The air was cool, damp. After spending her whole life in hot, arid Vegasia, Rajah found herself both invigorated and made homesick by the change in climate. She pulled her coat closer as she strode towards the building the locals called ‘Kiva’, the one that always had a crowd outside. Their stares pricked her skin as she approached and she tallied them up cooly.
A few were openly hostile, their hatred of Vensik pouring over onto her by association. She wanted to laugh in their faces for their hypocrisy. Sweet Jane had read to her the signs plastered around Bravo, her voice eager and proud as she sounded out the words slowly, speaking of freedom and choice. Lies. Rajah knew what they really meant. The only slaves this town really cared about were ones whose blood glowed red. Scum from Vegasia need not apply.
Others let their eyes drag over her slowly, their faces curious, or wanton, and some outright hungry. Those looks she didn’t mind, they were good for business. And as long as Vensik didn’t know the details of what she did on the side, she would happily pocket the extra brass, putting it away for when she was finally free, a meagre pile of hope.
She squared her shoulders against their looks and climbed the steps. There were a handful of men grouped around the porch swing to her left. One of them hailed her, a Merican with a laughing face and gesturing hands.
“My friends and I were wondering,” he drawled, “are you just a massage-er or a sex-for-money-er?” the well-dressed man next to him looked distinctly uncomfortable at the straight forward question, fidgeting and shying away from her gaze.
“A sex-for-money-er.” she replied, amused. “Among other things.” Clearly word of her profession was spreading. She could dance and shoot and fish as well, but funnily enough customers usually didn’t choose her for *those* tasks. She knew what she was best at.
“Aha! See, I told you!” the Merican laughed at his friends. “This is why you ask!”
Rajah waited for them to stop laughing, and when no other business seemed forthcoming held out her hand. Her Vegasian desert dialect sounded liquid after his loud twang, “I hef answered your question. One brass.” Nothing is for free. Ever. In Vegasia you are born into debt, owing your mother for the labor she bore and the milk she provides. You start giving stuff away for free, you end up… in Bravo.
She waited, hand outstretched, while they argued about who should pay, then took the brass they begrudgingly handed over. Sliding it into her neckline she walked through the doorway into the main room of Kiva. It was crowded, as per usual. People eating and chatting, a medic or two patching patients up. In front of her stood a man in black armor holding a colorful shield she couldn’t read. She was surprised when he addressed her, his eyes holding neither desire nor hate. Not exactly her typical clientele.
“My back hurts.” he said softly, eyes averting away from her stare, “Can I hire you for a backrub? Nothing more. Just rubbings and scritchings.”
She nodded, biting her tongue to keep from making a wisecrack remark about his phrasing, and followed him upstairs. He insisted on paying her up front so she stashed the money away and began removing the silver bangles draping her wrists, making a neat pile of the cheap jewelry while he removed his armor. Weariness was evident in his slumped shoulders. When she began her massage he leaned into her hands with a grateful sigh..
“Today’s been hard.” he said after a while.
“Carrying a shield is hard on shoulders and back.” she agreed, working away on the tight knots beneath her fingers.
“It’s not that. My wife is away.” sadness permeated his tone.
“Ah.” she encouraged. The married ones often liked to confess, and Rajah was happy to play the priest so long as they paid for her time.
“She’s my other half.” he explained, “She’s my light.”
She made some affirmative noise, pretending she knew what that felt like. “Who is your wife?” she had gotten to know only a handful of people in the month since she had come down with Vensik’s caravan from Star City.
“Truth.” warmth filled the man’s tone, “She’s a priestess of the Telling Visionists.” The obvious emotion in his voice rang like a clapper against the hollow emptiness in Rajah’s chest. She silenced the feeling ruthlessly. Empty was safe. Empty was power.
“I remember her.” Rajah murmured, probing at the tendons in his neck and running her hands across his scalp. “She did not give me evil eye when she found out what I do for brass. She’s lovely.”
“Oh yes.” he nodded happily. “Do you have a faith?”
Rajah paused for a second before answering. “No.” her tone was flat, careful, “I am not… free to choose. A slave can only have one master.”
“I wish you wouldn’t say that word. It makes me uncomfortable.” he muttered.
She barked a laugh. “Slave?” He nodded.
“And it make you feel better if I say ‘contract worker’ instead? You Braves are very strange. In Vegasia is all same difference.”
“But you have a contract, you can earn your freedom.”
“Yes.” she nodded, “50 brass, six months. 80 if you want to buy me.” she tapped his shoulders teasingly, “Then you can hef all backrubs you want, eh?”
When he remained silent, she continued, “Until then, I am slave. The rest is just fancy words to make people in Bravo feel like they better than everyone else.” she spat the last part bitterly.
He didn’t reply so she worked in silence, hoping she hadn’t said anything that he took offense at, her thoughts wandering. She needed to find some protection for when she was off on jobs, she decided. While she was still under contract to Vensik she was a target, easy prey for those who blindly assumed that because she wasn’t running away she must *like* being a slave.
Fury boiled in her blood. Didn’t they understand that if she ran she would just end up right back where she was? Except next time it would be a bounty hunter, collecting the debt she still owed. Or another slaver, one willing to draw up fake papers and beat her until all rebellion was gone. Vensik was ambitious and quite possibly ruthless, but at least he wasn’t cruel. She’d had several masters since she was sold in Vegasia, some of whom she would happily send to the gravemind with her own two hands if she could arrange it. Vensik on his worst days was nowhere near as bad as the ones she’d belonged to before.
With a start, Rajah realized she’d been pressing quite hard on her customer’s back and pulled away quickly, “You feel okay? Any place I missed?” she asked, concerned she’d hurt him while her anger consumed her.
“I feel amazing. Thank you.” he reassured her, then he turned on the mattress to face her. “If it’s alright with you, I’d like to sing you a song. Would that be ok?”
She blinked in surprise, not sure if this was a trick or some strange game, but his brown eyes were sincere and kind. She relaxed, “I would like that.” she admitted, curiously. No one had ever sang her a song before.
“I wrote this for my wife. I sang it when I proposed.” he explained. Briefly, Rajah wondered if Truth would be all that pleased to know he was singing the song he wrote to represent their love to a Vegasian whore, but she didn’t interrupt.
I met you when I was lost
A shadow of a once proud man
All I needed was some HOPE
But what I got was…
What I got was the TRUTH
You’re my Love, you’re my Life
You’re my Hopes, You’re my Dreams
You’re my MUSE
Listening to his words, she tried to imagine how Truth had felt when he had first sang this for her. She had no experience even remotely similar to that. Still, for a moment, she imagined she could feel that rush of excitement, the joy of knowing someone wanted you for more than what you could do for them.
And I’m here with you
I’ll always be here for you
Death holds no sway
And Fate’s Loom lies Ruined
You’re my Truth
Your Love’s my Proof—–
That the King’s in his Court
With his Blue Suede Shoes
And the Music goes on and ON!
So we’ll sing and we’ll dance
and we’ll love and I’ll be- with- you–
My only Truth—
Gabriel’s voice trailed off and Rajah opened her eyes slowly, finding the traces of a smile lingering on her lips. For a moment, the hollowness in her chest seemed… filled somewhat. Even if only for a little while.
“That was… beautiful.” she admitted. “Thank you.” And she meant it.