I must confess, when my friend Titania talked me into restarting my writing endevors a couple of weeks ago, the plan was that when we did our Flash Fiction Friday posts they would be unrelated to the story we were currently working on. But as soon as I saw this weeks prompt, I saw a way to introduce how my heroine started her journey to becoming the courtesan she is today.
“Don’t look at me like that.” Mary frowned at the elegant lady currently circling her.
The woman raised an eyebrow. “Look at you like what?”
“Like I’m some peace of meat.”
“Oh, but my dear dear girl, that’s really all we are in the end.” She finally came to a stop in front of Mary, her hands folded on top of her skirts. “Women are constantly being bought and sold by men in one way or another. Either as wives, or as courtesans…”
“Doxies, you mean.” The girl wrinkled her nose.
“I’m too young for that work.”
“Right you are. Though not for much longer, judging from those little buds straining the bodice of your dress.”
Mary crossed her arms in front of her chest self conciously. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Of course not.” Again that delicate eyebrow arched upwards. “Rougher sorts also buy and sell young girls and use them as either beggers or thieves until they’re old enough for the other things.”
The girl flushed at that. “King would never! He looks after us.”
But as soon as the words left her lips she knew she was wrong. The former sailor often sent her and the other children into the richer parts of Londinium to beg. He had also been the one that told Callum to teach her a thing or two about picking locks. And she knew he often took the older girls into his bed, or sent them home with ‘friends’ who paid him a couple of silver marks for the opportunity.
She’d noticed him watching her lately, his eyes settling on newly swelling breasts she hid with her crossed arms. However, after a moment or two he’d sigh and lament that the fact that her skin was so much darker than the other girls.
“I see you’re beginning to realize the truth of my words.”
Rather than reply, Mary looked away.
“We’re also just things to the mills. As soon as one girl goes, they’ve found another one to replace her.”
“They pay good money at the mills.”
“So I’ve heard. But is it work it? If you don’t watch yourself, your hair can get caught up in a machine, and your scalp will be ripped off your head. And if you’re cautious and somehow manage to avoid being maimed, the fluff will fill your lungs and strangle you from the inside out.”
The lady turned away and walked towards the ornate desk set in front of a window that looked out upon the streets of Londinium below. She lifted a crystal decanter from it’s spot on the desk top and poured some of the amber liquid from it into two matching glasses.
“Now that we have established what your options are, I think you have a choice to make.”
Mary stared at her in surprise. “I do?”
“Yes. What type of meat do you want to be?”
“You mean, you aren’t going to turn me into the police?”
“Well, if you wish, that can be arranged. You did break into my house and attempt to steal my silver after all.”
“So, what do you want to do?”
“I… I don’t know.”
“I think the choice is fairly obvious.”
“You’re an orphan of exotic origins, so it’s highly doubtful that anyone of any note will ever take you for a wife. You might be lucky enough to catch the eye of a sailor or fisherman, but that life is a hard rough life.”
Mary nodded. She had seen the sailors wives, standing in the doorways of their hovels with children clustered about their knees looking for their husbands ships in the harbor. Fishermen’s wives were often up early, pushing wheelbarrows full of their husband’s catch to the market from the docks, their hands rough and cracked from saltwater.
“Continuing your career as a begger or thief will only end with you in the gaol or gallows. So, obviously, that is not an option either.” The elegant woman leaned against the desk and took a sip from her glass. “And I don’t know about you, but I don’t fancy the idea of having my hair ripped out by the mills.”
Mary shook her head in agreement.
“So that leaves the oldest profession.”
“I don’t want to be a doxie.” They strolled the streets in low cut muslin dresses, and did their business in run down apartments or in alleys between pubs. Their skin was often marred with bruises from both their customers and their pimps, and they died young – either from some illness or because they were murdered.
“Oh my dear girl, I meant you could be a courtesan like me. You’ll never have to walk the streets. There will always be someone to protect you, and you’ll have a warm bed to sleep in every night.”
“But I’m too young!”
“For now. In time you’ll fill out into a beautiful young woman.”
“And King says no one would want me.”
“King doesn’t know the right clientele. There are men, Lords, Earls, Viscounts, even the King himself, who would pay a pretty penny for an evening with someone as unique as you. When you’re of age, of course.”
“But I don’t know how to…” Mary flushed, unable to complete the sentence.
“If you accept my offer, I will teach you everything you need to know.” The lady held out the other glass for her. “With the right training, and a bit of polish, you could be the most popular courtesan in all of Londinium. You could have dresses and jewels beyond your wildest imagination.”
Mary hesitated. “I could be richer than King?”
“And people would actually want me?” It was a strange concept, to be wanted.
“Okay.” She took the glass and sipped at the amber liquid. It burned it’s way down her throat and made her eyes water. She coughed and the elegant woman laughed.
“Good choice. Now come with me and lets get you cleaned up. We have a lot of work to do.”