Ishbel watched as he adjusted himself, tucking himself comfortably into his trousers. As he pulled the laces of his trousers tight, he slipped between her curtains without a look back at her. She waited for a count of ten heartbeats, for some men returned – they left articles of clothing behind, or begged her not to tell their wives, their mistresses, or, even worse, Ishbel sniffed idly, had the stamina to start again, which was became more and more rare the older they were.
But he did not return. Ishbel rolled across her mattress and stood up. His man juice streamed down her leg, but she wiped it away with a linen cloth, then cleansed herself. She wiped the rest of her body clean with rose water, and then dusted herself lightly with petal powder.
With contempt for her last customer, she rubbed almond oil into her nipples. Just because they protruded did not mean they could be twisted, pulled, bitten, or sucked off, though men, and even women occasionally, persisted in trying.
She rearranged the veils over her body and had barely begun to smooth her hair when Gobin entered. Always on time. His eyes traveled up and down her body, inspecting his merchandise. He nodded, satisfied, and picked up her soiled linens. At least he provided well for his whores. Ishbel knew of numbers of slave owners who beat their whores, starved them, fucked them, and even damaged their bodies.
Ishbel had been with Gobin for what she thought was five years now. In Pavilion City, one lost track of the seasons, for the temperature remained almost always the same, temperate and nearly tropical. He was her third owner, and, she hoped, her last. Gobin was very pleased with her, for she had island blood in her. Her tan skin and green eyes was a special attraction for men, as most whores looked as most other women, fair complected with brown, red, and blonde hair, and green, blue, or brown eyes.
Special attraction or no, Gobin still charged two silvers for her as he did all his whores. And they had to be silvers, not coppers equal to the same amount, for he wanted no whores stealing from him. Better a whore than a thief, he said, though there were times when Ishbel couldn’t tell the difference.
She had not always been a whore. She and her family had lived on the outer coast of S’hendalow, and so she herself was not an islander, though her mother was. Ishbel had not known her mother long enough to learn from where she had actually hailed. But pirate ships had come through after the Twenty Years War, enjoying the lack of naval patrol now that many of the naval vessels had been destroyed. A pirate ship had captured Ishbel and her family and sold them to slavers. She had been perhaps five at the time, but she’d never seen her family again.
Ishbel’s first owner branded her shoulder, which now was only a smaller scar, though a scar nonetheless. She had lived in a cage with other slaves, shackled and chained when she wasn’t working in the kitchen. The callous around her ankle took years to finally disappear, long after she’d been bought by her next owner.
Her next owner bought her and branded her shoulder on top of the old brand, and Ishbel was set to working in the kitchens, usually chopping vegetables and fruits, stewing pottages, and such light work as a ten-year-old was able to do.
Then her master lost a portion of his wealth, and she was placed on auction at the age of thirteen in Pavilion City, along with his other slaves. Gobin happened to see her and immediately bought her for her exotic appeal. She had not yet dropped her skirts.
But Gobin’s tattoo was on her shoulder now, and Ishbel admitted that, of all her owners, he had treated her the most gently. Of course, for he did not want to mar his merchandise. Men wanted beautiful women, not bruised fruit.
Gobin set down another basket of fresh linen cloth for her. He screened the men whom he allowed into his pavilions. Any men he suspected might bruise his fruit he did not allow back. Occasionally, he judged a man wrong, but generally, Gobin read men’s characters well enough. He nodded shortly at Ishbel and scooped up the two silvers on her bureau before he ducked out.
Ishbel was not alone for long before a new customer slipped between her curtains.
She let her eyes travel up and down him with a desultory gaze. She smiled slowly and patted the mattress next to her.
Usually, Ishbel could read a man just by taking in his face, but this one was a bit of a puzzle. Hmmm. She liked puzzles. His clothing – dusty, gritty. He had traveled recently, a lengthy distance and probably from the west. The color of his clothing – nondescript, neutral colors. Odd. Most men preferred at least one color, usually a tunic, of dyed blue or russet. A dark vest over his tunic, and a cloak of another neutral color.
His gray eyes studied her in return, his dark hair had very little gray in it, but his stubbled chin revealed his age with gray shot through it. His boots were leather….
All of his clothing was of good quality. He set down a heavy rucksack and threw his cloak to one side. He set down two silvers on her bureau, which glinted in the sunbeam streaming in over the top of her outer curtains.
Ishbel had still not formed an opinion of him, other than that he was the most mysterious man she had ever seen.
His gray eyes ran all over her, taking in her entire body. In a gravely tone, he asked, “What’s your name, girl?”
Ishbel considered. She flipped through her mental inventory of facades that she used with men, based on her first impression of them. Unable to draw upon one she thought would suit this man best, she chose the basic paradigm.
“What would you like it to be?” She pursed her lips suggestively. She always made it a game, figuring out a customer. Usually she had him figured out as soon as he walked in the door, so she only needed to confirm her opinion. This, however, was going to be a treat.
He frowned. “That wasn’t the question. I asked what your name was. What was the name you were born with?”
Ishbel blinked and then raised an eyebrow. Occasionally men styled themselves intellectuals who wanted conversation first, and it was these men who asked the names you were born with. Whores always, as a rule, chose a name not their own. You didn’t give that away, that was personal. You chose a name that was believable, even something that, based on your impression of the customer, you thought they’d appreciate. If you want a good actor, hire a whore or a politician, ran the saying.
But something about this man made Ishbel decide upon the truth. She studied him for a second and decided he could tell if a person was lying. “Ishbel,” she told him, dropping all pretense.
He nodded then. “Very good then, Ishbel.” He sat down in front of her on the mattress and started pulling off his boots.
Unsure for once of how to proceed, Ishbel raised up on her knees behind him and placed her hands upon his shoulders.
He stopped. “There will be no need for that.” He turned and looked at her from face to navel. “You are a very beautiful woman, Ishbel, and on another occasion, perhaps I would take pleasure – great pleasure – in your abilities. But I am here merely because I want to quietly go through some paperwork, sit comfortably here with no interruption, and possibly even lie on a mattress… without fear of a knife being stuck in my back.”
Ishbel stared at him. Never had a man said such a thing – not, at least, about being murdered. Plenty of men had come just to lay with a woman and do nothing at all, but not just to escape the outside world and possibly hide away from an assassin.
He raised his eyebrows at her, demanding acknowledgement. “Do you understand?” he asked quietly.
Without a word, Ishbel nodded, and then the man said, “Good.” He dug in his vest, and pulled out another silver. He held it up before her.
“For your service today, and your silence.”
Ishbel’s eyes grew wide as she stared at the silver. She had never had money before, not even a copper chip. A silver – that was more money than – she could even fathom ever owning. Gobin did not allow his whores to accept money. Even if they were paid money, he took it from them. If he were to find out that Ishbel had money….
Ishbel met the man’s grey eyes over the coin. Then she took the coin.