Blood and Steam

by CircleTime

“You’re certain he’ll be there?” 

The three of them had gathered around the table, upon which a map of the entire city of Palnaram had been spread across. The little rickety thing was too small for the massive roll of parchment to fully rest upon, and as a result, half of the industrial district and most of the harbour district dangled over the edge, while the mouth of the Arrel spilled out across the wooden floor as though the mighty river were flooding its banks. A weighty candlestick held the whole thing in place, covering up much of the city’s northwestern wall in the process. At the exact centre of the table was the leisure district, its narrow streets winding between numerous buildings of all shapes and sizes. But this trio of highly determined individuals was focused on just one building in particular – smack dab in the middle of the district, at the intersection of the Baron’s Way and Wave Street. Even on a map of the whole city, the building was distinguishable by the symbol of a red-and-white ember emblazoned upon it; this was the Smouldering Phoenix, the city’s oldest and largest bathhouse.

The one who had asked the question was a towering woman with a mane of red hair, and a physique that rippled beneath her clothes when she folded a scarred pair of arms across her broad chest. She was studying the map warily, but the glint in her eyes spoke of the burgeoning excitement within her. 

“Absolutely,” another person replied – this one a slightly younger man with a headful of soft, brown hair, clad in loose clothes that nonetheless hugged his round figure. “I know you have your doubts, Kora, but the guild are proud of their honoured guest’s regular visits. Lord Paust will be attending the baths next Riverday, as is his custom. It’s all the guild have been talking about for the past week.” 

The man’s voice took on a bitter note as he added the final comment. His eyes were locked on the squarish shape of the bathhouse on the map as he tapped it determinedly with one finger. 

“He’ll be there. That, I can promise. The bootlickers in the Scented Embers will wait on him hand and foot, and eagerly look the other way while he uses and abuses any who come too close, and siphons the life from this beautiful city. But not all of the Embers tolerate this insult to our guild’s memory. There’s a change coming, like the tides rolling out to sea, exposing all the rot and decay that was thought washed away.” 

“And that’s where we come in,” the third person said, their eyes hard as diamonds embedded in their heart-shaped face. 

The woman named Kora smirked. “You mean, that’s where I come in. After all, I’m the only one here who can bring a weapon into the bathhouse.”

Her tone was matter-of-fact – this was, after all, the reason why these two members of the Scented Embers had brought her into their little conspiracy. As a veteran soldier, Kora was permitted to carry a weapon with her at all times. However, that was a privilege that could very easily be taken away. Such as by attempting to assassinate one of the lords of the city’s districts.

But the man with brown hair surprised Kora by shaking his head. “I’m afraid it’s not that simple. Paust brings a contingent of guards loyal to him everywhere he goes – especially after more of the guilds have started agitating in the streets.”

Protests against the excesses of the city’s aristocracy had flared up over the past few weeks and months. The city guard had responded in their typical manner, suppressing the protests by any means necessary, and then claiming the ‘excessive violence on the streets’ was all the more reason for their regular patrols.

The third person spoke up again: “This trip to the Smouldering Phoenix is Paust’s way of flaunting how untouchable he is, even among an old guild like the Embers, who rose up against the aristocracy all those years ago. We intend to show him – and every other noble in Palnaram, by extension – just how wrong he is.”

“That’s why Zan and I need you to smuggle the weapon in,” the brown-haired man said. 

“Just ‘smuggle’?” Kora quirked an eyebrow at them both. “I thought I was the one going to be doing all the dirty work?”

“You won’t be allowed anywhere near Paust,” Zan explained. “Not with those guards around, and certainly not with a weapon. The plan requires two people, in addition to myself and Dorin – one to smuggle the weapon into the bathhouse, and the other to kill the target with it.”

“Hmm.” Kora shrugged her shoulders. “Well, less work for me, I suppose.” 

At that moment, there was a creak from the ceiling, and all three of them froze, scarcely daring to breathe. A few seconds ticked by, before a shadow flickered over them as somebody passed over the floorboards above their heads, and there was the muffled-but-familiar sound of the shopkeeper upstairs addressing a customer.

As the group relaxed, Kora went on, “So, who’s the fourth member of this outfit you’re running?”

Zan’s mouth shifted into a hard line. “We don’t have one. Not yet, at least.”

“Not much of a plan, then, is it?” Kora scoffed. “Carrying out an assassination without an assassin.”

It was difficult to tell in the half-light that crept in from the room above, but Zan might have flushed. “We hadn’t quite progressed to that stage of planning when we brought you onboard,” they said, a note of protest in their voice. “We still aren’t certain who in the Embers we can trust. Too many of them are loyal to the regime, rather than to the principles the guild was founded on.”

“Still seems like finding somebody to actually do the killing should’ve been step one,” she shot back.

“I might know somebody,” Dorin said.

Even Zan looked surprised. “You do?”

“I said ‘I might’. We need someone who can sneak past the guards, kill Paust, and get away unnoticed. Like a thief in the night.”

“Plus they’d have to be someone who hates Paust enough to try and kill him,” Kora said. “Since neither of you seem like you have the coin to hire a professional. I know I don’t.”

Dorin nodded slowly, a quiet smile turning the corners of his mouth upwards. “Then, yes – I have someone in mind.”

 

***

 

The evening sun bathed the city of Palnaram with its rich, golden light as the people left their factories, shops, and other various places of work in droves, streaming through the city streets like a flood of bodies. Some made for their homes, exhausted as they were by yet another working day. Others more unfortunate trudged to the place of their second jobs, desperate to scrape together enough money to eke out a meagre living in what was supposedly the richest city west of the Sapphire Sea. But most of Palnaram’s citizens made for the leisure district, eager to make the most of the scant few hours of the day they were able to spend free of labour. 

It was here that the great city’s wealthy aristocracy, impoverished workers, artisans, and merchants alike all came together to enjoy themselves (or each other). Theatres, restaurants, pubs, gambling dens, and brothels were just a few examples of what Palnaram’s liveliest district had to offer. But, at this particular time of day, what many of the city’s workers needed most was a way to wash themselves clean of their sweat and the factories’ fumes, or to receive a thorough massage to loosen their aching muscles, or to share a brief moment of tender bliss in a warm, shadowy corner with a friend, or two. For those reasons, they made their way to the Smouldering Phoenix. 

The pillars of sandstone that adorned the entrance, coupled with the sign etched in marble above the two great doors, made for a sight as emblematic of Palnaram as the view of the harbour from the Founders’ Dais. The building itself dwarfed every other in the vicinity, forming the very core of the city’s beating heart. The walls seemed to catch the glow of the setting sun like a mirror, radiating light and warmth out through the district. Steam billowed from the countless windows, and if one were to happen to pass by the great building, one might occasionally hear a hushed sigh of contentment from one of the baths’ patrons. And each of the outer walls was marked with the symbol of a glowing red-and-white ember – the symbol of the guild that owned and ran the bathhouse. 

The Scented Embers had a long and proud history of attending to the needs of any who stepped into their bathhouses. It was said that they were one of the very first guilds to form and organise together outside of the industrial district, and they had done so from the steaming halls of the Smouldering Phoenix. Of course, times had changed greatly from the guild’s heated early days, and the Scented Embers had grown more and more conservative as over a century had ticked by. Thus, they were more than happy to kowtow to the aristocracy they had once fought against by accommodating the lord of the district and gifting him with his own, private baths within the establishment. 

It was for that reason that Adé found himself at the bathhouse’s entrance on that warm Riverday evening, climbing the ramp that led to the front door with twitchy fingers and a stomach full of knots. He took a deep, calming breath in an effort to steel himself, and inhaled only the aroma of scented oils and steam. Adé had been a thief for almost as long as he’d been able to walk. Two decades of slipping through shadows, and dancing away from the grasping clutches of the city guard, and here he was about to knowingly march right into a building chock-full of them. And the prize this time was no mere trinket or pouch of coin that might serve to help keep him fed until next week.

Swallowing down his nerves, Adé stepped through the doors, which had been flung open in an attempt to keep the bathhouse atrium cool. But already he could feel sweat beginning to bead on the back of his neck, and not just because of the anxious feeling that gripped his gut. Outside, the setting sun had been scorching. In here, however, Adé had to contend not just with the heat, but the humidity, as steam seeped out from the corridors leading to the various baths and saunas. It drifted into the atrium like mist, before rising and rising, passing through a large circular hole in the ceiling through which the pale blue sky could be seen, and out into the open air. There was a fountain in the centre of the floor, directly beneath the hole in the ceiling, upon which stood an intricately-carved statue of Vóla – the god of rivers. He held a large pitcher over his head, from which the water poured freely, trickling down his body in rivulets. It was considered sacrilege to depict Vóla in any other way other than entirely nude, and this fountain that greeted the Smouldering Phoenix’s patrons upon entering the building was no different. The sight of the water running over the god’s stony, muscled flesh was so captivating that Adé almost jumped when a voice called out from behind him. 

“Hello? Excuse me?” 

He turned to see a young person with black hair and pale skin, dressed in the red-and-white robe of the Scented Embers smiling politely at him. His eyes took in the shape of the seven-tailed bird adorning the side of their neck. Many members of the Scented Embers who worked in this particular bathhouse tended to wear very little clothing (or often none at all). Thus, even when out of their robes, they were easily identified by the phoenix symbol they were each required to have tattooed onto their bodies – usually somewhere on their neck, shoulders, arms, or chest. Of course, Adé would have recognised this particular individual even without noticing the tattoo. 

“My name is Zan,” they said. “Might I be able to help you?”

The robes were a far cry from the plain black clothing Zan had worn during the previous times they had met Adé – huddling around a table in a room underneath a flower shop, of all places. That was when and where Adé had been drawn into the plot.

“Yes,” Adé said, before clearing his throat. “I was hoping to visit the secluded baths?” 

Zan nodded. “Of course. The fee for an hour is one gold coin.” 

Adé fished around in his coin pouch and withdrew two gold coins, which he handed to them.

“Excellent! The Smouldering Phoenix is delighted to receive your patronage. Will you be making use of one of the private rooms?” 

Zan, naturally enough, already knew the answer Adé would give. The entire conversation had been planned out in that stuffy basement several evenings ago. But, for the sake of keeping up appearances, Adé had to pretend to be an ordinary customer of the baths.

“I will,” Adé said.

“One of our attendants will have a room prepared for you. If you’d like to follow me…?” 

Zan led Adé off to the left, leaving the atrium behind as they passed down a narrow corridor. The sounds of conversation, splashing water, and merriment that had echoed out from the public baths gradually faded away, until naught was left to be heard save for the sounds of their footsteps.

Adé noticed Zan casting a too-casual glance up and down the length of the corridor, before stepping in slightly closer to Adé and muttering, “Everything is in place. You’ll find Kora at the far end of the main hall in the secluded baths. Make the handover as furtively as possible, then make your way towards Dorin’s location. He’ll be in–”

“The second room in the middle corridor on the left-hand side,” Adé finished for them, casting them a sideways glance.

“Right, yes, of course you remember the plan.” Zan nodded reassuringly to themself. “Of course.”

It wasn’t as though Adé wasn’t filled with nervous anticipation himself, but next to Zan, he felt cool as a cucumber by comparison. Evidently, the business-like facade Zan had presented during the meeting had cracked under the pressure of the job.

“I’m sorry,” Zan muttered after a few moments of uncomfortable silence. “I’m usually very organised. But I’ve never, well, organised an…anything like this, before.”

“So what made you decide to do it?” Adé asked, and out of the corner of his eye, he saw Zan’s jaw clench.

“Somebody has to take a stand. For justice. For liberty. For the principles this guild – and all of the others – were founded on.” A pause. “And, on a more personal level, I just can’t stand having that bastard waltz in here twice a month with his own private army to rub in our faces how untouchable he is. The things I’ve heard from the attendants who he spends time with…” They swallowed. “He doesn’t respect us. The guilds and the common people of this city are all playthings to him. Surely you understand?”

Even without looking directly at Zan, Adé recognised their expression, and the note in their soft voice. It was a cold, hard anger that Adé knew well. 

“If I didn’t,” Adé replied, “I wouldn’t be here.”

They came to a stop outside a wooden door, through which voices could be heard.

“You’ll find the changing room just inside,” Zan informed him, fixing their most professional smile back onto their face as they raised their voice above a whisper once again. “Choose any of the lockers available, and we encourage you to avail of the soap and towel you’ll find within. Please note that you must make use of the showering facilities before and after bathing.”

“Of course,” Adé said, mirroring Zan’s expression. “Thank you for your assistance.”

“It was my pleasure,” they responded with a courteous nod. “The secluded baths are just beyond the changing room. Thank you, and enjoy your stay at the Smouldering Phoenix!”

 

***

 

There were two sets of showers at the far end of the changing room – one side filled with hot water, the other with cold water. Adé chose one on the cold side, hoping that the bracing stream of water would sharpen his focus and keep him alert. His brief discussion with Zan had stoked the fire inside his chest, warming the cool anger that lurked inside him day in and day out. It was the same anger he had felt every day since his mother had been butchered in the street simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Said ‘wrong place’ had been a few scant metres away from her front doorstep, where a young Adé had watched and wept. It wasn’t until Dorin had approached him just last week that that anger had been reignited, and now Adé knew there was a danger it could consume him utterly.

Adé grit his teeth and turned the dial on the wall further to the left, tensing as the stream blasting onto his bare skin intensified, forcibly pushing all thoughts of vengeance and indignation aside. Anger was useful to him – but only to a certain extent. He hadn’t come here for the sake of a grudge or vendetta, and letting his rage get to him was a surefire way of making a costly mistake. Instead, he concentrated on the thought of making sure that everyone had a roof over their head, and food on their plate. The thought of the guilds functioning as their founders had intended – as a way for the workers of Palnaram to manage themselves and meet their own needs. The thought of making sure that nobody would suffer as he and so many others had done under the bloodied boot of the aristocracy and their pets in the city guard. Those were the ideas that he and Dorin had talked about, that sweltering night on the inn rooftop. 

I need you, Adé,” Dorin had said, and Adé had tried not to think about how warm those words had made him. “We all need you.

Once he was satisfied he had washed away all the sweat and surface-level grime, Adé stepped out of the shower, shaking a few drops loose from his short, curly hair as he wrapped his towel around his waist. Very few people in Palnarami bathhouses ever so much as attempted to cover up their chests, and Adé wasn’t one of them. His breasts were far from large, but certainly bigger than he found convenient. He’d considered binding them for this job, knowing it would help with what was to come later, but had ultimately decided against drawing any unnecessary attention to himself. Stepping out of the showering area, Adé turned to his left and strode down the hallway that led to the secluded baths.

The corridors grew more and more misty as he walked, and the scent of perfumed oils grew stronger and stronger. This section of the bathhouse was exclusively for adults, and had a totally different atmosphere than the one the public baths presented; this was the other side of the Smouldering Phoenix, and not one Adé had ever visited before. Already, he could hear raised voices winding their way down the corridor towards him – warm peals of laughter, delighted gasps, and shouts of ecstasy – all growing louder and louder as he made his way down the hall. Adé felt his face grow hot, and not merely because of the temperature of his surroundings. 

At last, he rounded the corner, where the wall stopped and the hallway opened up to a long chamber with an arched ceiling. Steam billowed upwards to the rafters, wooden beams running like narrow walkways between the great stone pillars that held up the roof. The main bath spread out before Adé, roughly thirty metres in length and ten in width, with almost every single one of those square metres filled with naked bodies. On a day like this, and at this hour of the evening, the secluded baths were packed with crowds who had come to enjoy the carnal delights offered by the Smouldering Phoenix to their paying customers. Everywhere he looked, there was bare flesh – people in twos, threes, or more – their bodies pressed up against one another in fruitful search of pleasure. Others lingered alone, their hands busying themselves beneath the surface as their eyes drank in their surroundings. The humid air was filled with the sounds of splashing water and thrilled cries. Adé took a steadying breath.

Find Kora, he told himself. That’s all I need to do. For now.

Of course, even managing that much would be easier said than done: the bath was filled with people, and spotting even a giant of a woman like Kora would be tricky when there was so much for his eyes to take in. Adé was a professional, but he didn’t lack a libido, and there was too much here on display for him to avoid noticing. Zan had told him that he would find Kora on the far side of the bath, which would likely mean he’d be better off starting his search from the opposite side of the room. However, walking around the bath posed its own challenge: guards were stationed here and there by the walls of the room, undoubtedly thanks to Paust himself. Walking around the bath’s circumference might draw too much attention, especially when most people tended to climb into the main bath once they arrived or make their way over to one of the various private rooms off down the corridors. 

In other words, the safest way to Kora was also the most direct – through the bath itself.

Adé blew a sigh out through his nose, before stepping towards the water and loosening his towel, which he slung around the back of his neck instead. Finding a part of the bath’s edge which was unoccupied proved tricky, but Adé managed to slip into the water beside a young gentleman who was bent over the lip of the bath, the upper half of his body splayed out over the floor while his bottom half remained in the water, being held in place by a somewhat older, bearded man who was taking him enthusiastically from behind. The younger man – what with his eyes screwed shut as he cried out in throes of ecstasy –  paid Adé no notice as he climbed into the bath. The older man, however, turned his head slightly to glance at Adé, eyes roving casually over his naked flesh. When Adé didn’t meet his gaze, however, he quickly turned his attention back to the gentleman he was pounding.

Adé had had a growth spurt around the age of eleven or so which had stretched him out until he was a full head above the other children, at which point any changes in his height had come to an abrupt stop. Most of the other boys had soon caught up, and before long had passed him out entirely, leaving Adé on the shorter side of ‘average’. Once upon a time, he had envied them, as their voices had deepened and their faces had sprouted hair. But Adé’s small, narrow build had proved an advantage more times than he could count – allowing him to, among other things, slip away unnoticed into crowds that taller men might have stood out in. And it helped him again, here and now, as he ducked under outstretched limbs and sidled past writhing bodies while making his way through the bath. 

But passing through a pool full of naked, copulating people presented its own set of problems that no chase through the city streets with guards hot on his heels could have prepared Adé for. The water sloshed against Adé’s waist like choppy brine, waves rippling outwards from where various bodies thrust back and forth, or ground together in bliss. More than once did he stagger as a powerful push of bathwater forced him to take a step back or to the side. And even this far away from the bath’s edge (where most people were concentrated), it was difficult to avoid physical contact with anybody. Accidentally bumping into someone while trying to pass them by was awkward enough when both parties were fully clothed. But, at a time and place such as this, with every brief, accidental touch bringing with it the warm sensation of wet skin-against-skin, it quickly proved very distracting for Adé. 

“Sorry,” Adé muttered hurriedly, after a sidestep around a trio of women made him collide with a man who felt more like a wall than a human being. He was so large and well-built that Adé had briefly thought it might have been Kora he had bumped into, only to look up and spy a large, grinning face he didn’t recognise in the least.

“Don’t worry about it,” the towering man muttered, and Adé felt his hungry eyes following him as he waded away, while trying his best not to think about the firmness of the man’s body as he’d crashed into him.

Several times, some curious hands reached very deliberately out towards Adé, although none ever touched him on purpose; the Scented Embers might have abandoned most of their revolutionary principles over the years, but their rules on consent and body autonomy were strict as ever, and rare was the customer of the bathhouse who dared to break them. Avoiding eye contact was enough discouragement for the majority of people to leave Adé be. However, keeping his eyes from wandering was becoming more and more difficult for Adé to do. 

Adé wasn’t the type to get flustered easily, but these were definitely extraordinary circumstances. He suddenly became very, very aware of how long it had been since he’d last had sex. Hells, he’d been so focused in the lead-up to this operation, it had been some time since he’d even taken care of himself in that respect. Clearly, that had been a mistake, for it was quickly becoming more and more difficult to concentrate on the task at hand while it felt like every part of his body was crying out for stimulation. Each accidental touch made his skin sizzle as though burning with need, and the warm water lapping at his bare flesh only heightened every sensation. Despite his best efforts to keep his mind focused, arousal soon began to blossom to life in the pit of Adé’s gut. He took a steadying breath to clear his head, and instead inhaled the scent of steam, perfumed oils, and the musk of human bodies. 

It was a relief when Adé finally spotted Kora – sitting against the edge of the bath (at the maximal possible distance from where Adé had entered, naturally enough). Adé had only met her once or twice, and had noted her physique with nothing more than a casual observation. But here and now, with both of them naked as newborns, it was impossible to avoid taking in her broad shoulders and arms as they bulged with muscle and sinew. Thin white scars criss-crossed her bronze flesh here and there – the telltale signs of a woman who had been through too many fights to count. Kora’s chest was as bare as Adé’s, although his view of her naked breasts was somewhat obscured by the woman sitting in her lap, her arms flung around Kora’s thick neck, their faces inches apart. Kora gritted her teeth in an expression that was half-smile and half-grimace, the muscles in her right arm rippling as she buried her hand between the legs of the other woman. 

As Adé slowly approached the pair, Kora’s other hand (which had been gripping the younger woman’s hip) lifted as though to greet him. Three of her fingers were tucked against her thumb while her index finger stood upright – wait. Adé grumbled under his breath as he was made to linger awkwardly some distance away from them both, shuffling anxiously from one foot to the other as he waited for Kora to finish with the woman. Mercifully, he hadn’t long to wait, as soon the woman was bucking in Kora’s lap, tossing her head back as she screamed and squealed in delight. Kora held firmly onto her until she stopped writhing, the two of them panting hard in unison, before leaning in for a kiss that seemed likely to swallow up the smaller woman’s mouth altogether. After they separated once more, Kora leaned in and whispered something into the woman’s ear. Adé couldn’t see her lips, but whatever Kora said was enough to encourage the other woman to climb off of her with trembling legs and an elated smile. Blowing one last kiss to Kora, the woman waded away further into the baths and was soon lost from view within the sea of bodies.

Kora jerked her head as an invitation, and Adé stepped over to join her. There was a ledge on the bath wall, hidden under the surface, and Adé sat down on it beside her, the warm water rising all the way up to his chest in total contrast to the way it left Kora’s torso almost entirely exposed.

“I wasn’t expecting you so soon,” she said, beaming cheerily at Adé as though he were an old friend and this was nothing more than a happy reunion between them. “Sorry for the delay. I was busy entertaining a friend.”

“I noticed,” Adé muttered back. “I thought you were supposed to be keeping a low profile?”

“In a place like this?” Kora raised her taut arms to gesture to their surroundings, and Adé did his very best not to stare at them. “I think I’d look more out of place not pleasuring anybody. I’m one of the biggest people in this damned bath, and I’ve got a knife strapped to my leg; someone like me’s going to stand out no matter what I do. And speaking of which…” She kept her expression neutral, but lowered her voice. “See those guards standing around the place?”

Adé had, in fact, noticed them on his way over. There were half a dozen of them stationed around the main bath, each with their backs to the wall, evenly spaced apart around the room.

“I counted six,” Adé replied.

“There’s more lurking about on patrol,” Kora said. “And I’ll bet there’ll be even more of the bastards stationed further in on the way to Paust’s chamber. Problem is, they all know I’ve got this dagger on me. Nothing wrong with that, of course – everyone knows a soldier can carry a weapon with them even into the baths. But each and every one of those guards has been watching me ever since I set foot in here.”

Despite the twist of anxiety in his gut, Adé fixed a wry smile onto his face in an attempt to disguise the nature of their discussion from any onlookers. “Which means they’ll be watching me, now, too.”

“You and every person I’ve had in my lap since I arrived.”

So, she’d had an ulterior motive for fucking that woman earlier: the more people Kora got intimate with here in the bath, the easier it would be to pass off the dagger without drawing attention. Adé couldn’t help raising his eyebrows, making Kora shrug.

“No reason I can’t mix business and pleasure,” she said. “And I know I’m being watched, so why not put on a show? Unfortunately, with all these eyes on us, it makes our little hand-off a bit more tricky.”

“Not if I climb into your lap, too,” Adé said, before he could stop himself. 

Kora’s head rolled lazily along her large shoulders to fix Adé with a look that only made more heat flood to his face, as well as to various other parts of his body. He cursed his own weakness that had driven him to make the suggestion, while at the same time already picturing himself straddling Kora’s huge thighs, his lithe body entangling with hers.

“It’s like you read my mind,” she murmured.

“Hardly,” Adé said, trying to force a scoff into his voice. “It’ll be easier to pass the dagger off to me unnoticed if our bodies are closely entwined. This way, we’ll look less conspicuous.” 

It just made sense. Adé was a professional at this sort of thing, after all – he knew well how to blend into his surroundings. That’s all this was. That’s all it needed it to be.

So, when Kora reached out to grab him by the waist and lift him effortlessly up into her arms before lowering him down into her lap, Adé did most certainly not let out a groan of sheer desire.

“That’s it.” This close together, Kora’s voice had a gentle resonance that made Adé’s chest vibrate. “Just relax. Paust isn’t going anywhere just yet. We’ve got plenty of time.”

Adé hesitantly raised his arms, hovering them over Kora’s bronzed flesh as he tried to decide where to put them. Her bare breasts were directly in front of him – but no, that would be too forward. He could reach up and cup her face, instead? That would probably be too intimate. Adé eventually settled on her arms, cupping her biceps and running his palms over all the bulges and scars they could find there.

“Yeah, that’s right. Give ‘em a good feel. I know you’ve been looking at ‘em.”

Adé wasn’t sure it was possible to flush harder than he already was, but Kora had an effect on him that would have been infuriating if he hadn’t been so damn aroused. And when a large pair of hands took hold of Adé by the small of his back and tugged him in closer, he let out another involuntary grunt.

Kora leaned in close, her face moving past his to whisper in his ear, “So, how real do you want to make this?”

Adé blinked. “S-Sorry?”

“Well, I know we’re only trying to make it look like we’re getting it on, but there’s no reason why I can’t get you off at the same time.”

Her low and husky voice sent tremors racing down Adé’s spine. He swallowed down a wave of saliva as Kora’s face appeared in view once again, their noses inches apart.

“I won’t do anything you don’t want me to. But, unless I’ve been reading you wrong, I get the feeling there’s a lot of things you want me to do. So…what do you say?”

Adé wasn’t the type of criminal who abided by a strict code, but he was sure that having sex in the middle of a major operation like this would be breaking some sort of personal rule. Then again, it wasn’t as though he’d never mixed business with pleasure before; more than once, he’d successfully hidden from pursuers by climbing into bed with somebody. Not to mention all the marks he’d spent the night with before stealing away in the early hours of the morning, along with their precious baubles or jewels. In fact, the more he thought about it, the more reasonable it all seemed.

And so he told her, “Make it quick.”

Kora’s grin filled his field of vision. “Oh, it will be. I’ll get you screaming before too long, don’t you worry.”

“I’m not really a screamer–” Adé’s retort was cut off by a shuddering gasp as one of Kora’s thick fingers brushed against his sex. Gods, it really had been too long since his last time. Kora’s touch, calloused though her hands may have been, was soft as a feather as she traced gentle circles around the nub of flesh above his entrance. 

Adé hummed quietly as he sank deeper into her lap, tension seeping out of his body, the warm water caressing his lower body as sweetly as Kora’s other hand did his back. Ade’s own hands moved up to Kora’s firm shoulders, then swept down past her clavicles towards her chest, where they hesitated.

“Go on,” Kora muttered. “I know you want to.”

Adé let his hands trail downwards to finally cup Kora’s breasts, savouring the feel of those large, brown nipples hardening under his touch. Kora grumbled with contentment, a set of teeth sinking into her lower lip, and Adé echoed her with a grunt of his own as he kneaded her. Kora’s finger had become more insistent, and Adé gasped as he felt two thick digits slip inside him, and he instinctively pushed himself in closer still towards her body, aching for more.

He felt Kora shake slightly against him as she chuckled. “You’re a needy one, aren’t you? I think this really will be over quickly.”

Adé grit his teeth, leaning in close to bury his face between Kora’s neck and shoulder to deny her the satisfaction of seeing his expressions as she pleasured him. His mouth found a firm bit of flesh on the side of Kora’s throat which his lips latched hungrily onto, and he was rewarded with a low groan in his ear. Adé was fighting to keep his breathing steady now as Kora’s hand picked up speed, working him over with casual ease.

“Fuck!” The curse left Adé’s mouth unbidden as heat began to swell deep inside him.

“Yeah, that’s it,” Kora murmured in his ear, her low voice close enough to cut through the din of the cries all around them. “That’s it.”

She was fucking him properly now – her fingers darting in and out of him, the palm of her hand smacking against his flesh, while her other hand now ran along the length of his thigh. The water that filled the narrow gap between their naked bodies sloshed about from the force of the movement. Adé could feel the muscles in Kora’s arm rippling as she pounded him, her quiet grunts of exertion mingling with his sharp gasps. She was pushing him to the brink so effortlessly, clearly enjoying every moment of it, and Adé found he couldn’t help but give in to the overwhelming tide of pleasure.

Unlike the woman who had been in his place only minutes before, Adé did not scream. Nor did he squeal, shriek, or cry out in any way. In fact, he was determined not to, even as overwhelming pleasure raced through him, filling him up with sweet, delicious sensations. In the end, however, his body betrayed him, as an uncontrollable series of spasms made him tremble and shake in Kora’s arms, eventually driving a heavy sigh out from between his lips. Sheer relief made his voice crack, the sound catching in his throat and taking on a ragged quality that spoke of the pure ecstasy that gripped him, filling him up from the inside out.

“Yeah…” Kora half-whispered the word to him, dragging it out like a sigh of her own, a wide grin etched onto her face. “Feels good, doesn’t it?”

Adé huffed, embarrassed with himself for the display of vulnerability. He clung to Kora’s massive frame as he rode out the last of his climax, her fingers slowing their tempo until they slipped back out of him again. Her other hand moved, and Adé stiffened as he felt something like a belt tighten around his thigh. Frowning, he lowered his own hand to his leg, eyes widening when his fingers closed around the distinctive shape of a dagger, blade buried in its sheath, which was now bound good and tight to his leg. Evidently, he’d been so caught up in Kora’s ministrations that he’d missed when she’d detached the sheath from her own leg and transferred it to his. Adé leaned back to fix Kora with a look that was both quizzical and impressed.

Kora grinned at him. “I might not be a thief like you, but I’ve got a quick pair of hands.”

Adé couldn’t help but smile back at her, impressed as he was by her feat of dexterity. “I’ll say.” His eyes dropped meaningfully to the space between her legs, where her own entrance was visible beneath the water’s surface. “Do you want me to…?”

“I think you’ve lingered here long enough,” Kora said. “Besides, I’ve already given you everything you need.” She paused to let the innuendo sink in, before adding in a lower voice, “Of course, once this is all said and done – presuming none of us are either in a cell or face-down in the Arrel – I’d be up for a round two.”

She gave Adé a short, fond smack on the backside that drove another grunt out of him.

“Now, get a move on,” she told him. “You’ve got a job to do, remember?”

Adé nodded, climbing out of Kora’s lap with shaky legs. He reached for the towel he’d brought with him – which he’d left on the bath’s edge as he’d sat down earlier – and quickly threw it around his waist again as he climbed out of the water. It wouldn’t do for any of the guards who had undoubtedly been keeping an eye on him to spy the sheathed weapon now between his legs.

Second room in the middle corridor on the left-hand side. Although, with Adé being the opposite end of the main bath from where he’d entered, it was now on his right-hand side. Giving Kora a courteous nod and trying his best to ignore the wobble in his stride, Adé set off.

He passed by one or two guards on his way, not avoiding their gazes but not sparing them a second glance, either. Adé had spent most of his life trying to avoid drawing attention to himself – he knew well how to play the game by now. Sure enough, none of the guards’ eyes lingered on him as he moved past them, taking the right turn and coming into one of the corridors that housed the private chambers. These were the parts of the secluded baths one went to if one didn’t feel like having sex in front of an audience, and, as such, they tended to be fully booked – especially at busy times like these. That was why Dorin’s task had been to take up position in this particular chamber and ensure nobody but Adé came in.

Adé passed by the first door, through which the sounds of impassioned cries and the slapping of flesh-against-flesh could be heard, and reached the second, which he rapped a knuckle sharply against. Five achingly-long seconds passed before the door swung open and Adé stepped inside.

“Good, you’re here.” It was a voice Adé knew almost as well as his own – every cadence of the soft, Palnarami accent so familiar as to be soothing. Adé couldn’t help but smile as he glanced over his shoulder to see Dorin shutting the door behind him, only to freeze as he took in the far less-familiar sight of Dorin in his bathhouse uniform. 

Adé and Dorin had known each other since they’d been teenagers, but they’d spent less and less time together as the years had gone by, and certainly hadn’t spent any time together under the roof of the Smouldering Phoenix. Thus, it was Adé’s first time seeing Dorin in a bright red thong that covered practically nothing at all, and clung remarkably tightly to what little it did cover. The rest of his body was bare, save for a pair of white sandals on his feet and a loose, white shawl that had been draped over his shoulders reaching down past his chest. The shawl in question was translucent, and a pair of large, brown nipples were visible through the soft fabric, and Adé spied a familiar phoenix tattoo hovering over one of them. Too late, Adé realised he had been staring, and he mentally shook himself as he realised Dorin had asked him a question. 

“S-Sorry?”

“I asked if you were feeling alright,” Dorin said gently, evidently keeping his voice down in an effort not to be overheard. He needn’t have bothered, Adé thought: the ‘private rooms’ were more like partitions than separate chambers, with no ceilings to speak of. The intimate activities of the occupants in the rooms next door were loud enough to allow a conversation to be held at a normal volume without having to worry about eavesdroppers.

“Yes, I’m fine,” Adé said, mentally shaking himself. He had hoped that his tryst with Kora might have quelled the desires that had flared in him during his trip through the baths, but seeing Dorin in his barely-there uniform had managed to bring them surging back to the surface. He couldn’t afford to get distracted like this again; he needed to focus. “How about you?”

Dorin pursed his lips. “I’m worried.”

“Don’t be. If things go wrong, you’ll be safe here while–”

“I’m not worried about myself,” Dorin cut in. “I’m worried about you, Adé.”

“I can handle myself.” Adé kept his sentences short in an attempt to hide the way his voice trembled at the thought of Dorin fretting about him. “I’ve killed before.”

“I know. But that was…” Dorin’s voicebox bobbed in his throat. “That was different. You were defending me – defending my family.”

“And now I’m defending this city.” Adé didn’t want his old friend dwelling on what he knew was a difficult memory. “Paust and his kind are a threat to everyone in Palnaram. I’m putting him out of our collective misery.”

Dorin nodded, but his eyes were distant still. Adé knew Dorin wasn’t like him. He’d spent his whole childhood with a roof over his head (albeit a shoddy one), and a family to feed him and clothe him. And now he had a respectable job working with one of the city’s most distinguished guilds. Dorin had never had to turn to crime just to survive, and he certainly wasn’t a killer. But he’d never judged Adé for it, either. 

“Even so…” Dorin exhaled slowly through his nose. “Thank you for doing this. I owe you.”

Adé snorted. “Don’t thank me until the deed’s done. And you don’t owe me – this is payback for that time you fished me out of the Arrel in the middle of the night.”

“That was years ago!” Dorin said with a chortle. “And, besides, that was me making up for the time you had to sneak me back home when those guards were chasing us down. Seems like we keep doing favours for each other.” 

Adé declined to mention that this chain of favours had only started because Dorin had found him lying half-dead in the street that morning all those years ago. He and his family had saved Adé’s life by taking him in that day, and for that, Adé owed them a debt he could never repay – no matter how much they protested or pretended that nursing him back to health had been no trouble at all. In the years between the murder of Adé’s mother and him being taken in off the streets, Adé had had nobody. He had been nobody. Dorin had made him feel like somebody again, and for that, Adé would never turn him down when his friend was in need. The fact that Adé’s feelings for Dorin had developed into something other than friendship was only part of the equation. And the longer the two of them spent together in this warm, humid room – Dorin in little more than a thong and Adé in only a towel – made it harder for Adé to hold back his swelling desire. 

“We need to hurry,” Adé said, and Dorin blinked as though he had entirely forgotten their reason for being there.

“Right, of course. Come over here…”

This particular room was styled more like a sauna than a bath, and there were wooden benches pressed up against the three walls facing the door. One of those benches was split in two by a great, marble pillar that stretched all the way from the floor to the roof high above – a quirk of the building’s design that the guild had had to work around when installing the private chambers, and the reason why this room in particular was so vital to the plan.

“Are you sure you’ll be able to climb that?” Dorin asked, eyeing the column warily.

Adé stepped up onto the bench next to the pillar. “Bit late to be having second thoughts, isn’t it?”

“I’m just…”

“Worried?”

Dorin sighed. “It all seemed less risky when we were planning it out.”

“It always does,” Adé assured him. “Give me a boost?” 

“Aren’t you going to take that off, first?” 

Adé blinked, glancing down to see Dorin looking at him, one finger outstretched and pointing towards the towel that was still wrapped tight around Adé’s waist. 

“Huh?” 

“You know…” Dorin glanced away as his cheeks darkened. “I just meant that it’d be easier for you to climb without it slowing you down.” 

Adé’s gaze dropped down to where his towel clung to his hips, a thin trail of hair emerging out from beneath the white fabric and climbing up to his bellybutton. Adé had been brought in on this little conspiracy at least in part because of his climbing skills. The towel really would just be an added hindrance. 

“You’re right,” Adé admitted with a sigh as he reached down and loosened the towel, folding it up neatly and tossing it towards Dorin without looking at him – afraid he would meet his friend’s eye. “Now, give me a boost. Please.” 

Adé would have thought somebody who spent his days working in a bathhouse would have been more comfortable with nudity, but Dorin seemed decisively unable to meet Ade’s gaze in turn as he climbed up onto the bench beside the pillar and cupped his hands. Adé obediently stepped into Dorin’s grasp, maintaining his balance as he was lifted up, up, until he could wrap his arms and legs around the pillar with relative comfort. Slowly, Adé began to clamber up the pillar, stretching up with his arms and pulling himself up, his legs gripping the column all the while. He could feel Dorin watching him, and felt acutely aware of just how naked he was. A glance over his shoulder let him catch Dorin’s eye, and Dorin quickly looked away, stepping down from the bench back onto the chamber floor.

“Best of luck, Adé!” he called up to him in a strained whisper. 

Doing his best to push all thoughts of Dorin out of his mind for the time being, Adé left him behind and squirmed his way up the pillar. Even with the boost he’d gotten, the top of the wall was roughly three or four metres above the place where Adé had begun to climb. He forced himself not to look down again – not out of a fear of heights (something Adé had long since grown out of after a career of jumping between rooftops), but to keep his mind focused on the task at hand.

Reach up. Hold tight with your arms. Pull yourself up. Hold tight with your legs.

It was a simple process, when he reduced it down to those steps. It meant that the growing ache in his arms became a dull sensation in the back of his mind, and the thought of what was to come next became a little more than a mild concern. He’d been climbing drainpipes for the better part of two decades – this wasn’t so different. And, before long, the top of the wall that divided the chamber from its neighbour came into view.

Adé kept climbing until the lip of the wall was close enough for him to grab hold of, which he did. Twisting his torso, Adé let go of the pillar with both hands and clutched the wall as his legs remained in place. Taking a deep breath, Adé uncrossed his ankles and relinquished his hold on the pillar altogether, bringing his feet around to press against the wall and soften the impact of his body crashing against it. He might have heard a quiet gasp from below, but it could equally have been one of the baths’ many customers in another room. Tensing the muscles in his arms, Adé hoisted himself up onto the top of the wall, releasing his breath at last as he brought himself into a crouch.

The top of the wall was narrower than he’d been expecting, but not so narrow that he couldn’t balance atop it. Keeping his knees bent and his centre of gravity low accordingly, Adé crept forward, his toes gripping the edge of the wall as he placed one foot in front of the other. Even this high up, the sounds of pleasure were all around him – bouncing off of the walls of the numerous chambers and rising up and up towards the ceiling, almost like a well. The clapping sound of bodies mimicked rapturous applause, and Adé momentarily felt rather like a circus acrobat, balancing on high above people’s heads and revelling in their cries of delight. Of course, the purpose of a circus performer was to be seen – unlike Adé, who was desperately hoping that nobody in the rooms below threw their heads back in a moment of passion to accidentally spot him creeping around above. And he’d never heard of a circus whose acrobats performed naked, although nude acrobats were hardly unheard of in this part of Palnaram. 

I could have joined the circus, Adé thought to himself as he made his way back towards the central hall. Instead of becoming a thief. Or maybe all this warm air and perfume is just making me giddy?

Zan had gone over the blueprints of the bathhouse with Adé during the meeting last week, and had pointed out to him how climbing to the top of the walls of the private chambers would allow him to reach the rafters of the central secluded bath, which in turn would let him make his way over to the private quarters Paust reserved for his own use. Together, Adé and Zan had traced a path over the beams and around the pillars that would take him right over the heads of the guards and into Paust’s bathing chamber. But sketching out a pathway on a map was quite a different thing from following it yourself – especially when said pathway consisted of a series of wooden beams and precarious perches over twenty feet above the ground. And then there was the added complexity of how the rising steam had condensed on many of the narrow walkways Adé had to cross, making them far too slippery for his liking.

Now I really feel like a circus performer, Adé thought, as he kept his arms determinedly outstretched to either side and did his best not to wobble. A long, thin joist spanned the main hall, crossing above the bath Adé had been in only a short while ago, which was perhaps even more packed in with people than it had been before. It was a perfect way to get across to the other side, but it would also leave him totally exposed in the event that somebody in the bath beneath were to glance upwards. Adé’s heart pounded in his ears, drowning out the moans and splashing of water from below, dreading at any moment that someone would cry out as they spotted him balancing high above the room.

And then he was across, his hands pressing hard against the damp wall as though it were solid earth, releasing a shuddering breath he hadn’t realised he’d been holding. It wasn’t over yet. He couldn’t afford to relax. But lingering just a few extra seconds on this narrow perch couldn’t hurt.

Another corridor stretched off away from the main bath, leading down towards Paust’s private quarters. None of the bath’s patrons were allowed down this way, and – as Zan had informed him – neither were most of the guild members. Only bath attendants who Paust specifically requested were permitted in his quarters during his visits, and the corridor was guarded by only the lord’s most loyal men. Their helmets glinted in the half-light as Adé sidled along the wall, not nearly high enough above their heads for his liking. One of them yawned noisily as he passed them by. None of them so much as cast a glance upwards as he slipped through a narrow crack in the wall, through which yet more steam was drifting.

Beyond was a large bathing chamber – bigger by far than any of the other private chambers he’d seen. The noise of sloshing water filled the space, underscored by the sounds of giggling and gasps of pleasure. From his vantage point in the rafters, Adé could make out two people in the bath – both women, and both clutching onto one another as they writhed in the water, entangled in each other’s limbs, naked skin glistening in the light. Matching phoenix tattoos adorned their necks, and they moaned in harmony as they pleasured one another. But Adé couldn’t fail to notice the way their heads regularly turned in the direction of something just out of his field of vision. 

“W-Won’t you join us, my lord?” one of the women sighed, her breasts heaving as her companion slipped a hand in between her legs. 

Adé moved as quietly as he could while keeping silent, fearing that the sound of him creeping around would reach the ears of the people down below. He navigated around a pillar, peering over his shoulder as he strained to look at who the two women were performing for, and found a tall man sitting on a wooden bench several metres from the edge of the bath. His physique put Adé in mind of the statue of Vóla that adorned the fountain near the bathhouse entrance – he might as well have been carved from stone, himself. His taut legs were spread wide apart as another man knelt between them, his blond head diligently bobbing back and forth in front of the tall man’s groin. The man on the bench’s broad chest rose and fell as he sucked in air, releasing it each time as a contented groan. He was watching the women in the bath hungrily, but didn’t stir from his seat.  

“I am rather comfortable, here, thank you,” he drawled in a deep, refined voice, the tone of his voice indicating how little he’d thought of the question. 

Even if Adé hadn’t recognised his face, and hadn’t heard the bath attendants refer to him as ‘my lord’, he would have known the man to be Paust simply from the way the other three people in the room behaved in his presence. Even naked as a newborn babe, the lord of the district commanded – or demanded – fear and fealty from his subjects. As if nervous of displeasing their ‘honoured guest’, the women in the bath began to moan louder, their movements growing frenzied as they attended to each other. Adé saw the man between Paust’s legs quicken his pace, grunting in (likely feigned) desire as he pleasured the lord. The effect on Paust was immediate – his eyes screwed shut and his head tilted back, and he puffed air out between his lips in a staggered grumble.  

“Yes!” he hissed. “Ohh, that’s good…!” 

Adé watched as Paust’s toes curled and his hips lifted ever so slightly off the bench, eyelids flickering, his toned body quivering in throes of pleasure. His groan of satisfaction rose through the humid air and steam, reaching the spot where Adé lay hidden. In any other situation, he might have turned away out of embarrassment – or disgust. But he couldn’t afford to miss any opportunity; before long, Paust would undoubtedly send the bath attendants away. That would be the time to strike. Until then, he merely had to lie in wait… 

Eventually, the young man detached his mouth from Paust’s cock and climbed onto the bench to take a seat at the aristocrat’s side, lathering the side of Paust’s neck with warm kisses. 

“How was that, my lord?” he asked.

From this angle, Adé could see the familiar phoenix tattoo marking the hollow just below the young man’s throat, its wings spreading onto his clavicles in flight. 

“Mmm…” Paust’s cold eyes slowly opened, lowering themselves hungrily to the attendant beside him. “You have performed quite admirably. What was your name again?” 

Even from his perch, Adé could see that the young man’s smile didn’t quite reach his eyes. “Callis, my lord.” 

“Callis,” the lord echoed, a thumb stroking the attendant’s handsome face. “Yes, I believe I will have use of you, yet. As for these two–” He turned his imperious gaze on the women in the bath. “Leave us.” 

The women met the aristocrat’s gaze and frowned. “My lord…?” 

At once.” 

The two attendants clambered out of the bath, scurrying away out of Adé’s sight at the lord’s command. Adé noticed the young man named Callis watching them leave with a slight frown of his own. 

“Useless,” Paust muttered, his jaw set with irritation. “What good is having attendants who simply cannot perform as required? I commanded them to put on a show for me, but that…fumbling spectacle left a great deal to be desired.” 

“I apologise if we of the Scented Embers have displeased you,” Callis said, unable to entirely keep the flat tone out of his voice.  

Paust sighed, leaning back on the bench again. “It is of little concern. After all, I shall be leaving shortly.” His gaze flickered to Callis once again. “And I believe that you will be coming with me.” 

Callis cocked his head. “My lord…?” 

“Yes, you have proven yourself worthy of the honour of attending to my needs as part of my palace staff. I have been searching for a personal courtesan for some time now, and I believe that you, Callis, would be more than capable of warming my bed were I to call upon you.” 

“My lord, I…” Callis swallowed. “I…I have a position here already with the guild.” 

Paust snorted with amusement. “With the guild, yes. I am simply giving you a better position. You would have personal quarters of your own in the palace. You would partake in banquets every evening, and you would have your own, private bathing facilities, instead of having to share with commoners and other filth. This is an extremely generous offer.” 

The manner in which he said the word ‘offer’ led Adé to believe that this was no such thing; if Callis were to refuse the lord, then he would likely be taken to the palace by force, where he would remain in captivity until such time as his new ‘master’ grew bored of him. The cold anger in Adé’s chest blossomed into a heated rage, flooding through him like water from a broken dam. He sidled along the high ledge until he was as close to the pair as possible, before he leaped down onto one of the benches near Paust’s position, landing in a crouch. Adé glanced over at them to see Callis staring directly at him, his eyes lingering on the knife strapped to Adé’s thigh, before widening in shock. And, to Adé’s horror, Paust’s head was turning to follow the attendant’s gaze. Adé froze, certain that the lord was about to spot him, but then Callis’ hand flew up and cupped Paust by the cheek, gently guiding his head back to face him. 

“I…accept your offer, my lord,” Callis said gently, forcing a warm smile onto his face. “You are most kind to me, and I would be honoured to serve you personally.” 

Paust smiled back at him, leaning in for a kiss that quickly grew heated as Adé slowly crept towards him, moving as quietly as he could. He slipped the dagger from its sheath, flipping it upside-down in his hand before ramming it into Paust’s exposed back, piercing his flesh and driving mercilessly through his heart. 

Paust’s groan of contentment morphed into a choked gasp, muffled by Callis’ lips. The two of them broke apart as Paust gaped, blood trickling from his open mouth. He attempted to twist around to see his attacker, but his body was already failing him, and he instead toppled from the bench and collapsed to the floor, spasming as his life faded away. Callis, for his part, tucked his knees up to his bare chest and watched coolly as the lord of the district died on the chamber floor. 

“I thought, for a moment,” Adé murmured, “that you were about to give me away.” 

“I saw the knife and panicked,” Callis confessed, his tone quiet and even – a far cry from the way he had spoken to the lord. Even his accent had changed somewhat, taking on a new, harsher quality that was shared by most people born-and-bred in Palnaram. “But once I realised what you were here to do, I decided to try and help.” 

“You did help,” Adé told him. “If it wasn’t for you, I’d probably have been cut open by guards by now. You saved my life.” 

“Well, you saved mine! I can’t imagine a worse fate than becoming a bedslave for an entitled bastard like him.” He nudged the fresh corpse with one foot, expression full of distaste. “Do you know how much my family had to scrimp and save as I was growing up, just so we could have enough to eat? Meanwhile, this wretch and his kind throw banquets every evening in their lavish mansions and palaces. It sickens me.” 

Adé reached down and took hold of the handle of his dagger, which was still embedded in Paust’s back. “You should move away – just in case this gets messy.” 

Callis slid back along the bench, inching away from the dead body as Adé yanked his dagger free, blood spewing from the wound like water from a pipe. Paust didn’t stir as his blood spread across the chamber floor in a widening puddle, the stench of it mixing with the steam and perfume. Adé tip-toed over to the bath, slipping into the water and making an attempt to wash himself and the dagger clean. The water was still very warm, and proved remarkably soothing. 

“Wh-What will you do now?” Callis’s words reached him as he resurfaced, water trickling through his short curls and running down the length of his face. Even with water leaking from his ears, Adé noticed the hint of fear in Callis’ voice – for the first time since Paust’s death. “If you escape back through the vents, then…I’ll be left alone with the body.” 

“And you’re worried that the guards will think you’re the murderer?” Adé rubbed the warm water against the flat faces of the dagger. “They won’t. Not if they can’t find the blade that killed him.” 

Callis folded his arms over his bare chest. “I’m not so sure about that. It’ll take them some time to search this place, and until then, I’ll be their number one suspect.” 

Adé leaned against the edge of the bath and rested his arms on the lip, water sloshing against his chest. “So, what are you suggesting?” 

Callis chewed on his lip for a moment as he thought, before he said, “You’ll have to hurt me.” 

Adé climbed out of the bath, frown deepening into a shocked scowl. “You can’t be serious!” 

“I’ll say I tried to protect Paust, but the attacker cut me instead, before shoving me aside and striking the killing blow.” He held up one arm, elbow pointing towards Adé. “If they ask me what the killer looked like, I’ll tell them you wore a mask. Better make it quick.” 

There could be guards here at any moment, Adé realised as he grimaced. Callis’ plan, while unpleasant, was their best option. 

“Are you really sure about this?” Adé asked, brandishing the dagger at the attendant, who eyed the blade with no small amount of wariness. 

“Not in the least,” Callis admitted. “But I have no choice. It’s this, or either one of us will be at the guards’ mercy.” He took a deep breath to still himself. “Alright. I’m ready.” 

Adé swung the dagger. 

 

***

 

Having already climbed across the rafters once, doing so again proved relatively straightforward for Adé. Knowing that, no matter what came next, the job had been done, brought him a distinct amount of comfort. Even if Adé were to be caught now, there was no stopping what had been set in motion. The lord who had terrorised the district for so many years was dead, and no amount of torture or execution would ever bring him back. Not that Adé had any intention of being subjected to torture or execution, of course; the final phase of the plan was about to begin, and he was determined to see it through to the end and escape the bathhouse unscathed.

He passed over the main bath and reached the private chambers once again, eyes roving over the numerous walls in search of the pillar that he had climbed earlier. Once he had spotted it, he quickly-but-carefully made his way along the narrow walkways until he could reach the pillar. Wrapping his arms firmly around it, Adé leaped from the top of the wall and began to slide down the pillar, feet pressed against the smooth stone to control his descent. Despite everything, Adé let an exhilarated grin spread across his face, feeling for all the world like a child at play as he shot towards the floor. Once he was close enough to the ground, Adé released his grip and kicked away from the pillar, flipping backwards in mid-air and landing feet-first on the damp floor, managing to avoid slipping in the process. 

He heard someone start from nearby, and turned his head to see Dorin sitting on one of the wooden benches, eyes wide and a hand raised to his chest as though in shock. 

“Gods above, Adé!” he wheezed. “I didn’t hear you coming back!” 

Whatever verbal reply Adé might have given melted away on his tongue as he realised that Dorin’s uniform (for lack of a better term) had been removed and draped neatly over the back of the bench, leaving him as naked as Adé was. His broad chest was bared, and damp with sweat, which trickled down towards Dorin’s round belly before travelling further still, past his waist. Adé’s eyes couldn’t help but be drawn to his cock, which lay thick and heavy between his wide thighs, adorned with a scattering of dark, trimmed hairs. Once again, Adé realised he’d been staring. 

“Ah,” Adé eloquently began. “R-right. Sorry.” He glanced away awkwardly, looking about the small room as though it were his first time there. “No sign of Kora?”

“Not yet.”

Adé’s jaw clenched. He needed to get the dagger back to her before the guards realised she didn’t have it anymore, but he couldn’t risk going back out into the main chamber again. Paust’s body would be discovered at any moment – if it hadn’t been already – and soon the entire bathhouse would very likely be in an uproar. Adé took a few nervous steps towards the door, then turned and took a few more towards the pillar, then back again, pacing nervously about the confined space.

“Come on and sit down, Adé,” he heard Dorin say. “The hardest part of the job is behind you. Now, you can relax.” 

Adé hadn’t ever been the type to ‘relax’ in his life, and he certainly couldn’t be expected to start here and now – not when he was alone in a steaming-hot chamber with an extremely-attractive gentleman by his side. Adé cast a tentative glance back at Dorin, who was still just as nude as he had been when Adé had taken his eyes off of him. The only thing he wore was a gentle smile, and he nodded towards a space beside him on the bench. 

“Kora will be here before long,” Dorin assured him. “In the meantime, there’s no use working yourself up into a state.”

Adé sighed, but obliged his friend by taking the spot next to him on the bench. He shifted uncertainly on the wooden seat – not sure if he should move closer to be more chummy or if he should move further away to avoid causing any discomfort. In the end, Adé was left hovering a short-but-not-too-short distance away from Dorin on the bench, the space between them feeling as charged as the air after a thunderstorm. Adé decided to busy himself with unwrapping the sheath from around his thigh, loosening the belt and detaching the dagger, which he placed onto the bench just beside him.

Dorin cast a sideways look his way. “The fact that you’re here tells me that Paust is dead, but were there any complications?”

Adé nodded. “A few.” 

“Well, I doubt they were anything you couldn’t handle, hm?” 

Adé glanced at Dorin just in time to see a single drop of sweat roll down Dorin’s chest, glinting in the light, and hurriedly looked away as the sudden urge to lap it up with his tongue almost overpowered him.  

“Still,” Dorin continued on seemingly without noticing Adé’s discomfort, “I’m glad that bastard is dead, and in the very heart of the Embers’ home, no less. They won’t be able to ignore this – not the aristocrats, and not the guild, either. And there’s one less lord in Palnaram for us smallfolk to worry about.” 

“I’m surprised to hear you say all of that, you know,” Adé admitted, finding it easier to talk about their shared mission than acknowledge the gnawing desire in his gut. “The Dorin I met all those years ago would never have gotten wrapped up in a conspiracy like this.”

“That Dorin was a clueless fool who’d deluded himself into thinking Palnaram was more-or-less fine the way it was and could never be changed.”

Adé blinked, taken aback by the harsh tone in his friend’s voice. “You were only a child.”

“And so were you,” Dorin shot back. “But you already knew then just how rotten this city is; you’d lived it. It took me meeting you to open my eyes for the first time, and even then, it didn’t sink in until the night those guards raided our inn.”

Adé looked down at his hands, remembering – as Dorin clearly was – the first time he had raised a blade to kill. “We don’t have to talk about it.”

“But I want to,” Dorin said, turning his whole body now to face Adé head-on. “You shouldn’t have had to intervene. You shouldn’t have had to run. You shouldn’t have had to leave m- to leave us.”

“You would’ve been killed, Dorin. You and your whole family.”

“But that’s exactly my point!” Dorin’s eyes were wide, and Adé found himself unable to look away, despite himself. “The people of this city are in danger from the guard and the aristocrats they work for. Once upon a time, the city rose up and fought back. Nothing will change unless that happens again. That’s why I’m here. That’s why I called on you to help.” 

“Dorin…”

“I know you believe I changed your life, Adé, but you changed mine, too. And I’ll never forget it.”

Adé’s heart pounded in his ears as he and Dorin held eye-contact. Was Dorin saying what he thought he was saying?

“I…” Adé swallowed, his suddenly-dry throat aching from the movement. “I never wanted to leave. I promise you, I didn’t.”

“I know.” Dorin reached out and took hold of Adé’s hands. Adé didn’t pull away. “Someday – sooner than we might think – you won’t have to live your life constantly on the run anymore. Then you can stay with me for as long as you like.” Dorin rubbed a thumb against Adé’s palm. “If that’s what you want.”

Adé’s mouth opened as he prepared to say…what? Of course I want that, maybe? I want that more than anything. But whatever he might have said was cut-off as a strangled shout erupted from somewhere off in the distance, reverberating around the bathhouse halls and piercing the din of voices. Both Adé and Dorin started, moving slightly apart as they looked towards the door.

“They must have found the body,” Dorin muttered, nerves creeping into his tone for the first time since Adé had returned to the chamber. “And there’s still no sign of Kora.”

“What happens if the guards barge in here before she arrives?” Adé asked, casting a glance at the dagger – still right where he’d left it, on the bench nearby. It wouldn’t be immediately visible to somebody who’d just walked in, but it wouldn’t take them very long to find, either. “Not a lot of places to hide a dagger somewhere like this.” 

Adé could feel Dorin’s eyes upon him as he spoke. “Well…we could always provide a distraction, I suppose.” 

Adé turned to shoot him a puzzled glance.

“Think about it,” Dorin said. “What’s the least suspicious thing a pair of young, naked gentlemen such as ourselves could be doing in a private chamber?” 

Adé flushed as the implications of Dorin’s words became clear to him, and ignited the spark of desire flickering in his chest into a blazing fire. 

Dorin’s voice, which was deep and rich as is, dropped down another octave as he said, “And, besides – you booked this chamber for yourself. I’m the attendant, which means it’s my job to ensure you leave this place as satisfied as possible.” 

Dorin shifted on the bench, his legs parting, and for the first time Adé noticed how hard his cock had gotten. In his flustered state, he’d been keen to avoid looking too closely at any of Dorin’s body parts. But now, he found he couldn’t look away, as the thick organ throbbed proudly between those broad thighs.  

“Of course,” Dorin’s voice reached his ears as though from miles away, “you don’t have to if you don’t want to.” 

But Adé did want to – a great, great deal. He’d wanted Dorin back when they’d been younger, and meeting him again as adults had only reignited that desire. And now, the two of them were finally alone together, with Dorin clearly more than willing in turn. 

How could I say no? Adé wondered, as he slipped off the bench and landed knees-first on the chamber floor. His hands reached out to touch Dorin’s thighs, which eagerly spread apart as Adé sidled in closer. His cock awaited, bouncing slightly before Adé’s eyes in time with Dorin’s pulse. Lowering his head, Adé stuck out his tongue to lick the underside, relishing the feel of the warm flesh against his mouth, as well as the sweet sound of the gentle groan that escaped Dorin in response. Leaving his left hand to continue rubbing Dorin’s thigh, Adé brought his right hand forward to wrap around the base of Dorin’s shaft, holding it steady as his lips pressed against the tip and began to move slowly down the length. Adé felt a tremble pass through Dorin’s body as his lips closed over the head of Dorin’s cock, rubbing it against his tongue as he began to bob his head back and forth. A pleased hum escaped Adé as he savoured both the salty taste of sweat and fluid and the feel of Dorin’s cock filling his mouth. Every delectable inch he swallowed made Dorin’s voice grow louder, quiet gasps becoming heavy groans. Adé slid down Dorin’s length as far as he could go, before pulling all the way back and opening his mouth wide to lap at the underside of the head with the tip of his tongue, lifting his eyes to see Dorin gazing down at him with something akin to wonder.

“You look incredible,” Dorin murmured, and the warmth of the affection in his voice felt better to Adé than any physical pleasure could. “You are incredible.”

Adé smiled up at him, and was about to take Dorin into his mouth once more when he felt him lean forward to lay a hand on Adé’s shoulder.

“I want to pleasure you, too.”

Adé nodded to the space on the bench beside Dorin. “Lie down.”

Dorin did as he was told, and Adé got up from his knees to lift himself up onto the bench, lowering himself over Dorin’s body, keeping his head level with his cock. Dorin caught on quickly, and took hold of Adé’s thighs to guide him into position. As luck would have it, their heights matched up enough for Dorin to press his mouth between Adé’s thighs while Adé sucked his cock again. 

Very quickly, Dorin reminded Adé that knowing how to pleasure people was part of his job – the motion of his tongue against Adé’s tender flesh soon had Adé moaning around his cock, breathing hard through his nose as his lips glided along the shaft. Dorin’s arms held Adé’s thighs in a firm grip, anchoring them to either side of his face while his hands explored Adé’s ass. Dorin’s fingers massaged the soft flesh of Adé’s buttocks, starting near his hips and slowly working their way in. He took his time, ensuring every square inch of Adé’s ass was explored, all the while expertly working him over with his tongue. And when the tip of one digit finally brushed against Adé’s entrance, an involuntary shudder rippled through him from head to toe. The finger traced gentle circles around Adé’s hole, each revolution forcing another moan from him, the noise muffled by Dorin’s cock in his mouth.

There were footsteps in the hall now, raised voices from somewhere nearby. Numerous cries issued through the thin walls, but whether they were cries of passion or alarm, Adé couldn’t tell. The Smouldering Phoenix was gradually awakening to what had occurred within its walls. And Kora was still nowhere to be seen.

Adé kept his eyes screwed shut, blocking out the world and everything in it, save for himself and Dorin. His lips slipped up and down the length of Dorin’s shaft, and he felt Dorin’s body rising and falling steadily beneath his own. Dorin didn’t slow down, either, his tongue lapping away at the tender flesh between Adé’s legs as eagerly as it had done for the past few minutes. His hands squeezed Adé gently, as though reassuring him that all would be well, and with the pleasure now building inside him, and the sensation of Dorin’s naked body warm and soft against him, Adé found it hard to think otherwise. Adé felt the knot of tension that had formed in his gut loosen…and loosen… 

Too late, he realised what was happening, and his lips detached from Dorin’s cock as Adé threw his head back and shouted, his whole body shuddering with pleasure, radiating out in waves from where Dorin’s tongue met his flesh. Only Dorin’s grip on his thighs kept them still as his orgasm made his body quake, driving cry after ecstatic cry from his lips until the room fell quiet once more, punctuated only by Adé’s shuddering breaths as he ground his hips against Dorin’s head, straddling his chin. Adé’s pulse raced wildly in the wake of his climax, pounding in his ears like a drum. The corners of his mouth had, at some stage, risen upwards in an exhilarated smile. He was still picking up the pieces of his shattered mind when the sound of the chamber door shutting reached his ears.

Adé twisted his neck to see none other than Kora standing in the doorway, a towel wrapped tightly around her waist, bronze skin and muscled frame on full display. One side of her mouth was twisted in a knowing smirk, and she cocked one eyebrow at the sight before her.

“Thought you said you weren’t a screamer?” she said, making heat rush to Adé’s face.

Adé grit his teeth, reached over to pick up the sheathed dagger before holding it out towards her. “Just…take it.”

Kora shrugged. “Yeah, alright. Although, by the looks of things, I think you’ll be the one taking it.”

Adé grumbled with embarrassment as Kora took the dagger out of his hand, before lifting one leg up onto a nearby bench to tie the sheath to her thigh again. The towel rose along with her leg, exposing a frankly indecent amount of bare, taut flesh as Kora busied herself. 

“Sorry I’m late,” she grunted, tongue poking out through her teeth as she fastened the sheath. “Guards are swarming the place. Had to take a few detours to avoid getting caught.”

Adé’s eyes were drawn to all the naked skin on display, and he could tell by the way that smirk never wavered that Kora knew well where he was looking. When she finally finished tying the strap around her leg, she lowered her foot back to the floor and shot him a wink.

“Well, I’ll leave you to it. Enjoy yourselves!” 

Adé opened his mouth to fire back a witty retort, but Kora was already gone, closing the chamber door behind her. Instead, all he could do was let out a beleaguered sigh, more than a little flustered by what had just happened.

Dorin’s hands let go of Adé and wrapped themselves around his back, picking him up with ease as Dorin sat up and planted his two feet back on the floor again. Adé was deposited neatly onto Dorin’s lap, the two of them still breathing hard, their noses brushing together as their faces came close.

“So,” Dorin muttered, “you and Kora?”

Adé groaned and screwed his eyes shut. “Please don’t make this more humiliating than it already has been.”

“What? I’m not trying to make fun of you.” Dorin smiled at him. “I’m happy for you! You know I’m not really into women, but Kora is…” He blew air out through his lips.

“Yeah,” Adé said, unable to stop a smile from forming. “She is.”

Dorin chuckled, regarding Adé with a slight tilt of his head. “So, what now? I don’t think we’re in any danger from the guards, now that the dagger is gone, and Kora with it. But trying to make a quick exit when the whole building’s on high-alert might not be a good idea.” 

Adé leaned back in Dorin’s lap, feeling the soft flesh of Dorin’s thighs sinking under his shifting weight. Adé’s hands trailed up along Dorin’s torso until they reached his chest, which Adé cupped with both hands as he kneaded the area around Dorin’s large nipples, making his breath hitch. 

“You know,” Adé began, “I did book this chamber for two hours. The least suspicious thing to do would be to wait right here until our time is up.” 

Dorin grinned delightedly at him. “I agree completely.” The grin wavered as Adé held his gaze, the tension between them swelling until they finally leaned in to brush their lips together.

Their first kiss was as gentle as Dorin’s hands as they caressed Adé’s back, drawing a sigh from him even as they closed in for their second. This one was hungrier, desire reigniting within Adé in the wake of his climax, and Dorin eagerly reciprocated, tugging Adé closer towards him, their bodies becoming flush together. His cock was now pressed between Adé’s legs – still hard, still pulsing in time with his heartbeat as it drummed against Adé’s chest. With a roll of his hips, Adé drew a groan from Dorin as his warm body rubbed against the sensitive underside of his shaft. Doing it again made Dorin curse quietly under his breath. 

“I want you to fuck me,” Adé murmured, his lips a whisper away from Dorin’s. 

“Gods, yes,” he hissed. “I want that too.” 

Adé detached one hand from Dorin’s chest, reaching down to take hold of him by the shaft. Dorin obediently shifted position, allowing Adé to guide him inside. He slowly sank down, Dorin’s cock slipping inside him, until their thighs met once again, matching moans issuing from them both in the process.  

Before long, the chamber was filled with their heated cries, the noise of their bodies meeting echoing against the walls as Adé bounced atop Dorin’s thighs. The wooden bench groaned beneath them, Dorin’s hips jerking with every thrust. Sweat made their skin stick together like glue, dampening their hair and dripping from their bodies in great, heavy beads. When Adé came for the third time that day, it was with Dorin’s cock deep inside him, Dorin’s hands caressing him, and Dorin’s mouth whispering sweetly into his ear, all while Adé’s legs squeezed Dorin’s waist tight as warm, blissful pleasure shot through him. And, when Dorin finally came in turn, his whole body trembled like a leaf in a gale, his fervent moan rang in Adé’s ears clear as a bell, and his seed was hot and thick on Adé’s tongue… 

 

***

 

“So, how did you manage to escape?” 

It was Dorin who answered Kora’s question, giving Adé’s knee a gentle squeeze under the rickety wooden table. “We waited out our stay before making our exit. The guards stopped us, of course, but once it had been made clear that we’d been in the chamber the entire time, they had little reason to keep us. Adé playing the fainting waif act certainly helped.” 

Adé smirked despite himself, the feel of Dorin’s hand on his leg making him uncharacteristically giddy. 

“How about you?” Dorin asked Kora, who grumbled irritably.

“Wasn’t so lucky. They must have kept me in there for six hours or more before they decided my alibi for the time of the hit was watertight. They let me go, obviously, although they weren’t happy about it. Told me they’d probably call me in for questioning later…not that they ever got around to it.”

Adé snickered. “I imagine they’ve got bigger problems on their plate.”

Kora met his eye, and Adé silently cursed himself for flushing under her gaze. He’d spent the previous night at Kora’s home, and as a result had been walking with a slight limp all day – something Dorin hadn’t failed to miss.

“Seems like it,” she said with a grin. “Aristocrats are dropping like flies and uprisings are spreading like wildfire. This is probably the most work the city guard has had to do in a century.”

“How are things in the Scented Embers?” Adé asked, turning towards Zan and Dorin.

“Tense,” Zan replied with a grimace. “All the most ‘respectable’ members of the guild are denouncing the assassination as murder most foul, and threatening to expel anyone who supports the uprisings.”

Dorin snorted. “Trouble for them is, most people in the guild aren’t even bothering to pretend they’re upset about Paust getting killed in their own bathhouse. We outnumber those bootlickers three-to-one, and they’re getting very scared.”

“As well they should.” Zan gave a firm nod. “None of this would have been possible without all of your help, of course. I owe you all a debt of gratitude.”

Kora waved a dismissive hand at them. “Don’t be ridiculous.”

“This whole operation was your idea, Zan,” Dorin reminded them. “If anything, we should be thanking you.” 

“All of Palnaram’s in an uproar thanks to what we did in the Smouldering Phoenix,” Adé said. “We never could have pulled it off without you.”

Zan’s eyes dropped lower and lower with each word of praise, until their gaze was rooted to the table, ducking their head out of sight. But even in the half-light coming from the room above, Adé could see the meek little smile plastered across their face.

Kora cracked a grin. “You know, I heard Lord Valad of the industrial district had a nasty fall… from the top of the tallest factory. Amazing how refusing to grant your workers basic health and safety measures, even after years of complaints, can come back to haunt you.” 

“Like railings, for instance,” Doran agreed. “Meanwhile, the city guard are tearing down our posters almost as fast as we can put them up.”  

“People are talking,” Adé said. “I pass by them on the streets and hear them whispering. I thought they’d be afraid, what with the guard stepping up their patrols and clamping down on any hint of dissent. But mostly, everyone’s just angry. There’s a change coming. I know it” 

“Our work is far from finished,” Zan reminded them, cutting into the giddy buzz that had begun to fill the room. “This is only the beginning of the end for the aristocracy. They’ll lash out, as any cornered animal would do. Our struggle has just begun.” 

Dorin chewed his lip as he thought. “Do you think…it’ll come to war?” 

Adé turned to face him. “We were already living in the middle of war. Us versus the nobles. Now we’ve taken the fight to them.” 

Slowly, Dorin nodded. “You’re right. But…I can’t help but feel afraid, you know?” 

Beneath the table, Adé closed his hand over Dorin’s. “I know. But we aren’t alone.” 

“Damn right!” Kora enthused, slamming a fist into the palm of her other hand. “The whole city’s on the brink of an all-out revolution!” 

“Then we’ll need to be prepared for our next step,” Zan said, splaying their hands over the map once again.  

“This could be the start of something truly great,” Adé said, although his eyes weren’t on the map at all. And when Dorin turned his head to meet his gaze, he smiled back at him. 

“I know it will,” he said, and gave Adé’s hand another squeeze. 

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3 thoughts on “Blood and Steam

  1. I am 100% here for this incredibly sexy revolution — with not one but TWO “we have to fuck to keep our cover” scenes?? You spoil us! Love the opening descriptor of the map, and you managed to get me invested in Kora with only her first one-sentence description. I am hopelessly weak to buff warrior gals, and naked in a bath with a knife strapped to her thigh? Bless you. :’)

  2. That’s one way to make a political statement! I liked how the assassination depicted here was clearly not an isolated incident, with details like the Scented Embers having a history of making trouble (unionized sex workers, fancy that!), angry whispers in the streets, and Lord Valid’s little tumble implying there’s some real potential for social change in Palnaram, plus plenty of people willing to get their hands dirty to make it happen if playing nice doesn’t work. Having the Smouldering Phoenix be a well-regarded institution was a great way to quickly set the scene, and it never felt like the plot needed to bog itself down to exposit to the reader. Would that more published fantasy could do the same!

  3. the rich worldbuilding gave the various tensions — sexual, social, political — a wonderful color. i was drawn by the motivations of even side characters and i appreciate the bittersweet ending. also kudos on the scheme; it was fun to imagine what Ade was struggling against and the interior of the baths too.

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