The cobwebs were the first to go; then came the bat droppings and the curled corpses of dead insects and twenty years' worth of accumulated du
The cobwebs were the first to go; then came the bat droppings and the curled corpses of dead insects and twenty years' worth of accumulated dust. That left only the floors to wash, the walls and ceiling to paint, the door to repair, and furnishings to bring in.
And then the third of sixty-three rooms would be ready.
Pausing to lean on his mop, Janus glanced wistfully toward the window. The rooms on this side of the house had the best view, pointing toward an open square: from where Janus stood he could see cool water pouring down from the public fountain. He sighed and brushed away the sweat from his brow, leaving a streak of dirt there. He wished that Michael's mother had chosen to give birth to him during the winter rather than the summer, so that his coming of age would have occurred in that season. That way, Michael could have bought his license for a house of prostitution during a cooler season to do work.
But then, if Janus had been able to remake the world the way he wanted it, there would be no houses of prostitution. He moved closer to the window. At an angle, he could witness the conversation taking place on the porch, though he could not hear the words being spoken.
The boy was seventeen or eighteen, well dressed for this part of the city. He was listening with grave attention to the tall man who was speaking to him. Michael, as always, shone like a new-risen moon. He had worn white for as long as Janus had known him, which provided a startling contrast to his dark hair and complexion. The first time that Janus had seen him, he had decided Michael looked like one of the good graces that people of old thought were messengers from the gods, bringing fortune to those who met them.
It was odd that this image had never left his mind, even after he had learned what Michael was. Frowning, Janus rested his chin on the mop handle, watching the negotiations take place; then, with a lifting of his spirits, he saw the boy shake his head and say something. Michael nodded, apparently in agreement. He spoke briefly, and then he and the boy shook each other's arms in farewell, and Michael disappeared into the house.
A moment later, Michael arrived at his doorway. In one hand he was holding a long, cloth-wrapped package, in the other a glass of water. Gratefully, Janus took the latter from him and drained it before saying, "I saw the boy. You didn't hire him, I trust?"
"Unfortunately, no. He's the best candidate we've had so far – seventeen, so we wouldn't need his parents' permission – but after I explained to him the terms of his contract, he decided he'd try for other types of work."
"Thank the graces!" Janus exploded.
Michael lifted an eyebrow. "He's of journeyman age."
"He's still too young. Michael, I thought that you were only going to take boys who were close to full manhood, ones who were just a little younger than us. . . ."
"Janus, try to be less innocent for once. How many patrons would we get if men walked in here and saw we were stocked only with nineteen- and twenty-year-olds? We'll need a few of the older boys to provide the leaven of experience, but the younger boys are what will attract the patrons."
Janus found he could not speak. It happened this way sometimes: he would go for days thinking of Michael as someone like himself, a civilized, compassionate person. And then a hardness would enter into Michael's voice, and in an instant he would become everything that Janus's parents had warned him against: an enemy stranger, a corrupt, vulgar person whom all of civilized society ought to shun.
Michael was kneeling now on the portion of the floor that had been cleaned, examining the contents of his package in such a way that Janus could not see the objects. Janus forced himself to ask, "What is that?"
Michael said, without looking up, "Necessary expenditures. Expensive ones, alas, but I can't afford to acquire shoddy equipment."
"Let me see." Janus knelt down beside him and pulled the cloth back.
He could not recognize most of the items before him, which he instinctively knew was a bad sign. He finally let his hand fall on an item he recognized – a hunting crop – and held it up toward the light. It was stiff, in the manner of whips used by carriage-drivers; the leather upon it was soft.
Michael took the crop from his hand, rose to his feet, and swished the whip through the air for a moment before bringing it down, hard and accurate, upon a cockroach crawling up the wall. The crushed victim fell lifeless from the wall. Satisfied, Michael sat down cross-legged and began to clean the remains of the insect off the crop with the cloth.
Looking over at him, Janus said, "You almost make me believe the story about you."
"The famous one."
"Oh, that one. Yes, it's true." There was no change in Michael's expression. He continued to wipe the crop clean, like a craftsman polishing his work.
Janus felt his stomach tighten. Once, early in their acquaintance, he had asked Michael tentatively what his work was like. Michael had responded in a flat voice, "I'm the one who controls what happens," and had left the matter at that, much to Janus's relief.
It was better not to know; Janus had instinctively realized that. Why was he committing such folly as to question Michael now? Yet even as he thought this, he heard himself say, "I don't understand how you could do that. To tie someone up . . . to hurt him . . ."
"They liked it."
Janus heard the change to plural and winced. "How can you be sure of that? Just because their bodies reacted . . ."
Michael sighed, placing the crop back with the other equipment. "Janus, a whore has a very great advantage over any other person in the world. Let us say you're a married man and you ask your wife whether she enjoyed her time in bed with you. If she says yes, you have no way of knowing whether she is telling the truth."
"So how does a prostitute know what the truth is?" Janus asked in a tight voice.
"By a simple test. He waits to see whether the man he has just beaten comes back and pays money to be beaten again." Michael rose to his feet and gestured to Janus, saying, "The furniture was delivered while you were in the servants' wing, clearing the kitchen. Come see what it looks like."
Janus could not help but notice that Michael had picked up the crop again, seemingly without conscious thought.
Michael laid down his riding crop and sat on the fountain edge, stretching out his long legs and saying, "Nobody warned me that scolding was s
Michael laid down his riding crop and sat on the fountain edge, stretching out his long legs and saying, "Nobody warned me that scolding was so great a part of whoremastering."
"It's part of being a teacher," replied Janus.
"You would know. Speaking of which, what is this?" Michael plucked a piece of paper out of his pocket and held it up for inspection. The gold seal upon it glittered in the late afternoon light.
Janus pulled himself upright, staring with disbelief at the paper. "Michael, have you been searching my room?"
"I've been searching all the rooms, to be sure we sealed up every mouse-hole. You should have picked a less obvious place to hide this than under your bed."
Michael glanced at the letter. "'Royal tutor.' 'By request of His Majesty, at the recommendation of your uncle.' It certainly sounds like something."
"It's a bribe."
"Of course it's a bribe. It's a handsome bribe. Why aren't you taking it?"
Janus sighed, reached over to pull the letter from Michael's hand, and tore the note into pieces. "Why aren't you still selling yourself, Michael? Even at your age, I'd bargain that men like that patron we met earlier this week would gladly pay for your services."
Michael raised his eyebrows. "That's not the same."
"Of course it's the same. My father, having failed through all other methods to break me away from highly unsuitable company, is offering me the biggest bribe he can produce. The letter doesn't actually say, 'If you take this job, you will never see Michael again,' but you know how unlikely it is that His Majesty and my uncle the prime minister would allow the royal tutor to spend his free evenings visiting the proprietor of a house of prostitution." Janus tossed the letter fragments into the fountain, saying, "I know what riches I value most, Michael, and I'm not prepared to give them up for a royal job."