If the industrious city of Ore was the backbone to the Three Regions, then Illus square was its elusive mistress, tucked deep within its heart yet operating to a tempo of its own. Here the poor abounded in their own little shops nestled within streets and traveled winding alleyways caught deep within the folds of her skirt, while the rich slinked in, hooded, disguised, for just a peek at her licentious ways, knowing full well that they did not belong but yearning for her services all the same. She was a jolt of colour in the midst of grey factories belching smog into hazy skies, a spark of life to dull people plodding off to work amid the heat and monotony among dangerous machinery, shoveling coal, tinkering parts, placing gears. Sure the rich held their parties in the cleaner areas of town, but nothing could compare to the chaotic vitality that throbbed through Illus.
Gilbert Beilschmidt cut through Illus Square whenever he could, weaving his way through the cramped corridors between buildings and wading through piles of trash to emerge in a throng of people. He'd usually peek in and among the shops, inhaling pungent spices and sweet fragrances, stopping by a bakery so that the aroma of baking bread could warm him to his core. It was never cold in Illus—the bubble of heat churned by factories staved off winter—but the smog choked out the sunlight on the days that the wind struggled to huff away its thick, lingering presence.
He pulled his trench closer around his body, hand digging into the pocket to close around the cold metal of his watch. Too long had they felt empty, even after deliveries and the meager salary that rich old women took to paying him for fixed jewelry and stupid trinkets. Maybe he'd dreamed of something more substantial when he settled down in this town a few months ago. But here he was in a borrowed grey coat—double breasted wool—buttons no longer shining, fabric thinning at the elbows. He kept dark pants pressed and tucked into lace-up boots, but no amount of polishing could make them gleam again or erase scars from old journeys. A burnished iron cross hanging from his neck lay close to his heart, buried beneath his clothes.
Beggars can't be choosers, Gilbert decided. A woman across the street tried to catch his eye, but Gilbert noticed a thick torsoed, muscular man watching from a nearby alleyway. Pimps and prostitutes. Prostitutes and pimps. To survive in Ore you had to find your shackles somewhere. To some it was to work, to others it was to pimps. To Gilbert it was to his loneliness.
He lowered his eyes and shook his head. The girls made an unspoken contract through captured gaze and were always on the prowl, standing idly at street corners in tattered skirts, hardly breathing for the corsets cutting into their waists. Gilbert was tempted, yes, but he knew better than to grow captivated by oily locks and batting eyes. In the end it was all meaningless and left his pockets and his heart even emptier than before. And he especially had no money to spare.
"You're interested in those girls, yes?"
Gilbert jumped back, nearly stumbling from the curb. He had not realized that anyone had lingered so close, and he chided himself for letting his guard down. Pickpockets abounded in this town, and Gilbert still had one last bracelet to deliver to a woman just beyond the square.
"I wasn't looking," he answered coolly. He tugged his coat more tightly about himself, glancing longwise over at the man who had spoken.
He didn't seem the type normally known for pimping in this city. No slicked, greased back hair, expensive rings, or thick layered clothes. He was just a middle-aged merchant with a receding hair-line and more than an ample waistline challenging the grip of his waistcoat, especially when he chuckled. "You've looked before. "
Gilbert blinked. "Most people do." He began to skim the street, looking for a passage among steam-powered motor cars to allow him to cross.
"But you particularly," the man insisted. "Your pale-ass skin and white hair stand out more than most." He shifted closer, an umbrella sliding from the side of his coat, tip digging into the toe of Gil's shoe before he could take a step. "I can get you in for free."
"I've learned to disregard what seems too good to be true," Gilbert growled, hitting him with the full intensity of jaded, red eyes. "Or trust people making extravagant promises." He kicked the umbrella aside and scoffed. "Promises are worth less than lies."
"You were a soldier," he stated. He chuckled again when Gilbert stiffened. "I can tell by the way you carry yourself."
"Were?" Gilbert said.
"The shame in your eyes suggests a 'were'," he said.
Gilbert shivered but shook his head, suddenly wary. For a moment his vision wavered, and he was sure the man flickered from view. But, blinking, he reassured himself that he had not moved and was as solid as ever. "Quite the trick you're playing. I'm not interested."
"I don't need the affirmation of trust, so your actions from this point are your own business," he said. "But the door down that alleyway—" he pointed with one gloved hand, a loop of chain from a watch concealed in his ragged sleeve dangling into the free space—"is usually unlocked." He dipped his head once. The chain glinted. "Perhaps there is something to be gained from straying from your rigid routine. A man without a purpose is hardly a man at all." The man dropped his hand and he waddled off, a steady stream of automobiles and people engulfing him.
"Fuck, tell me I didn't just hallucinate that," Gilbert said, putting a hand to his head. His eyes flitted to the alleyway in question then back to the street he'd been trying to cross. The road he needed to take to find his next delivery wound off into the Ara district where he usually met cold stares at his ragtag clothes and the general disapproval by pompous, "clean" society. His eyes returned to the alleyway again.
"I bet there isn't even a door," Gilbert said. He took a step forward but turned back and looped carefully over toward the darkened path, avoiding the women on the street corner. Eyes narrowed, he slipped into the shadow and felt along the wall. Worst-case scenario was that he'd be ambushed deep inside, lured in by his own stupidity. But Gilbert had his fingertips curled around the handle of his dagger and his wits about him, ears delving deeper into the darkness than his eyes could. He heard nothing but the drip of water and the rustle of rats through garbage.
His hand bumped into the cool iron of a handle, and his fingers wrapped around the lever like a trigger. He hesitated, shaking his head, and squeezed it. The door moved only half an inch, but would not budge until Gilbert threw his whole weight back and heaved hard enough to scrape a track into the grime caked on the ground. Immediately his nose was assaulted by ginger. The nape of his neck prickled at the slap of a leather whip.
"This is definitely off the beaten path…" Gilbert muttered. He double-checked to make sure the merchant was nowhere in sight before slipping through, then pulled the door shut behind him.
Gilbert had been in all manner of whorehouses in his past, most when he had the run of conquered towns in his days as a soldier. This house was no different. Velvet black lined the walls in swooping folds. Rotting doors granted little privacy to harsh moans and the slap of skin. Darkness clung to the soft pulse of overhead chandeliers. Overall it was a dank place, but whores and the men who requested them preferred the dark, because light had a habit of penetrating into exposed places and revealing the deepest, darkest corners of a man's soul.
The tread of shoes on carpet alerted Gilbert to the shadow of a man emerging from behind a corner. He hesitated then dove for the first door he saw, half expecting to interrupt two people mid-fuck. Nothing.
He took a deep breath and carefully eased the door shut, slipping into the shadow just outside the bar of dull light wedged under the entryway.
Several seconds dragged by. Gilbert strained his ears for the scuff of shoes but caught only the moans from a room next door. Still he waited, taking even breaths, heart barely quickening, until he was sure enough time had passed. He reached for the door.
"The hell are you doing in here."
A flame erupted toward Gil's right with a scrape of a match. The fingers of light only reached the bottom half of the holder's face, where Gilbert could only really make out a pointed chin, an annoyed frown, and the occasional flash of shadow from beneath a delicate nose. Gilbert judged his assailant as a male, a few inches shorter than him, but lithe from a glimpse of his wrist and hand.
"I could be asking you the same, slinking about in the dark." He edged closer to the door but kept an eye on the other. "The hell kind of whore are you?"
"Whore?! I'm no fucking whore, you bastard! Come near me and I'll bite your hand off!"
"Well you're in a whorehouse," Gilbert said.
"S-so are you!" The flame steadily ate at the short matchstick, wandering closer to the other's hand. He waved it out and his outline vanished. "Hey, maybe I'll let you off easy, which is better than what a bastard like you deserves. Give me your money and shit and I'll let you out of here without causing a ruckus. Trust me, if they catch you in here they'll chop your fucking midget dick off."
It was then that Gilbert heard the moan of a full grown man finally reaching consciousness a few feet away, followed by heavy, confused curses. The man yelped—presumably in response to a heavy thud—and went silent. The tread of footsteps marked the movement of the first unknown man back toward Gilbert.
"Wait a fucking second—"
"You wait a fucking seco—"
Gil's hand tightened around the handle of his knife. "Yeah, you're right, you're not a fucking whore. You're a fucking thief, aren't you. That old man in the square is working for you, luring guys in here so you can rob them. Isn't that right, pipsqueak?"
"Pipsqueak? My name is Lovino, and so what. Yeah, I'll steal from whoever I want." He hesitated. "But what the fuck? A guy? Fuck you, don't call her a guy just because she's a fucking who—"
With the escalation of their argument, the hall filled with the dangerous growl of voices and the trod of heavy shoes.
"Fuck, see what you did—"
"What I did—"
A flurry of movement shot toward the albino and Gilbert's head crashed into the prickly carpet, just short of a discarded crumpled pillow. Footsteps cracked through the silence. Once. Twice. They paused, a shadow pooled by the crack beneath the door.
Lovino had thrown himself onto him, shoved his shoulders down, and then opened his legs to straddle his waist. He leaned in close, eyes gleaming with a plea for silence as they darted back and forth into the dim light. The shadow at the door did not move. The floorboards creaked with the shifting of weight.
Swallowing, the Italian cleaned in closer to Gilbert. They were wedged between the bed and the wall so tightly that Lovino could barely move and he was sure that his acquaintance could hardly breathe beneath him. Would this be enough to conceal the two, or would he have to take matters into his own hands? His lips grazed Gilbert's face, but his fingers worked to loosen the knife he'd seen in the albino's belt so he could slip it upwards.
"Shhh…" Lovino breathed into the albino's ear when the other squirmed. "You're the fucker who got us into this mess. You better not be the fucker who gets us both killed." His grip tightened around the brass handle, and he shivered at the chill of roughly carved metal.
Silence. Gilbert closed his eyes and willed his heart to stop struggling against the confines of his chest. Everything in him screamed to shove this kid off of him, to pry those filthy hands from his knife and maybe even shove him down a stairwell. He opened his eyes into a glower, but Lovino shook his head and kneed against him in silent warning.
Another few minutes.
Gilbert dared not breathe.
The shadow did not dissolve.
"Shit," Lovino murmured. His breath was hot against Gilbert's ear. He clutched at his shirt, straining, listening, praying. "They catch either of us here and we're fucked." He swallowed with some effort, but slowly sat up.
The man on the other side of the bed was still unconscious; hopefully he would not stir and start moaning again—though that might prove convincing. Perhaps it was too silent in the room, and that was the issue, though surely they realized that this room currently was not occupied by one of their whores. He gnawed on his lip. "Shitshitshit."
Why was that shadow still there? Why wouldn't they leave?
Already Lovino could feel the uncomfortable heat rise in his cheeks as his heart pounded ever faster. Cornered as they were in the room, they did not stand much a chance against armed guards, daggers or no. Maybe if he tripped the dumbass bastard and made a run for it, but…
He seized. The knob rattled. The door clicked open. A sliver of light slowly cut an expanding triangle into the darkness.
"Oh fuck it." Without a second thought, Lovino crashed his lips to Gilbert's, their teeth scraping and noses colliding, sparks of tension striking into a mass of panic, confusion, loathing, surprise. He kissed as hard as he could, back arching over him, supplying the exaggerated moans as his body writhed and hips rutted. He felt Gilbert tense beneath him. He tightened his hands around his wrists and hissed a silent warning. Gilbert froze. His eyes fluttered half closed, a ragged gasp escaping into Lovino's mouth. The light hesitated over their bodies then vanished with the click of the door.
The footsteps cracked down the old hall.
Neither dared move.