After the bath and period of relaxation, Emmeline had rejoined the others with a smile on her face. River had thrown her a heated look and stormed away back to her room, and Emmeline was surprised. But with a little thought, she wondered if she might know what bothered River.

She couldn’t let this sit and fester, so she rose and went after the angry bard. At the room, she knocked on the door and said gently, “River, I didn’t — would never — betray your father. Can we talk?”

“Come in,” River said. After Emmeline entered she added in a calm tone, “what do you want to talk about?”

“About why you are upset with me,” Emmeline said. Her face was plain to read — what Rivanon thought of her was very important to Em. “No man can ever serve as a substitute for the baron for me, nor would I willingly allow another man to touch me.”

She nodded, “I know that is what you feel now. It is just that your adopted mother and grandfather have a scandalous reputation and I fear you someday going down the same path and hurt my father. As far as your explorations with other women, it is what it is and I can neither do anything about it, nor do I know if my father would care or not. I suspect I know, but it still bothers me somewhat.”

Emmeline paused to think carefully as she might be revealing things more personal to herself than she really wanted to reveal. But she needed Rivanon and she wanted Rivanon to understand her at least as much as she understood herself.

“I am devoted to him in a way I’m not even sure I can explain. Have I been encouraged from many sources to explore and be free, even to use whatever I have to try to manipulate men? Yes absolutely I have, and by many people. But I would never do that because I couldn’t live with myself if I did. It would hurt him and it would hurt us.

“I always fear he will replace me with someone else. He has loved many other women before, but I have only ever loved him,” Emmeline said. “Dammit,” she said as tears escaped and slipped down her cheeks. “I hate that I wear my emotions like a collar for all to see. I guess I can play a role so far as that goes, but as soon as it’s real and it’s really me, I’m all over the place. I’m sorry.”

In the River accent she said, “Like the other night, with the visions? I’d like to say I understand, but I do not really. I consider it a failure on my part to have shown my anger to you. It was…wrong.” Rivanon unclipped her hair clip. Her hair turned to a dirty blonde and facial features took on an Eterian stature. As Rivanon the noble, she asked, “But tell me truthfully, have you done this before?”

“I did get lessons from a professional courtesan in Thalassan, secrets of love making, that’s the truth. I did it because I wanted to try to be the best thing ever for Roland. He’s a lot more experienced and worldly than I and I worried I would bore him.” Emmeline’s obvious anxiety over it betrayed her insecurity.

“Bore father? He is completely fascinated by you, so much that he told me that he had little interest in others. Believe it or not, he has not used his position, like the Count de Portreaux for instance, to unleash his carnal side. The rumors are not accurate. He likes the company of the young and beautiful, but rarely avails himself of them. Though it has happened from time to time, there is no substitute for him for someone he cares for, at least not today.” Rivanon added.

“Here today, I found comfort in the arms of a woman,” Emmeline admitted. “It’s not that I prefer that to a man. I don’t. For me, there is no substitute for your father in love, but for the first time since we left Uzec, I could forget my worries. I want to feel safe and relaxed and confident just one more time before we go into those wilds where no one will care who we are or how well we can make music. Do you hate that I want that?”

“My feelings have no bearing on this. If father is fine with your dalliances with women – it is certainly not unheard of in the noble set – then it is of no consequence to me. Take what you will, do what you will, but if you take a man or woman in the manner of a man I am certain father would feel betrayed, as will I. If you play around, it is no matter and I will get over it and I’m sure father will find it harmless.”

Rivanon then put the hairclip back on. She was the smiling River again, “to be truthful, I have been more than tempted myself.”

Emmeline silently absorbed what Rivanon was saying. Completely fascinated Rivanon had told her. She knew the Baron loved her in her heart, but it was hard to convince her mind that he would always want her.  Her head told her she brought a lot of problems along with her. But there was something else that Rivanon had said that demanded a response.

“River,” Emmeline said softly. “Your feelings are very important to me. You’re my friend — the best friend I’ve ever made. Of course how you feel and what you think matters, so please don’t say it has no bearing. I apologize for upsetting you. And do you really mean what you said about being tempted?”

“Certainly,” she smiled, “I mean not as much by the women. I was tempted by the men primarily.” She paused and then continued, “but duty told me not to. Em.”

River turned toward Emmeline, taking her hand, saying, “I’m honored to call you a friend, but there is a major difference between us. You love your freedom, and the ability to be more spontaneous. I respect that, and admire it. Indeed, I’m trying to be a semblance of a person who embodies a veneer of those qualities, plus the caring hand of someone who is in touch with the common folk. I am learning and observing and hope to incorporate what I learn into my life. Yet Em, I fought the temptation for the same reason I came on this journey, which is the same reason I went to school on Thalassa – duty. That is my number one concern: duty to Thalassa, duty to father and uncle, duty to my people, and duty to my friends. You may not understand that, or maybe you do – with Mara for instance. While I have opinions, and I will express them properly, in the end my opinions do not trump that of my father or you in your personal relationship.”

“But it hurt a bit. If it was any other man I suppose it wouldn’t matter to me. But it is my father, and I can be protective of him. But if it wasn’t my father involved I likely would be suspect, but it wouldn’t draw my concern. Then again, you are not married and it isn’t another man, so who am I to judge you, especially given the last few days.”

“I… well, maybe I deserve to be judged,” Emmeline said. “I don’t know. I just want to feel normal, or hide under the covers from that monstrous thing that wants to get me because I don’t know how to fight back. But that’s only part of it.”

“I’m not judging you. Noble women having dalliances with other noble women from time to time. While not common, it is an unspoken truth of some deep friendships, mentorships, or even master-servant relationships. Most noblemen do not care as long as their role is preserved. Many of them have many mistresses as well. It is…complex, and generally unsaid. Father making you his mistress in a public way is saying that you are his, no other man may have your favors, the children are his, and he will upkeep you. That is all. Anything else is what you two make of it. All I would ask is if you need comfort in another, always think of who you love. A surrogate is comforting, or so I am told, and what you went through is hard. But what is the other thing?” replied River.

Emmeline nodded her agreement. “He can’t be replaced. Not to me,” she shook her head. “Here I’m finding a little comfort — for a short time, I want to feel good and I want to feel safe. The other part of it is that I am learning. I never want to be stop being that fascinating woman you told me he believes me to be. What you said about thinking of him is exactly what I’m doing. Love-making can be boring, crude, brief, even brutal. It requires skill and a willingness to be adventurous to be a really good lover. Since that is what I am to Roland, I intend to be very good at it.”

“Sounds like one of your teachers talking,” River teased, “to be honest I really don’t like thinking of my father that way. I mean, if you don’t mind, can we change the subject? I get what you did, I understand it. I’m still not sure if I like it, but that is your choice, but just please be honest with him when you get back. Lying, to him, is the second greatest of sins.”

Emmeline nodded. “Of course. I’m sure he’ll ask how I learned the things I do, and I’ll tell him. I’ve never found reason to lie to him.

“On a different note, tonight might be our last chance to perform something together. Shall we make it a great one?”

“Of course! But you mean last chance in a city. I mean there are plenty of little villages from here to the highlands, and those are the people that need us. That said, do we want to play here? I mean talk about being assumed to be a prostitute, that will be doubly so here.” she replied.

Em mentally skidded to a halt. “Oh… I… you know, I didn’t consider that. I didn’t know this place was a, uh, fancy brothel when I promised the manager about the performance. I also thought we were heading straight into wilds and wouldn’t see an inn until we returned and that’s why I arranged it in the first place…” She looked rather flummoxed.

“Well, I see three courses of action. First option is that we just pay the owner and beg off the entertainment, paying what we need to to lay low. Second option is we play a nice show, dress nicely but not competitively with the ‘assistants’ so we are here for the music, perhaps indeed have them as dancers to distract the patrons from us – physically. Or third we go for it, blow their minds, make them desire us beyond all measure, and then disappear, or who knows, perhaps take advantage of it. It all depends on the clientele I suppose.” she replied.

Em was thoughtful. “I don’t have anything that would compete with the attendants here and anyway, I don’t think I would want to. How about we go for the second option? I despise going back on my word, even if I wasn’t aware of what this place was. We can still play well, let the attendants shine, if that’s what they want to do, and fulfill the obligation. Does that work for you?”

River laughed, “I have no doubt we could compete with them, but perhaps we need not. We should ask the dwarf if he has dancers available. We can practice this afternoon, and then do what we do best. There is a part of me that wants to be the only center of attention though, despite the risks.”

Em’s smile was shyly mischievous. “I know that feeling well…” She was more serious when she continued. “Part of being an entertainer is getting our name out there and becoming well known. Impressing people is our bread and butter. Fail and we go hungry. But our circumstances are different now and being well known for performing here has… well… consequences. Let’s impress them with our skills with music and less as objects of desire. Then, if some handsome young noble decides to pursue you, at least it’s for you and not just your body. And that’s a far better sort of flattery, even if it can go nowhere.”

“Well, I’m up for fun, but getting the name of ‘River’ out there won’t do much good in the long run. Ultimately I don’t think we’ll avoid the desire angle, but we can deflect it and be unattainable should we wish. Do you wish to talk to Thal and arrange a group of dancers?”

Em nodded. “Yes, I’ll take care of that.” She was about to turn to go do that, but she stepped up, gave River a hug, then left.

It took a bit, but Emmeline eventually found Thal, the manager of the Royal Unicorn. He greeted her, “hello my beauty Emmeline! Are you enjoying our fine establishment?”

She blushed and nodded. “To be honest had not expected all this, but… I’ve had a hard road and it’s going to get harder. A little relief is welcome. That said, I was wondering if you might like River and I to do a special show? Usually, we do music and I will put in some dance, too, if the crowd has the energy to pick up on it. But you have such lovely attendants here, we wanted to invite you to ask any who might wish to dance to our music.”

The dwarf smiled, “Oh it is not of question of if my lovely, but when! Rosamund did say you were a unique creature. How wonderful then! Yes, of course you may have some dancers. I’ll arrange for you to speak with them and practice.” He signalled one of his slaves to come over, “Fetch fraulein Emmeline six dancers – perhaps Marta and her lot.” The slave bowed and left. Continuing the dwarf said sheepishly,”I shouldn’t ask this of course, but it will come up. As you two are exotic creatures and beautiful beyond measure, there will be those of influence who would wish your favors – the details of which can be left to the imagination. Are you available for the right price should the question come up, or shall I introduce you as visiting only and not interested in such things? Perhaps treating you akin to our noble skalic singers?”

Emmeline was curious. “What is a skalic singer?”

“Ah, you don’t know. Well that is fair being from the West. A ancient tradition for those out here that was brought back by the scion of Haalkhan, our blessed first queen. The skalds are the living memory of our history, laws and traditions. They sing songs and poetry of great deeds, mighty battles and deep sorrow. It is said that the Periphery has a similar tradition descended from the ancient druii elders of the Danaeans, a version of which are the bards of Thalassan. The skalds are less about magic, adventure, and entertainment and more about cultural traditions. We of course have entertainers of all types as well!”

“It sounds beautiful,” Emmeline said. “But compared to them, I’m only a humble entertainer, not the equal of great skalds you describe. But I have seen things and been places, traveled the Periphery almost since I could walk and performed with my grandfather, who was a great bard as you describe.

“Most of my songs tonight are true and real stories. With my friends I have experienced both horror and joy, witnessed great heroism and lowly cowardice, terrible loss but great victory, too. Many of the songs I sing tonight will be true, every melody crafted from my own heart. Though I can do requests; my grandfather would have said my repertoire was ‘acceptable’ which, from him meant it is extensive for one of the Periphery.

“As to your question, perhaps we need say nothing. It is obvious we are from abroad. My heart belongs to one from lands very, very far from here. I did seek comfort with Rosamund, for which I will have to beg forgiveness. I will see her later, perhaps, but I must not let any other touch me, nor my friend River, or the consequences for me might be tragic.”

The dwarf answered, “there is no embarrassment. What happens here, stays here. As far as Rosamund, there is nothing to forgive, she thought you were lovely and well skilled for someone so young. It is sad though, someone of your beauty, or your friends, could easily earn a thousand gold in a night. Easily. But, if that is your choice, then that is your choice – but do not stop yourselves from being who you are. This is Storuvan!” he exclaimed. “Free women are powerful here, and blessed by our queen. You control your destiny. Tease, entice, do what you will. Build up the energy, and my dancers and other assistants will take care of the rest. Do not fear, as I and my liege will enforce the behavior of the others. It is in my interest for you to be a sexual as you feel like being, as it will increase sales of assistants.” The dwarf was direct, if vulgar.

“There will be no tragedy on MY watch!” the dwarf added. “Just sell my services my sweet. Entertain! Entice! Enrapture! Any way you can. I’ll make it clear you are inviolate.”

Emmeline blinked in surprise at the money the dwarf suggested was possible. That was a huge amount to her. Perhaps if her circumstances were very different, but even that kind of money wouldn’t be enough to lure her away from her baron.

“Thank you, my friend. If my circumstances were different, I would be very tempted, of course. My companion and I thank you for your kindness. We will provide you your show and it will only make your lovely attendants all the more desirable.” Emmeline smiled and delivered a graceful curtsy before she departed to meet River for their performance.

River was looking at her small trunk of clothing and noted Emmeline entering the room, “So, what did you learn?”

“Thal is more than pleased we will perform, has assigned dancers, and seems dedicated to the idea we are not intending to sell any service but good music.” Emmeline decided not to mention just how much money they could each earn if their morals were more loose. Although where Em was concerned, she had to admit to herself that it wasn’t so much a question of morals but rather a desire not to hurt her Baron or damage her relationship with him.

“He did warn us that we could expect customers might make us offers, but that free women were powerful in this town. I think, from the way he talked, their queen sees to that in fact. He encourages us to build up the energy here, entice his clientele, be as sensual as we wish and promised that he and his liege will enforce the good behavior of others toward us.”

Em smiled. “So, I feel a lot better about performing any way we please here. I’m not going to hold back — except for one rule. No magic for either of us as long as we are in town. I’m sensing some real sticky issues with that, and we best avoid it except in self defense. Well, especially for me, less so perhaps for you. But regardless, we don’t need magic to put on an unforgettable show.”

“Yeah, I noticed someone on a stake in the distance. I asked a few questions and found out it was a Malithii sorcerer, like the one we met a week back, that used his magic to beguile a guard. It was not taken lightly.” she replied. “The cut off his hands, cut out his tongue and slid him onto a greased stake. It was horrible sounding, and barbaric, I don’t really want to even look.”

Emmeline’s eyes grew large. She swallowed and immediately adjusted her expectations. “Wow. Okay, I don’t know about you, but I am not using magic in this town, even in self defense. I’d put up with a lot if it meant avoiding something like that.”

“Well, apparently it is only male non-citizen arcane spellcasters in-city or against officials outside the city. Their bards, called skalds I think, can do so, as can religious types and their own sorcerers. It all depends on how it is used. Basically don’t hurt anyone or magically influence an official if you are a male, with self-defense being okay. Apparently females get some leeway, but I’m not chancing it.” she added.

“Me neither.” Em started digging through her trunk until she found one of the nice entertainer outfits Contessa Adela bought for her. Holding it up, she smiled. “I think this will do.”

“That’s current!” She said noting the plunging bust line, back line, and exposed shoulders, attached to a flowing complex dress. “I have something similar. It is not too risque for a Thalassan, but for some in the Periphery it would be at the edge of a scandal. For here I have no idea, they seem to have all kinds.”

“Sounds like I better use caution if I wear it home in Uzec, then. So…” Em shed her clothes and started putting on the outfit. “It sounds like we better enjoy these outfits here while we can!”

Emmeline showed an adventurous smile and helped River dress.

River enthusiastically changed, “Absolutely,” she said said. “You know, father likes men to be jealous of the women in his life. He would never admit it, but he’d hate you to be too prim and proper. Mother was an adventurer par excellence, and she never fit in at court, which didn’t bother father in the slightest.” In all the excitement of getting undressed and dressed, the nominally cautious River exposed a part of her lower back, showing a very faded, almost undetectable set of light scars, akin to whipping scars. Emmeline saw them out of the corner of her eye.

Em’s excited grin quickly faded. “River? What’s that?” River could follow Emmeline’s eyes to the marks on her back. “Who?”

“Oh.” she said with a touch of surprise. “I was…punished, long ago. It is nothing.”

“Who punished you? Does this have something to do with Lady Millicent?” Emmeline pressed.

“No, nothing like that…in fact it was your Aunt’s idea.” River briefly removed the hair clip, and the scars, and several other minor curs and abrasions disappeared, returning when she replaced the clip. “I, meaning River, was punished once as a child by whipping. Rivanon never was.”

Emmeline sighed and shook her head as she finished getting ready. She noted River’s remark bout the Baron appreciating an adventurous nature, and smiled again. That would help make life at court a lot more fun for her. After all, the baron would tell her if he didn’t like something she did, wouldn’t he? It’s not like he was shy.

Now dressed, Em took up her grandfather’s violin case. “Ready?”

“Ready!” she replied with her Vihuela across her back. The two women left to meet the dancers and prepare for the show.

Once at the room they were to use to prepare before performing, Emmeline looked around at the dancers and did a quick mental comparison between their style of clothing and her own. She assumed that the dancers would wear what would be considered scandalous in other places in this city, given their location. Did the fashions of the Periphery strangle their women in conservatism in comparison? Or was her outfit borderline scandalous even here?

River nodded, noting the complex but revealing outfits of the dancers. “Well Em, I think we are safe. We might be the center of attention, but they’ll be the center of attraction – at least for the more energetic numbers.”

“Let’s find out shall we?” Em set her viol case down and removed her instrument and tried out a few basic rhythms and melodies pausing to ask if they could dance to it and watching what they did. She pointed out a dancer here and there and told the rest to “do what she did” at various times depending on the music. In a few minutes she felt they could have a slightly less than chaotic, yet still improvised and natural accompaniment.

Em wasn’t sure they all understood her language, but she gave it a try. “The most important thing is to do what the music moves you to do. If it makes you feel happy, then move with spring and lightheartedness. If it moves you to sadness, then step with care and purpose. If it moves you to feel love, then show it. Understand?”

Some did, others were confused. River said, “continue practicing, I’ll be right back.” Ten minutes later, River returned, “I inquired about magic with our host. Harmful or manipulative magics are the ones that draw ire. Constructive magics are tolerated. I’ve shown you a spellsong before that allows everyone to understand you. If I cast it on you and only you, and you are willing, then there is no harm. Then all the girls will understand you. It will be natural. We can do the same at the show so our singing is understood.”

Emmeline smiled and nodded. “Agreed. Let’s do this!”

Thus the show went on. The two women harmonized expertly, and the dancers modified their moves to match the rhythm and tenor of the music. It was an upbeat and energetic performance. The crowd was a mix of misogynists, bathhouse customers, slavers, and a wide variety of visitors to the inn; despite some early catcalls and not a little staring, the music (and the dancers) took their mind to art – albeit briefly. No one touched Emmeline or River, though quite a lot of coin was through on stage will lewd calls to disrobe, which the dancers eventually did, each one-by-one leaving the stage for the highest paying customers, and disappearing to the back.

By the end of the night, not a few offers were made to Thal, with each of several wealthy patrons discussing and pointing at River or Emmeline (or sometimes both), but Thal just shrugged, took some money and they left, usually with other girls in tow.

It was an exhausting night. Both Emmeline and River had played, sung, danced, teased, and played with the audience expertly. They were highly desired, highly appreciated, and completely untouched, assaulted, or otherwise propositioned – at least after the music had began. They had done their job, and the audience was satisfied, clapping and showing them with coin.

In the back room, River said, “that went well!”

Emmeline smiled, “That felt really good didn’t it. Thal kept his word and really worked hard to respect our wishes.” Em slipped out of her entertainer’s outfit and began putting on her less flashy traveling leathers.

River smiled, then as one of the dancers passed by, the smile slipped away. “It was fun, but I’m feeling guilty about it.”

Emmeline watched the dancer go, then turned to River. “Why?”

“Perhaps better not to over analyze,” River. “It’s just that the dancers are slaves.”

“Exactly. Stuck doing the same thing night after night,” Em said with a nod. Then she smiled. “For a little while we were able to give them something different to listen to, and something different to do. We put clients in a good mood which is healthier for everyone. You have nothing to feel guilty about.”

Before River could answer, there was a knock on the door. Getting dressed, and after Emmeline was done, River answered the door, “Yes?” Thal was there. “I wanted to congratulate you!”

Emmeline’s smile was sunny. “Congratulate us? You were marvelous, Thal! True to your word through and through! I saw what you did and I thank you.”

Thal smiled, “Any time my beauties! You earned your stay and more. It was much beyond what I expected. The dancers were able to negotiate great fees, and I almost forgot” he threw a heavy bag of coin down. “Your tips. You will find 128 gold there. An amazing haul for one night, though paltry in comparison of the other offers I heard. But, that’s enough of that. I must ask if you are staying for another night?”

“I believe we must be moving on in the morning.” Emmeline added, “When we come through the city again, though, we will be certain to come and find you.”

“Excellent,” said the dwarf, and the he departs.

Shortly thereafter, Emmeline decided she would retire to her own room. She split the take between herself and River bid her goodnight. She’d nearly forgotten someone was waiting for her there.

Rosalinde was waiting for Emmeline in the room. Dozens of candles and scented oils permeated the air, “Mistress, I am yours,” she said. “What is your desire?”

“To help all the refugees from Malith to find a new home. To rescue people from a cruel master in Estrasia. To complete my journey here and return home to my baron and my Lady.” Em paused and looked to Rosamund. “Probably not something I can have right now, though.

“I have a lot of fears, it turns out. Ones I never even knew I had. The truth is you gave me a moment of quietude. Peace that allowed my troubled mind and heart to settle.” Emmeline smiled at Rosalinde. “To me, that’s priceless.  So what I’d like to do most, is offer you peace as well. We could do everything… or simply nothing. The night is yours and you are free to do anything you wish, save that which feels like work to you.”

Emmeline was very curious to see what Rosalinde might say or choose.

Rosalinde looked confused, “You don’t want me?” The question was innocent, almost childlike, as if she only had one skill set and suddenly that was not available. “I am a slave, mistress, everything is work to me. I don’t know what you mean.”

Em sat down on the bed, pulled off her boots and let them drop to the floor, then slid back until her back was supported by the headboard. She patted the space beside her, then waited for Rosalinde to scoot in beside her. “All right, then. Pretend we are working. I’m an entertainer. Entertainers have to make people happy or they don’t get to eat and have no place to sleep. You make people happy, too, although the reasons and skills involved are different.

“For example, you aren’t just a skilled attendant. You are a very skilled attendant. I’m in love with someone I would never try to replace, but at the same time, if you wanted to do something, I doubt I could resist. I pretty sure I wouldn’t even want to.” Em smiled. “I’m guessing you have no idea how powerful you really are at this moment.”

“No mistress, just confused. What do you want of me?” she said.

A new approach was clearly needed. Em said, “It’s not about me. All right, let me ask you this. Let’s say you have been paid for an entire night, but your client is happy and well satisfied. You find you have time on your hands. What do you do?”

“I ready baths for them mistress. Clean their clothes. Simple lay in bed with them showing my attention. Sometimes talk about whatever they want to talk about. I know a little history, local sights, some poetry.” she replied.

“Do you enjoy any of those things?” Em asked.

“Of course. I enjoy anything my mistress wishes me to. I can tell you a poem if you wish?” she replied.

Em shook her head and sighed. “Rosalinde, I’m not trying to trick you. But I get it, honestly I do. You don’t want to say or do anything that could possibly get you in trouble. Your destiny is, for now, completely in the hands of masters that you have to please. So you have to act this way, never daring to be your own person.

“I get that. I was in exactly the same spot.” Em looked away as she reflect. “For me it was only a month. But if they ever once thought they couldn’t trust me, or if they thought I would not act in their best interest, they were going kill me. That was my reward for being honest with them. I’ll carry the scars of that for the rest of my life. Nor will they all ever trust me, even when I’m far away like this. If they think I stray so much as a step out of line, they’ve told me they will find me and kill me.

“But you know what? To hell with them!” said animatedly. Emmeline turned to look into Rosalinde’s eyes and grasped her hands. “I’m a good person, dammit, and I don’t care what threats they make. I’m going to dance and sing and entertain. I’m going to live my life the way I’ve always said I would, even if that means they might hear something they don’t like. Because you know what? Nobody owns my soul but me.

“I don’t care what sign they hang around your neck, Rosalinde. Nobody owns your soul, unless you just give it away. It can’t be taken from you. So, things can change for you, no matter how impossible it seems. But first you have to want it.”

“I want to go home,” Rosalinde wimpered…

The heartfelt wish tugged at Emmeline’s emotions. “Where is home?” she asked quietly.

“Vannes,” she replied. “I was taken when I was very young.”

Emmeline was surprised and saddened. “That’s a very long way from here. You were taken? Kidnapped?”

“My parents fled the civil war fifteen years ago. We were taken by bandits and when no ransom came the sold us. I have not seen my country or parents since. Thal is better than my first two masters, at least I keep some of my money so when I am older and no longer pretty, I can buy my freedom and maybe become a house servant.”

Emmeline nodded and looked at Rosalinde thoughtfully. “It’s a reasonable goal. You might also find someone who really likes you for you and not just for how you make them feel. As long as there is life, there is possibility. I can’t tell you what you must do. After all you are the expert in your own survival to have made it this far. All I can do is encourage you to never give up hope for a better life.

“If my own circumstances were more favorable, I’d buy your freedom. I’d buy everyone’s freedom. You must have to face so much fear every day, I just want to take you away. Good things do happen. There are good people out there trying to do what’s right. I could tell you some of the things my friends and I have done if you’d like. Happy stories. But I’d rather hear your stories — anything you wish to share.”

She thought, then said, “I remember this poem my father loved. He was a farmer and this reminds me of home:

A little lane – the brook runs close beside,
And spangles in the sunshine, while the fish glide swiftly by;
And hedges leafing with the green springtide;
From out their greenery the old birds fly,
And chirp and whistle in the morning sun;
The pilewort glitters ‘neath the pale blue sky,
The little robin has its nest begun
The grass-green linnets round the bushes fly.
How mild the spring comes in! the daisy buds
Lift up their golden blossoms to the sky.
How lovely are the pingles in the woods!
Here a beetle runs – and there a fly
Rests on the arum leaf in bottle-green,
And all the spring in this sweet lane is seen.”

A single tear went down her face. “It was a long time ago. Home was a good place until the King died. I hear it is a good place again.”

The poem brought a tear to Emmeline’s eye too, so she gave Rosalinde a hug. “If I could help you change your life, I would. Just don’t you give up, don’t surrender everything. Always keep a little piece of yourself back, the piece that remembers home and the poem and what it feels like. Where there is life, there is always hope.” Em squeezed Rosalinde, then let her go.

She never bothered to take her clothes off, which was unusual for Emmeline, but she wanted very much for Rosalinde to understand the only expectation she had was for Rosalinde to stay and take some time for herself.

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