Posted by Darth Krzysztof
6 Planting, 595 CY
Liberty Grace climbed the steps to the second story, her battered, patchwork top hat in her free hand, remembering the days when every stair creaked underfoot. But those days were gone; even now, with no diamonds left to find in Diamond Lake, and every miner desperate to find anything else of worth beneath the earth, business was booming at the Midnight Salute. And, though it pained Liberty to think it, her sister was a big part of the reason why.
She made her way down the narrow hall, trying to ignore the sounds coming from behind the occasional door, even at this early hour. A man wants what he wants, Liberty thought, fighting down a sigh. And, like as not, there’s a woman willing to charge him for it. At least you don’t have to be the one to take their silver nobles.
She came to the end of the corridor, then transferred her wicker basket from one arm to the other so she could tap on the door with her quarterstaff. No one else ever bothered the Salute’s biggest earner this way, and she never had… callers this early.
The dull thumps of bare feet on hardwood floor grew louder, and a key turned in the lock. That’s got to be the only locked door up here, Liberty thought. How important is she to this place, anyway? The door opened, allowing Liberty into the room; Constance Grace, completely nude, closed and locked it behind them.
“I still think it’s funny,” Liberty said, not looking at her sister, “that you don’t want anyone out there to see you like this.”
“This town pays for the privilege, Libby. Whatcha got today?”
“Meat pies.” Liberty held the basket out at arm’s length. “Chicken.”
“Nice! Thanks.” Constance took the basket and set it on a stand next to her enormous bed. Liberty started to imagine how many men her sister had been with on that bed, how many times… “Libby, look at me. I don’t have anything you haven’t seen before.”
After a pause, she did. Constance Grace stood before her, naked and unashamed, all fair skin, ample curves, and flame-red hair. Maybe that was the hardest part of all this… only four years of age, three inches in height, and Liberty’s smattering of freckles, really separated them. It was like looking in a carnival mirror.
Half the men in this town’ve seen what you’ve got, and the only reason the other half hasn’t is because they can’t afford you, Liberty thought, biting down to keep from saying it. Instead, she only said, “… Sure.” She’d only just arrived, and she already needed to get out of here.
“Have you got a minute?” Constance asked, disappearing behind a folding screen, where she kept her different outfits. Costumes. Whatever. “I wanted to talk to you about something.”
“Not really, no. I’ve got sweet rolls that have to come out of the oven.” Yep, every man in Diamond Lake is fond of at least one of the Grace girls’ goodies…
“You’re a terrible liar, Libby.”
Liberty sighed. “No, Connie, I’m a terrific liar. I just can’t lie to you.”
“Fair enough.” Constance reappeared in a maroon gown that must have cost someone a fortune. In her flour-dusted breeches and tunic, and her worn-out shoes, Liberty couldn’t have felt anything less like her sister. “You can go if you want. But it’s important.”
There was no getting out of this now; in the end, family was all anyone ever had. Blood will tell, Father always used to say. “All right.” She decided against the bed – the sheets looked clean, but who could say? – taking the chair next to the tiny writing-desk instead. That desk had always seemed out of place in here. Probably another gift, Liberty thought. But then, she probably has plenty of men to write to. She set her hat upon the desk and turned her attention to her sister.
Constance sat on the bed and peeked in the basket, smelling its contents before closing the lid. “You’re never going to approve of what I do. I know that now. And I’m never going to convince you to. But do you think…” She held her hands in her lap. “Do you think you could ever understand it?”
“You fuck men for money, Connie. I’ve understood that for years.” She put more venom into the words than she’d intended, but she wasn’t sorry. Sorrow had played itself out on the Grace’s stage long ago.
When their father died in Deepspike Mine, Balabar Smenk didn’t lift a finger to help the grieving widow or their two daughters. With inconsolable Mother wasting away, and little Liberty too young to earn a wage, Constance used her charm and beauty in the same manner that so many women and girls in Diamond Lake had. But even after Liberty had started earning her own way, and other hands had come to care for Mother, Constance continued whoring herself at the Midnight Salute.
Constance shook her head, making tsk tsk sounds. “Such language, Libby, coming from a prude like you.”
“I’m not a prude.” Why did Constance always have to treat this like a game? “But when you sell sex, it robs it of all its intimacy.”
That put an odd little smile on her sister’s face. “In this town, that makes you a prude. And you’re right; I do fuck men for money. And the occasional woman for pleasure. But you’ve been there, haven’t you? With an itch that only an elf can scratch?”
“My private life is none of your business, Connie.” See if I ever tell you anything again, bitch. I mentioned my thing for elves years ago, and never once have you missed a chance to give me grief about it.
“Oh, relax; I know you’re still a virgin. But take someone to bed, someday, and you’ll see that there’s more to it than money and pleasure. There’s also power.”
Now how could she know that? “Power?” Liberty said, though it was already making sense to her.
“Yes. The law in this town doesn’t care to share power with anybody. You’ve seen it; men like Smenk and the Mayor could have us snuffed out like candles, but we both hold our own power, you and I. I mean, sure, I’m not like you; I can’t waggle my fingers around and conjure fire up from nothing. So, their desire is my power. It might be the only power I have, but it’s enough.”
“Someone wants to snuff us out?” Liberty couldn’t carry her grudge with Smenk if she’d had a wheelbarrow, but she’d never said a word or lifted a hand against the man, because that was how people vanished from Diamond Lake.
“And it is power,” Constance said, as if she hadn’t heard, her words coming with a bit more passion now. “Otherwise I’d be just another earner here. But I’m the best. And do you know why that is?”
Liberty had no pithy reply this time, managing only to say, “No.”
“Because I connect with my customers. Not just physically, but spiritually. They tell me things they would never tell anyone else. I have their secrets now, and that gives me an edge.” Constance beamed with pride, but why were there tears in her eyes? What did she need an edge for?
What in the Hells is going on with Constance Grace? What’s she hiding? “You already know all my secrets,” Liberty said, trying to lighten the mood. “You could snuff me out like a candle whenever you wanted.”
Constance laughed. “Sure, if that’s what’d happen if that knife-throwing rogue down at the Feral Dog knew you were crushing on her.”
“You wouldn’t dare!” Liberty gasped, tensing up to charge across the room. How could she know THAT?
“I’m kidding!” Constance raised her hands in surrender. “Gods, but you can’t take a joke. Is it serious, then?”
“Yes! I mean, no. Kind of. I wish.”
Constance made some room on the bed and patted the spot next to her. “Come here, silly. Tell me all about it.”
Liberty had barely made contact with the bed before her sister’s hug had found her. “I hate going in there. The Feral Dog, I mean. I’ve always hated it. It’s loud and it’s dangerous, but they pay good money for meat pies, so I usually pop in and pop back out as fast as I can. But the elf, Tirra, was there the other night, in the knife-throwing competition. She was so… I don’t know; she was flirting with all the fellows while she was beating the pants off them.”
“Right!” Liberty added. “I just wanted to go over there and start throwing knives. Start flirting with her, you know?” And let her beat my pants off. Didn’t you just say five minutes ago that you’d never tell her anything ever again? Well, I know more of her secrets than anyone else does, so I guess we’re kind of even… Wait. Did you say that thing about your pants out loud, or just think it?
“So why didn’t you?”
Liberty turned to look into her sister’s eyes, so much like her own. “Because I… she’s an adventurer, Connie. From Greyhawk. What would she want a baker for?”
“You’re a sorcerer, Lib. A sorcerer who bakes, but you’re still a sorcerer.”
Liberty shook her head. “She had a bunch of fellows buzzing around her. Just fellows.”
“That doesn’t mean anything. You ever see me carrying on in public with women?”
I never see you in public at all… but I see your point. “It doesn’t make any difference; I think she’s involved with that Auric fellow, the gladiator.”
“She isn’t.” Constance couldn’t have sounded more certain.
And that was one too many for Liberty. “How would you know that?”
“Never you mind.” Liberty’s sister finally let go of her. “You were there for less than a minute, I bet.” When Liberty nodded, she added: “And you didn’t talk to Tirra? Or even walk up to her?”
“No.” Gods, I’ve never felt so stupid. Don’t start crying now, Liberty…
“Hey! Hey. I know it’s scary. And you’re right; she might turn you down for any of those reasons. Or a bunch of others. But she might not. And you know what happens if you don’t try?”
“No,” Liberty sniffled. “What?”
Liberty dabbed at her eyes. “You’re right. I’ll go back and talk to her. Thanks.”
“No, I mean it. I come in here to pronounce judgment on all your whoredoms, and you’re still nothing but nice to me…”
Constance took her sister’s hands in hers. “Well, yeah. We’re not the same, but we’re family, and that makes us the same.”
“Blood will tell,” they said together. Father did all right, Liberty thought, making sure we’d stick together, no matter what. Still, what’s got Connie so spooked?
“So,” Liberty began, “these people you needed an edge on. Do you need help with them? I know Purple Prose doesn’t like me hanging around, but I could probably persuade her to –“
“No, that won’t be necessary. I’ll be safe, here. And Cornelius Drake’s been looking out for me, too.”
She saw through her sister’s lies, as easily as Constance had seen through hers. Drake was good in a scrape, and protective of the Salute’s girls, but he was still only one man. This wasn’t the time, though… “Did I tell you that Drake asked me to go exploring the cairns with him?”
“No,” Constance said after a pause. “Is he looking to make an adventurer out of you?”
Liberty shrugged. “I think he wants to find piles of treasure, so he can leave Diamond Lake. And he doesn’t want Tirra’s band to beat him to scooping up whatever loot is out in the cairns. He said that Auric was asking around at the Spinning Giant about Stirgenest Cairn.”
“I heard that, too. Stirgenest is empty, though. Harmless.” Constance fished one of the pies from the basket and started nibbling on it.
Liberty was done wondering how her sister knew what she knew. “Right? Drake wanted to send them out there anyway, try to get a lead on them while we search some of the other cairns.”
“He’s not what you’d call good with people. I’ll bet he asked you to do that.”
She nodded. “I am not comfortable sending Tirra and those other two on a wild goose chase.”
“So distance yourself from whatever lie you tell her. ‘Oh, I’m sorry, Tirra; my friend is usually right about those things.’” Constance took a larger bite as the flavor started working its magic upon her.
Liberty regarded her sister through narrowed eyes. “You really think that might work?”
“You are a terrific liar. And people overlook all kinds of things to get into the right beds.”
“Thanks,” Liberty said, certain she was blushing now.
“Don’t mention it. So you’re going with him? Drake, I mean?”
“I believe so, yes. I think he’s a good man, deep down, and he’s been nothing but kind to both of us. It’s the least I can do to help him out. I just hope he can bring in a few more people; it’ll mean smaller shares, but I think it’s worth it for more safety.”
“That makes sense. What would you do with a pile of treasure, though?”
“Get a decent oven for the bakery, most likely. There’s more demand for sweets on the weekend than I can keep up with right now. And I could use a sign over the door; of course, I still haven’t chosen a name…”
“That’s not what I meant. Would you use it to leave Diamond Lake?”
Liberty’s breath hitched in her chest. “What? No. This is my home, Connie. I’ve got people here that need me, including you, silly.”
“Don’t be stupid. This place is a Hells-hole, Libby. And you know it. If you get a chance to leave, you have to take it.”
“No.” Of course she’d thought about leaving. She thought about it all the time. But you play the hand you’re dealt, as Father also used to say. “You know I couldn’t leave you here.”
“I told you, I’ll be fine.” Constance patted Liberty on the thigh. “Please, stop worrying about me.”
Liberty rose to her feet. “Oh, like you could ever stop worrying about me?”
“If you were far from here,” Constance said evenly, “then I’d have a lot less to worry about.”
“Then come with me! There’s other bordellos, other bakeries. I’ve got almost a hundred gold orbs stashed away already. We could get to the Free City easy with that – and from there, we could go anywhere! Please, Constance.”
Constance returned her half-eaten pie to the nightstand. “Libby, there’s things going on here that I can’t just walk away from. You’re a sweet girl, and I love you more than anyone else on Oerth. But I can’t.”
“Then tell me why not. You owe me that much.” She’d stopped fighting the urge to cry; this was all too much.
“I can’t do that either. If you love me, you need to let this go.”
“I can’t. I won’t. Tell me who’s bothering you, and I’ll burn his damned house down.”
“Thank you for the pies, Libby. I think you’d better go, now.”
Tears rolled down Liberty’s face as she kneeled before her sister. “Constance, no. Don’t shut me out like this. You’re all I’ve got.”
“Do I need to call Purple Prose up here? Because you know I will.” Nothing in Constance’s voice suggested otherwise.
Liberty could think of nothing more to say. She stood back up, fuming, and went to the door, where she fumbled the key in the lock, grabbed her staff, and slammed the door behind her as hard as she could.