Len Win loved Belad’s cities. Back in the South, cities were arcane, their maps complex esoterica to be memorized by rote. But here you could read the cobblestones like a book. Belad built its cities like a skilled blacksmith forged her daggers, each district crafted with precision bought by decades of experience. There were maps, but she didn’t need one. The scents, the feel of the streets underfoot, the size of the great stone buildings around her told her just where she was and just where she should go. Lemua, Rosamar, it didn't matter; they were all the same in just the right ways.
She breathed in the cold, humid air, letting it fill her lungs, and listened to the gentle patter of the ever-present rain on the roof guarding the streets. Her journey was over. Weeks of travel, months scouring the libraries of Rosamar, concluded just like that. Here she was in her new city.
The process of making it hers was a... formality.
Len began walking sunward, away from the docks toward the hospitality district. She considered finding a tavern or a temple to stay at, but dismissed the thought. She was awake, excited, and hungry - for food and attention both. She ruled out the Temple of Anur as too spiritual for her needs, and settled on a Clan Lachen brothel. The proprietor in Rosamar had boasted there was one in every city, and she had seen he did not consciously deceive.
She let her hand brush the rail as she descended a wide flight of stairs into the undercity. The patter of rain grew muted and distant. Bright fireglass lights glowed in the tunnel below, illuminating the freefolk and slaves alike. Here was where most of the city travelled, safe from the cold and rain above, and where you could see more than five yards in any direction.
Slaves! You would never know them from freefolk if you didn’t know where to look. Not like the old country at all, where even without their collars and brands they kept their heads down and never crossed the path of a freewoman. Yet here, both mingled freely. Belad was a strange place.
She took pleasure in the startled glances she drew as she walked along the understreets, studying the foreigners with her trained eyes in return. It was not an equal exchange - their thoughts were plain on their faces, and the way they responded to the cadences of her movement told her a lot about the people of this city. This was not a place like Rosamar, with its bustle and scheming and undisguised opulence. Lemua's people were quiet and content, leading small but comfortable lives, beset by little fear and anxiety. But-
She paused. There was a woman passing her, and she didn’t look up. She was not content and she was hunched in a posture Len instantly recognized.
“Excuse me,” she said, touching the woman gently on the shoulder. She let enough of her Shan accent filter through to sound exotic, but not enough to obscure her words. The woman flinched, and Len knew why. Her necklace was black iron - the mark of a slave in the industrial sector - and bore the sigil of a clan Len did not recognize.
“Your mistresses are cruel to you, are they not?” said Len kindly, taking the woman by her shoulders.
She gulped, staring at Len with frightened eyes. “H-how did-?”
Len let her gaze rest on the woman’s clan amulet long enough to commit the pattern to memory, and then looked into her eyes. “I see much that is hidden,” she said reassuringly, stepping back. She brandished her staff. “What is your name, young mother?”
“Imiande,” the woman managed.
“You must be strong, Imiande. I see that change is coming.” Len clinked the staff against the cobbles below for dramatic effect. “I pronounce a doom upon those who have wronged you, and you will see justice done them.”
The woman stared in shock. Len took her hand. “Courage,” she said. “Your suffering will not be long.”
“W-who are you?” the slave managed.
Len just smiled, and turned away. That was a good start.
The lights gently changed their hue as she walked onwards, coding a map for the eyes of those accustomed to their patterns. She found the Lachen brothel nestled into the rock, fully belowground, the walls adorned with freshly-picked bunches of whorelily and fireglass lamps carved in anatomically fascinating detail.
A clerk at the front desk welcomed her, and Len could tell immediately that he was versed in some foreign approximation of the Shin Shichang-ji, though he probably had never heard the art's name. His eyes moved quickly to take in the small details of her face and body language, molding his to the desires he read in her. But his skill was primitive, too shallow to spot others skilled in the art, and his reactions were easy to prime. A brief flash of cold confidence was all it took to soften his stance and cadence into gentle submission.
“Milady southerner,” he said, bowing. “Thank you for gracing our honorable establishment in your travels.”
“Of course,” Len said coolly. “It is always a pleasure to patronize the house of Lachen.” She took a handful of silver talents from the inner pockets of her robe and passed it across the counter. “Do you accept my homeland's coin?”
The clerk nodded, and took the coins. “We are always honored to receive the dignitaries of foreign lands,” he purred. “Would you care to leave your clothes and staff at the desk to be secured?” He gestured as a silk-clad valet stepped up to her.
Len laughed. For a people native to the Riven Plains, the Beladans thought surprisingly little of nudity. “Thank you,” she said, passing her staff to the valet and waving her off. “I'll keep my clothes for the moment I think.”
“Of course.” The clerk stepped back, inclining his head and spreading his arms. “The Clan of Lachen welcomes you. If you have any needs, do not hesitate to speak to a clan representative.”
Len nodded. She lingered in the foyer just long enough to hear the clerk begin speaking to a different client like he was an entirely different person, his voice commanding, leading the client as she desired to be led. She wondered idly which was closer to his true self. Had he one anymore, even? To lose oneself in the Shin Shichang-ji was all too easy for its amateurs.
The light was dim in the brothel’s inner chamber, keeping the space close and intimate. The lamps shared the burden with a number of real candles, and incense wafted through the air. It would overwhelm her own scent, she knew, neutralizing the careful combinations of elixirs and oils she had anointed her body with early that morning. And without those pheremonic signals, others would not respond to her so desirably.
But Len enjoyed a challenge.
She found a platter of crisply-cooked suleche at the food alcove. She took a handful and nibbled it as she let the incense fill her nostrils, searching for the pheremonic agents she knew it would contain. In a moment, she identified it as a variant of the incense the priests of Anur used in temple orgies back home - with an added touch of dried sandrush, probably to tamp down the aggression of their clients.
Light, money, architecture, incense - so many ways the common folk were bent to the designs of others, and yet without a sage to embody the control, they would say they were not bewitched. It was a fun little dance to meddle in.
She finished the handful of súleche, marveling at the things the Beladans could do with seaweed. She walked towards a sofa where a whore was lounging, but stopped as a familiar symbol glinted in the light.
A young woman, certainly no older than 16, was entangled in the arms of a lithe, male-presenting elf clad in nothing but the sigils of Clan Lachén. The girl, though -- her golden cuancamé bore the same jewelry the battered slave in the tunnels had worn, and marked her as a freewoman of that clan.
Len smiled. She loved mixing business with pleasure.
“Mind sharing?” she said in a teasing voice, alighting on the sofa beside the elf. The elf looked up and gave her a saucy grin. The girl’s attention shifted sharply to her, and enduring the first few moments of her gaze told Len a lot of useful things. For one, despite Len’s own provocative pose and the orgiastic incense in the air, there was no lust in the girl’s body language. The girl was actually straight, the little devil. No scent, no seduction - tonight really would be a challenge of Len’s abilities.
“Who’dya think you are?” said the girl, and smacked the elf’s bottom with a beringed hand. The elf yelped. “And you, don’t think you’re going anywhere.”
“Mm,” said the elf, giggling. “As you command, milady.”
Absolutely no self-control, though. Len grinned. She had her angle. The girl was dominant as they come. Len just had to make herself a juicy target.
“Ooh, so selfish,” said Len, pouting. “I thought you Northerners were more welcoming than that.”
“Oh, that why you’re all dressed up like a temple prude?” sneered the girl. “Do they fuck with clothes on where you’re from?”
“But I’m not fucking anyone yet,” protested Len. There’s a victory I can give you. A fun one, too.
“Maybe s’cause you look like a blushing pansy,” the girl pointed out. Despite the irritation in her voice, Len could tell she was starting to have fun taunting her. “You wanna scare all the pretty whores away, lady?”
“No, of course not!” said Len.
“M’nora’s tits, you’re new to this,” said the girl. She snapped her fingers, and a valet approached out of the shadows. “Sichi! Come take this nice lady’s clothes for her, there’s a good boy.”
“Of course, Nalichenda,” said the valet, inclining his head. “Would you like help, milady?”
“Oh!” Len giggled, tinting the sound with embarassment. She glanced at Nali, giving her a pleading look, which Nali met with one of triumph. Slowly, feigning reluctance, Len stood, and blushed as the valet stepped behind her and unfastened her robes with a tender hand. The robes fell free, and Len struck an intentionally awkward pose, holding her wrist in one hand just above her sternum.
Nali grinned in victory. “There, see, that’ll work much better. Don’t you think so, Techa?” She ruffled the elf’s hair.
The elf grinned lazily at Len, and gave her a double thumbs-up. “I’d do you in heartbeat, that’s for sure.”
“Yeah, s’what your job is,” taunted Nali, pulling him back on top of her. “An’ I’d sure hope you could last longer than that; you haven’t been taking lessons from shitty human boys, have you?”
“You wound me!”
“I take it you’re a regular here,” said Len, sitting gingerly back down on the sofa.
“Oh yeah,” said Nali. “Gran still hasn’t gotten me my own slaveboy, so gotta take matters into my own hands!”
“By ‘matters,’ she means us,” interjected the elf, winking.
“Your clan must be important here,” said Len. “I’ve seen your sigils all over,” she lied.
Nali’s chest puffed up with pride. “Shit yeah we are! We own three whole farms, you know that?”
Len smiled indulgently. There were at least twenty wetfarms on the outskirts of Lemua. “I had no idea,” she said, in tones of awe. “What’s your name?”
“Chistar!” declared Nali. “My gran’s Chistar ar Marichescua, and I’m Nalichenda fal Chistar. And my sister Tara can firecraft all sorts of things, she’s gonna be real rich and famous some day!”
“Oh, but she can’t firecraft you a slaveboy?” teased Techa.
“Blood mage! Blood mage blood mage BLOOD MAGE!” Nali yelled at him, punctuating each word with a clip to the ear. Techa fell over laughing.
“Do you think --” Len began, but then stopped. “No, of course. You wouldn’t be able to, even if you thought I was worth it.”
“What’s that?” Nali glared at her. “You think I can’t do something? Bet you five silver you’re wrong, lady!”
“Oh, well,” Len looked down, clasping her hands, “I know it’s presumptuous of me, but I’m looking for a patron in this city - but you probably couldn’t introduce me to your grandmother, I’m sure she’s a very busy -”
“Fuck yeah I could!” Nali shot back contemptuously. “Just a’cause I’m young doesn’t mean gran doesn’t take me serious!”
“I mean, of course not, I didn’t mean to imply - but -”
“Prove it to ya!” Nali pointed a finger. “When I’m done here, you’re coming back home with me and meeting gran or I’ll make you rue the day you were born!”
“Y-yes, Miss Nalichenda,” said Len, suppressing a grin.
“S’right you will!” Nali beamed. “Now, what do you like? Boys or girls? Elves or people?”
“Oi!” complained Techa.
“Quiet you,” ordered Nali. “Come on, out with it, woman. Twosomes? Threesomes?”
“Well, I do like some variety in my-”
“Sanno! Kushani!” Nali called. “There’s a new lady over here, wants you to show her how to do a reverse Double Milkmaid!”
“Double Milkma-” Len began, her confusion for once completely real. “What’s--”
“You’ll love it,” said Nali. “Now if you’ll ‘scuse me, I got an elf to fuck.”
“All right, all right,” said Nali, rolling her eyes. “I got a people to fuck; happy, you little tree-hugger?”