cover them.
“But if you could, please, share what brings you by so often.”
She rocked back on her bike a few clicks. “I was just…bored, and I figured a row of brothels during the day couldn’t get me in too much trouble. Then I saw a bunch of hotties working in a garden, and I thought I deserved a little eye candy ever so often.” I leaned forward against the bars of the fence a little.
“We’re not really for your eyes, lovely. We cater pretty much just to other men. The yellow-roofed place down a ways might be more your speed.”
“Oh I’ve been informed of all these things.” She looked off a bit. “I turn eighteen next week. Perhaps, I’ll consider it.” I tweaked a strand of her hair behind her ear.
“Just make sure you go without the uniform.”
It was a little while before I saw her again, and she wasn’t in uniform, which was good. It would have been better if she wasn’t sitting in my parlor, though.
I had worked my way up to the second nicest appointment and taken great pains to make the place seem softer and cozier than it actually was. Red-orange curtains to block out an afternoon exposure. Some watercolor landscapes painted by one of my co-workers during their sunset phase. Extra-long scarves hung in a canopy around the bed where the bulk of business took place. It was industry standard not to use a bedframe, but we lifted our mattresses with wooden pallets that we hid underneath swaths of cheap broadcloth that looked more expensive than they were. There were no chairs or tables, nothing a client could pick up or throw in a fit of rage or passion. Nothing to be tied or manacled to that we didn’t know how to get out of should it become an issue, so that left large cushions and spongy rugs. I had acquired myself a round ottoman topped with a light serving tray to use has a low table, but it was so heavy it could only barely be scooted across the floor. My new little client had done just that of her own accord.
In it’s place, there was a big wooden block painted with a grid of tiny squares and two bowls of flat-bottomed pebbles: one in black, one in white. It looked like a Stones and Quarters gameboard, but it was too big for a two player game and too small for a four player one.
“I do believe I told you that we serve an exclusively male clientele.” I flicked my fan at her in annoyance. She stayed sitting cross-legged on the floor before her tiny table as comfortable as can be, sipping on a colorful drink that must have been served to her by one of the attendants.
“I’ve made friends with your madame, and he let me buy an hour of your time as long as it wasn’t during peak hours. So, sit and play with me. You were expensive.”
Well, of course, if she paid, I couldn’t refuse, no matter how strange the circumstances. I needed the money. I kneeled on one of the silk pillows at my side of the table.
“So, this looks like Stones and Quarters, but not quite,” I observed idly.
She set the cup of white marbles in front of me. “It’s from the world I grew up on, and it’s what Stones is based off of. The two player game is pretty much identical. Bigger board, mostly.”
I stirred my finger in the marbles. “And you assume I know how to play Stones.”
She took a sip of her drink and peered at me with dark eyes over the rim of her glass. “My sources say that you won the Tomar-wide competition three of the past five years.”
I squinted my eyes at her.“They’ve been telling my secrets down at the Yellow Roof.”
“Unless there’s another ‘tall, pretty, black-haired one.’”
I spread the little marbles out in front of me and touched my fingers over them. “Lulu said I was pretty?”
“No, she said your makeup was too heavy for a man, and you spend too much time on your fingernails.”
I frowned down at the gold and red marbling on my nails. My look brought in patrons, and giving myself and the others manicures kept me sane. It wasn’t as though I cared much beyond that. “But, I do think you’re pretty, though, so…”
“You already bought me, darling, you don’t have to flatter me, too.”
She smiled, then nodded at the marbles. “You’re white, you make the first move.”
It took a few moves to determine the slight change in strategy from the game I was used to, but I’m fortunate to be of the sort that learns quickly. She started off strong, but I managed to overtake her in a fairly short time. When the score was tallied at the end of the hour, my victory was almost embarrassing. One can never be exactly sure how a client will react in certain situations, but, with a smile on her face, she packed up her kit, gave me a little half-wave, and vaguely insinuated that she would be dropping by again. And she did. Once a week. Always with an hour pre-paid and always with her board. Each time she got a little better. Then, just as winter was trickling into spring, she beat me. Just barely.
Our games were getting longer so she had started buying an extra hour, and we had fifteen minutes left. She stared at the scoresheet, redoing the math in her head for what was probably the fourth time.
“I won,” she said quietly. I glanced over at the timer, and started gathering the marbles together. We didn’t usually have this much dead time, and I wasn’t entirely sure how to entertain her.
“It took you long enough.”
She tapped the pencil against the paper.
“Before I came here the first time, I went to the Yellow Roof like you had suggested and engaged one of their escorts. This escort, I had just found out from one of the attendants, was fairly good at chess. So, when we were finished with-you know-business there was time to spare, so I requested a game. He brought out his board, and we played. And I won. Hands down. And here’s the thing,” she paused and looked up at me, shoulders ever so slightly forward, “I’m terrible at chess. Just, awful.”
“Beginner’s luck,” I mused, pouring her another cup of tea. He had probably let her win, though.
“No. He let me win,” she replied. Smart one. She chewed on the end of her pencil. I hadn’t noticed until now that her braces were off. When had that happened? “And I know why he did it. Conceptually, I get it, but it led me to wonder why you didn’t do the same thing.”
I tsked at her.
“You came to me with the assumption that I would be good at this little game of yours. I’m not about to disappoint a customer. I’m actually a bit proud that you’ve gotten so much better.”
She gestured with her glass.
“That’s a slightly more genuine sentiment than I expected.”
“Oh, that’s me: hooker with a heart of gold.”
She smirked and looked away.
“And I am just that, you know, darling.”
She looked back at me confused.
“A pleasurecrafter. A hooker. A prostitute. A gigolo. A rent-boy. And you’ve spent one to two hours a week here for the last half a year. The allowance mommy and daddy give you wasn’t meant for this sort of thing.” She cringed on “mommy and daddy.” I tapped her lightly on the nose. “Why come here so religiously?”
She pondered for half a second. “I wanted to win. I wanted to beat you. And now that I have, I don’t totally know what to do with myself.” She rubbed the back of her neck. The wandering cloudiness of a person without purpose settled in around here. I had seen it time and time again in clients whose post-coital guilt made them restless. This was not a good place for her. This needed to stop. I sighed.
“I could have let you win the first time out; I considered it. But then I thought, ‘Why not get some extra cash from the little rich girl.’ I knew as long as you kept losing, you’d keep coming back, purse in hand. Good to see that my natural wiles are still sharp as ever after all these years.”
“Are you about to tell me that you finally let me win?”
“Maybe,” I lied. She had won fair and square, but a little misgiving went a long way. “Perhaps it’s best, I began to think, that you weren’t a customer any longer.”
“Pol-len, what are you trying to get at?”
I stopped myself just short of flinching at the sound of my name. She had never actually addressed me by it before. I wasn’t even sure if she knew it. Why was she choosing now, of all times, to say it aloud? Desperation? Uncertainty?
“You need to stop coming here, darling. You’re a smart, pretty girl with a whole big wide world to conquer. It’s exam season. Don’t waste your time at a place like this.”
“Turning away a well-paying customer. Is that sincerity or your ‘natural wiles?’”
“My job done well is a perfect blend of both. Sometimes even I’m not so sure of it myself.” There was a ding. That was the end of the hour. Silently, she stood, picked up her board, and started toward the door. She paused.
“Did I ever actually tell you my name?”
“No.” But I knew it was Gwendolyn. The madame had told me. Gwendolyn tapped her fingers on the door frame. Then she walked out.
A year passed. A year’s worth of rouge and nail lacquer, of money pressed into sweaty palms, of men coming in and out of my den. I woke up one crisp, spring morning to a piece of paper sitting on the ottomon in my parlor. A recruitment offer for a private concubinage, the sort of place that was in the business of buying people like me permanently.
“What is this?” I dropped the paper down on the desk in the madame’s office. I wasn’t angry. Just confused. Was he trying to get rid of me?
He looked up from the small piles of paperwork spread out over the old wooden desk, and pushed his reading glasses up of his nose and onto the top of his forehead. He had been at this game for a long time and it showed in his graying temples and fine crows feet. He had been supremely handsome once, but this wasn’t a kind industry.
“Every time she has a slot open, she makes a recruitment swing through the area. She happened to drop by, and I gave her your name. She seemed incredibly interested, and she’s willing to come back this evening to give you more details if you’re curious. She said she’d even buy out your current contract.”
“Are you really okay with something like this?” I had been at this brothel since I was a teenager. It had been my home and place of work for almost ten years.
“Okay with losing one of my top sellers? No. Not particularly. But you’re getting old, Honey Pot.”
“Oh, thanks, papa.”
“You know what I mean. You’re closer to thirty than twenty, and you know what’s it’s like in our branch of the profession in particular. You’re marketability is taking a plummet.”
I knew this harsh information, of course, and I was sure my consternation with it was showing in my face.
His voice went low. “This estate has a great reputation among its personal staff. They’re in Illuria, and sex work there is considered a high class service sector job. They treat their courtesans well. You’d be part of a private collection: nice quarters, nice clothes, and a limited clientele hand-picked by the master. They do fair contracts and pay a good wage. You can sign on for a year, then never look back, if you want. it’s a chance you might not get again, and you need to consider it. As a friend, not an employee.”
That evening a smartly dressed woman who had managed to wrap her fluffy long black hair into a bun sat at my table and scanned my room with flickering eyes while I poured over the details of the contract she had brought with her. What I was being promised was, indeed, pretty spectacular. Almost too good to be true. Which it why it was extra suspicious that the name of the estate–what Earldom or Duchy I would be employed by–had been left off.
“I know,” the woman, Aveline, sighed. “It’s a security issue. At this stage, we discuss a provisional contract, what we’re willing to offer. Then, if based on that information you’re still interested, we do a background check. Investigate of all your previous clients, any criminal record, employment history, family, that sort of thing. Then we’ll come out with the full contract that we consider your official hire documentation. It might seem a bit excessive, but-”
“No, I understand.” This was a powerful estate. The bigger they were, the more hoops they constructed. I wasn’t terribly sure I was of high enough quality merchandise for such a place, to be honest.
“Look,” Aveline moved from a stiff business-like posture to leaning over the ottoman we were using as a table. Frank, casual. “I’m not a negotiator, but I insisted I be the one to come down and make this happen. I grew up in a brothel. I know what it’s like, I know you want out, and, guess what, I can give it to you.” She paused, then sighed. “This isn’t a normal recruitment run. I was sent to get you, specifically. They’ve already run the background check, and you’ve been cleared. I’ve got a blank check and full reign to do what I need to do to bring you on board. Because, you’re coming with me at some point. Maybe not tonight, maybe you need to think on it a bit, but you can’t stop this.”
I set the contract down and leaned back just a little against the pillows. “Why all…this…for my sake?”
“Will you accept, ‘it’s complicated’ for an answer? She has an image she’s trying to form and-”
“Damn, it’s Gwendolyn, isn’t it?” That was the only “she” I really knew, and the only person in recent memory that would take something this far. Aveline’s face revealed that I was right. “I tell that girl that she shouldn’t be wasting her life here, and I thought she had taken my advice to heart. Did she inherit the estate, so now she wants to bring the brothel to her?”
“Is this where she kept disappearing to last year? I could kill her.” Aveline ran her hands down her face just a moment. “She told me she wanted to recruit you because she read about a pleasurecrafter winning the Stones and Quarters championship again this year, and that’s the sort of person she wanted on her staff. But, obviously, that’s only a partial truth. So, what did you do to her to make her so impressed with your skills because it’s not like she’s talking to me about it. It’s a pain in the ass to build out a harem for someone who’s apathetic, at best, about sex.”
This was more candid than I expected, and I eyed her cautiously.
“All we ever did was play her weird Stones and Quarters variant.”
Aveline stared at me. “The older she gets the less I understand her,” she said, more to herself than to me, I think. “Well, it’s not my job to question her motivations, just to get her what she wants. So, are you in or out?”
“I feel like I want to speak with her.” I was hesitant to make such a request, but there were suddenly a lot of variables at play. I actually knew this girl and not in the way I knew my other clients. Had the circumstances been different, we had the potential to maybe have been friends. Aveline pulled a sealed envelope from her handbag.
“She wrote this for your eyes only. I was going to save it for if you were being particularly obstinate, but now seems as good a time as any.” I slid my thumb under the seal and unfolded the thin paper. There were five lines of curly, feminine writing.
Pol, just stopping being stubborn and come work for me. There’s a big wide world out there, and I need just the right people on board to help me conquer it.
P.S. We have 173 different kinds of nail polish in the manicure cabinet, and you can use as much as you want.
I folded the note and tucked it into my pocket.