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Blurred Lines (Whipster #3)

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The year 450, the fourth month. (The year 1911 Fallow by the Old Calendar.)
 

"In response to my position that a desire to avoid all that was 'tough' [i.e. young men who engage in immoral acts] meant to walk only in the paths of smug self-seeking and personal improvement leading straight into the pit of self-righteousness and petty achievement and was exactly what the Settlement did not stand for, they contended with much justice that ambitious young people were obliged for their own reputation, if not for their own morals, to avoid all connection with that which bordered on the tough, and that it was quite another matter for the Hull-House residents who could afford a more generous judgment. It was in vain I urged that life teaches us nothing more inevitably than that right and wrong are most confusingly confounded; that the blackest wrong may be within our own motives, and that at the best, right will not dazzle us by its radiant shining and can only be found by exerting patience and discrimination. They still maintained their wholesome bourgeois position, which I am now quite ready to admit was most reasonable."

—Jane Addams: Twenty Years at Hull-House (1912).


CHAPTER ONE

"Anything interesting in the newsie?"

Janus Roe, sitting in a chair as he transferred a pile of brightly colored suits into a box destined for a steam-laundry, shook his head in reply. He glanced at the open newspaper on the table beside him as he said, "Nothing much. My cousin is engaged to be married." He read further down the column, snorting. "That girl? He must have debts to pay."

"You know her?" Pausing, Michael looked up from his stand where he was sorting currency into piles.

"Distantly. I met her at the King's Grounds once, at a tea party. Francis must be marrying her for her family's money."

"Is that legal?"

Janus looked up, puzzlement deepening the few lines in his face. "What do you mean?"

"The Pleasure House Act of 382 makes it illegal for any man in his majority to whore himself."

Janus snorted again and returned to his newspaper. The suits, carelessly folded, continued to drop into the box one by one. After a while, Michael said, "Try to fold them more tightly. We pay the laundresses by the box."

Janus looked down at the clothes, then up at Michael. "Are matters that bad?"

In response, Michael wordlessly gestured to the small pile of currency bills in front of him.

Janus frowned. "Where are the drafts?"

"I don't accept them any more. You'd be surprised how many gentlemen find it amusing to write us drafts to bank accounts that no longer exist. Their honor would prevent them from cheating any other tradesmen, but we, of course, deserve such treatment." Michael wrote down a number, then brought out his bill holder and stuffed the money into it. The bill holder barely bulged.

"What about credit?" asked Janus as he rolled up his shirt-sleeves further; he was already stripped down to his vest. "Do we still accept that?"

"Only Archy's. And only because he hasn't paid his debt for three months."

"You should stop him from coming here till he pays."

"Do you remember the last time we did that? Evan wailed each night till I relented."

Janus sighed as he began pulling the clothes out of the box. His gaze drifted back to the newspaper.

The house was quiet; most of its inhabitants were gone for the day, visiting temple or theater. Janus found himself glancing now and then at a small bell strung above the door to the stairwell. The bell remained still. Janus hoped this was only because the dweller in that room was sleeping. He looked back at his newspaper.

Several minutes later, Michael said, "What are you making those approving noises about?"

"I don't make approving noises, do I?"

"Of course you do. And you growl when you read an article you don't like, and you go 'hem, hem' when you see something on a new topic. Watching you read is like watching a play. Which article do you like?"

"An item on the editor's page, by a new contributor. He writes about the terrible effects of prostitution. 'I truly believe that half the ills in the Kingdom of Vovim can be traced to the effects of this nefarious practice . . .'"

"Ah." Michael's voice was dry. "I don't suppose he gives his address so that we can ask him to contribute to a fund for ameliorating the effects of prostitution on one particular boy."

Janus glanced at the top of the article. "There's no indication of who he is. Just a byline: 'I. Truly.'"

"A pen name. What courage he shows." Michael returned his attention to the account book. After a minute he brought it over to Janus.

Janus scanned the proffered page quickly, winced, and nodded his approval. The account book closed; Michael stepped away.

"Shall I read you the article?" Janus asked.

"Don't bother; I can summarize its contents for you. Immoral women and boys, dragging down our society by their depraved ways, must be reformed or drowned in the river lest our kingdom fall under the wrath of Hell . . ."

Janus scanned the article quickly. Ignoring the reference in it to Hell, he said, "To be fair to him, he doesn't blame the boys and women. He blames the men who sell them."

"Oh, that's much better," said the whoremaster as he picked up his pencil again.

Janus let the final, emerald-green boys' suit fall into the box. "Michael, you have to admit that the world would be a better place if there were no houses of prostitution. Your own experience should tell you that."

"You know," said Michael conversationally, looking down at his papers, "no one listening to you would believe that you're part owner of a whorehouse."

A long pause followed. Then Janus said stiffly, "And I often wish that this and every other pleasure house in the kingdom would burn down. You know that."

Michael leaned on one elbow, placing the pencil behind his ear. His eyes rose from the papers to meet Janus's. "You remember how my parents apprenticed me to Outram's?"

"Yes, of course."

"Do you know what would have happened to me if they'd been unable to find an apprenticeship for me?"

There was a silence, unbroken by any disturbance. As usual on week's end, the Riverbend district was deathly still during the daytime, while most of the remainder of its population slept off the effects of the previous night.

Janus said hesitantly, "Surely not."

"I was the eldest child, eleven years of age. I might have been able to survive on the streets. If my parents had continued to care for me at home, it's likely one of my younger brothers or sisters would have died of starvation."

"You don't know for certain that your parents sold you to Outram out of poverty. You don't remember; you only have Outram's word to trust."

"I heard enough of the other whore-boys' tales to know that it's a likely story. Some boys came to Outram's shedding tears of gratitude that they'd have shelter at night."

Janus sighed heavily and turned his attention to binding the box shut. A spring breeze slipped in through the open window and nudged the newspaper beside him. The inner walls of the house reverberated as the alleyway door was opened and shut, doubtless by some of the boys returning from Theater Avenue. A small dog yipped on the other side of the house. Very faintly came the sound of a squeaking floorboard.

After twenty months of dwelling in this house, Janus knew the nature of every sound in it. He rose, newspaper in hand, and began looking round to see where he had placed his jacket.

Michael said, "Don't bother to answer the door. Our regular patrons know that we're closed on feast-day afternoons, and anyone new should read the plaque of our hours."

"If he knocks, Lann might hear and try to get out of bed."

"The patron's most likely gone by now." Michael drifted toward the window overlooking the porch. Janus sighted his jacket and reached toward it.

His hand jerked as the newspaper was snatched from it. With his breath still caught by surprise, Janus looked round just in time to see Michael seat himself in the chair in the corner and stare down at the newspaper with apparent concentration.

Janus was still trying to make sense of this when he heard another squeak, this one of hinges. He looked at the door to the entrance hall; it was open. "Hello?" he said. "Is someone there?"

For a minute there was no reply, and Janus thought the intruder had left. Then he heard slow steps, and a moment later a young man appeared at the doorway. He was collarless, and the cap he pulled from his head was smoke-smudged. "Hello, Mr. Roe. Or can I call you Janus now?"

"Hasan!" Janus's voice was weak from the shock. "What a surprise to see you."

He looked over at Michael. The whoremaster continued to appear deeply absorbed in the newspaper. Janus wondered whether Hasan noticed that the newsie was upside down.

"Where's Lann?" asked Hasan, still standing at the doorway. "I figured on seeing him at his post."

"He's in bed," said Janus.

"Ah." Hasan's expression grew more somber. "I had mind you were staying him alive with that drug from Yclau."

"We ran short of money." Janus glanced at Michael, but the other man showed no sign of interest in taking part in the conversation. "Come in, Hasan. Forgive our ill welcome," he added, flicking another glance at Michael. "We didn't expect to see you here in the middle of the day."

"Aye, well, the manufactories are all closed today, so I figured I'd come and let the boys have knowing of I was still alive." He gave a quirk of a smile at his jest, then looked past Janus to the man in the chair. "Hello, Michael," he said.

Michael mumbled something indistinct and did not raise his eyes.

Janus, sensing that strong measures were needed to deal with this situation, came forward and guided Hasan into the room with a hand against the young man's back. Hasan shifted his gaze away from Michael long enough to greet Janus with a light kiss upon the cheek. "Is Lann bad?" he asked.

Janus shrugged helplessly as Hasan seated himself on the deep sill of the window that spanned the outer wall of the office. Hasan fingered his cap for a minute before saying, "Why don't you give tale to Archy? It may be he can help."

"Archy?" said Janus incredulously. "The man won't even pay his debt to us. How can he help us pay for an expensive drug?"

"Well, he has connections. It may be he has knowing of some folk who owe a favor to his mam and would be willing to help you buy the drug cheap."

Janus stared blankly at the youth at the window. In the corner of the room, Michael carefully turned the newspaper right side up and continued staring at it.

Hasan looked from Michael to Janus. "You mean you two aren't knowing?"

"Knowing what?" Janus replied.

"Why, that Archy's a prince."

Michael, in the process of turning a page, suddenly went still. After several seconds more, Janus asked, "Prince of what?"

"Yclau. His full name is Archbold Othman Emeric Ubald, Earl of Luray and Prince of Yclau."

Another silence ensued, broken only by the laughter of boys in the courtyard. Then from the corner of the room came Michael's voice. "Which of those is his surname?"

"The Yclau royal family doesn't have one," said Janus slowly. "Archy hinted as much when he first met us. Hasan, are you sure this is true? Where did you hear it?"

"Why, it's common talk on Theater Avenue. You have knowing that Archy play-acts for the Theater of Mercy and Hell—"

"The temple theater. Yes."

"Well, it's the royal theater too. They say that, on the nights when our King comes to performances, he goes backstage after the play to speak with Archy about his family. And when visiting big-wigs come from Yclau, they go to Archy's plays and applaud loud-like when he walks on stage. Not because they have knowing of anything about good play-acting – they're Yclau, after all – but they're craving that he'll put in a good word about them to his mam, the Queen. I've caught tale that this annoys Archy no end."

"But what in the names of Hell and Mercy is a prince doing play-acting on Theater Avenue?" cried Janus.

"Oh, the tale that's told is that he saw a touring company from Vovim when he was young, and he was sick with theater fever from then on. Since there's no theater to speak of in Yclau, he moved to our kingdom."

"But he's heir to the throne?" Michael had now abandoned the newspaper to his lap.

"No, his sister is," replied Janus. "Yclau's monarchy follows the female line. Besides, there's no throne left for him to inherit. . . . Hasan, this can't be true! Archy is always claiming he has no money!"

Hasan shrugged as he placed his feet up on a box holding containers of sheaths and lubricant. "He's most like giving tale the truth. The tale told is that his mam was hot in heart about him growing to be a player, and they had battle over him moving to Vovim. Now he won't draw any money from his family, just the occasional gift. But he's got high connections in Yclau – despite everything, his title still means something in that country. It may be he can find a cheaper supplier for Lann's drug, if you and Janus ask him." He looked at Michael.

The whoremaster suddenly seemed to remember the newspaper in his lap; he dived into it, making no reply. After an awkward pause, Hasan rose slowly to his feet, saying, "I should say greetings to Lann while I'm here. He's still in his ground-storey room?"

Janus nodded, rising as Hasan did. "He's probably sleeping, but don't be afraid to wake him – he wouldn't want to miss your visit. Nor would the rest of us." He gave a pointed look at Michael, who did not respond.

Hasan moved toward the door to the entrance hall. He had just reached it when Janus thought to ask, "Which manufactory are you working in now, Hasan?"

Hasan turned. His familiar bright smile was his most distinctive feature on an otherwise plain face, but the smile seemed oddly brittle. "You are knowing Vovim's old dungeon?"

Janus, who had never been fully able to follow Hasan's trains of thought, said cautiously, "I know of it from the history books."

"Aye, well, there's a tale among the whore-boys of Theater Avenue that the dungeon is still hidden away somewhere, and that any full-grown man arrested for whoring himself is sent there so as he can be killed a painful death. I've decided not to test the tale."

Janus felt his stomach lurch without warning. He swallowed the sickness in his throat and said, "You haven't been able to find a job?"

Hasan shrugged. "It's just a matter of time, I expect. I'll find the right place for me in the end." His gaze grazed the corner of the room, where a man sat bowed over his newspaper, and then Hasan stepped away. A moment later, his voice could be heard in the courtyard, greeting the boys there.

Michael slammed the newspaper to the floor. He rose swiftly, took several strides forward, and ended up at the window overlooking the porch. He pressed his fist hard against his mouth as he gazed out with smoldering eyes upon the deserted Riverbend street.

And Janus, who knew that all of the above actions and expressions had been undertaken for his own benefit, so that he would know something of the thoughts that ran through Michael's mind, felt once more a familiar ache in his heart.

o—o—o

Michael sat in the darkness of the closet that served as his bedroom, peering down at the candlelit page and trying to ignore the words being spoken in the office nearby.
 

At his first words the color had left her face, and she had slipped to the opposite side of the fire, and stood watching him with horrified eyes.

"But you are not like that!" she protested.

"Yes," he continued, "and but for the gods' help I shall always be like that. It is an awful pull, and the gods only know how I struggle. I never quite saw the use of it all, until I met you six months ago; then I realized that the past two years had been given me in which to make a man of myself."


"Hasan, if you'd only speak to him . . ."

"We've said everything there is to say. I didn't even mean to come in today. I was just aiming to let Lann be knowing how I was, so as he could spread the word to the other boys, in case of anyone was asking about me."

"He misses you, Hasan."

"Can he miss me?"
 

As he finished speaking he saw, for the first time, that she was crying. He sprang forward, but she shrank away. "No, no, don't touch me! I'm so terribly disappointed, and hurt, and – stunned."

"But you surely don't love me the less?"


"I don't know. He says he misses you."

A sigh. "Janus, he doesn't have knowing of what it is to miss someone or long for someone or desire someone. He's incapable of feeling that – of feeling anything."

"It's not his fault, Hasan!"

"I never gave tale it was."

"Then stay with him. He's trying to change—"

"Is he?" The voice was cool. "I've seen no sign of a change."
 

She was very young, with the stern, uncompromising standards of girlhood; life was black or white to her, and time had not yet filled in the canvas with the myriad grays that blend into one another until all lines are effaced . . .


"Hasan, if I didn't know better, I'd say you were angry with him."

A pause. Then: "I'm hot in heart. I'm not hot in heart at him. Leave lie, Janus; there's no point in us giving speech any more to each other."

"If you could hear how he talks of you—"

"Janus, the best thing I can do for him is abide away from him."
 

"You are mistaken," he cried. "Just because you have seen me in that condition, you have no right to draw such a conclusion. I am weak, nobody could deny it; but what can you know of the struggle I make, of my eagerness to do better, of the fight that I am constantly making with myself?"

His words fell on deaf ears.


"You'll break his heart."

"He's got no heart, Janus. That's the point. Have you ever seen him cry?"

"Hasan . . ."

"No, leave lie, Janus. I shouldn't have come, and I'm going now. Goodbye."
 

He held the door open as she passed out. His face was cold, calm, inscrutable; not a quiver of the mouth, not a flutter of the lids, but the light went out of his eyes and hope died within.


A door closed; a moment later a second door closed with a thud, shaking the house. Michael reached out with the extension of his arm and used the tip of the hunting crop to flip back a page.
 

She was crying . . .


He looked down at himself. In the cold months of the year, this was the coldest room in the house. In the warm months, it was the hottest. The room was sweltering tonight; he had stripped himself of all his clothes when he entered the bedroom. Usually when he did this, he locked the door. He looked at the door. He had forgotten to bolt it.

He let his left leg fall open. Raising his arm, he brought the hunting crop down, hard and precise, onto the tender skin of his inner thigh.

The first lash was not enough; he brought the crop down a second time and a third, until he felt the water prick at his eyes. His body was trembling now. He dropped the crop into his lap and bowed his head over his knee, feeling the hot tears trail down his face, until the burning pain on his leg eased enough that the tears were taken from him.