“What’s cookin’, good-lookin’?” asked one of the customers as he shuffled his cards. “You look mighty pensive.”
“Hmm?” Wei Li replied, glancing at the man. Simon, his name was, Simon. Mirelle was his particular favorite, she knew — at least, he always hung off her arm like a peculiarly large type of leech — but Mirelle was busy with a customer upstairs, and so Simon was left to bother her.
Bother. She should not think of them of bothering her. After all, they were the customers, she was the one with the the goods to sell. She was paid good money to sit here and entertain them, and even better money to go upstairs and entertain them.
Of course, Wei Li only considered herself to be paid in “good money” because her wages had yet to include any bad coin. And if they ever did, Marigold would probably be as surprised as anyone to find it there. Marigold was nothing if not fair.
Why was she being so … depressed? Really, any fool would know that Wei Li could have it so, so much worse. She heard the horror stories whispered from woman to woman, of things that had happened to other women in their line of work. Harassment by priests, getting thrown into gaol because a former customer had missed his purse and assumed the whore stole it, having to sleep in the alleys because they either had no money or had money but no one would give a room to a “fallen” woman such as she. So what if Wei Li had been groomed for a better fate? She could have been killed in the sack of Marsim as, she supposed, most of the others of the frail sisterhood of her childhood had been. She could have been dumped in a Reman slave brothel. She could be one of those street whores. What right had she to complain?
And really, with men walking into and out of her life every night, what right had she to feel … lonely?
“Ye’re doin’ it again,” remarked Simon.
“I — I beg your pardon?”
“Goin’ all quiet. What’s the matter, Wei Li? Yer favorite customer not come in tonight? Don’t fret, love — I’ll be yer favorite customer as long as ye like me ter be.”
“My girls don’t have favorites, Simon,” Marigold replied.
“Aww, now, Mistress Marigold, they might not play favorites, but I’ll be ye a sack o’ silver that they have ’em. I’ve seen some o’ yer customers, ye know. Some of ’em got the faces of a baboon an’ the body of a fat ol’ merchant ter go with — an’ when ye compare that ter me fine musculature an’ dashin’ good looks–”
“My girls also compare the sizes of their purses — both of their purses, if ye get what I’m sayin’ — an’ the size o’ yers, an’ then, well, they realize there ain’t no reason ter play favorites. All men got their good points an’ their bad.”
“I think ye jest got told, Simon,” Berach’s brother chuckled. Wei Li knew he had a name, but he was not enough of a regular at the whorehouse for her to remember it. And in a way, it was just as well that she did not. If Wei Li seemed to notice him, then he might notice her and put her together with his brother’s young daughter. That was not what she wanted, especially not in light of what had happened to Erin’s child. From the discreet tabs she had been able to keep on the situation, Wei Li gathered that Berach was doing very well with their child, and she would not want to do anything to disturb that.
“See, she’s doin’ it again!”
“I apologize, Simon,” Wei Li said, before Marigold could put in any more sarcastic remarks. “I was merely caught up in remembrance of things past.”
“Oy, big words out o’ such a little whore!”
Marigold rolled her eyes. “She was jest reminicin’ about ol’ times.”
“Rememberin’, eh?” Simon asked. He leaned closer. “What were ye rememberin’?”
“Many things,” Wei Li replied as the Brogan brother began to deal. “Mostly about my childhood, and the things I learned to do as a child.”
“Oh, honey, that ain’t a conversation fer mixed company.”
Wei Li forgot herself long enough to fix him with a glare. “The courtesans of Marsim do not begin their sexual training as children!”
“Oh, fer Wright’s sake — she means fancy whores,” Marigold answered.
“Ah. So what did ye learn as a fancy whore, eh?”
“Well, to begin, I learned many different types of games.”
“That how ye got ter be such a good hand at darts?”
“You could say that.” It would be a lie, certainly, but Simon could say it. The truth was that Wei Li had not learned a thing about darts as a child in Marsim. Such a common, manly game, it was not deemed the sort of game a courtesan would play. Courtesans were meant to be delicate flowers shielded from the harsh winds of vulgarity. They were meant to be the very epitome of the alluring, helpless parts of femininity. Of course most courtesans were as hard-headed, stone-hearted and utterly capable as their most capricious customer. They had to be in order to survive. But that was not the picture they presented to the world.
It was an amazing thing, that picture Wei Li had begun to learn how to paint at the age of five. For five was the age at which young girls were let into the Willow School, as it was called, the place where young courtesans-to-be were brought into the fold and began their training. Being a courtesan, at least in Marsim and Smina, was not a shameful path as it was in Albion. Oh no, quite the opposite. A courtesan, at least a successful one, could hold her head up high with the most respectable of wives. And why not? Yes, a courtesan sold her sexuality, it was true, but no one in Smina pretended it was any different for a married woman. The difference was that a married woman sold her sexuality but once, or at least, only to one man at a time. A courtesan sold hers to many men at a time, or to a quicker succession of men than the typical wife.
And really, all things considered, courtesans and wives had no reason to be jealous of each other. They made a good team when you came right down to it. A wife needed to be strong, to be capable. She needed to run the household efficiently and economically, raise the children to be productive and moral, help to run whatever business or businesses the family put to its name. If the wife was married to a lord, then she helped in the running of his estate instead of the business, especially when her lord had to travel to the great capital for business with the court. To be forced to do all this, and be alluring and delicate in bed? It was too much.
No, in Smina a man chose a wife for her brains, her moral standards (for those would be passed onto their children), and her health. Sometimes aesthetics might play a role, once in a great while, love did too. But not often, and certainly not among the ranks that women like Wei Li were trained from childhood to serve. And besides, there were plenty of reasons why a wife might be relieved to have someone else servicing her husband’s sexual needs. Men usually only slept with their wives if they wanted more children, and childbearing — as Wei Li had come to discover in these past few years in Albion — was no easy feat.
Besides, it wasn’t as if the men were the only ones who got to fool around. In many upper-class marriages in Smina, it was increasingly being written into the marriage contracts that after a certain number of children, or a certain number of boys, both parties were free to take lovers on the side if they so chose. The women were expected to be discreet, but so were the men when you came right down to it. Even before these new liberal days, it had been seen as horribly impolite for a married man to bring his lover to the attention of his wife in any way. Men could quietly congregate at the great Flower Houses, and sure enough, sooner or later there would be places for the women to congregate with their lovers. But you did not flaunt your loves on the side in front of the opposite sex; at least, in front of the opposite sex of your social class.
“So what kind o’ games did ye learn ter play at yer fancy-whore-school?” Simon asked, drawing Wei Li from her reverie.
“Chess, for one,” she answered. “It is very popular among the wealthy men of Smina, as it is here.”
“Well, everybody knows how ter play chess.”
Wei Li allowed herself one quiet lift of her eyebrow, then it returned, serene and smooth and unruffled back to its natural resting place. “We learned other games, too,” Wei Li continued. “Mah-jong, and backgammon, and of course many different card games. Dicing games, too.”
“Ye fancy whores played dice?” Simon asked, his jaw hanging half open.
“If that is what our clients wanted us to play, then yes, of course.”
What Wei Li did not tell him was that learning the rules of strategies of these different games, where rules and strategies were both applicable, was hardly the point of their training in them. No, they learned these games as young children, when they naturally took to all kinds of games a duck would to water. And if new games came along when they were adults, then they could learn those games as they came and went in the fashion — why, even the oldest Willow Mother (sixty years old, though sharp-eyed men had been known to mistake her for a woman twenty years younger) could pick up a new game in less than an hour! No, what they learned, instead, was how to play the client at the other side of the gaming table. Did the client want to win? Then the courtesan must lose, and must make it look natural, as if the client was truly as clever and intelligent as he thought himself to be. Did the client want to lose? Then the courtesan must win, and then compliment him very prettily, and make it clear that she knew he had let her win, while not letting anyone else know that the client had fallen so beneath himself. Did the client want an honest challenge? It was not so rare for him to want that, for, though courtesans were supposed to be delicate and sheltered, they were also supposed to be intelligent so as to entertain their clients both in and out of bed. If he wanted an honest challenge, then it was the duty of the courtesan to give him one, and let the winning and losing fall as the gods of chance would dictate.
“Did ye learn anythin’ else?”
“Dance, naturally. Music, too. They tried to teach all of us to sing, but of course not everyone is blessed with the voice of a nightingale, so we all learned to play at least one instrument and those of us who could sing, sang.” Wei Li tried very hard not to frown, remembering what her musical training had come to — dirty dances to impress men into coming into her bed (well, that was not so bad, that was what the dance training was for in the end) and singing rowdy folksongs on the main floor of the whorehouse.
“Naturally, she says,” the Brogan brother scoffed. “Lemme tell ye, miss, ain’t no one here in Albion who’s gonna waste good education on a girl who everyone knows is jest gonna become a whore.”
Wei Li saw Marigold’s eyes alight and decided to answer first. “That is because Albion and Smina are very different places,” she said with all the equanimity she could muster. “In Albion, for a daughter to become a whore is considered the most shameful thing possible. But for the Sminese, to have a daughter enter the Willow School is a cause for rejoicing. Courtesans are not cast off by their families, you know. They are cherished members.”
“Women livin’ in sin?” the Brogan brother asked, his eyebrows going up.
“In Smina, being a courtesan is not considered to be a sinful way of earning one’s bread,” Wei Li replied. “And they can help the family as a whole rise. A very good courtesan can convince her clients to, say, take on a younger brother as an apprentice or steward to his lands. Or else to invest in the family business, or to be a patron of an elder brother trying to make a name for the family at court. They could even help to arrange an advantageous marriage for a younger sister.”
“Wright, but that ain’t possible,” breathed the Brogan brother.
That is because we do not believe in your Wright, Wei Li thought, but she did not speak aloud. In more than ten years in Albion, and even longer since the fall of Marsim, she had learned that telling an Albionese or a Reman that one did not believe in their Wright was like telling them that the sky was green and the grass blue. Their minds simply would and could not process the information. And that was if you were lucky. If you were unlucky, they would call you “heretic” and try to convert you.
Wei Li preferred not to be converted. She would go to services and pay lip service to keep the authorities and the other girls off her back, but in her heart, she still worshiped the spirits of the ancestors and the gods of river, earth, sky and fire. They were less egotistical, for one; the spirits of the ancestors were not out for converts — why should they want random Sims whom they had never met and to whom they shared no genetic connection burning incense and saying prayers to them? As for the gods of river, earth, sky and fire, they were just there. They existed and did not seek the worship of Sims to gratify their vanity. They could be petitioned and placated, but if they were ignored, they were fine with that too.
“Did ye learn anythin’ else?” asked Simon.
“Everything else,” Wei Li answered. “We learned about history, we learned about art, we learned about politics and finance. We learned about anything, so that we could converse intelligently on it, and so please our clients.” And Wei Li still enjoyed that learning; why, oftentimes in the late afternoon hours, before the whorehouse opened, she could be found in the damp cellar, reading one of the second- or third- or fourth-hand books she had bought with her wages.
“Aye, aye, sure ye did. Did ye learn anythin’ — interestin’?” Simon asked, his eyebrows waggling.
Wei Li tried not to roll her eyes. “We learned many interesting things.”
“That’ll cost ye extra,” Marigold answered, and winked at Wei Li.
Wei Li tried to smile back, though, in truth, she thought her extensive training was being … wasted in this locale. The courtesans of the Willow School had invented more sexual practices and positions than any group of like-minded women before or since, Wei Li thought. These were a closely-guarded trade secret — hell, even in the Willow School and various Flower Houses, getting treated to one of those positions or practices did cost extra.
Wei Li had not learned them all, of course. She did not have time to learn them all. Sexual training did not start until the age of twelve, and education began from the ground up — or rather, from the mouth down. They started with kissing, and did not lose their maidenhead (as these squeamish Albionese called it) until the age of eighteen. Of course, before then, the girls had learned, if not mastered, many of the elementary techniques of the other sexual positions and tricks — but that did not count as losing one’s virginity, for there was no penetration. They did not even practice with men, but with their teachers (all women) and other students. One did not even get a one-on-one session with a teacher until one was sixteen!
She had just started those one-on-one sessions when Marsim was sacked and she had to feel for her life.
Eventually, she had found her way to this little whorehouse in Albion. And she had begun to feel as if her extensive education, her schooling from the ground up in pleasure … was all wasted.
For all men were much the same in the dark; or at least, these men were.
Yes, young or old, hard and toned or soft and fleshy, dark or fair, big purse or small, kinky or “wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am,” straight-laced or wild, they all wanted the same thing. They all wanted pleasure, but not the kind of exquisite pleasure that would leave them crying for more one minute and begging for it to stop the next. No, they just wanted to shove their cock up some girl’s hole, toss her a copper, and call it a night.
Perhaps it was because of this that Wei Li had come to the conclusion that men, though they claimed to be the rightful rulers of the world, did not matter. They were not subtle, they were not deep — at least the men she had met in the course of her work were not. Those who had hidden depths did not care to show them to “just a whore.” She was, to them, more disposable than the copper they used to pay her.
Was it any wonder, then, that Wei Li turned to the women in her life for friendship and companionship?
And maybe that was why, even all these weeks later, Wei Li would look at the empty chair as they played their afternoon poker matches, and wonder how much of a waste her life to this point had really been.