She sighed with impatience. Where was Fiorra? For that matter, why were the boys taking so long? She wanted to run up to the Market but Gabriella didn’t want her to go alone this late in the afternoon. Gabriella herself couldn’t go with her because she was filling out new Academy scrolls concerning their enrollment. Earlier in the day, Fiorra had said she’d wanted to explore the Healing Academy grounds, so Emanuella and the boys had left her to her own devices, expecting that she would be back before long. But Fiorra had been gone for the better part of the day, leaving Gabriella somewhat concerned.
“Where are they?” Emanuella threw up her hands with irritation. She had told the merchant she’d be back before nightfall.
Gabriella cocked an eyebrow at her. “The boys?”
Emanuella nodded. “They said they wanted to go the Market for something, how long can it take? It’s been marks now.”
Gabriella smiled a little and returned lightly, “They are probably at The Pearl in Velvet.”
“Again? All they ever talk about is that place. You’d think they’d get enough of it.”
Gabriella coughed, sounding rather like she had swallowed a laugh instead.
Emanuella was struck with a sudden idea. “Didn’t they say it was just down the road? Maybe I could just go in there and ask one of them to come with me.”
“That – might not be – a wise idea,” Gabriella said slowly. Emanuella looked at her. She had placed a hand over her mouth as if she were considering something profound, though to Emanuella it looked as though she were trying to hide a smile. What was going on?
“Why not? I’ll just run in and see if they’re there. And if they’re not, maybe the bartender there knows where they went.”
Gabriella put her quill down. “No, I don’t think you want to go in there.” She looked at Emanuella meaningfully.
“Why? Is it a rough kind of place?”
Sighing, Gabriella looked rather amused. “It’s not a rough place at all. Quite the contrary.” She looked as though she were trying to decide how to proceed. Finally, she said, “Do you know what The Pearl in Velvet is?”
“A… tavern, isn’t it?”
“Yes, but a tavern… for men.”
“For men? Women aren’t allowed?”
Gabriella opened her mouth and closed it again. “It’s a place for men to be with women.”
After a minute, Emanuella realized her mouth was open and closed it with a click.
Emanuella sighed and studied the game board they were playing at the bar. Gabriella had taken pity on her and taken her down to the Market so that she could buy the perfume the merchant was keeping aside for her. She’d also bought this game, called Chips, played with small chips of colored glass. Already Fiorra was getting good at it, Emanuella mused as she studied her options. And Fiorra had been acting rather strangely, smiling from time to time for no apparent reason. If she continued to chew her lips that way to keep from outright grinning, they would be bloody before the night’s end. Emanuella hoped that whatever the secret was, she’d hurry up and reveal it….
The door to The Sword and the Stag banged open. Emanuella glanced up to see Dar, Rick, and Ander coming in, trying to look as though they’d been up to nothing special. She bit her lip in annoyance and bent her head to the board again. They’d been gone for several marks.
“Where have you guys been? It’s after dark,” Fiorra demanded crossly.
“At The Pearl in Velvet. Where’s Gabriella?” Dar asked, not so deftly changing the subject.
“She went to dinner with Javversten. What is the big deal about The Pearl in Velvet?” Fiorra switched the subject back again.
Emanuella kicked her under the bar. She hadn’t told Fiorra about it; she wasn’t sure how she’d react.
“We’ve uh – just got a lot of friends there.” Rick tried to sound nonchalant as he leaned against the bar.
Emanuella glared at him. “And do they fulfill your need for friendship?” she asked sweetly.
Rick faltered and glanced at Dar, who had the grace to look a bit humble, if somewhat surprised.
“We just had a few ales,” Ander said, looking quite guilty.
“Well, if they’re your friends, why don’t you bring them here? Ale is ale,” Fiorra said. “Or aren’t we good enough for your friends?”
Emanuella winced. The boys glanced at each other, obviously trying not to laugh. Fiorra was still not on the same page. Perhaps she should have told her after all.
“Well, uhm….” Even Rick was at a loss for words.
“You see, Fiorra, they can’t bring their friends over here. In fact, they’re not exactly friends at all, are they? At least, not the kind who come free.” Emanuella looked around at the boys, who each had begun to look quite nervous. She knew they all tried to keep a good appearance up to Fiorra.
Fiorra was staring at her. “What under the stars are you talking about?”
Emanuella grinned at the boys’ growing discomfiture. “Well, Fiorra,” she drawled, prolonging their misery, “it’s – ”
“Not important,” Dar interrupted her, glowering.
“Somebody better explain,” said Fiorra with a warning tone in her voice.
“Let’s not and say we did,” muttered Rick.
“Fiorra, The Pearl in Velvet is a brothel,” Emanuella glared back at Dar.
Fiorra looked puzzled. “A what?”
Dar winced. Ander bit his lip. Rick looked as if he wanted to be anywhere else but there.
Fiorra’s mouth dropped open. She turned to stare wide-eyed at Dar, Rick, and Ander. Exasperated sighs came from each of the boys as they studied the floor or their boots.
“What’s wrong, boys, didn’t get enough?” Emanuella asked sarcastically in response.
Dar rolled his eyes. He looked very much as if he wanted to strangle her as he stepped up and loomed over her. “You and I are going to have to have a talk.”
Emanuella jabbed him in the chest and was about to retort when Fiorra spoke up. “Why don’t they have places like that for women?”
She turned to stare at Fiorra in amazement. “What did you just say?”
“Why aren’t there – brothels,” Fiorra stumbled over the word, “for women?”
Rick chortled. “Because there are too many willing men on the street who’d oblige you for free.”
Emanuella smiled in spite of herself while Dar and Ander chuckled.
“Why are those women so much better, anyway? Than, I mean, women on the street.” Fiorra asked.
The boys looked distinctly uncomfortable as they glanced at each other. At a weak attempt at levity, Dar shrugged and said, eyeing Emanuella, “At least they curtsy to me.” The boys laughed.
Emanuella tutted. “I’ll curtsy to you when I respect you.”
His face darkened. “Don’t bother,” he growled.
Emanuella swept up the game board and pieces and said, “Come on, Fiorra.”
Fiorra slid off her stool reluctantly. “You guys are such pigs,” she scolded, though her tone was not accusatory.
Emanuella kept her eyes on Dar as she curtsied with all the grace she could muster to Rick and Ander each in turn and then turned her back and glided away.