The Fortunes of Virtue

The farmboy Justin slips away at night and takes to the roads, heading toward the city, dreaming of skilled work, guild work. He dreams of adventure, of love, of riches untold, but most strongly of being something better and rarer and more interesting than he was before. He longs for tight alleyways, the crush of pubs, the splendors of the public baths: city life!

Life in the city is hard and lonely at first. He gets a job in a factory and it’s grim, repetitive work. The pubs take his money and repay him in headaches and a throat scraped raw. He lives in a room with five other refugees from the farms; they mostly talk about being homesick and how much money they’re sending back to their sainted mothers. He gets fired from his job, and thrown out onto the street. In desperation, he returns to the baths, where hands clever from the bobbins can make money in other ways.

His skills grow legendary; he spends less than a month in the baths before finding a room of his own—all his!—in the factory district; less than a year in the factory district before buying a house of his own in the merchant quarter; less than five before buying a mansion in the hills. Those who know, know, and shower him with wealth, furs, jewelry; the mansion fills with fountains and music and highly polished discretion.


Lions haunt the seven long over the fields of Harbona. It has been a century and more since the last long feline summer closed — not in blood, or in fear, but in a quiet dusty corner deep in some nameless alley on the north end of town. Control came and cleared away the mouldering heap, mane ratted straw, just one more troublesome body to dispose of; it was only in retrospect that let those who cared pin it as the last big cat the city had seen.

Nowadays it’s only blunt-toothed predators that sit yawning on an August stoop. The Parsimonious Kid and his punk lie sun-mazed, twined together, scabby legs and rotten shorts, teeth browned and foul smelling, fingers stained with tobacco and iodine. The punk is playing with a knife, flicking it open and closed, open and closed. His palms are stiff with the egg white of scars.

Pars levers them off the concrete when the sun threatens to disappear behind the buildings. “C’mon,” he growls, and the punk trails viciously in his wake, innocent of nothing except thought.

Later, in the flat, unmoving midnight light, their hands brush together in the steaming viscera of their latest mark. The Kid sneers at his punk, and the punk stares back, ghosts both, desperate for some piece of life, however found, ghosts and lions both.

Boaz’s Field

In all truth Judith regrets coming to Boaz’s Field. The planet prides itself on its moral rectitude, or, well, not prides itself, exactly, more just exists in moral rectitude without even the drama of talking about it. Business is slow, dead slow; they don’t hound her, or hassle her, or do anything really other than ignore her. Sex, drugs, alcohol, vice: she tries them all, and there’s a tiny trickle of looky-loos and kids who come once for a laugh and then disappear again. She’s barely scraping by, and what’s worse: she’s bored.

One of the girls comes to her. “Ma’am I’m thinking about heading out,” Ruth says, which is unprecedented.

“Getting married?” Judith asks, which would at least be historically apt.

“No ma’am not me. Just time to try something else, I figure. This has been interesting and all, but I guess there doesn’t seem much in the way of advancement possibilities, if you follow me.”

“Sad to see you go,” she says. “Do you need anything? Ticket offworld, anything like that?”

“Thank you kindly, very generous of you I’m sure, but no, no, I think I’ve got everything I need.” Ruth barely stifles a yawn and smiles sheepishly on her way out the door.

It’s the yawn that does it: within a month Judith has sold everything, paid out her contracts, and bought a ticket somewhere, anywhere else. There are no crowds at the port when she leaves; no one mourns or celebrates her leaving, which is just damn frustrating.


Judith was running a down-at-the-heels jewelry store-cum-pawnshop in the largest city on Haman, which wasn’t saying much. It wouldn’t have been so much as spit in the ocean back home, but she was doing all right. Mostly she was honest, these days, or at least as honest as Haman demanded, though she had a profitable little sideline in fencing.

She was scrupulously fair, and they knew it, and she let her yes be yes and her no be no, and so she had less trouble than she might have otherwise. She underpaid them — fence’s fee — but didn’t gouge them too much. She kept a pot of beans at the boil throughout the long winter nights ready against any smash thief or boxersman that came in.

The wind brought two rail bums to her on an unsettled autumn night. “Hey, Jude,” said the older one, the Parsimonious Kid.

“Hey, Pars. Help y’self to some beans.” They ate in silence until their faces lost something of that lean, hunted look. “Who’s the suckling?”

“Just some punk I picked up out of Harbona. He’s all right. Say hi, punk.”


“He got a name?”

“Nah, he ain’t earned one yet. We thought we’d come here, get the lay of the land, see what there was to do.”

The punk had a vicious, dull cast to his face; he was born to go blood simple. She marked him down, and gave Pars no better than even odds to be dragged down with him. Neither need fear drowning.


On Holofernes Judith sets herself up as a madame and does very well, all things considered. It’s a beast of a job, but she runs an honest house and keeps everyone clean and more or less healthy. The wealthy sons find her and word gets around and almost overnight she’s become a power in the city, recognized if not spoken to, courted in a sly way by the powerful and those who would be powerful. She doesn’t take it very seriously – in the back of her mind is always that return ticket – but she plays the game and spreads her wings in a modest way over the rest of the district.

Things go sour sooner rather than later, there’s a backlash or a moral crusade or a reform movement or something, and just like that she’s back where she was or worse, rocks thrown through her windows, her girls beaten black and blue or worse, filthy fucking whore sprayed over the front of her largest house (which to be honest she finds more hilarious than anything, because of course) but finally they set fire to her house and she decides to pull up stakes. She calls the girls together for one last meeting.

“My dears,” she says, still smudged with smoke, “we had a good run but it’s over. You’ve all been priceless, and any place in town will be more than lucky to have you. Any one looking to get out of the life will find she has more than enough to set herself up in a modest way in any city on half a dozen planets.”

Miriam raises her hand. “Pardon me I’m sure, ma’am, but where are you going and can we go with you?”

Judith shakes her head, a little sadly. “No, my love, no. It’s a long road I’ve yet to travel, and years and worlds yet to go, but thank you for the offer. I will carry you with me.”

And then she’s gone, the dust of Holofernes scattered behind her, one more bright point in a sea of bright points, dwindling, disappearing, gone.