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.
Nathanius observed the street from his perch on the wagon. She wasn’t wrong.
“It grows on you.”
Asterious’s muffled voice piped up from inside the wagon.
“I think it’s refreshing.”
“You can’t even see it.”
“Only because you’re hogging the window.”
Nathanius thumped his fist on the roof.
“I swear, I will turn this thing around if you don’t quiet down. We’re almost there.”
Asterious pushed Ellyn out of the way. His face appeared in the tiny window of the carriage.
“Your friends’ place?”
Nathanius shook his head.
“No. We’re going to drop Eldra off first.”
“That’s very considerate of you.”
“I aim to please.”
Ellyn’s muffled voice answered from inside the wagon.
“You just want to be able to say the Blind-Deaf Ladies owe you a favour when we see your mafia creditors.”
Nathanius clicked his fingers.
“That too. You don’t mind. Do you, Eldra?”
“I suppose it’s only fair. They should be pleased. I’m more than a month late. By now they probably believe that I am dead.”
Nathanius kept his eyes on the road. He was indeed hoping for a reward. An favour of the Blind-Deaf Ladies would go a long way toward squaring things with the Jaspers.
Eldra had opened up quite a bit during their journey. She seemed to have taken a particular interest in Asterious. Birds of a feather, perhaps, but something about her curiosity suggested a deeper intrigue than simple human fellowship. For his part, Asterious had been strangely tight-lipped, an oddity given his habit of yammering away about whatever happened to cross his mind. She kept asking about his past in subtle ways. He never replied, at least not in earnest.
At first Nathanius assumed he just didn’t care to reminisce. A man of the moment, so to speak. He certainly acted like it. But the more that he listened to the two of them, the more he began to realize there was something very intentional about the brash human’s evasions; and despite the coy veneer that she displayed, he’d begun to suspect that Eldra’s questions concealed a purpose that was as specific as it was hidden.
They were depending on her. It was best not to rock the boat, but as before, the ground beneath them was unsteady. Like a sheet of new ice, it was not to be trusted…even as it bore you up.
The wagon slogged through the mud and slush that filled the road. It was worse this year than the last. Winter had come early. It seemed to come earlier every season. Already the windows of the shops and merchants stalls were showing signs of the coming barricade. Beggars and vagrants who knew their time was soon to come had already begun to form gangs.
Time was short.
He cracked the reins.
Nathanius smiled. He had never met the Dominaa of Selapak. He didn’t have that kind of money, but something about the woman who came bouncing toward them as they came through the door immediately washed away lingering dour thoughts.
She was tall, with a bright face and a cascade of sandy-blonde hair that spilled down over postured shoulders to meet an ample bust, borne aloft by a bright red and gold corset. Her dress was a calf-length dancing dress in bright red, embroidered with a pattern of black and gold.
Her voice sounded like daylight and white wine.
Nathanius had to stop himself staring, though he seriously doubted that she would take offense. The leader of the Blind-Deaf Ladies was known to possess provocative attitude alongside her genteel intellect. It was a combination that Nathanius found irresistible.
As surely uttered every man to ever cross her path.
He did his best to bow in his ragged furs, suddenly feeling exceptionally low as she swept in and drew Eldra up into a hug that lifted her off the ground.
“We thought we’d lost you.”
Eldra smiled awkwardly and curtsied after her mistress set her down.
“You very nearly did. Macara stopped my caravan on the trail. It was this man and his friends who helped me to escape.”
Nathanius kept his bow, praying that behind him Asterious and Ellyn would have the good sense to stay quiet and let him do the talking. The dominaa turned and quietly came toward them. Nathanius waited. He expected her to keep her distance. They were hardly presentable after all. His heart skipped a beat when she took his head by the cheek and lifted him up into a tight embrace. She repeated the gesture to each of Ellyn and Asterious.
“I don’t know what to say. My girls and boys mean everything to me.”
It was Asterious who answered.
“It was our pleasure, ma’am.”
Nathanius winced. Luckily she took it in good spirits.
“That’s mistress to you, young man. And I can’t thank the three of you enough for putting yourself at risk.”
Asterious bowed low.
“Apologies, Mistress. And it was the least we could do.”
She looked at him with a coy smile.
“Well, aren’t you the noble sort?”
He smiled and looked up.
She clapped him on the shoulder.
“Well, would the nobleman like a noble bath and something to drink?”
Nathanius turned to face them.
“We would be grateful, Mistress.”
She turned and paused.
“You do the talking?”
He gave a half-bow.
She bobbed her head back at Asterious and smiled.
“He’s doing a fine job. Maybe you should take a break.”
There was nothing disparaging in her tone. Her good-humour was irrepressible. Nathanius bowed again and smiled, utterly disarmed.
She led them through into the club. The House of the Red Silk Curtains was well known in Selapak, though precious few could afford to venture inside. It was the preferred respite for the city by the lake’s most wealthy and influential patrons. To be brought in as a guest was a rare gift.
The foyer opened to a broad entry hall, with double-doors fixed with glass leading out into a variety of lounges and concert halls. Nathanius could hear music: strings, winds, piano and voice. They whispered through the thick wooden doors and out into the corridor, which was padded with woollen carpet dyed red.
The dominaa kept talking as they walked.
“The baths are through here, in back. My staff will take your boots and clothes. We might have some hand-me-downs that will fit you, and we’ll wash the rest. If you have any weapons they’ll be kept at the front desk. Will you three be bathing together?”
The dominaa turned her head and regarded Ellyn briefly. Ellyn flinched. Nathanius tried to keep a straight face, though he felt a pang of sympathy for her. It was impossible to disguise the marring of her voice, and it was the first introduction any person ever had of her. The dominaa moved on promptly.
“Some company then for any of you? Compliments of the house.”
Nathanius started to answer. He didn’t enjoy refusing her, but the less that the dominaa felt her debt had been paid, the better.
Asterious interjected before he could respond.
“We’d be quite a sight for your staff, mistress. Perhaps just some soap and hot water.”
Nathanius thanked his lucky stars for whatever whim or moral had driven the man to decline.
“It’s no trouble. It would be our pleasure to care for you.”
Nathanius cut in, unwilling to press his luck. He shook his head with as much grace as he could summon.
“All the same, mistress.”
A flicker of understanding glinted briefly in her eyes. He wasn’t surprised. A woman in charge of an organization as influential as the Blind-Deaf Ladies would easily see through to his intent. Fortunately she didn’t seem offended by it.
She clucked her tongue in her cheek.
“Shame. Some wine then?”
The dominaa left them in the front room of the baths, promising to check on them after attending to other work. She escorted Ellyn to another room. Her staff arrived with the wine and helped them disrobe. Within minutes they were immersed in a bath of hot perfumed water, sipping from real stemmed glasses and feeling all but dipped in the essence of joy itself.
Asterious laid back against the stones that lined the pool.
“How do you figure a woman like that ends up in a place like this?”
Nathanius sipped his wine.
“Who knows. She doesn’t seem like a criminal. Maybe she made someone angry?”
Asterious shot him an incredulous look.
Nathanius shrugged, practically dissolving into the water. He’d never felt so relaxed in his life.
“I guess not.”
Asterious grabbed a brush and began scrubbing himself off.
“Think she’ll help us?”
Nathanius lay back and sipped his wine, feeling the heat.
“I hope so.”
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