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THIS MARKED the beginning of a period of time that in many ways was the finest of my life. All that Delaunay had prophesied for me so long ago came to pass. Word of Delaunay's anguissette spread like a slow fire, the kind that smolders and burns below the surface, impossible to extinguish. The offers continued to come, most of them discreet, a few direct.

It was during the first year that Delaunay's cunning in the matter of our exposure became evident to me. Alcuin's patrons were a select group, most of them hand-picked and targeted by Delaunay. Friends, acquaintances or cordial enemies, they had been to Delaunay's house, had watched Alcuin grow from a beautiful boy. Delaunay had cast out a net with his auction, but he had certain fish in mind. As he drew it in, he selected his catch with care.

With me, it was another matter.

Many patrons, like Childric d'Essoms, Delaunay had anticipated; but others, many others, he had not. If Alcuin was a net cast on known waters, I was a line thrown out at sea and not even Anafiel Delaunay knew for certain who would rise to the bait.

And lest it be thought that my assignation with Childric d'Essoms laid the pattern for all further patrons, I hasten to disabuse anyone of this notion. My second assignation, a member of the Exchequer who paid dearly for the privilege, could not have been more different. Slight and deferential, Pepin Lachet seemed to me at first glance the sort of patron far more likely to contract Alcuin than I. Indeed, in the bedchamber he did naught but remove his clothes, lie upon the bed and bid me in an uninterested voice to please him.

If Childric d'Essoms required little of my art, Pepin Lachet required all of it. Disrobing, I climbed onto the bed and knelt beside him, beginning with the caress of trailing willows. I loosed my hair and flung it over him, letting it spill over him like water, slowly drawing it down the length of his body.

He lay unmoving and unexcited.

Undeterred, I set about the arousement, beginning with confidence. In the hour that followed, I tried every technique Cecilie had taught us, working with fingers, lips and tongue on every part of Pepin Lachet's body from the tips of his ears to the ends of his toes. In the end, desperate, I resorted to a measure usually used by the cheapest of prostitutes, a crude manipulation called coaxing the turtle. Pepin Lachet's member responded, stirring to a half-hearted salute.

Fearing to lose even that, I bestrode him and began to move urgently, but instead of rising further, his phallus grew limp and slipped out of me. Near to tears, I met his cold gaze.

"You're not much good at this, are you?" he asked contemptuously, spilling me off him. "I'll show you how it's done."

"My lord, I am sorry..." I fell silent as he reached into the nightstand and brought out silk bonds, making no protest as he tied my wrists and ankles to the bedposts. When he brought out the pincers and his phallus began to rise untouched, engorged and swollen, I understood.

Where Childric d'Essoms had been brutal, Pepin Lachet was the epitome of delicacy. I suppose it takes an exacting soul to maintain the balance of the royal treasury. He worked on me for what seemed like hours. When I cried out at the torment of it, he thrust a padded leather gag in my mouth, asking first if I wished to give the signale. I shook my head, feeling tears of shame trickle backward from the corners of my eyes. My entire body was ablaze with pain, and painful with desire. "If you wish to give the signale," he said formally, prying my mouth open and inserting the thick gag, "rap upon the bedpost and I will hear. Do you understand?" I nodded, unable now to speak. "Good."

And with that, he continued to work upon me until I nearly bit through the gag.

After each assignation, always, came the interview. I have no way of knowing how many nuggets of knowledge we laid at Delaunay's feet, how many pieces of the puzzle he set in place after our recitations. At that time, it must be understood, while we knew a juicy morsel of information when we heard it, neither Alcuin nor I grasped the ends toward which he strove.

Of information, there was always a steady trickle, for there was increasing unrest in the realm. The King suffered a mild seizure which left him with a palsy in his right hand. Ysandre de la Courcel remained unwed. Suitors and claimants circled the throne like wolves in early winter; still wary enough to remain at a distance, but with growing hunger.

Most ambitious of the pack was no wolf, but a lion, the Lionesse of Azzalle. Though I never met Lyonette de la Courcel de Trevalion in all this time, I heard much of her and her constant intrigues.

One I even learnt of firsthand.

I had been contracted for a two-day assignation to the Marquise Solaine Belfours at her country estate. Delaunay had picked his target well in her. It was her pleasure to assign me tasks I had no hope of completing, and chastise me for the failure. On this occasion, she led me to her receiving room, where she had ordered the gardeners to deliver a burgeoning pile of cut flowers. They sprawled in a mound on the sideboard, a profusion of blossoms and tangled stems, dripping onto the wood and shedding dirt and leaves.

"I'm going for a ride," she informed me with her customary arrogance. "When I return, I wish to have a glass of cordial in this room, and I wish it to be in proper array and you in waiting attendance. Is that clear, Phèdre?"

I despise being forced to perform menial work, which Solaine Belfours had somehow discerned; women are cleverer than men at such things, on the whole. I dreaded these assignations, except for the fact that she was splendid in her anger. So it was that I cursed and swore through the better part of an hour, separating stems and pricking my fingers as I shoved roses, asters and zinnia into various vessels. Her servants brought buckets of water, and a dustpan and rags and wax for the sideboard, but would not aid me in any way, being forbidden to do so. I do not know if country servants gossip as they do in the city, but of a surety, these had no illusion about why I was there.

Of course it was not possible to complete the chore in the allotted time, and Solaine Belfours strode through the door, still in riding attire, while I was just beginning to brush dirt into the dustpan. I knelt quickly, but she was faster with her riding crop, catching me across the shoulders. "Wretched slattern! I told you to have this room ready for me. What do you call this?" Sweeping one hand through the mess of water and dirt on the sideboard, she peeled off her glove and struck me in the face with it. I tossed my hair back and glared at her, not needing to feign sullenness.

"You ask too much," I retorted.

Solaine Belfours had blue-green eyes, the color of aquamarines; when she was angry, they indeed turned as cold and hard as gemstones. It made my breath come quicker to watch it. "I ask only to be well served," she said coolly. She took her crop in her bare hand, tapping it against the gloved palm of the other. "And you presume too much. Take off your dress."

It was not my first time with her and I knew how the scene played out. It is a strange thing, this playing and not playing. That my role was scripted to meet her desires, I knew well and played it accordingly; but there was no artifice in it when the crop stung my bare flesh over and over and I pleaded with her to let me make amends. There is a certain victory in it when they surrender. Much as I despised her, I trembled as she allowed me to perform an act of contrition, undoing the buttons of her riding breeches, pressing my mouth against her heated flesh. I closed my eyes as her hands came to rest on my head, the now-idle crop held loosely, gently brushing my back and reminding me of its cruelties.

And it was at this moment that her steward intruded, entering with averted eyes to announce the arrival of a courier with an urgent message from Lyonette de Trevalion.

"Blessed Elua!" There was mingled annoyance and alarm in her voice. "What does she want now? Show him in." Stepping away from me, Solaine Belfours refastened her riding attire and smoothed her hair. I remained as I was, kneeling. She cast a glance at me, all annoyance now. "I am not finished with you. Put your clothes on, and attend."

Of a surety, I did not need to be told twice. I had learned in Cereus House how to be unobtrusive, and I had learned the value of it from Delaunay. I knelt abeyante, quiet and nigh-invisible, as the Lionesse of Azzalle's courier entered.

I do not know what he looked like; Delaunay might chide me for it, but I dared not raise my eyes. It was to my good fortune that the Marquise, like many people, could not read without murmuring the words aloud to herself. I can, and so can Alcuin, but only because Delaunay made us learn to do so. Solaine Belfours could not, and thus did I learn of Lyonette de Trevalion's request. It was rumored that the Khalif of Khebbel-im-Akkad had proposed an alliance between our countries with a marriage between his heir and the Princess Ysandre. Lyonette de Trevalion proposed that Solaine draft orders to the Akkadian ambassador, stamped with the Privy Seal, to string along the Khalif with false promises until he ceded rights to the island of Cythera.

It goes without saying that it was Lyonette de Trevalion's plan that these orders be discovered, destroying all hope of an Akkadian alliance.

Solaine Belfours was a Secretary of the Privy Seal; she had access and could do it, though it was high treason to falsify royal orders. I felt the wind of her pacing, and her crop swishing as she struck it absentmindedly against her boot. "What does your mistress offer?" she asked the courier.

A deep voice answered. "A title in Azzalle, my lady. The county of Vicharde, with two hundred men-at-arms and an income of forty thousand ducats annual."

The crop swished again; I saw it, out of the corner of my eye. "Tell her I'll take it," Solaine Belfours said decisively. "But I want the title in hand before the orders go out, and safe passage guaranteed to Azzalle." Even at a distance, I could sense her cold smile. "Tell her I want no less an escort than Prince Baudoin and his Glory-Seekers. Let us see if she is in earnest."

From the rustle and creak, I knew the courier bowed. "As you wish, my lady. Title in hand, and Prince Baudoin as escort. I will relay your words."

"Good." Some time after the courier had left, I felt her gaze upon me. It lingered for a moment before I looked up. She was smiling, swinging her crop in great, looping circles. My skin shuddered involuntarily at the sight of it. "I'm of a mind to celebrate, Phèdre," she said with cheerful malice. "What a happy coincidence that you're here."

As matters fell out, Lyonette de Trevalion declined Solaine Belfours counteroffer, and as the Marquise had foreseen, the sticking-price was Prince Baudoin. Whatever the Lionesse of Azzalle had planned, it was not worth risking her precious son. It soon transpired that the rumors of an alliance were no more than that; rumors. Ysandre de la Courcel would not wed the Khalif's son, and the island of Cythera remained firmly in Akkadian control.

Nonetheless, Delaunay prized the information, for it revealed to him where the lines of communication lay, and shed some light upon the dim shape of Lyonette de Trevalion's ambition.

Throughout it all, the name of Baudoin de Trevalion continued to resound from the lips of peers of the realm. While the Allies of Camlach disbanded, returning to their homes and posting lighter guards on the border, Baudoin and his Glory-Seekers rode the length of Camlach, armed with a special dispensation from the King. They put the fear of Elua into Skaldic raiders; and not a few D'Angeline mountain villages, who bore the cost of putting up his riotous crew, taken out in food stores and eligible maidens. At court, Baudoin continued to evade a plethora of matrimonial snares and, despite the disapproval of his parents, continued to be seen with Melisande Shahrizai.

It was rumored that Lyonette de Trevalion had threatened to disown him if they wed, and I think there must be some truth to this, if only because of what would later come to pass. The Lionesse of Azzalle did not make idle threats, and Melisande was clever enough to know which opponents could not be defeated face-to-face.

Her, I had seen only once since I began my service to Naamah, and that at one of Delaunay's gatherings; although I had thought of her often, you may be sure. In the courtyard, she shone, no less for her beauty than her barbed wit. To me she was courteous and pleasant; but I encountered her in the hall, on my way back from an errand to the kitchen, and her smile made my knees weak.

"Turn around," she murmured.

I did it without even thinking.

Her fingers unbuttoned the back of my bodice as skillfully as an adept's; indeed, I could have sworn the fabric yearned open at her mere touch. I felt her nails against my skin, tracing the base of my marque, following it upward. Her body radiated behind me and I could smell the scent she used, subtle and spicy, mixed with the musk of her flesh.

"Your name is being spoken in certain circles, Phèdre." Only the tips of her fingers touched me, but she was close enough that her breath was warm on my neck. The amusement in her voice reminded me of Delaunay; nothing else did. "You've never given the signale, have you?"

"No." I breathed the word, unable to summon the strength to speak it.

"I thought not." Melisande Shahrizai laid her palm flat in the small of my back, where it burned like a brand, then drew it away and did up my buttons, quick and professional. I could hear her smile in the darkness. "Some day we will see which throws truer, Kushiel's line or Kushiel's Dart."

I daresay neither of us knew how true her words would prove, nor in what manner. Melisande knew full well what Delaunay was about with Alcuin and me; and knew, too, that I was bait for her interest. And she had every intention of taking it—in her own time. My patrons were not known for their gifts of forbearance. I had learned patience and intrigue at Delaunay's knee, and I am not ashamed to say that the thought of a patron who could match it quite undid me. When I thought of Baudoin de Trevalion now, it was with a measure of pity and envy.

The Skaldi threat, at least, seemed quelled for the time being, or so popular court wisdom had it. Where the border lords of Camlach were not, Baudoin and his Glory-Seekers were. Delaunay was not so sure. He entertained his old friend and teacher, Gonzago de Escabares, when he returned from an academic's pilgrimage to Tiberium. They spoke privately, no one but Alcuin and I in attendance.

"There are rumors, Antinous," the Aragonian historian said over the rim of his wineglass, looking like a wise satyr.

There was that name again. My marque extended a full third of the way up my back, and yet I knew no more than before of the mystery of Delaunay. This time, he ignored it.

"There are always rumors," he retorted, toying with the end of his braid. "Sometimes I think each city-state in the whole of Caerdicca Unitas has its own Parliament expressly for the purpose of disseminating rumors. Which are these, Maestro?"

Gonzago de Escabares reached for a canape of goose-liver and chives rolled in flatbread. "These are delightful. I must have your cook note the recipe for mine." He ate fastidiously, licking his fingers and wiping crumbs from his beard. "They say the Skaldic tribes have found a leader," he said when he was done. "A Cinhil Ru of their own."

After a moment of staring surpise, Delaunay gave his bark of laughter. "Surely you jest! The Skaldi have never been so quiet in our lives, Maestro."

"Precisely." The Aragonian devoured another canape and held out his glass for Alcuin to refill. "They have found a leader who thinks."

Delaunay was silent, thinking about the implications. The Skaldic tribes were numerous, more numerous than the tribes of Alba and Eire, who had united to defeat the Tiberian army, the greatest military force the continent of Europa had ever seen. Islanded, isolated and hemmed in for centuries by the Master of the Straits, the armies of the kingdom of Alba had never constituted a true threat to our borders.

A united Skaldic force would be another matter.

"What are they saying?" he asked at length.

Gonzago set down his wineglass. "Not much, yet. But you know there are always Skaldi among the mercenaries, travelling the trade routes, yes? It began among them; a whisper, not even a rumor, of great doings in the north. Slowly, traders began to notice that their numbers were changing steadily...not more Skaldi, but different ones, changing places, replacing their numbers. Skaldi went and Skaldi came. It is hard to tell the difference," he added, "for they are wild and ungroomed to a man, but I spoke with a leather-merchant in Milazza who was certain that he detected a growing cunning among the Skaldi he hired to protect his caravan."

I thought of the Skaldic tribesman who had taken me under his wing so long ago, a faded memory of a laughing, mustached giant. There had been no cunning in him, and much kindness. Alcuin sat wide-eyed on his couch. His memories of the Skaldi held only blood, iron and fire.

"He thought they were gathering information," Delaunay said, tugging his braid restlessly as the wheels of his mind turned and processed. "To what end?"

"That, I do not know." Gonzago shrugged and nibbled at a canape. "But there is a name which is spoken around the Skaldi campfires in hushed tones: Waldemar, or Waldemar Selig; Waldemar the Blessed who is proof against iron. And last summer, for a fortnight, there was nary a Skaldi to be found in Caerdicca Unitas, and it was rumored that Waldemar Selig summoned a high council of the tribes of Skaldia somewhere in the old Helvetican holdings. I do not know if it is true, but my friend the leather-merchant told me a friend of his who is close to the duchy in Milazza swore that the Duke received an offer of marriage for his eldest daughter from a King Waldemar of Skaldia." Gonzago shrugged again and spread his open hands in an Aragonian gesture. "What can one do with such rumors? My friend said the Duke of Milazza laughed and sent the Skaldi envoy home with seven cartloads of silk and fustian. But I tell you I mistrust this quiet on the Skaldi borders."

Delaunay tapped his front teeth with the nail of one forefinger. "And meanwhile Baudoin de Trevalion gambols about the fringes of Camlach, skewering starving brigands and garnering acclaim for protecting the realm. You are right, Maestro, this bears watching. If you learn aught in your travels, send me word."

"You know I will, my dear." Gonzago de Escabares' tone softened, and his brown eyes were kind in his homely face. "Do not think I am not ever mindful of your promise, Antinous."

I was still puzzling out this last convoluted sentence when Delaunay's sharp gaze fell upon Alcuin and myself. He clapped his hands briskly. "Phèdre, Alcuin; to bed with the both of you. The Maestro and I have much to discuss, and none of it needful for your ears."

It need not be said that we obeyed, but I will add that one of us, at least, went reluctantly.


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