“I jest don’t get it,” Erin muttered to her cards.
“Don’t get what?” Marigold asked.
“Why do we,” Erin replied petulantly, but in a low voice, “have to close down so that she can have her way with … him?” And she nodded her head toward Tambu and her male companion.
Marigold sighed and rolled her eyes. But she should have known better than to expect that Erin would get the big picture. Erin never did get the big picture; her vision was always focused on the details, on the problems that were right in front of her. Such as the opportunities — whether for coin or for good fun — she would miss if Tambu’s visitor stayed overlong and meant that they couldn’t open on time, or at all.
Tambu, however, could get the big picture; that was why she was dealing with this customer. She was the only one who Marigold could trust with it, other than herself — and, unfortunately, this customer’s tastes didn’t tend toward the green. As for the other girls … well, Erin didn’t understand why keeping this particular visitor happy was so important; Wei Li, though she was generally better at “big-picture” sorts of things, didn’t have the cultural knowledge necessary to keep their visitor happy; and Mirelle … Marigold shook her head. Firstly, this assignation took place in daylight, so that knocked Mirelle right out. Secondly, even if it had taken place at night, Marigold didn’t trust Mirelle with something this delicate, at least not after her transformation.
After all, while Mirelle hadn’t killed anyone yet … their visitor happened to possess one body that Marigold definitely didn’t want to be responsible for getting rid of.
“Because if we do not keep him happy, he might go to the King and have us shut down,” Wei Li answered Erin matter-of-factly. “And I do not know about you, Erin, but I much prefer to ply my trade in a nice, warm house, with a bed made for two. I would very much dislike to have to take care of it in a small rented room with a cot, or in an alleyway, for example.”
Well, that’s one way to put it!
“And it ain’t like we’re losin’ any money,” Marigold added, just in case the visitor were to be distracted long enough from Tambu’s charms to catch the gist of their conversation. “In case ye haven’t noticed, the sun’s still shinin’ — and even if it weren’t, it’s Sunday. We don’t open on Sunday.” And she glared at both Erin and Wei Li, daring them to contradict her.
Wei Li shook her head; the concept of one day as a sacred, inviolate “day of rest” had never quite been understood by her. Erin, however, looked as if she were about to protest — then she squeaked and glared at Wei Li, who sent her an angelic smile.
Thank Wright for Wei Li being faster than I am.
But Marigold sighed. Wei Li might be faster, Erin more adventurous, and Mirelle more classy than she — but it was Tambu who had to pull this off. If Tambu had anything, it was sense, and a way with her words.
Marigold prayed it would be enough.
Good sense and honey-coated words, Tambu had discovered early on in her career, were very rarely enough in her line of work. Possessing the one often made it harder to come up with the other, or deliver it convincingly. The ability to lie well, however, helped.
Tambu had a feeling, though, that it was going to take more than just lying and shrewdness to lure this fish onto her hook. So she’d come prepared. A long time ago, before she even became a whore — back when she thought there was a chance she’d get some nice boy to marry her, settle down and raise a family with her — her mama had taught her a little recipe that was coming in rather handy today. A recipe for a love potion, to be precise. Tambu’s own charms were usually battle-ready enough that she didn’t need any extra weaponry, but today, she was willing to take all the extra help she could get.
And she might need it.
“Come on, Brother,” she said, reaching out to touch him, ever-so-lightly, on the shoulder. Men tended to love that touch, and this one was no exception. “It’s the day of rest. So why don’t we go upstairs, to my room, and … rest awhile?”
“I don’t think the Lord Wright would approve,” Brother Tuck said with a smile, “of the kind of resting you have in mind, Mistress Tambu. Especially on Sunday.” He chuckled. “In fact, I think He would find your version of rest to be positively … sinful.”
“Probably not,” Tambu agreed. “But ye were sayin’ in church this mornin’ … we’re all sinners. And ain’t the only way to find redemption to sin first?”
“Then come on.” She stuck out her hand and gave him a saucy wink. “Let’s go … engage in some pre-redemption exercises.”
“I like the way you put it, Mistress Tambu.” Brother Tuck took her hand. “Lead the way!”
Tambu smiled and suited the action to the word, half-running up the spiralling staircase that led to the whore’s individual chambers. As she stood at the threshold of her own chamber, she frowned. Most whores didn’t have it near this good. They didn’t get a big bedroom that they were allowed, almost encouraged, to decorate to their tastes. Hell, half the time they didn’t even have what could properly be called a “bedroom” at all — maybe a room with a cot in it, that was used for business and sleep. But it was indistinguishable from any other such room in the whorehouse, and it wasn’t like the whore had a particularly comfortable time of it, either working or sleeping on that cot.
She couldn’t lose this. They couldn’t lose this. Squaring her shoulders, she walked into the room and climbed onto the bed, shooting the good monk a come-hither look.
He came hither, all right, but slowly. When he landed on the squashy mattress, he didn’t get right to exploring her body, but instead looked at her face. “Something wrong?”
Damnation! She’d forgotten that Brother Tuck wasn’t nearly as tone-deaf, emotionally, as most of her other johns. She could have been bawling hysterically and they would have just gone on to get their money’s worth. But no, Brother Tuck wasn’t like that. Too much of his job depended on being able to correctly read and react to the emotions of others.
She hadn’t intended to have this conversation until he was in a nice, post-coital stupor, ready to agree to anything she might suggest. But since her acting hadn’t been nearly up to par … Might as well strike while the iron’s hot. “Brother Tuck,” she asked, “why are ye always so down on my sisters an’ me?”
“Your sisters? Mistress Tambu, I wasn’t aware you had any siblings …”
“Not my — my birth family.” They were all back in Reme, so it was unlikely Brother Tuck would have even heard of them. “My sisters — the girls downstairs. Ye know?”
Brother Tuck waved his hand. “It’s nothing personal.”
It damn well better not be, considering what ye’re getting from me, free of charge! “That don’t change the fact that every Sunday, ye’re up there at the pulpit, calling us mistress of the Cow-Demons and Zombies of the Grim Reaper and Wright only knows what else.”
“It’s … well, you must admit, Mistress Tambu, that you’re leading a sinful life.”
And so are ye! Look where ye are! Hell, at least I don’t pretend to be something I’m not! “I ain’t denyin’ it.”
“And it would surely be much better, for your souls, if you were to … well, if you were to leave this sinful profession.”
“Better for our souls, maybe, but not better for our bodies,” Tambu replied.
“Nonsense, I’m quite aware of the risks you face every night–”
“Not really,” Tambu interrupted. She wouldn’t have done this with another john, because Brother Tuck was right, and there were dangers; at the very least there was a risk of a good cuff to the mouth. But this was important, and Brother Tuck was too attached to the idea of the Word and verbal persuasion to resort to blows immediately. “A nice smile from Mirelle sends most of those risks flyin’ out the door.”
Brother Tuck shuddered; all the better for him, since what Tambu had said was techinically true. Most men who came planning mischief took one good look at Mirelle and left, quickly. It was the regular johns, the ones who didn’t plan any harm but who might be pushed to it, that you had to watch out for.
“That … aside,” Brother Tuck replied, once he found his voice again, “there are still physical risks you face, are there not?”
“Oh, sure. A disease could kill me, a bad pregnancy, a drunk john could beat me up so I wasn’t attractive no more … but ye know what would be certain ter kill me?”
“Starvin’,” Tambu answered. “I don’t work here — I don’t eat. And last I checked, not eatin’ will kill ye every time.”
“Well, it — will,” Brother Tuck admitted. “But surely there are other things you could do?”
“Like what? I’m a — a scarlet woman, a Mistress of the Cow-Demons, a Zombie of the Grim Reaper — who’d hire me?”
“I — well, naturally you’d cease to be those things if you procured honest work!”
“Not accordin’ to what ye said last Sunday, I wouldn’t.”
Brother Tuck flushed, remembering his sermon of the Sunday prior — mainly, that it was on the subject of the permanent stains that perpetual sinners, particularly whores, brought upon themselves. “That was, er, rhetorical excess. You can’t think that anyone –”
Tambu turned to him with a raised eyebrow.
“Er … perhaps they would take it seriously. Well, mayhap you could –” The thin cry of an infant broke through his speech. Brother Tuck sat up on his elbows. “What was that?”
“Wulf, probably,” Tambu replied. Brother Tuck stared. “W-U-L-F. Not wolf. Erin’s little ‘un.”
Brother Tuck blinked. “You mean … one of your number had a child?”
“Aye. Occupational hazard.”
“And she didn’t give it up to the nuns?”
“That isn’t right,” Brother Tuck murmured, settling against the pillows. “That isn’t right at all. A child shouldn’t be raised in this … sort of environment.”
It was all Tambu could do to avoid glaring at him. “Maybe,” she muttered, “Erin didn’t give Wulf up to the church because she don’t want him growin’ up to hate his ma.”
Brother Tuck stared. “What?”
Shit! But Tambu took a deep breath, composed herself, and turned to return Brother Tuck’s stare. “Ye heard me. Ye ain’t made no secret about how yer ma was probably a whore — an’ look what yer sayin’ about women like her.”
“But … I don’t hate my mother,” Brother Tuck replied, clearly mystified. “I never knew her — how could I hate her?”
“Ye don’t seem too fond o’ people like her.”
“You mean — because of my sermons?” Brother Tuck gaped at her. “Liking or not liking has nothing to do with it — I do what I have to, for the good of my flock.”
“And clearly, people like Erin — like me — like yer ma — ain’t part of yer flock.”
“No, no — that isn’t it. That isn’t it at all. Look, Mistress Tambu — I have to say things like that. What kind of shepherd would I be, to ignore the wolves that prey on the sheep?”
“Oh, so we’re wolves, now?”
“No, you’re sheep, of course –”
“Then, I repeat — why d’ye say the things ye do?”
“Because …” He sighed. “Because it’s meant to save you, obviously. You and all the young women here. And your customers, naturally.”
“Customers like ye?”
“No, not like — all right, that’s enough!” he snapped. “These are deep theological matters — I don’t expect the likes of you to be able to understand them. Now, am I going to get what I came here for, or do I have to win some sort of disputation with you, first?”
Tambu wanted to shout at him, to hit him, to shake him until he saw — really saw — the harm he was doing. But she couldn’t do that, of course. No, she had to be meek, pliant, obedient with him — a model whore, in fact. “No, sir,” she said, turning so she almost straddled him. “No, ye don’t have ter do nothin’. I’m jest here to make ye happy — Brother.”
Before he could protest against that, she was kissing him. And before she broke off the kiss, she had him so well occupied in the demands of his body that he didn’t even remember what she’d said.
But hopefully he’d remember later. Hopefully he’d even lose some sleep over it. And hopefully he’d understand what she’d been trying to tell him, all evening.
“And so, you see,” Marigold said, finally wrapping up her explanation — interrupted by Wulf’s crying — as she dealt another hand, “if we’re lucky, Tambu will explain to Brother Tuck just what his words are doing to our business, and he’ll lay off the sermons. And then our customers won’t be so nervous about coming here. Or even if Brother Tuck doesn’t want to lay off the sermons altogether, he’ll tone thema little. At the very least, he won’t, say, go to the King and start demanding that we get shut down — or worse, rile the citizens into doing that.”
“And if we aren’t lucky?” Erin asked, raising her eyebrows. Wei Li looked every bit as curious.
“If we aren’t lucky,” Tambu said, grabbing the last remaining chair at the table and plopping down on it — no sign of Brother Tuck, so she must have let him out the back, so he wouldn’t be seen — “when King Arthur shuts us down and throws us all into prison for our ‘immorality,’ I’ll get a nice cell with a window and a real pallet to lie on. And who knows, maybe a bucket to pee in.” She sighed. “And I don’t know about you, girls … but I ain’t feelin’ too lucky tonight.”
“Maybe your luck will turn,” Wei Li suggested.
“It damn well better,” Tambu replied. “Because if it don’t — we’re all screwed.”