.. | the waterstreet mill | chapter 7
So it began. Hunter was my first, Galen my second, but I had many after that. For several weeks Ghen watched me closely every night, hinting to me what I should do or say and I think also to make sure I didn't get into any trouble. With each one my confidence grew and I began to feel my worth, though I was careful, as both Ghen and Hunter had said, not to let that be equated to how much money they would pay. My worth was in how bad they wanted me, what they would do or say to get a little nod. The money was small issue to it.
Months passed. Early winter flourished then abated into the crisp mornings of springtime and with it I had been reborn. New clothes, a new way to carry myself. My wit had sharpened from hearty banter with Ghen and his friends and from conversations, both flirty and serious with the Mill patrons. Soon came the time when Ghen no longer had to keep an eye on me; I could hold my own very well. Almost too well- I had become a favorite and was proud of it, and just the fact that I was able to notice and admit such a thing showed how much I felt I had changed. I laughed and joked, flirted and teased and had a great time of it, with the seduction being my favorite part by far. A look, a gesture. Something to tip them off that they had a chance with me.
Soon enough the year passed. In that time I had become dubbed 'premium stock' by Ghen himself. I was treated not as a recluse anymore but a comrade. Someone who could share in their stories now and relate a few of my own. Socially I swelled, with each day meeting someone new because I no longer kept my eyes to the ground as I walked. Every glance became an invite for conversation or maybe more, should they choose to come and visit me at the Mill that night.
Of course Ghen beamed with pride at what he considered his little apprentice and never failed in telling me that if it weren't for him, I would still be 'our little wallflower virgin in white'. He was always looking for ways to finish me up a little more, like I was his own personal project.
"You know, I was thinking we could cut your hair," Ghen said to me one night as we sat in the lower bar with a few other workers, enjoying a glass of wine. "This cute country bumpkin shag doesn't quite suit you anymore."
I decided to humor him. "What would suit me then?"
He played with my hair as he mused. It'd indeed gotten long and I had come used to wearing it tied back out of my face. Half of the changes he suggested had to be taken with a grain of salt, but he was right in this aspect- it was a farmer's sloppy haircut.
"Something a little cleaner, maybe just above the shoulders? Make some layers, keep it shaggy but neat-"
I smoothed my hair self-consciously, unable to tell him why I was unenthusiastic about it. "I don't know, Ghen-"
Of course, he guessed anyway. "You-know-who would love it, I'm sure," he said.
I glared at him, a little miffed that he would bring that up in mixed company. So far as I knew he was the only one who had guessed that my contented new life had one huge flaw. That I had found my niche here was true enough- I had become very social, had plenty of friends, and was never wanting for more than pleasant conversation at the end of the night. Money was never an issue, nor was boredom. I honesty enjoyed every aspect of being at the Mill, except for one thing.
"It doesn't matter what he thinks," I said lamely.
Ghen leaned close to shut out those nearby. "You know, you're a miserable liar."
I stared into my glass. Ever since that night, Hunter and I had continued as we had before, owner and worker. I strove not to get in his way and he was courteous and civil to me for his part. Disturbingly professional. But as I watched him walk away I would think of how he had looked that night when he'd hit the height of his passion, with his eyes closed, panting mouth open and a guttural growl deep in his throat. His taste, his smell, the feel of his lips on mine. I was being driven crazy by the fact that I'd had a taste of what it was like to be with him and now all I had was a memory. Now that my body was saturated with sex, that memory was no longer enough. I ached for him, ached to know what he thought of me and whether he thought at all of that night at least half as much as I did.
"I'm not lying, Ghen," I insisted. "It's self-preservation, that's all."
"Well I think it's a rotten habit of yours, this 'falling on love' thing you do," he pointed out with a puff to his smoke. "I did warn you about him."
I sighed. In the days of our close friendship I had related my story of Archer to him, whether in good judgment or not. He knew that just as Archer had both brightened and darkened my days at the keep, so Hunter's presence plagued me now. Torturous were the days for me when I rarely saw him, and even more so those that passed without seeing him at all. Ever so often he would take weeklong leaves of us to settle some business elsewhere and I would pine for him to return, though when he did, I knew there would be no extra exchange between us. I just wanted to see him, catch his eye every now and then and perhaps give a little friendly smile.
"I know," I murmured. "But what am I supposed to do?" I glanced at the door. Hunter had left nigh a week ago on such a trip, to the vineyards south of Leavres, our region's westernmost village. He was trying to deal with bringing in a special reserve wine that was a favorite among our more richer patrons, but whose grape needed the heat of the west. All business, all the time. I had tried to train myself not to keep glancing at the door but my mind was always there if there was even a hint that he was to return soon.
Ghen leaned close. "Go sod your smith. That always puts you in a better mood."
Such an easy answer in theory. "He's not here tonight," I retorted. Suddenly my heart was not into the plans we had made earlier, I wanted nothing to do with people at that moment. Even Ghen's proximity was a little irritating to me right then. I finished the last of my wine in one swallow and stood up. "I'm going for a ride."
I made my way to the door, anxious for a little fresh air, but that walk was nothing new in the last few weeks. Hunter's presence in my head was driving me so mad that I had plunged into other activities with as much heart as I could spare; anything that would take my mind off of that tall, dark-haired man who occasionally turned stunning blue eyes upon me. I dove into books, writing, riding, shopping with Ghen in town. Nothing could fill the void that was beginning to make itself known underneath my skin; not all the books, clothes or night partners even could alleviate what I was starting to realize was the same thing that had plagued me two years before.
It was my long lost loneliness.
On evenings when I could bear it no more, such as this night, I would make that walk to the door, stalk to the stables and saddle up my half of the twins. If I rode her out on the extensive bridle paths behind the Mill I could be truly alone. These agonizing evenings were always so peaceful and saturated with blue from the early night sky, and the wind was fair and the air clean against my face as I rode. Everything was beautiful and serene; a stark difference against the anguish in my mind.
Sometimes I would stop my twin and pat her neck, wondering if somewhere Archer was riding her brother, perhaps at the same moment, making the same gesture. I yearned for him, for some familiar thing to be near when at times like these even the Mill became a stranger. Sometimes I even caught myself wishing that I could be with my own mother and she would be like she had been when I was young, with her white hands and gentle features that had calmed her children in their beds from nightmares and ghosts.
I dismounted from my mare and took a few steps away from her, wishing to feel all of the gentle breeze that encompassed us. I could smell rain on the air and welcomed it bitterly as something to make this autumn night not so wonderful. Behind me I felt her take a few steps to stand beside me, as a good considerate mount would. Absently I stroked her mane and touched my temple to her neck, gazing past her head into the distance.
"At least I still have you," I said softly, on thinking about things that gave me true happiness. I turned fully to my horse and gave her a good scratching between the ears, absently speaking aloud as if she cared. "How is it that I got here?" I asked her, "To this..? I was happy-" My ministrations went from her ears to her broad forehead. "Everything was so perfect for a while."
My voice trailed off. Everything would be perfect if I were someone like Ghen, per say. He had virtually the same life as I but seemed infinitely more happy with it. This 'falling in love' thing you do. Indeed. I'd never heard him complain of loneliness, never heard him wish for anything more than what he was or had. He didn't need a companion or lover as I did; he didn't want one. I'd heard him say that plenty of times.
I sighed and decided to admit to myself the real reason for my misery. Lately my nightly escapades with patrons were making me even more aware of my solitude than ever. I had wanted them and enjoyed them for a long time but I also began to feel myself somehow... less fulfilled with the arrangement of things. I had taken the steps needed to become who I was, to leave the frightened child in me behind but now I felt like it was time for something else. I had to find something new that would make me happy and allow me to grow even more.
Yes, a new haircut would do, but that wasn't all. With a reluctant resolution in mind, I mounted up again and rode back towards the orange lantern lights of the Mill, freshly lit for the evening's crowds.
Ghen met me near the back kitchen corridor, having crept there to snag a tidbit to eat. He greeted me with a half-hearted, almost apologetic smile. I tore a hunk of bread from the loaf he'd stolen from the cook's tray and took a good bite; I hadn't realized the strength of my hunger before now.
"What's the matter?" I asked around the food in my mouth. What could have possibly happened in the few short hours I'd been gone?
Ghen heaved an audible sigh and continued to eat in dainty little bites. "Nothing," he said after a moment. "I've just lost all faith in men, that's all."
Before he could answer, Josif wandered in for the same reason as us. The crowds would grow soon, the staff had to eat when they got the chance. The blond bartender helped himself to our vittles without a word, but spared a hearty glance at Ghen, who held his gaze defiantly. Besides that, I could read nothing in their exchange before Josif was gone, taking his food elsewhere to eat it. Silently chewing, I watched my friend's face, then looked in the direction Josif had gone. I sighed. The spectacle that was Josif and Ghen's relationship was far from being a peaceful one. Though they managed a truce most of the time, their usually edged banter turned razor-sharp on occasion, with periods of not talking like this one typically following.
I swallowed before I spoke next, feeling a little crude next to Ghen's more refined eating habits. "Did you quarrel?" I asked.
"You could say that." Ghen shook his head. "You know he's always angry with me for something-"
"You're the same way," I pointed out to be fair.
"Yes, but this time he really was being a jerk."
"Well, you know my little lord that's been coming in a lot lately?"
"Yes?" The man had begun showering Ghen with little gifts almost from the moment they'd met. He was a young aristocrat, educated but inexperienced and bent on wooing someone with his riches. He'd certainly picked the right target in my dear friend; Ghen had never made it a secret, at least on the outside, that it was usually money, passion and jewelry, in that order, that got his attention.
"Well he showed up this afternoon with a stocked carriage and baggage packed. Told me he was taking me for my off-days to his country house down across the river-" His voice had become a hiss, lest someone else hear us, namely Josif, if he was still hanging around, but it sounded more like he was trying to conceal how distressed he really was about it.
"And that, that oaf in there just spoiled everything," he finished, visibly upset just talking about it. I rubbed his arm to try and comfort him; a weekend away like that, pampered and spoiled, would have meant a lot to him.
"What did Josif do?"
Ghen composed himself and tore another piece of bread with a vengeance. "Oh, he picked a fight."
"And won it, of course." Ghen threw down the rest of his food in disgust. For a moment I saw his real anguish show itself in his eyes. He wasn't that sorry for missing a weekend out with a rich, handsome man. No, his trouble ran deeper than that. After a moment, I could hear it in his voice too-
"Why does he have to be that way?" he asked me, as if I knew the answer. "He can be such an ass sometimes..."
I hugged him. Perhaps I had been wrong about him in my musings earlier. Doubtlessly a result of my own self-pity was to see everyone else's life as perfect. What I had neglected in my ruminations was the whole story, which I could relate to you now if you like-
During my time here, I had eventually learned that Ghen and Josif had indeed once been lovers. Their rather torrid relationship was quite infamous in fact, since Josif had always been considered the prowling tom cat sort. That in itself wasn't too surprising considering his high position here and oft-heralded good looks that made his ability to love and then leave very much the reason Ghen had warned me about him long ago. It was Ghen, so I heard, that had beat him at his own game, only by refusing him. In him Josif finally found something that he couldn't quite have, and the pursuit of it had evidently lasted for quite some time before Ghen finally gave in, long enough at least for the both of them to fall for each other despite themselves. That encounter, as Ghen still flippantly describes to me as the finest hours of his life, had sparked a wash of drama between them, amid Josif's unwillingness to be faithful and Ghen's unwillingness to take him otherwise.
In my own opinion and from knowing the both of them as I did now, I believe that during the time Josif had spent chasing Ghen he fell quite in love, but just couldn't let his old ways go so easily. Right off the bat I had pegged Josif as the kind who didn't understand or care for monogamy; indeed there were many here who felt that way and practiced it. Hunter was one. I had been another for a time.
Ghen, on the other hand, much to my surprise and despite his flirtatious nature, was certainly not that type. I could now see that though he may have been on the game and enjoyed it to its fullest, it was merely a filler. He would never have admitted it, but I think behind it all he had found something worth giving that up. The fact that he couldn't tame Josif had to be irritating beyond all reason, so in a way, they'd both found what they couldn't have.
Stubborn as they both were, the tension between them had finally just settled down to slightly acidic banter and it had been that way ever since I'd come here. One day I hoped they would both come to their senses and realize that they were simply made for each other. How could it not be? When only Josif could get underneath Ghen's skin as I'd never seen anyone do, and only Ghen who could make our sexually saturated head bartender clench his fists in frustration?
"I'm sure it's because he was jealous," I said finally. "He probably feels threatened by someone rich and handsome like that, especially since you seemed to like him."
Ghen gave a little guilty laugh. "Yeah, I know." He sighed out the last of his frustrations and straightened his clothes. "So come on, help me show him what he's missing."
I stood rooted to the spot even as he tried to pull me along. Ghen would have to be the first to know of my newest decision, though I feared he would be the one with the most to say about it.
"I think I'm through, Ghen," I said softly.
He blinked clear green eyes at me, genuinely confused for a moment. Then, as comprehension sank in I watched his face change to that of a different kind of confusion. He shook his head slightly.
"But why? It's not because of something I said, is it? You know better than to listen to me-"
"No, that's not why. It's just not for me anymore," I answered, spreading my hands. "Lately it's been making me feel more and more like there's something else that I want."
"Ah, so that's it then." His knowingness chafed me a little, only because he seemed to be judging me with it and I deserved no such censure. "Micah, I thought you understood what I said about him. He's-"
"It's not him," I protested. A lie. "It's me. I'm just not happy with it anymore, Ghen, please don't try to change my mind!"
He was taken aback by my sudden vehemence and instantly I regretted the tone of my voice. I wanted him to understand that I knew perfectly well that Hunter was out of reach- we knew it was an old hobby of mine to pursue things like that and he needn't keep reminding me. My anger was stemming from my bitterness, that was all, and it was my fault that I'd aimed it at Ghen.
I bowed my head. "I'm sorry-"
My friend put his long arm around me and kissed the top of my head. "It's okay, sweets, you're frustrated, that's all. I suppose you have more guts than the rest of us to quit when it stops making you happy."
He began walking me out to the main bar room where we could hear the crowds beginning to form. I slipped my arm about his slender waist. "But Ghen, if you're not happy, why do you do it?"
He was looking out over the floor to Josif's bar. The bartender was leaning his elbows over the flat surface of it, listening intently to a wily-looking young man who gestured eccentrically as if telling some great adventure story.
Ghen dragged his eyes back to me. "Better something than nothing, I guess," he sighed. Then in making an effort to lighten up, he lifted a couple of mugs from a passing tray and handed me one. "Now come on, I'll let you have your decision but grant me one last night, won't you? Besides, Hunter came back while you were out. We wouldn't want to miss him, right?"
I toasted his mug with a rueful smile. I supposed one more night on the game wouldn't hurt, for his sake. My favorite rum mix slid easily down my throat, no longer causing my eyes to sting as it once had. I glanced around the room for a few moments as Ghen turned briefly to speak to someone in passing.
There was a little twinge in my chest when I spotted Hunter standing across the bar room, enjoying himself in a circle of his usual high class suitors. He still, in my mind, had the greatest way about it. A casual touch on the arm as he gracefully sipped his wine, a relaxed hand on someone's lower back or hip as they laughed and conversed in a group of friends. Eventually I had come to hate the ones he chose. If I should happen to see them again I couldn't even bring myself to give them a polite nod, something so unlike me that I often had to wonder when it was that I had turned into such a vindictive wench. Hunter had made it clear from the beginning that there would be nothing between us; just the professional air we'd always had. God, how I wished I could see it that way. This break from sex and the game was what I needed, I told myself, to get these thoughts out of my head and back on track. But what track? That old question again.
At that moment, as if called by my very thoughts, across the room Hunter's eyes met mine. I froze.
"Come on, sweets," Ghen said, snapping me out of my petrified state as he dragged me into the crowd.
A few hours passed, during which we'd drunk well and my melancholy mood had lifted a little. I found myself deep in conversation with a nice-looking stranger, listening to him tell me of the trade he ran. I was watching his lips as he spoke, liking the look of them and wondering if he would mind my leaning in and kissing them. I should have known complete abstinence would never suit me- one little kiss couldn't hurt, right?
I was actually about to do that very thing when I was suddenly bumped into from behind, a great body leaning on me and an arm winding about my shoulders and pulling me to lean backwards. A little dazed, I looked up into Galen's smiling face.
"Hey old stranger," I said with an overjoyed smile.
To my conversing partner with the lovely lips Gale begged pardon and hauled me away, though in reality he appeared unconcerned with the rudeness. I laughed at his gall and leaned on him, happy to see him out tonight; it had been several weeks since his last visit to me.
"Where is Avery off to tonight?" I asked, grabbing an ale mug off the bar and putting it into his empty hand. He took a glad chug of it.
"Off courting som't else, I'm sure. Duckie, might we go up?" He'd always had the politest way of asking for my company that I had to smile, but it was short lived. There was a little distraction in his voice which sounded like some measure of melancholy. I wondered what was wrong. Dubiously I nodded and led him along the familiar way up to my room.
Since my first night with him, he had been back once or twice every few weeks to see me. So regular were his visits in fact that Ghen had made the comment that he had never seen the smith so interested in the game before. Such a handsome and gentle man could easily win over someone on his own, but instead he chose me. I sometimes wondered if it was because I was 'safe' to him. He could love Avery but still enjoy himself without risking anything.
However, at other times he showed up merely to drag Avery off our tables before he fell in his inebriation. Though I had never spoken to the winemaker's son face to face, I had witnessed early on his relationship with Galen and had been a little shocked at its peculiarity. I couldn't understand it. Avery was so adorable and charming by nature at first glance, and always had a group of friends and sociables to stand with. At times their group- composed of eager young scholarly men with penchants for ale and wine- simply became too rowdy. I often saw from afar that Avery was truly a little spitfire; many times his passion for arguing would lead to grand debates and, being short like I in stature, he would clamber up onto a bench or table to add height to his already intimidating enthusiasm. An unwitting crowd liked to root him on but the Mill staff would have to stop the spectacle before anything became too heated. Around that time of night, if Avery was to be found in the bar, Galen would come to make sure he went home safely. It was better that way- who knew where he would end up otherwise, as tipsy as he liked to get.
I had never wanted to approach Avery because of his obvious tempestuousness, though most of that was probably in my own head. I had made love to the man who loved him, his protector and childhood friend, and felt that any connection between Avery and I should be kept to a minimum. I didn't know how much he knew, whether Galen had imparted the truth to him or not. I had seen enough to know that if anything Avery was fiercely protective over the smith for his part, and didn't think that our trysts would be welcome information. But besides being possessive of Galen, Avery's reactions to his presence were otherwise widely varied. Sometimes when he saw Gale in the bar he would abandon his discussions and jump down from his perch. He would sail right up to Gale and quarrel with him, their heated discussions being low while they stood close together. I could see Avery's flushed face and Galen's more calm reserved one as he patiently let the boy go on. Eventually, however, he would always calm down and sometimes even begin to laugh and lean on the smith as if five minutes before he'd not been flaying him alive for 'chaperoning' him on his nights out.
After seeing this sort of thing go on for several months, I simply could not see how Galen had the patience for such a person who obviously tugged on his heart strings but should have equally made me want to throttle him. But I had never really asked him about it; I wanted to respect his private life.
Gale kissed the back of my neck in a show of characteristic tenderness as I unlocked my door and let him in. I wondered why he had singled me out tonight; the reason seemed different than from other nights. He said nothing, however, as he entered the room, very familiar to him by now, and sat unceremoniously on the bed and kicked his boots off. I moved to him and stood between his knees, toying with the loose curls of his gold hair, shaggier now and charmingly unkempt as ever.
"What is it?" I asked when his cowed brown eyes lashed up to meet mine. "You can tell me. We're friends, aren't we?"
He gave a little smile and rubbed his hands over my hips but looked distracted again. "'Tis all the same as usual."
"What's he done now?"
Galen released me and flopped back on the bed, long arms stretched out so that his fingers nearly touched the edge on each side. "'E's been sotted with some arbitr'or for weeks now, ever since 'e came't the vineyards on'a dealing." He gave a sad sigh and it made my heart ache for him. He was so even-tempered, so accepting and indulgent to other's wills. In Avery's he was so especially weak that, though not a foolish man, he allowed himself to go through foolish and unnecessary heartaches.
"Not's come of it, 'e tells me," Gale continued, "but 'e donnet think I know why that 'tis. But I know the man be married with children, and I wonder if 'e'd e're risk such a thing for me Av'ry."
I crawled up on the bed beside him and stretched out. I hoped my warmth at his side was as soothing to his nerves as his was to mine. "What are you worrying about then?" I asked as gently as I could.
"Tha' e'll get his heart broken."
"Well, then maybe he should."
Galen sat up. "Donn't say that, duckie," he whispered. "I want 'im to find som't to be happy with, even if it cannet be me. I donn't think I could bear 'im 'taching to som't who cannet love 'im back." Like I have, his eyes said.
"You're too kind," I observed, at ease with our friendship to speak plainly to him. "You give everything up so that he'll be happy."
But in my mind I wondered if in my gentle criticism I wasn't being a bit hypocritical. I had given Archer up to his family, made myself content with what I could have from him. I spared a thought for Avery too, foolhardy as he was, in the predicament it appeared he was falling into in loving a married man.
"Maybe, but not evr'thing" he sighed. He laid back down and put his hands behind his head. "I 'aven't given up ya at any rate."
"Well, my opinion, if you wanted it, is to let him be," I said softly. "If something happens, it happens. If not, he knows he can count on you to be there." I didn't mean it to sound reprimanding but it came out a little harsh.
He was quiet for a moment. Then, "I told 'im 'bout ya, duckie."
I sat up and stared at him with incredulous eyes. "Why?"
"Dunno. Jus' got angry enough ta do'it. Oh, 'e blew smoke from 'is ears, lemme tell ya. Threw a right tantr'm."
"How could he?" I asked angrily. "What right has he to judge what you do?"
Galen gave a laugh. "Not much, an 'e knows it. But still 'e went on an'on. 'Who is he? Whereabout? When? How often? You tell me right now, Galen, so help me!' 'e keeps yellin'." His impression was comical; though they had grown up together, Avery didn't carry Galen's rather provincial accent, strangely enough.
I laid back down; if the smith wasn't upset at the new state of things, I couldn't be either. I wondered, though, if I would pay for it later. Maybe at last I would have to come face to face with this sharp young man.
"I'm not keeping ya from som't, am I?" he asked suddenly.
"Me? Nah. I was a little tired anyway. Not in the mood much for a crowd." I paused for a minute. "Tonight is a special night, in fact."
I suppose it didn't matter that I tell him; I'd stopped letting him pay me long ago. "It's my last night on the game. I'm going to take a break, for a while at least."
Galen reflected on the news for a moment. "I s'pose there's som't reason in particular? Som't person?"
"No, there's no one." Not entirely a lie. "Just ready to move on."
His hand came to rest on my thigh. "I hope that donn't mean yor taking a turn for forgoin', duckie-"
Forgoing? Ah, celibacy, he meant. I gave him a little smile, knowing exactly what he was implying. I covered his hand with my own and leaned down to him. "It would make you a lover of mine, do you realize? Your Avery would have something to say about that. There'd be no excuse anymore and I'd be hearing from him, I'm sure."
Galen pulled me down to him, suddenly in a decidedly lightened mood. "Sod 'im. Yor me duckie after all," he said and we both laughed.
Later into the night, after our clothes had been shed and he was showering my shoulders with gentle kisses, a vision of Hunter popped unbidden into my head. I couldn't banish the thought of him, the possibility of him as distant as it seemed. I cared for Galen a great deal, but I knew that I did not love him, nor he me.
My hands pulled his head up for a moment. For being my first and my last on the game, I owed it to him to clarify. "Lovers, but that only, right?" I asked. Lovers, not companions, I meant.
He gave a curious little smile, as if amused that I would even fret about such a thing. "A' course," he said, his voice husky with his passion.
I laid back down with an eased heart and he continued his rather expert ministrations. It was understood- we both loved another. I would not keep myself for him should other, ahem, opportunities arise, and he needn't banish his deeply ingrained love for someone else to stay true to me.
Much later into the night I walked Galen downstairs to the front deck, wrapped in a blanket from my bed. The night was crisp and the wooden deck cold and moist under my bare feet. Galen walked down a few steps, turned back and leaned up for a last kiss. I put my hands in his wet, tousled hair and pulled his head close to me so I could feel his warmth. We had on a whim bathed together, splashing about rowdily in the hot water amid my cool washroom and making love again. Finally, though, as the hour of dawn approached, he had to get home.
Our lips parted with a soft sound. "Bye, me duckie," he said.
"Be good," I said with a smile.
I watched him leave without another word until his shadowy figure was gone from the square. A chill had set in and it seemed fitting to the emptiness I felt inside. Once he was out of sight it was as if he'd never been there at all, that I was the only living being for leagues around. I hadn't felt so lonely since... well, those early days. Briefly my thoughts turned to Archer and what he must be doing now. Sleeping peacefully, I hoped, with one hand curled on his pillow, the other around his slumbering wife.
"It's cold, you should be inside," a voice said from behind me.
I didn't even need to turn to know who it was. From the corner of my eye, I saw Hunter step out next to me and gaze out over the deserted square. He had changed from earlier and I wondered if another lover had brought that about. He was dressed casually now; white sleeveless undershirt, black pants. The gentle night wind ruffled his hair into his eyes.
"I like the cold," I said lamely, recalling how the lackluster colors of my first winter here had comforted me. And now where had the summer gone? It was autumn already again, the season of change. I had been here almost two years.
We stood there silently for a long while.
"In the old days we had to hide who we were," Hunter said softly. "We risked being beaten or arrested. Even mutilated."
I remained silent but became aware once more of the mark on my back, which I had not thought about in months. I chanced a glance at him but he was still staring off into the square as he spoke.
"But that's changing. It has changed," he continued. "And perhaps in the course of hiding ourselves, a lot of us came to think that we couldn't live a normal life. We didn't deserve to live and love as normal people do." He turned to me, but this time I tried to keep my eyes on the night landscape.
"We didn't think we could afford to love when there were so many dangers in it," he said. "It was easier to satisfy the cravings as quickly as possible so they could be ignored just a little longer in the long run. We learned to separate emotion and sex into two different feelings."
God, is that what I would have become? I feared so, had I not been caught and punished, had I not stumbled into Archer's arms that first night I fell sick. But that was another time, another place. Shadows in a distant past, I couldn't let them consume me as they once had.
"It's not like that anymore," I whispered. "Not here."
I saw him drop his chin. "I know. Habits become custom. Old paranoia dies hard I suppose."
There was another long, impenetrable silence. Chill bumps had raised on my skin as I waited on pins and needles for him to go on.
"I didn't think you would ever become a part of this," he admitted. "You seemed so different from everyone else around here. You came here with ideas of family and love and companionship that a lot of us have forgotten or buried."
For the first time, he made me feel ashamed of what I had done in joining the game. I lowered my head. All I had known when I got here was what Archer had taught me- had I betrayed that?
"But I think it was good for you," Hunter continued. "You've come out of yourself because of it and I'm glad to see that. You needed to. But..."
I finally looked at him when he paused.
He gave a half smile. "I don't want you to lose those principles. You don't realize how special you are to have values like those. To not be jaded like the rest of us."
I remembered my conversation earlier with Ghen and how I had surmised that that was very thing that made us different. "I don't want to do it anymore, I've already decided that," I said suddenly, my voice quivering. "I learned what I wanted to learn, but that isn't all I want." My throat was tight and my eyes stung. "It isn't what I want at all."
He stepped a little closer to me and I could feel his closeness, his proximity more than his warmth. What was happening here?
"Earlier, I saw you watching me," he said softly. "Why?"
"Because I can't stop thinking about that night-" I admitted in a hoarse voice. My throat had tightened with emotion; he'd caught me so off-guard with this. Only hours ago I'd been laughing and bantering with Galen and now... now I was close to tears.
"I know what you told me and I tried, I really did," I continued, "but I can't go on as if nothing happened. It's not in me."
"You ideals then," he said with a soft smile.
I turned my face away, ashamed that I hadn't been able to keep my side of the bargain. He had done me a favor and I would stand here and make him regret it. "Not my ideals," I insisted a little strongly. "Just you. There's no other excuse for it. I did the one thing you told me not to do; I fell in love, whatever that is," I said finally, softly, letting go of the last remnants of my facade. There, he knew what had been going on inside my head this whole time that I'd plastered on a smile and went about my business. He knew everything now.
His hands pulled my wrists away from my eyes. "Micah," he said gently. "I think I'd like to know-" he smiled as he looked down into my teary eyes, "what that feels like."
I just stared up at him, not comprehending at first. He gave that lopsided smile of his. His thumb wiped my cheek as he framed my face in his hands. "Think you could teach me?"
I blinked at him, somewhat disbelieving. After a moment of looking up into his eyes, dark in the night, I nodded. He smiled at me then, seeming shy at first but then it spread his lips beautifully.
Hunter took a moment to pull my blanket tighter around me, then wrapped his arm over my shoulders and led me back inside, all the way up to his rooms. My heart was beating in my throat and the blood pounded in my temples. Was this happening? I walked in slowly as he shut the door behind us. The room was darkened and foreign feeling, but warmth spread from the fire in his private grate. It was as if I'd never been here before.
Hunter stirred up the coals of the fire and threw another log or two on to heat it. As he stood with his profile to me I watched the orange light dance over his features before he turned his head to me with a soft smile. I clutched the blanket tighter, the quivering virgin once again for a few precious seconds, until he beckoned me towards the bed. I followed slowly, but without hesitation.
Hunter reached down and pulled his shirt over his head. I gazed at his naked torso, slender and contoured, simply remembering. He then tossed it aside and swooped down, wrapping me in his arms, blanket and all with a startling passion. He leaned his head down close to whisper my name in my ear, hands running through my drying hair.
"I don't know how long I've wanted this again," he sighed into my hair, breath warm, ironically sending chills down my spine. "But I wanted to make sure you were ready..." He kissed my neck, my jaw and cheek before pulling back a little to look into my eyes. I had all but melted into his arms. "You're not trembling this time," he said, leaning in to kiss me again.
Not trembling indeed. I suppose through the thick blanket he couldn't rightly feel how fast my heart was beating. In answer though, I touched his face, ran my fingers back through his hair and wondered how many before me had made the same gesture. How was it that I had captured his love without even knowing it? How had he hidden it from me? Then again, was it love or was he simply toying with me?
No, that sort of thinking wouldn't do. He had plenty of others to satisfy his cravings, he was certainly not a cruel person to play around with me in such a way. And in his eyes now I read nothing of deceit. He meant it, what he'd said.
The barrier of my blanket and the rest of his clothing dropped away soon enough as he slowly backed me up to the bed. Gently he laid me back on it, never lax with his kisses as if I still needed convincing of what I was getting into, whatever that was. Between my legs he settled atop me to share connecting kisses, our bodies pressed close, naked. Warm. He was so slender and yet so hard beneath soft skin, and his body formed so beautifully to mine. His hands ran down my legs, over my thighs and calves as he kissed me. I held his head between my palms, never wanting him to leave that spot, that moment. I wondered if he could feel the difference in me this time, now that I was so changed from before. I knew that I had grown up, looked different, felt different. Did it show in how I lay there beneath him?
He moaned a little in the back of his throat as my hands found him. I gazed up into his blue eyes, dark in this light, and watched them dilate with his pleasure. He wanted to make love to me, here, now, and not because I had asked him. He was here of his own accord. The thought made me pause for a moment and reach up, touch his face again. Kiss him. We were equals now.
He made love to me for the second time, though it didn't feel that way. I remembered every plane of his body, every movement, every touch that he liked. In truth, I had dreamed about him enough to keep it fresh in my mind, and had enough boldness and skill now to satisfy my curiosity in a way I'd not known before. His face was beautiful to me, with his hair tousled and eyes half-mast first with desire and later with sated exhaustion.
Compared to all I'd had, Hunter still remained the only one who could bring passion about from my body so intensely and, dare I say, so often. I'm not sure what it was about him, whether it was his celebrated skill or his lean body and talented hands, or a combination of all... Or was it simply because I loved him, and sharing such an experience with him was the one way I could truly live it?
Afterwards, as our breathing slowed, I snuggled close in his embrace, smelling the salty heat of his skin. I pressed my lips to his shoulder and thought about how far I had come.
Hunter shifted to get more comfortable, his body sliding easily against me as he rolled onto his back. He stared up at the ceiling, one arm around me and the other tucked comfortably behind his head.
After several moments of silence, he said, "My mother used to tell my baby sisters stories about what would happen when they grew up and fell in love. She said that a handsome prince would come to take them away or some glorious nonsense of the sort."
I smiled lazily against his skin, listening to the gentle rumble of his voice in his chest.
"But I never believed it," he continued, as if musing to himself. "None of that fairy tale stuff could be true. Whomever they married wouldn't be special, there was no such thing. If they loved at all, it would be an ordinary man. Someone poor and dirty, just like us." He laughed to himself. "A tradesman, an artisan, maybe a smithy." He paused to stroke my hair. "Princes just don't exist in that quantity."
I closed my eyes and thought about Archer. A simple farmer with no other knowledge of the world but what he had seen and learned himself. Archer was ordinary enough, I supposed, but I had loved that about him. Hunter was right in the sense that not everyone could lead a glorious life. I'd heard my own mother tell such tales.
"I think there's some glory in the ordinary," I said after a moment. "Something about being simple and enjoying that way of life." In my head I knew that I was probably talking hypocrisy; Hunter was not ordinary. My life here was not run of the mill, pardon the pun.
"I never wanted to be that," Hunter answered. "Never had a desire to settle down and follow my father's footsteps to the grindstone." He sighed. "I suppose it's the way we are though. Already we have something that prevents us from leading a normal life."
"Depends on what you'd call normal," I said with a little laugh. "But I suppose that doesn't stop us from wishing to have a life like that."
"A life like what?"
I shifted, wondering what he was getting at. "You know. Settle down, have a family."
Hunter laughed beneath me. "You're ideals again," he said, stroking my hair. Then, softly, "You're thinking of Archer aren't you?"
I didn't answer but I know he felt my body tense.
"You speak often of him," he said, as if it'd been on his mind before.
"I owe him much," I said softly. "Almost everything."
Hunter stroked my hair again and looked down his chest at me. "So do I, it would seem," he said with a smile. "I think you hold him in very high affection, the way you talk of him."
As gentle as he was being, I felt that he was trying to get something out of me. Something I already felt that he needed to know, regardless of where we went from here.
"I loved him," I said softly, unceremoniously. "As much as I knew how to." I didn't know what Hunter would do or say to that, and I didn't even know if it was right that I should share such a secret with him. But it needed to be said.
But Hunter didn't do anything. He just sighed. "I watched your goodbye that first night here," he admitted. He looked down at me again and gently said, "It was in the way you held onto him."
I cast my eyes away from his, feeling a little shamed and guilty. Had I been that obvious? I remember having wanted to kiss him, make something real of our goodbye, but it was neither the time nor the place. I had not been ready then. How I had changed from that trembling leaf of a boy. What would Archer think of me now?
Hunter touched my face. "Be glad you have those feelings, Micah," he said. "Some will never get to know what it feels like."
I thought about that, how lucky I was to find what I had. But I was also skeptical of his assuredness in me; was he telling me that my loving Archer didn't bother him? How could he be that generous..?
After several moments of silence, I felt his breathing even out and his body relax. Hunter shifted slightly in his sleep, breathing out gently as he pulled me close and nosed my hair. I closed my eyes and settled into his embrace. I loved Hunter, as surely as I knew myself, I loved him.
Perhaps Archer had been right. I should never have doubted him.
So there you have it. The first-hand accounts of my earliest experiences and lessons. I felt for the first time in my life that I was growing up of my own accord, making my own decisions and being responsible for them. There was no father and mother here, no Archer and Aislinn; only me dealing with things the way I knew how. But despite how far I'd come, once again starting a new turn in life, I found that I still had a lot of growing up to do, and a lot to let go of.
News that Hunter and I were officially a couple traveled quite fast, mostly due to Hunter's stark openness about us, whereas I on instinct had expected him to keep things rather hushed to avoid comments and gossip. In the end I supposed he was right once again. What would there be to talk about if the facts were there in front of your face?
The next morning I awoke before Hunter, wonder of wonders. My body ached defiantly as I worked to prop myself up on my arms, blinking at the sunlight that streamed through sheer white curtains. Beside me Hunter sighed gently at my movement but didn't wake. He lay on his belly with his head turned towards me. His black hair was disheveled over the pillow beautifully, some of it over his eye and jaw, while his naked shoulders, visible above the covers, rose and fell with easy breaths. He had never looked more fine to me. It was all I could do not to lean down and kiss him, touch him, make contact in some way so that I knew he was real and not a dream.
But my sensibleness took over. I had chores to do and if I didn't get down soon Ghen would be looking for me, or Hunter for that matter. I could only imagine his face if he found us in the same place.
As gently as I could I disentangled myself from the bed sheets whose scent and warmth were still fervently calling me back to sleep. Their draw I could resist, but what to do after that was a problem: in the glory and romance of last night, I'd forgotten that all I'd worn here was the blanket from my bed, which currently lay in a heap on the cold floor. I shook it out and wondered how on earth I was to traverse the long hall and stairs it would take to get back to my own room.
However luckily, most of the staff was downstairs already. I crept on tiptoes the whole way and slipped into my room unseen. I splashed water from the basin on my face, dressed quickly, tamed my hair and hurried out, taking the stairs by two all the way into the lower bar and ignoring my stiff body's protests.
I hadn't expected the pounding of my heart as I walked in, everyone sitting there as usual of course; to them nothing was different, even my tardiness. Hardly anyone looked up, not even Ghen, who was deep in conversation with Dray over which of them really had claim of a certain someone last night that neither had ended up with. I walked straight to the bar where Josif stood, puffing on a dark smoke that smelled of sweet clove.
"Well now," he said. "Up biting the sheets all night, were you? My but you look like you had a good time." He winked at me good-naturedly. My cheeks colored a little as I reached for the pot of roast coffee sitting next to his elbow. He perhaps of anyone had such a nose for those kinds of things. It was almost uncanny; one could never keep an affair from him.
Still, I made a non-committal sound and tried to drink my coffee in peace to slow my sudden nerves. The haze after lovemaking had worn off completely now, suddenly and starkly shattered by coming face to face with the reality of the lower bar. What was I to do now? When Hunter came in, if he did at all? It wasn't like him to sleep late like this; perhaps he'd been awake, waiting for me to leave so we didn't have to speak?
I shushed my insecurities, they were spouting nonsense. All the same, he could have been expecting me to stay. But still...
It would seem I didn't have to doubt myself for long. I had just finished my first coffee and was reaching to refill my mug when Hunter strode in, paper in hand, dressed casually for a slow day. His hair was a charmingly mussed up as if he'd just hastily run his fingers through it as he dressed. To me it looked telltale of his activities the night before being somewhat more vigorous than usual, since he was known to always be looking his best. I turned away from his entrance to face the bar. Josif cocked his head at me quizzically.
Perhaps he wouldn't see me. Perhaps he would just sit down and read his paper. Perhaps-
A hand touched my back, then curled around my stomach and I felt his heat, smelled his scent. Hunter leaned his chin on my shoulder and nuzzled my cheek as if we were still alone, as if he had not a care in the world who was watching, which was surely everyone at this point. I could hear jaws hitting the table.
"Up before me, that's impressive," he whispered. I gave him a little glance and suddenly, drastically, changed my thinking. If he didn't care, why should I?
"It's a miracle I can even walk," I whispered back, for his ears only. He grunted a little laugh and motioned to Josif for his morning coffee. The blond bartender served it up with due incredulity in his face and even I had to laugh. We were creating a scandal but I no longer cared. My pride swelled a little more. Yes, he's here with me, yes, we're lovers.
Hunter reached for his coffee and I turned around to lean on the bar, and caught the stares and first whispers. Ghen's face alone threatened me with his wrath later of how could I have not told him sooner of this, while everyone else's was a mixture of confusion, intrigue and the delight of a new scandal to gossip over. I knew where it came from. For though we had hired several new boys in the time I had been here, I was still viewed as a special case because of where I had come from. For now, the talk couldn't get much juicier.
We stood together at the bar, sharing coffee and a few looks heavy with the glow of a new relationship. I had often seen that half-lidded happiness on others and had been almost sickened by the sweetness, but now I couldn't help it. I had to look into his eyes, so clear and blue. I had to see his gentle smile, full of secrets; some I knew, others I never would. I had to keep thinking about what he had been like the night before, the things he had said to me, the promises he'd made.
Of course, our 'talk' would come later. What behavior was appropriate, what this would mean for me in the scheme of things. As I was, I couldn't keep my current position. I was already off the game, but I didn't know yet that Hunter would want to begin grooming me for a higher purpose.
There were a few immediate changes that came with my new position. I had the first daunting task of gently turning away those customers who had gotten used to my presence in the bar. My 'regulars', as Ghen called them. Galen had been the trouble-free one because he could easily settle in as a close friend, but other less-deep people of my acquaintance were a little more vocal about the new arrangement. Additionally, when news had spread that Hunter, being the most eligible bachelor in our society, had settled down to a companion, most of the borderline bitter commentary was directed at me. They sneered that I had become a 'kept woman'.
So with that came the second task of proving myself to everyone else. Hunter gave me very little help when it came to those around me who doubted, not to mention envied, my new place in the hierarchy of things. Whatever defense he set up for me would be nothing compared to me defending myself, if I could learn to do it, he said.
He was right. I would stand much stronger on my own feet, not his. So I refused to be or be seen as a kept woman, or interloper, or anything of the sort. I alone knew what I had gone through to get here; they did not.
But behind closed doors, things were different. Hunter was as attentive a lover as I needed, never tiring of my questions, spoken and unspoken. Coming off the game was difficult for me, weaning myself from sex that is, but he indulged me no matter what his mood or disposition. Often he would rouse out of a deep sleep when I wanted him or just needed him. Somehow he would always just know, and would endure me with unending patience until I found my balance again and the scale was no longer tipped. He took my transitions as he took everything in life, with an amused little smile and a quiet comment or two, mostly wondering how I'd hidden such a "raging libido", as he called it, from him for so long.
But as tolerant as he was, it was my lingering insecurity that would exasperate him more than anything.
Then one morning, one late morning, things changed. Again.
We still hadn't rolled out of bed, despite the steady intervals of knocks that came to Hunter's door. It was something he rarely did, avoid his duties like this, so in the month or two we had been together I had learned to cherish such moments. I was straddling his waist, lazily drawing little circles on his chest and listening to the clatter of hooves and wheels on the cobblestone outside the window. We were merely enjoying each other's company in silence, knowing full well that he and I would have to leave soon, go to our separate chores.
Hunter blinked tired eyes up at me, trailing his fingers up and down my forearm. When I leaned down to kiss his lips, that's when he asked me.
"Move in. Here with me," he said.
I stared at him for a moment. Then I laughed, shrugging it off as if it were a joke and dislodged myself to go in search of my clothes. He rolled over onto his side and watched me, resting his head on his hand.
"Micah," he said, "I'm serious."
I pulled on my trousers and stopped. "I know."
"Then why not? There's more than enough space, and you spend more time here than in your own room anyway."
I knew my answer would be lame, but it was the only one I could give. I loved him, but all I was thinking was the trouble I had gotten before now would be nothing compared to what it would be. Why was I afraid to face it? The Mill patrons were a catty group, and I was still seen as the interloper.
"Because I don't know-" I faltered, "what people would think."
Hunter huffed an impatient sigh and flopped onto his back. "Micah!" he said, exasperatedly.
"I'm serious," I added quickly. "You don't know what it's like to have to listen to them. All the whispering behind your back-"
"Then why do you listen?" he asked.
I just shook my head. "Don't you care?"
"About them! About what they think of you." I couldn't believe he was playing this game with me.
"No, what I care about is you," he answered. He sat up and beckoned me back over. Half-dressed, I sat next to him. "I didn't choose them, Micah, I chose you. I couldn't give a damn what they think. I never have, you know that."
I didn't answer, just stared at my hands. He sighed.
"It would be official then, wouldn't it?" I said softly. "But what if things change? How do I know if..." My voice trailed off. He knew what I wanted to say, but it would have sounded insulting I think if I had voiced it. Given his past history I couldn't avoid the thought. After all, it had only been a month.
"If what? If someone else won't come along?" He didn't seem to have a problem with saying it.
I looked at him. He had long ago stopped his liaisons with the inn patrons, but there was still a part of me that disbelieved I had anything to offer him, at least in the long run. That someone else would eventually come along to catch his interest, someone much flashier, more worthwhile than I.
"It's here and now that I love you," Hunter said. "That's all that matters to me. But we all have our history too, and I could just as easily ask you the same. What would happen if someone else came along? Or came back?" He gave me a long, meaningful stare.
"That's different," I said softly, hurt that he'd even brought it up.
"Why is it different?" he asked, echoing my hushed tone.
I looked at him. "Because that's... not possible."
"I would hope no more possible than my being foolish enough to ruin what I've found with you," he answered, smiling gently as he made his point. But his smile faded to convey his seriousness. "But the difference is that I know my place. It's here, with you. You just need to know yours. That's all I'll ask of you." His eyes searched mine and again I realized how much more of the world he understood than I. "Promise me you'll work on it."
He tipped my chin up with warm fingers. "Don't say it like that. Look me in the eye and promise."
I did as I was told and locked gazes with him. "I promise," I said. I had understood what he'd meant well enough. There were things about him and the life he'd led that made me insecure, but then again, Archer alone could produce that same feeling in him. I would have to trust him that his old life would not call him back, and he would have to trust me that he was now the only one in my heart. It seemed a fair trade. And he hadn't asked for promises of devotion, only that I would make a decision myself and be content with it, as he had already done.
Hunter smiled and pulled me down for a kiss. He rolled me onto my back, settling atop me for a few moments to love on me properly. Then, he was up and reaching for his clothes. I sat up stiffly.
"Good. After the barrels come this afternoon, we'll go get your stuff," he said, slapping me on the thigh. "You're moving in."
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