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Exposure

Rami dipped her brush into her jar of nail paint and started painting the nails of her right hand, always the harder ones to paint because she had to use her clumsy left hand for the job. The task would be simpler if she could paint her nails one night and then only have to retouch them on subsequent nights, but Garo would know what she was doing if she ever came home wearing nail paint, and Garo couldn't know about this.

There. Finished. There were a few errant splashes of paint on her fingers, but she could peel those off when they dried. Rami checked her makeup one last time in the tiny, dim hand mirror she'd purchased along with the paint for her face and nails. Her dark eyes shone from under white eyelids, her cheeks glowed with a flush of red, and her lips bloomed full and seductive thanks to the various paints. Around her face—though the mirror was not big enough to capture it—flowed a mass of wavy hair, brushed and teased into a tantalizingly disheveled mess. Aside from being slightly younger, Rami was the image of her mother in all her splendor.

Rami set down the mirror, careful not to let her still-wet nails brush the table. She stood and began twirling and swaying, faster and faster, preparing for the night ahead. She kicked her legs high and then higher, trying to force her body to accept the way she was pushing its limits. This required a different set of skills than stealing and smuggling.

"Ten minutes!" called Seg. "Ready, Rami?"

"As soon as my nails dry," she answered, waving her hands about in hopes that this would dry them faster.

The ten minutes passed in a blur of warm-ups, and, when Seg opened the door to the main hall, Rami's nails were the driest parts of her: she had begun to sweat.

"Gentlemen, I give you . . . the beautiful . . . the alluring . . . Rami!" Seg roared.

Rami twirled out of the door, feeling her knee-length red skirt fan out so that the entirety of her thighs was exposed. She began to dance, shimmying and leaping and twirling and swaying as she had seen her mother do so many times as she'd crouched illicitly in the stairwell after her bedtime. But the dancing was only the beginning. When Seg had said he was giving Rami to the men of the room, he meant it. Rami had no stage, and, though she began at the front of the hall, it was in her interest to traverse it; the more attention she could ensnare, the better. She trailed her blood red fingernails down men's arms, cheeks, and backs; she pressed her painted lips to the napes of their necks, where she knew she could make them feel her presence down to the tips of their toes. And the men made her feel their presence right back, grabbing at her backside and wrists and occasionally her chest. Sometimes they managed to catch her and press kisses onto her lips, and annoyance at this penetrated her nearly extinguished emotions—her lipstick inevitably smeared when the men kissed her.

For an hour each night, Rami danced and tried not to think. After this hour of dancing, she joined Seg behind the bar, and he took her hand and held it up so that everyone in the bar could at least catch a glimpse of Rami's nails. "You've watched her dance! You've seen her beauty! You've felt her touch! Now who wants to take Rami to bed tonight?"

The bidding was always eager, though Rami did not command nearly the price her mother hand. Tonight, every other bid came from a man with a beard who kept his hat drawn over his eyes. He finally won, and Rami was pleased to note that for the first time a night with her had cost two full silvers, rather than one silver and a couple of coppers. Perhaps Seg would let her keep two coppers tonight instead of one.

Rami swaggered over to the bearded man who had bought her services, swinging her hips as much as possible. She stopped at the man's seat with one final, thigh-exposing twirl, pressed herself against him, and whispered, "Follow me." She took his arm and led him up the stairs and into the room that her mother had used when she was with clients, making sure to brush against the man at every possible opportunity. Once in the room, she shut the door, stepped closer to the man, began running her hands down his chest, and—

Found herself being shoved away. Rami had heard about violent clients, but she was new enough not to have experienced one until now. She recalled that some simply thought that a bit of rough-and-tumble added to the experience and that the first blow was a sign to speed up the process. Accordingly, Rami stripped off her shirt, and she was confounded when her action was nearly mirrored by her client, who removed first his hat—and then his beard.

"I cannot believe you," Garo said, throwing his fake beard across the room.

"I can't believe you!"

"Me? We discussed this! You agreed! It's too dangerous, it doesn't pay, it destroys you as a person, and the last thing in all Karatha that we need right now is for you to get pregnant!"

"It's steady work and I'm good at it, and it's not like it's new to me. Besides, why in Trionnen's name should you get a say in my career? I had none in yours."

"At least it pays to be an assassin."

"And you think you can warn me about choosing a job that will destroy me as a person?"

"What if you get pregnant?"

"What if you get killed? You've had some close calls."

"But for the time being, it pays. Well. Does Seg even let you keep the full price?"

The look on Rami's face gave her away.

"Half?"

Rami stared into Garo's eyes as defiantly as she could.

"Oh, Trionnen. You could at least work for yourself. Why did you have to come back here?"

Rami kept staring.

"I know you loved your mother, but I don't want you to be her! I'm glad she had a kid because it was you, but I don't want you to get pregnant like she did. And she was killed by a client! You can't—Rami—"

"Even with what you make, we'll be in trouble once Naeri starts eating like a child rather than a baby. And if something happened to you—I need two jobs."

"You're a great thief, Rami. And you could try to find smuggling jobs Tengan doesn't know about. Or ask Eddik if he'll take on an apprentice. Please, Rami. Anything but this."

"I still don't see why you get a say in my career, when I didn't get a say in yours."

"Rami! Are you really stubborn enough to risk your life and health because you're bitter about a choice I made years ago?"

Rami wanted to scream, "Yes!" but the word "stubborn" made her pause. Her mother had not appreciated stubbornness for its own sake and had identified it as one of Rami's vice quite early in life. Rami felt herself deflate. "No."

Garo relaxed visibly, shoulders slumping and fists unclenching. "Let's go home." He made for the door.

"Do you want Seg to catch us?" Rami demanded, pulling her shirt back on. "Follow me." She hoisted open the window, swung out of it, held on with her fingertips for a moment, and then dropped.

When Garo landed beside her, he gave her a look that mingled surprise with respet.

"I wouldn't take clients in a room I couldn't jump out of. Don't look so surprised. You know me better than that."

Garo smiled weakly, took her hand, and pulled her out of Tailor's Lane. "Yeah. I suppose I do."



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