Tarin arrived with no difficulties. The row of houses were just a single street from being on the river and were close enough to the lower city to have a reputation of being untamed and wild while still being safely within the confines of the patrolled and seemingly-secure upper city. With the easy access to the bridges, and the illusion of being so near to the uncultured side of town, it was no wonder that these streets attracted certain artists, eccentrics, those living too close to the lower city poverty and those who lived on the fringes of the upper city life. The upper city slave markets, clean and nothing like the bestial pens in the lower city, operated at one section along the river. Gambling houses and rough taverns trying to recreate the thrill of venturing into the lower city, without the risks, flourished. Lower end theaters without the high priced patrons put on artful but abstract performances and whorehouses peppered neighborhoods.
It was to the latter that Tarin went. The neighborhood was small shops and low end homes with a few taverns and the general assorted mix that clustered near the banks of the river. The house that the Pink Pearl resided in had been grand once, but had been left to decay before the ladies had moved in. It had taken a great deal of work to transform it back to some of its former splendor and now it retained a somewhat antique feel with all the overdone opulence of the wealth of a generation before. The women that worked inside were attractive, educated, highly skilled and the reputation of the Pink Pearl had been growing with each passing year.
Tarin sidestepped a trio of drunken young men that stood in debate about going inside and made his way not to the front door but around the side, past the stable they shared with the neighbor’s tavern and down an unlit stone path to the back of the house. The garden stood bathed in moonlight, surrounded by a low wall and a carved gate that squeaked gently in the low breeze. He moved by memory to the kitchen door, which stood half open to let the heat escape. The light from inside pooled out and lit up the shallow stone steps, a warm inviting glimpse on a damp night.
He climbed the steps and pushed the door open. The cook, a slender woman named Judith, stood in her plain dress. She directed two young girls in cleaning the kitchen, working to finish for the night. She caught a glimpse of movement out of the corner of her eye and was startled at the sight of him.
“Oh, Tarin! I’m going to tie a bell to you, boy, if you don’t learn to make some noise when you move around!” She smiled and it stretched the thin scars on her face. She might have been pretty once – her eyes were warm and her hair was thick even now as she pushed into her middle years – but someone had seen to it she wasn’t allowed to stay pretty. Her past was as unspoken as his own and they both left it at that.
“Evening, Judith, didn’t mean to startle you.”
She waved the concern aside. “No harm done. Have you eaten?” Her accent wasn’t the rounded-vowel, proper accent of the wealthy class of the upper city, nor fully the flat, fast accent of the lower city. She spoke with the mixed version of both, the rounder vowels slurred together into a fast clip that so many of the working classes of the upper city used.
“Earlier, it’s okay, I’m not hungry. How’ve you been?” He always made the time to have a moment’s word with Judith. She was what he imagined a friendly aunt would be.
“Well enough, well enough. Busy night tonight, people coming and going like bees to honey!” She dried off her hands on a dirty apron and leaned against the long counter. “Go on back to the parlor, I’ll see word is sent out that you’re here. Will you at least take tea?”
“Judith, I’m fine, truly I am. You just get the kitchen shut down for the night so you and your girls can get some sleep.” He grinned again and slipped out one of the doors that led from the kitchen. Most of the house was public and open. A few rooms were kept private and the door he used led directly to the back private section and to the parlor.
He’d always been fond of this room. It wasn’t as richly accorded; the furnishings were older and shabby but well stuffed and homey. The fireplace’s mantle was ungilded, uncarved and of a simple design. The lamps were plain and functional. Books lined shelves built into the walls. Hand knitted blankets were folded and readily at hand for use and it felt like a home down to the faint smell of perfume, flowers and dust.
The embers in the fireplace were glowing softly, long untended and he busied himself with the poker and the simple task of feeding the small blaze. It sprang to life easily and soon was cracking happily and throwing off a warmth that chased some of the night’s damp from his clothes.
“Stop that, you won’t leave anything for Doriena to do,” a slightly nasal female voice fussed from the entrance to the parlor.
Tarin replaced the poker in its slot as he stood and turned to face the woman. She had never been attractive – even in her prime she’d been plain – but now as she’d aged she’d put on a tremendous amount of weight. With the weight, she’d put on an equal amount of grace and dignity that she’d never held at her slender best. Now she was round, soft and the added weight and years had turned her from plain to slightly handsome. She dressed in fine linen and occasional silks in styles that flattered her figure as much as they could. Her dark hair was worn up in a respectable style and she indulged in and wore jewels.
“Hello, Shelee,” Tarin said and smiled warmly but made no move toward her.
Shelee Morris owned the Pink Pearl, but there was a lean sharpness about her eyes that suggested a time when she hadn’t lived in such luxury. Very few remembered, knew or spoke of the fact that she had started out trading tricks in dirty alleys in the lower city, lower even than the freelance whores that worked in taverns. Even fewer people knew or remembered just how she’d gone from that to the owner of a successful house.
“Tarin, you’re soaked through. Is Judith bringing you some tea? Wouldn’t do to have you catch a cold.” It was almost a physical need to embrace the young swordsman. She worried near-constantly about him and the lifestyle he’d chosen to lead, but part of the reason he came to her wasn’t that she tried to look out for him or even to be a surrogate mother but because she respected his boundaries and accepted who he was.
“I’m fine, it’s just damp out again. And no, I told Judith to just go to bed. I won’t be staying long enough to have tea anyway. How are you? You look well.” Shelee was more home to him than the rooms he rented. The sound of her voice alone made his shoulders unknot.
She smiled broadly and moved–with a grace that most women her size lost–to a well worn and plain chair she always claimed as hers. It fit her well and she folded down onto its cushions. “We’re all well, plenty of clients and Cris, that nice young musician you sent us, is working out fine. You’re right, he plays beautifully and disappears into the wall paper and he’s not once made the slightest pass at any of the girls.”
“And he won’t, if what his father says is true.”
Shelee chuckled. “I believe that. It doesn’t matter, he plays very well, even if his singing voice isn’t the best.”
“His father said he’s sounding more like a cat being tortured rather than less, even with his voice mostly changed. He says to say ‘thank you’ to you. Says that Cris is working twice as hard at his practice and not running with those boys any longer, all from being allowed to play a two hour set up here. He says the boy is near bursting with pride at having a real outlet for his music.” He sighed. Vask had filled the boy’s head full of nonsense about the glory of a swordsman’s life and the child, like most teens, had eaten it up. The boy’s father had been horrified at the path his son was heading down–their family had been musicians for generations–and turned to Tarin for advice and help.
“What’s on your mind, Tarin? I don’t think you walked all this way here so late just to check on Cris.”
That drew out a half smile and he leaned back against the mantle. “This has to be kept in the strictest of confidence.”
She waved a hand airily. “Of course.”
“I met with a dead man tonight.” And with that the whole story of the night’s odd meetings spilled out. He told her of Lord Glendale’s attempts to hire him and Lady Glendale’s bloodthirstiness, but didn’t tell her about the group of thugs. That would only have worried her needlessly.
Shelee listened to it all and nodded throughout but stayed silent until he’d finished. “So, is she sleeping with Lord Wintermarch?”
He shrugged and sat down heavily. “Damned if I know or care.” With a shake of his head he ran a hand over his hair, making sure it was still tied securely back. “Shelee, I’m not worried about Glendale, the man couldn’t find the sharp edge of a blade if you painted it purple for him, but when I originally spoke to Lady Glendale he had no idea of a challenge. Now I’ve only a few days to figure out who he hires and how to take them down.”
“What about Vask?”
He shook his head. “Not an issue, he’s still working the Duemond job and won’t be free for weeks. I’m not worried about Vask. Some of the others, though, are more than capable of dragging out a fight, and that increases the risk. Then there’s the issue of delivering a dirty blow; I’ve always tried to be as clean as I could, always.”
“I know you have,” she answered softly, hating that he did this.
“All of this for a child I’m not even certain is mine. Is it worth it?”
“I can’t answer that for you, but I’ll send a letter over to Lord Wintermarch and find out the child’s number. We can run it with the central office and see if she’s yours. I’ll even send Eve over to the office directly so we won’t have to wait and won’t leave a paper trail.”
“You’d do that for me?”
“Of course.” She’d do a lot more than paperwork for him if she could, but she was well aware of how little he believed that.
“If she is mine, she’ll be put into a breeding program in the hopes of my coloring breeding true. That isn’t her fault.”
The emotion in his voice made her heart ache for him. “Neither is it your fault,” she answered and some of the low city accent of her birth slipped back into her words in spite of years of speech coaching.
“If she is mine, I can’t let that happen, it’s not fair. Glendale isn’t anything to me, he’s just another hire.” His voice hardened as he made his choice. “If this works out properly, would you sign for the child?”
“Yes, she’ll have a place here, I can raise her up as my own.” Shelee had never told him, but she’d been quietly trying to find any of the children he may have fathered. Most of the sales were private and all she’d found were dead ends.
“No. Thank you, but no, I’ll make arrangements. She can’t stay in the city.”
He sat silent for a long moment, his eyes fixed on the slender flames in the fire and his thoughts stuck on a time he’d rather forget. Shelee watched him, wishing there was more she could do and knowing there wasn’t. In that silence, the occasional popping of the fire the only sound, he seemed far too young to carry the weight of his past and some of the consuming depression he’d once held flared up and caught hold of him. She prayed that just sitting there, being allowed to share his silence, would offer him some comfort.
He drew in a breath and straightened up, once more shouldering the entirety of his life. “Well, I should be going, I do need to sleep sometimes.” He smiled thinly; it was a running joke. The whispers in the lower city were that he never slept, that he wasn’t entirely human.
“Good, sleep–and eat something for a change will you? You’re too skinny! Should I have Judith put together some food for you?”
“No, honestly, I’m fine.” The smile warmed and touched his eyes. “Thank you.”
She didn’t need to ask for what. He was like a moth flying to a flame, longing for the comfort and advice of a family, a mother, that he’d never had, and was suspicious of being burned by it. Even after all these years, he still reacted with gratitude and surprise at finding some small measure of what he longed for. “You’re welcome,” Shelee said softly as he made his way to the door. “And, Tarin, I don’t suppose I’ll see you much if you’re working on a job… So, in advance, be careful okay?”
He nodded but she hadn’t moved from her seat and couldn’t see him. “I’ll try,” was all he answered, and it held none of the upper city mocking he normally used so well.