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Chapter 1: The Cursewright and the Boy, Part 5

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 Madame Laurette gave Casimir the rest of the week off; she had been impressed by his insistence on staying at Lena's side through the whole ordeal. But he couldn't think what to do with the free time. Regardless of what Ammas had asked him, he didn't run with any street gangs and the stretch of the Old Godsway where the brothel and Ammas's abandoned temple stood was practically his whole world. He supposed he could go to the Butcherstreet Market, or the Doge's Common, or the grand library where the Othillic Deacons kept their meditations, but none of these things interested him half so much as the once-fearsome figure who plied his trade next door. So he wound up trying to convince Barthim the Beast to teach him the rules of Whistling Jack. The bouncer insisted they play chess instead, as card games were unsuitable for a boy his age. After winning a game, he slipped back into the brothel just as Barthim was lighting the red lamp for the night, slouching past his little room on the second floor and up the lavishly furnished corridor that led to Madame Laurette's bedroom and office. He thought he had heard Ammas's voice from behind the door.

"You look like you're about to keel over yourself, Ammas. Was it that hard on you?"

"They're never easy. I thought you knew that." A long silence, during which Casimir heard the low slurp of someone sipping a hot drink. He could smell the pleasant spice of seretto tea. As quietly as he could he shuffled closer to the teak double doors that led to Madame Laurette's sanctum.

"Well, I'm sure Lena appreciates it. Just about ready to kiss the ground you walk on, in fact. Have you settled on how she'll pay you yet?"

"I thought that's what we were discussing."

"It couldn't wait until you were . . . more on your feet?"

"If we waited for that, I might forget just how much Lena owes me."

Madame Laurette's voice turned brittle. "You watch that. Captain Thalia turns a blind eye to you, but I can have you shut down in a wink if I like."

"We both know you're not going to do that. You only have a respectable brothel instead of a bucket of blood because I have a shingle next door."

"Even so. I don't like the idea of one of my girls being indebted to you for the rest of her life."

"And I don't like the idea of a wealthy procuress talking about a woman as if she's cattle to be bought and sold, but here we are nonetheless."

Icy silence filled the room. Casimir had sometimes thought Madame Laurette wasn't very fond of the cursewright, but now he wondered if the dislike flowed in the other direction.

"Fine," Madame Laurette finally said in a tone of forced politeness. "Your sense of outrage aside, we both know you don't work for free, and that girl could spend the rest of her life with her legs spread and not earn enough to pay you back. I remember the days before the Emperor banished your kind and broke your academies. I remember the fees. Whatever you might think of me, I'm willing to admit that in the old days you could have charged a king's ransom, and be worth every silver."

"That is all very flattering."

"And all true, isn't it?"

Another slurp of tea. "I suppose."

"Then tell me what you want. I don't believe you did this out of charity."

"There's a first time for everything."

Madame Laurette's laugh was an ugly thing, like the cry of a wounded crow.

"The boy -- he's very bright, isn't he?"

"Cass? He is. Learned his letters before he was four."

"Casimir, yes. Brave, too. He performed extraordinarily well, far beyond my expectations. I hadn't expected any assistance at all, really."

The silence from Madame Laurette was the longest yet, punctuated only by the sound of the cursewright enjoying his seretto tea. "What are you asking, Ammas?" She sounded even warier than she did when dealing with the city guard.

"Why, I suppose I'm asking for suitable payment for a service you know damned well no one else in this city could have performed. Give me the boy."

"Weren't you just preaching to me about the evils of the flesh trade?"

"That isn't my taste and you know it. I want him as an apprentice."

"Apprentice? To you?" That harsh cawing laughter again. "You're an outlaw, you and all your kind. My girls have more freedom to operate than you do."

"Laws change. Kings and emperors die, sometimes unexpectedly. And I think if you ask Lena or her father, you'll find the service I provide is invaluable, regardless of what the law thinks. It seems a shame that I should be part of the last generation of my trade, don't you think?"

"Do you really think a boy should be subjected to the sorts of things you have to deal with?"

"I entered the trade at nine. My mentors knew what to let me see and what to hide from me. I learned those lessons well. And when it comes down to it, do you really think a boy should be subjected to what goes on in this place?"

Another long, uncomfortable silence.

"It would pay Lena's debt? You wouldn't come to me for gold if she left the Lioness?"

"I'll do you one better, Laurette. It'll cover Lena's debt and any other service you might need from me. Want me to call down a plague of boils on some Adder's Hill thug when they come for a shakedown? Done. One of your girls falls for an incubus? I'll bring you his horns as a trophy. Name it and I'll do it. That boy has a gift, and I won't see it go to waste."

Down the hallway came a giggle, wrapped around a rough laugh -- Selene with the dyed crimson hair, arm in arm with a burly merchant still grimy with dust from the caravan road. She gave her customer a kiss on the cheek, guided him into one of the bedrooms, then flitted to Casimir's side, putting an arm around his shoulder and leading him away from Laurette's doors. 

"If she catches you polishing keyholes with your ear again, she'll skin you alive, Cass!" Selene giggled again and bent down to kiss him on the mouth lightly, her breath sweet with ale, her flowery perfume filling his nostrils. "I thought you had the night off, anyway. Go on! There's a festival in Kailson Square. Go, go!" She swatted him on the backside, and Casimir did as he was told, though he spent the rest of the night pestering Barthim rather than go to the square. He wanted to say hello to Ammas when the cursewright left the brothel. But somehow he missed him, even though he didn't settle down in his own bed until well past two o'clock. And then he was too excited to sleep until dawn was creeping over the world.

Ammas Mourthia, the cursewright, retired to his abandoned temple and wasn't seen for the next three days, taking his time to recover from the strain of the exorcism. By the end of the week, though, he had hung out his shingle once more, wandering from the portico of his temple to the Lioness's front porch, resuming his habit of trading stories and drinks with Barthim the Beast, playing cards with him as the brothel did its business and usually losing extravagantly.

By the end of the next week, Casimir had moved out of the brothel and into the old Temple of the Graces, and had begun his lessons as Ammas's apprentice.

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