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I HAVE never known Delaunay to fuss over his appearance—though he always looked the height of elegance—but the day of the triumph, he stewed over his attire like an adept with a prospective lover, settling at length upon a doublet and hosen of sober black velvet against which his braided hair lay like a twist of auburn flame.

"Why is it so important, my lord?" I asked, adjusting the pomander that hung from his belt. Delaunay had his own valet, of course, but on special occasions he allowed me to oversee the details. One did not grow up in Cereus House without acquiring a keen eye and nimble fingers for such niceties.

"For Cecilie, of course." He gave me his broad grin, always unexpected and thrilling. "She's not held a gathering such as this since before Antoine died. I've no wish to embarrass her."

He had loved her, then; I'd suspected it had been so in the old days. Delaunay had had mistresses aplenty in the five years I'd been in his household, that was nothing new. Many a time I had heard them after the other guests had gone; Delaunay's low voice, and the thrill of a woman's laughter. I felt no threat from them. In the end, they left, while I stayed.

Alcuin was another matter, of course, but this... this touched me, in truth, his devotion to a mistress who had long ago been one of the brightest blossoms in the Court of Night-Blooming Flowers. My eyes pricked with moisture, and I inhaled of the pomander with its sweet-sharp scent of beeswax and cloves to hide it, pressing my cheek to his velveted knee.

"Phèdre." Delaunay's hands drew me to my feet and I blinked up at him. "You will be a credit to my house, as ever. But remember this is Alcuin's debut, and be gracious." He broke out his infectious smile. "Come, then; shall we summon him for inspection?"

"Yes, my lord," I murmured, doing my best to sound gracious.

I would have guessed, if asked, that Delaunay would have attired Alcuin like a prince. I would have been wrong. It was ever easy to underrate his subtlety. We were gathering to watch a royal triumph; Cecilie's guests would see nobles by the score, decked out in their finest trumpery. If Alcuin looked anything close to royalty, it was as the King's stableboy.

So I thought at first glance.

Upon second glance, I saw that his white shirt was not canvas but cambric, the linen spun so fine one could barely see the weave, and what I had taken for buckram hose were breeches of moleskin. His knee-high boots were black leather, shined until they gave back reflections.

His remarkable hair simply hung loose, brushed into a shining river of ivory. It spilled over his shoulders and down his back, accenting a face that had emerged from adolescence with all its grave, shy beauty intact, from which Alcuin viewed the world out of dark and solemn eyes. Delaunay was a genius. Somehow the rustic garb—or elegant replication of it—served to point up all the more Alcuin's otherworldly charm.

"Very nice," Delaunay said. I heard satisfaction and maybe something else in his voice.

Be gracious, I thought to myself; after all, he is allowing you to attend. "You look beautiful," I told Alcuin sincerely; he did.

"So do you!" He grasped my hands, smiling, not a trace of envy in him. "Oh, Phèdre..."

I drew back a little, returning his smile with a shake of my head. "It is your night tonight, Alcuin. Mine will come."

"Soon, or you'll drive us to distraction," Delaunay said humorously. "Come on, then. The coach is waiting."

The house of Cecilie Laveau-Perrin was larger than Delaunay's, and closer to the Palace. We were met at the door by a liveried footman, who escorted us up a broad, winding staircase. The whole of the third story was designed for entertaining; an open plan with high ceilings, containing a long table set with silver and white linen, a parlour that combined comfort and elegance, giving way to the parquet floor of the ballroom. Arched doors opened from the dance floor onto the balcony, which overlooked the route of the triumph. A quartet played a stately air on a dais in the corner, largely ignored. Despite the chill, for it was still winter, those guests who had already arrived were clustered on the balcony.

"Anafiel!" With the unerring instincts that had given renown to her hospitality, Cecilie marked the precise moment of our arrival and swept through the doors to greet us. "How good to see you."

For all the hours I had spent under her tutelage, it was only then that I discerned the magnitude of her allure. Not all adepts of the Night Court weather the passing of youth with grace; Cecilie had succeeded. If her golden hair was dimmed with grey, it but made more youthful hues seem garish, and the fine lines about her eyes were the marks of care and wisdom.

"You are a vision," Delaunay said fondly.

She laughed, free and charming. "You still lie like a poet, Anafiel. Come, Alcuin, let me see you." With a critical eye, she adjusted his collar, letting it fall open to reveal the tender hollow at the base of his throat. "There." She patted his cheek. "The triumph has just left the Palace, there's time yet to meet my guests. You know you've only to say, if you've no wish to go through with this?"

"I know." Alcuin gave her his most serene smile.

"Good, then. You need only whisper it to me, or shake your head." She turned to me. "Phèdre..." With a shake of her own head, she set her diamond earrings to trembling, scintillating in the light. "Beware of setting brushfires, my dear."

I murmured some acquiesence, thinking it an odd comment, but fully half my attention was already on the balcony, where in moments I would meet, at last, men and women who might soon number among my own patrons. I might not shine as Alcuin did this day—Delaunay had chosen for my attire an exceedingly simple gown of dark-brown velvet with a caul of silk mesh that held my abundant locks in restraint—but I had no mind to be overlooked, either.

Our entrance created a small stir. The guests were hand-picked by Cecilie, who moved in circles that overlapped, but did not overlay, Delaunay's. Some of them, such as Gaspar Trevalion, Comte de Fourcay, were friends of his.

Others were not.

I watched their faces when we were announced and saw who smiled, whose gazes slid away to make contact with others, communicating silently. These were the ones, ultimately, to be sought. Anyone with sufficient coin could pay the contract fee and put money toward my marque, but money was never what Delaunay sought. We were an investment of a different kind.

It was not long before I saw why Delaunay had allowed me to come. Alcuin moved among the scions of Elua like a stableboy-prince, drawing stares, and where he went, I heard the whisper of rumor follow. ". . . Servant of Naamah..." and "...eve of his birthday..." Delaunay and Cecilie had something planned; of that I had no doubt, nor did the guests.

But while Delaunay mingled, conversing smoothly, and Alcuin found himself at the center of attention covert and overt alike, I was able to remain quiet on the fringes, watching and listening.

"Anafiel Delaunay sets his traps with interesting bait."

The amused comment of a tall man with dark hair in a tight braid and the hooded eyes of a bird of prey caught my ear. Lord Childric d'Essoms, I remembered, of the Court of Chancery. He spoke to a slight man in dark blue, whose name I had not heard.

"You are intrigued?" His companion raised his eyebrows. D'Essoms laughed, shaking his sleek head.

"My taste is for spices, and not sweets. But it is interesting to note, no?"

Yes, I thought, filing the comment away in my memory as Delaunay had taught me. It is interesting to note your interest, my lord, and your tastes as well.

The two men parted and I followed the smaller, straining to overhear as a tall woman with an elaborate headdress greeted him by name, but just then the trumpets sounded and someone cried out that the triumph was approaching. Everyone crowded to the edge of the balcony. I had lost sight of Delaunay and Cecilie, and was trapped behind the press of bodies. For a moment it seemed that my view of the royal triumph would consist of the brocaded and silk-swathed backsides of Cecilie's guests; then a portly gentleman with a grey beard and a gentle smile took note, and made room for me at the parapet. Thanking him, I gripped the stone and leaned over to see.

Every terrace along the route was crowded with people, and there were crowds lining the street. The triumph approached at a distance, shining under the weak winter sun, announced by the brazen call of trumpets. A detachment of the Palace Guard rode ahead, pressing the spectators back against the buildings. Behind them came the standard-bearer, riding alone. We were near enough that I could make out faces, and his was young, stern and handsome. He gripped the haft firmly, and the standard snapped in the air below us, a golden lily on a field of rich green surrounded by seven golden stars: the sign of Blessed Elua and his Companions, emblem of Terre d'Ange.

After the standard-bearer came another row of guards, and then Ganelon de la Courcel, scion of Elua, King of Terre d'Ange.

I had known the King was elderly, but still it surprised me to see it. Though his carriage in the saddle was straight and tall, his hair and beard were almost completely white and his fierce eyes were set in hollows, partially overhung by grizzled white brows. At his side rode Ysandre de la Courcel, his granddaughter, Dauphine and heir to the throne of Terre d'Ange.

If this were an allegory play, they might have represented the Old Winter and New Spring, for Ysandre de la Courcel was as fresh and beautiful as the first day of spring. She rode sidesaddle on her dappled courser, clad in a gown the color of the first shoots of the crocus to poke through the cold earth, with a cloak of royal purple over it. A simple gold fillet bound her flowing hair, which was of the palest blonde, and her face was youthful and fair.

On the street, D'Angelines hailed her with affectionate cries, but on the balcony, I detected a murmurous undertone. Ysandre de la Courcel was young, beloved and beautiful, heir to a kingdom; and notably unwed, neither betrothed nor promised. Though her face betrayed nothing, she had to be aware of the undertone, I thought, watching from above. Surely it must follow her everywhere she went. The emblem of de la Courcel, the House Royal, flew beside them; lower than the flag of Terre d'Ange, but preceeding all others, as was custom. A silver swan on a field of midnight blue, the small party gathered beneath it made it look somehow forlorn. Ganelon de la Courcel's line ended with Ysandre. His only son was dead, and his only brother, Prince Benedicte, had wed into the ruling Caerdicci family in La Serenissima to a woman who gave him only daughters.

All these things, of course, I knew; yet somehow seeing it made it so. On that balcony, surrounded by murmurs, I watched the elderly King and the young Dauphine—no older than I myself—and I felt around me the eddies of hunger centered on a precariously held throne.

And behind the King rode his sister and her husband, the Princess Lyonette and her Duc, Marc de Trevalion. The Lioness of Azzalle looked indulgently pleased; the Duc's face was unreadable. Three ships and the Navigators' Star flew on their standard, and under these arms too rode their impetuous son. I could hear the chant rising up from the street as they passed; "Bau-doin! Bau-doin!"

He was little changed from the young lord who had stolen the role of the Sun Prince five years past. A little older, perhaps; in the prime of his youth, rather than entering the threshold, but the wild gleam in his sea-grey eyes was the same. A chosen cadre of Glory-Seekers, the personal guard to which he was entitled as a Prince of the Blood, surrounded him loosely. They took up the chant too, shouting his name, raising their swords to catch the light.

And at his side, composed and serene, rode Melisande Shahrizai, Baudoin's delight, and the single thorn in the side of the Lionesse of Azzalle. Her raven hair fell in ripples, gleaming like black water in moonlight, and her beauty made the young Dauphine who preceded them look pallid and unfinished. It was only the second time I had seen her, but even at a distance, I shuddered.

"Well, that's clear enough," murmured the portly gentleman who had made room for me. His voice held a faint accent. I wanted to turn to look at his face, but I was pressed too tight against the stone parapet to do it with any subtlety.

A lone rider followed the company of House Trevalion bearing the standard of the Province of Camlach, a blazing sword on a sable field. It had a sobering effect on the gathered crowds, reminding us all that battle was the cause of the day.

"If d'Aiglemort had asked them to ride under his banner," a woman's voice said softly somewhere near me, "they would have acknowledged his right."

"Do you say he's politic enough to be dangerous?" The man who answered her sounded amused. "The scions of Camael think with their swords."

"Give thanks to Blessed Elua that they do," someone else said sharply. "For I've no wish to become part of Skaldi tribal holdings."

The Allies of Camlach made an impressive array, and whatever rights he may have ceded, the young Duc d'Aiglemort rode square in their midst. I counted the banners, putting faces to the names Delaunay had made me memorize. Ferraut, Montchapetre, Valliers, Basilisque; all the great holdings of Camlach. Hardened warriors, most of them, lean and keen-eyed. Isidore d'Aiglemort stood out among them, glittering like the silver eagle on his standard. His eyes were dark and merciless, and as his gaze swept over the crowds, I remembered where I had seen them. He had been the man in the jaguarondi mask at the Midwinter fête.

"He would be interesting to put to the test," another woman mused languidly.

"So would a mountain lion," one of the men who had spoken before answered tartly, "but I don't recommend taking one to bed!" I ignored the ensuing laughter, watching the Allies of Camlach pass. Even represented by a symbolic few—the bulk of their forces remained in Camlach securing the regained border—they made for a powerful assemblage. Azzalle and Camlach bracketed the realm to the west and east. The popular acclaim accorded Baudoin de Trevalion in combination with the might represented by the Allies of Camlach sent a message that was, indeed, frightening in its lack of subtlety.

After the Camlach host came the train of spoils, loot seized in battle. Arms aplenty were displayed, and I shivered at the massive battle-axes. The Skaldi are mighty poets—I know, having studied their tongue long enough—but their songs are all of blood and iron. And those whom they defeat, they enslave. We D'Angelines are civilized. Even one sold into debt-bondage, as I was, has the eventual hope of purchasing freedom.

At length the baggage train too passed, and Cecilie's guests began to move back into the house. I turned about to see the smiling face of the bearded man behind me. His features were distinctly un-D'Angeline. Recalling the trace of an accent, I marked him as Aragonian.

"You are of the household of Anafiel Delaunay, I think. Did you enjoy the parade?" he asked me kindly.

"Yes, my lord." I had no idea of his status, but the response was automatic. He laughed.

"I am Gonzago de Escabares, and no lord, but a sometime historian. Come, give me your name, and let us go inside together."

"Phèdre," I told him.

"Ah." He clucked his tongue and held out his arm. "An unlucky name, child. I will be your friend, then, for the ancient Hellenes said a good friend may stand between a man and his moira. Do you know what that means?"

"Fate." I answered unthinking, for Delaunay had specified that neither Alcuin nor I were to betray the extent of our learning without his approval. But a connection had formed in my mind, the linkage surfacing. "You were one of his teachers, at the University in Tiberium."

"Indeed." He made me a courtly little bow, with a click of his heels. "I have since retired, and travel at leisure to see the places of which I so long have spoken. But I had the privilege of teaching your... your Delaunay, he and his..."

"Maestro!" Delaunay's voice, ringing with unalloyed pleasure, interrupted us as we entered the ballroom. He crossed the floor in great strides, beaming, embracing the older man with great affection. "Cecilie didn't tell me you would be here."

Gonzago de Escabares wheezed at his embrace, thumping Delaunay's back. "Ah, Anafiel my boy, I am old, and allow myself one luxury. Where the crux of history turns, I may be there to watch it grind. If it turns in Terre d'Ange, so much the better, where I may surround my aging form with such beauty." He patted Delaunay on the cheek, smiling. "You have lost none of yours, young Antinous."

"You flatter me, Maestro." Delaunay took de Escabares' hands in his, but there was a reserved quality to his smile. "I must remind you, though..."

"Ah!" The Aragonian professor's expression changed, growing sharper and sadder. "Yes, of course, forgive me. But it is good to see you, Anafiel. Very good."

"It is." Delaunay smiled again, meaning it. "May we speak, later? There is someone I wish Phèdre to meet."

"Of course, of course." He patted my shoulder with the same indulgent affection. "Go, child, and enjoy yourself. This is no time to waste on aging pedants."

Delaunay laughed and shook his head, leading me away.

Silently, I cursed his timing, but aloud, I merely asked, "He taught you at the University?"

"The Tiberians collect scholars the way they used to amass empires," Delaunay said absently. "Maestro Gonzago was one of the best."

Yes, my lord, I thought, and he called you Anafiel, and Antinous, which is a name from the title of a poem which is proscribed, but he stumbled once over the name Delaunay, which Hyacinthe says is not truly yours, and he might have told me a great deal more had you not intervened, so while I do as you say, be mindful that I do also as you have taught.

But these things I kept silent, and followed obediently as he turned in a way that caused me to bump into a blonde woman with aquiline features, who turned about with a sharp exclamation.

"Phèdre!" Delaunay's voice held a chastising note. "Solaine, I am sorry. This is Phèdre's first such gathering. Phèdre, this is the Marquise Solaine Belfours, to whom you will apologize."

"You might let the girl speak for herself, Delaunay." Her voice held irritation; Solaine Belfours had no great love for Delaunay, and I marked it well, even as I cast an annoyed glance at him for placing me in this position. The collision was of his manufacturing; no child was trained in Cereus House without learning to move gracefully and unobtrusively through a crowd.

"The Marquise is a secretary of the Privy Seal," Delaunay remarked casually, placing a hand on my shoulder, letting me know the import of her position.

He wanted contrition from me, I knew; but while Delaunay may have known his targets and their weaknesses, he was not what I was. What I knew was born in the blood.

"Sorry," I muttered with ill grace, and glanced sullenly up at her, feeling the thrill of defiance deep in my bones. Her blue-green eyes grew cold and her mouth hardened.

"Your charge needs a lesson, Delaunay." She turned away abruptly, stalking across the ballroom. I looked at Delaunay to see his brows arched with uncertainty and surprise.

Beware of setting brushfires, Cecilie had said. Her comment made more sense to me now, although I did not of a necessity agree with it. I shrugged Delaunay's hand off my shoulder. "Tend to Alcuin, my lord. I am well enough on my own."

"Too well, perhaps." He laughed ruefully and shook his head. "Stay out of trouble, Phèdre. I've enough to deal with this night."

"Of course, my lord." I smiled impudently at him. With another despairing shake of his head, he left me.

Left to my own devices, I daresay I did well enough. Several of the guests had brought companions and we made acquaintance. There was a slight, dark youth from Eglantine House whose quick grin reminded me of Hyacinthe. He did a tumbling dance alone with hoops and ribbons, and everyone applauded him. His patron, Lord Chavaise, smiled with pride. And there was Mierette, from Orchis House, who had made her marque and kept her own salon now. Steeped in the gaiety for which her house was renowned, she brought laughter and a sense of sunlight with her, and where she went, I saw pleasure and merriment light people's faces.

Many of them, though, eyed Alcuin, who moved through the gathering oblivious to it all, serene and dark-eyed. I watched their faces and marked that among them all, one stood out. I knew him, for Vitale Bouvarre was an acquaintance of Delaunay's; not a friend, I think, but he had been a guest at Delaunay's house. He was a trader, of common stock—indeed, it was rumored there was Caerdicci blood in his lineage—but an excessively wealthy one, by virtue of an exclusive charter with the Stregazza family in La Serenissima.

His gaze followed Alcuin and his face was sick with desire.

When the last rays of sun had gone and darkness filled the long windows around the balcony, Cecilie clapped her hands and summoned us to dine. No fewer than twenty-seven guests were arrayed about the long table, ushered to our seats by solicitous servants clad in spotless white attire. Dishes came in an unceasing stream, soups and terrines followed by pigeon en daube, a rack of lamb, sallets and greens and a dish of white turnips whipped to a froth which everyone pronounced a delight of rustic sophistication, and all the while rivers of wine poured from chilled jugs into glasses only half-empty.

"A toast!" Cecilie cried, when the last dish—a dessert of winter apples baked in muscat wine and spiced with cloves—had been cleared. She lifted her glass and waited for silence. She had the gift, still, of commanding attention; the table fell quiet. "To the safety of our borders," she said, letting the words fall in a soft voice. "To the safety and well-being of blessed Terre d'Ange."

A murmurous accord sounded the length of the table; this was one point on which each of us agreed. I drank with a willing heart, and saw no one who did not do the same.

"Thelesis," Cecilie said in the same soft voice.

Near the head of the table, a woman rose.

She was small and dark and not, I thought, a great beauty. Her features were unremarkable, and her best asset, luminous dark eyes, were offset by a low brow.

And then she spoke.

There are many kinds of beauty. We are D'Angeline.

"Beneath the golden balm," she said aloud, simply, and her voice filled every corner of the room, imbued with golden light. "Settling on the fields/Evening steals in calm/And farmers count their yields." So simple, her lyric; and yet I saw it, saw it all. She offered the words up unadorned, plain and lovely. "The bee is in the lavender/The honey fills the comb," and then her voice changed to something still and lonely. "But here a rain falls never-ending/And I am far from home."

Everyone knows the words to The Exile's Lament. It was written by Thelesis de Mornay when she was twenty-three years old and living in exile on the rain-swept coast of Alba. I myself had heard it a dozen times over, and recited it at more than one tutor's behest. Still, hearing it now, tears filled my eyes. We were D'Angeline, bred and bound to this land which Blessed Elua loved so well he shed his blood for it.

In the silence that followed, Thelesis de Mornay took her seat. Cecilie kept her glass raised.

"My lords and ladies," she said in her gentle voice, marked by the cadences of Cereus House. "Let it never be forgotten what we are." With a solemn air, she lifted her glass and tipped it, spilling a libation. "Elua have mercy on us." Her solemnity caught us all, and many followed suit. I did, and saw Delaunay and Alcuin did as well. Then Cecilie looked up again, a mischievous light in her eyes. "And now," she declared, "Let the games begin! Kottabos!"

Amid shouts of laughter, we retired to the parlour, united by love of our country and Cecilie's conviviality. Her servants had prudently removed the carpet, and in its place was a silver floorstand. Standing on tripodal legs, it pierced and held a broad silver crater, polished to mirror-brightness. Chased figures around the rim depicted a D'Angeline drinking party, àla Hellene. D'Angelines regard the Golden Era of Hellas as the last great civilization before the coming of Elua, which is why such things never go out of style.

Spiring out of the center of the crater, the stand rose to some four feet and terminated. Balanced atop its finial was the silver disk of the plastinx. Cecilie's servants circulated with wine-jugs and fresh cups; shallow silver wine-bowls with ornate handles.

To get to the lees, of course, one must drink what is poured, and although I had been prudent in my drinking, I felt it warm my blood as I emptied my cup. It is an art which must be practiced, twirling the handle about one's finger, flinging the last drops of wine in such a way that they strike the plastinx, knocking it into the crater so that it sounds like a cymbal.

When I took my turn, five or six others had gone before me, and while some had hit the plastinx, none had knocked it off the shaft. I did not even do so well as that, but Thelesis de Mornay smiled kindly at me. Cecilie succeeded to much applause, but the plastinx rattled against the edge before dropping into the bowl of the crater. Lord Childric d'Essoms spun his cup so fast that the dregs of his wine flew like a bolt from a crossbow, knocking the plastinx clear off the shaft and onto the floor. Everyone cheered and laughed, though it didn't count. Mierette of Orchis House rang the bowl, and Gaspar, Comte de Fourcay, and to everyone's surprise, Gonzago de Escabares, who smiled into his beard.

Alcuin, who shared a couch with a tall woman in a headdress, fared worse than I and only spattered wine about. His companion raised his fingers to her lips and sucked droplets of wine from them. Alcuin blushed. Vitale Bouvarre was sufficiently unsettled that he let go the handle of his cup and threw it with his wine. The plastinx dropped into the basin, but it was not counted a legal shot.

When Delaunay took his turn—and somehow it fell out that he went last—he looked calm and collected, austere in his black velvet attire. Reclining on one of the couches and leaning on one arm, he spun the cup and let fly his lees with an elegant motion.

His aim was unerring and the silver plastinx toppled neatly into the basin, which rang like a chime. Not everyone applauded, I noted, but those who did, did so loudly, proclaiming him the victor.

"A forfeit, a forfeit!" Mierette cried, flushed and gorgeous on her couch. "Messire Delaunay claims a forfeit from the hostess!"

Cecilie acknowledged it, laughing. "What will you have, Anafiel?" she asked teasingly.

Delaunay smiled and went over to her. Bending down, he claimed a kiss—a sweet one, I thought—and whispered in her ear. Cecilie laughed again, and Delaunay went back to his couch.

"I am minded to grant this claim," Cecilie said archly. "At the stroke of midnight, Alcuin noé Delaunay, who is dedicated to Naamah, will gain sixteen years of age. The holder of his marque asks that we hold an auction for his virgin-price. Is anyone here minded to object?"

You may be sure, no one objected, and as if on cue—indeed, I am sure they planned it, Delaunay and Cecilie—the distant voice of a horologist crying midnight in the square filtered through the balcony windows into the waiting silence. Cecilie raised her glass.

"Let it be so! I declare the bidding open!"

In one smooth, graceful motion, Alcuin rose from his couch and stood before us, holding his hands out open and turning slowly. I have seen a hundred adepts of the First of the Thirteen Houses on display, and I have never seen anyone who matched his dignity in it.

Childric d'Essoms, who claimed no interest in Delaunay's bait, was the first to bid. "Two hundred ducats!" he shouted. Because I had been watching him that night, I saw the hunter's gleam in his eye and knew that, for him, this was not about desire.

"You insult the boy," Alcuin's couchmate declared; I recollected her name, which was Madame Dufreyne. "Two hundred fifty."

Vitale Bouvarre looked apoplectic. "Three hundred," he offered in a strangled voice. Alcuin smiled in his direction.

"Three hundred fifty," Solaine Belfours said evenly.

"Oh, my." Mierette of Orchis House drained her cup and set it down delicately. Toying with the golden cascade of her hair, she looked merrily at Cecilie. "Cecilie, you are too bad. How often does such a chance come to one such as us? I will bid four, if the boy will thank me for it."

"Four hundred fifty!" Vitale retorted angrily.

Someone else bid higher; I cannot remember who, for it was at this point that matters escalated. For some of the bidders, like Childric d'Essoms, it was merely a game, and I think he at least took the most pleasure in seeing the despair of others as the chase grew heated. For others, I was not so sure. Mierette noé Orchis bid higher than I would have guessed, and I never knew if it was desire that spurred her, or complicity with Cecilie's design. But for the rest, there was no question. It was Alcuin they desired, serene and beautiful and like no one else in the world, with his white hair falling like a curtain over his shoulders and his dark, secret eyes.

Throughout it all, Delaunay never moved, nor gave anything away. When the bidding passed a thousand ducats, he glanced once at Cecilie, and she beckoned for her chancellor, who came forward with a contract and pen at the ready.

In the end, it came down to Vitale Bouvarre, Madame Dufreyne and another man, the Chevalier Gideon Landres, who had holdings in L'Agnace and was a member of Parliament. We, who had seen how matters would fall out, watched and waited.

"Six thousand ducats!" Vitale Bouvarre threw down the offer as if it were a gauntlet. His face was red. Madame Dufreyne touched her fingers to her lips, counted silently to herself, and shook her head. The Chevalier merely crossed his arms and looked impassive.

So it was done, and Alcuin's virgin-price fetched six thousand ducats. I, who had grown up in the Night Court, had never heard of such a thing; though oddly enough, it was not that of which I thought in that moment, but Hyacinthe's mother, who wore her wealth upon her person and might never hope to carry so much as Alcuin fetched in a single night.

When the matter was concluded, Cecilie's chancellor drew up the contract swiftly, though I don't believe Vitale even glanced at what he was signing. The night was young still, but he would have no more of this gathering.

"Come," he said to Alcuin, his voice thick. "My carriage is waiting." He glanced once at Delaunay. "My driver will bring him on the morrow. Is that acceptable?"

Delaunay, who had spoken little, inclined his head. Alcuin looked at him but once; a grave, solemn look. Delaunay returned it unflinching. Vitale reached out his hand, and Alcuin took it.

I recall that upon their leaving, Cecilie clapped her hands together and the musicians struck up a merry tune; though in truth, my memory may be somewhat blurred by the wine. There was dancing, and I danced with Gonzago de Escabares, and the Chevalier Landres, stoic at his loss, and once with Lord Childric d'Essoms, who smiled and looked at me as the hawk eyes the sparrow. And then Lord Chavaise called for a stamping rhythm with timbales and finger drums, and I danced with his lover from Eglantine House, the agile youth who had tumbled for us, and I kept the rhythm and was grateful for the lessons Delaunay had foisted upon me.

Late in the night, I remember, Delaunay brought Thelesis de Mornay to be introduced, and she touched my face lightly with her slim, dark fingers and declaimed the lines about Kushiel's Dart from the Leucenaux text, and there was a little silence, then murmuring.

So everyone knew, then, what the scarlet mote in my eye betokened, and I would have gone with any one of them, were it not for Delaunay's grip at my elbow reminding me like an anchor where my duty lay.

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