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The handful of coins he held out to her glimmered faintly in the dim light of the lamps. Aldonza sighed inwardly as she counted them. It was enough, of course, and she needed all the coin she could get. She glanced up into his face, so smooth and beardless, with wide brown eyes that looked faintly nervous. Her mouth twisted into a grimace. She hated dealing with boys; they always wanted to prove to their masculinity to their peers, and often the other men would dare them to try things with her body that would leave her aching for days afterwards. But she couldn't refuse him - she had a reputation to maintain after all, a reputation as the easiest woman for miles around. It didn't matter that her joints complained from hours of hard work, or that new bruises were beginning to show from the last man who had paid for her. Reaching out, she snatched up the coins and tucked them into the small purse that lay hidden in her bodice. She jerked her head in the direction of the stables. "Well, come on boy. I'm yours for the night."

The boy nodded and followed her out into the courtyard. A hailstorm of whistles and catcalls met their ears as they emerged. The leering gazes of the other men raked over her body, lingering on her breasts. "Tomás, you sure you can handle her? If not, I could help." "Tomás, get your money's worth!" "Tell me how she is, boy, I might buy her tomorrow."

The boy, Tomás, began to blush faintly, but squared his shoulders and marched towards the stables. Aldonza glared back at the men, but they just laughed coarsely, remarking loudly on her body and her "skills". Disgusted, she turned and followed the boy inside.

The stable was dark, lit only by moonlight that streamed in from a high window. She knew the place all too well, and quickly found the ladder that led to the loft. The pair climbed it, then made their way to a pile of straw in the corner. Aldonza reached behind her back and began to undo her corset; it fell away, leaving her in a nearly sheer chemise. She glanced down at her skirt, considering for a moment. The night was cold, and the one ragged blanket she owned was nearly useless for warmth. The boy ought to be able to use her as he pleased without making her drop her skirts as well. She knelt on the straw and glanced towards the boy, who was staring openly at her curves. Rolling her eyes, she crooked a finger towards him. "Well, come on boy. You only have till dawn, after that I have work to do."

He swallowed hard, then knelt beside her. She leaned back against the straw, trying to ignore the misery she always felt when a man came near her. Arms wrapped around her waist, and she closed her eyes, waiting for him to push up her skirts and get to work. She felt nothing. No hand slipped beneath her waistband, no leg snaked over hers. She opened her eyes and frowned at the boy. He'd curled up beside her, his head lying gently on her breast. "I can't give you any more of an invitation, boy. You've paid me, now take your prize."

He mumbled something, voice muffled against her chest. Annoyed, she sat up and grabbed his chin, forcing him to look at her. "Are you a fool? Do you expect me to show you what to do?"

He shook his head. "No. I know what to do."

His voice was quiet, the pitch of it still high. She pursed her lips and lay back once more, moving her legs apart as he climbed between them. His hands returned to her waist, she felt the weight of his small body on top of her, but he still made no attempt to get beneath her skirts. She glared at him. "Boy, I swear by all that is holy -"

"Please don't make me."

She stopped mid-sentence. "Make you?"

His breath tickled against her chest. "I don't want to hurt you."

For a moment she was shocked, but then her mouth twisted into a cynical smile. "Don't flatter yourself. I've handled far more forceful lovers than you'll ever be. You aren't strong enough to hurt me - you're nothing more than a child."

He was staring at the stable wall as though it were fascinating. "I didn't mean it that way. I just…when the others would come back in the morning, they would brag about everything they'd done to you during the night."

Aldonza felt heat rising to her face, though she couldn't say why. It was common knowledge, what she was and how she earned her living. Hearing it from this boy, though, made her feel an odd sort of shame that she hadn't experienced in a long while. He was still speaking, though his gaze had shifted to the floor. "I heard them, and then I saw you. You move more slowly the morning afterwards, and you wince when none of the men are looking. I know many of the men are telling falsehoods, but I also know that some of what they say they've done has to be true. You're in pain. They hurt you. I don't want that."

She reached for his chin again, though this time less forcefully. "Is that why you hired me? You felt sorry for me?"

He shook his head. "No, not exactly. I wanted to be with you, just not in the same way as them. It's…" he was blushing bright red by this time, "It's different I know, but please - could I just hold you?"

Aldonza nodded slowly, letting the weight of the boy settle back onto her chest. He was shivering slightly from the chill night air, and she wrapped her arms around him for warmth. His hands did not roam along her body, but stayed firmly just above her waist. His breathing slowed, and she felt his muscles relax. She hesitated, then slowly ran a hand through his hair. "Tomás?" she said softly, but he didn't answer - he had already drifted off to sleep. Aldonza stared at the wooden slats of the ceiling, noticing the tiny beams of moonlight that shone through cracks between boards. Her mind was swirling with confused thoughts about the boy in her arms. Why had he paid her, if not to use her? He didn't look like he could spare the money - his clothes were nearly as ragged as hers. He must have saved for weeks to get enough coin to pay for this one night, and yet he took nothing from her in return. It was foolish, that's what it was. He must be a simpleton. She felt herself blushing as she remembered his words about seeing her pain. It was true that the rough-and-tumble men of the inn made no attempts to be gentle with her. She was there to be used, that was all. She looked down at him once more. His expression was calm and contented in sleep, and she guessed his age to be only around fourteen. A breeze drifted through the loft and she pulled him closer, feeling an odd protective instinct. Her back twinged and she suddenly realized how exhausted she was; the day had not been an easy one, not with a whole band of coarse brutes to feed and fend off. Her eyelids fluttered closed, shutting out her surroundings. His warm body heated her and she relaxed beneath his weight. She was asleep seconds after closing her eyes.

The light of dawn woke her, filling the stable with the harsh light of day. She cursed and tried to sit up, but a weight on her chest hindered her. Looking down, she froze as she saw the tousled brown hair of Tomás. He'd lain peacefully in her arms all evening, a faint smile on his lips. Carefully, she slid out from beneath him and retrieved her corset. As she made her way down the ladder she glanced back at him. The rays of the sun danced across his light brown skin, catching in his hair. He looked practically angelic. She shook her head and climbed the rest of the way down. Whatever odd notions went on in the boy’s head, he’d at least provided her with a good night’s rest, and for that she was grateful.

As the stepped, blinking, into the bright light of day, a familiar chorus of whistles and catcalls met her ears. The other men were gathered in the courtyard, preparing for their work, and now regarded her with coarse amusement. “Well, if it isn’t the dainty princess herself, rising so late this morning. Did he tire you out?” “Bet you taught the boy a few tricks, didn’t you, Aldonza?”

"Leave her alone.”

Aldonza looked around in surprise. Tomás had awoken and now stood behind her, his fists clenched as he stared at the men.

One of the men, who seemed to be the ringleader, smiled nastily. "Well, aren’t you cocky? Seems like a night in a whore’s arms has given you new fire. We men just wanted to know how your little adventure went last night, that's all. Care to spill the details? Or maybe she can tell us best - did the puppy run away at the sight of a woman, tail between his legs?"

The others laughed, and Aldonza felt her anger rising. Her eyes narrowed as she glanced around at the men. "It's none of your business what goes on in my bed, and if you don't want the truth of your nights with me spread about, then don't ask about others'." She paused, glancing down at Tomás once more. "I will say this, though. I have never spent the night with a better man than this one here."

Tomás stared at her in shock and she winked at him. Then, moving as casually as if she were going on a stroll, she parted the men and headed towards the inn’s kitchens, leaving the group staring after her. She hoped her assertion wouldn’t get the boy into trouble, but it certainly shut the men up. And it was the truth – no man had ever pleased her as much, and the boy hadn’t even been trying. Yet as she’d held him she’d felt a warmth and comfort like she’d never known steal over her, a feeling she couldn’t place or explain away. He’d asked for something she’d never given before, and turned down the pleasures that had his boorish comrades throwing money at her feet. Now he would leave, go off to some new city or town with his fellows, off to become as crude as they were. She could only hope that he never returned, for if he did, and if he’d changed into a man like the rest of them, she knew she would not be able to stop herself from crying. She couldn’t stand it if the arms that had held her so sweetly became like all the others – she couldn’t stand the thought of hating him. He was not the same as them, that faceless group of men who pawed at her nightly, those wretches who left her bruised and aching even as they boasted how much they’d pleasured her. He was different. She paused, her eyes closed, and sent up a prayer to anyone who might be listening, that no matter what happened in the boy’s hard life he would remain, would always be, different.