Imsdyn 31, 1014
Mark grinned as he held Wei Li’s forearms, then leaned in for a quick, chaste peck on the cheek. There was no need for speed or, for that matter, for chastity. They were alone, they two. Mark, Wei Li knew well, had set aside the whole afternoon and most of the evening to enjoy with her. He could have leaned in for a slobbering, smacking smashing of lips on lips, putting his hands all over her, tearing off her clothing and taking her on the floor if he wanted — it was his right.
But he would not do that, because that was not the kind of man he was. And that, Wei Li thought, more than anything else, was why she had chosen to take him up on his offer and become his mistress.
Mark pulled away with a smile. “You’re looking well. And your hair …” He turned his head to one side and surveyed it, puzzled. “The … things you put in it are very pretty …”
Wei Li knew that she ought to be keeping an emotional distance between her and her patron. They were, in a sense, partners in a business enterprise. There could and should be a healthy respect between them, a fair assessment of the talents of each, and an appreciation of what each brought to the table. There should be a certain amount of candidness and perhaps even give-and-take. There might even be some warmth or regard.
But affection? Friendship? It was a fool who let the heart dictate affairs of business.
Yet … Wei Li could not help it. He was adorable when he tried to compliment her, especially when it involved things outside his experience. Her heart began to flutter.
“It … it is tradition in Smina,” she said. “When a girl — a woman — becomes the, the mistress of just one man, she styles her hair differently. Of course,” she added ruefully, “my idea of the style is likely twenty years out of date — but this idea, putting the hair up, has been the tradition for generations. Like — like your women, when they get married.”
Her heart skipped a beat. Was that too forward? Even in Smina, married women could grow jealous of their status and resent any comparison to women of pleasure.
But Mark only laughed. “Well, it’s not as universal as that. My Heloise has been putting her hair up ever since she mastered the use of a tie, and Babette will probably have hers hanging down her back until the day she dies. But, aye, that is the general idea. Probably because it’s so much more practical.”
Wei Li nodded — a maiden did not have half the cares of a busy housewife, after all, who might see free-flowing hair as more of a nuisance than an asset. “Indeed. But … you like it?”
Mark beamed. “Of course I do. And speaking of things I’ll like …” He winked. “You promised that today you’d give me the grand tour and let me see everything I paid for.”
“Indeed I did! And we shall start with the kitchen and dining space!” Wei Li flung her arms out wide. “Not that you haven’t seen it before. But now it is not such a mess.”
“It was never a mess,” Mark chuckled. He made his way over to the sideboard by the bathroom door. “This is new …”
“Indeed. I finally found a place to put it,” Wei Li replied. The clever little drawers and cabinets would be a wonderful place to store spices. And the sideboard itself made a wonderful place to store the orchids that Marigold had given to her as a housewarming present. Marigold had grown them herself, and though she wasn’t quite as deft with plants as her brother Ash, Wei Li did not doubt that these flowers would bloom for as long as she was in the house … provided she kept them watered, of course.
Mark ran a hand over the topmost book on the sideboard. “Well, I knew you were clever, Wei Li,” he chuckled, “but I didn’t think I had another Heloise on my hands.”
Wei Li knit her brows. “I am sorry? I do not understand.”
“Books? In the kitchen? To occupy you when –”
Wei Li could not help it — she started to laugh. And she knew her mistake when Mark turned to her with a puzzled look. “Hey — what’s funny?”
Wei Li’s heart dropped — but the best way to handle Mark, she had determined, was simply to bring him in on the joke. “Mark — what kind of books are most likely to be kept in a kitchen?”
“What kind of …” he repeated. Then he laughed and smacked his forehead. “Good Lord, I’m an idiot! Cookbooks!”
“Cookbooks!” Wei Li repeated.
“I promise — I’m not always this slow on the uptake,” laughed Mark. He reached for her hand and squeezed it. “But I didn’t know you were a cook.”
“Tambu and I did–did all the cooking for some time now,” Wei Li stumbled. Not because she and Tambu had split the cooking; there was nothing to stumble over in that. But she stumbled because she knew why they were the cooks: Marigold and Mirelle did not eat. “So I have gotten steadily better at it. But … but I want to try to cook some of the foods from my home, and I want to … experiment.”
Mark grinned at her. “And can I hope to partake in the experimentation?”
“If you like! But you must promise,” Wei Li wagged her finger, “not to complain if things go wrong.”
“If things go wrong, I’ll take you to a nice restaurant,” Mark shrugged. “Now … you did promise me a tour …”
Wei Li smiled and nodded. She led the way up the winding stairs, to the living area. It was easy to show him the near corner of the room, with the fireplace and bookshelves and couches: he had seen it before. But the far corner …
That would be much more of a treat, Wei Li hoped.
“A tea set?” Mark asked as Wei Li knelt at the head of the tea table.
He watched without a word as Wei Li bowed to the table. Her back protested — she had not done this often since she was only sixteen — but it felt good to be doing it again. It felt like home.
She could not help but notice how he stroked his beard. “Richard told me about Sminese tea,” he said, hesitating over every syllable. “There’s … there’s a whole ceremony, isn’t there?”
“Sometimes,” Wei Li replied. “And sometimes you just pour and talk.”
“And you always sit on the floor?” Mark asked, edging around the table.
Wei Li did know how to respond to that, so she just nodded.
Slowly, Mark got down to his knees. “If I can’t get up again,” he muttered, “it’ll be all your fault.”
Wei Li giggled. “You will be able to get up again. Men much older than you do this every day in Smina.”
As Mark bowed to the tea table, as he had seen Wei Li do, he replied, “I think the key words there are every day.”
Then he sniffed. “You’ve already got tea going!”
“Of course. I knew when you would be coming.” Wei Li lifted the small clay pot, then hesitated. “That is — it is tradition, in Smina, for a courtesan to greet her patron with tea.”
“Sometimes it is the full ceremony,” she went on. “And sometimes it is just tea. Often …” Wei Li hesitated, then shrugged and went for it. “A Flower House will have a tea room, and the guests and some of the women will partake in a tea ceremony there. It is often considered part of the experience for a first-time guest.”
Wei Li began to pour the tea, but Mark’s bemused, thoughtful expression did not escape her.
“You … you Sminese put a lot of thought into this,” he finally said.
Wei Li’s brows knit. “Do you not put much thought into your traditions?”
“Well, no,” he chuckled, “that’s why they’re traditions — er, that is … somebody once did …”
“It is the same with us,” Wei Li hastened to reply. “Once you learn the ceremony, you simply do it, and you do not need to think much about it. I know that sometimes, in your church services, there are times when you stand, and when you sit, and when you kneel. It is no different.”
“Well, that’s true. And I’m sure, when you first came here, we did all sorts of things that you found odd.”
Wei Li found herself nodding before she was able to properly consider her response. “Yes, indeed. Your feasts, for one. Everyone sitting at a table, the food just handed out, everyone eating and talking at once … not just casual meals, you understand, but formal feasts!”
“Aye,” Mark agreed. “But … well, I just wasn’t talking about food. I meant more …” He hesitated. “You know. Houses of … pleasure. All the ceremonies, all the things you talk about …”
“Oh,” Wei Li murmured. “We … we have common brothels, too, you know. Where men go to … to be pleasured, pay their fee, and leave again. The Flower Houses are not for all men.”
“Hmm. Well, speaking as a businessman,” Mark shrugged, “it wouldn’t surprise me if some — not all, but some — of those places tried to imitate the–the Flower Houses. A cut-rate version, of course, but there’s some of that same care and attention.”
He thought for a moment, then took a sip of his tea. It did not escape Wei Li’s notice that he was careful to hold the tea cup, which was smaller than the Albionese were used to, just as she did.
When he spoke again, it was almost wistful. “We don’t do that here.”
“No,” Wei Li agreed. “I think …”
She stopped. She was never quite sure just how far she could go in saying what she thought about Mark’s people and the way they ordered certain things.
“You think?” Mark asked, curious.
Wei Li took a short sip of her tea to gather her thoughts, think how best to say this in a way that did not cause offense. Then she had it. “In Smina, it is not considered a shameful or impure — you would say sinful — thing to go to a Flower House or a common brothel. It is … a fact of life. And they are places established for … pleasure. So–why not have them be pleasant?”
“I wouldn’t say that to Marigold, if I were you!” Mark laughed. Wei Li tilted her head to one side, then she understood what he was saying — that Marigold’s house was not pleasant.
Which was nonsense, really. “Marigold’s house has some of that ethos,” Wei Li demurred. “Not in the same way, for this is Albion and not Smina. But there are the card tables, the drinks, the piano and the harp — it is a house for pleasure, and even if you are not with one of the women, you are expected and encouraged to have fun.”
“Point,” Mark nodded.
“Whereas there are … other places …”
“Reme,” Mark filled in quietly. Wei Li barely held back a gasp as she stared at him. “Sorry,” he murmured. “It’s just … I read between the lines. You … never have much good to say about Reme, and what happened when you were there.”
Wei Li watched him, eyes narrowed, mind jumping from thought to thought. She did not talk about that place because she did not like to talk about that place. And … because it, for the first time, made her feel dirty and unclean because of what she did for a living. It made her feel like she was less than a Sim.
“Wei Li?” Mark asked, catching his lower lip between his teeth.
Wei Li looked away from him, toward the mantel and the dolls she had decorated it with. It was easier to think if she wasn’t looking at him.
“It … was a sad place,” she finally said. “Sad” only hinted at the enormity of the abyss of fear and loathing that place was, but it was as close as she could come. “It was a place for people who had so little in their lives to give them joy and happiness that … that they took something that should be happy, that should be life-affirming, and they took it and twisted it and made it as … as sad and ugly and and hopeless as everything else in their lives.”
Mark blinked. “I’m sorry, Wei Li.”
“What? You did nothing. It is not your fault.”
He put his teacup down — it rested uneasily on the saucer — and looked into her eyes. “I’m sorry you had to go through that.”
He meant it. Wei Li smiled softly in return. She wondered if he had thought it through entirely: if she had not been seized in the sack of Marsim, she would have never left her homeland, she would have never come to Albion. They would have never met. They would not be sitting here, taking a pleasant tea in the living room of a lovely apartment Mark was renting for her. Mark would probably be the same sad, lonely man she had met all those years ago.
But … he knew that she had suffered. And he was sorry for it.
“Thank you,” she replied. “And now,” she went on, “let us talk of something more cheerful. You, Mark, have become a grandfather again twice over in this month. How are your grandchildren doing?”
Courtesans in the Flower House were supposed to keep conversation away from families and business, the work of everyday. It was held that men went to those Houses to get away from all of that. But there were two exceptions to that rule. The first was if the client brought up either topic himself. The second was grandchildren. Grandchildren were always an acceptable topic of conversation, because if there was one thing that united almost every Sim, it was the joy and the eagerness that came with discussing one’s progeny’s progeny.
Mark was no different. “Oh, Wei Li! Don’t get me started! But …” He hesitated, and put down his tea cup. “If you do want to get me started … do me a favor, and help me get up on that couch. I think I’ve lost all feeling from the waist down.”
“That would be truly unfortunate,” Wei Li replied, barely stifling a laugh. She helped Mark up and onto the couch she had been sure to place near the tea table. After all, it was difficult to sit in the proper tea position for long, especially for those who were older, or not used to it … or both, as Wei Li was rapidly realizing that both she and Mark were.
Mark leaned back on the soft cushions. “That’s better,” he sighed.
Wei Li perched beside him. “You will get used to it,” she promised. “As time goes on. But until then … we will always have the couch to repair to.”
“I sincerely hope so.” Mark put an arm around her shoulder and kissed her cheek quickly. “And someday, when I have worked my stamina up for it, I hope you’ll treat me for a full tea ceremony.”
Wei Li smiled. “I shall do my best. And I hope you will enjoy it.”
“Oh, I will! That’s a promise! Now …” Mark put both of his hands on his knees and beamed. “You asked about grandchildren.”
“Yes — yes, I did.”
“Well … they’re both doing well. Very well. Paul has the biggest set of lungs I’ve ever seen on a baby. I think he gets them from Pamela,” Mark sighed.
“Cress–my son’s mother-in-law,” Mark replied. “A … a very opinionated woman. Not afraid to make herself heard. Not afraid to tell you everything you’ve done wrong with your life and how to fix it.”
“Oh my,” murmured Wei Li.
“‘Oh my’ about covers it,” Mark agreed. “And then there’s sweet little Elinor …”
Wei Li smiled as he went on. He did love his grandchildren so. It was not long before the conversation moved from the littlest ones — who, though new, were still too young to be doing much more than sleeping, eating, and excreting — and onto the older ones. To Darius and Ned and Baby Belle, then to Stevie-weevie and Maude, finally to Morien. Eight grandchildren in all, so long as one counted young Ned, and Wei Li knew Mark did. And there was another one, Mark announced eagerly, that would come in Lenona. What a blessing, to have a family so large and so loving at once.
She had not seen her blood family in over twenty years. She had made a new one with Marigold, with Tambu, with Erin and Mirelle. And now she was allowed to be part, however peripherally, of the Wesleyan clan. Three families.
In a strange way, she truly was blessed.
She was blessed, too, to have found a patron as kind and open-hearted as Mark. As he talked, Wei Li found herself edging ever nearer to him. It was not art or artifice. It was simply — desire. A wish to be closer. When Mark put an arm around her shoulder, Wei Li felt something very near to complete contentment. Mark seemed to sense it, and grinned.
She was lucky that he would not be offended by open emotion and attachment. She was happy that he seemed to enjoy it as much as he did. As much as she did.
But at the end of the day … they were not just lovers, they two. They were courtesan and patron. And … there were certain niceties that must be performed.
Niceties that took them, very soon after the first tentative couch kiss, to the bedroom.
But there was no harm, no shame in that. It felt normal and natural and easy. And, in Wei Li’s mind, a break from what she had been used to, back at the brothel. At the brothel, there could be no true service, no true pleasure — everything had to be quick and easy and over soon enough to welcome the next customer. Here they could relax, here they could take their time. Here they could get to know each other as they had not been able to know each other before. Wei Li was already pondering ideas that would be useful for a man of Mark’s age, who had probably not experimented much before, barring the time he spent at the brothel. It would be most useful as time went on.
But for now … now they could just take pleasure in being near each other, in having each other’s company.
Because at the end of the day, they two had all the time in the world.