There were nights when the opportunity to play the piano sitting dull and unused in the corner made up for a lot of ills.
In the Willow School, Wei Li had been given elementary lessons on the guqin, the erhu, and the xiao, as well as the piano of Glasonland and Reme, which was quickly becoming popular among the wealthy of Marsim. She had gone along with the gugin and the erhu and the xiao because it was expected of her, but the piano she enjoyed. Her teachers had encouraged this, too. There were plenty of girls in the Willow School who were good with the traditional instruments. To find someone who was not only good at, but enjoyed it, was an unexpected boon and to be taken advantage of. So Wei Li had been given all the time and extra lessons she desired with her piano.
And later on, after the sack — after being dragged to Reme in chains and sold to the slave brothel that wasn’t a slave brothel, technically, for reasons Wei Li still didn’t understand — the only thing that had made her time in that brothel bearable was the fact that it had an old piano gathering dust in the common room. It had taken Wei Li the better part of her first week to get it in tune. It had taken her a month and many beatings to be allowed to play it. But it had all been worth it.
That piano had gotten her out of that brothel, out of Reme.
For here was the dirty secret behind the Reman quasi-slave brothels. Legally — or so Tambu had explained to her many times — slaves could not work in brothels in Reme. Oh, they could be cooks, or cleaners, or door-watchers, or money-takers. But they could not be whores. The Church had somehow or other willed that law into existence. So how the slave-keepers got around it was this. They bought up pretty women at slave auctions and manumitted them. But they arranged it so that the women owed them the price of their freedom. The former slaves, with no money and no skills, still had to work off the debt. And there was only one way their “creditors” allowed them to do that. If the women refused, they would be sold into slavery again.
Maybe some of the creditors, owners, call them what you will, were more or less honest, and allowed their purchases to work off their debt in enough time to be able to live their lives. The man who bought Wei Li was not one of those men. He took all the money the girls made, never told them how much it was, and added the pittance the girls required for their upkeep — food, rags to cover their bodies — to the debt. It may not have been slavery in the legal sense, but it was no different.
But Wei Li had her piano. And she played it well — well enough that the patrons would toss bronze sestertii and silver denarii at her feet. These Wei Li would scoop up and hide. And one day, when she had saved up enough to cover her purchase price, she dumped them all at her creditor’s feet and walked out of that horrible brothel.
It had been the happiest day of her life up to that point.
“Bravo! Bravo, Wei Li!”
Clang! Wei Li’s hands fell against the keys in a jumble of murdered chords and battered notes. She looked up with a gasp. How — how had he known about –?
Of course. Wei Li began to breathe again. Mark had not known about her escape. She never brought that up to a client, and none of the other girls would, either. He was only talking about her playing.
And how he was smiling sheepishly and perhaps a little guiltily at her. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you.”
“It is of no account,” Wei Li replied, resting her hands against her knees for one moment — to wipe the sweat and stop them from trembling — before she stood. “And thank you for the compliment.”
Mark grinned. “You’re welcome. I never heard that tune, though. What’s it called?”
Absently, she gave the name in Sminese. “Er, that is,” she added in Simlish, “‘In Spring the Flowers Bloom.’ Er … that is what the title means …”
“A literal translation, eh?” Mark grinned. “My daughter has a lot to say on that subject.”
“Oh?” Wei Li asked, politely. But inside she was wondering.
What was Mark doing here — or rather, where had he been? His visits had dropped off, all of a sudden, not quite six months ago. And now he was back, jovial and smiling, as if he had just stopped in only the week before. Where had he been?
Except … there was something different about him. Not just in the new lines on his forehand and the tired look in his eyes. No, the difference was in the clothing. Even the wealthiest men of Albion tended to come to the whorehouse wearing the same thing, night after night. In Smina it was different; a visit to a Flower House was often the perfect excuse to don a new robe or break out one’s most fashionable attire. Which did tend to make disrobing in order to do the deed difficult, but great men tended not to think of those little details. But in a Flower House, one came for the company of the other men almost as much as for the women. In Albion … the men who did not come here together tended to only nod distractedly at the friends and acquaintances they happened to see, and most conversations only took place around the poker table or chess sets. Men did not seek each other out, and none seemed to care how they looked.
But Mark was wearing a new tunic, or at any rate a tunic Wei Li had never before seen on him. A new black tunic.
And there was something about the color black in Albionese culture … if Wei Li could only remember what it was!
In the meantime, at least, she could remember her manners. “And how are you, Mas–Mark? It has been a long time since we have seen each other.”
The lines in Mark’s face etched themselves deeper, and his shoulders sagged with the weight of an extra decade that seemed to grow there overnight — or at least, sometime in the past six months. “Aye. Indeed it has. I’ve been … Lord, I don’t know how to say it. It’s been … a bit hellish for me, these past few months.”
“I am sorry to hear that.” Wei Li smiled at him, laying a hand on his shoulder. “Are things improving for you now?”
One corner of Mark’s lip rose just enough to show how far the other half hadn’t risen. “You … I guess you could say something like that.”
“Is there anything I can do to help?” Wei Li jumped to hear those words coming from her mouth. Her, offering to help a client who wouldn’t remember her name a week hence? Was she —
But Mark wasn’t that type of client. Mark was a good soul, a man who belonged in a Flower House and not in a brothel like this. He liked her, and she liked him. What kind of woman would she be, not offering to help a man in distress whom she liked?
“Ah, Wei Li, don’t ask me that!” laughed Mark. “I might just take you up on it.”
Would he? Would he really? And even if he would … would that necessarily be so bad?
“But …” He cast a glance over his shoulder, around the room. “You’re not … with anyone else tonight, are you?”
“Not at the moment, no.”
“No … prior arrangements?”
Wei Li shook her head. Mark, in reply, fished a coin from his purse and laid it in her hand, being sure to keep it covered by his hand and then by hers. “Can we go up?”
He hadn’t shown her the coin, but the weight of a silver coin was much different than that of a copper. Any whore who couldn’t tell when she was being handed a silver coin merely by touch needed to seek other employment, quickly. “Of course. Follow me.”
And so Mark followed her, but Wei Li was sure to go slowly as she passed Tambu’s table, where she sat with a pair of johns and with Shiny. Wei Li was certain he had a name other than that, but Tambu had yet to mention it. She cocked her head toward the stairs, and Tambu nodded. Good. That meant Tambu would keep an eye on the downstairs while Wei Li, Marigold, and Mirelle were otherwise occupied.
So they went up the stairs, the two of them, neither in much of a hurry. And why should they be? The night was young. And they two, they were old hands at this. Neither of them even seemed to hear the bumps and moans coming from Marigold’s and Mirelle’s rooms.
And when they got there? There was no awkwardness or hesitation. Just a quick and quiet disrobing, a sure series of footsteps to the bed. They had done this many times before. There was no need to rush.
But all the same, it wasn’t long before they got down to business.
And it was business. In the Willow School, had Wei Li been able to finish her education, she might have learned a thousand different ways to please a man in bed, to make him weep and beg for more — or beg for her to stop. Alas, she had only managed to learn a couple hundred before all need for that had passed away. But all the same, her education had not stopped once she had been dragged away from the Willow School. For in the Willow School, her elders had told her that men wanted to be charmed, seduced, petted and cajoled, brought to the bounds of earthly pleasure and beyond it if at all possible.
But in Reme, she had learned that all most men wanted was to be fucked.
And Mark? He was no different. Oh, he tried, she would give him that. He even tried to make the experience pleasurable to her, which marked him as very, very different from most of the other men of Wei Li’s acquaintance. But like most of the other men of Albion and Reme, he had no imagination.
And so, not long after they had begun, they were finished. For the first go around of the night, that is.
Mark’s silver coin had, after all, paid for her time for the whole evening.
Still, it would not be a non-stop orgy. Mark was an older man and did not have that kind of stamina. So Wei Li hopped from the bed and began to pick up their clothes, one discarded bit after another. It would give her something to do while Mark caught his breath, among other things.
Truth to tell, sometimes Wei Li wondered for how long she would always be the energized one in the bed, the one who could keep going until the man begged her to stop. Someday, she knew, she would no longer be able to keep up with the younger men, assuming they even still wanted her. And then what would she do?
Marigold could say that come hell or high water, she would take care of them. She would say that. But it did not matter what she said. Even if she meant to take care of them forever, who would come to a whorehouse that featured three geriatric whores and a vampire? Mirelle alone could not hope to keep them all fed and clothed and housed, even if she and Marigold didn’t really eat. They would need some younger blood, or else Wei Li or Tambu would have to consent to be bitten by Mirelle and keep the whorehouse going that way.
It was just as Wei Li was thinking these thoughts, and putting her gown back into the wardrobe, that Mark spoke. “Wei Li, do you sometimes wonder how it is that everything has managed to go so wrong?”
It was the second time that night he had managed to read Wei Li’s mind.
She slammed the wardrobe doors shut and spun around. “Wh–what? Go wrong? Go wrong … how?”
Mark did that queer lifting of half of his mouth once again. “You can’t tell me that this is where you wanted to be, Wei Li. When you were young and innocent, and still had dreams?”
No. Of course this was not where she had wanted to end up. She had not even known that Albion existed back then. Had it existed as a separate nation in those days? But compared to where she might have been? Where she had been for a time? She was still alive, and that had to mean something. Had she been forced to stay in that Reman brothel, she would have been long dead by now. Girls in that brothel rarely lasted more than five years. Plenty didn’t make it to one.
So Wei Li replied with the thoughts she held in her head: “It could be worse.”
Mark’s face fell. He swung his legs over the side of the bed and leaned forward. “Wright, Wei Li,” he whispered, “don’t tell me that.”
It is true! she wanted to say. But she didn’t. Because leaning forward like that, his spine hunched and curved, shoulders sagging, potbelly falling before him … he looked so old. Old and tired and spent. Sad, too. It would take a far crueler woman than Wei Li to inject more sadness into him.
So she said nothing, not at first. Instead, she did what she thought she had always done well: she listened.
“My wife died,” Mark finally spoke. “Six weeks ago it was.”
Wei Li barely bit back a gasp. “Mark … Mark, I am so sorry.”
And she was. No matter their relationship — Mark must have been married to his wife for a long time. She had met his eldest son, and he was closer to thirty than to twenty. To lose someone who had to be a fixture of your life for so long … it had to be hard.
Mark sighed and rose; Wei Li walked up to him. “It feels so odd,” he murmured. “Do you understand? Even though we all knew it was coming, for months and months … part of me still can’t believe she’s gone. You know, I’m half sure, when I come home, I’ll find her in bed, pretending to sleep but really seething at me.”
“I understand,” Wei Li replied. During the sack of Marsim, she had seen some of her closet friends hauled off into screaming captivity. She had seen the old women who were their teachers slaughtered before her eyes. She had seen what the soldiers had done to the littlest girls, none of whom were able to understand what they were doing or why. And sometimes, if the wind was in the right direction and the neighbors were burning maple and hickory together, she could smell the smoke of the burning of the city.
But all the same, there were still days when she expected to wake up and find that it all had been a dream.
“My wife …” Mark pressed a hand to his head. “We — we haven’t gotten along for a time. A long time. We — she — well, none of that matters now, I guess. It was all so long ago. But we had made our way into a nice little stalemate, we had, and gotten comfortable being so angry … and then I met you, and …”
He closed his eyes and shook his head. “Six months. Six months ago she went to the doctor, and do you know what the doctor said to her?”
Wei Li shook her head.
“Six months to live. A year if she was lucky. And Helena — she didn’t even make it that long!”
“I am so sorry to hear that, Mark.”
“I know,” he answered. “But then — why did you say what you said? That it could be worse?”
“I … I have found that the sentiment has helped me, in the past. I thought it might help you.”
“It didn’t.” But he was not accusing her. He scarcely even sounded annoyed. “Because I thought — I thought of all the ways it could be worse. There could be something wrong with the children. Or the grandchildren. Or the business might have failed. Or all of that might have happened at once, with Helena dying to boot. So — aye, it could have been worse. It could have been so much worse. But do you know what, Wei Li?”
“It didn’t help.” He turned beseeching dark eyes to her. “Why didn’t it help, Wei Li?”
“Mark …” Wei Li shook her head. “You had not told me what was wrong yet. You merely asked — when did things go wrong? And I told you what I thought. They had not yet gone as wrong as they might have.”
Mark snorted. “In other words, shut up and count my blessings.”
“No.” Wei Li laid a small hand on his shoulder. “That was never what I meant to say, Mark. Listen, there are time when … when all seems to be going wrong. But it only seems like that, no? Because if we were to really think of it … well, there are, again, so many ways it could be worse. Ways you just thought of, for instance.”
“Again,” Mark replied with a slight smile, “shut up and count my blessings.”
“Mark,” Wei Li lifted a finger and wagged it gently, “you did not let me finish. I was going to say — the loss of a beloved wife, or at least a wife of many long years’ standing, is not one of those times.”
Mark’s eyebrows went up. “Really.”
“Aye. At — at the very worst of times …” Wei Li shrugged, then took Mark’s hand in hers. “When things are at their worst, we must remember that we are still alive. We are still here, as so many … so very many are not. And with that in mind, there is no reason not to pick ourselves up and dust ourselves off, and continue as best we might.”
“But sometimes it’s hard to remember that. Especially …”
“In the thick of it. I know. I know.”
“Then what am I to do?” Mark whispered.
“What I said: pick yourself up and go on as best you might. And if you need help … well …”
She wouldn’t come out and say it. At the end of the day, he was the john and she the whore. She was not his friend. She was not even his mistress, bought and paid for.
But all the same, when she kissed him, she hoped he heard it:
You know where to find me.