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There were just under a dozen girls who worked at the Waters Street Waterhole. Alyssa might have said that a dozen was less than she had expected except she hadn’t really expected anything. Between Tenebrael, killing two people, and nearly getting sold into slavery, she hadn’t thought much about what the actual brothel operation might have been like. The girls were cleaner than expected as well, though the smoke haze still in the air might have disguised their filth a little. Not all of them. Those who had been acting more as waitresses than prostitutes were generally better off. Most wore bodices of some type or another. Of those who wore anything more than a blanket, that was. Presumably the latter group had been in the process of… entertaining customers. They tended to be the filthiest as well, covered in a thin layer of grime, sweat, and possibly things that Alyssa would rather not think about.

But even among the cleaner girls, Alyssa did not find the idea of touching them pleasing. Not before they had taken a few showers. And maybe more than that. There probably weren’t STD screenings in this world. Or treatment.

She really needed to investigate medical magic. Yet another thing to add to her ever growing list.

Apart from the girls were the guards. Only six of them. Even with the one that Alyssa had killed and Svotty, the girls outnumbered them. Had there never been a rebellion? Surely one of the girls could have hidden away a makeshift shank if not a proper knife and used it to escape. It made Alyssa question her initial assumption of the dynamics of this brothel. If the girls weren’t here against their will, it might complicate things.

As for the guards, they carried themselves differently. While even the cleanest of the girls had a downtrodden and world-weary look to them, the guards were uncertain. No doubt they had heard that Svotty was dead. No doubt that they knew who had killed him. The only one Alyssa recognized was the muscular man who had been guarding the front door. He glared at her with unrestrained anger. Maybe Svotty or the deceased guard had been a friend. Maybe he was angry with himself for allowing her through with her weapons. Maybe he just didn’t like her on principle. She was sort of threatening to kill every one of them if they disobeyed her. No doubt they had all heard about that and just what she could do; both of the injured guards were in the room. The one she had hit in the leg had shabby bandages wrapped completely around his thigh. He looked a bit woozy. Blood loss? The other, looking much better off, had some similar bandages covering his arm. Cid stood behind the entire group, trying hard to avoid Alyssa’s gaze.

Both the guards and the women stood apart from each other, two distinct groups. Alyssa couldn’t help but notice that the guards had placed themselves in just such a way as to block the main door from the girls. If they were the only two groups, she might have continued on, but a third group away from the other two had her standing momentarily frozen.

They were… girls? No. Definitely girls. There were less of them than the working girls. Only four. All but one of whom were even worse for wear than the worst of the women. They were covered in welts, bruises, marks, and scars. But what had frozen Alyssa in place wasn’t their health, but their very state of being.

They weren’t human.

Two blatantly obviously inhumans, two that weren’t quite so obvious. Bright red scales adorned one, starting just at the sides of her cheeks; they moved down her neck, covered her arms completely, continued down her sides and hips before coating her legs as well. Her torso and face were oddly human where the scales weren’t covering while her legs and arms were more… animalistic. Or reptilistic? She had long nails that might have been sharp claws at one point in time, but were blunt as a spoon at the moment. Her red eyes that matched her hair stared off into space, much like the whipped girl.

To her side was… a bee? Her whole body was covered in yellow and black stripes. Like the lizard, she had a surprisingly human form, except for her face and her abdomen. A thick bulb hung off her lower back, tipped with a single sharp spike that had been flattened like the reptile’s claws. She had two wings as well, thin and transparent and filled with holes. Unnatural holes. More of tears. Probably put there to keep her from flying, or maybe from simple violence. Her mouth lacked lips, being stiff, and had sharp ridges instead that molded into her skin. Or carapace? And her eyes… they were somewhat uncomfortable to look at. Alyssa honestly couldn’t tell what the bee-girl was looking at. They were black and faceted like an over-cut diamond. A single antennae drooped off the top of her head, sticking out through dark hair. Off-center. Were bees supposed to have two?

The other two could pass for humans. One had off-color skin, almost a bluish black. If not for that and the long ears poking back off her head, she probably would have stood with the other girls. An elf. Alyssa had seen several already, though never up close. As it turned out, she was the one who had been whipped in the main room earlier. In the darkness and smoke haze, Alyssa hadn’t noticed her skin color. Now it was plain and apparent to see that she wasn’t human.

Finally, standing in front of them all, was a woman so beautiful, she could have easily been a supermodel. Her skin lacked the injuries and blemishes that the other girls had—both human and monster—and her blond hair had a luscious gloss worthy of a shampoo commercial. She wore a dress as well, an evening gown that practically glowed even in the dim light. None of the monsters wore clothes at all, except for some chains around their wrists and ankles. This woman lacked those. Even comparing with the humans, not a single one wore a garment that could stand up to the dress’ radiance. Except… it all looked fake. Alyssa couldn’t pick out one thing in specific. The hair was just a hint too glossy, the skin too perfect, the dress too expensive. If any one of them were on their own, she might not look at it twice. As it was, it niggled at something in the back of her mind.

Pushing the thought aside—though if it was magic, she definitely wanted to speak with the beautiful woman later—Alyssa focused on the room as a whole.

“Svotty is dead.”

Alyssa glanced around the room, looking for reactions. Overall, everyone was far more subdued than she had expected. The guards weren’t surprised in the slightest, confirming her thought that they already knew. The girls, the human ones, managed to look even more uncertain than they had been before. They glanced between themselves, murmuring softly to one another too quiet for Alyssa to hear. As for the monsters, they barely reacted at all. The elf’s ears perked up ever so slightly. But the bee’s inhuman face was impossible to read and the lizard just continued staring.

“I took objection to being sold into his company. I expect you all share a similar sentiment, as such, you’re free to go.” She only needed one or two to stay behind to answer questions. Or rather, she could just follow the women out when they left and ask a few questions then. Or not. Not if she wanted to find whatever stash of cash was sure to be in this place. But she couldn’t tell them to stay behind now, not after telling them they were free. Turning her head to the group of guards, she narrowed her eyes and continued on. “If you try to stop them, I’ll be exceedingly displeased.” Alyssa waited for a moment. No one moved. Did they not understand—

“Go where?” one woman said. A taller one standing in the front, wearing proper if skimpy clothing.

“Home. To your family, friends, or…” Alyssa trailed off. A heavy air had settled about the group of prostitutes. It didn’t take much to read their expressions. “Do none of you have homes? Parents? Anything?”

The lack of response was more than enough in and of itself. If only it stayed that way.

A girl—a young girl, far too young for a place like this—started crying. She clutched at the hem of her frilly dress. “M-My father left me here.”

The taller one knelt, rubbing her hand on the younger girl’s back. “Sold her,” she said, bluntly. “Most of us are in the same situation. Whether we were kidnapped or sold, we don’t have anywhere to go.” There was a slight pause as she looked back over her shoulder, as if checking that no one would contradict her, before she turned back to Alyssa. “You might think you’ve done us a kindness, but Svotty gave us shelter and food.”

Alyssa stared, stunned. If it was just the one woman, she might have considered her an exception. But several of the others nodded along like they agreed. No one argued against it. She could hardly believe it. They wanted to go back to prostituting themselves out? That just didn’t… make sense. At all. How could they not have anywhere to go? What had they been doing before coming here? Apparently being sold by their parents. But that surely wasn’t the case for all of them. Hadn’t the city guards mentioned someone getting kidnapped?

Her plan was already falling apart. This wasn’t the grateful thanks she had expected. Just the opposite. She had taken away the guards’ employer and the working girls’ meal ticket. Not in a million years could Alyssa imagine wanting to whore herself out. Even if she lost everything she had on her, even if her house exploded, she would try hard to find real work long before working in a place like this. Especially because… did these girls even get paid? Were they allowed outside? Days off? Doubtful.

A movement in the corner of Alyssa’s vision had her turning to the other group in the room. The monsters. “And what of you lot? You haven’t said anything. What do you…” A thought occurred to her. “Do any of you speak? Can you understand me?”

They definitely understood her. The elf’s brow furrowed while the beautiful woman’s elegant smile turned to a fanciful frown. Though the lizard just continued her vacant stare and the bee-girl’s antennae twitched. All of them, Alyssa noted, had souls. Smaller than human souls with the possible exception of Cid’s rat, but souls nonetheless. The lizard girl had some kind of red and black salamander. It was the smallest of the lot. Bee-girl had a bee, large but insectoid instead of humanoid. The elf had a simple ball of light. There might have been a face in the ball, but it was the first soul she had seen that wasn’t an animal in some form or other. Well, hers and the beautiful woman, depending on the definition of animal. The woman had a human, nude but completely androgynous, hovering just over her left shoulder. It was the largest in the room, but still quite small.

Looking around, she couldn’t help but notice that everyone’s souls were small compared to many she had seen on the streets. The guards’ souls were larger than those of the prostitutes on average. The girl with welts on her legs and sides had the smallest soul. A little greyish black snake with an obsidian-black mouth. It was only slightly larger than the lizard girl’s soul. Was there some correlation between them both being reptilian? Or maybe size. What did that mean for Irulon, who had a reptilian dragon that was the size of an already large room?

“We most certainly can speak, thank you very much.”

Alyssa turned back to the beautiful woman. Her glance around the room had probably looked like she had been visually asking the others if the monsters could speak. Not exactly the most polite thing to do, she supposed. Not wanting to offend a potential magic user, Alyssa nodded her head. “I apologize. The only…” Was monster a derogatory term? “Nonhuman that I have spoken with didn’t speak so much as she trilled, chirped, and tweeted.”

That got a reaction from near everyone in the room. Though this time, the reactions weren’t split between three camps, but only two. Human and monster. Given that there were so many humans, their reactions did vary. Mostly between narrow-eyed suspicion, disgust, and deep scowling. The monsters, those whose expressions Alyssa could read, looked more thoughtful than angry. Eyebrows rose and eyes softened.

Pretending she hadn’t noticed, Alyssa ignored it all. “Judging by your companions’ chains, I assume they are not here because they want to be.”

“Not at all,” the woman said with a smile. “Some clientele had more exotic tastes. Svotty went to great effort to satiate those tastes.”

“Depraved tastes!” one of the prostitutes shouted, though Alyssa didn’t catch which.

But the woman nodded her head. “Ufu~ Indeed. So depraved that they didn’t bother having sex half the time. Instead, they would choose to indulge in the pleasure of violence.”

That explained their wounds. Probably the vacant gaze of the lizard as well. Harpies stealing sheep seemed like a perfectly reasonable thing to be angry over. But monsters in general seemed universally despised. Was there some history behind that? Something that the monsters did to humans? Or was it simple racism? The Fortress of Pandora had to have something to do with it. Looking it up was a lower priority, but definitely something to add to her list.

“What are you?” Alyssa couldn’t help but ask. “You look human, but you aren’t. I can tell that much.”

Covering her mouth with the back of her hand, the woman giggled. “I’m whatever you want me to be.”

“She’s a mimic.” The guard who had been shot but not in the leg stood up. A shorter, stockier fellow. He had a round face, but piercing eyes as he glared at the so-called mimic. “She turns into whatever she wants. Tries to kill people by becoming their pillows or teacups!” Ah. There must be some history there.

The mimic just giggled again, not even bothering to deny the accusations.

“Then why keep her around? Shouldn’t you punish such behavior at least?”

“W-Well, mimics are weak. None of her attempts succeeded. A-and… she’s the most popular girl by far.”

Blinking her eyes, Alyssa felt her face heat up as she realized the connotations behind the mimic’s ability. Being able to turn from a beautiful woman to a teacup and, presumably, anything in-between would garner much popularity at a brothel. “With such an ability, surely you could have escaped at any time.”

“And leave behind my sisters to the tender mercies of you humans?” Ah. Apparently the hate did go both ways. The way she said humans dripped with unbridled loathing. “We can’t just walk out either, even if you say we’re free to go.” Her fingers crawled along the bee-girl’s shoulders, drawing her into a one armed hug. “Can you imagine her trying to go outside? She’d be lynched not ten steps away from the door.”

This world was beyond screwed up. Bad things existed on Earth. Human trafficking and forced prostitution among those bad things, even if Alyssa had never known about any specific cases of either. But when people on Earth were saved from such situations, they weren’t left to rot in the streets—or lynched in the streets—they were given help. Probably.

Right?

It was doubtful that the same would be true here.

Alyssa rubbed at her forehead. She still had a headache and the haze in the air didn’t help matters. “So either none of you want to leave or none of you can leave.” Ugh. What a mess. “Fine. If anyone wants to leave, I won’t stop them and I won’t let anyone else stop them,” she said with a pointed look to the group of guards. “For everyone else, you are free to stay. Svotty may be dead but I’m sure you can figure out how to collect money in return for your… services on your own.” She had a sinking feeling that one of the guards would browbeat his way into Svotty’s position, but Alyssa wasn’t going to babysit them. She had given them an opportunity. Most of the prostitutes were adults. They could make their own decisions. If they thought life would be better here, who was she to convince them otherwise. For all Alyssa knew, this was a decent life—she still lacked so much knowledge about this world.

The younger girls, she felt a bit bad about. But it wasn’t like she had the capability to care for someone else. She was still trying to get herself situated.

Though Alyssa couldn’t just leave. Not yet. She was completely out of money. Her coming here had been supposed to be a business deal. Selling her cloak should have bought her a little more time with money. She couldn’t leave without finding at least a fistful of coins. There would almost certainly be some cash in Svotty’s office. “I’ll remain here for a few minutes while I tend to some matters of my own, so you may take that time to decide whether you truly want to stay or not. After then, I’ll leave. Everything will be up to you at that point.”

Turning on her heel, Alyssa flinched. She had forgotten that Bacco was standing so close. Thankfully for her pride, Bacco jumped, stumbled back, and made plenty of space for her to move. She sighed, but couldn’t help but feel that this was more her fault than anything else. Cid and Bacco had given her plenty of chances to run off on her own. Even knowing that they weren’t upstanding people, she had still followed them into such a hive of scum and villainy.

Finding an inn on the other side of the city might be a good idea. The east side of the city was far nicer than around here. And it had the Observatorium in close proximity. She needed a safe place to leave her pack and to find some clothing that matched the local attire. Something simple. For anything that needed something fancy, such as the Observatorium, she could probably wear one of the dresses she had brought from home. After that, blending in with the populace shouldn’t be too difficult.

Shaking her head, she started toward the stairs, but paused again. Looking over her shoulder, she couldn’t help but frown. The elf had perked up when she had mentioned Svotty’s demise. There was no way that a bunch of monsters, who had almost certainly been kidnapped from their homes, wherever those were, wanted to stick around as literal slaves forced to have sex with humans.

An idea popped into her head. Was it a good idea? Time would have to tell. But she would try one more time to help the people here. Some of them, at least. And, at the very least, she might get some information out of this mess after all.

“Mimic. Would you and the other three meet me downstairs? I have a few questions I would like to ask you before I leave.”

“Questions? Ufu~ I wonder what that could be about.”

“Follow me and find out. I’m not forcing you to answer anything. It’s your choice.”

The mimic giggled again, covering her mouth with the back of her hand. “I haven’t had a choice in much of anything for a long while. Allow me to discuss with the others. Perhaps we’ll take you up on your proposition.”

“Good,” Alyssa said with a nod of her head. Without another word, she turned and headed back down to Svotty’s office. She had some looting to do.

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