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LEST ANYONE should suppose that I am a cuckoo's child, got on the wrong side of the blanket by lusty peasant stock and sold into indenture in a shortfallen season, I may say that I am House-born and reared in the Night Court proper, for all the good it did me.

It is hard for me to resent my parents, although I envy them their naïveté. No one even told them, when I was born, that they gifted me with an ill-luck name. Phèdre, they called me, neither one knowing that it is a Hellene name, and cursed.

When I was born, I daresay they still had reason for hope. My eyes, scarce open, were yet of indeterminate color, and the appearance of a newborn babe is a fluid thing, changing from week to week. Blonde wisps may give way to curls of jet, the pallor of birth deepen to a richness like amber, and so on. But when my series of amniotic sea-changes were done, the thing was obvious.

I was flawed.

It is not, of course, that I lacked beauty, even as a babe. I am a D'Angeline, after all, and ever since Blessed Elua set foot on the soil of our fair nation and called it home, the world has known what it means to be D'Angeline. My soft features echoed my mother's, carved in miniature perfection. My skin, too fair for the canon of Jasmine House, was nonetheless a perfectly acceptable shade of ivory. My hair, which grew to curl in charming profusion, was the color of sable-in-shadows, reckoned a coup in some of the Houses. My limbs were straight and supple, my bones a marvel of delicate strength.

No, the problem was elsewhere.

To be sure, it was my eyes; and not even the pair of them, but merely the one.

Such a small thing on which to hinge such a fate. Nothing more than a mote, a fleck, a mere speck of color. If it had been any other hue, perhaps, it would have been a different story. My eyes, when they settled, were that color the poets call bistre, a deep and lustrous darkness, like a forest pool under the shade of ancient oaks. Outside Terre d'Ange, perhaps, one might call it brown, but the language spoke outside our nation's bounds is a pitiful thing when it comes to describing beauty. Bistre, then, rich and liquid-dark; save for the left eye, where in the iris that ringed the black pupil, a fleck of color shone.

And it shone red, and indeed, red is a poor word for the color it shone. Scarlet, call it, or crimson; redder than a rooster's wattles or the glazed apple in a pig's mouth.

Thus did I enter the world, with an ill-luck name and a pinprick of blood emblazoned in my gaze.

My mother was Liliane de Souverain, an adept of Jasmine House, and her line was ancient in the service of Naamah. My father was another matter, for he was the third son of a merchant prince and, alas, the acumen that raised his father to emeritus status in the City of Elua was spent in the seed that produced his elder brothers. For all three of us would have been better served had his passions led him to the door of another House; Bryony, perhaps, whose adepts are trained in financial cunning.

But Pierre Cantrel had a weak head and strong passions, so when coin swelled the purse at his belt and seed filled to bursting the purse between his legs, it was to Jasmine House, indolent and sensual, that he hied himself.

And there, of course, betwixt the ebb tide in his wits and the rising tide in his loins, he lost his heart in the bargain.

On the outside, it may not look it, but there are intricate laws and regulations governing the Court of Night-Blooming Flowers, which only rustics from the provinces call anything but the Night Court. So it must be, for we—odd, that I say it still—serve not only Naamah herself, but the great Houses of Parliament, the scions of Elua and his Companions, and sometimes, even, the House Royal itself. Indeed, more often than Royal cares to admit, we have served its sons and daughters.

Outsiders say adepts are bred like livestock, to produce children who fall within the House canon. Not so; or at least, no more so than any other marriage is arranged, for reason of politics or finance. We wed for aesthetics, true; but no one ever within my recollection was forced into a union distasteful to him or her. It would have violated the precepts of Blessed Elua to do so.

Still, it is true that my parents were an ill match, and when my father bid for her hand, the Dowayne of Jasmine House was moved to decline. No wonder, for my mother was cast true to the mold of her House, honey-skinned and ebon-haired, with great dark eyes like black pearls. My father, alas, was of a paler cast, with flaxen hair and eyes of murky blue. Who could say what the commingling of their seed would produce?

Me, of course; proving the Dowayne in the right. I have never denied it.

Since he could not have her by decree of the Night Court, my father eloped with my mother. She was free to do so, having made her marque by the age of nineteen. On the strength of his jingling purse and his father's grace, and the dowry my mother had made above her marque, they eloped.

I am sure, though I have never seen them to ask since I was but four, that both believed my mother would throw true, a perfect child, a House treasure, and the Dowayne would take me in open-armed. I would be reared and cherished, taught to love Blessed Elua and serve Naamah, and once I had made my marque, the House would tithe a portion to my parents. This I am sure they believed.

Doubtless it was a pleasant dream.

The Night Court is not unduly cruel, and during my mother's lying-in, Jasmine House had welcomed her back. There would be no support from its coffers for her unsanctioned husband, but the marriage was acknowledged and tolerated, having been executed with due process before a rural priest of Elua. In the normal course of events, if my appearance and budding nature fell within the canon of the House, I would have been reared wholly therein. If I met the canon of some other House—as I nearly did—its Dowayne would pay surety for my rearing until ten, when I would be formally adopted into my new household. Either way, did she choose, my mother would have been given over to the training of adepts and granted a pension against my marque. As my father's purse, however ardent, was not deep, this would have been the course they chose.

Alas, when it grew obvious that the scarlet mote in my eye was a permanent fixture, the Dowayne drew the line. I was flawed. Among all the Thirteen Houses, there was not one whose canon allowed for flawed goods of this kind. Jasmine House would not pay for my upkeep, and if my mother wished to remain, she must support us both in service, not training.

If he had little else, my father had his passions, and pride was one of them. He had taken my mother to wife, and her service was only for him and no longer to be laid at Naamah's altar. He begged of his father stewardship of a caravan en route to trade in Caerdicca Unitas, taking my mother and my two-year-old self with him, seeking our fortune.

It will come as no surprise, I think, that after a long and arduous journey in which he treated with brigands and mercenaries alike—and little enough difference between the two, since Tiberium fell and the surety of the highways was lost—that he traded at a loss. The Caerdicci no longer rule an empire, but they are shrewd traders.

So it was that fate found us two years later, travel-weary and nigh unto penniless. I remember little of it, of course. What I remember best is the road, the smells and colors of it, and a member of the mercenaries who took it upon himself to guard my small person. He was a Skaldi tribesman, a northerner, bigger than an ox and uglier than sin. I liked to pull his mustaches, which hung on either side of his mouth; it made him smile, and I would laugh. He made me to understand, with langue d'oc and eloquent gestures, that he had a wife and a daughter my age, whom he missed. When the mercenaries and the caravan parted ways, I missed him, and for many months after.

Of my parents, I remember only that they were much together and much in love, with little time or regard for me. On the road, my father had his hands full, protecting the virtue of his bride. Once it was seen that my mother bore the marque of Naamah, the offers came daily, some made at the point of a blade. But he protected her virtue, from all save himself. When we returned to the City, her belly was beginning to swell.

My father, undaunted, had the temerity to beg of his father another chance, claiming the journey too long, the caravan ill-equipped, and himself naive in the ways of trade. This time, he vowed, it would be different. And this time, my grandfather, the merchant prince, drew his own line. He would allot a second chance to my parents, but they must guarantee the trade with a purse of their own.

What else were they to do? Nothing, I suppose. Aside from my mother's skills, which my father would not let her sell, I was their only commodity. To be fair, they would have shrunk in horror at the thought of selling me into indenture on the open market. It would come to that end, no matter, but I doubt either of them capable of looking so far down the line. No, instead my mother, whom after all, I must bless for it, took her courage in both hands and begged an audience with the Dowayne of Cereus House.

Of the Thirteen Houses, Night-Blooming Cereus is and has always been First. It was founded by Enediel Vintesoir some six hundred years past, and from it has grown the Night Court proper. Since the time of Vintesoir, it has been customary for the Dowayne of Cereus House to represent the Night Court with a seat on the City Judiciary; it is said, too, that many a Dowayne of that House has had privilege of the King's ear.

Mayhap it is true; from what I have learned, it is certainly possible. In its founder's time, Cereus House served only Naamah and the scions of Elua. Since then, trade has prospered, and while the court has thrived, it has grown notably more bourgeois in clientele: to wit, my father. But by any accounting, the Dowayne of Cereus House remained a formidable figure.

As everyone knows, beauty is at its most poignant when the cold hand of Death holds poised to wither it imminently. Upon such fragile transience was the fame of Cereus House founded. One could see, still, in the Dowayne, the ghostly echo of the beauty that had blossomed in her heyday, as a pressed flower retains its form, brittle and frail, its essence fled. In the general course of things, when beauty passes, the flower bows its head upon the stem and fails. Sometimes, though, when the petals droop, a framework of tempered steel is revealed within.

Such a one was Miriam Bouscevre, the Dowayne of Cereus House. Thin and fine as parchment was her skin, and her hair white with age, but her eyes, ah! She sat fixed in her chair, upright as a girl of seventeen, and her eyes were like gimlets, grey as steel.

I remember standing in the courtyard upon marble flagstones, holding my mother's hand as she stammered forth her plight. The advent of true love, the elopement, her own Dowayne's decree, the failure of the caravan and my grandfather's bargain. I remember how she spoke of my father still with love and admiration, sure that the next purse, the next sojourn, would make his fortune. I remember how she cited, voice bold and trembling, her years of service, the exhortation of Blessed Elua: Love as thou wilt. And I remember, at last, how the fountain of her voice ran dry, and the Dowayne moved one hand. Not lifted, not quite; a pair of fingers, perhaps, laden with rings.

"Bring the child here."

So we approached her chair, my mother trembling and I oddly fearless, as children are wont to be at the least apt of times. The Dowayne lifted my chin with one ring-laden finger and took survey of my features.

Did a flicker of something, some uncertainty, cross her mien when her gaze fell on the scarlet mote in my left eye? Even now, I am not sure; and if it did, it passed swiftly. She withdrew her hand and returned her gaze to my mother, stern and abiding.

"Jehan spoke truly," she said. "The child is unfit to serve the Thirteen Houses. Yet she is comely, and being raised to the Court, may fetch a considerable bond price. In recognition of your years of service, I will make you this offer."

The Dowayne named a figure, and I could feel a flutter of excitement set my mother atremble beside me. It was a charm of hers, this trembling. "Blessed lady—" my mother began.

Watching hawk-like, the ancient Dowayne cut her off with a gesture. "These are the terms," she said, voice remorseless. "You will tell no one. When you take up residence, it will be outside the City. For the world's concern, the child you spawn four months hence shall be the first. We will not have it said that Cereus House gives succor to a whore's unwanted get."

At that I heard my mother's soft indrawn breath of shock, and witnessed the old woman's eyes narrow in satisfaction. So that is what I am, then, my child-self thought; a whore's unwanted get.

"It is not—" My mother's voice trembled.

"It is my offer." The ancient voice was pitiless. She will sell me to this cruel old woman, I thought, and experienced a thrill of terror. Even then, unknowing, I knew it as such. "We will raise the child as one of our own, until she is ten. Any ability she has, we will foster. Her bond-price will command respect. That much, I offer you, Liliane. Can you offer her as much?"

My mother stood with my hand in hers and gazed down at my upturned face. It is my last memory of her, those great, dark, lambent eyes searching, searching my own, coming at last to rest upon the left. Through our joined hands, I felt the shudder she repressed.

"Take her, then." Letting go my hand, she shoved me violently. I stumbled forward, falling against the Dowayne's chair. She moved only to tug gently upon the silken cord of a bell-pull. A sound like silver chimes rang in the distance, and an adept glided unobtrusive from behind a discreet screen, gathering me effortlessly, drawing me away by one hand. I turned my head at the last for one final glimpse of my mother, but her face was averted, shoulders shaking with soundless tears. The sun that filtered through the high windows and cast a green-tinged shade through the flowers shone with blue highlights on the ebony river of her hair.

"Come," the adept said soothingly, and her voice was as cool and liquid as flowing water. Led away, I looked up in trust. She was a child of Cereus House, pale and exquisite. I had entered a different world.

Is it any wonder, then, that I became what I did? Delaunay maintains that it was ever my destiny, and perhaps he is right, but this I know is true: When Love cast me out, it was Cruelty who took pity upon me.

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