Actions

Work Header

The New Boy (Whipster #1)

Chapter Text

"Whipster. 1589. 1. A vague term of reproach, contempt, or the like. a. A lively, smart, reckless, violent, or mischievous person. b. A wanton or licentious person, a debauchee. c. A slight, insignificant, or contemptible person. 2. One who wields a whip: a. a driver of horses; b. one addicted to whipping or flogging."

—From The Oxford Universal Dictionary (Third Edition).


o—o—o
o—o—o
o—o—o

Whipster
PROLOGUE

"Now, remember," said Outram, "if the gentleman gives no other indication of what he wants, it is best to fall to your knees and take him in your mouth."

"But I don't want to!" The new boy tilted his head to look up at Outram. He was small and fragile – Outram had been glad of that – but the boy was proving to be surprisingly difficult to handle.

Outram gave him a cuff on the head, to teach him for making stupid remarks. "What you want doesn't matter, boy! It's what the patron wants that matters."

The new boy put his hand to his head, but apparently lacked the wisdom to be cautious, for he asked, "What if the patron wants to kneel to me?"

This time, Outram gave the boy a shove that sent him flying into the corner, raking his arm on a desk's edge on the way. Outram regretted that. He could put the boy in long sleeves, but he disliked disguising damaged goods.

The new boy gave something that might have been a sob, and then was silent, much to Outram's satisfaction. New boys were always hard to break in, and this one . . . Outram wasn't sure whether he'd ever had such a difficult boy working under him in all his years. He'd have been tempted to throw the boy onto the streets if the stubbornness had not come in such a deliciously wrapped package.

There was a cough behind Outram. He turned to see that Cyril Carleton stood across the desk from him, drumming his fingers. "My usual," the man said shortly.

"I'm so sorry, sir." Outram's voice, which had been sharp a moment before, oozed into obsequiousness. "That boy is no longer with us. You know how quickly boys grow." He smiled at Carleton, hoping this would help.

It did not.

"I've paid through to the end of the year," Carleton noted, his fingers tightening into a fist.

"Your generosity is not forgotten," Outram said hastily, "and I'm sure that we can find a replacement for you. Perhaps—" He was unexpectedly touched by inspiration. "Perhaps an innocent, untouched virgin."

He saw the flicker of movement against the wall as the boy stiffened. Carleton said, "A virgin," in an unbelieving tone.

"Just arrived," Outram said, leaning over the desk to explain in a low voice, as though fearing that the boy would be snatched up by one of the other men in the foyer who were examining the goods he had on display. "Fresh from his parents' home, where he was much loved and sheltered."

"Indeed." Carleton's voice was as dry as before. "And why, then, did these much loving parents part with him?"

"The usual reasons, sir. Too many brothers and sisters to feed; he was the eldest, and of an age to make his start as an apprentice . . ."

"And you provided them with a finder's fee for giving you the boy." The man's nose wrinkled in distaste, which annoyed Outram. What right had Carleton, standing in this place, to judge him?

Outram was careful to keep all annoyance out of his voice, though, as he said, "Of course, sir. All those starving brothers and sisters . . . It made my heart ache to think of it. I am very fond of young ones, you know." He reached out to pat the new boy solicitously on his head, but the boy was still crouched against the wall where Outram had flung him.

Carleton glanced for the first time at the wide-eyed boy, who was clutching his bleeding arm. "Untouched, you say." His voice was saturated with sarcasm this time.

"In all the places that matter." Outram's smile began to turn stiff. Couldn't the blasted man see what a good fortune he was being presented with? "I've even kept him isolated from the other boys so that there would be no chance of him losing his purity. Look at him – he is like a delicate flower, just beginning to open." He turned his head, taking the opportunity to glare at the boy, willing him to look delicate and flower-like.

"Hmm." Carleton looked at the new boy for a long moment, then said, "Very well, I'll take him. I'll expect a lower price, though, since I'll need to break him in."

Hell-damn the man. Didn't he understand that virgins were a high-priced commodity? Outram was inclined to turn Carleton's eye toward one of the cheaper goods, but he had seen the new boy grow yet more rigid at the word "break." The temptation was too good to pass up.

"Of course, sir. You understand that virgins are usually priced very high indeed, but we are always willing to accommodate a long-standing patron such as you. Tell me, will you need three whips today or four?"

The new boy was now as still as a corpse. Carleton looked neither at him nor at the men nearby, who were beginning to listen with amusement to this exchange. "I said, 'My usual,'" he responded in a bored voice. "Now, hurry it up. I don't pay to be made to wait forever."

"Naturally not," murmured Outram, "but I wish to ensure that all the proper equipment is transferred to the boy's cell. Manacles, throat restraint . . ."

He ticked off several other items, each worse than the last, as the new boy's eyes grew wider and Carleton drummed his fingers loudly.

"Yes, yes," he said impatiently, cutting off the end of the recital. "You know my needs. Now, get on with it, or I'll find myself a whoremaster who understands my need for efficiency."

"Of course, sir," Outram murmured. Beckoning the new boy out of the corner, he also took the precaution of waving to one of the guards to come forward and escort the pair to the boy's cell. The boy looked as if he was quite capable of bolting out the door at any moment. Once he was in the cell, Carleton would have him in hand, and all would be well.

All would be very well indeed. Outram's smile broadened again as he said, "Your usual time? Four hours?"

"Three. I'm in a hurry today, as you've failed to notice."

"Three." Outram carefully made a note of this on the portion of his ledger-book showing the new boy's schedule. "I'll be sure to lower your fee accordingly."

"If you need to say that to me, you're lacking in business sense." Carleton turned toward the guard, who had pulled the new boy to his feet and had his hand firmly wrapped around the boy's delicate arm. Then the patron, guard, and boy disappeared through the archway leading to the cells.

Outram sighed, though he was careful to disguise the sigh from the men now returning to stroking the bodies of the boys and women who were serving them refreshments in the foyer. Carleton was forever an irritation, always demanding that his boy's schedule be set up to suit his own needs, at the expense of other patrons. Outram had often been tempted to throw the man out and let him see how much he was charged for equipment at other houses in the city.

But not today. Today was a bright day in Outram's otherwise hectic and dreary life. Today he would see all the stubbornness broken from the new boy, all his remaining resistance vanquished.

It was an enticing vision, and Outram found that he did not have the self-restraint to wait until the session was over. After two hours had passed, he decided that all would now be at its peak. He envisioned the boy lying bound to the bed, his limbs stretched tight, his chest and thighs crisscrossed with whip-marks and worse, and his voice lifted in screams and pleas for more punishment. Outram had never been able to figure out what skill Carleton used to elicit the last, but there was no doubt that, however much the boy who served Carleton hated him, the boy always ended up pleading for further pain.

He hesitated at the doorway to the cell, at the very moment that a high, hoarse scream resounded through the door, so loud that the guard at the end of the corridor winced. It was irresistible. Outram did not usually interrupt long-standing patrons during their sessions, but surely it was only kindness to check to see whether the new boy was working properly. He pushed the door open.

The sight before his eyes was just as he had imagined it: the figure lay bound to the bed, his limbs stretched tight, his chest and thighs crisscrossed with whip-marks and worse. He was saying, in a desperate voice, "Don't stop! For the King's love, don't stop!"

Outram turned to look at the other figure in the cell, his arm raised in midstroke. "What are you doing?" Outram cried.

"Giving the patron what he wants," the new boy replied calmly, and brought the whip down once more.

o—o—o
o—o—o
o—o—o

Whipster #1
THE NEW BOY

The year 448, the eighth month. (The year 1911 Barley by the Old Calendar.)
 
 

"You can scarcely walk a block without your attention being drawn to one or more of the class called street boys. . . . Some of the larger boys spend a considerable portion of their earnings for tobacco and drink, and they patronize all the theatres. . . . [Such a boy eventually] becomes a vagrant and perhaps worse."

—C. S. Clark: Of Toronto the Good (1898).


CHAPTER ONE

"Well?" The young man gestured toward the house before them.

The second young man peered up at it, his mouth parting and then going slack. From the peeling gold flakes on the lintels and the chipped carvings on the cornerposts, it was apparent that the immense building had once been a place of beauty and richness. No doubt this district had once been a place of beauty and richness. Now the house had diminished as much as the district: the stone was crumbling, the windows were broken, and the surrounding gardens were filled with weeds and trash. The building looked like an ancient whore still wearing her paint from brighter days.

"You must be jesting," said the second young man. "Michael, this place is falling to pieces!"

"It will need a bit of work," the first young man agreed, running an assessing eye over the exterior.

"Michael, this is no place to run a business! The house must be worth pennies—"

"Janus, how much do we have saved?"

The second young man was silent a moment before saying, "Pennies. But Michael, you said that you wanted to attract rich clientele. No rich man is going to walk in the door of such a place, much less visit this district—" His gesture embraced the refuse-filled cobblestones of the street, the dry fountains, and the stinking river beyond the house.

"On the contrary," responded Michael. "This is precisely the kind of district where rich men will come."

Janus finally managed to close his gaping mouth. "You're mad," he said flatly.

Michael gave a light laugh and swirled around to gaze upon the trash-strewn streets. "Now," he said, "all that we need are employees."

"And how do you expect to find those?" Janus muttered, gazing upon the deserted road before them. "Snatch them off the streets?"

Michael let his eyes dance then, in a manner that always caused passing women to look back at him lingeringly. "Do you think I should? —Ah!"

He raised his hand, and after a moment Janus heard what Michael had: a dull, rhythmic pounding, accompanied by a whistle.

"Just what we need," Michael said, and strode forward.

"Michael," said Janus, struggling to keep up with his long-legged friend. "Michael, come back; I wasn't serious . . . "

But Michael, as so often was the case, ignored his protests and continued forward, rounding a corner where two dogs were fighting for the remains of an expired rat. Janus, racing to catch up, tripped over the dogs and nearly crashed into Michael, who had paused to stare at the figure before him.

It was a boy, dressed tidily in a brown school uniform that helped to disguise the essential dinginess of his appearance: the smudged, hollow-cheeked face, the hands with cracked skin and filthy fingernails, the boots with broken laces. He was sitting at the entrance to an alley, on an abandoned barrel, idly bouncing a small rubber ball against the graffiti-coated wall opposite him. His whistle broke away abruptly as the ball bounced off a broken brick in the wall and skipped into the street.

Michael, running lightly forward, scooped up the ball neatly. He turned toward Janus, who had hurried forward to stay beside him, and murmured, "This brings back memories." Then he walked toward the boy, throwing the ball up and catching it with one hand in a graceful, nonchalant manner.

The boy, seeing the two men, immediately took on the wary look of a hunted animal: his eyes narrowed, his body tensed, and he rose hastily to his feet. But he was seemingly reluctant to abandon his possession, for he remained where he was, saying in a taut voice, "Will you give my ball back, please?"

"It depends on whether you're willing to give me what I want in exchange," Michael replied. He had stopped well out of reach of the boy and was catching the ball over and over in his hand, his gaze fixed upon the boy.

"Michael!" hissed Janus.

The boy, though, seemed puzzled. "I don't have any money," he said finally.

"I don't want money; I want information. Who owns that house around the corner, the one with the carved fruit upon it?"

"That house?" The boy seemed startled. "No one owns that house. It's falling to pieces."

Janus lifted his eyebrows at Michael, who refused to take notice but instead said, "Good. That will make the transfer of ownership yet easier. Thank you." He tossed the ball to the boy.

The boy caught the ball and took a step back, and then hesitated, saying, "You're moving here?"

Michael nodded. "We're starting a business."

"What sort of business?"

"A business of quality services. We'll be hiring the finest craftsfolk in the city, giving them hours of training to perfect their much-demanded skills and allow them to perform their tasks to the peak of their mastery – and the peak of the satisfaction of those who buy our goods."

The boy seemed suitably impressed. "We don't have any businesses like that here. Only breweries and butchers – we don't even have a proper theater."

"Indeed? Well, this is the sort of place my business partner and I have been searching for: a place that's secluded, not overcrowded like the businesses in the theater district."

The boy looked around the empty streets, as though confirming for himself that Michael had chosen the right place. "Are you hiring?" he asked eagerly. "I'm of apprentice age."

Janus drove his elbow into Michael's side, but it appeared to have no effect. Michael asked calmly, "Would your parents let you leave school and be apprenticed?"

The boy's shoulders slumped. "No," he muttered.

"Well, that's all right. I can hire you for a single day's work."

"Michael!" Janus said, heedless as to whether the boy would hear.

The boy paid no mind to Janus's cry; he was busy catching the coin Michael flipped to him. "What do you want me to do?" he asked breathlessly.

"Spread the word that we're hiring. Tell everyone you know – boys especially, because they're the ones who spread news the best. Tell the boys at your school, and tell any boys you know outside school who are of apprentice or journeyman age. If they're interested in the work, tell them to come to the house around the corner and ask for Michael."

"Michael who?"

"Just Michael." The young man's voice was cool. "I have something of a reputation in this city; everyone in my business has heard of me."

The boy stared down at the coin, fingering it. "I'm not sure I really understand what you're selling . . ."

"Just describe it the way I did. Use my exact words." And on that abrupt note, Michael turned on his heel and walked away.

Janus lingered a moment to give the boy a reassuring smile, and then rushed to catch up with his friend. "'Finest craftsfolk'?" he said softly as they reached the corner. "'Much-demanded skills'? 'Peak of their mastery'?"

"Those in the trade will understand what I mean." Michael paused a moment to look back at the boy, who was now flipping the coin up and down in his hand in a satisfied manner. "A shame," he said quietly. "He has some of the qualities we're looking for."

"Michael, be serious." Janus felt his temper, usually kept well in reserve, rising toward the surface. "That boy can't be more than thirteen—"

"That makes him older than I was when I started work." Michael's voice turned cool again.

"Surely you're not planning to hire anyone that young. A boy like that deserves to spend his days playing ball—"

Michael sighed as he rounded the corner. His gaze rose again toward the house on the corner. "Janus, if you want to found a home for boys and make yourself Father over it, I'll support you in any way I can. I'll give you my extra earnings, I'll tell everyone I meet about your orphanage. But as for myself—" He took a step toward the door. "I'm starting a whorehouse." And he walked through the doorway into the ruined beauty of the building.

o—o—o

The cobwebs were the first to go; then came the bat droppings and the curled corpses of dead insects and twenty years' worth of accumulated dust. That left only the floors to wash, the walls and ceiling to paint, the door to repair, and furnishings to bring in.

And then the third of sixty-three rooms would be ready.

Pausing to lean on his mop, Janus glanced wistfully toward the window. The rooms on this side of the house had the best view, pointing toward an open square: from where Janus stood he could see cool water pouring down from the public fountain. He sighed and brushed away the sweat from his brow, leaving a streak of dirt there. He wished that Michael's mother had chosen to give birth to him during the winter rather than the summer, so that his coming of age would have occurred in that season. That way, Michael could have bought his license for a house of prostitution during a cooler season to do work.

But then, if Janus had been able to remake the world the way he wanted it, there would be no houses of prostitution. He moved closer to the window. At an angle, he could witness the conversation taking place on the porch, though he could not hear the words being spoken.

The boy was seventeen or eighteen, well dressed for this part of the city. He was listening with grave attention to the tall man who was speaking to him. Michael, as always, shone like a new-risen moon. He had worn white for as long as Janus had known him, which provided a startling contrast to his dark hair and complexion. The first time that Janus had seen him, Janus had decided Michael looked like one of the good graces that people of old thought were messengers from the gods, bringing fortune to those who met them.

It was odd that this image had never left his mind, even after he had learned what Michael was. Frowning, Janus rested his chin on the mop handle, watching the negotiations take place; then, with a lifting of his spirits, he saw the boy shake his head and say something. Michael nodded, apparently in agreement. He spoke briefly, and then he and the boy shook each other's arms in farewell, and Michael disappeared into the house.

A moment later, Michael arrived at his doorway. In one hand he was holding a long, cloth-wrapped package, in the other a glass of water. Gratefully, Janus took the latter from him and drained it before saying, "I saw the boy. You didn't hire him, I trust?"

"Unfortunately, no. He's the best candidate we've had so far – seventeen, so we wouldn't need his parents' permission – but after I explained to him the terms of his contract, he decided he'd try for other types of work."

"Thank the graces!" Janus exploded.

Michael lifted an eyebrow. "He's of journeyman age."

"He's still too young. Michael, I thought that you were only going to take boys who were close to full manhood, ones who were just a little younger than us. . . ."

"Janus, try to be less innocent for once. How many patrons would we get if men walked in here and saw we were stocked only with nineteen- and twenty-year-olds? We'll need a few of the older boys to provide the leaven of experience, but the younger boys are what will attract the patrons."

Janus found he could not speak. It happened this way sometimes: he would go for days, thinking of Michael as someone like himself: a civilized, compassionate person. And then a hardness would enter into Michael's voice, and in an instant he would become everything that Janus's parents had warned him against: an enemy stranger, a corrupt, vulgar person whom all of civilized society ought to shun.

Michael was kneeling now on the portion of the floor that had been cleaned, examining the contents of his package in such a way that Janus could not see the objects. Janus forced himself to ask, "What is that?"

Michael said, without looking up, "Necessary expenditures. Expensive ones, alas, but I can't afford to acquire shoddy equipment."

"Let me see." Janus knelt down beside him and pulled the cloth back.

He could not recognize most of the items before him, which he instinctively knew was a bad sign. He finally let his hand fall on an item he recognized – a hunting crop – and held it up toward the light. It was stiff, in the manner of whips used by carriage-drivers; the leather upon it was soft.

Michael took the crop from his hand, rose to his feet, and swished the whip through the air for a moment before bringing it down, hard and accurate, upon a cockroach crawling up the wall. The crushed victim fell lifeless from the wall. Satisfied, Michael sat down cross-legged and began to clean the remains of the insect off the crop with the cloth.

Looking over at him, Janus said, "You almost make me believe the story about you."

"Which story?"

"The famous one."

"Oh, that one. Yes, it's true." There was no change in Michael's expression. He continued to wipe the crop clean, like a craftsman polishing his work.

Janus felt his stomach tighten. Once, early in their acquaintance, he had asked Michael tentatively what his work was like. Michael had responded in a flat voice, "I'm the one who controls what happens," and had left the matter at that, much to Janus's relief.

It was better not to know; Janus had instinctively realized that. Why was he committing such folly as to question Michael now? Yet even as he thought this, he heard himself say, "I don't understand how you could do that. To tie someone up . . . to hurt him . . ."

"They liked it."

Janus heard the change to plural and winced. "How can you be sure of that? Just because their bodies reacted . . ."

Michael sighed, placing the crop back with the other equipment. "Janus, a whore has a very great advantage over any other person in the world. Let us say you're a married man and you ask your wife whether she enjoyed her time in bed with you. If she says yes, you have no way of knowing whether she is telling the truth."

"So how does a prostitute know what the truth is?" Janus asked in a tight voice.

"By a simple test. He waits to see whether the man he has just beaten comes back and pays money to be beaten again." Michael rose to his feet and gestured to Janus, saying, "The furniture was delivered while you were in the servants' wing, clearing the kitchen. Come see what it looks like."

Janus could not help but notice that Michael had picked up the crop again, seemingly without conscious thought.

Janus followed Michael out of the room and into the central covered courtyard. He paused a moment, as he always did, to look upwards. All of his doubts over whether to buy this building had vanished the moment he first saw the courtyard. His change of mind had nothing to do with their business plans; it was simply that he had to own a building that looked like this.

The interior courtyard was built in the iron-and-glass style of the previous century: the square courtyard was bounded on all sides by iron columns, fashioned like broad tree trunks, which rose the full three storeys of the building.

At the second and third levels of the building, the rise of the columns was broken by balconies, which served as corridors to the rooms that ringed the courtyard on all four sides. The iron balcony railings were shaped into leaves, so that the courtyard looked as though it was surrounded by three storeys of forests.

At the top, above the third level of foliage, the columns grew suddenly slender and turned into a maze of branches that interwove with one another in the skylight above. The great skylight curved over the courtyard like the dome of the sky. It looked very much like a temple dome, and it allowed light to fall upon the courtyard, transforming the interior of the building into a sparkling pool of brightness that even the rotting wooden walls beyond the balconies could not diminish.

Janus became aware that he had stopped walking, and he hurried to catch up with Michael, who was curving his way around the pit in the center of the courtyard. This had once been an ornamental fountain, but its leaping dolphin-boys had lost limbs to vandals. Michael was standing near the doorway to the narrow entrance hall for the main door of the house, and he was surrounded on all sides by furniture.

Janus slowed his pace to run his hand appreciatively over the plain but finely crafted wood. The furniture – the two dozen beds, the tables and chairs and nightstands and trunks and chamber-pot cupboards – were the fruits of his ten years' labor, first as a part-time page in the King's palace during his apprentice years, and then as a part-time clerk in the office of the King's Secretary during his journeyman years. Nearly all of the money he had saved from his earnings had been spent on the furniture needed for this place. At the moment, keeping his mind carefully turned away from the uses this furniture would find, Janus could feel only the pride of a man who has furnished his first house.

Michael was standing next to a wooden object Janus did not recognize: it was chest-high and slimly rectangular, like a speaker's stand such as was used in classrooms or in narrated plays. As he came closer, Janus decided that it must indeed be a speaker's stand, for atop it was a level ledge for pen and lamp and speaker's glass, while the remainder of the top slanted away in the manner of a clerk's desk. A tiny ledge at the bottom of the slanted portion held any documents in place.

Michael had already set a ledger-book upon the stand. He was looking down upon the podium with an expression of intensity that Janus recognized as Michael's equivalent of a look of love. "What is it?" Janus asked. "We didn't order this."

"I had it custom-made," Michael replied. Then, catching Janus's look, he added, "Don't worry, I paid for it. Or rather, the patrons who gave me all those tips paid for it. This is going to be the most important possession we own, aside from the boys."

Janus decided to ignore the implications of that remark. "Is it for my record-keeping?" he asked dubiously, trying to imagine himself spending hours totting up figures while standing.

Michael shook his head. "It's for my records. Now, suppose you're a patron—" He took Janus by the arm and guided him to a position in front of the stand. "I'm the whoremaster." He stood behind the stand. "Can you see what I'm writing?" He waved an imaginary pen to free it of excess ink on the nib before scrawling something onto his ledger.

Janus shook his head. "Very well," said Michael. "An emergency arises with one of the boys – I must leave you abruptly, and curiosity tempts you. You wish to know what I have written about you and the other patrons. Come see."

He gestured, and Janus came forward to join him. The slanted writing surface of the stand, which a moment before had held a ledger-book, was now empty. Janus looked at Michael, who spun round to show that the ledger was not on his body. Then Michael pointed at the stand.

Janus knelt down to look. Hidden under the ledge was a narrow slot, the size of a ledger-book's spine. The front part of the stand, Janus now saw, consisted of a door that led to the interior of the stand. Even in the shining light of the courtyard, he could barely see the edges of the door, and there was no handle. He tried prying the door open with his fingers, but it would not give way.

"It's locked," Michael said, pulling the key from his pocket and turning it in the lock. The door opened to reveal the ledger sitting quietly on a shelf, awaiting its owner. "We'll keep valuables in here," Michael said. "Away from where burglars would think to look. Most of all, we'll keep here my records of the patrons. Outram once left his ledger-book lying about on a busy day; one of the patrons got hold of it, was enraged to learn what Outram's private opinion was of him, and proceeded to spread word of the ledger's remaining contents to all of the patrons in the foyer. Outram lost half his patrons that year." Michael returned the ledger to its hiding place.

Janus looked about the vast courtyard. "Where will you put the stand? Out here?"

"No, in my office." Michael beckoned him again. Janus followed him into the narrow confines of the entrance hall, and then through a doorway on the right.

Janus blinked as the transition from light to darkness to light startled his eyes. This room was as brightly lit as the courtyard, since it had windows on two sides. Facing the porch were plain windows, now half broken, while facing the courtyard was colored glass. By Mercy's grace, the colored glass had escaped the ministrations of the local vandals, but only because it had been boarded up all these years. It showed a naked boy standing upon a stage – the predilection of the house's founder was clear from the building's decorations. The boy was as dark as Michael, and the combined effect of him and the background stage blurred the images in the courtyard. Janus had the eerie sensation of being inside the courtyard and yet hidden from it as well, as though the interior wall were a screen that divided a room in two.

This room had puzzled him when he first saw it. Its placement near the main door suggested that it was a front parlor, but this house had been built during the previous century, when cellars were used to store food rather than servants. This beautiful room was in fact the servants' common room, placed next to the door so that the house's chief manservant could sight visitors arriving and be ready to open the main door when they knocked.

At the far end of the room lay two more doors. The right-hand door led to a staircase and to the maze of kitchen and scullery and pantries and storehouses that made up the lower portion of the servants' wing. The left-hand door – Janus had been much relieved to learn – led to a water closet. This house had plumbing, if they could only figure out how to bring the plumbing back into use.

Janus's eye lingered a moment upon the dozens of tiny bells at the top of the far wall, each with its own chain. Janus's home had also possessed bells to fetch servants to individual rooms, but he had never seen so many summoning bells in his life. He turned his attention back to Michael, who was speaking again.

"The patrons will arrive at the front door," he said. "If they wish, they may go immediately to the courtyard, escorted by our doorkeeper—"

"We don't have a doorkeeper," said Janus.

Michael pushed aside this reminder with an impatient wave of the hand. "In the courtyard, they will find whichever boys are not presently occupied with other patrons or being kept aside for special use. The patrons may sit with the boys and decide which one they want – but they will do so in a respectable manner." He shot a look at Janus, who had begun to open his mouth. "The courtyard will be a place for refined conversation and music – yes, I know we have no musicians either. The courtyard will not be a place for orgies. Our patrons will know from the start that we are a civilized establishment and that we do not allow our boys to be mauled in public."

"Only in private," Janus muttered.

Michael ignored him, saying, "Once the patrons have made their choice, they will come to this office to make the arrangements. If, on the other hand, they wish their visit to be more discreet, they may come directly to this office, and I will choose a boy for them, based on their expressed needs. They may then take the back staircase up to the old servants' rooms on the second floor—" Michael pointed to the right-hand door at the end of the office. "They will thus avoid being seen by any of the other patrons. You will note," he added dryly, "that all patrons must pass through this office or through the entrance hall next to it in order to exit the house. They will be asked to comment on whether the service has been satisfactory, which will encourage them to remember that they may receive service here again in the future."

Janus tried to ignore a growing sickness in his stomach. "Michael," he said. "All this talk of discretion . . . That's a hidden blade, you know. The patrons are out of sight of other patrons, but they're also out of sight of us – all of the patrons are, even the ones who take the boys into the rooms that can be reached from the courtyard. How do we know that the patrons aren't . . ." He paused, trying to think of an appropriate word to describe his fear.

Something close to a smile appeared in Michael's eyes. "Well, now," he said. "That's one of the reasons I chose this building. Come."

Janus followed him back through the courtyard, and then over to the opposite wall. Michael opened one of the doors facing the courtyard and gestured Janus in.

The room beyond the door faced the river, but at this level, the smell was not so bad. The river looked almost beautiful with the afternoon light shining golden upon it; Janus did his best to ignore the dark pockets of sludge floating along the surface, which might carry the river plague. The city would clean up the river this year. So the municipal guild had been promising every year for as long as Janus could remember.

Michael closed the door, and as he did so, there was a rumble in the air, and then a shaking upon the floor, so that for a moment Janus wondered wildly whether the house would collapse. A bottle of cleaning liquid tipped over on the floor, spilling its contents.

Then a deep whistle blasted nearby, and Janus realized the source of the sound. "Michael," he said with a sigh, "the patrons will never tolerate having the railway so close by. Think of what it would be like for them if a train went by right when they were about to— Well."

Michael gave a soft snort. "I was thinking of having a mural painted in the courtyard, showing a train about to enter a tunnel. That would place them in the proper mood, I think." He gestured toward the corner of the room.

So far this was the only room that had been fully cleaned and decorated. The bed was Janus's own, though he had acceded to Michael's decision that such a beautiful bed should be put to more useful purposes than Janus's bed-rest. Michael had done wonders in making this room appear like a royal residence. Dried flowers lay upon the hearth-mantel; inexpensive but beautiful scarves decorated the corners, hiding the smoke stains that no amount of scrubbing had been able to remove; a carpet hid the most worn portion of the floor; and a white cloth had been placed over the nightstand, which held a silver tray containing various small items.

Janus looked at the items on the tray, and for a moment he thought that his stomach would finally give way. He turned his head quickly, just as Michael stepped toward the bed, placing his crop on the nightstand.

"Now, " said Michael, "I am a whore." He paused, like an actor waiting to be applauded for his line; then he lay down on the bed, spreading his arms and legs so that they touched the four corners of the bed. "I am with a patron, and he has just bound me to the bed. Using, naturally, the official binding bracelets of Michael's House for Boys, available in a variety of colors and materials, for no extra cost."

Janus said nothing; he was busy trying to swallow back the sickness in this throat.

"This much the patron has paid for," Michael continued. "But he has not paid to gag me, for the simple reason that the whoremaster of this house will not allow such a procedure to take place. The patron has taken me by surprise, though; now I am gagged, and I know that, if I let the patron succeed with this, worse will follow. I am gagged; I am bound; what do I do?"

Janus, swallowing and swallowing again, said nothing. Then he noticed that Michael's right hand, its wrist caught in an invisible bond, was groping for something behind the scarves in the corner of the room, which was within reach. Janus walked over and was just in time to see Michael tug at a bell-rope hidden under the scarves; the rope had been strung to run the full length of headboard. A bell rang faintly outside the room, back in Michael's office.

"And in one minute's time," Michael concluded, rising from the bed, "the patron will be confronted by two very angry men, who will escort him from the premises, confiscate his damages deposit, and make clear to him that he is no longer welcome at this establishment."

Janus looked again at the lifeline to safety. "It's going to take a lot of money to buy enough scarves to hide all those bell-ropes," he said. "I don't know whether we'll have enough money left over to decorate the courtyard."

"Let the courtyard wait," Michael responded tersely. "Outram has the most beautiful foyer of any house in the city: gilded statues, soft cushions on imported chairs . . . The room I lived in was a hovel, not fit for a rat's residence. That's the way it is in all of the houses of pleasure in this city: the money is spent on the patrons' areas, and the boys must shiver in dank, unheated cells. Well, not here. Here the boys come first, and the patrons will have to learn to accept that, or they can take their business elsewhere."

Janus stood silent a moment, his sickness forgotten. In the afternoon light, Michael's white outfit had turned golden.

"Michael," Janus said quietly, "there are times when I wonder what mindlessness caused me to choose you as my friend. Then you say something like that, and I remember."

Michael did not smile. He never smiled. But he looked at Janus with intensity for a long moment; then he guided Janus out of the room with a hand on his shoulder.

The other hand clutched his crop.