((forewarning: mentions of physical and emotional abuse ahead -- sex workers being abused by their clients, people being abused by members of their own family. sex workers discussing sex work, with a large usage of crude language))
Freja’s Hearth was the third oldest brothel operating in the Vandís district, located in the capital of the Southern Isles. Before it had become a brothel, it’d been public housing for fishermen, who had, for a time in Southern Isles history, had enjoyed exemption from the Crown’s taxation, in exchange for selling the most of their intake to the castle.
The tax exemption hadn’t lasted long — it’d taken forty years before the Crown decided to capitulate, reinstating the tax — and soon the fishermen found themselves near destitution and struggling to pay rent. It’d been several of the fishermen’s wives who had started to sell their bodies to help make ends meet, practicing the oldest form of trade known to man. It was first done in secret, the fishermen staying out from dawn to dusk trying to net their profits, unaware to the strange men their wives took into their beds.
But then someone had let the secret slip, and the house immediately divided itself. While some of the fishermen were outraged at their wives’ infidelities, several had actually approved, swiftly changed careers from poor, struggling fishermen to degenerate, profiting pimps.
The house had seen change-over of ten bawds, each more ambitious than the last, and, up until its latest bawd, it’d been family owned. Father had passed deed down to son over the years, until the gnarled hands of one Dame Bilde had inherited Freja’s Hearth out of the dead hands of her frail brother. Bilde had run the brothel like a mill, taking in girls by the dozens, working them to bone-weary exhaustion, and then coldly pushing them out onto the streets to fend for themselves when they were no longer in their prime.
She’d been immeasurably cruel to her employees. So much so that, when she tripped down the stairs that one dark night and broke her neck, not a one of her girls had shed a single sorrowful tear.
The brothel’s deed had then ended up in the capable hands of one Signe Frejasdotter, Bilde’s highest paid girl, and former royal mistress to the Crown. Signe had been bought by Bilde when she was ten years old, from a down-on-her-luck actress who’d loved her daughter, but had loved the theatre all the more.
For eleven years, Signe had worked for Dame Bilde. Eleven years of keeping her head bowed and toeing the line, fearful of Bilde’s wrath. But that had been then. Now, Signe owned everything the old heartless crone had ever worked for. She owned the brothel, the gold in the brothel’s coffers, and, of course —
“Goodness gracious, woman!”
— Signe owned the business of the dusty, old, wrinkled husks of men who frequented the brothel, as well.
Signe paused in the hallway at the door to the room from which the satisfied noise had originated, her bad mood momentarily forgotten.
It sounded like Sir Frederiksen would be paying the full sum for his session today. Two days ago, he’d bustled out of a harlot’s bed, complaining of “slow hands” and demanding his money back. Signe had managed to convince him to return today for a complimentary session with Signe’s most dexterous of harlots, and to her relief, the man had agreed, letting Signe keep the pretty coin he’d paid initially.
Signe wasn’t the only person standing outside the door. Leaning against the wall, sore look on her face, was Sir Frederiksen’s previous liaison, Agnes. She’d been at Freja’s Hearth almost as long as Signe, and, while not the comeliest, had always been known as the heartiest of the girls.
“Let it be, Agnes,” Signe advised, seeing the anger pinching the other girl’s cheeks. “He’ll want another go with Emilie soon, and then we’ll charge him up the arse for it.”
Agnes cracked a smile at that. Signe knew it wouldn’t totally soothe Agnes’s bruised ego, but it’d make doing business with Sir Frederiksen easier in the future. Girls tended to let customers’ complaints slip off their backs like water when they knew they were getting some form of retribution.
“Think the old gizzard will catch on?” Agnes glanced at the door. Noises continued emitting, the sounds of Sir Frederiksen’s breathy little “oh”s, and the ever present creaking of bedsprings.
Signe shook her head, smiling ruefully. “We’ll put him in debt before that happens.”
“Bastard has it comin’,” agreed Agnes. She gave the door one last dirty look before looking back at Signe. “How’d it go with Sir Norgaard?”
Having been temporarily forgotten, Signe’s bad mood returned. Her brow furrowed and her lips curled. “Rather not talk ‘bout it.”
Agnes nodded, looking at her bawd sympathetically. “I get ya.” She peeled herself from the wall, her hands going to smooth out the skirts of her ribbon-covered dress.
“Well.” She straightened up, shoulders backs, cleavage indecently prominent. “I’d best get back downstairs. The walk-ins tend to handle better.”
Signe admired Agnes’s determination. “Wring them for all the coin you can, Agnes.”
“Oh,” Agnes said with a naughty smile, “I will.” She clapped Signe on the shoulder before skirting around the bawd and heading for the stairs at the end of the hallway.
Signe gave Emilie's door one last look before she continued on her way. She was still plenty angry, but speaking with Agnes had at least lowered her down a level from spitting. As she neared the door she’d originally made her target, she could feel the familiar twinge in her nethers.
She grit her teeth. “Damn it all.”
The doctor had told her not to do anything strenuous with her stitches. He’d neglected to mention that the word “strenuous” included walking, bending, sitting, and other simple tasks that Signe’s daily life required.
Entertaining culls wasn’t easy when she was still recovering from pushing an entire human being out of her body.
It’d been a month since Signe had squatted over some awful stool, and forced her daughter out into the waiting hands of Signe’s most trusted people, and one cheaply-paid midwife who hadn’t done much but stand about and verbally abuse Signe. But, to Signe, it felt as if she were perpetually stuck in the day after the birth. Freshly sewn up and aching, praying that her body would recover quick enough that she could return to work as soon as possible.
Culls could only be satisfied with the delicacies of hand and tongue for so long before they started wondering why they were denied access to the main course. And today’s cull had come dangerously close to pushing Signe’s rapidly thinning patience. If it hadn’t been for that one trick that girl on Amager Street had shown Signe…well, Signe would have had to send Sir Norgaard home with a stiff extra leg. But that would have meant no coin for the day, and Signe badly needed all the coin she could collect.
“Had another rough one, did ya?” the newest girl, Anne, asked Signe when the bawd practically stormed into the washroom, stomping over to the nearest table.
Anne was a pretty girl. The country type that looked all eager and willing — the kind the culls liked to think were nothing but naive and so easily captivated by a kind word or gentle touch. But Anne had been sold twice before she ended up in Signe’s employ. Once had been by her father, and the second by her retch of a husband. Anne was long immune to the tricks that men played with their fickle affections.
Still, for all the grief she’d suffered, Anne was nothing but kind to her fellow harlot.
She passed Signe a wash-bowl and a clean rag, smiling sympathetically before returning to her own cleaning.
“Men are all the same,” Signe groused, accepting the bowl and rag. She made quick work of dunking her hands in the lavender-scented water, hoping the stench of handling Sir Norgaard would wash off quick. “Spent a while finishin' him once, twice, and still the decrepit bastard wasn’t happy.” She’d washed her mouth out with two glasses of water afterwards, and then swilled a good thimble’s fill of the potent swilling wine they kept in their cabinets for such occasions, until she no longer had the taste like ash and dust on her tongue.
God, how Signe detested using her mouth. But until she was totally recovered, she had little choice. She’d never been comfortable offering up the back door, and her breasts were too swollen with milk that even thinking about utilizing their crevice made them ache.
Signe could have offered Sir Norgaard to any other of the available harlots, but Signe had sworn when she’d become the house’s bawd that she’d share the same work as her girls. She’d not let anyone think she was lazing about on everyone’s earnings. She’d work just as hard, if not more. At least until she found a benefactor wealthy enough to pay for her abstinence. But there were so few men left in the Southern Isles with the sentimentality to hold a steady mistress, and so few who would willingly begin a contract with a harlot who’d had past clients like Signe’s own Prince Runo.
Anne would understand. She worked exclusively with Runo as his mistress.
“They like to be spoiled,” Anne agreed with Signe’s complaint. She winced as she moved a leg, a patch of purple and blue evident and large on the back of her thigh. Signe had no doubt that Anne’s other leg bore the same coloring, if not bigger. “The wealthier the cull, the more demandin’ they get.”
Signe frowned, lifting her hands out of the wash-bowl. “You would know.” She picked up the rag, wringing out her hands in the coarse cloth. “Did he hurt you?”
“No more than he already does,” Anne said. Signe remembered what it had been like, under the man’s hand. He’d had a punishing strength, and a cruel mouth, but it’d been his fists that Signe had hated the most.
Both he and his brother, Rudi, had found nothing prettier than a begging, wet-faced woman.
“Crawl for me, whore,” Signe remembered Runo saying. “Beg me for more,” Rudi had followed.
A shudder went up Signe’s spine.
“I can send Agnes to Prince Runo in your stead,” she offered. “Give you one of the easier culls.” One who wouldn’t need a girl’s tears to reach satisfaction.
Signe could see Anne considering the offer. The look of hope was familiar, as was the desire to give in, and accept. But that disappeared with the resurgence of Anne’s determination.
“No. You need Agnes here.” The country girl dropped her dirty rag in her wash-bowl, letting go of her hold on her dress’s skirts. “Besides, he’ll think you’re gettin’ green eyed if you switch us out. And I won’t give him any reason to come here.” She ran her hands down the front of her dress, smoothing out any wrinkles. With such a wealthy and powerful client as Prince Runo, Anne always kept herself as pretty and proper as possible. The neckline of her dresses did not plunge as indecently like the rest of the girls, and the jewels hanging off her fingers, wrists, neck, and ears, were always properly ostentatious, instead of the charming subtle array Signe advised.
Signe had once dressed as fine. But the extravagance she’d once enjoyed had come with a price. One which Signe could no longer pay. But so long as Anne took Signe’s place, Signe would do everything in her power to ensure the woman’s health. Just as Signe would do for any of her girls.
“If you’re sure…” Signe hedged.
“I am,” Anne confirmed. She straightened up her shoulders, head tall, the way Signe had taught her on her second day of harlotting. “Besides, he hasn’t raised a paddle to me in weeks. Not since..last month.”
Last month would have been Prince Hans’s twenty-fifth birthday, had he not disappeared in a stable fire at the castle several months ago.
Though Signe thought she knew the answer, she asked anyways.
“Does Prince Runo grieve?”
Anne arched a brow. “For his brother?”
Anne shook her head. “I can't tell. I doubt his incessant rants are anythin' but self-servin’.” Anne’s brow pinched with thought, while her mouth grimaced with distaste. “Goin’ on ‘bout how his dear pa storms ‘bout the castle, lookin’ for folks to blame.”
That surprised Signe. “The King is grievin’?”
Anne sighed. “Hard to say.” She folded her hands at her middle. “His Highness prefers keepin’ my visits in the servin’ staff’s quarters, so I only know from what I hear from him, or hear from them.”
That piqued Signe’s curiosity. “The staff have anythin’ to say?”
“Only when they feel sure they won’t get the whip for airin’ the royal family’s dirty laundry.” Anne shook her head at that. Both she, Signe, and the rest of the Isles’s seedy underbelly already the knew of the soiled linen that was the Westergaard family’s less savory proclivities. Nevertheless, Anne continued. "The servin’ girls are all skittish, quick to warn each other to keep in mind His Majesty’s temper when servin’ him his whisky, and the maids keep whisperin’ ‘bout Her Majesty’s visits to the late prince’s old quarters.”
“That poor woman…” While Signe had little positive sentiment for the kingdom’s royal family, her heart couldn’t help but reach out in sympathy for their queen.
For all the King’s cruelties, his demure Queen Christine had been nothing but kind. At least, she had been, before her husband put a stop to her charity. From what Signe heard on the streets, the King had humored his wife’s generosity in the early years of their marriage, encouraging the population’s admiration that their king had such a gentle and kind queen. But with each prince the King put into his wife’s belly, the less the Southern Isles saw of their queen, and by the eighth prince, Queen Christine no longer made public appearances, save for her customary presence on the throne right beside her husband’s on those occasions that foreign dignitaries visited.
The last Signe had heard of the queen had been by the words of a serving girl out of Anne’s mouth. According to the serving girl, the week of the late prince’s birthday, Queen Christine had been seated on a bench in the royal gardens one dreary morning, dressed from head to toe in her mourning attire, sorrow the veil that hung over her face, and misery the cloak she wore on her back. As if her husband’s and sons’ grief had been displaced, she’d taken the brunt of the pains, becoming a silent spectre who haunted the gardens, studies, and quarters, of the castle.
It was reported that only Prince Lars ever visited with his mother to grieve Prince Hans properly. With no body to bury, there hadn’t been any talks of a proper burial, and so, it stood to reason that with no burial, then there would be no funeral procession. As if Prince Hans had been no one at all, his death had been simply been acknowledged, marked down, and then quickly swept under the rug.
It’d sickened Signe to witness such disrespect. She could only imagine what Queen Christine was feeling.
It seemed that in Signe’s silence she had been making a most trouble expression, because Anne came up close and took Signe’s hands into her own. “You were close to the late prince, weren’t ya?”
More than you will ever know.
Signe's heartstrings tugged. To tell Anne the truth would take a great weight off Signe’s shoulders. But she knew it wasn’t her place (too much was at stake), and simply said, “He was always kind to me."
Anne smiled softly. “I’m sure Hanna’d be happy to know her pa treated her ma so well.”
Ah, yes. The persisting rumor, now come to natural belief, that Prince Hans had fathered Signe’s child. When she’d first heard the whispers, she’d laughed, amused by the very idea with the knowledge she had. Now, she just faked her most watery smile, hoping that people would take her silence and sad smile as noncommittal. But she knew that nothing she could say or do would convince anyone of anything else. Though Signe hadn’t heard anything to give her reason to believe so, Signe had a feeling that Prince Runo, the jealous bastard, had made sure of that.
“Don’t let Prince Runo hear you say anythin’ kind ‘bout Prince Hans, now,” Signe reminded Anne. “You know how he gets."
Anne rolled her eyes, releasing Signe’s hands. “Oh, goodness, yes. I had to suck on his pintle yesterday just to get him to stop grandstandin'.” She gagged. "The vain cock.”
Signe sympathized. The man had always been a jealous creature. Both he and his brother had terrible tempers, and when those tempers flared, people were often hurt.
“Has he tried to…” Signe couldn’t bring herself to say the words aloud, so she instead brought her hands up to her neck and mimed a squeezing motion.
Anne shook her head. “No. So far, he’s obeyed the contract’s terms.” When Prince Runo had taken Anne for his mistress, Signe, using what knowledge she had of contracts, had forced a reluctant Runo into an agreement that he would never apply force to Anne that would either cripple or grievously endanger her. And that had included the prince’s fondness for strangling his bedmates.
Signe could still recall how his hands had felt around her neck. Especially that night he and his twin had ambushed her outside the castle's stables, the same night the stables had caught on fire. Even though the brothers had sworn they’d not cast the spark that’d set the stables ablaze, Signe knew neither of the princes were innocent. But she’d continue to pretend they were, for her daughter’s sake. After all, the deal had been that, so long as she kept her mouth closed to the public on what had occurred, the princes would leave Signe and her bastard be.
But the same could not be said of Signe to the princes, should they bring any extreme harm to her girls.
“If he attempts anythin’ nasty,” Signe warned, dropping her hands to her sides.
“I’ll be sure to offer up his bollocks to you on the castle's most gilded platter,” Anne agreed with a smirk. “What’d be left of his bollocks, anyways.”
Signe had to laugh at that. Though she knew any attempt Anne made to bring retribution upon the prince would end disastrously, the image of Prince Runo, hunched over himself, cowering beneath a harlot’s rage, brought a smile to her lips.
“I’d expect nothin’ less from any of my girls,” Signe approved.
Anne took hold of her dress’s skirts and dipped low in a perfect mockery of a formal curtsey. She bowed her head. “Your ladyship,” she said in her most respectful and demure of tones. She then rose back to full height, lifting her chin, and squaring her shoulders, her smile full of cheek.
Signe rolled her eyes at the harlot’s antics, though, privately, she was swelling with pride. “Off with you, now,” she motioned Anne to the door. “I’ll have no curtseyin’ where there’re no culls to fleece.”
Anne chuckled. “As you wish, your ladyship.” She gave Signe one last cheeky smile before brushing past the bawd, heading out the door, leaving Signe with her moment of brevity. But as sounds of Anne’s shoes faded the further the harlot ventured down the hall, the lightness left Signe’s body, and she was, once again, quite tired.
“I suppose I’ve earned myself a nap,” she said to no one, exiting the washroom. She headed back down the hallway to the staircase. Taking each step one at a time so as to not aggravate her stitches further, Signe ascended to the brothel’s top floor.
While the first and second floor were used in housing employees and conducting business, the third floor was meant for the bawd. It had four rooms down its corridor. The first and second rooms had always been used for storage, and were locked to prevent thievery. The third room was Signe’s office, far less opulent and colorful since Signe had taken it over after Dame Bilde’s death. The fourth and final room was Signe’s own lodgings.
Normally, the doors were all closed, but as Signe approached her room, she realized two things. The first realization was that her room’s door was wide open. The second realization was that she could hear a man’s voice, softly crooning a most sweet melody from inside the room.
Signe could recognize that voice anywhere, and when she stopped before the room’s threshold, having practically run the rest of the way there, she found herselfmmensely relieved to see that her recognition had been right. Relieved, and also a great deal of annoyed.
There stood Hans Westergaard, rocking Signe’s infant daughter in his arms. He was dressed in his customary black trousers, shirt, and jacket, boots, and his black cloak still tied about his neck, doing well to help conceal the sharp knives Hans kept strapped to his person. However, he had removed his gloves, and his cloak’s hood was down.
It was to Signe’s great frustration that Hans's customary devil’s mask was nowhere near his face.
“Are you mad?” Signe glanced about the corridor, praying no one was near. When she saw not a soul, she darted into the room, quickly shutting the door behind her. She was quiet in doing so, not wanting to alert anyone to what might be going on. “Someone coulda seen you!”
Hans smiled wryly, his pretty smile oozing his amusement. “Someone always sees me, Signe.” He knew very well what Signe meant. He was just being a nuisance on purpose. His propensity for mischief knew no bounds, even when he should really demonstrate his talent for being discreet.
“They coulda seen you without your mask.” Signe huffed, putting her hands on her hips, trying to give the man before her a stern look. “We got a good thing goin’, darlin’, and I’d hate for it to all end ‘cause you can’t keep your unmentionable covered."
“Not something I had ever thought I might hear from the mouth of a harlot,” Hans commented, shifting the bundle of infant in his arms. If the words had been out of anyone else’s mouth, Signe would have clocked them but good, but she and Hans had an understanding between them that allowed the pair to enjoy a battle of wits without fear of tarnishing their friendship.
Still, Signe couldn’t just let him get away with that little remark. Even if he was rocking her baby so sweetly in his arms. She reached up and flipped her hair over her shoulder, nose raised and eyes low-lidded in her perfect mockery of a noblewoman. “And what would you know ‘bout the mouths of harlots, sir?”
Hans crossed the room to her, his steps purposeful yet quiet, arms still rocking the baby, and chuckled, his eyes on Signe like a leer. “I know they’re very slippery of tongue, my lady."
“Well, in my experience, sir…”
Signe took Hans’s chin into her hand, smiling temptingly.
“…so are the tongues of rogues.”
If she were any other person, Hans would have recoiled from the touch. But Signe’s hands had been familiar to Hans for some time now. He knew their capability to be gentle, and he knew that she’d never use them on him in any manner to hurt him. Just as Signe knew that, no matter Hans’s temper, and his difficult moods, that he’d never raise his hand to strike her.
He was one of the few men Signe trusted to think of her well being. Her dearest friend.
Amused by his friend’s lewd language, Hans smirked, bringing his face in close to Signe’s, the both of them still very much in their pretend of a highborn noblewoman and a no good rake. They did this often — the two of them falling into games of pretend. Hans was remarkably good at it.
“Is that what you consider me, Signe?” Hans asked, voice a soft breath. “A dashing rogue?"
Signe scoffed, knowing the unintended compliment had already gone to Hans’s head. “Of course not.”
Hans chuckled, his pretending forgotten in his good humor. Signe tried to remain haughty, not letting her face slip, but then Hans looked at her with that softness only she ever received, and she crumbled.
“You’re a brat, Hans Westergaard.” Signe sighed, defeated by his smile. He was just too damn charming that it always made it hard for Signe to stay serious for long. “Fortunately for you, you’re a brat for which I care beyond measure.”
When Signe had first met Hans, he’d been a dour-eyed former criminal, tending to the horses in the castle stables. He’d been shoveling horse dung, his face dirty, and shirt sleeves rolled up, showing his well toned arms. He’d never been the handsomest of the thirteen princes, but he’d always seemed to be the one who stood out from the rest. His individuality had only grown since his false death several months ago. His eyes now gleamed with a quality Signe had not seen before, and his smiles (actual, true, and honest smiles) were more common than they had ever been.
Sometimes, Signe wanted to keep this side of Hans all to herself, but she had hopes that, one day, should all her and Hans’s hard work come to fruition, that the rest of the world could get to know Hans as she did.
Hans now properly chastised, Signe turned her attention to the baby in his arms. “She was napping last I left her. Did you wake her?"
Hans shook his head. “She was crying, and I thought I might provide some assistance.” He went to one of the room’s corners, where there sat the hobbled bassinet Signe’s girls had gotten for her out of some rubbish pile o the streets. Hans laid Hanna down on the soft cushioning, incredibly careful to make sure her head rested gently.
Signe sighed at the sweetness of the moment, and went to sit on the edge of her bed, pulling up a leg so she could work on the straps of her high-heeled boots. “You didn’t have to do that.” Signe pulled off one of her shoes, dropping it to the floor. “One of the girls coulda done it.”
“They could have,” Hans agreed, smoothing a hand softly across Hanna’s brow. “But I wanted to spend a little time with this sweet girl.” He looked down into the baby’s face, his mouth smiling so softly that just witnessing it made Signe’s heart squeeze.
Tender moments such as these always made Signe wonder how such a man could have ever attempted once to bloody his hands. If it were not for Hans's own guilty admission, she might have thought it was all an elaborated story. But then, Signe knew she was understandably biased.
“She’s lucky to have you in her life.” She looked over her shoulder. There was plenty room beside her for another person on the bed, and she reached an arm behind her to pat the empty spot, bidding to Hans, “Come lay with me a moment.”
Hans rose from where he was bending over Hanna’s bassinet, and nodded his head. “I’d never turn down such a tempting invitation.” He went around the bed to it’s other side and seated himself on its edge. He made quick work of removing his boots, putting them beside the nightstand, and then untied the knot at his throat where his cloak was tied. He had to lift himself up a bit of remove the garment, but he managed to pull it around and toss it onto the low cabinet up against the wall. Once this was done, he pulled his legs up onto the bed and laid down beside Signe, a sigh of relief as he enjoyed the cushion the bed brought his tired limbs.
They used to lay like this several times a week before Hanna was born. Signe would rest her hands atop her large belly, and Hans would lay beside Signe, his side almost pressed to hers, his head needing to only turn to brush his nose against Signe’s cheek. At the time, they’d still been incredibly cautious with one another. She’d been recovering from his brothers’ care, and he’d been adjusting to his…everything.
“I talked with Anne just now,” Signe said, pulling her legs up onto the bed. She let her dress’s skirt bunch up at the tops of her things, her hands going to the ribbons that kept her hosiery in proper place.
“Ah. The brave harlot, returned from another day of charming the royal snake pit.” Hans commented, his eyes rolling shut as he released a half weary breath. "And how is my brother?”
“As ill-tempered as he was the last time you asked me that question.” Signe pulled at the ribbon holding up one of her stockings, tugging it loose and allowing the silk fabric to slip down against the skin of her leg, dropping down onto the floor.
Hans chuckled, amused. “I am relieved to know that not even a solemn period of mourning can hamper Runo's appetite for depravity.” It was hard for Signe to tell if he wasn’t a little bit disappointed. As long as Signe had known him, Hans always kept his feelings close to his vest, cautious in sharing his true thoughts, and careful when baring even a modicum of vulnerability.
Signe worked on her second stocking’s ribbon. “Your ma misses you.” The stocking dropped to the floor beside the first.
“Does she?” Hans’s eyes opened, and his face closed off with the customary indifference he used when attempting to mask his thoughts. “How kind of her. She gave me little indication she’d be cognizant of my lack of presence a year ago.”
He was being stubborn. But that was normal.
Signe could tell that Hans would not venture further on the subject of his family, so she switched topics.
“Did you collect the debts?”
Hans hummed, eyes falling shut once more. “All but one. Lord Aster was not at his house, and I hadn’t the heart to trouble his poor wife.”
“He owes us sixty silver pieces for his sessions with Janne,” Signe reminded Hans.
“Eighty pieces,” Hans corrected. "Sixty pieces for all the times Janne handled him, and twenty for the bruises he gave her when she refused to serve him until he settled his debts.”
“Eighty would be stealing,” Signe warned.
Hans lifted a hand, waving it once to the side in dismissal to Signe’s warning. “You can write it off as a fee on his late payment.”
Signe took Hans's hand, pulling it down by her chin. “A fee would be ten pieces, at most.” She performed some mental arithmetic. “Seventy pieces would be better,” she decided. "Cause less of a stir if the insolvent lout complains to his friends. We don’t want to give ‘em any reason to give us trouble."
“Heaven knows, we’ve enough trouble as is,” Hans humored dryly. He curled his fingers about Signe’s. “My father has granted the nobles another taxation exemption, so I don’t see why their pockets should be protected.” Especially not when several of the coins in those pockets belonged to Signe’s coffers. Perhaps money had never been of concern to Hans, but for Signe it was a constant trial to continue paying the bills, keeping the brothel’s food stores stocked, and ensuring that her girls got their proper wage.
Freja’s Hearth was the first brothel in the Southern Isles to actually pay their harlots a decent wage. It’d cost Signe the extra funds she could have used for furniture and others types of decor, but if it meant that her girls received the kind care that Signe had once dreamed about when she’d been under Bilde’s management, then it was all worth Signe’s scrimping and strict budgeting.
Still, she couldn’t help but envy the nobles for their economic security.
“Be that as it may,” Signe said to Hans, releasing her hold on his hand. “Each coin in this house must be fairly earned. Should your father send his hounds to harry and harass me ‘bout how I get my money, I want them to be able to look at my books and know that I run a clean business."
Hans snorted, pulling his hand back. “Clean?”
Signe gave a soft “whack” to his chest. “Oh! You know damn well what I meant, Johannes Kristian Andersen Westergaard!”
“Ah, the title.” Hans protested, emerald eyes opening. There was laughter in their green hues. “Must you invoke the title?”
“When you’re bein’ a brat,” Signe warned with a haughty huff. She turned her head, looking up at his face.
His beard was starting to come in.
“When are you going to shave this scruff?” Signe poked at Hans’s chin. Though the beard wasn’t yet properly grown, Signe could tell in another month or two that it’d be thick and full. “You’re startin’ to look harrier than Lord Svendsen.”
Hans’s lower lip curled with his grimace. “Why am I being abused so early in the day, my dear?” Though Signe’s eyes could not see them, she knew his eyes gleamed with mischief. “First you assault me, then you admonish me, and now you make distasteful comparisons between myself and that beast of a man?”
“Don’t be so dramatic,” Signe chided, a smile curving on her lips as her chest bubbled with the warm, wonderful feeling so few men could give her. She lifted her head off the pillow and loomed over Hans. “I see enough theatrics with my girls every day.”
“Ah,” Hans acknowledged, looking into Signe’s dark eyes. “All of you do have a talent that would put every actor and actress in the theatre to shame.”
Perhaps it was the way he said it, or maybe that Signe hadn’t had true, honest, sexual intimacy since before Hanna was born, but she found herself running a hand down Hans’s chest, fingers brushing past the button of his shirt and making their way down. When her fingers reached the button of Hans’s trousers, Hans stopped her hand with his own.
“No,” he softly said.
“You deserve it,” Signe protested.
“I don’t deserve anything.” It always broke Signe’s heart how Hans truly believed that. “As it is, I hardly deserve your friendship.” He pulled her hand back to side, holding it.
Signe couldn’t help but bring her face closer, her lips just a breadth away from Hans’s. She could feel the hot puff of his breath on her mouth, and felt utterly compelled, despite his protest, to do what came naturally to her. It was only his eyes, soulful and a more brilliant green than the most costly of Signe’s assortment of jewels, that kept her from going forward.
She’d been trading favors with pleasure for years, and Hans was the first man to believe a favor needn’t be repaid in flesh.
Signe tried to plead. “Hans…”
But he shook his head. “I’m not going anywhere, Signe,” he softly said, squeezing her hand.
Maybe it was the way he was looking at her, like she was everything wonderful and good in the world, or maybe it was how she was utterly exhausted, emotionally and mentally, and she was far too tired to think for much, but Signe knew Hans was speaking the truth.
He wouldn’t leave her.
Not of his own accord, at least.
That niggling voice in the back of Signe’s head was itching to further protest, but Hans’s presence alone had the effect of silencing the most of Signe’s many doubts.
“Well,” she laid back down beside him, this time laying her head back on his chest. She put her ear to where she knew his heart lay, and took comfort in its steady beat, the same way she took comfort in listening to Hanna’s heartbeat when she was curled up against Signe’s breast. “If you truly feel compelled, then there’s nothin’ I can do.”
She could feel the breath he released in relief. “I appreciate your acquiescence.”
Signe poked at his side. “None of that fancy talk, darlin’.” Still, she smiled. “If you’re gonna wag that tongue at all, then wag it for somethin' useful.”
Hans chuckled. “Oh?”
Signe brushed her head up and down against his chest in a nod. “That’s right.” She allowed herself to be selfish, if only for the moment. “Wag it while you tell me a story.”
Though Hans had never considered himself a great orator, he seemed to be a master storyteller in Signe’s eyes. During the first few months into his stay at Freja’s Hearth, he and Signe had both still been quite fragile beneath their carefully made veneers. They’d been unsure how to conduct themselves in their shared privacy, having shared little physical contact beyond those meant for providing assistance. His hands at her waist when he’d helped her down from a horse’s saddle, her fingers wrapped about his when she’d finally gotten brave and reached out to him…contact that had been cautious. But with that caution had come a desire to go forward — to make a stronger connection. So they’d talked, hours on end, slowly revealing their innermost thoughts, and creating a sense of security that’d allowed the two safety in their vulnerability.
Signe would talk about her mother and Dame Bilde, and admit that, once upon a time, she’d thought of the crooked bawd as her mother just the same. She’d talk about her desire to please the woman, and make her proud, and how, in the end, that desire had given Signe a world of hell. Hans would then relate with Signe’s experience, admitting that he’d always wanted to earn his family’s approval, though it would be another month before he felt secure enough with Signe's confidence that he’d extrapolated on his misgivings.
“I'd wanted to kill her,” he’d admitted to her, seated beside her on her bed, his face turned away.
Signe had been lying back against her pillows, head turned up as she'd stared at the ceiling. “Do you still want that?”
Hans’s answer had been instant. “No! I would never—!” He’d cut himself off, taking a deep breath. "I’d been so selfish, angry, and…and desperate when I’d raised that sword. Now, I want nothing of it. Of…of any of it.”
Signe had looked at him then. “What do you want now?”
Hans had finally turned his head, his eyes intense, holding Signe’s with an emotion that dug into Signe’s heart.
“I…I don’t know."
As if the admittance had been the finger that had pulled the cord between them, Signe had pushed herself to sit up, difficult though with her large belly. Though Hans had been at first hesitant to assist, watching her struggle had proved too much, and he’d slid a hand behind Signe’s back, easing her upright. His hand had stayed there after, his attention focused upon Signe’s face.
“Do you want to know what I want, Hans?”
He’d stayed frozen, unsure what to do in that fragile moment.
“…I don’t know.”
“I want you to tell me a story.”
He’d been taken aback at her innocent yet absurd request. His hand had left Signe’s back.
Signe had nodded.
“Because I want to forget my demons,” she’d responded. “If only for this moment.”
And though Hans had still been confused, he’d granted Signe's request.
“What story shall I tell you?”
“Anything. All of 'em.” She’d then laid back down against the pillows, eyes falling shut. “Tell me a story that has magic and wonder.”
Hans had been quiet for a moment, and Signe had kept her eyes closed, wondering if he’d get up and leave her. But instead, she’d felt the bed dip as he laid down beside her, his side almost brushing against Signe’s. As he’d gotten himself settled on the bed, there’d existed another moment of quiet between prince and harlot, one that’d finally been broken when Hans said:
"Let me tell you a story I was told when I was small. The story… of the fire foxes.”
So Hans had told Signe the tale he’d learnt when he was but a small boy in the castle’s nursery. He’d always asked for it when his nursemaids tucked him into his bed at night, and by age eight, he’d been able to recite the story himself by memory alone.
It had been Hans’s favorite story. And now, as Signe lay on her bed, with her head on Hans’s chest, while Hanna slept in her bassinet a foot way from the bed, Signe wanted to hear him tell it again.
“Will you tell me ‘bout fire foxes?”
Hans frowned. “I’ve told you that story eight times, already.”
“Doesn’t matter.” Signe snuggled her head beneath his bearded chin, completely cozy. “I like hearin’ you tell it.” It’d been the first story he’d told her, and so, it had become her most favorite.
Hans sighed, as if deeply put upon, though Signe knew he was just being dramatic.
“If that is what her ladyship desires…” He cleared his throat, his voice shifting in the pronounced tone he preferred using when spinning tales. “Once upon a time, long before the Southern Isles formed, there were two tricksters named Harri and Floke…"