Chapter One : The Velvet Court
The prostitute had clearly never been asked to do what Jason Remerley had requested, and her eyes were wide. Slowly she extended her hands, palms up.
“Turn them over, please,” Jason said.
She did so. Nerves or no nerves, the girls of the Velvet Court were well trained and would not dream of refusing most commands. Her skin was smooth and creamy and unmarked.
Jason pointed towards the window. “I’d like you closer to the sunlight now.”
“Yes, sir.” She moved to where he indicated.
“Open your mouth wide, if you would.”
She obeyed, seeming to be a little more comfortable now. That was clearly something she’d heard before. He bent his head to inspect the inside of her mouth, then took a bottle of rubbing alcohol and a linen cloth from his pockets.
“What’s them for, sir?”
“To make sure everything’s as clean as possible,” Jason said as he scrubbed his fingers. They tingled from the astringent bite of the liquid when he touched her neck beneath the jaw, gently feeling for the glands there. Not swollen, so she’d passed all the health tests except the final one. Scouring his hands again, he cleared his throat.
“Would you please lift your skirt and open your legs?” No matter how many times he made that request, he always felt a little uncomfortable about it.
The prostitute was clearly on familiar ground, though, and she lay across her bed at once, spreading her folds with her fingers at his direction. Jason took a close look and stepped back.
“Good,” he said.
When she smiled, it was clear how young she was, and he wondered how much longer she would remain in health. Not much he could do about that, so he left her room and heard the door close softly behind him. The room was halfway down a long corridor on the house’s upper floor, with the madam’s study at the end.
Jason knocked at the study door and was admitted. Mary Falikou had already filled out her half of the clearance forms, so he took a seat on the other side of her desk and scribbled a signature across the first document.
“I have to note,” he said, “that six of your in-house employees were absent.”
Her lips tightened. “They have the seasonal fever. A lot of people do. I gave them time away from my clients so they could recover.”
“That is to your credit,” Jason said without looking up from his work, “but I still note that six of your employees have not been examined. Your establishment passes—conditionally. Within three months, I’ll return to make certain the condition has been met.” He would have sent another inspector, but Mary might have tried presenting some of the healthy girls to be retested, something he would notice at once.
“When within three months?” she asked.
“We don’t announce inspections in advance.” Jason signed the last page. “However, we’ll schedule it for the afternoon as I’ve done today, to avoid disrupting your business insofar as that is possible.”
He folded the papers, slipped them into an inner pocket of his jacket and rose. “Thank you for your trouble.”
Mary seemed to thaw and even attempted a faint smile. “I appreciate your service, Inspector Remerley, and the girls have told me how professional you are with them. In light of that, please consider yourself our client whenever you like. It’s on the house.”
It was not the first time the owner of a brothel had made such an offer to Jason, so he replied as he always did. “That’s most kind, but I can’t take advantage of your offer. It would be a conflict of interest.”
She brought her hands together, watching him over the steeple of her fingers. “Thought it might be something like that,” she said. “Hope it wasn’t the girls themselves.”
“No, they’re most attractive.” But he knew the dry polite tone of his reply wasn’t very convincing. It was the way people complimented a bald and unprepossessing baby a proud parent was displaying for the tenth time. He liked women, but somehow it was difficult to see them as potential lovers after he’d checked them for genital warts.
Even if that hadn’t been the case, he didn’t want to be with someone who’d been paid for the favor—or worse, someone who was resignedly providing a free service because she’d been ordered to do so. Secretly, he’d hoped that some day, he would meet a woman and know right away that he wanted her, like a lightning bolt out of the blue. He’d imagined an incandescent attraction that was swift yet sure, something which struck only once in a lifetime—if that much—but then he’d told himself to stop daydreaming. Things like that simply didn’t happen, or at least they didn’t happen to ordinary people like him.
Mary had the good sense not to press the matter further. She got up, but Jason told her he would see himself out and left her study, closing the door behind him. His shoes made no sound on the worn carpet that lined the long corridor. Some of the doors on either side were closed—the employees probably enjoyed their privacy—but half of them were ajar, as if a maid had just finished setting them to rights. He walked past them and went down the stairs.
He didn’t reach the last step. In the common room, standing a few yards away and looking out of a window, was a woman.
The Velvet Court’s common room was decorated in evening shades, with a floor tiled in deep grey and walls paneled in folds of blue velvet. The vases were all black, filled with ink-splotches of purple flowers. Against the background of dusk, the woman stood out. Her hair glowed ember-red, done up in a long braid down her back, and although he could only see half her face, the lines of her profile were clear as if they had been sculpted from marble.
Her clothes were almost as intriguing as her appearance. In stark contrast to the rich colors and glamour of the room, she had on a well-worn white coat and brown breeches, so she looked crisply efficient as well as exotic. He’d never seen a woman in men’s garb before. A foreigner, obviously, but what was she doing there? One arm was bent, knuckles resting on her hip and holding her coat back enough for him to see the saber that hung from her belt.
Lightning, he realized, had just struck.
He had stopped when he saw her, and he didn’t think he was breathing, much less making a sound, but the woman turned from the window as if she sensed someone was there. And he saw the other half of her face.
A burn scar, he knew at once. Dark and thick as armor, except without the smoothness of steel or skin. The injury had missed her eye, thankfully, but it scorched all the way down to her jawline, and while there was nothing at all pretty about the scar, it made her look unusual and real, fiercely alive in the cold, poised surroundings of the Velvet Court. An old quote came to mind: the imperfection that enables perfection.
Her eyes narrowed a little in a way that suggested she was braced for shocked reactions when people saw the right side of her face. “Do you work here?”
Surely she couldn’t be there for that. But he didn’t see any other reason a foreigner might come to a brothel. “Yes,” he heard himself say.
The woman’s gaze swept down his body, swift and evaluating. Jason had a moment to feel grateful he didn’t have to wear any particular uniform or badge of office as a health inspector, before his startled better sense caught up with him. What in hell did he think he was doing?
“And does this establishment provide services to women?”
That was the kind of question only a foreigner would need to ask. Jason swallowed, pushing doubts and common sense alike away. When lightning struck, one had to react just as swiftly, seize the moment.
“Of course,” he said. “We wouldn’t turn away half our potential customers.”
“Good. How much do you charge?”
Damn. He had no idea, and even if he did, he would have said a lower figure. The woman saw his hesitation, but misinterpreted it.
“I have silver,” she said. “It’s Denalait money, but still silver.”
So she was from Denalay. That explained the slight accent yet the features which—apart from the scar—were indistinguishable from those of a Dagran woman’s. Except for being more beautiful.
“That will do.” He fell back on years of experience in keeping his voice calm and emotionless, his face as bland as if he were playing cards for high stakes—and no stakes could be higher than this. “Please come with me.”
He started up the steps, ears attuned to the soft thuds of her boots behind him, more attuned to any creaks from upstairs that would indicate a door being opened. Benevolent Ones, don’t let anyone come out of their rooms, he thought before he wondered if he had truly gone crazy. The Benevolent Ones were probably looking down at the unfolding spectacle with horrified eyes. He’d be fortunate if they didn’t strike him dead for his iniquity.
Walking as though he was in no hurry at all was an effort, but to his relief no one was in sight when he reached the landing. He went to the nearest open door and glanced in to make sure the room was empty before he stepped aside to let the woman enter.
He breathed in deeply as she walked past him—keeping a careful space between their bodies, he noticed. A crisp, salty scent clung to her clothes, the smell of sun-warmed wood and sea wind.
Of course, her people were seafarers and Sandcliff was a port city. He’d even figured out what she was doing in a foreign land, because he had heard of a recent race between Denalait ships and a Dagran vessel, a race which had ended at an island off the coast and had, naturally, been won by the Dagran ship. A thread of disappointment wove itself through an attraction stronger than anything he had felt before, because she wouldn’t be here for long, would she? Soon she would sail back to her homeland.
Brisk footsteps hurried up the stairs. Jason was inside the room in the next instant, closing the door behind him with a soft click, and to his relief there was a key in the lock. He turned it. If the worst came to the worst and Mary or the house guards started hammering on the door, he might try climbing out of the window. In all his life he had never done anything so unhinged, had never dreamed of putting his career at such risk.
But in all his life he had never met a woman like her, a woman he wanted so much.
It was almost a surprise to realize he still didn’t know her name.
Lera Vanze had heard the Velvet Court spoken of as high class, as brothels went. The common room had certainly lived up to that, but the man didn’t strike her as particularly well dressed, let alone decked out in such a way as to display his wares. He wore a suede jacket the color of doeskin, and dark trousers that weren’t exactly formfitting. Then again, it was the middle of the day, so she couldn’t expect the merchandise to get all prettied up yet.
Besides, he didn’t really need it. He was lean but tall, with brown eyes only slightly creased at the corners to indicate his age. Everything about him seemed neat—the thick black hair, the clean-shaven jaw, the clothes that had clearly been laundered and pressed. Yes, he would do.
She looked around the small but comfortably furnished room and sat on the bedspread. Time to get down to business.
“How much?” she said.
He hesitated again, and she lifted the coin pouch at her belt, clinking it to show she wasn’t poor. Not that she had any intention of letting the purse out of her sight.
“A silver,” he said.
That was it? She wondered if there was something about the exchange rate she wasn’t aware of, because she would have expected to pay three shrikes or more in Denalay. Oh well, nothing like a bargain. She extracted a single silver coin stamped with the likeness of a bird of prey perched on a long thorn. On its other side was the circle of Denalay and the words In Unity Is Strength. With one flick of her fingers, it flew across the room.
The man caught it and set it on the chest of drawers beside him. He leaned a hip against the piece of furniture and stared at her, his lips parted as though he was caught between speaking and thinking better of it.
Was her nationality a problem? Surely not; it wasn’t as though she was from Lunacy. Then it had to be her scar. That probably looked worse in the sunlight from the open window than it had in the cool shadows of the common room.
“How much time does that buy me?” she said.
“Oh. As much time as we need.”
Lera blinked. That was unexpected, but perhaps due to the earliness of the hour; the house was sure to become busier during the evening. “I’ll start by telling you what I want, then.”
She had been an officer for years, so giving orders and knowing they would be obeyed came naturally. “Nothing fancy or acrobatic,” she said. “Nothing where I’ll have to make an effort. Use your mouth and your hands. I’d like to come at least twice, and whether you do or not is your own concern, but if you please me, there’ll be another silver for you. Do you understand?”
The man had listened without a muscle moving in his face, but when she finished he nodded slowly, as if it was the first time he was hearing such instructions. She frowned. Surely he wasn’t a new hire.
“I understand,” he said. “My name is Jason Remerley. What’s yours?”
Lera could hardly believe she had heard right. Her mouth opened involuntarily before she shut it and gave him the kind of look that would have put any of her subordinates back in their place. “I don’t believe that’s any of your concern.”
Instead of being intimidated, he smiled, as if he thought a complaint from a foreigner wasn’t likely to threaten his continued livelihood. Or perhaps he had enough regulars who were charmed by his presumptuous manner, not to mention the way his smile reached to his eyes, making them warm and candid at once. The look in them made her skin feel strange, as though a light wind had stolen tickling beneath her clothes, raising goose bumps across her flesh.
“I find intimacy is usually deepened by knowing the other person’s name,” he said. “It would be strange to cry out ‘Oh, you, you!’ at the crucial moment.”
Lera wondered if she should order him to shut up and get to work, but somehow she couldn’t do so. Not that she was naturally kind, but there was something in his face—an interest that seemed almost genuine, as though he wanted to please her, despite his odd behavior and forward speech. Evidently he hadn’t been jaded by his work yet, but then again she’d already been aware that he was new at this. Time to let him know she wasn’t.
“There won’t be a crucial moment for you at this rate,” she replied, “and this is a business transaction, not anything intimate. Is that clear?”
The spark went out of his eyes. “Yes.”
Lera waited, but all he did was look at her. Had she been that intimidating? “Are you going to take your clothes off?”
“I’m going to take yours off.”
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