Junil 11, 1543
Two months after the Dawngate opened
“Now really, my darling,” Ashabel’s fingers lingered among the polished stones, glossy nails one set of brightness among many. She tilted her head slightly to one side and challenged him with a modest little smile. “If you had wanted to merely win a game, you would not have engaged Zaira.”
“True enough, true enough,” he chortled. He shook his head and reached for the carafe to pour more for himself.
She slid warm, pale fingers across his dark hands, stilling them. “Please, my lord. Allow me to serve you.”
He wuffed and blustered, blushing faintly as she poured clear liquid into his empty cup. “She’s a great talent,” he offered. “Better than I was at her age. Did you introduce her to the game?”
“I believe Yala taught her the rules. When she proved adept, I may have shared a few gambits learned in my youth.” She allowed a genuine smile as she held the cup out to him on one palm, a single, stilling finger resting lightly on the rim. “There was little entertainment save mancala. My friends and I were, if you will pardon my crudeness, rather vicious players.”
“Yala is the hutan, yes? Thank you,” he nodded, taking the cup. “What is she like? Not many of them visit the cities.” He glanced around. “And she doesn’t seem to come out very often.”
She laughed a river of silver and shook her head, more to set the bells in her hair ringing than to express emotion. “Let us say she is… enthusiastic. Improbably cheerful. Loyal to the point of fault. But like all her people, I fear she is far too easily headspun by drink.”
He harrumphed thoughtfully, spinning one tip of his moustache between his fingertips. “I suppose it’s due to their size. A cup of wine would do no favors to a five year-old.”
“You may have the truth of it, my lord.” She paused, and glanced at the shadows along the wall. “Oh my. I fear I’ve let the time get away from me.” She glanced at him sidelong, through lashes, allowing a wisp of a smile to play across her painted lips. “I became far too enamored with our game.”
He returned a bedazzled smile, and for a moment she saw, through the lines in his face, the awkward, charming young man he must have been. “Does that mean the rumor was true? You’ll be performing today?”
“Ah, found out again,” she sighed theatrically. “And here I had assumed these crowds were because Mhadir had prepared his incomparable phattai… It is so, my lord. I shall be taking the stage presently.”
“Then don’t let me keep you longer, Lady Ashabel,” he said, then chuckled. “I wouldn’t want to become the target of your other fans’ jealously.”
“You are uncommonly kind,” she murmured, laying an evanescent hand upon his shoulder as she rose and wafted away. In the corner of her eye, she saw him subtly adjust his posture, and in the privacy of the shadows allowed a dimpled smile of satisfaction to surface.
Kannitha was waiting, her music stilled for a moment of rest. She stood and stretched carefully, long falls of flower-strewn hair whispering about her shoulders. “Will you be going on, now, my lady?”
“I need to stretch as well. I fear I was sitting a bit too long.” She took the younger woman’s hand carefully, fingers deftly avoiding the metal picks on the ends of her fingers. “Let us both retire for a few minutes.”
She tucked a silken fall of hair behind her ear. “I would be grateful for a bit of food, my lady.”
“You need but to ask, my darling.” Ashabel pursed her lips, thinking of the other woman’s fondness for sweets. She leaned in to whisper conspiratorially, “Mhadir has made mango cakes for tonight. I have every confidence in his culinary skills, but… a brief sampling surely could not hurt?”
She unfolded a single fan, holding it at arm’s length between herself and the audience, eyes modestly lowered. From the shadows by the wall, the notes of Kannitha’s sueng began to trickle across the silent room.
Bending like a slender willow, like a reed in a spring pond, she swayed into an opening of traditional steps. Slow, stately, carefully placing each foot just so, the fan held at precise angles, turning to and fro.
As she began her full-body turns, she nestled the open fan into the crook of an arm, and let the other bloom behind her back. In a language of half-steps and hesitancy, she moved as a songbird, folding the fans back along her arms, fluttering, feet prancing there and there and yes. Perfectly executed.
Kannitha’s raindrop notes fell more swiftly from the sky. Turn and step, arms spreading in graceful curves, the bells in her hair and gown chiming with the music. The folds of silk parted as she spun, lamplight glittering off the ribbons twining up from her gleaming shoes. Hair fanned behind her, pulsing out zephyrs perfumed with jasmine from her morning bath.
There was no audience. No salon. There was only motion, wind, music, the slow, sure burn of the fires driving steady arms, strong legs. Weightless, thoughtless, the still heart of a storm, she swept rivers of air into the shadow and luminance twirling about her.
A mimicked bird’s call found its way into Kannitha’s melody, inobvious, woven into the threads of the music. She slowed her turns, silken gown rustling closed about her legs, and peered hood-eyed over the edge of one fan, smiling coyly.
Hanvati stood by the door, three tall men with scimitars ringing her. The one in the middle glowered down at her, mouth working, fingers playing with the pommel of his weapon. Hanvati bowed with careful deference, eyes calm, but one leg slid back an unconscious half-step.
Ashabel bent, sweeping her arms outwards, making brief eye contact with the other women, working wordless gestures into her practiced steps and motions. She turned, sliding and spiraling like the snow that fell upon the distant mountains, drawing faint intakes of breath from the crowd. The others moved to stand by Hanvati, or near to the passage into their sanctum.
As the final drops of Kannitha’s sparkling tune trickled out, she locked her fans together, handle to handle, and sank to the stage behind their plum-and-white butterfly wings. After a moment of silence, the applause surged forth, a wave lifting her to feet.
“Thank you, my darlings,” she smiled at the rapt faces. She spun the fans on her fingers, collapsing them down to sticks, aligning them back along her arms like folded wings. Chin lowered, hand on heart, she slid back down for a brief, one-kneed bow. The slit of her gown did not fall away from her leg as much as she’d planned. Ah well. Silk often had its own mind. Rising, she cast her most charming smile across the room. “You are as generous and lovely an audience as ever.”
The men were pushing past Hanvati, scattering into the crowd, peering at faces. She forced her jaw to relax.
She strode from the stage into a forest of admiring eyes, bending and smiling, swaying through well-wishes and compliments. Mayya slithered past her in the dark, smelling of cinnamon and northern apples, surreptitiously dropping a towel into her hand. Nodding thanks, she blotted away the sweat she hadn’t previously felt.
Ahead of her, one of the men grabbed Ahnni by the arm, yanking her closer, squinting at her face. The woman’s painted lips twisted in a wince of pain. Ashabel slid through in a whisper of silks. With a swift, brief grip of pressure points, his arm dropped away. He blinked at it in surprise, struggling to flex suddenly-numb fingers. Ahnni smoothed the sleeve of her gown, and moved a half-step closer to Ashabel’s side, forming a wall.
“Gentlemen,” Ashabel said, loud enough that those at the nearby tables could hear, “I apologize for the trouble. I believe we neglected to inform you – no weapons are allowed within our salon.” She bowed modestly, eyes lowered. “Please excuse our oversight.”
The man who’d grabbed Ahnni stared down his nose. His two accomplices were approaching through the sea of tables, one leaning in to speak to the other, gesturing at the archways to the kitchen and sanctum. “Lady Ashabel,” he grunted in greeting. “We’re city guard. We don’t take our weapons off.”
“Gracious,” she murmured into her fingertips, eyebrows rising, “what terrible inconvenience your wives must endure.” Gentle waves of laughter rippled around them. One of the watchmen snorted with laughter, and at the leader’s glare hastily swallowed the smile.
“I am sorry,” Ashabel repeated, hand over heart, eyelashes lowering, “but I regret I must insist. I believe you will find I have arranged special dispensation with your superiors. You have my assurance that your weapons will be well-tended here. Shall I show you where you might deposit them?”
He glared down at her. “We’re looking for a murderess. Bashed a man’s head in, over in the slums. Best we stay armed.”
“How horrible,” she exclaimed, letting her eyes go wide. “But our salon is far from the slums, gentlemen. Why should you seek this person under my roof, and so trouble our guests?”
If he stuck his chin out any further, she feared it might detach altogether. “She was seen between the murder and here. A girl covered with blood, headed straight this way.”
“I quite understand, then,” she nodded sympathetically. “But I assure you, there are no blood-soaked murderesses within this salon. We do maintain some standards of polite dress,” she smiled. “Surely someone would have noticed and raised a fuss?” She looked around at each, holding their gaze until they looked away – all save the one who’d manhandled Ahnni, who eyed her skeptically. “There are many other buildings hereabouts,” she continued, clasping her hands beatifically at her stomach. “And more, I do not doubt, further along on your murderess’ path. If we see such a person, rest assured we shall call for your assistance.”
He rubbed his unshaven jaw, his eyes darting around the corners of her face. She kept herself still, eyes steady and placid. “We need to search the premises,” he announced. “To insure… your safety.” He gestured to his two companions. “Sajid, the kitchens. Khin, the ladies’ personal quarters.”
“I regret,” she said mildly, “that I cannot permit that.”
A short bark of laughter burst from his lips. “Don’t think I heard you proper.”
She folded her arms across her chest and let her voice flatten. “You may not rifle through my house.”
He moved close. She was used to being one of the tallest in the room, but even with her platform shoes, she barely managed eye-level with him. And he was built thick, muscled like an ox. He smelled unpleasantly of a long day spent running through the humid streets of Rima’hai, chasing a young woman who was no stranger to being hunted and cornered. “It’s our duty to ensure your safety,” he said, smiling blandly. “Don’t get in our way.”
“I decline your generous offer,” she said, letting ice creep across the edges of her voice. “You are welcome to drinks or entertainment within the salon. But our kitchens are off limits to guests, and our quarters are private.”
“I don’t need to listen to this,” he said. “Just a damn harlot putting on airs.”
The room fell silent, save for the scraping of chairs. Peripherally, she saw the crowd rising, a forest growing at her back. The watchmen looked around, hands hovering over their weapons. The old mancala player at the bar harrumphed significantly, snatching his cane from where it leaned into a corner. The table of drunk men shifted into a semicircle around Mayya – who winked up at them, and pushed between their shoulders to stand at their apex. She sipped her wine, hand on her hip, and raised a single eyebrow in challenge to the intruders.
“I am sorry,” Ashabel said frostily. “But I believe you gentlemen must leave now.”
“Milady?” Zaira murmured from the door, barely audible over the rising creak and buzz of the jungle’s insect chorale. “Reyza is here.”
“Thank you, Zaira. Please send her in.”
A moment of whispering, and Reyza shuffled in, walking awkwardly in a short, loose gown – one of Zaira’s, by the patterns of golden padauk blossoms. Her hair trailed down her back, no longer filthy and matted, but glossy, sleek, and shining prettily where the evening light struck it. The ragged, uneven tips were still damp from the thickness of the air.
“Please,” Ashabel said, indicating the chair on the far side of her desk.
The girl did as she was bade, nervous fingers tugging the fluttering hem of her borrowed gown.
Ashabel observed her thoughtfully. Reyza’s eyes fled into the corners of the room. She sniffed, and wiped her nose on the back of her hand. “You pleaded shelter,” Ashabel said. “I never refuse shelter to women who need it. But there are conditions to my benefice.”
Her eyes darted up, lips pulling back from her teeth. “I won’t be one of yer wh**es!”
Ashabel’s hand moved faster than a blink, cracking across Reyza’s cinnamon-colored cheek. Her head snapped back, eyes wide with shock. Ashabel clasped her hands before her on the desk, twining the fingers calmly.
Outrage clouded the girl’s features, hands moving to her struck cheek. “You bi-!”
“Be silent,” Ashabel said, voice as cool and level as a marble dance floor.
Reyza’s jaw shut with an audible clack of teeth.
“Say whatever you wish about me,” Ashabel told her, “but you will not speak ill of those who work for me.” She waited until Reyza nodded once, curtly.
“Good. Now let me clarify something,” she continued. “The ladies of my salon are talented, intelligent, and charming. That is why men pay for their company. They can find bodies elsewhere. We offer minds. No lady may stay under my roof and share her bed.”
The girl blushed and stared at her scabbed knees. “O-oh.”
“We are all of us here untouchable. Unattainability is part of our mystique. Should one of us desire to take a lover, she must leave. We wish her well, and will aid her where we may, but she can never live here again.”
“Y-you never-?” the girl stammered, looking at the floor. “None of – even you?”
“Oh my, no.” Ashabel smiled. “Not for some years now. I believe such relations may cloud one’s judgment. Become a point of weakness. That is something I can ill afford.” A lazy, nostalgic smile passed her lips. “Though I must admit I… indulged rather a bit after my divorce.”
“Don’t you ever… um.” Her hands twisted in her lap. “You don’t… miss it?”
She released a tiny sliver of a laugh. “Darling, I am mortal, am I not? I have the same desires as any woman. I assure you, at such times, a lady can take care of herself quite sufficiently. And with considerably less risk.” The girl’s face reignited.
Ashabel pushed back her chair and stood, the sleeves of her gown falling over her hands. “My terms are these,” she said, walking slowly around the desk. “We will shelter you within these walls for as long as you like. You will be fed well. You will be granted a bed of your own. When you wish to pass beyond our walls, we can offer escort.
“In return, you shall be expected to help with the work here. More importantly, you must learn. Have you any skills?” she broke off, pausing and turning to Reyza.
She shook her head in surprise. “I… can cook a little. Nothing like what you serve here.”
“Mm. No matter. We will discover where your talents lie. Do you know your figures?”
“Like… math? Never needed more’n counting on my fingers.”
Ashabel tapped her lips thoughtfully. “Reyza, darling,” she said delicately, “can you read?”
The girl’s hands curled into fists. “Who’s got time for it?” she said, tightly.
Ashabel nodded to herself and resumed her pacing, drifting past bookshelves and pieces of art, delicate miniature paintings and slim folios of verse. Works composed by the women and girls who’d stayed with her over the years.
“Very well. I can teach you to read. Ahnni will teach you your figures. You will be exposed to poetry and literature. You will learn to play at least one instrument. If your voice is suited, you will sing. If not, you will recite poetry – and perhaps you will compose your own in time. You will learn to play senet, sho’vei, mancala, shatranj, and yehd’shi. If you can master one, we shall teach you how to lose in ways a fellow master will not notice. Mayya will probably be the one to teach you diction and conversation. I believe you have like personalities.
“I shall show you how to present yourself to best effect. How to dress. How to arrange your hair – which is lovely, I already have ideas… I will teach you how to walk through a room and seem above it. Once you know how to walk, you will begin to study dance. Yala will help you learn meditation and Hanvati can introduce you to the philosophies. You shall try your hand at painting and sculpture.” She paused, and added, “And should there be a need… we can even show you ways a lady might take care of herself.”
She assessed the girl’s profile as the tide of sunset spread throughout the room. Her chin was lowered, curtains of fine, dark hair obscuring her eyes. The light set her ember highlights blazing. “After a time,” Ashabel said, “we will allow men to pay for the pleasure of your company. But they will never be permitted to touch you. Not unless it is your desire they should do so. That is my vow.”
“Why?” the girl asked. “Why… so much? For me? I’m just…” Her callused hands clenched at her knees, hiding the scabs. The muscles in her arms tensed, the white whispers of old scars thrown into relief by in the slanting light from the window.
“Every woman is a lotus bulb, my darling. We shall help you bloom. Where you grow from there is yours to choose.”
Reyza’s shoulders stooped and shook. Ashabel moved beside her, and saw water spilling over the fingers clamped across her mouth. “I accept your terms,” she whispered, voice ragged with tears. “…Thank you.”
She massaged the girl’s tense and shaking shoulders with warm, strong, supple fingers. “Sleep for as long as you need tonight,” she murmured into her ear. “Tomorrow I shall help you build a new life.”