by Iseya Misu (伊勢谷 美寿)
“—and I found Lord Robert’s seventh shoe in the maid’s cupboard, and the last in her fireplace,” I finish reporting, as Madame Gerotte nods and carefully notes down every detail.
“Very good,” she replies, closing her ledger with a snap. “Your next assignment is in Lindonton Manor. They’re expecting extra guests to arrive at their season’s end ball, and will be needing a footman, a man-of-all-service, and a room-tender.”
“Am I to assume you’ll be sending three employees?” I ask innocently.
She fixes me with a look. “I expect you to do excellent work, as always.”
Alas, but I am not immune to flattery. I sweep a bow.
“And remind me, how did you come to work as a servant for hire, should anyone ask?”
“My parents perished in dragon fire before I could walk, so I was raised by a kindly forest hermit and taught to write by a runaway priest,” I rattle off without hesitation. “You found me juggling for money on a barren street of a necropolis, looking for—”
“Enough! Your tongue will be the death of you. And your poor parents.” Grinning, I evade the swipe of her quill and set off to pack for this month’s journey. I don’t fear the bad luck of speaking my parents into an early grave. If a dragon tries to eat them for my sins, they’ll tax it for setting wing on their lands first.
Call it bizarre, but I like working for Madame Gerotte and her bizarre hire-a-servant scheme. The spying bits are neither here nor there. But helping others — and getting to see what lies beyond the closed doors of those who waltzed through the political bedtime stories of my childhood— is a marvel. A footman answers doors, but also discovers what faces lie beneath layers of makeup washed away by rain. A groomsman brushes out wet horse hides, and sees who treats an animal well and who unkindly. A server attends feasts my parents would never be invited to, and can snatch a few delectable bites to eat afterwards. Always new sights and — my sisters’ favorite — always new gossip to deliver.
Lindonton Manor, set in the bustling port town of, imaginatively, Lindonton, is a glorious frosted cake upon a winter-gray and snow-laden plate. The brightly painted interiors are warm even in the winter chill, thanks in no small part to an hourly wood delivery service. The housekeeper appoints the newcomer to the task gleefully, and I accept with a smile. Doing the work of three means pulling in the pay of three — what do I have to complain about? Another month of loving the worst of my family from a distance is worth even the back-breaking tasks.
When I knock on the first visitor’s door, bundle of wood on a tarp I drag carefully across carpeted floors, the lady yanks it open herself, gasping with her hair and gown in full disarray. “Oh, thank all the gods,” she exclaims. “All of my little pets have escaped from the box again. Help me find them, quickly!”
The evening’s fire service suffers a lengthy, eventful interruption. Luckily, I don’t mind snakes.
When service is restored, the visitor in the next room also needs water fetched, and the lord in the room after wishes for a consult of local drinking establishments. I am naturally not a native of this area — there’s no point in spinning a wildly exaggerated story of a penniless and squalid upbring in a place where people know me — but I have served in Lindonton before, and name enough to his satisfaction. The lady beyond him wants to know if I can let her into the snake lady’s room. She’s subtle about it, twisting her hair up and murmuring around the pins, but I know an amorous assignation when I hear one. I demure, as I must to keep my job, but wish her the best of luck in bribing one of the true household staff.
And then, firewood done, I return to the servant’s floor to quickly change into yet another gray uniform, this one of finer weave and fit, ready to deliver evening tea.
The household cook barely looks my way as he shoves the tray at me. Madame Gerotte’s service is popular with the nobles, not those who work for them. I’ve discovered the hard way that explaining I have not the slightest wish to put anyone out of a job only makes me sound like a snob, not a boon companion. But it’s for the best, I suppose — the less talking I do on assignment, the less chance I have of giving myself away.
It is not done for a noble to take a job, no matter how much his family needs the money, nor what little other pursuits life offers a fifth son. And besides, what else would I do? Once, I wanted to be a dandy, idling about in the finest parlors in beautiful clothes, making eyes at the handsome sons of dukes and kings. But that was eighteen inches ago. Not only would tailors balk at adapting fashions to Beanpole Zan, but on my allowance, I’d have to card and spin my own wool.
No, it’s better that Lord Mellazano of Yvenne, fifth son of an extremely unprosperous noble rearing, should become Zan, surprisingly well-read low-born servant, who sleeps each month in a different castle and solves every manner of interesting problem that arises in strangers’ households. The money I earn traveling here and there for Madame Gerotte keeps Iris in dresses and Eva in books, and James and Theo and Mal and Fren, who never quite forgave me for the inches of height I’d be glad to give away, off my back. And there are the amorous assignations of my own, much more freely indulged on the road than I would ever dare take on in my family home. Though there was once a young lordling on his travels who had ended up at both the Lord of Trevader’s and my parents’ crumbling estate and failed to recognize me as the one who had poured his tea and listened to his prattle… I had “anticipated” his love of stargazing, and gotten a good tumble out of it in the night fields of home.
Only a month of lonely nights, or maybe a few not-as-lonely here in Lindonton, and then I can return home and talk Iris’s ear off while Eva throws her books and shrieks for us to shut up already.
I’m still grinning at the thought when I knock on the first door and push my way in with the edge of the tray. Not for long. The room beyond is a disaster: curtains ripped down from their moorings, drawers overturned, a suite of clothes scattered across the floor and bed and fireplace chairs. Fine clothes, and some of them dangerously close to the fire.
The lord standing among them spins at my yelp of dismay. The clothes around seem to be most of his–he’s wearing a short tunic, sewn beautifully in gold thread, yes, but only a tunic. Clearly. Certainly nothing to hide the erection straining between the folds of cloth, the tip catching wetly the red glow of firelight. The light catches also the sweat on his bronze skin, a number of gold hoop earrings, and his eyes, almost luminescent, wide and startled and so blown with lust that I cannot tell what color they might have been save for black.
“The door,” he croaks, and I kick it shut hastily, unable to manage a more dignified move while still holding the tray. “No, you were—never mind. Sorry. I’m—very sorry.”
Not precisely the words I was expecting to hear from a man staring at me this intently, hands trembling, hips clearly kept still through great force.
I know well of lords and ladies who flirt with trysts with servants—but this seems something different altogether.
“My lord,” I manage, setting the tray carefully on the guest table, “may I be of assistance?”
“No. I fear not.” His accent is northern, from what I can tell around the gasping. He is lithe, with black waves of hair reaching nearly to his waist unbound, and staring as if I am a gift from the gods, and I am not immune to flattery. Gorgeous. “Or — no. I will not. Never. You should not be inconvenienced. Please, please forget you have seen — anything. This is mortifying. Please.” He does not seem to know where to look, away for scarce moments before his gaze returns to me in jerks, as if not of his own doing.
“It’s fine, my lord, really,” I assure him, holding my hands out, doing my best to seem soothing. He seems in need of that as much as he needs — anything else. “It’s nothing I haven’t seen before. Would you like me to help you finish undressing? Or dressing? Fix your room? Anything that you need, I will do my best to fulfill.”
That seems to startle him into action; at least, he takes a step forward at last, shaking his head rather too hard. “No. You must go. Please.” He stands only to my chin when he approaches, and does not so much grab my arm as the cloth of my sleeve, tugging me away. “Please go.”
“Ah, my lord—” Madame Gerotte is very firm in her instruction that we should never refuse an order nor contradict our betters. “Of course. Only—” Thud. He’s maneuvered me all the way to up against the door, and he’s not gentle about the last five inches. I keep my wince to a minimum. “Only, it seems this door is shut.”
“Oh.” His breath is fever-hot against my neck, as is his skin where he stands pressed against me, the wood deceptively cool at my back. His searching, lovely gaze never wavers from my own. “I’ve been poisoned,” he confides in an intent whisper. “My mind is not my own.”
“Poisoned?” I’ve never heard of poison that could do this, but I must admit that my younger-son training didn’t really cover assassination. “Is… is there an antidote?”
“I don’t know.” The lord gives a breathy sound, half laugh, half sob, pressing closer still. “It wasn’t meant for me. I’m farsighted. I couldn’t read the names at the table places. I took the wrong drink. A stupid mistake, but a forgivable one, usually. The dosage…”
“Um.” I’d like to consider myself a bright student, but the pressing situation is an untenable distraction from bringing my mind to bear. The handsome lord is desperate. Needful, from the pained, breathy whine in his gasps, the pleading beneath the blown lust in his eyes. “Yes?”
“The dosage.” He swallows. So do I; one of his hands has just closed hard around my hip. “Was likely not meant to be so high. Nor a fatal dosage expected. Not that I expect to die, only, I was not meant to want to.”
“I am not going to assist in your suicide, my lord,” I reply cautiously. “I’m sure there’s a different solution to this problem we can find.”
“I don’t want to want to die.” He grips my hips even more tightly, as if to impress his point upon me. “Of course, it was not meant for me at all. I am not a threat. Not important. Not interesting. For someone else, perhaps a desired effect. Not me.” His bottom lip catches between his teeth, his thumb rubbing insistent circles against my thigh. “Please. If I can beg one more unworthy favor of you.”
“Yes?” I repeat again. “Yes.”
“May we speak of something else? A distraction — would be appreciated.”
Something else. His long hair, black and tousled in natural curl, is gorgeous, and soft against my cheek when the lord shoves his head against my shoulder with another desperate whine. “What. Um.” I am never at a loss for words. “What were you looking for, my lord? Your room. You seemed to be… searching. Maybe I can help you find it.”
I hear a soft hiss of breath. “Not that either,” he murmurs, muffled against my uniform. “I — no, it’s too humiliating. Please don’t ask. I needed — I need — please.” Helplessly he bucks up against my thigh — the room spins a moment — before he wrenches away with a cry. Or tries to, at any rate, as he manages only the barest space between us.
“You should go, please, before I despoil you,” he begs, his gaze longing and tormented when he stares up at me once more. “I would never, with someone unwilling. I would rather this poison consume me than that.”
“My lord, I am not unwilling,” I say firmly; that at least is easy to voice. “I am willing to do just about anything you can think of and then some.”
He flinches. “No.”
“N — as you like, my lord.” Some people just can’t be helped. But I can hardly leave him like this. “You don’t have to touch me if you don’t want to. But if you actually are poisoned, maybe dying, and there’s something you need, that might help—please, tell me what it is.”
He turns to the side, pressing his free hand to his mouth, seeming almost entirely unaware that his other one has gone to the front of my trousers. “Not an antidote,” he murmurs. “Just a — a need. A s-shameful — a — please fuck me,” he blurts out, and yanks his other hand away to cover his face entirely.
I shut my mouth; I had been about to ask if whatever perversion involved snakes, since by lucky coincidence I knew where to get some. “Yes, my lord.”
“But you shouldn’t,” he insists.
“I assure you, it is no hardship.” When I reach out, testingly, to touch his shoulder, he shivvers. “I take it you have not been with many men?”
“I have.” The contrary lord sounds rather offended for someone who seems so otherwise bothered by sex, even as he presses into my hand. “Only, the princeps dictate…”
Oh, one of those kinds of northerners. I’d roll my eyes, if he didn’t sound so desperately tormented. Hierarchical fucking is such bullshit. What one man likes, another doesn’t; why should class and status wreathe even those nude in the bedroom? “There’s nothing to fear,” I tell tell him soothingly. “I’m secretly just as noble as you are. You aren’t breaking any rules.”
“What? Oh blessed Yeref.” He nearly collapses in relief, and apparently gives up on being contrary, all but yanking me over to the bed. There he falls upon the mattress at once, pulling me down with him.
Trysts as a servant go a certain way, namely, with me on my knees or, very rarely, since the heavenly princeps infect some southerners too, with me seated and my cock in their mouth and their eyes tightly shut. The lays I’ve had with peers were clandestine, usually in stables and once under the stars, and those involved a lot of clutching and thrusting to mutual satisfaction. In the brothels, what one can afford to order off the menu, of course.
But this — he goes for my mouth with his own, hungry, desperate, the desert traveler who has had to stand beside a glass of water all these long minutes and finally gets to drink. I have kissed and been kissed, but never with such stark need.
One hand clenches in my hair tightly enough that I imagine he will be picking blonde strands from his nails later and the other burrows in the weft of my uniform jacket. If he has any inclination of making us equals in nudity, he does not show it. He seems to appreciate the handhold.
The whimpers he presses into my mouth along with his tongue are laced with more than just pleasure, though. “Shh,” I murmur, wondering at the steadiness of my own tone, “let me put my mouth to better use, my — mm.”
A peer would not call him my lord, and he’d seemed too bothered earlier. Possibly as much that he would be taking advantage of a servant as he was worried about the princeps, truly. A man I’d might like to know in other circumstances — of course, I was getting to know him now, and it had never much mattered to me before, but — well. The frantic pressing of an erection to my belly tells me this is no time for life revelations.
“Is there any lubricant here?”
“No. I–I looked. During my search.” His luminous eyes are shut, his dark cheeks darker with blushing. “It, it doesn’t matter. Please.”
Well, that’s no good. I crane my neck around swiftly. He may have missed something in his state—ah, my tray. Butter is a poor substitute, but better than nothing. Alas, also across the room.
“Stay here just a moment, please,” I say, pulling away. The sound he makes is heartbreaking, a wounded, muffled gasp as if I have stabbed him, but his eyes are shut more tightly than before, a hand over his mouth, when I look down. Swearing, I dart across the room and back as if I am a sparrow on the wing, returning my hands to him as swiftly as I am able.
“Quick, turn around, hips up, just like that,” I order, guiding him in place with gentle hands. His dark sac hangs heavy and swollen between his legs, and I long to put my mouth upon it — but any hesitation on my part is truly torture, I know now. Instead I coat my fingers as quickly as I am able from the butter tray and press one of them at his entrance, begging entry. His moan — I wish I could hear it without that edge of pain, but he shifts and I am inside, at last, just barely.
“Breathe,” I beg. “Or talk. You wanted a distraction, yes?” I could use one; between his wanton thrusts and refusal to meet my gaze, my own lust and sensibilities are being torn every which way.
“W-what should we discuss?”
“Er — what do you like?”
“Rocks.” I eye his again. “Earth.”
Oh. “Tell me about that, then,” I suggest as I lay in another finger. “What’s there to know about earth?”
“Earth can. Tell stories.” He is quiet between his gasps, shy, and I strain to hear his voice as much as I strain to make more progress into him, curious as a cat. “There are many layers. Compressed one atop the other, different colors, different consistencies. Some perfect for growing plants, others for m-making, ah, fuck, pottery. Y-you’d never know from looking at a, a field or oasis, that beneath plants and sand might be solid rock, or, or, fossils of plants long dead.”
“Are you a scholar of rocks?” I ask to urge him on as I spread my fingers apart, mindful of his winces as well as his arching back, his frantic need to have me inside him, his desperation to keep me out. “Of — earth?”
“Geology,” he corrects, gasping. “Rocks, soils, mountains — anything below us. Not, haa, not someone who drowns himself in aphrodisiac. Not someone who anyone would want to.” He’s weeping now, in long, needy cries, but seems so determined to ignore this that I do my best to as well. “Please fuck me. I don’t care if it hurts. I can stand pain.”
“Shh,” I murmur, carefully working another finger in. “Tell me about mountains.”
He’s silent for a long moment, even his breathy sobs stilled, until I get another knuckle in. “The Andriac range,” he gasps, writhing under my touch, “is the oldest…”
A fourth finger — my hands are as long and thin as the rest of me—and more about the Andriac Mountains than I knew anyone knew, and the poor man is as ready as I can make him without killing him. I even undo my trousers with my other hand so I can leave the other within him, replacing pressure with my cock as smoothly as I am able.
“And the third highest peak — oh, fuck, please, Yeref, Canthal,” he presses his wails into the blankets as I slide in and in. “I’ve never — imagined it could be this good.”
I am not immune to flattery. “It gets better,” I promise him.
But instead of arching against me, he twists, employing surprising dexterity to meet my gaze over his shoulder. His lashes are thick with tears, but his voice holds a deeper emotion when he manages, “I d-don’t — I don’t know your name.”
It’s surprisingly difficult to remember. “Zan,” I say, “I—” and swallow down the ridiculous urge to add more. “It’s Zan.”
“Zan — I’m sorry, I’m so close, and I have to—”
“Shh,” I repeat again, stroking a hand up under his shirt to soothe his back. “You’re the poisoned one. I’ll be fine, believe me. Come as soon as you can.”
He screams into the pillow, enough that it’s a wonder the guards don’t bring the palace down around our ears, but he doesn’t come, not as I pull out breathing breathy curses of my own, nor as I plunge back into him. “Come on,” I beg. “Come — sorry, what’s your name?”
“Zan, I… Raquel…!”
“Raquel, please.” He feels amazing, tense and coiled, sweat plastering his dark curls to his neck and cheeks. He would be amazing anywhere, though, leaning in a doorway, seated on a windowsill with a book in his lap. Denying himself pleasure even as he begs for it —
“I—” The lord’s back arches up, a gorgeous display of smooth skin and muscle and trembling desire. “It, it’s not enough—”
This isn’t my favorite position either, too much balancing and too little touch. The lord weeps in relief as I pull him up to his knees, his back pressed against my chest, and take him in hand.
I can only thrust shallowly at this angle, but he wants — no, needs me inside anyway, doesn’t want the aching emptiness of withdrawal, and now I can stroke him firmly, one hand at his cock, the other around his aching sac. He whispers frantic pleas, his head thrown back, eyes shut, so tense it is a wonder he does not break in half.
And then he shoves against me suddenly, back arching, writhing — or perhaps trembling. “Zan,” he whimpers desperately with each heave of his hips, “I can’t, I can’t—”
“You can,” I order, starting to sound more than a little desperate myself. “You have to. Just let go. Just let me take care of you — ”
I am slamming into him now with a strength I did not know I possessed, unable to stop mouthing at the straining muscles of his neck, my hand a vise around his cock. “Trust me,” I order. “Let go.”
With a last shudder, he gives himself over to me completely, hanging almost bonelessly in my arms as I drive his body to the brink it craves. And finally, with a choked cry, he does, spilling over my fingers and the blankets with frantic convulsions.
Sweet, blessed relief, and too much of it perhaps, because his cries have become more thorough sobs now, his chest wracked against mine. For all that my own blood is burning and I remain an iron rod inside him, I lower us both gently to the bed where I can put an arm around his chest and stroke his hair. “Shh, you’re all right now,” I murmur. “It’s fine. You’re safe.”
“I — but I — but you! You must think me such a weakling, such a fool, such a crybaby, and you’ve been so wonderful—”
“Shh.” I pull his hair back from his wet cheeks where he tries to hide them in the pillow. “Raquel. I think nothing of the sort. Please don’t be so hard on yourself.”
“I — but, why not?” This time when he twists he is almost glaring, and my breath stutters in my throat at how tightly he grips my cock inside him. “Why would you do this for me?”
“You have been, a-ah, afraid for your life,” I point out. “And yet you tried to send me away, and have, have been a perfect gentleman, despite a very real affliction. But, um, about that—”
Raquel’s gaze has gone abstracted, staring at a spot past my cheek, and I trail off when he suddenly shudders. “Damn it all,” he murmurs, eyes dropping half-lidded as he starts to thrust back against me again. “Zan, I am so sorry, but do you think—”
“Yes,” I gasp.
He apologizes needlessly the next four times, too.
Madame Gerotte gives me quite the tongue lashing when I return. “Mellazano, you’re supposed to be my best employee!” she cries, clearly longing to spring across the desk and throttle me instead of the quill she’s twisting in her hands. “I promised you’d be without reproach. Reliable! And instead you disappear for hours on the most important night, and reappear with your uniform completely ruined. We all but lost money on this assignment! What have you to say for yourself?”
“I am very sorry,” I reply meekly, hands clasped before me in supplication. And I am. But I can’t hold out against curiosity any longer. “I don’t suppose — has anyone asked for me?”
“What? Of course not! You’re lucky I still let you work here!”
I shouldn’t have expected anything, but my shoulders sag nonetheless. What could I have expected? I met him on the worst day of his life and left him with nothing more than a silly nickname. Not that he would have searched with more, either.
And even if he found me, what then? A fruit basket, perhaps, with a Thank you for the fucking note inside?
“Mella.” Madame Gerotte’s voice, never soft, at least has fewer crags now. “Do you at least have anything to report?”
The crux of the matter, of course. “A guest brought a number of snakes, who escaped,” I reply. “Another preferred drinking in the town to his host’s cellars. And someone was sleeping with someone else.”
“No names? No details?”
Only one name, and it might even be as false as mine. I know no Lord Raquel, nor could I find him on the guest lists I’d surreptitiously checked afterwards. “My apologies.”
She sighs, shaking her head. “Go home and get some rest. Maybe, maybe, out of the infinite kindness of my heart, I won’t fire you today. I’ll wait until you’re feeling better. Shoo.”
After three days of further sighing, even my mother, normally more concerned with running the failing countryside than the state of happiness in her household, notices. “What’s gotten into you?” she asks while sharing a rare dinner with myself and my sisters, and when I shrug, “Iris?”
“He’s in love!” my sister declares at once, always too perceptive.
“With whom?” Mother wishes to know.
“Am not,” I reply. And, unable to stop myself: “Do we know a northern Lord Raquel? That might not be his name.”
“A lord? Honestly, Zan,” she sighs. “Unless it’s his daughter you’re asking after?”
I shrug. It’s not that I’ve kept all of the lords and stable boys a secret, but it’s not been dinner conversation before, either. “Not a chance,” Iris chips in.
“Of course. And I suppose you want me to ask your father.” Mother drums her fingers against the table. “Very well. Just tell me — is your Lord Raquel rich?”
Money, the great equalizer. But really, compared to the alternatives, what do I have to complain about? Mother sighs again when I lean over and give her a hug.
But a few days later — after Madame Gerotte has forgiven her most profitable employee, and my family members have each separately expressed their hope that this mysterious lord will, should he exist, lavishly fund any lifestyle of my, and naturally my family’s, choosing — I am able to pen a letter that begins,
Dear Lord Suliamyn Raquel Marduk,
Contains, I am exceedingly sorry…
Continues, but if you did want to see me again…
and ends, Yours, Lord Mellazano of Yvenne.
When I send it—that seems to be enough. Knowing that I have done all that I can, all that anyone expects me to, eases a tense, coiled knot in my breast. I can breathe again easily.
That is, until he arrives on our doorstep.
Lord Suliamyn Raquel Marduk, when he is not poisoned by incorrectly administered aphrodisiac, is a slight, unassuming figure, dressed in severe and high-necked scholar robes with his hair neatly pulled back into a no-nonsense braid, that brings even those lines of cheerful hoops that grace his ears into line. Had I waited upon him in his guest room like this, I would have poured him a cup of tea and never thought of him again.
And I would have been an idiot. His smile, upon seeing me, puts the sunlight to shame.
“You open the door of your own home?” he asks when I do little more than stand there dumbly, staring. “Or are you not of noble birth, after all? Please let me assure you that I do not care either way. If you were lying, it was a kindness, and I would never hold that against you.”
“Oh — no,” I say, and feel my cheeks start to burn, a red that will show up only too clearly on my skin. I never run out of words, except, apparently, with him. “We just — don’t have much staff right now. Liva’s expecting any day, and Stero’s knees creak, and… will you come in?”
Raquel does, and graciously does not mention the leaky ceiling, or the faded rugs that have seen better days. “Your lands are beautiful,” he tells me, gaze aglow. “Your farmers have some of the best growing soil in the region.”
Or maybe he doesn’t notice. I start to find my own smile again. “Really? No rocks hiding underneath?”
“On the contrary! Below them is the fine stone that built your house. But, ah… in truth, I did not come here to survey your land, rather…” The lord trails off, frowning at the nearby door latch, which is wriggling noticeably.
“My family,” I sigh. “Come, we’ll have privacy in my bedroom.”
Which is the only thing my bedroom boasts. Compared to even the destroyed guest room in Lindonton, mine would come in second place, being dark and cramped with not so much as cheap whitewash to cover the stone walls. Raquel seems to find this charming, inspecting the rock with care as he asks, “You’ve told your family? About me?”
“I mentioned you,” I reply, eying him for any hint of yea or nay. “I didn’t go into details, of course.”
“Of course,” he echoes, his own cheeks taking on a somewhat redder tinge. “Ah… Zan. Or do you prefer Mellazano?”
“Zan is fine. Mella’s a mouthful.”
“Zan, then.” He turns, dark features gorgeous against the gray stone as he studies me. “In truth, I was half-hoping you were a servant. I had planned to offer you a job, if you were interested.”
“Really?” I reply, trying not to sound too eager. “But you’ve noticed that even as a lord, I still have one.”
“Indeed. Do you like cleaning and serving tea?”
Raquel only sounds curious, but I’m used enough to being baited by my brothers that I only say, “I like helping others, and having new experiences.”
“And you do not find it dull?” He winces, and hurries to add, “I do not cast aspersions, of course. It is only that I fear what I was going to offer may seem dull to you. Fewer people, and perhaps fewer experiences.”
The lord is fidgeting, and seems unable to meet my gaze, and his words dawn on me like sunrise. I am, after all, good with people, as good as I am at reporting on noble gossip and performing the proper bows. “Less poison,” I hazard.
Raquel winces again. “None at all, I am afraid.”
I take a step nearer, and he tracks my movements at my feet, not moving away. “I certainly don’t find you boring,” I say.
“I do not know why not,” he murmurs. “I have little to recommend myself. Whereas you have your kindness, and an undeniable grace in the bedroom, and no doubt any number of lovers you might prefer.”
“Raquel.” I wait until he finds the courage to look at me. His eyes, as it turns out, are a tawny gold to match those hoops, even if his pupils are wide in the dim light of my room. “You were the kind one. Thoughtful and generous. And the most passionate man I’ve ever met.”
“That was the poison.” He presses a palm to one flaming cheek. “I am not like that.”
“But was it all a lie? If it was — that’s all right, but I need to know. Do you not want me like you did? Do you think you’ll never desire everything you did again?”
“I already do,” he whispers. Slowly he stretches out a hand, and, when I do not back away, sets it on my chest. Then he takes a step forward. And, swallowing, giving me every chance to withdraw as he slowly tilts his head back, brushes his mouth against mine.
It is sweet, and quiet, and so self-conscious I can nearly feel him thinking. When I part my lips, he surges against me with unstoppable passion, his hands sinking into my hair and clinging to my neck, his body meeting mine so familiarly.
“I’ll take the job,” I reply when we separate at last. “What is it?”
He’s panting, dazed, perhaps, save for the shining of his eyes. “I need an apprentice. Someone who is willing to suffer through potentially harsh climates and difficult, dirty tasks and — well, it seems awful to put it that way, but—”
“Done. When do we start?” There’s a thump at my door, and I raise my gaze to the cracked ceilings and ask obediently, “How much does it pay?”
“Ah… I didn’t have a budget in mind, exactly, but I’m sure I can match whatever you’ve earned previously.”
“I accept. Where are we going?”
Raquel blinks. “I did hope to tell you the details before you agree, er, further. I wish to study a volcano off the island coast of Sarquay. It will be a two-week journey by ship, followed by a lengthy hike through the jungle.”
“That does sound extremely dull,” I agree, touching his cheek when he blushes. “Also, perfect. I’m going with you. Can we leave now?”
“Do you always do what other people suggest, or is it just me?” His tone is teasing, his expression—not.
“I do what suits me,” I reply, “and I don’t care if it breaks the rules. You suit me. Do you think you can live with that?”
His smile spreads, slowly, perfectly. “I believe that I can.”