410 United Era
The sun crept over the troubled sea, reflecting brilliantly off the water. Its light illuminated the remains of a once-dense forest. The fire-blackened trunks stood guard over the eastern shore of the Southern Realm, warning any who might come from the east of impending death. However, no one ever came; the ever-present cyclones swirling in the distance barred the way.
Empty cities stood abandoned, surrounded by leagues of failed crops, browned and withered by the sun’s growing oppressiveness. Mansions that had once housed those worshipped by the masses now gathered dust, ignored even by those who had chosen to remain once their stores were picked clean.
As the sun’s light raced west, the destruction became less evident. Cities and towns gradually became inhabited. Crops survived, but with diminished yield. Empty lakes gave way to lakes with deep water lines, and dry riverbeds began to flow. By the time the growing light illuminated the nearly identical palaces of Hantlo, all except the nearly continuous wagon train moving north appeared normal.
Hadie stood before the familiar mirror in Sonja’s room. Her room. The feeling of disbelief at how easily her plan had worked still overwhelmed her. None of the women who worked for Sonja owed Hadie anything, and yet they had unanimously pledged their loyalty to her, knowing what she intended to do.
She examined herself in the mirror while Ursella selected her clothing for the day from the armoire. She decided that if she was going to do this—be a madam—she would not pretend to be someone she was not. She would not alter her being simply for the sake of pretending to be someone the Blessed desired.
“Dorlan and the other regents aren’t nearly as picky as Drenan,” Ursella said.
“Yes, but what if he returns?”
“It will not be done at his palace, so if he wishes to participate in Dorlan’s revelries, he will have to partake of what Dorlan provides.”
She’d had Ursella get rid of all the corsets with pockets for the water-filled pouches made from sheep stomach. They were used to alter the appearance of one’s breasts, and she wouldn’t permit any of her whores to use them. They were who they were and wouldn’t pretend otherwise.
Ursella selected a yellow corset with flowers embroidered on it, and slipped it around Hadie’s chest. While Ursella cinched it up, Hadie wondered whether she was still pretending to be someone she wasn’t. Never in the time she worked with Sonja had she felt as though she was being true to who she was. She wasn’t a whore. She’d gotten pretty good at pretending to be one, but it wasn’t who she was. She wasn’t a madam either.
“What is it?” Ursella said with a look of concern.
“I’m just wondering—”
“You are who you decide to be,” Ursella said.
And I have decided that I am Madam Sheena.
“Thank you, Ursella,” Hadie said. She took as deep a breath as was possible in a corset. “I couldn’t do this without you, you know.”
Ursella smiled up at Hadie. She finished cinching the corset, then retrieved a pleated skirt from the armoire.
When the skirt was in place, Hadie admired her new self. She held her hand out, and Ursella handed her her knife. She had decided to keep the knife she’d bought in Portstown instead of Sonja’s slender blade. She slipped the blade into the sheath Ursella had sewn to the inside of her corset, bottom left side. Satisfied, she turned and walked out of the room. Ursella followed close on her heels.
Hadie walked each hallway as she made her way down to the lobby, and knocked on every door. At the beaded lobby entrance, she turned to address the crowded hallway. “Today is a big day,” she began. “Word has reached the blessed ears of His Highness that Sonja has retired. Word has also reached the blessed ears that there’s a new madam: Madam Sheena.”
The women’s eyes lit up in excitement, and they began to talk excitedly with each other.
While Hadie waited for them to quiet down, she thought about the visit she’d received last night from Dorlan’s servant Sethlan. “We have been summoned to His Highness’ court today, so please—”
Another murmur overtook them.
“Girls! Girls!” Hadie shouted. “Please!” The women quieted down. “So, please, don your finest.”
The women dispersed back into their rooms. Hadie parted the beaded curtain with her hand and walked over to the chair in the back corner of the lobby, where Sonja used to supervise the goings-on of her brothel, and sat.
Ursella had already ordered the carriages that would take them all to the palace, so while she waited, she reflected over the past few days. She really couldn’t have done any of it without Ursella. She had gracefully taken up her old position as Sonja’s aide and served at Hadie’s side. When she wasn’t tending to Hadie’s needs, which weren’t many, she was tending to the patrons, serving them wine and lowering their inhibitions.
“Can I get you anything while you wait, Madam?” Ursella said.
“Some tea would be great.”
While patrons moved in and out of the lobby throughout the evenings, Hadie sat in her chair, sipped wine, and studied each patron carefully. When Sonja had made her prepare the guests, she didn’t want to know the least bit about them; she’d barely wanted to look at them. Now, she needed to know whom she served. She needed to know who it was that could afford to solicit the most elite of brothels in the entire Southern Realm. When Ursella had lulls in her work and came to stand beside Hadie, Hadie asked her about those who particularly piqued her interest. If they were successful in killing the Blessed, someone would need to rise and replace them. As much as she hated the idea, those best qualified to lead the people—at least initially—were her clients. They at least had the means.
Last night, after Sethlan’s visit, she had overdone it with the wine. Ursella handed her a hot cup of tea, and she took a sip, hoping her headache would abate before she had to stand before the chancellor.
“Does the chancellor know you?” Ursella said.
Hadie shook her head from behind the cup poised at her lips.
“Then why are you so nervous?”
“I guess…” Hadie began. “I guess it’s because it’s not every day one gets summoned by the Chancellor of the Southern Realm.”
“Relax,” Ursella said. “It’ll be fine.”
Hadie sipped her tea, hoping Ursella was right.
* * *
Sethlan sat at his desk at the top of the dais in Dorlan’s throne room, mindlessly recording another transaction. He scratched his head, trying to remember how he knew the woman who referred to herself as Madam Sheena. He knew he recognized her, but couldn’t quite place her.
With Dorlan’s mind preoccupied with his crumbling realm, he had barely reacted to the news of Sonja’s sudden retirement. However, it had shocked Sethlan. Drenan would not be pleased when he returned from Onta. But what had shocked Sethlan more than Sonja retiring was Sheena’s sudden rise. All proprietors were required to present themselves for the blessing of their province’s regent, and even though that didn’t typically fall under Dorlan’s responsibilities, Sethlan still heard about them. It was his job to know what was happening, not only in the Hantlo province, but in the whole realm. However, in his experience, it typically took months before he heard about new businesses. With Sheena, it had taken only days.
Which made him even more curious about who she was.
“Madam Sheena!” he called out.
A group of women wearing orange corsets—sensual attire from the Northern Realm—led by a woman wearing a yellow one walked forward from the back of the throne room.
The absence of Drenan had placed a heavy burden on Dorlan—and on himself, as Dorlan’s servant and scribe—but for the first time since Drenan left, Sethlan didn’t mind. Sheena’s identity had been bothering him since Dorlan had sent him to visit her last night.
The whores sauntered to the front of the throne room and stopped at the foot of the dais. They spread out side to side with Sheena in the middle, giving Dorlan a view of them all. An excellent view, Sethlan thought to himself, looking down at them.
Sheena bowed deeply, along with all the other whores, then said, “It’s a pleasure to stand before you, Your Highness.”
“The pleasure is all mine,” Dorlan said.
“I’m sure you’ve heard of the great void left in Hantlo by the sudden retirement of Madam Sonja,” Sheena said, “I know how much respect she earned from years of dedicated service to the Regency. If it pleases you, Your Highness,” Sheena said with a bow, “I request the privilege of filling that void. As you can see,” she said, gesturing to her left and right, “I have under my employ the very same whores who faithfully served Sonja.”
Sethlan’s eyes lit up. Not because of her offer, but because he had remembered who she was. He didn’t know her name, but she was the woman traveling with the man who’d attacked Drenan.
What is she doing here?
“Despite whom you may have under your employ,” Dorlan said, “respect must be earned. Prove yourself a loyal subject of His Blessed Highness, Drakonias Irigwin Draeko Drake, Emperor of the United Realms, as well as to myself as Chancellor of the Southern Realm and the Regent of Hantlo, and I will consider your offer.”
Sethlan watched the woman flinch slightly at the mention of the Regent of Hantlo. He looked over at Dorlan, who looked to have missed it.
“Yes, Your Highness,” Sheena said with a bow. “I am but the most faithful of subjects, and it is my pleasure to meet whatever needs you might have. Thank you for your time.” Sheena bowed again, as did the other whores, then turned to leave.
Sethlan made some notes in the ledger, then filed the other piece of information away in his mind for future consideration. It might be worth something to his true employer, Jorgan, at some point.
He looked at the list of the day’s petitioners—they were only about halfway through them—and called out, “Walton Brythe!”
Yet another travel-worn man separated himself from the crowd with his equally ragged family and approached the dais.
* * *
Ursella shut the door to Hadie’s room, and Hadie plopped into her plush chair.
“How do you think it went?” Hadie said.
“I thought it went well, Madam.”
“He seemed… hesitant.”
“Well, what did you expect? For him to give you the same treatment as Sonja without ever having heard of you before?”
“Yes, you’re right.”
“I think he will warm to you quickly, Madam. And who knows, your name might be on the list for entertainment when next he plans a gala.”
“That’s another thing I’m worried about,” Hadie said. “One doesn’t have to be Blessed to know things aren’t right. I have a hard time believing the Regency would continue their debauched ways when the realm is falling apart around them.”
“I don’t think you have to worry about that. Their debauchery has no end.”
“I hope you’re right,” Hadie said.
She had done what she needed to do with Dorlan. There was nothing more to be done except wait to be summoned for services, so she turned her attention to other matters that needed tending to; namely, she needed to procure more of the poison that was on the pin she was going to use to kill Drenan. And since she didn’t know how to make it, she would need to buy it. She doubted buying poison was cheap, so before she even thought about where she might buy the poison, she needed to have an idea of how much money she had at her disposal. At her desk, she flipped open the ledgers that Ursella filled out daily and looked them over.
Hadie pointed at a figure and said, “Is this right?”
Ursella walked around the desk and looked at where Hadie pointed. “Yes, Madam.”
Hadie added up the numbers in her head again. “We made nine hundred drakes the first night we were open?”
“You made nine hundred drakes, Madam. It went up to twelve hundred the second night and fourteen hundred the third.”
Hadie was beside herself. “That’s unbelievable!”
Procuring more poison was not going to be a problem.
“Where is it?” Hadie said.
“Madam Sonja always kept the gold at one of the depositories in the city. I opened a new account there the morning after we opened. It’s not safe to keep that much gold here.”
“Thanks,” Hadie said, still in shock at how much money the brothel brought in nightly.
“Do you require anything else, Madam?”
“Not at the moment,” Hadie said. “Thank you.” When Ursella turned to leave, she added, “If you have the time later, I’d like to review the client list for the night.”
“Yes, Madam. I’ll return before they begin to arrive.” Ursella curtsied and walked out.
When the door closed, Hadie opened the top left drawer of the desk and removed the poisoned hairpin. A small flower adorned it, made from tiny yellow and red gems. She turned it over, looking for clues as to who might have made it, but didn’t find anything. She returned the pin to the drawer and shut it. Her plan would be worthless if she couldn’t get several more of them.
Still recovering from too much wine the night before, she went over to her bed and lay down. A good nap would be the perfect thing after a stressful morning before the chancellor while nursing a throbbing head. She closed her eyes, and while she waited for sleep to overcome her, she thought about who Sonja knew in Hantlo who sold poison. It didn’t take long for sleep to arrive.
* * *
“Madam,” Ursella said, shaking Hadie gently by the shoulder. “It’s time.”
Hadie sat up on the bed and rubbed her eyes. Thankfully, the throbbing had stopped. She went over to the washbasin and used the cool water to wash her face and under her arms. Then she sat in her seat and listened to Ursella review the list of clients who would be visiting tonight.
“Stop there,” Hadie said when Ursella read the name Phenor Morrigan. “I don’t need to know any more about him.”
Ursella looked at her askance. “Madam?”
“I already know everything I need to know about him.”
“You know Phenor?”
“I do,” Hadie said.
“How? Next to Drenan, he’s probably the wealthiest man in Hantlo.”
“Because he’s my father.”
Ursella stared at Hadie with a blank face. “Your father is—”
“What in Draego’s Fire are you doing here?”
“It’s a long story that’s not important. What is important,” Hadie said, suddenly realizing what she was going to do to replace the Regency once they were gone, “is what sort of influence I might still have with him.”
“What do you mean?”
“Let’s just say that when he sees me, he won’t be pleased. Now, let’s get downstairs.”
Hadie stood and led the way out of her room and down the stairs. “What time is he supposed to be here?” she asked as they walked through the beaded curtain.
“And who is he coming to see?” Hadie asked, taking her place in the corner.
Ylonna? Hadie thought with a shake of her head. She did not want to think about the women her father was bedding. “Good,” she said. “Please have her come see me.”
Ursella brought her a glass of wine, then disappeared through the beads. While she was gone, Hadie moved to a couch and thought about what she was going to say to her father when he arrived.
Ylonna appeared through the beads before she could formulate any thought. Ylonna curtseyed and said, “You wanted to see me, Madam?”
Hadie gestured next to her and said, “Have a seat.”
“Tonight, you’re going to have a particular guest. And when he arrives, this is what you’re going to do…”
Hadie took the next few minutes to explain what she wanted Ylonna to do. When she finished, Ylonna curtsied again and returned to her room. Hadie looked at the clock on the wall. She had plenty of time to contemplate what she was going to say.
The night wore on, and her mind remained blank. She could think of nothing to say to her father except to yell at him for bedding women behind her mother’s back. When the hour arrived and a familiar face walked through the front door, Hadie watched the middle-aged man dressed in a trim brown suit walk over to a vacant couch. He unbuttoned his coat, which was probably stifling to wear in the prevalent wet heat of the south, and sat down with his back to her. A spike of fear surged through her veins, and she knew she couldn’t confront him. She gestured to Ursella to come to her.
“What?” Ursella whispered.
“When you take him back, please inform Ylonna I’ve changed my mind,” she whispered back.
Ursella nodded then quickly retrieved a glass of wine.
Hadie watched Ursella saunter over to her father and hand him the glass. When Ursella leaned in as she had once taught Hadie to do, Hadie watched through clenched teeth as Ursella prepared him for Ylonna. She took a deep breath and breathed out slowly when Ursella led him through the beads.
Ursella returned all too quickly and said, “What happened?”
“I wasn’t ready.”
“You won’t be able to do that the day we go to the palace, you know.”
“I know,” Hadie said. Feeling angry with herself for letting fear control her, she said, “And don’t speak to me with such impudence again.”
“Yes, Madam,” Ursella said with a curtsy. “I’m sorry.”