Marigold wasn’t certain whether she should be thanking her lucky stars or praying for them to intervene in the mess she’d made for herself.
She took a deep breath and peeked through her lashes at her noble visitor. Part of her still couldn’t believe that he’d so much as answered her note, never mind agreed to meet with her. And at the whorehouse, too! Surely he could have named his preferred place of meeting in order to avoid darkening their doorway and enraging his wife. Surely, too, he could have offered to meet at any time — even during normal business hours — instead of now, mid-morning, when most of the other girls were sleeping (and thus out of the way) and it was most convenient for Marigold. Surely. Surely.
With a brisk shake of her head she pushed the panicked thoughts away. Now was not the time to woolgather! Now she had to keep her wits about her, extract everything she could out of him — for Wright knew that the future of her and all her girls might very well depend upon it. So it was with a smile that Marigold turned to her visitor.
“Somethin’ to wet yer whistle, Sir Mordred?”
“Ale, if you have it, please,” the knight replied. Marigold didn’t blink at the “please,” however much she wanted to. Instead she poured out the requested beverage, got herself a mug of water, and brought them both to Mordred, taking a seat on the bar stool beside him.
He glanced at her mug with raised eyebrows. “Either what you’re drinking is far stiffer than anything I care to imbibe at this hour,” he remarked, “or you don’t trust me enough to drink with me, Mistress Marigold.”
“Oh, no, m’lord, it ain’t that!” she said — and completely honestly, as it turned out. “I don’t drink at all, as a rule.”
“A — lady of your profession who gets through her day without alcohol?” Sir Mordred’s eyebrows arched even further up as he sipped his ale. “I’ve never heard the like.”
“Well,” Marigold laughed nervously, “it’s ain’t much by choice, I’m tellin’ ye. Drink — I mean ale and spirits an’ the like — don’t do much of anythin’ to me. So I don’t bother ter drink it. An’ it goes straight to me hips,” she said, saucily slapping that particular body part with a wink.
Sir Mordred, being a red-blooded man, followed the progress of her hand with his eyes, as she knew he would. He didn’t let them linger there, though, turning his gaze back to her face without more than cursory interest. “I see. Not much point in drinking, then.”
He took another sip of his ale. “So,” he asked, “what was it that you wished to see me about?”
Wright! If he don’t get right to the point! Marigold forced herself not to swallow. “Well, me lord — I … er … ter tell ye the truth, I’m a bit worried. ‘Bout the future, ye see.” Her finger absently traced the rim of her mug. “I know ye attend church regular-like, so I’m sure ye know what Brother Tuck’s been sayin’ recently …”
“I doubt there’s a citizen of Albion who’s missed it,” Sir Mordred replied. “I take it that his words have been affecting your business?”
“Ye could say that.” Among certain customers — the nervous sorts — there had been a distinct drop in business, but among others, business had increased. Apparently the lure of the forbidden was a turn-on for some men, who knew?
“If you wanted to contact me for a loan or something of that sort …” Sir Mordred began.
“Oh, no, m’lord! Nothin’ like that!” Marigold replied. “It’s — well …”
She looked off to the side. “I’m a good hand at protectin’ me girls against drunk johns, or rough ones, or ones who ain’t keen on payin’ me and me girls — but I don’t know how good I’d be at protectin’ my girls against the law, if ye know what I mean.”
“If you or one of your — employees is in trouble with the law …”
“No, no, sir, we ain’t — leastways, not yet.”
Sir Mordred leaned back. “Not yet?”
“No, m’lord, not yet. Ye see …” She hesitated. “Ye can’t help but think, can ye, that Brother Tuck ain’t gonna stop until me and me girls are fair run out of the kingdom, can ye?”
“Hmm,” Sir Mordred murmured. “Perhaps.”
“An’,” Marigold continued, “ye can’t –at least I can’t — imagine that Brother Tuck won’t be doin’ all he can ter get the King ter make doin’ what we do illegal.”
“And if he did,” Sir Mordred asked, “and let us say, just for the sake of argument, that the King agreed — would you continue to run your business?”
Marigold blinked, the last thing she’d expected was a question this direct! “I — I honestly don’t know, m’lord,” she said. “Frankly, if — if I were Brother Tuck, or the King — I’d send soldiers to arrest us all an’ throw us in a dungeon before we had a chance, ter disobey the new law, I mean.”
“Hmm.” Sir Mordred took another swallow of his ale. “I do not think that would be quite the King’s style — whatever Brother Tuck might wish to have done. Besides, how would the King know where to find you? I doubt he’s a customer here …”
“Oh, Wright Almighty, no!” Marigold said, laughing in spite of herself. “Ye think the likes o’ him would come into the likes o’ here? Besides,” she added, on a more serious note, “I ain’t never heard that he’s had any inclinations ter — er — be satisfyin’ himself with anyone other than the Queen.”
“And you would know, if anyone would,” Sir Mordred said with all the smoothness of an elegant courtier paying a compliment to his lady. Before Marigold could respond, he added, “But since we’ve established that the King has never been here — and we know that the thought of Brother Tuck coming here is ludicrous — then we can conclude that it’s highly likely you and your employees will be thrown into gaol before you have a chance to break any laws that have yet to exist, don’t you think?”
Marigold couldn’t respond, not immediately. She was too busy catching her breath, because, of course, the only thing she could think was that Brother Tuck did know where they were, quite well, in fact. And even though Tambu’s attempts at persuading him to keep his opinions to himself hadn’t been fruitful, her other activities with Brother Tuck had been. Too fruitful, in fact.
Luckily Sir Mordred didn’t seem to notice her brief lapse in attention; at least the expression on his face didn’t change. Marigold swallowed. “Well, m’lord, jest because they don’t know exactly where we are don’t mean that they couldn’t find out, and right quick, too, if that’s what they wanted to do.”
“True, true,” Sir Mordred agreed. “Well, Mistress Marigold, what is it that you want me to do about this predicament that you seem to think is imminent?”
Marigold shifted. “Well, ye do know the King, don’t ye?”
“He is my uncle. I believe it is safe to say that we have met.”
“Er — well, yes, of course. And ye have — influence?”
Sir Mordred shrugged. “I’m but a very junior nobleman. The King has his intimates, and — to be frank — I am not one of them.” A small smile poked at the corner of his lip. “But if I were to petition him on something, I do believe that I would have far more success at getting a hearing than, say, you would.” And he chuckled.
It wasn’t funny. It wasn’t nearly as funny as Sir Mordred seemed to think it was. But Marigold swallowed and tried to smile. “Indeed, m’lord, ye would. So — so that’s why I want to ask ye … well, m’lord, what would it take ter get ye on our side?”
A lesser man might have blinked. Sir Mordred didn’t. He didn’t even show one flicker of surprise. “You come swiftly to the point, Mistress Marigold.”
“In me business, ye sort of have to,” she replied. “But well, Sir Mordred? What would it take?”
“An intriguing question,” Sir Modred mused. “You see — what is it that you have, that I could possibly want?”
Marigold cocked her head to one side and smiled her most sultry smile at Sir Mordred.
It didn’t work. “However tempting your — wares might me, Mistress Marigold, I’m afraid I must decline. Not only am I a married man …” He smiled. “I already have all I’m looking for in the bedroom, thank you very much. And I get it with — if you’ll excuse me for being blunt — far less risk than consorting with a lady of your type would entail.”
Disease. All men were worried about that, to some extent. Not, granted, to any extent that would inspire them to take precautions (precautions that could also protect their partners, and in some case even prevent babies from coming about), not when their partner was “just a whore.” But they worried. “I’ll have ye know that I’m as fit as any fiddle,” Marigold replied.
“I don’t doubt it, Mistress Marigold. However, owing to your … condition, isn’t it entirely possible that you could be a carrier for a disease which, while doing you no harm, could be passed on to others — harming them?”
Well, when he put it like that … “Me girls are all healthy, too.”
“Then this must be the luckiest house of ill repute in Albion,” Sir Mordred said gallantly, if a little fatuously, since this was the only house of ill repute in Albion. “My refusal still stands, however.”
Marigold sighed. “Well …” She really hadn’t wanted it to come to this, but if there was no other choice … “We ain’t rollin’ in silver, mind,” she said. “But — but if the choice is between being thrown on the street — or into gaol — an’ payin’ out a bit …”
“You’d pay me to intercede between you and the King?” Sir Mordred asked.
“And as I am still completely dependent on my father for money … hmm …” Sir Mordred stroked his chin. “Seven coppers a day would, I believe, be an ample start to a fund to set aside for — shall we say — a rainy day?”
Seven coppers? Is he mad? “Three, m’lord, I might manage.”
“Three? That’s nothing. It won’t be worth my while for less than five.” With that, Sir Mordred swallowed the last of his ale and made as if to go.
“Wait — wait, m’lord. Let me think.” Five coppers a day. Marigold charged the customers a copper a go, most nights the girls got at least two or three goes, sometimes more. And, of course, there were the times when a man wanted a particular girl’s company for the entire evening. Marigold charged a full silver for those evenings.
If she acceded to Mordred’s proposal — then the first lay the girls took, herself included, would belong to him … of course none of this was counting the money they won from befuddled men losing at cards, or from selling them drinks …
The question, though, was could they afford it?
They could, Marigold discovered. It would be a struggle — but they could.
“We could swing that, m’lord. I won’t lie — it’s more than I’d like — but it’s better than …”
“The alternative?” Sir Mordred asked.
“Aye,” Marigold admitted.
“Then, Mistress Marigold,” Sir Mordred replied, sticking out his hand, “I hope that this will be the beginning of a long and profitable relationship.”
Marigold tried to smile as she took Sir Mordred’s hand in hers. “I hope so too, m’lord.”
And they say whores are cynical and jaded, Mordred thought to himself as he exited the brothel some time later. He smirked. If so, Mistress Marigold must be the most naive cynic I — or anyone else, I’ll wager — have ever met.
Poor woman, she really didn’t know what kind of deal she’d made. Here she was, assuming that five coppers a day would actually be enough to convince a nobleman to lobby on behalf of whores! Maybe some noblemen — second sons, or those with tight-fisted fathers — would do it for as slender as a consideration as that, but not Mordred. Though he was, as he had told Mistress Marigold, dependent upon his father, Lord Lot was not tight-fisted in the least. The allowance he set up for Mordred was generous in the extreme, and this was on top of the stipend Mordred got as one of King Arthur’s knights. Lot never asked for so much as a clipped copper from that. Mordred didn’t have worry about Dindrane’s expenses, since Dindrane’s allowance was entirely separate and set up by the marriage articles. Caring for Nimue, too, took nothing from Mordred’s pocket, since she honestly didn’t cost much (at the moment) and all the costs she did incur — food, nurses, clothing — came under the category of “general household expenses” and were paid for by Lot.
And as for Rosette and the boys … well, that fell entirely to Mordred, and five coppers a day might buy a few new trinkets for Rosette, or some toys for the boys. But it wouldn’t make or break the bank. Perhaps Mordred would set the money aside for the boys, for their future. But for now … no, it wasn’t much.
The information Mistress Marigold would drop at their weekly meetings — during which the money would change hands — now that would be worth actually standing up for the ladies of ill repute before the king. Not that Mordred, if he was being honest, foresaw that eventuality coming to pass anytime soon. King Arthur was a practical man, and since he saw quite a bit of use in having the ladies of ill repute around (better for young man to vent their urges on women whose virtue was already a thing of the past, rather than deflowering innocent maids left and right), Brother Tuck could rant and rave as much as he wanted — the ladies of the night weren’t going anywhere.
But that information … there was no bad coin in information, and whores knew everything. Between the pillow talk and the drink, men spilled their secrets. And what the whores knew — sooner or later, Mordred would know. Not all at once, of course. He’d have to wait to gain Mistress Marigold’s confidence before he gained anything of value. But he was in no rush. He could let the investment mature.
Mordred laughed to himself as he called his broom. Yes, this was going to be the beginning of a long and profitable relationship …
The only question was, would Mistress Marigold think so?