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Sayan Soul Chapter 1 Part 2 (Adult Content and Language)

Part 2

Going against her instinct to see a winning hand through to the end, Raisa slid her cards to Jens, who had that morning been a kitchen boy scrubbing pots instead of dealing cards. “I’m out too,” she said, folding. A missed opportunity to capitalize on the trio of knaves might be the fairest price she’d find to secure the loan shark’s undivided attention. A chance she couldn’t let pass by, even if it meant she’d have to delay throwing the bard out on his ass. “I’ll join you.”

Her gesture drew a dark glare from Daveed, who was not only her benefactor’s right hand, but also a notorious stickler for gambling etiquette. Whatever his reason for feeling affronted, she’d have a word with him later—after the guests left the manor. Scolding agents in front of their peers was a fast way to find a snake in one’s bed. Or worse.

The deep blue satin skirt of her dress slipped silently against her legs, as she sidled up to the wolf in sheep’s clothing. “Buy me a round of Lion’s free birthday booze?”

A smile stretched across Strange’s angular face. He took her offered hand and slipped it over his elbow. “Shall we find you another glass of wine, beautiful, or are you biased for something with more bite?”

“You always know my mind, don’t you?” She slid her free hand up his arm, covered in a blood-red velvet sleeve. “I should quit while I’m ahead, if I’m so transparent.” She didn’t mean it and was sure Strange knew as much. Raisa had a reputation as a tough one to read, keeping her emotions locked up tighter than the safe in Lion’s bedroom. “Let’s get you a beverage, and perhaps catch ourselves a little listen, downstairs.” She led him from the table, leaving her money where it accumulated in meticulous stacks. Let the hired security watch over her winnings and earn their pay. Shadow and Lion had left their coins and been gone four rounds or more, a detail that added to her unease.

As they descended to the ballroom, she dropped the sweet but insincere tone of Miss Raven and leaned close to whisper in Strange’s ear. “Careful, or someone’ll notice how flushed you get when you pick up a lousy hand.”
“Has nothing to do with the cards,” he said. “It’s like a bathhouse in here.”

They passed the pair of mismatched guards charged with keeping the upstairs table private. The woman gave Raisa a quick glance and then turned up her thick nose. Evidently not everyone was impressed with the care Raisa took on her appearance.

As far as appearances went, the manor was decked out in its finest. At least, the finest Lion provided, since he tended to overlook cigarette burns in the rugs and the myriad of drink spills that leaked between the tiles after his parties.

There were no flowers or silverware, or crystal glasses, but he’d encouraged the girls from the parlor to move their finer furniture into one lush corner of the ballroom. At least the collected silk and velvet added some color to an otherwise white and gray expanse of echoing stone.

Most of Raisa’s time in preparation had been spent overseeing the laundry transformed into a glorified outhouse, with disused horse troughs fitted over the floor drains, and fresh bars of jasmine soap stacked next to the wide sink. Anything to encourage guests to relieve themselves there, rather than in the garden, where it would only cause the cooks to throw another conniption. Accommodations for toilet needs were in somewhat short supply in the century-old house, but Lion was smart enough to heed the warnings of the staff in charge of preparing his food.

Raisa and Strange approached the makeshift bar set up with kegs and casks. “Lion surely feeds the fires so we imbibe more than our fair share. It’s the only chance he has of winning, slick bastard. The harvest is barely in, and Longnight more than a month off! Can’t he just be content with his rake and spare us the discomfort?”

Raisa rewarded him with a genuine smile. His guess was startlingly accurate. Except, it wasn’t Lion who paid the servants to stoke the hearths all night—he spent his time dicing and bullshitting, and too drunk to pay attention to anything. It was Raisa’s strategy, and so far, it paid for itself a dozen times over.

“Aren’t you the honest cat tonight,” she said, referencing a popular idiom from Brazelton, where cats ran feral down by the port, and few were anything but a nuisance. Lion’s associates were self-serving opportunists, and expected everyone else was, too. But every so often, one could find a domesticated house cat in the mix. Not that Andrew Strange hadn’t ordered his thugs to collect a few debts by way of bruises and broken noses and ribs, but deep down, he preferred fair dealing, and so did Raisa.

“Just calling it how I see it.”

“Probably the reason you and I get along so well,” Raisa said, sure to spread her sincerest tone like warm butter all over the words. “We’re true to a fault, you and me. Some might call it our one flaw. That is, if they were the sort who felt comfortable discussing our flaws.”
He searched his pocket for a coin to tip the barman. “Short list. I think we’re safe.” He grabbed a couple wine glasses from a tray on the counter.

Raisa accepted the offered glass and arm in arm they moved through the hall packed with dice tables and card tables, and every other sort of table required to drink and play games, and place bets on anything and everything. They paused by a pillar, one of four supporting the domed ceiling. Strange squinted at a platform that held the high table for feasts, and entertainers for parties. The corner of his mouth twitched. “You really love your Lion, don’t you?”

“Enough to hire him a rogue with a chiseled jaw and too-long hair? I suppose so. Even if said rogue charges entirely too much to sing a historic ballad to a crime boss on his birthday.”

“I meant keeping your hands to yourself. He’s easy on the eye despite his appalling taste in clothing. Is he an entrepreneur or a jester, wearing tailored fashions in such obscene colors?”

“I don’t know who he is,” Raisa said, feeling a hint of annoyance. “We met at a garden party over the summer. I can’t say he made much of an impression with me, but…” She shrugged. “He sings old rebel songs. Lion took one listen and fell head over heels. You don’t even want to know what it cost me to buy him for tonight.”

Strange emitted a sound halfway between a snort and a chuckle. “No, I probably don’t.”

“When Lion told me he wanted that young man with the guitar for his birthday, I was disconcerted. You know how Lion’s inflection can sometimes lead to…confusion. I didn’t know whether he wanted the bard, or wanted the bard. Eventually, I realized he just wanted the bard…to play his party.”

“Could have been awkward if you’d gone the wrong way,” Strange said.

“Luckily I figured it out before Daveed produced a silk garrote.” She winked.

Strange patted her hand, on his arm. “My birthday’s the twenty-first of Hare Moon, in case you’re struggling for a gift. And just to be clear, I’m most interested in the first scenario.”

“So you wouldn’t be upset if Martin the Magnificent serenaded you on a pleasure dory while you dined and drank at your leisure?”

“Gods, is that his stage name? Martin the Magnificent?”

“No, I made it up. Entertainers always pick something ludicrous, don’t they?”

“I’ll let you know if it’s apt,” Strange said, low. “Soon as we’re done touring the bay on my pleasure dory you’re getting me for my birthday.”

“Anyway, I’m just here to play cards and if Lion wants to spend his night fawning over Martin between trips to refill his glass, I don’t care. I’ve got my own business to conduct.”

“You don’t say,” he said, in mock astonishment. “You mean you didn’t just want to have a pleasant drink with me?”

“Worry about your coins, rather than my motives. You’re letting Daveed bluff you off every pot.”

“Is that a fact?” Strange asked, in the same tone Raisa imagined he employed when his clients invented clever excuses for why they couldn’t return what they’d borrowed.

“He’s playing aggressive, hoping Lion takes notice, and he’s not likely to back off.”

“Second in command of Lion’s assets in this district and all thirty of his years spent seeking approval. Whomever his father was, he did a number on that young man.”

“You know how it is,” she said with a smirk. “Lion isn’t exactly generous with the praise he heaps on his agents, even his favorites. I suppose he feels their wages are reward enough and flattery would only lead to their britches getting overlarge.”

“So you pulled me aside to warn me I’m doing a terrible job of winning?”

“I thought you might like to know Daveed’s bluffing you out and Shadow’s new recruit, Thorne, is up to something, but I haven’t figured it out yet.”

“Which leaves me wondering why you’re so willing to share your strategy, doll face,” he said, not unkindly. “You’ve never done it before.”

He had a point.

“Either I look like a bigger loser than I feel, and that’s saying a lot because my money’s disappearing faster than the free spirits in those casks, or I’m about to hear a very convincing pitch from a young lady who didn’t wear a low-cut dress accidentally. Some upcoming business of Lion’s, I imagine?” He raised a questioning brow. “And, you’re going to tell me every reason I want to jump on board right now.”

“You’re certainly not the myopic fleecer most of these scoundrels have you pegged for.”

“I’m sure you mean that in the most flattering way,” he said, displaying a sly grin.

She returned the dubious expression. “Indeed.”

“What sort of too good to be true offer has Lion got planned for me, that he sent you over to whisper in my ear, though he appears to have vanished with Shadow?” Strange drank from his glass and turned away from Raisa as if to imply he wasn’t interested—just the sort of gesture that told her he might be genuinely intrigued. “You and I are a little beyond that sort of foolishness, but I appreciate the sentiment. Despite Lion’s hesitancy to part with praise, his sending you to proposition me on the night of his birthday celebration might be the sincerest form of flattery. At least I know he still likes me.”

Raisa placed her fingers on his bristly cheek, pulling him back to face her. “I didn’t wear the dress for your benefit.” She straightened his cravat, laying it neatly against his broad chest, and slid her hands around the back of his neck. “I wore it because I like it.”

“I like it too.” Strange rested his hands on Raisa’s hips, completing what any observer might consider the intimate embrace of two dancers. “Objectively, of course. If I were the sort of man to find any female assets desirable, I’d think yours would please me fine.” He gave a little shrug. “I enjoy your style. Enticing, but not overtly whorish.”

“Sweet-talker!” Raisa rose up on her toes and gave him a quick kiss near his ear, where her lip coloring, if it rubbed off, would be hidden by his beard. “I’ll assume you meant that in the most flattering way, as well.”

“Indeed.”

The middle-aged loan shark and Raisa had a special kind of relationship—something genuine. Gratefulness perhaps. Brazelton’s fashionable new drug, Elixir, had a way of making people grateful. Mostly, after they freed themselves from the addictive effects.

Sailors brought dried vocana bark to Brazelton decades earlier from the southern islands, where it grew as a parasitic flowering vine. Mixed with tobacco, vocana was chewed and stored in the cheek or along the gums, slowly entering the bloodstream, increasing pep and focus. Sailors used it to keep awake during long nights, or calm a nervous mind during a storm.

A decade later, after a staggering number of people lost teeth on one side of their mouth, and dark brown spit stains spotted the cobblestones in the commoners’ marketplaces, innovators like Lion set about producing a better product. Chemists learned to distill vocana and the diluted tincture became known as Elixir. Rumors touted it as a cure for almost any malady, and an industry was born.

Dens sprung up, where Elixir and other substances provided recreation and therapy to those in need of escape, and comfort to those who traded their bodies for money. Raisa first became acquainted with Elixir when she found work cleaning rooms in a brothel. It’s how she met Strange, and later, Lion. But addiction can be a son of a bitch.

Unlike alcohol, which turned a lout into a bawling alley cat ready to scrap over a trash heap, Elixir transformed a working-class stiff into an Andruain lion, poised and dangerous. Giving the illusion of power.

It brought about a contemplative sort of calm, siphoning hopes and dreams from the innermost soul, and often didn’t return them. It was a dark time, one Raisa had tried to forget.

After holing up together for a weeklong withdrawal in Strange’s manor, there wasn’t much Raisa and Strange didn’t know about each other. Love and loss were typical reminiscences that surfaced during agonizing hours filled with sweat and tears, and the conversation naturally turned to old loves that were gone—those that left their mark on hearts so broken, they chose numbness over feeling.

In his youth, Strange was wed to an older man of influence, and after a pirate attack on their merchant ship left him alone and mourning, he vowed never to marry again. Raisa divulged a similar tale, of when a traveling tradesman asked for her hand only to run off with a girl who was prettier and more agreeable. While Elixir withdrawal produced its own requisite number of tears, wrenching hope from its victims without mercy, the shared sorrow in the quiet manor that day was more than the sinking of a ship or the flight of one ignoble lover. It was unbridled and honest, a surrender of pain that had persisted for years.

Of course, nothing of that week had ever been mentioned again. Even the benign details remained locked up in Strange’s house, presumably, because though her secrets were valuable to those who would undermine her authority, Raisa never caught so much as a whisper regarding her past. In a society where honor only counted as a weakness, she admired it all the same.

“Now that you’ve done an admittedly terrible job of employing your charms against me,” Strange said, squinting up at the chandelier’s diffused brightness, “what’s the pitch?”

“Lion didn’t ask me to speak with you. It was a personal favor I wanted to discuss.”

“Ah,” he said, “well in that case, give me a moment.” He released her from the embrace and tipped back his glass. Gulping with a purpose, he managed to achieve that first measure of a drunkard’s loosening reflexes—a deep red rivulet, languidly sliding down from the corner of his mouth. He caught it with the heel of his thumb, wiping it away as he set down his glass and belched. “Now, what sort of favor, and what will it cost me?”

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Caged Maiden
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