Erin patted her hair as she gazed in the mirror. Wright, she thought, but I look like a right fool in this get-up. I ain’t had me hair up since …
She hadn’t had her hair up since she found her way into Albion and onto Marigold’s doorstep. It hadn’t been a night right out of a storybook, with howling wind and rain lashing through her clothes and cold freezing her to the bone. It was a warm day in the middle of the summer. Her clothes had been in serviceable repair, too, so it wasn’t like she had passed out on the doorstep of the brothel a half-ragged starving urchin. She hadn’t even passed out.
But she had been starving, so hungry that she could feel the insides of her stomach sticking together. So hungry that the mere smell of the apples wafting from Marigold’s orchard had nearly knocked her to her bottom with temptation. She’d stood at the fence for quite ten minutes, staring at the apples with longing in her eyes, wondering if she could — if she should —
Aw, what the hell, she thought, hopping the fence. Wright only knew where she got the energy from. She’d been in the town of Avilion for two weeks by that point. She’d lost three jobs — one waitressing at a tavern (spilled ale all over a customer), one making change at a merchant’s shop-stall (not fast enough with the coins), another as an errand-runner (couldn’t run fast enough and didn’t know her way around the town as the other errand-runners did). She’d applied for a job as a seamstress as a last resort, and had her uneven seams and enormous stitches laughed out of the shop. Three days before that, she had spent the last of the coin she’d stolen from her husband (or at least that was how he would see it) on the rent for the dirty room with the leaking roof and no windows, or at least none that would open and let in a sweet sea-breeze to take the edge off the heat of the nights. She hadn’t eaten since; drank plenty of water, but not eaten.
She had also gotten to know the town a bit better after that first disastrous job as an errand-runner. She knew she was standing outside the whorehouse. She knew that whores usually worked during the nights and slept during the days. So what were the odds that any of the whores would see her and call for the town guards? And even if they did — they fed you in gaol, didn’t they? Even if they hung you, they fed you first.
So in she went, ran to the nearest tree, reached for an apple —
“Ye know, it’s usually reckoned as polite if ye ax permission ‘fore ye take somethin’.”
Those were the first words Marigold ever said to her.
Erin remembered that she had yelped when she saw the woman and tried to run away, but a stray tree root and her hunger sent her sprawling to her knees. She’d knelt on the grass, cowering, certain she was going to get hauled off by the town guards or worse —
“Relax, friend, I ain’t callin’ the town guards on ye. They probably wouldn’t come if I did. ‘Sides …” Erin felt a faint pressure against her shoulder. “I reckon ye need this more ‘an I do.”
Erin began to look back, only to see a shiny red apple waving before her face. She’d grabbed it and gobbled it down before it even occurred to her to thank the woman. And she’d been on her third apple before she even noticed that Marigold had leaves growing on her head and bark encrusted along her bare arms.
The lips on Erin’s reflection began to quiver. Where was she going to find such good friends here, in her new life? Respectable folk liked to say lots of things about whores and their ilk, but Erin knew respectable folk. Respectable folk would stand by and not give a damn if a man was beating his wife half to death on a daily basis. Respectable people would have chased her out of their orchard without a second thought — and that was if they were in a good mood, if they were in a bad one they’d call for the town guards. Respectable folk, when you came right down to it —
Aw, what the hell, what now? And here she was just about to go on a good crying/panic jag! It better not be the landlord, Lord Pellinore said he’d paid me up clear through next month —
So she went to the door of the little apartment she had rented, opened it and steeled herself for a confrontation.
Instead she found a brown-haired young woman, about ten years her junior, standing on the upper-story porch to her apartment and wearing a smile that was trying very hard to be confident and outgoing. “Hello,” she said. “I — my name is Nicole Saquina. I live in the cottage to the right of this place, next to the guard tower. I — well, I’d noticed you had just moved in, so I wanted to introduce myself.”
“Oh. Oh, well — hello.” That was right, respectable folk, even though most of them had more stones in their hearts than good Sim feeling, had standards. Rules, politeness. Erin extended her hand. “Nice ter meet ye. I’m Erin Shepherd.”
“The same to you, Mistress Shepherd.”
Erin did her best not to shudder. She’d been so nervous during her meeting with Lord Pellinore that she hadn’t even noticed enough to shudder, but the last time she had been called “Mistress” anything, she’d still been married.
Well, she ain’t callin’ me Mistress Baker, at least. Ain’t nobody is gonna call me that, ever again. Ain’t nothin’ wrong with bein’ Mistress Shepherd.
Except, of course, the chills the word “Mistress” still sent down her spine.
“Ye can call me jest Erin,” Erin offered. “I mean — if we’re gonna be neighbors an’ all, we might as well be friendly.”
“Oh — oh, all right.” Nicole’s smile poked at the corner of her lips. “You can call me Nicole, if you like.”
Wright, but she’s got a funny accent. The thought was just a passing one, for Erin’s mind was too focused on remembering long-discard social rituals to really give it much consideration. What would she have done next if she still was —
No, she wouldn’t think about that. What would her mother have done next?
“Er — thank’ee, Nicole. Are ye busy? Would ye like some tea?”
“Oh, I don’t want to be any trouble — that is, I’m sure you have other things to be doing …”
Ah, yes, that was the expected reply. How was she supposed to answer that? “Nonsense, it’s no trouble at all. I wouldn’t have offered if I hadn’t been able ter do it.” Well, that last part, she suspected, wasn’t part of the formula, but it was a sensible answer all the same.
“Well — if you’re really sure –”
“‘Course I am. Come on in.” It would be well, Erin thought, to brush up on her manners and rituals with someone non-threatening. That way, when the nearest scolding matron invited herself over for tea, she’d be ready.
So Nicole followed her into the house and Erin busied herself with the tea things. “What flavor will ye be havin’? I’ve got mint an’ raspberry …”
“Oh, whatever you’re having. I don’t want to be any trouble.”
Are all respectable folks like this? Most of the folks back in her old village would have mentioned a preference. Maybe things were different among the folks in Albion. She’d have to watch and learn.
“Well, I do recommend the raspberry. A friend o’ mine grows ’em, an’ I swear …” But Erin trailed off, for thoughts of the wonders to be seen and tasted in Marigold’s garden inevitably led to thoughts of Marigold and all the friends she’d left behind in the house by the garden …
“Your friend is a good gardener, then?” asked Nicole innocently.
“One o’ the best,” Erin answered. But she wouldn’t say more; there were only two plantsims in Albion, and the female one ran the whorehouse, and there was no way Erin would let it get out that she’d spent the past ten years on her back, so to speak.
“How lovely,” replied Nicole. Then, “Is that a bonsai tree?”
“Is that a –” Erin turned around to see Nicole gesturing toward the small, immaculately clipped miniature pine (at least that was what Erin would have called it, had anyone asked her before Wei Li told her the proper name for it) sitting in its pot on her shelf. “Er, aye, aye, ’tis. Wright, I didn’t think most folks here in Albion knew what that was!”
Why did Nicole go quiet. “I used to live in Reme,” she said. “We — the wealthier families in the area were able to import bonsai trees from Smina. And sometimes Sminese slaves to create bonsai from normal trees.”
“Oh — oh.” Luckily the whistling of the kettle forestalled the need for further conversation. Erin poured the tea and shooed Nicole over to the sofa by the fireplace. Erin sat last and heavy silence reigned.
“So — so, um,” Nicole said, taking a long sip of her tea. “This is very good.”
“Thank’ee, but all the credit goes to Mari–ter me friend.”
Nicole just smiled and sipped again. She glanced at the shelf, or, well, what she could see of it. “So where — where did you get the bonsai? Forgive me, but you certainly don’t sound as if you were from Reme originally.”
“Naw, I’m from Glasonland. ‘Twas a friend — another friend o’ mine — what made the bonsai. That is, she grew it an’ clipped it herself. An’ she tried ter teach me how ter do it, so-as I can take care o’ it, but … well, we’ll see,” Erin chuckled. “She says it’ll be good fer me. Promote — tran-quill-i-ty or somethin’ such.”
“My, you have multi-talented friends!” Nicole laughed. “Let me guess, that friend was from Smina?”
Erin jumped. “How’d ye know?”
Nicole giggled. “It sounds like just the sort of thing they would say. I — there was a Sminese merchant near our home, he sold silks. I used to go to his shop sometimes and he would talk to me. His wife taught me how to make a few dishes, too.”
“Wow! Silks! Ye must’ve come from a right wealthy place!”
“I — oh, well, it’s not — it’s not like that –” Why was Nicole swallowing so rapidly? “You see, I’m — where I’m from, there are lot of latifundia around–”
“Latifundia — they’re — oh, dear — they’re large farms, owned by a wealthy family. They grow things like grains, and olives for olive oil, and grapes for wine. The wealthy families also come down there during the summers, to get away from the heat of the city. Reme, I mean,” she added.
“Uh-huh.” Wright above, what’s this girl talkin’ about?
“Well, anyway. My — my parents’ farm — it was a small farm — it was near a village that had once been a farming village, but — but now it was a bigger one. And it was where the rich people came to buy things while they were at their latifundia, so the shops always had a lot of luxury goods and such. Master Jiang — he ran the shop — he used to say that the wealthy people spent so much in his shop while they were vacationing, he earned enough in six months to keep him comfortable for twelve. Of course, he was an older man and was mostly retired.”
Retired. Wright, she knew folks who could do that?
“And he had a very good system, too, for his sons left for Smina in the late summer, and bought new silks and things straight from there, and were back by early spring to sell them. He was able to sell them a lot more cheaply because they hadn’t passed through six hands before getting to Reme, and they were just as good as the things in the shops in the city, too. The city of Reme, I mean.”
“Ye mean, he told ye they were just as good,” Erin chuckled.
“Oh, no, they were, I –” Nicole suddenly stopped. “Well — well,” she faltered, “maybe — maybe you have a point. But the wealthy ladies were always thrilled to buy them, and they would surely know if the silk was inferior in any way.”
“Well, ye shan’t catch me arguin’ with that. Lords an’ gentlefolk know their silks an’ velvets, even if they don’t know their ass from their elbow otherwise.”
“Heh — heh,” Nicole replied. She shifted in her chair. “I — so, how many children do you have?”
Erin blinked. “Children?” How in Wright’s name —
“I — I well, I saw the table over there, and I just assumed … I’m sorry, I know I shouldn’t have done that …”
Oh. Right. The table. Lord Pellinore had given her so much money when she’d indentured herself to him that she had extra to spend on a table for Wulf to play at. If she got him back. When she got him back. And surely, seeing that would predispose Sister Margery in her favor, would it not?
Erin took a deep breath. “I — well, I only got one,” she replied. This part of her story she had carefully constructed, worked out all the details, tried it out mentally several times, poking and prodding it for weak spots.
“Just one? Boy or girl?”
“A boy, Wulf. He jest turned two.”
“How sweet. They’re adorable at that age, aren’t they?”
“Aye, aye, they are,” Erin sighed.
“So where is he?” Nicole asked, glancing around the room. “He — oh, dear! He isn’t napping, is he? Would we have –”
“Oh don’t — don’t worry none about that. He ain’t here. He — he’s stayin’ with relatives fer — fer the time bein’.”
” … Oh?”
“Aye. Ye see — ye see, after me husband died …” Erin took a deep breath, watching Nicole’s face. But there was nothing there but sympathy.
“Oh, oh no! I’m so sorry to hear that.”
Erin might have been employed with the theater now, and she might have even been part of the acting troupe, but she wasn’t so good an actress as to pretend to be grief-stricken at the thought of her husband being dead. “Don’t be. He — well, let’s jest say, gettin’ the hell out o’ me life was the best thing he ever did fer me.”
” … Oh.”
“Look, please don’t go thinkin’ I’m a monster or anythin’. Marryin’ him … let’s jest say, it weren’t my idea. An’ … an’ he was awful. Jest awful. I’m sorry, I know it ain’t nice ter say so, but it’s the truth. An’ I don’t mean awful like he farted in bed an’ couldn’t clean up after himself ter save his life,” though Wright knows that’s all true, “he — he beat me, often, an’ — an’, well, I’m jest glad he won’t be playin’ no part in my Wulf’s life.”
“Oh! Oh, you poor thing!”
Erin shrugged. “Eh, don’t go wastin’ yer pity on me. He ain’t never gonna bother me no more. Ye want ter pity someone, pity the wives who still have ter deal with their husbands, day in an’ day out. Pity them, ’cause Wright knows no one else does.”
“That — that can’t possibly be true! Somebody — are you sure nobody tried to help you?”
Erin frowned. Had anyone tried to help her, back in Glasonland? No, she couldn’t remember anyone … there were a couple older housewives, though, now that she thought of it, who had offered to let her “drop by for a night or two” any time she needed it. One who had specifically told her that, if ever she didn’t feel safe alone in the house with Walter out carousing at the pub, she was welcome to sleep there. At the time Erin had despised the woman, wondering what the hell she was thinking — Erin was never safer in that house than when Walter was getting drunk off his ass — but now, she wondered. If Walter didn’t stumble right into bed after coming home from the pub, he would usually beat the living hell out of her. Was that what Widow Butcher had meant, when she talked about Erin not being safe? And Mistress Butcher’s would have been the safest place to crash. Even Walter Baker would not have argued with Widow Butcher about that. Wright above, the woman was the best hand with a meat cleaver in four shires, nobody wanted to find out what her cleaver could do to a man’s skull if she was sufficiently roused.
But for the most part, no, no one had tried to help. Most of the people, the wives at least, were just grateful that it was wild, rowdy Erin Shepherd had gotten stuck with Walter Baker and not one of their own daughters. Erin Shepherd, who had been making eyes at the boys since she was ten. Erin Shepherd, who wasn’t afraid to go to the pub and flirt with men ten years her senior. Erin Shepherd, who’d started up a flirtation with Freedman Candle’s son Jimmy that had resulted in her losing her maidenhead at the age of fourteen and being married to her Walter Baker not two months later, because her course was a couple days late and her parents wanted her married and out of their hair, now, before they could bring a scandal down on their heads. Everyone was sure that Erin Shepherd would come to a bad end, and in a way marrying Walter Baker was the best end of all, for if she stayed a respectable wife, the village could claim to be proud of her, and if she didn’t, well, they always knew that was coming.
Erin took a deep breath as the two of them sat without speaking. “Listen, Nicole. Ye’re — ye’re young, I know ye are. I don’t think ye’ve seen much o’ the bad in the world. An’ I pray ye never do. But listen ter me — jest because folk sweep their front porch every mornin’, jest because they work in a good job, jest because they go to Church every Sunday, jest because they keep their clothes clean an’ their hair tucked up, that don’t make ’em respectable. Not really respectable. It don’t make ’em good, it don’t make ’em kind, it don’t make ’em — well, let me put it like this. There’s plenty a black an’ evil heart livin’ behind a clean porch, aye, I’d wager there’s more black hearts behind the clean porches than their good ones.”
“That’s not true,” Nicole protested. “Well — I mean, not that external trappings don’t make a person truly respectable. I understand what you mean by that. Of course nasty people can live behind clean porches and go to Church. I — I understand a thing or two, about nasty people, I mean. They can …” Nicole swallowed and looked away. “Let me just say that they’re often where you least expect to find them. But I’m sure there are many good people who sweep their porches and wear clean clothes. Maybe — maybe they didn’t help you because they didn’t know how bad things were with you. Or maybe they were afraid of your husband. Or maybe they tried to help and it just didn’t work. But I’m sure there are more Sims who would help a woman in your — in what was your situation than there were who would ignore her. I mean, I hope I would.”
Erin glanced at the younger woman. “Aye — ye think ye would, would ye? I hope ye never have ter find that out — an’ if ye do, well, I hope ye don’t disappoint yerself.” She shifted. “Anyway, let’s talk about somethin’ cheerfuller than me old husband. What about ye? Got a husband, or a young man?”
“Oh — oh, no. At least, not yet.”
The talk continued along neutral lines, at least until Nicole glanced at the sun moving its way across the apartment floor and squeaked. She had to go, the evening shift at the tavern would be starting in an hour and she couldn’t be late.
So Erin brought the cups to the sink and walked Erin to the door. She watched her as she walked away, toward her own cottage to change into her work clothes, she thought.
Most respectable folk, Erin still thought, weren’t worth their weight in manure. But … who knew, perhaps there were a few diamonds among the rough.
After all, stranger things had happened.