“Marigold, ye gotta do somethin’ about that girl!” Tambu yelled, not for the first time.
It was a sign of how strange and liberal things were in Albion that Tambu could do this. If she was a whore in any other country — if she was part of an established brothel and not a street-walking whore — she would have never, could have never, dared to yell at the Madam. If the Madam herself owned the brothel, a doubtful proposition in itself, she’d toss Tambu right out on her ear and find some other desperate, but still pretty enough, girl off the streets. If the Madam wasn’t, she would tell the owner of Tambu’s insubordination and intractability, and he would toss her out on her ear.
But Marigold wasn’t like that. Marigold took care of them. “Wright,” she’d say after she gave Wei Li money for new clothes, or set a fresh-cooked meal full of her wholesome home-cooked vegetables on the table, or bought a new mattress for Tambu after her old one had gotten worn out, “stop tryin’ ter thank me! Tell me somethin’, if ye all were scrawny, half-starved, not gettin’ no sleep even in the daylight hours, what man would pay ter sleep with ye? ‘Tain’t nothin’ but me own self-interest ter keep ye happy an’ fed.”
Marigold lied whenever she said that; they all knew it. They all knew that for the prices that Marigold was charging — not cheap, but not out of the reach of the poorest laborer, either — they could get by being a lot scrawnier, more starved, and in worse health than they all were and they’d still get customers. They could be half-dead, every one of them, and as long as they had the energy to spread their legs somebody would pay to sleep with them. Yet Marigold still lied and pretended that taking good care of them was merely in her own self-interest, because to do anything else would be admitting that she was, perhaps, too soft-hearted to be in her line of work.
It was because of Marigold’s soft-heartedness that Tambu was not only reasonably assured that she would still have a bed and a job when this over, but that maybe her hectoring would do something.
“Wright Almighty, but she’s gettin’ worse every day!” Tambu went on, throwing her hands in the air. “I know ye’ve said ter give ‘er time, but Marigold, it’s been nigh-on five months an’ she ain’t improved one bit!”
And it was true, too. It had been nearly five months since that horrible day, when Brother Tuck had marched into the home, two town guards in tow, and demanded that they hand over Wulf. They’d all of them been too terrified to dream of resisting in any material way, but Marigold had tried to stall Brother Tuck, demanding to know by what right he barged into her home and was trying to take a child from it. Wei Li and Tambu — both, at that point, more than a little bit pregnant — had each attached themselves to one of the guards and tried to wheedle and beg them to just go away. Meanwhile, Erin had run upstairs and grabbed Wulf.
The difficulty, though, was that once Erin was upstairs, there was no coming down again, unless she wanted to jump out the window and kill herself and the babe. The guards and Brother Tuck would see her; Marigold had designed the house that way on purpose, so no john could take his pleasure and then leave without paying. So she’d hidden herself and the sleeping infant in a closet.
She barely had time to hide herself before Brother Tuck, tired of the delay, had pushed past Marigold, beckoning for the guards to follow him. They had. And then — Tambu wasn’t sure how it had gone down. She and Wei Li had stayed downstairs, staring at each other, Tambu praying that Wright would deliver a miracle and keep Brother Tuck away from Erin and her baby.
If Brother Tuck’s sermons weren’t enough proof, though, that day five months ago had clinched it for her: Wright didn’t give a damn about whores. She had realized that as soon as the screaming started.
She wasn’t sure who had started screaming first: Wulf or Erin. Maybe Wulf had sensed his mother’s distress and started to cry, and that had led Brother Tuck and the guards to them. Or maybe the baby had started to scream when Brother Tuck had ripped him from Erin’s arms. Whatever the case, by the time Brother Tuck and one guard had walked out with the baby (the other trying to hold Erin back and calm her down), half the street had wound up in the whorehouse’s front yard, clearly wondering what the commotion was. Tambu could still hear Erin’s shouts and pleading in her nightmares.
And Erin hadn’t been the same since.
It wasn’t just Erin’s drinking that worried Tambu. It wasn’t even the crying, because Wright knew that girl had reason to cry if anybody did. If Erin had gotten to the point where she only needed a crying jag every now and then to keep herself going, Tambu would have been frankly relieved. She wouldn’t have even cared — well, she would have cared, but she wouldn’t have been so worried — if Erin was crying herself to sleep every morning.
Because if Erin had to cry herself to sleep, that meant she was sleeping.
And Tambu wasn’t sure — at all — that Erin was sleeping. Well, she must have been sleeping, Tambu was pretty sure Erin would have been dead if she’d gone five months with no sleep. She knew that Erin always went up to bed with the rest of them when the last john was chased off, because Tambu made damn sure that she did — she’d practically chased her up the stairs more than once and had all-but-locked her in her bedroom.
But whether or not Tambu was good about making sure Erin went to bed, Tambu knew she wasn’t getting enough sleep. How could she be, when every day before noon, she’d somehow or other slipped off the property?
Where she went, none of them had the least idea. All of them in their own ways had tried to get it out of her. Tambu had badgered and hectored, Wei Li had asked artlessly, Marigold had chaffered and cajoled. Even Mirelle had asked — directly, with no frills or pleading, except for a wide smile that was sure to show her enlarged incisors.
Erin hadn’t told any of them.
Marigold had tried to follow her more than once (it had to be Marigold; she was the only one of them who didn’t sleep), but either Erin had known she was following and had deliberately given her the slip, or wherever she went involved going through a village square. In either case, it hadn’t taken long for someone to notice the leaves where Marigold’s hair should have been and to yell something about going back to the tree where she came from. Once the one surly man started yelling, it hadn’t taken long for other villagers to start hurling epithets. And from epithets it hadn’t been long for one little boy with too much time and too little parental supervision to hurl a clod of mud at Marigold. Marigold had left before anybody had the bright idea to throw a stone.
“I’m hopin’ she didn’t see me,” Marigold had later confided to Tambu — there was no way for the two of them to know for sure, since that would have involved asking Erin and neither of them wanted to do that — “because if she didn’t, an’ she didn’t just walk through the square to throw me off her trail … well, at least I know she ain’t plannin’ on harmin’ herself.”
“Why do ye say that?” Tambu had asked in reply.
“‘Cause,” Marigold replied, gesturing with one hand out the window, “if she’s wantin’ ter make away with herself, she’s got a whole ocean right there ter to it in. An’ don’t ye be tellin’ me that she might have jest been walkin’ a ways so no one here would see her an’ stop her. She was walkin’ inland, she was.”
Tambu wasn’t convinced — if Erin was in so irrational a state of mind that she was thinking about killing herself, who’s to say that she would do so in the easiest and most rational way possible? — but she held her peace. No point in worrying Marigold over something that she was already worried enough over.
Besides, Tambu had other ideas for what Erin might be up to.
“Wright, Tambu!” Marigold said, throwing her hands up in the air and dragging Tambu back to the present, “what do ye want me ter do? I’ve tried everythin’ I could think of!”
Marigold started counting things off on her fingers. “I’ve gone down to the nunnery twice, beggin’ the Mother Superior ter let Erin have her baby back, but the Mother Superior won’t hear of it. I tried a third time, but she wouldn’t even see me! I’ve talked ter Ash an’ Lyndsay, askin’ them to say they’d take the little one in so at least Erin could see him, and then maybe we could bring him back in — but no dice, the Mother Superior still won’t listen!
“Next,” Marigold continued, “I’ve tried ter work on Erin, tellin’ her it ain’t so awful — hell, we’ve all been workin’ on Erin — but you know as well as I do that nothin’ we’re sayin’ is workin’. I’ve begged her to take me with her when she goes wanderin’, but she won’t even admit she’s goin’ anywhere!”
“She wouldn’t, if she’s goin’ where I think she’s goin’,” Tambu muttered.
“Oh, don’t even start on that,” Marigold snapped, which surprised Tambu, since she hadn’t mentioned her suspicions to anyone. “I ain’t puttin’ no lock on that girl’s door!”
Oh — she’s thinkin’ about the last time we argued over this.
“I know ye’re worried ’bout her tryin’ ter make away with herself, and it ain’t like I ain’t, but if I lock her in, who’s to say what she might do in there? If she wants ter kill herself, there ain’t no way ter prevent that, short o’ not lettin’ any of us take our eyes off her!”
Tambu didn’t reply to that. She had, back when she was still actively worried that suicide was Erin’s objective, suggested all sorts of ways to keep her safe, and to Marigold’s credit they tried all of them — but to no use, because Erin still found some way or other to slip away from them.
“An’ don’t even talk ter me about axin’ Sir Mordred again.” Marigold shook her head. “Ain’t happenin’. He won’t lift his smallest damned noble finger. Tells us it’s our problem an’ not his, and that we’re payin’ him ter keep us from being shut down or thrown in gaol — not so all of us can keep our babies.”
Tambu remembered that. She had been within earshot when Marigold and Sir Mordred had had that conversation. His refusal had been so cold-blooded as to be chilling. How anyone with a heart — and someone who was a father, to boot! — could just stand idly by when some bastard priest took a woman’s child away from her was something Tambu would never understand, not when that person had the power to do something about it.
Then again, she couldn’t understand why the bastard priest in question was hell-bent on making Erin’s life a misery. She’d thought, from their time together, that she had Brother Tuck’s measure. He was cold, self-serving, ambitious — yes, all that — but she hadn’t thought he was cruel. She hadn’t thought he would deliberately hurt someone, the way he had hurt Erin, when he stood to gain nothing by it.
Clearly, she had been wrong.
Tambu took a deep breath as Marigold ran out of steam. “Marigold?”
“What if I told ye that I didn’t think Erin was fixin’ ter kill herself?”
Marigold’s eyes boggled.
“An’ what,” Tambu continued, “if I told ye that whatever Erin was plannin’ — even if it ain’t that she’s tryin’ ter kill herself deliberately — is just as likely ter get her killed?”
“Marigold, do ye — did Wei Li tell ye what Erin did, after … after my second was born?”
Her second was her second baby, her second girl — but Tambu never said baby, never said girl. She hadn’t even said the child’s name aloud more than the once it had taken to name her. But thinking of that name still brought a smile to Tambu’s face — not a fond, maternal smile, but a cracked smile of a cruel joke.
Tara Abbot. I hope that bastard priest shits his robe when he first hears my girl’s name spoken.
Marigold shook her head.
“Well,” Tambu said, “when — when ye was goin’ down ter the monastery, ter tell them they had a baby ter pick up,” because, even though Tambu had accepted the inevitable and was giving the child up, she’d be damned if she make it easier on those damned priests, “Wei Li went down ter the kitchen an’ saw Erin.”
“With — with the little one. My little one.”
Marigold’s eyes bulged. “Wright, what was she doin’?”
“With — with,” Marigold gestured to her breasts.
“Naw, with some goat’s milk we had in the larder.”
“Aye,” Tambu nodded. “But that ain’t all. Wei Li said that when Erin saw her, she looked — guilty.”
“Dunno. But …” Tambu bit her lip. “Marigold … what if the reason Erin’s been sneakin’ out is because she wants ter steal a baby?”
“Steal a baby? Tambu, what’ve ye been drinking?!”
“I ain’t been drinkin’ nothin’ — think about it, Marigold. It happens, ye know it does. Women get crazed fer a baby, then they get so bad that they walk up an’ steal one.”
“Aye, but Erin ain’t crazy fer a baby, she’s crazy fer her baby!”
“Five months ago, I’d have believed ye — but now …” Tambu shook her head, watching as the rays from the setting sun lit the ever-present dust motes in the air. “She ain’t right, Marigold, she ain’t healthy. Who’s to say what she’ll do?”
“Wright,” Marigold muttered. “Maybe I should just let Mirelle turned that damned priest into a vampire, like she was threatenin’ to.”
“Maybe ye should.”
Marigold sighed. “If we tried ter blackmail him by just turnin’ him into a vampire … he’d find some way to have Mirelle dragged out o’ here and left ter dry in the sun, I jest know it.”
“It’d work better if we turned ‘im an’ then said we wouldn’t give him a cure unless he gave Erin her baby back, but …”
“We don’t have a cure.”
“Aye. An’ Wright only knows what he’d do to use after he was cured.”
“We could always jest not cure ‘im.” Tambu spat. “Let him see what it’s like ter be the folks everyone’s steppin’ all over.”
“If we did that … I don’t know if Sir Mordred could protect us from the consequences.”
“Damn,” Tambu swore. “Well –“
Marigold poked her, and Tambu looked over her shoulder. Erin was slowly making her way down the spiraling steps. She nodded once to them, then went to what had become her station of late during working hours — the bar. She would sit there, nursing as many mugs of ale as she could get away with, until some john came on to her. Then she would go upstairs, lay with him, and come back to the bar.
“We’ve got ter help her somehow,” Tambu whispered.
“I know,” Marigold replied. “But how?”