A long sigh escaped from the man lying on the other side of the bed. “Exotic, they said.” The bed creaked with his movement, followed by a deep chuckle. “The duha whore of Ka-Ago was worth the plates.”
The duha stayed quiet, barely moving as it kept its back to the patron. It brought its golden gaze to the wall, where the lanterns projected the silhouette of the bed and those laying atop it. A tap on its bared shoulder meant another round of services; otherwise, the patron would take their dress and leave, allowing the duha some reprieve before the next client.
After a few minutes, the man’s shadow gathered its belongings. Shortly after, his sandals clopped on the wood as he moved towards the door, his shadow shrinking against the wall.
The duha let out a barely audible sigh. It heard the door slide open once, then shut. Immediately, the duha sprang up from the bed. It scooped up its linen robe from the floor. It slipped its arms through the sleeves and wrapped the loose garments twice around its slender body.
The duha then pulled on the garment tightly. Pain means decency. It exhaled deeply and secured the robe by wrapping a worn brown satin sash around its midsection. The robe left nothing of its body exposed, save for the face, neck, hands, and feet.
It began to pull away at the bed’s coverings when it felt a small shiver. The door slid open, revealing the commissioner behind. It then bowed its head and stayed still, holding its breath to prevent unwarranted noise.
The master of the house was a woman nearing her fortieth year. She maintained a slim figure, which she displayed with lively fashion. Today she wore a form-fitting, fuchsia silk dress robe with soft blue waves embroidered on it. For now, however, the duha could only see the folds of the long robe as it dragged across the floor.
“Look up. Listen. And then you may speak.” Despite her curt tone, the commissioner’s words rang like a soft bell.
It raised its gaze to the commissioner’s deep green eyes, framed by cheekbones made more prominent by the layer of pale powder. The mistress donned a pitch-black wig styled in two tight buns, which covered the commissioner’s naturally orange locks. The duha had been one of the few to see her outside of professional dress. Around her neck, she wore a muff sewn from a fox tail.
The commissioner clicked her tongue. “Prepare yourself, duha. Immediately. Another seeks your company.”
“It has been no more than five minutes, Master Itana. Even for one who is duha—”
It clamped its mouth shut.
“This patron has paid a great premium. In advance.” Master Itana gestured for it to stand, so it obeyed. “Entertain her, and you will have completed your duty for the night. You may speak.”
“Her?” The duha blinked before asking quietly, “This duha’s commission will be done, for the night. Truly?”
“Yes. And yes.”
After a moment’s hesitation, it added, “This duha may ask for the amou—” It noticed the master’s gaze sharpen. “This duha di—”
The master released an audible sigh. “Seven golden plates.”
The duha choked back a gasp. Had it been even a common whore, a fraction of that amount would have paid any work debt or servitude. For the duha, the untouchables, it would only serve as a reprieve. Then, its milky-white face somehow paled even further at the realization. “For what services?”
The commissioner gave a small shake of her head. “You shall do as the patron pleases, duha.”
“As Master Itana commands,” it declared, timidly meeting the woman’s gaze. Master Itana watched her unwavering expression before turning and walking away. “Use perfume. The patron awaits in the Lily Lounge. Do not be seen.”
The duha knew the wall-spaces better than any of the other workers. It knew to wait as it pressed its ear against the back of the panel. When no sound came, it pushed its knee against the wall. The panel dislocated with a budge, pressing its fingers against the rough wood before sliding the panel over.
Seen, and unseen. The duha stepped into an empty hallway from the wall panels opposite a set of sliding double-doors decorated with soft-pink lily prints. It stepped closer and raised its hand to the stile.
“Enter!” the woman’s voice chimed from the other side.
The duha stared at the door panel, wide-eyed. After almost a minute, it moved its hand to grip the door.
The woman again called, “Oh, please. Do take all night…Or, perhaps the door shall open on its own!”
It stopped again and began to look around.
“I’m joking. Please come in! Before we get sunlight?”
With a confused sigh, the duha entered. Then, it stopped in its tracks. A woman sat nestled in a pile of the lounge’s pillows haphazardly tossed together in the middle. She wore a dress robe more elegant than those donned by Master Itana or any patron. Like a sea of white, the cloth rippled around her, disturbed only by velvet red lines trimming the edges. The style left her fair shoulders fully bare, unheard of for any respected lady in Ka-Ago. Crimson ribbons stitched together in tight squares covered her bosom.
She had her hair short, above her chin, with chopped bangs. A red rose made of silken cloth covered her left eye while a golden—that shine could not have been anything else—eyepatch covered her right eye. The accessories partly covered the top half of her face, including most of her nose. What remained were full cheeks, a heart-shaped jaw, and painted red lips.
A small gasp escaped the duha as it jumped forward. The door slid shut behind it, though it had neither seen nor heard anything nearby. No silhouette. No muffled steps. It looked around again before returning its gaze to the woman.
“What’s your name?”
The duha froze at the question. Even with years of practicing indifference, its expression morphed into a grimace as it stared with wide, distressed eyes.
“Oh? Too much at one time?” The woman tilted her head. “Ah, of course. It’s not custom to speak to you like this. Very well. I’ll start. You may refer to me as Ahma.” She paused as the duha remained silent, though its eyes betrayed further discomfort. “Still too much? Then, I suppose I shall do as the Kaians do. You may refer to me as ‘Lady’ Ahma.”
The duha regained its composure and adjusted its posture, still silent.
“I’m finding this rather silly now. How did I transgress your cultures so as to warrant not even a word?”
It felt its jaw tense. Was this patron truly ignorant of decorum, or simply testing its behavior?
“Can you not tell me?”
The duha’s brow furrowed. As the lady waited, the duha watched her in turn before relaxing slightly. She cannot see. After a few minutes, the duha half-opened its mouth to speak but glanced first at the door. It remained wary, in case another worker or, worse, the commissioner happened to be passing by.
The lady released an audible sigh. “So, that’s what the Kaians do, eh? Speak to me, you. Enlighten me to these customs I don’t understand. I must order you, correct?”
“Yes, this duha may say the ways it can serve the Lady Ahma—”
“Oh, no! No! None of that. You must answer the question.”
“What—” it began, looking at the woman who leaned forward a bit and turned her ear in its direction. “—question, Lady Ahma? This duha will answer.”
“What is your name?”
“It has no name,” it stated, staring at the eye garments.
“A duha owns nothing.”
“There was a duha in the street as I had lunch today, moving goods like a stock animal. Several people called the fellow by the same name: ‘Romin.’ Is that some special address?”
“No, Lady Ahma.” It furrowed its brow. “Not for the duha.”
“So it was a name?”
“Perhaps. A duha owns nothing and would lose everything when made into duha, to be made into nothing.” It frowned. “That duha would not have responded, for it would be punished.”
“A form of mockery for what once was.”
“Perhaps, yes,” it says more quietly.
“How cruel. To become ‘untouchable’ is one of the severest punishments, I’ve heard. Saved for offenders that couldn’t be shown the blade.”
“Yes, Lady Ahma.” It bowed its head. “More often, many others become ‘duha,’ for it is safer.”
“You don’t look like a criminal.” She gestured towards the fringe of her robe. “Sit with me.”
The duha looked at the pillows before approaching. It gathered its robe around it before kneeling and sitting on its calves.
“What was your crime?”
“This duha,” it folded its hands on its lap, “stole, and did indecent acts.”
“Were you orphaned?”
“It was abandoned.”
“So, they punish a thief and a street whore by making it a whore in a house of pleasure? What a curious law.”
“You were priced at a premium, too. ‘Off the menu.’ Why is that?”
“For it is duha.”
“Huh? By your description, you should’ve been worth nothing. Forgive me for prying. I didn’t breach the question to Master Itana when I paid to meet you. Granted, you’re obligated to answer.”
“The duha is bound to serve for the time paid.”
Lady Ahma gestured toward a window. “Thieving and whoring. That would be the reason they’d use? Ka-Ago is filled with thieves and whores.” She lowered her voice, “If we stay quiet enough, we may even hear their names at this very moment. What a pitiful standard for criminals.”
The duha pursed its lips. “Even before this duha became ‘untouchable,’ it was different. It was born neither man nor woman—” It stopped as Lady Ahma offered a hand.
“Take it. And continue speaking.”
It quirked a brow as it felt the lady’s surprisingly calloused fingers. “This duha was cursed, so it became duha.”
“A curse isn’t often self-inflicted. Who claimed you were cursed?”
“This duha—” It stopped again. A sensation crept at the back of its head, like an encouraging nudge. It looked at the lady then at their hands, eyes wide. “Wh—”
“I wish to see. Please, continue.”
The duha opened its mouth, slightly aghast. It then paused. Refusal would make Master Itana livid.
“I will tell no one of what you say here,” Lady Ahma assured.
The duha felt a weight lift slightly from its chest. Swallowing, it continued, “This duha was paid by a man from the temple to the Earth…” Its throat tightened. “This duha said, it said what it was. The man claimed no issue, but then, when he saw—”
The duha’s posture slackened from dizziness. It remembered that night. The lights from the temple district, where it sought safe shelter. The man garbed in reassuring robes invited it to a supposed sanctuary, and not long after, he asked for service. When it refused, he offered to pay, and it took the sum foolishly. The priest’s yells ripped through the night.
“That ‘man of the temple’ claimed you were cursed from outrage and embarrassment.”
“He made no mention of the tryst as he accused you of theft from the temple, knowing no one would believe a petty whore over a priest.”
The duha quieted as it stared at the woman. “How did you know?”
“A sick pittance. They wouldn’t execute you because of how you appeared, yet they would punish you for the very reason.” Lady Ahma turned in its direction, and the duha could swear it felt her eyes on itself as she released her grip. “How old are you?”
It paused to think. “At least twenty cycles, Lady Ahma.”
“How long have you been in the city?”
“Ten cycles, Lady Ahma.”
“And how long have you been a duha?”
“Seven, Lady Ahma.”
“Would you leave if you could?”
The duha grew still before murmuring softly, “There is nothing for a duha. At least here, it found safety.”
“Safety at the cost of freedom is a steep price.” She tilted her chin up as it shuffled slightly in its seat. “A sensitive subject, I see. Understandably. I shall not pry any further.” Lady Ahma gestured towards the door. “You may leave.”
The duha straightened almost immediately. “Lady Ahma, this duha is bound to the service you paid for.”
“Yes, I know. The service I desired was a willing partner for conversation. I clearly overstepped, but I don’t regret it!” She gestured again at the door. “Nor do I want an unwilling partner in conversation. Consider your service filled. You may leave.”
It slowly rose to its feet and turned toward the door. After just one step, it heard Lady Ahma add, “Actually, I shall tell Master Itana myself. I have business to attend to now.”
She gracefully lifted herself up to a towering height. Without a word, she passed it with long strides, the white robe flowing behind her.
The duha watched unblinking, gawking at the grace of her movements. As the door opened once again without a touch, it squinted and rubbed at its eyes.
After stepping into the hallway, Lady Ahma turned to it. “Do you intend to stay in there?”
It straightened itself and hastily exited the room, watching as the door slid to a shut once again. The duha blinked incredulously. “The-the door—”
“Yes, I’m a true practitioner!” She sighed. “Yes, yes. The spirits guide me,” she droned, waving her hands about. “Frankly, it’s not nearly as impressive as one might believe.”
“Practitioner?” The duha watched as she walked down the hall, toward the stairs that would lead to the base floor. Once she left, it would slip back into the wall-space.
“Will you follow or not?”
It looked towards the stairs where muffled chatter drifted up to the second floor. “A duha is not meant to be seen.”
“Oh?” Lady Ahma folded her arms. “I see. Well, you can follow me…if you wish.”
It glanced around nervously, doubt again gnawing at her sensibilities, before it bowed to her. “This duha thanks you, for your time, Lady Ahma.”
She watched the duha quietly continue to bow. When it did not move, she sighed and descended.
The duha turned towards the panel, placing a hand against it. Suddenly, it felt the weight return to its chest along with a sense of panic and…longing? With light steps, it followed the lady but stopped at the seventh step down the stairs.
“…breach the matter with the duha,” Lady Ahma’s voice declared above the cacophony of chatter.
Gradually, the house of pleasure grew quiet.
“What of it?” Master Itana replied. The duha could not see them, but it could hear as all held their breath.
“Overseeing a duha means owning its contracts. I’ll pay for them. Will you accept seven platinum plates? I warn you, either take it now, or you will take nothing.”
A few gasps punctured the silence, though no one dared to speak loudly.
“May I ask a question, Master Ahma?”
“I may answer it, Master Itana.”
“Why would a priestess of Heaven wish to purchase a duha?”
“I feel it’s fair this way. Now, if you’ll answer my question.”
The duha heard an uncharacteristic strain in the commissioner’s tone. “I think that price fair.”
The sound of clinking metal followed. “And for the clothes on the duha’s back.” Another clink. Then, Lady Ahma declared, “Do you intend to wait at the stairs? Come!”
On cue, the duha hurried the rest of the way to her.
Master Itana stared at it, hands cradling the plates with wide eyes, as did the other patrons and workers on the floor. “Then, I shall retrieve—”
“Burn them. I’ll know if you don’t.”
“Master, that does not—”
“Like I, this one—” The priestess hovered a hand over its shoulder. “Will no longer be bound by the laws of Ka-Ago.” She gestured extravagantly. “By my word, it shall!”
The duha watched the awestruck crowd incredulously, heart racing. It snapped back to attention when Lady Ahma chimed to it, “We’re leaving!”
Lady Ahma strode out of the building, robes in a flurry. The duha gave Master Itana one last glance then followed the priestess outside, keeping a few paces behind her.
After walking for a few minutes, she broke the silence, “First lesson, I will teach you to speak without being ordered. Especially when you must have at least two questions!”
The duha opened its mouth, cheeks growing heated. When it founds its voice, it choked out a sob. “Why? Why do that for a duha?”
“I felt it fair. That’s a loaded question we’ll answer.” Lady Ahma turned into Ka-Ago’s main street. If not for the late hours, an entire crowd might have stopped to jeer at the duha. “Your next question?”
It swallowed, looking down at its sandals as they rushed. “Wh-where are we going?”
“To the temple district,” the priestess replied with a whistle. “But, we’ll stop at the market first.”
The duha felt wetness on its cheeks, and it thumbed at the tears on its face.
“Second lesson! Never cry in the streets! Even when you don’t think anyone can see. Something’s always watching.”
The duha snorted. Its face strained as it gave a single laugh.
“For your third lesson, I will teach you to answer questions without being ordered to do so.” Lady Ahma stopped and faced it. “But only if you want to.”
“What,” the duha lowered its head slightly, “is the question?”
“What’s your name?”
“This duha,” it began. In its mind, it heard an echo of a cheerful call, followed by a sense of longing. It glanced ahead where, in the distance, the temples’ tiled rooftops broke the horizon. “M-my name. It was—I am Eni.”