Belisandra woke before dawn, as she did every morning, and started to rise. She stretched languorously and groaned. She felt the ache in her back as she rolled over to sit up, and heard the small popping noise her knees made when she stood up. She removed her night shirt and felt the chill morning air on her body before putting on her day clothes: a simple blouse and dress combined with a light wrap to keep the morning air at bay. She walked to the table at the end of her bed, poured some water from the pitcher there into the waiting bowl. She splashed the algid liquid in her face and rubbed it against her arms to help her wake up. It was refreshing, if not exhilarating.
She walked to the window in her room and opened it, letting the cool morning air flow in. Belisandra shivered slightly and pulled her wrap close. Even in the warmer summer months, she kept the window closed to stay warm at night, and to discourage the infamous rooftoppers of Dargon. But now, as the autumn breezes filled the evening, keeping her window closed was a necessity. With the window open, however, she could hear the sounds of a city starting to awaken: a few scattered carts rolling down the cobblestones of Main Street; the splash of refuse being tossed into alleys from windows; and even from this distance, the cry of screegulls fighting for their breakfast at the docks. She smiled. She loved this city.
She noticed two guardsmen walking down Main Street. She knew the elder guard, Liat, in his worn blue uniform, but did not recognize the second one; he was younger and wearing a new uniform and shiny new boots. Belisandra guessed by the way he stared at Dargon’s buildings that he was probably quite new to the town.
As the sun rose, Belisandra was behind the counter of her tavern, cooking up the morning’s batch of Special Stew: a few carrots, some potatoes, a ham hock, water to boil, and the secret spices that made it distinct. She reflected on the simplicity of stew: simply reheating a pot that contained the remainder of yesterday’s stew, and adding more ingredients. While she finished her preparations, the sole boarder at Belisandra’s entered the room from the rear stairwell. Jergen was a sailor by trade, and while he spent most of his time at sea, he preferred to keep a room at Belisandra’s so he could have a place to call home. Belisandra knew that Jergen also fancied her, but she was too old for such nonsense, she told herself. She would soon count her forty-fifth summer.
“Good morning, Bel,” Jergen said. He had a sleepy smile on his wind-worn face, and gnarled knuckles in his large, boney hands. He rapped those knuckles twice on the wooden counter as he took a seat.
“Good morning, Jergen. Didn’t see you come in last night.” Belisandra put a plate of day-old bread in front of him and poured a mug of water.
“My ship dropped anchor late. I took a dinghy in so I could use my bed.”
“If I’d known you were coming, I could have kept it warm for you,” she said. He smiled when she winked at him.
“Now, Bel, you know it’s not fair, flirting with me when you don’t mean it. If I thought you really were waiting in my bed, I’d never go back to sea.” It was the same game they played every time he came in to town. She missed it, sometimes. And she worried about him.
Then she winced. She did not want another man coming into her life. “I know that look, Bel,” Jergen continued. “But I could be a lot of help to you around here.”
“Help?” She bristled at the suggestion. “I’ve got Mika and Thuna working regular shifts, G’veldi still working part time, and Aviato taking some night shifts. I don’t need your help, Jergen. You’re a fine, handsome man. And a good sailor, I’m told. But your kind of help, I don’t need.”
“Well,” Jergen said softly, “I’ve obviously started the morning off wrong. I’m sorry, Bel.”
Belisandra softened when she realized she had snapped at a good friend. “I’m sorry, Jergen. Truly. But you don’t want to just give me your help.” She smiled softly at him, then. “And as tempting as your offers are, I’m afraid I’m a bit too old for that kind of thing.” She held her hand up to stop the protest before he could utter it. “Thuna will be out with your breakfast in a few menes,” she said, changing the subject. “I’ve got things to do.”
Belisandra walked around the bar and across the common room. The lanterns she kept lit in the evenings hung empty and dark from the rafters, their candles used up and useless in the morning dawn. She sympathized with them as she opened the door and stepped into the morning light.
Dargon’s population was coming alive now, making itself known. Vendors pushing carts full of vegetables and small goods from the outlying farms and small villages made their way down Main Street. Based on the numbers she saw, she could guess that Venilek Market, where Thockmarr Street meets the Street of Travellers, must have been especially busy.
A fortnight past, the causeway — a bridge that connected the Old City with the New City — had buckled and fallen under the impact of a rogue barge. That one incident seemed to be a harbinger of things to come thereafter: the heavy rainfall that had followed caused buildings to collapse; tame animals bolted and smashed through the marketplace; and several ships were rumored to have been lost off the port. Belisandra did not understand it.
Now, however, much of the city was under repair. Shop owners all along Main Street had worked diligently to repair their buildings as quickly as possible. The faded colors of the cobblestone road contrasted with the freshly painted buildings that bordered the street. So many of the buildings outside her tavern looked as if they were newly built. The rates the laborers charged had escalated significantly — as had the fare for crossing the river, now that the causeway was inoperable — and the shop owners were forced to pay high rates or perform the work themselves.
Belisandra gingerly crossed the street, wary of horses and passersby, and turned to appraise her own building. She’d had a shutter repaired when a stray apple – thrown by no one, apparently, as there were no witnesses – smashed through it. “An apple,” she thought, “smashing through wood. How does that happen?” The one remaining repair that needed doing was that her sign, a painting of herself with the name “Belisandra’s” written in red letters, needed to be replaced. But finding someone who could paint well, when every premises in Dargon was asking for the same, would cost her plenty, and she did not relish the thought of what those workers would ask now.
As she looked at the front of her building, she recognized the woman who entered her tavern carrying a baby. She smiled. G’veldi and Nicholas’ daughter, Niki, was always welcome, but especially in the morning when the business was still slow. Belisandra retraced her path across Main Street and entered the common room moments after G’veldi.
“Hey!” she called to G’veldi. “Bring that little girl over here. Aunt Bel needs a hug this morning.”
G’veldi smiled and handed her daughter over to Belisandra. “Take her, she’s yours. Want to keep her?”
As Belisandra cooed to the child, she noted the tired tone of G’veldi’s voice. The baby’s smile showed a toothless mouth framed by a pair of dimples. Her eyes were green like the northern sea. “She’s such a beautiful girl.”
“Not sleeping, though,” G’veldi said. “I think she’s getting teeth. I’m exhausted.”
“Why don’t you take the day off, then?” Belisandra suggested. “I’ve got Thuna behind the bar …” Belisandra looked over to where Jergen had been seated at the bar, only to find him standing behind it.
“Jergen, where’s Thuna?” she asked.
“Not feeling well,” Jergen replied. “Sounded like she’d had a rough night. No matter, I can feed myself.”
“Well, I’m here, and Mika will be in today,” Belisandra said to G’veldi. She noted the woman had sat down, and was holding her head in her hands. “I’ll make you a deal. I’ll take care of the little one here, for a couple of bells, and you go upstairs and get some sleep in my bed.”
“That sounds wonderful,” G’veldi replied. “I owe you.”
Belisandra had an idea. “Well, I know how you can repay me. Send a message off to your husband. He’s a scribe, isn’t he?”
“Yes …” G’veldi said slowly, eying her boss.
“Well, my sign needs to be replaced, which includes both artwork and lettering. A perfect job for a scribe.”
G’veldi winced. “I’m sorry, Belisandra, but I can’t do that. With all the damage that happened to Dargon, the duke has hired all the scribes to take a … what did Nic call it? A survey of what broke. And what was fixed. And how much it cost. And what still needs to be fixed. And was it broken before the causeway was damaged, or after? And can they prove it? He’s in deep waters, right now, with no sign of land.”
“Oh,” Belisandra said. She made a small frown before returning her attention to the baby. “Well, my offer still stands. Go upstairs; I’ll take the little one.”
As Belisandra watched G’veldi sluggishly climb the stairs, she saw Jergen make his way over to the table.
“She sure is a cutie,” Jergen said as he tweaked the child’s nose. Niki make a small giggling noise and smiled again.
“She is a wonder,” Belisandra agreed. She had never had children of her own, but she did love them dearly. Both of her marriages had ended all too quickly, and she did not have the time to raise children of her own while running an inn. She sighed. She had the next couple of bells to enjoy the child, then she would have to go back to her normal routine.
“Bel, why don’t you let me help out a bit?” Jergen asked.
“Are you kidding?” she chided playfully. “And give up my time with this little dear?”
“No, I mean the sign.”
“What about it?”
“Well, I’m a rare breed, you see.” He smiled. “I’m a sailor who can write letters. And a pretty good job at it, too. There’s a lot to do aboard a ship that requires writing. And when I’m not aboard, I like to keep myself busy. Do a bit of sketching here and there.”
“I’ve never seen you,” Bel said honestly.
“Well, you never know where to look for me,” he replied. “I know a couple of girls around town that like pretty things. They pay me for them.”
“I’m sure,” Belisandra said dryly.
“No, really. Let me do it.”
“Forget it,” Belisandra said.
“Bel, what harm could come of it?” Jergen’s frustration was evident in his voice. If you don’t like the sign, you don’t have to take it!”
Niki startled when Jergen’s voice raised, and Belisandra held the child close to calm her. “See what you’ve done?” she said to Jergen. Then she wondered what harm could come of it. First it would be the sign, then he’d be sweeping up the common room, and helping out at the end of the evening. Soon enough, when the singers and dancers had cleared, he would be looking at her with that ‘end of the evening’ look men get. He’d be wanting to go upstairs into her bed, instead of taking his room down the hall. Well, that wasn’t going to happen. Not if she could help it.
“Fine,” Jergen said tersely. “If you change your mind, I’ll be over at Sharin’s.”
Belisandra looked coldly at him. “She’s that girl what has the second-story apartment on the corner of Nochtur Street, isn’t she?”
“Yes,” Jergen said defiantly.
“The silk flows freely from her window,” Belisandra said coldly.
“Yes, Bel, she’s a whore.”
“Then I’ll know where to find you,” she said, her eyes stabbing at him.
Jergen left without saying another word to her.
When the fifth bell rang out from the campanile at the Venilek Market, Belisandra’s tavern was at full sail with the mid-day crowd. With Niki back to her mother, Belisandra was able to concentrate on her customers. She moved quickly about the common room, darting among the tables to deliver drinks and food, gathering the coins owed her, or sometimes extending credit to those she knew were good for it. She remarked to herself that those people were rare.
The noise of the tavern swelled like the ocean, rolling to crescendos and dropping down to near silence. Every few menes, the entire room went absolutely silent. She wondered what made that happen. A few customers always seemed to notice the effect as well, and took great joy in being the first ones to yell out for more food, another drink, or a song.
Soon enough, the crowd thinned again, with just a few hangers on. She would have perhaps a dozen more customers until the ninth bell, when the shops began to close. Belisandra told Mika to watch the common room, then headed into the kitchen. Passing the bloodied chopping block and the mess of pots over the cooking fire, she found the back door and stepped into her back yard. She often sought solace here at the end of the night, but this day’s business — and the morning argument with Jergen — made her want it sooner than usual. Unfortunately, she was not alone.
A large sheet had been spread over the yard. It was covered with wood chips and a few spare slats. There were six stoneware bowls on the ground, and a man standing in the middle of the tarp with his back to her. She knew in an instant that it was Jergen.
“What in Ol’s name are you doing back here?” She called to him. “You’re going to clean this place up, Jergen.”
Jergen turned around and faced Belisandra, a quiet smile on his face. Behind him, no longer hidden by his body, was a stand of some sort, and hanging from the stand was a board that read, in bright red lettering, “Belisandra’s.” She paused for a moment, then walked the eight paces to where Jergen stood. Beneath the red letters was an excellent likeness of Belisandra as she was now. Not the youthful, buxom, low-bloused image of a wench that adorned her present, cracked sign, but a warm, smiling face surrounded by dark red hair.
“That’s pretty good,” she said.
“Thanks,” Jergen replied. “The grain in the wood is adding some lines around your eyes, I didn’t do that.”
“It’s okay, I like it.” She reflected in the dramatic contrast between the old image, that of a youthful lass full of life, and this new one that was more mature, yet warmer and more inviting. It was a better symbol of her establishment, which she had worked hard to keep from being a common whore market filled with drunkards and thieves. It was a better symbol of her, as well.
“Jergen, this is wonderful of you. Really.” She reached out and touched his arm. She felt a sudden fondness for him. He had created something for her that was more suited to her than anything she would have done for herself. He understood that part of her.
“It was my pleasure,” he replied.
“How long have you been working on this?”
“Since this morning,” he replied.
“You liar,” she scolded him jokingly and squeezed his forearm. “You said you were going over to Sharin’s.”
“I did,” he said. “She was busy, so I’m going back later.”
“What?” Suddenly, all the anger she had felt for him that morning came rushing back. She released his arm.
“I’m going back later,” Jergen said. “She said she would have some time around tenth bell.”
Belisandra’s voice was icy. “Have a good time.” Belisandra turned and walked back into her tavern.
“Another round for the threesome in the corner,” Mika said as she approached the bar. The tavern was teeming again, full of evening patrons eating and drinking their fill while a company of musicians played in the corner. The sounds of flute and dulcimer struck lively chords, while a dampened drum thrummed a steady beat. In another bell, perhaps less, Belisandra would have the tables in the center of the room moved back, and the patrons would really begin to let loose. She eyed the two guards that worked as security for her in the evenings, ensuring they were watching the crowd for any undue rowdiness. Belisandra’s was a place where people could relax and let go of their troubles … but not cause any.
“Bel?” Mika called to her again. “You hear me?”
“Yes, another round … what were they drinking?”
“The soup,” Mika said dryly.
“I’m sorry,” Belisandra replied. She shook her head absently. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me.” She took out three wooden bowls and ladled soup into them.
“Couldn’t be Jergen, could it?” Mika said teasingly. Belisandra just stared at her. “Straight. Well, the gents want some extra spice in their soup. They said it lacks the kick they’re used to.”
“Oh, they want a kick, do they?” Belisandra asked. “I’ll give them a kick.” She reached for the jar of dried pepper she kept below the bar. “I’ll give them a hell of a kick.” She opened the jar and poured an excessive amount of pepper into their bowls. “Give them that.”
Mika pursed her lips. Slowly, she said, “Okay. Perhaps that’s a little more than they’re looking for.”
Belisandra couldn’t hold back anymore. “Don’t be ridiculous, Mika, men are always looking for more. More, more, more! And they don’t stop! And when you think you’ve given them something, something really special, and perhaps they understand you after all, and so you reach out to them, and what do you find? They want more! Things that you can’t give them — refuse to give them! — not like some slut hanging silk curtains out her window, anyway. What do they expect? Every woman to do their bidding? Be their toys? Not this woman. No ma’am!”
Mika looked at Belisandra and smiled. “Do you love him?”
“Who?” Belisandra asked incredulously.
“Of course not!”
“Then why do you let him get to you so?” Mika asked coyly.
“I don’t know,” Belisandra replied. She emptied the three wooden bowls and refilled them with more soup, making an effort to scrape the bottom of the cauldron. Nodding at the corner she said, “Tell them I dug deep for extra flavor.”
Belisandra watched as Mika delivered the soup. Mika danced between the tables, flirting with the men, but catering especially to the women. Belisandra recognized a born actress, playing her part for the crowd. Mika always made excellent tips, she remembered. When Mika returned, she had orders for more drinks, and a question about available meats. “Someone wants some mutton,” she said.
“Tell them we’re out,” Belisandra replied. As she poured the drinks, she asked Mika, “What if I just like him a lot?”
“Maybe. But I don’t want to marry him.”
“Who says you have to?” Mika asked. She reached over and picked up the mugs of ale.
“And why would I?” Belisandra asked. “He spends his time with that whore –”
Mika dropped the mugs down hard on the bar, sloshing ale on the counter. “What do you expect, Bel?” she asked.
“What do you mean?”
“He’s on a ship six months or more a year. He dotes on your every word. For three years now, he’s rented that room upstairs, even when he’s not here to use it. He helps keep the riffraff out of this place a’ night, even though you don’t pay him. Many’s the time he’s cooked meals when someone couldn’t make their shift, or served ales for customers when you were running errands.”
“So if you’re not going to give him what he wants, should he forsake pleasure altogether? Don a Cyruzhian shroud and take an oath of chastity? He’s human, Bel. Give him a break. If you’re not going to bed him, he’s allowed to go elsewhere.”
She picked up the mugs again. “And just so you know, Sharin may be a prostitute, but she’s a good enough person. I’ve met worse people with better jobs.” Mika turned back to the customers and began her dance again.
A few menes later, Belisandra saw G’veldi come through the wooden door and approach the bar. “What brings you back?” Belisandra asked.
“Nicholas came home. He stopped at the apothecary and picked up some herbs to rub in Niki’s mouth. She fell asleep while I was feeding her, and Nicholas was already abed. So, I thought I’d come in and work a few bells to make up for this morning.”
“Take the bar, would you?” Belisandra asked. “I’ve got something to do.”
As she walked through the cool night air, she wondered if what she was doing was good for her. A few doors down from her tavern was another door that led into Mrs. White’s boarding house. Belisandra looked up at the second floor from the outside. The shuttered window was open, green silks flowing out the window. A shaded lantern glowed yellow inside the room: Sharin had a customer.
Belisandra glanced back up Main Street, seeing pockets of firelight and lanterns glowing from inside the buildings. Most of the ground floor lights were out, indicating the businesses had shut down for the evening, but the second floor lamps were lit: that’s where people lived, after all. She gritted her teeth and opened the door.
She had never been inside the boarding house before. She wasn’t sure what she would see when she entered. Part of her feared the worst: scantily clad, nubile girls running around in sheer green silk scarves. Men drinking and groping after them, running around like dogs after some meat. Instead, she saw a small hall that led to a stairway going up. On either side of the hall were closed doors, but they were not her destination.
She climbed the stairs slowly. What was she doing? She hadn’t even kissed the man. Now she was going to open a door and find him in the arms of another woman, and try to tell him she liked him. That sounded so ridiculous. She got to the top of the stairs, and turned toward the door she knew went to that corner room on the second floor. She kept telling herself this was foolish. It was a bad idea. She should turn around now and go back to the bar.
Then the door opened, and out stepped Belisandra’s nightmare: a young, petite, dark-haired woman with blue eyes, her face expertly painted, clad only in a bed sheet. Her lips were full and red, her eyelashes long and darkened with coal. Belisandra hated her immediately. She was not prepared for what she heard next.
“Belisandra! Oh, good, you’re here. I was afraid I’d have to go downstairs looking like this. Can you do me a favor?”
Belisandra’s eyes turned to slits. “And what would that be?”
“This belongs to Jergen.” Sharin handed Belisandra two Royals.
“What, is this change?”
“It’s just a simple payment,” Sharin explained. “I can’t afford to pay him all at once.” Her voice had a touch of pleading in it.
“Wait … You’re paying Jergen?”
“Well, yes. He does marvelous work.”
Belisandra paused and looked at Sharin sideways. She was uncertain she wanted to know what Sharin meant. “Where is he, right now?”
“He’s downstairs, in one of the waiting rooms. He didn’t send you up here?”
“Thank you, I’ll give this to him.” Belisandra turned and went back down the stairs, not waiting for a reply. At the bottom of the staircase, she chose the door on the right and saw Jergen sitting on a couch, waiting patiently. Belisandra smiled inwardly when she saw the shocked look on his face at her appearance.
“Jergen. Before you say anything, and we get our communication all fouled up, do me a favor and tell me one thing.”
“What are you doing with Sharin?”
Jergen blushed for a moment, then said, “Well, she saw one of my paintings, and she liked it. She wanted to pay me to paint her. I was a little uncomfortable with the prospect … it was a rather … delicate bit of work. You see, she wanted to be in a very seductive position, leaning backward, with her hands –”
“That’s enough,” Belisandra said, raising her hand. She took a deep breath. “So, when you were coming over to her today, you weren’t looking for a roll?”
“Ah.” Belisandra smiled. She could accept that.
“Bel, don’t get the wrong idea. I’m no saint, and I don’t want you to think that I am. But Sharin was just a customer. Not my first, and hopefully not my last.”
“Jergen, what do you want from me?” Belisandra asked.
“I want you,” he said plainly. “I want to be with you. I want to help you.”
“I don’t need another husband, Jergen. I lost one to the sea already, and –”
“And the other to war. Yes, I know that, Bel.” He paused and looked down at his feet. In his sitting position, Belisandra thought he looked a bit childish; or perhaps youthful. Then he looked back up at her. “I don’t need a job, Bel. I don’t even need a place to live, though I’m happy to call your place my home. But it’s a home I’ve been stealing. It’s not really mine; it’s yours, and I pay for the privilege. I’m tired of trying so hard. If you don’t want me, I’ll find another place to stay.” He smiled briefly. “It’d be cheaper.”
“Come home with me, Jerg,” Belisandra said. “Come home.”
Later in the evening, Belisandra once more stood by her open window and looked out over the town. Jergen stood close behind her, his arms folded around her waist. She leanded backward and enjoyed the press of her skin against his chest. His arms tightened and squeezed her. Suddenly, bright bolts of fire leaped skyward from the direction of the docks, bursting into balls of light and sound. She had never seen anything like them.
“Must be a sign,” Jergen said. Belisandra smiled. She loved this town.