"You won't be," I said with more assurance than I felt, then nodded at Raphael. "Aye, my lord. I'm willing."
Like his mentor, Raphael rubbed his hands together. Unlike his mentor, he laid them directly over the break on Marc's thigh, his brows furrowed. "I feel it," he murmured. "Moirin! Lend me your energy."
I cast about for the twilight, fumbling. Breathed in and out. I couldn't find it. The room was too tight, too close. There was too much stone around me, too many books and man-made things, too many eyes watching, too many expectations.
"Moirin!" Raphael's voice rose. "Now!"
"Wait!" I turned to the surly lad. Bao. "May I?" I asked him. The staff he leaned on was made of wood. Unfamiliar wood, flexible and segmented, carved with runes and bound with steel bands, but wood nonetheless. I touched it unbidden.
He nodded reluctantly.
It remembered its origin. Groves of slender trees swayed in the sunlight. I breathed in its faint scent and took that half-step into the world beyond.
I breathed it out, my hands settling atop Raphael's. Everything I had, I gave to him to use. Everything.
Warmth surged between us.
"Oh!" Marc de Thibideau's back arched; then he settled. "Oh," he said in a wondering tone. "That's better. So much better."
I sank to my knees, drained. Behind my eyes, I saw only a sparkling darkness. I bowed my head and leaned it against the couch. "Will he heal?"
Raphael beckoned. "Master Lo?"
The two of them examined the young lord together. "His flow is much improved," the Ch'in physician murmured, then said something in his own tongue, an unintelligible stream of strange consonants and rising and falling tones. The surly lad Bao stooped and helped me to my feet, giving me his staff to lean on. I rested my cheek against the wood. "See here," Lo Feng added. He guided my hand to touch the warm skin of Marc's bare foot. "Only minutes before, it was cold."
"I see." I gave Marc's foot a feeble squeeze. "See, my lord? You'll not be a cripple."
He regarded me with awe. "You are a miracle worker!"
"No." I shook my head. "But if I was able to help, I'm pleased."
"It is a wondrous gift," Master Lo Feng said softly. "Would you do me the honor of discussing it with me?"
"Aye," I said. "Only not today." Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Bao looking fidgety without his staff. I handed it back to him, wavering a bit.
Raphael caught my elbow. "It wearies her."
"Of course." Lo Feng gave me a bow. "Lady Moirin, perhaps we may arrange a time when you are recovered." For the first time, he smiled. It was a lovely, gentle smile. "I look forward to the pleasure of your company."
I summoned a tired smile in return. "And I yours."
Upon returning to Raphael's townhouse, I went straight to bed and slept clean through until dinner. If Daphne hadn't shaken me awake, I might have slept through dinner, too. I stumbled downstairs to find Raphael in high spirits.
"Here." He plunked a small purse on the table before me.
I hefted it. "What's this?"
"Half of my fee from today." He grinned. "I reckon you more than earned it. I'd give you the whole of it if I thought you'd accept it."
"I wouldn't." I pushed the purse toward him. "And you've already been overly generous."
"Keep it." He pushed it back. "My sense of honor demands it. Besides, you'll need money for a patron-gift tomorrow."
I blinked. "Patron-gift?"
"At Cereus House," Raphael clarified. "It's customary to leave a gift of money or jewelry for your adept. That's how they make their marques. Until they do, they're beholden to their House."
I felt foolish. "Marques?"
"A tattoo of the insignia of their House." He inclined his head and tapped the nape of his neck. "From the base of their spines all the way to here. It's an old custom, somewhat to do with Naamah scoring her lovers' backs with her nails in the throes of passion. You didn't notice Jehanne's?"
"No." I rubbed my eyes. "I didn't notice Jehanne's. How much is it customary to leave?"
"At a minimum, ten percent of the fee." Raphael shrugged. "Beyond that, the sky's the limit. Moirin, are you quite sure you're ready for this?"
"Why ever not?" I picked up the purse. "You've saved me considerable embarrassment. Thank you."
That night, Raphael invited me to his bed. There was a part of me that wanted to decline, still tired and drained and uncertain of his motives. But when he gazed at me with those storm-grey eyes, desire darkening them like thunderclouds, the inexorable answering tide rose in my blood and I couldn't say no.
And it was good.
I clutched his shoulder blades as he moved inside me, his tawny hair falling to curtain my face. I thought about Naamah scoring her lovers' backs and shivered with pleasure.
"Tomorrow," Raphael whispered in my ear, his hips thrusting. His voice was fierce. "You think of me inside you."
"I may," I whispered back defiantly. "Or I may not."
He pulled back, propping himself on his arms, leaving only the head of his shaft inside me—and me hovering on the verge of fulfillment. "You will. Say it."
His eyes darkened further. "Say it!"
"All right! I'll think of you!"
With a grunt, he pushed himself back inside me, filling me and sending me over the edge of the precipice. I convulsed hard around his thick shaft, wrapping my legs around his hips and hating myself for acquiescing. But it pleased him, and he spent himself inside me.
"Raphael?" I murmured. "Tell me. Is it me or my gift that you desire?"
He lifted his head. In the aftermath of pleasure, his beautiful face was boyish and sweet. "Can it not be both?"
"Can it?" I asked, unsure.
He kissed my lips. "Yes, witchling. It can." Raphael eased out of me and rolled onto his back, settling my head on his shoulder. He stroked my hair, kissed the top of my head. "Now sleep."
Too tired to argue, I sighed, and did.
In the morning, he was gone again. I awoke to the rich scent of roasted, brewed kavah beans and the maid Daphne watching me uncertainly, a laden tray in her hands.
I yawned. "Aye?"
She shifted from foot to foot. "The water for your bath is heating, but I thought you might like to break your fast. His lordship bade me tell you that he will be gone on business at the Academy today, but that he has left the carriage and driver at your disposal. He hopes you will join him for dinner." She ducked her head and gave me a quick, darting glance from beneath her lashes. "Do you really have an appointment at Cereus House?"
"Aye." I pushed myself upright. "I do."
"Lucky them," Daphne said unexpectedly—and flushed. "I'm sorry."
I laughed aloud. "Stone and sea! Please, don't be. You've no idea how much I needed to hear something of the sort."
She smiled, dimpling. "Truly?"
"Truly," I assured her.
Daphne set down the tray with care. "This may please you, too." She withdrew an envelope from the pocket of her apron. "It's an invitation." She lowered her voice, clearly impressed. "From Prince Thierry."
I opened it and read. "So it is. To a hunt."
"Do you ride to the hunt?" Daphne inquired.
I smiled wryly. "It seems I do."
All in all, it put me in a better mood than I might have been in otherwise. Despite what had transpired between us last night, Raphael was being solicitous. I had confirmation of my own desirability. I was perhaps being courted by the Dauphin of Terre d'Ange. So I endured the carriage-ride to Cereus House in good spirits. The Dowayne greeted me with genuine warmth, kissing me on both cheeks.
"I've given you a room that looks onto a courtyard." She put her hands on my shoulders, her gaze oddly troubled. "And….. I hope the experience pleases you, my lady."
"I'm sure it will," I said.
"I hope so," she repeated.
I followed the servant she assigned me as a guide through a labyrinth of corridors. At last he paused and bowed, indicating a door. I opened it and entered.
"Moirin." In the window seat that looked onto the courtyard, Jehanne de la Courcel raised her head. Sunlight gleamed on the elaborate coils of her pale gilt hair. Her blue-grey eyes sparkled at me. "Lesson the second," she said in her light, sweet voice. "Never trust a poet."
My blood ran cold with anger.
"Do you make mock of me for seeking to learn Naamah's arts?" I asked stiffly. "I had not thought that was the D'Angeline way."
"No!" She rose in one fluid motion. "I'm not here in jest."
"Why, then?" I eyed her. "Is this but some gambit I cannot fathom in the game you and Raphael play with one another?"
"Yes," Jehanne said simply. "And no."
I folded my arms. "Well, I'm not playing."
"Such a glower!" She tilted her head and smiled at me in a disarming manner. "Are you truly that insulted that the Queen of Terre d'Ange wishes to serve as an adept for you? I never did renounce Naamah's Service, you know. It's part of my agreement with Daniel." When I didn't answer, she came closer. "Raphael de Mereliot is a very intelligent, very attractive man. He can be kind and caring, but he can be selfish and ambitious, too. And he will control you if you let him."
I could smell her perfume, faint and intoxicating. "And out of the goodness of your heart, you came here to tell me this?"
"No." Jehanne ran one fingertip over my folded forearms in a feather-light caress, watching my skin prickle in response. "The Court's abuzz with talk of you. Raphael expects me to succumb to a jealous fury. If I do, he wins. This . . ." She stroked my cheek with the same exquisite delicacy. "This is my way of changing the game entirely."
With an effort, I pulled away. "Oh, aye! So you might throw it in his face and in the bargain, laugh at my inexperience."
"No." She shook her head. "No, I rather think I'd keep you my delicious little secret. And when Raphael parades you around in all his smug glory, all I'll have to do is think on it and laugh inside. As for your inexperience….." She took a step closer to me, eyes sparkling. My heart beat faster. In the sunlight, her fair skin was utterly flawless. "Do you know how long it's been since I let myself indulge in the headlong rush of youth's untutored passion?"
"No," I said softly. This time I didn't pull away.
"Too long." Jehanne kissed my lips, light and sweet as a promise. "Far, far too long, my gorgeous young savage."
I took a deep breath. "This is a very bad idea."
"Mayhap." Her eyes danced. I could feel her gift, Naamah's gift, the bright lady's gift, calling to mine. Desire to desire, simple and pure in the midst of this whole complicated affair. My head spun with images of orchids and doves. I wanted very badly to touch her, to taste her. "If you're going to leave, you'd better do it now."
Instead, I slid one hand around the back of her neck and kissed her. Her lips were very, very soft. They parted beneath mine and Jehanne made a small sound of pleasure deep in her throat.
"Nice," she purred when I stopped. "Very, very nice." She hesitated, then gave me a serious look. "You were promised a Showing and you shall have one. Even the Queen is not allowed to violate the rules of Naamah's Order, and the Dowayne would never have consented to this if I weren't sincere about honoring the terms of your contract."
"Is the Queen of Terre d'Ange allowed to do such things?" I asked.
Jehanne smiled wickedly, "I am. You didn't let me finish. With your consent, I'd like to be alone with you first."
"I'd forgotten all about the Showing," I admitted.
She laughed. "Oh, good."
It was altogether different, and altogether lovely. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I had a brief image of my mother looking mildly aghast, but I banished it. This was a different pool of desire, but it was the same element and I moved in it gladly. And I daresay one of the only sights in the world more exquisite than Jehanne clothed was Jehanne naked. Her skin glowed like marble, her silver-gilt hair spilling in unbound coils.
"Raphael's witch." She took my hand and guided it between her thighs so I could feel her, slick and wet with desire. "Do you still think I mean to make mock of you?"
"I want to taste you," I whispered.
Jehanne kissed me, deep and languorous. "Do."
I did things to her that until now had only been done to me. Her breasts were silken and luscious, tipped with pink nipples. I lost myself in suckling on them, feeling her hands twine in my hair and her breathing quicken. I slid lower, settling between her thighs. She tasted of salt and sweet musk.
"There!" she gasped, reaching down to spread her folds and show me. "Naamah's Pearl!"
I licked and sucked avidly at the swollen pink bud, sliding two fingers deep inside her. Stone and sea, it felt good! In and out, the slow wave of pleasure rising and bursting in hard spasms. I kept going until they stopped, and a little longer.