Most of the men who came to the House of Perfumed Ribbons knew what they wanted. The girls came in a few classic types. There were the innocents with their youthful air. The vixens, sultry and experienced—the only girls who had been with men before. The bodyguards, trained in fighting. The “Little Wives” who would provide domestic comforts along with the physical, and the entertainer girls who could play an instrument and make witty conversation.
Velsa already knew she was not a bodyguard or a little wife, or she would have been pulled aside at a younger age to learn how to cook and nurse, or wield a bow and arrow. And certainly she was not a vixen, who periodically spent time with a more experienced male concubine.
She had spent hours upon hours plucking the strings of a bastir, in the hopes of being an entertainer. She figured any man who came to buy an entertainer girl must be well educated and appreciate the arts; maybe he would value her mind and not just her body.
Now that Velsa was finally old enough to be acquired, she found out exactly where she stood.
“You’ll be with the Village Girls,” said Dalarsha, the House Mother.
“The Village Girls?” Velsa was dismayed. “But…”
“I know, you have been very diligent with your music practice, but I’m afraid you just haven’t achieved the level of skill men will expect. You still make mistakes. There’s nothing wrong with being a Village Girl.”
“There’s nothing interesting about being a Village Girl either,” Velsa said.
“Listen, my dear,” Dalarsha said. “You don’t need to be interesting. Men don’t really care about that anyway. Just give them your sweetest face, and some man will be happy to treat you well.”
Soon Velsa would be a stranger’s possession. With luck, he would be kind. He would treasure her and give her gifts and take her to parties dressed in fine clothes to show off his wealth. But every girl knew they might not have that sort of luck.
And even the luckiest girls had still been created for a single purpose, in the end. Even a man who was generous and complimented her beauty would expect to have his way with her, any time it pleased him.
“Anyway,” Dalarsha said, more solemnly. “You have a golden band. We don’t want you to seem too dangerous.”
Velsa put a hand to the circle of gold locked around her throat. The enchanted band suppressed the telepathic abilities she had been born with. Without that assurance, no man would buy her—they wouldn’t feel safe. But even so, many Daramon men didn’t trust telepaths, and they wouldn’t look twice at a girl with her powers.
The girls who had come of age before her were excited to welcome her into the front of the House. They all couldn’t help but look forward to this right of passage, even as they feared it, because either way, it meant they were grown women, and the course of their lives would soon be determined. It was a tradition, on that first night, for all the girls to lend the new initiate their favorite pieces of clothing, clothes the girls often scrounged their tips to buy in the hopes of attracting the finest and wealthiest of men.
If the girl was lucky enough to be chosen on her very first night, all the beautiful clothes would go with her. It was a game that someone won every year or so. When this happened, word quickly leaked back to the younger girls who had not yet seen the front of the House, and they would all lament the necklaces and headdresses and shoes that would never be seen again, most of them purchased with the tips they earned with their charms.
“If I lose my best stockings, I can always buy more. It’s too much fun to dress you up like a princess,” said Pia, one of the vixen girls. “And it helps with the nerves.”
“Hopefully,” Velsa said. Her voice was a little shaky. She was standing in her chemise in front of the mirror, nearly as naked as she’d ever been, unused to being the center of attention.
“First, my dragon stockings!” Pia exclaimed, waving her hand to flirtatious little Bari, who presented the neatly folded stockings like a crown. Velsa remembered Pia from their school days, before Pia came of age and went into the house a few months ago. She seemed more jovial than Velsa remembered, as if she actually preferred male attention to education.
Velsa pulled each silk stocking onto her legs slowly, admiring the way the design unfolded. The tails of the dragons started at her feet, the sinuous golden bodies running all the way up above her knees. A tiny button had been sewn onto the back of Velsa’s legs, to help keep the stockings up, and over these Pia tied yellow satin ribbons snug around Velsa’s thighs. Her bows were so perfect that Velsa would have to ask her how to do them later.
“Lift your arms,” Pia said.
“You don’t have to dress me.”
“We must dress you! Just for today. Princess Velsa. No, Queen Velsa. Why settle?” Pia slid an under-robe over her shoulders. This was a simple garment, but over it came a beautiful dark red sash of fabric woven and dyed in Halnari, where some of the finest textiles were made—especially sashes, which the Halnari women also favored. Even as Pia was tying the sash at the back of Velsa’s narrow waist, Amleisa was stuffing her feet into heeled shoes made of red brocade.
“Is—is there anything I should know?” Velsa asked, fighting off another wave of panic. “When the men come in?”
“Not really,” Bari said. “Just bow and look shy and ask them a few questions about their lives and then look impressed—the men will love you.”
“Don’t smell the men,” Pia said breezily.
The other girls laughed, but Velsa’s innards shifted with fear. “Are flesh and blood men really that bad?”
“Sometimes,” Pia said. “Depends on where they’re from. The city merchants are the worst. Like they have no time to bathe and living on top of one another has dulled their sense of smell.”
“The girls we really should be asking for advice are the ones who have already left,” Amleisa said, with a wistful air.
When girls were chosen, occasionally they still wrote letters back to the House, but usually they were never heard from again. Dalarsha told them that men didn’t like to consider the previous lives of the girls they purchased. They wanted to believe they were buying a newly minted person, who had been created just for them, not so much a frightened and inexperienced girl, as a toy fresh out of the box, created to be played with. Not that Velsa’s teachers worded it like that exactly, but she understood the unspoken truth.
It didn’t seem fair or reasonable to Velsa, that she should pretend the last eighteen years of her life had never existed. Even Fanarlem girls had to grow up on the inside, no matter how their bodies looked on the outside.
Still, Velsa knew she was fortunate to have been created for the House of Perfumed Ribbons. It was renowned across the region as the most reputable place to purchase a Fanarlem concubine, because the girls were well cared for and allowed to come of age in a natural way. In fact, the older girls said some men didn’t like to buy from their House because the girls seemed a little too real. The men almost felt like they were buying flesh and blood girls, and that was entirely illegal and immoral.
But what Fanarlem girl didn’t want to be seen as a flesh and blood girl?
Pia had pinned up the corners of Velsa’s under-robe so her stockings could be seen in full. Velsa felt exposed, but of course that was the idea. And the next garment was an over-robe, which she could pull around her body to hide if she felt the need, although this was certainly not advised if she wanted to be acquired…unless, of course, the man liked his girl to be demure. But that was usually the province of the innocents. This over-robe was made of expensive dark red silk and had a dramatic collar that fanned over her shoulders, made of black brocade edged in silver thread.
The final touch were two clips in her hair, just above her ears, in the fashionable shape of wings.
Bari sprayed a mist of floral perfume around Velsa’s neck. Velsa sniffed the delicate floral fragrance. It made her think of spring, even on a rainy autumn night.
“That’s how Village Girls smell,” Pia teased, like it was a bad thing. Vixens didn’t smell of spring flowers, but of spice and musk.
“Now what?” Velsa asked.
“Now, we wait,” Bari said.
Night was creeping in, and the district was springing to life. Dalarsha placed lit lanterns in the windows. The girls were grouped into different rooms according to their general type, so Dalarsha could steer the visitors toward girls of interest and keep them separate as much as possible, so the girls in each room could shower all their attention on one or two men at a time. Each room was decorated to reflect the girls inside, so the Little Wives gathered around a hearth making popcorn or roasted nuts while the men settled into cushy chairs, and the vixens had a pleasure den of wispy curtains and pillows on the floor. The Village Girls had a parlor with a sofa and a crackling fireplace, and walls decorated with romantic prints of beautiful girls looking over their shoulders, as if they were all beckoning the men to follow.
Every night, many men came simply out of curiosity, to see the famous Fanarlem concubines. In all the world, most Fanarlem were created as slaves, particularly for working in mines or with dangerous chemicals and dyes: all the jobs that were hazardous to flesh and blood people. Many households also kept a Fanarlem slave to do the most grueling household labor.
It cost far more to make a Fanarlem like Velsa. Fanar lem—it meant, literally, a person made from scraps. An animated rag doll. Velsa was certainly not made from scraps. Her innards were carefully constructed to mimic the muscles of a living woman, and her skin was made from soft yet durable fabrics. Her hair was real and thick, and her face had been shaped by a master craftsman. Spells were woven through every aspect of her body, to make it look and feel even more real.
Still, she had been reminded all her life that she was still a lesser being, a cursed soul. As soon as the girls learned to read, they were handed moral tales of noble Fanarlem suffering. The girls even learned penmanship by copying phrases like, “My soul is redeemed by following the orders of my masters” and “It is my greatest joy and virtue to surrender my will and accept my place in the world.”
She must have done some misdeed in her past life, or else her soul would have been too strong to have been called into an artificial body. If her future master was kind to her, she should count herself lucky. If he was not, she should also count herself lucky, because his cruelty would be her penance, and her reward would come in the next life.
Velsa knew it was true.
But the words never failed to taste bitter.
She waited in the softly lit room with Amleisa and Nraya, the other Village Girls. Just outside the window, a few men came down the street, pointing up at the sign for the House of Perfumed Ribbons. It depicted a hand with stitches at the wrist, with a ribbon tied around one of its fingers.
“Skarnwen!” jeered one of the prostitutes who were all over the streets in this district. Tonight a few of them were hiding out under the balcony of the house across the way, keeping out of the rain.
Skarnwen was slang for men who liked dolls more than real women. But plenty of men liked both. The men ignored them and moved to the door, disappearing from Velsa’s view.
Now she heard the door open. A few male voices entered. The House of Perfumed Ribbons was an attraction on the streets of Nisa. Most of the men had no intent to buy, but they paid a few coins just to get in the door and often they also tipped the girls. When Dalarsha pointed a man their way, Amleisa and Nraya rushed to greet him. Velsa was just a step behind.
“Welcome, sir,” they chorused.
Amleisa brushed a few raindrops off his cloak. “It’s a little wet out tonight, isn’t it?”
The man chuckled nervously. “Yes, it is.” He stared at them like they were curiosities rather than beautiful women.
“You must be nice to Velsa,” Amleisa said. “It’s her first day here.”
“Oh is that so?” He looked at Velsa now. “Don’t be shy.”
She bowed as she had been taught, pointing one toe forward, sweeping one arm out. “No, sir.”
Nraya nudged her. “Maybe you should offer this lovely man a drink.” She flashed the man a brief smile.
Lovely man? Hardly. He was reasonably handsome, like most Daramon men. If they could afford it, they would go to a Halnari shapeshifter and have any unattractive features smoothed into beauty. Their age was hard to determine because they wouldn’t allow many wrinkles to show. But you couldn’t shape-shift the look in a man’s eyes, and in his she saw a vague excitement paired with something calculating.
Velsa crossed the room, past the luxurious sofa upholstered in gold fabric that glowed in the lamp-light, to a table covered in bottles. He watched her every move. She poured a glass of diluted wine. Her hands were still a little shaky but no one seemed to notice. “Sir.” She offered the glass.
He drank, beginning to warm to their presence. He let Amleisa take his arm and lead him to the sofa. Once he was sitting, she slowly drew away, her expression coy. He grabbed her arm and pulled her body down, so she tumbled onto his lap.
“You’re such a little thing,” he murmured.
“You can handle two of us, then,” Amleisa said. Like all the girls, Amleisa was just a little older than Velsa; they had grown up together, until Amleisa turned eighteen and moved to the front of the House. It was so odd to see her flirting like this, playing the part so well.
Amleisa was looking at Velsa, a wordless beckon. Velsa was frozen.
“Don’t be shy,” the man repeated. “I won’t hurt you.”
Velsa didn’t want Dalarsha to hear that she had stuck herself in a corner all night.
I was made for this. I have no choice.
She forced herself to sit on the man’s other knee. He slid his hand up her back. His skin was warm. His face was rough with stubble and his clothes were dusty from travel. Velsa reminded herself not to sniff, in case he was one of the smelly ones Pia warned her about. Fanarlem didn’t have to breathe, so smelling was always a conscious act, but even without a scent to accompany his rugged body, the solid feel of his thigh beneath her was disconcerting. He seemed so much stronger and earthier than her.
His hand worked its way beneath the edge of her over-robe, and now it touched the sash at her waist. “Don’t be scared.”
She could no longer look at him. She looked at Amleisa’s hand instead.
He isn’t allowed to do anything to me unless he buys me. If he touched her beneath her clothes, she could scream and Dalarsha would come and tell him he must pay.
But if he had the money, he could do anything he liked to her. He could take her home with him. He could trap her inside his house, away from anyone she might call a friend. This scared her more than anything; the prospect of being trapped.
Fear threatened to rip a scream from her throat. If she let out a single cry, if she sprung off the man’s lap, all the other girls would tease her. They all went through this, didn’t they? And surely none of them enjoyed it, but they pretended so well.
So many of the girls who were bought were never heard from again. The world beyond this house was largely a mystery and no one would save her from its horrors. She had to accept this.
This was a fact she had been told all her life, and yet it was as if she had just heard it for the first time. As if she had denied the reality of it until this very moment, when the reality had a large hand spread across her back.
“Darling…” Amleisa smoothed Velsa’s hair. “It’s all right. He’s a nice gentleman. Aren’t you?”
“Of course I am,” he said. “I think you’re both beautiful.”
Nraya sat down beside them. “Where are you from?” she asked.
“Oh, what a long journey! I bet you’ve never seen a Fanarlem girl like us before.”
“Certainly not like you. Never like you.” His hand rested on Velsa’s hip now and he squeezed her skin. She stiffened with a gasp, but he didn’t even react.
“Just like a real girl,” he said approvingly.
She had never felt so alone—so exposed. No one cared that she was terrified. And this was only the beginning…
As he finished his drink, Nraya smoothly nudged Velsa out of the way and took her place on the man’s knee, giving Velsa time to collect herself.
Before long, he was moving on, curious about the other girls in the House. Amleisa and Nraya rushed to reassure Velsa. “You did just fine,” Amleisa said. “The first one is always the worst.”
“Well—” Nraya interjected. “Except occasionally they are really awful. He wasn’t so bad.”
Amleisa gave her a sharp look. “Let’s not mention that today.”
“I already know,” Velsa said. “I’ve heard all the stories. I just never understood how it would really feel… How can you stand it, knowing that the worst of men could own you at any moment? Any moment, he might walk in the door and your life would be over?”
“Shh.” Amleisa was smoothing her hair again. “You know what they say. Even the worst of it will wash our sins away.”
No one bought Velsa that day. A tiny piece of her was disappointed, to take off the embroidered stockings and the fine robes. Tomorrow she would wear her own new concubines robes; still expensive, but not as expensive as the ones tips could buy. It was a point of pride to be one of the rare few who was chosen on the first day, and shameful to linger in the House for months, passed over again and again. One girl had remained in the House for three years, such an embarrassingly long time that men who came to visit more than once began commenting on her continuing existence there. On her twenty-first birthday, she finally left and went to the Fanarlem brothel in Porstan.
Nraya was right. The first man who came through the door really wasn’t that bad, after all. Over the next week, Velsa endured a
parade of men.
The easiest visitors were younger men, naive and curious, with no intention to buy. Usually they came from smaller towns and considered it a novelty to spend their evening with Fanarlem girls. They stared with wide eyes, but they were too nervous to touch. Older variants of the curious man were not so naive. They were businesslike in their visits. They mostly just wanted to stare, to say that they had seen Fanarlem concubines.
The men who truly fit the description of “skarnwen”, and preferred Fanarlem girls over any others, were easy to spot. Some even declared their preference openly, as if the girls might be flattered. They spoke with the assumption that the girls would want to belong to them.
One of them cornered Velsa by the window and took her hand. She felt as rigid and fragile as glass, with her small hand engulfed by his. “You’re so beautiful, darling,” he said. “I would give anything to have you but my wife wouldn’t approve. She’d be jealous. She doesn’t understand that you’re very different from a wife. You’re something special.”
Very different from a wife. Did he think this a compliment? If she were a wife, she might be forced into a marriage, but at least she would have rights.
She said nothing as he went on and on.
The next day, the weather was fine and the House was busy. They were already entertaining one shy young merchant when Dalarsha showed in a man whose eyes alighted on Velsa from her first bow. While Amleisa poured him a drink, he sat on the sofa like he owned it and held a hand out to her. “Come closer, doll, don’t be scared.”
They always said that. Don’t be scared.
Nothing good ever followed those words.
She sat on the sofa beside him, rigid with fear, but it only seemed to stir him to move closer.
“Shy,” he murmured, stroking her hair. “A shy little thing.”
Nraya and Amleisa didn’t help her this time. They sensed true danger, Velsa thought, and now it was every girl for herself.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “I’d treat you well. I have a beautiful house with a beautiful room that would belong to you, and every day I would bring you flowers and jewels.” He produced a pair of beaded hair ornaments from his pocket. “Do you like these?”
“No,” Velsa said.
“No?” He seemed affronted. “Really? Ah, you’re just being shy, but no one will ever buy you if you don’t relax a bit.” He put a hand on her thigh and slid it up above the hem of her under-robe so that she batted him away with shock.
“Please,” Velsa said. “Don’t touch me. You’re not allowed to touch me.”
“Unless I buy you.” He brought out a pouch full of coins, hefting it right before her eyes. “I could buy you and lock you away and keep you as my little pet. My secret treasure. Adorned in all the finery money can buy.” He put the hair ornaments in her hand and forced her fingers to close around them. Then his hand moved up her thigh again.
“No!” she shrieked, springing to her feet. She threw the hair ornaments at him. “No!”
Amleisa rushed to her side. The man was abruptly angry, red-faced, shouting, “A girl like you ought to be grateful!” Dalarsha stormed in.
“What’s going on here?” she asked.
“You should teach these girls to obey,” the man snapped.
“I’m very sorry, sir. We do have a policy that you must purchase them before you touch them.”
The man glared at Velsa. “Then I’ll buy her.”
Velsa clutched Amleisa’s hand. The room seemed to spin. She could not accept this. She would fight him until her limbs fell to pieces.
“Sir, I really don’t think she would be a good buy for you,” Dalarsha said. “Let me show you to one of the other rooms.” She ushered him out, but he still gave Velsa one last look. If he insisted, what would Dalarsha do? Amleisa showed Velsa to the sofa, where she sank on shaking knees. She wanted to cry but sobs wouldn’t come.
“They get like that sometimes,” Amleisa said. “It’s usually better to take the tips and let them touch.”
“I couldn’t,” Velsa said. “I can’t.”
“It gets easier.”
“One day, you’ll be bought and you won’t be able to refuse. Velsa, you need to learn submission before the fight destroys you. Do you think some nice man is going to show up and rescue you?”
Surely…it isn’t impossible. Amleisa is just bitter. She’s been in the front of the House for almost nine months.
Nraya stood near the drinks, biting her finger.
“What truly nice man is ever going to show up here?” Amleisa said. “I think the idea that it ever happens is a myth. Men buy us because we’re the only woman they can own completely. They can even sew our mouths shut. We’re not going to see a nice man. None of us. It’s our penance. We might as well stop dreaming.”
“It’s all we have,” Nraya said. “Dreaming.”
“No,” Amleisa said. “All we have is to embrace our fate. We have to accept what we are. We’ll go mad if we fight. If we give our will
over to our master, maybe it isn’t so bad.”
“You’re mad,” Velsa said. “If you think it’s easier to let a man lock you up forever and treat you like a pet than it is to fight.”
“Isn’t it?” Amleisa spoke sadly, as if she didn’t expect an answer.
Dalarsha returned, and motioned for Velsa to come with her, leading the way to her office. She waved for Velsa to sit in the rickety wooden chair opposite her cluttered desk.
“Velsa,” Dalarsha said, still standing. “You know you aren’t supposed to yell at the men. If he touches your maidenhood, you must calmly call my name, but we don’t want to have a reputation that our girls are troublemakers.”
Velsa stared at a row of carved wooden figurines on Dalarsha’s desk, depicting Fanarlem concubines in costumes from the Age of Kings. They were all in dancing poses, with impossibly tiny feet and alluring little painted faces. They mocked her. Why can’t you be more like a figurine, Velsa? She imagined these perfect wooden girls would be happy to be locked away.
Dalarsha put a hand on her chin. “Velsa, I don’t want to see you still here in a year, because you are too rebellious.”
“I’m not rebellious.”
“You’re the most dangerous kind of rebellious. Restrained enough that you never break the rules, but your eyes suggest that when you do, it will be in a spectacular fashion.” Dalarsha smiled faintly. “I can’t blame you, dear, but you have to try harder.”
“If you yell directly at a customer again, I will have to strip your hands for a few days, but since this was the first time, I’ll let it go.”
In truth, serious buyers didn’t come often. Besides that Fanarlem girls were expensive, they were a commitment and not to everyone’s taste. Velsa was there for ten days before Dalarsha sent one to see the Village Girls.
She could tell something was different about him from the start, because Dalarsha seemed serious, and when they bowed to him, he didn’t seem interested in flirting. He looked them over head to toe and made a small “hmm” sound.
“I like the look of this one,” he said, pointing at Nraya.
Nraya stared at him, her face drained of its usual flirtatious smile.
“You could take some time with her, if you like,” Dalarsha said.
“Yes,” he said.
Dalarsha beckoned Nraya to follow her out of the room.
Velsa sank onto the sofa, her mind a swirl of emotions. Thank the fates he didn’t like the look of me. She felt guilty for thinking it, but he might come back and decide he did like the look of her after all, and Nraya would think the same.
He hadn’t waited for them to say a single word. He was seeking a ‘look’ and he seemed to know just what it was. What could that even mean? They had no say in how they looked.
She twisted her fingers. Every moment seemed endless.
If he chose Nraya they might never see her again.
Amleisa stood by the window, quiet. They waited as if they had breath to hold.
Half an hour later, Nraya returned with dull eyes. The man followed, with Dalarsha just behind him. “Amleisa,” she said. “He’d like to see you, now.”
“Yes, madam,” Amleisa said, keeping her eyes down.
I might be next, Velsa thought. She got to her feet. “What happened?” she asked Nraya.
“Not all that much,” Nraya said. “Dalarsha talked me up as best she could. He asked to see me without my clothes.”
“Without your clothes?” Velsa said, dismayed.
“Yes, but when I took them off, he barely even looked. She wouldn’t let him touch. He didn’t say much. He just shook his head at the end… I don’t know what he wanted.”
The wait continued until Dalarsha returned alone.
“Amleisa has been purchased,” she said gently.
“She has?” Nraya clutched her chest.
“Yes, he found her quite charming. She’s been here a long time, you know. She’s hungry to move on, and sometimes that’s how it needs to be.”
“We don’t even get to say goodbye?” Velsa asked, but she already knew the answer.
Dalarsha just shook her head.