V’kel Aelmarkin er-Lord Tornal smiled down at the slave who rested her pale-tressed head on his knee. She was his current personal favorite, a young human female nestled trustingly against his leg. Her thin, fine-boned face and porcelain complexion pleased him with their flawless symmetry and perfection. She returned his smile shyly, yet with a touch of the coquette, her round, blue eyes reflecting her callow, unsophisticated nature. No rebellious thoughts dwelling in that narrow skull—in fact, he would be surprised if she managed to conjure up more than one or two thoughts of any kind in an average day! Her pedigree was immaculate, out of a long line of carefully chosen slaves famed for their beauty and delicacy to be nothing more complicated than any other ornamental object.
He sighed with contentment, and smoothed the pale gold, silken hair away from her brow with a gentle caress. She was exquisite; lovely, eager to please, pliant, graceful, innocent and incredibly easy to manipulate. Exactly the sort of slave that gave him the most pleasure. He carefully cultivated that innocence, and none of his other slaves would dare his wrath by spoiling that naivete. No tales of floggings or more extreme punishments, no harem-stories of his other “favorites” and what had become of them—nothing to hint that he had aspects she had never experienced. So far as she was concerned, he was the gentle, loving, ever-kind master that she believed him to be.
He turned his attention back to his most important guest. “There, you see?” he said, gesturing expansively to the hall before them and its raucous occupants. “Did I not promise you would be far more amused here than in dancing attendance on all the dull, hopeful maidens at your father’s fete?”
Elvenlord Aelmarkin did not possess enough magic to create a fanciful illusion in his Great Hall, so the luxurious surroundings here were all quite real; guests at his entertainments would always find themselves in the same opulent room that they had graced at the last entertainment, rather than a new and exotic setting vastly different from their last. He made up for the lack of novel surroundings by the lavishness of his entertaining, which had begun to earn him something of a reputation.
Take this room, for example: fortunately it had been beautifully constructed in the first place, and he had only needed to embellish it when it came into his possession. The north and south walls were mostly of glass—northwards lay a natural lake, artfully landscaped, and southwards were the pleasure-gardens. The east and west walls, paneled in wood bleached to silver, held silver-rimmed doors that led to the rest of the manor. The ceiling with its bleached-wood beams from which hung great silver fantasies of lights, crystals, tiny glass sculptures and silver filigree, also boasted vast transparent skylights; just now the reflection of the myriad lights made it impossible to see anything of the outside world, but later, when the lights were dimmed, the stars would shine impassively down on the celebrants. The black carpet of the floor was kind to the bare feet of the slaves, but Aelmarkin had selected black carpeting largely because it was easy to clean after one of his entertainments and was far more forgiving a surface for a drunken reveler to fall on than marble or wood. The east and west walls were hung with silver draperies, and the silver dining-couches were upholstered in black to match the carpet. Between each couch and the next stood an enormous silver censer, from which came sensuous and intoxicating incense-smokes. Silver tables stood before each couch, and the guests provided the only touch of color in the room. The couches themselves each held two occupants, an invited guest and a companion of his (or her) choosing—either a fellow guest or one of Aelmarkin’s harem-slaves dressed in silver gossamer and matching silver collar. Picturesque wine-slaves, dressed in abbreviated silver tunics, stood at each couch with their silver pitchers, and more slaves dressed in silver tunics and gossamer skirts or trews served the guests with plates of dainties. Enough wine had been drunk by this time that the guests were starting to raise their voices in less-than-delicate jests, and lose what few inhibitions they had when they arrived here.
V’sher Tennith er-Lord Kalumel raised one long, silver eyebrow sardonically as he surveyed the occupants of the dining couches before and below him. “I must admit,” he drawled, “that seeing Varcaleme making a fool of himself is far more entertaining than fending off would-be brides and their anxious fathers.”
Aelmarkin laughed and continued to caress the platinum tresses of his slave, chosen out of all the possible candidates presented to him, because she most resembled a delicate Elven maiden. He dressed her like an elven girl, too, in flowing gowns of delicate pastel silks with huge, butterfly sleeves and long embroidered trains, ordering her attendants to weave strings of pearls in her silver-blond hair—and to arrange her hair so that it covered the round tips of her ears. So long as one didn’t look too deeply into her eyes, the illusion was complete; and he could use his magic to change her blue eyes to Elven-green if he chose. Her name had been “Kindre” until he ordered it changed to the Elven “Synterrathe.”
The aforementioned Varcaleme was chasing one of the wine-girls around his couch; the flower-wreath she had bound around his brows had slipped sideways and was obscuring one eye, and the fact that he had drunk most of the wine in her now-empty flask was not aiding his ability to catch her. She had cast one look at her master when she began eluding those clutching hands, to see if he objected to her evasions; he had nodded slightly, and she needed no further encouragement to keep dodging his advances. Varcaleme’s couch-companion, one of his personal concubines, a tall, dark-haired wench gowned in brilliant emerald that matched the beryl of her controlling collar, seemed relieved that she no longer had to entertain him, and was nibbling on spiced fruit, wearing a bored, but wary, expression.
Now the rest of the guests had taken an interest in the proceedings, calling out encouragement to Varcaleme or the slave, taking bets on whether or not he would catch her, as she dodged his outstretched hands and outpaced his stumbling feet. Most of Aelmarkin’s guests were male, with a scant pair of Elven ladies. One of the ladies, clad in pearly silks that revealed scarcely less than the slaves’ costumes, had brought her own couch-companion, a muscle-bound human gladiator; the other Elven lady, swathed from nape to ankle in skin-tight black satin, had come with another of the Elvenlords—who was not her affianced. Of the remaining twenty guests, half had brought their own concubines, and half had made a selection from the slaves offered to them by Aelmarkin.
All of the Elvenlords present, with the exception of Aelmarkin and the lady who had brought her own male concubine, were the sons of ruling Elvenlords—but had not joined the Young Lords’ Rebellion. Most of them saw themselves as losing far more than they would gain by rebelling, and the rest were cynically hoping for the rebellion to eliminate their fathers for them.
Aelmarkin and V’dann Triana Lord Falcion—who, despite being female, was Lord of the Falcion holdings in her own right, and thus (it recently had been ruled) was entitled to the title of Lord rather than Lady or er-Lord—were the only Elvenlords in the room with their own estates and property. Aelmarkin, however, was hardly a Great Lord—his property was a fraction of the size of any of those with real power; most of his wealth came from the sale of the exquisitely bred and trained concubines who were literally worth their weight in gems. That gave him a certain status, but no real power. As for Triana, her standing had plummeted after her involvement in the debacle of the Second Wizard War, and she was no longer a desirable ally to anyone on the Great Council. She generally kept to herself on her own estate. He suspected that she was biding her time, waiting to see which way the wind blew in the Young Lords’ Uprising, before she tried to worm her way back into the good graces of the powerful.
As a party guest, however, she was still of value; an acid wit and a reputation for depravity gave her all the fascination of a captivating serpent, and people enjoyed seeing what she would say or do next. Any time Aelmarkin invited her to one of his entertainments, he knew he would have full participation, and her own parties continued to be extremely popular among the younger sons, those who did not possess great power, and those who did not have a Council seat.
Aelmarkin was by no means as certain as the Great Lords that Triana would remain out of power for the foreseeable future. She was clever, resourceful, and learned from her mistakes. The Wizard Wars and the Rebellion were changing everything; it was always possible that Triana would prove to be a potent ally at some point. It was even possible that she would somehow claw her way to power entirely on her own. The extent of her boldness was demonstrated in her dress tonight; gowned in transparent silks like a concubine, she knew very well that however tempting she might be, there was no one here with sufficient power to dare touch her without her consent—and so she taunted them with her very appearance.
Besides, she had no scruples to speak of; he liked that in a woman—provided he didn’t have to marry her.
“Have you heard anything more from the Council about your petition?” Triana called to him from across the room with a half smile. Her gladiator offered her a choice tidbit with a servile gesture; she allowed him to feed it to her, nibbling at it with white, sharp teeth. He was new to Aelmarkin, but that was hardly surprising; Triana went through male slaves at an astonishing rate.
He concealed a wince; Triana had a vested interest in the outcome of that petition, and it was one quite opposite to his. She would bring up the subject; he’d cherished the notion, when he’d scheduled this entertainment, that it might be a victory celebration. Since it wasn’t, he had hoped no one would bring up the subject.
“They denied it,” he said, trying to sound as if he didn’t care about the outcome, even though his defeat ate at him.
Triana made a little pout of sympathy, and Tennith turned his head to gaze at Aelmarkin with astonishment. “No, really? I should have thought that your cousin had proved himself mentally unbalanced a hundred times over by now!”
About half of the guests looked puzzled; they didn’t know who Aelmarkin’s cousin was and he really didn’t wish to enlighten them.
“Really!” chimed in another, sending away a server with a flick of an impatient hand, “Your cousin is quite a piece of work, Aelmarkin. Playing soldier with human slaves as if he was still an infant playing with toys! It’s ridiculous! If he was going to have an obsession, it at least ought to be a dignified obsession!”
“Oh, I don’t know,” purred Triana, running her finger along the arm of her gladiator. “Some of us like to play with soldiers.” The slave blushed from the top of his head to well past his waist.
“On what grounds did they deny you?” Tennith asked, and Aelmarkin wondered if he detected a certain malicious enjoyment in Tennith’s tone. Tennith might not be a lord in his own right, but he outranked Aelmarkin, and he wasn’t above flaunting that fact and embarrassing Aelmarkin at the same time.
But Tennith would find out for himself what the Council had said if he simply bothered to ask his father. Aelmarkin’s best protection lay in pretending the decision meant very little to him. “They did a very tiresome thing; they had the production records from the estate for the last fifty years brought out, and nothing there shows that cousin Kyrtian is neglecting his estate or his duties. They decided that he isn’t unbalanced, merely eccentric, and that eccentricity is hardly grounds for taking his inheritance and giving it to the next male heir.”
“Next male heir?” Triana asked significantly, with a little frown. “Isn’t his mother still alive? Wouldn’t she be the appropriate heir even if he was disinherited on the grounds of insanity?” That was Triana’s interest; anything that barred another female from inheriting could eventually be used against her.
“His mother is not my sister,” Aelmarkin replied. “She’s not the next heir of blood-descent, as you so clearly were for clan Falcion. If Kyrtian were removed, the estate would come to me, naturally and legally.”
“She’s probably the one running things, then,” Tennith pointed out. “If she doesn’t want to be sent back to live in her father’s household, she has to make it look as if your cousin is competent.”
“That may be, but I’ve no hope of proving it,” Aelmarkin growled, wishing that Lady Lydiell had resembled the child at his feet rather than the clever creature she was. He recalled his intended pose, and forced a laugh. “Well, I suppose the Council had to rule the way that they did. Lord Jaspireth told me rather tartly that if fitness to hold title and property was to be judged on the basis of unusual hobbies, half the Council would lose their seats.”
“Half?” Tennith laughed. “More like three-quarters! Looked at in that light, it’s obvious you are a victim of necessity.”
Aelmarkin signaled to his wench to refill his goblet, and sipped at the vintage with deliberation. “Much as I would like to see the lands of my clan administered properly, I suspect they will come to me in time, anyway. Kyrtian shows no sign of marrying, which in itself ought to prove his unfitness, and it’s entirely possible he’ll manage to break his neck, or do something equally foolish to himself, as he careens around the countryside.”
“Break his neck?” queried the second lady, looking puzzled, as did her escort. “I’m afraid I’m rather lost, Aelmarkin. I don’t know anything about your cousin. Who is he? Is he doing something dangerous?”
That triggered laughter among some of the others, who were more familiar with Aelmarkin’s cousin than she was. Triana took pity on her—probably because the lady’s escort was neither clever nor outstandingly handsome—and explained.
“We’ve been discussing Kyrtian V’dyll Lord Prastaran,” Triana said, giving Aelmarkin’s cousin his full name and title. “Surely you’ve heard something about him?”
The lady shook her head. “Not really,” she confessed, then realized that Triana was patronizing her, and put on a cool air as she tried to save the situation. “But I don’t pay much attention to the provincials.”
Aelmarkin snorted. “He’s certainly provincial, I’ll grant you that, Lady Brynnire. He never leaves the estate unless he absolutely has to. He could get a seat on the Great Council if he only worked at it, but he won’t even try! Instead, he spends all of his time collecting books and studying—of all the nonsensical subjects—military tactics!”
“Military tactics!” Triana erupted in peals of laughter. “Oh, Aelmarkin, even if he is serious and not seriously unbalanced, just who does he think he’s going to use military tactics on? Everyone knows the humans and the half-bloods don’t have real armies! They don’t fight proper battles! And as for the Young Lords—”
She stopped, because it was entirely possible that this was a touchy subject for some of Aelmarkin’s other guests. But Tennith, whose father was highly placed in the Great Council and thus was the highest-ranked Elvenlord present, finished her sentence for her.
“The Young Lords are a disorganized pack of rabble,” he said loftily. “Once a solution is found that negates their ability to nullify magic, they’ll dissolve and come crawling back to their fathers, begging forgiveness. In the meantime, it is impossible to use tactics against someone who doesn’t know what the word means.”
“Oh, that isn’t the best of it,” gloated Lord Pratherin. “He not only studies this nonsense, he practices it! Personally, I think he’s never gotten over playing in the nursery with toy soldiers; he just does it now on a grander scale.” When Brynnire still looked confused, he leaned over the couch in her direction and explained. “He makes up two opposing armies out of slaves, my dear, and personally leads one army into battle against the other, if you can believe it! Not to settle a grievance or for any other reasonable purpose, not even for the entertainment of watching them slaughter each other! No, he does this just to see how strategies work out with living subjects!”
As the others chortled, howled, or simply looked smug, according to their natures, Lady Brynnire looked startled, then shocked, then amused. “Aelmarkin! If I didn’t know you, I’d be tempted to think you were making this up!”
“Sadly, my dear, I am not,” Aelmarkin replied, and looked to Tennith, who nodded in confirmation.
“Really!” Brynnire giggled, a little nervously. “Well, eccentric is not what I would call him!”
“He takes after his father, dear lady,” said Tennith smoothly. “Which might be said to demonstrate that, sadly, madness is inherited in his family. Surely you recall that poor demented fellow who vanished several years ago, out hunting some obscure relics of Evelon?”
“Yes!” Brynnire replied, brightening. “Ancestors! You don’t mean to tell me that was Kyrtian’s father?”
“The same,” Aelmarkin told her, with a heavy sigh. “A sad case indeed. And it should have been obvious to the Great Council from that fiasco that the estate should not have been put in the hands of his son.”
“I should say not.” Lady Brynnire nodded her head, after exchanging a look with her escort. “At least, I would not have.”
“Nor anyone else with any sense.” Aelmarkin thought it more than time to change the subject, and signaled for the dancers.
The musicians, who had been playing soothing, quiet background music until this moment, abruptly changed mood and tempo, startling the guests with a thunder of percussion.
The lights dimmed, and a mist arose from the censers, a scented, cool mist that relaxed and yet stimulated the senses, even as it obscured the couches and their occupants. Only the space in the middle of the couches remained clear, lit from some invisible source.
The dancers ran in from all directions, dressed in the merest scraps of animal-hide, paint, beads, and feathers, and meant to represent wild humans. Not that any of Aelmarkin’s guests had ever seen wild humans—nor had Aelmarkin himself, for that matter—but that would hardly matter. Most entertainments featured dancers mimicking the graceful and ethereal dances of their masters, or dancers changed to resemble animated flowers, birds, or flames. Aelmarkin wanted to startle his guests with something different.
The dance began with astonishing leaps as the performers hurled themselves across the floor with total abandon, their unbound hair streaming out behind them. Then, as drums pounded, the females hurled themselves at the males, who caught them in various positions, whirled them around, and flung them on to the next partner. There was frank and unflinching eroticism in their choreography. Even Aelmarkin, who had seen them practicing, felt his pulse quicken at their raw sensuality.
“Ancestors!” Tennith muttered under his breath, his eyes wide. “What is this?”
“An ancient fertility rite, so I’m told,” Aelmarkin said casually. “I thought it might be interesting to watch.”
Tennith didn’t reply; his eyes were glued to the dancers.
Half combat, and half mating-frenzy, it was sometimes difficult to tell if the dancers intended to couple or kill each other, and the performance built to a pulse-pounding crescendo that ended in a tangle of bodies suggestive of both.
By Aelmarkin’s orders, the lights dimmed gradually as the dance ended, leaving the room bathed only in star-and moon-light. As he had hoped, the performance had achieved the arousing effect he had intended. His guests had turned their attentions to their couch-companions, and as the dancers and servants slipped away, Aelmarkin turned his attention to the censers, increasing the mist rising from them. The slaves already knew to dust more of the intoxicating drugs over the coals therein.
Magic did not come easily to him, and he had to close his eyes in concentration even to perform so minor a conjuration. As he opened his eyes, he realized that he and his little slave were no longer alone. A slim form sat on the end of his couch.
“Well, Triana,” he said blandly, concealing his surprise. “Whatever brings you to my side? Forgive me if I doubt that you have erotic intentions.”
She made a pouting motion with her lips. “Aelmarkin, I do believe you haven’t romantic particle in you!”
“Neither do you,” he countered. “So?”
“I just wondered what it would be worth to you to see your cousin unseated,” she said casually, casting her eyes down and tracing a little path on the fabric of the couch with her finger.
“I suppose that would depend on the circumstances,” he replied just as casually. “It would do me no good at all if, for instance, his estates were ruined in the process. Why do you ask?”
“No real reason. Just that women often have sources of information that are closed to the men.” She gave him an arch smile, but he refused to rise to the bait. The last thing he wanted was to give Triana something she could use to manipulate him!
“Just as men have sources that are closed to women,” he countered, with an arch smile of his own. “Especially someone like me. Do recall what my stock-in-trade is, my dear. Concubines don’t speak to ladies.”
She smiled with malicious delight. “If I hadn’t made a vow never to marry, I swear, I would propose to you on the spot, Aelmarkin! You and I are two of a kind.”
“You and I would kill one another before a year was out,” he replied, and touched his finger to the bottom of her chin, drawing her to him for a brief, dangerous kiss. “Now, you’ve left that handsome stud all alone. Better get back to him before he pines away.”
“Or falls asleep.” She rose with a sinuous grace worthy of any of his dancers. “I’ll tell you what; I’ll lay a bet with you. I bet that I can find something to discredit him before you do.”
“And the stakes?” he asked.
Her smile was so sweetly poisonous that it took his breath away. “Something we both swore never to do. If you lose, you train a male slave for me. And if I lose, I train a female for you. But you can’t limit me as to means. Is it a wager?”
The idea of owning a slave trained by Triana made his head swim and his breath come short. Now here were stakes worthy of the play!
“Done,” he said immediately. She laughed, and glided away into the mist.
He felt a tentative touch on his wrist, and belatedly returned his attention to his current favorite. He looked down at her, and saw by the furtive color in her cheek, her moist lips, and her shining eyes that the dance—and the sighs and vague shapes moving in the mist around them—had produced the effect he had anticipated on her, as well.
“Lord,” the slave breathed, looking up at him coyly from beneath her long, fluttering lashes, “Do you wish my—further service this evening?”
Though untouched, she was by no means unaware of the duties of a concubine, and it was clear from the moist eagerness in her eyes that she was ready to fulfill those duties.
He closed his eyes for a moment, savoring what he was about to do. He had ways of controlling the slaves he trained that went beyond, far beyond, the slave-collar and magic coercion. He had subtle tortures that were far more sophisticated than anything Tennith dreamed of.
“I don’t believe so,” he said, just as casually as if he were rejecting a not-quite-ripe fruit. Then he looked down at her and frowned. “My dear child—is something troubling you? You seem to be a little—puffy tonight. Or perhaps you have just gained a little weight? Perhaps you should return to your quarters.”
The girl put her hand to her mouth, stifling a sob; her eyes brightened further with tears. Quickly as a fluttering bird, she fled into the mist.
He chuckled to himself. He had carefully manipulated her mind for weeks now, and this carefully chosen moment was the beginning of a delightful interlude.
He had made a point of praising her slender figure, of leaving no doubt that he treasured her slimness. Doubting her own mirror, certain that she had lost her real beauty, and desperate to gain his regard, she would begin starving herself from this moment. At first he would taunt her by references to plump arms and chubby cheeks, by inquiries if she thought she ought to change her diet. Once she truly began to starve herself, he would switch to the next phase. She would begin refusing food. He, of course, would urge all manner of dainties on her, which she would eat unwillingly, only to purge herself of them at the earliest opportunity.
His lips curved in a slight smile. Watching her torture herself, all the while certain that he was still as gentle and considerate as ever, would be highly amusing. Eventually, she would probably die, of course, but not before he gained a great deal of pleasure from watching her ridiculous sufferings. If he was feeling generous, he might even save her, wiping out her memories of everything up to this moment so that he could sell her to someone else. In any case, there would be weeks, possibly months, of pleasure ahead.
And further pleasure. Between the two of them, he and Triana would almost certainly find a way to bring his cousin Kyrtian down.
He laughed softly; how his fortune had suddenly turned! This might well turn out to be the victory celebration he had hoped for.
His appetite suddenly aroused, he reached for the nearest wine-wench to satisfy his needs of the moment.
Poor Kyrtian. He had no notion even that he had an enemy, much less how formidable that enemy was.
Copyright © 2002 by Andre Norton and Mercedes Lackey