Authors: AB Bradley
Tags: #Epic Sword and Sorcery Fantasy
This book is dedicated to all the mothers out there.
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Never had Mara known another world beyond the House of Sin and Silk, and never had she cared to know another. Mara stretched and grinned at the horizon. Her back ached, her muscles throbbed, yet no smile on the barge could ever match her own.
A thousand ships floated on the gentle waves lapping at Sollan’s rocky shore. Thick ropes dripping seawater and old chains kissed by stubborn barnacles moored the bobbing labyrinth of barges to one another. They rocked on rippling waves that glittered like oiled glass beneath a moon crowned by purest silver.
Mara ran her hand through her hair, savoring the silky strands tickling her fingertips. Her unborn child kicked against her swollen belly. She grimaced, slowly bending to her knees until they pressed against the barge’s smooth deck.
“Not long now,” she whispered. “But stay just a little while longer. I do not want the beating your birth would bring me, my love.”
Grime and muck coated her arms to her elbows, the last remnants of yet another night of feast and pleasure for the patrons of the House of Sin and Silk. She dipped her arms into the cool waters of the Sapphire Sea. The smell of fish filled her nostrils. The breeze kissed her lips with a hint of salt. With a heavy sigh, she rubbed from her skin the oils of the feast she prepared but never enjoyed.
As the last of the spiced slime washed into the ocean, she flicked the droplets dangling from her nails and watched her reflection tremble. She ran her fingers across her cheeks. The child within her gifted her skin with a healthy glow not even endless days of sun and sea winds could ever bring.
“You are good for me,” she said with a smile.
Mara straightened. She pressed her hand against her back to support her belly and looked toward the great Sapphire Sea. An ancient titan’s bones divided the line of the horizon. The skeleton towered over the waves, its hollow eyes facing the unknown and daring all Good King Sol’s enemies to strike at the heart of his mighty empire.
“I said enough!”
Gia’s harried voice jolted Mara, her friend’s words drifting from within the barge’s long hull. Mara’s heartbeat quickened. Her child twisted in the womb, its blood rising with hers.
Mara turned to the open door. “Gia?”
She faced the House of Sin and Silk, her home, her kingdom, her silken prison. It dwarfed all others in the Floatwaif in size and reputation. Polished brass braziers cast their flickering firelight against the barge’s mahogany walls. Scarlet ribbons hanging from its roof rippled like serpents’ tongues in the wind.
“Get off, you pig!”
Gia’s words sent Mara’s blood to a boil. She clenched her jaw and headed for the pleasure rooms in the barge’s belly. With the aid of her heavy push, the door widened enough for her stomach to pass. She waddled inside. Scarlet doors set in neat, even spaces lined the hallway. Beyond each door, there was a room containing throws of fine silks, pillows soft as satin clouds, and a woman or man serving an eager patron.
Mara hurried past the first few doors as best she could and planted her feet before Gia’s room. A dark and hungry laugh filtered from behind the door’s wooden face.
“Gia, is everything okay?” Mara rapped on the door. “Gia!”
Moon maidens occupied the rooms beside Gia’s. Of course, the other girls would never help. Kindness was rare as diamonds in the Floatwaif, and in the House of Sin and Silk, it was a thing of myth and legend.
Mara took a deep breath and slapped her palm against the wood. “I’m calling the strong boys! You’re out, Kard. I knew you had a sour look in your eye when you came aboard.”
She heard a grunt, followed by a deep laugh.
! Strong boys!” Mara gripped the handle in one hand and her belly with the other. She shoved her shoulder against the door and pushed, flinging it aside. Gia squatted like a caged lioness in the corner, her arms trembling and ready to strike.
The woman glared at her patron with poisoned-tip daggers in her eyes. She held her silk dress over her breasts, her polished nails shining in the lamplight. Her patron swayed barely more than an arm’s length from Mara’s friend. He was a sailor from Skaard and painted in the flowery tattoos of strange lands. He wore a black loop pierced through his nose like one might see on a bull and snorted as he took heavy, hungry breaths.
Mara smelled the reek of wine and saltwater gin coming from the man. Red rimmed his dark, bleary eyes, and sweat shimmered on his bourbon skin. He glanced at Mara from the corner of his eye. A long, pale scar cut his face from his hair to his grizzled chin, and he wore the old wound as proudly as a king would wear his crown.
Kard’s gaze drifted to Mara’s belly. He licked his lips and faced her. “Someone looks ready’ta pop. I’d no idea that oiled slug of a woman let her maidens have whelps. Might be some good fun, eh, Gia?”
Mara stepped back. Her shoulders pressed into the doorway.
Gia snarled and stood to her full height. Like most people born in the eastern kingdoms, she wore her hair in long, oiled braids. Like all moon maidens on Madame Olessa’s barge, she wore a brass collar tight around her neck, the cheap, plated metal staining her luminous skin a sickly olive wherever it rested.
Mara’s friend stood as tall as her drunken patron, and even though she was both a slave and moon maiden, she carried herself with all the royal pride of a mighty queen.
“You will not touch Mara,” Gia spat. “Kard, leave the barge. Leave it now or I swear I’ll cut your manhood and feed it to the coral sharks.”
Kard howled with laughter, his cheeks blushing as he bent backward. “You will? Bless me, I’ve got myself a fiery maiden tonight! I paid good money for a girl from the East, so you’ll lay on your back and be a good maiden, or I’ll slit your throat and get my coin back from that hag madame of yours.”
“You think I’m lying? I’ll cut it off, you pig.” She marched forward, pausing before him with a smirk spreading on her lips. “Once I find it, that is.”
Kard tensed. “Why, you’sa little…”
The sailor pulled his fist back. Gia lifted her chin.
Mara lunged. She grabbed Kard’s wrist before his fist could slam into Gia’s jaw with all the fuel and force of a fearless drunk. Mara twisted his arm behind him and shoved it against the small of his back. “You think Madame Olessa leaves us defenseless? You aren’t the first drunken idiot to wobble on deck thinking he owns all he sees.”
Kard cried out. She pushed harder.
Gia twirled. Her silk dress fluttered to her ankles like an undulating wave and exposed her bare body in the dim gold light. She balled her fist and slammed her knuckles against Kard’s jaw. The man’s head spun to the side, a shower of rosy droplets bursting from his lips and splattering on the floor.
“Pig!” Gia shouted. “Drunk, stupid glimmer fiend!”
He fell upon the room’s fine rugs, landing on his knees and palms. Groaning, he shook his head, an oozing line of blood dripping from his lips and staining the room’s carpet.
Mara sidestepped the dazed drunk. She embraced Gia, the woman’s chest heaving with her heavy breaths, her shoulders slick with oils ripe with jasmine.
“Are you hurt?” Mara asked. “What did he do?”
“He said pain was pleasure. He tried…he tried wrapping a silk scarf around my neck. He said I would enjoy it. I knew he would kill me, Mara. I saw it in his wine-stained eyes. He didn’t care. The bastard took a full vial of glimmer. It’s made him wild. He took so much; he’ll start seeing ghosts soon enough.”
Mara pulled Gia closer and stared directly in her eyes. “Everything will be okay. I came as soon as I heard. I always will.”
“You are the only one who would.” Her eyes locked on something behind Mara and widened. “Watch out!”
Gia pushed Mara back as Kard sprang from the floor. He struck Gia in the arm, and the woman stumbled back. Mara’s heavy belly nearly toppled her, but she caught her balance at the last moment. She pressed a hand against her chest and exhaled, hoping her heart wouldn’t burst from her ribs.
Mara spun to face their attacker, fists balled and shaking. The sailor kicked at Gia. She caught his ankle and threw his leg aside. He brought his fist back in a hit Mara knew would break Gia’s jaw. Mara lurched forward, veins burning with her adrenaline, and caught the man’s wrist.
A jagged, silvery point glinted between his fingers. Terror flooded Mara, and she released the man.
Gia scrambled toward them. “Mara, watch the razor!”
Mara shielded her face, her only thought the beating she would get from Olessa if the fool scarred her cheek. A hot slash raked her forearm. She cried out, collapsing to the floor. Her hand wrapped around her arm and gripped the burning wound. Tears came to her eyes, but they were of anger, not of fear.
Kard stood over Mara, a tiny, dripping razor wedged between his fingers just beneath the knuckle. “You’s gonna dare get in my way, you whore? You’re nothin’ to me. You’s the filth I scrape from my boots after a stroll through a pigpen and a hike through shit. Just ‘cause you got some bastard in that belly, you think that keeps you safe? Your lovely madame’s gonna tie a rock to the whelp’s legs and toss it to the sharks soon as it slides out o’ that swollen belly. Don’t think
fate’s any better. Who’ll want to bed a maiden stretched and broken by pushin’ out a melon?”
Mara clutched the cut on her arm and breathed through the wall of her teeth. Blood wet her fingers, her pulse throbbing beneath the wound.
Gia lunged at Kard, but he kicked her in the stomach and sent the woman flying. “Not yet, m’dear Gia, let me finish this business first.”
The man sneered, wiping his bloody jaw. He clenched the tiny blade in his fist and licked his lips. “Let’s give that pretty face of yours a few cuts. Maybe a scar like mine? Olessa’d sell you to me then, and then I could sell that rat in your stomach for a polished coin. Might make up for the trouble you caused tonight.”
Mara dragged herself away. Her hand left her wound and went to her belly. She saw the glee swirling in Kard’s eyes. His pupils were black, new moons, and they twitched from the heavy dose of glimmer in his blood.
“That’s right, fear me,” he whispered. “It’s so much sweeter that way.”
Her child kicked and twisted. She swallowed, lifting her chin. “I will be a bitter poison for you.”
Kard flashed his eyes and wagged his tongue. “I’ll tell you how you taste once you’re on my lips.”
He stalked forward. Mara glanced at Gia. The woman rolled over, arm clasped over her stomach and eyes dully dazed. She would never reach Mara in time. Mara closed her eyes and gritted her teeth.
!” Olessa’s blessedly familiar, deep voice bellowed into the room.
Kard halted. Relief washed over Mara like a tide held back for generations and loosed that night.
Madame Olessa had no last name. She needed none. She was the empress of Sollan’s most prestigious pleasure barge, the House of Sin and Silk, and every moon maiden and strong boy living on the ship bent a knee or trembled on the floor for her passing.