“Let's love ourselves and we can't fail
To make a better situation
Tomorrow, our seeds will grow
All we need is dedication
Let me tell ya that
Everything is everything.”
-Everything is Everything, Lauryn Hill
“That settles it, Rolf,” said Virgil Mountpence, slamming the leather purse on the bar and motioning to Ruby. “She is paid up and you have no further claim on her.”
“Virgil, Virgil, Virgil,” said Rolf, clucking his tongue and giving the wide-eyed former prostitute a shove as she tried to tiptoe past him. “You know, Alfred won’t be pleased with this turn of events, not pleased at’all. Why, if our good Bishop were not your brother-“
“Well, he is, so we can just dispense with the idle threats now, can we not, Mr. Forsythe?”
Rolf drummed his fingers on his belly, coolly surveying the scene before him.
Virgil Mountpence, committing political suicide, potentially actual suicide, for what? For some dried up old cunny who could barely bring in a half dozen tin coins a week. Sure, Ruby could certainly tend bar fairly well during one of Rolf’s frequent absences, but she was not making money the way one of his younger girls – an Esmerelda, say – might siphon coin from a patron. If Alfred found out that Virgil was paying this kind of money for a whore, he could use it against him with his ecclesiastical brother Charles. No matter what love Chuckie the Bishop had for Virgil, which was likely limited, given the man’s reputed lack of mercy, Charles would not allow this kind of thing to go public without a word. He would have to disavow his brother for his lustful actions and hand him over to the City Guard for prosecution. If such a thing were to pass, Virgil would be subject to his own gibbet medicine within a fortnight. But no, Alfred would probably not out him publically for the King’s Justice. That was too simple a torture. He would use the man’s weakness against him, especially given what had happened between the two of them and Carl Nicodemus, Christ-man rest his bugger’s heart. Knowing Alfred, it would only be for pain and misery’s sake. He barely cared about the colour of money, though he made enough of it. Perhaps there was a way that Rolf could take better advantage of the situation?
“Alright, Virgil,” said Rolf, splaying out both of his hands and placing them on the bar to stare directly at the pair of them. “Say Alfred doesn’t find out. Say, if he ever has reason to ask, I tell him that Ruby saved her own coin and bought her freedom. Decided to go to seek her fortune as madam at the Black Mamba in Tunuska – a career dream of hers.” A twisted grin, the same one that Ruby had witnessed too many times in her life, sprouted on the man’s lips. “Say you owe me a favour.”
Virgil’s eyes darted from the hirsute tavernkeeper to the middle-aged woman who had sidled up to the bar’s flipped open exit at his right. She had recently applied some sort of crimson dye to the shock of bone-white hair that had exposed itself at its roots, giving her an illusion of youth that was dispelled rather quickly if you looked even passingly at her face. She had been beautiful, once. Now her beauty was fading. In this light, she was severe and birdlike and Virgil felt a needle of self-doubt attempt to wedge itself in his chest. Perhaps it was not too late. Perhaps Rolf would agree to give him back his inheritance and he could forget about Ruby’s emancipation.
No, that was most certainly not the case. If he reneged now, he would never be able to forget. He would still have to come here with Alfred, at the whim of that vengeful creature who thought Virgil his property to do with as he wished. He would have to watch Ruby as she served him and the other patrons, either Cistern Ale or other pleasures. He would be forever reminded of his failure if he did not do the right thing and get her out. He had made a promise to himself, ever since the meltdown with Carl and Alfred: Virgil would live honourably and do his best to help those that he could. And he could help Ruby. And besides, he had… affection for her.
Ruby, for her part, was impassive. She neither smiled nor frowned and appeared to be watching the exchange with the same feigned lack of emotion that had seen her keep her neck intact during an interminably long and incredibly dangerous career as a whore. She did not like the term prostitute. Or worse still: courtesan. It was putting paint on the lips of a hog, the kind of terminology that the weak needed to convince themselves that they were not selling their cunts for barely a fraction of what their fathers told them they were worth. If those what begot them were even around in their youths. Such paternal presence was admittedly rare among members of her marginalized sorority. Certainly in Ruby’s case she never even knew her father’s name, growing up as she did at the Cistern Orphanage. Indeed, Ruby was a realist and a cynic – she would tell anyone who had to ask that she was a whore.
And indeed, she truly was a whore. Past tense. Now, thanks to the patronage of a rare and inscrutable bird like Virgil Mountpence, she was about to be free. A smile tugged at her lips but she battered it down as she had so many times before, descending into the rut of self-preservation etched deep in the trails of her mind.
“And what kind of favour would I owe you?” Virgil asked, wariness setting his voice a’quaver.
“Well, I’m not sure what it would be. Not yet,” said Rolf, putting his fingers back on his midriff to begin the rhythm again. His smile deepened. “That’s the point – it’s a, waddhya call it – a carte blanch.”
“I think you mean a carte blanche,” said Virgil. He noticed the smile on the tavernkeeper’s face begin to fade and, not wanting his lazy grammatical arrogance to hurt his chances of success, he promptly added, “Sure, Rolf. One favour, but I have term:– no killing anyone, no hurting anyone, no stealing anything. None of the black work you might have cooking in that reptile’s brain of yours. If you cannot agree to that, I will take my chances with your brother.”
Reptile’s brain. Not even this bootlick fuck had a shred of respect for Rolf, that much was clear. To be a man not taken seriously was the tavernkeeper’s lot, no matter the quality of drink or the talent. At least, that was the lot of tavernkeepers named Rolf Forsythe tending the Green Dragon of Isha. Rolf stared at Virgil, a man whose cowardice was just about as evenly matched as his own. At least, it seemed as though it had been for the decade they had known each other, intertwined as they had become due to their involvement with patent psychopath Alfred Forsythe – Rolf’s older brother and Virgil’s superior at work. When it became clear that Virgil was not going to look away, Rolf did what he always did when he felt the hot sting of anxiety in his chest in a social situation. He drummed on his belly and gazed up at nothing on the wall behind the interloper.
“Very well, Virg,” Rolf said, mockingly mimicking the way the executioner corrected his prior pronunciation, “we have a deal. Ruby,” he added, casting a sidelong glance at his middle-aged former employee, “get your shite and get the fuck out.”
“Shite’s already got, Rolf, me honey,” Ruby said, playing the pronunciation game and brandishing a weatherbeaten drawstring leather sack with a smirk on her face. Feeling a rush of courage descend upon her in an irrepressible wave, she gestured to the clinking purse in Rolf’s hand and said, “Ye should think about gettin’ proper soap fer da whores, ya cheap fuck. Da hogsfat shite ye gets from Ellsworth barely lathers up proper. Da lavender scented goosefat bars Reese and his daughters makes costs a few extra coppers but those girls in back is worth yer investment. Dere – dat’s da last piece of advice ye’ll ever get off me, ya fat fuckin’ leech. Let’s go, Virg.”
“What will you do now?”
Ruby lay in the bed next to Virgil, sticky from their coupling and the warm Julian month air streaming in through the open window, bringing with it the night sounds of the streets below. The calm of the Merchant Domiciles section of the city was a stark and welcome contrast to the racket that pervaded the night air outside the Green Dragon. She pondered the man’s words for a while, staring up and away from a bare-chested Virgil, propped on an elbow and looking down at her with… affection.
Affection. Yes. That is what they felt for each other. It was not the passionate love that Virgil had experienced only experienced once in his youth with his runaway bride. Ruby had never at all felt such emotion cook her insides into a soupy mush of needful emotion. In her experience, love was for the infantile – more the product of a naïve and myopic child’s countenance than that of a worldly creature who had experienced the dark underbelly of human nature. Of that, Ruby had seen more than her fill.
“I suppose I’ll ‘ave te find a job,” Ruby replied, unexpectedly saddened. She was happy to have seen the back of Rolf, that cowardly shite. The man had never laid a hand on her – he was too terrified of Ruby, she knew that. But Rolf had put the beating on the meeker girls: Esmerelda, Vicky, and Deanna, and probably more, laying into them his frustration because he was too scared to get his nut up when it came to confrontation with any other men. Laid low even by her timid Virgil – the softest man to ever darken the gibbet on the King’s behalf. But Rolf had represented something familiar to her. From the moment he bought her gambling debts and made her an indentured servant lo these fourteen years, he was the closest thing to family she had left. And now she was leaving him behind.
And leave she would have to – Isha held nothing for her, not any more. The Green Dragon had gone from a garbage dump when she started, nothing more than a watering hole for the poorest serfs, all the way up to the well-tended and bustling spot where you might see as many foppish nobles in a night as you would dirt-stained farmers. It was the only place that served Cistern Ale, a monopoly that was wrought by some dark collusion involving the Cistern Monks and Alfred Forsythe. It was unearthly moreish, that brew. Nearly all her sisters of the whorely pursuit eventually found their way to that tavern, following the coin of potential patrons who were called by the siren song of the seemingly enchanted beverage. She could try some of the other brothels, but they were to a one run by violent despots several times worse than Ruby’s own former employer, brutes who took bigger cuts and laid greater beatings. The decision to leave Rolf was a hard one – but Ruby knew that she would wither and die if she did not follow her heart. And her heart was screaming at her to weigh anchor in the port of Isha.
“Where will you go?” asked Virgil, reading her mind. There was a note of melancholy in his tone, and Ruby knew that it was because their recent familiarity had cemented that... affection that lay between them. Better to leave sooner rather than later, Ruby decided. She did not want to make it any harder on him than it needed to be. Her own… affection for him was following down the same path, albeit at a slower pace than the upright individual that lay next to her. A wonderful man, and maybe in another life they would have found each other. Ruby was certain that there was an alternate reality where she stayed and the dalliance wended its way through to its ultimate conclusion. Not to love, no, for love was stupid. But a staying companionship, the kind where two souls lost in the meat grinding hell of this world might find some small measure of respite on the darker days.
Indeed, where? Down into a provincial village, perhaps. She would borrow the money for a donkey from Virgil and follow the Regent’s Way until she found the little township or hamlet that would steal her heart. No, that fantasy was as empty as the dream of becoming happy in the company of the executioner with a heart of gold that was staring at her right this very moment. The thought of sticking around scared her more than any knife-wielding john or rapist sot she had ever had the misfortune of encountering. Ruby would have to go to a big city, perhaps one bigger than Isha. And Isha was the biggest in the realm. And she could not go to Liseria, for with her brand of talent and lack of a young and beautiful face, she would undoubtedly be taken for a spy and subject to something worse than death. A memory rose in her mind, then. Something that Rolf had said during the purchase of her emancipation.
The Black Mamba.
The thought of simply going along with what her former master had suggested rankled, out of nothing more than spite. She had not even considered it when Rolf had said it as a cover for Virgil and Rolf’s shared deception, caught as she was in the imminent promise of freedom. Of course she had heard of the Black Mamba. Every whore in the Green Dragon had. In Isha, perhaps. It was a place of which the sailor johns spoke wistfully, a brothel of infinite quality, where each and every whore was as beautiful as a princess. Whiskey drink and poppy smoke were delivered gratis into the hands of patrons, and the prices were not to be believed. The Green Dragon, even with its mesmerizing Cistern Ale, could not come close to comparing to this place. The murmurings she had heard amongst the whores, the grapevine communications about a dark man who ran the place and who was brutal in a way that made the pimps of Isha look like schoolboys, were steadfastly recalled and promptly ignored.
Ruby had no real choice – if she were discovered anywhere but the Black Mamba and word of it made it back to Rolf’s brother, there was no telling what Alfred Forsythe might do to Rolf and Virgil for their deception. Rolf, she could not care less about. But Virgil: Ruby had… affection for that man. There was only one answer.
“Tunuska,” she said finally, then turned towards the man who had freed her, “to da Black Mamba. I t’inks it’s on a road called ‘Gingari Close.’” Ruby looked away again. “Come see me sometime, if ya ever gets a chance, eh?”
Virgil had spent his inheritance on freeing the woman next to him. He had no real money left, aside from the stipend he was granted as a salary by the Office of the Royal Executioner. Plus, it took more than a week to reach the place – he could not be away from his job for such a length of time. Booking return passage on a vessel to Tunuska was something that would never materialize in his lifetime. And then there was Alfred: he was in the man’s pocket. He would never be able to get out. When she left him, Ruby was gone. Best to make the best of it, Virgil decided, turning Ruby towards him. It must have been a trick of the moonlight, that glint of moisture at the edge of her lashes. Wiping the tears of… affection from his own eyes, Virgil kissed Ruby with all of his heart.
“The Black Mamba,” he gasped, coming up for air. “On Gingari Close.”