(Show/Hide Browsing Column ->)
This story is rated 'spicy' and may contain racy or violent material. Click to read this content!
"You going to frame that bitch clerk, now?" Sherith asked, sitting across the desk. "Is it time to start squeezing the license master, finally?" He fingered one of the daggers at his waist suggestively.Here is a short excerpt to whet your appetite:
Jarl hid his dislike with practiced ease, offering only a mild, amused expression. "Not just like that," he said evenly. "You can't just jump into these things. You have to apply the right pressure first, get all the pieces into place before you go stumbling in."
Sherith looked sour and his voice was disappointed. "I'm tired of waiting," he whined. "All I've done in tendays is deliver messages and order sketches. Maybe it's time to get more information out of one of the contacts..."
Jarl knew which one he meant: the carnal guild senior Olarali, who had first delivered them the idea that License Master Baison's weakness might be his pretty head of filing, Clerk Ressa. Sherith had an unhealthy obsession with Bai's high-profile prostitute - the kind of obsession that could bring attention Jarl didn't need, and the kind that could make a stupid man make mistakes. Sherith definitely fit into the category of stupid man.
"You'll stay away from all of them," he said, deceptively casual, but firm. "I've got other contacts taking action for now."
Sherith pouted, audibly sighing in frustration. Jarl bit back a sharper reply and dismissed him with a flick of his hand.
"That man lacks subtlety," he said in disappointment to the other figure in the room.
"There's a lot that man lacks," was his amused reply, and Jarl smiled.
"He serves his purpose, for now," the criminal leader conceded.
"We all do," the other man agreed.
Ressa took her yearly carnal guild renewals like she took bitter medicine, bills and visits from certain parts of her family: stoically.
She knew it was good for her to have a license for a second career - and prostitution was highly respectable and infinitely employable. So, she choked up the Imperials for the most basic junior license, and kept it, unused, at the very back of her license pouch. She preferred her job at the licensing office, and would take her quiet halls of files and chaotic license presses over a paid romp in silk sheets at any chance.
'You're not normal,' she reminded herself, standing in line at the carnal guild administrative office.
In front of her, a woman wearing little more than strips of golden tassels was talking with a man in very tight leather about lubricants. Behind her, two women were discussing breast shape, and had taken off their shirts for frank appraisal.
Nudity didn't bother her, nor did casual sexual honesty - she smiled warmly at the woman in tassels when they casually crossed gazes as she moved up to the desk.
"Ah, Ressa!" The man behind the counter smiled up from her paperwork after checking her tattoo against her folder tab. "You've got a flag for an interview."
Ressa blinked. "I do?"
The folder with her information was empty, but for a red slip of paper and her identification. "Madam Taleffi's office is straight down the second hall on the right," the attendant said helpfully, handing her the empty folder. "She has your file."
"Thank you," Ressa said automatically. "I remember where it is."
She walked down the hallway in question with a flutter of anxiety in her stomach. Interviews were usually reserved for problem juniors, or to resolve errors in sloppy paperwork. Ressa knew she had filled out everything correctly and in a timely fashion - her medical guild examinations were always clean and her justification forms were always flawless. She worked in the licensing office, after all, and knew a thing or two about forms and paperwork!
She reminded herself firmly that there was nothing she could possibly be in trouble for, as she raised her hand to the paneled door and rapped firmly.
"Enter, citizen!" the voice from within called, and Ressa obeyed, pulling the heavy door shut behind her.
If the lushly appointed lobby was elegant, it was nothing to the office she entered now. High arched windows let afternoon light slant down between heavy blue velvet curtains, and a plush blue carpet silenced the click of Ressa's sensible heeled boots. Taleffi was sitting behind a mahogany desk of massive expanse, a crystal decanter of liquid at her elbow.
"Ressa!" she exclaimed, rising to her feet and navigating around the desk. "Darling, look at the woman you've grown into!"
Ressa took her hands in a warm clasp and smiled back. Taleffi had been one of her earliest guild instructors, but they had never been close - she wondered if it was merely politeness, or if the woman actually remembered her.
"I can't believe you tuck that gorgeous body of yours into such unflattering lines," the older woman said with a sigh, gesturing for Ressa to turn. Ressa did, a little hesitantly, and was careful not to stumble when the pile of the carpeting clung to her boots. "Scientist robes don't look good on anyone," Taleffi said with regret. "It's so impossible to highlight the assets in them."
She was showing plenty of her own assets; her gown was low-cut and tailored tight, to show that whatever else age had brought Taleffi, it hadn't taken much away. The madam must be over 60 now, and the lines of her face claimed that she had been a great beauty in her youth. Even now, she was attractive, cleverly-applied makeup pulling attention to her still-full lips and bright eyes. She carried herself with practiced grace, and her gesture to bid Ressa to sit was as perfect as any dancer or actor's.
Ressa sat, while Madam Taleffi fanned the contents of Ressa's file over her desk. Ressa wished she could see them, but the width of the desk made that awkward, and leaning over would have been inelegant. She settled back in the padded chair, instead, and waited with all the serenity she could manage to find out why she had been summoned.
Taleffi did not leave her waiting. "You haven't filed an encounter form since you were licensed as an adult and graduated to junior, Ressa."
"I have another job," Ressa said. "I... did note that on my justification form." She was quite sure she hadn't missed it; she always double-checked her forms.
"A filing job," Taleffi said with a laugh to lighten the scorn in her voice. "Ressa, you could be making several times what the licensing office pays you taking just a few clients a tenday, to say nothing of the housing you would be eligible for." She steepled her hands in front of her and touched her chin to her fingertips. "Your apprentice-level reports were always quite excellent," she said chidingly. "None of your partners ever registered a complaint, and you scored extremely high in several categories."
Ressa laughed, a practiced laugh. This wouldn't be the first time someone had expressed surprise at her choice. "I like the routine," she said honestly. "I like the order of the licensing office and the ways of organizing things."
Taleffi waved an unconvinced hand. "Yes, of course. But not one encounter? Seven years, and not so much as an entanglement form? If I didn't know better, I'd think you were deceiving us to avoid paying guild dues."
"I wouldn't do that," Ressa said immediately, shocked by the implication.
"Of course not," Taleffi agreed. "You may not have gotten to assistant rank, but you could never be considered stupid. At the least, if you were going to try to stay in the low dues bracket, you would turn one or two forms in. You were always selective, so no one would find that odd. None at all would be the only thing that became suspicious."
Ressa tried to decide if Taleffi was trying to be flattering or not.
"Ressa, darling, is anything wrong?"
"Oh, no," Ressa was quick to assure. "I just... love my job a great deal, and I grew up very simply. The plain clerk housing suits me fine."
"You love your job a great deal, or you love someone at your job a great deal?"
If Ressa had been shocked before, it was nothing to the surprise of that idea. "Someone at my job?" She laughed, unable to stop herself. Most of the license managers were dour, hardened people, and the younger clerks and assistants held no interest for her. Even handsome Lalya, manager of Building Permits, reminded her of one of her younger brothers, and was comfortably uninterested in women anyway. The people she worked with were like family - and mostly the kind of family you were grateful lived several cities down the rail lines. "Goodness, no," she said frankly. "I wouldn't dream of it. License Master Baison frowns on interoffice fraternization anyway."
The very idea of it made her feel suddenly uncomfortable, and Ressa shook her head firmly. "Goodness, no," she repeated.
Madam Taleffi sighed. "Well, maybe you should be looking for opportunities," the guild senior suggested. "It isn't natural to go seven years without any action at all. The guild could have reason to revoke your license, if they think you aren't taking it seriously."
"I take it very seriously," Ressa said gravely. "I... understand the responsibility of-"
"I'm not sure that you do," Taleffi said firmly.
Ressa stilled, not sure how to take the Madam's sudden grimness, and before she could grasp at any reply, the guild senior laughed lightly. "I'm not suggesting you start advertising at street corners, darling, don't look so alarmed. I'm just saying that you might like a little romance. You don't have to find your one true love, or any nonsense, but it wouldn't hurt anything to have a little fun, maybe find a boyfriend."
"A boyfriend?" The idea was as surprising as any in this entire surprising conversation.
"Or a girlfriend, if you'd prefer," Taleffi shrugged. "Your apprentice notes say you preferred men but weren't exclusive." She looked almost bored now, tapping the papers from Ressa's slim file into a pile with disinterest. She passed a copy of Ressa's temporary license renewal, already stamped as approved, across the table.
"I... I suppose I could," Ressa said numbly. She stood, hearing the dismissal in the Madam's voice, and Taleffi also stood.
"It was lovely to see you," Taleffi said warmly, and they clasped hands in parting.
"A pleasure for me also," Ressa said, automatically smiling. She left the room in a daze, puzzled by the entire encounter.
The day was not particularly warm. It was late autumn, and winter was looming on the horizon. Most of his passengers were wearing long coats and sweaters.
But Yeff only had to glance into his rear view mirror, and remember the innocuous-looking man who had upended his life a month prior to feel a flush of fear... and something that was suspiciously like excitement.
He had no choice in this, in any of his life since that fateful meeting. The man, nameless, had said Yeff would become a railcar driver, and very suddenly, for the speed of Empire bureaucracy, he was the holder of a railcar operator's license and had passed every one of his interviews in record time.
What they asked of him seemed so harmless, so completely unequal to the strings that must have been pulled, to the... Yeff shuddered, remembering the lurid headlines. The rail drivers before him had been murdered: brutally strangled. The people who now pulled his strings had power he couldn't begin to fathom, and their demands seemed absurd.
All he had to do was court a woman.
He just had to court her, the instructions had said. They didn't say what would happen if he failed to win her; his imagination could supply that.
He had a picture of her, and recognized her sketch at once as one of his regular passengers: a striking woman, memorable, taller than most men and so beautiful that she could stop traffic with her smile. She had long dark hair, usually coiled neatly against her head, and she always smiled at him, giving him polite greetings, when most of his passengers seemed not to see him at all. Yeff had always been awed by her. When he got the sketch, it had been like some kind of bizarre coincidence, but the more he was directed by his mysterious benefactor, the more certain he was that none of it was any kind of coincidence at all.
She was sitting behind him now, about halfway back in the front cablecar, a gray rag folded, unread, in her lap with her license pouch. She stared out the window, watching the buildings stream past, and at every stop, she would smile sweetly at the people who passed her, friendly, without being overtly inviting.
She was the kind of woman Yeff would never had dared to approach - so clearly out of his league in every way that more conversation than vague polite greetings would never have occurred to him.
Now, he had to.
He'd gone over every greeting, every pick-up line and every conversation opener he could imagine, practicing them for three days in his tidyroom mirror. He watched as they approached her usual stop, and his heart thundered in his chest. This was his opportunity. His only opportunity.
His courage failed him when she was standing behind his seat in the queue to leave the car, and again when she smiled vaguely at him as the queue filed past.
Yeff choked his fear back then and leaped up out his driver's seat. "Wait," he said loudly. The woman turned in surprise, as did the man in front of her. The hum of chatter in the car stilled.
"I'm... Today's my last day doing this route," he said, almost apologetically, completely ignoring the man and the other passengers. "It's my last chance to ask you... could I see you... for dinner? Or theatre, if you wanted? I could... get tickets to something." It didn't sound anything like his practice in front of the mirror.
She stared at him in astonishment, her perfect eyebrows making arches over her wide dark eyes.
Yeff swallowed, remembering the headlines for the murders, and the gruesome descriptions of their deaths. Charm, he reminded himself. I've got to be charming, somehow.
Failing that, he babbled. "I've been promoted," he explained. "In two tendays I start driving railcars, you see, which I've always wanted to do, and I've seen you on my routes, but I never had the courage to talk to you, and if I don't do it now, I might never see you again, and you'll think I'm a fool, but I had to try."
She was smiling now, a soft, sweet smile that Yeff decided meant she was turning him down, and a blush was rising in her cheeks.
"I'm sorry," he floundered. "You don't have to, of course, I only... had to try." He had to, literally.
"I'd love to have dinner," she said, unexpectedly. "Do you know where Lassati's is?"
Yeff stared, trying to reconcile her answer with his certainty that he'd failed. "Er... yes," he said inelegantly.
"Tomorrow night?" she suggested, when he failed to.
"Er... yes!" he replied again, in shock.
"Seventeenth hour?" she elaborated, and Yeff nodded. Her smile warmed, and she turned to leave.
"Wait!" Yeff said at the last moment. The instructions he'd gotten had been missing one detail: "What's your name?"
"Ressa," she called musically, swinging away down the cablecar platform.
Yeff settled back into his driver's seat numbly, grinning in foolish relief as his heart hammered in his ears, and he realized after a moment that the cablecar passengers were applauding, laughing and delighted by the show he had given them.
His own relief faded with their clapping as they returned to their own conversations, and as he strapped his safety belt back on and brought the cablecar up to speed again, he found himself wondering: what in the world had he gotten himself into?
�Ah, Ressa!� The man behind the counter smiled up from her paperwork after checking her tattoo against her folder tab. �You've got a flag for an interview.�
The plot thickens!
Or, subscribe and support individual creators!