But you listen to your gut, if you’re sensible, and Onna’s gut was twitching now. They might all be in gilded masks and merry motley but there was just something off about each and every one. A jaw muscle twitching on the stubbled side of a face. A set of eyes sliding suspiciously sideways through the eyeholes of a mask. A hand with scarred knuckles clenching and unclenching and clenching, over and over. Onna shook her head. ‘Don’t like the look of these at all.’ Merilee blew out a plume of foul-smelling chagga smoke and sucked at her teeth. ‘If you want men you like the look of, you might want to pick a profession other than whoring.’ Jirry took a break from filing her nails to give that little titter of hers, grinning with those pointy teeth. She was a great one for tittering, Jirry. ‘We’re supposed to call ourselves hostesses,’ said Onna. ‘Course we are.’ Merilee could make her voice ooze so much sarcasm it was almost painful on the ears. ‘Hostesses who fuck.’ Jirry tittered again and Onna sighed. ‘You don’t have to be ugly about it.’ ‘Don’t have to be.’ Merilee took another pull at her pipe and let the smoke curl from her nose. ‘But I find it helps. You’re too bloody nice for your own good. Read your book if you want pretty.’ Onna winced down at it. She was making slow progress, it had to be admitted. An overblown romance about a beautiful but bullied scullery girl she was reasonably sure would end up whisked away to a life of ease by the duke’s handsome younger son. You’d have thought the uglier life got, the more you’d crave pretty fantasies, but maybe Merilee was right, and pretty lies just made the ugly truth feel all the worse. Either way, she was too nice to argue. Always had been. Too nice for her own good. ‘Who are those two?’ asked Jirry, nodding over towards a pair of women Onna hadn’t seen before, slipping quietly indoors, already masked and dressed for entertaining. There was a set to the jaw of the dark-haired one made Onna nervous, somehow. That, and when her leg slid out from her skirts, it looked like there was a long, red scar all the way up her thigh. You need to be careful of strange hostesses. Strange hostesses attract strange guests. Onna shook her head. ‘Don’t like the looks of them, either.’
Merilee took the pipe from between her teeth long enough to snarl, ‘Fucking save us,’ at the sky. ‘Ladies.’ A fellow with waxed whiskers and a tall hat flicked out a bright handkerchief and gave a flourishing bow. There was a glint in his eye behind a mask sparkling with crystals. An ugly glint indeed. ‘A most profound honour.’ And he swaggered past, just the slightest bit trembly. A drinker, Onna reckoned. ‘Silly old cock,’ Merilee muttered out of the corner of her mouth in Northern, before wedging her pipe back between her teeth.
Onna gave her mask a little tweak, then plucked at her bodice under the armpits, trying to wriggle it up. However tight she asked one of the other girls to pull the laces, the damn thing always kept slipping. She was getting a little chafed from it, and cast an envious glance towards Bellit, who had the unimaginable luxury of straps on her dress. Straps, was that too much to ask? But off-the-shoulder was the fashion. ‘Fuck,’ hissed Jirry through gritted teeth, turning her back on the candlelit room, letting her smile slip to show a grimace of pain as she twisted her hips and tried to pluck her clinging skirts away. ‘I’m like fucking raw beef down there.’ ‘How often have I told you to put some olive oil on it?’ snapped Bellit, grabbing her wrist and shoving a little vial into her hand. ‘Chance’d be a fine thing! I haven’t had time to piss since we opened the doors. You didn’t say there’d be half this many!’ ‘Twice the guests means twice the money. Get some oil on it then stand up and smile.’ Twice the guests meant twice the worry, far as Onna was concerned. There was a mad feel to Cardotti’s tonight. Even worse than usual. Way overcrowded and with a feel on the edge of bloodthirsty. Voices shrill and crazy, braying boasts and hacking laughter. Maybe it was all the masks, made folk act even more like animals. Maybe it was that horrible screeching music, or the flame-lit darkness, or the high stakes at the gaming tables. Maybe it was all the drink, and the chagga, and the husk, and the pearl dust going round. Maybe it was the demented entertainments – fire and blades and danger. Onna didn’t like it. Didn’t like it one bit. Her gut was twitching worse than ever. Felt like trouble coming, but what could she do? If she didn’t need the money, she wouldn’t be there in the first place, as Merilee was always telling her. So she stood, awkward, trying to strike a pose alluring enough to satisfy Bellit while at the same time fading into the many shadows and catching no one’s eye. Sadly, an impossible compromise. She jumped as Bellit leaned close to hiss in her ear. ‘This one’s yours.’ Onna glanced over to the door and felt her gut twitch worse than ever. He looked like a clenched fist, this bastard. Great bull shoulders and no neck at all, close-cropped ram of a head leaned forward, veins and tendons standing stark from the backs of his thick hands. Hands that looked meant for beating people with. Most men had to give up weapons at the gate but he had a sword at his hip and a polished breastplate, and that made him some rich man’s guard, which made him a man used to doing violence and to facing no consequences. Beside his mask of plain, hard metal, the jaw muscles squirmed as he ground his teeth. ‘I don’t like the looks of that one,’ she muttered, almost taking a step away. ‘You don’t like the fucking looks of anything!’ hissed Bellit furiously through her fixed smile, catching her by the elbow and dragging her towards him. ‘You think a baker likes the looks of the dough she kneads? Milk him and get on to the next!’ Onna had no idea why Bellit hated her. She tried to be nice. While Merilee was the biggest bitch in Styria and got her own way every time. It was like her mother said – nice comes last. But Onna just never had much nasty in her. ‘All right,’ she muttered, ‘all right.’ She wriggled her bodice up again. ‘Just saying.’ And she plastered the smile over her profound misgivings and swayed towards her mark. Her guest. They were meant to call them guests, now.
‘What’s your name?’ she asked as she reluctantly turned the key in the lock, reluctantly turned back into the room. ‘Bremer.’ For such a big man he had the strangest high, girlish little voice. He grimaced as he spoke, as if the sound of it hurt him. ‘What’s your name?’ She smiled as she sat beside him on the bed and brushed his jaw with a fingertip. She didn’t much want to, and she got the feeling he didn’t much want her to, but she felt if she was gentle maybe she could keep him gentle. Nice had to be worth something, didn’t it? She tried to keep her voice soft, with no fear in it. ‘You can call me whatever you want.’ He looked at her then. Eyes a little dewy behind his mask, maybe with emotion, maybe just with drink. Either one could be dangerous. ‘I’ll call you Fin, then.’ Onna swallowed. Here was a crossroads. Play along, pretend to be this Fin person, maybe calm him down? Maybe get away with wanking him off? Or at least going on top? Her skin was prickling at the thought of being trapped helpless under all that weight of muscle. Like being buried. But what if this Fin was some lover who’d jilted him, or an ex-wife had an affair with his best friend, or his hated half-sister who’d got all his mother’s love, someone he’d a burning desire to hurt? It was a gamble, and Onna had never been much of a gambler. Whoring was all a matter of pretending, though, wasn’t it? Pretending to like them, pretending to enjoy it, pretending you were somewhere else. Pretending to be someone else was no great stretch. ‘Whatever you want,’ she said. He was drunk. She could smell it on his breath. She wished she was. Felt like she was the only one in the whole place sober. A woman gave a gurgling giggle in the corridor. Laughter bubbled up from the courtyard outside. The horrible music had stopped, which was something of a mercy, except the violin had started hacking out a single sawing note made her more tense than ever. She tried to breathe easy, and smile. Act like you’re in charge, Merilee always said, and you’re most of the way to being there. Never let them see you’re scared. ‘Whatever you want,’ she said again, softly, and she brushed the cold metal of his breastplate with the backs of her fingers, sliding them down towards— He caught her by the wrist, and for a moment she felt the terrible strength in his grip, and she thought the guts might drop right out of her. Then he let go, staring down at the floor. ‘Do you mind if . . . we just . . . sit?’ He leaned towards her, but he didn’t put his hands on her. Just clenched his fists against his breastplate with a faint clatter of metal, and hunched up in a ball, and rolled into her lap with his back against her, a great, dense weight across her thighs, his sword sticking out behind him and scraping at her side. ‘Maybe you could hold me?’ he squeaked in that high little voice. Onna blinked. Whoring was a hell of a job for surprises, but pleasant ones were a sorry rarity. She slipped her arms around him. ‘Whatever you want.’ They sat in silence while men whooped and metal scraped and clanged outside. Some show fight going on, she thought. Men love to watch a fight. Bloody foolishness, but she supposed it could be worse. They could be fighting for real. There was a crashing sound, like glass breaking. A shadow flickered across the window. She realised her mark’s great shoulders were shaking slightly. She raised her brows. Then she leaned down over him, pressing herself against his back, rocking him gently. Like she used to rock her little sister when she couldn’t sleep, long ago. ‘Shhhh,’ she whispered softly in his ear. And he gripped hold of her arms, sobbing and blubbering. Awkward, no doubt, but being honest she was a lot happier playing the role of mother than the one she’d been expecting. ‘Shhhh.’ She frowned towards the window. It sounded like a proper fight out there now. No one was cheering any more, only screams that sounded worryingly like rage and pain and very genuine terror. The odd flash and flare of fire had become a constant, flickering glare through the distorting glass, brighter and brighter. Her mark’s head jerked up. ‘What’s going on out there?’ he grunted, shoving her over with a clumsy hand as he rose and stumbled to the window. Onna had a worse feeling than ever as he fumbled with the latch and shoved it wide. Mad, horrible sounds spilled through. As if there was a battle being fought in the middle of Cardotti’s. ‘The king!’ he hooted, spinning around and bouncing off the high cabinet, nearly falling on top of her. He fumbled his sword from its sheath and she shrank back. ‘The king!’ He charged past, bounced from the locked door, cursed, then lifted his boot and shattered the lock with a kick, ducking out coughing into the corridor. Smoke curled in under the lintel after him, and not earthy husk or sweet chagga smoke, but woodsmoke, harsh and smothering. What had happened? Onna slowly stood from the bed, knees weak, edged to the window and peered out.
Review copy provided by Gollancz