Respectable women didn’t go to the whorehouse. Ask them and they would swear that they didn’t want to be seen within a ten-mile radius of it. They didn’t want to be tarred with that brush. They would draw their scarves or shawls closer around them and hurry past, if for some reason they happened to be walking in that direction. No, respectable women didn’t go near the whorehouse.
But the inn just next door, the one where several vendors set up little stalls? That was fine. That was perfectly respectable. So that was where Erin set up camp to wait for her friends.
And while she was here, she might as well have a look at the cheeses and breads and preserves.
It wasn’t often that she got a day off when Wulf was at school. That was, granted, mostly because she did her best to be sure that when Wulfie was off from school, she was at home to take care of him. But it hadn’t worked out that way this week, so she might as well take advantage of it. She’d get a bit of shopping done without a four-year-old who vacillated every moment between curious and bored hopping by her side, and she’d get to see her friends again.
The moment they stepped out of the door, she would see them. She made sure of that.
Despite knowing that her kitchen cupboards could use more jams and breads — besides also knowing that she wasn’t a good enough cook to be making them all herself, never mind the fact that she didn’t have a garden for the jams — her attention refused to stay on the wares before her. Her eyes kept slipping to the porch so close, yet so far away. There was only one door into or out of Marigold’s house; Marigold made it that way on purpose so that johns couldn’t get out without paying. When the girls came out, she would see them.
But what was taking them so bloody long? Erin felt like Wulf: eager, impatient, so busy anticipating the next excitement or treasure or happiness that she could scarcely enjoy this one. She thought that impatience would fade in him with time, but if her own reactions were any measure, apparently they would stay with Wulf for all time.
There were worse things, however, than being impatient. Wulfie was still her sweet little boy, the one who still picked flowers for his Mama and presented them shyly to her when he got home from school — as if he was afraid they’d be rejected! She’d put her nose into a bouquet of poison ivy if that was Wulfie brought home for her. And then regret it, of course, but it would be worth it to see him smile.
She wondered if that was normal — her son’s shyness when he gave her things. Were all little boys like that? Were some little boys who were shier than others like that? Or was it a half-forgotten legacy of being ripped from her arms and then his time spent with the nuns? Erin would have to ask Marigold when she came; Marigold’s Thorn wasn’t much older, she’d have an idea —
“Aack!” Erin almost shrieked, but then she saw the tickling fingers that were attacking her. “Wei Li!”
“Erin!” Wei Li grinned.
And Tambu? Tambu was laughing. “Lord, Erin! If ye could’ve seen yer face! Ye looked about ready ter kick whoever was grabbin’ ye in the nether purse!”
“She would not have kicked me,” Wei Li said, smiling shyly.
“Aye, only because it’d be right hard ter find yer nether purse, unless there’s somethin’ ye’ve been neglectin’ ter mention, Wei Li, me girl,” Tambu laughed.
“Don’t worry, Wei Li, even if ye were hidin’ somethin’ under there, I wouldn’t be kickin’ nothin’. Wouldn’t want ter be ruinin’ yer dress.”
Wei Li smiled, smoothing the silk. In all of the years that Erin had known her, Wei Li had clung to that dress like a talisman. The other girls had refashioned rags and castoffs into their costumes as the need or fancy took them, but Wei Li had never owned another dress for casual wear. It was how women dressed in her country, she said. Apparently she was never going to change how she dressed, now that she was here. But that was reasonable. When your world turned upside down, you had to cling to something to keep yourself right side up. For Wei Li, that was her dress.
“Hmph!” Tambu sniffed, then she winked. “Ye wouldn’t be doin’ nothin’ like that fer me dress.”
“That’s because ye’d take any rips as a an opportunity ter be makin’ somethin’ new. Anyway, Tambu, come here! How are ye?” Erin asked, enveloping her friend in a hug.
“Oh, I’m jest peachy,” Tambu snickered. “An’ ye?”
“Fine, fine. Wei Li? How’re ye?”
“Much the same as usual,” Wei Li answered, smiling. Erin dared a peek at her friend’s waistline, since “the usual” with Wei Li tended to imply a baby on the way — but if there was one, he or she wasn’t big enough to be stretching the silk of Wei Li’s gown. Or else he was tamed into submission by that enormous bow of hers. Erin could never be sure.
Still, looking at her friends, Erin still found a reason to frown. “Where’s Marigold?” She had known that Mirelle would not be coming — the bright noonday sun did tend to cause problems for her — but she had thought that Marigold would come. Erin couldn’t have done something to offend her again, could she?
Something was up — Tambu and Wei Li’s shared glance said that much. “Er …” Tambu started. “Marigold is …”
“Indisposed,” Wei Li filled in.
“Eh? She’s havin’ her course?” Erin asked. How did that keep her from leaving the house?
“No, no, that ain’t it. It’s …” Tambu sighed. “She … she ain’t felt like gettin’ out much. Some little bi–er, some little girl with more insults in ‘er than good sense, she … she ruined Marigold’s day with Thorn, she did.”
Erin blinked. “What?”
Tambu sighed. “Marigold, she was out with Thorn — ye know, the days she takes ‘im out? Once every week or so? And some girl went up ter her while Marigold an’ Thorn was mindin’ their own business, started callin’ her barkie an’ … other nasty things.”
“My Lord,” Erin whispered. “It’s gettin’ worse, ain’t it?”
“Aye,” Tambu said. “First it were her brother gettin’ harassed at the market, now her …”
“D’ye think it’s …” Erin looked from side to side and whispered, “Tara’s pa?”
“Erin!” Wei Li gasped. “Don’t say such things! Not out loud!”
Tambu cast a raised eyebrow on Wei Li, then turned back to Erin. “Fer what it’s worth, no. I sneaks inter the church, sometimes. Sits in the back. He ain’t said a word against folks what are leafy.”
“Then what could it be?” Erin wondered.
Tambu shrugged. “Eh, the news from Glasonland gets worse every day. An’ the rumors are, if old King Vortigern kicks it …”
She didn’t finish the sentence, unless you counted a shrug as finishing it. But more than that wasn’t necessary. Erin could still remember the brothers-in-law of the old King Vortigern, or at least, remember hearing about them. They wanted Reme, everybody knew that. And they would rule in mad Prince Vortimer’s stead, unless some of King Vortigern’s bastards managed to seize the throne. But if the bastards failed …
“Ye know,” Erin murmured, “maybe we should go inside. Get some lunch?”
The girls didn’t take much convincing, since they fell into step with Erin as soon as she began to lead the way. The inn wasn’t a fancy place, they didn’t cook food to order; they just made it as folks came and left it out for them to grab. What was out now was some pancakes. They might have been left over from the breakfast batter, but they were still hot, and the girls grabbed a few plates full and left their coins on the counter.
When they sat, then it was time to begin speaking. “Folk is scared,” murmured Erin.
“Aye,” Wei Li murmured. “And when people are scared, they turn against those in their midst who are … different.”
“An’ it can’t be helpin’ Marigold an’ her brother that it’s Thorn what brought Lady Morgause down — an’ the whole kingdom knows it.”
“And Marigold taking Sir Mordred to task in front of … a sizable-enough proportion of the kingdom’s male population also cannot be helping her case,” Wei Li remarked.
“Aye,” Tambu sighed, “there’s that too. I wish I knew what she was thinkin’ when she did that.”
“I do,” Erin murmured to her plate. Tambu looked up at her, face carefully blank. As for Wei Li, she stared at her pancakes and began to push them about on her plate.
“We’re all mothers here –” Erin started.
“No,” Tambu interrupted. “Ye’re a mother, Erin. Ye’ve raised yer kid. Me, I jest gave birth an’ handed them over. Wei Li, what Wei Li is is up ter Wei Li ter say.”
“I doubt very much that I count as a mother,” Wei Li murmured.
“It’s not about countin’ or not countin’. It’s about — look, ye honestly think, either o’ ye, that if somebody where ter — Lord forbid! — do somethin’ anywhere near ter what Lady Morgause did ter Thorn ter yer kids, that ye’d be feelin’ nice an’ friendly toward that woman’s son? Especially if he tried ter scare the livin’ daylights out o’ yer own kid an’ make him lie in the court?”
“Would I feel friendly? No,” Tambu replied. “Would I call out a lord like Marigold did? Good Lord, I hope not.”
“I ain’t sayin’ she did wrong,” Tambu continued, “but there’s folks what can afford ter have — principles, let’s say, and there’s folks what can’t. We can’t.”
Nobody did bluntness quite like Tambu. She had a positive gift for it. And what was worse, when she was blunt, she managed to dull the sharpness of your own wit. Erin couldn’t think of a single coherent argument that would stand up to that.
She began to twirl a trailing wisp of her hair. “She ain’t — she ain’t driven away business, has she?”
“No, we get just as much as usual,” Wei Li replied, and Erin breathed a sigh of relief. At least her friends wouldn’t be wondering where their next meal would be coming from. Thank Heaven for small blessings and all that. “But … the men are a bit more hesitant to cross Marigold. And Mirelle, too. When one of your girls sends the King’s own nephew as fast as his legs can carry him, it does tend to depress the other men’s more belligerent urges.”
“Exceptin’ when it don’t,” Tambu shook her head.
“There was some john,” Tambu said. “Heard the rumors. Got scared. Mirelle smiled at ‘im with … well, a bit too much tooth, ye might say, an’ the next thing ye know, he gets out a vial o’ holy water an’ throws it all over Mirelle.”
“Holy water!” Erin gasped, her heart dropping. Holy water! Everyone knew holy water, or anything blessed, really, was a vampire’s worst bane! Worse than sunlight, even! “No!”
“Oh, do not worry,” Wei Li said easily. “Mirelle just got a bit wet. And rather annoyed.”
That was even more frightening than the fact that holy water was employed in the first place. “She did?” Erin asked Tambu.
“Are we sure it was — was really holy water?” Erin asked.
“Blessed by Brother Tuck himself! Twice, the man swore! Once when it was put into the stoup, an’ again when it was taken out,” Tambu smirked.
“That could be the problem,” Erin murmured.
“What? That blessin’ it twice canceled it out?”
“No — that you know who did the blessin’.”
“I do not think the monk — or nun — doing the blessing would make much of a difference,” Wei Li mused. “Mirelle did not seem to think that any holy water would work at all. I think she was right, you know.”
“Why?” Erin asked.
“Ah ah!” Tambu lifted a finger in Wei Li’s direction, then turned to Erin. “This ain’t exactly a conversation fer mixed company, honey. If ye know what I’m sayin’?”
Wei Li sighed and shook her head, but it was a shake of resignation, not confusion. Erin, however, could only tilt her head a little to one side. “Eh?”
“Mirelle,” Tambu replied, clearly choosing her words with care, “was her … usual self when it came ter matters o’ faith. If ye know what I’m sayin’?”
“Oh,” Erin replied.
And she did know what Tambu was saying. When it came to faith, Mirelle was — well, she was probably damned, and that was before you threw the vampire thing in. It wasn’t that she believed in something other than the Lord Wright, like Wei Li still did — it was that Mirelle didn’t seem to believe in anything. And worse, she laughed! She laughed at faith! She thought it was all something somehow wrong, misguided, beneath her.
She probably had laughed at the holy water, once she got over her affront at having water thrown into her face. Erin scarcely knew what was more frightening: that a vampire could laugh at holy water, or that anybody could laugh at such things without instant divine retribution. It made Erin wonder what the Lord Wright was doing in up there in heaven, if he couldn’t be bothered to take affront when mere Sims scorned his power.
“But it is good, isn’t it, that the holy water did not work?” Wei Li asked, completely ignoring the fact that one of the time-tested defenses against all that was unholy had been proven inert before her very eyes. Well, assuming that Wei Li had seen what had happened, that is. “It gives more defense. We know that Mirelle is our best defense, if things … get ugly.”
“Only if it’s men they’re sendin’ after us,” Tambu pointed out. “An’ only if they’re sendin’ ’em at night.”
“An’,” Tambu sighed, “it might not be men.”
“They’re sendin’ women?” Erin gasped.
“No, no — not women. Worse. Servos.”
Erin’s eyes nearly fell from her skull. “What? Servos? Ye mean — ye mean like the King’s steward?”
“Aye, like that. One o’ ’em — I can’t be tellin’ which, they both look the same ter me — has been comin’ often o’ nights. He jest sits an’ plays his cards, scarce says a word, an’ won’t respond ter no hints ter come upstairs, if ye catch me drift.”
“So ye think either the King or Sir Lancelot is havin’ an eye kept on the place,” Erin murmured.
“That’s what I’m thinkin’,” Tambu replied, glancing at Wei Li, who stared at her food.
“But why? Why us — er — ye? What have ye done? Lord, ye don’t break no laws, ye pays yer taxes on time — what would the King or Sir Lancelot be interested in ye all fer?”
“That is what I say!” Wei Li replied, smacking the table with more force than Erin would have thought that delicate little hand capable of. “There is no earthly reason! We are just four poor women, trying to make our way in this world as best we might. What could the King or the lords be interested in us for?”
“Do it matter, so long as they are?” Tambu countered.
“Yes. Yes, I think it does matter,” Wei Li answered. “It could be something to our benefit, for all we know. Or the Servo could be interested only for his own sake! What of that? What if he is a potential client, and we are scaring him off by being so hostile to him?”
“First o’ all, we ain’t bein’ hostile ter ‘im, an’ secondly, it ain’t like Servos have got the equipment he’d need if we were ter be servicin’ ‘im, aye?”
“Actually, I believe they do,” Wei Li replied.
Erin’s jaw fell, and Tambu’s head swiveled to face Wei Li. “What?” Tambu asked.
“I believe that they do,” Wei Li answered easily. “There was a scandal back home — I was scarcely more than a child when it happened, but I remember it. One of the Emperor’s concubines was discovered with one of the palace Servos. There was a big to-do. They were not sure whether to condemn her as an adulteress, or …”
“… Or?” Erin squeaked, not sure whether she wanted to know where this was going.
“Well,” Wei Li shrugged, “as Madam Bai Lan said, if somebody had walked in on the concubine and a cucumber, nobody would have said a word — and since the Servo could no more put his seed into her than the cucumber could, what is the harm?”
“Oh my Lord,” Tambu murmured to her plate, and Erin mentally echoed her sentiments.
“But the Emperor was angry, and jealous, until somebody pointed out –”
Erin made frantic shushing motions as the cook came by to collect their plates. The smile she turned up at the older woman could only be described as sickly.
As soon as the old woman was out of earshot, Erin turned back to Wei Li. “So what happened?”
“Erin!” Tambu hissed.
“What? It’s a juicy story! Come on, Wei Li, what happened?”
“Well, the Emperor was still angry and jealous that anyone would prefer a hunk of metal to him,” Wei Li continued, “until the philosopher-concubine Hui Xiu–”
“Wait, wait, what did ye just say?” Tambu asked.
“The Emperor was still angry–” Wei Li began, mystified.
“No, no, after that. That — that name. What’d ye call that person?”
“Philosopher-concubine?” Wei Li asked.
Erin’s eyes bugged again. “Yer Emperor has boy concubines?”
“No …” Wei Li said slowly. “At least, not that I am aware …”
“So — so this kept woman, she’s a philosopher?” Tambu asked.
“Aye, of course. Why should not the Emperor have the women with the most finely adorned minds, as well as those with the most finely adorned bodies? Imagine the children they could have!” Wei Li added.
Well, that was a logic that Erin couldn’t argue with.
“Anyway, Hui Xiu pointed out that it was not so much a question of desire, as availability. There is only one Emperor, and many concubines. The Servos cannot be disloyal to the Emperor, but they can keep the concubines satisfied while the Emperor pleasures himself with different concubines. Allowing this, she said, would probably cut down on ill-will and jealously among the concubines, and give the Emperor a much more peaceful life.”
“And then what happened?” asked Erin.
“Well, the Emperor agreed, and now, instead of eunuchs, Servos are the male servants to the concubines. And the concubines, everyone says, are much happier with that arrangement. Or at least … they were when I left home.”
“Oh, my Lord. I cannot be believin’ I jest heard that!” Tambu sighed.
“What?” Wei Li asked. “I do not see anything wrong with it! It promotes peace and harmony in the Emperor’s household. What could be more important than that?”
“Oh, it ain’t that,” Tambu just shook her head. “It’s jest — Lord! That there can be people that think that! While we — we get spied on by the King jest fer doin’ what we can ter earn our bread!”
“Well,” Erin pointed out, “now that ye know yer Servo has parts ter be servicin’ … ye can be turnin’ the tables on ‘im, ye can.”
“I told ye, he ain’t interested in goin’ upstairs.”
“Oh, come, Tambu,” Wei Li coaxed. “You know we barely even tried. We could try again. Perhaps he might be more receptive if you were a bit more … coaxing with him.”
“Wait, me?” Tambu gasped. “How’d it become my job?”
“Well, ye were the one ter get a monk inter bed with ye, Tambu,” Erin pointed out.
“That weren’t hard.”
“But Master Wesleyan is often there the same nights that the Servo is,” Wei Li continued. “And you know that Marigold has to run the house, and Mirelle is hardly the woman to trust with a job such as this.”
“Hmm,” Tambu murmured. Though that was all she said, anyone who knew her would recognize the look in her eyes. She was thinking.
Erin glanced at Wei Li, who nodded. “But anyway!” Erin said, rising, “I saw that the secondhand cloth place has some nice new stuff in — well, new fer us, anyway. Lasses, want a look?”
That was all it took to get her girls up and moving and out the door, for once in their lives confident and carefree.
After all, they had the whole afternoon to enjoy — and it would be a waste of an afternoon indeed, if they did not enjoy it to the full.