Crow woke up the next morning and stretched. He yawned and looked up at the ceiling. The only thing that would make this morning perfect is a joint, he thought. He’d had several rolled up, stashed away in his pack but the thieves who had attacked him had probably smoked them all by now.
The audible growl of his belly motivated him to get out of bed. He went to the wardrobe and pulled the doors open. Shit. What am I going to wear? Except for a few wire hangers the wardrobe was completely empty.
As if someone had read his mind there was a knock at the door. He opened it to find Brass standing on the other side. The large man held out a neatly folded pile of clothes to Crow. The practitioner breathed in the smell of laundry detergent. He couldn’t imagine how his own clothes smelled.
“Madame Vorca wants you to wear these,” the large man said in a voice that was absurdly high for someone of his size. It was the first time Crow had heard him speak.
Fighting the urge to smile, Crow thanked him and took the clothes. Closing the door, he unfolded the garments to see what Madame Vorca had given him to wear. Crow made a sound of disgust deep in his throat. Sitting on top of the bed was a blue silk shirt with a long V that came halfway down the front and a pair of black leather breeches that laced up at the front. I suppose in order to work as a whore I have to dress as a whore, he thought.
What did you expect? a cruel voice whispered in the back of his mind. You’ve done this before. If you’re going to play the role right you have to do it well.
Once fully he dressed he turned to face the mirror. He ran his finger through his almost shoulder-length hair, trying to make it a little less disheveled. The V at the front of his shirt came just below his chest. He was so bony his collar bone was visible. The pants fit snugly, hugging his curveless hips.
It was time to see if he could hunt down some breakfast. He stepped out of his room. He could smell coffee coming from somewhere. He followed his nose down two flights of stairs to the first floor, into the dining room. Several people, four females and four males, sat around the table covered with dishes of food: platters of scrambled eggs, sausage links, fried greens, biscuits, gravy, and fresh fruit, and juice. Crow was so captivated by the amount of good sitting in front of him that he was unaware everyone else in the room had gone quiet and was watching him curiously.
“Hello,” a boy said standing up. He could have been Crow’s age and he could have been younger. It was hard to tell how old he was exactly; he had a soft boyish face, and round brown eyes. He was shorter and skinnier than Crow. Like the practitioner he wore almost the exact same outfit, on;y the top garment was purple instead of blue and black pants and sandals that showed his neatly trimmed toes. “We heard Madame Vorca had hired someone new. You’re just in time for breakfast. My name is Twig.”
“Crow,” the practitioner said.
“Is that your actual name?” one of the girls said sarcastically. The other girls laughed. The girl who had spoken was young with black hair and dark skin; she had the same accent as Barghast. Was this another Okanavian who had abandoned her tribal life to become a whore?
“It’s the name I call myself.”
Everyone went quiet but for Twig. “The customers would start rolling in after the ninth bell rings, which will be in a few minutes. You should eat while you still can. You can sit next to me.”
Crow smiled. At least someone was making an effort to be welcoming.The practitioner helped him to coffee, eggs, sausage, a biscuit, and grapes. He forced himself to eat slowly. He didn’t need anyone making remarks because he ate like a pig.
Twig introduced him to everyone sitting around the table. The other males nodded politely but said nothing. Crow was fine with this.
“What happened to your fingers?” Twig asked. He was looking at the splint on Crow’s hand.
“I was robbed while passing through town,” Crow replied. “They did this to me and stole my stuff.”
“That’s shitty,” Twig said sympathetically enough.
Over the next few minutes as Crow ate, Twig asked him questions. Crow answered them vaguely between mouthfuls of food, mostly telling half-truths. He explained he’d come from the city of Miffland and was intending to return to his hometown in the Plaesil mountains; he was just staying here long enough to make money so he could finish the journey. Twig exclaimed at how brave he was to be heading North considering the Scarlet Church was taking everything over. Crow shrugged this comment off. So far he liked Twig the best out of the others but he was exhausted after answering all the questions.
The ninth bell rang. Everyone scrambled to their feet, carrying dishes through the swinging door into the kitchen. Crow followed suit, grabbing what he could. Madame Vorca came sweeping down the stairs, dressed in yellow silk, with Brass at her side. “Hurry up!” she barked in a shrill voice that grated against Crow’s nerves.
Everyone took their positions in the parlor, the woman on one side of the room, the men on the other. Crow suddenly felt nauseous with anxiety. Have I really fallen into such misfortune that I’ve lowered myself into this position? he thought. Is it really worth it?
Before he could answer his own question the door crashed open and a group of men came rushing in. Crow stood in the corner of the room, secretly hoping no one would notice him. He watched the others lead their patrons up the stairs one by one. Twig was flirting with a hawkish middle-aged dandy who had his hair tied back with a ribbon. Just when it seemed Crow had escaped degradation for the moment, the door crashed open once more and a large brute of a man came staggering in. Even from where he stood Crow could smell the sour burn of drink and sweat coming off the man. He was tall, not as tall as Barghast but taller than Brass, and was broad of shoulder and chest with hands the size of small plates. He looked Crow up and down with beady blue eyes. He wiped at his bearded mouth with the back of his hand.
“You look like a nice, tight fuck,” the man said in a slurred voice.
Crow swallowed the lump in his throat. He held out a hand, beckoning with a smile. “Come upstairs with me and find out.”
The man followed him up the stairs, boots clunking against wood the whole way. No sooner were they in the room the man had stripped off his clothes. His cock, sheathed in foreskin, was hard. “Get over here and relieve me, boy,” he said gruffly.
Crow, having stripped naked, knelt slowly down before the man. He felt a dizzying sense of deja vu. I’ve been in this position before - it’s not a position I’d ever thought I’d be in again, nor do I want to be in it. But this is the quickest way to get what I need so I can get home. It’s the only way I know how to get home.
He wrinkled his nose at the stench coming from the man. He leaned closer, felt bits of his breakfast rise up in his gorge, swallowed it back down. He took the man’s cock into his mouth. Just imagine it’s Barghast, he told himself. Pretend you’re finally with him.
Crow stood before the window, looking down at the town of Whifden, naked and sore. He longed for a joint now more than ever. There were teeth marks on his neck from where one of the clients had bitten him hard enough to draw blood. The man who had done it had paid him well. In the morning I’m out of here whether I have enough money or not, he thought. He had a small bag full of coins.
He turned to face the bed. The sheets were disheveled and wet with sweat. The spicy scent of sex and body odor almost completely drowned out the lavender. He was about to tumble back onto the mattress when there was a knock at the door. It was Twig, completely dressed.
“Just wanted to see how you’re doing,” the prostitute said. “Also I was wondering if you smoke jalasa.”
“You have jalalsa?” Crow asked excited, peering around the corner of the door with the rest of his body obscured from view.
Twig smiled. “I rolled you a few just in case.”
Crow grinned back,feeling his spirits lift.“My savior. Give me just a moment to put something on.” He closed the door long enough to slide a bathrobe on. The bathrobe felt smooth and silky against his bare flesh. When he opened the door once more all the way, Twig entered with a leather pouch in hand. They sat together on the edge of the bed.
“Rough day?” Twig asked, undoing the silver clasp on the pouch.
“If that’s the word you want to use to describe it,” said Crow. “One of my clients bit me hard enough to draw blood.”
“Let me see,” Twig said. His voice wasn’t so much curious as it was concerned. Crow reluctantly pulled down the collar of his bathrobe, showing the inflamed teeth marks that marked the spot between his neck and shoulder. He looked away in hopes Twig couldn’t see how much the experience had rattled him.
“You should have a healer take a look at it before it gets infected,” Twig said, handing the practitioner a neatly rolled joint. “We get quite a few freaks that come in here. I’ve handled a few myself. It’s a shame you had to experience it on your first day.”
“It’s not my first day,” Crow said. He leaned over so Twig could light the end of his joint with a wooden match. “But it’s been a while, so I’m a little rusty. Tomorrow it won’t matter because in the morning I’m leaving this place.” He inhaled before blowing out the smoke through his nostrils.
Twig made a choking sound, coughing out plumes of smoke. Once he was able to speak again he exclaimed, “But you just got here! How can you just leave?” Alarm and disappointment warred on his round, boyish features. Crow was touched by what he saw there. It slowly occurred to him that maybe he had finally found a friend.
“This is not a profession I want to be in for the rest of my life.” A flush had bloomed across his pale, milky cheeks. “I don’t blame those who do but the life of a prostitute is not meant for me. As of today it’s just a means to get me to where I really want to be.” A place I know nothing of - this place I want to go to, assuming it isn’t Annesville, might not even exist.
“It’s not the greatest life," Twig agreed, tipping ash into a marble ashtray, “but it’s much better than the life I was living. At least I have some measure of control and I’m making the money the way I want to.”
Where are you from?: Crow asked. The room was smokey, piney smelling with the jalasa. For the moment Crow felt utterly content.
“The Jalacial Flatlands,” Twig said. “Have you been there?”
Crow shook his head.
“Good. All there is out there are grainfields and mud because it rains nine months out of the year - mud literally coming up to your ankles.”
“I like rain,” the practitioner said simply.
“I do too,” the young prostitute agreed, “but when it almost rains everyday you begin to grow tired of it. I know life in the north can be just as tough but at least the air smells clean. Anyway my father is a grainfarmer. His house sits on acres of land. He’s a bit of a bastard - among other things. He could never reconcile with the fact that I am not attracted to the opposite sex. He used to call me a sodomite, said that I was possessed by a sexual demon. He tried to have it exorcised out of me and my mom just stood there and let him do it. As soon as I could I left and I have no intentions of going back.” He yawned. “Well that’s my cue to go to bed for the evening. Will you stick around long enough to have breakfast in the morning?”
The two young men wished each other good night.
A heavy fist crashed against his door three times hard enough to make it rattle in its frame. Cursing, Crow dragged himself out of bed and shuffled towards the door. He slid his arms into his robe, quickly tied the knot, and opened the door.
“Mistress wants to see you,” Brass said, casting a looming shadow over Crow.
Before the practitioner could ask for an explanation the large man turned on his heel and disappeared around the corner. Crow followed after a moment, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. He found Madame Vorca and Brass in the room where Vorca had examined just the other day. She sat at her desk, dressed in a robe, her face scrubbed free of makeup.
“Ah,” she said in a light almost conversational tone. “Good, you’re up. I’m sorry to have dragged you out of bed like this but I’m afraid there’s something important we need to discuss.” She held something out to him, a piece of paper. “These are being passed out throughout the town and the rest of the hellscape. I figured you would like to take a look at it.”
Crow took the piece of parchment and blinked down at it sleepily. After a second’s glance he felt his blood turn to ice. Abruptly, he no longer felt sleepy. At the top in bold black letters was the word WANTED; beneath this was a drawn sketch of his likeness, down to the long black hair and hawkish nose. He looked up, his mind spinning. “I don’t understand. I’m not a criminal.”
“It seems you are being charged with treason as a spy for the Scarlet Church,” Madame Vorca said, rising to her feet. “While I usually don’t like meddling in such affairs I fee; it is my duty to the Eurchurch and to the Pope to make them aware of your whereabouts. Which is why a Eurchurch patrol is on their way here right now. They should be here any minute.”
“I am not a spy for the Scarlet Church.” Crow felt as if he was choking on his own words. “I fought for them...”
“Regardless of the truth it makes no difference to me,” said Madame Vorca. “The Eurchurch can deal with you.” There was a rapping sound somewhere downstairs. “Oh,” she said flippantly. “That must be them. Brass, go downstairs and let them in won’t you?”
Brass left the room, his boots thudding heavily on the wooden floor until Crow could no longer hear them. A moment later he heard the sound of voices, authoritative and excited. He glared at Madame Vorca. Underneath the shock he could feel himself growing angry. I have given a year of my life to the Eurchurch, risked my neck on multiple occasions and this is how I’m repaid? Remembering his meeting with the Pope in his apartment, Crow couldn’t say he was surprised. Pope Drajen was a very paranoid, very petty man no matter how much he tried to appear otherwise in the face of the public.
The Eurchurch really is no better than the Scarlet Church.
The door swung open once more and Brass came in, leading three Eurchurchman. They wore the customary Eurchurchman uniforms and were armed with rifles. The one in the front was tall and lanky, his thinning dark hair pulled back into a ponytail. He looked at Crow with sharp blue eyes. “Is this the one?” he asked Madame Vorca.
“Yes.” She came around the desk and handed him the flyer. “The practitioner the Eurchuurch is looking for. I didn’t even know he was a practitioner. If I had I never would have let him into my establishment.” As she passed by him, she spat in Crow’s face. Her spit felt cool against his skin.
The man held up the drawing to Crow’s face. “Yep, it’s him. My name is Leutanent Wolff,” he said to Crow. “I, on behalf of the Eurchurch, are placing you under arrest for treason against the pope.” As he spoke, Wolff pulled out a pair of steel shackles. Crow thought he noticed specks of dried blood around the cuffs. The sight made him feel queasy. “We can either do this quietly or things could get violent.”
Crow tilted his head back, his decision already made. He knew if he were to be taken for trial in front of the Pope he wouldn’t stand a chance. Within the narcissistic mind of a man like Drajen he was already guilty. His decision was based on simple self preservation.
“I prefer violence,” he said, and spinning on his heels unleashed a ring of fire that fanned throughout the room. In an explosion of heat and flame, the three patrolmen, Madame Vorca, and Brass were thrown off their feet onto the floor.
Dashing towards the broken windows, Crow jumped onto the roof. The ground spun below dizzyingly below but he knew he could make the jump without hurting himself. He cast a wide-eyed glance over his shoulder. Already Wolff and the other patrolmen were starting to get to their feet.
Crow jumped through the air. With a cushion of wind, Crow managed to slow his fall before landing in the mud. Grunting, he righted himself. Gunfire cracked in the air. Bullets smacked into the mud around him. Ducking low, Crow broke into a mad dash with the sound of shouting in his ears.