Lilly wasn’t entirely certain about this. When the housekeeper came down below stairs and asked for volunteers to act as bed warmers for the visiting delegates, there has been a lot of snickering. She chided you all firmly.
“Not like that!” she insisted. “They aren’t even human, they won’t have any interest in what’s between your legs. They are cold blooded and they don’t live this far north for a reason. All you have to do is have a warm bath, then sleep in a big, soft, upstairs bed with a good mattress and feather pillows. In exchange for that, you will get paid double while they are here. They will each have a valet assigned. You don’t need to even speak to them, in fact, the lord would prefer it if you don’t.”
And Lilly hadn’t signed up. Lots of her friends had. They bragged about the extra money and how their nagas bought them little gifts of food. That was all well and good until someone caught William stealing a necklace from one of them. And now it was 8 o’clock, the sun was going down and the house was one bed warmer short.
Lilly had been volunteered. She had been bathed, scrubbed almost raw, and stuffed naked into a strange bed in a part of the castle she didn’t even recognize. The naga and his valet came in. The valet helped him undress and get into his own tub of steaming water. Then came over and chided her for not having your hair braided properly. She mumbled an apology about being a last minute replacement, and were promptly lectured about talking back.
Thankfully the dreadful man left shortly afterwards.
“He’s right about your hair,” said a lovely baritone from the tub. “It gets distracting if it isn’t contained.”
“I am sorry lord! I was brought up here without a hair tie.”
He turned and looked at her in shock. Lilly doubted he could see much with the blankets pulled up around her ears. “You’re a girl!’ he said in surprise.
“There needed to be a last minute replacement and I was the only one available. The housekeeper will find you someone more suitable for tomorrow.”
The naga man nodded slowly, “Did they explain that I have to touch you?”
“What?” she squeaked.
He looked as embarrassed as she felt. “I’m cold blooded. I can’t keep myself warm and if my body temperature drops too low, I will start to hibernate. I need a bed warmer that I can hold in my arms and wrap my tail around.”
Lilly reminded herself what the housekeeper had said, this wasn’t a sex thing, it was a body warmth thing. “I think I will be alright,” she replied hesitantly, “but I really don’t have a hair tie.”
He chuckled, “There is a wooden box on the table over there, it has ouroboros carved into the top. It is full of silk ribbons. Take as many as you like.”
“I don’t know what ouroboros means.” Lilly admitted softly.
“It’s a snake, tangled around itself.”
She crawled out of bed on the side away from the bathtub and find the box as promised. There are ribbons of all colours. The richness of the dye speaking to the wealth of the owner. She gasped, running a finger through them. “Is it alright if I choose purple? I’ve never had anything purple before.”
That’s when she noticed he is hissing slightly. She turn and look over her shoulder at him, “Sir? I don’t mean to offend.”
He shakes his head. “Take a purple one then.”
Lilly smiled happily and quickly wrangled her bright red curls into one long braid down herr back, working the ribbon in so that it won’t pull out too easily, then she scampered back into bed. Despite the warmth from the fireplace, the flagstones are cold. The Naga pulled the plug on the tub and slithered over to the fireplace to dry off. He was smooth everywhere and Lilly wondered why a creature with no hair has so many ribbons.
Watching him dry himself is an experience in and of itself. His skin is not the dull green or black like the snakes she might find in the garden. The snake half is a firey red orange, the human half a pale yellow, and all down is spine, a series of grey swirls that run from the base of his skull all the way to the tip of his tail.
“I can feel you staring at me.” He chided.
Lilly blushed the way only a red head can, her skin momentarily as red as her hair. “I am sorry, Lord. I haven’t ever seen a naga before and I wasn’t expecting to match.”
Now he laughed. “I have rarely seen a human I matched either. You have been all kinds of surprises tonight.” He then fixed her with an unblinking stare and asked, “May I join you in bed now?”
Lilly blinked. “My lord, it is your bed,” she replied awkwardly.
He shook his head, but kept his eyes on her. “I was told that a gentleman always asks first and respects a denial.”
Lilly considered this. She had no doubt that was what he had been told, but it certainly wasn’t the experience of anyone she knew. She settled on a nonconfrontational “It is why I am here, lord.” He didn’t move. He didn’t blink. He waited patiently, watching her with strange cat like eyes. Finally Lilly just said awkwardly, “Um… please come to bed whenever you wish.”
He slithered over and under the covers. Snuggling up behind her, he spooned her and wrapped his tails back and forth, covering her legs but not encircling them. His skin was cool and Lilly suddenly understand why they bed has so many quilts. If he was going to be using her warmth, she was going to need all the blankets she could get.
“Are you comfortable?” he asks quietly.
“May I hold you around your waist? With my arms?” he quickly adds.
Reminding herself that this isn’t a sex thing, no matter how silky his skin felt, she nodded carefully.
“Thank you.” He hesitated. “They did not tell me your name.”
“They didn’t tell me yours either,” she repled softly.
“Ah.” He thought about this for a moment. “Thank you for warming me.”
“You are most welcome, lord.”
Eventually Lilly fall asleep. She woke up before dawn as she had been trained to do. The naga was still asleep. He has one hand tucked between her legs and the end of his tail wrapped around her ankle. Under the blankets she was almost too warm. She carefully moved his hand and started to inch away. He gaves a muffled sleepy hiss and pulled her tight again. “My lord? You need to let go of me for a moment.”
He maked an undignified snort as he roused from his sleep. Then queried in a most articulate manner, “Wah?”
“My lord… I need to return to my duties.”
“Mine,” he mumbled still not awake his tail tightening on her calf hard enough to make her yelp. That woke him up. He is immediately sitting up, teeth barred, looking for the threat.
With tears in herr eyes Lilly whimpered, “Please, lord, you are hurting me!”
He looks at her without understanding, so she try to pull her leg away, then screamed in pain as he instinctively tightened before letting go. She sprang out of bed and staggered away. Looking down her calf, it was already starting to bruise.
“I am so sorry!”
Lilly looked up into his worried grey eyes with the vertical slit. She honestly don’t know what to say to that. “I need to go start breakfast. I’m a kitchen maid.”
The naga shakes his head. “You are supposed to stay with me until after breakfast or until I don’t need you anymore. I still need you.”
Oh, yeah, she did remember something about that. She stomped off to use the water closet, and toke a moment to examine her leg. She are sure nothing is broken, but it still really hurt. This was going to be a problem when she had to spend the day standing in the kitchen. Lilly washed her hands and stared at herself in the mirror. Stray strands of hair have escaped her braid and are curling around her face, her nipples are pebbled in the cold air. In fact she is covered in goosebumps. She wishes the house keeper hadn’t taken her clothes. It was probably to keep her from running away if she got scared of the snake man.
It took her a moment to work up the nerve to leave the relative safety of the bathroom. The naga was huddled under the covers looking worried. “Have I injured you?”
Lilly sighed and ducked the question, “The housekeeper has taken my dress so that I can not leave until she comes for me.”
“I don’t want you to leave.”
“I don’t want to be naked in front of your valet. Would you lend me one of your tunics until the housekeeper comes?”
He nodded slowly. Lilly grabbed the rumpled one out of the hamper so as not to dirty the clean tunic laid out for the day. She considered him carefully for a moment. “Do you need to use the, um… the facilities? Only the floor is still cold.”
“I will be fine if you come back to bed.”
Not entirely sure she wanted to come back to bed, Lilly went and started the fire instead. When she turn back to look at him, he was balled up in the centre of the bed not moving. “Damn.” Lilly hurried over and snuggled up next to him. “The fire will warm the room in a few minutes. I’m sorry I let you get cold.”
He didn’t say anything, or even move as she tried to pull him against her. As he warmed up, he started to coil around her again. “Not too tight, not too tight!” she whispered softly. Lilly started rubbing his arms, trying to get him to warm up. It took a few minutes before he is back with her. When his eyes finally focus on her, she breathed a sigh of relief.
“Idris.” he hissed softly.
Lilly blinked, “I don’t understand, lord.”
“Please call me Idris. I am sorry I hurt you.”
“It was an accident,” she suggested.
“Yes it was. Will you please tell me your name?”
Now she stiffened in his arms. “I am not supposed to speak to you.”
He laughed, “Too late for that.”
Lilly hesitated, trying to think of how to explain this next bit. “I am a kitchen maid. I am not… trained to work above stairs. If you complain about me, I will be fired and end up in a poorhouse.”
He was about to say something flip, until he saw she was serious. “You are really afraid of that?”
“Idris,” he repeated absentmindedly, “but I have injured your leg. How can I tell the housekeeper you need time to rest if I don’t know your name?”
Lilly gaped at him in fear, “Please don’t do that! Please, Lord Idris, do not tell the housekeeper that I am unable to work! I will get the sack for sure.”
“What about your leg?”
“My skirts will hide the bruise and being a kitchen maid isn’t that much walking. It is mostly standing still and washing dishes or peeling veg or-” She stopped. A naga lord would not want to hear this. “It will be fine,” she finished rather lamely.
He considered this. “How long until the valet gets here?”
Lilly tried to think about that. “A couple of hours.”
Idris nodded, “Then you should go back to sleep.”
The next time she woke, Idris was carefully stroking her hair as the housekeeper and the valet argue. Finally, the housekeeper stomped off the valet looked through Lilly as though she was furniture. “This can’t be good,” she thought
“Lord Idris, it will take some time to find suitable garb-”
“I can wait.”
The man bowed slightly and turned to leave. Moments later a whole cart of food was wheeled in. Lilly recognizes Molly who glared at her in a way the promised trouble later. “Lord Idris, I should go. Did the housekeeper bring my clothes?”
Before he can answer, the doors open and five more Naga slither in. They take turns hissing at each other and chuckling as they pick at the breakfast cart. Lord Idris crawls out of bed to join them. They are all wearing tunics, he is naked and unashamed.
“Girl? What would you like for breakfast?”
“Um, Lord Idris, I would quite like some clothing so that I can go back to my station.”
This sparked some debate amongst the others.
Eventually a large black and green Naga slithered over with a plate of fruit. His upper half would pass as a very dark human, but his lower half was black like ink. He had yellow X’s running down his spine. “You humans insist on putting cut fruit on everything. We can not eat it, but I understand this is considered a treat for your kind.”
Lilly nodded and sat up, afraid to get out of bed with bare legs in front of all these people. Looking at the plate, the food certainly was a treat. Perfectly ripe strawberries, cape gooseberries, cut up pieces of the spiky fruit she had rarely even seen and had never tasted. The naga, meanwhile were unhinging their jaws to swallow eggs whole. Lilly could actually see the shells sliding down their throats. Next is the whole kippers. She has to look away and concentrate instead on her fruit.
The door opens and a younger looking Naga hurries in, followed closely by a harried looking valet. Upon seeing Lilly, his gaze locks on her. “Sylwin,” Idris said in a warning tone. The young naga blinked and handed her a package.
It was a fairly large package, but inside was a green dress, delicate white under things and a pair of soft brown leather boots. Lilly limped out of bed and behind the dressing screen as the naga delegation watched her intently. She wasn’t sure how the smallest naga managed to get boots to fit her perfectly with needing her to try them on. It was better than she had ever done.
Idris called out from the other side of the screen. “The next one will be purple, I promise.”
Lilly inched out from around the screen and curtsied awkwardly. “Thank you for the dress, Lord Idris. I must return to my station now.” As she turned to leave the closest naga shot out a hand and grabbed her wrist.
From across the room, Idris said quietly, “I am not done with you yet.”
Lilly nodded carefully, “What else do you require?” she asked softly.
He watched her with an eerie stillness. “To start with,” he replied, “I require to see you in a purple dress.”
All Lilly could think was, ‘I am most certainly getting fired.’
Lilly didn’t know why she was here, and neither did any of the other humans. She had been brought to every meeting. Lord Idris sat and talked with … whomever he is meeting. Upon entering any new room, the first thing his retinue would do was find a chair for Lilly to sit in. The second thing they would do was surround her like a particularly surly bodyguard.
Noon meal was taken in his rooms, with his entourage in attendance. The largest naga, the one with the yellow X’s on his spine was named Seb. Seb was the one who leaned down at the nervous looking waiter and insisted a plate of human food be arranged.
By afternoon break, Sylwin had been sent out to collect another dress for you with instruction to also bring back whatever else the shopkeeper thought a young lady would need.
He came back with a trunk full.
That night Idris asked Lilly to join him in the tub. She sat awkwardly where his lap would be, if he had one as he massaged her neck, shoulders and arms.
She asked him why he is doing this.
He asked her name.
Neither of them got any answers.
The bath finished and Idris was laying naked in front of the fire watching as Lilly was trying to rebraid her hair, tighter this time hoping no strands escape in the night. She were wearing his tunic again. When she asked to use it, again, he asked why.
“There wasn’t a night dress in the things Sylwin brought for me to use.”
Idris had frowned and said that he did not understand the purpose of such a thing. Lilly tried to explain it was improper for a woman to show her body to a man who was not her husband. This did not help. If anything he frowned harder.
That night he held her tight but did not wrap his tail around her ankle. If anything the tip was stretched out as far away from her as it could go. In the morning, she woke with his hands tucked into her armpits. Lilly thought about that, but still got up to pee and stoke the fire before hurrying back to bed. He watched sleepily but did not say anything.
That day’s dress wasn’t a deep purple, but a soft and slightly faded one. Perhaps the third run of cloth through the dye when it was almost all used up. As before, it was a simple dress and, as before she wore it with the boots he had bought for her. The people Idris was meeting with were less tolerant of Lilly’s presence a second day.
Finally, the local lord said, “Lord Idris, all the other bed warmers provided to your party return to their duties during the day, as is expected. Why do you insist on keeping this one with you?’
Idris hissed softly for a moment. “The last attendant you provided attempted to rob me. This one has been well behaved. I have no indication that it will steal from me. I was told I would be assigned a more suitable bed warmer. I would prefer to keep this one.”
Lilly felt like she was going to be sick and it only got worse when the lord of the manor said, “Alright. She is yours. Consider her a gift.”
Idris nodded as though he did not understand that Lilly had just gone from a free person to property in only a few seconds. By noon meal, she were shaking. He held her hand and asked what was wrong.
“You will leave and I will be left here and I will have nothing. I will have offended all these very powerful men. It will not go well for me.”
Idris considered this as half a cornish game hen worked its way down his throat. Once he swallowed he said, “Well, the easiest way to fix that is when I leave I will take you with me.”
Lilly knew he is joking, so had nothing to say. She focused instead on the way the skin on his hand is covered in tiny scales, barely bigger than a grain of sand. His hand is cool in hers and she instinctively covered it with her other hand.
That afternoon, Idris spent talking border tariffs with some regional lords. From what Lilly could tell, it seemed to be going well. Except one of them had brought his son, who spent the whole time staring at her. It made her very uncomfortable. Even more so when he waited until everyone was distracted to lean forward and whisper, “You can warm my bed later if you like.”
Lilly dropped her gaze to her hands clenched into fists in her lap. She blushed as red as your hair. Sylwin was watching and he reared up, hissing angrily, a frill she didn’t know he had expanding from his nonexistent ears to his shoulder.
All the nagas were suddenly very focused on the boy. Idris coughed. “Could I have a word? That is to say, clear the room except for Lord Windershins and the girl.”
People grumbled but they left.
“What was that?” Idris asked softly.
“Nothing, lord.” Lilly mumbled.
Idris narrowed his eyes and watched her for a moment before turning to Lord Windershins. “She is in my care just as I am in hers. When your son insults her it is no different that him insulting any other member of my envoy.”
Lord Windershins raised an eyebrow, “About that, no one else from your party has brought their bed warmers to meetings with them. If you notice, none of the humans have brought their mistresses either.”
Idris nodded slowly, “If you wish to trade goods with my people, you must be able to show respect to my people. Regardless of your understanding of their status.” He reared up suddenly, Lord Windershins leaned away. “I will give you and your party some time to consider this. If you are willing to resume talks tomorrow I will expect your side of the table to be better behaved.”
Lilly was still shaking when they got back to Lord Idris’s rooms. Seb rubbed her back, “Easy there girl. No warm blood should be that pale.”
“You are leaving.” She said it flatly, with no emotion in her voice but all the dread in her heart.
“We are leaving, but not for another nine days,” Idris said firmly. “I still have need of you. I am bringing you with us.”
She balked a little at that. “For how long?”
“For as long as you wish.”
Lilly rubbed the back of her neck as she thought about that. “If I travel back to your lands, what would I do? I understand it is warm there.”
“Would you be able to teach my people how to prepare food for humans?”
She frowned a little, “Of course, but I understand your people are not humans.”
His tongue flicks slightly in disgust. “They are not, but I am beginning to realize it would be helpful to have a few of you around.”
Lilly stared at floor trying to figure out what she should do.
Idris misunderstood, “I did not ask if you have family here.”
“I do not.”
“Do you have things you need to collect from your room?”
Idris watched her with that unblinking stare, “You told me that if you lose this job you will end up in the poor house. Is that correct or were you exaggerating?”
Lilly shook her head. “My family does not live near here, I was sent away to earn money to provide for my sisters. If I lose this job, it will be a long journey back to a farm that had no place for me.”
Idris considered this. “How much do you earn here?”
“Room and board and fifteen pounds a year.” They all stared at you in shock. It made her feel defensive. “I am good at what I do. I work hard. I earn that money.”
“I do not doubt that, but each of us was assigned a valet earning more than twice that.”
She shrugged, “Men earn more money than women and anyone working above stairs earns more than those of use below.”
Idris considered this. Some of the others were hissing at each other. Finally he said, “I would hire you as a valet for forty pounds a year. Plus room and board. The extra would be to cover the inconvenience of having to travel and the impropriety of warming my bed in cold climes.”
“That is almost as much as a butler might make,” Lilly protested
Seb nodded, “I agree. If she is to assist all of us with human customs, she should make more than that.”
Lilly startled at being so misinterpreted. “I don’t think I am the best person to teach about human customs. You will need a master of protocol to teach you etiquette. And valets are always men.”
Idris cocked his head, “Why are valets always men?”
She blinked, it was not the question she was expecting. “I dunno. So that the gentlemen don’t try to sleep with them, I guess.”
One the naga she couldn’t name yet snorted when she said that. He was now trying not to laugh. “Ossi!” Idris chided.
Ossi slithered over to get a drink of water.
Seb’s voice went very quiet when he said, “We do not have the same drives as humans. Mating occurs based on temperature and availability of food. We may only mate one every ten years or so.”
Falling pregnant was the sort of thing that got a girl fired. Regardless of the circumstances around how it occurred. The events of the last two days were enough to have branded Lilly a ruined woman. There was no reason to stay.
Idris had watched her expression since she had made the comment about the valet. “You told me it was improper for a woman to be naked with a man who is not her husband.”
Lilly nodded feeling very uncomfortable by this whole conversation.
Idris bobbed his head, mimicking your gesture. “Naga do not have marriage the same way as humans. If you marry me, would that solve the problem?”
Lilly blinked and looked at him, trying to decide if he was serious. It was the least romantic marriage proposals she had heard of and didn’t know how to tell. “Lord Idris, if I may be so bold… if you could tell me exactly what you are after, perhaps I can help you figure out what that is in human terms.”
Seb mumbled, “I don’t think humans have a term for this.”
Idris still had not blinked, making this a very difficult conversation. “I want you to warm my bed. I want to be able to touch you for warmth. I want you to attend meetings and assist with understanding what humans are saying as they dance with words.”
Nodding slowly Lilly suggested, “A woman to sleep with you, who you get to touch would be either a wife or a mistress. A person to attend meetings with you and take noted would be clerk. Someone to discuss what is said would be a partner.”
“Can you be those things?”
“No. You would need to find a man to be your clerk or your partner. I don’t have enough learning to help with that.”
“Would you be my wife or mistress?”
She flinch a little at that. Whether she did or not, she would from this point forward be living on the good will of this Naga. She nodded carefully, then told him her name. “I’m Lilly.”
He grins tightly, hiding the pointed teeth she knew to be there, “I am most pleased to meet you, Lilly.”
Sylwin asked, “What is the difference? Between a wife and a mistress.”
Coughing a little at that one, Lilly hesitantly suggested: “A wife is the property of her husband. She is responsible for bearing his children and directing his household. A mistress is not property, but the man who keeps her can abandon her at any time.”
The naga were all frowning at that. Finally Idris said, “Neither of those sound ideal. Why would a woman agree to be either of them?”
“It is expected. There are limited ways for a woman to earn money and they become harder to find as you get older. Employers dismiss you if they think you are looking for a husband. Or if they think you are pregnant.”
“Or if you become injured and are unable to work for a few days,” Idris suggested.
Lilly nodded sadly. “The household thinks I have seduced you. I have no place here anymore.”
Seb cleared his throat. “We should go get your possessions before anything happens to them.”
Nodding slowly, Lilly offered, “I will try to go get them. Guest are not allowed below stairs.”
Seb hissed. “Yes. And now that you have told me that, I am going to disregard it. Let’s go.”
The housekeeper found you after you had barely made it to the servants quarters. She politely told Seb that it was not appropriate for him to be here. He fixed her with that unblinking stare.
“I will return to our delegation’s rooms as soon as I collect her personal effects,” he said calmly.
She was completely taken aback by that. “Surely you are not saying that you plan on entering the women’s quarters!”
Seb started to sway slowly back and forth, the tip of his tail twitching in agitation. “If that is where her items are, then yes, I am.”
“You will wait here, Lilly and I will go and get them,” and with that she viciously grabbed Lilly’s arm and dragged her away.
Most of her things were in a milk crate near the burning barrel. The tintype of her family was slightly bent. All of her clothing was gone. She pick up the box and got a kick from the house keeper and a firm, “I will be wanting that box back.”
“Yes, Ma’am,” Lilly replied meekly. But as they turned to head back into the house, they both jumped to see Seb watching from the doorway.
“Is anything missing?” he asked.
“What is missing?”
“My clothes. But,” she hasten to add, “Lord Idris has arranged new clothes for me.”
Seb nods solemnly. “Yes. We are learning that many humans are thieves.” He either didn’t notice or ignored how the housekeeper turned red and started to sputter. Unlike how she had grabbed Lilly’s arm, Seb gently took her hand and led her back to Idris’s room with a prefect sense of direction that is a little startling.
When she commented on that, he seems surprised. “I can simply taste where we have been.”
Lilly was surprised that the next meeting with Lord Windershins was not in one of the meeting rooms or libraries but rather in the formal ballroom. The windows were small but the room was lit by candles. The fireplace was lit and the room was warm, but it was a large and open fireplace and there wasn’t a coal bucket in sight. There was a wingback chair waiting for her in the corner away from when the meeting was happening. She sat and pulled out a sock that needed darning and kept herself busy.
About the time she had finished the sock and was wishing she had brought something else to do, she realized her feet were cold. The fire had mostly gone out. The naga were still meeting with the lords. That… didn’t seem right. She got out of her chair and walked toward the table but was intercepted by a guard who told her to go sit down. Idris turned to look at her.
“Are you alright?” he asked, slurring slightly.
“I’m cold.” Lilly said simply.
The naga all turned slowly towards her. Idris bobbed his head. “We will take you back to the rooms.” He turned to the table and nodded. “Excuse us.”
Lord Windershins stood up, “Lord Idris! Are you going to allow this woman to interrupt our trade negotiations for a second day?”
Idris was very still for a long moment, even as the other naga were heading for the door. He considered he response before saying a simple, ”Yes.”
It was nearly noon and it didn’t take long in the sun for the naga to perk up a bit. They had a hurried conversation in a language Lilly didn’t speak, then they all went in separate directions. Idris held out his hand and when Lilly took it, he led her back to his room. “Pack everything that is mine or yours. I will be back in two hours.”
“Lord? I am sorry I interrupted.”
Idris stopped on the threshold. “Have you heard the expression, boiling a frog? I believed that Lord Windershins was trying something of that nature. But what happens next must be done carefully and quickly and I will need everything packed in the new two hours.”
When he left, he locked the door with her inside the room.
Afraid she would miss something, Lilly started to pack,. She searched the whole room finding everything that wasn’t human and packing it neatly into Idris’s trunk. Only after she was certain she hadn’t missed any of his things did she begin to carefully pack up her own things. It all fit in the truck Sylwin had bought for her that first day. Into the travel trunk he had bought for her the first day. Which raised some questions all on it’s own.
Even after only a few days of watching the naga she had come to understand they were the most dispassionate people she had ever come across. If you paid attention, you could see that they were copying human expressions to make people feel more comfortable around them. When he remembered to blink at all, he always timed it precisely three seconds after the person he was talking to blinked. Seb blinked like a really slow metronome. One blink every 45 seconds. The others didn’t bother to blink until they noticed it was making people uncomfortable and they didn’t always notice.
Idris and Seb paid attention. But today - that was wrong. They didn’t have the background knowledge to know that a ball room was a large space that was hard to heat when it wasn’t warmed by the bodies of a hall full of dancers. She hadn’t seen anyone else check for a coal bucket. She honestly didn’t know what would have happened if the naga had fallen asleep. Was that even what Lord Windershins was trying for? Or was he merely trying to gain an advantage in negotiations.
And even now, Lilly wasn’t certain telling her to pack was a real thing. The naga weren’t scheduled to leave for another week. The trick in the ball room had to count as some sort of slight, but she just couldn’t see Idris losing his temper and storming out. She could see him having her pack as a negotiation tactic. Maybe.
On the other hand, he had always tried to be careful with her comfort. They all had, really, even if they sometimes listened to her cautious requests as through she were asking for incomprehensible things. She knew Idris did not understand why she wanted a night dress, but Sylwin had been sent to buy her one. He came back with several in silk. All together, Lord Idris had effectively purchased an entire trousseau for her.
It was just shy of two hours later when Lilly heard a key in the lock. The door openned and two very large, very human men came in. “You aren’t supposed to be here.” Lilly said. They ignored her and went to pick up Idris’s trunk.
“No!” Lilly shouted and tackled the trunk. She ended up sitting on it while the men first stared at her in shock, then burst out laughing. Lilly crossed her arms. “You cannot take this!”
“It is alright, Lilly.” Idris called from the door way. “Andrew and James are our porters.”
“Oh,” she said, sliding off the trunk. “Sorry.”
The one with the dark black hair and the bright green eyes tipped his hat at her. “I had no idea,” he said, “that Idris had such a staunch defender. I’m Andrew.”
The other man with brown hair and soft brown eyes nodded. “I’m James,” he said softly, clearly more shy than Andrew.
The trunks were carried out and loaded onto a flat roofed caravan, being drawn by a team of four matched horse. Inside was two sets of bunks, three high. Each of the naga took one, like slotting books onto a shelf. As Idris entered the carriage, he turned to Lilly and said, “You can ride with James and Andrew.”
James shot out a hand and caught Idris’ shoulder, but it was Lilly he addressed. “Do you have a hat and cloak?”
Lilly blushed and shook her head, no. Both had been lost with her other clothing.
James frowned. Idris looked between them. “Explain,” he said simply.
Lilly turned away. James coughed, “Only women out traveling with out a hat or bonnet are… Working girls, sit.”
Idris watched James clearly waiting for the explanation.
James blushed himself and lowered his voice, “women who sleep with men for money, sir.”
Idris frowned, “Yes?” James just gave him a pointed look, so Idris continued, “That is what Lilly is. She is a working girl and I pay her to sleep with me.”
Lilly fought back the gasp, but wasn’t able to hold it in. She realized it was true and closed her eyes trying to keep the tears from spilling.
James opened his mouth to try again. Lilly shook her head. “It’s…fine. He’s right anyway.”
She marched over to the carriage and took Andrew’s arm to climb up onto the drivers bench. James narrowed his eyes at Idris but didn’t actually say anything as he closed the door behind the naga and hoped up on the bench himself.
“Do you want to stop at a millers?” he asked quietly.
Lilly shook her head, “I don’t have any money. He hasn’t actually paid me.”
Andrew frowned, “He would buy you a hat, though. You’ll need one, with that hair I bet you burn up a treat.”
“Then we are stopping to get you a hat.” Andrew thought about this, “You are going to be a whole lot of work, aren’t you?”
Lilly swallowed and looked at her hands.
James reached around her and gave Andrew a smack.
They were staying in a hotel. Up until that point, in Lilly’s experience hotels were things that happened to other people. The whole party had been given the use of a private dining room and the food was excellent, even if the wait staff were openly contemptuous. Andrew and James were talking about sleeping arrangements. Lilly was only half listening, trapped in her own thoughts. It seemed the men were pleased the naga had taken their advice and hired an additional attendant. They were, however, somewhat displeased it had been a girl.
“She’s small, if we put her with Ossi and Sylwin, she might be able to keep up.”
Idris spoke up, “I want to keep Lilly with me, she is my responsibility.”
Andrew sneered, “There are better ways to use your whore.”
Lilly closed her eyes and put down her fork.
Idris hissed, “This is an ugly word.”
Lilly cleared her throat, “It’s another word for a working girl, one who sleeps with people for money.”
Idris turned to look at her for a long moment. “One who mates with people for money,” he tentatively corrected.
Lilly shrugged, “People try to find pretty ways to say ugly things, but the meaning is the same.”
Seb looked up at that, “Was having you travel with the other humans an ugly thing?”
It was James who whispered, “the way you did it, yes.”
The nagas all went very still, their gazes fixed unblinkingly on Lilly, who ignored them, picked up her fork and went back to eating her fish course.
At the time, the discussion hadn’t really made sense. By night fall it would. Three humans, six naga translated into one human and two snake men in each bed. Even paired with the smallest two, Lilly was shivering trying to warm two extra bodies. Even with the extra blankets, even with the curtains drawn on the four poster.
She hadn’t actually spoken to Ossi before but he was the one running a cool hand up and down her back. “Your teeth are chattering,” he observed.
Lilly nodded, “I just need a moment to warm up. It takes a while in a cold bed. Maybe a little extra with - ” she cut that sentence short.
Sylwin asked, “Is it easier with only one? Maybe it would be better if we sent you Seb.”
Lilly shook her head, “I just need to warm up a bit.”
Ossi nuzzled her neck, “Seb is the biggest. He takes the most warmth of any of us, but not as much as Sylwin and me together. It’s all about mass. He explained it once.”
Lilly tried to focus on that. “Can you explain it to me?”
Ossi shrugged. “I’m not sure. He’s the scientist. I think it means the heavier you are the more energy it takes to keep you warm. He called it a heat sink or something like that.”
Sylwin plucked at her nightgown. “Would you be warmer with out this on?”
Once again, Lilly shook her head. “I’m warmer with the extra layers.”
Sylwin considered this, “The first country we stopped in, the man Idris was negotiating with took us to a room full of human females. We watched two of them simulating human mating. It raised the temperatures of even human in the room, even the two females. Do you need something like that?” Lilly didn’t reply, but Sylwin noticed, “Your face just got warmer.”
“I don’t want that,” Lilly whispered.
Both nagas nodded, “Alright. Your warmth is a gift.” Sylwin offered, “We do not want to do anything to cause you to withdraw that gift.”
They lay in silence, the nagas getting slow and sleepy. It took a long time for sleep to claim Lilly. While she lay there in a tangle of naga tails, she wondered if maybe she shouldn’t just go back to her farm. Perhaps her father to arrange for her to marry one of the village boys. She could help work their farm and … struggle her whole life knee deep in mud.
Or she could sleep in this soft bed, with its fine linen sheets and eat better food than anyone in her village could afford even on high holidays. She didn’t think Idris was intentionally cruel, it was just that he didn’t always understand how human society worked.
On the other hand, did it matter if he was unintentionally hurtful when the end result was the same?
From here on, I'm aiming for Tuesday getting a new Naga update and Friday getting a new Darkness update. We will see how that goes. As always, comments are so incredibly appreciated.
It irritated Lilly that Seb said he was teaching her how to read. She knew how to read. She could read and write enough to send mail home to her family, or make and follow a shopping list. She could even read well enough to follow some of the articles in the newspapers after the upstairs people were done with them. She wasn’t fast and she had to sound out some of the words but that wasn’t the same as being unable to read. Her irritation was not helped by the book he has chosen to use being one for children or the expressions on the other naga’s faces as she struggled with the new words.
The morning after that first night in, the naga had a angry sounding conversation in their own language. And when they rolled out that day, the carriage had the beds flipped up against the wall and a chair for her to sit in set up in one of the corners. In addition to “teaching her to read,” the naga had questions. Lots of questions about the simplest things. Finally Lilly just had to ask, “Are you making fun of me?”
Then they did that thing. They all went very still and forgot to blink. It was Idris who spoke carefully as though she was daft, “You are concerned that we are … being unkind?”
And there it was. Lilly sighed and looked at the book in her lap. “No, Lord Idris, you are not being unkind. I … I just don’t understand why you are asking me these things. I don’t know what you want me to say. Yeah. Folks that can afford it eat three or four times a day. Those that can’t afford it eat when they can. No, I have never been one of the four meals a day people. That is fine. I am not complaining. I don’t understand why you are drawing attention to it.”
Idris kept with the rude questions, “Why does it bother you that I ask this?”
Lilly didn’t even look at him, she just glared at her hands, “Nothing wrong with being a labourer. But the kno- the Lords think that people with less money or less food are less human.”
No one said anything.
Lilly waited until the silence was making her uncomfortable, then started reading again, “Wah -air he lie- lived with his fa-mil-ie. He was a very tired rabbit in-dee-ded.”
Seb interrupted, “Naga only need to eat once a week or so.” Lilly’s head snapped up at that. He continued, “I know that it might seem strange that we are asking how often humans eat, but we want to make sure we remember to feed you.”
They were all bobbing their heads in that slightly off way that nagas nod. Idris added, “If eating four times a day is better than only three times a day, then we will need to make sure we add in the extra stop. Andrew and James didn’t complain about feeding times, but they also consume much more food in a day that we would have expected.”
“Humans use the extra food to make heat,” Seb explained. “You are like little furnaces using food as fuel. We would give care and maintenance and fuel to a furnace, we can offer no less to the people who are kind enough to share their warmth.”
“Why do the four meals a day people think less of the three meals a day people?” Sylwin wanted to know.
Lilly shrugged, “Because they decide how much the labourers get paid and it is easier to ignore that we don’t get as much to eat if they think of us as less deserving.”
Everyone was very quiet at that. Lilly put her finger back on the words of the book.
That night, the carriage drove through town and up to one of the house up on the hill. They passed through iron gates and took the drive up to the front door. Idris slithered out and met the butler at the door. The other Naga got out of the carriage with Seb offering her a hand to climb down.
They were nine days early and the Naga didn’t seem to have any idea what level of chaos that would cause below stairs. The food would not have been bought, the rooms would not have been prepared. And from the look the butler was giving Lilly, they clearly weren’t expecting to be housing a human woman. James and Andrew carried everything up to the rooms then headed off to the stables to take care of the horses. Lilly stood around awkwardly, waiting for the naga to leave so that she could unpack.
Eventually, they left Sylwin to help her with that.
This room was clearly a better set up for the naga. There was a central wood stove with soft carpets around it. There weren’t any beds or chairs, but there were some empty wardrobes to hang clothes in. Sylwin was getting better at picking up on her unease because he told her she would have her own room and be safe here.
It was in the servants quarters. She ate with the below stairs folk and in the morning pitched in to help with breakfast. The locals were friendly enough, if a little uncertain about her. They wanted to know how she ended up travelling with the naga. Lilly really didn’t know how to explain it with out it reflecting badly on her former employer. She rather ducked the questions and, thankfully, the cook eventually pulled rank and got the other staff to stop pestering her.
She fell into her narrow bed exhausted that night.
The next day, she had a better idea of how the kitchen worked and it was a little easier.
By the time Idris sent for her two weeks later, she had figured out that she was meant to be staying here after they left. That was OK. The staff seemed well versed in the ways of nagas and were very kind to her. She even got to seen Andrew and James at staff dinners sometimes.
“Are they treating you well?”
Lilly nodded, “Yes. Thank you, Lord Idris.”
“We will be leaving tomorrow. Our ship is boarding in the morning. We will be sailing for the continent shortly after noon.”
Lilly’s heart caught in her throat. She nodded again, “Thank you for telling me, Lord Idris.” Then she thought of something, “Do you require my assistance in packing?”
“No. Andrew and James can do that.”
She waited patiently to see what he was going to say next.
Nothing apparently. Lilly bobbed a curtsy, “Thank you, Lord Idris. Is there anything else you require?”
“That will be all.”
Lilly curtsied again and left.
She almost ran down the stairs and tried to find the cook. “The nagas are leaving in the morning.”
The cook nodded and continued basting the ham for supper.
Lilly fidgeted nervously, “Have I been helpful enough that you would consider me for a position after they leave?”
The cook froze for a moment before turning to look at her. “Are they not taking you with them?”
Lilly blushed and looked at the floor. “Lord Idris did not invite me to do so.”
“I see.” The cook pushed the ham back into the oven and wiped her hands on a towel. “You have been very helpful. I had not considered you for a position because I did not believe to you be staying. I will discuss it with the housekeeper and see if we can find a place for you.”
Lilly curtsied again, “Thank you, cook.” Then she hurried off to wash the dishes. A kitchen always had dishes and a kitchen maid that was willing to help instead of shrugging it off on the scullery maids was often appreciated.
After dinner was eaten and cleared, the cook pulled Lilly aside and told her to go and speak to Idris. One of the footmen led her to the naga’s room.
The room was the same as Lilly’s last visit, with one notable addition. There was now a human chair for her to sit in. Lilly sat when Idris spoke it was from the shadows in one of the corners.
“I know I have not been a good husband. I have accidentally offended you many times. It has never been on purpose and I have always been pleased when you or the porters taught me the appropriate human customs.” He paused for a moment. “If you wish to abandon our relationship, I wish you had spoken to me at our meeting this afternoon before you tried to seek employment elsewhere.”
Lilly blinked. She honestly had no idea what to say to that. Or at least how to not be offensive in what she said next. What she said was, “I remembering you asking me to be your wife or mistress, but it was never formalized. And you did not mention it again.” She could see his eyes now, slightly closer together than on a snake, slightly wider apart than on a human.
“I was under the impression that you had agreed and matters were settled.”
Lilly hesitated, “Do nagas take wives, Lord?”
He hissed and so did other voices from the shadows. “We do not steal people.”
Lilly blinked. “Um… It means do naga get married, Lord?”
“We do not.”
“Ah.” Lilly thought some more. “None of the human … cultural ....” Lilly struggled for words, “expectations for a marriage…. Um… happened. I did not understand that was how you thought of me.”
There was a long pause as everyone struggled to understand the other’s point of view.
Lilly went first, “When you told me you were leaving, you did not indicate that I would be leaving with you. I had been sent to live in the servant's quarters since we first arrived. I believed that you were providing for me by arranging alternate employment. And-” she quickly added, “that was a great kindness on your part.”
“I was under the impression that since I was sharing this room with the others, humans would find it improper for you to join us.”
Lilly considered this, “That… is true.”
“I am fond of you. You defended us over the humans we were speaking with. That was very brave, very honourable. You do not ridicule me when I misunderstand humans. You are good at explaining the customs in ways that I can understand. It is your choice if you stay here or if you come with me and I will respect whichever choice you make.” He waited, still watching her intently. “I would be pleased to have you join us as we continue back to my home country.”
Lilly blinked and thought fast, “You said you were traveling by boat-”
“By ship. Will I be traveling with you in your stateroom or in steerage? Only, I have heard horror stories about traveling in steerage.”
Idris blinked. “I have booked three adjoining cabins. I had thought it would be similar to when we stayed in hotels on the road.”
“You still planning on taking me to your home land?”
Idris slithered closer, “I am committed to providing for you until you no longer want or require my care. I have made arrangements for your wages to be delivered to half to your family and half into a bank account for your own use. You and your family will be provided for. If you are coming with us, you should write them a letter before you go. And one where you get there. I can give you the address of where we will be living.”
Lilly relaxed. That was a great weight off of her shoulders. It had been very difficult being responsible for her sister’s dowries. “Thank you, Lord Idris.”
“On the ship, I will need to to explain the human cultural expectations of marriage to all of us.”
Lilly nodded. “I will do my best.”
“I know you will, Lilly. I have missed your warmth these last two weeks.”
That gave her pause. Lilly remembered Sylwin saying something about her warmth being a gift. And Seb had described humans as little living furnaces giving the gift of warmth. “Have you been cold, Lord?”
“Humans are problematic. Even Lord Brabazon who has corresponded with me for many years expects me to understand subtleties I have not encountered before. It does not matter to me which fork is used for the fish course when we are not actually interested in eating but are merely trying to be polite.”
“Second fork from the left,” Lilly said promptly. “It has this a notch in the edges for removing any fish bones.” Idris was staring at her. She blushed and mumbled defensively, “I know things. I have had to wash enough of them.”
“Will you be ready to go tomorrow? Do I need to send Sylwin to help you prepare?”
“I will be ready to go tomorrow,” Lilly agreed.
It wasn’t until she was back in her tiny room that she realized that Idris had avoided the question when she asked if he was cold.
From the time Idris packed her on to his cart, every step, every moment was further from the farm she born on than Lilly had ever been in her life. Standing on deck of the ship and watching her country fade away really brought that home. It was a new adventure, one that no one else in her family would ever get the chance to experience. It was exciting!
It was! So, why did she feel like crying a little? James and Andrew were laughing and cheering and drinking beer with the other passengers in the dining room.
Lilly was standing on the deck watching the land fall away.
“Are you alright?”
Lilly jumped. “You are very quiet when you move, Lord Idris.”
He came and leaned on the railing next to where she was standing, “No foot falls makes it easier to be quiet.”
Lilly didn’t turn to look at him, “I guess we must seem incredibly noisy to you.”
Idris didn’t say anything.
Eventually the land was gone.
“Come on Lilly. I want you to see your room.”
It was a very nice room. There was a double bed in one corner, then a tidy card table with four chairs in the middle and a comfortable looking chesterfield in the other corner. “It’s lovely,” Lilly said simply, not sure what else to add.
“It is your room.” Idris repeated. “I hope you will share it with me.”
“Of course.” Lilly hesitated for a moment, “And one other, I would expect.”
“Ossi and Sylwin said that you had a hard time keeping them both warm.”
Lilly blushed hard, embarrassed to be called out on not doing her job. “I am sorry, Lord Idris.”
Idris shrugged, “You are only half the size of either James or Andrew. It isn’t surprising. Were you comfortable with me?”
Lilly nodded shyly.
“You are safer with Sylwin than with me. Neither Ossi nor Sylwin will accidentally constrict your ankle in their sleep.”
“Why is that, Lord?”
“They are both venomous.”
Lilly froze, staring at him, her eyes wide, ”This is a joke? Surely you are teasing me?”
Idris tipped his head to the side and watched her. “I am not teasing.”
Lilly shivered, “I hadn’t really thought about that part. I mean, I didn’t think naga would be...poisonous.”
Idris shrugged, “Never by accident. Seb is a constrictor, like me. Ness and Si are normally water dwellers.”
“Are they poisonous?”
Idris shrugged. “One is, one isn’t. Neither is a threat to you. Does it matter which is which?”
“Well, it is a bit scary.”
Idris waved a hard airly, “You aren’t that big, but you are still too big to be prey. Food isn’t nearly as hard to find as warmth on a cold night.”
Lilly considered this before changing the subject, “Who else will be sleeping in this room?”
“Do you wish to invite someone else?” He asked it with curiosity, not judgement, but still Lilly felt uncomfortable.
Lilly shook her head, “Andrew and James said - “
Idris held up a hand, Lilly stopped. “I went along with that because I thought you were angry with me. It fit with the stories we tell ourselves about how humans work. Here is a story about how nagas work. We don’t inherently share. We don’t naturally work together. We are not pack animals. Where your species has spent a thousands years distilling itself down to progressively smaller family groups, my species has spent that time learning not to view each other as food or competition for food. I do not want to share you.”
Lilly took a step back from the intensity of that unblinking gaze. She watched as Idris made himself to relax.
“I understand that forcing humans into solitude is extremely unhealthy for them. I do not wish to harm you. I am asking, for a time, let me have your warmth in the night. Winter is chasing us home, but for now, give me this luxury.” He watched her for a moment before he remembered to add, “Please.”
Lilly nodded slowly.
Idris bobbed his head back at her. “Thank you.”
Of course that was easy to say. Lilly still felt awkward that evening. She was sitting in the corner sewing a button back onto Andrew’s shirt. Idris was relaxing in the tub with a glass of wine. The naga bathed everyday. She wondered about that for a moment, then realized they didn’t wear shoes. The only way to get the dust and dirt off their tails before bed was to wash. Lilly was interested in their clothing as well. They couldn’t wear pants so their shirts and waistcoats had been tailored a little longer than on a human. It also meant that they could adjust their height from just under five feet to over eight depending on how high they stretched, She had no idea how long any of them were but it had to be over twenty feel from head to tail.
“What needs to happen for you to be seen as my mate?”
Lilly stabbed herself with the needle.
She bit back a curse and sucked her finger for a moment before looking the wound and wrapping it tightly in her hanky. “I do not understand, Lord.”
“Humans have a … commemorative event or something, right? A weeding?”
“A wedding? Yes. Both families get together and the bride and groom promise to love and honour each other.”
“I would need to arrange for your family to be there?”
Lilly stiffened. “Getting married is a permanent thing, Idris. It isn’t something to be done lightly as a passing fancy.”
Now he finally flipped over in the tub and swivelled to see her. “What is the temporary equivalent?”
Lilly shrugged. “There isn’t one.”
“What is wrong with your hand?”
Blushing, Lilly admitted, “I … had a sewing accident.”
Heaving himself out of the tub, Idris slithered over to her and unwrapped her hand. He hissed when he saw the blood. “Do you need a doctor?”
Lilly shook her head. “I’ll be fine.”
“You are injured.”
“What would the arrangement you are looking for be like in your country?” Lilly deflected.
Idris blinked. “We do not formalize such things. People are welcome to cohabitant while they want and separate when the arrangement is no longer mutually agreeable.”
“Then why are you considering a wedding for me?”
“I am benefiting from this arrangement rather more that you are. I do not want you to become dissatisfied. Humans have unusual requirements to define their relationships. To define your pack status. I would like to define our relationship in a way that pleases you.”
Lilly considered this. “You are providing for my sisters and I get to live comfortably and travel to places I never thought I would see. I am pleased,”
“I am taking you away from your pack and I do not always remember to provide you with a stable alternative. If you marry me that will be more stable.”
Lilly swallowed. Ultimately, the reality of being a kitchen maid meant that marriage and children were unlikely. She would send money home to send her sisters, then by the time they were married off, her parents would be elderly and would need her care. If she married Idris, would that guarantee funds for her family? Or would that mean that she belonged to him and he no longer had any obligation to her family?
“If I am your mistress then I have status as that.”
“It is my understanding that mistress is not an honourable profession.”
“A mistress is not the same as a prostitute. At any rate, my fate changed the day I was brought to your room and since then my life has not gone the way I expected. People may say unpleasant things about a man’s mistress, but she is not treated badly. He takes her to dinner and to the theatre and to more interesting things than his wife gets to attend. And you are right, I am sleeping with you for money. I am being kept.”
“It is what humans call it when a man accepts financial responsibility for a woman for a long period of time.”
“If you are my mistress, then what am I to you?”
She wasn’t sure how to answer that, so what she said was, “You are getting cold and making a puddle on the floor.” Then gave a startled squeak when Idris scooped her up and carried her to the bed leaving Andrew’s shirt on the floor. Lilly was surprised at the gentleness of how Idris lay her on the bed. He towered over her and watched for a moment.
“I want to feel your warmth now.”
Lilly sat up and started to carefully unbutton the front of her wool travelling dress. Idris had laughingly refused to buy her one with a bustle, even when the shop girls had insisted it was the thing. She had 12 buttons up the front of her bodice which wasn’t as many as the fancy dresses had, but given how nervous she was about undressing while someone watched were still causing her problems. Idris sat back and began to carefully unbutton her boots. All the naga found the idea of shoes fascinating, When she first met them, there had been a certain amount of competition over the button hook for putting them on.
Idris pulled off her boots and slid his hand up her calf. Lilly had barely gotten her camisole unbuttoned. “Please, just wait. This only takes a few minutes.”
Idris laughed at that. “How many layers are you wearing?”
“Not that many, since I don’t have a bustle.” Lilly insisted, as she stood up to pull off her over skirt. Then her under skirt, which left her free to untie the laces of her corset.
“Need help?” Idris asked as Lilly leaned forward to loosen her laces.
“I can do it,” she replied.
“Are you sure? You are getting quite out of breath.”
“That’s… just…. Because… I’m… trying to… hurry.” She managed as her opened the six hook and eyes on her busk. Idris took it from her and flung it across the room. He hadn’t wanted to buy her one of those either, but the dresses wouldn’t fit without it and she had insisted. She had no idea how he expected her to contain her bosoms without one. Hers weren’t particularly large, but they were big enough that they bounced uncomfortably without support.
She easily stepped out of her split drawers before turning to face him in only her chemise and stockings. Here she hesitated; she was surprised he noticed.
“Does it bother you that I am naked?” he asked quietly.
Lilly blushed. “It did, for a while. But naga don’t have any…white staff or whirlygigs.”
Idris cocked his head at her and frowned. “I honestly have no idea what you have just said.”
Lilly looked at the floor. Even so, she had to squeeze her eyes shut before she was brave enough to whisper,“Man parts.”
There was a long moment of silence then she heard Idris slither away from her and splash back into the tub. Lilly peeked up at him.
“I do. But with naga, they stay tucked inside until we need them.”
Lilly walked awkwardly over to the bathtub and knelt next to the edge. “I’m sorry if I offended you. It is nice not to have, um, you pointing at me.” She stopped and took a deep breath, and absentmindedly scratched at her side where the corset had been pressing all day. “Before the housekeeper put me in your room, she explained that naga aren’t interested in humans for tupping. It’s nice not to have to worry about that.”
“Is it? Do you ever want to?”
“Sometimes. Better not to. Safer not to. It must be easier for saffists, but I don’t want to fall pregnant or get the curse of Venus.”
“I like to look at you, to touch you, when you are naked, Lilly. I like that you trust me with that gift.”
Lilly shivered and moved closer to the fire. She didn’t know how to ask but she needed to know, “Do I need to be worried about that?”
“Worried about what?”
Lilly’s mouth went dry; she tried to swallow, a tiny whimper escaped before she could stop it. Clearing her throat she pointed out, “I am very vulnerable in bed with you. I wasn’t worried because the housekeeper said I was just there as a living hot water bottle. Do I need to worry about how much you enjoy having me in your bed?”
There was no response. She peeked over her shoulder to see Idris watching without any sign of understanding. Lilly couldn’t quite bring herself to explain. What if he wasn’t thinking that and she gave him ideas? He had asked her to be his mistress. Wasn’t part of the job lying back and thinking of England? Except that when she had agreed to this, she hadn’t considered that on as part of the job. Lilly shook her head at her own naivete. Even when she was defining those roles for the naga, sex had been part of the description. And now she was just being stupid because knowing that wouldn’t have changed anything. She didn’t have anywhere else to go.
Still, he had left her alone this long. Maybe she still didn’t understand what he meant.
“I have made you quiet.”
Lilly forced herself to smile. She stripped off her stockings in front of the fire and climbed into bed. “I am sorry I offended you, my lord.”
“You are very upset if you are back to calling me ‘my lord’.”
“I’m just… tired, Lord Idris.” After a moment she added, “I will have the bed warm for you when you are ready.”
Lilly got up in the morning and stoked the fire before getting dressed. When the room was warm, she picked out a shirt, vest, cravat and long coat for Idris to wear. The she waited for him to get up.
She jumped when there was a knock at the door. She hesitated, uncertain what she should do.
They knocked again. Idris rolled over and mumbled, “Open the door, Lilly.”
Lilly did as she was told.
It was a member of the staff pushing a breakfast cart. “Mrs. Holodontes? Your husband’s porters told us you would be taking breakfast in your suite today. They asked me to give you this note.”
Lilly fought the urge to curtsey to the waiter. “I think you have the wrong room.”
The waiter frowned. “Mr and Mrs Idris Holodontes? Hol-o-don-tez?” he read slowly, trying again. “My my most sincere apologies, I am afraid I am unfamiliar with naga pronunciation.”
Lilly blinked. ‘Um… yes… fine. This way please.” The waiter brought in the cart, removed the domes then all but fled the room.
Lilly looked at the plates as the door closed. It was a full English breakfast. She opened the note:
The boys will be sleeping in today. The movement of the ship makes them tired. Have breakfast. The day’’s your own.
She considered this as she ate. Lilly wasn’t interested in playing cards. She wasn’t certain she should be walking around the ship unattended. And ‘Mrs Holodontes’? She presumed Idris had told the staff they were married. That was kind. She wondered idly how to spell her new name. Her parents could read as well as Lilly and her sisters could. Her mother had spelt her name wrong on the register. Normally, the vicar was supposed to help with that, but he had baptisted her “Agnes,” despite her parent’s objections. The unpleasant man still insisted on calling her Agnes, even though no one else did.
Lilly finished her breakfast and peaked out the door. Other people had left dishes on the floor outside their doors. That seemed… wrong, but she did it anyway. Then she found her hat and parasol and went for a walk on the promenade.
Which apparently, she was also doing wrong. Sure she was on her own, but the other ladies were whispering behind their fans and not so subtly pointing. A group of men having cigars snickered as she walked past. She knew she looked odd. Wrong dress, wrong unmentionables, wrong shoes. She was about ready to slink back to her stateroom when as woman with high street dress came up to her and looped her arm through Lilly’s.
“You must be the woman traveling with the naga” the woman declared. “I’m Bobbi. I am so excited to talk to you.”
Lilly blinked. “Why? I mean… oh… um… pleased to meet you, Bobbi. I’m Lilly.”
“Charmed. Let’s get tea.”
She wasn’t entire sure why she was sitting to tea at this strange hour with this strange woman in the fancy blue dress. ‘Bobbi’ seemed to be spending a lot of time talking about being an actress and having met Lord Niebrugge after she played Ophelia. Lilly listened politely, nodding in what seemed like the appropriate places, without any real understanding of what was going on.
Right up until Bobbi said, “And now he buys me better dresses than the ones he gets for his wife,” and laughed like it was the best joke.
Lilly froze and tried to process that. “You are…” she trailed off, not sure what to ask, let alone how to ask it.
“The Lord’s mistress, yes. We are on our way to Lisbon. You are continuing on rather further, I would expect. I am just dying to hear how you met your naga gentleman.”
“I… um… It was arranged at a trade meeting with Lord Windershins.”
“Really? Is he the nasty piece of work everyone says?”
Lilly blinked. “Yes.” There didn’t seem to be a way around that. She didn’t add ‘and his son is just as bad,’ but she thought it REALLY hard.
“So… I hear they have two … Arbor Vitae.”
“I’m sorry? I don’t understand.”
“Cocks. I hear that Naga have two.”
Lilly blushed, “I wouldn’t be able to comment on that.”
Bobbi narrowed her eyes. “How long have you been doing this, Lilly?”
“I have been travelling with Idris for-”
“You aren’t actually a dollymop, are you?”
“No! I would never!” Lilly hesitated. “Except that I guess…” she trailed off. Even if Boobi seemed proud of her status, owning up to part time prostitution was a difficult thing.
“New to the game?”
Lilly looked down at her tea cup.
“Well, let me give you some advice,” Bobbi continued as though she wasn’t carrying the whole conversation herself, “don’t let him get away with any nonsense. Be clear about what you want, what you expect from him. Men need a firm hand. In so many ways.” Bobbi giggled.
Lilly blushed. “I don’t know what I want.”
“Well, a better dress would be a place to start. Your naga is a royal ambassador. He can afford to keep you in style. Do you have your own stateroom?”
“We share.” Bobbi sniffed, Lilly continued. “He registered me as Mrs Holodontes.”
“But you aren’t married?”
Lilly thought about that. “It’s complicated.”
“You just be careful there poppet. Make sure snake man isn’t looking to be your cash carrier.”
Lilly blinked, “I know what you mean, but -”
“Listen! Just because slavery isn’t legal in England doesn’t mean you are safe in foreign places.”
“I think I am safe with Idris. He doesn’t like to share.”
“Hmm. Well, if you need any advice, or just someone to talk to, it’s going to be a long couple of weeks. The respectable ladies won’t talk to me. I expect that you will be in the same boat.”
Lilly smiled, shyly. “Respectable ladies would be offended by my accented, even before I say anything.”
Bobbi grinned and sipped her tea. “I have sherry in my room, if you get bored after dinner.”
To her amazement, Lilly laughed.
“You’re still here.”
Lilly looked up from where she was trying to understand the arrangements for lunch. “Was I not supposed to be?”
“Didn’t James or Andrew come to get you?”
“They sent me breakfast.” She thought for a moment, “and a note. That I read.” she added, just to be clear on that point. “But I’m certain how luncheon is organized, so I just waited for you.”
“What do ladies normally do on a ship?” Idris asked.
“I don’t know. I’ve never been on one before.” Lilly admitted. “Idris? The waiter who brought me breakfast called me Mrs Holodontes.”
“Do you mind? It seemed easiest.”
Lilly shook her head. “I don’t mind but it works better if I know what name people expect me to answer to.”
“Of course.” Idris thought about that for a moment. “I have booked the rest of the trip with you listed as Mrs Lilly Holodontes. It is the name on your traveling papers.”
Lilly blinked, “I don’t have travelling papers.”
“Yes, you do. The Naga ambassador approved them for you weeks ago.”
Lilly stared at him for a moment, then blurted out, “Is that you?”
“I’m going to get dressed, then we will go find the others.”
“Idris? Do you think Seb would go back to teaching me how to read? I’m not good enough to be an ambassador's wife.”
“Yes, you are. But I am sure Seb will also help you improve your reading.”
Lilly didn’t notice the compliment until an hour later as lunch was wrapping up. She was looking at her food and feeling out of her depth as Idris and Seb chatted with a Viscount and his Lady wife. When she realized what he had said, she jumped like she had been stuck with a pin and blushed furiously.
“Are you alright, my dear?” Lady Niebrugge asked.
Lilly looked up into the older woman’s tense face and nodded silently, too embarrassed by her accent to say anything.
“How did you meet your husband, dear? It is quite the unusual pairing, you must admit.”
“We met through Lord Windershinns.” Idris volunteered. “I wasn’t certain how to behave in a ballroom and she politely gave me some pointers.”
Lilly nodded, slowly. That was true, but it wasn’t what happened. “He was surprised to meet a human that matched his colouring,” she added.
Lady Niebrugge looked away and simply replied, “Indeed,” in a tone of voice that let Lilly know she had said the wrong thing.
Lilly set her fork down in the 11-5 position, indicating she was done with her plate, then folded her hands in her lap and waited for Idris to finish his discussions with Lord Niebrugge.
“Did you need to wait for the dessert course, or can we leave?” It was Seb who asked, so it took Lilly a moment to realize he was speaking to her. She looked up to see the naga watching her with their own version on concern. On anyone else she would call it creepy intensity, but she had learned to interpret it as concern. Lord and Lady Niebrugge, on the other hand were looking scandalized.
“I could wait, or not, as you need.”
Lady Niebrugge gasped, opened her fan with a snap and had vapours when Seb offered Lilly his hand. Lilly didn’t know what to do. It was unseemly for a gentleman to offer a lady his hand. It was up to her to initiate the gesture. She also couldn’t correct him in public. He seemed to realize his mistake. He dropped his hand.
And promptly went behind her and moved her chair away from the table. With the whole dining room staring at her, Lilly stood up and took Seb’s offered arm.
As they walked away, she heard Idris say, “We naga are very protective of our wives and I do not like your lady’s tone.”
Lilly was common enough that she wanted to call bullshit on that one. She was also educated enough to not. Naga as a whole couldn’t be protective of their wives when Lilly had to explain the concept to them.
As they walked away, Seb asked, “I don’t suppose you speak french?”
“Hmmm, you may need to learn.”
“Um… Seb? Where are we going?”
“The north west shores of Tangiers,” the naga replied promptly.
Lilly blinked. She wasn’t sure what to say to that so she went with, “Oh. I don’t think I have been to that part of the ship yet.” Seb was looking at her as he blinked, and his tongue tasted the air faster. “Are you laughing at me, Seb?”
“Maybe just a little. Tangier is in Morocco.” When he saw no sign of understanding, Seb tried again, “The closest part of Africa?”
Now Lilly blinked and gasped, “That far?”
“Yes. As for where are we going just now, I thought you might like a walk along the promenade.”
They walked in silence for a few moments, then Seb had to ask, “Lilly? Do you know where Africa is?”
“It’s very far south?” It was a question spoken without any certainty.
“I have maps in my room, if you would like to see.”
“It would embarrass Idris if I go to your room.”
Seb hissed, “Idris will not care.”
Lilly tried again. “The people Idris is meeting with will be offended that his wife was in another man’s room.”
“It isn’t any of their concern!” Sed said firmly.
“They will make it their concern.”
For the rest of the trip, the naga and their humans ate in a private dining room. Lilly spent her mornings practicing her reading and her early afternoons learning French with whichever naga was available. She took tea with Bobbi, who’s name was Roberta during visiting hours.
For all her fine clothes and care free attitude, Bobbi was just as lonely as Lilly. Lord Niebrugge wouldn’t be visiting her until they landed in Lisbon. In the meantime, both women were being cut by the rest of the passengers. Lilly was used to being invisible to the upper class, but Bobbi was largely annoyed by the whole thing. She couldn’t speak out, in case she offended Lord Niebrugge, but she was more than happy to share all kinds of nasty gossip with Lilly at tea.
For an invisible person, Bobbi certainly knew a lot of intimate details about the sexual predilections of the men, and sometimes women, on the ship. Or at least she pretended to. Lilly was careful to not comment on Idris or on any of the naga, in case Bobbi was as free with her information in the other direction. The woman was, however, incredibly entertaining and Lilly really enjoyed their visits.
On the voyage, Lilly learned to judge how Idris’s day went based on how tightly he held her at night. He didn’t coil around her, but holding her more tightly in his arms indicated a very bad day indeed.
Lilly started to wonder if, in addition to being a living hot water bottle, she wasn’t also to Idris like a stuffed bear to a small child.
Still, it wasn’t a bad part of the job.
The first ocean liner took them as far as Lisbon, where Andrew and James left them to return to England.
Idris asked Lilly if she needed to leave him.
“I will go, if you no longer require my services. It is rather warmer now. No need for a bedwarmer, maybe?”
“I do not want you to leave, Lilly. But if you need to, it would be safer for you to return home with Andrew and James now than to travel alone later.”
Lilly picked at the nail bed on her left thumb for a moment, then asked, “Is it still safe for me to travel with you?”
Idris cupped her chin and tilted her face up toward his, “I give you my word, every naga with me will do everything in our power to keep you safe.”
Lilly blinked then nodded. “I’ve never been this far from home before. I am getting to see places and meet people that I never would have had a chance to if I stayed in the kitchen back home. Will we have time to see the tower while we are there? Bobbi says it is very architecturally important.”
Idris stared at her. “If you like. It is just a really old tower. I expected you to find the market more interesting. They will have foods you have never seen before.”
Lilly smiled, “I’d like that.” The next bit was harder as she had been raised not to ask questions. Still Bobbi had said that it was important for her to understand the places they were travelling. “Can you tell me about Lisbon? Only, I hear it is a very dirty city.”
Idris gave her a tight grin, “In the past it was a hotbed of cholera. Now they have public electricity, modern plumbing and public transit. They are making a point of beautifying their city. I think you will like it. There are a number of clubs we will attend.”
“Seb has been teaching me to speak french,”Lilly interjected , proudly.
Idris watched her silently. “I am very pleased you are learning french. It will be most helpful when we get home.” She was still looking expectantly at him. Idris hated to disappoint her but, “They will be speaking portuguese in the city.”
“You will not be alone and any of us will be able to translate for you.”
“Oh. Um… do you all speak french?” Idris bobbed his agreement, so Lilly continued, “French, english, portuguese and …. Naga language?”
“Among others,” Idris agreed.
“Oh.” She thought about that for a moment. “Do you think I could learn?”
“All of them? I mean, if you think I could.”
Idris smiled the slight fake version of a human smile, but more importantly, he began to subtly sway. “I would be happy to help you learn.”
Lilly beamed at him and mirrored his sway. She had figured out it was how naga show they were pleased. Rearing up or, in Sylwin’s case, opening his frill was anger. Not that they got angry very often. They were the calmest group of people she had come across. She was fond of them all, even Ness and Si who barely spoke. And now, she wondered if it was because their english wasn’t as good.
She hadn’t noticed it until Bobbi pointed it out, but Lilly was subtly shifting her mannerisms to match the naga. It didn’t really bother her, but she noticed that when she caught herself doing so, Idris seemed pleased that she was.
That wasn’t the only thing she was learning. When she finally realized why she was attending all the events it was so obvious she was embarrassed it took her that long to figure it out. She kept it inside until they were in the carriage back to the hotel, but couldn’t wait any longer. “I’m the Judas goat!” Seb, Ossi and Idris turned to stare at her.
Then they looked at each other. It was Idris who said, “I don’t know what that is.”
Lilly blushed, looked down and appologized, “I’m sorry, I thought I had it figured out.”
“Tell us what you have figured out, maybe we just don’t know the words,” Seb suggested.
Lilly took a deep breath. “When you are a farmer, you can train a goat, the Judas goat, to lead your flock of sheep or goats or sometimes cows. They get all nervy, but they follow the goat that is confidentently leading the way. Either to the barn or the shearing pens or to the slaughter house. That’s what I’m doing. I mean… not to the slaughter house, obviously. But people are all nervous about meeting with a bunch of naga. Because, well, you are kind of scary. I mean, until we get to know you. But I tag along, and I am not afraid, and if the tiny woman is brave enough to spend time with the scary naga, then no man is going to back down from the meeting, right?”
“Are we still scary to you Lilly?”
She froze they were all looking intently at her. “Sometimes,” she admitted. “Like now, you are all paying really close attention and not even blinking and that is a bit… intimidating.” She looked at her hands clasped in her lap and took a deep breath. “But, I feel safe with you too. You are careful with me, and I appreciate that.” When she looked up they were still watching her, “Is that right? Is that why I am here?”
“Naga don’t think like that,” explained Ossi.
“And that isn’t why you are here,” added Idris. “That is a useful thing for you to do, but naga aren’t pack animals, we don’t think that way.”
“Lilly, you are here because of this. We would not have thought of a Judas goat. We brought you along because you are better and sensing when humans are up to no good. You get very nervous around people who are lying or hurtful and your emotions are loud and easy to read. We might not pick up on the deception, but we can absolutely tell when people are making you uncomfortable.”
“Do you know what a barometer is?” Seb asked.
“A thing for telling the weather, right?”
“Yes…” The way Seb hesitantly agreed told Lilly it was much more complicated than that but the explanation wasn’t important right now. “You are our… emotional barometer.” Then he looked hard at her. “What made you say that thing about the men being nervous?”
Lilly shrugged, “the man in the green smoking jacket. He was nervous when we came in, but he watched me for a while before he came over.”
The naga considered that. “Mr Costa,” Ossi finally decided. The others nodded.
“Is he important?”
“He owns a fishing fleet. Naga like eating fish. There is business to be arranged there.”
Lilly nodded. “And I bet you eat fish all year, not just Fridays and lent.”
That one comment lead to a prolonged discussion in Idris’s room that night. All six naga grilled her about religion until her head hurt and she was fighting sleep. Si had more bibilical knowledge than the vicar back home. But none of them understood the day to day practices, let alone the superstitions that weren’t officially part of religion, but piggy backed on some of the stories. Like the number thirteen being unlucky because there were thirteen people at the last supper. Or the fish thing, that wasn’t in the bible, but was still staunchly observed.
About the time that Ness noticed Lilly’s head nodding, he asked if he could help her take off her shoes and Idris sent everyone back to their own rooms.
As Idris curled up around her that night, the last thing she remembered was him whispering, “Thank you, Lilly.”
It turned out, Lilly really knew how to work a room. Idris was surprised, although in retrospect, he shouldn’t have been. A pretty girl paying close attention to what a man was saying and respectfully going along with it was a very seductive thing. She could also haggle like someone used to having no money. She was listening in at the negotiations with Mr Costa and had politely pointed out that Idris was negotiating for the wholesale purchase of fish but being offered prices higher than what she would pay in a market.
Costa had turned red and tried to tell her she was mistaken. It was the exchange of currency that was confusing her, he suggested. Lilly went quiet, but also sullen. It took very little prompting from Idris to get her to pull out a piece of scrap paper and a stub of pencil and get him to check her math.
She had been right.
Seb suggested that maybe Costa wasn’t trying to cheat them. Maybe he was just confused by the currency conversion.
His suggestion was not well received
Amazingly enough, after that everyone wanted to negotiate with the naga in Portuguese.
Six weeks of total language immersion had Lilly able to keep up with the conversations by the end.
In the evenings, the little group would go to cultural events around the city. Lilly was completely enthralled. Idris had a new appreciation for human culture watching her responses to it.
Lilly had really enjoyed Lisbon. Still, when Idris announced that they would be leaving, it was the start of a new adventure.
They boarded what looked like a pirate ship. When she hesitantly shared this observation with Idris, he did a reasonable impression of a human laugh while flicking his tongue very fast indeed.
He also wrapped an arm around Lilly’s shoulders and hugged her tightly as he kissed her temple.
Lilly was shocked. That was the first time he had been that forward.
She couldn’t quite bring herself to be offended. It was surprisingly comfortable having Idris hold her like that. She should be upset that the other naga were watching, but she had learned that they watched each other all the time. Like cats, or maybe more like brothers.
On the smaller ship, the six naga all shared one room with Lilly. She also noticed that there was always at least one naga close at hand. Honestly, all day and all night, there is always a naga close enough that she could reach out her hand and touch one.
It made using the chamber pot even more awkward, and already the men on the ship were just peeing over the edge.
On the third night, Lilly was laying in a hammock, having been placed there by Seb. She couldn’t get into the damn thing on her own. Even now, she was prone to falling out of it in her sleep. Not that she ever hit the ground. There always managed to be naga there to catch her. She was staring at the ceiling and practicing her french.
“Wait a minute. If the cook is le cuisinier, that’s a men’s word. What if the cook is a girl?”
Ossi snickered, “You could say ‘la cuisinière’ but the default is male. You won’t know if a specific cook is a woman until you either meet them or someone changes the pronoun. In France, the expectation is that chef is male. In England, it is more likely to be a female job.”
Lilly shook her head, “Saying ‘the cook’ doesn’t suggest anything about the actually person doing the job.”
“Or the assumption is always that the person is a man. If you don’t know which the person is, in english you always say he, until you are corrected.” Ossi insisted.
Lilly considered that. It didn’t seem right but she wasn’t really able to argue.
“If the person bothers to correct you,” Ness added. “A lot of the time it is easier not to bother.”
That made Lilly freeze. “Um…. Ness? Are you a girl?”
There was a hearty round of naga snickering.
“If it took you this long to notice Lilly, I will be very disappointed if it affects the way you treat me,” came the terse reply.
“Oh.” Lilly actually thought about that. Ness dressed like a man, but didn’t have curves to fill out ladies clothes anyway. There wasn’t the possibility of hair showing off the difference. She couldn’t exactly comment on how it wasn’t safe for a woman to travel abroad. There really wasn’t anything to say. “Oh.”
Lilly considered, “Is there something else I’m supposed to say?“
There was a moment before Ness replied, “Not really.”
Idris squeezed Lilly’s hand. “You will do just fine.”
Lilly went back to conjugating verbs for a moment before Seb interrupted and ask, “When we arrive, what do you think you would like to do?”
She stopped to think for a moment. “Idris said I could find a job in a kitchen.”
“Is that what you want?” Idris asked.
“I wouldn’t mind spending more time learning stuff. At least enough that people don’t assume I can’t add and am too stupid to know the cost of fish.”
“I’m sure we can arrange something like that.”
There was a long hallway between the where the latest group of human dignitaries was dropped off and where they would be meeting the naga. Ambassador Smith still wasn’t sure it was long enough to explain what they would be walking into. The group had foolishly skipped the debriefing last night. He would do his best, but there was just no helping some people.
“Look, the cultural attache for the Naga empire is a human and a woman and has the most appalling cockney accent. But, if you comment on any of that, they will be significantly less co-operative when it comes to trade negotiations,” the ambassador from London was not pleased at having to explain this to the latest trade delegation, especially once they were already in the building where this conversation could be overheard. They were here to negotiate use of the northern naga port. Ambassador Smith could already tell it wasn’t going to go well. The representatives of the steel company were arrogant and racist and he knew from experience that never ended well.
“She speaks six languages, has lived in the kingdom for the last fifteen years and has a doctorate in economics at their university. If you talk down to her, she will smile and ignore it. Then the naga will increase your tarifs by twenty percent. Please. If you want to do business in the area, you have to be polite.”
The young lord waved a hand airly. “I’m certain I can hold my own against these back water savages, let alone a woman.”
Ambassador Smith sighed, closed his eyes, and prayed for patience.
“Besides, Lord Niebrugge says the woman is a push over.”
“That’s because they have friends in common. Roberta spends the winters here. You won’t be starting with that advantage.”
“I can assure you, I am very good at my job.”
“Of course.” Mr Smith took solace in the fact that whatever happened next, wasn’t going to impact him in the slightest. He took a deep breath and opened the double doors into the room where the naga’s delegation was waiting. Stepping through the doors he smiled warmly at the people waiting.
“Mrs. Holodontes, may I introduce - “ he began then paused as the woman held up a hand.
“I have already met Lord Windershins. I was sorry to hear of your father’s death.”
“You have me at a disadvantage, ma’am.”
“You were there when I met my husband. Call me Lilly.”