The bed creaked, thudding against the wall with growing regularity as his ponderous body heaved back and forth on top of her. Della could feel his pudgy hands on her skin, pinching her nipples and bruising her tender aching breasts. His corpulent flesh was grinding into her with every thrust and grunt as she tried to cast aside her revulsion. His fetid breath smelled sour in her nostrils. She twisted her head away and stared at the shabby curtains draped over the room window, her hands gripping the coarse blanket beneath her. As his panting reached a strident pitch, his fleshy jowls brushed hard against her face — and she tensed, waiting for his moment of release.
“Aaaahhh!” His body shuddered and she briefly felt his full weight until he flopped aside. “That was good, woman.”
He rolled onto his back and cleared his throat. She could feel the stickiness between her legs as she moved away from him. He was already nodding off, as he always did. Della pulled the covers up and listened to his labored breathing, which would eventually become a loud snore. She closed her eyes and willed her body to relax. It was over for now and the money she had just earned was on the washstand.
After a few moments, when she was sure that he was asleep, she stood up to dress. The dingy room above the tavern stank of stale body odors and was anything but quiet, with the sounds of inebriated patrons floating up from the drinking room below: tankards clanking, feet thudding, noisy stomps and cheers and loud chatter. She picked up the two Rounds and looked over at the bed as she slipped them into her purse. He lay exposed, his flabby flesh almost concealing his now shriveled manhood. His breath rasped through his open mouth, a trace of spittle at the corner of his lips. Della bent over the basin on the rickety washstand and used a rag to wipe herself clean — the water was cold and the rag rough as she rubbed her flesh hurriedly. Gathering her things, she dressed, eager to get out into the Dargon sunlight and home before darkness encroached.
Downstairs the Shattered Spear was busier than usual: a merchant ship had sailed into the harbor that morning and the room was crowded with regulars and rowdy sailors slaking their thirsts. Della paused in the doorway at the bottom of the stairs, wishing she could leave without being seen. But she had to pay Jamis, the tavern owner, for the “use of the room” as he termed it. If she didn’t, his partner Jahlena would be sure to collect the money. There was no sign of the big rough woman, but Jamis was busy filling two tankards for a sailor who was propping himself up against the counter. Della ignored the jeered calls and bawdy comments as she crossed the noisy room, pressed four Bits into the tavern owner’s cold hand, then headed for the door, shoving aside the men who brushed against her and pushing at the hands that strayed. Outside she leaned up against the wall and inhaled the cool evening air. After a long moment, she wrapped her shawl more tightly around her shoulders and set off across the road.
Home — the pokey rooms she shared with her mother and daughter — was at the top of a set of weathered stairs above a disused smithy. She pushed the door open quietly, aware that Ginny would probably be asleep. Her mother, hunched over a bucket of washing in the corner, turned and raised her finger to her lips as Della entered, then wiped back the wisps of gray hair and bent to her task again.
“Ginny’s been niggling the whole day.” She sounded tired, and Della noted a faint trace of resentment in her mother’s weary tone.
“Thanks, Mother.” Della paused to adjust the blanket over her daughter’s cradle, then collected a jug of water from the stovetop and tiptoed across to the basin on her bedside table. She tugged at the faded curtain that separated the sleeping area from the rest of the room and, in this small private space, stripped quietly before soaping and washing in the soothing warm liquid. As she dressed again, she could hear her mother dishing in a plate of food and setting it on the table.
“You look all done in,” her mother chided when she sat down. “It’s from being with those wrongdoers in that sinful place.” Della heard the same refrain every day. She shut off as her mother’s voice droned on. “I have never set foot inside a tavern of ill repute my whole life long. ‘Tis shameful that a daughter of mine should serve tables there.”
The food was tasteless in her mouth as she chewed and swallowed it.
“A disgraceful mess, by Stevene.” There was contempt in her mother’s voice.
“It won’t be like this for long, Mother.” Della reached into her pocket, pulled out a Round and placed it on the table in front of her. “For food.”
Her mother’s fingers curled around the dull worn edges of the coin. She picked it up and put the coin back down next to Della’s plate. “It’s money you earned in that wicked place.”
Della sighed and carried on picking at her food. Tomorrow she would buy bread, cheese and milk and bring them home, and the woman who scorned her now would eat. Three months had passed since she had returned to Dargon to stay with her mother out of necessity. Work was scarce for someone with a baby who still needed regular nursing. Moreover, she had no skills and was considered too old to learn a trade. When she had inquired about work at the Shattered Spear, she had initially been shocked when Jamis had told her how she could earn her keep. He had serving wenches aplenty, he had said, but he was a firm believer in seeing to all the needs of his patrons. He had reached across the counter and trailed his fingers across her profile, tracing a line down her neck and letting his hand come to rest on her breast. A cold shiver crawled across her skin as she recalled the incident. She realized tha t her mother’s hard eyes were on her and turned away.
There was a soft whimper from the cradle. She looked down at Ginny’s delicate face and marveled at this perfect little person with features a miniature of her own, complete in every way down to the tiny fingers that peeked from the edge of the blanket. She was determined to make a life for them and she was doing it the only way she could.
She had just finished rinsing and drying her plate a short while later when Ginny woke up with a squall, clenching the coverlet in her tiny fists and scrunching up her face to emphasize her unhappiness. Della picked her up and rocked her gently, murmuring soothing words. The crying stopped, but as soon as she laid her down in the cradle, it started again.
“Aye. It’s the gripe she has,” her mother sighed. Della found a chair, sat down carefully and shifted the baby in her arms, then unbuttoned her shift, coaxing her nipple into Ginny’s mouth. She felt the small lips clamp tightly and begin to suck fervently. With her free hand, she played with the tendrils of dark hair on her baby’s head, and held her close.
“Precious child,” she whispered, content in the intimacy of the moment. It was getting dark outside and the room was cold, but the swaddled bundle felt warm against her. She closed her eyes and her thoughts drifted sleepily.
She woke with a jolt as the door banged open. Her mother was busy lifting the bucket over the edge of the rail, ready to toss the dirty water into the black alley below. She listened as it splashed against the wall. The fourth bell rang somewhere in the distance. Della shivered and tucked the blanket more tightly around Ginny.
“Now there’s a sight to warm a faithful woman’s heart,” her mother said. She was resting against the doorframe and staring across the road.
“What is it?”
“‘Tis a priest, coming from that tavern of yours — no doubt been preaching to those shameful sinners.”
Della pictured him leaving the tavern, his portly frame lumbering up the road to Temple Street in the dark, shielded against the growing cold by his thick robe.
He probably looked just the way he did when she had seen him earlier. Except, she thought wryly, now his purse was two Rounds lighter.