The woman standing in front of me was infuriating. Although she never interrupted me as I told her my story, she mostly glared. My cell is small and uncomfortable and I do not need her hatred. I wish she would either confide in me or go away. Instead she prodded me about my relationship with Jande. I told her that Jande visited me many times and I start talking about one of them.
“Grana says that you’re a very special man,” Jande murmured. She was resting with her head on my chest and I lazily played with her hair. I’d made sure she had enjoyed herself, and now she was as comfortable as she could be. I wondered briefly if she and her husband had been on good terms before his death.
“Mmmm.” I didn’t know what to say to that. I tended to view most of the conversations I had with my clients as either rubbish, which was what they were most of the time, or confidential, when they were of important and private matters. The problem was that I was never quite sure which was which. So I played it safe and treated all my after-roll conversations as private. For instance, it didn’t appear that Jande knew of Grana’s poetry, so I wasn’t going to share that bit of information.
“Talk to me, Delex,” she whispered.
“What do you want to talk about?” I asked.
“How did you become …?” she hesitated.
I smiled. “It was a long time ago.”
I didn’t want to think about the past, much less talk about it, but at the same time, I didn’t want to change the tone of the conversation, so I offered her a highly edited version of the true events. “Oh, I met Eliza Tillipanary and she offered me the job. It seemed like a good idea at the time.”
“I can’t imagine how it must be,” she said softly, turning her head to place a kiss upon my chest.
“I get to spend time with someone like you,” I said. There was something about her that I found interesting. For all her recent widowhood, I’d found her to be both a vigorous and enthusiastic partner in bed. I wondered about her dead husband, and it felt like a wrong note in the middle of a song. I always avoided thinking of the personal lives of clients.
She laughed, and her hands began to wander. That was the end of that conversation.
A few nights later, I came down to find Grana and Jande waiting for me again. I couldn’t help feeling a surge of pride. I still had whatever it took to attract women. Masian might be a novelty, but I had experience. Still, why had Grana brought Jande to me? I didn’t have time for thoughts as Jande took my hand and we went upstairs.
This time, she was more aggressive, and her kisses were strong and hard. She disrobed before I could get all the candles lit, and she growled at me to leave the sconce be. It wasn’t the same Jande that had been here previously. It was as if a part of herself was slipping through her outward appearance.
Afterwards though, it was the same. Our lazy conversation meandered past the hot summer weather, the big scandal the previous month when one Ludovic Thirsson, son of a very rich gem-merchant, had been accused of the murder of his twin brother. She abruptly changed the conversation. I managed to find out a little about her dead husband. He had also done a spot of business in gems, and as a consequence, Jande knew the Thirsson family well. She was hiding more but I didn’t feel like prying any further.
I let her direct the conversation then. She knew a good bit about the politics of the duchy, and we had a spirited discussion about whether the duke’s wife was really a mage or not. Of course, the talk could end in only one way, and when morning arrived and Jande took her leave, I found myself puzzled and energized in a way that I’d never been before. She was passionate and intelligent , but she was also a mystery and there were things hidden that nagged at the back of my mind.
The days passed, and Jande continued to arrive promptly once every three or four days. Our time together always followed the same pattern: a little fun, a long serious discussion about whatever was happening in Dargon, a little more fun, followed by a drowsy noncommittal conversation. On one of her visits to me, Jande asked me something strange.
“Have men like you ever quit the Lucky Lady?”
The question puzzled me. It felt like a wrong stitch in a tapestry. The hair on the back of my neck was on end. “Well that depends,” I said, and paused, feeling my concentration waver. Her hands had begun to wander. “Depends on whether the person wants to.” I shifted uncomfortably as her wandering hands distracted me even as she asked another question.
“Have you ever wanted to?”
I could barely think, but that sobered me instantly, something about the way she asked the question.
“No,” I rasped as she rose above me. That was the end of that conversation.
Over the next few sennights, Jande Tes visited the Lucky Lady and me frequently. Every time she came, she would ask me the same question about quitting the game. Each time it was as if her whole being was focused on it. I always gave her the same answer: “No”. She’d pause for a moment after I replied and would then kiss me hard as if she were trying to hurt me. She enjoyed giving pain, both mentally and physically. And I think she enjoyed watching me squirm.
It wasn’t as if I knew much about Jande Tes except the bare facts. Every time our conversations touched on her life, she changed them. But if Jande wanted to play word games and ask me the same question every time she came to see me, then I would do it. She paid me to do it, after all.
Grana stayed away, which surprised me. I asked Masian what had happened that first night, but all he could tell me was that he had pleasured Grana and she had left. They hadn’t talked much, if at all. In the past, Grana had always visited me at least once a sennight. I wondered if Grana had decided to visit another hostelry. I’d begun to think of her as a friend, and even though I knew I probably shouldn’t, I still trusted her at some level.
I sighed as I washed. Maybe I was getting too old and too jaded to be a player any more. Or perhaps I just needed a break from the game. I nodded to myself. I would ask Eliza for a sennight. I needed to go and be alone so that I could stop thinking of a client as a friend.
I stepped out of the bath and used the old tunic I’d come in with to dry myself. I slipped on the breeches and the damp tunic before leaving the bath house. As I walked back toward the Lucky Lady, I saw a couple of guardsmen in the distance, one figure distinctly female. They were too far for me to recognize, but I couldn’t help thinking of Masian and his sister Nusa. Masian had cheered himself up since that meeting after church, but I knew the sorrow would come back, for if I knew anything about people, it was that they didn’t change; Nusa was not going to miraculously change her opinions on his lifestyle. He would have to find some way of living with it, or it would destroy him.
As I went up the back stairs at the Lucky Lady, a runner came up. I recognized him as Vennie, Grana’s runner. I smiled, sure that he was about to tell me that Grana would be visiting tonight. But I was mistaken.
“Grana Baugar wants you to come to her house. Says she has something to show you,” the boy panted.
I frowned, shaking my head. “No, I don’t go to other people’s houses.”
“She says it’s not for that, says she’ll buy a little of your time for a conversation.”
The boy fell silent, staring up at me as I debated what to do. Honestly, I was curious. In all the years I’d known her, Grana had never invited me outside, a fact which was probably due to Eliza’s strict rules against socializing outside the Lucky Lady. But lately, Eliza had been relaxing that rule, provided she was paid enough to cover the inconvenience. Also, she was very picky about whose houses she let the girls visit. Part of that was due to my own incessant harping upon how dangerous it was; not three months past, one of the girls had returned with her skin in tatters from being whipped. She was now unable to work.
Of course, my being a man, not to mention being on the tall and muscular side of things, made the safety rule easier to ignore. Also, it was Grana, and not only had I known her for years, she was my almost-friend. I nodded at the runner.
“Come with me,” he responded.
I said, “Give me a mene. I need to get a dry tunic.” I took the rest of the steps two at a time and entered the house. I grabbed the tunic that Grana loved to see on me, the one that was so light that skin showed through. Then I went through the usual routine of swishing my mouth with chrysanthemum wine and dabbed a little perfume behind my ears. I ran into Masian in the living room, and asked him to tell Eliza where I was going. When I descended the steps, the runner and the potboy were gambling while playing find-the-rat with three upturned, dirty, chipped mugs, and one stone. The potboy was apparently winning, guessing correctly underneath which mug the rat, or the stone, was each time.
The two boys saw me and scattered, the potboy to his duties in the kitchen and the runner to lead me to Grana’s house. It was not quite dark, and the streets were still fairly busy.
The runner didn’t talk to me, but whistled through his teeth, trying to find a tune. He was really bad at it, but I didn’t try to dissuade him. At least he wasn’t running. Not that I couldn’t keep up with him if I wanted to … I laughed internally at myself, knowing that I was a little vain. It was just that I didn’t want to sweat as I went to work. I knew that Grana had told the runner she only wanted a conversation, but she hadn’t been to see me in nearly a month. If she wanted me, I certainly was not about to refuse.
The runner approached a house and I looked up. It was not very big, but I could see a couple of glass windows, and my estimation of Grana went up. It would seem that her fishing business was very successful indeed. Of course, that was a given, considering that she could afford Eliza Tillipanary’s prices, but still, I was impressed. The runner pulled the door knocker, a huge ornate affair, and then ran off toward the back of the house without a backward glance. I waited in silence, and then the door opened to reveal a young man, neatly dressed in a tight tunic and loose breeches. He gave me a narrow, searching look, but said nothing. He led me into a room and asked me to wait.
The room had big doors that opened out into the back yard, and so was airy and bright, allowing the evening sun to come in. It lit up everything inside with a brilliant orange glow: the rugs, the armchairs, the carvings, and sculptures. Someone entered the room, and I turned, blinking from the sun in my eyes.
“Jande.” I blinked again, this time in surprise.
She was wearing the dress she had worn the first time she had visited me at the Lucky Lady, the gray one with the practically nonexistent bodice. Her wavy, corn-colored hair hung loose to her shoulders. “Delex,” she whispered as she came up to me and put her lips on mine.
After a long kiss in which she almost devoured me, again she asked the ritual question, “Have you ever wanted to quit the Lucky Lady?”
I shook my head, saying, “No,” and watched her watch me. I knew there was something wrong, for she did not follow up my response with a kiss as she usually did. Questions crowded my mind one after another. Why was Jande in Grana’s house? Why did Jande always ask me that question? Was she the one who had paid for my company this evening?
Jande watched me as the realization of something seriously wrong filtered through my eyes. She put out a hand, palm outward signaling me to wait and left the room. When she returned a moment later, she was propelling someone before her. It was the young man who had opened the door to me, and my heart pounded loudly in my throat as my eyes took in the bloody mess that was his body, a knife in his stomach. Jande shoved him at me, and I caught him, broke his fall, laying him down to the floor gently. Life still showed in his eyes.
“Get help,” I shouted, pulling out the knife in his stomach.
“Have you ever wanted to quit the Lucky Lady?” Jande asked me. The young man exhaled.
“She did it,” he whispered, and then his breath stilled forever.
“He could have fallen on the knife or any number of circumstances,” Jande said. “But, for you … have you ever wanted to quit the Lucky Lady?”
What was she trying to do? I still couldn’t understand her. Did she want me to quit and be with her? Or just to quit? Was this some game she was playing and didn’t tell me the rules?
Jande screamed, in short bursts, her shrill voice echoing in the room. When I looked up, her dress was in shreds, one breast fully exposed, the skirt torn down the side, a big scratch on her thigh. There was blood on her face and gown, on her hair. I stared, open-mouthed, appalled, disbelieving. What had happened? She continued to scream.
The door burst open, and Grana ran in, closely followed by the runner, Vennie. Grana took everything in with a horrified look, and went to Jande, who was still screaming. Grana slapped Jande, and silence descended on the room. It was as if everyone had become lifesize sculptures like the wooden ones that I loved to make, Grana and Jande standing together, the runner staring at me with terrified eyes.
Then the moment broke, and Grana said sharply, “Vennie, get a guard!”
“Grana,” I said, wanting desperately to remove the horror in her face. “I didn’t do it!”
She shook her head. “No, don’t say a word. I should have believed Jande when she first told me about how you were so obsessed with her. How could you do this, Delex?”
Jande’s whimpers got louder, and all of Grana’s attention was on her friend. My mind couldn’t hold a coherent thought, and I didn’t believe that anything was wrong. The young man had died, but I hadn’t done it. Surely when Jande got over her hysterics, she would explain what had happened, because I hadn’t done it.
The door clattered open, and this time, Vennie entered followed by two guards, both male. I was a little surprised at how little time it had taken him to get them.
“They were patrolling just a street away, mistress,” Vennie panted.
The guards took a comprehensive look at the room, and then one of them stepped forward. “You have to come with us,” he said laconically. “You killed him.”
I stared, jaw falling open. “But I didn’t. Jande, tell them the truth.”
The guardsman, whom I’d never seen before, gave me a look in which disbelief was clearly written. “Look at her, man.” He pointed to Jande, and her full appearance sunk in. She looked … I couldn’t finish the thought, but the guard could.
“You tried to rape her and he tried to stop you, so you killed him. It’s obvious.”
I gasped, looking from one face to another. “You’re not serious!” My stomach was in knots by now. I stood up, and my bloodstained hands caught my eyes. I saw Grana’s gaze move from my hands to meet me, and horror was written upon her face.
Jande said piteously, “Grana, see what he did.”
I watched her look from me to Jande and I could literally see Grana’s allegiance shift away from me, a common prostitute, to her real friend.
“Take him away, guards. Jande is not well.”
The guards listened to her; of course they did. They moved toward me purposefully. Bitterness filled me as Grana’s betrayal stung. She hadn’t even bothered to listen, instead she’d assumed that I’d done what Jande had accused me of doing. Grana, whom I had mistakenly believed to be my friend, had believed that I would commit that ultimate violation against a woman. Women paid me willingly.
As the guards silently led me through the streets of Dargon toward the guardhouse, I railed against myself for believing in women. From Nusa Abarris who could refuse to talk to her young brother she’d practically raised, to Grana Baugar, a woman who’d known me for over a decade, all they ever did was hurt and betray the men that they knew.
The woman brought me back. She had kicked the door, though I don’t know why.
“So you see, Nusa,” I told her. “Why would I do something horrible like that when women pay me willingly?”
She stood there silently staring at me. I began to wonder if my last hope was either picturing me at the end of a rope or starting to believe me. Either way, the cell walls started to close in on me and for now, I am a prisoner of the Town Guard.