The emerald ring was pretty enough, but the man offering it wasn’t. When I didn’t take the proffered ring, he placed it on the center of the table between his empty plate and my full one, gem facing me. Candlelight reflected on the stone’s smooth surface, bringing out the darker hues of its brilliant green. My hands, folded in my lap beneath the table, itched to take it, to feel the weight of the thick band, to examine the intricate goldsmith’s art surrounding the stone.
The general was older than my father, which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. Older men have had more years to gain the means of supporting a woman. The general’s gain surrounded us in the understated way of the truly wealthy. The plush, perfect carpet beneath my slippers hadn’t seen a year’s wear. The narrow table at which we sat was constructed in a strange way that suggested a tree had been felled, sawed, and its wood dried and dyed for this exact dinner. Our legs were so close beneath the table. Were I to shift my foot one toe forward, it would be playing against his boot, which is perhaps what he wanted.
“The ring was designed for my late wife, but I was robbed of the opportunity to present her with it.” He took a sip of wine from his blue glass goblet as those the words meant nothing, but I could see a little ache in his eyes.
“My condolences, General Venery.” I looked at him rather than the ring, trying to project all the desire I felt for it onto his aged face.
“As I told you the other evening, please call me Tal.”
I cast my eyes down, trying to look demure about acts to which I attached no shame. “I didn’t know if that was dependent on the activities in which we were engaged at the time.”
“You may call me Tal anytime we are alone.”
“Tal,” I said, pairing the name with a shy smile that didn’t belong to my feelings. It wasn’t his real name, of course. Halburn told me his name was Billard Venery the Forth. The name Tal, short for metal, was given to him by his father, who, as Hal so charmingly put it, “couldn’t stomach his son sharing the same name his wife shouted when fucking him.” That was speculation, at which Hal excelled. I chastised myself, not wanting to think about Hal just then. Things were wrong enough between us that dwelling on him couldn’t right them.
I focused my mind on the ring instead, which was worth a hell of a lot more than Hal would ever be. I wondered which of my fingers it would fit upon.
The lower part of the general’s face was spotted with moles that looked like black pox crawling up his neck, chin, and cheeks. His tight gray curls crept back on his forehead as though they were afraid of his dark eyes. He had a merchant’s manner of looking perpetually pleased with himself no matter what his mood. He smiled at me with wine-stained teeth, which I recently learned were removable.
Had he been twenty years younger or twenty years older, I wouldn’t have thought twice about taking his ring.
The general rang a bronze bell and one of his pustule-faced privates appeared a moment later to take our plates.
“Did the food not please you, Ana·Rei?” the general asked as my picked at plate passed under his nose, sweet wine sauce congealing around a slab of veal so pink it could still have been in the calf. It’s smell begged me to rip the plate from the private’s hands and bury my face in it, though that thought proved what poor company I’d been in during the past few years.
I swallowed my salivation before I spoke. “It was divine, Tal. So rich, I dared not eat too much.”
“I could have something else brought up from the kitchens.”
“No, I am quite sated. Thank you.” Among the many cruel lessons my mother taught me was to never eat in the presence of a man you hoped to impress. I couldn’t resist taking a few tiny bites before her voice got in my head, which served me well. There were things I needed to do that night best done with an empty stomach.
When we were alone again, he offered me more wine, which I accepted.
“My daughter will be married soon,” he said suddenly, as though he just remembered the betrothal negotiations we’d been going through during the past month.
I tried to force disinterest into my voice, as though we were just making conversation. “Does that mean you’ve chosen her groom?”
He tutted and shook his head as he filled my wine goblet. “Sharp as always, but we’re not talking business tonight,” though the ring resting on the table between us told a different tale. Still, that was one piece of information to take back to Hal: no deals were done.
“I’ve grown accustomed to having female influence in my life. I had my wife, then Chast and my wife, now just my Chast. This house will be empty once she has a husband.” It took a certain type of man to consider a staff of twenty soldier-servants empty. He picked up the ring and turned it in the candlelight.
“You could remarry.”
“I could not abide a union that takes resources away from my daughter. No more children. No wife to fight her for my fortune when I pass. I need a pragmatist to share my house, to share my bed. I need a woman who understands how we might form a mutually beneficial arrangement. She would have her freedom and a generous stipend. I would have her companionship and her affection.”
“Perhaps Chast and her husband could remain under your roof–”
His voice as louder than I’d ever heard it. “I will not hear my daughter being fucked by what ever imbecilic pup wins her hand.” The general took a deep breath and forced a smile on his face. “Just as she is absent this evening and will not have to bear witness to my lovemaking,” which made her the lucky one of the two of us.
I gave my eyes a shy flutter and bit my lower lip as his boot raked against my ankle. He reached across the table and I took his hand as he spoke. “I am of a certain age at which I no longer tolerate foolishness. Had I wanted to remarry, I’d have done so already. Perhaps you understand, as you are of a certain age as well. You are… what? Twenty-seven?”
“Yes,” I lied, wondering if it was flattery for me or bad eyes for him. I’d just turned thirty, though I could only think of one person who knew it other than I.
He turned my hand over, thumb working circles on my palm. “Had you wanted to be married, you’d have done so already. You are of good blood, beautiful, smart, but the man who plucked your bloom didn’t keep the flower.” Only a man who thinks as a father first makes sex sound so disgusting.
“I enjoy my liberties,” I said, staring at the ring he held in his other hand. The promise of its value, its security. The promise of more to come.
“And you may continue to enjoy them, under one roof, with one patron.”
I’d lain under enough men who pleased themselves rather than pleasured me to know what I was being offered. I’d also lain in a lot a gutters, which had a way of changing a woman’s perspective.
“Do you desire an answer now?” I said.
He walked over to my side of the table and helped me to my feet, hands surprisingly strong for a man over sixty. “I’ve made enough deals in my life to know not to trust a man who cannot accept a good deal when first offered. I believe the same goes for a woman.” His fingers tickled my neck like dead fish as he lifted my chin to look into his eyes, black stones surrounded by lines of sagging skin. “I can make an exception while you enjoy my company, but I expect an answer before you leave tonight.”
“That should give me plenty of time,” I said. I placed one hand on his belly, flesh soft beneath his silk shirt, and let it drift lower as I sank to my knees.
A carriage returned me to our inn sometime after midnight. I wanted to get back to my room and wash off all the disgust I felt with the choices I made, but no one was present to boil water until dawn. I tried to ignore the light creeping out beneath his door as I fumbled with my key. I told myself the only reason why I knocked was because he might have some lukewarm water in which to wash.
Halburn sat on his bed shirtless, a twist clutched between his teeth despite having been reprimanded by the inn’s owner several times for smoking in his room. His beard was trimmed down to a neat shadow, his frizzy hair looking less frizzy than usual. He held a piece of paper an arm length from his eyes, trying to read his own writing. He didn’t look surprised to see me.
As I said, things were wrong between us.
“Did you have a pleasing time with the general, m’dear?” His voice was like a familiar tune you can’t get out of your head and find yourself whistling at the worst moments.
“I shall assume the evening ended with one of you being pleased.”
I ignored the jibe and found a basin of water with a towel folded next to it by the door.
He offered me a shrug when my eyes inquired about it. “I had the kitchen send it up before they went home. There’s one in your room as well. I didn’t know where you’d be–”
“Where’s the boy?” I said, interrupting his words before he could finish them.
He tapped his twist out on a saucer by the bed for my benefit. I hated how well he knew me. “Carousing with those who want to kill him.”
“And Jaynee?” I said, pulling the gown over my head. It was perfectly clean, but felt dirty all the same. I threw it against the door before beginning to wash myself.
“Killing those who carouse with him. It’s a beautiful circle of death, m’dear.”
“You’re getting colder, Hal,” I said, though I knew it wasn’t true. He was getting desperate.
“As you are the one undressing, I expect it is you who are getting colder.” He slid off the bed and wandered over to the secretary by the window. He took a long time putting down one piece of paper, allowing me to wash without being watched.
He turned around while I was drying my thighs, yellow-brown eyes shifting about the room as though if he didn’t look at me, I’d stay. “I suppose you’ll be returning to your room. If you’d like to borrow a candle…”
“Shut up and get on the bed,” I said.
I’d have enough years ahead of me, being beneath the body of someone for whom I didn’t ache, not to take what I had while I had it. Hal’s pleased smile made me want to slap him and I did just that as I crawled on top of him. As always, he took my abuse with good humor and kissed me for the pain. He tasted of smoke, wine, and another flavor, deeply familiar. A flavor I couldn’t get out of my own mouth, no matter what else I put into it. It took him a long, languid while to get his hand into the bodice of my shift and pull out the ring tucked beneath my left breast.
He tapped it teasingly against my nose. “Gift from the general?”
“A bauble for my troubles,” I said, reminding myself it was worth more than he’d ever be.
He pushed me back on my hips until I was sitting up, took my hand from his chest and slid it onto my middle finger. He gave it a little tug. “A perfect fit, m’dear.”