The Whore of New Slum

an excerpt

Chapter 1

If the sun shone in the sky, no one who lived in New Slum ever knew. Black smoke filled the air and blocked out any chance of light. At night, the only sources of illumination were the coal lanterns hanging from poles on the corners and the different steam lights in the saloons, pubs, and brothels that populated New Slum. The only chance any of the inhabitants of the poorest borough in New Britain had to see real sunlight was to sneak into one of the other four boroughs of the city, or simply glimpse it from afar.

Wendall strolled along what passed as a sidewalk in the Slum. He contemplated the dark sky for a moment before looking over to where weak early morning sunlight shone down on New Upper, the richest borough in New Britain, and the only one that could afford to buy a high level spell to ward off the cloud of coal smoke rising from the factories and mines. Well, New Island didn't have smoke over it either, but since it was a military base and the air had to be clear for the airships, it didn't count.

He coughed into his handkerchief, hating how heavy his chest felt. Christ! He'd thought working as a whore would be easier on his health than heading into the coalmines like his father, but apparently coal soot was bad for his lungs no matter where he breathed it in.

"Good morning, Master Wendall."

Wendall glanced to his left, where a teenaged boy sat on the front steps of a pub. He paused in front of him. "Good morning, Jebediah. Are you waiting for Miller to open up?"

"Yes, sir. He pays me a few coins to sweep the floor and clean up before he opens to customers." Jebediah grimaced. "I don't really like it, but can't turn down a job."

He rested his hand on the boy's shoulder for a moment. "It's better than the mines or being a soldier, my young friend. You're more likely to live long enough to get old, if you're only sweeping floors."

Jebediah nodded before gesturing to the flowers in Wendall's other hand. "Off to see Miss Molly?"

"It's Monday, isn't it?" Wendall winked at the teenager, though there wasn't any joy in his heart at the thought of visiting his sister.

Jebediah smiled as he stood, and the expression in his eyes showed he understood how Wendall really felt. Most of the people who called New Slum home dealt with the same situation Wendall found himself in. Overwhelming poverty allowed disease to run rampant throughout the Slum, and dozens of people died every day because of it.

"I have to get going. Want to get there before visiting hours are over." Wendall pulled a coin from his pocket before slipping into Jebediah's hand. "If you and your sisters need anything, you know where to find me."

"Yes, sir." Jebediah nodded.

Wendall continued his stroll, heading toward a large building on the next block. The Merciful Sisters of Hope Hospital was one of the bigger buildings in the borough. He hated the dark structure with its oppressive, soul-draining atmosphere. There was nothing happy or hopeful about the place, and it didn't matter how hard the sisters tried to make it less depressing.

After shoving open the door, Wendall walked through the foyer to the reception desk. The pale nun sitting behind the plain oak table smiled at him.

"Master Wendall, I was wondering if you were going to make it today."

He bowed slightly and grimaced behind the cascade of hair pouring over his shoulder to almost touch the floor. He hated his hair because it was hard to keep neat and washing it was a bitch. Yet the smog and dirt coating everything made it impossible for him to go more than a day without cleansing his hair. If he'd had a choice, he'd cut it, but it turned out the men who bought his services liked his long hair. Maybe for most of them, it gave the illusion of fucking a woman and they didn't have to admit they were really using whatever hole they could find.

Wendall didn't begrudge the men who used him for some sort of companionship. Being poor didn't give a person a lot of options, and sometimes sex was a way of connecting with a human when you'd otherwise be all alone. As much as Wendall didn't always like his job, there were times when having someone fuck him was the closest he got to being loved, if even for a moment.

The sharply in-drawn breath of the nun and the light pink color of her cheeks told him that not even women were immune to his looks. Also, not even a woman of God was safe from attraction.

"Ah, you know better than to doubt me, Sister Anna Marie. I would never disappoint Molly like that. May I go up to her?"

"Certainly, sir."

Molly's room was on the third floor, where all of the terminal cases were kept, so Wendall headed for the stairs. The hospital did have elevators, but they were old and unreliable. Also, the men who stoked the fires to create the steam to move them were mostly drunks or elderly. It was hard to know if they were sober or if they wouldn't wander off, leaving Wendall stuck in one of the cars.

The thought of coal caused Wendall to pause and turn back to the sister. "Did the hospital receive your weekly delivery of coal yet?"

She frowned. "I'd have to check with Mother Superior."

"Do that, please, and send a note to Molly's room," he ordered her in a gentle tone.

"Yes, sir."

It might have seemed odd to a person unfamiliar with Wendall or the way things worked in New Slum that a nun would take orders from a man like him. He reached up to trace the faint flower brand on his right cheek, marking him a whore--or sex peddler, which was the politically correct term for his profession. Whores weren't supposed to leave New Slum, being confined to the poorest place in New Britain, or at least that's what the authorities tried to enforce.

Having lived in New Slum all of his life, Wendall had chosen to be a whore because he stood a better chance of living to see his thirtieth birthday working on his back, or his knees, as it were.

Yet he'd discovered being a sex peddler had more advantages than a longer life. His willingness to let other men fuck him for money gave him access to powerful men who could get things done. Like making sure the only hospital in New Slum had enough coal to keep the lights and other machines running.

As he climbed the stairs, he mentally organized the rest of his day. After visiting Molly, he had to place some orders at some shops for The Pink Carnation, the brothel he worked at. He didn't have to be ready for turning tricks until ten that night. Wendall rarely worked daytime hours anymore.

Nighttime customers spent more money on whores, gambling, and liquor, and The Pink Carnation was one of the more respectable establishments in the borough, or as respectable as a brothel can be. Wendall had several repeat customers who he found useful in other ways and he wasn't afraid of using their connections for his own means.

As he reached the second floor landing, he heard shouting from down the hall. Usually, he'd ignore the arguing and make his way up to Molly's room, but he found a reluctance to continue on today. More than likely, it was because he knew Molly's time was growing near and he hated watching his sister waste away.

So he wandered in the direction of the yelling, curious as to what--or who--was causing all the trouble. He approached the room, and someone burst out of it, running into him.

He grunted and stumbled back, arms flailing as he tried to keep his balance and not end up on his ass. Two hands came into his view, gripping his wrists long enough for him to get back on his feet. Wendall blinked, not sure he'd seen what he thought he had. One of the hands had been normal, well formed, with thick fingers and scars marring the darkly tanned skin. The other hand had looked like it was made out of metal: bright, shiny silver skin with steel joints.

Wendall's gaze shot up to look at the person standing in front of him. By his height and the breadth of his shoulders, Wendall deduced the stranger was male, but he couldn't tell anything else about him. The bottom half of the man's face was covered by a leather mask, and a high-collared shirt and long leather pants hid everything else.

"Sorry. I didn't see you there."

Wendall thanked his experience in hiding his emotions when he heard the stranger's voice. It sounded like he'd gargled with broken glass and tore his vocal cords apart to the point there was almost nothing left of them. Wendall kept his face bland, hoping he showed only a mild hint of curiosity.

"It's all right. I wasn't paying attention and stopped at the wrong floor. Have too many things running around in my head at the moment." Wendall flashed his best customer smile and bowed a little. "Thank you for saving me from embarrassing myself."

The stranger stepped back, holding his left hand behind his back, obviously forgetting Wendall had already seen it. He dipped his head, turning so that the left side was hidden from Wendall. Scars crisscrossed the man's face, and a deep furrow had formed between the man's eyebrows, making Wendall believe he was in pain.

"You're welcome."

"Abdur, get back in here. I still need to make some adjustments and make sure you're strong enough for the procedure."

A doctor rushed through the door, skidding to a stop the moment his eyes landed on Wendall. His eyes went right to the brand on Wendall's face, and Wendall braced himself for the scornful expression the doctor was sure to be sporting soon. A lot of people looked down on Wendall and his kind for the services they provided, yet if they didn't do it, there would be a lot of unhappy people doing terrible things to each other. Most people didn't see that and thought they were superior to Wendall.

"What are you doing here?" The doctor sneered.

"I got off on the wrong floor, doctor. I was just leaving." Wendall nodded at the masked man before whirling around and striding back to the stairs.

"You're an ass, Rogerton," was the last thing Wendall heard as he hit the landing and headed up to Molly's floor.

He dashed up the final flight of stairs and made his way to Molly's room. After knocking, he pushed the door open and glanced around the edge to make sure she was by herself. His sister might be dying, but she was still very much a social butterfly and there were several days he'd shown up to find her room packed with friends.

"Come in, Wen. There's no one here at the moment."

Blinking the sudden tears away, Wendall stepped into the room before shutting the door behind him. He turned and caught his breath.

"I must not be looking particularly fetching today if you react that way," Molly joked as he approached her bed.

"You always look marvelous, love." He removed the dead flowers from the vase next to her bed and, after throwing them away, replaced them with the new ones. He leaned over to brush a kiss against her cheek.

Her laugh was breathless and faint. "You've always been such a good liar, brother mine. Come and sit. Tell me all about what's going on in the world outside this depressing place."

Wendall sat, took Molly's hand in his, and began to recount what had happened since he last saw her. He ignored the way the disease had ravaged her beautiful face. It was times like this when he hated the world around him. It made him wish they were rich, so he could hire a magic user to cure her, but that wasn't possible in New Slum.

Nothing was possible in New Slum any more, not even if Wendall had the money. He was trapped by the very job that gave him a chance to survive. He couldn't remove the brand on his cheek, and no one in any of the other boroughs would give him a chance to be anything other than a whore.

"Why are you frowning like that?" Molly's question brought him out of his own dark thoughts.

He smiled and shook his head. "Just tired. Had a rather busy night and got up early today."

"You know, you don't have to come and visit me every week. I would understand if you missed a week now and then."

Wendall loved his sister because he knew she meant what she said, but he couldn't risk missing a day with her, and her dying on him. He made the decision to start visiting her daily. Death sat quietly on her shoulder, whispering in her ear about the joys of what waited on the other side. Wendall couldn't compete with that, and to be honest, he didn't want to keep her any longer.

She'd suffered enough in her young life. He'd done all he could to keep her from being a whore or a serving wench at one of the pubs, but Molly had other plans. She'd gotten swept off her feet by a soldier and moved with him to New Island. Unfortunately, she'd discovered the stench of New Slum would never leave her.

Molly was sick by the time Wendall had retrieved her from the soldiers, and there was no way he could save her. She was so far gone, he doubted even a magic user could find the right spell to save her life, but that didn't mean he wouldn't have tried if he could afford one.

"I'm not going to leave you here on your own, or with your horde of adoring followers. You're my sister, and we're the only family we've got. I'm going to start coming every day."

She shook her head. "No, Wen. You work so late. I don't want you to miss out on your sleep because of me. I'll be all right. It's not like I'm completely alone here."

"I know, love, but I can always go back and sleep for a little while before I have to be ready for work. I don't share my room with any of the other whores at the Carnation, so I won't be bothered."

The employees of the brothel who would come and ask him stupid questions would bother him, but he would put up with it, if it meant spending more time with Molly. He didn't want to discuss it anymore, so he smiled at her.

"What kind of gossip have you heard from all the nurses? For a religious hospital, there certainly are a lot of wagging tongues around here."

Wendall moved to sit next to Molly on the bed, wrapping his arm around her shoulder, and letting her rest her head on his chest.

"Sister Theresa Lynne said there's a very secret patient on the second floor. No one, except the doctors and Mother Superior, has seen him. She said he has his own private nurses. None of the nuns are allowed to enter his room or anything like that." Molly pursed her lips. "Who do you suppose it is?"

Wendall had a feeling he'd run into the secret patient on his way up to Molly's room, but he didn't say anything. Something told him the stranger wouldn't like being talked about, yet he had to respond to Molly.

"Maybe he's a soldier or someone important to the military."

She nodded. "Could be, or maybe he's a French spy, and the government is keeping him here because it's easier to hide someone in New Slum."

"No one asks questions here," he admitted.

Curiosity was beaten out of anyone who lived in the borough. Asking questions could get someone killed, either by being thrown in the river or tossed to the bottom of one of the coalmines. Turning a blind eye to the things going on around them allowed the inhabitants to survive.

"Maybe The Whore knows who he is," Molly whispered.

Wendall chuckled. "Now, Molly, you know The Whore is just a legend. He's a myth for us poor sods to believe and hope in. There's some avenging angel out there looking out for us. I don't believe he exists. We're stuck in this shitty world on our own, and we can only take care of ourselves."

She slapped his chest weakly. "You're such a cynic. Don't you secretly hope some man will come striding into the Carnation and sweep you off your feet? You could get out of this god-forsaken borough and go up to New France or out to New Spain."

"Honey, I love the fact you still believe there's someone out there who could love a whore like me, but I know better. No man wants used goods."

"But unless you're a virgin, everyone is used goods," Molly pointed out.

She was right about that, but it didn't change Wendall's mind. He knew better than to think any man would want to spend the rest of his life loving a whore who'd sold himself to anyone with money. It wouldn't matter that he did it to survive and support his family. All any man would think of was all the other men he'd serviced and allowed to fuck him.

"Hell, none of the nuns in this hospital are virgins, Wen, but if God can overlook their transgressions, I'm sure a simple man would be able to look beyond your job." Her voice was soft and he had to strain to hear it.

Her strength was fading faster now, and he knew soon she wouldn't be awake when he came to visit. At some point in the next month, he would be burying his sister and he would be alone in the world. Their mother died while giving birth to Molly, and their father died in the mines ten years ago, which was why Wendall went into the sex business.

A hissing chime rang out, and he stood before walking across the room to where the dumb waiter was. He slid the door open and removed the paper. Wendall read it and frowned.

"What's wrong?" Molly studied him.

"Nothing. I'll deal with it later." He tucked the note in his pocket before smiling at her.

He re-joined her on the bed, and they started talking about other things.