“Did you look for work with a saddler here?”
“Of course, Madame—but just like my mum and me, their wives and daughters do the needlework. They sent me away.”
“How, then, have you earned your daily bread?”
Alys looked down at her hands and said almost inaudibly. “I sing.”
“I see. Where?”
Alys didn’t answer at first, but then she looked up and declared almost defiantly, “In taverns, Madame. But it’s not what you think!”
“What do I think?”
“That I’m a whore! That’s what they all think! Except Ernoul. He’s the only one who understands that I don’t want that! It’s just the only—the only way I could earn enough to pay for a bed and bread. If you knew how many times I’d gone hungry because I wouldn’t—wouldn’t do it. Some men buy you a meal and then just expect it of you, but the worst ones set the meal in front of you and then don’t let you take a bite until you’ve kissed them and—and—they’ve had you!” There was a bitterness in her words that chilled Maria Zoë to the bone. The expression of repulsion and hatred on Alys’ face told her that she had paid that price for a meal more than once, but the almost skeletal thinness of her arms spoke of how often she had refused.
“And does your young man know—about the times you had to earn your dinner with more than a song?” she asked softly.
“I—I don’t know.” Alys’ voice was so soft it was almost inaudible. “I’ve told him I don’t want to do it. I’ve told him how hard it is to earn enough by just singing. He saw me all beat up once because a customer wanted me to pay my meal that way and I refused. But, you know, I think he must know that I couldn’t always—that I sometimes didn’t have the strength. . . .”
They were silent for what seemed like a long time, and noises from the street filtered in: a cart on the cobbles, a dog barking, a man offering to grind knives, and a man selling fresh lemons.
Maria Zoё was lost in thought. She was thinking that she had probably never sat beside a whore before, but she did not feel defiled. Indeed, she had far more sympathy with Alys than with Queen Sibylla. Surely, in the eyes of God, a woman’s motives, and her alternatives, must be considered. Christ had set the example by forgiving—not stoning—the woman taken in adultery. “If you married your young man, would you sleep with any other?” She asked.
“Of course not! Why should I?” Alys protested—then, realizing she was speaking to a widow, she added, “Unless I was widowed and wed again, of course.”
“But what if your young man cannot earn much of a living and you are both poor. Wouldn’t you be tempted to supplement your income?”
“Just because we’re poor? No, of course not! My dad was a good saddler, Madame, but we were seven, and there never seemed to be any extra. Most people would have called us poor. I can stand being poor. But—have you ever been hungry, Madame? Really hungry? So hungry it feels like the walls of your stomach are sticking together? I never knew what hunger was until this winter. . . .”
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