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Offstage (Whipster #2)

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The year 449, the tenth month. (The year 1911 Clover by the Old Calendar.)
 

"I am nearly satisfied in my own mind that the children of the streets taken, say at eight years of age, and kept till, say twenty-one, would, by judicious management and the utilisation of their strength and capacity, amply supply all their own wants, and would, I think, be likely to turn out thoroughly good and capable members of the community."

—General William Booth: In Darkest England and The Way Out (1890).


CHAPTER ONE

Janus Roe had spent the morning in the manner he had been taught by his parents, attending temple and theater. On his way down Theater Avenue, he passed other gentlemen and ladies on their way to week-break worship, among them a young woman whose brother he had known at university, and whom he had twice escorted to the theater. He lifted his hat to the lady and her parents but did not pause for conversation. By now, much of the Parkside district had heard what occupation Lord Roe's nephew had chosen, and Janus had no desire to risk another snub.

He very nearly walked into his parents. They had decided to attend the late worship rather than the dawn worship as they usually did. He quickly slipped back into the crowd of gentlemen and ladies milling outside the temple, who were treating this weekly rite more as a chance to socialize than as an opportunity for reverence. He looked down the street, wondering whether he could make it in time to the only other temple left on Theater Avenue. Then, on impulse, he slipped into the theater next door.

Like most of the playhouses on the avenue, it was an old temple theater, and in fact it was the only theater in the city to retain tenuous connections with its original house of worship. Janus had attended performances there with his parents on many occasions after temple. The ancient sacred plays were solemnly performed, politely applauded with the mere tapping of feet, and reviewed the following week in the kingdom's best religious magazines. Janus, who had seen paintings of the rituals that had accompanied sacred performances in the previous century – bowing and tears and spontaneous chants from the worshippers – gathered that performances had been more lively in the past than they were now. As a child, he had usually slept through the plays.

Nothing, therefore, prepared him for what he encountered that morning. It had not occurred to him that, since most of the capital's gentlemen and ladies were ensconced in temples at this hour, the theater owners would take this opportunity to throw their doors wide open to the city's lesser classes.

Janus felt uncomfortably conspicuous in his morning suit and top hat, along with the gloves and gold-tipped walking stick that he carried. He could not even see any members of the mid-class in this crowd; everyone here seemed to be of the common class. Indeed, they seemed to be the most common of commoners. Even before the screens had been pulled back to reveal the players, the spectators were already hooting and shouting rude jokes and jumping up and down in applause. Janus, politely tapping his feet as the gas footlights were lit, began to wonder whether he would be able to hear the play at all.

This did not prove to be a problem. The play was a bawdy comedy, and the players screamed out their lines with gusto. The play featured a man who had fallen in love with his best friend – another man his own age –and who spent the play pitifully weeping as he clutched his friend, begging to be violated by the other man. Even though Janus had, in the past year, heard every bawdy joke in the Kingdom of Vovim, he felt his face turn warm as the principal player tried increasingly desperate measures to attract his friend's love. By the end of the play, the principal player was garbed in dress and apron, with a wig of long golden curls that clashed with his full beard.

The audience around Janus was prostrate with hilarity. Amidst their final lewd jokes, Janus slipped out onto the street, breathing deeply as though he had been smothering from manufactory smoke.

The last of the morning's worshippers were leaving the temple. Janus watched a minute, saw that his parents were already far into the park across the street, and finally walked up the steps to the temple entrance, pausing only to slip a coin into the proffered cap of a blind beggar by the door.

Stepping under the storey-high plaque displaying the temple code of honor, Janus entered the atrium. The only person there was an old woman, kindling a fire before an altar to one of the lesser gods. Janus paused to light his own fire before the goddess of healing; then he frowned and reached over to wipe the dust from the altar.

A mother and young boy were leaving the central sanctuary, the boy chatting brightly about how it had felt to have the hell-god's chains upon him, while his mother tried vainly to impress upon him the solemnity of the occasion. Janus waited until they were gone before entering the sanctuary.

Sunlight fell from the windows of the sky-blue dome onto the mosaic floor depicting the tortures of hell. He looked a while at the two altars, standing under the light of the dome's highest window; then he went over and stretched himself out upon Mercy's altar. It was soft with bedding and cushions. He lay there for a while as his mind wandered, without any prompting on his part, to the comforts of his childhood: the quiet conversations, the easy living, the civilized surroundings.

After a few minutes, he forced himself to move to the other altar. As he placed over himself the chains that would bind him to the rack of hell's High Master, an image came into his mind, unbidden, of the scene he had left behind in the theater. That would be hell for him, he realized with a shudder: to spend day after day in the company of such people. He saw again the player with the woman's wig upon his head, kissing the feet of the other man, and he had to bite his lip to keep from groaning.

By the time he left the temple, the theater entrance was crowded again, this time with gentlemen and ladies attending the solemn after-temple performance. Ignoring them, Janus turned southwards and began to walk down the street toward the bridge that would take him to the Riverbend district. He found himself wondering, as he walked, why it was that, if he enjoyed so much the comfort of Mercy's bed, he had chosen to live his life on Hell's rack.

Then he returned to the whorehouse he owned.

o—o—o

Janus entered Michael's House for Boys through the kitchen door and took the staircase up to the old servants' wing, where his bedroom lay in what had once been an elegant mansion, back in the days when the Riverbend district had not yet been conquered by manufactories and poverty. He paused in his room only long enough to change into a lounge suit; then he went downstairs to check on Lann.

The boy's bedroom had been moved to the ground floor so that he could watch the other boys in the inner courtyard, and so that the boys could easily visit him at times when they were not occupied with their duties. The house had not yet opened for business on this day, but most of the boys were already in place in the courtyard, as multi-colored as a peacock's tail in their uniforms of scarlet and emerald and other bright colors. Hasan flashed Janus a smile as his twenty-two-year-old employer passed; then the boy turned back to his discussion with a couple of younger prostitutes on how to keep a patron sated and satisfied.

Lann was asleep. Janus was pleased to see from the copious ashes in the firestead that the other boys, who liked Lann, had kept the fire well lit throughout the chilly morning of early autumn. Now, in the early afternoon hours, the fire had been allowed to die down, and the room was cool.

Janus placed his hand on Lann's forehead. It was as hot as a blazing fire. The boy murmured something incoherent in his sleep; as Janus adjusted the bedcovers, he saw that the fourteen-year-old was clutching at his groin, though whether it was from pain or fear was not clear. He did not wake as Janus wiped his forehead with a wetted rag from the nearby chamber pitcher. His sheets were soaked with sweat.

Janus emerged from the room some time later to discover that the business day had begun at Michael's House. A couple of patrons were already in the courtyard, eyeing the available boys, while a third was just emerging from the entrance hall. Seeing him, Janus was tempted to turn back to Lann's room, but it was too late: the young man in the doorway had already sighted Janus.

"Ah. Roe." The young man's voice held no surprise. "I'd heard that you were working at one of these houses. Find a boy for me, if you will. And be quick about it – I'm due at a tea party at the King's Grounds in two hours."

There was no hostility in his voice. Worse, his tone was indifferent. He did not even bother to look at Janus after the first couple of words; his gaze swung back to the boys as he issued his orders.

Janus said, in a voice that he knew must sound strangled, "I'll see whether my partner is available to assist you." Then he forced himself to walk past the young man to the entrance hall.

At the far end of the corridor that served as an entranceway, Wyll was slumped against the doorpost, taking Lann's place today as doorkeeper. His expression held the frustration of a long-suffering youth who has been preparing himself all his life for this ultimate sacrifice of having to watch the door while other boys were invited into beds. He raised his head hopefully as Janus came into view; then he slumped again as Janus walked through the open doorway on the right, into Michael's office.

Michael was standing near the door, dressed in his usual high-necked pullover, jacket, and trousers, all a blinding white. He was on the point of closing the office door. The reason for this became clear as Janus slipped inside and saw Hasan's furious face.

"God's torment, Michael – I don't see why you should halt me working an hour or three more during the day!" cried Hasan.

"Because if you work three extra hours for a patron, the other patrons will want their boys to work three extra hours." Michael's voice was flat as he walked across the room and picked up the pen he had left upon the chest-high speaker's stand where he did his record-keeping. "Your contract does not permit you to work any other hours than Mr. Roe and I say."

"My cursed contract—"

"Is still valid for the next fortnight. After that, you may sell yourself for however many hours a day you wish."

Hasan did not appear to notice the insult. He was a slender boy who looked older than his age, and often acted older as well. He crashed his fist onto the stained glass that divided the office from the courtyard, and Janus had a momentary vision of shattered glass.

"You need the money!" Hasan protested. "Michael, even the youngest boy here can figure that! Why not take benefit of your house's assets—"

"Master Hasan," Michael said, "this conversation is over. Return to your duties."

Janus looked quickly over to Michael but saw that his hands were empty. The whoremaster was staring down at a list of numbers, apparently oblivious to Hasan's fury.

Hasan seemed inclined to continue the conversation, but he glanced at Janus, who shook his head slightly. Sighing, Hasan moved to the doorway, muttering something about whoremasters who go penniless as the result of high principles.

Michael waited until Hasan had reached the courtyard before throwing down his pen. He looked at Janus, his expression settling, after a moment of apparent indecision, into a glare.

"Don't say it," he said. "I know I should have better control over him than I do."

"I was about to congratulate you on your patience," Janus said mildly.

Michael snorted. "There's nothing worse than a boy who has discovered he's a man and wants to put that new-found knowledge to use. And who has realized that his whoremaster is only a year older than he is and can be crossed. I'm tempted to release him from his contract a fortnight early."

"He won't leave," said Janus. "Anyway, we still need to finish our plans for his coming-of-majority feast." He glanced back through the doorway. From where he stood, he could see a sliver of the courtyard. The young patron had taken his watch from his vest pocket and was staring at it with dark impatience.

"Michael," said Janus, "a patron would like your advice on which boy to buy."

"So I overheard." Michael stared down at the papers on his stand. "Who is he?"

Janus felt his mouth grow dry and tried to ignore it. "His name's Benson."

Michael lifted his eyes toward Janus. The whoremaster's face had gone blank, as it often did in his moments of greatest tension. "Thomas Benson? From university?"

Janus nodded slowly. For a moment Michael was still; then he strode over to the entrance hall. "Wyll!" he said in an abrupt, sharp voice.

Wyll's footsteps thundered swiftly forward. He skidded to a halt in front of Michael, his eyes bright with anticipation.

"Do you see that patron?" Michael asked, pointing to the young man, who had turned away to look at the bevy of boys in the courtyard. Wyll nodded.

"I want you to go to that patron," Michael continued, "and tell him that, in light of his past friendship with Mr. Roe, I am granting him a free session. Take him into your room and use your finest skill to raise his desire. Bring him to a higher peak than he has ever reached before."

"And?" Wyll was grinning. He liked this sort of game, one at which he was particularly adept.

"Leave him there. Tell him that, in light of his abrupt end to his friendship with Mr. Roe, your service to him must likewise terminate without warning." As Wyll laughed, Michael added, with emphasis, "Keep your door open a crack to the courtyard. If the patron causes trouble, don't just pull the bell-rope – call for help. You understand?"

"He'll be no trouble," said Wyll, still grinning. "No trouble at all."

He turned away, only to be caught tight by Michael. The seventeen-year-old looked back anxiously, as though fearing that he was about to be deprived of a gift.

"And Wyll," Michael said lightly, "be quick about it. The patron has a party to attend at the King's Grounds in two hours."

o—o—o

As Michael shut the door again, Janus said, "You shouldn't do this. His family is rich and influential, and he could become a long-standing patron if you treated him well."

"That type of patron we don't need," Michael replied tersely. "Did you check on Lann as you came in?"

Janus experienced an inner struggle – he knew that Michael could ill afford to lose any type of patron at this date. Finally he surrendered and replied, "Yes. He seems no better than yesterday. Michael, I don't think we can wait any longer for the quarterly inspection by the city healer. Lann needs to see a healer now."

Michael nodded without looking up from the records he was perusing at his stand. "I had a healer visit while you were at temple. A woman, so she doesn't have many patients or charge much, but she has a good reputation in the Riverbend district."

Janus's body went still. "What did she say?"

"That Lann is lucky to have lived this long. She says that, if the city inspector had considered it worth his while to inspect our young doorkeeper, he would have learned that Lann had five diseases. Four can be cured, with a certain amount of trouble, but the fifth is the Damnation."

"The Damnation." Janus sat down heavily; fortunately there was a chair nearby to catch his fall. "The Damnation. Oh, gods. Oh, Mercy and Hell."

After a moment more, he began to recite softly the hell-god's curse against those who harm children. Michael let him continue for some time before commenting mildly, "You're probably cursing a dead man, you know."

Janus shut his mouth. After a while he said, "Whoever gave this to Lann knew what he was risking by bedding prostitutes – he was a grown man. But Mercy's tears, Michael, Lann's only fourteen! To die so young, and in so terrible a manner. . . ."

Michael sighed and set down his pen. His sigh sounded calculated, down to the final breath of air. "The healer says she may be able to help Lann."

"What? How?" Janus found that he was on his feet again, his fists clenching from the suspense.

"The Yclau healers have developed a new drug. They claim that it cures most cases of the Damnation, or at least masks the symptoms – the healer wasn't prepared to commit herself to any promise that it would work."

"But it's a chance. Even if it only makes his death less painful . . . Michael, we must get this drug!"

"Janus," Michael said in the patient voice he sometimes adopted. "The drug has to be imported from Yclau. It's expensive."

Janus felt his heart throbbing with a slow, hard beat. "How expensive?"

Michael told him. Janus was silent a minute before saying, "How much of our savings is left?"

In answer, Michael gestured toward the top of the speaker's stand. Janus came over beside him and was unsurprised to discover that Michael had been inspecting their current ledger-book.

Under ordinary circumstances, Janus, who kept the books, would have known in an instant what their financial circumstances were. But he had busy for the past week, caring for Lann, and so Michael had been the one who paid the mid-month debts. Janus scanned the long columns thrice, searching for an escape from the final figure, before he said, "You overpaid the tax."

"No, they've raised the taxes again on pleasure houses that don't have municipal sponsorship. The prime minister is trying to drive as many houses of boys out of business as he can without appearing to contravene the provisions of the Pleasure House Act."

"All he'll end up doing is killing independent houses like this, which are trying to provide the boys with a better life. Houses of prostitution like Outram's will still exist, because they have municipal sponsorship."

Michael shrugged as he closed the ledger. "We're unique, in any case. All of the other pleasure houses are waiting to see whether our business thrives or fails before they change the way they operate." He added, as though in afterthought, "The city bookies are placing odds twenty to one that we'll be broke by the end of autumn. I'm tempted to buy a share in favor of the wager."

"Michael . . ." Janus murmured.

His breath caught as Michael slammed his fist onto the stand. "Janus," said Michael in a flat voice that seemed oddly dissonant with his violence, "we need to admit that this isn't working. The patrons aren't interested in coming to a pleasure house where they're not allowed to blatantly mistreat the boys. They don't like the fact that we have no assistants or servants, so we must stay closed for half the hours of each day. They don't like being told that they must wear sheaths and that they can't keep drilling their whammers into the boys if the boys begin to cry. Above all, they don't like coming to a place that's run by a commoner who was once a whore."

"You're wrong about that," Janus said quickly. "Michael, you were the most famous prostitute of your time. Your name draws patrons here. . . ."

"Your name is what draws them here. They come here because they know that this house is financially backed by Lord Roe's nephew, which gives this place a certain veneer of respectability. And then they walk through the front door, and what do they see? A termite-eaten mansion that's falling to bits because we can't afford to renovate it, boys who are only semi-trained because you and I spend most of our time trying to figure out how to pay for the winter fuel, and a doorkeeper who's about to die of the Damnation because his workmaster waited over a year before bothering to pay a healer to look at him!" His voice ended on a raised note, as though he had just remembered the sounds that should accompany his fury.

Janus let out his breath slowly. His own anger forgotten, he began to place his hand over where his friend's hand gripped the edge of the speaker's stand as though it were a weapon. Then a faint memory of the womanish theatrical player stopped him.

Michael did not appear to notice the aborted gesture. He was staring into space with a blank look that was more terrible than thunder.

"Michael," Janus said softly, "you can't blame yourself for that. You tried over and over to make the city healer inspect Lann, even though the boy doesn't work as a prostitute for us. And it wouldn't have made any difference if we'd learned about this when Lann first arrived here last year. There's no cure for the Damnation."

"There may be one now." Michael continued to stare expressionlessly into space. "And I can't afford to pay for the drug to cure him. I may not even have enough money to put food into the mouths of our boys next month."

Janus sighed as he stepped back out of reach. "I'll see whether I can persuade my father to loan us the money."

"You've tried that before. You'll have no more success this time than in the past. Your father thinks that any suffering which whores undergo is well-deserved for their immoral acts."

"I'll go to my uncle, then."

"Your uncle is doing his best, through his legislation, to get places like this shut down. Do you really think he'd risk letting a rumor spread that he'd given money to a house of boys?"

"This is a house for boys."

"It's no different from the other pleasure houses in the eyes of the world. You know that."

Janus felt his fists begin to clench again. "There must be a solution!"

He looked over at Michael. The other young man had regained his expression; he was frowning down at the ledger, his brow creased.

Janus said slowly, "You've already thought of something."

"You won't like it."

"I'd be willing to consider anything at this point – provided that you don't increase the boys' hours," Janus added hastily. "They work too long each day as it is."

"No," said Michael, "I wasn't considering anything that involved selling the boys."

During the silence that ensued, Janus heard the roar of a man's voice, followed by a chorus of laughter in the courtyard, not only from the boys, but from patrons who had overheard what had taken place and were amused by the outcome. Two minutes later the front door slammed, and Janus, turning to look out the window, caught sight of Benson's face, twisted with rage. The man paused only long enough to hastily button several parts of his clothing that were hanging loose. Then he made his way down the porch stairs and out of sight, muttering loudly as he went. Janus thought he heard Benson say something about making sure this place was shut down for false marketing.

Janus finally found his voice again and said, "You can't do that." When Michael did not reply, he repeated in a louder voice, "You can't do that!"

"Janus," said Michael in his patient voice, "I am, as you say, the most famous whore of my time. Your eyes would goggle if you knew how much men used to pay for me. How much more do you think someone would pay if I came briefly out of retirement to give a repeat performance?"

Janus tightened his lips before saying, "Don't be short-sighted, Michael. You're right that being a former prostitute has made it difficult for patrons to trust that you run a high-class pleasure house. You've only managed this feat because you've always presented yourself as something close to a gentleman. How can you even consider throwing away your reputation?"

"It would only be with one man—"

"Who would tell the rest of the city what you'd done. You know that, Michael. If you submitted yourself to another man, no one in the capital would be able to resist telling all of his friends—"

"I was never the one who submitted." Michael's voice was cool. "I defied convention, even back then."

"That was when you were a boy. It may have amused your old patrons to play that you were in charge, but everyone knew that you weren't. You were a powerless boy, unable to prevent any man from raping you if he truly wanted to." He paused, but Michael did not contradict his statement. Michael could not contradict his statement, they both knew. Janus continued, "Now you're a man, and if you go to bed with another man, one of you must truly submit to the other. No man of sense would willingly admit that he has submitted to a grown man, so if the patron gossips about you, he'll tell the world that you submitted to him. Whether or not it's true, the world will believe it. It makes a good story: Michael the Whore finally bested by one of his betters."

Janus's voice had turned bitter. He could imagine his own parents spreading such a tale, triumphant that the corrupt youth whom their only child had befriended had finally received his comeuppance.

After a while, Michael said, "I have no choice."

"You'll destroy this house if you do it, Michael. You won't be able to help Lann if we're thrown out of business, and no one will ever patronize this place again if they know that it's run by a man who has served as wife to another man."

He used the old-fashioned epithet deliberately, to see whether he could elicit a reaction from Michael. The reaction was delayed; Janus sometimes wondered whether Michael's mind moved at intervals ten seconds slower than the rest of humanity. But eventually Michael winced and looked away. "What else can we do?" the whoremaster asked.

"You know what we can do. The problem with this house is that we don't have municipal sponsorship, so we have to pay high taxes, as well as expenses the city would cover if we were official. We could receive sponsorship if we changed the purpose of this house. . . ."

Michael turned his head to gaze levelly at him. "Is it time for our quarterly discussion of this?"

Janus fell silent. They had decided, shortly after the house first opened for business, that their friendship would not survive if Janus offered daily reminders to Michael that he did not believe they should be prostituting boys. They also agreed that Janus's conscience would not permit him to remain silent on this matter. The compromise they had reached was to confine their discussions to a quarterly quarrel, which would take place shortly before the city sent its inspectors to ascertain that the boys of Michael's House were not spreading diseases to the patrons or engaging in other illegal activities.

Perhaps to call it a quarrel was too strong. Michael never seemed affected by Janus's arguments; he simply listened silently to Janus's impassioned speeches, and then stated that he was not a high dreamer like Janus. The most that Michael thought he could give whore-boys was a better life, not a different life.

Now Janus said, "It would solve our financial problems, Michael."

Michael shook his head. "Every boy within these walls would disappear the moment that I announced I was turning this place into an orphanage. These are whores, Janus, not proper boys. Whores don't belong in an orphanage. And even if you were right" – he forestalled Janus's further protests – "it wouldn't help in this situation. Lann needs the drug now, and it would take months for us to go through the paperwork to become a home for boys. Even assuming that the city guild-leaders would allow such a home to be run by an ex-whore, which they certainly wouldn't."

"Hell-curse you, Michael! If you'd just broaden your vision—"

He stopped; Michael had raised his hand in warning. Looking over Janus's shoulder, Michael said in a cool voice, "We're busy."

Janus turned. Hasan had opened the door and was watching them with a bemused expression. He responded to Michael's remark by raising his eyebrows. "I had mind you might want to be knowing that a new patron has arrived. One who hasn't been here 'fore."

"Whichever boy Wyll left at the front entrance will take care of him." Michael's voice turned from cool to frigid.

"Oh, for sure." Hasan's voice was bland. "Regrets for having disturbed you."

He had almost closed the door when Janus, uneasiness pricking him, asked, "Who's watching the entrance?"

He caught sight of the flash of Hasan's grin. "Evan," said the youth. He closed the door.

Michael and Janus exchanged looks. Then they were competing with each other to reach the office door first.

Michael won the race; he was halfway toward the house's front door before Janus even reached the entrance hall. Once he arrived at the hall, Janus halted and groaned at the scene before him.

The new patron was perhaps fifty years of age, dressed in the clothes of the mid-class, and undistinguished in appearance except for a chest so broad that a player would have envied him. Pressed against that chest was fifteen-year-old Evan, who was standing on tiptoe, trying his best to smother the new patron with kisses.

Janus sighed as he started forward again to help Michael. When Michael had brought Evan back with him one evening the previous year after attending to some business on Theater Avenue, Janus had protested at length that Evan was far too young and innocent to live his life as a whore.

That had been before Janus had learned how Evan acted when in the presence of men. Michael had met Evan while taking a shortcut through a dark alley; the boy had launched himself at Michael without preliminary and had done a fair imitation of a rapist before regaining his sense of proper position long enough to state his price. The price was mere pennies; clearly, the only reason Evan sought money at all was because some long-ago patron had wisely advised Evan that he would attract more bed-mates if he placed a value upon himself.

Placing a value upon himself was not something Evan was skilled at. He was the son of mid-class parents who were in despair over how to handle their son's expeditions of lust. Even keeping the boy at home every evening had not worked; Evan had simply seduced a lieutenant in the King's patrol, who had sternly reprimanded the parents for keeping their son a prisoner. The parents, sighting a solution that was one step above disaster, had hopefully allowed Evan to be courted by the lieutenant. For a while it had seemed that the boy had finally achieved what he wanted – which, it transpired, was not simply a bed-mate but a love-mate.

But the lieutenant had been transferred to a foreign posting in Yclau, and so Evan had returned to haunting the alleys, eventually launching his latest attack on a young whoremaster who had experience enough to know how Evan's life was likely to end if he continued on his current path. It had not taken Michael much work to persuade Evan's parents that, if their son was determined to be a whore, he was better off living at Michael's House than selling himself in alleyways.

"Good afternoon, sir," Michael was saying now as he peeled Evan off the new patron with a grip so tight that the boy gasped. Michael ignored him, adding, "I am Michael, proprietor of this establishment. If you would care to enter my office, I would be glad to discuss your needs."

The patron – who did not seem to be worse for the wear for Evan's attack – smiled and nodded, accepting Michael's invitation that he should precede the whoremaster into his office. Michael followed behind, his grip still tight upon Evan. The whoremaster waited until the patron was safely inside the office; then he threw the boy against the corridor wall.

Janus winced. Evan, on the other hand, seemed more curious than hurt. He stared up at Michael expectantly. Slamming his hands upon the wall on either side of the boy's head, Michael leaned forward and said, in a very low voice, "You will go to your room. You will take off your clothes and lie face-down on your bed. And you will wait for me to come and retrain you, since it appears that you did not learn anything from your initial training."

For a moment, Evan simply stared. Then a joyful smile spread across his face. Clearly, nothing delighted him more than the thought of being raped by his whoremaster.

Fortunately, Michael did not witness the smile; he had already turned away and entered the office. Janus hesitated, then closed the office door and turned round to Evan, who was smiling at the closed door.

Suspicious, Janus leaned closer than Michael had. His nose wrinkled. He thought to himself, with an inward sigh, that there was a time when he would have concluded only that the boy was eating silver pot-herb, and would have been duly horrified. Those were the days of his naivete.

He had fought Michael when the whoremaster calmly announced that he planned to give small doses of silver to any boy who was scheduled to undertake particularly painful acts. Janus, furious, had rifled through the diary of his great-grandfather, an army healer who had later become a councillor for the King in the days of the old monarchy, and who had been instrumental in the outlawing of silver. In that diary, Janus assumed, he would find evidence of the terrible effects of silver on its users.

He found this evidence. And he also found passages which revealed that his great-grandfather had been accustomed to prescribing small doses of silver to battle-torn soldiers. Michael, when Janus confessed this news to him, had the grace not to laugh, but he acquired the habit of referring to the house's silver pot-herb as "our patent medicine."

That was in the early days. Since that time, Janus had come to realize that boys eating silver would be the least of his worries.

Evan continued to smile. His eyes stared at nothing in particular. Sighing outwardly now, Janus leaned forward and said, in a voice as low as Michael's had been, "Evan, if Michael discovers that you've been sucking sweetweed on the sly, he's likely to tear up your contract of apprenticeship. And then you won't be able to have sex with nearly as many men as you do now."

The boy's eyes grew wide with shock, as though he had been doused with ice-cold water; his cream-colored skin actually drained of blood. Janus was never able to show as much strictness as Michael did. He patted Evan briefly on the shoulder and said, "Go back to your room and sleep it off. Michael won't disturb you; he was only trying to frighten you." He hoped this was true.

He waited until the door of Evan's room was safely shut; then he glanced round the courtyard. No patrons were in sight at the moment. Wyll was lingering with some of the other boys, apparently inclined to join a card game. From the looks of it, money was being used as stakes. Janus sighed a third time and walked forward.

Several minutes later, the young gamblers had been persuaded to devote their energies to an old-fashioned mime play. A pair of patrons who had wandered in were applauding their efforts – or at least their scanty costumes – while Wyll was safely posted at the entranceway again. Janus returned to the office.

As he opened the door, he heard Michael ask, "And will you be staying in the capital for long, Mr. . . . ?"

"Archy," said the new patron with a cheerful smile. "Just call me Archy; everyone does. My family isn't much for surnames."

"Mr. Archibald," Michael replied in a cool tone. "Will you be visiting this city for long?"

"Alas, no – this is the last day of my tour. I'll be taking the steamer back tomorrow at dawn—" He turned abruptly, as though suddenly aware that he was being watched from behind.

"This is my business partner, Mr. Roe," said Michael. "Nephew to Lord Roe."

"Oh?" The patron's tone revealed polite indifference.

"Our prime minister." Michael's voice, as so often was the case when he spoke with patrons, sounded completely neutral.

"Oh! It's an honor to meet you, sir."

The patron seemed uncertain how to behave now, so Janus stepped forward and firmly shook arms with him. He was having difficulty understanding the man's speech, his accent was so thick, but there was something familiar about his face. "Have we met before, sir?" he asked.

"Perhaps," said the patron, peering carefully at Janus. He was clean-shaven, with skin as white as Evan's had been when he lost color. "Didn't we pass each other on Theater Avenue this morning? I was there to visit the theaters. Not that I actually had enough nerve to walk into any of them," he confessed with a laugh. "They seemed a bit too . . . advanced for me. But I met a man on the avenue who appeared friendly, and I asked him what I should see on my last day in your capital. He said, 'The theaters, of course. And if you haven't seen it already, the King's palace has some of the most beautiful artwork in the kingdom. And once you're through touring that, visit Michael's House. It may not have all the frills that other pleasure houses possess, but you can be sure that whichever young man comes to your bed does so willingly.'"

"It is somewhat dangerous," Michael replied, "to rely on recommendations offered on Theater Avenue. The place is filled with players whose favorite occupation is to gossip, often about matters of which they know little." He paused a moment to allow this statement to be absorbed. More than one of Michael's patrons had been disarmed by the whoremaster's apparent willingness to be honest. When the proper time had passed, he added, "But I am of course gratified that you evidently met one of our satisfied customers. I'm only sorry that your introduction to our hospitality was so abrupt."

"A kiss is never unwelcome," said the patron brightly. "Mind you, he's a bit young for me."

"Oh?" Michael did not sound distressed by this news – not that it was ever easy to tell what he was thinking when he spoke with patrons. Janus had stepped back, out of the patron's line of vision. In the bright afternoon light he could see Michael clearly: the eyes that said nothing, the mouth that was too relaxed to be a frown or a smile, and the body that remained in its neutral stance, with no gestures to reveal emotion.

As for Janus, his opinion had just risen of the new patron. So many men arrived at this house demanding the youngest bed-mate possible – some even slyly indicated that they would pay extra for an underage boy. It was a relief to meet someone whose morals were apparently high enough that he would seek one of the older boys.

"Well, sir," said Michael, "you are fortunate to have chosen this house, for we specialize in older boys. We have a number of boys close to their coming of majority—"

"Older than that," the patron said without hesitation. "I like a bed-mate who has entered into the full fruits of his manhood."

For the first time in the time they had been in business, it appeared that Michael was left speechless. He simply stared at the patron. Janus was the first to recover. He caught Michael's eye with a gesture, and mouthed, "Yclau."

Something entered Michael's eyes then. He nodded, and turned his attention back to the patron. "I regret, sir, that we cannot meet your particular need." His voice was like a blade; he never bothered to be soothing to patrons who requested the unthinkable. "It is not the custom here in Vovim for full-grown men to sleep with other men."

"No?" The patron's voice took on a note of surprise. He flicked a glance ever so slightly at Michael's body.

"No," replied Michael firmly.

"Oh," said the patron, nonplussed. "Well, in that case, of course I'd be willing to pay extra."

"Sir . . ."

But the patron ignored him; he was patting himself all over, as though he had forgotten where his pockets were located. "Ordinarily, you understand, you'd find me short of money," he said as he bent down to inspect his trousers. "This trip, brief though it is, took a decade's worth of my savings. But my mother presented me recently with a fedora. Its cut was in appalling taste, of course. I didn't want to hurt her feelings by rejecting her gift, so I sold it." His hand emerged from his breast pocket, clutching a roll of bills.

Janus stared at the thick circle of bank-notes. "You sold a hat?"

The patron turned his head to smile at Janus. "What my mother lacks in taste she makes up for in opulence." He turned back to the whoremaster and held out the notes, saying, "Will this do?"

Janus's breath lay suspended in the air for a moment, but Michael merely said, in a voice as frigid as hell itself, "I wish you good luck in your search, sir, but I fear you will have a long hunt before you find any Vovimian man who is willing to submit his body to another man."

"Submit?" The patron seemed amused now. "Bloody blades, I can't remember the last time I asked a man to submit to me. Or did I submit to him? I can't remember; we were too busy making love to notice such trivialities."

There was a pause. Outside, a prolonged thumping of feet told Janus that the performance in the courtyard had reached its climax. He thought to himself that he should go to see whether the other patrons had made their choices, but nothing could have moved him from the office at this moment.

Michael said softly, "Are you telling me, sir, that you would not object to submitting to another man?"

"Not if it was the right man." The patron let his gaze roam quite frankly over Michael's body.

In the courtyard, a chorus of requests called for a repeat performance. From the shouts, Janus gathered that matters were getting out of hand there – that the men wanted the boys to perform the play naked. Still he did not move; he was desperately trying to catch Michael's eye.

Michael noticed him finally. He said quietly, "Will you excuse Mr. Roe and me for a minute, sir?"

"Certainly." The patron, unfazed, slid off the clip holding the bills together and began counting them.

Janus followed Michael through the door leading to the chilly stairwell in the servants' wing. Michael closed the door to the kitchen as they passed it, then proceeded to the foot of the steps. He did not go up the stairs; instead, he turned left and followed the side of the stairs till he reached a door in the wall supporting the steps. He opened it.

The mansion held dozens of rooms; Janus had never been able to figure out why Michael had chosen a closet as his bedroom. Michael claimed that he had housed himself in the tiny storage space under the stairs because he could easily hear the bells in the office if any of the boys pulled their bell-ropes during the night. But Janus suspected that Michael would have chosen the room in any case. Something about it spoke of his personality.

The room had only one source of light, a tiny hexagonal window that looked out upon the street in front of the house. Michael had covered the window with a sheet of newspaper. The ceiling slanted so sharply from the stairs above that it was only possible to stand up on the window side of the room. The closet was so small that nearly all of the floor space was taken up with a narrow steel cot. Michael kept all of his belongings under the cot or hung them from hooks on what little wall space he possessed.

Michael was already on his knees, rummaging under the bed. Janus closed the door before saying, "Michael, please—"

"Janus, this is perfect, don't you see?" Michael did not look up from his search. "The man's from Yclau – he won't slander me by claiming I submitted to him, because he thinks it's natural to submit to men. And he won't have time to gossip, because he's leaving for his homeland tomorrow. And even if he should drop word to someone between now and dawn, who would believe him? He's a foreigner. Everyone would assume he was telling tourers' tales."

"But Michael, he may not like what you do to—"

He stopped. Michael had risen from his knees. In his hand lay his stiff leather hunting crop.

Michael said softly, "Most men do, I've found."

The patron was awaiting them in the office. He did not seem in any way disturbed by the interval for the private conference. From the sounds coming from the courtyard now, Janus suspected that the men had not waited until they reached the boys' rooms before starting on their afternoon's pleasure.

Michael paid no attention to the noise. "Mr. Archibald," he said as he slid the crop between his fingertips, "just how far are you prepared to submit?"

The patron stared. Then he smiled.