Four coins. That was all Angie had left in her purse – one coin for each member of her family. It wasn't going to be enough. She contemplated, briefly, stealing a loaf of bread from the baker’s cart while her back was turned, but even Angie’s most sincere prayers would not save her from the hell of gaol if she were caught. Besides, Angie could never in good conscience take food out of the mouths of hungry babies, and the baker had three at home. She and her sister and brothers would be fine.
Maybe, hissed the nasty voice in the back of her mind.
After their parents’ death in an accident the year before, Angie had done her best to provide for her younger siblings. It had been appropriate to accept help from their neighbors for a time; many kind people in the village had shared of their tables and allowed the four children to grieve. But Angie was too proud to ask for any further assistance, knowing how hard others worked for the little they had. She had used every ounce of charisma she possessed to charm old Widow Fry into hiring her to serve meals at her inn during the day, and to sing for tips at night. Even that, though, was coming to the end of its sustainability. Angie knew what she had to do, even if she hated the thought of it.
Some, more rowdy, patrons of Miriam’s at the Griffith liked to show their appreciation for Angie’s performance by laying their hands on her. At first, Angie was disgusted and annoyed by their unwanted advances. She had never cared for the affections of men, and had seen no reason to start – until her youngest brother, Steve, became very ill.
He had always been a frail child, more so than his sisters and brother anyway. He had problems breathing, and was quicker to catch cold or fever than the others. Still, sometimes Angie felt that Steve was the strongest one of them all. He had been a rock for the family over the last year – he made Theresa smile with his drawings, he helped Bucky calm down when he was mad, and he promised Angie that the three of them would be just fine while she was at work. They couldn’t lose him.
But they – Angie – had to pay the village healer somehow. Angie knew that even four pieces wasn’t enough to cover his expenses, but she had to feed her siblings as well. She turned one coin over to the baker for a smallish loaf of brown bread, and used the pence she got back to buy the largest block of cheese she could afford from a farmer’s wife. She would take that home to Bucky and Theresa and perhaps find something for herself at the Griffith.
With her meager bundle in hand, Angie set off down the rutted lane towards home. It was about a mile away, on the outskirts of their little village. The kingdom was a fairly small one, but large enough to have several sovereign townships. Ellandell, where Angie lived, was one of the smallest constituencies. However, they were known for throwing a good party, and oftentimes the Griffith Inn played hostess to traveling soldiers from the King’s Army. They slept in rooms on the ground floor, of course – Miriam had a strict rule about the top floor being a women-only space. Angie wasn’t quite sure why, but she thought it might have something to do with the fact that Miriam herself slept upstairs.
Angie looked at the darkening sky with some dismay. She never enjoyed walking back to town without the sunlight to guide her. The road really was battered from too many rains and wagons without tending, and even steeling herself for what she had to do to make ends meet didn’t make Angie less afraid of what men could do to her under the cover of shadow. But she put a smile on her face as she walked in the door of her family home.
Bucky had gotten the fire going, and the tiny cottage felt much cozier for it. Theresa was tending to a small bubbling pot on the hearth, and Angie smelled honey and pine.
“It’s for Steve,” Theresa said absently, noting her sister’s expression. “For his throat.”
“Good girl,” Angie praised, squeezing Theresa’s shoulder. She looked over to the other side of the house. The curtain that usually separated the boys’ room from the rest of the home was pulled back, and Angie could see Steve propped up in bed with Healer Abraham on one side and Bucky on the other. Bucky was tossing a leather ball in the air, and Steve was playfully trying to grab it. Angie went over to say hello.
“Hello, boys,” she said softly. “How are you this evening?”
“Good, Ang,” wheezed Steve. “Never better.”
“Don’t tease your brother so, Buck,” Angie changed the subject. She rapped her knuckles lightly against Bucky’s skull.
“Be quiet,” he moaned good-naturedly, but Angie could see the worry in his eyes. She only hoped the rest of them couldn’t see it in hers.
“Ahem, Miss Angela?” Healer Abraham coughed politely.
Angie nodded, leading the older gentleman out of the room.
“How bad is it, Doctor?” Angie asked quietly.
“Not good,” replied the healer. “I have done…I only have so much, and I cannot—” He looked upset, and Angie’s heart sank.
“I know you did what you could, Healer Abraham,” Angie mumbled. “I’m sorry I do not have any more to—”
“Your parents, they were very good people,” the man interrupted. “You and your siblings, Miss Angela…you make them proud. You are also very good people. Remember that.”
Angie blinked back the first wave of hot, stinging tears. Fumbling in her pocket, she managed to grab the three coins she had saved and grabbed one of Healer Abraham’s hands in both of hers. She pressed the coins into his palm.
“Thank you,” she whispered.
Shaking his head sadly, Healer Abraham bent down and kissed Angie’s forehead. When he stood back up, he pushed his glasses up his nose and left the house.
“Angie?” Theresa’s little voice asked. “What’s for supper?”
Angie dashed her tears and turned around, holding out the bundle to her sister. “Bread and cheese,” she answered in a falsely cheerful voice. “I have to get back to the inn, so it’s just you three tonight.”
“What will you eat?” asked Theresa with concern.
“Oh, I’m sure I can put together something up in the kitchen. Miriam is sweeter than a cat with cream,” Angie lied.
Before anyone had time to question her further, Angie kissed her brothers and sister goodbye and set back off for work. She would sing, first, and then…she would knock on some doors.
Angie was nervous. It wasn’t as if she had never…lain with anyone in that way before. She had. Once, but she had. And not exactly a man. A woman, really, or perhaps a girl. It was a bit hard to tell…not that the details were foggy; Angie had each tidbit of that perfect experience tucked away in the safest part of her memory. But suffice it to say, Angie had been here before.
Her sense of loyalty was what bothered her, though. It had been nearly three years since that one, blissful night – she had never seen or heard from her companion again. And yet…and yet, something in Angie said she was being unfaithful if she were to use her body as a service. It felt dishonest. More dishonest than a life of petty theft? her snide inner voice wanted to know. That was a question Angie hadn’t the heart to answer.
She was so engrossed in these inner musings that she didn’t notice her walking partner until it was too late.
“Oh!” she cried out in surprise when something bumped into her. Said something – someone, really – toppled over and landed on the ground. “Oh, no!”
“I’m fine,” said a man’s voice. “Only, could you help me up?”
Angie squinted into the dark, and saw the faint sparkle of a ring on the man’s finger. She grasped his hand and pulled.
“Thanks,” he said a bit breathlessly.
“Sure,” said Angie.
“Where is a beautiful maiden like yourself headed at this hour?” the man asked. Angie would’ve snarled, but he didn’t sound as rude and condescending as the people who normally asked her that.
“I work nights at the Griffith Inn,” she answered coolly. “I’m a singer there.”
“Oh?” asked the man. He seemed genuinely intrigued.
Mustering up her courage, Angie blurted out, “I also am available to keep you company…for a price.”
There was complete silence for several painful seconds. Then, when Angie was about to sputter a pathetic retraction, the man said, “I’ll keep that in mind, but I’ll have to hear you sing first.”
In spite of herself, Angie blushed. For once she was thankful for the darkness.
They finally reached the lantern-lit windows of the Griffith, and Angie caught her first sight of the man she’d walked with to town. Even Angie had to admit that he was handsome – strong jaw, sweet dimples, and soulful eyes. He was also, Angie noted with some discomfort, a high-ranking officer in the King’s Army.
“After you, my lady,” he said as he held the door open for Angie.
“Thank you,” she murmured. She felt a bit flushed.
Somehow, Angie made it through her songs without missing a beat or a verse. She made decent tips, but not enough. Angie wasn’t sure what she’d been hoping the outcome of the evening to be. She didn’t want to betray her imaginary lover, but the soldier had really seemed to like her. She’d caught his eye a few times throughout the show and he was even sweeter when he smiled.
She curtseyed to the small crowd, fanning out her threadbare skirt like it was something beautiful. When she looked up, the soldier was gone. Feeling a bit disappointed – but not entirely surprised – Angie started to climb off the stage.
Inevitably, some lout who had fallen too far into his tankard tried to peek up her dress, but Angie had gotten used to swatting away hands and faking coquettishness. All she wanted to do was scrounge for scraps in the kitchen and maybe – maybe – see if that soldier would pay her to…relieve him.
“I must say, you are not what I was expecting.”
The voice in her ear startled Angie, and she jumped.
“I apologize for frightening you,” said the soldier. “I just wanted to inform you that you sing as if you were an angel.”
Angie turned around, shaking her head. “I am no angel,” she said.
“Beautiful, then,” the soldier tried.
At Angie’s grimace, he said, “Miss, I am desperately trying to pay you a compliment!”
Angie swallowed. “You could…pay me another way.” She lowered her gaze and stared up at him through thick eyelashes.
“Ah, yes,” the soldier stammered. “Well—”
Angie’s stomach let out an unseemly growl. “Sorry,” she muttered in embarrassment.
The soldier smiled. “Can I buy you a meal? The stew was very good tonight.”
Angie blanched suddenly. “No! I will be alright.”
“But you sounded—”
“I am fine,” Angie hissed. Then, apologetically, “Might I join you in your quarters? I shall bring something sweet to eat,” she tried to entice him.
“Very well,” he acquiesced. “Third door on the left.”
Angie watched him go. He had an odd sort of gait; he pulled with his left leg while the right just hung there. She shook her head. There was no time for woolgathering. Angie crept into the kitchen and found, to her delight, a small dish of cherry hand pies. The stew was completely gone, but Angie did not really have time to eat to begin with. She grabbed the pies and, upon a moment’s thought, a skin of sweet wine. Then she hurried down the hall to the soldier’s room.
He answered immediately after she knocked, as if he had been waiting for her.
“What is all of this?” he asked.
“Cherry pastries and wine,” said Angie proudly. “I do love cherries fresh off the tree, don’t you?”
“I cannot say I have ever had the pleasure,” said the soldier.
Angie’s eyes widened. “But – the Prince! He has an entire orchard!”
“Nothing so common as cherries in there, I’m afraid,” he answered with a rueful smile. “The Prince likes to experiment, so most of his fruit trees are hybrids.” At Angie’s curious look, the solider continued, “A hybrid is a cross between two or more things. Last I was aware, His Majesty was attempting to breed a lemon with a strawberry.”
Angie wrinkled her nose at that, and the soldier laughed. He took the plate of sweets from her hands and set it on the low table by the window.
“Tell me,” he said seriously, “what is your name?”
Angie chewed her lip. “Uh, Nellie,” she lied quickly.
“I am Daniel,” said the soldier.
Angie nodded. “I will not lay with you,” she half-shouted. “And you mayn’t touch me. I will only use my hands or my mouth. Which would you prefer?”
“Can we not sit a while?” Daniel asked with a gentle grin. “Let us talk and eat and drink this wine.”
“I—” Angie was confused, and a bit flustered. “We must be quick,” she said. “I have to get home, and the Widow Fry…”
“Say no more,” said Daniel. “Come sit by me, here on the bed.”
Angie did. The old straw dipped heavily between them. “Would you like me to touch you now?”
At Daniel’s assent, Angie delicately pressed her right hand to the center seam of his trousers. Her left hand braced on his thigh, Angie rolled her fingers against his groin.
“Hush!” Angie hissed at him. Her hand stilled, and Daniel quickly silenced himself.
One-handed, she worked open the top button of his pants, dipping the tips of her fingers into the new warm space. Daniel shivered, and groaned again.
Daniel clapped a hand over his mouth, and Angie held back an eye roll. She slid her hand further down his fly, cold fingers reaching instinctively for his heat. But when she made contact with his groin, skin to skin, Daniel yelped loudly.
Angie’s eyes widened, and she glared at the soldier.
“Daniel! You must be quiet, or we shall surely—”
It was too late. The door to Daniel’s room burst open, and there stood Miriam Fry, the town widow and gossip. Next to her was another man in a soldier’s uniform. He had a cross medal hanging from his right breast and a smug, self-satisfied smile on his pale face.
Angie pulled her hand back too quickly. Miriam noticed instantly.
“I never! Such debauchery and sin happening under my very own roof! I gave you work, Angela, when you had nothing! And this is how you repay me?”
“Widow Fry, please—” Angie tried to explain, blood rushing in her ears.
“Take this harlot away, Sir John!” Miriam cried. The simpering, pale-faced soldier sauntered over to Angie and grabbed her by the wrists.
“Ouch! What did I do? You cannot—”
Sir John held onto her wrists with one hand and smacked her across the face with the other. Angie’s eyes began to water, and she wanted to cup her cheek but Sir John was tying a rough piece of cord tightly around her wrists.
“That was unnecessary, Jack,” said Daniel in a low voice, buttoning his pants.
Angie looked up at Daniel, hurt shining in her seaglass eyes.
“You used me,” she said softly.
“Good work, Sir Daniel!” said Sir John cheerfully. “Let’s put this peasant in with the rest of them.
With her arms held stiffly in front of her, Angie was dragged along the hall by her wrists. Several patrons remained at the tavern, and Angie knew many of their faces. They were her neighbors, her coworkers; in some cases, even friends. They all watched in frozen silence as she was led away.
Sir John tossed her bodily into the bed of a wagon. Angie’s shoulder hit the boards first, and she tried vainly not to wince. Her swollen cheek scraped against the rough wood, but Angie refused to make a sound. She would not show him fear.
“Climb aboard, Daniel,” said Sir John. “Or did you require some assistance?”
Angie could not bring herself to feel sorry for Daniel as he flared his nostrils in frustration. “I am fine,” he said. He had said that to Angie earlier when he had fallen down. Angie was not sure now that he had meant it.
She watched him walk away, and then tried to sit up. Her shoulder ached painfully, but she did not cry. Angie did not understand what had happened. No money had exchanged hands – she had not even done anything untoward to Daniel, not really. A misunderstanding, perhaps? But Angie knew that she would never be allowed to explain. Sir John seemed to have no time to listen to the truths of the common man, let alone woman, and Daniel…well. Angie felt betrayed by him as well, since he just stood by and did nothing to stop the arrest.
They had not had time to partake in either the cherry tarts or the sweet wine, but Angie was too nauseated and frightened to feel hunger. She did not know what was to happen to her now, but she knew enough to determine that whatever it was would not be pleasant. She wasn’t sad at that, though; merely angry at the injustice of it all.
The one thing that did make Angie want to cry was the thought of her poor brothers and sister. They would be wondering after her; she would have been home already had it not been for the awful events of the evening. She could picture the looks on their faces, and it made her feel as though her heart was the part of her that had been slammed into wooden boards. Angie drew her knees up to her chest, looping her arms awkwardly around them, and buried her face in her bare legs. What has become of me?