Shopping Trip

Leaving Home Humphrey, manservant and butler for Blackwell Manor hoisted Lady Amara Blackwell’s large truck onto the roof of the black carriage. Fina thought he was a surprising man. Humphrey was middle-aged and a little skinny, but he seemed much stronger than he looked. Lady Blackwell’s trunk was nearly as large as he and surely was heavy, but Humphrey made lifting it seem easy.

In contrast, Fina had just one small pack containing just about everything she owned. There were spare clothes including several tunics for everyday wear and stolas. She’d often simply borrowed items from the Manor’s well-supplied wardrobes to suit tastes for clients. Those things were suitable behind bedroom doors of course, but not for the role that Lady Blackwell envisioned for her new partner, so she left them behind. She’d also brought some personal basics including her favorite hair brush, some bone hair sticks and a generous supply of Dame’s Delight. Fina had made it a habit to take a sip of this contraceptive potion every day. Better safe than sorry, she had long ago decided.

When Amara Blackwell had asked Fina to go to the city with her for shopping, it hadn’t been difficult to convince Fina. Prospects of new clothes and opportunities to see new things were exciting to the young lunar elf. Amara knew it wouldn’t be easy to get Fina to behave like a lady because the elfish courtesan had a mischievous streak a mile wide, but at least she could get Fina to look the part. That might be enough. For that order to be filled, she needed Fina to be dressed properly as a lunar elf lady should be in Avonian lands.

Humphrey hopped up on top of the carriage and worked at securing the luggage, so Fina grabbed a rung and hoisted herself up to the top where she grabbed the other end of a rope to help him. She was graceful, but it was hard to look the part of a lady as she did so. Humphrey raised an eyebrow at her but nodded his thanks.

“Really, Fina. You are a lady of the manor now. Hopping about like that is hardly dignified.”

Fina started in surprise. She hadn’t heard Lady Blackwell arrive. “Well, I saw no reason for Humphrey to have to do all the work while I just stood around watching.”

“While your intent is commendable, Fina, you are not a laborer. No one will pay you to do chores for him, nor will Humphrey thank you for your help when he finds you have no talent for tying a proper hitch knot.”

Fina looked down at her work. She’d made a simple square knot, which wouldn’t keep the rope taught and worse, the knot itself would become so tight by the time they reached their destination that Humphrey would never get it apart except to cut the rope. Humphrey sighed and shooed Fina away so he could fix the result of her “help”.

“Sorry,” Fina said bemusedly. She lost her balance when she hopped down and would have planted her face right in the dirt had Lady Blackwell not caught her with a steadying hand. “Thanks.” Fina’s pale cheeks were colored in embarrassment, but she understood what Amara was telling her; know her place.

Lady Blackwell glanced up and noted Humphrey’s progress. “In you go, then.” She opened the door and Fina climbed into the carriage.

“I’m sorry, Lady Blackwell,” Fina began.

“Call me Amara,” Lady Blackwell interrupted. “I took my last name from the name of the manor.”

Fina blinked. “I thought the manor was named after you.”

The carriage lurched as Humphrey got the team moving. “A lot of people do, but I never said so,” said Amara. “I purchased the manor and people started calling me that.”

“But you are a lady and noble. Surely you have an important family name.”

Amara laughed. “You think so? Thank you, my dear. But no, I am not nobility, Avonian or otherwise.”

Fina puzzled over that, then had the idea. “You let people think what they will.”

“You’re a smart girl,” Amara smiled and held on as the carriage rolled over a bump. Then she continued. “But people tend to believe what they see. If what they think they are seeing is a noble lady, then they will believe it. But you should never lie, my dear.”

Fina thought about that. “People that remember when you came to town know different, don’t they?”

“Yes, they do. Deep down, I think everyone knows I’m not a noble. I don’t own the town, I have no vassals, no family here at all. I suppose it is easier to tell one’s children that Blackwell is a noble name.”

Amara was always very generous toward the town. Fina had seen it herself. People liked her for it, even though Amara herself tended to be reserved and rarely came down from the manor. When she did, Fina knew Amara always held herself like a lady and behaved very properly. People didn’t think of her as a madam or common prostitute because she didn’t act like one.

“Life is much easier if you can command a little respect,” Amara told her. “It’s a good habit to have, too. Respect the clients, respect the people that work so hard for you, and respect the locals. Most of all, respect yourself. This is what makes everyone who works at Blackwell Manor so much better off than women and men elsewhere. It is often not easy to respect yourself when you must deal with difficult clients, but you must; if you do not respect yourself, others will sense this and you will lose their respect, too.”

Fina wondered if it could really be so simple. Was it simply a matter of self-respect that lured wealthy men from all over Avonia into the welcoming embrace of Blackwell’s women? Did that simple thing make them so different from prostitutes elsewhere?

Amara seemed to know what Fina was thinking. “Self-respect is in part what makes our business successful. It also needs to attract the kind of men to Blackwell that we need. Powerful, wealthy men make our future more certain. Money helps both our people and the town, when used wisely. Having powerful men well-disposed toward us means that Avonia will continue to ensure our safety by sending legionnaires for the Tower.”

Fina took a moment to absorb that. Blackwell Manor’s success seemed to depend on several things: successful management of finances, talented courtesans that knew their work and took pride in it, and carefully groomed clientele. Amara Blackwell seemed to juggle all these things deftly. With her as the madam of the house, everyone was cared for, both clients and workers. She kept the lion’s share of earnings, but made sure everyone that worked for her had what they needed, and some extra money to spend or save besides. “I really don’t know how you manage to do it all. Everyone seems happy.”

Amara smiled. “The key is that you have to always think of your people first and clients needs a close second. If it ever goes the other way, and clients become all you care about, your workers will suffer for it. You can’t allow clients to disrespect our courtesans. Eventually, that will cause you to lose your higher paying customers because they’ll lose interest in paid partners that have lost their self-respect are depressing to be with.”

That made sense to Fina and she nodded. “Of course! Our people are like family to me. My mother may be retired from the manor now, but everyone there is just as important to me. I wouldn’t let anyone hurt them, no matter what they offered to pay.”

Amara tilted her head to the side. “It’s not quite that simple. Some of our people will tolerate things others won’t. You’ll need to learn that, too. The right client needs to be lined up with the right courtesan.”

Fina looked out the carriage window. They’d already passed from the narrow road that wound it’s way down from the manor into the town, but she wasn’t thinking about the town right now. She was thinking about her last client.

Amara was again a step ahead of Fina. “You’re wondering why I sent Herod to you?”

Fina looked back at Amara for a minute. She searched the older woman’s eyes while trying to shield her own emotions. She hadn’t liked how that man had used her and made her feel. On the other hand, she was a courtesan and he hadn’t hurt her. Still, she hadn’t liked him at all. Finally Fina nodded.

“I’m sorry for that.” Amara had seen the look on Fina’s face the next day and had noticed how quiet and subdued her behavior had been for a full day after that. There was sympathy and apology on Amara’s face. “I wasn’t sure he would be like that with you. He’d asked for you specifically. Well, you or your mother and your mother was due for a break. Did he hurt you?”

With anyone else that worked for her, Amara would have known right away if they’d been hurt. Fina was more difficult for her to read because Amara suspected that if ever Fina actually was hurt, she’d use her considerable talents as a healer to hide it. She wasn’t sure Fina would tell her and that had always worried her.

Fina shook her head. “No, he didn’t hurt me.”

Amara nodded. “Good. When he came to pay for the evening the next morning, I asked if he’d been satisfied with his choice and he had nothing but praises for you. Yet you seemed… despondent when I saw you later. You had worried me until I saw your normal cheer had been restored after you came back from visiting in town.”

“It surprises me he had good things to say,” Fina said. “He really didn’t want me to do anything but lay there and play catch-can. I honestly felt he might have been just as happy tossing one off in the bathing room than have me be there. It kind of disgusted me.”

“Would you take him again if he asked for you?” Amara asked.

Fina thought about that. Now she knew what to expect out of him, she didn’t think it would cut so deep. “If he agreed to pay double, I would.”

That was more pragmatic than Amara had expected of Fina. A half smile tugged at the left corner of her lips.

They had traveled for half the day when they finally reached the old dwarfish road. The carriage lurched as it angled downward and Humphrey had to slap the reigns a few times to convince the horses to take them below ground. He lit a pair of lanterns that hung from the corners of the carriage roof. The swaying lanterns splashed yellow-orange light around them while the clopping sound of two quickly stepping horses filled the tunnel.

They traveled for a few hours like that in the timeless dark before Humphrey brought the horses to a stop and declared it was time for a rest. Fina was very thankful for a chance to stretch her legs and walk around. Amara Blackwell seemed content simply to step out of the carriage and stretch her long legs right where Humphrey was busy setting up little portable cots. Since the hard stone floor of the tunnel was both cold and damp, the simple cots would make sleeping much easier.

Although Fina was restlessly curious about their surroundings, neither Amara or Humphrey really knew anything about the old dwarf road than that it was an efficient way to travel under the Greenwald and emerge in western lads of Tera Province. So curious was she, she was hardly able to rest when Amara bade her. When she could rest no more, she tried to keep herself busy by taking extra care of the horses, tending the tiny fire that had burnt down while Humphrey and Amara slept, and by writing in a journal.

It was just the first day of travel. Many more followed. By the time they reached the end of the old dwarf road, Fina was ready to be free of what had begun to feel like oppressive, constant darkness, despite the constantly burning lamps that lit the way. When they emerged into bright daylight on the fourth day of travel, it was with great relief that Fina stuck her head out a window and looked up into the sky. Even though the air of the tunnel hadn’t been stuffy, she felt she could breathe better now.

The old tunnel had also seemed to suppress some of her interest in conversation. Now they were clear of it, Fina’s spirits lifted.

“Humphrey says we still have a few days of travel before we arrive at Terandun, but that we’ll be able to stay at inns from here on.”

Amara looked up from a bit of needlework she occasionally dallied with, if there were smooth spots along the road. She nodded.

“I’ve never stayed at an inn before. Are they nice? Like the one in Cliffs Hollow?”

“I suppose so. They are all different,” Amara said neutrally.

“It must cost a lot, all this travel and then staying at inns,” Fina added.

Amara looked at Fina like she was wondering where she was going with this talk. But then she smiled and looked down at her needlepoint. “It’s not terribly expensive. I’ve traveled this way many times and have learned where it’s best to stay.”

“Well, merchants come down to Cliffs Hollow because they know we like to buy nice things sometimes. Is it really prudent to go all this way just to buy me a couple dresses?”

Amara looked up at Fina again. She smiled. “If you are thinking there is more reason than just a shopping trip to go to Terandun, then you think right. I wish to show you off a little.”

Fina blinked. That didn’t make any sense to her. She waited for Amara to explain.

“You are my partner now and that means one day people may refer to you as a Lady Blackwell, too, but only if you are smart and act the part of a lady.

“Your fortunes as well as mine rise and fall with the fortunes of the Manor,” continued Amara. “Since this is fact, it is up to both of us to ensure the Manor’s good fortune continues. Our girls will come and go. Hopefully due to retiring from this life.” She meant hopefully no more courtesans would be killed. Fina understood this and nodded. Amara continued. “You and I must ensure there is always a Blackwell Manor in order to maintain a living. That means we need important men to notice us. We need to be seen upon occasion.”

“We’re drumming up business for the Manor?”

Amara nodded. “We can’t bring all the courtesans to Avonia and parade them up and down the empire. For us, that’s impractical and could bring a lot more trouble than we want to deal with. Therefore we must represent the manor, meet nobles and discretely refresh acquaintances. I think you could be very good at being the face of Blackwell. I’m not getting any younger, after all, and already I’m not so desirable to the younger men that visit us. I need you to show we have something to offer all ages of adult.”

“Amara, you will always be beautiful.”

“Thank you, but you know that is not true. I’m only human after all.”

“If it’s only aging you are worried about, I can help that with a bit of glamour.”

Amara laughed. “Honey, I already do a bit of glamour.”

Fina smiled, too. “Well then you do it very well, because your beauty looks entirely natural to me.”

Amara patted Fina’s hand. “You are a dear, but you are distracting me from the topic at hand. The point I’m making is that if you apply yourself, I know you are quite capable of making a good impression on the kind of customers we need. Apply that friendly charm of yours at the inns we stay in for practice, but be careful not to get entangled with anyone or worse, hook clients at the places we stay. Innkeepers won’t like that.”

“Why not?”

“First, because it isn’t legal in Avonia and they could get in trouble for allowing it in their place of business.”

Fina frowned. “I didn’t know that. Is that why they come to Cliffs Hollow? Because it’s illegal to pay for sex elsewhere?”

“One reason, perhaps. But that’s not why there would be trouble if we did business with clients at inns. Avonian law-keepers are more than willing to look the other way when it comes to our trade, but it requires monetary encouragement, if you understand. Inns that allow sex for sale have paid off authorities to ignore it happening in their place of business, even if it is obvious. Courtesans working at these inns pay for service, you see.”

“So if services are allowed at an inn, then it’s usually already arranged?” Fina asked.

“Exactly. If the innkeeper even wants it in their place of business. Many don’t. Now, once we reach Terandun, when we are done shopping for the day, I’ll find some people I want you to meet. You are to be proper, but not shy. You’re a smart girl and you shouldn’t be afraid to show you are no uneducated back-alley whore. Show them class. Show them you have a little pride in yourself and confidence in your work. Be clear in what we offer at the manor but be discrete.”

Fina took it as a challenge. She smiled. She knew that Amara sometimes entertained special guests, personal clients that ask for her specifically. She suspected Amara was very capable of making good impressions, so much so that some of the wealthiest guests received her personal attention when they came to visit. These were probably people Amara had approached personally. By doing as Amara bid her, Fina was not only representing herself, but also everyone at Blackwell Manor so this was her chance to attract the kind of clients she would like to have visit her and the others at the manor.

“I’ll do my best.”

Amara sat back and picked up her needlepoint again. “I know,” she said.

The next few days of travel passed more quickly than those long days and nights on the dwarf road. At night they stayed at inns where Fina spent time interacting with other travelers. Although they met no nobles, she was able to catch local news and gossip. It was good practice for presentation and communication.

The evening before they expected to arrive at the city of Terandun, Fina made her acquaintance with a wealthy merchant, but Amara quickly diverted her, practically ordering her to their rooms to retire early. Fina was astonished and alarmed to find out later that Amara knew that merchant to be a slave trader. Specifically, he dealt in forest elves. Although Fina was a lunar, not forest elf, Amara didn’t want Fina taking any chances with the likes of him, nor did she want his kind visiting Cliffs Hollow. What Fina took from that experience was that she needed to observe carefully the company these men of wealth kept so she could identify what danger they might present.

Arrival at Terandun The city of Terandun sat at the crossroads of the major caravan routes north and south. These roads formed the backbone of the empire and carried vital goods such as food and materials for clothing from the bread-basket state of Tera to the rest of Avonia. It was a haven for guilds of all sorts and that meant politics. The city was also the ancestral seat of the ruling high lord and high lady of Tera.

Although the city had no access to the sea, great spires rose into the air. These tall structures supported sky docks for ships that sailed on the wind across the endless skies of the Shattered World. They also each supported one or more inns. Some offered mini markets right at the spire for the convenience of these merchants of the blue yonder.

The primary spire, largest and tallest of them all, was called the Unicorn Spire. Amara informed Fina that this was also a single, huge inn that boasted hundreds of rooms. It’s luxurious accommodations afforded a wide range in price from the relatively cheap rooms at the lowest levels, to extravagant and expensive suites at the upper levels. Amara told her that powerful sorceresses had raised a stone core from the bedrock in ages past to form a stable central structure. In the centuries since the time of its creation, the spire had been used as a stable place to dock sky ships. The Unicorn Spire’s rooms wound around and around the spire, making it seem a single, massive structure.

The thought of staying there was thrilling. Fina could hardly take her eyes from the place as the carriage threaded its way through the maze-like city streets. She barely listened while Amara warned her of the dangers of the city. Noticing Fina’s preoccupation, Amara fell silent with an amused smile. The city had that affect on many people seeing it for the first time.

Humphrey took care of the carriage and horses while Amara secured rooms. Fina couldn’t help staring at the dizzying variety of people. Gnome couriers offered their services loudly to new arrivals while merchants sold their wares right next to the inn’s grand entrance. She could see strong-looking human lift operators taking guests up to higher levels so they didn’t have to trudge up winding stairs heavily used by porters hauling luggage up and down the Spire. Hawkers announced specials going on at bars located at various levels throughout the gigantic inn.

The first thing that grabbed Fina’s attention amid the chaos was the presence of a well-dressed, handsome man confidently stepping off a lift and beginning to wind his way through the crowd. He towed a young and wide-eyed woman behind him. Her dress was white with delicate shades of pink. By the flush of her cheeks and the way her eyes were locked upon the man who took her by the hand, Fina guessed they were newly married young citizens of some kind. To be an official citizen meant long decades of military service, or a lot of money to buy it. Whether from years of service, commercial success, or simply wealthy families, citizens were invariably rich. Some were also nobles, which Fina could identify by the heavy rings of gold emblazoned with house emblems worn by the upper class. A noble wielded more political power than a citizen, but didn’t always command more wealth. Either of these types of wealthy people made for good potential clients because they had the means to travel to far-off Cliffs Hollow.

The wealthy man and his bride were hardly the only obviously wealthy people around. A good look about revealed wealthy people, often traveling with some kind of entourage, moving in and out of the lifts. Her gaze followed the rise of lifts up the Unicorn Spire. The structure seemed to stretch on forever when viewed from the street at its foot.

She stepped back to get a better view and bumped into someone, who grunted in surprise.

“Hey, watch it!” a gruff voice warned her.

“Oh! Pardon me, sir.” Fina turned around. She’d bumped into a young lady and she’d dropped the bag she was carrying, spilling fresh vegetables and a few fruit onto the ground. It was the older man with her that had spoken.

“I’m so sorry.” Fina bent to help the young lady pick up what she’d made her spill. She was human, with dark brown hair and brown eyes. Fina guessed the girl was several years younger than herself, about the age humans liked to have their daughters marry.

She shot Fina a sour look. “I thought elves were supposed to be graceful.”

Fina’s face reddened in embarrassment. “I should have been looking what I was doing. I have never seen such a thing as the Unicorn Spire before and I let it distract me. Please, let me replace your bruised… what are these fruits?”

The girl snatched the long yellow fruit from her hand. “You don’t need to do that. It’s fine.” She shot Fina quizzical look. “You don’t even know what a banana is?”

“We don’t have them in Cliffs Hollow,” Fina said.

“Cliffs Hollow?” the older man echoed. Fina looked at him again and realized she knew this man. “I’ve been there before. It must have been just a couple years ago,” he said.

“Master Suillius,” Fina said with a graceful curtsy done in traditional Avonian style. She smiled. “I apologize for not recognizing you right away. What a pleasure to see you, sir.”

“Grandfather?” asked the girl. “You know this elf?”

He nodded and said, “Yes I do. We met when I was on a business trip.” He winked at Fina mischievously when the young woman looked away. “Sulia, this is … ah…”

“Fina of Blackwell. Please call me Fina,” Fina said. It was the first time she used Blackwell as part of her name. Amara had told her she could do so. Using it as she did made Blackwell a place name, not a family name, which was an important distinction.

“Ah yes. Fina, this is my granddaughter, Sulia.” There was an awkward pause. While Fina was amused, Suillius clearly had not imagined a moment where he would be in the position of introducing his prostitute to his granddaughter.

Sulia looked between them with a disapproving frown. “Whatever ‘business’ my grandfather had with you can just remain between the two of you as far as I’m concerned.”

“I don’t want to keep the two of you,” Fina said. She’d noticed Sulia obviously didn’t approve of her. Given the glare she was giving her grandfather, Fina thought it was time for a little damage control. “I apologize again for bumping into you, Sulia. It is a pleasure to meet you. Your grandfather’s textiles are the finest I have ever felt or seen. We were very honored when he came to my village at Cliffs Hollow.”

“Really?” Sulia began to wonder if she’d gotten the wrong idea. She knew her grandfather was something of a lecher. Fina was a gorgeous, evidently unattached elf woman, given the lack of any ring on her fingers, so she’d made an assumption. “You know, I work the looms for our finest linens,” Sulia ventured cautiously.

Fina’s eyes widened. “The silks? Sulia, you have a gift! The samples Suillius brought were fantastic. If only I had the money, I would have ordered silk linens for every bed in the manor.”

Sulia puffed up pridefully. She smiled. “Thank you Lady Blackwell. Perhaps when my grandfather passes through again, he will have a special price on a set just for you.” Sulia seemed to have assumed that since Fina’s home had a name, she must be nobility.

Fina flashed an excited, hopeful look. “That would be wonderful! I’ll make sure to set aside funds.” Addressing Suillius, she said, “If you let me know ahead of time, Master Suillius, I can be sure to have your accommodations ready for you when next you visit us at Cliffs Hollow.”

Suillius’ smile was practically ear to ear. “That would be lovely… ah Lady Blackwell. Are you staying at the Unicorn Spire?” Fina nodded, so he continued. “Then you must be our guest for dinner tonight in the Diving Eagle Tavern.”

“Thank you, sir, but I couldn’t.”

“Are you certain? We are meeting business associates tonight. I’m sure you might find it interesting. There will be tailors and even blacksmiths at my table, all of them quite successful and some of whom might find a trip to Cliffs Hollow intriguing if they knew what opportunities they might find there.”

Fina paused. These were exactly the kinds of contacts she was supposed to make here. Unfortunately, Amara had already arranged for them to attend a private party at one of the suites that night. She wondered if it might be possible to do both. “I’m afraid I’m already committed to attend a party tonight.” Fina watched the disappointment on Suillius’ face.

Sulia sighed. “I’m sorry to hear that, but I don’t blame you. All these stuffy old men make boring conversationalists and I know I have better things to do.”

Fina watched Sulia a moment while she thought it over. “I’m used to simple country ways, but I heard somewhere it was fashionable to be a little late to a party. Is this true?”

Sulia beamed a smile at her. “It’s always true when it is men that must wait.”

Fina laughed. “Truly? Then I would be very pleased to join the two of you tonight, provided you don’t mind that I must leave early.”

Suillius looked very pleased to hear that. “Excellent! We will see you at dinner then.” He gave her a bow that would have suited any fine lady.

“Master Suillius,” Fina returned with deferential curtsy once more.

The two moved on.

Amara walked out of the inn then and handed Fina a piece of leather stamped with a unicorn and a number that hung on a loop of leather string. “This is your voucher. You can use it to purchase food or drink here at the inn. The cost will be added to our tab and paid at the end of our stay. Make sure you don’t lose it.”

Fina put it over her head and wore it around her neck. Amara looked pleased; she had one, too.

“I just bumped into a client,” Fina told her. “He’d like me to join him at supper to meet some of his business associates. Do you mind if I’m a little late to the party Lord Atrius is hosting tonight?”

Amara thought it over. She’d seen Fina handle herself well at the inns along the way. Tonight would be a truer test of Fina’s grace and skill. She’d managed to behave herself so far. “Are you comfortable handling it on your own?”

Fina smiled. “Yes.”

“That’s good enough for me.” She handed Fina a key with a number on it. “This is your room. I’ll be next door. While Humphrey brings your things up, you should consider a bath to prepare for your evening.”

Fina took the key. “Thank you. I think I will do that. I’ll see you at the party then?”

Amara nodded. “If you have trouble finding the Atrius’ suites, just ask around the inn. It is well known.”

Fina went into the inn and then found one of the keepers who pointed out the way to the baths. Being from a small town with no public baths at all, she was a little uncomfortable when faced with the huge bath nestled in underground floor of the Unicorn Spire.

Amara had told her Terandun had public baths where people could go to get clean and socialize. These baths were usually divided between men and women, and sometimes even had special, more expensive baths made available to the wealthy. The baths in the Unicorn were private but consisted of one large pool for wealthy male customers and one large pool for female customers.

Once she showed her voucher, she was admitted and provided a towel. It was a little uncomfortable to undress in the presence of a dozen complete strangers, each of whom chatted amiably with friends, but she found the welcoming, warm steam emitted by the hot pool soothing enough to help her past the odd feeling. After she’d unwrapped her stola and removed her long, but thin linen tunic and sandals, she folded them and then put them aside. Yet she noticed that no one else seemed to have any clothes with them.

The mystery was solved when she removed her small clothes. A young girl appeared and offered to clean her clothes while she bathed. It was part of the service, the girl informed her, and no extra charge. Fina gratefully accepted the offer. While the girl took her clothes away, she stepped into the pool and sank down to her neck. She quickly grew used to the pleasant sting of the hot water and relaxed until the girl returned with her clothes. Clean and refreshed, she was pleased to find her clothes were not only warm and clean but also dry.

From there she went to find her room. The number on her key was 213 and she soon discovered there were indeed that many rooms and more in this place. After trudging up a few flights of stairs, she thought better of trying to find it on foot, and asked a lift operator. For a few copper “leaves”, he took her to the correct level in little time and had her aimed in the right direction.

The room was large and possessed a wondrous view of the sprawling land-locked city. It was connected to room 212 by way of a door shared between them. That would be Amara’s room, Fina decided. The size of her own room impressed Fina. It had to have been expensive, but Fina knew Amara was making a point. As a partner, Fina was due the same treatment that Amara expected. She would not be relegated to the role of servant or handmaiden by being made to share space with Amara. Fina was to appear a lady.

She smiled to see that Humphrey had indeed delivered the small pack she’d made that contained a few changes. She knew now, after seeing what people of real wealth and high birth wore, her wardrobe might appear rather quaint.

Amara Blackwell had taught her years ago that the sensual dress her courtesans wore for clients were meant only to be worn at the manor. When Fina came to visit Cliffs Hollow, which she did often, she more often wore a tunic and a modest stola. Women’s tunics were made of soft yet thin linen material. Fina usually had a belt of cloth secured under her breasts for support and a wider one of leather that hugged her hips, when she wore nothing over it. This gave the generally plain and shapeless tunic a pleasant look. Sometimes she would even forgo small clothes under the tunic when she felt rebellious. Over the tunic, Fina sometimes wore a stola. Hers was made as it was everywhere; with a couple sections of cloth fastened together around the neck and one arm. She thought it very sensible because it was short enough it did not drag on the ground and let her move freely. In fact, she thought it quite lovely because it fell to just below the knees, longer than the tunica intima (light tunic worn as a slip), and parted when she walked to reveal the soft, pale skin of her legs, which she thought were quite attractive in the eyes of men.

But Amara had advised against wearing her favorite clothes here. She told her it was too “mannish”, and such attire would immediately pick her out as a prostitute; a label they sought to avoid while in Terandun. This had confused her. In Cliffs Hollow, men wore trousers and tunics and when it was cold, they would add extra layers of tunics and then, if they had money for wool, wear a nice thick cloak on top. But here, it seemed only poor men wore such things. The men here wore instead short tunics and a kind of short toga that left their arms and legs free to move. Although not the decadent masses of high quality woolen cloth worn in centuries past, togas were still expensive and a mark of wealth. Amara’s point was that Fina’s favored style of tunic and stola, while certainly feminine and flattering enough for her, was simply the wrong length.

Fina had brought her shorter-than-fashionable tunics anyway, but had compromised on the stola. The one she chose for tonight’s activities was a lovely stola borrowed from her mother. It was of luxurious, finely woven wool dyed pale blue. The neckline had black trim using expensive dye, and strips of cloth were attached at the shoulders to function as a sort of decorative sleeve. The hem at the neckline and along the edges of the stola was wide and decorated with patterns done in silver thread. She knew the stola to have been a gift that some would-be suitor had given her mother before she came to live at Blackwell Manor. It was expensive and decorated as it was, it hinted at wealth. As far as Fina knew, her mother had never worn it, but was happy to let her daughter borrow it for this trip.

Fina tied the stola using the ribbons attached to it, cinching it snugly under her breasts and using a small silver clasp to fasten it over her right shoulder. This allowed folds of the soft, expensive cloth to drape luxuriously. She then wore her favorite wide, leather belt around her hips. Her voucher and room key went on the leather loop around her neck and disappeared under her tunic and between her breasts.

Styling her hair to match Avonian custom was simple. Since only married women used elaborate styles, she simply wound her considerable length of golden hair at the back of her head and held it in place with small, slender pins made of finely carved bone. They were inexpensive, yet elegantly carved.

She possessed no jewelry. This was something of a problem since Avonian women often used jewelry as a symbol of their wealth and power. She considered calling upon some magic, a bit of glamour to create a few illusions she might maintain for the evening, but decided against it. First, if she forgot to maintain the magic, it would be an obvious, cheap trick. Secondly, such use of magic seemed a frivolous waste. Tricks and use of magic weren’t a bad thing, in Fina’s judgment. It was simply that cheap tricks easily seen through were beneath a true priestess of Sarai, the trickster goddess. No, tonight was about luring men to Blackwell Manor, a trick more worthy of Fina’s talents. Still, it made her a little sad she had no bracelets, armlets, necklaces, earrings or rings to show off.

She found the Diving Eagle just a little further up the Spire. The small tavern featured a long bar, a few tables, and a couple of spaces that could be closed off to make into rooms by heavy, hanging tapestries. Fina found that the one area closed off was where Master Suillius was holding dinner.

She saw six men gathered around the table already. Because Suillius rose to greet her, his guests did as well. Fina immediately curtsied to them, bowing her head and gracefully sweeping one leg behind the other. The men here all nodded or gave little bows in return.

“Lady Blackwell, welcome,” Suillius said with a cheery smile.

“Please Master Suillius. Simply Fina will do.”

He nodded at her and then introduced his fellows. “Fina, allow me to introduce Master Blacksmith Halfdun, Master Tailor Ennius, Sir Arrius Tucca, Trader Helvius Thermus, and Master Tailor Holdar.”

To Fina’s eye, the blacksmith was a half elf and Holdar was a dwarf. The others were all human. She could feel them give her the once-over, noting her attire and lack of jewelry. She was pleased to note some of them, Suillius included, gave her more than a perfunctory glance.

After she was seated, wine was brought out along with the first coarse. Her arrival had marked the beginning of dinner, as well as the beginning of business discussion. While she had little to offer in terms of conversation regarding the cloth trade and how it related to the various merchants and craftsmen here, she listened attentively and did her best never to look board. Soon curiosity forced one of the men to send questions her way.

“Fina,” began Master Holdar, “may I ask what your trade is?”

“Comfort,” Fina said. She sampled a little of her stew while the men chewed on that.

“Comfort?” Master Holdar asked, puzzled.

“I represent Blackwell Manor, a small establishment far from here,” Fina explained. “There, I see to it that my employees and I have all we need to be comfortable and to present our clients with the most luxurious surroundings possible. Our clients’ comfort and satisfaction is of utmost importance to us.”

Her words were carefully chosen and suggested Blackwell Manor was an inn without ruling out the possibility it was in fact a bordello. This was as much as she would say at dinner. But her purpose had been realized; those looking for “comfort”, themselves might seek her out if they were curious, and then she could invite them to visit the Manor discretely.

Suillius saw what she did and did his part to help out. “The lady here is modest. The last time I stayed was very memorable, an experience I recommend to any traveler.” His meaningful wink went to Sir Arrius and Blacksmith Halfun, who seemed to pick up on it and smiled knowingly.

Fina said, “Master Suillius is most generous. Should you find yourself at Blackwell Manor, please mention Master Suillius. I’ll see to it your stay will feature something special.”

She smiled and lifted her glass to her lips. Though she sheltered her eyes coyly by looking down, she felt both the noble and the blacksmith openly appraising her. She smiled to herself as she put the glass down.

Having captured the interest of at least half the men at the table, Fina was able to guide conversation to light subjects and told them humorous stories from her life in Cliffs Hollow. She recalled the antics of three half orcs who were creative enough to build ingenious traps but not quite wise enough to make them actually functional. The amusing results of the encounter between her friends and the half orcs brought cheer and laughter to the table.

Soon, however, Fina had to beg their pardon and leave their merry table. Suillius walked her out of the Diving Eagle tavern.

“Thank you for being so kind to join us tonight, Fina. You are a marvelous girl, and generous, too! Because of you, I daresay several of those men are much more inclined to deal favorably with me in the future.” The older man untied a little pouch at his waist and handed it to her. “Please take this as a token of gratitude for taking time out of your busy evening to appease an old man.”

Suillius spilled the contents into his hand. There were a pair of small, polished, orange-red carnelian stones along with a pair of imperial-minted gold coins with the image of a hawk imprinted on once side and the profile of Empress Eira on the other.

Fina gasped. The gold alone could pay the wage of a skilled craftsman or soldier for two hundred days. “Sir, this is too much. How can I accept such a gift?”

“I assure you that the impression you made on those men is worth every ounce to me,” Suillius said with a smile. “Take this and buy something for yourself. The gemstones can easily be engraved and set in a ring or as a focus for a necklace.” He pressed the coins and gems into her hands and gave her the pouch, then bade her a pleasant evening.

She stood a moment, surprised, then put the coins and gems back in the bag and tied it to her belt.


Thief

Fina walked out of the tavern area and proceeded down the curving corridor that would lead her to stairs up as well as lifts when she was jarred forcibly. With a cry, she hit the wall and lost her balance. She fell and someone went down with her.

“‘Scuse me!” said a grinning girl with scruffy brown hair and bright blue eyes — unusual for an Avonian. As the girl pushed herself off Fina, Fina took the opportunity to take a good look. The girl’s face had a smudge of dirt but was otherwise clean enough, though the same could not be said of her grubby hands with unevenly trimmed nails. She wore a brown cloak with a hood that the girl now pulled up. Her hair was all one length but fell only a few inches lower than the line of her jaw. “You should be more careful,” she told Fina, then took off running full tilt down the hall.

Fina knew what was wrong immediately; the pouch Suillius had given her was gone. Fina flipped to her feet with a burst of speed that surprised the gawking human couple that had seen the entire encounter. She took off after the thief quickly, but it wasn’t easy to keep an eye on the girl as she ducked and dodged around individuals and small knots of people walking up and down the wide halls of the inn.

The thief suddenly turned and disappeared through a door. Fina was close enough to push through before the door closed and caught sight of the girl running down a winding iron staircase. This was positioned external to the inn but out of sight and not in the best shape. Fina wondered if it had been installed for emergency use only.

Fina rushed after the thief. Hearing Fina behind her, the thief looked back in surprise, then redoubled her efforts to escape. The stairs ended ten feet off the ground, but the thief leaped to the ground, rolled, and sprinted down an alley. Fina followed as closely as she could and made the final leap, too, gracefully landing, rolling, and coming up at a run. The thief, watching over her shoulder was astonished to see the finely-dressed woman was capable of keeping up.

Fearful the girl might be running to get help, Fina knew she had to end the chase immediately. She drew on a bit of magic to help. “Sly Sarai hear my call, let shadows rise to make her fall!” This time of night, the alley was almost entirely covered in shadows. Only lamp light filtering down from the streets of the city shed any light at all. The thief never saw the slender tendril of darkness take solid form and never knew the danger until she tripped over it.

She fell heavily and barely had time to turn over before Fina was on her. She straddled the thief’s middle and pinned the girl’s hands.

“Ha!” Fina cried triumphantly. “Got you. Now give me that.” She pried her pouch out of the girls fingers, though it wasn’t easy.

“Give it back! I need that!”

“Do you?” Fina said angrily. “It does not belong to you. Maybe if you bothered to work instead of steal, you might have something to call your own.”

The captured girl’s eyes widened in fear. “What are you going to do to me?” she demanded.

“I’m going to turn you over to the city watch, obviously. You’re a thief,” Fina told her. She shifted further up and pinned the girls hands under her knees so she could tie the pouch back onto her belt. The girl tried to struggle and nearly made good an escape, but Fina grabbed her wrists and pinned her again, then sat on the girls stomach.

The thief looked around, helplessly. “Please let me go.” The tone of the girl’s voice had changed from indignant desperation to one of real fear. “I’ve been caught before. If you turn me in, they’ll take my freedom away this time. They’ll put me on the slave block. Please, please let me go!” she pleaded. “You got your pouch back. No harm done?”

“No harm? Look at what’s happened to my stola! I look like … you.” Fina said. Dirt from the scuffle had marked the beautiful blue stola. “Why did you try to steal from me?”

“You looked like a lady, maybe noble. I saw a pouch and figured you must have had gold. But you are no lady. A noble wouldn’t have run after me like that. I should have known.”

“Why? If not a lady, what do you think I am?”

“A whore.”

Fina snorted but couldn’t help a little smile. “And why would you call me that?”

“It’s true, isn’t it. It was a guess but since you didn’t slap me and you aren’t marching me to the city watch right now, I know that’s what you are.”

“I prefer courtesan.”

“Whatever.”

“And I can as easily strangle you as pin you down.”

“Courtesan, then.”

Fina looked at her with narrowed eyes. “Why don’t you think I’m going to turn you in?” She hadn’t actually decided yet and was curious why this little thief thought she was so smart.

“I don’t think you work for the Unicorn Spire. If you turn me over to the city watch, I’ll tell them what you are and get you thrown out.”

Fina didn’t like the sound of that. “But I’m not working here!”

“That won’t matter.”

“It’s my word against yours.”

“If you were somebody important, I’d be worried.” The girl looked smug. “You’ve got no jewelry, nothing to show you are anybody. I bet you aren’t even from this city. If you turn me in, I’ll get sent to the slave block. What have I to lose by telling them everything I know? Maybe I won’t be the only one on the block by morning.”

Fina frowned at first. But then she smiled. “You’re pretty good, but I’m pretty sure I can tell a better story than you, and know magic to boot.”

The girl realized she’d lost whatever edge she thought she had. She looked away, fuming, but trying to come up with a new strategy.

Fina climbed off the girl. “What’s your name?”

“Arria,” she said. She looked at Fina cautiously, and then levered herself up on her elbows. “Are you going to turn me in?”

“No.” Fina looked at her stola and fine tunica intima, brushed at it uselessly, and then sighed. “I guess I’ll be going then.”

She heard a rustle as Arria got to her feet. “Hey, what’s your name?”

She paused long enough to look over her shoulder and say, “Fina of Blackwell.”

“Are you really a prostitute?”

Fina sighed then turned back around. She walked close to Arria and looked her in the face. “I’d rather you didn’t call me that on the street.”

“Sorry.”

“A person is often much more than just what they do, you know. I’m also a procuress and a priestess.”

“Procuress means you get business for a brothel, right?” Fina nodded. “And you are a priestess? What sort of priestess works in a brothel?”

Fina put a hand on one hip, as if Arria was getting close to insulting her, even though she was really simply amused. “A special one.”

Arria decided to leave that alone. She asked a different question. “I don’t understand why you would work as a whore. Courtesan, sorry.”

“I like sex. I like men. I like getting paid. It seems to work out,” Fina said drily.

“Well, a lot of men are mean to women, especially ones they pay to be with. I hear.”

“Blackwell Manor is a long way away. Men such as those you speak of tend not to want to travel so far and pay so much just to abuse someone. They can do that anywhere. We do get our share of jerks, but fewer than I think you imagine.” Fina chose to leave out any mention of the recent tragedy. There was no point since it was none of Arria’s business anyway. Aside from that, the incident was still too recent for Fina to be able to react to it objectively.

“Yeah, I guess I can believe that.” She folded her arms over her stomach.

“How old are you, Arria?”

“Sixteen.”

“Do you have family? A home?”

“This is it.” She gestured grandly to the smelly, dirty alley. “My mother was a thief. A really good one, I think. But when she got caught, thieving turned into murder. She ran and I haven’t seen her since I was ten.”

“Can’t you find a living asking for work from people?”

“I do that, sometimes. But it’s hard to find anything. I’m not a cute kid anymore. People see me homeless and they assume I did something to end up this way. My choices are to sell myself or be a thief. I don’t like the idea of being owned by anyone.”

“How is the thieving thing going for you?” Fina was guessing that since she’d been caught probably more than once before, it wasn’t going very well.

Arria looked away haughtily. “I do all right.”

“When was the last time you had something to eat?”

Arria hesitated, then admitted, “I had some bread yesterday morning with some vinegary wine someone was going to throw out.”

Fina thought about that and worked something out in her head. “Okay. Well, I am expected at a party but I can’t show up looking like this. I need your help. In return, I’ll make sure you have as big a meal as you can eat and then we are even.”

“What do you want me to do?”

“Come with me to my room. I need to change out of these clothes and then I need you take them down to be washed. I’ve recently realized that the rest of my clothes aren’t really appropriate to be worn here and I can’t get new clothes until tomorrow.” It was a pretty big leap to trust Arria with her finest clothes. She was hoping the lure of a good meal would be enough to keep Arria from running off with them.

Arria watched Fina as if expecting some kind of trick. Finally, she rolled to her feet. “Fine then.”

When they returned to the Unicorn Spire Fina used her voucher to ride a lift to the level of her room. It took little time before they were safely inside her suite. Fina pulled off her stola and tunica intima, then shrugged into another tunic. While Arria waited, Fina then sat down on the large bed and took off the leather loop on which the voucher hung. She held it in her hand and studied it very carefully while Arria watched curiously but silently.

Fina held the voucher in her right hand and opened her left, then closed her eyes and murmured soft prayers to her goddess. In moments, an identical voucher and leather loop appeared in her left hand. Arria’s eyes widened in fascinated surprise.

Arria approached Fina when she was summoned with an impatient wave. Fina put the imitation voucher over Arria’s head and said, ‘This is a seeming, an illusion that is real for now. It will last for about an hour. That will give you time to go and have the staff clean my clothes and get something to eat. If you are quick and bring me my clothes before the hour is up, you can use the voucher to get your own clothes cleaned while you bathe, if you want.”

Arria’s eyes had already roved around the room. She saw no foot locker or bags of money, though that didn’t mean some wouldn’t be hidden somewhere. Still, by Fina’s meager selection of clothes and the simple tunic she now wore, Arria found it easier to believe Fina really didn’t have any cash or valuables aside from what the elderly man had given her. Fina was sharing what she had with her as best she could under the circumstances.

Arria’s stomach ached with the thought of a meal soon to come. It was late enough it wouldn’t be fresh made, but that made no difference to Arria. A good, thick stew, some bread, cheese, and perhaps a bottle of wine awaited her and all she had to do to get it, was run these clothes down to a maid for cleaning.

It took most of her willpower not to run off immediately so she could get that meal, but she couldn’t leave before she understood something of Fina’s motivations. “Why are you doing this for me?” Arria asked.

“Because I don’t believe you are a bad person. I think in other circumstances we might be friends. You also never tried to pull your knife on me.”

“How did you know I had a knife?”

“The strings to my pouch had been cut, not untied,” Fina said. “So I realized you just needed something I had, and that you weren’t willing to go so far as to hurt me to get it.”

“Maybe I just don’t want to end up murdering someone and running from authorities for the rest of my life.”

“Maybe,” Fina agreed. The teenage thief looked like she might say something else, but Fina reminded her, “If you don’t get moving soon, you won’t have enough time to make good use of that voucher.”

Arria closed her mouth and left without another word.

Fina received cleaned clothes less than a half hour later. She changed and headed up to the party while Arria left to enjoy the baths at the base of the Spire. Fina apologized to Amara for her tardiness but either Amara was unconcerned or she did not wish to scold Fina for it in front of the other guests.

She was introduced to several important men, citizens and lower nobility from around town, as well as wealthy tradesmen who’d arrived to make deals and arrangements for the transport of goods from all over Tera and the empire. By the end of the evening, she was exhausted. She took time only to strip out of her fine clothes and put them in the wardrobe before slipping naked under the blanket of the large bed stuffed with, Fina was guessing, wool.

The following day was filled with the daily ritual of grooming followed by breaking fast and then together with Amara, shopping. That was an experience she wouldn’t soon forget. The press of people of all kinds, the heat and dust of the day, and the sheer noise was such a sharp contrast to the life she’d always known that it soaked up all Fina’s attention. She let Amara do the bargaining; she hardly spoke a word all day. By the end of the day, Amara had secured three bolts of fabric and commissioned tailors to begin working on new tunics, stolas, and palla. A palla was like a shawl that served the function of a cloak.

Amara put down the glass of wine she used to wash down the last of the slice of mutton and red omaters they’d been served. The omaters were a tasty vine fruit native to Tera and when sliced and sautéed paired well with the mutton. The dinner had been a treat. Completing the meal was gentle music provided by a bard with an ornamented lute and calming tenor voice.

“You’ve hardly said a word all day,” Amara said.

Fina pulled her eyes away from the bard and blinked at Amara. “Have I? I’m sorry Amara. There was so much to take in I think I spent all my energy just trying to understand half of what was going on.”

“I think you’ll get used to it quickly,” Amara said with a smile. She looked over at the bard and then smiled. “The scenery is pleasant as well, is it not?”

Fina returned the smile while her eyes reflected a playful glint. “I agree.” Women of daintier fortitude might have blushed at being caught looking at a stranger, but very little seemed capable of embarrassing Fina. “I wonder if this is the only tavern he frequents.”

Amara glanced over and then back at Fina. “What do you have in mind?”

“I would like to befriend him. I think he probably knows a lot of people and maybe I can help him generate a little extra cash in exchange for having to tolerate my company.”

“You think so.” Amara wasn’t questioning so much as amused. Fina had surprised her several times already on this trip, when she took the initiative to do something a little daring without drawing unwanted attention to them. She’d already attracted a little more potential business at dinner the previous night and during the party later, Fina proved herself charming and alluring. Amara was quite willing to indulge Fina’s whims so long as she continued to attract the right sort of attention. “Then if you are finished with dinner, why don’t you introduce yourself to him? And take this.” Amara placed a few silver coins on the table. “He’ll be more interested in listening to you, if you show you appreciate listening to him.”

Fina smiled widely at Amara and scooped up the coins, then excused herself. She discovered the bard’s name was Philo after introducing herself and awarding him a small donation of silver. Philo rather enjoyed having such an attractive associate drawing attention to himself and his music, so the rest of the night was profitable for him as they traveled from one bar to the next all over the Unicorn Spire. Fina profited in her own way by having an opportunity to see and interact with all manner of people. Some were very interested in her and she enjoyed the flirtation.


The Caddish Merchant

A few nights later, Amara and Fina were nearing the end of their trip. Having secured several new outfits for Fina, Amara had just a few more appointments to keep and then it was time to return to Blackwell Manor. This afternoon, however, she had a final test for Fina’s social skills.

A favored client had already asked to introduce Lady Amara Blackwell to a number of his associates when she received another invitation to a party at a private residence. She decided to send Fina in her place. Fina was excited to accept the challenge, so after she had prepared and dressed for the party, Amara advised her not to stay out late.

By now, Fina understood why. The streets of a city at night were dangerous once full dark set in. The only legitimate travel on any city street of the Avonian Empire after nightfall was for the delivery of goods among merchants. This was because during the day the streets were simply too packed with people in order for carriages and wagons to navigate cities. Once night fell, only deliveries and those determined to head to a tavern or a brothel after a hard day’s work would be out on the streets. Because they were not lit and were hemmed in by tenements that sometimes reached five or six stories, alleys and streets were very dark. They were also teeming with thieves and cutthroats.

Therefore, social events were held during the day. Since she would be alone tonight, Fina had no intention of being caught on the streets after dark.

The walk to Lord Tarmus’ palatial home in the wealthy district of the city felt refreshing to her, despite the press of relatively unwashed bodies and faintly unwholesome smell of the city. To her, it was simply different and it was still new. The truth was, she had expected much worse smells. Between the public baths and the water-distribution system that seemed magical, yet she was told was not, the big city was far more sanitary than many smaller towns and cities were. They could not afford to build something like a proper sewer system and public baths.

When she arrived at the Tarmus residence, she told the servant that greeted her at the door she was “Fina of Blackwell” and then handed him the letter of apology and introduction provided by Amara. He read it and judged this was acceptable, then led her inside the home. Fina had learned that Avonians usually called such ostentatious residences a domus. In the country equivalent was referred to as a manor, but was built differently than its city-side counterpart. A domus is large enough to show off the wealth of its owner, while also affording some protection of the wealth contained within. No windows faced a street and the stuccoed walls were smooth enough to be impossible to climb without tools and considerable skill. The Avonian domus was rarely shorter than two stories tall and built in a square or rectangle shape so that an inner, open-air garden and courtyards could be enjoyed in complete privacy, or sometimes in a pair of square shapes when an atrium with an opening for rainwater might be built.

The country manor that Fina knew so well had no need to enclose a courtyard or provide a barrier to thieves. It had many windows to allow light and fresh air. The domus was a completely different design. Yet, as Fina followed the servant through Tarmus’ home, she noted that courtyard-facing windows were plentiful and that the some rooms had canopied openings in the ceilings. On days with fair weather, the canopy was removed to allow full sunlight to bathe the interior. Today was such a day.

Natural light flooded an atrium where the servant asked her to wait. The atrium’s walls were decorated with frescoes and the floor covered in tiles. Marble statues stood in the nude on tall pedestals that were so lifelike, Fina would not have been surprised if they started to move on their own.

Lord Tarmus appeared while Fina was still distracted by the anatomically correct statue of a lunar elf male staring longingly up to the heavens through a large square hole in the roof. Unlike elsewhere in the domus, there was no structure to support a canopy, so she suspected this opening was always open to the sky. The statue of the lunar elf stood directly below the hole in the middle of a drain pool. She wondered what it was for, but didn’t want to seem overly provincial for her lack of knowledge.

Startled and embarrassed she hadn’t noticed him, Fina hastily curtsied. “My lord, forgive me. I didn’t hear you come in.”

He smiled at her and waved away the minor transgression. “My man tells me you are Fina of Blackwell, come in Lady Blackwell’s place?”

“Yes, my lord. She sends her deepest regrets but has asked me to come in her place as I am now her partner in business.”

Tarmus smiled at her. “If you are half as skilled at business as you are beautiful, then Lady Blackwell has made an excellent choice in partners. Yet, I seem to recall seeing you there before. I had thought you were a courtesan?”

She nodded. “I was, or am. But after I came into a small fortune I wanted to invest it in the business in which I had been raised.”

“It’s a testament to the good treatment and fine clientele of your establishment that it has made such a positive impression on you,” he noted. “Still, most young people, upon acquiring an inheritance or other fortune, seek to travel or break out on their own.”

She shrugged and smiled. “I never felt so stifled by my work that I wanted to leave. Perhaps it’s because I have much more in my life than simply providing comfort to travelers. I am also a priestess and healer at the manor. I enjoy providing my services to the other courtesans and, as needed, the village as well.”

Tarmus’ smiled turned more genuine. “I see that Lady Blackwell has represented herself well.”

Fina smiled and bowed her head humbly.

“Let me introduce you to the party.” He led the way further into the house. Just past the atrium was the columned, garden area in a courtyard called the peristyle. It was bordered by the kitchen and numerous rooms for residents and guests, and featured flowers, a pond with colorful fish, shrubs, and a small shrine celebrating the portion of the pantheon the Avonians most revered. The inner walls that faced the peristyle were adorned with large paintings. Guests milled about here in conversation and partaking of wine and samples of specially prepared, rare foods. Fina soon was absorbed in the setting and meeting so many new people.
Relindil was bored. As a member of the nobility from the Princeweald, a large forest granted centuries ago by the High Princes of Avonia to migrant lunar elves, he often found himself invited to parties held by Avonians curious about his people. Humans seemed to find lunar elves mysterious and alluring, a fact that was as useful as it was annoying at times.

As the eldest son of a noble family, he was required to observe protocols and accept social engagements on behalf of his parents when he traveled, regardless if he simply wished to acquire some rare powders for use in his latest project and move on.

He was an enchanter. He loved to create. He could happily spend days in his tower enchanting finely crafted things for utility or for the simple artistry and challenge, but his parents had other ideas about how he should spend his time.

At fifty years of age, he was still young for a lunar elf. His people often lives for centuries, unless felled by mishap or fate. That meant he felt no particular pressure to be preparing to lead the family when his parents passed on. He had plenty of time for that, he felt. Centuries, in fact. His parents seemed to have other ideas, however. Avonians celebrated many festivals throughout the year and the tradition had bled into lunar elf culture, too. His parents were no exception and often went to great lengths to sponsor and host events during these times of celebration. When they did that, they always seemed anxious to subject Relindil to an endless circus of young elf maidens looking for a promising match. At least, that was how Relindil perceived it.

He had little time for courtship. The young elf maidens were always attractive, of course, but seemed only to feign interest in his passion for enchantments. To him, they seemed more interested in attending even more parties and celebrations and living the easy life of a noble lady on his arm. This did not appeal to him at all. He’d always found it hard to value things his family simply gave him. He’d learned that true appreciation came only through effort and sacrifice, yet his family didn’t seem to understand that any more than the pretty young maidens they arranged for him to meet.

So as often as he could, Relindil arranged to personally seek out the rare things he needed for his projects. It took him far from home and the ceaseless attentions of boring, shallow elfish girls. That didn’t mean he escaped social engagements altogether, but at least his parents weren’t there setting up yet another potential courtship. Sometimes he even met traders that could retrieve rare metals and specially forged tools he couldn’t find in the forests of the Princeweald.

When he had arrived in Terandun a few days ago, he’d made contact with his preferred traders and word had gotten around to some of the wealthy citizens in the city. When Lord Tarmus heard he was in town, an invitation was sent immediately. Relindil suspected Tarmus was inviting him simply to show his other guests how well-connected he was, since Relindil did not personally know Tarmus or do business with him. It didn’t matter. Relindil knew it was vital for his people to always remain on the best of terms with Avonians because without their patronage, his people would have no home. So, he could not refuse such an invitation without a good reason why.

Relindil had been plodding his way through another afternoon of gossip, humdrum entertainment and ostentatious displays of wealth that had never been earned when the other lunar elf arrived. Lunars were rare enough outside the Princeweald that the presence of any other lunar elf at a social function was notable.

He watched her curiously as Lord Tarmus introduced her to the various guests. She held herself well, like a lady, but yet wore no adornments. There were no bracelets or armlets to indicate her House and no rings or necklace to show her wealth. Yet her clothes were finely made and comfortable. Rather than the flowing dress of traditional lunar elf fashion, she’d adopted the Avonian style of wearing a stola over a simple yet elegant tunic. Her stola parted to show a daring amount of leg when she moved because her tunica was a little short. It was also sleeveless, and the strips of fine cloth attached to the shoulders of the stola elegantly revealed the soft, smooth flesh of her arms as she moved. He might have placed her as the rare lunar that settled permanently in an Avonian city, but her poise and obviously refined manners hinted otherwise. Here was something interesting.

Relindil maneuvered himself closer under the guise of running down a servant to ask for a refill on his wine. While the serving girl quietly filled his goblet, he continued to observe the new elf curiously. Yes, her pale skin, silver-white hair, blue eyes and the delicate sweep of her long, pointed ears marked her quite clearly as a pure-blood lunar elf. Unlike the relatively common green-skinned forest elves often captured and enslaved by brutish Avonian slavers, the golden-hued solar elves, the feared night elves, or the raiding wild elves, lunars were the only elven race welcome in Avonian lands. The Avonian Empire had no allies and stood alone against hostiles on all sides. The Avonian habit of enslaving enemies of their empire was not endearing to their neighbors, but Relindil had noted that such practice was not uncommon among the other nations of the world. It didn’t help that all other nations that humans had built had been wiped out long ago. The empire was the last civilized outpost of humanity left in the world. It made Avonians paranoid when it came to foreign relations and harsh when they defeated enemies.

The lunar female’s courteous interactions with guests as she was introduced was peppered with insightful remarks and an honest smile. She fenced expertly with words and body language. Her flirtation with males was friendly but tasteful. She was fascinating and he had to meet her.

Relindil broke protocol by approaching Tarmus and his newest guest directly, interrupting their progress around the garden. “Lord Tarmus, where have you been hiding such gems?”

Taken off his stride, the bachelor noble blinked and then said, “I assure you such valuables are secured.”

Relindil thought he should laugh but he just waved away Tarmus’ confused response. “No, man. I mean this lovely lady at your side.”

Tarmus smiled with good humor. “Ah! Yes of course. Lord Relindil, this is Fina of Blackwell.”

Relindil noticed the lack of title. Not noble then, he thought to himself. It was really a point in her favor as far as he was concerned. He bowed to her even as she delivered another graceful curtsy.

“I’m very pleased to meet you, my lord,” Fina said. “I don’t think I’ve ever met such a handsome lunar elf before. Are you from the city?”

Her flattery seemed strangely honest. It almost sounded like she’d never seen a male lunar before, which was absurd. He couldn’t help a smile and chuckle, however. “The city? No, I’m from the Princeweald.”

She tilted her head curiously and he had the distinct impression she didn’t know what that was but didn’t want to sound foolish by asking. He wondered how she could not know of their own homeland. “You look lovely, yourself.” To his own ears, it sounded like an inadequate remark, as if he was merely reciprocating her previous compliment. He reached to correct that. “You really make that outfit, uh, work.” And now his failure was complete. He wondered if he should just go ahead and dunk himself in the fountain now and get it over with.

Fina laughed. “Do you think so, my lord?” She twisted her hips playfully to make her stola swish and reveal a bit of leg in a delightfully wanton way.

He cleared his throat and managed a stammering, “Yes?” He hoped his ears weren’t reddening.

The openly mischievous look in her eyes and the playful smile on her lips made him realize she was teasing him. He smiled back and laughed nervously, but was too slow in coming up with something wittier. Tarmus led her away to meet other party guests.

A little crestfallen at his own uncharacteristically inadequate introduction, he watched them move on to a wealthy merchant who’d brought a small entourage. A tall man with dark hair was watching Tarmus and Fina’s approach while whispering something to his ruthlessly handsome, if somewhat overweight employer. Relindil frowned at that. He didn’t know the merchant but something in the look he was giving Fina made him uncomfortable. After Lord Tarmus and Fina moved on, he meandered over to the merchant.

“Greetings,” he said with a small bow.

“Ah, Lord Relindil, I believe?” said the merchant. He had narrow eyes that glittered a little too much for Relindil’s taste.

“You have me at a slight disadvantage, sir.”

“My name is Travus, my lord, a humble merchant.”

“Travus, I couldn’t help but notice your associate seems familiar with the newest guest.”

Travus smiled. “Yes, in fact he is. He remembers making her acquaintance at the Unicorn Spire just the other night.”

He knew his inquiries would in turn make the merchant curious why he was interested, but Relindil found he really didn’t care. “That’s where she is staying?”

“Most likely. More interesting is that she was drumming up business for Blackwell Manor.”

Relindil didn’t like the sly grin on the merchant’s face. “Business?”

The trader nodded. “I wonder if she might be interested in a new business proposition.”

Travus’s smile had turned predatory, but Relindil was no longer paying attention. He murmured pleasantries and tuned the annoying human out. That young elf maiden was the only saving grace for this whole boring party and he decided he wasn’t going to let the opportunity to speak with her go.

Lord Tarmus had finally finished his introductions and was sucked into a conversation with an older human couple. It left Fina momentarily alone with a servant who was offering her refreshments. Relindil quickly crossed the space and joined her.

“I embarrassed myself earlier. Would you allow me to attempt to make a more favorable impression?”

Fina’s electric eyes turned looked up into his face. She showed him a little smile. It made his heart skip a beat. “Lord Relindil, I see no reason for you to be embarrassed. It was I that so boldly flirted with you just to see what you might do.” He was sure his ears colored again as he recalled her hips moving and stola swishing. She continued. “I’m afraid I couldn’t help myself. You are the only lunar elf I’ve seen since I came to the city, and it’s rare in the extreme to see one come visit my home village. In fact, I don’t remember the last time a pure-blood lunar elf stopped at the manor.”

“Blackwell Manor?” he guessed.

“Yes. You’ve heard of it, then?”

“Yes, of course,” he lied quickly, not wanting to seem provincial in front of her. “I’ve heard nothing but glowing sentiments regarding Blackwell Manor and your business.”

Her smile widened and her eyes sparkled at him. He stared into her blue eyes and wanted to dive into that deep, crystal clear sea. “It’s good to hear people appreciate what we offer,” she was saying graciously.

He knew he was behaving like a teenager trying desperately to impress a girl. His ears reddened further and he felt compelled to end this runaway wagon before he embarrassed himself so badly he might never recover. “Actually, I only guessed the name of your home from our introduction and I have no idea what your business is,” he admitted.

Her smile faded for a moment and his heart sank. But it had only faded and grown warm, not disappeared. She broke all social norms that separated strangers until they knew each other well by reaching out and drawing her light, soft fingers down the length of his arm. She let her hand drop back to her side.

“Providing comfort. I’m also a priestess and an empathic healer, though I don’t employ those skills for personal gain,” she told him.

He thought that a rather tenuous thing to offer. How did one live by simply comforting others? He could more easily understand a living being made as a healer or even a priestess.

She must have read his confusion. “Blackwell Manor is a bordello, my lord, I am a procurer and courtesan, a healer and a priestess.”

The color fled his ears and face. First he was embarrassed for being so obtuse he made her describe it so bluntly, and then he was rather shocked at her choice in vocation.

She took his pallor and loss of words as disdain. “I am sorry, my lord, if you had thought otherwise. I will not shame you with my presence.” She curtsied again and bowed her head with utmost grace, then coolly turned away from him.

He found himself unable to say anything. Questions whirled around in his mind, but couldn’t ask them. Why was she unaware of the lunar elf homeland? Had she been forced into this position as so often happened to enslaved women throughout Avonia? But she had said she was a procurer, which implied she secured business for her ‘bordello’. Did that mean she had no master? Did she chose this vocation? Why?

Somewhere in the back of his mind, as they spoke together, he’d imagined perhaps sweeping her off her feet, a strange and wondrous lady he might court. He would thumb his nose at his parents’ choice of mates by finding someone appropriate but completely different from anything they had expected. Someone fresh and new, someone unlike any elf maiden he’d met before.

He let her go, but it was hard not to watch her out of the corners of his eyes; impossible to get her lovely face out of his mind.

The party droned on. Unmemorable conversations were had; he’d never remember the people or what inane topics seemed to interest them. Every time he glimpsed her, his mind would again swirl with questions he would not ask because they would only embarrass both of them and make her think less of him.

It was late when the last of the guests left aboard private carriages. Evening always seemed to come on early in this city because the tall buildings packed tightly next to one another blocked the last rays of the setting sun. Fina of Blackwell was among the last to leave and when she left, Relindil found he had no interest in remaining, either.

He’d assumed she would have a carriage waiting for her, but when he noticed her hurrying down streets now empty of foot traffic, he grew concerned. Did she not realize the danger of walking the streets after dark? A lunar elf could usually see very well at night. The light of a single moon was enough for his kind to find his way through the dark. But dangers lurked in the dark places of human cities, and they cared not whether you could see them; they would see you.

Lord Relindil stepped back down from his own carriage, telling his driver to wait here.
Fina cursed her lack of foresight in leaving the party late. The darkened, empty streets, once so filled with vibrant life, now felt desolately foreboding. She kept looking over her shoulder, so she was startled when she nearly ran into the dark form that had stepped in front of her.

“Pardon me,” said the dark-haired man. He wore a wide grin and she recognized him as the assistant to a wealthy merchant from the party. She remembered vaguely greeting them when Lord Tarmus had introduced her around and they’d recalled meeting first at a bar in the Unicorn Spire.

She smiled at him. “Hello, sir.”

“It’s rather dangerous to walk the streets at night in a city like this.” The voice came from her left and she turned to face it. It was the merchant. She tried to think of his name. Trace? Tran? Tarse? He smiled at her confusion. “My associate tells me that you are part of the Blackwell group of whores.”

She frowned, disliking his tone. When he stepped close to her, she stepped back and bumped into his assistant, who’d come around behind her. Travus! She finally remembered his name. He took her hand and kissed it. “My dear, I meant no offense. In fact, I wish to present you a business proposition. Come work for me. A woman of your obvious talents could go far, travel the world in fact.”

“Thank you, sir, but I’m very happy with my current situation.” She pulled her had out of his.

“It seems to me your current situation is alone on the street at night. Won’t you at least listen to the details of my proposition? We’ll take a nice, safe carriage to my rooms at the Unicorn Spire where we can speak openly and safely.” He smiled at her as a carriage pulled by two horses clopped up and stopped.

Something at the back of her mind warned her it was time to run, but it was too late. “Escort our guest into the carriage, if you please master Julius,” Travus told his companion. Julius seized Fina by pinning her arms to her sides and lifted her slightly so that she couldn’t get leverage.

Had Fina been a witch, pinning her arms might have prevented her from using various witchy tools to cast spells. But she was a priestess. Yes, being caught could inhibit her, but she was far from powerless. She could strike back.

It was only earlier this very season she’d been out in the wood for the very first time with two of her friends. They were both hunters and very impressively skilled with bow and spear. They’d hunted boars and Fina had asked if she might try taking one down, like they had. In the shadows of the dark forest, it was easy for Fina to call upon Sarai, her goddess. In an instant she’d formed a deathly spear of black ice and plunged it into the boar. The boar’s outside had frozen so quickly and so deeply, yet the boars guts had remained so hot, that it had practically exploded. It went to pieces much to the disappointed shouts of the hunters who had hoped to bring home fresh meat.

On second thought, Fina thought perhaps striking back at this close range with that particular spell was not only uncalled for, but unpleasantly messy. She’d ruin her newest stola.

Of course, casting was difficult if they had hold of her, but she knew that this Julius fellow would have to release her or loosen her hold on her in order to shove her into the waiting carriage. A better idea surfaced. She could, with a whispered call to her goddess, step into the shadowy interior of the carriage and just perhaps step out into the shadowed alley some thirty paces from here and across the street. Provided she didn’t make a slight mistake and end up in Shadow, the world of the dead, she’d be free and hidden.

Julius lifted her to shove her into the carriage and Fina played along, waiting for her moment. She even screamed like an enraged woman.

Actually, she’d intended to scream. She’d opened her mouth but someone else had screamed instead! Julius suddenly dropped her too early and she fell, painfully barking her shin on the carriage’s runner as she went down.

Julius howled in pain. “I’m stabbed!” he screamed, the pitch of his voice rising in panic. “Something’s got me!”

“Oh quit whining you nitwit!” Trader Travus yelled back. He swung a hammy fist at something and connected with a meaty thump. The action was followed by a startled yell, and then Fina saw Arria fall to the ground behind Julius. In her fist was a stubby little knife. Fina was so surprised, she didn’t know what to do.

Travus had followed her to the ground and was doing his best to beat the girl into submission. He started by grabbing her wrist and slamming her hand onto the paving stones until she lost her grip, then started slapping her with open and backhand swings. To her credit, Arria didn’t just lie there and take it but she was much smaller and weaker than Travus and was unable to fend off his blows.

Well that put Fina in a fine pickle. She’d already planned her own escape, but now that would leave poor Arria to the fate likely intended for herself. Plan A, killing them, would likely be viewed as murder by authorities since this Travus was likely of a higher social class than she. Plan B was spoiled, and that left a Plan C: Get Arria out of harms way, then hide her. She began to climb to her feet, but Julius shoved her down and yelled at her to stay put. That was all right with Fina, she could think just as well from the level of the street.

Looking around from where she lay, she was the first to notice elegantly booted feet running rapidly in their direction. When the boot connected with Travus’s skull and the overweight merchant toppled with a grunt, Fina realized the boot was worn by the cute but apparently chronically bashful Lord Relindil. She watched in surprise as Julius pulled a long, slender blade from a walking stick just inside the carriage and swiped it at Relindil. The handsome lunar elf lord ducked it easily and then smashed a gloved fisted into Julius’s gut right below the sternum. Wind left Julius with a wheezing rush and he doubled over, where his forehead met Relindil’s knee, and then he crashed to the ground unconscious.

When Travus clambered to his hands and knees, Arria scrambled out of his reach. She grasped Fina’s hand, while Relindil went on to beat the living tar out of Travus.

“That is not how you treat a lady!” he said, emphasizing his words in time with another kick. Travus collapsed and rolled away with a moan holding his ribs. When the driver quickly snapped the reigns and sent the carriage rolling on its way, Fina had to hastily roll out of the way of the large, iron-shod wheels.

With a look of concern, Relindil bent to give Arria and Fina a hand up. “My lady, are you all right?” he asked, hoping he sounded dashing.

“Just Fina, please,” she corrected him, dashing his hopes to sound dashing. Fina cut off further questions from Relindil by turning away from him and taking Arria by her shoulders. “Arria! Thank you for trying to help. How did you know I would be here?”

Arria looked embarrassed. “I’ve been following you. I’m sorry, but I wanted to find some way to do you a favor for what you did for me the other day. I never was treated fair like that by anyone before.”

Relindil interrupted. “Ladies, I think we should move along now.” With a nod to the groaning men on the ground he said, “Perhaps before the city watch decides to complicate matters? Our carriage awaits.”

Fina and Arria looked at each other, then fell in with Relindil as he led them back toward Lord Tarmus’s domus and his waiting carriage and driver.
Once aboard Relindil’s carriage, they were free to speak. Fina began by thanking Relindil for his timely arrival.

“I was concerned when I saw you walking down the street,” Relindil replied. “It’s very dangerous after dark where the only light is what you carry yourself or from a shred of moonlight when it can shine past these towering, smelly constructions they call homes. What are you doing?”

“I’m a healer,” she replied simply. Fina had pinched Arria’s chin in her fingers and turned her face to the side. “That’s going to bruise and swell. Your eye will blacken, too,” she told Arria. “You should come back with me to my room tonight. I think I can find some things that will ease the pain and soothe some of the swelling.” Fina cast a glance at Relindil. “Lord Relindil, this is Arria, a friend of mine.”

Relindil looked at the urchin curiously. “You have an exceptional talent for making friends.”

Fina released Arria and then looked back at Relindil. She smiled. “Thank you? But that merchant seemed less than friendly.”

“I believe he was less a merchant than a slave trader.”

Although that didn’t surprise Fina based on Travus and Julius’s actions, she was still upset by what they had tried to do. “They wanted to talk to me about a business matter and they certainly weren’t taking no for an answer. I thought they were up to no good.”

“Slavery isn’t illegal, of course, but kidnapping people is.”

“You sound as if kidnapping and slavery are common,” Fina said.

“Unfortunately, it is. Once a person is enslaved, they rarely are able to prove they had been taken against their will because it all too often comes down to one person’s word against another. If the victim has no one to vouch for them, they are likely doomed. Even worse, some slaves don’t even know that’s what they are.”

Fina blinked. “How could that possibly be?”

“Some young people, taken away and put to work at remote steadings or villages think they are just servants when the truth is they couldn’t leave if they wanted to.”

“I’m not sure I’ve even seen a slave.”

Relindil nodded seriously. “If you aren’t from here, you might not know what you are looking at. Some slaves have obvious marks like tattoos or brands. Others wear a collar. Some trusted slaves have no marks or collars at all, but that does not mean their status is any better. They might be treated better by a master, but they still have no freedom and few rights of their own.”

Fina reflected on the situation. Travus likely wanted to take her and put her to work for him, thereby profiting by her skills. She doubted that situation would have remained for long. “I think I understand. So slavery is not uncommon. How many slaves are there?”

Relindil shrugged. “Perhaps four in ten people are slaves in the south. If you see someone who is not Avonian, gnome, or lunar elf in these lands, they are likely a slave. There are fewer enslaved humans and gnomes because that supposedly only happens to people who cannot pay debts or to those who have committed crimes.”

“And you?”

He shook his head. “Our people do not believe in fettering others.”

“Yet you are willing to let it happen elsewhere?”

“Avonians respect our culture and allow us to maintain it as we feel is right. In return, we do not attempt to dictate what is right or wrong in Avonian society.”

“We?”

Relindil spread his hands. “Us. The people of the Princeweald. Myself.” He looked her in the eyes. “You.”

Fina smiled, amused at the idea the young elf lord imagined her one of his own people simply by virtue of having similar pointy ears and pale skin. Relindil looked confused, but Fina was not inclined to argue with him. He was a wealthy man who’d risked himself to save Arria and herself. Why spoil the evening arguing politics?

But he’d picked up on her attitude and was genuinely puzzled. “You don’t consider yourself one of us?”

She shook her head. “I don’t really know who you are. Your people. I grew up at Blackwell Manor and the only other lunar elf I knew was my mother and the very rare lunar elf client. I understand your culture less than I understand Avonian culture. I can tell you we don’t have slavery in my village, and I doubt our mayor and sheriff would allow it there. What I know is simple and clearly defined for me and that’s exactly how I like it.”

“I think you might like other lunar elves, too.” Relindil took a chance. “If you are free tomorrow night, would you consent to dine with me?”

Fina gave him an apologetic smile. “I’m sorry, Lord Relindil. Lady Blackwell and I will begin our journey home tomorrow.” Relindil’s heart sank from both the unfortunate tidings as well as the loss of contact. Fina noted the sadness in his expression and followed up with, “But I would enjoy a visit should you find time for such a trip.”

He tried to read her calm, beautiful eyes. Was this a personal invitation? Or was she merely hoping to acquire a new client? He couldn’t read her, but was certain she read his own face easily. “I’d like that, too,” he said. To his own horrified embarrassment, his ears turned red again. He noticed Arria watching him with an amused smile and realized he was transparent even to the urchin. He turned his face to the carriage window. His heart continued to thud in excitement, the damned, treacherous thing. Never had he felt such loss of control over his own emotions around other people.

For Relindil, the trip to the Unicorn Spire was over all too soon and he had to bid farewell to Fina and her strange street companion.


Arria finished a tea Fina had given her. It was bitter, yet served cold it was surprisingly refreshing. Fina nodded, satisfied. “That will help with the swelling a lot and the pain, too.”

“Thanks,” Arria said. She looked thoughtfully at Fina, trying to decide how to phrase her question.

Fina spoke first, however. “What you did back there was very brave Arria. Thank you. I wish it hadn’t seemed necessary.”

Arria shrugged, embarrassed at the praise. “You were kind to me.” She chewed her lip and played with the empty cup.

Though the hour was growing late, Fina sensed Arria didn’t want to leave. Patiently, she turned to begin the careful job of packing her new clothes so they wouldn’t be damaged on the long trip home.

It wasn’t long before Arria found the courage to ask the favor she’d been working out in her mind for days. “Will you take me with you?”

Fina paused and looked at Arria. She had no money to support someone else and she wasn’t willing to burden the Manor with another mouth to feed. In fact, she could think of no one in the village that would happily extend permanent hospitality to someone who could not fend for themselves or contribute to the community. She didn’t relish the hard let-down she would have to deliver to Arria. It didn’t seem right, but taking her home to Cliffs Hollow didn’t seem better. It would only place a burden on more people.

“Arria, I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Fina said with a sigh.

“I can work,” Arria said.

“We already have the staff we need. Maids, groundskeeper and hunter, even the position of butler is taken.”

“No, I mean I can work for you. As a courtesan.” Arria looked hopefully at Fina.

Fina looked away. The girl was sixteen, really about the same age when she began the work. Proper Avonian girls would be getting married at Arria’s age and thinking about producing a family. But Arria had no family except for her outlaw mother. She had no home, no dowry, and no prospects. She was living on the streets and Fina had every reason to expect the poor girl would end up a slave or worse for her thieving habit. Fina sighed and stood, then walked to the window. She opened it to let in a bit of fresh night air. She couldn’t help recalling that with her own promotion to partner, her mother’s retirement, and the unfortunate murder recently had left several vacancies among the courtesans of Blackwell.

“It’s not an easy life. You have to work whether you want to or not. Many people will judge you for it, and you might have to work for a decade or more before you have enough to build another life for yourself.”

“But I wouldn’t be anyone’s slave,” Arria said. Fina nodded, and she continued. “Courtesans have regular meals, clothes, a place to stay?”

Fina nodded again. “Well of course. But courtesans must take training in etiquette and matters of sex. Comfort and pleasure is our business and you have to know how to satisfy a wide variety of appetites.” Fina turned to face her.

Arria blushed, uncomfortable at the thought of such tutelage. “What is there to learn?”

“You’d be surprised,” Fina said. “Listen. You are a very pretty girl and will make a lovely woman. You might not like the obvious options here right now, but if you tried I think you could find a comfortable job as a maid for one of the noble or wealthy trade families. Maybe you could apprentice to someone and learn a skill.”

Arria shook her head. “With no one to vouch for me and no family, the chance of being admitted to a respected household is slim to none. I’m too old to apprentice to anyone. Please, Fina. Take me with you. I’ll learn and I’ll earn.”

“And if it doesn’t work out? If you find you can’t do it? What then?”

“It will,” Arria said certainly. “I can do it.”

Fina pursed her lips and thought about it. Finally she said, “All right. I’ll discuss it with Lady Blackwell. If she agrees, then you’ll come home with us tomorrow, but I make no promises.”

Arria stood up, eyes bright and excited. She grappled Fina in an artless, but heartfelt hug. “Thanks, Fina! You won’t regret this.” After a she let go, Arria shifted her weight from one foot to another and fidgeted.

Fina sighed and rolled her eyes. “Yes, you can stay here tonight. After we get you something to eat, or that growling stomach of yours will keep me up all night. And after you take another bath.”

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