Jaban 29, 1013
It was a feast day for the Wrightians — Llamamas. It celebrated their angels, which to Wei Li sounded like nature spirits without the connection to nature. It celebrated the day that the good ones cast the bad ones from the Wrightians’ heaven. It was a day for solemn reflection, and also a day when many accounts were settled, particularly on the great estates.
It was a day which most of the Wrightians thought too holy to mar with a visit to a pub or tavern. The night before, too, was considered holy; it had been a quiet night at the brothel. That was why Wei Li had asked Mark to meet her at Rumdinger’s Roadhouse today. There would be few people around to see them, to wonder why the successful horse trader was meeting with a common whore.
Part of her wondered why Mark agreed to come. Did he not take his religion as seriously as the other Wrightians? But the rest of her knew why he had said he would come.
She had promised she would have an answer for him today.
There was a man watching her — well, Wei Li knew why. She had seen him in the brothel many times. Doubtless he was screwing up his courage to approach her and see how much a quarter-hour upstairs would cost him.
More than you could possibly afford, Wei Li thought, glaring at him. The man winced and looked elsewhere. Task accomplished, Wei Li sighed and stared at the table before her.
She knew what her answer to Mark was likely to be — she had a few questions left, but her mind was mostly made up. She knew he would treat her well. But she was nervous nonetheless. It was a big change. The last time she had made such a change by choice had been when she left Reme and journeyed to Albion, only to wind up at Marigold’s.
She would miss them all. So much. Her heart broke a little bit more every time she thought of it. But she was certain in one thing: this was the right choice for her. The only choice.
Marigold was back. The du Lacs had assured them that any other violence aimed against them would be met with the full force of angry lords. But Wei Li could not rest secure in that knowledge. Every night — or day, technically — since the guards showed up, her sleep had been wrecked by nightmares. It always started with the harsh pounding of the guards on the door. They would take away Marigold, or Tambu, or Mirelle. Sometimes they would become Reman soldiers, and when Wei Li looked out the window, it was not the peaceful houses and fields of Avilion that she would see, but the burning ruin of what was once Marsim. Sometimes, she woke choking from the ash that seemed to coat her tongue and her throat. No amount of water or even Marigold’s juices could chase that taste away.
And sometimes, the guards would not be Reman soldiers, but just Remans. Wei Li would look out the window — but there would be no window. She was back in that windowless closet, barely big enough to fit the bed, where man after man came to her and did what he liked, where her only hope of escape was the piano in the corner that she would play until her fingers bled–
Wei Li jumped. But it was only Mark.
Only Mark — dear Mark was more like it. Her pounding heart calmed just at the sight of his smile. The ash faded away. Her palms were still sweaty, but a few minutes would cure that. Wei Li took a deep breath and smiled back at him.
After all of these years, she considered herself to be a good judge of men. Many of them hid cruelty under masks of amiability, good humor, even benevolence. Mark did not. Of course there was darkness under his humor; of course he masked his pain and sadness. Everyone did. But the pain he hid was that which he had suffered, not that which he wished to inflict on others. That made him better than the vast majority of the men of Wei Li’s acquaintance.
That made him a good enough protector to risk leaving the brothel.
“Mark,” Wei Li said, rising to give him a gentle peck on the lips.
“Wei Li,” he replied. He grinned at her — the mad reckless grin of a man prepared to risk all and praying that it would come off. His hand lingered on her hip. Wei Li was prepared to bet it was every bit as clammy as her own, albeit for much more pleasant reasons. “Well?” he asked.
She laughed. “I do not think that’s a conversation to have … down here.” She gestured to the inn’s common room, rather empty at the moment, but hardly private. “Besides, you did not even give me a chance to ask how you are.”
“Fine, fine — and yourself?”
“Very well,” Wei Li lied. Mark seemed to sense it, staring at her with head cocked and brows furrowed. She took his hand to distract him. She did not want to talk about — this. After all, she was the one who was supposed to be the emotional support, not him. She remembered that much from the Willow School. “Come — let us go upstairs. The innkeeper is happy to let us use one of the rooms for the afternoon.”
Mark needed absolutely no prompting to follow her.
The innkeeper had told her to go to the room at the end of the hall from the stairs; Wei Li had never been there before, so she had idly wondered why. When she opened the door, she had to chuckle — especially when she saw Mark’s disappointed face.
“Wei Li …” he sighed. “Maybe thirty years ago I might have managed one of those beds,” he pointed to the narrow canopied beds pushed up against most of the walls, “but now I’m afraid I’d either put my back out, or else we’d both end up on the floor — and not in a good way.”
Wei Li chuckled. He was not supposed to support her in ways other than the material — but he could not help it if he made her laugh, she decided. Besides, was not a courtesan supposed to laugh at her patron’s jokes, even if they were bad?
“I think the innkeeper gave us this room because I said I wanted to talk,” she replied. “And chairs,” she gestured to them, “are better for talking. Besides, if we are bored after we talk … we can always see if the room down the hall is occupied.” She winked.
“It has a much bigger bed.” And little else.
“I like the way you think.” Mark chuckled; then he patted Wei Li’s hip and sat down on one of the chairs near the fireplace. After Wei Li sat, he pounced. “So–you’ve got to put me out of my misery! Is it yes or no, Wei Li?”
He did not leave much room for subterfuge or delay, did he, that one? Wei Li took a deep breath. “I have almost completely made up my mind …”
“Almost? Wei Li, you’re killing me!”
She lifted a single finger. “I just have some questions, Mark. That is all. I …” She sighed. “I do not like to leap without looking first. I have done that too often.”
“You …” He frowned. “You don’t sound happy.”
“Of course I am happy.”
“No. You’re not. What’s the matter?” His head cocked to one side — he actually seemed concerned. But he was concerned, wasn’t he? He was a kind man. In the Willow School, some of the teachers had told Wei Li that some men would be kind, would be caring even when they didn’t have to be. Such men were troublesome to manage. They would be offended if their concern was rebuffed, but at the same time, it would be a breach of etiquette to trust them too far.
Except … Mark knew nothing of Sminese etiquette …
“I –” Wei Li started, and stopped. “It–it is this business with Brother Tuck. It has me–nervous. Jumpy.” The understatement of the year, if there was such a thing. But for now, it would do.
“Brother Tuck? But he’s well muzzled now. You heard–” He stopped. “You–you haven’t heard yet, have you?”
Heard what? Wei Li shook her head.
Mark took a deep breath. “Well, it only makes sense that you wouldn’t have heard — Father Hugh only explained it all this morning, and you and your friends of course don’t got to the cathedral. Not with all that Brother Tuck has said about you. I guess Brother Galahad didn’t mention it this morning?”
“My — my friends and I are not naive enough to think we would be welcome in any church. So we … avoid it. Certainly on feast days,” Wei Li answered. Now, she thought, was not the time to say that she was no Wrightian, and never would be, as long as she had any choice in the matter.
“Really? You ought to try to go to one of Brother Galahad’s services. My son knew him in Camford. He says he’s — well — he says that Brother Galahad is about as innocent as a newborn babe, and has his head in the clouds to boot, but he’d be welcoming if anybody would.”
Wei Li nodded. It was the easiest reply.
“Anyway, Father Hugh didn’t go into too many details, but Brother Tuck has been punished for what he’s been doing — by silence, if you’ll believe it! My Lord, the man must be ready to explode already!” Mark chuckled. Wei Li wondered just what was so funny. “And — and that’s not all. Father Hugh …”
He paused, and when he continued, it was much more softly, and the mirth was gone from his words. “He–he apologized, Wei Li. It was the first time I’d heard a Churchman do such a thing–well, not literally, most of them will say they’re sorry if they step on your foot or bump into you, but …” He shook his head, as if the words could still daze him. “He said he was sorry for everything Brother Tuck had said, and all the harm he had wrought. He said …” Mark hesitated. “Wei Li, you never said that Brother Tuck was stealing children from you and your … friends.”
“He never took a child from me,” Wei Li demurred. “And … even if he had … what could you have done?”
“He never did?” Mark asked, blinking.
Wei Li shook her head.
“But … but you’ve been with child …”
“I gave them up. Of my own — free will.” The words were loaded, especially when speaking to a Wrightian. But there was no better way to describe it. “I am not a woman who is meant to be a mother.”
Mark turned his head to one side. “So if … if you said yes to … to my proposal, and we had a child … what would you do?”
Wei Li blinked. “What?”
“It’s–I want to know,” he said, shamefaced. “I’d support you both, you know. I’ve … well …” He snorted. “I’ve supported children I didn’t exactly plan on before. But that’s a long story in and of itself. What I want to know is — what would you do?”
Wei Li could not meet his gaze. “I … I do not know.” That was the only reply she could muster. It had the virtue of being honest. She had never thought that motherhood was a thing that could happen to her. Women in the Flower Houses took herbs to make it very unlikely that they would conceive. Of course accidents happened, but there were ways to be rid of those accidents before any of the clients had cause to criticize a woman’s figure. As for women who were adopted by one man as his mistress, they usually continued to take the herbs. Wives usually accepted a mistress; some even saw her presence as a relief. But introduce a child to compete with her children, and even the most doe-like, accepting wife could turn into a tiger.
“But …” she mused. “If–if it happened, we could … talk about it then?”
Mark blinked and cocked his head to one side. “Eh?”
“… I beg your pardon?”
“Well, Wei Li, unless my ears grossly deceived me …” He smiled nervously. “It sounds like you … just the way you phrased that … you were saying yes?”
He must have been a cutthroat businessman. He must have wheeled and dealed other men halfway into oblivion. But in that moment, Mark Wesleyan did not sound like it. He sounded like a boy — a young man, the youngest they would allow into the brothel — about to get something he wanted very desperately, but afraid it might be taken from him at the last moment.
Wei Li couldn’t do that to him. Well, not quite. “Yes,” she replied. She saw his face light up and rushed to throw water on it before he could grow too ecstatic. “But I have conditions.”
“Conditions?” Mark glanced at her sidelong, sly and knowing. “Is this the part where we negotiate the price?”
“Among … other things.” If she were still at the Flower House and a man was interested in having her as his exclusive mistress, Wei Li would have gotten an older friend or mentor to to the negotiating. It was essential that she always seem innocent and sweet to her patron, thoughts unclouded by greed or longing for material wealth — or, at worst, that she seem greedy in a magpie-way, eager and thankful for shiny trinkets but not attaching too much thought to their meaning or worth. But she had nobody like that here, so she had to do it herself.
“Well, I must ask you to have mercy on me, my dear,” he laughed, “because if the answer’s ‘yes’ at the end of it, there’s no telling what I’ll agree to!”
“I hardly seek to ruin you,” Wei Li replied. Quite the opposite. No courtesan would ever get another man if she milked the first one for all he was worth. Besides, it was terribly rude. “But …” She twisted her hands together before blurting out the first of her conditions. “I must have protection. Security.”
Mark tilted his head to one side. “Brother Tuck won’t be a problem anymore.”
Wei Li did not shudder at the name or the idea. She had too much self-control for that. But she wanted to. “No–not from him. I mean …” She waved one hand in the air. “You are — I am sorry, so sorry, to be this blunt, Mark, but … you are not a young man. If–if, heaven forbid, something were to happen …?”
Mark blinked. “Oh! Oh–my goodness. Of course. Of course you’d worried.” He rubbed his chin. “What would you need to be secure?”
Wei Li could only shrug. Often patrons would leave their mistresses property to enjoy for the space of their lifetimes, but here in Albion land ownership worked differently.
“I … could leave you some money! In my will!” he exclaimed. “Enough to be a nice nest egg for you!”
Money. It would not be as stable as land, even just for the space of her lifetime (after all, what would she do with it when she was dead?), but perhaps she could invest it. Invest … “Your–your son is starting a bank. Is he not?”
Mark blinked. “Aye, he is …”
“Perhaps … perhaps I could have a stake in the bank? Or perhaps you could invest some money for me? In things that are likely to succeed?”
Mark blinked again. “Wei Li … keep talking like that, and Josh will soon like you as much as I do. Aye. Aye, I think we could work out something with Josh and the bank. I wouldn’t want to see you want for anything after I was gone.”
Wei Li smiled and nodded. “You are kind.”
“Kindness has nothing to do with it — I don’t care what those churchmen say, leaving you without a penny, after I said I’d take care of you — that would just be wrong. And if we could somehow tie up some of it with the bank, then Josh wouldn’t be able to complain a bit.” Mark grinned. “Beauty and brains together. By St. Robert, I’m a lucky man.”
“I am glad you think so.”
“I know so.” Mark winked. “So is this the part where we fight over your allowance?”
Wei Li smiled. “I do not think we need to fight. I think we could come up with something mutually agreeable. However … I do not think it would be wise to negotiate in earnest until I have moved into the place you will provide for me. It will be easier for me to negotiate once I have an idea what my expenses will be.”
Mark blinked. “My Lord, you’re reasonable.”
“And I do request a voice when it comes to furnishing and decorating the place. I will, after all, have to live there.”
“Fine — but please try not to break Josh’s bank before it even has a chance to start?”
“Agreed,” Wei Li nodded. It was only when she saw disappointment flash across Mark’s face that she realized that was supposed to be a joke. That was unfortunate, given what she was about to ask. “However … I have one more thing to ask. And this is non-negotiable.”
Mark blinked. “You’re … you’re scaring me now. All right — out with it. What’s non-negotiable.”
He narrowed his eyes. “Your … friends?”
“Marigold. Tambu. Mirelle. Er–” She bit down on the second syllable. Even if Brother Tuck was “muzzled,” as Mark put it, it would not do to let too many know that she was still in contact with Erin and Erin was still in contact with her former sisters. “Other women friends.”
“Women friends?” Mark asked.
“You–you think it surprising that I have women friends?”
“Of course not. I’m just trying to figure out what it is about them that could be non-negotiable.”
“I–I need to see them. I need them to still be part of my life. Of course you would have the first claim on my time, but …”
Mark was staring at her with his jaw hanging loose. Wei Li gulped. “You are not happy.”
“Not happy? I’m shocked! Wei Li, of course I wouldn’t come between you and your friends! Do you think I’m an ogre?”
Wei Li flushed and looked away. “You … you are making a significant … investment in me. It would not be a surprise if you were to be … jealous of my time.”
“But cut you off from your friends? That would take a monster!”
Wei Li looked up. She had to blink away water from her eyes. “And that is how I know you are not a monster,” she whispered. “You call things monstrous that are merely unpleasant.”
Mark stared at her with something caught in the junction between horror and pity. “What have you seen, Wei Li, that makes you call things that are monstrous just unpleasant?”
She could not answer that. She could not even talk about this with her friends, because to talk about them would make them–real. She had spent too much time shoving all the horror and hurt behind her, trying to relegate it all into the past. And it was all in the past now. Behind her. It couldn’t hurt her any more.
Even if the past was only two weeks ago …
Wei Li turned away, one hand over her mouth, eyes blinking back what she was forced to call tears.
“I am an ogre, aren’t I?” Mark sighed. She heard the floorboards creak, then he was in front of her, one hand stroking her cheek. “I’m sorry–I didn’t mean to–”
Wei Li shook her head. “You are not an ogre.”
“Still. We’re starting off on rather the wrong foot, aren’t we?” Mark smiled at her, gently, tenderly, continuing to stroke her cheek. “This should be a happy occasion.”
Wei Li replied by standing up. “It is.” She put her arms around him. “You have no idea how happy I am.”
Mark blinked — but after a long moment, he pulled her closer and nuzzled her shoulder.
And over Mark’s shoulder, Wei Li smiled — a real smile, one of the ones she rarely showed to clients, or johns, or patrons — or girlfriends or … anyone, really.
She was finally safe now.