“Sister, Sister” has its roots in my childhood: one of the books we had to read was an old collection of my mother’s, called Norwegian Folk Tales. I suspect it was an old book when Mum first got it as a kid, it was a thin tome with a forest green cover and silver lettering – it’s long since disappeared, though I found a later edition earlier this year and bought it (still not the same, just saying). In it was all sorts of tales of hulders and trolls, of women whose back side was hollowed out like a tree trunk, and yet others who looked perfectly normal but for their cow tale … but the bit of information that most appealed to me and stuck with me over the years was that trolls were known to steal away human babies and leave their own nasty, mewling offspring in the cradles.
Even at a young age I loved the idea of the changeling child – and even more I loved to torment my younger sister that she wasn’t really my true sibling, but a troll’s daughter left in the crib to cause trouble. All this probably says more about me than my sister, but when I began to think about new stories for Sourdough I knew I wanted a troll tale and I knew I wanted to use the changeling child as a motif.
The first image that came to me was that of the interior of the Golden Lily Inn and Brothel; I knew who the inhabitants were, I knew many of them had previously appeared in Sourdough, such as Bitsy, Kitty, Fra Benedict, Rilka, Faideau, Livilla – and my beloved Patience Sykes in her old age (her middle years are covered in Of Sorrow and Such out from Tor.com in October this yea). One of the things that really comes to the fore in this story is how well we do or don’t know our friends, how rumour and gossip colours what we know of their history, and indeed how many of these characters have already become the stuff of legend to some small degree. Theodora, my narrator is new, though, and we see through her eyes how she’s fallen from Princess of Lodellan to an employee at the Golden Lily. That she’s been replaced by her sister as First Lady, that she dreams of escape and being free, and that the being she loves most in the world is her little daughter Magdalene. But Lodellan isn’t safe anymore and when Theodora treads the streets she once ruled she comes to the attention of something she’d really rather have avoided.
Sister, Sister [extract]
The final hymn is being sung off-key and I suspect the choir-master will not be pleased. I smile, imagining his scowl as he tries to locate the culprit amongst those angel-faces. Imagination is all I have at this distance, there’s very little to see from the arse-end of the Cathedral.
Pillars, posts, baptismal fonts, and other members of the faithful all ruin the landscape. My kind are tolerated in church, but only just. This is not the view I used to have; once, I sat in the pews up front, those with little gates on the side to let everyone know how special we were.
Once, I was on show.
I still am, I suppose, but now it’s looks of pity, occasionally of contempt. Always curiosity. I’d have thought that after six months it would have died down, but apparently not. I hold my head high, meeting cold stares with one even frostier until they turn away. But I tolerate this, continue coming back once a week for my daughter’s sake. Just because I’ve lost faith doesn’t mean Magdalene should be denied the possibilities of its comfort; besides she loves the theatre of it as only a child can. When she is older she can decide for herself whether there is something genuine to be had.
The Archbishop lifts the chalice, makes his final flamboyant gestures, bows his head and bids those within range of his voice to go in peace. This much I know from memory. Those in the front rows rise and I think I see the flash of Stellan’s golden hair and a hook twists in my gut; but I could be mistaken. No sign of the other one though. The flock rises with the rhythm of a wave. One advantage of our lowly seating is its proximity to the door. We, the inhabitants of the inn, are out in the sunlight before the exulted few have managed to move two yards.
Magdalene’s hand creeps up to twine fingers with mine, her grip tight and clammy. In the shade of the portico at the top of the steps sit the Archbishop’s six hounds. Grey and silver in the shadows, insubstantial until someone with ill intent crosses the threshold, then they become suddenly-solid, voracious and vicious. No one wants a resurrected wolf hunting them down. I have explained, over and over, to my little girl that they will do her no harm, but there is a core of fear in her that not even her mother can touch.
From across the square comes the sound of a carriage and four. It is the white ceremonial one I rode in on my wedding day. The sheer curtains are drawn but I think I see pale blonde hair as the occupant peeks out. Polly, who has yet to attend a church service in all her time in this city. My sister makes no pretense of religious zeal.
Behind us the wolf-hounds growl and Magdalene wails, climbing up my skirts like a terrified monkey. She holds me so tightly I can barely breathe. Grammy Sykes pats her back and talks in a low voice to the wolf-hounds. They react to her tone, settle back to sit in the shadows, the exiting crowd giving them a wide berth. I look at them, wondering who among the press of bodies set the beasts off. Grammy pokes me to move along and we head for home.
The inn is old, so old that if you cut into the walls you might find age rings like those in the great trees of the forest beyond the city walls. The wood panels have been darkened by years, hearth smoke, sweat, tears and alcohol vapour. If you licked them (as the children sometimes do), you’d taste hops as well as varnish.
The bar itself, where Fra Benedict serves the drinks, is pitted with the marks of drinking vessels slammed down too hard, the irresistible will of dripping liquid, and the musings and graffiti carved by the bored, the drunk and the lonely when the barman is distracted. The glassware gleams, though, as do the metal fixtures and the bottles behind the bar are kept clean (although it’s not as if they stay undisturbed long enough for dust to settle). There are booths with seats covered in balding velvet, and the hiss-hum of the gas lamps (lit low for daytime) is a constant comfort.
Things are quiet at the moment, Sunday afternoon, most of our clients still pretending their piety after Mass this morning. There’s only Faideau in a corner booth, his breeches slung low and his shirt stained with wine. He’s a poet, he says; drinks like one at any rate. He snores loudly. Fra Benedict will go through his pockets soon for the money he owes, then roust him to move on, to spend at least a few hours out in the sunshine.
In one corner is the crèche, where we whores and wenches leave our children (those of us who have them) under the tender, watchful eyes of Grammy Sykes and her half-wolf, half-something-or-other, Fenric. The small space is scattered with books and toys, which miraculously stay within a reasonable radius. Two little boys, and three girls, one of them Magdalene, three years old and still clad in her red Sunday robe. My little girl, the only reminder that I was once loved.
In the kitchen I can hear Bitsy dropping pans. A few seconds later Rilka chases her out, swearing mildly, which is about as angry as anyone can get with Bitsy, who now stands in the middle of the room, unsure what to do next. Fra Benedict makes his particular peculiar noise to catch her attention, jerks his head for her to come and sit at the bar. He is mute, his tongue having been torn out many years ago in some monastery brawl. Bitsy hoists herself onto one of the high stools and sips at the weak ale and blackberry shandy he pours for her.
Bitsy is a little older than me: her face bears the blankness of youth and her long straight hair is a white blonde. She used to be a doll-maker. Not all of them go the same way; she made a special kind of doll, putting tiny pieces of her soul into them. Beautiful dolls, they were (I saw some in a museum, once), but each one left her emptier.
Now she’s touched, little more than a doll herself, with just enough wit to sometimes take drinks to tables, wash dishes, and lie still when a client with no need for a real response climbs aboard and lets her giggle beneath him. Fra Benedict is kind to her; I think they are distant cousins.
Rilka’s dark head pops out of the kitchen. ‘Finished with them peas yet, Theodora?’
I shake my head. ‘Soon, Rilka.’
She disappears with a profanity. Rilka was a nun, in her better days.
Now she’s just like us. Some men pay extra for her to lose her spectacular temper and hurt them. Her special gentlemen callers, she says with a laugh. Tall and muscular, cedar-skinned Rilka doubles as cook.
Kitty thinks Rilka killed someone, tells how she talks in her sleep.
Kitty mends our dresses, sitting in the corner, working on one of those I brought with me, taken apart and made over to fit others. I had no further need of finery. Kitty pulls hard on her final stitch, makes a knot then cuts the thread with her teeth, etching more deeply the tailor’s notch in her left front tooth. Her hair is brassy-bright, a touch of red, a touch of gold; it’s beautiful and distracts clients from the scars on her face: two running parallel across the bridge of her nose before dropping down her left cheek like deep gutters, relics of an unkind husband. Her eyes are blue and sad.
She holds the dress up for me to see: the green and gold brocade is now short enough to show off Livilla’s fine legs, and tight enough around the waist to push her breasts up so they will spill from the top of the bodice. I nod approval just as we hear one of Livilla’s loud sighs floating down from an upstairs room. A few seconds later there is a satisfied, bellowing grunt from her client. She has earned her fee for the day.
Fra Benedict and Grammy Sykes, his common-law wife, don’t make us take all comers. Most of the men are regulars who know Fra and Grammy keep a fair house with clean, cared-for girls. Sometimes there are women, too, anxious for something soft and gentle as a welcome relief from their husbands’ violent prongings. We need only bed one client each day, any after that are up to our discretion. The fee here is high enough and the need for us to work as bar wenches outweighs the pull of the money to be made in excessive bed-sports. One of the advantages of Fra and Grammy’s lax policy is that men are anxious to have what might be refused them, so we always have clientele, banging on the doors, hoping to pay for our favours.
Grammy Sykes was a whore once herself; she remembers what it was like, the constant line of hard, demanding cocks. I think she prides herself on being kinder to us than anyone ever was to her. Livilla whispers that Grammy was a great beauty in her day, although there is scant evidence of it now.
Grammy and Fra will both tell you how many of their girls have gone on to better places, indeed, so many of their old girls are now the wives of rich and influential men that upper-class dinner parties sometimes resemble a whores’ reunion; can’t throw a silken shoe without hitting some woman who used to earn her living horizontally. The comfort of a prosperous future is for the other girls. They don’t tell me this story.
I finish shelling the peas then turn to polishing the silverware Grammy keeps for the private parlour. I hear the front door open behind me, see the sunlight flare in momentarily before the door closes and the cool dimness is restored. I don’t turn around until Fra nods to indicate that the customer is waiting for me.
Prycke was, still is, the Prime Minister. He wanders the capital with minimal guards as if he is still as unimportant now as he was when he was born in the lower slum areas, out near the abattoirs in the furthest, poorest quarters of the city. He’s not overly tall, has a stern sallow face, but his eyes are kind. Clad in dark colours, you might not realise how fine the fabrics of his breeches and frock coat are unless you look carefully. The buckles on his shoes catch the light of the gas-lamps and it seems he has stars on his feet.
‘Have you a moment, mistress?’
I nod, feeling the precarious pile of dark curls on my head sway; one long tendril breaks free and snakes down my neck. He watches it fall. ‘My time costs nowadays, sirrah.’
He is taken aback, reaches into a pocket and draws forth two gold coins. I raise one finely plucked brow but say nothing. I remain silent until he has extracted seven gold coins, then tell him to pay Fra Benedict.
Prycke follows me upstairs. I choose the room with blue velvet curtains hanging around the four-poster bed and a view of the city, an expanse of roofs and, if you look straight down, the Lilyhead fountain and children playing in its greenish waters. I tug at the loose stays of my dress with one hand and at the single clip in my hair with the other; the russet velvet falls to the floor and torrents of hair tumble down to my waist, obscuring the jut of my breasts. I sweep the tresses back so he gets his money’s worth.
He gulps, removes his shoes first (so sensible! So practical! So strategic!), then his coat, and unbuttons his breeches, letting them drop. His legs are pale, hairy, strong. The tip of his cock peeps from under the hem of his shirt, shy, not quite ready. He didn’t expect this encounter, I’m sure, at least not this kind of encounter.
I lie on the bed, splayed like an open flower, and wait for him.
When we are finished, he avoids my eyes. He slips, calls me Majesty. I laugh long and hard at that.
‘Would you come back, Ma – madam? If you could?’
‘Even if I wanted to, I would not, could not. Another sits in my place.’ I fix him with a stare, blue and cold.
‘Your step-sister, madam, she never sets foot in . . .’
‘My sister, Prycke, neither step nor half. Only full-blood can hate so well.’
‘Your husband sent me.’
‘My husband heard me called “whore” and believed it. My husband heard his daughter called “bastard” and believed that, too.’ I hiss the words at him, spittle gathering at the corners of my mouth and curse that I still feel anything. ‘Five years together and I gave him no cause to doubt me, but the moment my sister swears to him that I had taken lovers he believed her.’
‘Madam, I was not in the city when it happened. I would have counselled him otherwise,’ he stammers. He feels badly for me. But he did nothing for me.
‘For all the good it would have done. My husband brands me whore and takes my sister to his bed. So, I embrace my new title, Prycke. I am whore to whoever pays for me.’ I sit up, step into my gown, lacing it tightly for I have earned my keep for today and tomorrow.
He dresses quickly, a handy skill. ‘Madam, your sister has a strangeness about her. She is peculiar . . . she does not attend . . .’
I raise my hand. ‘No more, Prycke. No more.’ He reaches for the door handle. ‘Prycke?’
He turns back, face hopeful.
‘Tell the Archbishop I will see him on Tuesday, at our usual time.