Mark had done plenty of stupid things while trying to raise his children to be sensible, productive, dutiful adults, and this was probably one of the stupidest. The sad thing was, he knew it. The sadder thing was, even knowing it, he had no idea what else to do.
He’d brought his son to a whorehouse for an evening’s entertainment. They weren’t nobles, who married for money and lands and a good bloodline and for whom pleasure was to be found outside the marriage bed. And he didn’t even have the excuse that Joshua was young and to be married soon, and might need experience if he was going to please a nervous bride. No, he just brought Josh to the whorehouse …
Well, because he’d dragged him everywhere else he could think to go, and nothing else had worked.
Josh had been doing so well, too. Sometimes he even talked and laughed like his own self. Then one day he’d come home ashen-faced and silent from visiting Baby Belle at the Porters’ house. Mark had tried for three days to get out of Josh what it was that was bothering him. Helena hadn’t even tried; she simply went on a visit to the Porters’ by herself and chattered innocently until Goodwife Porter asked a telling question. “So, now,” Mark could imagine her asking, “has Master Wesleyan — yer son Master Wesleyan — said anythin’ more about when he wants Baby Belle home? She’s almost weaned, ye know. Lord, it’s been nearly a year!”
Nearly a year. The one-year anniversary of Isabel’s death — Baby Belle’s first birthday — was coming fast upon them, and poor Goodwife Porter had stumbled right into it by reminding Josh of that fact. Once reminded, Josh had started to slide right back to where he had been in those first hellish weeks after the fact. It was all Mark, Helena, Rob and Babette could do to drag him back.
So Mark had been taking him out every night. To pubs, to inns, to Richard’s home for supper, to Rob’s home for ale with the menfolk. He tried to pull him back, force him out the door in order to tire him out and keep Josh moving. Maybe, maybe if they just kept Josh moving, he would shake himself out of these doldrums and be able to soldier on, as he had been soldiering on these past months. He could settle back into his routine and start to raise his children again.
But no matter where Mark took Josh, the story was always the same. He would smile, and nod, and act cheery, and maybe crack a few jokes in his old way. And when he came home, the cheer and bonhomie would rush out of him like air from a spent pig’s bladder. He would retreat to his bedroom without a word — if they were lucky. If they were unlucky, he would throw himself onto the couch and hold his head in his hands, for minutes or hours, until they got him to get up and go to bed.
And every night, Helena, who invariably waited up for them, would shoot him a despairing look, as if to ask, What do we do now? It had been a long time since Mark had not had an answer for Helena and felt particularly sorry about it, but now was that time.
So now Mark had pulled out his trump card, his last resort. He had dragged Josh to the whorehouse in the hopes that Wei Li would work her magic. She’d brought Mark back from emotional deadness and despair, maybe she could do the same for Josh. Or if she couldn’t, Tambu could, or Marigold could, or even that creepy Mirelle could. As long as his son wasn’t sucked dry of blood or didn’t come home with a too-terrible disease, Mark wasn’t picky.
However … so far, it wasn’t working. Oh, Josh put on a good show, as he did in the pubs, in the inns, in Richard’s or Rob’s parlor. But Mark could see the emptiness in his son’s eyes. He was just here because Mark wanted him to be. Part of Mark wanted to clap his son’s shoulder and say enough was enough, toss the ladies a couple of coins and give up now. The rest of him was too stubborn to allow that. Maybe if they stayed long enough, Josh would get some interest in … well, anything, really. There were plenty of beautiful women sitting around him. Surely, surely, he’d wake up.
To make matters worse, though Wei Li was as soft and charming and loveable as ever, Tambu sat across from Josh at the card table and watched him with what could only be called frightening intelligence. Mark wasn’t sure what would be worse: that Tambu was merely sizing Josh up all-too-accurately, or that she was calculating the odds of being able to latch and leech onto Josh.
In the midst of these troubling thoughts, he scarcely heard the door open and slam shut, nor the tramping boots pound from the vestibule into the whorehouse proper.
Wei Li and Tambu noticed, however. They both sat up straight and edged their chairs away from the table, as they would if they were preparing to run at any moment. Mark noticed that. Josh, too, noticed the sudden entrance. He merely sat up. “Dad …”
Mark never had a chance to reply. He would, after all, had have to have been quite deaf not to hear the sudden unearthly, raging shriek that arose from the back of the room, followed by a robust, “An’ what the hell are ye doin’ here?”
Mark spun around to see, for the first and probably the last time in his life, a whore yelling at a lord.
The lord in question, to his credit, did not instantly strike her down or call for his personal guards to arrest the strumpet. That would have happened in Glasonland, and in times of great stress — Mark’s heart was pounding practically out of his chest, if only because of the suddenness of the shriek — Mark did tend to revert to the thoughts and customs of his youth. However, the lord then did something far more frightening.
He put his hand to his chin, tapped a finger against his beard, and said in a completely calm and even voice, “Since you insist on throwing all of my agents out on their — pardon my Gaulish, ladies — arses, I have come to collect my … rents myself.”
“Dad …” Josh hissed. Mark could hear his thoughts — let’s get out of here, now — but he only shushed his son with a flapping hand. Somehow, Sir Mordred and Marigold had both corners of the door covered. If they wanted to get out, that would require going between the combatants. Mark wasn’t that desperate … yet.
“Rents? Yer ma almost killed me son! An’ ye’re axin’ fer rents?”
There was something that niggled at him — ah, that was it! Weren’t the du Lacs the owners of this land? If that was the case, why would Marigold owe rents to Sir Mordred? There was no way a lord would ever give or, Lord forbid, sell such a small parcel of his lands to any other lord.
Sir Mordred did not reply to that immediately. And with every long moment that he did not reply, the whorehouse grew more silent. Eventually, even the rats that lived between the walls and the bugs that rustled in the thatch went still.
“My mother,” Sir Mordred finally answered in a voice whose complete lack of emotion and anger made it all the more furious, “never almost killed anybody. Certainly not a child.”
“Dad,” Josh hissed from the side of that terrifying smile he plastered to his face, “let’s go.”
“Josh,” Mark hissed back, “unless you plan to push your old man out one of these windows — and let me remind you, I’m not as thin as I used to be — how exactly do you think we’re going to get out between the two of them? Besides, we can’t –”
“Yer ma was found guilty in the King’s own court!” Marigold roared back, killing any more reply Mark had in mind. “Now get out!”
“A grave miscarriage of justice,” replied Sir Mordred smoothly, “that will be rectified any day now, I assure you.”
“Not before that witch gets her head chopped off, if the King’s got any justice in ‘im!”
Sir Mordred did not speak immediately. He only blinked. Then he took a slow step forward. Every creak of every floorboard sounded a death knell. His head he held very high, even as he tilted it down to better address Marigold.
The only slight sign of anger he gave were his hands, balled into fists at his side.
“I should be very, very careful,” he whispered — the better to make every man, woman and whore in the room lean closer to catch his words, “about mentioning my lady mother’s … unfortunate predicament in my hearing. Very careful.”
Marigold, if she had any wisdom, any sense of what was right and proper in her bones, would have backed off and given the man his rents. Whatever it took to get that man out of her establishment, to make him stop scaring her customers.
Marigold had no wisdom.
“She’s gonna get her head chopped off!” Marigold shouted. “As she should! Bitch! Baby-kill–”
Sir Mordred’s hand latched onto her wrist. “I should be very careful,” he repeated, “about mentioning my lady mother’s unfortunate predicament.”
Marigold stared at the captured hand. Then she brought it up in a fierce uppercut aimed for Sir Mordred’s jaw.
It stopped a few inches away. Marigold yelped and drew her hand back down, cursing. And Sir Mordred … laughed?
“My good woman!” he chortled, “do you really think I’d be undefended against a mere stalk? Considering your unwisdom, I was half-expecting a knife! Oh, I wouldn’t try that, if I were you,” he added when Marigold’s hand went to her belt. “Pulling a knife on a lord? You would be the only one in gaol awaiting your date with the executioner.”
And as Marigold seethed and Mark watched open-jawed, Sir Mordred plucked the knife from Marigold’s belt, tossed it to the side, and shoved her backwards, following her every step.
So Mark saw his chance. Josh had seen it beforehand and was already standing up. “Come on, Wei Li, we’re leaving.”
“Wei Li?” Josh choked.
“And — and, Tambu, you too,” Mark faltered. After all, that soft and unmistakeable swell of her belly could only mean one thing — and surely Josh couldn’t argue with trying to make sure a pregnant woman got out of a potential fight safely?
“… We?” Wei Li, instead, questioned.
“You can’t be thinking of staying here?” Mark gasped.
“It’s dangerous!” Mark yelped, insofar as one could yelp without letting his voice creep above a whisper.
“But where could we go?” Wei Li asked.
With me, Mark almost said — almost — but for Josh standing over his shoulder and staring at him. “We’ll figure that out –”
“Ye can’t call the law on me! I own this place!” Marigold shouted, and sickly fascinated, every eye in the place turned to her, Mark’s included.
“Truly?” Sir Mordred chuckled. “Not according to those papers you signed, a couple months –”
“Ye never paid me a red cent fer this place! Ye said it were all jest fake, so’s ye could –”
“Prove it,” Sir Mordred sneered.
“Prove? How can I prove I don’t got money I never had?”
“Precisely,” replied Sir Mordred. “Even if you were not lying — which you are — you could never prove that you are telling the truth. Ergo, it is your word against mine. And who ever heard of the word of a whore outweighing that of a lord?”
“King Arthur!” Marigold snapped. “Me own son’s word outdid yer ma’s! Why shouldn’t mine outdo yers?”
It was an unanswerable argument. Mark had no intention of seeing how Sir Mordred managed to answer it. Nor did many of the other patrons of the whorehouse, who were now rushing to the exit, now that the doorway was open. As for Mark, he hooked his arm through Wei Li’s sleeve. “Let’s go.”
“We can’t,” replied Tambu. “Leastaways, I can’t. Wei Li, if ye want ter be skippin’ out, best get skippin’.”
“Mistress Tambu –” Mark started. “You — you can’t be thinking of staying — your — your condition –”
“Ain’t me baby,” Tambu shrugged. “It’s the Church’s baby. If the Church don’t get one more baby ter auction off ter the highest bidder once it gets old enough ter get put ter work … well, that ain’t no skin off me nose.”
“Look, sir, I’m a whore an’ I know it. But there’s worse things ter be. One o’ them is a bad friend. I ain’t goin’ nowhere while Marigold is trouble.”
Oh, for the love of Wright! There was no reasoning with the mad. He turned back to Wei Li. “Well? Tell me at least that you’re coming!”
“No-o,” Wei Li replied, slowly. “I cannot leave my friend.”
“Wei Li! Why? If she was your friend, she wouldn’t blame you!”
“Dad,” Josh growled.
“Josh, wait just a –”
“Dad!” Josh shouted, barreling his shoulder into Mark’s. Mark went flying arse-over-head and under the card table. His head cracked into a chair and he lay still for a moment, stunned.
In that moment, Josh had grabbed both Wei Li and even Tambu and hustled them under the table too. Suddenly Wei Li’s soft shoulder, scented with her perfume of jasmine and cherry blossoms, appeared underneath his head. For a moment, the slipperiness of the silk, the scent of her perfume, and her shaking breath stirring in his ear rendered Mark more still and stunned than the crack against the chair.
“Dad! Get your legs under!” Josh snapped, and Mark scrambled to obey without understanding why. Then he looked, and understood.
The wand, Sir Mordred’s, must have come out, and his quick-thinking son was not taking … too many risks. But it had gotten worse.
The wand was sparking.
Marigold had started shrieking — and just as suddenly, she stopped, staring at the wand as a man might stare at a crossbow aimed for his heart.
The brothel held its breath. So, therefore, the creaking of floorboards as one brave Sim moved forward was that much more audible.
So was that Sim’s quiet, tinkling, strangely-accented words. “I would not do that, if I were you.”
She stood, nonchalant and relaxed against the dartboard. She examined her nails as if whatever dirt had crept underneath them was of infinitely more importance than the dirt that stood before her. And when she looked up, her sharp canines gleamed in the candlelight.
Sir Mordred stared at her, one eyebrow cocked, head tilted to the side. Then he put the wand away. The brothel breathed a sigh of relief. “And why, pray, is that?”
“Because if you did that, both I and all my people would be very, very upset with you.”
“Oh, would you?” Sir Mordred chuckled. “I might relish that, actually. I’ve never tried my magics against your kind.”
“I guessed as much,” replied Mirelle.
“And how is that?”
She shrugged — which was no mean feat, considering her clothing, or rather the lack thereof. “You’re still alive.”
Sir Mordred narrowed his eyes. “You are very confident.”
“Mirelle!” Marigold squealed. “Don’t — don’t ye get inter this too!”
“Do not be silly, Marigold. I am already in this. We are all this, because you are our friend.” She turned back to Sir Mordred. “If you would be a wise man, you would leave now, before my people get wind of this. They already have … double the usual reason to be watching Albion.”
Sir Mordred snorted. “Your people? I know your people. They are like you. Weak.”
“I assure you,” Mirelle replied, narrowing her eyes, “despite our … weakness, we would have no trouble dispatching you. Or any you might enlist to help you protect yourself.”
“And why would your people even care?” Sir Mordred snorted. “Your lot are a selfish bunch. I’m surprised you even have the audacity to refer to them as ‘a people.'”
“My people are not … always the most united,” Mirelle concluded. “But we have one thing in common, all of us. We cannot abide those who would harm children.”
“I would think the Magoris would hardly mind those who would harm children, given their history,” Sir Mordred scoffed. “You’re bluffing. And badly.”
Mirelle, however, looked taken aback. Then she chuckled. “Oh, you poor, dear boy. Is that what you thought?”
“Is what what I thought?”
“That the … creatures of the night were those who I saw as my people. They’re not, you know. You’re right, they’re not truly ‘a people,’ are they?”
“Then who are your people?” Sir Mordred snorted. “The Remans? The Glasonlanders?”
“Wrong and wrong,” replied Mirelle with a smile that showed off her canines. Then, without a further word, she lifted up her hair and pushed it behind her ear.
What that gesture was supposed to mean was beyond Mark’s ken. But Sir Mordred got it. He got it and gasped, stumbling backward. Then, without a further word, he turned to the door.
“Dad,” Josh hissed, “let’s go.”
Mark looked at Wei Li and Tambu, who were probably as out of danger as they would be this night, and at Sir Mordred’s retreating back.
Coming here tonight really had been one of the stupidest things he had ever done.
“Aye,” Mark gulped, forcing himself to his feet. “Aye. Let’s go.”