Tambu was on bar duty for now, since Marigold and Mirelle and Wei Li were all busy with other johns. What that basically consisted of was pouring drinks from time to time and calling customers to come and get ’em — after suitable means of exchange changed hands, of course. Bar duty was flexible, because they lost money on the drinks and gained it when they took a john upstairs. And so, when Tambu or any of the other girls were on bar duty, they only half paid attention to the bar and spent most of their time watching the clientele, waiting for an opportunity.
But tonight Tambu was only watching one client in particular.
She wondered if Shiny was cleaning up tonight. She’d noticed — and all of the rest of the girls confirmed — that he generally lost to one of them if they were sitting at the table. But when they weren’t, apparently Shiny played to win. And he was getting better and better at it, too. Cries of consternation regularly erupted from whatever table Shiny chose to grace with his presence.
And yet … and yet … whenever the cries grew too loud, too angry, suddenly Shiny would start to lose. Sometimes he would lose everything he had won. It was odd. Oh, there were plenty of Sims who would get a winning streak, then hit a losing streak and keep losing because they didn’t know when to quit. That wasn’t Shiny. When Shiny lost everything he had, then he stopped. He never tried to gamble with what he didn’t have. There were too many Sims who could take lessons from him on that.
But when he won … that was even stranger.
Because sometimes Shiny didn’t take his money home with him when he won. Sometimes, when the girls cleaned up after a busy night, they found a pile of coins left neatly stacked on the seat where Shiny had been sitting. Of course, there were plenty of times when johns got too drunk or too excited to remember their poker winnings. And when they did, the girls put the cash into a worn leather bag and hid it in the safest place in the whorehouse (Mirelle’s coffin). Then, when the shouting john inevitably came, guard in tow, to claim that the whores had robbed him, Marigold or whoever was up and around could say, “Oh, ye’re the man what left all those coppers? We’ve got ’em nice an’ safe fer ye. Jest let me get ’em.” It got to the point that the guards had stopped minding being dragged out on those wild goose chases, because the girls would give him a drink and maybe a free roll in the sack, if he was decent to them and was inclined to take it.
But Shiny never came back for his money, guard or no guard in tow. And the one time that Tambu had mentioned finding a pile of coins in his chair, he had only looked blankly at her and said nothing.
Of course, the problem with Shiny was that he always looked blank.
Tambu lounged against the bar, watching him continue to play. Her eyes went, as they ever did, to Sir Bors. Was Shiny winning or losing against him? She hoped — she didn’t know what to hope. On the one hand, Sir Bors was a regular john, showing up for the third Wednesday of every month ever since they had opened up the brothel. When Lady Claire had been expecting her last two babies, he had shown up once a week or more — and when she had her mad spell and had been shut up in the nunnery, he’d come two or more days a week, his manner alternating between a seething volcano and a little lost puppy. He never left a tip or paid a damned farthing more than he owed, but he always paid in full promptly. He didn’t yell; he didn’t hit. And he was a quick lay. Some men would want to spend hours in foreplay and exploration; Sir Bors was a “wham, bam, thank you, ma’am” if there ever was one. You didn’t wish ill on johns like that. There were too many out there who were worse.
But damn, that man was annoying! It was amazing there was room for any other johns in the place once you squeezed in Sir Bors’s ego. And it was pretty bloody clear that he thought the girls were scum, below the dirt on his shoes, even as he used their services. The man badly deserved a comeuppance, even if it was just at the poker table.
However, Shiny was the royal steward, and if he had to give Sir Bors that comeuppance …
So Tambu cleared her throat and called, “Hey, Shiny! Got yer drink ready fer ye!”
And that was another wonderful thing about Shiny: he came when he was called. He didn’t even wait to finish out the hand, just pushed his money into the pile. He even took the tankard she handed him without a protest.
Or rather, he didn’t protest at first. Then he murmured, “Er, Mistress Tambu …”
“Ye don’t have ter drink it. I know it goes,” Tambu smirked, “right through ye — I jest thought ye could stand ter get away from ye-know-who.” She nodded her head to the poker table.
Out of habit, she watched Shiny’s face, even though she knew it would tell her nothing. She used to think that disconcerting, now she thought it … sad. Shiny said so little, but what he said indicated that he thought a lot. And he couldn’t even use his face to get some of those thoughts out.
“Goodman Chevaux?” Shiny asked. Tambu could hear the forced lift on the last syllable: he was trying to sound surprised. He was surprised, Tambu thought, but the poor thing had to go through so much extra effort to show it.
“Er, no,” Tambu replied. “Think … ter the right.”
“Oh.” The perfectly flat way he said that forced Tambu to rethink her former assessment: for all the ways having to work so hard to show a little bit of feeling was sad, there were advantages to being neutral by default. Must have come in especially handy with all those noblemen, too.
“He is in a jovial mood this evening,” Shiny remarked. “And that was before he started winning.”
“He were losin’ at one point?” Tambu asked, eyebrows arching. Playing against the royal steward, who was certainly wise enough to know that a winning Sir Bors was the easiest Sir Bors to deal with, and wise Goodman Chevaux, who didn’t believe in waking sleeping dogs?
Then again, they had just gotten over the worst of tax season. Maybe even Goodman Chevaux lost his patience when he thought of what his hard-earned money was being spent on, and was taking back some of his own.
“Sometimes …” Shiny looked into his tankard and swirled it. “Sometimes the cards and one’s opponents only give one so much to work with.”
So Sir Bors had been dealt a bad hand or two, or else he had been so incompetent that he had lost despite everybody’s attempts to let him win. Tambu wished she could be surprised.
“But as I said,” Shiny again addressed himself to his tankard, “he is in a jovial mood.”
“‘Cause o’ the Crown Princess?” Tambu asked.
Shiny couldn’t look surprised — but he could whip his head up and stare at her in that disconcerting way he had. “You — you know that she is –”
“Increasin’? Lad, everybody in the kingdom knows that by now, even if there ain’t been nothin’ official yet.” She lifted her glass in a toast. “Here’s ter an heir this time.”
Shiny said nothing for a long moment. He was staring a long time, especially for him. Shiny didn’t like to look too much at your face when he knew you were watching him — he preferred to observe only when he was relatively unobserved.
The staring went on so long that even Tambu, who normally tried to be patient with that uncanny blankness, had to say something. “Somethin’ wrong?”
Shiny looked back at his tankard. “It — it matters to you, greatly, what the Crown Princess has?”
“Well, everybody wants an heir. Keep things nice an’ stable. Look at what’s happenin’ over in Glasonland, ’cause they ain’t got no heir — or at least, no heir that’s worth a hill o’ beans.”
“But Prince Thomas …” Shiny swished the ale in his tankard again.
And Tambu’s ears pricked up. The whores heard everything, eventually. And knowledge was power. Knowledge of what the Crown Prince was saying about his impending second go at fatherhood could be very powerful indeed. But Shiny could be scared off so easily … Tambu took a sip of her ale and asked, as offhandedly as she could, “What about ‘im?”
Shiny swished his ale again. “He keeps telling the Crown Princess that it does not matter what she has.” His voice was very low, so low Tambu had to strain to hear it. “He says that they have plenty of time to have an heir. He — he would not tell her something untrue, would he?”
Good Lord, why was he asking Tambu? What did she know about the matter? She’d never met any of them! And was she supposed to say — that there was a man on this earth who told the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth to his woman? And if that man was the Crown Prince, then they were all doomed, because any man that honest wouldn’t survive more than five minutes on a throne.
“The King and Queen are saying the same thing,” Shiny added, still speaking to the depths of his tankard.
Tambu turned to him with her jaw fallen. The King and the Queen didn’t seem to care whether they got an heir or not? Had the world turned upside-down? Sure, they had Prince Kay — even Princess Jessica’s son Corentin in a pinch! — but wasn’t this just a little too cavalier, all things considered? If they didn’t care about something so fundamental —
Shiny wasn’t looking at his tankard any more. He was looking across the room, at the poker table … at one particular player … Sir Bors. Sir Bors, whose overwhelming need for sons had nearly killed his wife, and then had driven her mad.
And that was when Tambu knew that all of this was so far over her head, it was a wonder she could see the surface. “Come on,” she said, changing the subject, “let’s take this upstairs, eh?”
“Up — upstairs? To — to your chamber?”
“No, ter the roof. Aye, ter me bed!”
“But — but — all my money …”
“Ternight’s on the house,” Tambu winked at him, relieving him of his tankard and tossing it and her own onto the bar. She sauntered to the steps, tossing one glance over her shoulder as she went. “Well? Ye comin’?”
Apparently there was a man under all that armor. Tambu hardly knew whether to be gratified … or disappointed.
They hurried through the halls, past the groans and moans emanating from Mirelle and Marigold’s rooms. Apparently Mirelle had that Captain fellow with her tonight, though Tambu couldn’t identify who was with Marigold. Wei Li was down the hall a bit farther, and it was impossible to tell who was with her, either.
She threw her door open and led the way in. “Well,” she said, rather stupidly, now kicking herself since she had just promised to essentially fuck a pile of metal, “this is it.”
Most johns headed right for the bed. Some didn’t even wait to unbuckle their belts first. And they snapped and snarled when Tambu took the time to close the door or loosen the ties on her skirt. They did not stand around looking around themselves — but Shiny did. “This — this is your chamber?”
“It is … very nice.” Shiny turned to her, his head tilted ever-so-slightly to one side. “I … I am sorry,” he said, “but I do not think I have mastered all the right adjectives to compliment someone’s decorating, so I cannot go farther than that.”
“You haven’t –” Tambu shook her head. “Shiny! Like that matters. Most men don’t even look, ter tell ye the truth.”
“Mostly ’cause they’re too busy … gettin’ busy, if ye know what I mean.”
“That is another euphemism for mating, isn’t it?”
“Euphemism,” replied Shiny, unflappable and unperturbed as ever. Yes, there were advantages to not quite understanding emotions. It cut down on the feeling of embarrassment, for one. “It is a word or phrase that is a more-pleasant sounding alternative to another word or phrase. For instance, saying ‘passed away’ instead of ‘died.'”
“Or ‘kicked the bucket,'” Tambu muttered.
Tambu snickered in spite of herself. The man — Servo — was the King of Deadpan; Tambu would bet her soul on that. Maybe someday he would even learn to take advantage of it. Tambu hoped she could teach him. But in the meantime … well, she had brought him upstairs, so there were things to be doing. “So, me lad,” she asked, leaning closer, “where is it ye’re wantin’ ter start?”
Shiny looked at her, and looked at the bed, then looked at her again. “But … what happened to flirting?”
Tambu drew back. “Flirtin’?”
“Indeed. You …” His voice grew quite little and unsure, or at least it tried to. Unfortunately the way it echoed through the helmet did make it harder to make the voice “small.” “You said that men often flirt with women, before they mate with them. Do you remember?”
Did she remember? Did she remember? Of course she remembered a conversation as odd as that. And it had nothing to do with Marigold’s poor little niece or her ever-loving jackass of a brother-in-law. It had everything to do with the way Shiny had said that she and the other girls ought to be flirted with, that they deserved it. And he had seemed to mean it, too!
“Aye, I remember,” Tambu replied — but guardedly. “However –”
“And I wish,” Shiny interrupted — he interrupted? He never interrupted! “I wish to do this — properly.”
Ah. Tambu’s muscles unknotted and relaxed — and her heart dropped to the pit of her stomach, too, but she ignored that. So he wanted to do this properly. He was here to learn. Tambu was used to that. Plenty a man came to her first claiming that he only wanted to learn what to do and so please a nervous young bride on the wedding night. And sometimes, in the happiest of cases, those men learned what she could teach and never came back again.
She tilted her head back, surveyed him up and down. “Hmm,” she murmured. “Well, ye’re clearly a student o’ Sim nature,” she began. “Why don’t ye begin by showin’ me what ye’ve learned about flirtin’ an’ such-like, an’ I’ll help ye build on that.”
“You — you want me to — flirt with you?”
“Aye, Shiny, show me what ye got.”
Shiny hemmed and hawed, and shuffled his feet, and his gaze bounced between her eyes and the floor so many times Tambu thought she would grow dizzy following it. “I — I have seen some things. I have seen …”
“What’ve ye seen, Shiny?”
“Sometimes a man will …” His finger slowly came up, pointing toward her shoulder. “He will …” His hand darted forward — just brushed her shoulder — retreated — darted forward again. Each time he touched, a little shock, like the kind Tambu got after shuffling over the carpets in cold weather and touching something metal, like the doorknob, exploded on her shoulder. But somehow this was … pleasanter than that. “Like — like that?” he asked.
“Close, close,” she replied. She shifted, her weight resting on her back leg, that shoulder infinitesimally closer to Shiny. “But ye ought ter stroke it.”
“Stroke — stroke it,” he repeated.
“Aye, try, lad. I promise, I won’t bite.”
Slowly, Shiny’s hand came up, came to rest on her shoulder, and stroked her all the way down her arm — or at least, until it came to her hand. “What — what do I do now?”
“What is it ye’re wantin’ ter do, Shiny?”
Tambu was never sure how it was, but somehow everything in Shiny’s stance telegraphed panic to her. “What — do I want to do?”
“The first rule o’ flirtin’,” Tambu answered, “is ter do what feels right. Yer heart will guide ye better than — than jest about anythin’ else,” she finished, lamely.
“My heart,” Shiny repeated, dully.
“Aye, lad. What were ye thinkin’ I would say?”
“I — I do not think I have a heart. I do not have — much of anything, other than the magic that keeps me going.”
Tambu blinked. “Non–nonsense,” she replied, her firmness growing with every syllable. “Nonsense. Ye — ye think, don’t ye? Ye feel? Ye …” Impulsively, she reached out and took his hands, both of them, in hers. Somehow, they were not as cold and clammy as she imagined they would be. “Ye care, don’t ye, about how other Sims feel?”
“I try. But … I do not often understand what they feel, or why they feel it.”
“Bah!” Tambu shook her head. “Understandin’, that’s nothin’! Let me tell ye, there’s more folks out there that don’t understand what everyone else is feelin’, never mind why, than there are what do. The point is, ye try. Ye never try ter hurt people a-purpose, d’ye?”
“No, of course not.”
“Then ye got a heart. It don’t matter,” she knocked on Shiny’s breastplate; the clang reverberated through the room, “what hunk o’ flesh ye do or don’t have in there. If ye try ter be good an’ help people, then ye’ve got a heart.”
“True — truly?”
“Would I lie ter ye, Shiny?”
Shiny did not say anything. But he did take Tambu’s hand back again and swing both of them back and forth a few times. Never before had Tambu been so convinced that if he could have smiled, he would have been beaming.
“So,” Tambu continued, “the next step –”
She stopped. Shiny had frozen and was staring out the window.
“What?” she asked. “What is it, lad?”
“Did you not hear that? It was a nightjar.”
“Er … they often call at night, lad.”
“It is not just that — they always call like that a couple of hours before dawn.” Shiny let go of her hands and stared at his feet. “I must leave.”
“Oh. Well, that’s too bad, Shiny, but it ain’t the end of the world.”
“But … the lesson … and I may not have money …”
“Don’t worry about that, Shiny. Ye pay what ye can when ye can.” And if Marigold said anything, Tambu would point out that having the royal steward on their side was bound to pay dividends in the future — a hell of a lot more dividends than Brother Tuck had. “But in the meantime, I’ll leave ye with rule number two fer flirtin’.”
“Aye. C’mere, Shiny.”
He leaned closer.
Tambu breathed deep — damn, it was hard to whisper in a man’s ear when he didn’t have an ear to whisper into. Still, she made her best guess and let her breath slowly spill over it. “Sometimes, flirtin’ takes its time ter pay off. Patience, lad, patience is the key.”
She leaned back and tapped him on the shoulder, feeling that odd little shock one more time. “Now ye got out an’ get ’em, lad. I’ll be hear next time ye’re here. I promise.”