2. The Courtesans
My father faltered after my mother died. His attention wandered and he slept poorly. His carts began to suffer from broken wheels. Grain went moldy before he could get it to market. He tried to turn his business to luxury goods and textiles from Terre d’Or, but despite his many past successes, he still had a drayman’s taste for flashy fabrics. He purchased several shipments of dubious quality.
My parents were married for almost twenty years before my birth, and for almost twenty years after. They had become so much a part of each other that my father could not open his eyes in the mornings after my mother’s death without feeling her absence like a new wound.
I was not surprised when, scarcely nine months after my mother’s death, my father returned from one of his buying trips with a cartload of second-rate silks and a new wife. I wasn’t angry, either. He was the sort of man who needed a wife. He needed stability, love and care. He needed someone to remind him to eat in the mornings and to take him to bed at night.
When I saw the carriage trailing his cart, I’d high hopes of his new wife. But then he told me she was a beautiful, impoverished d’Oran noblewoman. He called her a delicate flower who needed his care. He said his new wife had two daughters just my age, and he promised we would be the best of friends.
As the carriage lumbered to a stop, my father herded half a dozen footmen out to hold the horses, set up the stairs and open the door so he could help his new wife down. Her hand preceded her from the dark interior. It was delicate and powdered white, gilded with a filigree of rings and bracelets. Her fingernails were varnished pink. The stones in her many rings twinkled prettily in the sunlight, but I knew they were glass.
My stepmother’s foot followed next. She wore shoes of gaudy pink satin, frayed at the toes, studded with dull glass gems, and balanced on a spindly wooden heel that would barely support its wearer from one end of her bedchamber to the other. I do not mean to be cruel when I say this, only factual: I knew her for a whore before I ever saw her face.
She wore a courtesan’s mask of powder and paint adorned with a black beauty patch in the shape of a swallow above the corner of her cherry-red mouth. I do not think anyone would argue that she was not beautiful, but hers was the brittle sort of beauty that came of constant care and vigilance. Hiding from the sun kept her smooth skin unmarred by lines or freckles. She’d gained her high, elegant eyebrows through pulling each unwanted hair out from the root. Her slender form bespoke a lifetime of half-eaten meals.
What little else my new relation lacked in true beauty, she made up for in cunning and charisma. Her brown eyes gleamed with determination and an intelligence I could not help but respect. I understood why my father thought he loved her.
She paused when she saw me, and I couldn’t blame her. I knew what I looked like—my cold expression, my red hair and freckled skin, my angry black eyes smoldering like hot coals. Her eyes flicked to the torches flanking our door, noting, I am sure, the way the flames yearned toward me though the wind urged them in the opposite direction.
Her face tightened beneath its façade of paint. Her white-powdered hand wavered on the verge of greeting me. In that moment, she realized my father’s tales of an innocent, biddable daughter were spun from the same wishful imagination that had let him believe her to be a noblewoman, and to believe the two hard-eyed whores (scarcely a decade her junior) who peered out of the carriage behind her were her daughters.
“Stepmamá!” I greeted her, taking her shoulders and kissing her powdered cheeks. My lips came away white with a mixture of lead and lard, but it was worth it for the expression of surprise that crossed her face. When my father wasn’t looking, I wiped my mouth on the cuff of my velvet sleeve.
“Come inside, let me show you and my new sisters our home. I know we shall be ever so happy together!”
With my father’s help, the three women wrestled their threadbare satin skirts and listing panniers up the stairs and into the house. I showed them to the parlor, which still stank faintly of burned flesh, and directed my new step mama to sit in my mother’s blue leather chair.
“I just knew you four would get along,” my father said, beaming from the doorway. I hadn’t seen him so happy since before my mother’s illness. “I’ll leave you ladies to get acquainted while I see to the unloading of my latest shipment of fine textiles.”
My new stepmother’s lips parted on a word as the door swung shut. I think she was going to say, “Wait.”
I smiled, pleased as a spider to have so many flies trapped in my parlor. I winked at the hearth and it roared to life, shooting flames up the chimney and sparks onto the rug. The candles followed, lighting all at once.
“Please don’t hurt us!” One of my new stepsisters pleaded. Despite her shopworn satin and powdered hair, she suddenly looked young and frightened. She was delicate of frame, and though she had rounded, girlish cheeks, the rest of her was too thin for good health. Beneath her paint, her eyes were puffy and shadowed, as if from lack of sleep.
“We didn’t know,” said the other. “We didn’t know Master Drayman’s daughter was a Wise Woman.”
“A witch,” I corrected, smiling wide to show my teeth.
“Even had we known,” my new stepmother said, her voice sure and clear, “we could not have let him leave Terre d’Or without us. Sylvia has the loup, you see.”
“Minette, don’t tell!” Sylvia hissed.
“Don’t fret, Sylvie, it isn’t a crime here.” Minette turned to me, “But they were gathering the wood for her pyre when we fled Ville des Rois in your father’s care. Do you understand?”
Damn her, but I did understand. For all their airs of worldly sophistication, our neighbors to the north are famously intolerant of magic. They hold witch-burnings the way other lands hold summer fairs. Sylvia was not a witch. Her condition was quite beyond her control, but her countrymen cared little for such distinctions.
“How did it happen?” I asked.
Sylvia looked away, but the skinny one, Dulcibella, answered. “A rich man from the east paid for a week with her. His eyebrows met in the middle. We should have guessed his nature, but his gold was good. He fell in love with Sylvie and imagined she wanted to be rescued from her life because he wanted to take her away. When she refused him, he bit her and infected her with his curse.”
“And when I refused him again, he told the constable I had the loup.” Sylvie finished, crying softly into a mangled handkerchief. She looked up at me; her lovely face was striped pink and white by wet tears and smudged paint. “You’re a witch. Can you help me?”
I crossed to her and tilted up her chin to look into her red-rimmed blue eyes. “I could burn it out, but that is as much a punishment as it is a cure. The fire takes more than the loup when it leaves. I know a potion to control it, but the potion will prevent you from conceiving while you take it.”
Sylvie smiled at me and became almost beautiful again. “Sister, in my line of work, that potion of yours is a double-blessing. Will you help me?”
“Say yes,” Minette cajoled. “Say yes, and we will leave your father and your home as soon as Sylvie can travel.”
“Leave?” I said. “But my father needs a wife. The Old Wives say sheep dogs are descended from wolves, and the best thief takers were once thieves, themselves. You know how gullible my father can be, for you gulled him. Who better to look after him than one who knows his weaknesses?”
My new stepmother opened her mouth to protest, but the fire flared in anger at her interruption. She snapped her jaw closed and let me speak.
“Sylvia’s potion must be made and taken by the month. The price of my help, dear Stepmother, is that you stay.”
“But I saw your sour face at the sight of us. You don’t like courtesans.”
I laughed and every flame in the room danced with joy at the sound of it. “You mistake me, Sister. Whores are the better part of my business. A witch who shuns the custom of whores and courtesans will be a pauper. No. I dislike liars and cheats. I dislike deceivers and dissemblers.
“Now that the air is clear between us, I like you just fine. My father needs a wife, and as long as you care for him and do not cuckold him with other men, we shall get along as well as he imagined.”
As I had predicted, we got along quite well. Minette was a loyal and helpful wife to my father, and my new stepsisters were far better at playing the dutiful daughter than I was. I gave them all the silks and satin gowns my father had purchased for me and went back to the comfortable linen and woolens I’d worn before he’d decided I ought to be clothed like a lady. Sylvie and Dulcie planned soirees and spent hours in the parlor embroidering handkerchiefs and other ladylike nonsense while I Worked at the kitchen hearth perfecting my potions and honing my craft.
I knew the neighbors whispered that my new mother and sisters had made a servant of me, but I’ve never cared what others thought. I liked linen and wool, so that is what I wore. I liked to listen to the chatter of the fire in the kitchen hearth as I fell asleep, so I slept beside the hearth.
In truth, the three years before my father’s death were quite happy. Though my new stepsisters, stepmother and I were very different, we got along in complementary fashion. Minette was canny and shrewd, but also wise to the vagaries of human nature. She always knew just what to say to charm or to console. Dulcie was bright and cheerful, despite her fragile nature. She had an unerring eye for beauty in art, and she could draw a smile from a stone. Sylvie was quiet and regal. She had a sadness in her, a sort of stillness, that made her presence soothing though she was sometimes too blunt in her speech.
I do not know what help I gave our group, except my witchery. I am often confused by the irrational vagaries of human nature, and I have been told my sense of humor is as twisted as my right foot. I am rarely calm or still, I Work and fiddle and fix every hour I am awake. I created sleeping draughts for Dulcie to ease her fitful sleep, and stirred up cosmetics and perfume for Minette to aid her quest for beauty. Every month I made the potion that kept Slyvie’s loup from troubling her.
My care must have endeared me to my new step-family, despite my prickly personality, for they were genuinely kind to me. Minette, Dulcie and Sylvie may have come to our home in deceit, but they were honest in their affection and their actions. I never had sisters and it is difficult for witches to find friends, but in those three I found both. I will ever be thankful for them.
One day my father’s horse shied on a mountain pass and his cartwheel broke. When his drivers brought the news, my sister-friends were there for me. They arranged the funeral for the third day after his death, in accordance with Tierra del Maré’s traditions. They made me meals of uncooked fruit and vegetables when the fires would not light.
It was Sylvie and Dulcie who helped me fill in my father’s grave. And it was Minette who soothed me, as my mother would have, when I wept.
“Your father is with her again.” Minette consoled. “Don’t spend too much time mourning him, for you know he is happy to be back at her side.”
Minette’s words may not sound like much, but they were what I needed to hear. I stood from my chair and wiped my eyes. Outside, the rowdy shouts of our neighbors echoed through the streets as their candles and cookstoves sprang to life again.
My relief was short-lived. The next day, I started on my father’s ledgers. His affairs were worse than I’d expected. The business was gone. We had to sell the carts and horses just to pay his debts. In the end, I managed to keep the house and its contents, though we had to let the servants go.
“What will we do for food?” I sighed, burying my face in the crumpled pages of my father’s ledgers.
“You worry too much,” Minette said. She sat in my mother’s blue chair, buffing her nails. “We have a house on the main road to the palace, with three whores in residence. All I need to do is hang a garter ribbon in the window, and we’ll be feasting by week’s end.”
“I couldn’t ask that of you.” I shook my head.
“You’re not asking, I’m telling. Don’t think the girls and I haven’t enjoyed this sojourn in respectability, but we three are whores at heart. We chose the work, and we like the rewards. The downside of the job was always needing a procurer to manage the house and the books, but you can do that well enough, and offer protection, besides.”
“I keep my eyes open. The illusion you use to hide your missing finger is flawless, but people in this city know you have power. They see the way fire burns brighter when you’re near. None will cross you. Or hadn’t you wondered why your father’s creditors were so reasonable?”
I shook my head, shocked. I hadn’t wondered. I’d thought I hid the extent of my blood-got power, but apparently I didn’t. That explained why the custom for my potions had dwindled. People were afraid of me.
“Don’t fret.” Minette patted my shoulder. “We’ll be feasting in four days. Leave everything to me.”
True to her promise, Minette had us feasting by week’s end. She rechristened our house with a d’Oran name, Maison d’Aube, and put word out that Master Drayman’s d’Oran widow and “virginal” stepdaughters were fallen on hard times and in need of help. There was no shortage of kind-hearted, wealthy men to help the lovely widow and her daughters. In deference to my distaste for the prince’s silver coins, Minette stipulated Maison d’Aube would only accept help in gold coins or gems.
Three months after my father’s death, our debts were paid and our house was a favorite among wealthy merchants and the nobility. We had some problems at the beginning from men who thought they could treat my sisters roughly because there was no pimp in residence. But they soon learned witches are both creative and persistent in their vengeance.
At each week’s end we held a feast, just we four sisters. We drank and laughed and joked we would conquer the world with our combined talents. Or, at the very least, the city.
Minette raised her glass. “To us, Sisters. To Ciú Dellos Reyes’ three most sought-after courtesans, and to its most powerful witch!”
“We’ll be wealthy before the year is out.” Dulcie sing-songed. “I’d an offer from the Grand Duke today.”
“That’s nothing.” Sylvie tossed an envelope of bleached parchment onto the table among the dirty dishes and empty wine bottles. The phantom of my little finger throbbed as though it was burning all over again.
There was a profile stamped into the blue-black wax of the seal. It drew my eyes, though I tried to look away. I closed my lids and struggled to keep my voice steady when I spoke.
“What is that thing?”
Sylvie was too pleased with her news to notice my discomfort. “That is a letter from the prince.”
“The prince?” I felt lightheaded, fearful and excited, all at the same time. The profile in the wax seal was his.
“Sylvie,” Minette chided, “where is your consideration? You know Ember does not care for the prince. Now take the seal from the envelope before the poor girl faints.”
I’d told them of the time I’d seen the prince, and we’d all had a good laugh about my overwrought reaction to the man. “Virgins do such stupid things,” Minette had mused. “I shall ever be thankful to the newel post, for at the time, it had a better head on its shoulders than you did.”
I could laugh because I wasn’t a virgin anymore. I’d taken three lovers in the time since I’d first seen the prince. They were the kind of men I liked, big, with muscles hardened by work and faces softened by humor. They all had the aura of daredevils about them, addicted to risk and brave beyond reason. And so, I suppose, they would have to be, to dare lie down with a witch.
They were not unskilled, my lovers. They were thorough and attentive to detail, taking their satisfaction both from my body and from the sense of mastery that came of pleasing a woman whom other men feared. I adored them each in my own way but the sad secret of my heart was, I had never wanted another man the way I’d wanted the prince. The way I wanted him, still.
I hated him for it. Hated him and his stupid curse for robbing me of a real first love, and spoiling me for a second. If I could have withstood a second sighting of him, I’d have ordered the Fire to burn him to ash, and damn the consequences. But, then, if I could have stood the sight of him, I’d not have hated him so very much.
“What does the prince’s letter say?”
Sylvie plucked the thick, cream-colored paper from the envelope and handed it across the table to me. “You must tell us what it says. We don’t read in our native tongue, much less in Maréan.”
Don’t dismiss my sisters as ignorant for they were merely untaught. Terre d’Or does not care for literacy in any but its clergy and nobility. A common woman who reveals she can read may as well admit to witchcraft. Her neighbors will burn her on her books and speak of how they’ve done her soul a favor.
I didn’t want to touch the prince’s note but my hand grasped it before I could ask Sylvie to hold it open for me. A shiver of excitement ran up my arm. As I held the paper close to my face to read the elegant, looping script, I inhaled the scent of leather and straw. I knew it was the prince’s scent. I imagined him coming in from a long ride and signing the note his secretary had drafted for him.
“What does it say?” Dulcie asked, her eyes bright and eager.
Embarrassed by how quickly I had lost myself, I made hasty work of the letter. “He—he wants to come here. He wants the whole place for himself and his cronies for three days, a week hence.”
Sylvie smiled in her quiet way and Dulcie squealed in delight. Minette kept her calm. “We can’t turn down the prince,” she mused. “It would be bad for business. If the nobles learn we turned Adrian Juste away, the nobles will spurn us and the merchants will follow.”
A frisson of excitement skittered over my skin at the sound of his name. I wanted to say it myself, to feel it on my tongue, to shape it with my lips. “Don’t say his name to me again!” I hissed. “That damned curse gets stronger every year.”
Dulcie looked at me askance. The curse was no stronger for her, or for anyone else, than it had ever been. I was the only person who thrilled to the sound of the prince’s name; who became entranced at the image of his face; who woke in the night wanting him. Perhaps it was my magic that made the prince’s charm pull so strongly at my will. Perhaps it only tormented me as punishment for my resistance.
“We can’t let him near Ember,” Minette said.
“But who will protect us and manage the books if she goes away to hide?”
“I’ll sleep in the summer cookshed.” I said. “I’ll keep to the kitchens and the servant’s hallways.”
“What if the prince’s followers don’t behave?” Dulcie asked.
“Keep the fires lit. If any of his courtiers behave boorishly, whisper the man’s name into a candle or a hearth, and the fire will deal with him.”
“You can do that?” Sylvie leaned across the table to look at me with new eyes. “I did not think you’d so much power.”
I shrugged. “Power builds with age.”
“Like the prince’s curse,” Minette said.
I closed my eyes. I didn’t want to think I had anything in common with him. I didn’t want to think of him at all.
The neighbors’ gossip transformed to lurid speculation when the prince and his courtiers began to visit our house. They whispered that my stepmother and stepsisters had stolen my magic to make love charms to enthrall the prince, that Minette and her “daughters” had forbidden me from entering my own house, and that my stepfamily made me rub ashes into my hair so no nobleman would notice the color of it and fall in love with me.
I don’t know where the neighbors got such nonsense. I’ve never been beautiful, or particularly loveable, though I’d kept to myself for so long, perhaps the neighbors had forgotten. The truth of it is, I hid my hair with ash of my own volition, after the prince’s first visit.
He took Dulcie to bed that time. Though the moon wasn’t full, he kept the shutters closed against the moonlight and kept the candles lit the whole night through. Few people suspect a thing so homey as a candle flame or a hearth fire will betray them, but every spark of flame that springs to life in Ciú Dellos Reyes is another set of eyes and ears for me. How do you think I always know what my neighbors think of me?
The cookshed fire woke me in the hours before dawn, dancing and flaring with the urgency of its message.
“What is it?”
I fed the fire a bundle of pitchy pine twigs so it could speak through the crackling sound of burning sap.
It formed an image of the prince and Dulcie reclining on her bed. “I have a question for you.” The prince’s voice was a low crackle of burning wood.
“Anything, your Highness,” Dulcie breathed, her usually bright eyes dull with lust and wonder.
“There used to be a girl who lived in this house. She’d red hair and black eyes.”
I prayed Dulcie would find the strength to lie to him, but none could deny the prince. She barely hesitated before answering, “My stepsister, Ember, has red hair and very dark brown eyes.”
“Ember,” he said. I closed my eyes and shuddered at the thought of my name upon his lips. “Does she work as you and the others do? Will you send her to me?”
If ever I’d doubted Dulcie was my sister, or doubted she loved me as well as if we’d been blood kin, I had the proof of it in her answer. She denied the prince, as best she could. Her voice shook when she answered him. “I cannot send her to you, Highness. She is not for sale. If it is red hair you want, I know a whore with hair like a stormy sunrise and a muff to match.”
“No.” The prince shook his head. “I want Ember. I saw her once, five years ago. She watched me ride by on the street. She wasn’t beautiful, that’s not what I noticed about her. When I go out in the streets, every face in the crowd turns as I pass like flowers following the sun. But she looked away from me.”
He turned, staring at the shuttered window, perhaps thinking of the day he’d seen me. “I’ve wanted her since then. I’ve looked for her in the streets, for the flash of red hair and the cold regard of those dark eyes. I get everything I want, but not her.”
“I—“ Dulcie tried to deny him a second time, but her voice died in her throat as the prince traced his hand along her face.
“Promise you will send her to me. Promise you will not rest until she comes to my bedchamber.”
His words had power to them, more power than just the weight of his curse. I suspect he might have been a great sorcerer if Gaetane’s cruel blessing had not directed his innate ability into his Charm. With magic and wisdom to aid him, he could have been the greatest king in the history of our little kingdom. Instead, he was a selfish, dangerous man with a voice none could refuse.
“Yes, Highness,” Dulcie droned. “I promise I will send her to you. I will not rest until she goes to your bedchamber.”
I cursed. The fire flickered in fear of my anger. The image disappeared. That stupid man! How could he be so cruel to compel such a promise from my sister? The force of his power would ensure the literal truth of her words. Dulcie wouldn’t rest until I went to the prince. And if I didn’t go, she would die from lack of sleep.