Seryl 14, 1014
So there it was. The House. Stasia felt her steps slow as she neared it, and some long-buried instinct rose from its grave to make her want to look around, take stock, make sure no one saw her here.
That was stupid. If this was a place where respectable women didn’t go, then it stood to reason that no respectable women would be here. And if there were any respectable women to see her, well, they wouldn’t care about seeing her here. Stasia had given up whatever claims she had to respectability almost before she’d had a right to claim womanhood. No — she would be honest — she’d given up her claims to respectability at the same time that she had been forced to claim womanhood, because it was either that or starve.
So anyone who saw her now who had known her then — well — they wouldn’t recognize her. Too much time had past; she’d seen too much, done too much. Been done to too much.
Nobody would look at this bedraggled young woman and think to themselves, Gee, I wonder if that’s Anastasia Steavenson? I wonder what ever did happen to that girl …
Life had happened to that girl, Stasia might say. Life had come and kicked her in the teeth a few times.
But that was past. Today was a special day. Stasia was eighteen today. She’d sneaked into churches every Sunday since the beginning of the year, so she’d always have a way of knowing what date it was. The knowledge of the day of her birth was something from that old life that she clung to, because being eighteen meant she had a window of opportunity.
The House — the brothel — didn’t take girls who were less than eighteen. The law of Albion took a dim view, officially, of girls less than eighteen selling their bodies to buy bread. It was an easy enough thing to sneak around the law when you were just a street waif, because nobody paid attention to you anyway. However, the House was different. People came there. It was conspicuous. People were bound to ask questions about a new girl.
Though nobody would ask any questions if Stasia didn’t stop lollygagging and wondering. She half-skipped, half-jogged the rest of the way, dashed up the stairs, paused only for a moment to collect her breath, and knocked.
She waited, smoothing her dress and fiddling with her hair, all the while desperately going over her speech in her mind. She’d noticed — heard through the grapevine — that the brothel had lost a girl at the beginning of the year. She hadn’t heard of them getting someone to replace her. Well, they had to want somebody — didn’t they? Another girl servicing johns meant more money for them all. Especially since the girl who was gone was the beautiful, exotic Wei Li, the whore from Smina who’d learned a thousand ways of pleasing a man before she was twelve. Surely some girl, especially one as young as Stasia, would be great to have around.
And as for replacing the amazing Wei Li … Stasia couldn’t compete on skill. The johns she’d had never asked for much in the way of skill. But she could maybe compete on looks. She was a nobody, but family lore had claimed that one of her ancestors was an escaped slave from Reme-way. She could say that she had some Sminese blood in her. It didn’t matter if it was true or not — nobody would —
Stasia’s planned speech sputtered to a halt as she realized that nobody had answered her knock on the door, and it had to have been at least three minutes.
“What the –” Stasia whispered. Then she started to pound on the door. “Hey! Hey, open up! Hello!!”
It couldn’t end like this. She couldn’t be left outside, pounding futilely at the door to a better life with no one to hear her. She’d promised herself for too damn long that today would be the day her life would change. She’d spent so damn long at rock bottom — surely today she had to start the long trek upward. Today had to be her lucky day. If not …
She couldn’t go back to what she had been doing before. She couldn’t. She’d throw herself into the sea first. She couldn’t stand one more cold, wet night fucking johns in an alley because she had no place else to take them, praying that they would give her what they said they would, praying that it would be enough to get a tiny room out of the cold and wet, so she could eat something and sleep somewhere out of the open. She’d done that for four long years. Surely, surely–
“Come on!” Stasia yelled at the door.
“Can I … help ye?” came a voice from her right.
Stasia spun, her heart leaping into her throat. She was usually so good about knowing who and what was around her! And now she’d been making such a rumpus that someone was able to sneak up on her. Was she trying to get robbed or killed?
Then Stasia got a good look at the people who had surprised her, and her heart leaped from her throat to her nose. It was them! The barkie brothel madam, Marigold Thatcher! And her — whatever that thing was!
Then Stasia kicked herself. For the love of all that was good and holy, beggars couldn’t be choosers. And though everyone swore that the barkie was a holy terror if you crossed her (and her vampire whore was worse), nobody said anything but that the women in the brothel were clean, well-fed, well-kept. There were no bruises or cuts on them. The quickest way to see the barkie woman turn into a holy terror was to hurt one of her girls.
Stasia would be a whore under the Grim Reaper himself if it meant she could scrub up from time to time, could go to be bed with a full stomach, and could complain to someone when she got hit or used rough.
She swallowed and hurried down the steps to speak to the woman. “Er — hallo,” she said, skidding to a halt in front of her. “I–I were wonderin’ if I could speak ter ye. Ye see, I …” Good Lord, this was hard to stop. “I’m lookin’ fer a job …”
Marigold cocked her head to one side. “A job?”
“Aye. Ye know.” Stasia swallowed and rubbed the back of her neck with one hand. She tried to avoid touching her hair. Now that she was in front of Marigold’s shining, obviously clean leaves, she was aware of just how lank and greasy her own hair was. The quick rinse of well-water she’d given it this morning had probably done more harm than good. “Whorin’.”
“Er …” Marigold replied. She started to pick her nails. “I don’t think … I don’t think that ye really want that … an’ I certainly ain’t lookin’ fer no –”
“What? No!” Stasia gasped. No, she couldn’t be turned away before she’d even had a chance to say her piece! “No, ye don’t understand! I–I–”
Marigold raised an eyebrow at her.
“I need this — an’ ye need me!” Stasia stammered. “I know ye lost Wei Li!”
She blinked. “Do ye.”
“Aye! I do!” Stasia snapped. “Everybody does! An’ — an’ surely ye want someone ter take her place? Take some o’ the johns? Keep ’em busy …”
“Well, maybe,” the madam replied. “But I don’t think ye understand how this works –”
“How it works? I know exactly how it works!” It occurred to Stasia that perhaps this was not the best way to talk to one’s future employer, at least, not if you wanted that future to come to pass. But what could she do? She couldn’t let the one threadbare dream she had left disintegrate as all the rest of them had. “I’ve had it in the mouth an’ up the arse an’–”
“All right, that’s enough!” Marigold interrupted, looking askance at the little one by her side.
“The point is–I’ll do anythin’. Not anythin’ if the price is right — anythin’. As long as there’s a coin fer me at the end o’ it, I’ll do it. How many other girls will walk up ter ye an’ say that, ma’am? How many?”
“I don’t think that many,” Marigold replied, “but, lass, ye don’t–”
“Then why don’t ye hire me? I’ll do whatever ye want me ter! I’ll–”
“Now, hold on,” she interrupted. “Why don’t I hire ye? Lass–let’s start with I don’t even know yer name.”
Stasia blinked. She — she hadn’t mentioned that? How stupid of her. “Stasia,” she replied.
Marigold nodded for her to go on.
Stasia’s stomach turned. She could barely remember the last time she needed more than “Stasia.” Street waifs usually didn’t even rank a first name, let alone a surname. “Stasia Steavenson,” she added. Then, realizing that in this line of work her full first name might actually be useful for something, “Anastasia Steavenson.”
“Anastasia?” asked Marigold, raising an eyebrow.
“It … it means ‘resurrection,'” Stasia mumbled. “When–when I were born, the cord were wrapped around me neck. I weren’t breathin’ at first. But they got the cord off, an’–I guess there must’ve been some life in me after all, ’cause they jest rubbed me chest a bit an’ I started wailin’. Me … me ma thought I were come back from the dead, so she called me Anastasia.”
“Yer ma,” Marigold repeated. “She know ye’re here now?”
Stasia stiffened. “I don’t talk about me ma.”
Marigold cocked her head to one side and watched Stasia. Stasia didn’t know what Marigold was looking for or how to present it, so she just took deep breaths and stared at her, clenching and unclenching her fists, the way she always did when she was forced to think about her mother.
Finally Marigold sighed. “Come on,” she said, “Stasia. Come inside. We’ll at least give ye a hearin’-out before …”
She started to lead the way into the house, holding out her hand so the little one could toddle along beside her. The little one turned back to look at Stasia and smiled hesitantly at her. Stasia tried to smile back — but it had been so long since even a toddler saw her in the streets, she’d lost the knack of smiling at them and probably only gave a grimace.
But at least this one’s ma didn’t cover the little one’s eyes and rush away with her, as if Stasia could curse a little one with bad luck just by looking at her. Though there were some days when she wished she could. Well, maybe not give bad luck to little ones. But have an Evil Eye? Stasia had grown up crossing herself at the mere thought of it, but now all she could see was that it would be damn useful sometimes.
They entered the house. “Tambu!” Marigold called. Then, to Stasia, “We’ll both talk ter ye, an’ then … we’ll see.”
Stasia nodded. She was too busy looking around her to do anything else. The floor looked freshly swept — the chairs sturdy and comfortable — the plaster on the walls clean and, if not quite fresh, at least freshly whitewashed. It couldn’t have been more than a year or so that whitewash was sitting on the walls.
And there were curtains on the windows — candles everywhere — even quilts and tapestries on the walls, little better than rags, true, but still! Pretty enough, and they’d serve to keep out a winter’s chill. And … if this was how the downstairs looked … how might the upstairs? It was almost neough to make Stasia cry at the beauty of it all.
She didn’t get a chance, though, for somebody walked down from that mythical upstairs. A strong-looking woman, no longer young, yawning openly with each step. “Someone was knockin’ up a storm a bit ago, Marigold, did ye–” The woman paused in mid-step, staring at Stasia. “Hello …”
“I heard,” Marigold nodded. “This is her. The person knockin’, I mean,” Marigold jerked her head toward Stasia. “Tambu, this is Anastasia, though she prefers ter be called Stasia. Stasia, this is Tambu. I guess ye could say she’s me right-hand woman.”
Tambu snorted. “Not that there’s much competition fer that.”
“Aw, come on, there’s Mirelle.”
“Mirelle? I swear Mirelle sometimes still gets copper an’ silver coins — ye’d think the woman had never seen a coin before.” Tambu rolled her eyes. “An’ that’s not gettin’ inter … everythin’ else. So, ye, Stasia — what is it yer wantin’?”
Stasia swallowed. “A — a job.”
Tambu blinked. “Have ye gone an’ lost yer mind? A job? Here? Bein’ one o’ us?”
Stasia swallowed. “With all due respect, ma’am, ye look clean. Well-fed. Healthy. I’ll take that.”
“Thank’ee … I think …” Tambu stroked her chin. “Ye given much thought ter what the work will be like? I’m tellin’ ye, it ain’t like bein’ with yer young man. It ain’t easy. It ain’t fun. It ain’t–”
“I’m already doin’ it,” Stasis snapped. “In the streets. In alleys. On top o’ boxes an’ crates. Standin’ up if there ain’t no other way. Ye do it lyin’ down, in a bed, don’t ye?”
“Not always,” Tambu replied. “Not if the john wants it different.”
“Most johns don’t have enough imagination fer that, I’m guessin’,” Stasia snorted.
Marigold suddenly laughed. Tambu glared. “What? She’s got a point.”
Tambu snorted — but there was a hint of a smile under the ridicule. “It ain’t always gonna be single or near-enough ter single men who’d give any amount o’ copper coin fer a bit o’ tail an’ ain’t too picky about how they get it,” Tambu warned. “There’s gonna be some men comin’ here who want … well … what their wives won’t give ’em. Ye all right with that?”
“Aye,” Stasia replied. “I’m already doin’ that — sometimes.” Most of the time men who wanted what their wives wouldn’t give them went … well, here. But sometimes they were desperate, and since Stasia was always desperate, they could come to an arrangement. “I’ll do it, an’ I won’t charge no extra fer–”
“No, no, no!” Marigold interrupted. “Ye always charge extra! Always!”
“I …” Stasia felt the blood leaving her face. She couldn’t have just blabbed her way out of a job, could she? “Not–not if ye don’t know where yer next farthin’ is comin’ from!”
“Out there, that’s as may be,” Tambu replied. “Here, ye charge extra. We don’t compete fer custom, here. We takes the johns as they come, we all charge the same, an’ all the money goes inter the same kitty. Ye got that?”
Stasia nodded. “Aye. Aye, o’ course. Sure.”
“Good. Now …” Tambu took a deep breath. “Now, ye say ye’re doin’ this in the streets. How’d ye get inter this life?”
Stasia stiffened. “I don’t want ter talk about that.”
“Too bad. I wanna know.”
“Tambu!” Marigold shook her head. “If she don’t want ter talk about it –”
“She never needs ter, after terday. But not all o’ us are ye, Marigold. We ain’t all folks born on the bottom who’ve got a gift fer takin’ life’s lemons and turnin’ them inter lemonade — an’ fer charmin’ old dukes inter leavin’ us houses, too,” Tambu sighed. “Some o’ us were born a bit farther up an’ so have farther ter fall. An’ I want ter know why this one fell before we talk about lettin’ her inter our house. So. Spill, girl,” Tambu said, hands on her hips and staring Stasia down.
“I weren’t nobody before … this,” Stasia muttered. “Ye don’t have ter worry about … about angry relations or anythin’ like that.”
“That’s lovely. I still want ter know what happened.”
“Tambu …” Marigold murmured as Stasia shifted and swallowed and tried not to blush or pale.”
“It don’t have ter be the long version,” Tambu replied. “She don’t have ter say everythin’, if it’s painful. But I want somethin’. I don’t think we want some runaway serf here, Marigold — or maybe a maid who tried ter steal the master’s silver an’ didn’t think things through, an’ now is takin’ what she can get.”
“Hmm,” murmured Marigold, and Stasia knew she had lost.
But … but even if she didn’t want to talk about this, think about this — what choice did she have? It was talk, or spend the rest of her (short) life in the cold and wet. Stasia closed her eyes and clenched her fists. “Me da died when I was ten. Me ma married again a year later. An’ …”
Good Lord, how to explain? That man … he’d been not at all like her pa. Where her pa had been older and stolid and sometimes tending on dour, her stepda had been younger and strong and always smiling and laughing. And even though he had a two boys of his own he’d brought into the marriage, and even though Stasia was the first of four surviving children of her ma’s, her stepda had always paid such close attention to her, inviting her to sit on his lap, and there had been the tickling …
Then, when she was twelve, he started sticking his hands where they didn’t belong. And things only got worse from there.
“He–he didn’t know how ter keep his hands ter himself, all right?” Stasia stammered. “Or his thing. An’ he … he … he …” Stasia started rocking back and forth on her heels, trying to say what she had to say without having to remember.
“I think we can guess where this is goin’,” Marigold interrupted. “He took ye.”
“Then what?” asked Marigold.
“Me … me ma finally caught ‘im. An’ she …”
The memories couldn’t help flooding back.
Her ma, standing in the door to the tiny cubbyhole of a bedroom, panting with rage. Stasia originally relieved — finally, her ma knew! Finally, her ma would save her! Finally —
Then her stepda, climbing off her and fixing his trews. “Don’t be mad, Mari — this ain’t her fault, Mari — she’s jest a girl, I should have known better than ter respond when she startin’ makin’ eyes at me –“
The rage on her ma’s face had not gone away. But it had shifted. Turned.
Turned to Stasia.
“She kicked me out,” Stasia mumbled. It was easier to say that than to go remember all that had happened that night. The screaming. The names. The scar that she got that night and who put it there.
“She what?” gasped Marigold. “Yer stepda was — was hurtin’ ye, and she–”
“How old were ye?” asked Tambu.
“Fourteen,” Stasia muttered.
Tambu glanced at Marigold and shrugged. “It happens. That age? Sometimes a ma will take it inter her head that it’s the daughter what’s the problem — not the man. Ain’t good, but … there ye go.” She shrugged again. “Now, Stasia — ye sit tight. Let me talk with Marigold.”
The two of them walked off some distance. They started to talk. Stasia leaned forward, trying to hear —
Stasia nearly jumped out of her skin — then she looked down and saw a chubby fist pulling at her skirt. “Oh …” She crouched down and patted the little one’s head. “Hello.”
The baby grinned. It was a happy grin, a cheeky grin — it was just like any other baby grin. Just like the way her little brother Ralf — her ma’s son and his son — had grinned at her the day before her world fell apart … she’d done a lot of the caring for Ralf before … everything …
Stasia swallowed and blinked away something very like a tear. The little one tilted her head to one side. “Sad?”
“What? No. No. ‘Course not.”
The little one frowned — but Stasia noticed something. The conversation on the other side of the room had stopped. Stasia looked up to see both Marigold and Tambu watching her and the little one. Then, as soon as they saw her watching, they turned away and started to talk again.
But it seemed both had said their piece, for they soon walked back to her. “All right,” said Tambu. “This is how it’s gonna be.”
“We give ye a month trial. See how things work. Durin’ that time, ye rent yer room from us — a copper a night every night we’re open. That’s jest one quick lay, no frills, nothin’ special, nothin’ extra. Everythin’ other than that, ye keep, so’s ye got some savins if things don’t work out. At the end o’ the month, we talk. If things are good, ye stay, an’ yer money goes inter the kitty with all o’ ours. If they ain’t, ye take yer money an’ ye move on. Got it?”
“Aye, but …”
Tambu crossed her arms in front her chest. “But?”
“What about food? Is that with the room? Or do I gotta buy that on me own?”
Tambu blinked. “What? Oh, no! Good Lord, we’ve got plenty fer the two o’ us. Don’t ye worry none about that.”
“Two … of us?” Stasia repeated.
“Aye,” replied Marigold. “I don’t eat, an’ neither does Daisy. An’ Mirelle–”
“Let’s not talk about Mirelle,” Tambu muttered. “I ain’t ate yet today, but I’d like ter. So. Stasia. That good ter ye?”
Good for her? She’d get to have savings? A bed? A roof over her head? Food? And those last three would all be taken care of with one quick, no-frills lay every night?
That sounded like heaven to her. “Aye. Aye, that’s good.”
Now it was Marigold’s turn to smile. She stepped forward with her hand out. “Then, Stasia …” She reached out and shook Stasia’s hand.
“Welcome ter the family.”