((In Anna’s comment thread about how our characters deal with grief and hard times, I mentioned that Annalea’s been a bit…self-destructive recently. A discussion with Tarquin about how Tarq and Annalea are handling their current situations (or not-handling, perhaps) prompted him to write this amazing post. “Just For One Night” is a companion to Tarq’s “Mistakes Were Made.”
Also, uh. Warning, adult content in both.))
Farley had sent for her, late in the day. The Pride’s latest sensation had gone and caught herself a bad case of minstrel’s finger — which was a polite way of saying she’d spend the majority of her set clawing at the itch in her nethers if they put her up onstage — and that would never do. So wouldn’t she please come and save him, just for one night? Drinks on the house, double her old pay, anything, anything, just come and sing.
And so she had.
The inn hadn’t changed since the last time she’d performed here. The patrons hadn’t changed all that much, either — soldiers, farmers, minor nobles, travellers passing through — though they wore different faces. But even that was another example of all that had stayed the same. She wondered if maybe she was still the same, too.
Her eyes roamed over the crowd, gauging their mood, choosing the songs that would draw them out, make them call for more ale, make them drop coins in her lute’s case between ballads. She strummed the instrument idly, her fingers picking out a lilting little nothing-melody to get their attention. It worked like it always had: the hush spread through them like ripples on a pond, quieter and quieter, until all eyes were on her.
Then the notes trailed off, too, her fingers gone still upon the strings. Her head was bent, eyes on the floor. The anticipation grew until it was near-palpable. Some of them leaned ever so slightly forward, as though they couldn’t exhale until she gave them permission. Then she lifted her chin and threw them her bawdiest smile as she launched into the first verse of “Redridge Lasses.”
It came back so easily. Eye contact, of course, was extremely important for a bard — give this one a grin, that one a wink, make each person in the crowd think she was singing for a party of one. A coy look for that one, let your eyes linger a full measure on that one — within three verses, they were hers.
Then there was the one in the front row.
He sat dead center, long-fingers curled around a glass of bourbon. His cotton shirt likely doubled for Sunday best or a night on the town. Bits of mud still clung to the bottoms of his boots despite the brushing he’d clearly given them. A farmhand, then, someone who had cleaned up for an evening of leisure. And cleaned up nicely, at that. He stared up at her with eyes the color of the earth he turned day in and day out, and when he was sure he had her attention, he let them travel down, then up again.
She knew how this dance went. She hadn’t moved through its steps for nearly two years, but she remembered every single beat. Lower the lashes, find a smile that’s just for him, now turn away and smolder at someone else.
But only burn when you look at him.
That came back easily, too.
If you do this, there’s no going back.
During her break, he came to her in the kitchen. She pressed coins into his palm, enough for a room on the quiet side of the inn, and pointed him at Farley.
If you do this, you’re every inch the whore he tried convincing you you weren’t.
When the singing was done, when she’d finished making them howl with laughter and weep with songs of the frozen north, when they’d gone hoarse from shouting back the chorus of “The Fox and the Cocks,” she packed her lute in its case and made her bows. They begged for one more and she gave it to them, unaccompanied. A lover’s song. She closed her eyes as she sang, her voice gone hushed and husky. She tried not to remember the feel of golden hair beneath her fingertips or the smell of the sea, where she’d been when last she’d sung this song. When she’d sung it for him and him alone.
When she opened her eyes, she saw her new conquest ascending the stairs.
If you do this, you’re not worthy of him.
She couldn’t tell if she was dragging him backwards while he kissed her, or if he was the one in charge, driving her forward in his enthusiasm. Either way, her back slammed into the door hard enough to make it rattle in its frame.
Fin would have stopped, asked if she was all right, eased back in. Her new companion didn’t even seem to notice. She was glad for it; she didn’t think she could bear even that small kindness tonight.
I was never worthy.
“I… I sometimes find myself thinking about your past relationships. What… what you told me. And I know I shouldn’t! I really do. I don’t care about them.
“But, you know. I grew up in the country. I haven’t… I found Johanna when I was young, and that was it. After the plague, working for the church doesn’t leave much time for a social life, aye? I’m just sayin’ for various reasons I haven’t… I haven’t been with many women.” Fin looked down, embarrassed. “You were likely expecting a more… worldly man.”
“Fin, look at me.”
He did, reluctantly. She took his hand and moved in closer.
“I’ll bet you knew every curve of Johanna’s skin. And what kind of day she’d had by how she kissed you. Walked into a crowded room, and you could find her by her laugh.”
His grin was tinged with memory. “We were still young, but aye. I knew her well.”
“I had to start from the beginning. Every time.”
For the third time, she guided his hand to where she wanted it and for the third time, it felt good until he got caught up in what she was doing to him, and he forgot all over again.
She’d been patient about it, once upon a time, willing to let them figure it out as the candles burned lower and lower. But it had been so long since she’d had to to that at all, she was surprised to find herself contemplating throwing out some verbal directions.
Fin would have known.
He would have known that when she gasped like –this– he was getting something very right, and shouldn’t stop. Or that when she moved –so– it was her way of telling him to slow down, to give her a moment to catch up to him, because they moved together so beautifully, so perfectly when one was right there with the other, when their breaths came in ragged sync and every move was harmony. Fin had learned those things even during their first awkward night together, when they were still shyly learning the nuances of each touch. He’d picked up on it and never forgotten. And she could get there now, she could, if he’d only slow down a moment, if he’d just hold back a few more seconds, if he’d just wait, if he’d just slow down, if he’d just
“…wait, wait, please…” But it wasn’t Fin straining away above her, tonight. He took her whispers for encouragement and upped his pace. He groaned into the curve of her neck, shuddered, and lay still as she ached beneath him.
The second try was better. She took what she wanted, sparing little notice for the things she’d recognized the first time around that signalled his pleasure, concentrating solely on her own. She set her own rhythm as she moved atop him, let her fingers roam to wherever felt best. Her cheeks colored with the wantonness, the pure carnality of her actions.
But her bedmate didn’t seem to care; in fact, it only spurred him on. She finished seconds before he did, but none of the hoped-for consonance came with it. They were two people who had finished similar tasks at a similar time, nothing more.
He gathered her into his arms after, nuzzling at her neck and asking quiet questions as their breathing slowed. She answered politely, pretending she hadn’t had this same conversation with a hundred men before him.
(A hundred men save one.)
Her replies slid from her tongue like a song she’d memorized long ago, one that had faded in her memory, but one she could never fully forget.
It all came back so easily.
She drew her knees up to her chest in the pre-dawn light, wondering why she felt so cold despite the blankets that covered them both, despite the warm body at her side. She thought about waking him up again, for one more fuck before the sun rose.
But it would be just as fruitless as the first two times. Fin had gotten under her skin — she’d let him get there, let him dig down through her muscles and settle deep into her bones. No matter how hard or fast or deep the man beside her might thrust, it wouldn’t drive out love, or hurt, or loneliness.
And she knew, even though she didn’t dare face it yet, that when she got home, no matter how hard she scrubbed at her skin, she’d find she’d done the irrevocable. No amount of soap would wash away this betrayal.
We’re over. I went to him and said as much, and in the end, he let me go. I can bed whoever I want, and so can he.
I hope he’s fucking a camp follower, right now.
I hope he’s fucking some woman from the Silver Hand, or the Kirin Tor, or whoever else he takes a fancy to.
It was a lie, but she repeated it to herself anyway. She pictured it, too, for good measure, conjured up women both real and imagined writhing above him, and pretended it didn’t bother her.
“Fuck,” she muttered, and threw the covers off. She dressed hastily; they hadn’t bothered with a fire last night, so now her skin prickled with gooseflesh as she yanked her dress over her head. Something else had come back, too, the mantra that rattled around in her head at times like this: men leave.
Men left. Even Fin, with all his good intentions, had left her behind. She had no delusions that this time would be any different. So she did what she’d taught herself to do long ago: she gathered up her lute and her cloak, found her underthings, and started for the door.
“We were good together,” he said from behind her. She paused at the door, but didn’t turn.
We were, Fin and I. But that’s over now.
“I could make you happy.” As though she hadn’t heard that before, either.
“No,” she said, gently as she could. “You couldn’t.”