Gítali looked up from painting her toenails a bright red. The House of Blown Crystal Reeds was quiet at this time of day. Many of the girls were just getting up, and the evening clientele wasn’t due for another few hours. Gítali and her friend Reema had taken over the large downstairs sitting room for a chat and some well-deserved primping time. Bits of their clothing and makeup paraphernalia were strewn over several of the large comfortable couches, giving the place a lived-in air. They’d have to leave as soon as guests began to arrive, but until then they had the place all to themselves.
After the blue sun Edü had set, this room, set at the back of the ground floor, was a place where customers could relax and have a drink or even a bite to eat. This happened more frequently now that Amle had hired an elderly pigeon to run the kitchen. Previously that duty had rotated among the girls, but the quality had been very uneven, and sometimes the dishes were downright inedible. Besides, having a dedicated cook meant there was always something hot when you really needed it, no matter what time of day or night.
Reema, the most buxom rabbit of ill-repute that Gítali had ever known, was peering through the beaded curtain into the front room where Amle received customers. She was tall, for a rabbit, with brown and white fur. The fur was patterned so that her head and lower half were brown and she had a belt of white around her middle. There was also a white blaze on her nose. She wore a comfortable old robe that could be quickly removed to reveal more enticing garments. These were always tailored to maximize the effect of the change in fur color around her waist and throat, which was quite striking. Her feet were bare, and Gítali noticed she had only finished the nails on one foot.
“Who’s back?” Gítali asked, trying to finish her own nails before they were forced to vacate the place. She had her own room upstairs, of course, but it was nice to be able to spread out once in awhile. Her silk robe, a gift from one of her regular clients, was much newer but not nearly as comfortable as Reema’s. It was an elaborate thing, designed to look like the night sky. All three moons were depicted, and swirls of purple, green and blue wound around and through it. She was wearing it this afternoon because there was a good chance her benefactor would be in after evening prayers. Besides, it did set off her brilliant white ruff to best advantage. She ran a hand through the long fur, checking to make sure she hadn’t missed any tangles.
“That Hardazi and his snow leopard friend. What was his name? Riki? Rumi?”
“Rizé.” Now Gítali got up to peer through the curtains. Yes, there he was, a fine specimen of a feline if she did say so herself. And she had known quite a few. He was tall and slender, with legs that wouldn’t quit. Even when he was standing still he looked like he was moving, the look of a jánah built for running. He had small ears that were nonetheless expressive, and he always looked a bit sad.
In contrast, her legs were quite short, and although she would not call her ears large, they were certainly larger than his. And her long fur disguised her figure’s contours, to some extent. She liked to think it gave her a hint of mystery. Finally, of course, she was a dog. For whatever reason, cats frequently asked for dogs, and vice versa. A bobcat had once told her that it was a chance to experiment with someone whom you’d never associate with intimately in your ordinary life. She supposed that could be true. Since all of her intimate encounters were in a sense experiments, she had never felt the need to seek them out.
Rizé and the Hardazi had been speaking to Amle, but now Amle turned and said something to Kuniseér, the elephant that acted as the brothel’s bouncer and one-jánah security staff. Kuniseér nodded and went up the steps.
“Oh,” said Reema, “I bet they’re here for that hedgehog, the one Trahmsi brought by earlier. She’s a cute one, isn’t she? Poor thing looked scared to death, though.”
“Maybe she thought she’d have to share a room with you,” Gítali teased her. “You snore something terrible! I can hear it through the wall.”
Reema let out an indignant “I do not!” and tried to poke her friend in the ribs. Gítali brushed aside her hand, and shushed her as Amle glared in their direction. They stood quietly, shoulders shaking, hands pressed to their mouths to suppress their giggles, until the cockatoo turned back to her visitors.
“Suppose that Hardazi asks for you again. What are you going to tell him?” Gítali whispered.
“‘Yes’, silly,” said Reema. “But he’ll have to leave a deposit with Amle. He almost broke the bed last time. And I still have a bruise or two.” She pulled up her robe to examine her ankle. “Very active. What about the snow leopard? Did you like him ok?”
“Oh, he was fine,” said Gítali. “Quiet, though. Not the kind to make small talk. I got the feeling he was here only because of his friend.”
“Mmmm, I think you’re right,” Reema replied, and then “Look! There she is!”
The little hedgehog, dwarfed by Kuniseér, came into view. She carried a small travel bag. Amle presented her to the two visitors, saying, “Here she is. You tell Trahmsi it was no trouble. Will there be anything else for you two?”
The Hardazi looked at Rizé hopefully, but Rizé did not offer him any encouragement. He reluctantly shook his head. “Not this time,” he growled.
“Well, you boys come back whenever you like. Goodbye!” She ushered them out the door, and closed it firmly behind them. “Alright, you two, come on out.” Gítali and Reema came into the front room, looking sheepish. “Where are your manners, I’d like to know? Eavesdropping on customers! Is that any way to act?”
“No, Amle.” Reema and Gítali, with downcast eyes, spoke in unison, like a pair of schoolgirls caught passing notes. After a moment, they were unable to contain their laughter.
“Oh yes, you’re so amusing,” Amle grumbled, though they could tell she was trying not to smile. “Off you go. Edü will set soon, and we’ll have company. Better get a bite to eat from Aditya before we get busy.” She turned and bustled away, and Reema and Gítali went back into the sitting room to collect their things and prepare for the night ahead.