The air in the bathhouse was like sweet perfume. It was cloying, the scent of lavender and rose petals everywhere. The air was heady and filled with the humidity of those late summer days, and it was only intensified by the lofted scents of herbs and the steam from the baths. The air was so thick with the stuff that Edam felt like she was swimming in it when mercifully, finally Seonya invited her up to one of the rooms. It was a small place, cramped and more the quarters for a servant than anything. As expected. Servants could avoid the scrutiny of their employers and could blend in with the crowd easily here. It was an ideal profession for any sort of information-broker or spy. The mattress was ratty, and the room was empty of effects.
“Thanks,” said Edam, wiping a bit of sweat from her brow, “I really needed to get out of the heat for a bit.”
“Not a problem,” said Seonya, “I actually used to live in this room, if you can believe it.”
Edam sat on the bed.
“So,” she said, not wanting to beat around the bush, “You work here?”
“Yes,” said Seonya, quietly waving a cheap paper fan against her face, “What of it?”
“Well, it’s very well-decorated. I liked the statue outside very much,” said Edam, “But I can’t help but ask… you’re a spy, aren’t you? Coming and going at odd times, making more than your average laborer, all of that. I’m sorry for being so brazen, but it seems like thats your inclination. I’m not judging, for the record, a woman has to put bread on the table.”
Seonya looked at her for a moment, seeming to feign confusion. Then Edam realized it was genuine confusion, followed by a tittering, high-pitched laugh.
“Safra, you’re a very strange woman. Do you know where we are?”
“Bathhouse,” said Edam, “I’m familiar with them.”
She had never been to one of the truly large Agoran cities where they kept the biggest baths. They were popular places for almost every class of people, but the more lucrative and more exclusive ones were primarily the realm of the landed and politicians. They were centers of power as much as any palace or lord’s home. A private bath could make for an excellent place to have a sensitive discussion between politicians – or so she had read. Her readings on the subject were all quite lurid and detailed about the murder plots and coups planned under the heady steam of a bathhouse.
“I think you’re familiar with a different sort of bathhouse, Safra,” said Seonya, “This is a brothel. I’m a prostitute.”
Edam stared for a second.
“But you have an image of a saint on the side-”
“That’s mostly allegorical.”
“A way of telling people to pay their dues and cause no trouble.”
She laughed a little more. Edam felt herself flush with embarrassment, half for the mistake and half for not realizing that all the attractive women that she had seen in the lobby weren’t just guests.
“Did you seriously think I was some kind of agent of espionage? That’s very flattering of you.”
“You just, well, you seem very intelligent and well-spoken,” said Edam, “And you didn’t seem like the type to sell your body.”
“What is the type?”
“I don’t know,” admitted Edam, “I just didn’t expect it from you.”
She shifted uncomfortably on the bed.
“If you think this is about- I’m very faithful to Ana. If you thought that I was trying to invite you to-”
“No, no,” said Seonya, “I know. I would never come between you two. At least, not if you didn’t ask me and pay me first.”
She laughed at her own joke, and Edam laughed with her.
“Alright, fair enough,” said Edam, “I’m sorry for making assumptions about your profession. It’s a shame.”
“That I’m not a spy?”
“That you have to be a prostitute.”
She seemed to think on that for a while.
“‘Have to be’ is a strong way of putting it. I could be doing any number of other jobs, odd work, that sort of thing that took me far from being a seamstress.”
“That’s what I’m officially employed as, yes. Well, that and a washing woman for the bathhouse. Couldn’t stitch for the life of me, but the taxmen are willing to look the other way with the right incentives. You know how it is with lawmen.”
“Of course. If you could have your pick, why this?”
“It’s fun,” she said, “And working in a brothel like this – it’s actually fairly safe. Working on the street, without the protection of the walls, you could have your money stolen, or you could end up gezhny’-pezhny’.”
Edam raised an eyebrow.
“Geśen-peśen? I’m not familiar with the term.”
“It’s a colloquial expression for how you catch a fleeing bird. It’s a little hard to explain. Here it means a whore getting beat up to hide the evidence, since its illegal for both parties technically speaking. A client might beat up a prostitute to keep them quiet, because they know that watchmen are more willing to cooperate if they give up other criminals. Usually just beating them up, though there are a few times I’ve heard of a girl being killed for the men who knew her. It’s not a pretty thing.”
Edam nodded with sympathy.
“So this is the protection. Other people are in the bathhouse, they’ll hear a scuffle and they’ll help.”
“Exactly,” she said, “It’s like a little military formation, or something like that. Keeping each other covered. Plus, there’s the cache.”
“It’s a thing the girls here keep. A lot of guilds do it, and now we’re sort of doing it for ourselves. At the end of each month or so, we pay our dues to a common moneybox. If anyone’s in need – if they get sick, or get the Darean disease, or the like, or they need leave, they take from the fund. It’s not much, but it helps.”
“The Darean Disease?” Asked Edam.
“Ah,” said Edam.
She considered stopping herself before she asked anyways. She was too curious to avoid the question.
“Do you like what you do?”
“It’s a living,” she said, “There are perks and downsides. I can’t say that I don’t enjoy it sometimes, but most of the time it’s dull. I think some people think of it as some desperate, exciting thing. A lot of men pass through with that attitude, at least. But really, it’s mostly drudgery on my part. Busywork.”
She talked about it like it was paperwork. Edam felt a sudden and odd sense of sympathy. More than a few of the people she had met while she was still in the Inquisition had some strange ideas about how much work she did and how exciting it was. Looking back on it, the past few weeks were a true outlier in terms of action. Most of her time before that was spent handling minor guard duty at the Dzhemor, doing smaller cases and doing busywork. It was an odd thing to compare the job of an Inquisitor to a prostitute, but in that sense it seemed a little bit apt.
“Well, I can relate to that. I’ve had more than a few jobs that people thought were more exciting than they actually were.”
Edam was on the spot now. She had workshopped a few different explanations and backstories for herself with Ana, and coached herself mentally to keep them straight in her head. She was, first and foremost, an innocent Agoran woman who had come to the city for hopes of a better fortune that never appeared. She was also a former washerwoman who was now between jobs. If she was pressed on the topic, she’d say that she was a self-taught sorceress and partial savant, but she had never really applied her talents for anything useful. Seonya felt trustworthy enough to let in on the sorcery part at least.
“Well, for one I’ve been a sorcerer for a long time. That’s actually what I’m meeting this fellow, Yeorel, for. He wants a focus. Or rather, he doesn’t want a focus, he wants something that looks like a focus with a quick turnaround time. People get these romantic ideas of sorcerers as these great technician-academics, but really I just read some books and happen to be handy with a hammer. There’s not much else to it.”
“Why does he want it?”
“Didn’t ask, don’t intend to,” lied Edam. Seonya was already a criminal, but she wasn’t a heinous one and Edam didn’t want to involve her too heavily in anything unsavory.
“Fair enough,” said Seonya. She paused for a moment before handing the fan to Edam. Edam took it in kind and cooled herself with it, relishing the soft air.
“So, since you’ve been a little nosy about my job,” said Seonya, “Let me be nosy. How exactly did you meet Ana? You sort of seem like a new addition.”
“Sort of,” said Edam, “I mean, we knew each other for a while, but we didn’t really have the opportunity to have a real chance with each other until now.”
“Let me guess,” said Seonya, “Your jobs just kept getting in the way?”
“How’d you know?”
“You learn to pick up certain impressions when you work with people I do. A solid quarter or more of the work I do is dealing with the foibles and loves of people, and you start to get a sense for how to properly read the signs. You two really cling to each other like you were a long time coming.”
“I almost envy you. Sometimes people are just a mystery to me. Like-”
“Like thinking someone is a spy when they’re actually a prostitute.”
“Exactly!” Said Edam, “So annoying. I’ve gotten better at it over the years, but sometimes I still get the wrong messages. Other times it’s like I see through them better than they could see themselves in the mirror, I think. Like a pendulum.”
\ Seonya smiled.
“Well, I’m glad you two are together now. You seem very content together.”
“I am,” said Edam. Her nose twitched.
“You sound unsure of that.”
“No,” said Edam, “It’s just-”
Some part of it still unnerved her. In the dark hours, the gloaming hours, she’d find Ana, between meals and when she thought Edam couldn’t hear. She would pray to the Saints, but she would punctuate the beginning of her sentences with a mumbled nonsense prayer as well, an uncanny few syllables in conjunction with the other, familiar prayers. Alongside her old Sepulcherite heptagram, there was now a little fetish of wood that she would touch just as readily for comfort as the holy symbol.
And then Ana would look at her, tell her about how she’s beautiful, or touch her hips just right, and the disquiet would disappear just as quickly as the wind. It would dissolve into pure comfort, and Edam would fall back into her arms like a fool. At this point she wasn’t certain which disturbed her more: the fact that it was present, or the fact that Edam could so easily dismiss her discomfort with it and simply enjoy Ana’s presence.
“Yeah,” said Seonya, “I think we both know what’s going on with her. She’s an odd one, isn’t she?”
Edam just nodded.
“How did you meet her?”
“Funny story. I was actually in the same orphanage as her. We met up again in Kallin by total coincidence.”
Edam looked at her, trying to discern Seonya’s motives.
“No,” said Seonya, “She was actually the bearer of bad news. And she was just as surprised to see me as I was to see her.”
Seonya paused and looked out the window.
“A lover of mine died. I mean, he was killed.”
Edam could tell it was hard for her to say. There was a real pain there.
“I’m sorry,” said Edam.
“She wasn’t exactly happy to see me then,” said Seonya, moving on swiftly, “And for a while I was mad at her for being so… crude when giving the news, but we’ve made up since then. She’s a bit of a screw up, that girl, but she does the right thing in the end. She’s reliable.”
That reassured Edam a little further. She waved the fan over herself a little more to cool off, and Seonya opened the window. Just as she did, there was a knock at the door.
“Come in!” Said Edam.
Yeorel somehow looked precisely like the kind of man to sell a fake antique. The hot day had condensed a thin veneer of grease and sweat beneath his receding hair, a greasy mop of blond-brown spikes that stuck out in unkempt fringes. He was thin as a twig, but not in an unmuscled or unrefined fashion. Instead, it seemed like he was mostly corded muscle, like he was a loose pile of straw and rope that had been drawn up taut into a human being.
“Evening, ladies,” he said, “Safra, I presume? I’m charmed.”
He extended a hand and shook Edam’s lightly, then Seonya’s.
“Pretend I’m not here,” said Seonya, “I’m just a friend.”
“Well, that won’t be a problem at all. You look lovely, by the way,” he said, looking back at Edam, “Where did you find a dress like that around here?”
“Oh, you know,” said Edam, “It isn’t even that expensive, really.”
“Must be your natural charm.”
She felt his flattery, almost as cloying as the smell on the air. He was, in his own way, charming, but not so pleasant or subtle enough to carry the act entirely. Not for Edam, at least. She could see how he got into the business of conning though. The actual timbre and tone of his voice carried a honeyed, sweet sense to it that was quite charismatic on its own. Between the two she got the intense sense of the act of a well-meaning man – a cultivated and performed sense, but a sense nonetheless.
“So,” he said, leaning on the wall, “You want to talk business?”
“Absolutely,” said Edam, “I’ve been told what you want. A focus that doesn’t actually function for a discerning buyer. What I’m questioning is why.”
He pursed his lips and sighed heavily.
“Well, to be frank, I know this fellow. Mr. Teperte, who is… very discerning. A man of wealth and taste, you might say.”
“Sure,” said Edam, “You wouldn’t be hiring me otherwise.”
“He’s very interested in the old regime in Koletya. In fact, his family line might come from nobility. I mean, he didn’t say as much, but he implied that during the revolution his family was close to one of the nobles and had to give up most of their wealth, so it stands to reason that he’s still got some sympathies to our older friends.”
She didn’t know much about Kolet names, but even she knew that Teperte was one of the most common surnames around to the point of being suspiciously generic. People who wanted to remain mostly anonymous would take Teperte as an assumed name when giving tips. If a family wanted to avoid a prior association with the old regime, taking Teperte as a last name would make sense. Not only was it generic, but its popularity gave it a proletarian quality that would be attractive to the Republic.
“I see,” said Edam.
“And me, well, I do two things. I fix things for people and I sell things for people and Mr. Teperte needed some things fixed and some antiques bought and sold, and I sold him on the idea that I might pass some antiques of particular sorcerous value on to him.”
“But you don’t want to actually pass something of value on?”
“No,” said Yeorel, “I don’t. I think he’d use it unwisely, if you get my meaning.”
“Come on, out with it.”
“It’s possible that he has some sympathies with Erebists in the city.”
“As is to be expected. And you don’t want him passing along a focus with real power to them.”
“Precisely that,” said Yeorel, “Thank you.”
“Well, I could do that,” said Edam, “But frankly I feel like you’ve misunderstood how making a focus works.”
“Making something intentionally useless is difficult, because the core of making a focus is intent, and I’m making something with the intent of fooling someone. Even if I try my hardest to make it useless, push for it to be useless, it’ll carry an element of that fooling with it. So it won’t be totally useless. It’s actually sort of interesting, in that sense. Technically any made object is a latent focus, just not a particularly interesting or useful one in most cases.”
“That is interesting,” he said, “Thanks for explaining. So if we can’t get something totally useless to him, could you just make it as useless as possible?”
“I mean, sure,” said Edam, “But it seems like an awful lot of effort.”
“Something tells me that you have another plan.”
“I do indeed.”
“Go right on ahead and share it then. I’m always one to hear out fresh ideas.”
“We make something useful, I sell it to him, and then I steal it back, seemingly totally independent of you. I get a neat focus out of it and I get paid by my friend, you get your payday from selling it off, and you can safely string him along a little further. Now after he has it stolen, he’ll be desperate for a replacement and we can sell him some real low-quality stuff as compensation and get even more out of him. At least, you could do that.”
Yeorel grinned like a fox that had spotted a hen, and bounced his leg with excitement.
“That is brilliant. I like you,” he said, “I think we could go in on it together. My question is, how do you plan on stealing it back?”
She thought for a moment.
“Well, we need to deliver the goods to him somehow. I go in as the expert, the person who verified that this is a genuine-article Monarchy-era artifact, and assure him personally in his house. He gets sold on it even more, and I case the place. I know a woman who specializes in break-ins. Even if she’s spotted, she gets out safely and critically neither of us is associated with the robbery. You come in as a sympathetic shoulder in such a trying time, and then…”
That was a risky bet. Ana had only done what she had done for Edam, and she wasn’t certain if she’d be interested in an act of petty larceny. The idea of stealing from an Erebist, though, might entice her. She knew that she had no love and a great deal of hatred for the old regime, and robbing one of its supporters blind felt like something she would be greatly interested in. It would be a sort of grand act of justice, in a sense. If he was foolish enough to believe the lies of something as immoral and corrupt as a vampire it would only be fitting that he would fall prey to the lies of common people in need of help. That seemed more than fair as a punishment to Edam than anything else, even if it was technically criminal under civil law.
“I love it,” he said, “The initiative, the drive on you! What a promising young woman you are. You know what, I’m in. You’ve already got the materials, haven’t you?”
“And a friend to supply the workshop,” said Edam proudly, “I could have it in maybe two, three weeks depending. I’ll show up here every once and a while to loiter for your convenience when you want to meet again. Let’s say at the end of every week, around noon. I’ll update you on my progress.”
“How formal,” he said.
“I’m a very organized person,” said Edam, “Or at least I am when it comes to making foci. Wouldn’t get anything done otherwise, and telling people about my progress helps me move it along.”
“And you meeting with me adds to our cover,” Yeorel said, “If there are any questions, we can show that we’ve been meeting here for weeks now, trying to make this deal work.”
“Let’s aim for three weeks,” said Yeorel, “I can get more out of him if I make him wait, I think. It’ll make him think its particularly valuable. It’s been good meeting you, Safra, but I have to be running shortly. Want to shake on it?”
She extended her hand and shook his again.
“Till the end of the week,” said Edam.
“Till the end of the week.”
With that, he left, walking out into the hall with a jaunty rhythm in his step. Edam looked over to Seonya, feeling the scratchy cheap mattress beneath her fingers.
“He’s enthusiastic,” said Seonya, “Not much to look at, but very charming, isn’t he?”
“I think he thought he could pull one over on me at first,” said Edam, “Did you get that feeling?”
“Yes, a little. But when you confronted him with a new idea he seemed quite enthused to work together with you and that seemed very genuine without any of the charm or act. Or he just is that good of an actor.”
“Fair enough,” said Edam, “I just wanted to make sure that I wasn’t being scammed as well.”
“I don’t blame you. It’s a dangerous world, a dangerous part of town. But he doesn’t have a lot to gain from back-stabbing you here, I think, and he profits from not doing so.”
“Well, it’s time I got to work,” she said, “See you soon, Seonya!”
“See you too.”
And so Edam left the brothel and brought herself to the winding, complex streets of Blackwood. She had taken care to memorize the way back to Dzhate’s house and eventually came to the little darkened home. She knocked, and Dzhate let her in.
“I assume your meeting went well,” said Dzhate.
“It did indeed,” said Edam, “Did you prepare the workshop?”
Dzhate nodded and lead her into a side room. It was clearly a former guest bedroom, now thoroughly repurposed. To one side was a long bench with every tool and implement she could imagine for the making of a foci; awls, knives, hammers and pliers all, alongside whetstones and even a small focus-kiln for the heating of metal and drying of clay. The window provided good light and shone on a wild arrangement of bones and scrap metal. Most was copper and lead, taken from old pipes and cheap jewelry. A small pile of cheap gold was off to one side, also mostly in the form of low-quality jewelry and small raw nuggets. Dzhate looked at Edam for a moment.
“Do you need any other help?”
She shook her head.
“No, no,” she said, “This is my element. Leave it to me.”