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IT IS a matter of some irony that I, of all people, had so little knowledge of the House to which I would have belonged, had not fate pricked my left eye. The gatekeeper admitted Delaunay's coach readily and we traversed a long entrance well-guarded by trees. I was met in the courtyard by two apprentices, a boy and a girl. Alyssum House is prized for its modesty, but I have never seen any of the Night Court maintain a more trembling decorum than these two, who kept their gazes steadily downcast as they guided me inside.

The receiving room was opulent and unseasonably warm. A roaring fire was laid in the hearth and the lamps burned scented oil. As I waited, I glanced at the rich tapestries which smothered the walls. Scenes out of Hellene mythology, I thought at first, then looked closer. Stories of rape and torture emerged from their fine-woven threads; fleeing maidens; pleading youths and vengeful gods and goddesses at their pleasure.

I sat staring spellbound at the contorted features of a nymph being buggered by a grinning satyr when the Dowayne's Second entered the room.

"Phèdre noé Delaunay," he said in a soft voice, "be welcome. I am Didier Vascon, the Second of this House." He came forward to give me the kiss of greeting, somehow imparting a yielding quality to the simple courtesy; it stirred and repulsed me at once. "So you are the anguissette." He searched my features, gazing contemplatively at the red fleck of Kushiel's Dart. "We would have known, you know. They were fools, at Cereus House." His tone held a hint of spite. "It is pride that keeps them from admitting to their ignorance of the breadth of Naamah's arts. Have you ever seen a shrine of Kushiel?"

The last was asked in a neutral tone, and I blinked at the sudden change of demeanor and subject. "No, my lord."

His lashes flickered ever so slightly at the form of address; you think you are better than me, they said, but I am not fooled by it. Aloud, he merely said, "I thought not. We have one here, many of our patrons are dedicated to Kushiel. Would you like to see it?"

"Yes. Please."

He called for servants with torches and led me down a long hallway, then a winding stair descending into darkness. It was hard to see. I kept my eyes on his back, moving steadily ahead of me. The torchlight made transparent the filmy white stuff of his shirt and I could see weal marks curving around his ribs like a caress.

"Here." At the bottom, he threw open a door. The stone-walled room beyond was lit and heated by another fire, and light washed over a bronze sculpture of Kushiel. Elua's Companion stood raised on a dais behind an altar and offering-bowl, a stern look on his beautiful face, the flail and rod in his hands. I stood for a long time gazing at him. "Do you know why Kushiel abdicated his duties to join Elua?"

I shook my head. "No."

"He was one of the Punishers of God, chosen to deliver torments to the souls of sinners that they might repent at the end of days." Didier Vascon was a disembodied voice behind me. "So the Yeshuite legends claim. Alone among angels, Kushiel understood that the act of chastisement was an act of love; and the sinners in his charge too came to understand, and loved him for it. He gave them pain like balm, and they begged him for it, finding in it not redemption, but a love that transcended the divine. The One God was displeased, for He desires worship above all things, but Kushiel saw a spark he would follow in the spirit of Blessed Elua, who said unto us, 'Love as thou wilt.' "

The breath went out of me with a profound shudder. No one had told me this, this story that was mine by birthright. I wondered how different my life would be if I had been raised and trained in Valerian House, and turned to Didier. "Is that what it's like?"

He hesitated before answering. "No." When his answer came, his tone was flat with reluctant truth. "But it is how I get my pleasure. It is the service to which I was born and to which I trained. They say Kushiel's Dart marks his true victims. Perhaps you will find it."

I understood, then, that he was envious. "How is it that adepts are trained to this service?" I asked him, wishing to change the subject.

"Come." He beckoned the torch-bearers and ushered me through a door on the far side of the room, continued talking as we proceeded down the broad stone hall. "It begins with the lesson of the spiced candies, of course; you know this? No? We do it with children of six. An adept explains that the pleasure of the taste is due to the touch of pain the spice provokes. Those who understand, we keep; others will have their marques sold. After that, it is a simple matter of consistency and conditioning. Never is a fosterling or apprentice of Valerian House allowed to experience pleasure without pain, nor pain without pleasure." He stopped before another door and looked curiously at me. "You have never received such training?"

I shook my head. He shrugged.

"It is Delaunay's business, I suppose." He pushed the door open. "This is one of the pleasure-chambers. We endeavor to provide environments for all of our patrons' particular desires."

Servants moved about the room lighting the wall sconces and the brazier. I gazed about me and shuddered again. There were lush carpets in the center of the room, surrounded by aisles of flagstone. The walls were bare of decoration, but hardly unadorned; one held manacles and chains for the wrists and ankles, bolted into the stone, and another held a great wooden wheel, with clamps to hold one spread-eagled.

"We have a reciprocal agreement with Mandrake House," Didier Vas-con said, watching me take in the accoutrements. "Sometimes we have patrons who take pleasure only in watching, so we might contract a flagellant and an assistant to perform the excruciation on one of our adepts. And of course sometimes Mandrake has clients who must needs observe an abasement performed to move them, for which we provide subjects."

His words echoed distantly in my ears. I moved to the center of the room, lightly touching a padded pommel horse and looking inquiringly at him.

"Here." He was dryly amused by my ignorance and, with a deft hand, pushed me down across its back. My cheek was pressed to the padded leather. "You would be lashed in place, of course. Some patrons have a particular fetish for the buttocks. The pommel horse provides good advantage for their indulgence."

I straightened, flushed, and snapped at him. "I'm not here to receive training at your hands!"

Didier raised his eyebrows and lifted his hands. "May your patrons have the joy of breaking you," he murmured. "I've no interest in it. But I've taken a fee to ensure you'll not go to them in complete ignorance. Come here." He beckoned me to a cabinet and began pointing out items. "We provide all manner of accessories, of course; collars, blinds, gags, belts, whatever the patron might wish. Rings, pleasure-balls, aides d'amour, pincers—"

"I was raised in Cereus House," I reminded him, wondering if he thought I was so green I'd never seen a shaft-ring or a carven phallus.

"—pincers," he said, resuming as if I hadn't interrupted. He picked up one of the spring-forced clamps and squeezed it open, raising his eyebrows again. "Often placed on the nipples or nether lips. Do they use these in Cereus House?"

"No." I tugged at another drawer, but it was locked. Didier took a key from a chain about his waist and opened it. A row of slim-hafted, razor-edged steel blades gleamed against a red velvet lining, like a chirurgeon's tools, only beautiful.

"Flechettes," he said. "We require a reference and a guarantee for their usage." He gave an involuntary tremor beside me and his voice changed. "I hate them."

I imagined an anonymous hand pressing the sharp point of one into my skin, tracing it slowly, a trickle of red following the bright blade. It would be very vivid against my skin. I came out of the reverie to find Didier watching me again.

"You are what the stories say, aren't you?" The envy was mingled with an obscure pity. "I hope Delaunay screens his clients well. Come on, I'll show you the upper levels."

My tour of Valerian House continued for some time, through a myriad of rooms; seraglio boudoirs, baths, a folly garden, royal chambers, a harem, a throne room, a room of swings and harnesses, even a child's nursery, although Didier hastened to add that they abided by Guild laws regarding the minimum age for adepts. In the flagellary, he lectured at length on the different types of whips and rods; crops, quirts, scourges, floggers and tawses, the cat-o'-nine-tails and the bullwhip, birches, canes, straps and paddles. Of course many patrons, he told me in his dry voice, preferred to bring their own implements.

I never saw a single patron throughout the tour. It is the policy of the Night Court to provide privacy, but there were always patrons at Cereus House who treated it as a salon, meeting with friends and acquaintances to enjoy each other's company as well as the services of Naamah. By contrast, Valerian House was marked by an air of hushed secrecy. Fêtes and galas were arranged with great care, Didier said, for very select guest lists.

When all was said and seen, I was glad that I had gone to Delaunay and not to Valerian House. Although there was nothing I saw that did not in some way intrigue me, it seemed a dull life without the spice of mystery and danger—and indeed, even the cursed intellectual rigor—that life as a Servant of Naamah in the household of Anafiel Delaunay promised. Any spark of disobedience or rebellion had been long conditioned from the adepts of Valerian House; and how not, when their motto was, I yield? Mighty Kushiel did not minister to the yielding, but to those who disobeyed and dared suffer the agonies of defeat. This I believed then, and I believe it still, though I daresay I might not have then, had I any inkling how long and difficult the path would be. At any rate, you may be sure that if I left Valerian House without the wisdom of experience to support my beliefs, I left it considerably wiser in the ways of my art.

I returned to Delaunay's house full of new-found knowledge, finding to my dismay that he had invited friends for a small dining-party, and talk was of nothing but the Cruarch of Alba. Still, if there was consolation, it was in the fact that Delaunay was in high spirits and called me to join him on his couch.

"Surely if you are old enough to enter the service of Naamah, this evening's conversation merits hearing," he said, patting the cushion beside him. He was still dressed for court, and fair glowed with elegance and the flush of good wine and talk. "You know the Comte de Fourcay, of course . . . Gaspar, make her a bow, she is nigh a lady now...and our poetess; Thelesis, I cower in your shadow... this is Quintilius Rousse of Eisande, who is the finest admiral ever to command a fleet, and my lord Percy of L'Agnace, Comte de Somerville, of whom you have heard tell."

I don't know what I stammered—something inept, no doubt—as I rose to make my curtsy. I was used to Gaspar Trevalion, who was almost like an uncle to me (insofar as my notion of kin extended); Thelesis de Mornay awed me, though I had met her. But these new additions...the commander of the fleet of Eisande was legend in three nations, and the Comte de Somerville was a Prince of the Blood, who had led the charge against the Skaldi with Prince Rolande and Prince Benedicte. It was rumored that if the King should ever need to appoint a warlord, it would be the Comte de Somerville.

Because he figured in a tale out of my childhood, I expected he would be old, like the King, but he was no more than fifty years of age, hale and fit, with grey dimming his golden hair. A faint odor of apples clung to him; I learned later that this was a mark of the Scions of Anael in general, and of the Somerville line in particular. He smiled pleasantly at me, so I would be less fearful of him.

"Delaunay's anguissette!" Quintilius Rousse shouted, beckoning me to his couch, which Alcuin shared. He seized my face in both hands and planted a kiss on it, releasing me with a grin. His weather-beaten face was dragged down on one side by a thick scar where he had been struck by a snapped cable, but his blue eyes glinted unabashedly. I could not decide if he were handsome or ugly. "Too bad I've no taste for pain, eh?" He patted Alcuin's knee; Alcuin smiled serenely at him. I could tell he liked the bluff admiral well enough. Alcuin enjoyed frankness. "You're the spider's pupil, why d'ye reckon Elder Brother let the Cruarch through?"

It took me a moment to realize that by spider he meant Delaunay, and to recall that Elder Brother was a sailor's term for the Master of the Straits, who ruled from the Three Sisters.

"If I could answer that, my lord," I said, sitting on Delaunay's couch and arranging my skirts, "I would not be pupil, but master."

Quintilius Rousse roared with laughter, and the others chuckled. Delaunay stroked my hair and smiled. "Quintilius, my friend," he said, "if you cannot answer that, none of us can. Unless it be our gracious muse...?" He looked inquiringly at Thelesis, who shook her dark head.

"He let me pass for the price of a song," she said, her rich voice holding us all in thrall; of course, I remembered, she was in exile in Alba, and would thus have been summoned to attend. "Once thence, and once back. As best I can tell, he is governed by whim. To what whim did the Cruarch of Alba cater? That is the question."

Alcuin cleared his throat. It was a small sound, but everyone listened.

"They spoke of a vision." He glanced apologetically at Delaunay. "I was stationed close to the Alban delegation, but it is difficult to transcribe accurately and overhear, my lord. Still, I heard somewhat of a vision, of the King's sister; a black boar and a silver swan."

"The King's sister." Quintilius Rousse made a sour face. "Ye gods beyond, Lyonette? What's she up to now?"

"No, no." Alcuin shook his head. "The sister of the Cruarch, the Pictish King, mother of his heir."

"Lyonette has naught to do with her," Gaspar Trevalion observed, "but I note she took the Cruarch's wife under her wing, or paw, as it might happen. One almost wished to warn the poor thing that there are claws beneath those velvet pads."

"Lyonette de la Courcel de Trevalion would be well advised to guard herself against such prey," Thelesis murmured. "The Cruarch's wife, Foclaidha, is descended from the Brugantii, under the aegis of the red bull. The Lioness of Azzalle would do well to beware her horns."

"Her boys are strapping things," Quintilius Rousse observed, nonplussed. "Did'ye see the size o' the eldest lad? None too pleased to play second fiddle to a cripple, either."

"You refer to the Prince of the Picti?" The Comte de Somerville's tone might have sounded condescending, were it not for the obvious affection with which he addressed the naval commander. "A dusky little thing, but almost pretty beneath the blue. Pity about the leg. What was his name?"

"Drustan." Delaunay said it laughing. "Don't even think it, Percy!"

"I'd never." The Comte de Somerville's eyes glinted with amusement. "You know I'm too politic for that, old friend."

I sipped at a glass of wine, my head spinning at the level of conversation. "Are they truly painted blue?" I asked. The question sounded plaintively naive to my own ears.

"As truly as the Servants of Naamah earn her marque," Thelesis de Mornay answered me kindly. "Warriors of the Cruithne bear the symbols of their caste upon their faces and bodies, tattooed in blue woad by their own marquists' needles. Our fine lords may laugh, but young Drustan's markings bear witness to his lineage and attest that he has won his spurs in battle. Do not be misled by his twisted foot."

"But what," asked Gaspar Trevalion, "do they want?" Having asked the question, he glanced around the couches. No one ventured an answer. "Do they come seeking trade? Fulfillment of a vision? Protection from Skaldic longboats? It is rumored on the coast of Azzalle that the Skaldi have sought to cross the Northernmost Seas to raid Alba, but what can we do? Even Quintilius Rousse cannot sail a fleet up the strait."

The admiral coughed. "It is also.... rumored... that D'Angeline ships have sought a southwesterly route, and that the Cruithne and the Dalriada make for inhospitable landings. I do not think it is protection at sea they seek."

"Trade." Delaunay ran his finger absently around the rim of his glass. "Everyone desires trade. And it is a form of power, of freedom; the propagation of culture is the guarantor of immortality. How it must gall them, to look across the straits and see a world untouchable. And we, the jewel of the land, so close; so far. Do you never wonder why the Skaldi ever press our borders?" He looked up sharply, his wits in full stride. "No? We are marked, my friends, by the heritage of Blessed Elua and his Companions. We thrive, where other nations struggle. We live out our days in wine, song and abundance, nestled on the breast of this golden land, raising our sons and daughters to peerless beauty, and wonder, then, why we must defend our borders. We raise desire to an art form, and cry foul when it awakens its bloody echoes."

"We have raised more than desire to an art form," said the Comte de Somerville, and there was a grim reminder of steel in his voice. "We defend our borders."

"So we do," Quintilius Rousse agreed. "So we do."

There is a martial solemnity that follows this sort of proclamation; I heard it then, and I have heard it since. In its silence, Alcuin shook his head. "But the Master of the Straits has no interest in trade," he murmured. "So there is somewhat more to the matter."

I have said it before, that Alcuin's gift surpassed my own in the recollection of facts, the swift drawing of connections. I saw that night a faint surprise on Delaunay's face, in his parted lips; I understood, then, that in this one thing, this quicksilver intuition, the pupil indeed surpassed the master. But where Alcuin went deep, Delaunay went far—and always, he had knowledge he withheld from the rest of us. Some far-ranging conclusion was reached that night, for I watched his face as he came to it.

"No mind," he said then, and his voice was gay as he reached for his lyre, which he played as well as any gentleman and better than most. "Tonight the King dines with his blue-marqued peer and Ysandre de la Courcel, flower of the realm, shall teach a clubfoot barbarian Prince to dance the gavotte. Thelesis, my dear muse, will you give us the honor of a song?"

I think, of any of the guests, she knew best what he was about; still she obliged him, singing in her deep, thrilling voice. So passed my first night accepted as a nigh-adult member of Anafiel Delaunay's household. Gaspar Trevalion left sober, while Quintilius Rousse drank deep and slept it off in Delaunay's guest chambers.

As for Alcuin, he took heed of Delaunay's nod at the end of things, and left that night with the Comte de Somerville. I do not think any contract was signed, but the Comte was gracious, and the next day an appointment was made with the marquist, to limn the base of Alcuin's marque where his spine melded into his delicate buttocks.


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