I’m waiting for Inacha to finish buttoning up her blouse. She’s the forty-third woman who’s unbuttoned her blouse for me today. And, no, I’m not sleeping with all of them. Or any of them. Particularly not Inacha.
Gehulia is not quite the anarchic neighborhood it appears to be. And the reason is the magician Zilla. She runs it, keeping the legitimate and criminal businesses carefully in balance, effectively punishing those who try to upset that balance.
I find this out because as part of the deal I’ve struck with Zilla to hide out in Gehulia, I’m working as one of her lieutenants. So I get to see her operations from the top to the bottom.
Take the job I’m just wrapping up. The fastest way to spread the deadly passion fever, as you might expect from the name, is through prostitution. So I’m doing the rounds of all the businesses that use them, checking that the prostitutes aren’t developing the red patches on their backs that are the first sign of the disease. Zilla sticks me with this duty fairly frequently, because a lot of the women are attracted to me and I have to keep declining their attentions. This is Zilla’s idea of humor, making me do this.
So I always end these inspection trips at the Broken Claw. Gehulia has poor, spirit-broken whores. It has high-class girls with fancy clothes and empty souls. And it has Inacha. She’s the reason I end my rounds here.
Inacha came to the city, like many a young woman, with hopes and dreams. And like many, she soon found that most jobs that require no skills also have little pay. So she turned to prostitution.
At which she was a complete failure. This is difficult to accomplish in Gehulia. Inacha is too naturally pretty to work at the low end, and is too talkative and awkward in bed to take a place at the high end. She has some very funny stories of her failures.
So Inacha reinvented herself. She took her looks and her charm, her wit and her intelligence, and she became a gentleman’s escort and information broker. The Broken Claw is her base in Gehulia. And, strictly as a matter of pride, she’s still carried on Zilla’s books as a prostitute. Which is why I have to check her.
With that over, we exit the back room we were using and take a seat in one of the tavern’s booths. Inacha waits until the waitress has delivered our drinks, and we’ve both taken a sip, before she gets down to business: court news and gossip. “Another execution outside the palace today. Baron Stivest.”
The king has been liquidating Earl Haulloran’s supporters with uncharacteristic speed. That’s the twelfth to the chopping block since Haulloran fled fifteen days ago. “What about the queen?” I ask.
Inacha barks out a laugh. “Still no sign of Her Spiffy Superiorness. I know someone with direct access to her. She’s alternating between being loudly mad and quietly seeking a way to escape from the king. Which is one reason he’s executing Haulloran’s allies so readily. No one wants to risk the chopping block for the sake of a monarch who’s not even in her right mind half the time.”
I’m about to ask another question, when Inacha leans forward and rests her hand on my arm. Those big gray eyes of hers look right into mine as she speaks in an undertone. “Not so well known is that the king’s seeing another woman. Not the lady-in-waiting who bore his child. No, this is some stranger named Vorana.”
Not a name I want to hear in any context. I ask Inacha if she’s got a physical description, which she does, and it matches exactly.
“You know this woman?” Inacha naturally asks.
“Not as well as Sarton,” I tell her. “She’s an ex-wife of his. They are not on friendly terms.”
Inacha gives a worried shake of her head. “Then it is probably significant that Sarton hasn’t been visible since she showed up.”
I sit back in my seat, thoroughly depressed. “Significant” doesn’t quite capture the catastrophic implications. Vorana has probably displaced Sarton as Court Magician, in fact if not in name. She’s probably made the king into her puppet.
And the last, most depressing thought? Lady Gwella might not have been lying to me. She may not have been the one who put a spell on the queen. It might well have been Vorana. How, I don’t know. It may well be that Vorana has outplayed us all. To what end?
Seeing my sad and thoughtful look, Inacha smiles and says to me, “You need a place to rest your head tonight, you can always spend the night with me.”