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DELAUNAY WENT twice more to court during the visit of the Cruarch of Alba, and on these occasions he went alone, and there were no parties nor speculation afterward; if he learned anything further, he kept it to himself. The King of Terre d'Ange and the King of the Picts exchanged gifts and pleasantries, so far as anyone knew, and the Alban delegation rode back to the coast and sailed across the strait, accompanied by fair winds, sea birds and the apparent good will of the Master of the Straits.

Having renewed his fealty to House Courcel, the Comte de Somerville returned to his inland troops and his vast tracts of apple trees.

Quintilius Rousse, having depleted our larder and drunk half of last year's pressing, went jovially back to Eisande and his fleet, and somewhat later we heard that he had won a pitched battle at sea against the ships of the Khalif of Khebbel-im-Akkad, securing a trade route for spices and silks from the East.

News such as this made the visit of a barbarian chieftain from a tiny island pale in significance, so it is no surprise that the Picts faded quickly from memory.

Life, after all, goes on.

Of a surety, I was anxious that mine should do so, and soon. Alcuin's success as a courtesan of the first rank continued. Rumor of the auction and his virgin-price spread, and I believe Delaunay received inquiries on almost a daily basis. This was what he wished; to be able to choose, selectively, and say no when he desired. And I will say this at the outset: Never did he contract with a patron before first securing our approval.

Delaunay's choice for Alcuin's third assignation was a true stroke of genius. Remembering the auction, Cecilie Laveau-Perrin contracted Alcuin's services for the night of Mierette noé Orchis' birthday, bestowing him, adorned in scarlet ribbons and nothing else, upon her friend. Mierette's laughter, I am told, rang from the rafters.

Later people would claim it an act of brilliance because word then spread that Delaunay's protegeé could inspire even an adept of the Night Court, and this is true; but I claim a different reason. From that assignation, Alcuin came home heavy-lidded and smiling. He may have been her gift, but Mierette noé Orchis possessed the secret of bestowing joy in the act of worshipping Naamah. That is the canon of Orchis House, and that secret she shared with Alcuin. I remember it well, for the tender smile Alcuin took care not to turn on Delaunay, and the conversation our lord and master had with me that day.

He bid me attend him in the inner courtyard, which is where he preferred to stage all events of significance. I sat demurely on one of the couches, waiting on his attention while he strolled about the colonnade, hands clasped behind his back.

"You know I have received inquiries, Phèdre," he said, not quite looking at me. "Inquiries about you."

"No, my lord." It was true; he had never breathed a word of it, nor had anyone else, although my own birthday has passed some weeks gone by. I wondered if Alcuin had known, and resolved to give him a good shaking if I found he had.

"Yes, indeed. Ever since Alcuin's debut." Now Delaunay looked at me sidelong. It was early evening, and the long rays of sun picked out the gleam of topaz flecking his grey eyes. I found it hard to concentrate on what he was saying. "It is in my mind that you would not take it amiss if I accepted one of these offers."

That got my attention.

"My lord!" I breathed, scarce daring to believe. I had begun to think my ripening body would wither untasted on the vine. "No, my lord, I would not... take it amiss."

"I thought not." This time there was amusement in his glance. "But there is somewhat we must make clear first. You need a signale."

The word landed on uncomprehending ears. "My lord?"

"Didier didn't tell you?" He sat down. "It is something they have devised at Valerian House; I spoke to their Dowayne at some length, to learn what was needful. Betimes a patron goes too far in the throes of transport. You know that protestation is part of the game, yes? The signale is beyond that. It is a word, if spoken, that halts all play. You must have one, Phèdre." His gaze grew serious. "If a patron fails to heed the signale, he or she is guilty of heresy. It is your safeguard against injury, against violating the precept of Blessed Elua. They say it is best to choose a word that cannot be mistaken for loveplay. Do you wish to think on it?"

I shook my head; the word came unbidden to my lips. "Hyacinthe."

It is the first time, and perhaps the only, I saw Delaunay taken aback.

"The Tsingano?" If he hadn't been sitting in front of me, I would still have known his surprise from his voice. "That's the first thing you think of when you think of a safeguard?"

"He is my one friend." I held his gaze stubbornly. "Everyone else desires something of me; even you, my lord. If you wish me to choose another word, I will. But you have asked, and I have answered."

"No." After a moment, he shrugged. "Why not? It's a good enough choice; no one need know you mean a Tsingani soothsayer's by-blow when you speak it. I'll have it drawn into your contract, and be certain your patrons know of it."

My words had given him pause, I could tell; I wondered if he were a little jealous, even. I hoped so, but didn't dare press the matter. "Who are they?" I asked him instead. "And whose offer are you minded to take, my lord?"

"There have been several." Delaunay rose to pace again. "Most relayed indirectly, through third and fourth parties, as is often done when special... talents... like your own are involved. Except for one." A frown creased his brow. He glanced reluctantly at me. "Childric d'Essoms approached me himself to make an offer."

A name, and a face to go with it. I felt my body tighten, but all I said was, "Why would he do that? He hates you, and he knows your game, my lord. He only bid on Alcuin to bait the others."

"That's part of it. He likes the sight of pain." He sat down again. "D'Essoms is a hunter; he loves the game, and he's clever at it, clever enough to know you're meant as a lure. He thinks he can take the bait and evade the hook, and he wants me to know it. He's too arrogant to pass up a chance to claim a prize like you and deal me an insult in the process."

"What do you want of him?" A simple enough question, fraught with so much meaning. This, beyond the provision of pleasure and the sight of pain, was my purpose; this was why Delaunay had bought my marque. No matter that he would not tell us the greater why of it, Alcuin and I had long ago realized that he valued us most of all for what we could learn.

"Any information he might betray," Delaunay said grimly. "D'Essoms ranks high in the Court of Chancery; there is no grant, no treaty, no appointment that does not cross his desk at some point. He knows who has petitioned for what, and what has been ceded in exchange. He knows who will be appointed to what post, and why. And like as not, he knows who profited from the death of Isabel L'Envers."

"And Edmeée de Rocaille?" I shivered inwardly as I named Prince Rolande's first betrothed. Delaunay looked sharply at me.

"Isabel L'Envers profited from the death of Edmeée de Rocaille," he said softly, "and so did Childric d'Essoms, for he received his appointment not long after Isabel wed Rolande. You ask what I wish to know? I wish to know who pulls D'Essoms' strings now. Isabel is dead; so who does he serve and to what end? Find that out for me, Phèdre, and I will owe you much."

"As you wish, my lord." I would do it, I resolved, if it killed me. I was naive enough still, in those days, not to reckon how real a possibility it might be.

"Then you assent to his offer?"

I started to say yes, then paused. "How much is it?"

Delaunay smiled at my asking. "You're a true child of the Night Court, Phèdre. Four thousand and a half." Seeing my expression, he stopped smiling. "My dear, Alcuin's virgin-price would never have gone so high were it not for the auction, and I am afraid that the patrons you attract are not the sort to air their penchants in public. If you have been struck as truly by Kushiel's Dart as I believe, then experience will do naught but hone your gift. Your asking-price will rise, and not diminish with time." He cupped my face, looking sincerely at me. "Alcuin must trade on the asset of his rarity, and to preserve it, he may contract but seldom. To set a high mark on his debut was necessary. But you, Phèdre.... Valerian House knows of no anguissette in living memory. Indeed, it has been so long since the world has seen your like that even Cereus, the First House, failed to recognize you. This I promise; while you live, you will be a rarity."

I might have been seven years old again, standing in the Dowayne's receiving room where, with four lines of verse, Delaunay turned me from an ill-favored bastard into the chosen of Elua's Companions. I wanted to cry, but Delaunay didn't care for tears. "Childric d'Essoms will be getting a bargain," I said instead.

"Lord d'Essoms will be getting more than he bargained for." He looked sternly at me. "I want you to be careful, Phèdre. Seek nothing, ask him nothing. Let him take the hook, think he has won this victory from me. If all goes well, he will ask for you a third time, a fourth; risk nothing until then. Do you understand?"

"Yes, my lord. And if it goes poorly?"

"If it goes poorly, I will put half the contract fee toward your marque, and you have never to see him again." Delaunay poked me in the arm, quite sharply. "Under any circumstances, Phèdre, you will not hesitate to use the signale. Is that clear?"

"Yes, my lord. Hyacinthe." I said it a second time on purpose, just to bother him. He ignored it.

"And the same rules apply. You are not to betray your learning. As far as d'Essoms knows, such skills as you have, you learned in the Night Court."

"Yes, my lord." I paused. "You took Alcuin to court to transcribe the Alban interview."

"Ah, that." Delaunay broke out in his unexpected grin. "I said he wrote a fair hand; I didn't tell anyone he spoke Cruithne. As far as anyone but the King himself knows, Alcuin understood only what I translated. And our fair scribe was seen by a number of intrigued potentates that day."

As interesting as that was, I was more fascinated by the fact that Delaunay was actually suggesting Ganelon de la Courcel, the King of Terre d'Ange, knew what he was up to. I wished I could say the same. But, "I will be circumspect, my lord," was all I said aloud.

"Good." He stood up, looking satisfied. "Then I will make the arrangements."


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