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King and the Courtesan

An excerpt from


The King and the Courtesan

 

PART ONE

Chapter 1

 

Oh God, where did I put it?

My hands shook as they clawed through my bag, digging hastily in all the pockets before ripping out all the mint candy wrappers and tissues that had collected at the bottom.

My hands were still sticky. Trying to give myself time to calm down, I rushed to the bathroom and thrust them under the faucet. I enjoyed the hot water that burned my skin. It kept me alert and my mind off of my missing supplies.

After I wrung my hands dry, I counted the green meat in my back pocket again, just to make sure it was all there. I’d done it four times before, but I was always worried a two-fiver would slip out.

Damn, what had I done with my supplies? Had they been stolen? I would blame my sister, but this wasn’t our home and no one was here but me. My client had left twenty minutes ago, and he didn’t look like the robbing kind. He’d been the shifty businessman type—the one petrified by the fact that desperation and lust had led him to this rotting room in the bad part of town. He’d been nothing, a quick get-in-get-out sort of job. He’d been shocked by my lack of an accent, as if Sumerthan prostitutes were rare. He watched too many movies if he thought only Jahralians and other immigrants prowled the streets.

“Fuck,” I muttered. I spotted a little baggie peaking out from underneath the bed skirt. I dived and picked it up with shaking fingers, nearly crying in relief. This should at least last me until tomorrow when the sun chased away the criminals who died nearly as fast as they bred.

I grabbed my candle from inside the nightstand drawer and lit it.

It was all routine from here on.

 

* * *
 

I went home the next morning, arriving in the apartment before lunch. It was normally a ten-minute ride, but the unreliable Metro Borough buses usually turned it into a half-day trip. I heard that in other places of Zinya City, things ran on time.

“Where the hell have you been?” my sister Mimi asked, stashing one hand on her hip. She looked worse than usual. A few gray hairs sprung from her scalp. Dark bags hung under her eyes, and a bruise blossomed along her jaw.

“The usual,” I muttered.

“Why so late in the morning, I meant?” Mimi asked. The macaroni she was heating up in the microwave popped.

I shrugged. “I got up too late. Sorry. I didn’t know you were in charge of keeping tabs on me. I am twenty, you know. No need to pull the mama shit.”

“You know I worry about you.” Her voice reflected no such maternal warmth.

“Yeah, sure.” I paused. Are you actually going to cook? Because if not, I have somewhere to be.”

“Like where?” Mimi asked.

“None of your business.” I dug deep into the pocket of my jeans and pulled out the four twenty-five notes, colloquially known as “two-fivers.”

“Here. This should help with the rent.”

Mimi stared at my hand. “I want to know where you’re going.”

When she didn’t take the money, I slapped it down on the counter. I didn’t want to see it again. I wouldn’t cry if she threw those bills away.

“And I said it’s none of your business.” I kicked the trash bag slumping near my feet and headed for my room. It was Mimi’s job to take out it out, but she clearly had a poor memory, because three more leaned against the kitchen counter. No wonder the kitchen smelled like dead fish.

Drugs and alcohol had never been Mimi’s shtick. Instead, her addiction was hope. Every man she got with, she hoped would turn into her dream man. He was always
perfect in the beginning, showering her with love and gifts. She’d talk about marriage, kids, and moving out of Metro and finding a nice townhouse in Newtown or at least Chapin, which was like Metro but with a fresh coat of paint. She’d hum to herself and clean, treating me more like a sister and less like a parasite.

Then, like always, the dude turned sour. Mimi would cling to him, thinking that her love could change his ways. All it did was put her in danger. She no longer seemed to care about the abuse she took, and she was so deluded into believing she was some man’s dream woman that she took it all with a smile. I hated her for what she put herself through. I hated her and I hated the men she dated.

In fact, I hated everyone. For the most part.

Mimi worked as a waitress. She liked to claim she had more self-respect than I did. But at least I got paid to get thrown around and abused. She did it all for free.

I slipped into my room, sighing when I was removed from the clutter. My room was stripped bare; I didn’t like to keep a lot of things. I was hounded by the constant paranoia that I would be forced to pick up and leave. I’d always felt like this; even as a child I kept two or three dolls and that was it. So far, the paranoia was unfounded, as I’d lived in this same place for years. Maybe I just wanted an excuse to leave.

My bed was made, looking as welcoming as a wooden coffin. My clothes were tucked neatly into the small dresser in the corner. My essentials—shampoo, toothpaste, tampons, a hairbrush, and my few tubes of make-up—were all piled on top of the dresser. There was only one photo on my nightstand. It was of my mother, smiling with her arms around me. I had to be about five or so. Some nights I couldn’t stop looking at it, and some nights I tucked it under my mattress so I wouldn’t have to.

The scent of burned microwavable macaroni drifted my way. I nearly gagged. I had to get out of this place.

Satisfied that I’d done my civic duty and let my sister see me safe and sound, I left the apartment again, despite Mimi’s protests. I had somewhere to be, and I couldn’t put it off much longer. At the curb I caught a bus filled with people dressed in unsaturated colors, as if we were all starring in some sort of old film. No one spoke except a woman scolding her child for being a pest. This stood in contrast to the times I rode the downtown buses, where girls chatted, boys laughed too loudly, and adults had lively conversations. What made them talk to each other? It was like they were a parody of us here in Metro. Or maybe Metro was a parody of them.

At my stop, I rushed off the bus and onto the sidewalk, relishing the invention of sneakers. I was sick of heels. They really took a toll on my feet.

I was a little shaky, but I could handle this. Hiking my purse higher up my shoulder, I headed to the crumbling brick apartment building on the corner. A few men with saggy clothing and buzz cuts stood smoking beneath the front door portico. They all knew me, but they didn’t know my name. I managed to keep that a secret, even though they asked every time they saw me. They also thought I was still in high school, due to my thin stature.

“Hey, Beanie,” one called. “Aren’t you a little young to be out and about by yourself?” He pulled his lips back to reveal his yellowing teeth.

I was used to such references to my string bean stature. I’d never gotten on the Estrogen Highway like the other girls I knew. I didn’t fit into most jeans because they were either too short in the leg or too wide in the waist. Mimi had been blessed with the breasts at least. She’d stayed a nice, average height while I could stare most men in the eyes. Men often mistook me for someone as much as six years younger. Not that it ever stopped them from doing business with me.

“Let me through,” I ordered. Their stretched legs blocked my way.

“Wanna go for a ride tonight?”

“Let me through.”

“Or what?” another asked, smirking.

I hated to use this card, but I had no choice. “Or I’ll tell Blade you’ve been harassing me.”

The guys all looked at each other. Wordlessly, they straightened and let me pass. The name “Blade” still struck me as a joke, but guys of Blade’s persuasion were convinced it made them cool.

There was a pounding behind my temple as I slowly walked up the slanting stairs. The more time spent between the bus stop and my destination, the better. I really wasn’t eager to come crawling back to Blade. We’d gotten into a fight two days ago. He’d told me to get the fuck out. I’d managed to cling to my pride for a while, but it always went this way. I needed his connections. For a brief period of time he’d even considered me his girlfriend, and I let him believe it. Blade wanted to pretend he could win the love of a woman through sheer masculine prowess and I didn’t care enough to say no. My addiction to drugs and Blade’s addiction to approval from others were mutually beneficial.

I got to the fourth floor and knocked on his door. A glance through the open window at the end of the hall showed a spectacular view of a brick wall.

The door flew open.

“Hi, Osric,” I greeted.

Osric stared down at me with purple eyes, characteristic to Jahralians, the current disenfranchised race here in Zinya City. Sumertha wasn’t exactly on great terms with Jahral at the moment, considering how drugs and terrorism ran Jahral’s economy. It only made sense that those refugees who came to Sumertha for the advertised “wealth and prosperity” ended up here, on the lower end of the status scale, in Zinya City’s slum—Metro.

But Osric had found prosperity the good old Jahralian way: drugs and terrorism.

“Hello.” There was an unlit cigarette between his lips.

“Blade here?”

“I got him all warmed up for you,” Osric said. I never trusted Osric, and it wasn’t racism. He struck me as a slimy person, despite his good looks.

“Thanks.”

Osric turned his head slightly, though his eyes remained on me. “Hey, Blade, I’m taking off!”

There was no reply. Osric shrugged, smiled, then moved past me into the hall. He whistled as he walked away. I wish I could have done the same.

Sighing, I headed toward the kitchen. I heard Blade’s murmuring before I saw him gnawing on a sandwich and growling into his phone. His broad back was turned, his muscles bunched under his threadbare T-shirt. Both arms were heavily inked—none of it done with much consideration—and a tribal tattoo spiraled up the back of his neck and licked his hairline. His jeans fell low on his butt, leaving a small slice of boxers visible. He was doing well for someone still living in Metro, but he still dressed like a gangster extra in an action movie.

“I don’t give a shit,” he hissed. “You can give me that crap-ass story about your mother all day. I don’t care. At all.”

I held onto the molding and dropped my eyes to the floor. I accidentally hit the toe of my shoe against the doorframe. Blade whipped around and glared at me.

“I’ll call you back,” Blade snapped, then hung up.

“Hi,” I said.

“You come up here to apologize to me?” he asked, fumbling for a cigarette in his pocket. “Cuz if you didn’t, don’t waste my time.”

I pushed my pride down—deep, deep down. I was used to doing that. Pride was useless to me. I had to beg for and cling to whatever good things came my way. That was the Metro way of life. We perfected it in this town. I didn’t particularly care for Blade, but he catered to what I needed most and “dating” him seemed like the best way to get it. I knew he slept around with other women. I knew he was a worthless sack of shit that made Metro more miserable for everyone. I knew he got people killed. But it was hard to care when caring required energy I didn’t have.

“Yes,” I whispered. “I’m sorry.”

“Sorry for what?” he asked, narrowed, dark eyes watching me carefully. He liked to draw things out as long as possible. He loved to watch me squirm, loved to feel powerful and dominating, loved to feel like the man.

“For being a bitch,” I said to the floor. It was the answer he’d probably want.

Blade lit his cigarette and sucked on it. “You lasted longer this time. You couldn’t even make it a day before.”

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