“The Hard Sell”
Written by Aaron McQueen
Illustrated by Rachel Mrotek
Copyright October 24th, 2017
This story is dedicated to my family, my friends, and my most generous subscribers, whom I have listed below. Without their help, support, and contributions, this production would not be possible.
Ellyn lay in the water, smelling the fragrant salts and spices they’d added to the bath. Her body eased. It was a feeling she’d been sure she’d left behind. After today it didn’t seem likely she’d enjoy it again. It was the calm that came before the storm, and despite her efforts to forget her troubles with assistance of soft soap and sweet wine, her thoughts were clouded by images of shadowy figures in skull-like masks and all the other horrors of the long dark.
Kalkonu. The gloom of the place had infected her. It was enough to bring tears to her eyes, except that in her prolonged despair her heart had all but dried of tears. One could hardly feel grief over a loss that was so…permanent.
She didn’t even hear the door open.
Her trance was broken by the sound of the water being disturbed. She leaned up, covering herself as the tall form of the dominaa stepped out of the steam that enrobed the bath.
Ellyn had never been intimidated by the bodies of other women. In its own sickening, sordid fashion, the time she spent in her master’s house had at least cured her of any physical insecurity. Nevertheless, the unclothed form of the mistress of the blind-deaf ladies made her feel like a child.
The dominaa slipped down into the water with a discreet nod and a warm smile.
“My staff said you were still in here. Your friends have gone to bed.”
Ellyn felt suddenly nervous.
“I didn’t mean to impose.”
The woman shook her head.
“I’m the one who’s imposing. I like to sneak a bath at the end of the day after the guests take to sleep, and I was hoping you and I might have time to talk.”
Ellyn settled slowly back into her seat. The bath was made from smooth grey stone, heated from underneath by some kind of enchantment. She could see the hot glow in the deep water at the centre of the bath.
“What do you want to talk about?”
The dominaa slid across the stones to sit beside her.
“Eldra told me about what you did.”
“It was you who convinced the others to go back for her. She also told me you are a musician, and suggested that I should offer you a place here.”
Ellyn was taken aback. She knew the reputation of the Blind-Deaf Ladies was exaggerated, at least to a point, and of course the dominaa meant any offense. If anything she probably considered the offer to be an honour.
Plus, they needed her help.
Ellyn did her best to be diplomatic. She shook her head.
“I don’t think so.”
The dominaa smiled.
“I know it’s not for everyone, but don’t answer right away. I know what people think, but it’s a life, and it’s family, and it’s a home.”
Ellyn answered glumly.
“I don’t suppose you can fix my voice.”
The dominaa shook her head.
“I’ve heard of spells that might be capable of it, but there hasn’t been magic like that in Selapak for a long time.”
“Are there no sorcerers here?”
The kind of magic you need doesn’t come from sorcerers. It’s practiced by naturists.”
“Elusive societies of Faylene magic. But they all left the city a long time ago.”
They sat in silence for some time before the dominaa spoke again.
“If I may say, you seem to be burdened by more than woes than your wound. It might help you to talk about them with someone…with someone who wouldn’t judge you.”
“I don’t know if I’m ready to do that.”
The dominaa leaned back.
“You don’t have to.”
“I wouldn’t even know what to say.”
The dominaa reached up and flicked her finger against a bell on the wall. It chimed softly. A young man in a breechcloth appeared a moment later with a fresh bottle of wine and new glasses. He bore the same tattoos as the rest of the staff, and disappeared as quietly as he’d come.
Ellyn gave a questioning look.
“How did he know what to bring?”
The dominaa smiled.
“He is very well trained.”
Ellyn lifted her eyebrows. The dominaa laughed and poured them each a glass.
“I’ll start.” she said. “My name is Bridgette. Yours is Ellyn. Is that right?”
Ellyn reached forward and took her glass.
“How did you know?”
“Your friends told me. I visited with them earlier. They seem like good men.”
“Asterious is a good man. I don’t know about Nathanius. He’s…”
The domina nodded.
“I know, but he has a good heart.”
Ellyn sipped her wine.
“How do you know?”
“It’s a gift. They’re both grateful to know you.”
Ellyn lifted an eyebrow.
“Did they say that?”
The dominaa shook her head.
“No, but it’s easy to see. I think you give them hope. Maybe they do the same for you?”
Ellyn offered a forlorn laugh.
“It’s not always easy to understand.”
Ellyn shook her head and pulled her knees up to her chest.
“There is no hope here.”
The dominaa came closer and put an arm gently around her shoulders.
“Of course there is.”
“I can’t see it.”
She gave her a little shake.
“You have to look for it. It never wanders far. Search for it in the familiar places. You can always find it nearby.”
“I heard about your music. You shared something beautiful, and for a moment everyone who heard it remembered what it was like to be away from this place.”
Ellyn looked up. The dominaa pressed a finger to her chest.
Something stirred. Ellyn felt her throat begin to close. Like all the other times she’d felt it she tried to force it back down into her chest, but it was no use. Maybe it was the wine, or the water, or this woman, but the feeling spread to her belly and her arms and her eyes until finally all the grief and pain she’d felt since the first sting of the knife inside her mouth came pouring out.
Bawling, she pressed her face into the dominaa’s shoulder, wet soft skin against biting salt tears. Her mouth could hardly form the words:
Her parents. Her home. Her whole life and all the joy and hope she ever knew.
Hope for the future.
The joy of song.
She would never know them again.
And the fault! It was hers. Even now she couldn’t force herself to believe that she was just a victim. The truth raged upon her even as she wept.
Blame. Ambition. Pride.
Who was she to be prideful in this state? Who was she to have been prideful ever?
The soft touch of the woman beside her and the firmness of her embrace drew the veil inexorably aside and all the loathing and regret spumed forth like a torrent of black water. She was swept away in it; for how long, she would never fully know. The dominaa simply held her close, whispering comfort. When it was over she let her go and took her leave.
The next day began late in the morning. This close to the night there were only a few fleeting hours of light each day, but the dominaa’s cheerful smile as she examined each of them in their new warm clothes and coats brought a ray of good sun piercing down through the clouds. It even put a spring in Nathanius’s normally cautious steps.
She saw them to the door.
“I only wish we could do more for you. Did you get enough coffee?”
Asterious spun a hatchet over in the air and stuck it in his belt.
“Your generosity has been more than anyone could expect. Thank you, mistress.”
Ellyn watched him. His cheer was genuine. It was always surprising to see. Her own feelings hadn’t changed at all; nor had her troubles, but for some reason she couldn’t quite define, her time spent with the dominaa had indeed lifted her spirits, if only by a small amount.
Nathanius climbed up to the driver’s perch. Asterious helped Ellyn into the wagon. The animals snuffled and pawed, puffing clouds of hot breath into the frigid morning air, eager to be under way.
Nathanius took up the reins.
The dominaa put up a hand.
One of her staff produced a smooth red scarf with a knot of burnished gold twisted around the middle. She handed it to Ellyn.
“This is a favour of the blind-deaf ladies. I hope it helps you.”
Ellyn bowed her head.
“Thank you, mistress.”
“Think about what I said.”
Ellyn shook her head.
“I don’t think I’m going to change my mind. I’m not ready to come here. Not yet.”
The dominaa raised an eyebrow and slipped a scrunched up grin.
Ellyn smiled back in spite of herself.
“Perhaps a little.”
The dominaa kissed her cheek.
“Sometimes a little is all you need.”
She stepped away.
Nathanius cracked the reins. The animals brayed, the axles groaned, the wheels creaked and the wagon rolled away.
Special Thanks To: