Do not cross someone whose title has an adjective in it. That was the humourous rule around the royal court that we all obeyed, but I had no idea how ubiquitous a rule that was until the instigation of recent events. I don’t have much call to be in professional attendance with upper aristocracy often, my humble status as research assistant at the Royal Academy of Social Policy meant I was periodically trotted out every time someone wanted to visit to look generous as they donated and endowment or look studious at some introductory lectures. I even once hosted my husband, Viscount Montegue and a couple of his friends as they investigated our work, but this is usually a rarity.
The other unwritten rule was that obviously you do not disagree with or undermine the statutes drafted by our beloved ruler, His Imperial Majesty King Harold IV. But our department has been known to toe that line somewhat. The following series of events are an assumption based on what the rumour mill of my beloved institution was eager to convey to me.
I released a paper I had been working on throughout my studies and beyond, into the strategies of recruitment used by His Majesty’s navy in their pursuit of continued naval dominance. I meticulously checked every statute and military order and found no formal endorsement of the process of impressment, the forceful and non-consensual recruitment of naval staff. My paper then railed against this evil, as morally repugnant as it was harmful to our long term interests, providing training for a piratical path away from mendicity for the less upstanding members of our society.
The paper was as brave as it was airtight. I worked out to the penny how much money the navy saved through impressment, then worked out how much money it cost to the treasury through losses to pirates, family members turning to a life of crime after they lost a breadwinner, our poorer areas seeing a similar level of economic starvation as an occupied territory regularly raided by an oppressor. The conclusion was that although impressment saved the navy money, it cost the imperial treasury more than it saved.
The Lord High Admiral of His Majesty’s Navy read and took umbrage at my thesis, naturally without a formal order of impressment, he couldn’t back up a claim of treasonous dissent to couldn’t punish me to full effect, but I had certainly earned myself a nemesis, and last I checked, ‘High’ was an adjective.
My place as one of the few female members of the Royal Academy only existed in a concurrence of luck, firstly that my grandfather was one of the founding members of what is now seen as a noble and established institution, secondly that my husband, Viscount Montegue, remains an essential figure in the king’s parliament, and finally that Her Imperial Majesty Queen Isabella makes her approval of feminist decisions very well known to the king, in public and (rumoured to be) in private. So I was certainly not about to be thrown onto the street for doing my job.
Instead it was one passage of my research that The Lord High Admiral latched onto, one throwaway sentence that I gave no wondered to that he decided to utilise to get his revenge. I can picture it now, him kneeling at the king’s and queen’s side, reading aloud from my manuscript.
‘The deplorable effect on the area around the docks is clear for all to see. Families split up, women who lose their fathers or husbands, forced by our complicity to turn to prostitution to survive now their key breadwinner has gone. It is difficult to put the damage done by prostitution into shillings and pounds, but there are some approximations we can use…’
He would then turn to the king and look him in the eye and say.
“Your Imperial Majesty, relieving the suffering of your female subjects has been a noble pursuit of yours.” Pausing for a moment to allow Isabella to squeeze his hand and reassure him that her bountiful rewards will continue to flow. “We have long sought to investigate the horrifying conditions of your most economically and morally impoverished women, and now we find a member of the Royal Academy with knowledge of their situation, and who will not be tempted to fall to their wiles and become a customer of such a tawdry profession. We can finally really investigate how to limit this disgraceful practice without the risk of scandal or betrayal.”
The king would briefly look at his wife to get a nod of approval before issuing the order that now sits on my desk.
‘Viscountess Melody of Montague. We read your most recent paper with great interest and enthusiasm. We are thoroughly impressed by your studious dedication to the prosperous wellbeing of the citizenry of our dominion. We have long wished for a piece of research to be completed, but until now have not had the pleasure to know of someone of eligible professional and moral character to be granted this position of supreme trust. It is our great delight to inform you that we now feel you meet the high standards such research requires and will be rewarded heavily if you turn your wisdom to such a issue.’
‘We give you leave and resources necessary to study the women of this land, forced, whether by circumstance or under duress, into the most disreputable of professions, that of trading away their chaste nature for economic compensation. Please present to us at your earliest convenience, what we can grant you to allow a thorough, hands on investigation of the fallen women of this kingdom.’
The letter ended with an R scrawled in quill ink, the shorthand for ‘Rex’ as the king didn’t have the time or wrist strength to be signing every letter with his full paragraph length name filled with titles and honourifics. Underneath which there was the royal seal pressed into red wax.
“I have to dedicate months of my life to learning about whores.” I sighed to my husband as he too stood in shock at the king’s order. I tried to overcome the revulsion in order to think through my grant request and how to placate my husband that this wouldn’t affect his standing at court.
I stood at the dock, my attache filled with clean parchment and quills. I was flanked either side by military officers, as I had no intention of venturing anywhere near the underbelly of society without an imposing physical presence to deter the criminally minded. I was ready to begin my studies and make the best of a bad situation. I was gonna talk to so many women and learn so much.
On the first day I had to admit I had achieved nothing but looking like a damned fool. The very people I was meant to be learning about shrunk in my presence, so I could only ask probing questions to cagey local people who wanted nothing to do with the scandalous world around them. This was fruitless.
The next day I chose a new part of cheapside and hoped that my prospects would be better if I asked my escorts to dress inconspicuously and stand further back. I even lowered myself to wearing a more common dress so as to blend in. This had the desired effect but too much so in the opposite direction, I was judged with complete irreverence, on many occasions my military escorts had to step in to prevent me being robbed, molested, or in one case (an act of complete irony) impressed into prostitution.
I clearly needed a new strategy, and had an idea when in passing one of the citizens revealed his military background with an overly familiar (and drastically uncouth) greeting to one of my naval escorts.
“What I am proposing is of course indelicate, but I can promise you a handsome reward and complete anonymity.” I asserted with a discomfort that repetition had not yet purged from me. Sat in front of me was the seventh naval private I had asked to make introductions on my behalf, the lower ranks well known to frequent the ladies of the night. “So if you could bring a prostitute here for me to talk to, then I would be most grateful.”
“I bet all my mates ‘ave said no so far?” The brash young man guessed with infuriating accuracy. “That’s coz you’re asking for the wrong thing. Every whore in every port has some bad man keepin’ her on a leash. Every sailor in every port knows you run things by them or you’re not makin’ it back onto the ship. What you need is an introduction to the pimp and if you get the right one in a good mood with a heavy enough purse, then maybe he’ll let you chat to his girls.”
“Well that sounds positively ghastly.” I reacted.
“You ain’t researching rainbows or kittens here, ghastly’s what you’re gonna find. So… can I get a share of that ‘andsome reward if I find the kinda guy you need to talk to?” He posed. I felt faint agreeing to his assessment of the situation and decided to dress up my agreement in formality.
“Private Wayne Cosgrove, if you arrange this meeting, I will indeed give you more than adequate compensation.” I announced.
“Alright moneybags, I’ll find ya something good.”
I don’t know how regular people tell all these public houses aside, we seemed to snake through dozens of them, all identical, before Private Cosgrove lead me to the the right one, the one where the meeting was to take place. If the two military officers accompanying me were nervous, they didn’t show it. I however was shaking like a leaf as we ventured through the entryway, past the bar, and into a back room that my contact had secured for the purpose.
Sitting behind a modest dining table was a singular large man. When I say large, I mean it in every sense of the word. The room looked smaller for having him in it and he comfortably grinned even though he had no guards or backup to speak. He was in control of the situation and he knew it. I had been told locals knew him as Tallboy, I didn’t know he was just as wide.
“Fuck me Wayne, I thought I’d humour whatever prank or scam you were pulling but no kidding this is some kind of nobility here.” He announced, not feeling the need to indulge in formalities even with someone from the aristocracy. “So is it true you want to learn about my whores?”
“Oh, um, yes. In a way.” I stammered, unprepared for his question. “I am charged by the royal commission to learn about the conditions modern women find themselves in, including those who work for you.”
“Alright Wayne, you’ve done your bit, piss off.” He interrupted, I quickly managed to tuck a coin purse in Wayne’s pocket on his way out of the door by way of fulfilling my promise of a finder’s fee. “Alright then, I’ll do it. We both know Wayne’s going to be giving that coin purse to a selection of my girls, so I’ll know what’s in it and my fee will be ten times its contents.”
“Very well.” I replied, happy to have the deal done and hoping to get out of this ogre’s presence as quickly as feasible. “I will make a room available at the royal academy and you are to bring the women there so I can ask them questions.”
“Honey, I’m not usually one to tell people how to do their job, but you’re not going to learn much doing that. They’ll give you plenty of good tips to pleasure the Viscount, but you’re not going to learn how the business works, what we did to hire them, and how we use them, that you can only get from me.” He explained. Every fibre of my being didn’t want to agree with Tallboy, but it seemed like I was being offered insight that would certainly advance my paper. If I wanted to put a financial figure on the burden of prostitution, the man who kept the books would certainly be a good time investment. I grabbed some parchment and began preparing the quill.
“Alright then, let’s start at the beginning, how do you…”
“I’m sorry to interrupt, but I only have the room for the hour, I don’t think an interview will do it. I propose you shadow me for a week and I’ll let you go over everything, you can even interview some whores along the way to get all the angles.” Tallboy’s proposition was intriguing, it certainly would provide some extra-ordinary content.
“Very well, where and when should we begin?”
“I hope you’re using the royal we, I’m not dragging two of your goons everywhere I go, they’ll be bad for business.” He asserted.
“Out of the question. I’m not going to put myself in such a dangerous situation.” I demanded, putting my foot down.
“Don’t get your petticoat in a twist. I will keep you safe.” He tried to reassure.
“I’ve already had one man try to impress me into this degrading life and these two men are the only reason he was unsuccessful.” I explained.
“Alright, for starters forcing girls to work for you is a rookie move. It only takes one military sort with a sympathetic ear and soon him and his mates are kicking down your door with bayonets affixed. Secondly, two military men can testify that you’re going to be with me for the week. If I took advantage of you against your will, my dick wouldn’t even be dry before my neck was in a hangman’s noose. If anything else bad happens to you, my life expectancy will drop equally fantastically. So you can bet I will utilise my extensive resources to protect you like my life depended on it.” He explained.
I didn’t like this man, he seemed too smooth for the roughness implied by his size and way of life. I tried to discover some loophole or way he was wrong, but I had to admit no matter how much resources he had, he would not be able to escape the storm that would come down upon him if I was not returned safe and sound.
“Very well, I will present myself first thing Monday to begin learning from you.” I sighed, batting away the objections of my guardsmen.
“Ain’t nothing gonna be happening Monday morning, come here Monday afternoon ready for an all-nighter.”
On monday afternoon, the streets of the slums were saturated with drizzle, the wet weather barely making a dent in the generations of caked on filth that lined the streets. Tallboy had given me the address of his base of operations, a building as large and intimidating to the surrounding properties as he himself had been in that room, eclipsed only by a nearby church steeple, and even then, only just.
“Welcome to my place of business, I would ask how your journey was, but I know it was smooth as I made sure of it.” He explained, taking me by the arm and leading me deeper into his den of depravity. “So the basement is a bar and casino, not sanctioned or regulated of course. Even though it makes a pretty penny, it’s main job is to get people into the mood to spend big on entertainment, the alcohol lowering inhibitions and the cards getting pulses racing, if one of my whores isn’t on the street drumming up business, she’s down there giving the high rollers something to spend their money on.”
He led me up the stairs passing by several floors.
“Each of these floors is lined with rooms for use with the Johns, each with a water closet at the end to keep things clean. We actually have a pipeline to the docks so the whore piss and shit isn’t stinking up the building and near constant trips to the nearby well pump to fetch cleaning water. Now let me show you the most valuable asset in this building.”
Tallboy kept leading me higher and higher, despite his course language, he was at least decent enough to lead the way to assuage any fears that he would try to look up my dress. Eventually I reached the top of a lighthouse like tower, only instead of the requisite bulb, there was a man sat on a chair, staring at the horizon through binoculars.
“This is Ernie, and I would bet that his knowledge of the ships of the Royal Navy would rival that of its most decorated admirals. From this vantage point he can see any and all ships coming in and I can adjust my business plans accordingly. How’s it going Ernie?”
“Couple of merchant clippers on the horizon, no need for added measures.” He reported.
“So all my girls live in the building, but day to day there’s only about half to three quarters out on the game. However if something big crests the horizon, I can cancel the girl’s days off at the drop of a hat. Your small timers may be at capacity every day, only I can scale up with demand.” Tallboy explained
“When does Ernie take a break?” I asked, my voice dripping with concern for the help.
“Nightfall, he can’t see much on the ocean when the sun is down. I tell you in the winter Ernie has the cushiest job in the kingdom. Sometimes he conjures up old navy friends to cover shifts when he has stuff to take care of, but none are quite as good as him. He can tell to the soul how many men are stepping off at port just by looking at the ships, he can even read the semaphore they send out to the dockhands telling them how long they are planning to make port.”
“And I assume he is adequately compensated?” I asked.
“Second highest paid in the building besides yours truly.” Tallboy informed.
Tallboy led me back downstairs and as we descended I saw something I really should have been more prepared for, a prostitute, a real life working girl in the flesh. I stood with my mouth agape at the presence ahead of me. To call what she was wearing a dress would be akin to calling a castle a stronghold after it had just been invaded and set on fire. It was a formal enough dress, fancier than the common coverings you would spot in the street, but the bust was cut so low I could practically see the poor woman’s nipples. Her skirt was of a fabulous length at the back and sides, but at the front it was cut much shorter so the poor woman’s thighs were on show as were the base of her bloomers. She had all the trappings of formality, but all the sultry alterations to leave all in no doubt that her body was for sale.
We let the poor woman walk in front with an air of professional responsibility as we followed her to the seedy basement. No sooner had the door opened then I was hit with a blast of tobacco smoke and flurry of vibrant noise. Boisterous men sang drinking songs, while others cheered and gasped with the fickle charms of lady luck. All the while, women circulated; sitting on laps, fetching drinks, ingratiating themselves with the good times that were flowing.
“Would you like to grab yourself a drink?” Tallboy asked me.
“No thank you, I am not here for recreation, I’m here for professional observation.” I curtly replied, hoping my stern voice would hide my awe at such raw hedonism on display. I lost track of time just sitting in the corner observing the dance of depravity before me.
“So if you want to talk to one of my girls, it’s a quiet night so I don’t mind you taking some of the spares to have a chat. How about Ivy over there” Tallboy told me, breaking me out of my stupor. I looked around to the woman he pointed out, a tall, older woman, who seemed currently unbothered. I asked her if we could have a chat. She looked at Tallboy who gave her a subtle nod to suggest she wouldn’t get in trouble for indulging my curiosity instead of servicing Johns.
As we stepped out of the basement to get some quiet to conduct an interview, we stepped into a whole different world of depravity. The walls of the building were clearly very thin, and echoing throughout the halls were the sounds of ubiquitous passionate lovemaking. I could hear every bump, every moan, every wail. I could hear screams with no sense of whether they were from pain or pleasure. Occasionally I would make out a voice yelling ‘take my cock you dirty whore!’ or even ‘yeah, fuck me harder’ from the working girl.
It was some time before I realised I was stood in a stupor, my supposed interviewee looking at me with confused expectation.
“Is it always this loud?” I squeaked.
“Oh that, you get used to it. During AHOD I had a nap in the same room as a man ploughing my friend.” Ivy noted as if such an indelicate sentence were ordinary to grace the mouth of a young woman.
“What’s AHOD?” I asked by way of a follow up question, my attention still not entirely drawn from the beastly sounds of violation that filled the air.