Raisa prefaced her response with a motherly clucking, the sort meant to scold a child for being too smart or speaking out of turn. “I mention a favor and you bring up money? Don’t you know me better than that?”
“I think I know you just right, my dear.”
“I’m not asking for money, I’m offering it. For something I understand you acquired last week.” She lowered her voice. “A forfeited brothel near the south bend.”
He didn’t react, a good sign he was willing to negotiate.
“I understand it’s a shabby place, but I’m interested in it as an investment.”
“I can’t wait to hear why you want it so badly, and why you think I’ll part with it. Didn’t it occur to you I might fix it up to turn a profit?”
“I’m not feeling you up just to shake you down. I’m willing to pay a fair price.” She slid away from him. It was easier to talk truth without his scrutiny wearing away her resolve. “I’m only interested because I know the place is a shit hole, and I trust you to keep a sale quiet.”
“Plans to strike out on your own?”
“I want my own place. Not Lion’s. Not independently run by some hard-nosed madam with a vicious attitude if she doesn’t get all the say-so. Consider my offer?”
His eyes darted to the sides, checking to make sure no one nearby took too much notice. The action even had a name—the snitch-eye. Like a sacrament, it preceded any business in a don’s house or the near vicinity. “I suppose I’d entertain it.” He cleared his throat. “There would be certain provisions, of course, if we could agree on a price.”
Lion’s attention was fixed across the room, where one of the parlor girls poured booze down his gullet while he threw dice. Raisa caught a pair of unexpected eyes on her, though. The music had stopped and Martin stood with mug to lips, too engrossed in watching Raisa to actually drink. Damn him. Why was he so concerned with her? She guided Strange back toward the gallery a few steps, asking, “Is there a lien against it?”
Strange considered before he spoke. “No. The asshole who gave me the deed is in debt up to his gills. He still owes me, on top of it.”
“And if I paid off the beggar’s debt, you’d call us all square?”
Strange’s shrug employed not only his shoulder, but the corner of his mouth and then a brow. An awful lot of effort for his simple response. “A closed deal.”
“Highway ****ing robbery, Strange. What sort of fool do I look like?”
“That’s his debt.”
“It might be his accrued interest, but it isn’t what he borrowed. I’ll pay what he took from your pocket, not a groat more.” Raisa wasn’t new to haggling, and knew enough about how loan sharks compounded their interest for a layabout who’d been late on payments. She also knew she was willing and ready to part with the full amount to purchase the rickety shack full of rundown whores, but wasn’t going to relinquish it without a fight.
“You’re forgetting I grew up in the Red Lantern District. I know what that house is worth, and we aren’t even close.”
“I can’t part with it for less than a hundred. It’s worth that much to someone else. Dealing with the lapsed licenses and other bullshit has cost me a considerable amount for…incidentals.”
Raisa didn’t want to talk about licenses and taxes. She wanted an agreement that would ensure her independence from Lion. “It’s worth nothing as a brothel. The location’s horrible and the building’s décor and façade need replacing…not to mention the staff.”
“A hundred’s my price, Raven.” He matched his steady response with a sigh, as if his hands were tied and he couldn’t possibly negotiate lower. A load of horseshit.
“I assume your provisions include cleaning the place up in another way.”
He brushed the tip of his nose with his index finger, affirming they were talking about the same thing. He wanted the brothel to stay free of Elixir, and though Raisa was happy to comply, saying it aloud in the house of Brazelton’s Elixir king was imprudent in every possible way.
“What do you even want with this dump? You gonna be a pimp now, too?”
“It’s like when I sold you Cherie,” he replied. “I didn’t ask for the girl, she was dropped in my lap and I had to either keep her or get rid of her. A constant cost, or a small profit.”
“Eighty-five,” Raisa said. “Split it down the middle with me?” She stood as straight as possible, relying on tall-heeled shoes to do what her petite frame couldn’t. “This city doesn’t need another house of drugged-up girls whose eyes reflect only shallow graves.”
Strange considered for a moment and gave a little frown probably meant as an internal expression, though it showed outwardly. “You’re in some sort of shit, aren’t you?”
Raucous laughter erupted nearby, where Lion and his lewd lackeys had fitted an array of delicate underthings—and one bulky set of men’s drawers—to one of the wheels of chance. The women from the parlor stood by and clapped their hands while the don took a spin. When the wheel stopped on a lacy pink panty, the crowd cheered. Lion got to his knees before a young whore named Lucetta, grunting like a pig foraging for truffles. She lifted her petticoat with a seductive shimmy. As the twenty-year old poured wine down her midsection, Lion sucked it up, his face buried in the shaved-bare cleft between her thighs. The crowd howled and jeered, some of them mimicking with pornographic pantomimes.
Raisa couldn’t even start in with the truth. What might she say, that she wanted out? Out of Lion’s house and out of his drug-slinging business? Talk like that could be detrimental to one’s health. Lies were safer. “It’s just an investment. Me seeing to my future, and Cherie’s too.”
“Surprising words from you, after you threatened to rip my balls off if I didn’t sell that girl to you. You wanted her to have a future outside a brothel, and now you want to buy one.”
Raisa coughed and smiled shyly. “I might have taken that a bit too far. Besides, Cherie’s reading and writing, and when I get the money, I’m sending her to school.”
“When, right after the party? She’s getting quite an education following Lion around.”
It was then that Raisa noticed that Lion’s box of Elixir-soaked cigars had their own servant to carry them. The tall, pretty blonde girl in Raisa’s care. The one who was told to ****ing stay upstairs for the whole party, and not come down even if a fire broke out.
“Tell you what.” Strange crossed his arms, with one eye narrower than the other. “We’ll make it a gamble, since we’re here and that’s what we’re doing.”
“A game of chance…for the Spicehouse?” Anything that led to a speedy conclusion felt right to Raisa, as she watched Cherie hover awkwardly with the cigar box in her hands, eyes wide at the scene around her. Lion’s gawkers, the men as well as the women, dry-humped legs, opening trousers and lifting skirts. Everything Cherie didn’t need to see. Raisa had to get her back upstairs behind a locked door.
Strange’s wide stance and shallow breathing indicated he felt in control—just the sort of place from which Raisa didn’t like to negotiate. “Do you like the dice or the wheel?”
It was an easy choice, avoiding Lion’s scene, but getting close to Cherie. “Dice.”
Strange took a brass coin from his pocket, a half-royle worth too little to make a significant bet, but perfect for tipping a dealer. “I’m putting it on the seven, and you just call whether you’re rolling higher or lower. Fair enough?”
“And the amounts?” Raisa took the dice from a bawdy girl with bright red painted lips.
Strange leaned in closer, to lower his voice. “Hundred if you lose, and eighty-five if you win, but so help me, Raven, if you ever tell a soul...” he let his threat disappear in the air.
“I won’t.” She hated the idea of negotiating with dice, but they had a contract, at least. “We don’t need anyone knowing you’d forgo a profit for my benefit. They might think something funny was going on.” She pulled up the right corner of her mouth in a crooked grin that defrayed the seriousness of his unspoken threat.
“Then hurry and roll, beautiful, so we can get back to our table.”
“Before Cherie’s underthings end up on that wheel?”
He drew breath and nodded to Lion, who was extinguishing a cigar end under the toe of his black brogue, grinding it into the stone floor. “Before our dear friend can wonder where we’ve gotten off to and what we might be discussing. Something tells me he wouldn’t approve.”
Martin appeared next to Lion, with Shadow at his side, and if Raisa hadn’t been so distracted by one of Jackal’s boys trying to dance with Cherie, she might have lingered more on contemplating whether their chance meeting over the summer with the bard was in fact a chance meeting at all.
Shadow hadn’t been a don long, and everyone knew he felt disadvantaged by Lion’s control of the Elixir market and supply. Was it beyond the realm of possibility to think Shadow may have hired an innocuous performer to play to Lion’s sentimentality? To befriend Lion and learn his secrets? Or Raisa’s?
Before she could fully process her suspicion, Cherie was taking a puff on a cigar while her new friend stroked her blonde braids held in place by a child’s kerchief.
“Oh we’ll be discussing plenty,” Raisa said, juggling the dice in her palm. “This is the last time his drug-soaked cigars are welcome in this house, or I’ll put one out on his forehead.”
“Even more reason to consummate our transaction. Lion takes two things very seriously: those who steal from him, and those who **** with his business. Only one person managed to do both and live any significant period of time, and if Lion ever found out she planned to leave him, or that she secretly wanted to snuff out a cigar on his face…well, it just might dampen his birthday spirit, don’t you think?”
At forty-four years old, Avery de Leon, or Lion, as he was known to his network of peddlers, fleecers, and thugs, lied about pretty much everything to pretty much everyone. Even his guests that evening were told they celebrated his thirty-ninth birthday, though they’d soon enough forget and he’d celebrate it again next year.
Of course, Raisa knew the whole truth. She also supplied him with creams to diminish the wrinkles brought on by years of smoking and boozing. Though gray interspersed his sandy-brown hair and goatee, he gave no indication of dropping that particular charade anytime soon.
If Raisa had been asked to describe him, she’d have been hard-pressed. He wasn’t handsome, but not plain either. He wasn’t short, or tall. Not strong, but certainly not weak. She could only say that his business sense was impeccable, his intelligence commendable, and his presence considerable.
There was no mistaking who was master of the manor, though Raisa asserted herself mistress over the household staff and the parlor. Not that she considered managing whores her expertise, but someone had to do it.
As Lion caroused with his guests in the ballroom, cards ruffled, coins jingled, and a proportionate number of the seats emptied as players retreated to the keg corner with empty pockets. Half the guests thoughtthey were sober. The other half were piss drunk.
It was time for Cherie to leave. And Martin too, whether he was a spy or just an unwelcome annoyance. “Higher,” Raisa said, tossing the dice.
In Lion’s home, Raisa didn’t record the passing of time on her own account. She’d never celebrated her birthday, unsure of when it fell, exactly. Aunt Maeve used to observe the earth goddess’ fertility day, the day of mothers, and had always given Raisa a special gift then, though she was an adoptive mother. It had been too long since Raisa felt that kind of joy. Or love.
It was time to take what she wanted.
She didn’t watch the dice come to a stop. It felt easy to aim her anger at Lion. Her benefactor, her employer, and for all the good the shelter of his name did, her master. For a dozen years it was a fine arrangement. He gave her anything she asked for: jewelry, money, foreign silk clothing and exotic foods. Every damn thing she could think of, and none of it felt half as satisfying as a young orphan had anticipated. Raisa had too much of everything except freedom. Rare and precious, it was all she could think about for the last year, since buying Cherie. Every single part of Raisa’s life with Lion felt like a good idea when she’d agreed to it, but watching an innocent live the life Raisa chose was a whole different feeling. It was wrong.
The handsome coat Lion wore for his birthday, stained with wine, was barely noticeable with Lucetta’s panties stretched around his neck like a grotesque cravat. Raisa was done feeling like that coat, living the lie of a lacy panty. She was done pretending a whore’s cunt could be disguised by a scrap of expensive fabric. Done pretending money and power were the same as happiness.