The cooler air of nightfall swept over Linza and out towards the ocean as she walked up the main street and towards her place of work.
There was a string quartet playing in the central square, and the soothing music lulled the crowd into a sensual hush.
Then a voice like a singing bird cut over it and came directly towards her. “Linza, Linza, Linza!”
Tanyth wore a sharp suit again, looking distinctly masculine, but their voice was all girlish glee.
Linza herself was feeling more pensive than anything, but still she grinned empathetically and mirrored Tanyth’s energy as they reached her and took her shoulders in their hands.
“Linza you will not believe this but—” they paused a moment to catch their breath, “I’m training Grun!”
“My goodness, yes!” Linza said as she thought, Oh what a fucking mess. “Starting when, what for?”
“Well, tonight!” Tanyth breathed. “And, vanilla stuff. Which will be nice to get back to—I haven’t worked those roles in a while.”
Vanilla stuff comprised what most people thought of when they thought of a brothel—penetrative sex, blow jobs, hand jobs, et cetera. And as with the teahouse’s famous ice cream, it was the best damn vanilla you’d ever had.
Linza pulled open the costume trunk in her mind and rifled through a few options for a mask that she felt would be appropriate. She settled on a facade of encouraging and conspiratorial. So, she grinned a bit coyly and said just quietly enough to inspire interest. “So are you gonna… y’know. Do hands-on training?”
Tanyth turned nearly bright red. “Oh I hope so! But I hope not! Oh I don’t know if I could stand it.” They fanned themselves with their hands.
Linza wondered how she’d ever convinced herself that they were attracted to her. It would have been obvious. As she’d learned, Tanyth was a terrible liar.
Did people assume that she was bad at lying because she was so earnest? Perhaps that’s why they didn’t look too closely at the subtle discrepancies between what she said and how she felt.
“You’d better tell me all about it, whatever happens,” Linza said.
“I will, I will! Oh, I hope he doesn’t dislike me.” They seemed startled into fear by the sudden realization that such a thing was possible and covered their hand with their mouth.
Linza put her hand on Tanyth’s shoulder. “Tanyth, you’re lovely. If he doesn’t like you, he’s an asshole.”
The tension dropped out of Tanyth’s little body. “You’re the best, Linza. I needed to hear that. And I need to run, or else I’ll be late!” They tipped up onto their toes and pecked Linza on the cheek. “Thank you!” And then Tanyth dashed off through the main street and was gone.
Linza felt like a fish in a bowl in the hands of too young a child, shaken around in their gleeful exuberance and now spinning dizzily in the water, disoriented and queasy.
She soldiered on towards her shift, though the feeling of the bowl around her did not subside. The sounds were muffled, her awareness not reaching much further than an immediate circle around her.
She nearly walked into the madame’s assistant where he stood at the bottom of the stairs up to the rooms where she worked.
“Oh! Hello!” she mustered.
“Something’s troubling you,” he said. It was a statement, not a question.
Linza looked up at him, realizing that it was now she that looked like the startled cat, wide-eyed and frozen. “I… I won’t let it interfere with my work.”
“Might you conjure a little illusion for me?” the assistant said.
“Of course,” Linza said. It would be like the exercise she’d done with Tanyth—the very same one that had revealed her feelings for them. She was nervous, but she couldn’t deny the madame’s assistant.
“Dog,” he said.
The dog was snarling.
“Cat,” he said.
The cat was frozen in fear.
“Touch,” he said.
A hand shoving away another’s chest.
“Emotion,” he said.
A face contorted in silent, anguished scream.
“Love,” he said.
Linza curled up in a ball in her apartment, all alone.
Tears welled in her eyes as a hard knot twisted in her throat. She looked up at the assistant, horrified.
His face was soft and comforting. “Are you angry, afraid, or ashamed?”
“Ashamed, of course!” Linza wrapped one of her hands around the opposite elbow. “I shouldn’t be letting it get to me this way.”
“Do you expect that anyone in your position would feel ashamed?” He tilted his head, an amusement twinkling in his night-sky eyes.
Linza doubted herself, but in the spirit of the question, she answered as truthfully as she could. “Well, yes, I think. Is that… wrong?”
“Where I come from, we say that there are three ways of knowing. The gut, instinct. The heart, feeling. The head, thinking. We all use all three. We each lead with one. Each has an underlying issue. For the gut, anger. For the heart, shame. For the head, fear.”
Linza forced a wry smile. “I think I’m that shame one.”
The assistant nodded deferentially. “In that case, then let me say, there is no shame taking a night off when your heart is troubled.”
“But, the schedule! I can’t possibly ask anyone to cover for me last-minute,” she said. Her clients would be so disappointed! She couldn’t bear it.
“What would you tell Tanyth, if they felt how you felt now?” he asked.
“I…” she knew the answer instantly, and she felt ashamed to say it aloud. But that was the point, wasn’t it? That was the challenge? She could rise to meet a challenge. “I’d absolutely insistent that they take the night off. I’d help find someone to cover for them. I’d… remind them that they must consider the guest’s quality of experience, as well. A raincheck is better than…” She couldn’t bring herself to say ‘bad service’ aloud.
The assistant put his hand on her shoulder. “Take the night off. I’ll take care of the schedule.”
Linza held her breath, lest tears escape. She paused a moment, inhaled, exhaled. “Thank you.” She turned to leave, not wanting to waste any more of his time. Then, she turned back, expecting him to already be gone, but he waited there. As if he’d known what she was about to ask. “Could I… ask you again, sometime, about the ways of knowing? It sounded like there’s a whole framework there.”
He nodded. “There is. I’d be happy to elaborate. Inquire any time.”
She bowed, then left. And she knew exactly where she was going. She bought a box of a dozen chocolate tarts at the estate’s bakery and then boarded the trolly to Wyn’s.