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ON THE day of my first assignation, I swear it, I think Delaunay was more nervous than I. Even with Alcuin, he had not fussed so much.

Later, when I knew my art better, I understood Delaunay better as well. As sophisticated as his knowledge and tastes might be, there was a threshold his own desires did not cross. Like many people, he understood the spice a touch of dominance might add to loveplay, but no more than a touch. Yet so thorough was his study of the desires of others that one forgot it was a comprehension of the mind only. In the marrow of his bones, he did not know what it was to crave the touch of the lash like a kiss. Thus, his nervousness.

When I understood this, I loved him all the better for it; though, of course, I had already long since forgiven him. There was nothing I would not forgive Delaunay.

"There," he breathed, standing behind me in the great mirror, tucking in an errant lock of my hair. "You look beautiful."

He rested his hands upon my shoulders and I gazed into the mirror. My own eyes looked back at me, dark and lustrous as bistre smudged in by an artist's pencil, save for the single mote of scarlet. In my mirror-image, it flecked the right eye, vivid as a scrap of rose-petal floating on calm waters. Delaunay liked the look of my hair caught in the silk mesh of a caul, restrained in its abundance. It weighed heavily against the fine strands, straining to escape, accentuating the delicate shape of my face and the ivory pallor of my skin.

It is vulgar to color youth, so the only cosmetic he had allowed me was a touch of carmine on my lips. They stood out, like the mote in my eye, vivid as rose-petals. I did not recall seeing such a sensuous pout to my lower lip before.

For my garb, Delaunay had again elected for simplicity; but the gown this time was red velvet, a deep and luscious shade. The bodice clung to my figure, and I marked with pleasure the way my breasts swelled, white-skinned and tempting, above its neckline. There was a line of tiny jet buttons all down the back. I wondered if Childric d'Essoms would undo them, or rip them asunder. In the Night Court, he would be charged extra for ripping them, but I doubted Delaunay incorporated such trivialities into his contract. The bodice dropped low on my hips, to emphasize the smallness of my waist and the flatness of my stomach. I was pleased with the youthful allure of my body, and was happy to see it emphasized. From thence, it hugged the fullness of my hips and dropped in straight folds, unexpectedly demure, save for the color and the luxuriant nature of the fabric.

"You are pleased at what you see," Delaunay said, amused.

"Yes, my lord." I saw no reason to dissemble; my appearance was his investment. I turned, craning my neck, trying to imagine how I would appear from the rear when I had made my marque and the lines of the finial would rise where the fabric ended to adorn the top of my spinal knob.

"So am I. Let us hope Lord Childric feels the same." Delaunay removed his hands from my shoulders. "I have a gift for you," he said, moving to his closet. "Here." Returning, he laid a hooded cloak about my shoulders where his hands had rested. Velvet lined with silk, it was a far deeper red than my dress, a red so dark and saturated it was almost black, the color of blood spilled on a moonless night. "The color is called sangoire," he said, watching my face in the mirror as I received his gift. "Thelesis told me that in the seventh century after Elua, it was decreed that only anguissettes might wear it. I had to send to Firezia to find dye-makers who remembered how to make the formula for it."

It was beautiful; truly and deeply beautiful. I wept at the sight of it, and this time Delaunay did not revile me for it, but embraced me. We are D'Angelines; we know what it is to weep at the sight of beauty.

"Be safe, Phèdre," he murmured. His voice stirred the caught weight of my hair. "Childric d'Essoms waits for you. Remember your signale, and remember that Guy will be there, if anything goes awry. I would not send you into the household of my enemy without protection."

My blood raced at the feel of his arms around me, and I turned in them, seeking his face. "I know, my lord," I whispered. But Delaunay dropped his arms and stepped back.

"It is time," he said, his expression grown distant and reserved. "Go, and may the blessing of Naamah protect you."

Thus did I go forth to my first assignation.

It was dark already when the carriage set forth. Guy, immaculate in livery, sat opposite me on the cushions and said nothing, nor did I speak to him. D'Essoms' house was small, but in close proximity to the Palace; he had a suite of rooms in the Palace itself, I learned later, but preferred to maintain his own lodgings for dalliance of this nature.

The servant who opened the door seemed surprised to see me attended by Guy, which emotion he marked with a haughty sniff. "That way," he said to me, pointing, and then to Guy, "You'll abide in the servants' quarters, then."

As if he had not spoken, Guy moved forward and made me a bow, crisp and elegant; I hadn't known he was capable of such a courtly manner. "My lady Phèdre noé Delaunay," he announced in his inflectionless voice, catching the servant's eye and holding it. "She is expected by Lord d'Essoms."

"Yes, of course." Flustered, the servant put his arm out. "My lady—"

Guy stepped smartly between us. "You will take her cloak," he said softly. Whether it was Delaunay's manner which he had adopted or the vestiges of his training in the Cassiline Brotherhood, it quelled d'Essoms' servant as surely as it had the lordling in the bar long ago.

"Yes. Yes, of course." D'Essoms' servant snapped his fingers, beckoning urgently at the bewildered maid who answered. "Take my lady's cloak," he said sharply to her. I unfastened the clasp and shrugged it off my shoulders. The material slithered, rich and opulent, into his waiting hands.

Delaunay knew what he was about. D'Essoms' servant drew in his breath at the weight of the sangoire cloak, handing it to the maid, who covertly stroked the nap of the dense velvet as she folded it carefully over her arm. I held my head high, receiving their curious glances and returning them, letting them take in my crimson-marked eye. Gentry gossip, but so do servants. All first impressions matter.

"This way, my lady," D'Essoms' servant said again, but there was respect in his tone as he extended his arm. I took it graciously, permitting my fingertips to brush—just barely—his forearm. In this manner, he conducted me into the presence of Childric d'Essoms.

His lordship was waiting in his trophy room. That was what I came to call it, at any rate; what he called it, I never knew. There were frescoes of hunting scenes on two walls. A third was taken up with a hearth, in which a fire was laid and above which hung the d'Essoms coat of arms and a panoply of weapons.

Against the last wall was something else.

Childric d'Essoms had the same look I had noted at Cecilie's fête; tight-braided hair and the hooded eyes of a bird of prey. He wore a subdued brocade doublet and sateen hosen, and held aloft a glass of cordial.

"Leave her, Philipe," he said dismissively. His servant bowed and departed, closing the door behind him.

I was alone with my first patron.

With swift strides, Childric d'Essoms closed the distance between us. His right hand, unencumbered, rose almost casually until he dashed it across my face. I staggered sideways, tasting blood, remembering the deadly accuracy with which he'd hurled his lees in the game of kottabos. He still held the glass of cordial in his left hand and hadn't spilled a drop.

"You will kneel in my presence, whore," he said nonchalantly.

I sank down on my knees, abeyante, red velvet skirts pooling around me on the flagstones. They were cold, despite the fire. I watched his polished boots as he paced around me.

"Why does Anafiel Delaunay send an anguissette to tempt the likes of me?" he asked, circling behind me. I felt his hand dig into my enmeshed curls, wrenching my head backward, and stared up at his hooded, gleaming eyes. My throat felt vulnerable and exposed.

"I don't know, my lord," I whispered, my voice constricted with fear.

"I don't believe you." He pressed his thigh hard against the back of my head, sliding his hand down to encircle my throat. "Tell me, Phèdre noé Delaunay, what your lord wishes of me. Does he think me so easily ensnared, hm?" He punctuated his words with a jerk of his hand. "Does he suppose I'll spill my secrets in idle pillow talk with a rented whore?" Another spasm of his clutching fingers. He was applying pressure to the spot where my pulse beat in my throat, and spots of black danced in my vision. "I... don't... know..." I whispered the words again, a strange languor invading my body as consciousness began to ebb. With an effort, I turned my head, feeling the muscles of his thigh move beneath my cheek. My breath seemed to come hot and labored.

"Elua!" D'Essoms froze, exhaling the word. His hand loosened on my throat, rising to cup the back of my head. "You really are, aren't you?" I heard wonder, and amusement, in his voice; he hadn't been sure, I thought, and in some part of my mind took note of the fact that it had been worth over four thousand ducats to him to claim a victory over Delaunay anyway. "Prove it, then, little anguissette; as you are, on your knees. Please me."

So he said, but he hadn't needed to tell me. I was already turning as I knelt, grasping his boots with unclasped hands, sliding my palms up the slick leather. I knew what he wished, knew his desire as surely as the sea knows the tidal urges of the moon. The muscles of his thighs twitched beneath my gliding hands. With a curse, he hurled his glass aside. I heard it shatter somewhere as my fingertips grazed his erect phallus, straining against the fabric of his hosen. He dug both hands into my hair as I undid the buttons.

The art of languisement is an ancient and subtle one, and I am ashamed to say that I employed none of its niceties. Then again, that is not always the nature of my art. D'Essoms groaned as his phallus sprang free, the tip of it nudging my parted lips, and his hands clenched on my head, urging me to take his shaft into my mouth, deep into my throat. Ah, if only he had known! I accepted him eagerly, lips and tongue working frantically, putting into practice at last the knowledge of a thousand hours' of study and more. He groaned again as he climaxed, shoving me away and tearing the mesh net loose from my hair.

I fell back, sprawling, my hair tumbling in wild disarray about my shoulders. Childric d'Essoms advanced upon me. "Whore!" he shouted, back-handing me across the mouth. I licked my lips, tasting blood mixed with his seed. "Ill-gotten spawn of Naamah!" Another blow, glancing. I looked up through the hair spilled over my eyes and saw his phallus stirring to erection. D'Essoms gained control of himself with a shudder. "On your feet," he said, grinding out the words. "Take off your clothes."

Rising, I reached behind my back with trembling fingers and began to undo the jet buttons, one by one. D'Essoms watched, his eyes hooded.

"There," he said harshly, pointing to a pallet of cushions. A swatch of white silk was spread across them. "I have in mind to make a new coat of arms, in honor of Anafiel Delaunay." When I let fall the red velvet gown, he shoved me so that I stumbled, naked, toward the pallet. "I have paid your virgin-price," d'Essoms said menacingly, advancing toward me. "Pray you have played your lord true, and award me with the badge of victory, Phèdre. On your back."

He moved like a stalking beast, shedding clothes, looming over me as I lay upon the pallet, forcing my legs over his shoulders.

I do not know what it is like, for other women. There was no arousement such as I had seen in the Showing at Camellia House; and yet for me, I was ready, as ready as ever an adept was for her first joining. With one smooth thrust, d'Essoms pierced me to the core, and even as I cried out at the pain of it, the face of Blessed Naamah swam in my vision, and I gasped with pleasure. Again and again he thrust himself into me, and I felt my body pliant in his hands, while waves of pain and pleasure beat at me like the wings of Naamah's doves in her temple.

He was Delaunay's enemy and I should have hated him.

I found my arms were wound tight about his neck and I cried out his name as he spent himself inside of me.

It may be that it sobered him in some part. I do not know. He drew away and breathed heavily alongside me, loosening his hair at last from the tight confinements of his braid. He looked more handsome with it falling about his shoulders.

"I have this, then, at least." He eased the swatch of white silk from beneath me, bearing the vivid red stain of my virgin blood. His predatory eyes were strangely calm. "You know what I desire, Phèdre?"

"Yes, my lord," I murmured. I rose obediently from his pallet to cross to the device on the fourth wall; the last wall. I did not need to be told. I stood spread-eagled against the X-shaped cross, his whipping-post. I could feel his breath against my skin as he fastened the thongs at my wrists and ankles. The rough wood of the cross chafed my hipbones.

"You are the most splendid thing I have ever seen," he murmured, jerking tight the ties binding my left wrist. My fingers splayed out in anguished protest. "Tell me what Delaunay desires."

"I don't know." I gasped as he wrenched my right ankle and lashed it to the cross.

"Truly?" He rose and his breath tickled my ear, and I felt the trailing ends of a flogger caress my lower back.

"I swear it!"

And then the lash began to fall.

I could not count the number of times. It was not like my childhood punishment at the hand of the Dowayne's chastiser, for there was no mediator, no quota of blows. I know only that I writhed and pleaded against the rough wood, and still the lash fell mercilessly, bearing out Childric d'Essoms hatred of my lord. Once I gave up and sagged against my bonds, offering no resistance; he came to me then and reached between my legs with his fingers, stirring me until I pleaded, humiliated, for a different release. Then the lash fell again.

At last his arm tired, and he came behind me once more. I felt his fingers spread my buttocks. "I paid Anafiel Delaunay a virgin-price," he whispered in my ear. I felt the blunt head of his phallus probe at my nether orifice and dug my fingertips into the rude wood of the cross, driving splinters beneath my nails. "And I will take it, to the last centime."

He did.


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