Here’s the second short story! It’s a fantasy piece this time, though a bit of an odd one for me. I originally wrote this piece as a bit of an experiment, as it happens. While it fits quite firmly with my usual “unusual perspectives” theme, at the same time it shifts a tad away from my usual habits by adding a touch more of the…cynical? That’s not quite right, but it’s a difficult alteration to put into words. I touch of the “noir” tone, I suppose, though not quite fully all that implies. I wanted a main character that was a bit less than shiny and perfect, a more “real” sort of person who’d come up from the dregs of the world instead of white collar and privilege.
Of course, it was also originally for submission to a magazine that seemed to prefer themes of that sort -_-, so it wasn’t entirely my own idea. It actually made it into the last round of selections, as I understand it. Not bad for something a bit out of my usual area. Anyway, I was pretty happy with how it turned out. I honestly think it’s one of the better shorts I’ve written this year.
The Curse of the Gilded Lily
By Jacen Aster
Lin often thought hers had to be the single oddest story in existence. Or, at least, that hers had to be the oddest way to ever escape life in a whorehouse. It was certainly true that the fairytale dreams of brothel girls covered all manner of unlikely things. There was the classic idea of a prince charming falling in love with them, wild ideas about an artist seeking his muse, even the occasional whispered dream about a rich lecher who wanted his own harem to pamper. But not one of these most unlikely of stories had ever mentioned a whore becoming a private investigator, let alone one that specialized in magic.
No, no one could have predicted that. Not the greatest men of science or the meanest seers. Which, of course, made it all the stranger how naturally it had happened. Should it surprise that, every once in a rare blue moon, a street urchin is born with magic? Should it surprise that the magic the pretty young girl encounters most often in her red-light district home is sex magic? It only took one question, one energetic young watchman looking for a break in a troublesome case. A single simple inquiry made to the districts madams. Who could he ask about such magics? For no proper mage would admit to practicing such lewd magics, now would they? A single answered question, a solved case, a grateful watchman that paid a small bounty that belonged to Lin alone.
Then another question, another case, another payment. A local wanting to avoid the authorities but needing answers. A brothel owner with clients that needed uttermost secrecy. Suddenly, Lin was the respectable place to get help with any crime or mystery touching the more risqué and ignoble magics. Before long she made more money on the cases brought to her bedroom then she did in the bed. So she stopped opening that bed. She moved out of the brothel. Out of the red-light district entirely, eventually. Now barely anyone remembered where she had come from, what she had started life as. No one thought to question her nubile young assistants either, likely thinking that she needed the girls to fuel her scandalous enchantments. Not wrong, in some cases, but mostly she just couldn’t help picking up strays. Girls in bad situations they couldn’t handle, subjects of ugly cases and so on. She couldn’t stop herself from trying to give them another choice. Like she wished someone had done for her. Though maybe someone had, in a way. She no longer remembered the name of that first watchman anymore. She supposed he’d helped her even if he hadn’t intended to.
She let out a sigh as the placard bearing the Gilded Lily’s emblem came into view. Her old home was the top brothel in the city these days, in no little part due to all the magic Lin herself had layered into its walls while she still worked there. Madam Roslyn had been kind to her, far more so than virtually any other owner in the district would have been. They’d parted on good terms and Lin always made time for her when the madam had a problem. Even if that meant pissing off some noble lord or lady wanting her to focus exclusively on which of his or her illicit lovers had cursed them this week.
She didn’t go in the front, instead stepping nonchalantly into a side alley and tapping the right rhythm for her own decade old enchantment to open the concealed side door. She slipped inside, nodding to one of the girls she knew as she made her way up to the madam’s rooms. She’d barely touched Roslyn’s door when it swung open and she smiled a little as she was pulled into a hug by the taller woman. The madam still looked young to most, but Lin could feel the magic in her appearance and wasn’t fooled. She said nothing, though. It would have been rude. She followed her old boss and sat across from her when Roslyn sank down on a chaise lounge near the room’s center.
Her old madam spoke first. “You look well, Lin. I wish you would come by even when there wasn’t trouble.”
Lin gave her a crooked half-smile. “Maybe I will. But speaking of trouble…”
Roslyn sighed. “Always straight to business. Very well. I’m afraid it’s not very simple though, not just a murdered girl or an impossibly pregnant heir.”
Lin suppressed the urge to frown. Ros actually looked a bit shaken. What on earth could do that to the old lady? She didn’t speak, knowing Ros would continue in her own good time.
The madam did continue, slowly, hesitating, as if not quite sure how to put the problem into words. “It isn’t just one problem you see, but rather a whole rash of them.” She scowled, the harsh expression out of place on her normally smiling face. “The trouble started almost two weeks back but it seemed minor at the time. Some sort of enchantment that prevented every one of the girls from finishing. We figured it was just an overpowered spell from some mage customer with a control fetish. Annoying, but it’s not like we don’t fake it more than half the time anyway, and it wore off in a day or so. Then, a few days later, the really weird stuff started happening.”
“Weird stuff?” The vague statement sounded more than a little odd from the well-educated and world-wise madam.
“Yes, weird stuff. One girl climaxed once every three seconds for an hour. Another had a rubber chicken sprout out of her mouth during a session. A third had her boobs start floating, they tugged her right off the ground! All of it was mixed in with more of the original effect. It all wore off, but it took quite a bit longer this time. At least half a day more, in fact.” Ros shrugged. “I got suspicious of foul play after that. You know we’re considered the best brothel in the city, and someone is always trying to drag us down so they can take the title. Most of the time the wards you put up keep the trouble out, but something slips through every now and again. So I called in a curse breaker team and had them go over the place with a fine tooth comb. They didn’t find anything.”
“Of course they didn’t,” Lin murmured. If they had, old Ros wouldn’t have called for her. She knew better than to waste Lin’s time on something simple. Her services were in demand by a lot of powerful people these days. “Any hints who might have done it, and did it happen again?”
The madam nodded. “Not a clue on the former. It could be any of the rival brothels, or even a few of the girls who have left on bad terms. Like Catlin.” They both grimaced at the shared memory, but Ros quickly pushed on. “On the latter, it happened twice more before I got in touch with you. The effect lasted longer each time, and created more varied results each time as well. The last recurrence just ended two hours ago and went on for roughly three days.” She surprised Lin by wringing her hands, looking truly worried for the first time Lin could remember. “Lin, whoever did it, it’s working. Our reputation has taken a big hit and I might have to close the place down for a bit if they strike again. Tell me you can find them.” Her eyes were pleading with Lin for good news.
Damnit. This didn’t look good. Even if the effect ended mere hours ago, the fact that the curse breakers hadn’t found any lingering magic was a bad sign. Still, she couldn’t handle seeing that look on Ros’s face. Even if it was probably fake. “I’ll figure it out Ros, I promise.”
Of course, she’d had to say that. That didn’t make the reality of the situation any different. There simply wasn’t anything to find at the brothel. It was an irritating fact that she’d suspected would be true since the moment the failure of the curse breakers was mentioned. Which, unfortunately, had left Lin pounding the pavement in the red-light district, hitting up every contact and information broker for every rumor she could dig up about who might want to cause trouble for either the Gilded Lily in general, or Roslyn personally.
What had caught her far more by surprise, and had her grinding her teeth in frustration, was the total lack of solid leads after all was said and done. She’d dredged the district for three days, and while she’d found no shortage of motivated suspects, there wasn’t so much as a peep on the grapevine about who’d done it. No rumors of bragging, no sudden pushes by the other whorehouses to show that they’d been waiting for the opportunity. Which left her with the two possibilities she really didn’t like. Either it was a client, perhaps upset with one of the Lily’s girls and acting from inside the wards, or else it was someone good enough to be beyond Lin’s talents. There wasn’t anyone that good that lived in the city itself, so she’d burned a few favors with the town authorities to look into that option. They’d get her a list of any heavy hitters that were in town or had passed through recently. Which just left the clients.
Which is how she found herself dressed in a skimpy mockery of a barmaid’s outfit, glamoured to look like a new serving wench and tolerating having her ass groped every twenty seconds. The pounding headache caused by magical feedback wasn’t helping her mood, either. She was stretching her senses through the building to pick up every piece of magic used, identify it, and discard it as harmless. Sure, knowing which nobles were using enlargement charms on their tackle might be amusing, but the constant stream of data was giving her a migraine. She’d also never look at either Lady Esmeralda or her handmaiden the same again. She’d really not needed to know what was going on there. Which was saying something, coming from an ex-prostitute and active sex magic specialist.
She shook off the latest hand to maul her ass and escaped into the kitchen. She leaned against the wall just past the door and rubbed her eyes with one hand, trying to ease stabbing pains shooting through her skull. It wasn’t working, and she took a pair of deep, meditative breaths to suppress her frustration. The first few days hadn’t been that bad. Hell, it had almost made her nostalgic! But she’d been here for almost a week with no sign of a recurrence. She still had a couple of girls looking into the other brothels, and that list of notables should get to her soon, but at this point she almost despaired of ever catching her man or woman. The trail was too old now. She’d been counting on another repeat, one that didn’t seem to be coming. Worse, the magical strain was pushing her limits. She wasn’t sure she’d manage more than another day, two at most.
She’d just taken a final deep breath and pushed off the wall, preparing herself for more groping hands, when the magic hit her extended senses like a charging bull.
She reeled, nearly falling into one of the real serving girls, mind ablaze with raw agony as the sheer power and chaos of the enchantment battered her wide-open mind. It was over, at least for her, in seconds. She collapsed to the floor with a thud, her body rejecting reality in favor of unconsciousness in a desperate bid to escape the pain.
Lin’s eyes cracked open, closed to escaped the light, then cracked open again in response to an effort of will. She wasn’t sure where she was for the first few moments, but as her blurry gaze focused recognition slowly beat its way from deep inside her mind, past the pounding drums of what felt like a four-day bender. It was Madam Roslyn’s lounge ceiling she was seeing, and she was almost certain she was lying on one of the room’s reclining couches. She slowly forced her protesting body to sit up, noting that her barmaid costume was gone, replaced with a luxurious robe and not a stich more. Her glamour had collapsed as well, leaving her skin tanner and bust slightly fuller than the serving wench illusion she’d been wearing.
Roslyn appeared from her left, handing her a potion. Lin immediately started sipping it down, trusting Roslyn implicitly, but unable to chug it past the nausea her motion had brought with it. By the time she managed to finish the potion she felt almost human again. A healing potion then, and a seriously high-class one to work that fast and that completely on non-physical damage. She felt guilty for just a moment, knowing how expensive such measures were, but washed away the guilt with the memory of what had happened. She had a lead for her old boss now, though a somewhat scary one.
“What the hell happened, Lin?”
Lin took a deep breath, mind racing to put what she’d learned into a usable form, thankful that the potion had mostly restored her ability to think clearly. She hesitated several moments, getting her thoughts properly in order, before speaking. “I assume the problems have started again?”
Ros snorted. “Damn right they have, even worse than last time. Nadia was nearly speared a bit more literally than usual when a customer’s dick turned into a fork.”
Lin winced. That was bad, and it probably wasn’t the worst of it if the typically refined Roslyn was resorting to such crude terms. “Well, I’ve got good news and bad news.”
“What’s the bad news?”
Lin winced again, of course Ros wanted the bad news first. “The bad news… The bad news is that what happened here wasn’t mortal magic.”
Roslyn froze, her expression wary. “Fae?”
Lin cringed as she shook her head.
Roslyn grimaced and growled out. “Darkling or daemon?”
Lin sighed and rubbed her temples, trying to make the last of the pain fade. “Probably a lesser daemon, an imp or succubus maybe. The magic reeked of chaos.”
“Your good news better be damn good, Lin.”
Lin shrugged. “There’s a couple of good points. One, it was an artifact or talisman. No way a daemon got into the city and through the Lily’s wards without being noticed. Two, it came from upstairs, so whoever had it was a customer with a girl when it happened. Which means we can find them fairly easily, and probably won’t have to face the creature or creatures who empowered the talisman.”
Roslyn scowled. “All of the clients upstairs when it happened are in good standing. Most of them have been regulars for years.”
“Who better to bribe or blackmail into something like this?”
The madam’s scowl deepened at that, but she shrugged. Lin was right after all.
Lin found the thought that the man she was watching was the cause of all the Lily’s problems slightly hard to swallow. The man was haggard, worn, and by far the least threatening of the possible culprits. Not exactly the picture of someone who either would or could make a deal for such magic. It had to be him, though, as she’d systematically eliminated all the other clients that had been present three nights ago when the curse had recurred. She watched the tired and raggedy looking man half-stagger toward a rundown bed and breakfast. A second look, and a third for that matter, did show some signs that something was wrong with the picture. Under the dirt, his worn and torn clothes were of fine silk and his features showed a slight cast she recognized as common to the noble families.
That was what she had been expecting, and why she hadn’t checked this sad example of humanity out earlier. Whatever she might have told Roslyn, neither her instincts or logic thought this recurring curse was resulting from the brothel’s competitors. With none of those competitors massively gaining ground, she’d formed the theory that this was purely an individual seeking thrills. Likely the sort of noble snob who possessed a core of casual arrogance and cruel dominance. Someone who would get off on using a dangerous artifact with no thought given to the consequences. That was generally the only sort that had the combination of desire, money, and foolishness to acquire the sort of powerful artifact in use here. Perhaps, then, this really was the culprit. Only, if it was, it looked like he’d gotten more than he’d bargained for.
Lin pushed off the wall she’d been leaning on as the man, Fredrick as Roslyn had named him, finally stumbled inside his lodgings. She needed to get at the artifact itself. Both to prove he was guilty and to completely break the effects on the Lily. The magic had been far too potent for her to simply break without the artifact. The best she’d been able to do was dampen the more chaotic effects.
She rubbed a talisman of her own as she stepped into the bed and breakfast. She poured magic into the polished stone and knew she’d become suddenly uninteresting, the eyes of the building’s owner sliding off her and back to her cleaning even as Lin made for the stairs. She took them at a casual walk, despite the time limit to the talisman. Anything abrupt would break the effect anyway. She sighed in relief as she made it out of sight, halfway up the enclosed stairway, before the effect faded. She’d widened her knowledge of magic after leaving the red-light district but she was still largely a specialist, better at charms that would garner attention rather than those intended to drive it away.
She took note of the layout, and of the only room with a closed door. She’d have to return later, of course. She wasn’t a fighter and her presence in his rooms wouldn’t exactly be legal. Having gotten the information she needed she turned to leave, one hand reaching for her talisman. A door creaked behind her and she froze.
“You’re from the Lily, aren’t you? Lin the Lewd, right? You’re looking into what happened there.”
The voice sounded aged, tired, but Lin palmed the bracelet on her left wrist in caution. She’d been reaching for the talisman with her right, so that’s where he’d probably be looking. She hoped so, at least. The unassuming bracelet now in her palm had been a gift she’d received in thanks from a combat wizard who’d been cursed. The bolt of lightning it could release was something far outside her own abilities, and the simple copper circle had saved her life a dozen times over. She turned slowly, casually bringing the bracelet in line with the raggedy man. She didn’t use it, not yet. His voice had been weak, and on first glance he looked resigned rather than violent. He spoke again before she could answer him.
“I suppose you might as well come in. I’m in trouble either way, at this point, so perhaps hiring you to help me as well as the Lily can only make things better.” He opened the door wide and motioned her in before disappearing inside himself.
Lin frowned, hesitating. Lin the Lewd was one of her less polite titles, but a title nevertheless. He’d made it perfectly clear that he knew who she was and that he intended to hire her. Just what was going on? She frowned and made her decision, striding into the room with an easy, confident grace that she didn’t feel. She took the small room in at a glance. There were just two places to sit, and he had taken the bed. She sat in the room’s only chair, making sure her bracelet was pointed at him. She didn’t speak, deciding to let him tell her as much as he wanted.
He seemed happy enough to comply, speaking only moments after she’d settled into the chair. “I suppose it was inevitable you’d get involved. Or someone like you at least. How much do you know, exactly?” He ran a hand nervously through his shoulder length hair, grimacing as his fingers pulled at tangles.
“That you’ve been using a talisman, probably daemon crafted, to cause problems for the Gilded Lily.”
He barked a short, bitter laugh. “Not much then. Just enough to ruin me. More than I am already anyway.” He seemed to lose himself in thought, his face collapsing in on itself as he stared at the wall.
When he didn’t speak again, she verbally prodded him a bit. “Why did you do it?”
He started, seeming to have forgotten she was there. He started to say something, cut himself off, hesitated, then started again. “I didn’t mean to. Or rather I did, but I didn’t mean to hurt anyone.”
He looked like he might stop there, so she prodded again. “Go on. What did you intend?”
He huffed, for a moment looking like the noble’s brat he probably was. “I just wanted to experiment! I’m a third son, I don’t have any control at home, so I thought I could get it in the whorehouse. A harmless way to take out my frustrations. Sir Jeoffery, my father’s enforcer, he told me rather angrily that he’d run off some sex magic peddler wanting to set up in the noble district. So I tracked her down and asked her for something that could grant me control.”
He leaned over to the chest at the bottom of the bed and rummaged for a few moments before pulling out an amulet. It was a plain looking thing of simple brass metal on black braded cord. If it wasn’t for the aura of magic, surprisingly faint even at this range, Lin wouldn’t have thought anything of it.
“This thing, all it was supposed to do was prevent a girl I was with from finishing. I figured it was a harmless thing to try first, and it worked just as advertised. I felt a little guilty though, since the blonde whore I used it on was good and obviously frustrated, but I left her a big tip and figured it would be alright. I’d planned not to use it again, maybe buying something from the peddler that suited me better, but I couldn’t find her again. Worse, the next time I went to the Lily it appeared around my neck! I’d left it in my lockbox at home, I didn’t want anyone to know I had such a thing.”
Well, shit. That just made her life more complicated. “So it’s appeared on your neck each time?”
He shook his head. “No, after that it reappeared every time I even thought about sex. Worse, it seemed like I couldn’t think of anything else, and the effect has gotten stronger every time I’ve used it. I feel weaker each time as well, sucked dry somehow. I could barely stand after the last use and I still haven’t recovered despite the days that have passed since then.”
Lin froze, then cursed fluidly in a half dozen languages, ignoring the shocked look on the young noble’s face. She thrust a hand in a pocket, much deeper than it ought to have been able to go, and rummaged around, pulling out a simple-looking cloth. She wrapped the cloth around her hand and swiped the amulet away from the young idiot, bringing it to her eyes and activating her mage sight. She immediately knew it was what she’d thought it was and threw it across the room angrily before leaping to her feet and starting to pace, muttering imprecations against young fools everywhere under her breath.
It was a good five minutes before the idiot on the bed worked up the nerve to speak. “You…you know what it is? It’s bad, isn’t’ it?”
Lin grimaced and drew a deep breath. “Yes,” she admitted bluntly. “It’s worse than that.”
He flinched from the ice in her tone. “I-I can pay you to fix it? I still have a lot of money…”
Lin sighed and forced herself back into the chair. “You’ll need it. Not for my services so much as the items I’ll need. Your father’s idiot enforcer angered a greater succubus. That amulet is sucking your life force out with every use and using it to fuel a chaos nexus over the whole city. If it wasn’t for the wards on the Lily containing and suppressing it, half the city would be suffering from random acts of chaos. As it is, those wards must be breaking down, making the effects inside worse and longer each time. Powerful they might be, but I never designed them to absorb that sort of punishment.”
That seemed to startle him. “You designed the wards on the Lily?”
Lin looked at him with an expression that clearly said he was an idiot. “I tell you your life is being drained by an artifact created by a greater succubus and you focus on my warding?”
He chuckled nervously and Lin wished for a pain relief potion. Maybe Madam Roslyn would spare another one for her headache.
Lin tried to suppress her laughter as Roslyn gaped at the circle of crushed emerald and diamond that was slowly being consumed by the fading mystic flames. Lin had almost managed to rein in her desire to laugh, at the cost of aching sides, when Roslyn finally managed to speak.
“That’s it? No epic showdown? No arcane battle?” The utter disbelief at what she’d just witnessed showed clearly on the madam’s face.
Lin couldn’t help the giggle that escaped, but she at least managed to bite back full-blown laughter. “Ros, do I look like someone who can get into an epic showdown with a powerful daemon?”
“Well, no. But…”
“Not expecting me to draw her here just to make a deal?”
Roslyn glared at her. “A deal? I could understand a deal! Like killing the boy or…or sacrificing virgins or something. Not…that.”
“That’s a bit old school, Ros, and you’re thinking of proper demons, not daemons. Daemons are more nature spirits than evil beings looking to possess, murder and rape.”
“But still, that was ridiculous.”
Lin quirked an eyebrow. “It was a fair deal, really. The daemons are just getting with the times. Updating their approach, don’t you know.”
Roslyn sighed. “I supposed so. Still, I’m having a hard time accepting it.”
“That they’ve updated their approach?”
The madam glared at her. “No. That we rid ourselves of a powerful cursed artifact by agreeing to shop exclusive with her business. A curse that could have destroyed a city, called off in exchange for all the city’s brothels buying their sex toys exclusive from the very succubus that cast the curse.”
Lin smiled. “Well, she really did just want to open her shop. She was quite happy for the premium space in the noble district, the exclusive contract just sweetened the deal for everyone. And really, her product is superior.”
Roslyn just shook her head, watching the last embers of the magic circle fade. “Let’s go home, Lin. I need a drink.”