Back | Next


WHAT BECAME of that conversation, I never learned; or at least not until much later, when it mattered no longer. I might have been put out at it, were it not for the fact that my own interests, for a time, outweighed Delaunay's intrigues.

Melisande Shahrizai was giving a birthday party for Prince Baudoin de Trevalion. She had engaged the whole of Cereus House for an entire night to do it, and we were invited; all three of us.

I had not forgotten the promise she had made me when last we met; I had not forgotten her words when first I met her. You do wish to serve Naamah, don't you child? No matter how many patrons I had had, none of them had ever turned my knees to water with a glance.

If I have not said it, Melisande was exceedingly wealthy. House Shahrizai is prosperous to start, and she had at her disposal as well the estates of two deceased husbands. Indeed, if not for the rumors that surrounded those deaths, it is conceivable that Lyonette de Trevalion would have found Melisande a suitable daughter-in-law, although I doubt it. From what I had heard, she did not strike me as a woman capable of tolerating rivalry among equals.

For my part, I do not believe Melisande Shahrizai killed either of her husbands. Both were very rich and very old, and I do not think she had need. Although she was only sixteen the first time, and nineteen at her second wedding, I would fain believe she was no less calculating then than when first I encountered her; and the woman I knew was far too clever to take an unnecessary risk for mere gold.

Although I didn't know, then, how skilled she was at using the hands of others to meet her own ends. I know it now.

Whatever the truth of the matter, it left her a very rich woman, and the City was fair buzzing with the news of Baudoin's birthday party.

Invitations, written in gold ink on thick vellum and scented with fragrance, were delivered and jealously guarded. Rumors abounded regarding the list of invitees and the possible slights that lay behind omissions.

Melisande delivered the invitation herself, sweeping into the house in a cloud of the same subtle fragrance that impregnated the card. Delaunay opened it and raised his eyebrows.

"All of my household?" he inquired dryly. "You do realize, I trust, that my proteégeées are not included in the contract-fee for Cereus House, Melisande."

She tossed her chin and laughed, showing the lovely line of her throat. "I knew you would say that, Anafiel; that's why I came to make the invitation in person. Yes, of course. This is my party, after all, and your little pupils are more interesting than any three courtiers together."

"I thought it was Baudoin's party."

His jibe made no mark. She merely looked at him through her lashes and smiled. "It is for Baudoin, of course, but it is my party, Anafiel. Surely you know me well enough for that."

Delaunay returned her smile, running the ball of his thumb over the edge of the vellum. "If you think to win the son of the Lioness of Azzalle over to defying his mother, you may be overstepping your bounds, Melisande. She makes a fearsome enemy."

"Ah, my dear Delaunay, always fishing for knowledge," she said lightly, putting her hand over his and taking hold of the card of invitation. "If you do not wish to attend...?"

"No." Shaking his head, he grinned and took a step back, retaining possession of the card. "We will be there, you may be sure of it."

"I am overjoyed to hear it." Melisande Shahrizai made him a mocking curtsy and turned to leave. Catching sight of me standing in the shadows, she blew me a kiss as she made her exit. Delaunay saw me and frowned. What expression I wore, I cannot imagine.

"Whatever happens," he said, "you are to keep your eyes and ears open, Phèdre; and warn Alcuin, too. Melisande Shahrizai does nothing without reason, and I cannot fathom her motive in this. It inclines me to suspicion." A shadow crossed his face. "I suppose this means I must send for the tailor again," he added, annoyed at the prospect.

Annoyed or no, Delaunay ensured that all of us would cut a good figure at Baudoin's party. With his exquisite taste, it was a marvel how he had no patience for the process of fine attire—but the end result, you may be sure, was no less splendid for it. When all was done, Alcuin was resplendent in midnight-blue velvet, a color that made him look like a vision dreamt by moonlight. Delaunay wore the deep umber that made him look like an autumn feast, with his russet hair and saffron slashes in his sleeves. And I was delighted to find that he had commissioned another bolt of sangoire to have a gown made for me. Although it did not dip so low as I might have wished in the back—it is vulgar for a Servant of Naamah to display an unfinished marque—it had a low decolletage, and I wore a ruby pendant given me by Childric d'Essoms that nestled in the hollow between my breasts.

I had not returned to Cereus House since the day I had left it in Delaunay's coach, and it was strange to return. The first time aside, every time I had approached this place, it had been slung ignominiously across the pommel of a guard's saddle. Behind the closed gates, I could see that the house was ablaze with light and merriment. I shuddered as we drew up to the entrance and Delaunay descended from the coach.

"Are you all right?" Alcuin whispered, leaning over to grasp my hand. There was nothing but sweet concern on his face, and I repented of the number of times I had been jealous of him.

"I'm fine." I squeezed his hand in reply, gathered my skirts, and followed Delaunay.

Prince Baudoin de Trevalion's natal festivities were already in full stride. It was summer, and nigh every door in the house was flung open. I, who had lived there six years, had never seen such a fête. Great vases of roses, heliotrope and lavender were set on every surface, spilling an abundance of blossom and scent. In every niche, musicians played, and it seemed lovers groped and sighed in every corner. A night's fee had been paid for every adept in Cereus House. No guest would be refused.

The thought of it staggered my mind and struck me with a wave of envious desire. To be in such a situation, bought for the night, available to anyone at the crook of a finger! I wished, almost, that I were an adept of Cereus House.

And then I remembered that I was a guest, and my mind reeled further to think on it.

We were conducted to the Great Hall, which was lit and adorned as I had only seen it for the Midwinter Masque. A throng of people in gorgeous plumage had already gathered, the sound of laughter and flirtation mingling with music and a hundred savory odors wafting in the air. Beautiful apprentices of both sexes carried trays of food and drink, offering them to all and sundry. The liveried footman called out our names and a handsome blond man in the colors of Cereus House extricated himself gracefully from the throng and came over to us.

"Phèdre," he said, giving me the kiss of greeting. "Welcome. Welcome back." It was Jareth Moran, a little older, but much the same. I blinked in surprise, seeing that he wore a Dowayne's chain about his neck, with the seal of Cereus House upon it. He turned smiling to Delaunay. "My lord Delaunay, it is good to see you. Be welcome. And you are Alcuin noé Delaunay." He grasped Alcuin's hand briefly, seeing a hint of reserve flicker in the dark eyes. I had forgotten the exquisite courtesies of the Night Court; or rather, I had never been on the receiving end of them. "Be welcome."

"The Dow—" I began to ask, then corrected myself. "The old Dowayne?"

Jareth looked grave, although I could tell it was put on. "She died some seven years ago, Phèdre. It was a peaceful death, she went in her sleep." He touched his chain. "I have been Dowayne since."

"I am sorry," I murmured, unaccountably grieved. As fierce as the old woman had been, she was a part of my childhood. "You have been an able successor, I am sure."

"I do my best." Jareth smiled gently. "You remember Suriah? She is my Second now."

"Come," Delaunay said to Alcuin, nodding toward the interior of the Great Hall. "Let us meet the revelers, my dear; I'm sure Phèdre and the Dowayne have much to discuss."

I watched them fade into the crowd. At the far end of the hall, a table was set on a dais for Prince Baudoin and a select few. Suriah was there; the Prince was feeding her tidbits by hand. Melisande Shahrizai looked amused. "She was the Winter Queen."

"It gave her a lot of status." Jareth's voice changed, turning pragmatic, adept to adept. "People still tell the story every Midwinter. I'd have been a fool to choose anyone else."

He had never been a fool. "No," I said, agreeing. "You made the right choice." Even from a distance, I could see that her pallid beauty had already peaked, and there was no evidence in her of the unexpected steel that lay beneath the delicate veneer of the few rare adepts who survived the loss of youth's tender bloom. I did not think Suriah would live to make Dowayne, and I felt sorry for her. "She was always kind to me."

"I hope you have fond memories of Cereus House, Phèdre."

Looking into Jareth's blue eyes, I realized it mattered to him; in certain circles, my word could damage the reputation of his House. "Yes," I answered honestly. "If I never belonged, nor was I shunned, and what ill-treatment I received, I well deserved and," I smiled wickedly at him, "quite enjoyed." He blushed; it is a mark of delicacy in Cereus to find the stronger passions immodest. "There is no finer training than that of Cereus House," I added. "It has stood me in good stead, and I can only speak well of my time here."

"I am pleased," he said, recovering his aplomb and making me a bow. "We are honored to have fostered you." Reaching into a pocket of his waistcoat, he drew forth a token of Cereus House. "Please, take this, and know you are always welcome here."

I took it and thanked him graciously. Jareth smiled.

"Enjoy the night," he said. "It's not often a Servant of Naamah has a chance to be a patron."

With that, he took his leave of me, moving smoothly on to greet newly arriving guests. Neither Delaunay nor Alcuin were in sight, but they would surely be making their way toward to the dais and I hurried to join them. It would be inappropriate for a member of Delaunay's household to be absent when he paid his respects to the Prince. I had not lost the trick of slipping gracefully through a crowd, and had to remind myself that there was no need to keep my gaze downcast; still, I felt an unwarranted thrill of boldness as I looked other patrons full in the face.

Strange indeed, to be here again.

A handful of people had gathered at the foot of the dais, waiting to wish the Prince a joyous birthday, and there I found Delaunay and Alcuin. As always, there was a stillness to Delaunay's presence, an observant calm that lent him a dignity surpassing that of those who surrounded him.

On the dais, anything but dignity reigned. Prince Baudoin, older than the wild boy whom I had first seen in this hall, had lost neither his good looks nor the hectic gleam of gaiety that lit his sea-grey eyes. As I had seen from the back of the hall, he held poor Suriah on his lap, keeping her captive with one arm.

Adepts of Cereus House are ill-suited to undignified treatment; if this was to be the nature of the fête, Melisande would have done better to reserve another House—Orchis, perhaps, or Jasmine. She sat at Baudoin's right hand, and I understood, then, that the adept's discomfort entertained her. Melisande's choice had been deliberate.

Two of Baudoin's guard, high-ranking nobles' sons, were privileged to share his table. One, following the Prince's lead, dandled a female adept on his lap. The other had a young boy standing attendant at his shoulder, refilling his wineglass.

"Well, well." Baudoin lounged in his chair and regarded Delaunay from behind the burden of Suriah as our turn came to mount the dais.

"Messire Anafiel Delaunay! I hope you've repaired your quarrel with my kinsman, the Comte de Fourcay. He has so few friends, after all. Come, what have you brought me? A charming pair of bedservants?"

"My Prince will have his jest." Delaunay bowed smoothly, and behind him, Alcuin and I followed suit. "Alcuin and Phèdre noé Delaunay, of my household. Please accept our most sincere wishes for a joyous natality." He turned to Alcuin, who held up the Prince's gift; a filigree silver pomander containing a fragrant lump of amber. Delaunay took it from Alcuin and presented it to the Prince with another bow.

"Nice." Baudoin took the pomander and sniffed it, then shook it next to Suriah's ear. A hidden bell tinkled sweetly. "Very nice. You have leave to enjoy my party, Anafiel; you and your little playmates. I swear it, my mother spoke truly of you! Only you would bring whores to a pleasure-house, messire."

Delaunay's expression never altered, but Alcuin flushed, the rising tide of blood clearly visible beneath his fair skin. At that moment, one of the Prince's guards—the unencumbered one—exclaimed, "I know that one; look at the eyes on her! That's Delaunay's anguissette, the one as likes being hurt." Drawing the sword he carried for the Prince's protection, he lodged the tip of it under the skirts of my gown and began to raise them. "Come, then, let us have a look!" he said, laughing. Baudoin's interest was piqued; he pushed Suriah to one side and leaned forward to look.

I never even saw Delaunay move, it was that swift. There was the ringing of steel striking stone and the guard wrung his empty stinging hand, his blade trapped flat on the floor beneath Delaunay's boot. His face was dangerous as he locked eyes with Baudoin. "My lord, may I remind you that these members of my household are your guests, here by invitation of your lady."

"Phèdre?" Suriah whispered, coming around the table to take my face in her hands. "It is you. Blessed Naamah, but you've prospered, child!"

Still seated, Baudoin waved his hand negligently. "All right, all right, Delaunay, your point is made, give Martin back his sword. Lads, with all of Cereus House at your disposal, I hardly think we need trouble Messire Delaunay over his playmates." Despite his casual manner, he truly did have a measure of command; and he was, after all, a Prince of the Blood. Delaunay picked up the guard's sword and handed it over with a stiff bow, which Martin returned, sheathing his sword and sitting. Everyone remained silent as Baudoin raised his glass and drained it. Setting it down with a bang, he eyed me thoughtfully, his gaze taking in the scarlet fleck in my eye and wandering over my body, clad in close-fitting sangoire velvet as if offered for his delectation.

This time, I blushed.

"A true anguissette, hm?" he mused. Melisande Shahrizai leaned over and whispered in his ear. Listening, he raised his eyebrows, smiled, then lifted her hand and kissed it passionately, looking into her sapphire eyes with nigh-doting affection. "You are without peer," he murmured to her, and waved his hand again in our general direction. "If you would serve my will, go now, and make merry. Your Prince commands it."

"Yes, my lord," Delaunay said dryly, motioning us to precede him. His tone was wasted on Baudoin, but I caught a gleam of amusement on Melisande's face as she watched us go.

Unnerved by the encounter, I let myself become isolated in the crowd and accepted a glass of cordial from a pretty fosterling. I drank it at a gulp, setting the glass back on the tray. I had not eaten, and the cordial burned sweetly down my throat. The girl stood in obedient attendance, just as I had. She was perhaps thirteen, near to the age of taking her vows; fair-haired and delicate, a true night-blooming flower. I touched her cheek and felt her shudder. This was what it was to be a patron, to have that power. I was discomfited by it, and moved away, feeling her lifted gaze at my back, wondering.

Delaunay had ordered us to watch and listen, but I was hard-put to concentrate. I moved among the crowds, pausing to converse here or there, trying to discern the patterns beneath the merriment, but my veins were afire with the cordial I had drunk, and the music and candles and scent of flowers made my head swim. Prince Baudoin's friends and supporters abounded, declaring in carelessly loud tones that they should call for a public referendum, that the King should appoint Baudoin his successor, that Parliament should intervene. None of the talk was new and none seemed more urgent nor serious than it had a year ago.

Growing weary of circulating and wishing to avoid the advances of a certain persistent Chevalier who was plaguing me to dance with him, I slipped out of the Great Hall and made my way to a seldom-used pleasure niche on the first floor that had served as a refuge sometimes in my childhood.

A flicker of lamplight and a man's beseeching voice stopped me before entering. I drew back into the shadows.

"I have sent word to you five times! How can you be so cruel to refuse me?"

There was desperation in the tone and I knew the voice. It was Vitale Bouvarre.

Alcuin's voice, cool and distant. "Sir, I did not think to see you here. You are not known to be a friend of Prince Baudoin's."

"Nor am I known to be an enemy!" After the alarm in Vitale Bouvarre's voice, there was a pause. "The Lady Shahrizai pays for information on the Stregazza, and the Stregazza pay for talk of House Trevalion. Where is the harm in it? I am a trader, sweet boy." His tone turned wheedling. "Why will you not deign to ply your trade?"

I heard a rustle and a scraping sound; Alcuin had shaken off his touch. "I am a Servant of Naamah, not a galley-slave, sir. Seven times I have agreed to your contract, and seven times you have stinted your offering!"

Another pause. "I will make you a patron-gift." Bouvarre's voice trembled. "Any amount you name! Only say it."

Alcuin drew a deep breath and his voice turned ardent as he answered. "Enough to make my marque. And the answer to Delaunay's question. That is my price, sir."

At this, even I caught my breath sharply. There was a long silence, and then Bouvarre spoke again. "You ask too much," he said dully.

"It is my price." There was adamant in the words. I was astonished at the depth of feeling in him. I had known, from the beginning, that he had no love for this work; I had not known, until then, how much he despised it. And if he had hidden it from me, how much better had he hidden it from Delaunay? Well indeed, I think, for Delaunay would never have permitted Alcuin to continue in the service of Naamah had he known. Not only was it against his nature, but blasphemous as well.

"And if I pay it," Bouvarre was saying, the tremor back in his voice, "I will see you no more."

"If you pay it," Alcuin said softly, "you will see me once more, messire. If you do not, you will never see me again."

Another long silence, then once more, Bouvarre. "It is too much," he said, repeating himself. "I will think on it."

Alcuin made no reply. I heard the swish of cloth as Bouvarre turned to leave, and retreated further into the darkness, not wanting to be seen. There was not much risk of it, as he had the look of a man much distracted as he hurried past me. When Alcuin didn't emerge, I stole forward to steal a glance.

There was a small statue of Naamah in the niche, before which he knelt. Lamplight flickered on the ghostly white of his hair as he gazed up at her. "Forgive me, my lady goddess," I heard him murmur. "If I violate your precepts, it is only to obey those of our lord Elua. What I do, I do for love."

It was enough; I did not want him to know I had witnessed it. Adepts of Cereus House and pupils of Anafiel Delaunay alike are taught to move without sound when need requires. I crept away in silence.

Lovers clinched in the hallways and boudoirs, revelers danced and drank in the Great Hall, musicians played, apprentices served and adepts offered pleasure; in all the gaiety, only I seemed to feel solitary and alone. As a child, I could not have imagined one might aspire any higher. To be a courtesan of such note that I might attend a fête such as this— before I had even made my marque!—as the invited guest of a Prince's was more than ever I had dreamed. But my pleasure was tempered by too much knowledge; knowledge of Delaunay's teaching, knowledge of Alcuin's despite for this world I knew so well.

This world in which I had no place, as patron or Servant.

I missed Hyacinthe and wished he were here.

I even wished the old Dowayne were here.

Driven by melancholy, I sought solace in one of the lesser gardens, thinking to be alone with my unaccustomed emotions and soothed by the moonlit play of water in the fountain. Even in this, I failed, for the shadowed torches were lit and several others had found the garden already. In one dim corner, a knot of people writhed to the sound of giggles and moans. I tried to count their number by limbs, and failed; three at least, but perhaps four. Under an ornamental apple tree, another couple lay entwined. Since I had no place else to go, I sat by the fountain anyway, trailing my fingers in the rippling water and wondering if the Dowayne's ancient golden carp still lived.

I felt a touch on the back on my neck.


I knew her voice; it sent a shiver of cold fire down my spine. I looked up to see Melisande Shahrizai smiling down upon me.

"Why are you here alone?" she asked. "Surely you would not disdain my hospitality."

I stood quickly, brushing off my skirts. "No, my lady."

"Good." She was standing close enough that I could feel her warmth. It was too dark to see the blue of her eyes, but I could see the langorous sweep of her lashes. "Do you know what they say in Kusheth about sinners in Kushiel's charge?" she asked, running the tip of one finger over my lower lip. I shook my head, dazed by her nearness. "It is said that when offered the chance for repentance, they refused it for love of their lord."

With the same hand, she undid my hair, letting it fall in a cascade. "I believe I have found the perfect gift for Prince Baudoin tonight," she said casually, twining her hand in my hair. "You." Jerking her grip tight, she brought me hard up against her and kissed me.

I gasped when she released me and sat down hard on the rim of the fountain, unable to stand, the entire length of my body throbbing from the sudden contact with hers. She had bitten my lip, and I touched it with my tongue, wondering if she had drawn blood. Melisande laughed, the sound liquid in the moonlight.

"Unfortunately," she said lightly, "he is well occupied this night, and I have promised to join him. But I will speak with Delaunay on the morrow about making an arrangement for the Prince. After all, I owe him a farewell gift." Turning, she beckoned to the darkness behind her. A fair young man, cast in the canon of Cereus House, stepped forward in compliance. "Jean-Louis," Melisande said, laying her hand on his chest. "Phèdre is my guest. See that she is well pleased."

He bowed gracefully. "Yes, my lady."

She patted his arm and took her leave of the garden. "Be gentle with her," she said over her shoulder, amusement in her voice.

Much to my dismay, he was.

Back | Next