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WITH GOOD reason, I supposed that after the Showing we would begin our formal training in the arts of Naamah. And so we were; but not at all as I had imagined.

Delaunay contracted an instructor, the finest instructor one could have in the arts, to be sure. What I hadn't reckoned on was the fact that she was well into her fifties, and all our learning took place in the classroom and not the bedchamber.

In her prime, Cecilie Laveau-Perrin had been an adept of Cereus House; indeed, she had trained under my old mistress, the Dowayne. She was one of the few who had attained the pinnacle of success for a member of the Night Court, attracting sufficient following among peers of the realm that she was able to set up her own household upon making her marque. For seven years, she was the toast of royalty. Peers and poets flocked to her gatherings, and she held her own court, bestowing the favor of her bedchamber at her own choosing; or not at all.

Ultimately, she chose to wed and retired from the haute demimonde. Her choice fell upon Antoine Perrin, Chevalier of the Order of the Swan, a calm and steadfast man who had left his country estates to serve as a military consultant to the King. They lived quietly, entertaining seldom and on a wholly intellectual level. After his untimely death, she maintained this lifestyle. Delaunay, it seemed, was one of few people who knew her from both worlds.

I knew all of this because I eavesdropped upon their meeting when she agreed to take on our instruction. It is not a noble undertaking, but I felt no guilt at it. It was what I was trained to do. Delaunay had taught us: garner knowledge, by any means possible. There was a storeroom off the courtyard where herbs from the garden were hung to dry. If one were small enough, there was space between a cabinet and an open window where one could crouch and overhear almost any conversation taking place in the courtyard. And when the pleasantries were done, Delaunay made his request.

Her voice had retained all its charm, even and mellifluous. I could still hear in it the faint cadences of Cereus House—the attentive pauses, a merest hint of breathiness—but I doubt it would have been evident to an untrained ear. Years of reserve had tempered it.

"What you ask is impossible, Anafiel." I heard a rustle; she shook her head. "You know I have been long retired from the service of Naamah."

"Do you take your pledge so lightly?" His voice countered hers smoothly. "I do not ask you to offer carnal instruction, Cecilie; merely to teach. All the great texts...the Ecstatica, the Journey of Naamah, the Trois Milles Joies ..."

"Would you have me teach the boy 'Antinous's Ode to His Beloved?' " Her voice was light, but I heard for the first time steel in it.

"No!" Delaunay's reply was explosive. When he spoke again, I could tell it was from a different location. He had risen, then, pacing. His voice was under control now and his tone was dry. "To speak that poem aloud is proscibed, Cecilie. You know better than that."

"Yes." She offered the word simply, with no apology. "Why are you doing this?"

"You have to ask, who was the greatest courtesan of our age?" He was too charming; it was not often I heard Delaunay being evasive.

She would have none of it. "That's not what I meant."

"Why. Why, why, why." His voice was moving, he was pacing again. "Why? I will tell you. Because there are places I cannot go and people I cannot reach, Cecilie. In the Court of Chancery, the Exchequer, secretaries with access to the Privy Seal... everywhere the actual business of governing the realm takes place, Isabel's allies bar their doors to me. They cannot be swayed, Cecilie, but they can be seduced. I know their vices, I know their desires. I know how to reach them."

"That much, I know." Her tone was gentle, moderating his. "I have known you for a long time. You've taken me into your confidence, and I know how you think. What I am asking you, Anafiel, is why. Why do you do this?"

There was a long pause, and my muscles began to ache with the strain of crouching in that cramped space. No wind was stirring, and the close air of the storeroom was sweet and pungent with the scents of rosemary and lavender.

"You know why."

It was all he said; I bit my tongue to keep from urging her to question him further. But whatever he meant by it, she understood. She had, as she said, known him a very long time.

"Still?" she asked, kindly; and then, "Ah, but you made a promise. All right, then. I will honor it too, Anafiel, for what it is worth. I will instruct your pupils in the great texts of love—those that are not proscribed—and I will lecture them on the arts of Naamah. If you swear to me that both have entered this service of their own desire, this much I will do."

"I swear it." There was relief in his voice.

"How much do they know?"

"Enough." He grew reserved. "Enough to know what they are about. Not enough to get them killed."

"Isabel L'Envers is dead, Anafiel." She spoke softly, the way one does to a child who fears the darkness. "Do you truly think her grudge lives beyond the grave?"

"It lives in those who obeyed her," he said grimly. "Isabel L'Envers de la Courcel was my enemy, but we knew where we stood with one another. We might even have become allies, when Rolande's daughter was old enough to take the throne. Now, all is changed."

"Mmm." I heard a faint clink as the lip of the wine-jug touched the rim of a glass. "Maslin d'Aiglemort's wound turned septic; he died two days ago, did you hear? Isidore will be sworn in as Duc d'Aiglemort in a fortnight, and he's petitioned the King for another five hundred retainers."

"He'll have his hands full holding the border."

"True." The undertones of Cereus House had given way to a pensive edge in her voice. "Nonetheless, he found time to visit Namarre, and pay tribute to Melisande Shahrizai at her country house there. Now Melisande is seen in the company of Prince Baudoin, and it is said the Lioness of Azzalle is displeased."

"Melisande Shahrizai collects hearts as the royal gardener collects seedlings," Delaunay said dismissively. "Gaspar says Marc will have a word with his son, if it becomes needful."

Another soft clink; a glass being replaced on one of the low tiled tables. I had learned to discern such distinctions, even with a crick in my neck. "Perhaps. But don't underestimate either of them, the Shahrizai or the Lioness. I do not think they make that mistake with each other. And after all, the failure to understand women has been your downfall, Anafiel." I heard the swishing sound of her garments as she rose. "I will come in the morning, and the children's education will commence. Good night, my dear."

I listened to the sounds of their leaving, then squirmed out of my confinement, racing upstairs to tell Alcuin what I had learned.

And, of course, to speculate on what it all meant.

By light of day, Cecilie Laveau-Perrin was tall and slender, with fine bones and pale blue eyes, the color of a new-opened lobelia. It is a funny thing, with adepts of Cereus House, how the underlying steel is revealed in those who do not wither and fade. In this, she reminded me of the Dowayne, but she was younger, and kinder. Still, she was a harsh task-mistress, and set us to read and memorize the first of the great texts of which Delaunay had spoken.

For Alcuin, it was a revelation. I had not understood fully, when we witnessed the Showing, the depth of his naïveteé. Astonishing though it seemed to me, he had no comprehension of the mechanics of the deeds by which one offers homage to Naamah. I, who had never entered the dance, nonetheless knew the steps by heart. Alcuin had only the instincts of his gentle heart and eager flesh, such as any peasant in the field might have.

Later, I understood that this was part of his charm, as Delaunay meant it to be. The unspoiled sweetness that was ever a part of Alcuin was part and parcel of his charm, and irresistably seductive to the oversophisticated palate. But then, I did not understand. I would watch him in the evenings when we studied together, reading with lips parted and wonder suffusing his features. "The caress of winnowed chaff," he would read, murmuring. "Place your hands on the waist of your beloved, drawing them upward slowly, gathering and lifting your beloved's hair so that it floats like chaff above the threshing floor, letting it fall like soft rain. Did you know that, Phèdre?"

"Yes." I gazed into his wide, dark eyes. "They did that at the Showing. Remember?" I had known these things since I was a child, had grown up learning them. It was slowly and surely driving me mad not to practice any of them.

"I remember. The caress of the summer wind." He read the directions aloud, shaking his head in amazement. "Does that really work?"

"I'll show you." If I knew no more than he in practice, I at least had seen these things done. I led him to the floor, where we knelt, facing each other. His features were grave and uncertain. I placed my fingertips lightly on the crown of his head, barely touching his milk-white hair, then drew them slowly down; down the silken fall of his hair, over his shoulders, down his slender arms. My heartbeat quickened as I did it and a strange certainty rose in my blood. I was scarce touching him, fingertips hovering above his pale skin, but where they passed, the fine hair rose on his arms like a wheatfield stirred by the summer wind. "See?"

"Oh!" Alcuin drew back, gazing in awe at his skin, shivered into gooseflesh with subtle pleasure. "You know so much!"

"You are better than I at the things which matter to Delaunay," I said shortly. It was true. As much as I had learned, I could not match the quicksilver facility with which Alcuin observed and recorded. He could remember whole conversations and relate them in their entirety, right down to the speakers' intonations. "Alcuin." I changed my own tone, putting on the murmurous, beguiling inflections of Cereus House that I heard underlying Cecilie's voice. "We could practice, if you like. It would help us both to learn."

Alcuin shook his head with a susurrus of moonlight-colored hair, wide eyes ingenuous. "Delaunay doesn't want us to, Phèdre. You know that."

It was true; Delaunay had made it explicit, and not even the lure of gathered knowledge was enough to tempt Alcuin to disobedience. With a sigh, I returned to my books.

But of course, there was nothing to prevent me from practicing on myself.

It began that night, in the darkness of my little room, which I had all to myself. We were studying the opening caresses of arousement. Throwing off my coverlet to lie naked on my bed, I whispered their names to myself, tracing their patterns on my skin, until my blood burned beneath the touch of my fingers.

And yet I refrained from seeking the release I knew was to be gained, adhering strictly to the lessons we were allotted. I cannot say why, save that it was a torment, and as such, was sweet to me.

Older and wiser than Delaunay in the service of Naamah, Cecilie Laveau-Perrin discerned my predicament. We were reciting Emmeline of Eisande's Log of Seven Hundred Kisses (most of which I was unable to practice by myself) when I felt her shrewd gaze resting upon me and faltered.

"You are impatient with these studies, no?" she asked me.

"No, my lady." Long trained to obedience, my reply was automatic. I raised my eyes to meet her gaze and swallowed. "My lady, I was raised in the Night Court. Had I been allowed to stay, my training would have begun a year gone by. Even now, I might be saving toward my marque; perhaps even paying the marquist to limn the base, if my virgin-price were high enough. Yes, I am impatient."

"So it is money that is the spur which goads you, hmm?" She stroked my hair, smiling a little.

"No." I admitted it softly, leaning into her touch.

"It is Kushiel's Dart which pricks you, then." She waited until I looked up again, nodding, not a little surprised. She had never spoken of it, and no one in Cereus House had known me for what I was. Cecilie laughed. "Anafiel Delaunay is not the only scholar in the world, my sweet, and I have done a fair amount of reading since I left the Court of Night-Blooming Flowers. Never fear, I'll keep Anafiel's secret until he's ready to reveal you. But until that time, there is naught you can do but suffer the torments of your own devising."

A flush of embarrassment suffused my skin.

"There is no fulfillment that is not made sweeter for the prolonging of desire." She patted my burning cheek. "If you wish to improve your skills, use a mirror and a candle, that you may see what you're about and study the lineaments of desire."

That night, I did. By candlelight, I traced the patterns of arousal upon my skin, watching it change and flush, and thought about the fact that Cecilie knew, and Alcuin, and wondered in a delicious frisson of guilt and shame if either had told Delaunay what I did in secret.

So did my education continue.


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