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BY THE end of my fourth year of my service to Anafiel Delaunay, I had come of age.

In the Night Court, I would have been been initiated into the mysteries of Naamah and begun the training of my apprenticeship when I turned thirteen; Delaunay, infuriatingly, had chosen to wait. I thought I would die of impatience before he posed me the question, although I did not.

"You have grown from a child to a young woman, Phèdre," he said. "May the blessing of Naamah be upon you." He took my shoulders in his hands then and looked gravely at me. "I am going to ask you a question now, and I swear by Blessed Elua, I want you to answer it freely. Will you do it?"

"Yes, my lord."

His topaz-flecked eyes searched mine. "Is it your will to be dedicated unto the service of Naamah?"

I held off giving an answer, glad of a chance to gaze at such leisure at his beloved face, elegant and austere. His hands on my shoulders, ah! I wished he would touch me more often. "Yes, my lord," I said at last, making my voice sound firm and resolute. As if there were any question! But, of course, Delaunay had to satisfy his sense of honor. Because I adored him, I understood.

"Good." He squeezed my shoulders once and released me, smiling. Faint lines crinkled at the corners of his eyes. Like the rest of him, they were beautiful. "We'll buy a dove, in the marketplace, and take you to the temple to be dedicated."

If I had felt cheated of ceremony upon my tenth birthday, this day compensated for it. Clapping his hands, Delaunay called for the mistress of the household and gave orders for a feast to be prepared. Lessons were dismissed for the day, and Alcuin and I were sent away to dress in our best festival attire.

"I'm glad," Alcuin whispered to me, grasping my hand and giving me his secret smile. He had turned fourteen earlier that year and been dedicated to Naamah; still a child by Delaunay's reckoning, I had been excluded from the rites.

"So am I," I whispered back, leaning over to kiss his cheek. Alcuin blushed, the color rising becomingly beneath his fair skin.

"Come on," he said, pulling away. "He's waiting."

In the marketplace, we strolled among the temple-vendors while the carriage waited patiently and Delaunay made a show of allowing me to choose the exact right dove for my offering. They were much alike, as birds are wont to be, but I studied them carefully and selected at length a beautiful white bird, with coral feet and alert black eyes. Delaunay paid the vendor, purchasing the best cage; a charming pagoda with gilt bars. The dove struggled a little as the vendor transferred her, wings beating at the bars. A good sign, as it meant she was healthy.

In the Night Court, the dedication is performed in the House temple, but, under the patronage of a noble citizen, we went to the Great Temple. It is a small, lovely building of white marble, surrounded by gardens. Doves roosted in the trees, sacred and unharmed. An acolyte met us at the open doors. Taking one look at Delaunay, she bowed. "In the name of Naamah, you are welcome, my lord. How may we serve you?"

I stood beside him, clutching the carrying-handle of the birdcage. Delaunay laid his hand upon my head.

"She is here to be dedicated to the service of Naamah."

The acolyte smiled at me. She was young, no more than eighteen, with a look of spring about her; red-gold hair the color of apricots and green eyes that tilted upward at the corners like a cat's. Young as she was, she wore the flowing scarlet surplice of the Priesthood of Naamah with an ease born of long familiarity. By this, I would guess, she had been dedicated as an infant, by parents or a mother who could not afford to raise her; by her speech, I would guess she was City-born.

"So," the acolyte said softly. "Be welcome, sister." Stooping only slightly—she was little taller than I—she kissed me in greeting. Her lips were soft and she smelled of sun-warmed herbs. When she turned to kiss Alcuin, they were of a height. "Be welcome, brother." Stepping back, she gestured us through the door. "Come in and worship. I will bring the priest."

Inside, the temple was filled with sunlight, adorned only by flowers and a blaze of candles. There was an oculus at the top of the dome, open to the sky. We approached the altar with its magnificent statue of Naamah, who stood with arms open, welcoming all worshippers. I set down the birdcage, knelt and gazed at her face, which radiated compassion and desire. Delaunay knelt too, grave and respectful, while Alcuin's expression was rapt.

When the priest emerged, attended by four acolytes—ours among them—he was tall and slender, handsome in his age, with fine lines engraving his face and silver hair bound in a long braid. He indicated that we should stand.

"Is it your wish to be dedicated to the service of Naamah?" he asked me, his voice solemn.

"It is."

Beckoning me forward, he pushed back his scarlet sleeves. One acolyte held a basin of water, and the priest dipped an aspergillum into the bowl and sprinkled a few drops over me. "By Naamah's sacred river, I baptise you into her service." Taking a honey-cake from another, he broke it open and placed a portion on my tongue. "May your flesh be bound unto the sweetness of desire," he said. I chewed and swallowed, tasting honey. The green-eyed acolyte handed him a chalice, which he held to my lips. "May your blood rise to the headiness of passion." The last acolyte held up a measure of oil, and the priest dipped his fingers into it. Smearing chrism on my brow, he held my eyes. "May your soul ever find grace in the service of Naamah," he intoned softly.

I could feel his fingertip cool on my skin beneath the oil, and the power vested in him. Naamah's face, transcendent and sensuous, swam before my eyes. I closed them and felt the air of the temple beating about me, filled with light and wings and celestial magics. All the stories of Naamah I had heard, told in all the Thirteen Houses; all of them were true, and none. She was all of that and more.

"So mote it be," said the priest, and I opened my eyes. He and the acolytes had withdrawn. He nodded at me. "You may offer your service, my child."

Alcuin held the birdcage for me. I opened it carefully and caught the dove in both hands, removing her. Whiter than snow, she weighed almost nothing in my hands, but I could feel the warm life pulsing in her, the fast, frightened heartbeat. Her feathers were soft and, when she stirred, I feared the gentle pressure of my hands would break fragile bones. Turning back to the altar, I knelt once more and held the dove up to the statue of Naamah.

"Blessed Naamah, I beg you to accept my service," I said, whispering without knowing why. I opened my hands.

Startled into freedom, the dove launched itself into the air, pinions churning in the sunlight. Certain and unerring, she flew up to the apex of the dome, circling once, then spiraling in a flurry of sun-edged white feathers out the oculus, into flight and the open skies. The priest tracked her progress with a smile.

"Welcome," he said, bending to aid me to my feet and giving me the kiss of greeting. His eyes, tranquil with peace and the wisdom of a thousand trysts, looked kindly at me. "Welcome, Servant of Naamah."

Thus was I dedicated to the life unto which I was born.

In the following week, my training began.

Delaunay had held off on initiating Alcuin into the training proper to a Servant of Naamah; waiting so that we might begin together, being so close in age. Our training, it seemed, was to commence simultaneously.

"I have arranged for a Showing," he said evenly, having summoned us to attend him. "It is not proper that you should study the mysteries of Naamah without one. Edmonde Noualt, the Dowayne of Camellia House, has honored my request."

It was so like Delaunay, his subtle tact, to make arrangements with a House to which I had no ties, to avoid evoking memories of my childhood in the Night Court. I didn't bother to tell him I wouldn't have minded. It would have spoiled the gift of his kindness.

While there are a myriad variations of pairings and pleasures, the Showing staged for a newly dedicated Servant of Naamah is always the traditional pairing; one man, one woman. Guy drove us to Camellia House that evening. I was surprised to find it even more punctilious than Cereus, though I shouldn't have been; the canon of Camellia is perfection, and they adhere to it in strict detail.

We were met at the door by the Dowayne's Second, a stunning, tall woman with a long fall of black hair and skin the color of new ivory. She greeted us gracefully, and if there was envy or curiosity in the way her gaze lingered on Alcuin's unlikely beauty or the unexpected scarlet mote in my eye, it was well disguised.

"Come," she said, beckoning us. "As you have been dedicated to the service of Naamah, come witness her mysteries enacted."

The Showing Chamber was much like the one at Cereus House, a three-quarter round sunken stage strewn with cushions and encircled with tiers of well-padded benchs. There was a gauze curtain drawn about the stage, lit from within, and I could make out behind it the velvet hangings concealing the entrance.

It is a rule of all the Thirteen Houses that any ritual Showing be open to all adepts of the House, so I was not surprised when others entered. A private titillation is another matter, but the rites of Naamah are open to all her servants. I fell into habit without a trace of forethought, kneeling on the cushions in the prescribed position; abeyante, head bowed, hands clasped before me. It was strangely comforting, although I sensed Alcuin's sidelong glance as he attempted to mimic my pose.

Somewhere in the background, a flautist began to play.

On the commencement of the second musical passage, the velvet hangings rustled, and the Pair entered. He was tall and black-haired, a veritable twin—he was indeed her brother—to the Second of Camellia House. She stood a handsbreadth shorter than he, even paler of skin, with hair like an autumn tumbrel. There is no canon save perfection in this House. When they faced each other and reached out to perform the disrobement, it was evident, even through veils of gauze, that both amply met the standards of their canon.

Their joining was like a dance.

He touched her with reverence, fingertips resting at the sides of her waist, drawing them up in a delicate caress and lifting the glorious weight of her hair, letting it flow over his hands and fall back in a shining mass. His hands caressed her face, tracing the feathery arch of her brows, the perfect line of her lips. She cupped the angle of his jaw, drew a line down the muscular column of his throat and flattened her palm against the pale planes of his breast.

The gifts of Naamah are born in the blood and belong to all of us by right; but one need not be an artist to enjoy art. These were adepts of the Night Court, and this was their art. As the arousement proceeded, the gauze veils were drawn back slowly, one by one. I watched raptly, and my breath came quickly, when I did not hold it in suspense. They embraced and kissed; he held her face in his hands as if it were a precious object, and she swayed like a willow into his kiss.

This is how we pray, who are Servants of Naamah.

Breaking the kiss, she knelt before him and flung her hair forward so it cascaded about his loins, silken tendrils twining about his erect phallus. I could not see how her mouth moved as she performed the languisement upon him, but his face grew tranquil with pleasure and I could see the muscles grow taut in his buttocks. Reaching behind his head with both hands, he undid his braid and shook out his hair, which fell in a black river of silk over his shoulders.

There was no sound from those assembled, only a reverent silence drawn tight by the sweet notes of the flautist. He drew away to kneel opposite her, and she reclined slowly on the cushions, opening her legs to him to share her wealth. Now it was his hair that hid them from my sight, spread like a black curtain across her thighs as he parted her cleft with his tongue, seeking the pearl of Naamah hidden in her folds.

It must be that he found it, for she arched with pleasure, reaching up to draw him to her. He held himself above her, the tip of his phallus poised at her entrance. His hair spilled down around his bowed head and mingled with hers, black and russet. I had never seen anything so beautiful as their lovemaking. The flautist paused; someone cried out, and he entered her in one fluid surge, sheathing himself to the hilt. A soft, whispering drumbeat entered the song as he thrust, her body rising to receive him.

Still kneeling, hands clasped tight together, I found myself weeping at the beauty of it. They were like birds, who mate on the wing. It was a ritual, and no mere spectacle; I could taste the worship and desire of it, flooding my mouth like the priest's honey. He surged against her like waves breaking, and she met him like the rising tide. Their pace increased and the music rose to a crescendo, until she gasped, hands clenching against the working muscles of his back, her legs wrapped around him. He arched back then and held hard. I could feel the heat rising between my own thighs as they met their climax together.

And then, too soon, the gauze curtains began slowly to close, veiling their figures in the soft aftermath of desire. I saw him move to her side, and their hands clasped as they lay entwined upon the cushions. At my own side, Alcuin released a long-held breath and we looked soberly at one another.

Presently an adept came to lead us to a sitting room, where we were served a restorative cordial and attended by the Second of Camellia House, who graciously expressed her hopes that the Showing had been well received and that we would communicate our good impressions to our master Anafiel Delaunay, who still held the power to set trends in the royal court. If she resented or despised us for enjoying his patronage, I could not tell it.

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