A Silent Game of Spies

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Gobin stuck his fat head into her pavilion. Ishbel was just swiping a linen cloth across her stomach, exasperation fueling her movements.

“Got a complaint aboutcha’,” Gobin commented. His face demanded an explanation.

Ishbel sniffed. “Didja’ know. Was it the bloke who just did this?” And she turned around so that Gobin could observe the bite mark on the back of her right shoulder, where blood was still seeping. She shook her head with disgust. Would that the bastard had bit the other shoulder, and maybe he’d have bitten one of her scars off, or her tattoo.

“Bloody cannibal. Shoulda’ let me know as he was leavin’ and I’d’ve taken care of him.” He picked up her soiled linens.

Ishbel held back her scorn, for short, plump Gobin was not a match for most customers. Thus, he kept a wooden club at his side, though Ishbel doubted even that was effective. But it lent Gobin a sense of dominance, and so she and her peers said nothing of it, or at least not to his face.

“Sop it up and then go to the baths.” He turned and walked out.

The baths? Ishbel considered. They bathed each week, and she had just been two days ago. Gobin was in a generous mood today. Ishbel could not fault Gobin for seeing to their needs. Fresh linens for cleaning themselves from each customer, always water, and decent meals each day.

But of course, this was to line his pockets, and to do so, his merchandise must be in perfect working order, Ishbel frowned as she dabbed at the blood on her shoulder. She had heard horror tales of other whores…. They spent the time they were not with customers chained to each other, living in cages like animals, whipped, water from buckets thrown upon them to bathe, flea-ridden even.

Those were just horror stories, though, Ishbel mused as she sat inside the hot spring. Steam rose into the air from the water. Ishbel always found the idea of a natural bath amazing. Several other people sat inside the spring with various expressions of repose.

Ishbel rubbed the lavender petal oil that Gobin provided for them into her skin and then slipped slowly into the hot water. It always took her breath away at first, but as she emerged herself, she relaxed, relishing how the water calmed her taut muscles.

Until the water sank into her open wound, and she sat up immediately, her eyes widened from the sudden sting. Ishbel held her breath and sank beneath the water for a few moments, swishing her hair around. She could almost pretend that her whole life was different down here, where it was warm and safe, no pavilion, no bed, no Gobin, no people….

But her breath always ran out, as did her dream.

Ishbel returned to her pavilion and laid down on her mattress to nap. They always took rest as they could, and one of the first things a whore learned was to fall asleep quickly, for she never knew when her next customer would arrive, day or night.

The rustle of her pavilion curtain woke her. Either it had been a slow day, or Gobin had allowed her time to rest, for she’d been napping since late morning and the position of the sun in the sky told it was late afternoon.

Two silvers clinked upon her bureau. Ishbel rolled over on her mattress and hid her surprise, for the nameless man who had visited her a month ago stood before her now.

Ishbel immediately thought of the silver she had hidden as she raised up on one elbow.

He eclipsed the sunlight streaming in from the top of her. “Napping?”

“Resting,” Ishbel said. It implied a less lazy disposition, for napping gave the idea that she was not skilled enough to have a steady stream of customers.

Mister Nameless nodded and allowed his rucksack to slide to the ground next to her bed. He was still wearing the same sort of clothes as before, Ishbel noted.

He studied her with a cocked head for a moment. Then he sat down next to her and began to pull off his boots. Ishbel returned his scrutiny surreptitiously, though she doubted he was completely unaware of her covert appraisal.

Mister Nameless – for what else was she to call him? – turned to look at her. His eyebrows furrowed with intelligent curiosity. “What do you see when you look at me?”

Ishbel smiled faintly. Many men asked that question, always the same, usually phrased in different words. She was wont to answer honestly, but if she knew the truth would upset them, she would lie and give them a wonderful impression of themselves. If they only wanted to hear a story they could leave with that helped them believe in themselves, that strengthened their confidence, then she gave them that. Ishbel long ago hated that question. She had a number of wonderful replies that she just changed slightly, depending upon the man. Such a useless question.

But this man wasn’t looking for a confidence builder, nor someone to reflect back his strength to him. He was looking for a description. Mister Nameless never ceased to amaze her, she’d say that.

Ishbel crawled across the bed to sit in front of him. She took him gently by the shoulders. He held up a hand in warning.

“No, no, just –” And she waited while he finished removing his second boot. Then she turned him gently about on the bed so he was facing forward.

Ishbel held her hands up in front of Mister Nameless so that he could see her actions as innocent only. She then reached out a finger and traced his face.

“Your face – it is, tanned, windworn. Wrinkled,” she told him, “but not from laughter. From squinting.” She pushed back some blond, sun-streaked hair from his face and tucked it behind an ear. “Lightened from the sun. You are outdoors often, though your hair is usually darker.”

Ishbel lined his mouth with two of her fingers. He tried to pull away. “Not enough laughter, no laugh lines here. A strong jaw.” She ran the top of her hand under his chin. The bristle there had grown beyond stubble but not long enough for a beard. “You prefer to stay clean-shaven, but either you don’t have the chance often enough to shave, or you think it best to appear scruffy as you do now.”

Mister Nameless raised an eyebrow at this last assessment, but said nothing.

Ishbel pulled the neck of his tunic aside lightly with a finger. She thought he would jump but it appeared he was used to her touch now. “As often as you are out in the sun, you are not dressed in the clothing of the nobility, or at least not often enough, for your tan line –” and she traced her finger down his tan across his collarbone – “matches the tunic you’re wearing now.

“Your clothing is of good quality, not of the nobility, but sturdy. Your boots, good quality, if sandy, a bit dusty.” She raised a slight eyebrow at the sand on the floor. “All the same color clothing – neutral, made to fade in. Except, perhaps, this dark vest…? Which could hide you in the darkness…?”

Ishbel stopped and stared into Mister Nameless’s light brown eyes.

He nodded slowly. “Extremely perceptive.” He studied her face. “For how long will two silvers last me?” he asked, shading his eyes beneath an upraised palm.

“Two hours.” Interesting. Ishbel was curious as to what sort of man Mister Nameless would be, and almost sad that she at last would find out, for she had enjoyed trying to figure him out.

“Is there a way to shade the sun?”

“Of course.” Ishbel stood up and pulled the reed blinds down from across the bed. She didn’t care for the afternoon sun herself, but it was always the customer’s choice.

While her back was turned to Mister Nameless, he asked, “What’s that? On your back?”

She had nearly forgotten, but turned with a desultory smile. “Just my marks of enslavement.” Ishbel looked at him through lowered lashes, hoping to dissuade his attention.

He frowned and pointed. “Not those. The other shoulder. It wasn’t there before.”

Ishbel blinked. How had he known that?

He watched as she tried to formulate a plausible explanation. Then he shook his head. “I’m sure I don’t want to know.” Then he rummaged around in his rucksack. He came up with a small vial. “That will likely scar if you don’t attend to it.” He tossed the vial to her across the pavilion.

Ishbel surprised herself by catching it, unawares as he’d caught her.

“Keep it. I’ll buy more. There’s plenty of it out there –” and he swept a hand toward the rest of the Pavilion.

Ishbel nodded once in gratitude. Gobin did not allow them to accept gifts, but this one she thought she would keep, for, after all, it would keep her fruit from bruising….

Now that his boots were off, Mister Nameless swung his legs up onto her bed. Ishbel slid up next to him, assuming her best pretense.

Mister Nameless sighed as he looked at her. He took hold of her wrist with a gentle hand. “Under ideal circumstances, I would greatly enjoy,” and he let his eyes run down her body, “availing myself of what I am sure are considerable talents. But.

“These are not ideal circumstances.” Mister Nameless grimaced. “Do you know what I want when I come here?”

Ishbel felt the ruse was over and so she sat up and looked at him, waiting expectantly for him to continue.

“I want a place to be invisible, where no one will know me, where I can just – lay back for an hour or two and be – safe. Does that sound odd to you?”

Odd, of course it was odd, Ishbel had never heard of such a thing. Yet it was his earnestness that caught her, and she schooled her facial expression and demeanor into one that would not offend him.

“You say two hours?”

Ishbel nodded.

“Then… wake me half hour before I must leave, for I have paperwork to ready.” Mister Nameless’s eyes searched her face. “Do you agree?”

She nodded, at a loss for words.

“Good.” And he laid down next to her. Within just minutes, Mister Nameless was deeply asleep.

Ishbel hated to wake him. She’d never seen someone fall so deeply asleep so quickly. She had so many questions, and she knew she’d never get a single answer for any of them. People were hunting this man, so much so that he found safety in her pavilion. And yet the worn pommel and swordbelt next to his rucksack told her that he had no trouble defending himself….

“You’re watching me sleep.”

Ishbel smiled a little. What a puzzle he was.

“Only debating how to wake you,” she said quietly.

Mister Nameless opened his eyes. He looked at Ishbel, then all around her pavilion. “A half hour yet?”

She nodded.

“Very good then.”

Ishbel watched as he straightened a number of parchments from his rucksack, then pulled his boots on.

As he stood up, he pulled a silver from inside his vest and handed it to Ishbel. It flashed in the sun.

She stood up beside him and looked up at him. Then she rolled her hand over the silver. “I did nothing. Keep it.”

A slight smile lifted the side of Mister Nameless’s mouth. “Exactly.” He thought for a moment, then looked about her pavilion. “For your continued silence. And, if not for your ‘service,’ then for your… companionship.” He stalked across her pavilion and, feeling about the top wooden beam, he found the other silver. He placed the second silver there.

“Good will go with you,” she murmured.

Mister Nameless nodded shortly as he slipped between her pavilion curtains.

Suddenly, Ishbel was brought back to reality. Gobin would be appearing in seconds. She poured water on some linens and threw them into the collection basket. Next, Ishbel mussed her hair and her veils.

Out in the Pavilion, Ishbel heard the faint voice of Mister Nameless telling Gobin on his way past, “Best I’ve ever had! Best girl yet!”

Ishbel smiled a bit.

Gobin came in then. “Satisfied bloke, sang your praises.” He picked up Ishbel’s linen basket and watched as Ishbel straightened her hair. “What’d you do for him? Couldn’t shut up about ya out there.”

“Oh – well. He was easy enough. Let him do all the talking, he had most of the bed. He even passed out for a few there – exhausted.”

Ishbel didn’t look at Gobin as she told him this, she was rearranging her veils. But she knew it would never occur to him that a whore would ever lie to him.

“Well done, well done,” applauded Gobin. “If he comes through again, I’ll send him straight to ya.”

Ishbel hoped so. For he would need a safe place to stay.

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