Tuesday, September 18, 2018
The billboard just said motel with faded numbers that declared the price just beneath it. Only 35 for a night, any room, no discounts. They offered free HBO, though if the TV worked it was a miracle. By the time folks pulled off the highway looking for a place to rest their head they didn’t care as it was at least twenty miles to another exit. The parking lot full of out of state tags, RV’s, and a handful of big rigs. There were more trucks parked behind the 24-hour gas station across the street. Only other establishment at the exit was a Waffle House and it did brisk business at all hours of the day or night.
The booths were full of tired families and even more exhausted truck drivers. The waitresses moved swiftly from table to table to ensure all drinks were full and orders taken. Even the stools at the counter were all occupied though those who sat there looked askance at the end of the counter where the occupant of the last stool looked over a menu as he flipped a battered zippo between his fingers. Words had been etched into the metal long ago, but years of use had worn most of them indecipherable. Only the name emblazoned on the lid was still easily read, Strife.
The waitress assigned the counter took the cash from a customer and wished them a good night. After she tucked her tip into her apron pocket she fished out her order pad and made her way back to the end of the counter. The tall man had ordered a coffee when he first sat down to peruse the menu. A pile of empty creamer container was piled up next to an equally large pile of empty sugar packets, his mug half empty. “You ready honey? This for here or to go?”
“Yeah, ta go.” The man’s voice was a deep rumble with an accent so thick molasses should have dripped off his words. When he looked up from the menu there was something unnatural about his eyes. The waitress hadn’t known that eyes came in that shade of yellow gold. “Two hashbrowns, one large smothered, covered, diced, and capped. Then a triple smothered and chunked. Steak, T-Bone, rare. Three eggs scrambled with cheese. Bacon, n’extra bacon. Two waffles, gimme a lotta them syrup packet things. ‘Nother order of eggs, sunny side up. Two grits with cheese, extra butter. And… ‘nother coffee ta go an’ some OJ.” He set the menu down with a smile that was more of a smirk.
Her pen worked across the page as she wrote down enough food for a table of four. “Sure thing honey. Want a refill while you wait?”
“Yeah, an’ some toast with grape jelly.”
“Coming right up.” Something about the way he looked at her, the way he smiled, made her face heat. She was a married woman with kids half grown and here she was blushing like she had at 16 when an older man smiled at her. She topped off his coffee and left more creamer and sugar within his reach as she put in his order. She made the toast herself and placed it in front of him before she went to check that everyone else in her area was doing okay.
A couple of kids stood at the jukebox before they ran squealing back to their table. Over the diner’s speakers some bubble gum pop song girl was chirping about kissing a girl and liking it. The man at the counter mumbled about crap ass music as he spread butter on his toast followed by the grape jelly he’d been given. As he ate his toast he watched the cook work the grill while others in the diner watched him.
He had the tan of a man who worked outdoors most of his life and was tall with a long-limbed build. The faded black t-shirt he wore did little to hide his muscular physique, or the sleeve of tattoos on his left arm. His hair was long, wild, and just barely contained by the pony tail he’d pulled it back into. He wore jeans that had seen better days with one knee ripped out. The combat boots he wore looked as if they had seen their own share of battles. A black leather jacket hung on the back of his chair. Obviously well cared for as the leather was clean and oiled.
By the time his order was ready he’d finished his toast and coffee and stood by the juke box. He pushed a quarter into the slot and made his own selection. As the waitress called that his order was ready Trent Reznor’s voice was heard over the speakers. While his order was being totaled he pulled his jacket on and tucked the battered zippo into a front jean pocket. From the other he pulled a roll of bills and handed the waitress enough to cover his meal and leave her with a nice tip. “Thanks darlin’.”
“Any time honey.” Her cheeks heated again as she completed the order and stuck the receipt with the others next to the register. She watched him leave with his bags of food and thought that her husband was gonna get lucky when she got off shift. Too bad his ass didn’t look so good in a pair of jeans anymore. With a bit of a sigh she turned away from the register as someone called out to get her attention. It was going to be a long night.
The sun had risen above the horizon only an hour before, but many of the denizens of the House of Sighing Shadows had just found their beds. As the most exclusive brothel in the Capital the courtesans who called the House home kept odd hours. Many of the clients who had spent the night with their favorite courtesan were already on their way home or to whatever other business they might have. The discreet staff of the House knew not to make eye contact with the members of the aristocracy as they exited the rooms that lined the upstairs halls. While they would not speak with the clients they would assure that horses and carriages would be ready to convey them from the estate in the style they were accustomed to.
As the head of housekeeping, Milly Snyder oversaw the large staff who kept the House in impeccable order. From clean sheets to polished floors. There was no part of the brothel which did not receive her attention. Normally the servants used the hidden passages in the walls to move from place to place, but Milly had an important message to deliver and did not have time to delay. As she strode purposefully down the hall on the second floor she marked in her mind what needed to be dusted and mopped. The floor would not be considered fully clean if she could not see her reflection in the dark tiles. Those who partook of the services of the brothel expected the very best. It was Milly’s job to see that they received it.
She pulled her time piece from her apron to glance at the face once more and with a sigh she shook her head. It was much too early to disturb the courtesans, but she had instructions to carry out and it could not wait till the courtesan’s normal wakeful hours. As she arrived at the last door she rapped lightly upon the heavy door, “Master Lucas? Are you within?”
With only a muffled groan as an answer she sighed a second time and tried the latch. As she found the door unlocked she bustled inside and made her way over to the windows that overlooked the gardens below, “Time to awaken, Master Lucas. The day has dawned, and the sun is in the sky.” She pulled the curtains open to flood the room with the bright spring morning sun. From the large four-poster bed, she heard a voice grumble and whine about how early it was.
“No more time to lay about, Master Lucas. You’ve been summoned,” she said cheerily as she made her way around the room to open all the curtains before she threw open the doors that led onto the balcony. “Do you hear that? Even the song birds are calling for you to awaken.”
A pillow flew from the bed, but Milly deftly sidestepped the projectile. “Now that was rude. You know I wouldn’t be in here to wake you if there was not a need.” She picked up the pillow and carried it back to the bed, dropped it on the foot of the bed so it couldn’t be launched at her again. “The Procurer sent me to fetch you and…. Oh, Hameb’s Tits!”
Her exclamation came as she grabbed the blankets to pull them down off the roused form of the courtesan, only he was not alone. Three others shared his bed this morning and now all four complained at the sudden influx of daylight on their rest. Milly stood there with her hands on her hips as she just shook her head, “Out! You, you, and you... out now. Back to your own beds you silly sluts,” her tone was a mix of exasperation with a touch of affection.
The other courtesans rose and grabbed up their discarded clothes as they complained about being driven from their rest. Only when the last of them were gone did Milly turn back to the courtesan she had been sent to awaken. “Didn’t you have a client last night? How did you ever have the energy to bring those three to your bed?”
Lucas Leander stretched, his arms over his head as his back arched and his toes wiggled. With a low groan, he collapsed once more then looked up at her with a sly smile. “My client was… disappointing,” he said as he held up his pinky finger.
Milly rolled her eyes and shook her head. She picked up the pillow he, or one of his bedmates, had tossed at her then she whacked him over the head with it. “So, you consoled yourself with an orgy? Silly boy.”
Lucas laughed as he grabbed the pillow, sat up, and rested it across his naked lap. “Well it didn’t start out that way. It started off with Gabriel and I arguing over who had the best oral technique while we ate a late dinner. Cosette and Adrienne volunteered to judge and since I have the biggest room we came here.”
“Do not tell me who won. I do not need the sordid details.” Milly said as she snatched up his robe from the floor and held it out to him. “You have been summoned so you need to get up and get dressed. You can nap on the way there.”
“Well, you know I won. I’m not the highest earner for nothing.” He said with a grin as he stood and slipped on the robe. “Who? It better not be Viceroy Devonshire. I told him he had to make his appointments at least two weeks in advance.”
“It is not Viceroy Devonshire,” Milly reassured him as she walked into his dressing room. She flung open the door of his wardrobe to look at the racks full of clothes and sighed. “You’ve been summoned by the Mistress. She wishes you to join her at the country estate and by carriage instead of your,” her hand fluttered in the air as she grasped for the word, “popping here and there, it will take you all day to travel. So, the earlier you start the better. The message said to pack light.”
“The Mistress?” The mention of that name was more effective than all the coffee from the Goddess Isles. It banished all thoughts of sleep from his mind. “Why didn’t you say so in the first place?” He scurried past her into the washroom and left the robe on the floor again in his rush.
“You weren’t awake enough yet,” Milly called over her shoulder as she pulled outfits off the racks to pack. She did not think there was a courtesan in the whole House who had as many clothes as Lucas did. He was on a first name basis with most of the finest tailors in the city. From talented novices to those who served the Imperial family.
“I’m awake now!” Lucas called as hot water filled his tub in the attached washroom. “Did the message say why I am being summoned? Is it for a party? A special client? What?”
“You’ll need to ask the Procurer those questions. He doesn’t share such details with me.” His travel trunk was tugged out of its hiding place in the young man’s expansive dressing room where she opened it at the foot of his bed. Milly carefully selected from his wardrobe of silks, velvets, and lace in every color of the rainbow. She made sure that each shirt had pants, vest, coat to match along with the proper shoes as she folded them neatly into the travel trunk. “Which cologne do you wish to take?”
“Ummm, Summer Passion for daytime and Darkest Midnight for nightwear,” He called as he splashed water in his rushed bath. “Is anyone else being summoned?”
“Just you, love. Which doesn’t surprise me as you are Her favorite.” Milly said as she placed the bottles of cologne in a small carrying case so they wouldn’t spill on the trip. “Anything else you absolutely cannot do without?”
“My ivory comb and new brush… oh, and my new makeup case… It is under the vanity.” He called out once more.
“You are more high maintenance than most of the girls in this House.” Milly chuckled as she retrieved the makeup case.
“I heard that!” Lucas answered with a laugh of his own. When he emerged, he had a towel around his slim waist and a second towel twisted around his blonde hair. “When did the message arrive?”
“Just after dawn I think. I was called to the Procurer’s office for morning reports and then came straight here when I was released to do so.” She held up two different shirts. “Blue or green for the trip?”
“Blue.” Lucas pointed as he sat down at his vanity and pulled the towel from his shoulder length hair so he could comb it out. “So, you’ve no idea what this is about?”
“If I knew, love, I would tell you, but I am just as much in the dark as you are.” She laid out the young man’s clothes. “Are you nervous?”
He laughed though it sounded forced, “Why should I be nervous? It is only the Mistress summoning me out of the blue: the person to whom I owe everything. Why, if not for Her I would still be picking pockets in the back alleys of the Gulch. Instead I am here servicing the high and mighty on the Zenith.”
Milly met his gaze in the mirror, “Master Lucas, you have nothing to worry about. There is no one else in the House who is as beloved by the Mistress as you.”
“I hope you’re right.” He smiled at her then returned to his preparations. With Milly’s help he was dressed in finely tailored clothes and his new blue rose broach was pinned to his coat. It matched his eyes. A jeweled clip was used to pull his golden blonde hair back into a simple tail at the nape of his neck. He stood before his wall-sized mirror to check his appearance. “How do I look?”
“Beautiful as always, my dear.” Milly said with a smile. It was hard not to be jealous of the courtesans, even boys like Lucas were beautiful to look upon. They made Milly feel plain by comparison. “You go on ahead downstairs. I’ll summon one of the lads to come and fetch your trunk.”
Lucas nodded as he gave his silk coat a final tug. “I’ll bring you something back from the countryside, Milly. I promise it won’t be just a clod of dirt.”
“If you bring me back dirt I’ll make you eat it.” She said with fire in her tone. They both shared a laugh before he hurried out the door. When he was gone, Milly shook her head then went to pull the bell cord to summon a porter. Head of housekeeping had its perks. To not have to be the one to carry the heavy travel trunk down the narrow back stairs of the House was one. As she pulled the sheets off the bed the door opened to admit the porter and two more maids. She pointed to the trunk, “Take that to the waiting carriage. And you two, clear everything. The next highest earner is moving up.”
As the maids set to work, they took knick knacks, books, and other personal trinkets that belonged to Lucas off the shelves. Milly walked out onto the balcony to have a moment with her thoughts. As she looked down on the garden she twisted the carved ebony bracelet she wore at her wrist like so many other employees of the Mistress. She did not know why the Procurer seemed so certain that Lucas would not return to the House, but it had been horribly difficult to hide that knowledge from the psionically gifted youth. The House already seemed a darker place without his light and laughter. She hoped whatever the Mistress had planned for the boy it was better than being a high-priced whore. She turned back to the room to see more servants had arrived with crates. It was time to get to work if they were going to have the next highest earner moved into this room by the end of the day.