She heard boots stop inside her pavilion, silver clinking on her bureau. Again? Gobin was outdoing himself this week. And Ishbel was not in the mood. This one was going to get a handjob and that was it. And if the bastard complained, then it was his word against Ishbel’s. Most of the time, Gobin believed Ishbel.
A voice cleared behind her.
Rogue? Ishbel turned around in amazement. “Well, you took your time returning, didn’t you?” she drawled. She wandered over to him and looked him up and down.
He raised a sardonic eyebrow. “I did tell you I would be a while returning, did I not?”
“Aye, so you did. I didn’t expect you to take two months, though.”
“Perhaps you’d like me to rent a carriage, next time,” Rogue returned. “And just what are you doing, jabbing me about like that.” He grabbed her hand. “Looking for contraband?”
Ishbel sniffed. “If I cared about every man who snuck in here with some form of contraband, I’d be a nun. Checking for broken ribs, open wounds, gashes, and the like.”
Rogue grinned. “Of those, you won’t find any.”
“Expect me to believe you went near two months on the road without a drop of blood spilt? Not falling for that one.”
“I didn’t say that. None of my own blood was spilled. I can’t speak for any others I came across, though.”
She sighed and patted his face with her free hand. “What happened to ‘go forth and commit more acts of meritous behavior?’”
“That might have fallen by the way side. And whatever are you doing to my hand?” He pulled his hand up where she had laced her fingers between his.
“You’ve a bump, between your middle two fingers, is it a callous?” Ishbel asked. She’d never noticed it before, that was odd.
He unlaced his fingers and said, “Callous, yes, a bit,” his voice odd. Rogue turned away and said, “So, am I forgiven? For I have a gift for you.” He sat down on her bed, looking at her expectantly.
The breeze blew the tiny bells in her pavilion so that they tinkled ever so slightly. “Rogue, you know I can’t accept gifts.” Nevertheless, she crawled onto the bed out of sheer curiosity.
He produced from his rucksack another book. A book? Again? She despised reading. Due to the terms of their arrangement, she had read the first book, and she knew it perfectly now, but only because it was business, not pleasure. And so, Ishbel was now acquainted with all the history, however basic, of the whole of the Land. After she’d read the little book from front to back and no longer had to follow along with a finger to pronounce words, she recognized that the book was likely a child’s book. She didn’t care. It was stuffed in the exact center of the bottom of the mattress, in a small rip, so that if Gobin for some reason pulled the mattress up, he would see nothing.
Over the last three weeks, with all these horrid mercenaries, Ishbel found herself thinking of the words on the page rather than pleasing the bastards, and that was dangerous. An educated whore was a liability to her master, and she did not want the lash on her back. A bored whore, however, was even worse when it came to mercenaries such as were buying armor in the City, and then taking their pleasure with the whores. They were barbarian. Gobin was even afraid of them. Ishbel had twice been to the baths this week.
“Ishbel?” Rogue inquired. “You are distant today.”
She sighed. “I read the other book – I know it perfectly,” she added in a low voice.
“A History of the Lands – a child’s version, I expect.”
“Nevertheless. This book is not a child’s version, it is a History of the Era of this Era. If Gobin finds it, tell him you can’t possibly read it and that I forgot it when last I visited, so you are holding it until I return.
“This book will be harder for you to read, but I know you can read it.”
“Why do you want me to read anything? Find you a wife, teach her to read. Rogue, my job isn’t to read, it’s to….” And boldly, she laid a hand on his upper thigh.
He didn’t startle at her hand, which surprised her, but he did ask, “And do you like your job, Ishbel?”
Shrewd, damn the man. “I’m good at it.”
“That’s not what I asked. Do you like your job?”
“…Sometimes, yes. I’ve no choice, it matters not. I perform my job either way, for I belong to Gobin.”
“And you also belong to me –” Rogue laid his hand atop hers where it rested on the inside of his thigh. He picked her hand up and sat it in her lap. “But I pay you as an employer pays an employee, not as a slave. And so I ask that you read this book, so that you might learn more of the world around you. For war is happening, and you need to know why and who and where. Just as I need to hear what is happening inside this City, you need to know what is happening outside of it.”
Ishbel stared at him. He was using her as an actual employee. That was why he paid her all the time. Finally, she nodded. “Give me the book.”
Rogue smiled. The leather-bound book – ha! Was enormous. She would never read the entire thing. She stuffed it under the mattress and he took the child’s book back. Ishbel would have to cut a larger hole in the mattress for this book.
“Now, tell me why you look so exhausted,” Rogue said.
“Mercenaries and Free Riders. Brutes, the lot of them. No more Stordish, no soldiers. Just mercs and Free Riders.”
“Then why does Gobin allow them in?”
“They scare Gobin, too. Pavilion City is overrun with them, here to buy armor, ringmail, weapons and such, then they take a whore before they leave. Even the horses are mostly gone now. But they’re all here in droves, and hardly a decent one of them in the bunch.” Ishbel grimaced.
“I’ve heard,” Rogue commented experimentally, “that the one way to tell the difference between Free Riders and mercs is that Free Riders don’t get involved in the wars.”
“Well, whoever told you that was a bloody idiot,” returned Ishbel. She yawned and immediately said, “So sorry – it’s not the company.”
Rogue’s eyes narrowed. “Are these mercs, are they abusive?”
Ishbel smiled – he was being protective of her, even if it was just because she was his employee. “Rarely. Gobin would throw them out, bare-assed and all. Can’t bruise the fruit, least not on the outside. But what men don’t understand – snatches are like horses, you can only whip them so many times before they fall down. They have to get a bit of rest, a bit of water, before they can go back to haulin’ men again.
“I learned that my first year, from a woman who’d been a whore near twenty years.” Ishbel paused, remembering that woman, now long sold away. She never thought to tell that to a man before. But perhaps it was as Rogue insisted on this platonic relationship that made her blurt out such a thing.
She glanced sideward at him. His expression was comical, a mixture of interest and distaste. She grinned and stood up to light the candles in her room. He was her last customer of the night and already the sounds of Pavilion City were quiet, customers had left for the evening, and merchants were packing up their wares. The time between twilight and evenfall was her favorite – no more customers, just the quiet of her own thoughts, the tinkling of the bells in her pavilion, a cool breeze to lull her to sleep….
Ishbel woke in the middle of the night. A quick glance saw that her linens had been changed out…. Rogue had set up wet linens so that they might be changed out for her. He was an amazing man, she mused sleepily….
Then she heard even breathing from – beside her. She looked to the side on the floor. Rogue. He had snuck back in and was asleep on the grass matt where he’d slept the last time he’d stayed overnight. He was using his rucksack for a pillow. Ishbel studied the outline of his face in the darkness. He seemed at peace, probably the only time he ever was at peace.
Somehow, she felt much better knowing he was in the room. She fell asleep staring at his face.