Writtne for the prompt(s): Gwyn ap Nudd.
|Word count: Approx. 2,400
I finished my sweeping in record time and hurried inside to see how ap Nuada was fitting in at the Hurdy-Gurdy.
At first, when I stepped into the brightness of the common room, I didn’t see him anywhere. But a second, more careful look around showed him sitting in the darkest corner the Hurdy-Gurdy had to offer—which wasn’t very.
I must’ve been staring, for his eyes, formerly on Tully and Miss Katherine, playing and singing Love, Careless Love, respectively, drifted to mine and he smiled that lazy smile, raising his glass of whiskey in a silent toast. Blushing, I smiled and waved, then turned to hurry to the kitchen—where I helped with the cooking, dishwashing, and running out of orders—nearly knocking down Miss Millie as I did so.
“Watch where you’re goin’,” she barked, her glare and rough words at odds with her perfectly made-up doll’s face. Miss Millie hasn’t liked me since we were both fourteen, despite us having been best friends up to that point. Now, three years later, that dislike had turned into near hatred, from the way she treated me. It’d really worsened since she started working for Madam Maeve, in spite of her mother’s—Miss Katherine’s—objections. I had no idea what I had done . . . or what she thought I had done, to make her hate me.
“Sorry, Miss Millie,” I mumbled, sidling past her, trying not to wither under her potent glare—she’s like a miniature of Miss Katherine, whose glare could all but light a body on fire—as I held my broom in front of me like a shield.
A few seconds later, at the kitchen door, I glanced back to see if Miss Millie was still glaring at me. She wasn’t, however. No, she was sitting her pretty self in ap Nuada’s lap and wrapping her arms around his neck. Ap Nuada appeared to be demurring to her unsubtle overtures politely, but firmly. I could hear her loud, brash laugh even over the sounds of Tully and Miss Katherine beating the hell out of Love, Careless Love.
When Miss Millie coquettishly took off ap Nuada’s hat, revealing close-cropped, tightly-curled black hair, ap Nuada seemed to freeze, his amused and bemused smile turning cold. Under the table ap Nuada’s hound even sat up, hackles raised and teeth bared. I couldn’t hear the growl from that distance, but I could sense it.
As if sensing she’d gone too far—and Miss Millie was about as sensitive to the feelings of others as her mother, which is to say not at all—Miss Millie laughed again and quickly put the hat back on ap Nuada’s head, even adjusting it to a jaunty angle.
Ap Nuada quite disdainfully pushed Miss Millie off his lap and said something to her that made her freeze and draw back from him. Then ap Nuada’s eyes drifted to me again, where I stood, half-in and half-out of the kitchen doorway. He nodded in my direction, and Miss Millie, stiff and offended, turned to look at me, as well. Her glare was even harsher, this time.
I took that as my cue to disappear into the kitchen all the way.
I’d been chopping vegetables for a few minutes, mulling over what had just happened while trying to pay enough attention to work that I didn’t chop off a digit, when the kitchen door opened and Miss Millie, looking constipated and miserable, stuck her head in.
“Madam Maeve wants you,” she said, looking everywhere, but at me—indeed, I wasn’t sure she was talking to me, but she wasn’t looking at Cook or Lucille, either. So I stopped chopping and put down my knife.
“You mean me?”
“Who else would I mean, idiot?” Miss Millie said, glancing briefly at me, her eyes angry and almost . . . hurt. She’d always called me an idiot, but once upon a time, it was with fond impatience for my occasional slowness on the uptake. For she’d always been smart as a whip, and quick with it, too. Never did two such disparate personalities come together in friendship, it seemed.
For as long as it had lasted, anyway.
“Am I in trouble?” I asked her hesitantly, and Miss Millie snorted.
“I’m not your lackey! I don’t concern myself with whether or not you are in trouble!”
I sighed as Miss Millie ducked back out of the kitchen. Now wasn’t the time for staring in puzzlement at burnt bridges. Madam Maeve was waiting.
“Come in,” was the immediate reply to my knock, and I let myself into Madam Maeve’s office.
It wasn’t large, and it mostly taken up with Madam Maeve’s huge wooden desk. There were two chairs, the one I sat myself in and the one occupied by Madam Maeve.
She smiled as I sat and tried not to fidget under her gaze. Like ap Nuada, her gaze was calm and amused—with occasional glints of graveness—though not nearly so dark. Her eyes were a shade of grey so striking, they appeared to be silver. They always unnerved me, despite seeing those same eyes—only slightly darker in shade—in the mirror every morning.
“How are you today, Edric?” Madam Maeve asked, and I flushed.
“Well, ma’am,” I said quietly, and Madam Maeve nodded once, seeming pleased. Far too pleased for me to be in trouble, but sometimes one could never tell with adults.
“Good. Have you completed most of your evening chores?”
“Yes, ma’am. I was just helping cook and Lucille in the kitchen when Miss Millie said you wanted to see me.”
“Yes. About that.” Madam Maeve sighed and smiled again. “Edric . . . tell me . . . have you ever lain with anyone?”
Surprised at this turn in the conversation, I stammered out the truth: “Ah, n-no, ma’am! That is—I would n-never take liberties with your ladies!”
That smile turned wistful, and Madam Maeve straightened some papers on her desk. “I know you wouldn’t, Edric. You’re a good lad. An honest one. But I meant have you ever lain with anyone ever? Even someone who wasn’t one of my ladies?”
My blush burned like fire under my skin. “No, ma’am.”
“Hmm.” Madam Maeve tapped her lips with one finger and regarded me almost grimly. “And to which do your inclinations lay: women or men?”
Uncomfortable and unhappily, I answered: “Men, I suppose.”
“You suppose?” Her eyebrows lifted toward her widow’s peak, which seemed more pronounced for the fact that she had her hair pulled back into a severe auburn ponytail.
“Well . . . I think women are pretty and I like them, but I don’t—I can’t—” I was unable to think of a delicate way to explain to Madam Maeve that I’d never once touched myself while thinking of a girl. “I just prefer . . . men.”
“I see,” Madam Maeve said, tapping her lips again. “And why do you prefer men? Is it because, after a lifetime spent among women, you’re simply weary of them?”
“No!” I blurted out, laughing, some of my tension flowing out of me. Whatever was going on here, I wasn’t in trouble, or Madam Maeve wouldn’t be making jokes. “It’s not that, it’s just . . . when I imagine kissing someone or touching them, the person I imagine is always male. And always has been, since I became interested in such things. I don’t know why that’s so, it just . . . is.”
“I see,” Madam Maeve said again, seeming a bit troubled, now. “So you’ve never lain with a man, nor even kissed one?”
I was back to blushing. “No, ma’am.”
“For lack of offers or lack of suitable partners?”
My mouth pursed and I looked down at my hands, folded in my lap. “Both. Lack of offers from suitable partners.” Though I thought of the time when, drunk and barely able to stand, the very handsome, but very much engaged Vern Hamish had tried to grope me as I helped him up to one of the small room’s Madam Maeve kept ready for those too inebriated to make their way home, but who didn’t desire companionship for the night.
“You ainna a girl, so you mus’ be free,” Vern had decided, one feverish-hot, sweaty hand squeezing my ass the other pawing at my fly. Oh, Lord, I remember thinking as I let us into his room. Vern had let go of me and staggered toward the narrow pallet, falling onto it in the loose-limbed way of the drunk and grinning up at me. He began rubbing himself through his jeans before fumbling at his own fly. “Wan’ me to fuck you inna nex’ Tuesday?”
“I—I have to go,” I’d said, backing out of the room, hands held up as if in placation. I’d pulled the door shut and held onto the knob, my mind whirling, until, a few minutes later, I’d heard loud, deep snores coming from behind it.
Three days later, Vern was a married man and whenever he saw me on the street or in the saloon, he turned fuschia and avoided my eyes. . . .
“You’re not at all a bad looking boy,” Madam Maeve said, banishing that confusing memory and startling me out of my thoughts. Somehow she’d managed to get up and out from behind her desk, and come to stand in front of me without me so much as noticing. She tilted my head up with two fingers under my chin. “Not bad looking at all.”
“I—I’m plain, ma’am. That much, I know.” I shrugged. I’d long ago made peace with the fact that I’d never be handsome.
“Who says?” Madam Maeve’s fingers drifted up to my cheek before drifting away altogether. Looking up into her regal, striking face—not pretty, no, too strong-featured to be that, but beautiful in their own exotic way—a face I’d not inherited, my eyes quite aside, I sighed.
“Miss Katherine. Miss Millie.” Though only the latter had said it in a way calculated to hurt. The former had just said it as a mere statement of fact, with no more weight than sunlight.
Madam Maeve snorted again. “Katherine and Millie aren’t nearly as smart as they think they are, nor do they see as much as they think they see. Or at all, if they can call you plain. You’re quite an attractive young man, and your even temperament only adds to your charm.” She brushed my fine, russet-brown hair back off my forehead and looked into my eyes. “At any rate, I didn’t call you in here to stoke the fires of vanity in you, Edric. I called you in here because someone has requested you for the evening.”
I blinked. “Requested me for what?” I asked blankly, then my eyes widened as I realized what she meant—what all those questions had been leading up to. “Me?”
“Yes, Edric,” Madam Maeve said gently. She leaned back on the edge of her desk and regarded me somberly. “This is an opportunity for you, for several reasons. And you’re of age. Of course, the decision is entirely yours. I will not force you to do this or keep you from doing it, should you desire to. If you did choose to do it, I would ask that you abide by house rules and sign a one-time only contract that stipulates, among other things, that fifteen percent of your take comes to the Hurdy-Gurdy in exchange for a room in which to hold the proceedings, etc.”
My head was spinning with all this information. I didn’t know what to say or what to do.
“Wh-who asked for me?” I exhaled through numb lips. Madam Maeve heaved a sigh.
“Mr. ap Nuada, the gentleman just in from the Wilderness,” she said so quietly I could barely hear her.
I was surprised and somehow . . . not.
I shook my head and looked down at my hands. “Did he say why?”
“He only requested you by name, Edric. Clearly you impressed him, whatever passed between you.”
“Only idle chit-chat,” I reassured Madam Maeve. “I’m neither funny like Miss Jenny, nor witty like Miss Millie. I can’t imagine why he’d want me.”
Madam Maeve laughed suddenly, and stood up again. “My dear,” she said fondly. “What you don’t know about men could fill the Great Wilderness to overflowing.”
I blushed, but did not resist when she took my hands and bid me stand with a gentle tug to them. When I did, she looked me up and down critically.
“You’ve grown well,” she noted. “Filled out quite nicely: lean, but not too lean; good height; broad shoulders; nicely-shaped limbs. Excellent. He shall find you quite agreeable.” Her gaze ticked to mine. “That is, if you wish to make yourself available.”
Again, I didn’t know what to say. I closed my eyes and pictured ap Nuada giving me that slow, lazy smile. I wondered what it’d be like to taste that smile—if it’d taste like bittersweet smoke and whiskey. I imagined his hands running down my back, then groping my backside the way Vern had, and if it’d feel good—which it hadn’t when Vern did it—or if I’d go screaming in the opposite direction.
I thought of his low, musical voice hitching my name in my ear as he put his back into tumbling me. . . .
I shivered and opened my eyes, meeting Madam Maeve’s, holding them, in the hopes she didn’t look down and see me starting to tent out my jeans.
I’d made up my mind, and despite my nerves and fear—I knew it’d be strange and that it’d hurt, but I felt certain I could handle it, unless ap Nuada turned out to be some sort of sadist—I was as firmly sure about this decision as if I’d made it a long time ago.
And Madam Maeve must have seen it in my eyes or my face, for she smiled, once more wistfully—and a bit sadly—and said: “Come. Let’s get you prepared.”