The room was dark and damp with but a single candle to light the way. The bed was hard and mostly filled with old straw that reeked. It wasn’t anywhere near what I was used to, but for the moment I had no other choice. I had been asked to tell my story and so I sat on the small stool, took a long breath, and started.
I stepped out of the bathhouse just behind Masian, a young man who was my friend and worked in the same house as I. He had washed his long, corn-colored hair and it hung in damp strands. From movement out of the corner of my eye, I saw a passing woman stare at him. When I looked at her, the lust in her eyes was palpable, for he was a beautiful man. Masian, unsurprisingly, didn’t notice. He had been preoccupied since he had returned from worship at the Stevenic Church that morning.
The woman’s eyes met mine, and I winked at her. “You can visit him at the Lucky Lady,” I said. Her eyes widened, and her gaze went back to Masian. This time, I could see calculations run through her mind. I knew she would be amongst Masian’s customers that night.
By this time, Masian had gone ahead so I raised my voice and said, “Hold up.” When I reached him, he was at the corner of Layman Street. He had stopped and I looked to see why. He was staring at two guardsmen who were standing and talking near the street corner. I looked and saw two women, one older and one younger. They were Dargon Town Guards.
“Nusa …” Masian said.
The older woman turned and when she saw us, her face closed. “Move along now. No loitering,” she said abruptly.
Masian opened his mouth, but the guard beat him to it. In a sharp voice, she repeated, “I said, no loitering.”
Something was obviously wrong, but I had no intention of allowing Masian to anger the town guard. Some of them had an annoying tendency to take it personally. I took his elbow and pushed him forward. “Come along, Masian. Don’t vex the guard. We’re going, mistress.” He allowed himself to be pushed away, but as I glanced at his face, I saw the downcast expression turn to sorrow.
“What’s wrong?” I asked as we reached the back entrance to the Lucky Lady, where we both worked and lived. It was a bar that catered to the very rich. The proprietress, Eliza Tillipanary, had been gradually working her way up the ranks of society where her clientele were concerned, and we were now known as one of the more classy establishments in Dargon. She had always had a few men in her house for her female customers, although we had lost some in the past months. One of the men had, of all things, fallen in love with and married the seamstress who worked for Eliza. Now there was just Masian Abarris and me, Delexand.
Masian had reached the top step of the staircase and he turned to face me, saying, “That was my sister, Nusa.” I understood. Nusa Abarris had raised Masian after their parents had died, and as such, the two had been closer to mother and son than siblings. When he had chosen the game, as we called it here in the Lucky Lady, as his profession, it had caused a rift between the two. Since Nusa was a strict Stevenic and had raised her brother the same way, the rift had widened. That always puzzled me, how Stevenics who didn’t believe in fooling around before marriage could choose to join the game. Eliza always said that it was because Stevenism leached all the fun out of life. She was an atheist, and I disapproved, for I was a devout follower of Osiniana myself. Even though Stevenism was different, there was no need to disrespect it.
I followed Masian into a large room with shabby armchairs, and a couple of desks with chairs against one wall. This was the employee common room and was decorated with older furnishings. The rugs were worn and the drapes that covered the open windows were thin. In the winter, the curtains were no match for the weather, so we ended up closing the windows against the elements. The fireplace was rarely lit, for our nights were spent in the far nicer rooms that were reserved for clients. I had expected at least some of the women to be in there, but the room was empty.
Masian flung himself into an armchair. “I saw Nusa at the church this morning,” he said, reaching up and separating his wet hair, strand by strand.
I sighed as I sat down by one of the desks. In one of the drawers, I kept the little carvings I made. I opened the drawer and picked up the one I was currently working on. It was of a shivaree. I liked to make little carvings for my friends. This year, I was making one for my most important client, a woman named Grana Baugar.
“She wouldn’t even look at me.”
“Masian,” I began, trying to think of a way to cheer him up, but also to help him deal with this. “Tell me, why did you join the game?”
He was silent for a moment as if searching for the right words. “I wanted to know what it meant to become a man of the night. I wanted to experience everything that my body had to offer. And it’s fun!”
I chuckled. That last had sounded more real than anything else he’d said. He still enjoyed his work. So did I, but there were some days when I never wanted to see another female breast again. Masian didn’t mind being with either sex, so he had fun and variety. As such, he was very popular with a lot of people. He brought in a quite a bit of money to the Lucky Lady, and Eliza liked him for that reason. I couldn’t have done it, but I was older than Masian by about a decade and I’d been in the game for a very long time. I sometimes reached a point when I couldn’t do it any more. When it happened, I’d go to Eliza and ask for time off. Then I’d pack a little food and take off for a sennight, just wandering through the forests outside Dargon without seeing another person. It refreshed me in ways I couldn’t begin to describe.
“Why won’t she understand?” he muttered.
“Masian, a lot of people don’t think of the game as a job,” I said. “Before you joined the game, did you ever think of prostitutes as people at all?”
“No,” he said sulkily. He had finished separating the strands of his hair, and in the summer heat, it was almost dry. He had big golden curls, and his dark eyebrows and eyelashes framed large, blue eyes. His high cheekbones and lean face gave him an ascetic look. The entire effect was androgynous.
I sighed again. “Stop feeling sorry for yourself, Masian. Look, what we do isn’t for the fainthearted. You have to be bold, and willing to accept the game for what it is. It’s a job, no more, no less. A lot of people don’t think of it that way, and you have to accept that too. You can’t force others to think of the game as we do.”
Masian rose and went to one wall where there was a small mirror. It was the one thing that Eliza had paid for, and I’d been the one who had convinced her it was a worthwhile expense. I watched as Masian removed his tunic and looked with a critical eye.
The door opened and two women, twin sisters, came in chatting. “Delex,” said Shea. “The door to the mirror room is stuck again. Can you fix it?” They were both the same height but Shea seemed to be a bit curvier in the hips. The hair on Shea’s right side was colored red to offset her blonde hair while Enia’s hair on her left side was colored red. This was today but who knew what color hair they would have tomorrow. They were young and full of curiosity.
“Where’s Bat?” Masian asked. Bat was the only servant in the Lucky Lady who worked directly for us, and he’d been extremely efficient in the past. During the past year, he’d begun drinking and I’d found him lying dead to the world in the kitchen more often than not.
“Drunk again,” Shea answered in disgust. “Aren’t you coming down tonight, Delex?”
I nodded. “Yes. I don’t know if Grana will be here, so I’ll probably see who’s around. I’ll fix the door in a bit.”
The other woman, Enia said, “Her runner came by. Said to tell you she’d be in tonight.” Enia started helping Masian paint his nipples. Masian, in the summertime, frequently went down to the client receiving room in nothing but a pair of tight breeches.
Grana liked to send her runner, a young boy named Vennie, ahead of time so that she could be sure I was available. It was unfair, but since there were so few of us men working for Eliza, we were usually much sought after. Grana never liked to wait. She said that she would rather spend the time talking to me of this and that than sit in the receiving room waiting for me, no matter how well-furnished it was.
I nodded to Enia, rose, went to the door, stuck my head out and yelled, “Page!” As I waited for the young boy to come up, I asked idly, “Where are the others?”
Shea answered, “Most of them are downstairs.”
The page entered, and I asked him to bring some chrysanthemum wine. As the boy scampered off, I thought about how young everyone looked. Was I getting too old for the game? I couldn’t think of leaving completely. There wasn’t anything else I knew how to do. The only thing I wanted to do if I stopped being a player was to run the game. Osiniana knew, I’d do a better job than Eliza. She had been a lot nastier way back when, when Liriss had been around. But after the man disappeared completely, she had mellowed. Most of the women were happy, as far as they could be, I supposed. But Eliza didn’t care about her employees. I always felt that happy employees meant happy customers. If it were up to me, I’d hire a full time physician, not just a healer. I’d make sure my people were happy, well taken care of, and had plenty of time off.
The page returned with the wine and I took it from him. He disappeared down the corridor and as I came back inside the room, the two women and Masian left. I walked toward the window, leaned out and took a deep breath of the sea-scented air.
My female client, Grana Baugar, was almost a friend. She liked my body and said that we fit. I liked her too, for we frequently had interesting conversations. She was a rich merchant and a poet in her spare time. She liked to share her work with me. Mostly she wrote about the sea, and some of her verses were indeed beautiful, but sometimes she wrote about my body. Beyond that, however, I liked her open-handed generosity, for she tipped on evenings when I had pleased her more than usual. So now I took the trouble to swish some wine in my mouth and spit it out the window so that my breath would smell of chrysanthemum.
Next I fetched appropriate attire from the cupboard where we kept communal work clothing and went back to the mirror in the living room. I took a good look at myself: smooth bald pate, dark eyes, clean-shaven face, a work tunic and by that I mean one in beautiful fabric that was sewn tight with the ties forming loops between which skin peeked through. The material was thin enough that it delineated the muscular lines of my body. I frequently practiced fighting with a quarterstaff, and since I also did a lot of the heavy lifting around the house, my muscles were sharp. I grabbed Masian’s makeup box and dabbed a little perfume behind my ears.
I went downstairs into the receiving room, as Eliza liked to call it, which was a small well-appointed room. In a sense, it was more of a lobby, because customers came into it and then went upstairs. When I entered, there were a few customers and a few women talking to them. Two couples went upstairs. I’d timed my entrance fairly well. Grana showed up within a mene and with another female in tow. The two of them wore dresses of similar cut. The short, tight bodices with deep, wide necklines were so tight that their breasts popped up, nipples barely concealed. Below the bodice, the skirt fell to the ankle, clinging to their thighs — I knew the fabric had been deliberately dampened to create exactly that effect.
I went to Grana, a buxom woman with mousy brown hair and honey-colored eyes that looked as if a stone had been thrown into a still pond. Her dress was a shade of ocher and I wondered how much she’d spent on it, for that color was expensive. She moved into me, and I kissed her using more than just my lips. When I let go, a sultry voice next to my ears was saying “– introduce me, Grana?”
Grana looked a little dazed, so I turned to face the newcomer. She looked completely different from Grana. Her hair was the color of golden corn, but her eyes were a greenish-blue, the color of the Valenfaer Ocean just before it rained on a fine summer’s day. Smiling, she put out her hand to be clasped, and I almost laughed aloud at the expression on her face. She was almost as tall as me, and her dress was a dull gray, but it was anything but drab. It was as if the entire ocean was in her gaze, and it didn’t matter what she wore.
“I’m Jande Tes.” Her voice was smooth and low.
I shook her hand, bemused. This was a client. I gathered my thoughts together and pulled her forward for a kiss. She kissed me back, but it was a hesitant kiss. She even kept most of her rather thin body away from me, unlike the way Grana had kissed me earlier. Curiosity gripped me. I’d known Grana for a long time, but she had never brought anyone in. I turned to face Grana and she was smiling at both of us in a very proprietary manner.
She introduced us formally. “Jande, this is Delexand. Delex, this is Jande Tes, a friend of mine.” Then she turned to face me, pulling me away. I saw Jande watch us and couldn’t drag my gaze away. Then Grana pinched my chest between one of the loops of my tunic and I turned to face her, wincing.
“Sorry,” she said, her fingers rubbing the skin smooth. “Jande lost her husband recently and she’s been moping. I thought a night with you might cheer her up. Be extra nice to her, will you?”
I looked down at Grana, who was almost two hands shorter than me, and nodded. “I will. What about you?”
She laughed. “Eliza says Masian will be down shortly. I’m curious to see if he’s as good as he appears.” She pulled my head down to hers and kissed me again. When she finally let me go, she was breathing so hard that her bodice slipped, letting a breast pop up out of the fabric. I absently pushed her ample assets back inside the cloth, and realized that she had pulled out three ties on my tunic. I knotted them, smiled at her and turned away to Jande, who was watching us with almost a quizzical look in her eye.
Unsure what to expect, but knowing that whoever had paid for my time would have arranged with Eliza to have me for the entire night, I extended a hand to Jande, smiling. She placed hers gently in mine, and I led her upstairs. The room that we entered was a small interior room with no windows, but it was nicely furnished. A large double bed occupied the entire room, and there was barely enough room to move around. The mattress had a plush-looking coverlet with embroidery around the edges, and in the center. There were beautiful tapestries on two of the walls. An ornate carved sconce was mounted on the wall just above the headboard, and two iron candle stands stood on the nightstands on either side of the bed. I had brought a candle with me, and I proceeded to light one of the other candles.
“Please light everything,” she said.
I frowned as I lit every candle.
“The sconce too, please.”
I stood on the bed and lit it, then got down and went out of the room to put the lit torch back from where I’d gotten it. When I returned to the room, it looked beautiful. It had always been one of my favorite rooms for this reason. Because there were no windows, the light from the candles and the sconce lit the room with a golden glow. The ornate carving of the sconce and the iron candle stands with the branches gave the room a rich feeling that was augmented by the huge embroidered designs on the pillow cases. Jande had folded the coverlet neatly to one side, exposing the dull, but clean, sheets underneath. She was still fully dressed, which surprised me. Then I reminded myself that she had just been widowed.
I crawled onto the bed and sat, legs crossed. We stared at each other. Her eyes were wide, lips slightly parted; I could see the quick rise and fall of her slender bosom. I smiled at her gently and began to very slowly untie the top knot of my tunic. She watched in silence. The first knot was undone. Her eyes had fallen to my chest, and when my hands moved to the second knot, she glanced up. I met her eyes seriously for a moment, and then winked. She gasped in surprise and closed her eyes, smiling. I waited until she opened her eyes before proceeding to the next knot. I watched her watch me untie each knot ever so slowly, and when I was finally done, I removed the tunic and threw it away behind my shoulders. It landed on the ground between the bed and the wall with a soft noise.
We stared at each other unblinkingly, and she made no move to remove any clothing. When I leaned forward slightly, she leaned backwards. I stayed where I was, but changed position so that I was kneeling. Still holding her gaze, I unbuttoned my breeches and, without removing them, crawled toward her. She moved backwards again a little, then stopped and sunk back against the pillow, eyes widening. I placed my hands on the bed on either side of her and bent to kiss her.
It was just as hesitant as the kiss we had shared outside in the receiving room. She responded, but made no move to deepen it. I released her and leaned back slowly. She was breathing heavily and stared into my eyes with heavy lids. This time it was she who extended her arms to me in invitation.
I came back to the present. The woman handed me a mug of wine. I drank half of it, letting the tart taste fill my mouth.
“I had many experiences with women,” I told her. “I know when something is wrong. There was definitely something amiss with Jande. I had thought it was because she had recently lost her husband. If I had only pried into her life a bit more …”