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AFTERWARD CECILIE came to visit and took me on an excursion to a sanctuary of Naamah some miles outside the City, famed for its hot springs.

It was strange to treat with her as an almost-equal, after so many years as her pupil, but she was gracious as ever and any awkwardness soon passed between us. There was a chill to the spring air, but the sun was warm and bright, and it was good to see the pale green shoots of new growth emerging as we drove into the countryside. We were well-received by the priests and priestesses of Naamah at the temple, and though they were discreet, I daresay they recognized the name of Cecilie Laveau-Perrin.

"After all," she said in the bathhouse, shrugging gracefully into one of the robes they had given us, "we are Servants of Naamah, my dear. We may as well indulge ourselves in such amenities as that avails us."

The hot springs bubbled in rocky pools, releasing wisps of steam in the cool air. Only a few early flowers bloomed, intrepid and pale, but there was a warble of birdsong, giving promise of summer to come. I followed Cecilie as she walked carefully over the rocks, following suit as she slipped out of her robe and lowered her body into the warm, slightly acrid waters.

"Aahhh." She sighed with pleasure, settling her submerged form on rocks long since worn smooth by water and the luxuriating bodies of innumerable bathers. "They say the waters have good healing qualities, you know. Come, let me see." She examined the welts on my back as I turned obediently. "Skin-deep. There'll be no trace of them in a week. I've heard Childric d'Essoms makes love as if he's hunting boar. Is it true?"

I thought of him wielding his phallus like a spear and almost laughed. "It is true enough," I said. The warmth of the waters was beginning to seep into my bones, filling my limbs with a feeling of lassitude and soothing the minor pains d'Essoms had dealt my flesh into a sweet, warm ache. "He has the passion of his fury, at least."

"Is there aught for which your studies with me left you unprepared?"

"No." I answered truthfully, shaking my head. "Lord d'Essoms desired little in the manner of art."

"Others will," she assured me, adding, "Phèdre, if you have questions, do not hesitate to ask me." With that, she dropped the matter, and her eyes took on a glint I remembered well from the boudoir gossip of Cereus House. "Do you think he will ask for you again?"

Remembering d'Essoms' rage, the wild blows of the flogger against my skin and his breath hot against my neck, I smiled. "You may be sure of it," I murmured, tilting my head back to submerge my hair. It fell, waterlogged and silken, down the length of my back as I straightened. "He will tell himself it is to beat Delaunay at his game," I told her. "But that is only what he will tell himself."

"Be careful." The admonishment in her voice was stern enough that I took heed, glancing at her. "If d'Essoms realizes you know what you're about, he will be frightened; and that, my dear, will make him truly dangerous." Cecilie sighed, looking of a sudden tired and aged through the wreathing steam. "Anafiel Delaunay does not reckon he does, equipping a child of your proclivities with that much knowledge and sending you into certain danger."

There were a hundred things I longed to ask her, but I knew well enough that she would not answer. "My lord Delaunay knows full well what he does," I said instead.

"Let us hope you are right." Cecilie spoke the words firmly, sitting straighter in the hot spring and looking once more like the prized blossom of Cereus House that she had been. "Come, we are not too late to join in the luncheon meal, and the Servants of Naamah lay a fine table at her sanctuary. If we do not dawdle overmuch, there will be time to soak again before we need return to the City."

We dined well that day, and made our return to the City before sundown. I made my report to Delaunay that night, and he seemed well enough at ease with it, praising me for doing naught but letting d'Essoms swallow the bait of our assignation, hook and all.

"Tell him nothing," he said, satisfaction in his voice, "and he will tell you something in time, Phèdre, in hopes of priming the pump. It is human nature, to give in hope of getting. Lord d'Essoms will give. It is inevita-ble." Going to his desk, he took out a small pouch and tossed it to me. I caught it by reflex, surprised. Delaunay grinned. "He sent it by courier this afternoon. A patron-gift, toward your marque. It is his will, I think, that the marquist limn his conquest of you upon your skin as a fair reminder to me. Do you wish to refuse?"

The pouch weighed heavy in my hand. It was the first coin of my own I had ever owned. I shook my head. "If it serve your will, my lord, so let it be. He was the first."

I might have wished for some sign of jealousy, were I less of a realist. Delaunay gazed into some unknowable distance, nodding to himself. He was not displeased. "Then let it be. I will make an appointment with the marquist."

And thus began my career as a Servant of Naamah.

A week later to the day, I had my first meeting with the marquist. As Cecilie had predicted, the weals marring my back and sides had faded to nothingness in that time, leaving my skin a clean slate for the marquist's art. Kushiel's chosen heal swiftly; we have need of it.

Because Delaunay was Delaunay, nothing but the finest would do for his adepts; I went to the same man as Alcuin, a master of the trade. Robert Tielhard had been at his art for two-score years, and his services came dear. I had long known this would be the case, for Delaunay had paid dear in purchasing my marque.

I was not Alcuin, to remember to the last clause and by-law the regulations governing every guild in the nation, but I knew the rules of my own well enough. The Guild of the Servants of Naamah does not allow for outright slavery. Delaunay did not own my marque so much as he held it in trust for Naamah—but until such time as I made it, I was indentured into his service. All contract fees belonged to Delaunay; only patron-gifts freely given in homage to Naamah could go toward my marque.

I spent the first hour in the marquist's shop naked, lying flat on my stomach with my head pillowed on my arms while Master Robert Tielhard muttered around my backside with a pair of calipers, taking my measurements and transferring them to paper. When he was done, I sat up and donned my clothes, admiring the masterful sketch of a part of me I seldom saw. I particularly liked the curve of my lower back, widening like the base of a fiddle from my narrow waist.

" 'Tis not for your vanity I do this, missy!" Master Tielhard snapped, turning to his apprentice. "Run down the street, lad, and fetch Lord De-launay from the wineshop." While I sat waiting on his limning-table, he ignored me, fetching out a rolled scroll from its cubbyhole and pinning it up on a cork wall next to my sketch.

I recognized Alcuin's marque from its base, which he already bore on his skin, but still I gasped to see the design in its entirety. It was surpassingly beautiful, and I understood why Robert Tielhard had earned the right to be called Master.

Each of the Thirteen Houses has its own marque-pattern, but it is a different matter for Servants of Naamah not attached to any House. Our marques—within certain strictures—are highly individualized.

Of course the designs are highly abstracted, but a trained eye can pick out the underlying forms, and I soon saw many in Alcuin's. Elegant scrolling at the base suggested a mountain stream, and the slim, supple trunk of a white birch rose upward, a fine pattern of birch-leaves twining about it and crowning it in a delicate spray at the finial. The lines were strong, but the colors subtle, soft greys and charcoals that would echo Alcuin's unusual coloring, with the merest hint of a pale green along the edges of the leaves.

What Master Robert Tielhard designed for me was different.

Delaunay entered the marquist's shop laughing, bringing with him a breeze of wine and good conversation, but he soon sobered to the task at hand, poring with Master Tielhard over bits of foolscap as sketch after sketch was drafted and refined or discarded. I grew impatient, but he would not let me see until they had a sketch which pleased them both.

"What do you think, Phèdre?" Delaunay turned to me grinning, holding out the rough design.

It was bold, far bolder than Alcuin's marque. With some effort, I recognized the underlying design, which was based on a very old pattern, the briar rose. Somehow Master Tielhard had kept the dramatic vigor of the archaic lines, yet infused them with a subtlety that spoke at once of the vine, the bond and the lash. The thorny lines were stark black, accented in only a few choice hollows with a teardrop of scarlet—a petal, a drop of blood, the mote in my eye.

Primitive, yet sophisticated. I adored it. No matter how many visits to the marquist's were required to execute the design in full, to restore it to pristine condition after my patrons' untender mercies, it was worth it.

"My lord, it is wonderful," I answered him honestly.

"I thought as much." Delaunay preened with satisfaction while Master Tielhard set about transferring the design to the master sketch of my measurements, muttering to himself. It was astonishing to see how the lineaments bloomed beneath the sure gestures of his crabbed hands. His apprentice crowded near, craning to see around Delaunay. "I'll be in the wineshop," Delaunay said to Master Tielhard. "You'll send the boy for me when she's done?"

The marquist answered with an affirmative grunt, deep in concentration. Dropping a kiss on my disheveled curls, Delaunay waved and departed.

I waited, and waited some more while Master Tielhard copied the design to his very exacting satisfaction. And when that was done, it was time to disrobe again, lying naked while he retraced the base of my marque yet again, checking his measurements with the calipers. The quill scratched my skin and the ink tickled. He slapped my buttock once when I wriggled, absentmindedly, as one might reprimand a restless child. After that I held myself motionless.

After a small eternity, the base was outlined. Chin propped on my elbows, I watched as Master Tielhard gathered the tools of his profession; the ink-trough and his tappers. His apprentice watched me out of the corner of his eye, nervous and excited. The boy was no more than fourteen, and I smiled to think of my effect on him. He blushed as he mixed the ink, and covered it by bustling about the brazier, heaping it with coal until the marquist's shop was as warm and toasty as a baker's oven. Master Tielhard snapped at him for it, and he blushed again. I didn't care; being naked, it felt good.

And at last it was time for the marquist to start limning. As is customary, he began at the base of my spine, at the very knob where it ends, below the dimples of the lower back. I could not see him choose a tapper and dip it in the trough, but I felt it against my skin, the prick of a dozen tight-clustered needles and the seeping wetness of the ink.

Then he struck the tapper with his mallet and a dozen needles pierced my skin, impregnating the flesh at the base of my spine with a dollop of ink-black. The pain of it was an exquisite shock. I made an involuntary sound, my hips moving of their own volition to thrust against the hard surface below me, grinding my pubis into the limning table. Master Tiel-hard swatted me again.

"Damned anguissettes," he growled, concentrating on his work. "Grandpère always said they was worse than criers or bleeders. Now I know why."

Ignoring his complaint, I held myself still with the greatest of efforts while he continued, tapping, tapping, tapping with the mallet, piercing the lines of my marque into my skin.

I savored every moment of it.


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