If Ambrosius had had lips, he would have smiled. He was getting better at this.
The King and Sir Lancelot — years and years ago — had liked to make jokes about his “poker face.” They had even taught him how to play poker to further the joke. And they had laughed all the harder when Ambrosius lost every hand. For, though Ambrosius couldn’t give away what was in his hand if he tried and though he had caught onto the rules quickly enough, he could not tell if Sir Lancelot was itching his nose because his nose itched or because he didn’t like his hand. He couldn’t tell whether the King’s squint was because he was having a hard time reading the cards or because he couldn’t believe the lucky streak he was seeing. In short, he could not read poker faces, and so lost all his chips every time.
After a while, he had stopped playing poker with the King and Sir Lancelot. It wasn’t because of the teasing. It was because of the failure: the fact that no matter how the King and Sir Lancelot gave themselves away, Ambrosius could not connect the gestures to their meaning. He had even taught the two young Princes to play poker in order to see if he could learn to read their faces, but he had no luck with that, either. So for a time he stayed away from poker altogether.
Then came the night rambles.
Ambrosius did not sleep. He gathered his energy directly from the sun. Even on a cloudy day, spending an hour or two outside in direct view of the sun usually kept him going for the next four-and-twenty hours. So, at night, when he had finished all of the day’s paperwork and he had nothing to do, he went walking. He learned a great deal about flora and fauna that way, and since his limbs did not grow tired as a Sim’s did, he could wander quite far as long as he timed it so that he was able to get back before the sun came up. One night he had wandered all the way up to Avilion.
He had between the dark and quiet homes, looking at the reflections of stars in the windows, wondering what the Sims behind those walls were like. Were they talking now? Making love? (He did wonder how one “made” love. From what he had observed in the Sims, particularly watching the royal twins in their adolescence, it just seemed to happen. It had not yet occurred to him that “making love” was the same thing as the grunting and sweating mating dance the Sims did when they wished to procreate.) Sleeping, as Ambrosius could not?
Then, just when he thought he would not hear another sound that was not that of the night birds or toads or crickets, he found a house from which raucous music, laughter, and squeals escaped. The brothel, of course. And Ambrosius had realized that here was his chance to observe the most puzzling fauna of them all: the Sims themselves.
It had not occurred to him that he might, as time went on, become the observed as well as the observer.
He did not come here every night; the walk was not tiring, but it was long. He could only come when the paperwork was lighter than usual. Still, he was learning so much! And not just how to win at poker, either. He had learned, for instance, in his first nights there, that losing at poker actually made him more popular than winning. He was still analyzing that fact, turning it this way and that to make sense of it. Still, if he ever played the King and Sir Lancelot at poker again, he fully expected to — what was the phrase? — clean up, that was it.
He was learning about drink. The King liked his ale and the Queen her wine as well as anybody else, but Ambrosius had never seen a Sim actually in the state referred to as “piss-drunk” before his trips to the brothel. He also had a sense of where the term came from, too, after watching Lord Pellinore’s man Brogan get to that state one night. It was all Ambrosius could do to not get a mop out and clean up the mess, and he had a feeling that his olfactory receptors were not as sensitive as a Sim’s.
He was learning about men. What made them go, what made them stop. How they acted when there were no women around and no pressing business to make them behave. He was learning about common men, and finding, but for some differences in dialect and vocabulary, they weren’t as different from the noblemen as he had been led to believe.
And he was learning about women.
He had never really understood much about this “difference of the sexes” that Sims put so much stock in. The Queen, to his eyes, was no less intelligent or discerning than the King. He understood that women tended to be frailer than the men, less able to do physical tasks. But Ambrosius had watched female and male animals alike on his night rambles, and he had seen that the females could be every bit as strong and hardy when provoked. He sometimes wondered if the women’s frailty was due only to the fact that they did not train as the knights did. That, and bearing children seemed to take more out of the women than it did from the female animals Ambrosius observed.
But these women here were … different. They had — something. Something that drew the men to them as surely as a bitch in heat drew mates to her. Ambrosius did not know what it was, but he had never seen it before in such quantities. He’d only seen flashes of it in the Queen and now Princess Gwendolyn. These women — flaunted it.
He wondered if it had something to do with the amount of skin they showed. But it couldn’t be just that. At least — Ambrosius didn’t think it was just the skin …
If he had had the necessary organ, he would have been sweating.
What made these women pariahs, Ambrosius was beginning to understand, had something to do with … whatever this was. Oh, he knew why whores were pariahs, officially. It was because they were willing to mate with men who were not their husbands and they did it for money. The Church didn’t like that. However, Ambrosius was not sure why. These women didn’t have husbands, so there was no adultery. And though the Church said that it was better for children to be raised with a mother and a father, the Church took any babies these women bore — so they were doing one worse by their own lights, or so Ambrosius thought. After all, wouldn’t having a mother and no father be better than having neither mother nor father?
“Somethin’ on yer mind, Shiny?” asked the woman, her lips quirking up in a small smile. There was more to be said by that smile, but it was written in an alphabet Ambrosius couldn’t read.
Tambu. He liked her. There was something warm about her. And she always sat at his table when he played poker, and talked to him when he wasn’t. He never paid the women to mate with him, even though he made sure to lose plenty at poker to them, so that was very kind of her. She seemed, too, like a sort of leader among the women, a second-in-command after Ash Thatcher’s sister.
She was also a Sim one could talk to. She never laughed when he asked silly questions. So he decided to ask her one. “Why do you call me that, Mistress Tambu?”
“Honey, ye looked in a mirror lately? Er, other than yer arm.”
She called him honey. That was the sort of name Sims called each other when they liked each other. Or else, when used by that queer language they called sarcasm, it meant exactly the opposite, but there was usually a certain tone of voice used when speaking in sarcasm, and Tambu wasn’t using it. Ambrosius’s faceplate ached with the desire to smile … or at least it would have, if he was capable of feeling physical pain in that way.
“You call me shiny because I am shiny?”
“Got it in one. Same reason I call ‘im Shorty.” Tambu gestured to the flaxen-haired man on the other side of the table, whose ears started to turn red.
Ambrosius observed him carefully, then turned back to Tambu. “But he is of average height.”
Tambu chortled and patted his shoulder. “Only when his trews are up, hon. Anyway, I’m gettin’ meself a drink — care ter join me, Shiny?”
She had touched him. She had touched him. She had touched him! If Ambrosius had had a heart, it would have been beating faster. As it was, he thought he could hear a hammering thud-thud-thud coming from the depths of his armor. And his shoulder — it felt warm! Well, no, it didn’t really. But he thought it did — and that was as good as it feeling warm in truth. Maybe better.
If he had been a Sim, he would have been staring at her in slack-jawed astonishment. As it was, he was just … staring. Then he remembered that it was considered extremely rude, a deathly insult, to refuse to drink with a Sim. “Certainly, Mistress Tambu.”
He wished he could have communicated his enthusiasm better than he had. But enthusiasm was another language he could understand but could not begin to speak.
He watched her pour the contents of a green bottle into — four? — different glasses. “So. Ye come here a lot, Shiny.”
“As often as I can,” Ambrosius answered, completely honestly.
She paused in mid-pour. “In-ter-est-in’.” There was that odd elongation of syllables. Sims, as far as Ambrosius could tell, tended to use it only when they were considering something. He wished he could tell what it was.
Tambu took a tankard off the tray and shoved it down the bar at Ambrosius. He caught it, barely. Then she hopped up on the bar and spun around on her behind — giving Ambrosius a peek at a dark leg and trim ankles — before hopping back down on the other side. She took another of the tankards and gulped it down. “So … ye know, ye’re a tough one ter puzzle out, Shiny.”
“Aye. Fer starters, who is it ye work fer?”
If Ambrosius had had eyelids — or eyeballs, for that matter — he would have blinked. “The King.”
“So ye’re Ambrosius? The steward?”
“Yes … had I not introduced myself? I am very sorry. That was quite remiss of me.”
Tambu smiled, but it was the sort of smile that was very hard to pick up on if you weren’t watching closely for it. She drank — no — she poured some of the drink down her throat, seeming to barely taste it. Interesting. Most of the Sims in Ambrosius’s acquaintance only did that when something bothered them. Had he said something wrong?
“The steward,” Tambu murmured.
“The steward who ain’t drinkin’ a drop,” she mused. “Not ter yer taste, Shiny? I can fix ye another. Jest got ter say the word.”
Ambrosius glanced down at the tankard in his hand. “Er …”
“Well, you see …” If he had had blood and skin and all the rest of it, he would have been blushing. He did have a hand, though, and he did have a neck, so he was able to bring up his hand to rub his neck. He hoped he did it right. “Drink goes … right through me.”
“Ye can’t be much worse than Finley Brogan,” Tambu snorted.
“No, it doesn’t go right through me like it goes right through him. It … goes right through me. And winds up in a … in a puddle. On the floor.”
Tambu’s eyes went wide. “Lord! Then why did ye take a drink?”
“It is generally considered impolite to refuse to drink with a Sim.”
“Maybe, but ye’ve got an excuse, me friend! Ye can put that drink down, since ye can’t do much with it.”
Ambrosius did as he was told, but his soul — if he had one — was singing. She had called him her friend! It was better than the “honey”! He scarcely noticed when she put her drink down, too, and sauntered to him.
“So,” she asked, with a very, very big smile. Ambrosius had never seen one so wide. “What does the King think o’ yer comin’ here?”
Ambrosius stared at her. Unfortunately, a puzzled stare for him didn’t look much different from an angry stare or an interested stare or a lustful stare. He would have to say something. “I … don’t believe he knows.”
She pulled back. “He doesn’t?”
“No. I never told him.”
He considered that. “… He never asked?”
“He never asked,” Tambu repeated. Sims did that when they were trying to digest something you had said. But what had he said that needed digesting?
Then Tambu’s face changed. She was no longer watching him. Ambrosius felt something within him sink — then he turned his head to see what it was that she was watching. An old man climb down the steps … followed by the … Plantsim? Ash Thatcher’s sister?
Ambrosius turned back to Tambu, but she looked — panicked? What was there to panic about? And why did she look swiftly in the direction of the chess tables, where there sat the vampire woman and a young brown-haired man, and then studiously not look there again?
The Plantsim woman passed by him and Tambu. She reached for the tankards, her eyes scanning the room with practiced ease — and stopped.
“Oooh …” Tambu murmured.
The Plantsim woman marched over to the chess tables.
“Mistress Tambu?” Ambrosius asked. “Is — is something wrong?”
“Wrong? Wrong? Nothin’s wrong!” She seemed to be trying to smile … and not being particularly successful with it.
“Are you sure? I can leave if I am bothering you.”
“You, bother –” This time she was able to smile. She laid her hand on his shoulder again. “Ye know, the better I get ter know ye, Shiny, the more I wonder if ye could bother a body if ye tried.”
“Really?” He couldn’t help the little trill at the end — hell, he hadn’t even known he could do that until he tried it!
Tambu’s smile grew softer, more relaxed. Did she even know it was happening? Ambrosius knew that Sims were like that sometimes — they did not understand just how powerful an organ a mobile face was, how it was apt to change without its owner giving permission or even being aware of it. “Aye, really. Ye seem — well, ye seem like ye’ve got a good heart, Shiny. Unlike some folks I could mention.” She glared at the chess tables.
Most Sims did not know this, but Ambrosius had very good hearing. The King did, but he had explained to Ambrosius that it was very important that he keep most of what he heard to himself. But all the same, sometimes, if he just focused in the right direction …
That was how he heard the young man’s exasperated voice sigh, “Wright, Marigold! Kata said she was doin’ fine! She as good as said I could go out!”
“As good as said, or actually said?”
“Marigold! Give a man a break! I’ve been sleepin’ on the sofa at me mother-in-law’s house fer three nights running! A man has ter get out o’ there, or he’ll go mad!”
Interesting. Ambrosius was of the opinion that it was mostly women who complained about their mothers-in-law, not men. But he had not really seen much of that, now that he considered that. The Queen was Princess Gwendolyn’s mother-in-law, but he had never heard Princess Gwendolyn complain about her. And the Princess and her mother-in-law Lady Guinevere seemed to get on quite well.
However, right now, Tambu had things in front of him that were far more interesting than mothers-in-law. Or rather, just one thing. And her hand was on his shoulder again. “Ye know, Shiny, ye ain’t never axed ter go upstairs. Any reason fer that?”
“I have considered it. But I’m not sure what the point would be.”
She cocked her head to one side. “Not sure what the point would be?”
“Well, you go upstairs to mate with me, yes?”
She blinked. “Ain’t never heard it called that before.”
“But … is that not what you do?” Ambrosius asked. Had he somehow misread everything? No, no, he couldn’t have! Brother Tuck always talked about these women fornicating! He had looked up fornicating! That was what the word meant!
… Unless he meant it metaphorically …
“Oh, aye, it is. But animals mate. Sims …” Tambu considered that. Ambrosius watched her lips pucker, her brows draw in, the thoughts dance across her eyes. Fascinating. “Sims fuck each other.”
“That word can be used as a verb?” Ambrosius asked.
“I have only ever heard it used as an interjection.” Ambrosius thought about it a moment. “In fact, I have usually only ever heard Prince Thomas say it. I thought it only meant ‘something has not gone my way.’ Or ‘I have stubbed my toe.'”
Tambu stared at him in frank astonishment. Ambrosius added after a moment, “And I know it is not a polite word to use. The Queen used to wash the Prince’s mouth out with soap when he would use it.”
“… Oh,” Tambu said, in that flat tone that Sims tended to use to denote that they could not think of anything else to say.
“But I did not know it was a verb.”
“… What’s a verb?” Tambu asked, softly.
“What’s a — a verb?”
“Oh! It is a word used to denote action.” Ambrosius had spent a year learning everything he could about grammar, both because it was a liberal art, and also because he hoped that understanding grammar would help him move beyond the words that Sims said to suss out the meaning behind them. It hadn’t.
“Action,” Tambu repeated.
“Like to run or walk or jump,” Ambrosius filled in helpfully.
“Ah! Action!” She snickered. “Aye, we get lots o’ action around here.”
“It’s …” She sighed and leaned close to him, whispering in … well, where his ear would have been, had he actually had that appendage. “It’s another word fer matin’.”
“But you said that Sims do not mate …”
She sighed. “We do. We just don’t like ter call it that.”
“So you call it fucking instead.”
Tambu shook her head. “Not fer everybody. That’s what we call it — here. But everywhere? They call layin’ tergether, or havin’ sex, or makin’ love –”
“Wait. Making love?”
“Mating is making love?”
“But I thought …” Ambrosius started, but let the sentence trail.
“Ye thought what?”
“That — that making love was — was — well, it starts like this …” And before he quite knew what he was doing, he had grasped Tambu’s hand in his, and …
He had no idea what do to from there. Oh, he had watched the men do it plenty of times. But him? He didn’t have the necessary parts!
He had gone this far, though — no choice but to finish it. He brought her hand up to where his lips would have been, had he had lips.
He expected to only bat his face against her skin. But instead, there was — something. A spark. A bit of the magic welling up inside of him and leaving via the air holes in his visor. He could just taste it as it left — warmth and affection and a desperate eagerness to please.
“Oh!” Tambu gasped. She jerked her hand away from his, staring at it, then staring at him.
Ambrosius rubbed the back of his neck. “Is that not … making love?”
Tambu’s gaze moved from her hand to him. Then, slowly, she smiled. “No. No, hon. That’s flirtin’, that is. That’s … that’s how men butter up their women, so’s they’ll want ter make love to them.”
“But — but the men here do not flirt with you.”
“They don’t need to.”
“But — but they should. You ladies deserve it.”
Tambu stared at him, open-mouthed. Then she chortled, “Ye know, Shiny — that’s got ter be the nicest thing a man’s ever said ter me since I started turnin’ tricks.”
“The — the — thenicest thing?” Ambrosius started. The magic must have been overheating the metal of his body; he was going to melt at any moment —
“SIMON! Simon, ye bloody arsehole, where the fuck are ye?!”
Ambrosius and Tambu both turned to stare at the boy in the doorway. And he was a boy indeed — he couldn’t have been more than eleven or twelve. “SIMON!” he yelped again.
The brown-haired man came running around the corner.
The boy looked at him with Ambrosius could only call disgust. “Ye arse hole! Marie — Marie –” The boy’s voice grew thick, and Tambu beside him gasped. “Ye better get home!” the boy yelled. “Ye better get home now!” Then he ran out the door, the man following him without another word.
And Tambu … there were tears standing in her dark eyes, and she turned around, arms crossed like she was giving herself a hug. “Tambu?” Ambrosius asked softly, inching closer to her. “What’s going on?”
She closed her eyes and sighed. “Nothin’ good, Shiny.”