Written for the prompt(s): "Gwyn ap Nudd."
|Word count: Approx. 2,400
“Um. Hullo, again.”
“Hello,” ap Nuada said, seeming amused. He’d watched me cross the room from down the main staircase. I’d faltered and nearly fallen down the last five steps, but caught myself before I went tumbling tail over tea kettle.
I wasn’t used to the nice shoes Madam Maeve had found for me—the kind of shoes one wears to a dance, rather than to church—and they were a touch too big, hence me nearly falling and breaking my leg.
The outfit she’d found for me was a bit out of fashion, even for the Borderlands and Settlements, and included one sharply-pressed white shirt that was very slightly too large, tan trousers that fit as if they’d been bespoke for me, a matching vest that fit just as well, a burgundy dinner jacket that was big on me—but not noticeably, like the shirt—and finally a burgundy silk cravat with gold edging.
And the make-up I wore was courtesy of Madam Maeve herself. She’d worked quickly and lightly, claiming my face didn’t need “lots of painting up” like Miss Katherine’s or Miss Millie’s. I’d smiled, and nearly laughed, and Madam Maeve’s mouth had twitched a little, too, but she’d then cleared her throat and told me to hold still or she’d not be responsible for the mess I’d appear as a result.
When she’d finished, she’d brought me to her mirror—the one in her bedroom, a place few got to see, these days, since she’d taken over for the old Madam, Madam Celine—and watched me gape at myself as if at a stranger. One who was . . . quite beautiful in a strong-featured, regal way. His silver-grey eyes, lined with kohl, but not garishly, seemed to sparkle intensely, entrancingly. His russet hair, usually tied back in a ponytail, had been brushed out and arranged around his face like a thick curtain, shining and sleek.
This elegantly coiffured and dressed man—not a boy, as I still felt myself, but a man—had gaped back at me, his wide eyes growing wider by the second, till it seemed they must fall out.
Finally, Madam Maeve had chuckled. “Time wastes, Edric. Ap Nuada has been waiting for long enough.” And with that, she’d ushered me not to the back staircase, but to the front, which led directly into the common room.
“You’ll do fine, lad,” she said, hanging back just out of sight of the commons. “Just remember to relax, and that yes, it will hurt at first. But once that hurt passes, once you’ve got into the rhythm of it, your body will know what to do to please both you, and ap Nuada.”
“But I don’t know what I’m doing, and neither does my stupid body! What if I mess it up?” I asked, suddenly nervous, my palms sweating as I stared down into the common room. I could just make out ap Nuada’s legs—the hound sleeping at his feet—but the rest of him was lost behind the curve of the arched entryway.
Madam Maeve smiled that wistful smile again. “You’ve already charmed him, all unwitting, and won his regard. That is no small coup. There’s no way you can . . . mess this up. You are a Connacht, as well as a Forester. Enchantment and intrigue are in your very blood.”
I thought that over. Madam Maeve rarely spoke of our family—would not speak much of my parents or where they were from—but in that moment, my heart trip-hammering, that tidbit dropped didn’t tempt me into further questions about our family. I had other, bigger fish to fry. “But won’t he be expecting me to . . . to know how to please a man?”
“I doubt it, my dear. No offense, but your innocence declares itself with every word and gesture. One expects of you many things, but the knowledge and experience of a practiced whore is not one of them. Now, skedaddle.” Madam Maeve nodded to the stairs and I gulped, so anxious, I barely even noticed her use of the word whore. She’d never said it before in my presence, preferring the term ladies or female companionship.
Well, I wasn’t either, I supposed. But by the end of the night I’d be a whore, right enough.
I didn’t know whether that bothered me or not.
“So,” I said, smiling nervously at ap Nuada, who smoked and watched me. He’d stood up to pull out my chair for me, and I’d blushed, of course, stammering my thanks. “What brings you to our humble town, Mr. ap Nuada? Business or pleasure?”
He smiled, sweet smoke escaping from mouth and nostrils in thin ribbons. “A little of both,” he claimed, then added. “A pleasurable sort of business.”
“Ah.” I leaned back in my chair, linking my sweaty hands on the table and staring hard at them. “And how long, may I ask, were you out in the Wilderness?”
“For many years I’ve made my home in the . . . Wilderness, as you call it.” Ap Nuada leaned back in his chair, too, that curious look on his face. “And you, Edric Forester? For how long have you called this Border-town home?”
“All my life,” I said with a sigh. “Well, almost all my life. I came here as a babe in arms. I don’t know where we lived before that.”
‘“We’?” Those dark brows lifted and I glanced away again.
“Madam Maeve and I. She’s not from here, nor am I, though I have no memories of any other place. Perhaps we’re from back East, further into the Settled Lands,” I mused, and not for the first time. I’d used to spend hours with Miss Millie , when we were little, trying to imagine the place I was from. I could never quite do it. I’d never been anywhere but Delver’s Gulch, and on occasion to the few Settlements just east of it.
“I know where your Madam Maeve hails from, Edric ap Forester, and it’s not East,” ap Nuada murmured, and I was startled into looking at him full on for the first time since I’d stumbled my way back into the commons.
“Do you—have you met Madam Maeve before?”
Ap Nuada shrugged. “I knew her briefly when we were younger, before the first of her unfortunate husbands. She and my sister were . . . friendly rivals, of a sort.” He snorted. “At any rate, your Madam Maeve is, like I am, from the West.”
“Husbands?” I asked, my mind boggling at the thought of Madam Maeve being married. And more than once. Then I was fastening onto the rest of what he’d said. “West of the Borderlands? There’s nothing west of this town but the Wilderness.”
“Indeed,” ap Nuada said, lifting his glass and sipping his whiskey. Then he chuckled. “Where’re my manners? Would you like a whiskey, Edric?”
“I . . . I’ve never had whiskey. . . .” though I’d once sneaked some of Madam Maeve’s red wine with Miss Millie when we were ten. It’d been fun at first . . . till the vomiting had started. “I’m not certain—”
“Don’t wory. I won’t let you drink too much. Only just enough,” ap Nuada promised, signaling Rebecca, the barmaid, for another glass. I frowned.
“Just enough to what?” I asked, and ap Nuada merely smiled and wouldn’t be drawn further on the subject.
Halfway through my first tumbler of Madam Maeve’s best whiskey, I was considerably more relaxed.
Taking my example from that of Miss Paulette—Madam Maeve’s most popular lady, despite her thin, almost plain looks (even with artfully applied make-up) and meek manner—I tried to focus the conversation, as we waited for dinner, on ap Nuada.
But his answers were brief, almost evasive, and told me nothing about him. He instead turned my very questions back on me, asking me about my life at Madam Maeve’s. I was chagrined, by the end of dinner, to realize I told him my life story in bits and pieces, and that by the time we’d finished our afters—both plates cleaned . . . Cook and Lucille were on their game, that night, and as usual—ap Nuada knew more about me than anyone. Myself included.
I’d found myself telling him things that only Miss Millie knew, and quite a few things she hadn’t known. I spoke of my time in school, and how Miss Millie—just Millie to me, back then—and I had been tormented and called “whore’s get” for most of our lives, me despite the fact that as far as Madam Maeve had told me, my mother had never been a whore. Back then, back before our peers simply chose to ignore us both, Millie and I had clung together, our bonds forged of a crucible I’d thought had made them unbreakable. We’d even used to talk about getting married when we were older, and running off to the great cities of the East to find a better life. She’d hoped to attend a Normal School and eventually teach. And I . . . well, I had no particular preferences as to a career. I wasn’t good enough at much of anything to consider it any of my studies or duties callings—unless one deigned to call being the fastest potato peeler in town an accomplishment.
“And this . . . Millie is the same lass who . . . greeted me earlier in the evening,” ap Nuada said, lighting another cigarette, which he’d rolled without me noticing. He took a deep drag off it, the cherry end making his dark eyes seem to flare and flicker, then offered it to me. I took it reluctantly—I’d never taken to smoking, though I could do it without coughing up my lungs.
“One and the same,” I replied, putting the cigarette to my lips and pulling off it lightly. The bittersweet smoke filled my lungs and I immediately felt a strange sensation—lassitude, almost—settle over me. I held the smoke in my lungs for a few moments before exhaling then offered the cigarette back to ap Nuada, who waved it off. So I took another drag, this one a bit less cautious, only for the lassitude to deepen, and a mild, not unpleasant throbbing to start in my head. “We were best friends, a long time ago. But now, she hates me.”
“Hmm.” Ap Nuada watched me with a small smile and I blushed, but only a little. I was growing used to him watching me, and as long as I didn’t think about what was to come later, I wasn’t too nervous.
“What?” I asked, when the amused staring went on a bit longer than what even I, in my inebriated and drugged state, could tolerate.
“Nothing. Only. . . .” and there ap Nuada let it hang for a few moments before chuckling. “Have you never stopped to consider why she seems to hate you, now?”
“Seems to?” I snorted. “And yes, I’ve wondered, but I can’t imagine why. I’ve done nothing to her that I know of, and certainly not on purpose.”
“Haven’t you, Edric ap Forester?” Ap Nuada tilted his head curiously. “Our greatest hatreds are born of our greatest loves, it is often said.”
I frowned and took another drag off the cigarette. It was already half-gone. “I don’t understand . . . if you love someone, why would you suddenly hate them?”
Ap Nuada shrugged with a casual grace I envied, even as a lion’s roar of sudden want flared within me, making my blood race and my body quicken. Blushing, I placed my cloth napkin in my lap.
“Perhaps because they do not love you back.”
“Of course, I loved her back—she was my best friend! My sister in all but blood!” I exclaimed a little louder than I’d meant to, then glanced around. A few heads had turned, including Miss Millie’s—she was frowning over at me and ap Nuada, her pretty face a study in misery. But she turned away when I looked at her and shifted so she was pressing closer to Reese Derwent. They appeared to be playing cribbage with Miss Edith and Jorian Naylor.
Miss Millie suddenly laughed brightly, and everyone at the table joined her. I felt a pang, such as I haven’t for a long time, and wondered what had happened to my best friend to cause her to despise me so. . . .
“I loved her,” I told ap Nuada, who was watching me keenly. “I still do, even though she stopped loving me.”
“Hmm,” ap Nuada said, turning his regard to Miss Millie. “When love turns in on itself, it can mimic hatred. But that doesn’t mean that it is hatred.”
“You and I must have very different definitions of love,” I huffed, and ap Nuada shrugged again.
“Perhaps. But mark my words, Edric, that lass still loves you. More than she can bear, I’d say.” When he saw that surprise and incredulity had left me speechless, he went on. “It may well be that the problem is two-fold: She loves you too much and you love her not enough. Or at least not in the way she so clearly desires.”
I went to draw on the cigarette and saw that I’d smoked it away to practically nothing. “And what does that mean?”
“Merely what it means, no more, no less,” ap Nuada said dismissively, evasively. Then he smiled, and stood, offering me his hand. When I took it hesitantly, he pulled me to my feet. The room spun slightly, but not alarmingly. And despite the fact that I was on my feet, ap Nuada still held my hand. “I noticed two benches outside of the saloon. Come, young Master Edric, and take the night air with me.”
“Alright,” I said, blushing, and glancing once more at Miss Millie, catching her in the act of turning her head. Had she been watching me again? Why? To report back to Madam Maeve? Or merely to gather more ammunition against me?
Then ap Nuada was drawing me with him, toward the doors and the waiting night air.