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Sayan Soul Chapter 1 Part 4 (Adult Content and Language)

Part 4

Strange eyeballed the approaching bard as Raisa counted in her head, trying to ebb her anger away and don her fictitious Miss Raven persona again. “Evening, Miss,” Martin said when he got close. “I played every request from Mister Lion. Is there a song you’d like to hear?”

“Thank you, no,” Raisa said. “I believe the party’s wrapping up.”

The bard’s teeth were white, his nose straight, and his face free of scars. He’d certainly never been in a real fight. He wore particolored trousers and his blue doublet hung open, exposing his half-buttoned shirt. A pendant rested against his chest, teeth of some sort, from something big. Strange evidently noticed too. “Bear teeth?” he asked, gesturing.

Martin turned his palms up and shrugged sheepishly. “A good luck charm.”

“My grandfather wore a similar token,” Strange said. “A claw. It’s how we got our surname, it means strong. He was a bear-wrestler back when that sort of thing was popular in Goronmark. About your height, just over six feet, he was, and built like an ox. I got to hear his wild tales as a lad, and he’d show us his scars when the neighborhood kids visited.”

“Coincidence. This token was a gift from my grandfather. No stories, though.”

“Was he in the circus, too?” Strange asked.

“No, a horse-breeder.”

Raisa caught the funny little grin that plastered itself on the loan shark’s face. “Pardon my manners,” he said. “I’m Andrew Strange, moneylender and accountant. Nice to meet you.”

“We’re pleased you could join us for Brazelton’s most important birthday party,” Raisa said. “It’ll be remembered for months to come.” She pretended to hide a faux yawn. “I’m sure Lion would understand if you were inclined to head home while it’s still a reasonable hour.”

Strange ignored her. “I’ve never heard such a dramatic telling of the war in the Marks, and I’ve something of a worldly perspective, being from here and there as I am.”

“I’m glad you enjoyed my interpretation,” Martin said. “It’s hard to stay neutral as a tale-teller. Historic ballads are packed with mixed truths and exaggerations.”

“Aren’t we all,” Raisa said. She meant to insinuate he was the lesser of two fakes, but wasn’t sure it came out as rudely as she intended it.

“It’s no wonder folks have taken to calling you Martin the Magnificent,” Strange said, holding his voice perfectly steady. “Your reputation precedes you.”

“Huh,” Martin said. “I can’t say I’ve heard that before, but…I’m flattered.”

While Raisa took a deep breath to let out slowly, Strange asked, “Is there a Mrs. Magnificent, or are you one of those musicians who plays here and there, and anywhere?”

Martin scratched the back of his head. “No. I don’t see the need for all that. Maybe one day, but I’m not on the search for a Mrs. anything just now.”

Strange slapped Martin on the back. “Sounds like a smart move, if you ask me.”

Raisa’s cheeks tingled, hinting at their color. With Martin suddenly under Strange’s protection, Raisa would have to pry the bard out of her friend’s grasp or throw them both out together. Strange probably counted on it. She decided Cherie’s safety was the more important objective. She nodded to both men and marched toward the jackass with his hands on her ward.

Coming up behind Cherie, Raisa slid her hand over the girl’s shoulder, pulling her from the rake’s grasp. “I think it’s time to hand the cigars off to Calliope, my darling. We’ve got something important to do, upstairs.” She’d anticipated the jeers that followed, and the stray calls of, can I watch and tell me where. Raisa grabbed Cherie’s wrist in a semblance of friends holding hands, but her grip was solid, her fingernails employed to dissuade resistance.

Raisa intended to wait until they were safely in her chamber before starting in on the girl, but her mouth had other plans. “I told you to stay away. You’re supposed to be upstairs.”

“I tried to listen,” Cherie said, as they fled up the staircase and passed through a hallway lined with portraits of sporting dogs and half-dressed women. Lion’s collection of fine art. “The girls came to get me, saying it wasn’t fair I had to sit alone and miss the party, with everyone else allowed to go.”

“That’s what I liked about my plan,” Raisa countered. “You, alone in my room.”

“Calliope said she’d watch out for me. She practically dragged me down there!”

Raisa laughed. “Calliope who can’t be anything but a maid in the parlor? Did you ever wonder why? Cleaning up stains from the floors and bedding. Who wants that job?”

Cherie followed around the corner, silent. Perhaps thinking.

“You’re a fool for disobeying. I don’t think you even know how foolish.”

“I’m not stupid. I just wanted to see the party you’ve been talking about for weeks.”

Raisa turned her doorknob and the door to her private sanctuary swung open. Of course Cherie had left it unlocked. There was only one key and Raisa never let it out of her sight.

Inside, she left Cherie to close the door, and went to a washstand beside her dressing screen. She pulled the bodice of her dress away from her skin and mopped her armpits with cool water, just enough to feel refreshed without soaking the satin. “You’re an idiot if you think you’re missing the fun,” she said. “It’s not the kind of birthday celebration where folks eat cake and give gifts. At Lion’s birthday, people get ****ed up, or they just get ****ed.”

“Is everything always so black and white with you?” Cherie demanded. “If I go down to the parlor to have a laugh with the girls, you’re afraid I’ll be assaulted. If I sleep upstairs with you in your room, I’ll be targeted by these enemies you always hint at having. If I go to a party and have a glass of wine, I’ll what? Become a sot?”

“You want some wine?” Raisa tossed her washcloth down and spun to face Cherie. “Have a whole damn bottle if you like, take one from my cupboard and when you vomit, aim for the chamber pot. It’s not the wine I’m keeping you from.”

Cherie scowled. “Would it kill me to just stand in the room? You act like it’ll hurt me to just talk to a man who doesn’t live in this house.”

Raisa shook her head, letting a smile spread on her face. “Yes, Cherie, I think you’re finally beginning to understand me.” She opened the white wooden cupboard with delicate roses painted all across the doors and took out a too-sweet wine in a blue bottle, setting it on the night table. “Drink yourself silly, but if you come out of this room again, I’ll pen you up with the dogs next time.”

Cherie plopped on the bed. “I’m fourteen years old. You can’t treat me like a child.”

Raisa sighed, giving her patience a moment to catch up with her thoughts. “You’re right. And I don’t intend to. I know there’s girls your age, working.” Raisa stood over Cherie to sound more severe. “How about tomorrow we go ask them what they’d do differently, given a choice.”

Cherie averted her eyes and jammed her clasped hands between skirted knees.

“My dear, I understand what it’s like to be a girl growing into a woman. I also know what it feels like to be a woman when you’re still a child. I lived in a brothel at your age, not selling my body, but selling Elixir. Men aren’t the golden fruit of the gods. These fruits down here look cheap and taste cheaper. Don’t seek love here. You’ll only feel cheap when you find it.”

“Where shall I look then to find a boy to flirt with, or to kiss me?”

“If it’s a kiss you’re after, try Jens, the kitchen boy. He’s dealing cards now but he’ll have a pocket of coins by the end of the night. He might even give you a nice gift if you try out kissing on him. He’s a good boy. Much better than the dogs downstairs all sniffing up skirts.”

“That’s not what I meant.”

Raisa’s patience was fading. “Then what did you mean?”

“I mean that I want to dance, and hold someone’s hand. I want a real kiss, not one with a boy who keeps a pet rat in his clothes chest.” Her cheeks pinked and she refused to make eye contact. “I hear what the parlor girls say…”

Raisa noted that the rat would have to be relocated to the kitchen garden just as soon as possible. “What do they say?” She turned Cherie by her chin, making her look up. “That so-and-so knows just how to please a woman? That this one’s rough and exciting and has a big cock, but that one’s kind and tender and ****s with his heart on his goddamn sleeve?” She shoved Cherie’s red face away, disgusted to see the shame. Ashamed she once believed the same.

“It’s all bullshit.” Raisa spat the words out like sour wine. “If I were selling you a house, Cherie, I wouldn’t tell you that the floorboards were warped and the roof leaked. I’d tell you how cozy it is and how the shops are close.

“Do yourself a favor, and learn to use your own two hands to please yourself. And if you don’t know how, ask me another time and I’ll tell you.”

Raisa cupped her hands together as if holding an invisible ball. She moved to an unsung beat. Hips, shoulders, head, and hands, like a snake coasting over jagged rocks, she moved each muscle from waist to fingertips in succession. Her hands undulated, wrists together as the flower of her fingers bloomed and retreated to a closed bud. It was a dance she learned in the village, in her youth. All the girls danced in worship to the earth goddess, celebrating life and fertility. Only later would they realize the significance of that female power they learned to summon, and the greater function of the hand movements.

Cherie turned away from the prurient dance, exasperation on her face.

Raisa bloomed the flower one final time, above her head, while she rolled her hips. Cherie was the only person allowed to witness the dance. It was too sensual to share. Too personal. “You’ll never hear me preach about virtue, my dear, but trust me on this one matter. Don’t look for a man to give you all the things you think you want. It only turns out badly.”

“It’s hard to hear that coming from you,” Cherie said. She swished her hand in the air, indicating Raisa’s two matched wardrobes, complete with silver plated knobs and feet, and a trifold glass mirror spanned between them. “You have all this and aren’t even ****ing Lion.”

“My arrangement with Lion isn’t a matter I want to discuss,” Raisa said. “I have to return now, because my place is at that party, with my benefactor.” With Lion drunker than usual, he’d need Raisa to protect him. “I expect you’ll be here when I return. Sleep if you want, or drink if it feels more fair. But if you leave, so help me, I’ll punish you. And you know how I feel about discipline.”

Cherie flopped over on the bed, her face toward the wall. Raisa paused, half inside the room and half in the hallway. “You want to know why the parlor girls lie?” Her voice was very calm. “They lie because the truth hurts. There’s two kinds of men in this world, Cherie, and right now I wouldn’t have you pick your poison. Just give it some time. Our situation will change soon enough, and you’ll have the things you desire. We both will.”

She locked the door again when she left.

Cherie was safe for the moment. Raisa had secured the building she needed, but couldn’t deny one more pressing purpose. Money. Coins to pay her agents, coins to pay Strange, coins for every ****ing thing necessary to put her plan into action. Leaving Lion wouldn’t be easy.

Maybe she could convince him it was his idea. Offer him something. Like the marsh wasp who brings his mate a fat grub, so he doesn’t become her next meal. Perhaps she could pay Lion off in order to escape with her head. In that case, she needed a fat grub of her own.

Nothing came to mind while she passed the pictures of hounds and harlots again. The common understanding was that it took money to make money, and despite having a fair bit of wealth socked away in jewelry chests and perhaps some less conspicuous locations, Raisa wasn’t really the investing kind. She preferred to keep her coins out of sight and out of other people’s ventures. That is, unless an opportunity arose to increase her social standing while getting paid.

A seat in a don’s high-stakes game was risky, even if Raisa could see bluffs. Aunt Maeve called it spirit sight, a gift associated with wise women—just a nice way of saying witch. Kind old Maeve tried to teach Raisa to control the power but passed away before she’d imparted any real instruction. Left alone as a child, Raisa had to figure things out on her own. While she didn’t consider the sight itself a skill, any more than drunkenness was a skill learned by imbibing, she ascertained how to bring it on. Concentrate on a person before looking at them, or more accurately, through them.

It was a taxing endeavor and more than once she left a card table because of headaches and nausea. For those who lived or died by their public image, the high of winning could only be surpassed by the low of losing—or vomiting on a felt table.

Raisa embraced the life of a confidence artist, maintaining close watch over Lion’s personal interests, and on occasion her unusual ability came in handy. But playing the part of the liar still sometimes made her grit her teeth behind false smiles. Trained by a witch, and with magic in her blood, she lived each day like the invisible wharf fox.

Sure, the dockyard cat was a mean little bitch and scrappy as anything ever born, but the fox was clever. Not a day went by that feline corpses weren’t kicked unceremoniously into the sea after being crushed under carts or poisoned along with the rats they ate. Not a single dead fox, though.

They were there. Everyone had caught sight of one, but never anything more than a shadow or footprint. The previous winter, Raisa found a dead rat behind the dog kennel in the garden. Its feet were gone, along with the head and tail. At first she thought perhaps one of the dogs had played with it, but after closer inspection, she realized what she was seeing. Its insides were mush, poisoned and ruptured. But a clever scavenger had selected the parts that were safe. A fox, she decided. A right smart little bastard.

Every agent in the syndicate was the same. Every Daveed, every Thorne. The Shadows and Lions, too. They all saw themselves as the hunter, the top predator. But Raisa had lived as the scavenger her whole life. From her very earliest memories, when Maeve sent her to neighbor’s homes to collect old clothing, so that they could turn the scraps into bedding and rugs. “We work with our hands, my dear, because the gods gave them to us,” Maeve used to say. “We work with our hands out of love, and to worship.”

Raisa wasn’t sure whether the gods indeed invented hands, or whether love had anything to do with worship, but one thing had become absolutely clear as she got older. Hard work was a lot less fun than using one’s hands to play cards and one’s spirit sight to cheat.

When she approached the card table, Daveed’s eyebrows were scrunched together and he squinted as if against a noonday sun. The crease between his brows was deep. Too deep for his relative youth. A wrinkle that would have made him look old if he was a woman. Whatever troubled him, she didn’t receive any clues from his face.

Raisa leaned close to Rhynda. “Did I miss something?”

When Lion topped the steps, though, with Shadow on one shoulder and Martin on the other, Raisa began to understand. Lion was inviting Martin to their table, and it didn’t feel right to Daveed, evidently. Perhaps he shared Raisa’s suspicion, that Shadow and Martin were playing their own private game of piggy-in-the-middle, with Lion as the pig.

She used her index finger to trace out a question mark on the felt, whispering. “What’s wrong with these boys? They call us emotional and unreasonable, and then suddenly they’re best friends with every new-faced flatterer who tells ‘em what they want to hear.”

“If everyone were smart as us,” Rhynda said, “the world would be in trouble.”

Trouble, indeed. What percentage of the syndicate was even halfway clever? Not enough. Who did she think could actually outplay her? Who was smart?

Rhynda had a good head, but no ambition. Too bad, or Raisa might have enlisted her as a confidant. Axe, the gruff don, with his band of foreign mercenaries? He didn’t even show for the party. Jackal had his head so far up his own ass, drowning himself in Elixir at every opportunity, he’d lost a quarter of his neighborhoods, not to mention two fairly competent bodyguards, over the last year. And Shadow, despite an inferiority complex that led him to occasional violent outbursts, was cunning…but enough to plant a phony bard for Lion’s party?

Raisa’s tally wasn’t complete by the time Lion reached the table, addressing the young dealer. “You’re free to go off and enjoy the fun, boy. My favorite red-head’ll finish us off!”

Rules were one of the things Lion was overly fond of, like ignoring budgets and eating breakfast in the nude. More specifically, he was fond of setting rules for others while breaking them himself. He didn’t seek approval before introducing Martin as a late buy-in. “Sit down and play a while,” he said, teetering as he indicated an empty chair. “I’ll have Calliope deal you in.”

“I appreciate the offer,” Martin replied, “but I think I’ve exceeded the recommended amount of alcohol before card-playing.”

“Don’t be stupid. We’re all three sheets to the wind. Or four or five, like me.” Lion slid the chair out noisily. “Have a goddamn seat and see a couple hands, at least. Just to be friendly.”

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