"He's taken a special interest in you, that's certain, though I'm sure..."
|"He's taken a special interest in you, that's certain, though I'm sure I don't know why. But it's not an opportunity as comes along everyday, m'dear, so I'd advise you to make full use of it while you can."
Remembering Mistress Gemner's words and the half-proud, half-envious tone in which they had been uttered, Zylene drew a deep breath and swept her eyes over the room and its arrangements. It was a given that the servants would have seen to everything, of course, from the size of the blaze in the fireplace to the exact placement of the table, chairs, and silverware; the velvet cushions matched the burgundy upholstery, the warm cherry furniture had been rubbed to gleaming, and the lamps dimmed just enough to provide intimacy without straining the eyesight, and yet...
Her fingers made minute adjustments to the wine service, until she realized she was accomplishing little save rattling the glasses. Everything was in place, as perfect as it could be, nothing more to be done...
She caught her hands once more smoothing their way down the front of her silken, completely wrinkle-free dress and forced them to stillness. Another deep breath. She clenched her teeth against a foreboding shiver and scowled at her blurry image in the polished silver of the wine cooler. A bubble of resentment rose as she stared at the beads of condensation crawling down the intricate etching.
This should be a triumphant moment for her. Not only was it the first time she had been vouch-safed one of the beautiful gowns available for communal use for girls who had not yet accumulated their own wardrobes -- she had loved the heavy, fluid fabrics and vibrant hues from the moment she had laid eyes on the collection -- but she had also done so over the heads of quite a few other girls. Many of them had been in training longer than she, and yet not made the final transition from lowly, disregarded drudge to full-fledged courtesan, and she had savored their poorly-concealed jealousy with gloating glee. Now, wrapped in a sapphire that both complimented her eyes and emphasized her slim figure, with shining earrings standing out against her chestnut curls and drawing the eye to her slender neck, she knew she was a sight to take many a man's breath away. She should feel powerful. Seductive. Ready for whoever walked through her door.
Instead, she felt as though every nerve was rubbed raw, her internal spring wound so tight she was afraid it would snap under the strain. Not because she lacked confidence; she would never have survived these months in the cut-throat world of female rivalry if that had been the case. Not because she had not finished her training; indeed she had not, but she would never have let something so small stand in her way. And certainly not because this was her first time with a man; her previous career as a common street whore had cured her of any lingering traces of innocence left over from a brutal childhood in the slums.
It was especially silly, she told herself with a stern frown, to be worked up over this man in particular. She had known Laurence Daphor for years, had helped him in small ways in the city's politics, and had reaped her reward after he sponsored her into Mistress Gemner's Scarlet Sash House. Surely, out of all the possible clientele, he was not one who should stir such apprehension.
"And here I thought Mistress Gemner taught all her girls to greet the patrons with a smile," chuckled a voice from the door. Zylene gasped and jerked her head up, then wished she could kick herself for her startled reaction as a sardonic grin spread across the newcomer's face. "Her famed discipline and training must be getting slack in her dotage."
She watched his slow advance into the room, feeling suddenly breathless. How many times had she seen that leisurely stroll and heard the tap-tap of the cane he used for ornamental purposes only? Seen that hand thrust casually into a pocket? That faint, smirking upturn of his mouth, emphasized by his neatly trimmed mustache and goatee? His eyes, as black and mirrored as obsidian, scrutinized her in one sweeping glance, and as usual she wondered what he saw. Did he approve of her appearance? Was he pleased with her transformation?
One eyebrow rose in mockery. "What, rendered speechless with joy at my presence? I'm touched."
And how many times had that snide tone, that never-ending sarcasm, triggered her fury? Rage boiled up in a flash of heat, consuming her nerves and freeing her tongue. "You... you..." she spluttered, infuriated at his amused expression. "You disappear for months -- months! -- and now you have the gall to traipse back here and... Who the hell do you think... I ought to... just... get out! Out!"
"Please, please," Laurence protested, holding up one hand while the other tried without success to cover up his grin. That he was laughing at her made her snarl and clench her fists. "Now, now, Zylene," he said, in the soothing voice one applied to skittish horses and raving lunatics. "Don't you think Mistress Gemner will object if you tossed your first patron out on his ear like a groping schoolboy?"
The inherent logic in that question gave her pause, a pause long enough for him to add, with a conciliatory smile, "Besides which, my absence does not seem to have proven detrimental, by all appearances." This time, there was no mistaking the appreciation in his eyes when he ran them down her body.
Still steaming, but somewhat mollified, Zylene wrinkled her nose with a disdainful sniff. "Of course. Did you expect me to wilt away without your help?" This was not the time to admit that she had nearly been overwhelmed with loneliness and dread when she had first arrived, nor how much she had hated him for his apparent abandonment. He would only mock her, and then use that knowledge as a weapon.
"Hardly," he replied, his tone dry. "You've never struck me as the wilting type. The cat-fight-in-the-parlor, scratch-out-your-rivals'-eyes type, yes, but wilting? Never."
She gave him an outraged look, torn between indignation and amusement. "Mistress Gemner would never tolerate it. Sticking pins in their dresses, though, that leaves no marks."
A flicker of surprise, then he threw his head back and laughed. "Well said! The things one learns from associating with courtesans!" He grinned at her. "Speaking of learning... aren't you forgetting the duties of a hostess?"
Chastened, and resentful that he should make her feel thus, Zylene nodded toward the table. In the beginning, she had chafed at the endless lessons on grace and etiquette, but after enduring a session at the hands of the House's disciplinarian, had buckled down to her studies without further complaint. It had gradually dawned on her that such manners were, in fact, part of what separated her current life from her former one, and after that she had been determined to master the intricate niceties of polite society.
Now, under Laurence's sharp gaze, she was glad for the preparation. There was value, after all, in knowing precisely how to pour wine so that it swirled in the glass like spun garnet, how to handle the bottle in just the right way as to draw attention to the elegance of a slim, well-turned wrist.
Laurence said nothing as he raised his glass for a sip, and she could feel his eyes as she placed the bottle back in its cooler. She let her fingers stroke the long stem of her own glass, somewhat taken aback.
There was something peculiar about his silence, a subtle shift in his stance, a cooling in the way he watched her. The sudden, unexpected distancing threw her, and she wondered at its cause.
"Won't you have a seat?" she ventured, trying to pretend that nothing had changed.
"Ladies first," he murmured, and pulled out one of the chairs for her, leaving her no choice but to sink down into it. He himself did not follow suit, however, but drifted to stand at her side.
The tension between them thickened, and she was about to break it with some inanity when his quiet words cut through the air.
"How much yadna have you been using?"
The studied neutrality in his tone put her instantly on her guard. "Yadna?" she asked, as though she had never heard of the word. His eyes narrowed, prompting her to add, "Oh. Yadna. Barely touch the stuff. Too expensive for a simple girl like me, you know."
"Don't lie to me, Zylene," he said, with a thin smile that did not reach his eyes.
"I'm not! I don't--"
Too late, she saw his hand reach for hers. Even as she jerked away, he caught her wrist against the table, pinning it with a strength that belied his mild expression. A vice-like grip turned her hand palm upward, and Zylene cursed herself for her carelessness. No matter what she said, there was no denying the faint, yellow stains that colored the tips of her fingers. No one else would have noticed, but she had long-ago learned that little escaped those dark, hooded eyes.
He let her absorb the magnitude of her mistake for a moment, then asked again, in the bored tones most people reserved for the weather or other people's grandchildren, "How much yadna have you been using?"
Zylene set her jaw and glared at him. It was no business of his how she chose to amuse herself, and she was not about to let him dictate her life.
He apparently read the message in her eyes and stubborn silence, and his upper lip lifted in a low hiss of anger. The hand around hers tightened, grinding the bones together and sending a wave of pain down her arm. His expression never altered as he ignored her attempts to pull away, and her free hand might as well have been prying at granite for all the effect it produced.
Tears started to her eyes, born of both pain and fear. Once before, she had crossed him, and now as then what frightened her most was not his strength or his fury -- as a whore, she had dealt with both from worse men than he on a regular basis -- but the sheer calmness and control with which he applied them. Even as she struggled to free herself, she was aware that the wine glass in his other hand was rock-steady. He could have taken a sip and never spilled a drop.
That realization and the knowledge that further resistance would gain her nothing forced an answer.
"A couple of pipes, every now and then."
The pain did not ease. "Every now and then?"
"Two to three nights a week."
"Wet or dry?"
"Who's your supplier?"
"Some of the other girls have a stash. I buy from them." It wasn't the whole truth, but she hoped he would be satisfied.
He regarded her for a moment, perhaps sensing the omission, but did not pursue it. "Does Mistress Gemner know?"
"She... she chooses not to."
Usually her choice of words would have earned at least a smirk, but now Laurence looked anything but amused. "And do you mix it with anything else? Alcohol?" His face darkened further. "Kumis?"
"No! I-I've seen the others... but I've never tried it myself!"
For a moment she was afraid he would not believe her, for all that it was the honest truth. After another hard stare, however, he merely snorted and stepped back, freeing her hand. She gasped and cradled it, rubbing at the pain, unable to meet his eyes.
"I had hoped, after our last conversation on this subject, that you would have had more sense than to allow yourself to be ensnared by the pleasures of yadna leaf. How very disappointing to find out otherwise." His voice remained a sleepy drawl, but there was an underlying coldness to the words, a sharp disdain in the way he peered at her over the rim of his glass.
For the second time that evening, fear made Zylene catch her breath. Before, it had been because she was afraid of what he might do. Now, it was because she realized, with an intuitive leap borne of years of intimate contact, that the worst he might do would be nothing at all. If he simply turned around and left, if he withdrew his patronage of her... Everything she had worked for would be for naught; without his sponsorship, she doubted Mistress Gemner would allow her to finish her training, and even if the old woman relented, Zylene would remain forever at the lowest rungs of the ladder, no longer trusted to please the higher clientele, always at the beck and call of those better socially placed.
And, while she didn't know half the time whether she hated Laurence or not, she knew that if he walked away now, she would never see him again.
"I don't see it's anything to get excited about," she retorted, trying to sound light and breezy. "It's just a bit of yadna. Everyone does it."
"Do they?" he snapped. "And they forced you to it at knife-point?"
"It would've looked odd if I hadn't!"
He gave her a disgusted look. "Are you telling me that you took up yadna in a misguided attempt to... fit in?"
"Well what the hell was I supposed to do?" she yelled. "I didn't know anybody here, and you just vanished! For all I knew, you were dead! I just... I was so..." -- lonely, scared --"Goddamnit, never mind," she stifled a sob. "Fine, leave then. I hope I never lay eyes on you again!"
A ringing silence fell. Zylene sniffed a couple of times, then carefully wiped her eyes so as not to disarrange her makeup. Laurence was regarding her with an expression of mingled surprise and exasperation.
His voice when he spoke again was contemplative, and while it had its usual note of irony, it lacked the customary bite. "I don't know if I should be flattered at apparently being missed or disturbed that you chose this particular method of dealing with it."
At least he had not stomped out the door as she had expected. Zylene fiddled with her sleeve, torn between mortification that she had admitted a weakness and relief that he was no longer treating her with the iciness that indicated true anger.
"Be that as it may, however," he continued, a hint of steel in the words, "you will cease and desist with your forays into yadna at once."
She huffed at the way he issued his orders. "Honestly, Laurence! You'd think it was a cardinal sin or something."
"On the contrary, I wouldn't give a damn if you'd actually murdered someone, as long as you were careful in hiding the body or paying off the authorities. Yadna, however, along with kumis, kairo, and any other street drug you might be tempted to try, is an altogether different story."
"Why?" she asked, genuinely perplexed.
He rolled his eyes, as though she were an idiotic five year old who had just asked why she needed to look both ways before crossing the street. "Have you never seen what yadna addiction does to its victims?" He snorted at her shaken head. "I forget... you probably weren't with your previous pimp long enough to acquire a true appreciation of its effects. Very well," he seemed to come to a sudden decision. "Get your travel cloak. We're going to take a little trip."
He was out the door before she had closed her mouth on her astonishment. She heard him yelling downstairs for a carriage to be made ready, and the raised tones of Mistress Gemner, demanding to know what he meant by disturbing her House with his ruckus. Bemused, but knowing that Laurence would not be stopped once he had an idea in his head, she fetched her cloak from her room and descended the stairs just as the House's carriage pulled up to the front.
"Yes, yes, I promise to return your precious protege in one piece," Laurence assured the matron of the house as he hustled Zylene within. "I forgot that she's such a harpy," he grumbled once safely ensconced inside.
The conveyance jerked forward, and for a few minutes, only the rattle of wheels on cobblestone filled the silence. Zylene wanted desperately to know where they were headed, but was reluctant to intrude on Laurence's moody musings.
"Well," he said at last, with a soft snort. "At least you possessed the good sense, or perhaps simply the lack of means, to smoke the leaf dry rather than wet. And without lacing it with something else to boost the effect." His glance was one of irony. "Though I don't for a moment think that you get all your supplies from the other girls."
Since there was no possible answer to that, Zylene only dropped her eyes. The rest of the ride passed in unremarkable silence, save for an interlude wherein Laurence alighted for five minutes and returned again, without telling her what he had been up to. When the carriage finally stopped again, Zylene descended to find herself in the unmistakable stench of a lower city alley.
"I won't go no further, begging your pardon, sir," the driver said, touching his hat. "But the Mistress would have my hide if'n something happened to this here buggy, and them's desperate folks as live in the lower city."
"Quite," Laurence said, taking her arm. "We shan't be long. Lucky our destination isn't far," he told her as they moved away. Zylene shot nervous glances into the shadows around them. She had grown up in a neighborhood much like this, and knew first hand the dangers that threatened strangers and those who looked of ample means. Laurence noticed her uneasiness. "Like all wild animals," he said with a smile, twirling his cane and looking for all the world like he was strolling down a wide, tree-lined boulevard, "those who live on the streets can sense fear, and they can also sense its lack. Show no fear, and they will naturally assume it is because you are strong, and hesitate to attack."
She understood the message, and forced her shoulders straight. Rather than looking away, she gazed straight into the eyes of a loitering gang, and was gratified when they were the ones who appeared embarrassed and ill at ease. In this way, they traversed a block and half, before Laurence pulled her into a tiny house squeezed between two larger establishments.
Zylene looked around and wrinkled her nose at the smell. "Please don't tell me you dragged me out of Mistress Gemner's in order to show me the sights offered by a lower city whorehouse," she sighed.
"Well, sort of." Laurence laughed at her expression. "I happen to know Master Culbert, who owns this house. He is well-known for keeping his girls docile with... well, he uses a variety, but yadna is cheaper than most. I thought this might be educational." With that, he turned to speak to the freckled lad behind the bar. A moment later, he flashed a key at Zylene and led her up the rickety staircase.
The girl seated cross-legged on the bed didn't even glance in their direction as they entered. At first Zylene thought it artifice, a deliberate show of disinterest to make herself more captivating to her customers. Then she saw the glazed eyes, the slack part of those rouged lips, and realized that the show was real. The door closed behind her with a clear, precise click.
Zylene turned to find Laurence surveying the room with a mixture of boredom and distaste. He looked distinctly out-of-place in the shabby surroundings; his elegant black blazer, burgundy waistcoat, and tailored pants decried the gaudiness of the moth-eaten satin draperies and the chipped paint of a once-proud mantlepiece. With the stout, gold-topped cane that dangled so carelessly in one hand completing the ensemble, he might have been dining at an upscale dinner club, or debating politics in some lady's salon, rather than in the cheap upstairs room of a disreputable brothel.
"Really, this place gets more and more dilapidated every time I visit," he drawled, poking at one of the threadbare wingchairs with his cane as though expecting to dislodge an army of spiders. "No doubt one day I'll walk in and find the roof missing, or a wall fallen down." He snorted. "Disgraceful, isn't it?"
"Am I to take it that you come here often then?" Zylene asked with an arched eyebrow. The girl on the bed still had not moved.
"Only in my younger, wilder days," Laurence answered, giving her a wolfish grin.
"Yes, well then, seeing as how you're such a greybeard now," Zylene said, with heavy sarcasm, "care to tell me why you dragged me here?" She tried to make the question casual, but could not stop a slight tremor in her voice. The unresponsiveness of the room's other occupant was starting to unnerve her.
"An object lesson, m'dear," Laurence said, a dangerous smile on his lips. "I thought you might take my advice a little more seriously if you had some concrete example of the perils of doing otherwise."
Zylene's eyes darted to the girl, then back to her companion. An involuntary shiver forced its way down her back at the impersonal cruelty in those dark eyes, and she drew back as he approached the bed. Laurence cocked his head as he studied the girl with a thoughtful frown, tapping his cane against his shoe.
"How old do you think she is?" he asked, with every sign of genuine curiosity.
She didn't want to play his game, but he had left her little choice. Zylene stepped up next to him and gave the girl a quick once-over. Then she frowned. She had assumed, because of her small stature, that the girl was little more than a child, but now she wasn't so sure. There was an unhealthy gauntness to those gangly limbs and sunken cheeks, but it was the sight of discolored, yellow teeth that made Zylene grimace in disgust. The hair, which once may have possessed a luster to rival her own chestnut locks, now hung in thin, bedraggled hunks. There were bags under the unseeing, too-large eyes, and crow's feet at the corners. In the chill of the room, she wore only a flimsy, almost see-through negligee, but did not seem to feel the cold; another sign of her drug-induced torpor, Zylene knew, and wondered how long she had been in the same position.
"I'm not sure," Zylene said at last. Women of this particular profession, as she had good cause to know, rarely made it past middle age, but she could not deny the evidence of her eyes.
"Then it might interest you to know that Master Culbert, being a man of sound business acumen, though questionable taste, never hires anyone over the age of thirty. In fact, I believe this one," he continued, ignoring her startled look, "is actually only a few years older than yourself."
"But... but she looks fifty at least!"
"How rude, to speculate like that on a lady's age." Laurence smirked at her horrified expression. "But if you won't take my word for it, I suppose we can always ask her."
This earned both him and the girl similarly dubious looks. "How? She doesn't seem very... cognizant." Indeed, the girl had no more reacted to their conversation than she had to their presence in the first place.
"Well, you can hardly blame her," Laurence said, peering at the glassy eyes with clinical detachment. "We've offered her little reason to pay attention to us. Fortunately though," his right hand reached for his inside coat pocket, "I have here the means with which to lure her from whatever fantasy world she's inhabiting at the moment." And he produced a small bag, with a flourish that might have accompanied gold or jewels.
Zylene's eyes widened as he untied the drawstring and showed her the contents. Her nostrils flared at the musty odor. It was a smell with which she was well-acquainted.
"Rather a waste, I know, to use such high quality leaf for the likes of her, but I simply can't be seen purchasing anything of inferior merit." Laurence reached in with two fingers and produced a pinch of weed. He rubbed it experimentally, and made a pleased sound in the back of his throat. "Let's see if this does the trick, shall we?" He waved the small wad of yadna leaf under the girl's nose, crushing it as he did so to release more of the smell.
For the space of two heartbeats, nothing happened. Then, the eyes blinked once... twice, as the girl drew in a deep breath and, for the first time, seemed to take in their presence. Her gaze locked onto Laurence's hand, and an immediate change came over her lassitude.
"An' wha' ken I do fer ye, gent?" she asked in a thick lower city accent, twisting around until she was kneeling on the bedspread. She brushed one hand up her other arm in a display of such studied coyness that Zylene had to keep from rolling her eyes. There was something both fascinating and sickening at the girl's naked attempt at flirtation, made worse by her darting looks at the pouch in Laurence's hand. "May'ap a lil' tickle for keepin' warm in th' night, sir?"
"What a most excellent suggestion," Laurence said, his voice dry and sardonic. "But I'm afraid I shall have to decline, as tempting as the offer is." He smirked as he said it, tucking the pouch of yadna leaf into a pocket.
A desperate, furious expression replaced the coquettish look at once, as hungry eyes followed the disappearance of the coveted pouch. "'Ere now," she cried, scrambling to get off the bed. "Ye cain't come in 'ere all high an' mighty an' not give a girl 'er due! I got fees, y'know! I got--" Her tirade ended a second before she would have pounced, aided no doubt by the sight of his cane hovering a hand's breath away from her chest. A moment of frozen silence passed.
"Do try and calm yourself," Laurence tutted, with a thin smile at the girl's furious outburst. "You'll get your due, all in good time, but first my lady and I have a few questions."
It was clear that the girl had almost forgotten about Zylene's existence, and she took a moment to absorb the other woman's appearnce. Zylene could almost see the cogs whirling in her head as her manner shifted once more. "Now dere be a beau'ful lady an' no mistake! An' gracious too, I'll warrant. Ye'll make yonder gent give over what's mine, won't ye, lady?" She reached out a hand as though to pat Zylene's sleeve, and only chuckled when Zylene took a quick step back out of reach. "Ah, ye'll not let a poor girl like me go without 'er pay, eh, lady?" she finished, her voice a high wheedle.
A muffled snort from Laurence interrupted whatever answer Zylene might have made. "Beautiful? Perhaps," he said, grinning as his companion bristled at him. "Gracious? Doubtful. Zylene," he added, for the girl's benefit, "might be one of the rising stars of Mistress Gemner's Scarlet Sash House, but her origins are not quite so exalted as you seem to think."
Zylene ground her teeth and resisted the urge to kick him in the shins for his damnable mockery. The girl, though, was staring at her with mouth slightly agape at the news. "Cor," she breathed, "Yer not pullin' me leg? A Scarlet Sash 'Ouse? Them's fancy digs, tha's fer certain sure." She pulled herself upright on the bed again and made a pathetic attempt at straightening both her negligee and her hair. "Do ye really eat pearls fer breakfas' and bathe in perfume an' wine?"
"Hardly," Zylene muttered, ignoring the way Laurence's shoulders quivered from suppressed laughter. "Courses in etiquette day and night, and other lessons too -- history and poetry and all that rot."
"Surprised that being a courtesan entailed learning more than a couple of new positions and gliding around in silk and velvet all the time?" Laurence quipped.
"I hear as how them girls all gots bunches of gents hangin' 'round to give 'em anythin' they fancy," the girl cut in, clearly not comprehending anything they had just said. She slanted a covetous look at the bulge in Laurence's pocket and pouted. "And gets all the yadna leaf they can 'andle too."
"The epitome of a fashionable lifestyle, no doubt," Laurence said, rolling his eyes. "Fascinating as it is, however, we're not here to discuss Zylene's swarming suitors or propensity towards excessive yadna use, but rather yours. I take it that you dip rather than smoke?" he asked, with a pointed look at her yellow teeth and stained gums.
"Aye, ye needs pipes an' matches an' th' like to smoke, y'know," was the matter-of-fact reply. She chortled, as though tickled at the question. "An' it's not like I got me a rich fella t' pay fer more yadna e'ery time I gets the cravin', so I gotta make my leaf stretch, see? Easier with dippin' then, an' I can do it in th' middle o' business too, without worryin' 'bout settin' the sheets afire."
"How clever," Laurence said with a solemn nod. Zylene made a revolted noise in the back of her throat at the very idea. "And did you come up with that all on your own?"
"Aye, I'm jus' full o' ideas, am I," the girl snickered. "'Specially if'n I gets a big ol' wad of yadna" -- her eyes strayed to his pocket again -- "then it's like I sees th' whol' world and knows e'erythin' an' ain't nothin' I cain't do." She sighed, the sound dreamy and faraway.
"Oh please," Zylene snorted.
"Now, now, Zylene," Laurence chided. "Give the poor girl some credit. Personally, I'm amazed she can still string words together so well, seeing as how her last hit of yadna hasn't even cleared her system yet."
"Yeah!" came the vehement agreement. The girl had apparently realized that she had just been scorned. She drew herself up on her knees, trying to appear taller and failing miserably. "Just 'cause I don't got no fancy-smancy dress don't mean you got a righ' t' act like yer better 'n me! I gots resp... responsi... I gots folks as depends on me! I may be down on me luck, but at least I ain't no hoity-toity hussy wi' 'er nose in th' air! I gots a mammy, an' a pappy, an'--" she was working herself up into a rage, and her words quickly became incoherent as she spluttered, almost bouncing on the creaky bedsprings to emphasize her points.
"Poor mammy and pappy," Laurence murmured so that only Zylene could hear him. "Although I am kept from proper sympathy by the fact that she probably imagined them in the first place. Drug-induced mania and all that."
His callous smirk and the continued screaming from the bed combined to give Zylene a pounding headache. She knew now, with chilling certainty, what he had meant when he had referred to the girl as an "object lesson." There was no way, she vowed, that she would end up like the pathetic creature on the bed.
"You've made your point," she said through gritted teeth to Laurence, not meeting his eyes. "Can we leave now?"
He regarded her with an unreadable expression for a moment, while she fixed her eyes stubbornly on the draperies over the bed, and seemed satisfied with what he found. "Very well. I see no further gain in lingering. After you then."
"Wait, yer leavin'? Wha' 'bout me pay? Tha' ain't fair! I gots rights--"
The screeching followed Zylene as she made a hasty exit. Behind her came the low murmur of Laurence's drawled reply, though she could not make out the words. A moment later, he emerged as well, shutting the door with a firm tug. Through the thin wood panel, Zylene heard a lone wail of anguish, then a thump as of something hitting the floor, and sounds of sniffling and scrabbling.
"What did you say to her?" she asked as she trailed him down the stairs.
Laurence gave her a look of exaggerated innocence. "Well, I might have... accidentally, you understand... spilled that bag of yadna all over the floor. Oh, come now," he added, seeing her sickened expression. "Considering where she likely gets her usual supply, even mix in the grime and dust she'll probably still be getting a higher quality product than normal."
"You are one cold-blooded bastard, you know that?"
"An astute observation," he said, with a sharp smile. "One that you would do well to remember, along with any other lessons you may have garnered tonight."
With that, he pulled open the front door, guiding her out with an exaggerated bow.
Zylene barely noticed the trek back to the carriage. While she understood what Laurence had meant to accomplish and was grateful, it rankled that he should know her so well, play her with such skill. That he had taken such trouble indicated a long-term interest on his part in her continued usefulness to him. She wondered what part she held in his plans, and promised herself that, someday, she would be more than a gambit in his games. Someday, she would use him as he had always used and manipulated her.
In fact... Zylene's eyes narrowed in thought as they settled once more into the carriage's cushions.
"It was Olya Hans."
"Eh?" Laurence blinked at the non sequitur. "The House's disciplinarian? What's Mistress Hans done then?"
She met his gaze unflinchingly. "She is the one who supplies the girls with yadna. And I think kumis, to the higher placed."
Something flickered in his eyes. "Is that so... I shall have to have a talk with Mistress Gemner then."
"Especially as she has not... ah, shared all of her profits with her employer."
Laurence stared at her for a long moment. "Always a fatal mistake. I wouldn't be surprised if she should lose her place over it. A pity, is it not?"
"Indeed," Zylene said, leaning back. He knew, of course, that she was using him, but she did not care. Word would spread that she had a hand in bringing down the dreaded figure who had humiliated her time and again. The other girls would think twice about incurring her wrath, and so would whomever Mistress Gemner hired to replace the unlamented Olya.
Laurence's lips twitched at her smug smile, and she grinned at him. Was it her imagination, or was there a gleam of approval in his eyes? No matter. She was not yet in the same league as him, but there was no hurry. There would come a time, years from now, when he would regard her as an equal. When she would no longer be dependent on his whims, but mistress of her own fate.
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