Seduction (novel excerpt)
There were several more crystal bottles with different-colored contents on ledge ledge above the tub, which had tarnished iron dragons for legs. Shemona upended one of them entirely, spattering the cool porcelain with a glutinous crimson substance. She shivered, and turned the tap on full-blast.
The bubbles foamed up on the water immediately. Shemona slid into it, feeling the scalding liquid rise up on her body. By the time Thessaly stuck her head in again, the water was high in the tub, the bubbles up around Shemona’s neck. She quickly moved her left hand under the surface.
Thessaly leaned over to turn off the water, her arm brushing Shemona’s cheek. “Hair soap’s the blue one.”
Shemona sank down in the water a little further. “I don’t soap my hair.”
“Oh. Of course,” Thessaly nodded, glancing at the damp, noodle-like mass of Shemona’s tangled curls. “Hair oil’s the yellow one.” She stepped out and shut the door.
Shemona felt her muscles begin to loosen up in the marination of warm water, the scent of roses—Roses. Of course she would choose randomly and end up with roses, the most powerful aphrodisiac of them all.
She drew it out as long as she could; ducking und the water, rinsing through her hair several times. Finally she rose from the bath, snatching at the fluffy drying-cloth, not nearly big enough, that Thessaly had left on the little marble washstand in the corner. She pulled the dressing gown around her, tying it firmly at the waist. She was tempted to put the sash in several knots, but she refrained.
As she combed oil through her hair—Thessaly had provided a brush with long, wooden spikes that worked better than anything Shemona had ever used—Shemona ruminated.
“Are you hungry?” Thessaly asked when Shemona stepped out of the washroom.
Shemona sat down at the little table and helped herself to chickpea fritters and olive-filled pastries. The tea was the best she had tasted in the city.
“So,” Thessaly dabbed her lip with the corner of a linen napkin. “What have you done to get in Bellascio and Eglantine’s crosshairs?”
Shemona picked at the remains of her olive pastry, thinking how to answer... and if she even wanted to.
“It is possible I could help you.”
Shemona bared her teeth. “Don’t play games with me, M’damme Meridian.”
“The right sort of games can be fun.”
Shemona took a quick scan of the room, and of Thessaly’s floes. They were out of the ordinary, running in a pattern of hollow coils wrapped over and over on themselves, getting smaller at her extremities—like a network of conch-shells. If this woman’s not a manipulator, then I’m a Jackal’s scat.
She whipped the buckskin glove off her left hand and held it out to Thessaly, palm-up. “You need to know something about me.”
Thessaly cocked her head, examining the tattoo nestled in her palm. “Yes?”
“I don’t know what you know of my order. I’m a Laoshan. If we play the sort of games that I think you’re asking for, it would risk the possibility of a full spirit-join. I can’t control my floes in the throes of… of passion. Because I’ve been trained as a Laoshan, that could be very dangerous. For you. That is why I’ve got to be faithful to my convent.”
Thessaly nodded as if confirming a theory. She smiled. “You don’t know me either, Shemona Laoshi, nor what I am capable of. And don’t you have to be a full initiated member before making the abstinence vow?”
Shemona stared at her. How was it that everyone guessed her secret so easily?
Thessaly’s smile became sympathetic. “If you were a real Laoshan, you’d be able to read my thoughts. You would have no need of my help. You would have been handling all of those men out there.”
“How do you know so much of us?” Shemona allowed a sarcastic tone to creep into her voice. “Did you also attend Ioseppa University and debate with one of the sisters at Ioseppa proper?”
Thessaly’s eyes flashed with amusement. “I have never been to Ioseppa. But I know of the Laoshans. And I’ve got ways of… knowing…other things.” She watched Shemona steadily, with an expression like she was waiting for Shemona to realize something.
It came to her in an icy wave that washed through the schema of her spirit floes. “You read thoughts.”
“Yes.” Thessaly reached for Shemona’s cup and plate. “Let me take your things.”
It was several minutes before she returned, and Shemona took the opportunity to do a more thorough scan of the room.
She had wondered, looking at all the crystal. Crystal, while it was an inert substance that couldn’t hold floes or anchors, made a great catalyst for a manipulator who wanted to keep her works subtle, or give them strength and distance. But there wasn’t a trace of floe residue in anything that she could see, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t hidden somewhere. What had she done, coming into this woman’s room? A woman who read thoughts—such a specialized skill with the floes—what else was she capable of?
Thessaly entered the room carrying a silver tray with a variety of pastel-frosted confections. She set it on the table. “Do not worry,” she said as if Shemona had spoken aloud. “Thought extraction is the specialty of the D’Ainestilles. And it is the only real skill left to me. My mother and grandmother didn’t teach me any other.”
“You have to be able to join to extract thoughts,” Shemona murmured.
Thessaly grimaced and slid into her seat gracefully, propping her slippered feet on the empty chair next to Shemona. “The D’Ainestilles, like the Bellascios and the Holystoans and every other old Oddyssian family—we are Mayloa.” She shrugged. “That you didn’t know this is inexcusable. You really ought to be studying the people you are to work with, before you go charging into a new city like cow in a glassworks. The D’Ainestilles haven’t always been in the Robin business.” She traced the lace tablecloth gently with a fingertip.
Shemona realized suddenly that it was old—hand knitted, and it felt like silk fibers. Very valuable, she thought. Not at all what you’d expect to find in a Robin house.
“We became what we are today after we fell into disgrace a hundred years ago,” Thessaly replied.
“Don’t do that,” Shemona snapped, and wound her floes tight behind her heart; attempting to make her thoughts hazy—fuzzy so that they wouldn’t be so clear.
“That’s pretty good,” Thessaly said. “It’s much harder to hear you, now. Before, you were clear as a bell. Well, harder than some,” she cocked her head. “Some people are like reading a book. Others, it’s like translating from another language—”
“If you’re from an old Holder family, then how come you are down here in the city, without a holding?”
“It’s a long story. My great-grandmother was the first M’damme Meridian, after she was forced to sell our family’s holding off to the Holystoans and Bellascios.”
A long story, Shemona thought, would not be unwelcome right now, if it puts off whatever it is that comes next. “Forced?” She brought the cup back to her lips, properly curving her little finger.
Thessaly narrowed her eyes and gave Shemona a thin smile, but didn’t argue. “Holystoan called all of our debts. Not this Holystoan, of course. His great-grandfather, Enrique De Holystoan. All of the Holder families were so entangled in favors and debt to each other that most times, we just let things go. Horribly inbred physically and financially, these old families.” Thessaly shook her head.
“But Holystoan called yours. Your great-grandmother’s,” Shemona amended quickly, seeing the flash of her eyes.
“Yes, well, the Holystoan family is different; they’ve always been fabulously wealthy. They have an uncanny ability to know trends—what will be profitable, and what won’t. They could loan out money and call in debts, because they never had to borrow from anybody else.”
“And Holystoans chose particularly to call the D'Ainestille debt.”
“The problem started with the Bellascio family. It was our land, the holding above the fishing village, that old Astophles Bellascio wanted after the Holystoans turned away from plantation crops toward the sea. The Bellascio estate had no access to water; they would have had to beg an easement through another Holder’s land. Of course this was unacceptable to the Bellascios. They were used to wealth and influence, to being the Holystoans’ seconds. And at the time, the D'Ainestilles were going through a bit of a rough patch. My grandmother had turned to some—well, some unconventional practices to fund our own frantic foray into the shipping trade.”
Thessaly raised an eyebrow. “That tone won’t get you anywhere. The Bellascio family was one of the worst in their practice of the art—chikanery, spirit manipulation, wytching—whatever you wish to call it. Astophles was, of course, completely unscrupulous already, using his own tenants in his sick experiments. Not all of us agreed or approved, but for the most part we all kept each others’ secrets. The D’Ainestilles were, traditionally, a Asporos family. Do you know what that means?”
Shemona thought back on her history lessons. Asporos—that was the Oddyssian energy cult that professed only to use inert tracks and plant and animal energy. And the other side of the coin had been the Mahrvoros, the cult that had included almost all of the old, rich Oddyssian landholders. The Aspes, as Madgilen called them, had generally been the peasant class, the users of folk energy practices—the inhabitants of the city and tenants on the holdings. But there had been a few holder families as well who chose to follow that philosophy. “Of course,” she said. “But it’s all the same. The unregulated use of energy, for the purpose of personal gain, without a code or covenant to oversee…”
“Yes, yes.” Thessaly gestured impatiently. “You Laoshans are all so self-righteous; you could power the entire continent with your own suppressed flatulence.”
Shemona felt her lips twitch. “Go on with your story.”
“In her desperation, my great-grandmother departed from our family tradition. She went to Bellascio with a proposition—if he could provide her with access to his… resources, then she would allow him a route through the family land, out to the fishing village, so that he could ship wares out to sea and bring trade in to the estate. But as I said, it wasn’t enough for Bellascio. He saw my grandmother’s vulnerability and he decided to take advantage of it. He took the token she had left him to seal the bargain they had made and brought it to Holystoan. This token, the thing that my grandmother had given—it displeased Holystoan. It was an old family heirloom, given to the D’Ainestilles by the Holystoans countless centuries before. He was furious that my grandmother would give it away like that. He said it wasn’t hers to give.”
Shemona’s curiosity piqued. “What was it?”
“A yellow diamond set in a necklace.” Thessaly held her thumb and fingers apart to indicate the size, “like this, about as big as a bantam hens’ egg. Completely clear, the color of amber.”
“Jewelry?” Shemona raised a skeptical eyebrow.
“That gem,” Thessaly shook her head. “It is a lot more than just a jewel. It was a link. A forge between the two families. The Holystoans gave such jewels to each of the old families.”
“Ah.” Shemona eyed the pastries on the plate—she really was quite hungry.
“Enrique Holystoan kept half of our land and gave the remaining portion to Bellascio as a reward for his ‘loyalty,’ in bringing the matter of the diamond before him. But old Holystoan knew, just as Bellascio knew, that it was a mere gesture. It was a play for land and power, and Holystoan let him make it in order to set the D’Ainestilles up as an example of what happens to the disloyal.”
Shemona selected a cake with yellow icing. “Are you trying to make me feel sorry for you?”
“No,” Thessaly bared her teeth—small, even, white. “I’m trying to show you we’re on the same side. I have no love for Bellascio.”
“Well, the current Holystoan is different. I’m still trying to figure him out.”
“Why are you trying to prove yourself to me? Why should you think I care what your loyalties are?” Shemona washed the cake down with the last of her tea, keeping up her pretense of half-attention but in reality, maintaining an eagles’ view of Thessaly’s floes. A single twitch, and Shemona would have to act without hesitating…
“What do I want from you,” Thessaly replied, her voice soft. “Yes. Well, that’s a good question.”
Shemona set her cup down and met her gaze. She waited.
“You are going to have to go to Henri. When you do go to him, there is a favor I will be asking of you.”
“Henri De Holystoan.”
Shemona shook her head. “I won’t be going to Holystoan.” She reached for another cake.
Thessaly placed a cool hand on hers. “You have no choice at this point, I am thinking,”
Shemona turned her hand sharply out of Thessaly’s grip. “I have many options left to me.”
“Oh,” Thessaly sighed, “I could just eat you up, Shemona Laoshi. Can’t you see Bellascio has you neatly boxed in? He’s left you no other option than to go to Holystoan.”
Shemona’s thoughts flickered to Liam Heightman, to Issak. She shoved them aside. No, she couldn’t go to them, either. Not when there was so much possibly afoot in those hills. Not with Liam’s likely being manipulated by the chikarun. Not to mention the possibility that, at any moment, an angry horde lead by Athena might decide to lop off one of her limbs. “Bellascio might only have been trying to scare me, to make me feel like my options are limited, and that Holystoan’s the only real power left in the city for me to turn to. But doesn’t that mean I’m safe for a while at least? If he still has purpose for me. Though why he would so badly want me to go to Holystoan,” Shemona shook her head. “He and Corban were clearly displeased when I said—”
“He’s my contact with Bellascio. What?”
“No games. We agreed.”
Thessaly’s eyes narrowed. “Tell me what Bellascio wants from you.”
Shemona returned her glare. “Maybe you should tell me.”
“Your thoughts are not that clear to me right now.”
Thessaly pouted playfully. “After all this—my pouring out to you my troubles, feeding and washing you, I am still not gaining your trust?”
Shemona shrugged, and rubbed at her temples with her fingertips. “It is the biggest lesson I have learned since coming to Helene. Don’t trust anybody.” Thessaly stood slowly, stretching. The loose folds of the gown she was wearing fluttered, revealing a small, delicately rounded shoulder. She chuckled, catching Shemona’s brief glance. “Would this help?” She drew a soft linen pouch—sewn at the top, neatly-folded—slowly from her bodice.
Shemona’s heart sped up. She could smell it, even from across the table. She swallowed. “No thanks. You don’t have the kind I need.”
“You do need it,” Thessaly replied huskily.
“I’m not an addict. I bought the stuff yesterday to try to join with my—” she stopped short, but she knew Thessaly could hear the rest of her words clear as if she’d spoken them.
Thessaly’s smile widened, and the skin over the bridge of her nose creased—it was almost a sweet smile. “It’s my own personal supply. Much finer grade. It is what you were looking for yesterday.”
Shemona had to restrain herself from reaching across the table and grabbing it, holding it close to her bosom, and blubbering like a baby. There had to be enough in that pouch for two joins—three, even, maybe. “You’ll give it to me? In exchange for what, exactly?”
Thessaly blinked, and smiled demurely.
“Oh, no.” Shemona ran her fingers through her hair with both hands.
“You’ll muss it.” Thessaly walked toward her and smoothed the disheveled tresses with soft fingers. She coiled a fingertip in a tendril at Shemona’s temple and trailed it down the side of her face. “You know,” she whispered, “you really are lovely.”