By Madison Dusome

The bell chimes and I look up from Lind’s impossible crossword. A first-timer. I can tell because she hesitates at the stairs, her clean, tightly-laced boots teasing the edge of my imported carpets. I smile from the desk, beckon her in with one clawed finger.

“Take a seat,” I say, careful to make my voice like honey. My client moves with trembling legs up the steps, all lace, ruffles and hidden alabaster skin. She’s flushed, sweet thing, and she perches on the nearest chaise like she’s ready to bolt – but the heavy air and incense will sedate her soon. “Can I offer you lemonade? Tea? Something stronger, perhaps?”

I saunter around the desk and she stares, as most newcomers do. Forged by my sultan’s best sorcerer, I stand at nearly seven feet, and my skin is like black sand. My fingers and toes are inky talons; my head hosts a tangle of tentacles that flicker like snakes’ tongues. This young woman’s eyes, however, fix on the diaphanous, gold-flecked skirt that hangs across my hips – my only scrap of clothing.

“You’ve… got no…”

“Bits,” I supply, and I sit delicately next to her. Too close, as ever; the hairs on her neck stand on end. “Most homunculi don’t. But bits must be what you’re here for… ?”

She’s sunset-red and tongue-tied. I lift from the table our leather-bound registry and place it in her lap.

“Have a look. We have something for everyone. Fae, selkies, a satyr, succubi, incubi, harpies, a vampire, djinn and more. And humans, of course, but I imagine you’ve had your fill of those”

The full list is exhaustive, but I know each of my employees by name – by heritage, specialty and desire, too. Each was handpicked throughout the years since my sultan’s quiet death and my subsequent lack of employ. Created to protect a harem, I find myself quite incapable of doing anything else. Such is my programming, I suppose.

I stare dutifully away at the wallpaper’s stag motif while the newcomer considers the crinkled roster. Twenty-three down still troubles me, but I’ve yet to solve a crossword, ever, so I move to mental list-making instead. The selkies will need fresh water soon, and I must check on Acacius; a lock of the half-fae’s magic hair was stolen only days ago and he’s still recovering. I am still digesting his assailant.

“Pardon me?” my client says in a small voice, and I bubble back to the present. “I have a question…”

“Anything.”

“I only wondered… why this place is called The Lions? I haven’t seen any.”

Another question I get a lot. I grimace.

“It’s a typo,” I say, and before she can inquire further, “Have you seen anyone you like?”

“I was thinking… I thought… this one?” she stammers, pointing to a faded photo in the ledger. Faeledin’s been with me a long time. I smile and incline my head.

“You have exquisite taste.”