After my father died, things were very hard. He had exhausted our money fuelling his addiction to smoking red crystal. We didn’t have a lot to start with. I watched him die when the last coins vanished, and friends started to close their doors in our faces. He tried theft, but we were in a poor area in the city. There wasn’t much to steal, and they all knew him anyway. He was no good at thieving, and the truth was that he was too honest. Not like me. When every source of finance was exhausted, the dealers stopped supplying him, and then he sickened. If you’ve seen that, you’ll know what it’s like. The sickening started with nosebleeds, then convulsions of his arms and legs, as if some giant puppeteer was jerking strings, randomly, but with demonic intent, to inflict as much pain as possible. Then his bones became too soft to move, though that didn’t stop his screaming. The screaming stopped only when his skull started to dissolve.
I was just twelve.
The worst was that I loved him utterly. Every boy loves his father, it’s the way the Great Spirit has designed things, but I’ve seen with other people how fathers and sons can be rivals, can quarrel, can grow to hate each other. It was never that way with us. He was magical – I don’t mean he was a mage, though sometimes he would pretend with me, with little tricks. I mean, when he came home, I would be enchanted. Sometimes he would be drunk, and then he would sing to me, and make me sing with him. He was never a mean drunk. Brandy brought out his gentle, joyful inner nature, the one that had been worn away by a hard life, and the hardships of bringing up children, the frequent disappointments and sorrows.
He loved all of us, equally, I think, but he sensed in me the same nature as his. He was very generous and forgiving, and I’d like to think I’m the same. Certainly my sister and my brother are tight-lipped, hypercritical, unforgiving. They never excused him or my mother for dying, and they never really forgave me for all that happened, especially the good things. And, like him, I have to watch my taste for drugs and wine. But after seeing him die in agony, I have never been tempted by red crystal.
He had a gorgeous tenor voice, and mine was good enough to sing duets with him. My voice got better when it broke, but he never heard my adult singing. Often, when I appear in one of the major roles, I imagine him in the audience, in the highest, most undesirable seats, having been let in by one of the doorkeepers whom he’s charmed (and he could charm), listening to me, a smile on his lips, tears in his eyes. He would have been so proud.
Dad taught me to dance, too. You have to be careful not to do the really difficult steps too young, because the muscles get too strong and can warp growing frames, but he taught me all the basics – the plixes, the darsha salia, the tlalores, the grace, the inspired feeling that transforms simple movement into enchantment. He was brilliant dancer. Towards the end, he was drunk so often that he stopped practising, and lost technique, but even then, he was still incomparable. Once, he smuggled me into the great theatre on Wagon Street, to watch an elvish troupe that had come from elfhame. As everybody knows, they are the creators and masters of this art form. I can remember it still, the exquisite movement, the way the music was incarnated in buoyant, ethereal form, with bodies which in reality were heavy, even clumsy, appearing light, floating, graceful. It happens to everyone, I suppose, that moment when you think to yourself – I must, I will do that, one day.
Afterwards, he took me backstage, charming the woman at the door to let us in. It was a bit of a shock to meet what I expected to be gods and goddesses only to find that they were smelly, with sore feet, and stained tights and worn shoes. But they were kind to me, and to him too. After all, they were at the pinnacle of their trade, and though he was good, he was some way below them. He had only danced in supporting roles, and of course, drinking had by then caused him to lose his job. I’ve never forgotten that, that generosity and warmness, which is how I think of elves, rather than high-minded, noble, superbeings, though they are that too.
They like children, because they don’t have many, and they were fascinated by my coppery tea-coloured skin, and my black eyes and dark curly hair. Of course, they have grey eyes, for the most part, and curly chestnut hair. They are as beautiful as the stories say, and I should know. I have loved two. I was set on many sweaty knees, and kissed on my cheeks and neck, and cuddled and held.
After he died, that all stopped. My mother used to sing when she forgot all the things that had gone wrong with her life. I loved her, too, for her beauty, her patience, her singing. But she was so busy earning enough copper denares to keep us in food and stop us being evicted from our lodgings that she was never home. So of course, it was my feckless, dissipated, idle, charming father that I adored, because he had time for me, and she never did. It’s not fair, is it? Yet it was so. Now that I am rich, I wish every day for some wizardly potion or spell that would take me back, to give her some of my surplus, so that those tired, rough hands, and that aching back could rest. How useless is regret! I try to make amends to her anim by being kind to other worn old women I meet, and hope that there was someone who did that for her.
The next five years went quickly, too quickly. I sampled the drugs that brought oblivion or ecstasy. In the stews of Cappor, these drugs were as common as bread, and more common than fruit. It’s a wonder that I grew up with any looks at all. The dancing – and too little food – helped keep me slim and small, and I inherited my father’s beautiful body – though I have my mother’s colouring, and her face. I am told that it is handsome, too.
I was always hungry, but I never complained. My mother had enough to worry about. I would charm the old ladies running the food kiosks in the square into giving me a morsel of whatever they had spare. The ability to whore starts early, and the duplicity involved becomes easier with use. The old men were also susceptible to my charms. Sometimes, for a glass of brandy on a cold winter night, I would let them put their hands down my breeches to feel me. Occasionally, I let them kiss me. For the most part, they were kind to me.
When my mother became sick with the coughing sickness, and we had no money for potions or mage-healers, the solution was obvious. I washed myself, and combed my hair, and put on my holiday best, and stood in the shadows next to the broad sweep of stairs leading up to the theatre on Wagon Street that my father had taken me to. I waited there all night, the first night. No-one approached me. There were some glances from departing theatre-goers, but they all looked away again. I suppose I looked too nervous, too soft. At last, as dawn tinted the sky rose, the doorman came over to me.
“Hop it, son!” he said. I did. I like to think he didn’t recognise me.
I went back the next night, to one of the restaurants near the theatre, to try again. That night someone came to me. He was old, and fat, and ugly. I was repelled, but of course why would somebody desirable have to pay? He took me home with him – he had two bravos with him for protection. I had meant to be brave, but when he entered me, roughly and without preparation, I cried out with the pain. When he had finished, he watched me dress, a cruel smile on his face, and when I asked him for the money, he rang his bell to summon his butler.
“Show this gentleman out, Fnaio,” he said, calmly.
“My money!” I said, disbelieving. Of course, I was given nothing.
As I was shown out the door, the butler said, not unkindly, “Ask for it in advance, next time.”
Once I was out of sight of the door, I crouched down in an alley and wept. No money, no medicines for my mother. And I’d had to endure sewer-breath and pain and humiliation. I was so lost in my own grief that I didn’t hear the footsteps until too late. I was not usually so careless – I’d grown up in the stews, after all.
“Well, well, what have we here?” And a figure squatted down in front of me. With one elegant finger, he lifted my chin and looked into my face. His expression was hard, and amused. I don’t know what he saw in my wretched, tear-blotted visage, but his eyes softened a little. “What’s wrong, beautiful one?” Trembling with terror, and shame, I blurted out the gist of my story. I was so young.
I finished with, “He wouldn’t pay me.”
“Wouldn’t he just? Well, we’ll have to rectify that, won’t we?” He lifted me up, and offered me a clean handkerchief to dry my face. “Come,” he said, “where does the phanasthon live?” I took him to the house. It wasn’t far. While he inspected the front, and then sauntered round to the lane behind, I inspected him. He was wearing black leather breeches, brown boots, made of a soft and flexible leather, and a black leather shirt. The clothes were old and worn. He wore a beautiful steel ring on his neck, with short brass spikes sticking out all round. Round his wrists he wore steel wristguards, with brass studs, decorated with brass chasing. Whatever he was doing, his hand hovered near the dagger at his waist. He was elvish, or elf-kindred. His chestnut hair was worn away from his pointed ears, in a queue down to his shoulders, so that all could see his origin. (He was proud of being an elf, even though he could never go back to elfhame because of what he’d done) I remembered the dancers, but this was a very different creature. His face was hard, but when he looked at me he smiled, with a sort of intimate kindness, as if it was a little secret between us. I never knew which was his true nature, if there is such a thing. He was both, I think, a hard shell of ruthless indifference, and a core of generosity and compassion.
He was beautiful.
“Up there,” he said, indicating a balcony on the second floor. He leapt agilely up to the top of the garden wall, and reached down a hand to help me up. The dogs in the garden started to bark, but he gestured at them and they went silent. I don’t know what he did to make that happen – he was elvish, and they are magical, and can communicate mind-to-mind. However he performed this trick, I often saw him do it. We crept across the garden to the house, which was thickly overgrown with ivy.
“A foolish conceit,” he commented, patting the thick trunks of the creeper which reached all the way to the top floors of the house. In a moment, he was swarming up the ivy to the balcony. I saw why he wore such supple boots. I followed him as best I could. At least I didn’t weigh much. He was far more agile than I was, even though I was a dancer. When we got to the balcony, he stood for a while, listening.
“Where’s the bastard’s room?” he whispered.
I pointed to where I thought it was. He slipped the tip of his dagger between the two sides of the door to the balcony, and with a practised movement of his hands flicked the lock open. Again he stood for a few minutes, listening. There was no sound. It was late at night. The moon was up, and he shone his silver light into the garden below, but he left us in shadow. The elf put his hand on my arm, and his finger on my lips, and drew me into the sleeping house. The corridor to the room looked different in the dark, but I remembered perfectly well where it was. The door was unlocked, and we slipped inside. There was a hump under the bed-clothes. I could smell the powerful stench from where we stood. The elf moved like a shadow over to the bed, and suddenly was astride the body, his hand over its mouth and the dagger pressed close against its neck.
“Light the lamp,” he said to me, as squeaks and grunts of terror came from beneath his hand. I searched for a box of lucifers on the bedside bureau, and lit the lamp. My client’s eyes were bulging with fright and dread.
The softness of the elf’s voice made its threat much worse.
“A trade’s a trade, slack guts. You got your fuck. Now my friend here wants his money. The usual fee is twenty denares, but this one is so good-looking, that for you it will be double that. So where is your money, sewer breath? And if you cry out when I remove my hand, I’ll cut your tits off, before I kill you.” He moved his hand away from the old man’s mouth.
In a scratchy whisper, the old man said, “The top drawer . . . .”
The elf nodded to me. I pulled the drawer open. There was a fat purse there, filled with copper and gold and silver.
“How much will you need for the medicines?” he asked.
I knew exactly. Ten denares, for the herbs and drugs, and twenty for the healer.
“Take what you need. I doubt wobble-tits here will be complaining.”
So I took my forty denares. Somehow, to take more would have been theft. Yet in my inexperience, I had asked only five. This was a fortune – enough for potions and a healer, and food, too. And I could earn some more tomorrow – twenty denares a night! It was an inconceivably large amount to me.
“Call the guards if you want to die, you slack bag of shit,” said the elf conversationally, stropping the flat of his blade gently against the man’s neck. Then he rose like a cat from the hulk on the bed and we ran back through the corridor to the balcony. It was the work of a moment to slip over the balustrade down the ivy and across the garden. There was no outcry, not even from the dogs, who greeted the elf like an old friend.
“Which way?” he asked. I told him where I lived. Caution seemed pointless.
We made our way home, past the late-night party-goers, who were laughing and joking. I forget what we talked of. Nothing, I think. I was too shy to talk. I was mesmerised by his beauty, his personality, his casual and brutal insouciance. The oddest thing is that I saw something of my father in him – the desire, and the capacity, to charm. He looked a bit like a younger version of him too. Perhaps papa was elf-kindred. Too late to ask now. He took me into a pub on the way, and bought me a glass of warm mulled wine, sweet and spicy and heavy.
Outside the house where my mother and I had rooms, he said goodbye.
“Thank you,” I said, suddenly shy, and conscious of his immense superiority to me.
“Don’t I get a kiss?” I could have been shocked, but his tone wasn’t insistent, or expecting. It was almost bashful, not the way you speak to a whore. I reached my face forward. I had never been kissed by a stranger before. He smiled at my tentative fumblings, and took me in his arms. First he brushed his lips softly against mine, turning my insides to water. Then he started to kiss me, nibble me with his lips, on my lips, my chin, my neck, my eyebrows, my nose. Finally he put his lips against mine again, and I felt the warm caress of his tongue, seeking entry past my teeth. I was dizzy with lust. He pushed me away, with a crooked grin. “Sleep well, beautiful one. Will we meet again?”
I nodded, praying silently. Please, Goddess, let me meet him again!
“My name is Tilthon, perfection.” Mine was a variant of his, Lthon. I told him.
“See you tomorrow, then, Ll. At the pub?”
So it was settled. From my window, I watched him stride off into the dawn pink and gold, his queue swinging from side-to-side in time with his gait, his black figure lithe and muscular and manly.
He wasn’t there when I arrived at the pub, and I ordered myself a beer. I was hoarding my money, and brandy doesn’t last. A mug of beer gives one the right to a seat for an hour, if you’re careful. He came in after I’d almost given up, and swept the room rapidly with his eyes. When he saw me he gave a tiny smile, and shouldered his way over.
“Ll,” he said, equably. I could see he was pleased to see me.
“Til,” I replied, my heart pounding with anticipation. For a while we just stared at each other, examining faces. My mind was full of the remembered feel of bristly mouth, of warm, mobile lips, of a searching tongue. I found it hard to think rationally of things to talk about. I think he felt the same. From time to time our knees would touch, or our hands brush, and a sparking thrill would course through me.
“I have to work tonight,” I said, reluctantly, after an hour spent in ecstasy in the aura of his company. More medicines would be needed. I think I knew then in my heart that they would not work. My mother tried to conceal from me how sick she was, but I had found the hidden rags spotted with blood and sputum and phlegm. But I was desperate.
“Spend the night with me. I’ll pay you the usual fee,” he said, looking at me in a way which made me shiver inside with desire.
“You can spend the night with me any time, for free,” I said, greatly daring, watching from under my eyelashes to see his response. He was pleased.
“Then I will give you the money, as a present. I know you need it. And I will teach you your trade. You don’t know much about it, do you?” I looked down, abashed. He reached over, and with his elegant elvish hands, stroked my face. “You start off with a few advantages.” I realised that he too was a whore.
“You are beautiful,” I said, “everyone must want you. You must have found it easy, too.” His face closed up a little, as he remembered something, then he gave an infinitesimal shake of his head, and smiled. “I did manage to get them to pay me! And there are other things I learnt the hard way which might help you. Come.” And he got up and pushed his way through the crowds to the door. I noticed that no-one stood in his way. As he moved, the crowd parted. Once, a man didn’t notice Tilthon standing next to him, and started in fear when he felt Tilthon’s cold impassive grey eyes on him. I knew that Tilthon could be lethal, but I never believed he would endanger me. It was a pleasure to surrender myself to his protection, to walk in the clear space behind him that opened up merely through the threat of his presence.
His house – and he owned, rather than rented it – was on the fringe of the poorer quarters. His sleeping chamber was simple, and the bed was large, made from Jernan cedar. The wood scented the room with the mountain air of Jerna. I expected something more glamorous and sophisticated, as I imagined elves to be. But he kept to Elvish custom in one way – the sheets were sprinkled with sweet-smelling and health-giving herbs. Always, when I smell the herbs he used, I am taken back to that room, to that time of innocence.
He took my face between his hands, and kissed me gently, nipping my lips and chin and neck. He softly and slowly took off my clothes, starting with my boots and socks, kissing me carefully between each item, as if he was going through a ritual. When I was completely naked, he indicated that I should take off his clothes. I copied him, and with great deliberation, removed his boots, his shirt, his breeches, one by one, kissing all parts of his body between each article. By the time we were both unclothed, I was light-headed with desire. Then he pressed me to the aromatic sheets, his body twined in mine, our cocks hard against each other. When he prepared to enter me, I clenched my jaw and my hands, despite myself. At once he stopped.
“What is it, perfection?” His gorgeous grey eyes were on me, filled with concern, and yes, even then, love.
“Nothing,” I said. Nothing would be too much for this man. A little pain would not stop me from giving him what he wanted.
“He hurt you, didn’t he? Old slack-guts.”
I shook my head. Please don’t stop now.
“It doesn’t have to hurt, you know. On the contrary – properly done, it’s very pleasurable. Let me show you.” And he did, and it was.
Afterwards, we lay under the blankets and pelts in his great bed, our legs tangled. Even then, he could not stop kissing me, but they were kisses of affection rather than lust. Later, I slept in his arms, my head against his chest, listening to the soft thump of his heart.
I met him often after that, whenever I wasn’t needed at home.
He taught me what men want, what to say, what lies to tell, who was dangerous, how to use a knife to defend myself, when to steal and when not, and how to decline unwelcome clients. He taught me how to make love properly, how to prolong and enhance pleasure till the client cries out for release. It took me weeks to realise that he was the boss of a gang of thieves, cutthroats, whores and drug-dealers, and I only understood when I saw him talking to them, and saw the respect with which he was spoken to and listened to. Some of his bravos were frighteningly tough, and deadly looking. For a moment I wondered how he kept them under control. Later I would find out. He tried to keep that side of his life away from me. I didn’t know where the money we spent each night came from, what suffering had been endured to create it. I didn’t want to know.
The medicines helped mama a little. The healer, grey with exhaustion from her work with all the sick and dying that winter, tried hard to make her better, and failed. I went and prayed in Mara’s temple and Aliya’s, and lit candles to speed my wishes to the neverwhere. But nothing made a difference in the end. We weren’t the only people making sad little treks out to the burning grounds that year – the death toll from the cough during that season’s snows was unusually high. I borrowed a cart from one of the peddlers on the square. I went to the money-lender to borrow a silver for the coffin, and something to pay for the ceremony and the wake. I didn’t tell Til – it was too personal and I was too proud for him to see my grief, and our poverty. But he found out anyway, and arrived just as we were setting off. His network of informants and spies had threads in every part of the city. There was little that escaped his awareness.
There were six mourners, including me and Til. My mother’s sister refused to come, and my own older brother and sister came only reluctantly. They were keen to escape their disreputable connections. I had not even bothered to ask them for money for my mother – I had known it would have been a waste of time. Afterwards, he officiated at the wake, with aplomb and grace, and I was ashamed to see my brother coming on to him. The mordant dislike in Tilthon’s eyes, which only I could see, made me feel sad. There seemed so little I could offer him, not even a decent family, when he had given me so much. My mother’s friends wept on my shoulders, and called me a good boy. They told me she had said that I was a comfort to her. There were other similar well-meant lies. After they had gone, Til took me into his arms.
“Did you ask your sister and brother for money for your mother?”
“No. They’re not the giving kind.”
“They’re not like you at all.” It was a compliment. I went hot with pleasure.
“And how much were the coffin and the funeral meats?” I pulled my head back from his chest. “Don’t!” I said. “You do too much for me already. I’ll earn some money and pay the money-lender back, in time.”
“I hate you working.” I’d known that for a while.
“You’ve been a whore, too,” I said.
“I still am. And worse.”
“I want something better for you.” It sounded like a proposal of marriage. I wasn’t sure I was ready for that yet. I put my head back against his chest. “Take me somewhere,” I said. I needed cheering up. He took me to an afternoon session at one of the Wagon Street theatres. Afterwards, we went to a pub, and I got drunk, and then he carried me home. He was a good man.
The next night, I was back at my favourite pick-up place, a restaurant near the theatre quarter. The last opera had finished, and no-one had eyed me, going into or out of the restaurant. I suppose the grief had made me unattractive, had left a dark pall on me. I was about to resign myself to a quiet night at home, when a burly figure staggered up to the semi-shadow I was lurking in. “How much?” he slurred. He was tipsy, going on drunk. I debated declining the trade – drunks would forget they’d had you, or would fall asleep before they paid, or would ask for their money back because they couldn’t get an erection. (That wasn’t often a problem – one learns techniques.) And sometimes, they could be violent. His face was vaguely familiar, but unplaceable.
I took him back to our – now my – lodgings. He was a huge chunky Yarsfelder, with the ice-green eyes and thick flaxen curls. Afterwards, he told me that his name was Yan. “I wanted to see what all the fuss was about,” he said. It was then that I placed him. He was Tilthon’s lieutenant. I was angry, and afraid. I knew Tilthon would find out, and might wreak a terrible revenge.
The next day he called. Standing behind him was Yan, looking sheepish. I opened the door in silence, waiting for the lightning to strike. Tilton flung himself on my bed, and rested his head on his arms. The silence stretched out. Yan looked at me. I looked at Til. He stared at the ceiling. At last, he said, “Well?”
Goaded into speech, Yan said, “You and me were all right before. Before he came along.” It was a plea. Til ignored it. He looked at me. “Well?” he asked again.
I stared at him for a while, looking for absolution or forgiveness in those implacable cold grey slits. “He was a client. I didn’t recognise him till afterwards. It’s my job, Til.” There was a plea in my voice, too.
He rose languidly from the bed, and then his hand snaked out and grabbed Yan’s throat. “You knew,” he said, unemotionally. He threw him hard against the wall. The green eyes stared at him mutely, begging. For love? Forgiveness? Understanding? Til was blind to their entreaty. His voice was cold. “He’s mine. If you touch him again, I’ll kill you.” He dragged Yan upright. Then he punched him in the stomach, and as Yan folded over, pushed his head down with one hand, and brought his knee up into his face. Bright red spattered the worn black leather, the floorboards. Yan gave a small moan, of pain and terror. “You’re mine, too, big Yan. Go away, now. I’ll see you later tonight, at the usual place.” The tone of the last few words was almost tender, a father forgiving a wayward child. Yan got up, and in silence left the room. I listened to his footsteps thumping down the staircase. I waited, trembling, for Til to start on me. All at once I was angry, the anger that comes when terror is too much, when someone you love turns into a monster, when hope goes.
“He loves you, Til! Why did you do that?” Anger gave me courage.
“Shut your face!” His voice was hard, brutal, cold. “You don’t understand. If I let him get away with this, I will lose control of my gang. He knew what he was doing. He knew I would find out. The only reason I didn’t kill him is because he is Yan. Anybody else . . . . .” I was faint with jealousy and desire at the thought of Til’s mouth, with its glinting straw surround of spiky beard, its mobile muscular tongue, the sharp white teeth, moving over the pale brawny body of the Yarsfelder in the way it had moved over me. I looked at Til, and he knew (as he often did) what I was thinking. He came over to me, and kissed me darkly, passionately. He took me right there, without preparation or foreplay, bent over the edge of the bed. Every thrust said you are mine.
Afterwards, he said, “I want you to stop whoring. I’ll give you money.” He gave me no chance to refuse. I was too afraid of him now, anyway. I started to sing at taverns, to keep my hand in, to make some money that was mine, not his. I made enough money from tips, though much less than I had made being a whore. I should say, being a public whore. For now I was Til’s property. And somehow our relationship had been spoiled, and he started to treat me differently. Sometimes, the old tenderness and affection would come back. But often, our love-making was more like a brutal physical assault, leaving me bruised and sore. Once, when I arrived at his rooms, Yan was with him, and I heard from the other side of the door his cry of pleasure as he came. I went away, on tip-toe.
For a while, I concealed my ultimate intention from myself, but one day, a travelling impresario, called Findas, heard my song and dance act, and asked me whether I would like to go away with his troupe of singer-dancers, who toured in all the provincial towns and villages. I realised after, that he knew that my beauty would draw more coins from the audience, and that it was not because I was a particularly good dancer or singer – though I have much advanced, since then, even as my beauty has diminished. The pay was better than I was making from tips, and the accommodation costs were to be paid by the management. It was escape. Findas said he was leaving the next morning, and I should be at the “Fiddler’s Inn” at first light. I went home and packed my backpack with the worthless detritus of my life.
I went to Til’s rooms, and said, “Let’s do something special tonight.” So we went to our pub, and drank and laughed a little, and held each other’s hands, and afterwards made love for the last time in his huge sweet-smelling cedar bed, and in the lonely thin hours before dawn, I slipped out, and left him to face his demons alone.
The guilt for deserting him like that will remain with me always. And sometimes, despite all that I have now – wealth, prestige, a title, a lyubon whom I love more than life itself, I would give anything just to be back once more in that shabby room on the big aromatic bed, with Til’s hands and lips and body touching mine, when I realised for the first time that I could be loved, that I was loved, and that I was not alone any more.