Authors: Matthew Reilly
I should mention that on every occasion he played chess on our journey, Mr Giles had played it solely for the sake of playing. On some occasions, local players wanted to play him for money, but Mr Giles always demurred. He would play, but for enjoyment only.
At first I thought this odd as he stood a good chance of beating them. One day I asked him why.
‘When one travels in foreign lands, Miss Bess,’ he said, ‘one is essentially a guest in someone’s home. And it is not polite to take your host’s coin. Beat them, sure, but do not play for money. No-one likes an outsider who arrives in their house, wins and then walks jauntily away with their host’s hard-earned silver. If you do that, you are liable to be chased out of town, thrown out of town, or worst of all carried out of town to a pauper’s grave after someone has stabbed you in the back.’
In that tavern in Wallachia, however, the local chess champion would
play for coin.
And since it was his board, one could not play him without taking his wager. Mr Giles resolved not to play that night, but of course when word got around the establishment that one of the recently arrived guests was on his way to Constantinople to play in the chess tournament, the local champion loudly and coarsely challenged Mr Giles to a game.
And so Mr Giles played him and the whole tavern gathered round the corner table to watch.
As the game began, I surreptitiously scanned the room and sure enough, there he was in the far corner: our rat-faced shadower. His eyes were fixed on Mr Giles.
It turned out to be a gripping game. While the local champion might have been boorish and crude, he was a fine player and the game lasted far longer than any of the others Mr Giles had played on our journey.
For the duration of the game, I sat with Mr Ascham, watching intently. Elsie, thrilled to be at a place that in some way resembled civilisation, flitted excitedly from one spot to another: she variously sat with us and watched the game, flirted with the younger men at the bar who had no interest in chess, or disappeared to our rooms to emerge a short while later wearing a different dress that flattered her breasts more.
At one stage, I went to the nearby bar to get a drink for Mr Ascham and myself. (My teacher said, ‘It will be good for you to actually pay for something at least once in your life. Perhaps you should go and ask Mr Giles if he would like something to drink as well.’) Aghast at the prospect of me doing something so unroyal as ordering some drinks, both Mr and Mrs Ponsonby accompanied me.
At the bar, I (quite proudly) ordered our drinks: my teacher wanted to try the local ale while Mr Giles and Mrs Ponsonby—in an effort to choose something a little less potent—ordered perry. Mr Ponsonby asked for watered-down spice wine and I had milk.
The tavern’s owner had an enormous belly and unshaven jowls but he was a friendly fellow who could speak Greek. ‘Heading to Constantinople for the chess tournament, eh?’ he said as he opened a bottle of ale. Behind him, his boy prepared the other drinks.
‘Keep an eye out for the representative of Wallachia, a very strong player from Brasov named Dragan,’ the owner said.
‘His name is Dragan?’ I said. ‘As in
, the mythical creature?’
‘Yes, and he breathes a unique fire of his own. Trust me, if you meet Dragan of Brasov, you will most certainly remember the encounter!’
‘Thank you. I shall keep that in mind,’ I said.
‘One other thing, little one,’ the owner said more softly. ‘Watch yourself in Byzantium. Stay close to your companions. There be strange tales coming out of that city of late. Word is, there’s a fiend on the loose there, the Devil’s spawn, they say. Prowls the slums outside the palace late at night, kills men, women
children, stabbing them hundreds of times. Then he tears the skin off the bottom half of their faces before he vanishes into the night.’
‘He tears the skin off their faces?’ I said.
‘Around the mouth and jawbone. Flays ’em like a hunter skinning a wolf, exposing the flesh and bone undernea—’
‘I say, that’s enough, sir,’ Mrs Ponsonby interjected. ‘You’ve no right to scare a child so.’
But I was enthralled; a little terrified, but enthralled nonetheless. ‘Why would anyone do such a thing?’
‘Who knows?’ the tavern owner said. ‘Who
know what drives the mind of a madman?’
‘How many people has this fiend killed?’
‘At last count, eleven. The peasants of Constantinople are living in fear. You watch yourself.’
‘I most certainly will.’
I returned to our table with Mr Ponsonby and handed a drink to my teacher, while Mrs Ponsonby took a mug of perry over to Mr Giles at the playing table.
I asked my teacher hesitantly: ‘Sir, have you heard about some murderous fiend at work in Constantinople?’
‘I’ve heard rumours, yes.’
‘Do they concern you?’ They very much concerned me.
‘Until I verify them with someone who actually lives in Constantinople, no. Till then, they are just ghost stories, like the one Elsie told you about the blood-drinking Wallachian tyrant, designed to frighten the young and impressionable.’
Mrs Ponsonby rejoined us then, sipping daintily from her own mug of the local pear cider.
We continued to watch the game. At one point, Mr Ascham nodded at Mr Giles’s opponent. ‘You know, Bess, I was just observing something.’
‘Whether they gather in a king’s court or a tavern in Wallachia, everyone wants to be somebody.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Exactly what I said.’ He gave me a look. ‘Some things, Bess, I cannot teach you. Some things you must learn for yourself.’
I frowned, nonplussed. I didn’t like those lessons.
At that moment, Mrs Ponsonby coughed uncomfortably. She touched her stomach and winced.
‘Are you all right, Mrs Ponsonby?’ I asked.
‘I suddenly feel . . . quite unwell,’ she said. She was going pale before my eyes. ‘If you will excuse me a moment . . .’
She darted up the stairs to our rooms, chased by her concerned husband. Mr Ascham jerked his chin, indicating that I should go, too, so I dashed up the stairs and arrived in our rooms to find her on her knees, bent over a chamber pot, retching most violently, her husband standing helplessly over her.
‘It must have been . . . the perry . . .’ she groaned. ‘Bad cider . . .’
Insufferable as she was, I ended up helping her, holding her hair away from her face as she vomited up the contents of her stomach. Then, with Mr Ponsonby, I helped her into her nightgown and put her to bed. She was asleep within minutes, her effete but loving husband mopping the perspiration on her brow.
I returned to Mr Ascham’s side downstairs, delightfully unchaperoned. The game was still going. I looked around and saw that Elsie had disappeared once again.
Relieved for once of the presence of my moral guardians, I decided to go in search of Elsie. I knew she wasn’t up in our rooms, so I checked the road out in front of the tavern. She wasn’t there. I inspected the outhouse in the rear yard, but did not find her there either.
Returning to the tavern, I heard a noise coming from around the corner of the building.
It was a peculiar grunting, followed by a strange feminine gasping.
I peered around the corner—
—and threw my hand to my mouth.
There, just around the corner of the building, in a small alley between it and the next house, were Elsie and two male youths.
Elsie stood bent forward over a barrel with her dress hitched up around her waist, while one of the men, a thin boy of perhaps seventeen, stood behind her with his breeches around his ankles, thrusting his manhood into her with vigorous energy.
I could see Elsie’s face. She was clearly enjoying herself, making a short gasping squeal of delight every time the young fellow thrust himself into her. For his part, the young man grunted each time he pumped her.
I watched, shocked beyond measure but also entranced and curious.
Of course, I had heard about this. The other girls of Elsie’s age talked incessantly about the act of consummation, copulation, or being ‘occupied’ by a man, especially as they approached marriageable age. When they spoke to me about it, they put on airs of experience and worldliness but when I overheard them talking amongst themselves, they spoke of it with considerable trepidation. It was a Great Unknown. And possessing skill at it was something they viewed as critical to keeping a husband happy. Elsie was an active participant in those conversations.
I stared with wide eyes as Elsie experienced something akin to ecstasy, jolting with the young fellow’s every thrust, her squeals becoming faster.
Then, after a time, the young man reached some sort of climax himself, for he shouted as he gave one final thrust. He then pulled himself away from Elsie. (I confess at this point I tried to glimpse his manhood—I was more curious than anything else—but he pulled up his breeches too quickly for me to get a look at it.)
At this stage, Elsie nodded to the second youth, who quickly yanked down his own breeches, stepped up behind her, and assuming the place of the first lad, penetrated her with his engorged organ (which I saw clearly this time; it was stiff and long like a baton and surrounded by dense black hair; not small, hairless and shrivelled like my half-brother’s willy-winky).
And so it began again.
The thrusting was more vigorous this time, Elsie’s panting more intense, more obviously pleasurable. After a short period of this rutting, she extricated herself from him, turned herself around and sat on top of the barrel so that she was facing him. Then she pulled her cassock over her head, throwing it off completely, so that she sat there in the night-time air, naked as the day she was born. She spread her legs wide, inviting the youth to enter her again, which he did without hesitation.
His penetrations were faster now and as he gripped Elsie’s waist, he seemed to enrapture her. In between panting gasps, she started to say, ‘Harder, man . . . harder . . .’
He pumped her with even greater energy, desperate to please. Her breasts jiggled with his every shunt and her eyes closed in sheer delight.
Then the second youth yelped as he reached his own climax. Elsie moaned sensually, her entire body relaxing as she leaned back on the barrel.
The youth then hurriedly yanked up his pants and the two young men disappeared down the alleyway, whispering animatedly, clearly happy with the event.
As for Elsie, I watched her sigh with tremendous satisfaction before she retrieved her cassock and casually put it back on. It was at this point that I hurried back inside so as not to be seen by her—much shocked, definitely titillated, but most of all, fascinated by the actions of my older friend.
Contrary to those discussions with the girls back home, Elsie had not shown any trepidation at all. Nor had the scene I had just witnessed had anything to do with pleasing the two men involved, let alone marrying them. What I had just seen Elsie do had been done, it seemed, for one reason and one reason only: the pursuit
of her own pleasure. I didn’t know what to think of my friend. I was very confused.
I re-entered the tavern just as Mr Giles checkmated the local champion and reluctantly took the man’s silver coins.
EMERGING FROM THE GRIM
darkness of Wallachia, we entered the homelands of the Ottoman Turks. The landscape became drier, more dusty, and the odd clump of snow could be found by the side of the road. Winter was not far away.
I travelled in the first wagon, seated beside Elsie, while Mrs Ponsonby now travelled in the second, lying covered in a blanket, her husband gripping her hand. Her condition had not improved in the two days since we had left that tavern in Wallachia. She had a terrible fever that caused her to perspire greatly and shiver uncontrollably. Neither Elsie, I, nor any of our guardsmen dared give voice to the thought we all shared: that Mrs Ponsonby’s malady could be plague.
‘What do you think about Mrs Ponsonby?’ I asked Mr Ascham. ‘Is it . . . ?’
‘It is not plague,’ he said simply.
‘She thought it might have been bad perry,’ I said.
‘It was not bad perry. Apply logic, Bess. If the perry had been off, wouldn’t Mr Giles also be ill? He drank the same drink.’
I frowned. This was true.
‘But what if,’ my teacher said, ‘there was something
that was wrong with that perry?’
‘I don’t understand,’ I said.
‘The poor woman drank the wrong cider,’ Mr Ascham said, staring resolutely forward. ‘Back at that tavern, both she and Giles ordered perry. But she must have inadvertently switched her mug of cider for that of Giles. It was laced with something, a poison of some sort, something that was intended to make
fall ill, not her. Do not forget the Sultan’s man who has been following us—it would have been easy for him to pay the barkeep’s boy to add something to Giles’s drink.’
I spun where I sat, glancing from Mrs Ponsonby’s shuddering body to Mr Giles on his horse nearby. ‘But . . . why? Why invite Mr Giles to play in the tournament and then poison him on the way?’