Not the final version. Book version may vary.
And so we come to another time skip. Clearly the best parts of the story.
Where we don’t get to see anything?
Where we all get to read my witty remarks, yay!
Ahem and such. The new recruits were put through a whirlwind of training—guns, physical fitness, civilian interaction, waiting around for paperwork to be processed; after a couple weeks they were taught the layout of New Zhopolis in detail. One month after they started they were given assignments and sent out on patrol.
There was a lot of on-the-job training.
And yet, they made it work. Ropak made a name for himself as a hard worker. Alden did, too, from what Ropak heard. Top generally just made more messes. A few weeks after training, the first snow of the season fell over the city like a soft blanket. This was followed by a blizzard that pounded the city into a white wasteland. But hey, the job was easier! Fewer cleeple wanted to go out into the elements. On the other hand, this made it harder, because they had to go out into the elements. Ropak had never experienced such chilly, blustery weather.
He was quite busy, stopping crooks, helping civilians, and meeting new friends. He got along with his team and roommates, and he learned more of the world than he’d ever known before. After four months it seemed Ropak had found a place where he could prove himself. The new year came around and Ropak celebrated with new and old friends. His old life seemed a distant memory. Then a few months into the new year the month of Nellukle brought to Ropak an unexpected meeting.
Do I start now?
Yes, Wally, start. Start, start, start!
All right, here we go.
Ropak stepped out of the shower and into the harshly-sterile smell of the locker room, drying his dripping head with a towel.
Oh no, Wally, avert your eyes! He’s naked!
Wait, Ropak is always naked.
Oh yeah. Never mind. Go ahead, look all you want.
I don’t know if I’d put it like that.
The wrallot felt fresh from the shower, especially after the crazy day he’d had.
“Heard you guys got into a stinky scuffle today.” A scalago in a dark Zhopian Guard uniform leaned against the wall, picking his teeth with a toothpick.
“Yeah, Damien, we did,” Ropak said, twisting the towel around his head tips. He reflected Damien’s smirk. “Where were you at the time?”
“I had some other business the Guard wanted me to take care of.”
“Uck, I’ll never get this slime out of my fur.” A rackye walked out of the shower, brushing his dripping fur. “How am I supposed to have a proper night on the town with figgin slime in my fur? Anyone know where my blow dryer is?”
“Locker one-thirty-one, Siro.” A cappipoto emerged from the shower, three separate towels over his big body. “Look, stop complaining. At least you’re not the size of a truck. It takes me forever to clean all my fur.”
“Oh yeah, Cheeg?” Siro looked back as he walked to the lockers. “Then why’s Ken still in the showers? He’s smaller than any of us.”
“Because feathers are the worst to clean!” Ken shouted from the showers. “It takes a lotta precision to clean between these things and if you’re not careful you’ll damage ‘em. At least you can brush fur back into place.”
“Not always,” Cheeg said. “Have you ever dealt with a bad fur day?”
Ropak and Damien laughed as a rag smacked into Cheeg’s face. A kudeso hopped out of the shower, shaking off water.
“Every day’s a bad feather day,” Ken said.
“So guys,” Damien said, flicking his toothpick to the corner, “what do you say we bring Ropak out to The Special Parlor this evening?”
“I know we’ve talked about it,” Cheeg said, “but—after such a slimy day?”
Damien shrugged. “Hey, what better time to get refreshed?”
“It’s not like you were slimed,” Cheeg said.
Damien wiped his forehead. “I’m slimed all the time with all this mucus.”
“You’re used to it, then,” Siro said. “You don’t have fur everywhere to worry about.” He dried his fur with a blow-dryer as he brushed it. He had the longest fur of any rackye Ropak had seen, and he could smell the shampoo and conditioner wafting off him.
“I’m up for it,” Ropak said, raising a fist, “whatever it is.”
“That’s the spirit,” Ken said. “Come on. After today we could use companions.”
“All right, if you insist,” Cheeg said.
“Let’s not rush it, gents,” Siro said. “Let’s not make light of it—let’s go in style. We’ve got to look our best, and that includes you, Ropak.”
“All right.” Ropak glanced at his body and tossed the towel behind him. “Okay. Done.”
Ropak and his fellow soldiers emerged into the cold evening air from the subway in the northern business district. Ropak often considered wearing more clothing than a wool hat over his horn in such chilly weather, but he wore clothes in the Guard and it felt nice to be freed of it. His backpack had a heating pack anyway. Only Damien wore more than a hat, a leather jacket concealing nearly his entire body.
As they tramped through the crusty snowy city Ropak asked a question that had been on his mind:
“So what is this place we’re going to, anyway? All you’ve told me is it’s a place for fun and partial excitement.”
Siro put an arm over Ropak’s shoulders and flourished a hand up. “Ropak, we’re going to take you to a brothel.”
Ropak stared at him. “So, what, is that a place where you buy broth or stew or something?”
Siro laughed. “No.”
“It’s a place where you buy sex,” Cheeg said.
Ropak pulled away from Siro. “Wait, what? A place where you buy sex?”
“Yeah,” said Ken. “It’s a place where you pay money and then spend time with a lovely lady–”
“Or a guy,” Siro said.
“Or, hex, let’s be honest,” Cheeg said, “neither one. That’s becoming more common now.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Ken said, flapping his wings, “we know you’re more attracted to robots than anything, Cheeg.”
“That’s not what I–” Cheeg shook his head. “No, I’m not!”
Ropak stared at them. Were they serious? A place to buy sex? He didn’t understand how anyone would do that.
“How? It’s pretty easy how,” Damien said. “You wanna have sex with someone, you give them money, they have sex with you.”
“But sex is such a special thing,” Ropak said. “It creates life, it–”
“It also feels great,” Siro said, pumping a fist to the side.
“I wouldn’t– I mean, it just doesn’t seem right,” Ropak said, looking away. “Just buying it, it wouldn’t be–”
“Yeah, I know, it’s before marriage,” Damien said, waving his hands.
They briefly explained marriage. Ropak recalled Nolan and Livia, husband and wife.
“No, that’s not what I mean at all,” Ropak said. “Wrallots don’t marry. We don’t consider sex partners exclusive, but we wouldn’t—well, to be fair, we don’t buy anything. But sex is such a close, personal thing. I’ve never even– that is . . .”
“You’ve never had sex, Ropak?” Siro asked.
“I’ve never felt that close to another wrallot before.” Ropak looked down. “I haven’t even come close to feeling that close. If I’m being honest with myself, I’m not likely to, either.” He’d never felt close to his village, but every day he grew further away. Would there ever be a wrallot for him?
Siro held Ropak’s hand. “You’ll find someone someday. Until then—Cheeg, tell us, does this place we’re off to have any wrallots on the roster?”
Cheeg exhaled heavily. “No, I don’t think so. Sure, there are some pretty special types there–”
“Gotta be,” Ken said with a flutter up. “See the city to the east?” Below the waxing moons Snycole and Mentsi lay flat fields and forests, mansions isolated as if surrounded by bubbles. “The rich district, where all the richest bastards live with their fancy lawns and private woods so they don’t have to mingle with us common folk.”
“Mo– er, the establishment we’re heading to is just a few blocks away from that rich district,” Cheeg said. “Believe you me, they often patronize it, and some of them are eccentric.”
“Okay,” Ropak said, “but if there are no wrallots there, why am I going?”
“Maybe you’ll be piqued by the idea of another species,” Siro said. “I’ve been with many more than just rackyes.”
The idea confused Ropak more than piqued his interest. He drawled out, “How does that even work?”
“Like I said, there are some special types,” Cheeg said. “A lot of the sex workers do more than just straight-up sex.”
“Say hello to your sexual fetish!” Ken said, wings outstretched. “Though I’ve never seen a robot there.”
“Would you shut up about the robots?” Cheeg said.
“Let me ask you this, Ropak,” Siro said. “Have you ever masturbated?”
“Yeah,” Ropak said. “But never with someone around!”
“Yeah, yeah,” Damien said, “because you’ve never been that close to someone. But money is a good substitute for closeness.”
Ropak crossed his arms. “I disagree with that for certain, Damien.”
Siro smiled. “Look, I know it can feel awkward. We don’t want to put any pressure on you–”
“Yes we do!” Ken said.
“Shut up!” Siro yelled. “Just come along with us. See who’s there. You might see someone you want to spend the evening with. If you don’t, not a problem. You can leave, we won’t judge you.” Siro kicked his foot back into Damien’s leg, the scalago having opened his mouth. “Just check it out. Like you said, it might be the only chance you get.” The rackye held out a hand. “What do you say?”
Ropak smiled. He’d known these guys since winter began and they hadn’t let him down yet. He high-fived Siro’s outstretched hand. “All right, you weirdos, you talked me into it. I’ll see what’s there. Don’t expect anything, but I’ll check it out.”
“All right!” Siro put an arm around Ropak’s shoulders and winked. Ken put a wing over Ropak’s other side, prompting the other two to sidle up on the outside—a rather awkward fit with Cheeg some meter taller than anyone else—and the five pals romped ahead.
Ropak and his pals arrived at a building that, if ever pudgy could describe a structure, would take it and own it. The nearby buildings towered over it, but so little space was between them that it seemed to push the taller buildings away. A sign above the front door read “Anunomisa’s Parlor”. The front mailbox, porch, and windows gave the suggestion more of a family residence than a business.
“Here we are, Ropak,” Damien said, arms out towards the house. “Anununu . . . Animoni . . . Ammonia—” He wiped his mouth. “Cheeg?”
“Anunomisa’s Parlor,” Cheeg said. He opened the front door and stepped inside. “Anunomisa! It’s your favorite boy.”
Ropak followed into a grand main room, polished wooden walls and the velvet carpet like a soft liquid. A sweet, almost heavy smell permeated the room. A thick, fuzzy curtain hid the back of the room, while the front was lined with tables covered in candles and all sorts of figures and pictures and pots of designs Ropak had never seen, many depicting cappipotos or wintry landscapes.
“Ah, my boy!” From a side room emerged a cappipoto who matched her house’s shape. Her legs were hidden under rolls of fat, and her wrinkled black skin looked crustier than the outside walls. Her hat was flat like an overturned dinner plate. Ropak supposed she was short for a cappipoto, but she stood about his height.
Anunomisa hugged Cheeg. “I am so glad you finally have given your old lady a visit. How shall we spend the evening? A game of cards is what we could play, perhaps?”
“Er, I brought my friends, you see.”
“Ah, that’s so good to hear,” Anunomisa said. “Many-player card games are what we can play, then.”
“That’s not exactly why we came,” Cheeg said.
Anunomisa laughed, a deep-throated laugh like someone ready to spit up the entire contents of her body. “I know, I know, you silly boy! I am only messing with you, Cheegenthel.”
“Cheegenthel?” Ropak muttered. Is that Cheeg’s full name?
“Ah, and who have we here? You have brought over a new face!” Anunomisa plodded to Ropak and pinched the ends of his head, pulling it out. “As well you have brought over a new head. May I ask, what is your name, son?”
“Ropak, ma’am.” He pulled away from her pulling fingers.
“A wonderful name! And for this evening, whatever may it be that you are in the mood for, hm?”
Ropak rubbed his head and murmured, “I don’t really know.”
“Anunomisa?” Siro said. “You wouldn’t happen to have any wrallots, would you?”
“I may perhaps, Siro,” Anunomisa said. “Would you, pray tell, answer what wrallots are?”
Siro motioned to Ropak with his head.
“Ah! A wrallot is what you are.” The old cappipoto shook Ropak’s hand. “It is quite a pleasure to have the chance to meet you.” Her snout and ears drooped. “Ah, no, but I must apologize on this account, but I am afraid I do not have any wrallots at my establishment. Never before now have I even had the chance to meet one, you see.”
“I don’t know if there’s anything for me here, then,” Ropak said. Anunomisa held his arm.
“Ah, but there are plenty of fine options that we have here to suit many a taste,” she said. “Now then, do not be embarrassed, Ropak. I am perfectly discreet, this is a thing I can promise you. Do you have any particular kinks or fetishes that you might enjoy?”
Ropak threw out his arms. “I don’t know!” He felt so out of place.
Siro whispered to Anunomisa.
“Ah, I believe I see,” the old lady said with a nod. “Allow me to do this for you then, Ropak. I have many companions with many special talents here. Why do I not simply show you some, and then if someone happens to pique your interest, perhaps we can move forward from there. If none do, I will put no pressure on you to keep going. How about that?”
Ropak shrugged. “I guess that would be fine.”
Anunomisa’s nostrils rose in glee. “Wonderful! Allow me to get a showcase set up for you. Please wait for a moment and I will be back.” She waddled to the curtain in the back and disappeared through it. Ropak’s pals chatted with him over all manner of things—silence would have been too awkward. A few minutes later Anunomisa returned. “Now, Ropak, allow me to show you some of my daughters and sons.”
“I really wish you wouldn’t call them that,” Cheeg muttered.
“I am sure we have someone here who would interest you,” Anunomisa said. “I always say that everybody has some fetish—it is only a matter of discovering what it is that you like.” She stood to the side of the curtain as it opened, and Anunomisa introduced the sex workers as they walked across: an arkent with long mouth tentacles (tentacles were “in” right now, according to Anunomisa), a thick-feathered nervist, an obese cappipoto, a kudeso with a whip and rope, a scalago dressed in a short-cut nurse outfit, a dankom covered in a sulfur-smelling slime. . .
At best Ropak had no reaction; at worst it repulsed him. He was about ready to go home in disgust when the next lady walked out. Ropak took one look at her black face and four arms and blurted out, “Arami?”
If it wasn’t Arami, it was one of her own species—black skin, curved head spines, four arms and legs, and the bulbous back abdomen. Her purple dress hung looser than any dress Ropak had seen her in, a few floppy, white ribbons as wide as her arm span hanging from the back.
She proved her identity as her eyes widened and she shouted, “Ropa–” She gripped her mouth with her front arms, her back arms clutching her head, and she ran back behind the curtain.
“Ah? What is this?” Anunomisa walked behind the curtain. “Miss Arami is not feeling well this evening? May I ask, what is the matter?”
“Ropak?” Siro asked. “Do you know Arami?”
Ropak looked at his friends. “Uh, uh.” He shook his head. “What?”
His brain screamed at him, Why is she at a brothel?
He ran past the curtain to a room with cleeple who looked ready for some sort of loose masquerade. “Where’d she go?”
“Arami?” A rackye pointed past the door. “She’s–”
Ropak darted around the door. Arami sat on a box, and upon the wrallot entering she backed into a closet, hiding among clothing, though not a lot of it. Ropak asked Arami what was going on, but a flurry of voices drowned him out. He could neither hear Arami nor get more than a few words from her anyway. He needed to know, why was she there, why wasn’t she at the Place for the Placeless, what happened, but he gleamed nothing. Ropak screamed and turned to Anunomisa.
“Madame, I’ve made my decision, and I would like to spend the evening with Arami!”
Arami popped her head out from the closet and screamed, “What?” She wrapped her arms around her head, shouting no.
“Miss Arami, this is quite so unlike you!” Anunomisa said. “You are such a unique clerpson and a species all alone, but now it is turning out you have a bias against wrallots?”
Arami froze. She pulled her arms away. “I’m not! I don’t, I mean–” She looked up and groaned, and then she smiled at Ropak, showing prominent fangs that he had never seen quite so visibly before, and she spoke through clenched teeth. “Ms. Anunomisa, I would be happy to entertain our guest.” She glared at Ropak as she passed him. “I will be waiting in room fifteen, thank you.” She left to the other end of the curtain.
“Excellent!” Anunomisa said. “I am so glad we have found something for you, Ropak. There is, of course, the matter of the payment ahead of time.”
Ropak stared after Arami. He snapped his head to Anunomisa. “What? Oh, the payment?” He muttered. “Payment. Okay, yeah.” He opened his bag. “Payment. Fine. I hope.”
He certainly did hope everything was fine with Arami.
Ropak passed the curtain, ignoring his friends in the front room, and walked down a back hallway to room fifteen, the last one. It was dark, but he could make out a thick bed and a plush chair—and Arami, who sat on the bed facing away from the door.
When Ropak closed the door, Arami turned around and lifted a thick strand from one of the white silk ribbons, untied and held taut.
“I’ve never strangled a client here,” Arami said, “and I don’t want to start now.”
Ropak stared at her, mouth agape. He wanted to pretend he misheard her.
“What the fig?” he whispered.
“Look, just go,” Arami said. “I’m not going to do anything for you. I just can’t, okay? It’s fine with someone I don’t know, but—”
“I don’t even want anything like that,” Ropak said.
“Then why are you even here?”
“Why are you–” Ropak yelled, but then he lowered his voice to a murmur. “What are you doing here? Why aren’t you at the Place for the Placeless?”
“I work here. I don’t spend all my time at home.”
“Why do you work here?”
“Because it pays well,” Arami hissed.
Ropak stared. “Oh.” He looked down. “Oh. Oh.” He recalled when Arami gave Walter a thick stack of bills. “So you—this is where you got—that money.”
“Yes. It takes a lot of money to house so many cleeple. Without this income I really doubt we could do it.”
“And Walter doesn’t know.”
“No. No one but Teen Angst knows.”
Ropak waved his hands. “Whoa, whoa, wait, time out. Teen Angst knows?”
Arami put a hand to her mouth. “She’s weirdly easy to open up to on the phone.”
“But you’re not—I mean, you’re the only . . . one of your kind here.” Ropak wondered why that was his first thought and not the fact she worked in a brothel. “Does anyone even—I mean, how does—when–”
“You weren’t choosing among wrallots, were you?” Arami asked.
“No, but I’m the only—okay, fine, so there’s some who don’t . . .?”
Arami sighed. “I mostly do fetish work.” She lifted the ribbon. “You know I said I’ve never strangled a client? That’s not entirely true.”
Ropak shut his eyes and stepped back. “Stop, stop, stop. I don’t want to enter that topic.” He looked at her. “But you’re okay with this? I mean, I know it pays well, and it’s for the Place for the Placeless, but you’re really okay with doing sex work? Is it safe?”
“Yes, it’s fine,” Arami said. “Ms. Anunomisa is kind, and she treats us all like family. She’d never let anything bad happen to us. If she was wary about someone, she wouldn’t let them in, or she would have someone watch out for them.”
“But if you’re fine with it, why haven’t you told anyone?”
Arami glared at Ropak. “Well you sure acted cool about it when you found out.”
Ropak rubbed the tips of his head. “I’m just—I was worried.”
Arami looked down. “It’s different with people you know. It . . . You never think someone you know does this, do you? You might think it’s fine for someone to do this, but then it’s someone you know and it’s weird. Or worse, you might not think it’s fine. I don’t know what Dad thinks.” She hugged herself. “I’m not sure I want to know.”
Ropak sat on the other end of the bed. “I’m sure he would be okay as long as he knew you were safe. You’re helping him and the Place for the Placeless.”
Arami leaned towards Ropak, hands clenched. “But you’re not going to tell him, or anyone, are you?”
“What? No, of course not.” I haven’t even seen Walter since we left.
“And Alden and Top?” Arami asked.
Ropak looked to the side. “Don’t see ‘em as often as I used to. Regardless, I won’t tell them.”
Arami sighed and nodded. “Well, thank you. That’s really all I can ask for. When I saw you there, I thought for sure Dad would find out, and then, then he would expel me from home, or, or I don’t– I just, I don’t know what I would do if I lost Dad.”
Ropak looked at Arami. “You’re not going to lose him.” He coughed. “I don’t know how you do it, though. It hardly seems safe, having sex with cleeple you don’t know.”
“Oh, I don’t have sex,” Arami said. She looked up, pulling on the ribbon strand. “Well, sometimes it’s nauseating, but most of the stuff I do is just kinda weird. It usually leaves me the safest worker here, though.”
“What sort of stuff do you do?” Ropak asked.
Arami smirked. “I thought you didn’t want to enter that topic.”
“Oh, right. Bleah.” Ropak looked down. “I think coming here was a mistake.”
Arami stood up. “Well. Come on. You can tell Ms. Anunomisa you changed your mind and get your money back.”
“No way,” Ropak said, stretching his arms. “Take the night off! Consider the money a gift.”
“I couldn’t,” Arami said. “I’m not looking for charity.”
“No one ever is,” Ropak said. “Then when they need it it’s not there.” He sat up. “Wait, that was deep, for me.” He grinned. “Huh.”
“Most of the money goes to Ms. Anunomisa and the parlor.”
Ropak opened his bag and pulled out two hundred dollars.
“Wait, you just walk around with that much money on you?” Arami asked.
Ropak stared at the money. He never thought about that. “Yeah. Look, I’m part of the Zhopian Guard. Anyone tries to rob me, they’re in for a world of hurt. And jail.”
Arami stammered. “Right.” She leaned away as Ropak handed the money to her. “Still, I can’t accept that for nothing.”
“I said consider it a gift,” Ropak said. “Think of it as a donation to the Place for the Placeless. I may not live there, but I want to support it. It’s a wonderful cause.” Arami took it, her hand shaking. “Just don’t tell Walter who gave it to you. I don’t know if he’d like the idea of taking money from the Guard.” He looked down. “You know—did I ever tell you I’m an orphan?”
Arami looked at him. “You are?”
Ropak nodded. “Never knew my parents. In fact, no one did. Might as well have come from the dirt, far as I know. Plus I got this.” He tapped his horn. “I’m a freak of a wrallot, really. But!” He raised a finger as Arami started to speak. “I can’t even imagine how it was for you. I at least had others of my own kind with me.”
“I still had the best father in the world, though,” Arami said.
Ropak leaned back. “I guess that’s true. I never did.” He sighed. “At best I just had a lot of aunts and uncles.” He shook his head. “Let’s not turn this into a pity party, though.”
They reminisced of the time they lived under the same roof and caught up on Ropak’s activities in the Guard and how the Place for the Placeless was doing. Before Ropak realized, it was but an hour before dawn. He’d be tired all day.
“Good thing I’m off tomorrow,” Ropak said. He looked around. “You know, I could come back sometimes. It could be a pretense for giving money to the Place for the–”
“No,” Arami said. “I mean, it’s been good to see you, but cleeple talk. If you came by and always went to me, cleeple would absolutely talk. And that talk gets around. If Alden or Top should hear, or Gourd forbid anyone at the Place for the Placeless. And I don’t think I could trust Top with a secret more than a phosser sandwich.”
“Oh, you could trust them with the secret way better,” Ropak said. “But I get what you mean. I understand.” He looked away. “Are you sure you’re all right here?”
Arami looked straight at him. “Actually, Ropak, are you okay at the Zhopian Guard?”
Ropak flinched back. “What do you mean?”
“Crooks, murderers, schalindra–”
“I can take them all on!” Ropak said, raising a fist.
Ropak dropped his fist. “What?”
“I mean, the Zhopian Guard is so big. I can’t imagine you’ll always know where your orders are coming from. Don’t do anything you might regret.”
“Where did this come from, anyway?” He never thought for a moment that anything he did was less than noble—that anything a superior told him to do would be other than what was best.
“It’s Dad. Walter.” Arami looked down. “Anytime you’re brought up he worries. I still don’t know what his problem with the Zhopian Guard is, but he says nothing good can come of it. It worries me. Just promise you’ll look out for yourself—and Alden and Top—and for what you’re doing, okay?”
Ropak grinned. “Absolutely. I’ll look before I leap and only leap where I look.” He stood up. “I’ll keep a sharp eye out. The Zhopian Guard is an upright organization out to do good in this city, but if any malicious officer is promoted despite their rotten plans they won’t get past me.”
Arami nodded. “That’s all I can ask.” They shook hands and said goodbye, and Ropak left the room.
“Oh! Ropak!” Arami leaned out of the room and held up his bag. “You forgot your bag.”