Bells on ankles, wrists, and tail jangled a wild rhythm as Roulette spun on one leg, the other bent at the knee, lifted high. Each ring and clap was as precise as each flare of her skirt. With no musical partner, it fell on her shoulders alone to hold the audience's attention. A dance full of color and noise and just a hint of risque movement did much to make up for the lack of accompaniment.
Risque for here in Norinton, at least, the largest city in Achoren. Back in Orinthe, the raccoon woman's dance would have seemed tame. In this northern reach of the Ranean Empire, though, her knee-length skirt alone could earn her a disapproving glance. Add to that the comparative exotica of fur and fang and she could be positively shocking.
That added up to great revenue.
She reversed the twirl, stamping down her raised foot (ring!) and curling her tail about her waist like a sash, the motion lifting her skirt still higher. Then, the dance's finish: a drop to her knees, rainbow-colored skirt fluttering against the courtyard's flagstones, and a sweeping bow, arms to her side, curly black hair cascading off her shoulders and down her back. As her nose remained almost touched to the stone for the space of a long breath, she reviewed the crowd in her mind, playing a customary game. Who would pay and who wouldn't?
Leaping to her feet, she swept up the wooden offering bowl in front of her, a handful of coins she'd placed there herself rattling an invitation. "If you enjoyed Roulette's performance, then please, kind sirs and ladies, show your appreciation." She exaggerated her flowing Orinthe accent, smiling widely.
As usual, her guesses about who would support her and who would move on proved close. Some had started to drift away before she'd even gotten back to her feet, and many of those who remained offered no more than applause. Perhaps a third tossed in a few coins, though. The ones who'd had trouble keeping their eyes above her chest either left quickly, looking self-conscious, or tossed in extra. Roulette had a build more slim than full, but while her colorful outfits had a handmade and ragged look to them, she'd paid to have them perfectly tailored to her curves.
Then, of course, the few who remained. Sometimes they wanted to talk about the art or business of dancing, but sometimes they'd been less entertained than transfixed. She tried to be careful with them. They might give her a lot of money, but they might also be a lot of trouble.
She had three this time, not quite a record--two humans, both men, and one Vraini, a tall, russet-colored vixen. One of the men dumped nearly ten times as much as the other patrons had into her bowl, saying nothing to her other than a whimper when her hand brushed his and hurrying off in shame. The other, with thinning gray hair and an immaculate business jacket of precisely the same color, tipped his hat to her and murmured, "I have no money now, but I'll pay you well later."
"I'll be here tomorrow, sir," she said, flashing another smile.
He glanced around furtively, then leaned closer and said barely above a whisper, "The White Orchid Inn. After evening dinner service." He smelled of something sweet but unpleasantly chemical.
"I don't think--"
He hurried off.
"Lovely," she muttered under her breath. She'd been asked for more private dances before, of course, and at times had consented--but only when she had a good feeling about the customer, and only when fully understood that she'd do no more than dance. She would dance past risque into erotic, she might shed most or all of her clothes, but she kept "no touching" as a rule. If he wanted to touch himself while she danced, that was his business.
That left only the vixen. Roulette realized she hadn't seen the woman move once, other than her eyes, through her entire dance. Her sea green eyes remained fixed on the raccoon even now.
Interesting. While she'd never leaned toward women herself--other than that one tipsy weekend in trade school--the Vraini was definitely attractive, if in a rugged, almost severe manner. "Did you like Roulette's performance?" she asked with another smile.
The vixen tossed a one-var coin into the bowl, pivoted on one heel and strode away.
Roulette frowned, emptying the bowl into her purse bag. "Upset because you Vraini are supposed to be the ones who turn men into puddles with a tail swish, not dumpy Procya, hmm?" she muttered under her breath. She knew no one would ever apply the word dumpy to her form, of course, but she knew the reputation her people had, one of many unflattering stereotypes.
But she knew she was attractive and knew she was not, no matter what some said about raccoons, a con artist or thief. She'd worked hard to be as good as she was, took great pride in her appearance, and averaged twenty vars a show. At five shows a day, five days a week, she made more than some of the businessmen who watched her. When she did deign to do a private dance, that could be another hundred or more. In the five weeks she'd been here, she'd made as much as two months of street performances in Orinthe earned. Another half a year and she'd move to Raneadhros with far more money than she'd ever had in her life, over ten thousand vars. A small fortune.
If she wanted more than a small one, though, she would have to move. She'd grown up hearing tales of Raneadhros and its well-to-do landed gentlemen, and with good luck she might find one as nice as he was rich. Her father was undoubtedly the former, but far from the latter. As her mother often lamented, Orinthe had more kindness than money. Achoren had money, but the gentry were nearly all human, and of a mindset that saw marrying out of their race as scandalous.
This had been the day's last performance; the sun shone low on the horizon, barely cresting the tops of the taller buildings. She took off her bells and put them, the bowl, and coin purse into her knapsack, slung it over her shoulder, and set out on the fifteen-block walk back to her rented room.
She liked Norinton far more than Dry Lake, the Orinthe village where she'd grown up. In Achoren you could feel the history of the place as you walked the streets. It was there in the colors of cheerful brick and somber stone buildings, in the scents from damp shadows and flowering vines creeping across walls that had been old in her grandfather's time. Orinthe's wood and canvas, its bright dyes and sun-faded paint, were all lovely, but Achoren had a--a depth, a weight. While she didn't want to experience one of its legendary snowy, gray sky winters, the cool, pleasant midpoint of its spring promised a splendid warm summer. Warm, not searing. Her mother used to joke that Orinthe had only two seasons: summer and full boil.
Her path took her past the bakery she stopped in nearly every afternoon for lunch, and past the dress shop she would make a point of patronizing before she left the city. The dress they'd put in the window four days ago still remained, a splendid one-piece, sleeveless blue affair of a remarkably daring cut for the locale. She could see herself dancing in it, not on the street but with her future husband at a formal ball. Surely it was fancy enough. The price tag was hidden now, as the shop keeper had recently placed a little framed picture of the Achoren national crest in the window's corner. But she knew it already: four hundred-fifty vars--not inclusive of the necessary tailoring.
Roulette left the main square and its businesses, turning right to walk down a more residential avenue lined with trees and street lamps and small homes. Each had a neatly manicured front lawn ending at a wooden front porch. There were few pedestrians, but some porches were occupied. She waved whenever someone looked in her direction, usually receiving a wave back or, occasionally, a stolid nod.
"Mommy!" a voice ahead of her called.
Her ears perked up and she looked across the street. A young child, human, sounding frightened, but she couldn't see--ah. A boy, perhaps five, legs and arms wrapped around a tree branch a good twenty feet in the air.
As Roulette started to cross the street, a woman a few years older than the raccoon came out of the house behind the tree, stared up, and swore, putting her hands on the side of her head. "What have you done, child?"
"Get me down!"
"I don't have a ladder that high! You climbed up, you can climb down." The mother put her hands on her hips, trying to match the severity of her voice with her expression.
"I can't!" the boy yelled, and began to cry.
"Miss," Roulette called as she approached. "I can help."
The woman turned, startled. "Dudley doesn't need help, he just needs to climb down," she said archly.
Roulette tilted her head back to watch Dudley, who hadn't moved a muscle. The raccoon approached the tree trunk and patted it, mindful of the mother's warning glower. "Just slide backward along the branch," she said soothingly.
Dudley moved just enough to stare down at her balefully.
The mother sighed. "Listen to the..." She paused, fixing Roulette with her gaze. "What are you again? Foxes and cats don't want to be called foxes and cats, so what's a raccoon?"
"I don't know why you all need two names. Humans are just humans."
Roulette gave her a patient smile. "We're all speaking your language. If we spoke Melifeni everywhere, you'd have two names and the cats--"
Dudley's crying became a piercing scream. Both women jerked their heads up to see the boy clinging desperately by just his arms, legs kicking frantically.
"Dudley, pull yourself up!" his mother called.
With another wail, Dudley slipped down an inch.
"He's going to fall." Roulette dropped her knapsack to the ground and dug her finger claws into the tree's soft bark. She pulled herself up enough to dig her toes in as well, then scaled the tree nearly as fast as she might have jogged down the cobblestone.
Getting up to where Dudley's branch jutted out was easy enough, but Roulette doubted it could support both her weight and Dudley's. She kept her legs on the trunk, and leaned out as far as she could by digging one hand into the branch. She extended her other arm out to the boy.
He looked even more terrified. "The animal's gonna get me!"
"Dudley!" the mother called up, more desperate than stern now. "Go to the raccoon woman!"
"I'm here to help," Roulette said softly, taking care not to show her teeth.
After four of the longest seconds Roulette could remember offhand, Dudley began lurching along the branch until his hands nearly touched the point her hand dug into.
"All right," she said. "I'm going to put my arm around you." She waited until he nodded weakly, then slipped her arm around his back. "Now let go."
"I've got you." She tried to keep her voice soothing, although her awkward position had begun to hurt. She tightened her grip on him, pulling him as close as she could.
Dudley squeezed his eyes shut and let go. He screamed as he started to fall, and kept screaming even as she pulled him tightly against him. It took another second for him to stop and look up at her face with wide, teary eyes.
"Wrap your arms behind my neck, and hang on tightly," she said. "I need both hands free to climb down."
He did as commanded, squirming as he found his face pressed against her furred neck, then curling in so tightly she found it tough to breathe.
She brought both hands back up to the tree's trunk and, now carefully and slowly, clambered down. The boy held still until they were a few feet above the grass. Then he squealed and twisted around between Roulette and the tree, pushing off from her to scramble the rest of the way down and run toward his mother. Unbalanced by the shove, she lost her grip and fell the rest of the way, bouncing hard against the trunk and landing unceremoniously on her rump.
"Dudley, what were you thinking?" the mother snapped, hugging the boy fiercely.
"I'm sorry," he shrieked, starting to cry again.
Roulette twisted around, rubbing at her tail. She hoped it wasn't sprained. Gingerly, she got to her feet.
It wasn't until she was standing that the mother looked over at her. "You're all right?" she said, more guarded than solicitous.
"Nothing hurt but a little pride, I think."
"Thank you kindly. That was very...it was unexpected."
"I'm sure anyone would have done it." She swished her tail once slowly to see if it hurt. Only a little. Her right leg stung, though.
"Not anyone would have been able to." The woman's tone remained stiff.
Roulette smiled. "We're good climbers." She looked at her right leg and suppressed a grimace. She could feel the scratch more than see it and it wasn't deep, but whatever she'd caught on had ripped a long, jagged tear across her skirt. She couldn't quite suppress a sigh. She'd known it would get dirty scaling the tree, but the outfit that made her prettier five minutes ago now made her look like a vagrant.
"Yes, I see," the woman said, nodding as if this were a sage observation. "Say thank you to the raccoon woman, Dudley."
"Thank you," Dudley mumbled, staring at the ground rather than Roulette.
"You're welcome, Dudley," she replied, smoothing her skirt down as best she could.
An awkward silence settled. Roulette wondered if the woman would say anything about her dress--if she would offer to repair it, or pay for it, or even just offer a damp cloth. Maybe the woman was waiting for something from her.
At length Roulette just smiled again, took her knapsack, and headed back down the sidewalk. She heard the woman leading Dudley back into the house, but didn't turn around.
The street lamps had flickered to life, the pale yellow cast marking them as gas-powered rather than the electrical fixtures she'd heard Raneadhros had, or the glowstone lamps back in Orinthe. Public magic, she'd quickly learned, wasn't common in Achoren, another strange cultural quirk. It didn't stop magic from being used in small, less obvious ways; it was easy to find iceboxes chilled by enchantment rather than actual ice, and she knew a half-dozen offices for sending messages by spell instead of physical courier. But she rarely saw people carrying glowstone lanterns, or shops selling shirts toughened by enchantment into simple armor.
As she crossed Red Oak Avenue, the tenor of the neighborhood visibly shifted. Trees no longer lined the streets and the houses became smaller, more weathered, closer together. Most still had front porches, but little in the way of yards, and the ornate wrought iron fences of the last block became forbidding bars across windows and doors. The air had--at least to a Procya--an acrid, sour tang from rubbish left a little too long uncollected, skin and fur left a little too long unbathed. It smelled no worse than any raucous Orinthe market between dusk closing and cleanup, but the scents were a constant presence here, and lacked the familiarity of home.
Even so, she'd been through worse areas not only elsewhere in this city but in her hometown--the hole she'd lived in during her brief, better-forgotten flirtation with trade school made her current accommodations look like the mansions of her daydreams. And, with a far more diverse mix of races here, merchants and landlords in this neighborhood were more comfortable with her. Most of the downtown shopkeepers were polite and she'd gotten friendly with some, but even the most polite seemed to keep their eyes on her a little more than on their other customers. As much as she'd like to think it was her captivating beauty, she wasn't that naive.
It took three more blocks before she reached the boarding house she now called home. There were no street lamps at all in this neighborhood; humans, were they abroad at night here, carried lanterns with them. But few came here even in daylight. While the old brick building had the now-ubiquitous bars on its windows, it was well-kept and a fire nearly always burned in the great room's hearth.
After a wave to the boarding house's matron, an elderly wolf she rarely saw out except at meal times, Roulette climbed the stairs and traipsed down the hall to her own room. Once inside, she dropped her knapsack at the foot of the bed, re-locked the door and promptly stripped out of her clothes, spreading the stained skirt out on the bed. As she'd feared, the damage was unrepairable, the fabric torn across its weave. Even if she could get the sap out--which she doubted--it would never look beautiful again.
Sighing, she emptied her coin purse next to the skirt, quickly counting coins into piles. Eighty-nine vars for the day total. While she'd done better, that was still good.
Leaving out three ten-pieces, she commenced her nightly ritual: slide a small trunk out from under the bed. Unlock the trunk. Unlock the strongbox inside. Put the money in the box. Lock the box. Put it in the trunk. Lock the trunk. Slide the trunk back under the bed. She converted her coins into bills weekly, but had given up on getting a bank account here in Achoren. They seemed to make it extraordinarily difficult if you weren't a citizen. She'd get one when she moved to Raneadhros.
Thirty vars was a lot for dinner out. She wouldn't spend it all, but maybe she'd spend more than usual--she needed it after the evening. Then she frowned. Maybe she should spend less than usual, and save up for that dress: with this one ruined, she only had two good ones left.
She could get the dress now, but it would mean digging deep into her savings.
Unless she had a sudden windfall.
She grimaced. "You're not really thinking of going after him tonight," she said aloud.
Even as she spoke, she ran her fingers over the hole in the skirt, and sighed.
A raccoon street performer finds herself drawn into a dangerous plot after a private dance turns into a terrifying encounter. In the opening chapter, we meet Roulette and learn about her life in Achoren, a northern country within the empire of Ranea.
The full version of "Indigo Rain" will be released in print for FC2013, with cover and interior artwork by Sabretoothed Ermine. (The icon is from her concept sketch of the cover. The next section will likely feature a clip of the final or near-final version!)