In the brothel, to hear men shouting was nothing to be surprised about. With the amount of alcohol on the premises — and the presence of the poker tables — and of course the girls, whose job it was to make them scream and shout and pant — there was scarcely a night that went by without the volume creeping up to a level that would surely upset the neighbors, were there any neighbors to be had.
To hear a man shouting Wei Li’s name when she was not on top of him, or below him, or to the side of him, or even on the same story of the house as him — that was unusual.
“Wei Li! I just want to see Wei Li! Good Lord, is that so hard?”
Wei Li’s last client had already left, and she had just redressed (no use giving would-be paying customers a free view) and fixed her hair and was getting ready to come down again. She froze, though, her hand gripping the balustrade. Was that Master Wesleyan? Shouting?
He was not a shouter, in bed or out of it, or so Wei Li had thought. If anything, he was unusually quiet and almost shy. And kind. He always gave her more than she asked, and he always smiled at her, and he even seemed to devote some time and effort to what would please her — quite unusual for a client.
He had even apologized, the last time she had seen him, for not coming around more often. His daughter-in-law had died, he said, and his son was heartbroken, and his other son was getting married, and that meant that his daughter was home from Camford and she was a bit of a night owl … the excuses had sputtered and climbed on top of each other in their haste to come out and reassure her. Or him. Or maybe somebody else entirely. Wei Li still wasn’t sure why he felt the need to inform her of all this minutiae of his life.
Or perhaps it wasn’t minutiae. Master Wesleyan had seemed fond of his daughter-in-law, at least from some things he let slip over the course of that evening. Maybe it helped him to talk about it with somebody who wasn’t nursing that same injury. Well, if that was the case, Wei Li had two ears and she was more than capable of listening.
“Master Wesleyan, calm down, please! She’ll be down when she gets down!”
If Marigold was shouting, that could not mean anything good. One who knew the value of a whisper as well as Marigold did only rarely resorted to a shout. One who could usually defuse drunken brawls with a shake of her head, dispersing calming pollen, rarely had a need for a shout. Wei Li grabbed her robes in her hand and hurried down the stairs.
“In the meantime, though, maybe one of the other girls –”
“No! I just want to see Wei Li! Wright! Do you have any idea how far I rode to get down here?”
“I know it’s a far way –”
“An hour, in the pitch black, and I don’t want to think about how far away dawn isn’t! I just want to see –”
“Master Wesleyan?” The Willow School trained the girls to have voices that were soft, low and sweet — but they also trained them how to pitch their voices to carry.
To watch the change that came over Master Wesleyan was a sight for even eyes as jaded as Wei Li’s. First, he froze. Then he turned — slowly, so slowly, as if he either wanted to savor the moment, or was afraid that when he finally brought her into his line of sight, he would not see what he was expecting to see. Finally, he was facing her.
That was when he smiled.
It was the sort of smile that had to be answered, and so Wei Li answered it with a smile of her own. It was the sort of smile that the girls at the Willow School would spend hours practicing — add a cup of graciousness, a teaspoon of come-hither, and a liberal pinch of spice. A girl from the Willow School would have followed it with a bow, whose exact gradation and depth would depend on the precise age and rank of the client, but since those in Albion only bowed to certain members of society, Wei Li merely inclined her head.
She wondered, next, how Master Wesleyan had managed the hour’s ride between his dwelling and the brothel, for surely a sober man would not start and sway and weave as he began to. Then again, he showed a great deal of perception for a drunk man — when Marigold tapped his shoulder, he stopped and stared at her. “How much time are ye plannin’ ter spend with her, Master Wesleyan?”
In answer, Master Wesleyan fished about in his fat money purse and brought out a coin. Only a whore could have told the glint of silver from that of copper at this distance. A girl trained at the Willow School and working at a Flower House under its auspices would have never had need. And only one of Marigold’s girls could have seen her faint start and the way she grabbed the coin before Master Wesleyan could think better of his generosity. “Right. I’ll not be botherin’ ye, then.”
As Master Wesleyan, thus relieved of any more worry for the immediate future, strode toward her, Marigold caught Wei Li’s eye and shrugged. If he wants to bankrupt himself here — let ‘im, said that shrug. Then she wandered off to see to other customers.
Thus was Wei Li left alone, or functionally alone if not literally alone, with her client.
“Wei Li,” Master Wesleyan smiled. His voice was soft and mellow, like good honey. “How are you this evening?”
“Very well, thank you, sir. And yourself?”
“Oh, I’m fine, now that I’m here.” She waited for him to turn around and growl in Marigold’s direction, or make some disparaging comment about the nature of the door-woman or guard, as many a client kept waiting and forced to pay before being allowed near his lady of choice often did. Master Wesleyan, however, did neither. He just watched Wei Li and kept smiling.
Wei Li smiled in return, and it was only her Willow School training that kept the smile as calm and unruffled as a good courtesan’s smile should be. Otherwise, she feared it would have grown very confused. But that was nothing new. Her time in Reme and Albion had often led to such confusion, and she supposed that her confusion would last until the day she died. Or went back home, but the chances of her ever being able to afford passage were slim, and there was nothing to go back to in any case.
Her mouth opened to invite him up to her bedchamber, but Master Wesleyan forestalled her by sighing, “Oh, you have no idea what a relief it is to see a smiling face!”
“I … don’t?”
“I just had a fight with my wife,” Master Wesleyan murmured, as if this was some sort of shameful admission. “Er — that is — I don’t want you to feel — I don’t want to offend you …”
Offend me? She was not sure which was more surprising — the idea that a mention of his wife would offend her, or that Master Wesleyan actually cared whether she was offended. After all, she was the type of woman whom men would not bring up before their wives, for fear of offending them. Surely the courtesy did not run both ways? None of her other clients were ever shy about mentioning (and frequently complaining about) their wives.
“I’m not offended,” she replied, since he seemed so worried — his face was like a puppy’s who was sure he had just done wrong.
It bloomed into a smile. “Good, good — I mean — no, no, I won’t ruin your evening by mentioning it. It nearly ruined mine, living it!” he laughed. “But Lord! It’s good to see a smiling face! My wife is … my wife … and poor Josh … Heloise is already back at school, Rob and Dannie I’m sure are thrilled by feel obliged to keep a damper on it when they’re around us, and … and Babette …”
Babette. Master Wesleyan regularly babbled about his sons and his daughters and his daughters-in-law — so which one was Babette? “Your daughter?” Wei Li asked.
Why did that make Master Wesleyan sigh and looked down? “Aye — my daughter.”
Wei Li expected to hear no more from him on that. It was rare enough that a client mentioned his family, rarer still he mentioned a daughter. The men seemed to have a superstitious dread when it came to mentioning their daughters in this place; it was as if they feared mentioning their girls’ names within these walls would somehow tarnish them, sully their virtue.
It would not have been such at any of the Flower Houses, Wei Li knew. There, men would not have been afraid to mention their sons, their daughters, any members of their families. Often they would take the head courtesan aside and whisper to her about getting a niece or a cousin or some other poor relation into the school. True, men who were clients of the Flower Houses did not send their daughters to the Willow School — if their daughters could not win good marriages (often as a second wife to an older widower, whose children were already grown and who was fond enough of himself to imagine that he now deserved to have a pretty and delicate wife, not a strong and capable wife), they would try to get them into the Emperor’s train of courtesans, or else thus attached to a powerful nobleman or governor of a district — but nieces and poor relations were fair game.
But then again, no one but the most hidebound peasant in Smina, who could barely afford to keep his wife and his family fed, would have seen anything wrong with what went on within the delicately muraled walls of the Flower Houses or Willow School. In Smina, the idea of shame attached to any of these places would have been absurd, laughable. In Albion and even in Reme, for a woman in Wei Li’s position to not feel some sort of shame was just as absurd and laughable.
“But I didn’t come here to talk about that, either!” Master Wesleyan said, looking up with a laugh that could only be forced. “Oh, Lord! You have no idea what I went through to get here tonight, Wei Li!”
“Oh?” she asked, meaning only to be polite.
“I’d tell you there were dragons and bandits and rampaging Smoors involved, but as young and sweet as you are, Wei Li, you’re not that young; you’d never believe it,” he laughed.
“Perhaps if you mentioned vampires, I might,” Wei Li answered, one side of her mouth rising slightly higher than the other.
Master Wesleyan threw back his head and laughed as if she had made a great joke instead of a lame half-witticism. “Oh, Wright! You might!” He suddenly stopped. “Er … you don’t think she heard me, do you?”
“Mirelle does not bite customers,” Wei Li replied, prudently keeping the usually locked behind her lips, and even more prudently not mentioning those very strange men who were willing to pay extra for the privilege of being bitten, “so it would not matter even if she did.”
“I’m a lucky man then,” Master Wesleyan chuckled. “Of course, I knew that already, seeing as I’m standing here with you.”
Why did that make her smile so? It was sudden and involuntary, springing forth as the flowers themselves would burst from the ground the minute the snows receded. Surely no woman of the Flower Houses would smile so.
Then again, maybe they would. They were still women. And no woman, no matter how well-trained, how cynical and jaded, disliked a spontaneous, heartfelt compliment. Women at the Flower Houses got so few of them, after all. They were there to be pleasing, not to be pleased.
“You do me much honor, sir,” Wei Li replied, the old bow coming out without her thinking about it. Master Wesleyan tilted his head a little to one side, more than bemused. But he still smiled.
“Er … you’re welcome?”
Wei Li nodded. And since this was as good a time as any to ask — before the other clients started to stare or whisper, or murmur to themselves how much Master Wesleyan had paid for the privilege of spending the waning night with her, and how much he wasn’t enjoying it — Wei Li gestured to the stairs and asked, “Shall we go up, sir?”
“If you like,” he answered, “and you don’t have to call me sir. Mark … Mark is fine.”
“As you wish,” Wei Li answered, gathering her robes in one hand and sweeping up the stairs. She heard Master Wesleyan’s heavy, creaking tread up the rickety stairs as he followed her, but she could not see the almost despairing look on his face.
She had no chance to see it after they arrived in her room, either, for Wei Li scarcely had a chance to turn around and try to arrange her features into the appropriate expression before Master Wesleyan pounced on her.
In her business, one learned to rate a man’s worth as much by his touch as by his words, or his deeds, or the amount of money in his purse. If Marigold or Tambu would have heard her say so, they would have been shocked. Then again, both of them had played this game long enough that they could not imagine a man having a worth than went deeper than his pocket, or had any more tint or hue than the color of his money. As for Mirelle … well, Mirelle was Mirelle, and she seemed to view most Sims as inhabiting a plane as far below hers as Wei Li reckoned an ant’s was below her own plane. Even Erin might have had trouble understanding. She had no problem rating a man as a good lay or a bad lay, and would frequently shred the performance of their paying clients at the breakfast table to much laughter, but that one of their customers could have worth beyond the amount he paid or the pleasure he all-unwittingly provided … no, Erin would not understand that.
But perhaps all of her friends and sisters would call her a fool, a lackwit, an idiot, but Wei Li still believed there were good men in this world. Perhaps many of them did not come into Marigold’s brothels and other brothels like it. Good men did their best to follow the tenets of their religion, and the religion in these parts did not encourage visits to places like this. But even good men slipped up from time to time. Even good men had needs that they needed to have fulfilled. And good men did not cease being good men just because they set foot into a brothel and paid for what other men would only accept it came after marriage.
Good men, when they kissed you, did not attack your face as if they were trying to eat it. For that matter, good men were far more likely to kiss you unprovoked, and not lie back like a lump on the mattress while you did all the work. Good men might hold you too tightly, or in a way that wasn’t comfortable for you, but if you squirmed or squeaked they always adjusted their hold. Good men, in other words, watched you and saw to it that you were comfortable or at least not uncomfortable and did not merely satisfy their needs like pigs in the sty.
However, even among good men, it was a rare one who would pull back, so slowly, and hold Wei Li lightly while his fingers swam in her flowing hair. There now, his smile seemed to say, with an edge of uncertainty, like a boy’s, that wasn’t so bad — was it? I’m not completely out of practice, am I?
Wei Li was about to put on her sultry smile and manuever him into the bed when Master Wesleyan — Mark — surprised her with a question. “What was your home like, Wei Li?”
She blinked. “I — I beg your pardon?”
Was Master Wesleyan turning faintly pink? It was impossible! “Richard — Richard Ferreira — he’s told me an awful lot about his travels in and around Smina. And the clothes the Sminese wear,” he fingered her belt, “and the way they speak, and … oh, lots of things. You’re from Smina, aren’t you?”
Wei Li nodded.
“Well — what was it like?”
“I think,” she murmured, “you have heard more from Master Ferreira than I could tell you.”
A lesser man might have pressed her. But Mark let go of her, stepped back, and asked, “Does it make you sad to talk about it?”
“Homesick, I mean?”
She frowned. “I do not see much point of being homesick,” she answered. “I do not think there is much, if anything, left of my home to be sick about.”
“Leaving was a good thing for you, then?”
Mark said nothing, but he did raise his eyebrows, almost inviting confidences.
It would be easiest just to say it, and stop the questions that way. “My home was Marsim. It was sacked by the Remans, over fifteen years ago.”
His eyes bulged big and round as his pot belly. “My Lord! You — how did you survive?”
She shrugged. “I was pretty and had no jewels. I was worth more as a slave than as a corpse.”
His jaw hung loose from its hinge. “Lord,” he murmured, then, “Lord,” again. His hand moved up to stroke her cheek. “Your … your family?”
“I was not with my family at the time of the sack.” She did not think they had fled the city and escaped into the countryside — they would have taken her with them in that case. Probably. At least, many other girls’ parents did. But beyond that? She did not know.
There were some things that you did not ask, or seek to find out. Better to only imagine the worst than to know it for a fact.
“Wei Li … are you all right?”
“Of course I am!” she replied with the bright, brittle smile that would make the other daughters of the Willow School and Flower Houses cackle and clack their tongues. Fake! Fake! they would scold. “It was years and years ago.”
“Some wounds take longer than years and years to heal,” he pointed out.
What was a girl to say to that?
“You did not come here to discuss my wounds,” she replied, drawing her finger along the side of his neck, to remind what he had come here for.
“I didn’t come here to pretend they didn’t exist, either.”
Then you are a most strange client, she thought, but did not say, because even the lowest street whores knew better than to insult the customers.
“Perhaps, but … they are not wounds now, really, they are scars. Old scars. And while you men,” she poked him lightly, “like to show your old battle scars, we women prefer to pretend they don’t exist.”
Mark snorted, but he smiled. “Fair enough. But do tell me … if it isn’t too much airing of old wounds,” he said, “are all Sminese girls as pretty as you are?”
“What do you think?” she laughed.
“I think that any day now there’s going to be a ship from the Sminese navy docking down at Port Finessa, bristling with soldiers, demanding we give them back their prettiest flower — that’s what I think.”
“Oh, you are too much!”
“I try,” he laughed, and then snorted. “Wright help me. That’s something that would have come out of Josh’s mouth in his courting days.”
Josh, Wei Li had figured out by this point, was the older son, the recent widower. He must have outgrown the bad pick-up lines at some point in order to win a wife whose loss he so took to heart.
“But maybe it’s you,” he murmured, his fingers running through her hair again. “You do make me feel like a boy again, Wei Li. Heart all a-flutter, palms sweaty, always saying the wrong thing and being convinced that doing so is the end of the world …” He laughed, his low chuckle as calm and soothing as the sound of the ocean. “You remember that, Wei Li?”
No. No, she did not. Girls of the Willow School were kept very sheltered, because it would do them no good to fall for some pretty boy, woo him, marry him and ruin all their chances.
She glanced sidelong up at him, ready to do as a good Willow School girl would, laugh and agree with him …
But she could not. And there was no way she could be honest in a way he would understand, and not cause him to pity her.
So instead of speaking, she kissed him.
It was the best of Willow School kisses, a type she had more than ample time to master before Marsim was sacked and ended her time at the Willow School. It was soft and delicate, as the women of the Flower Houses were. It barely grazed Mark’s lips, allowing him only teasing tastes of her lip balm and the cherry blossom cream she spread over her skin each morning. One hand just barely rested against his shoulder, the other hand was tucked behind her back so he could not grab it and wrap it around his waist, as men often liked to do.
It always left men hoping, begging for more. And when Wei Li pulled away, she saw the familiar glazed look in his eye that meant her kiss had worked.
Willow School girls did not smile in the wake of their triumph. That was showing their hands. Or if they did smile, they made their smiles soft, beguiling, desiring, their eyes limpid and adoring. Wei Li had to smile, and so she did her best to smile a true Willow School smile.
Mark grinned, grabbed her, and crushed her to him.
And though with that move, he might have thought he was in control of the situation — for it was his hand that first went to her belt and undid it, not hers that toyed with the laces of his tunic; his hand that slipped the robes from her shoulders, not hers that edged the tunic up and over his head; his feet that led her to the bed, not hers that pushed him to it — but he would be wrong.
Because Wei Li was a Willow School girl, and Willow School girls were never not in control in the bedroom.