One More Time
She was sitting in the common room of the Imperial Crown Hotel that evening, the center of attention for a clot of young noblemen — and I use the word "men" only in the broadest sense, for I doubt they could muster enough whiskers to qualify for a single mustache between them, never mind even a partial goatee. They were most likely provincials in the capital for the first time, here to swear fealty to the Emperor upon their majority. I had done so myself at eighteen some years before, and knew the signs of young men off their parents' leashes for the first time. The young lady, for example, was clearly bearing the brunt of their boorish, febrile attempts at what could only marginally be described as charm, and it was as she was looking about the room in a sly attempt to seek a means of either escape or rescue that our eyes met.
I held her gaze steadily as I languidly sipped my glass of wine — an Orlandine red, with its heady, nutty body and overly sweet aftertaste, not one of my favorites, but the Talliosan wines were in favor at court this season, and it would have been gauche to ask for something from my own vineyards in Bercany. She was quite pretty, with a heart-shaped face (just like Raia's, and the thought caused my pendant to pulse slightly), a lovely swanlike neck, clear skin in that slightly dusky complexion that suggested she was a native of the capital, and a generous shock of thick, curly black hair that she wore cascading down across her left shoulder in last month's fashion. A gentleman could be forgiven for mistaking her as a member of the aristocracy by only a casual regard of her graceful manner and coy behavior with the young provincials, but her rather brazen, low-cut dress that displayed her bared shoulders, her rather obvious laugh, and her none-too-subtle gestures, as well as her aforementioned hairstyle, suggested to me that she was no more noble than the young satyr attendant who darted from table to table ensuring the patrons of the room were satisfied with their food and drink.
Still, an evening in the company of a lovely young woman is never a waste of my time.
She excused herself from the disappointed young men then, and, never taking her eyes off mine, strode with determination to my table, the impudent sway of her hips broadcasting her intentions. So. A courtesan then, and either one poorly trained by the guild or someone from the Inner Wall, University or Tanglestreet Districts or possibly even West Banks who had managed to save enough for papers to gain admittance into the Upper City. To be operating with permission by the hotel in the common room, and with skin that clear she was certainly no dockside whore or Lower City slattern. I hoped she was at least moderately educated so that our conversation could hold my attention.
"Please pardon me, my lord," she said, in a high, clear, yet slightly breathy voice, no doubt calculated for maximum seduction purposes. "The young men whose company I endured moments ago grow rather tiresome, and I took the liberty of claiming you were my distant cousin whom I'd not seen in some time. Would it be a bother to you if I asked to sit for a while until they depart?"
I stood, smiling broadly, and said with enough projection as to be heard by the young men but not enough to disturb other patrons of the common room, "Cousin! It is you! I thought I saw you sitting there. Come! Sit!" I stood and lightly embraced her, taking note of her rather short, shapely form enhanced by the corset she wore as it pushed her already ample bosom nearly out of her low-cut bodice. I noted the dress she wore was not fully layered or hooped in current fashion. Again, as I stated — common.
I helped the young woman to her chair, then sat, smiling, as I waved to get the attention of the satyr attendant. "My dear cousin, it is never a bother to share the company of a lovely lady such as yourself. Please remind me which branch of the family you hail from? It's been so long since I've seen you."
Her eyes sparkled in the candle light. "I'm Clarielle, my sweet cousin, remember? On your mother's side."
I felt a spasm of grief for just a moment. My expression betrayed nothing, and I gave my mustache a slight mischievous twist. "But of course, but of course. Tell me, Clarielle, what would you like to drink?"
"Oh, a glass of that Orlandine you're enjoying would be more than adequate, sweet cousin," she said, directed more towards the satyr than to me.
I chuckled. "Well, to say that I was enjoying the Orlandine would be a generous falsehood at best. Enduring might be the more proper term in this case." I nodded to the satyr who went to fetch a glass.
"Ah, I should have known. Your accent, my lord, clearly suggests you are Bercanon." Her smile became a sly half-grin, and she stroked a silk gloved finger across my hand. "Tell me, my lord — is it true what they say of the noblemen of Bercany?"
At this, I withdrew my hand and sat back, regarding her cooly. There were a number of inferences she could be making here. "To what do you refer, my dear Clarielle? Do you mean the rumors that my people are secret criminal masterminds, operating slave trade and trafficking in demon-possessed artifacts in defiance of Imperial edict? Or that the Bercanon noble families are necromancers, conjuring spirits and manipulating the dead to spy for us in all the courts throughout the Pilliastrin Sea?" Clarielle paled as I spoke, clearly afraid that she had offended me. I gave her a reassuring smile and leaned forward. "Or were you more likely speaking of something benign, like the fact that we are the greatest swordsman the Alorréon Empire has ever known?"
The satyr attendant gave a derisive snort as he placed Clarielle's wineglass on the table, then glanced furtively in my direction in the hope that I had not noticed. It would, to his disappointment, result in a smaller gratuity this evening. Clarielle, on the other hand, once again placed her glazed hand on mine. "None of these things, my lord. I meant only that it is said the men of Bercany are the greatest lovers in all of the known world."
"Is it?" I replied, disappointed in her abandonment of any subtlety.
"Of course! Surely you've heard the tales — why, everyone has heard of the romantic exploits of the greatest lover in the world, Vibaldorólo Tepísma, the Count of Bercanti."
I nodded. "I cannot deny that I am included when you speak of everyone in this regard."
She grew oddly wistful then, looking in my direction more than at me. "They say his older brother killed his lover out of jealousy, and that after she died in his arms, the Count was so enraged he slew that brother and all his other kin. I hear he now travels the Empire, searching for someone who can heal his broken heart."
I adjusted the lace of my sleeve, ignoring the warm pulsing of my jeweled pendant, or the distant whispering in the back of my thoughts. "Is that what they say?"
"Surely you've heard the tales. Thousands of women, noble and common alike, have claimed that just a single night spent with the Count was all it took for them to abandon all hope of love for anyone else ever again."
I sighed. "I've heard these tales. They are untrue. Though, like most rumor and speculation there is a kernel of truth within them. Allow me to introduce myself, my dear, sweet cousin — I am Vibaldorólo Tepísma, the Count of Bercanti, and I can assure you with all due humility that I am not the greatest lover in all the world, nor am I looking for someone to heal a broken heart, nor did I kill my entire family. My younger brother still lives and runs the family estates."
Her eyes grew wide. Then, slowly, so did her smile, a genuine smile for the first time this evening, and I briefly saw a bit of Raia in that smile. The memory was, naturally, bittersweet.
- - - - -
I ordered us both dinner, and over conversation it had become apparent that Clarielle was, indeed, of aristocratic birth. Her family had fallen on hard times during the reign of the current Emperor's father, and they had fallen out of favor at court. Losing Imperial patronage, Clarielle's father had been forced to sell much of the family property, fire the servants, and, eventually, see to his daughter's admission into the courtesan's guild in order to ensure that she would be able to maintain a lifestyle to which she was accustomed. He had died quite recently. I had the impression, though she never explicitly stated as such, that she had been engaged to be married but there was some scandal that had tainted her reputation, which was why she was still unwed at such an advanced age of twenty. I assumed she told me this story to garner my sympathy. Throughout the story — well, what I listened to — I was continually distracted, but made every effort to keep up the appearance of being interested if not genuinely sympathetic.
Fire take the poor girl but she'd gone and mentioned Raia, however obliquely, and my brother Arcádio, and that night. Here I had intended to spend the evening in pleasant diversion, perhaps some light gambling and maybe even take in the opera after dinner, and instead I was haunted once again, both figuratively and literally, for as Clarielle spoke, the pendant around my neck pulsed and I could hear Raia's voice in the back of my head. She may be the one, Vibaldo. She's of noble birth, and her body appears to be similar to mine. Maybe you have found a place for me at last.
Perhaps Raia's spirit was right. I'd made attempts to house her in a new vessel a couple of times before, but it had never taken, not fully — something had always gone wrong. Either the woman in question had the proper look but was not of noble birth, or was of noble birth but far too tall or too willowy, or too fair skinned — or perhaps I was just not skilled enough at necromancy. For the fusion of soul to body to work properly, there needed to be symmetry, sympathy, and willingness, and if there wasn't enough of any of these things the risk to both the host vessel and Raia's soul was too great.
The first time we'd tried was a disaster — it was too soon after Raia's death, the girl had been an easily duped Bercanon peasant, and I was still unsure how to perform the ritual. Raia's spirit only survived in the body for mere minutes before it eroded into a desiccated husk. I'd barely had enough time to store her soul back in the pendant, and the peasant girl's ghost followed me around screaming for nearly two weeks before it finally dissipated into the bosom of the Dark Queen. I learned much in the intervening years, but our few attempts have all resulted in the same futility — though Raia had survived in her last vessel for nearly two weeks, in the end, the result was the same: the host body diminished, eroded, and resembled a corpse drained of all blood as though from some massive spider before finally crumbling to dust. Raia's soul just burned too brightly.
I felt and sometimes even heard her desperation to live again, to touch me again, to breathe and eat and dance and laugh, and I ached for all these things and more, and though I always acted quickly enough to restore her soul back into the pendant when things inevitably went wrong, I could tell that each time something in her, ever so slight, was diminished.
Still, the echoing of Raia's thoughts in the back of my own had a resonance of truth to them. Clarielle was physically similar. They shared the same facial shape, the same full lips, roughly the same height and build (though Clarielle was, as near as I could tell, more buxom and curvaceous). She had displayed a grace and poise that illustrated her noble birth, despite being of Alorréon descent, and, most importantly, similar social origins if her father had simply been a landed banneret owing fealty to some court baron as she hinted. Yes, she was darker-skinned and lacked Raia's honey locks, but I found her to be exotic and alluring. There was indeed enough similarity that could satisfy the symmetry and sympathy required by the ritual. All I needed was for her to be willing.
- - - - -
By the time we had finished the bottle of Bercanon wine (so much better than the Orlandine!) I could tell that Clarielle's inhibitions had diminished considerably, for she was far more brazen in her attempts at seduction — they were almost childish, maladroit, bordering on uncouth. At one point during our after dinner conversation, she had slipped one hand under the table, across my leg, and rubbed the outline of my manhood, showing all the subtlety and finesse of the brothel workers in the University District I'd frequented in my youth. "Perhaps we could entertain ourselves further elsewhere," she said in a low, deep growl as she leaned in to slip her tongue into my ear.
Were I one of the young bucks who'd first set their eyes on Clarielle earlier in the evening, I would have appreciated such a gesture — Fire take me, I daresay I would have encouraged it — but I am no longer a wide-eyed virgin boy looking for his first fumbled groping of female anatomy. I simply turned to face her, gently but firmly taking her hand in mine and moving it to above the table, and smiled.
"Indeed we can do this, my dear cousin," I said, for we had been maintaining the charade long after the young men had left in a frustrated huff — it was, after all, part of our continued playful flirtation. "Consider, though, that for now we are still in the common room where others are about, and while I am a man of a certain reputation, part of that reputation, you will allow, involves a degree of discretion."
She pouted, her eyes twinkling. This was part of the game. I was, again, reminded of Raia and how she had looked by the river that glorious afternoon when I'd returned to the estates in Bercanti. "I trust," she said, "that discretion does not extend much beyond public appearance." She positively leered at me.
Take her, I heard Raia echo in my head. Take her to your suites. Give her such sweet delights that she cannot help but pledge her soul to you forever.
A fine idea indeed.
"Come then," I said, waving the satyr attendant over. "Let me show you the discretion that is my private suite within the hotel."
I settled the bill (sans gratuity) and escorted Clarielle to the grand staircase, leading her up to my third floor suite. The concierge glanced at us briefly but gave no further consideration to us — he had, after all, seen both of us ascend these stairs in the company of others of the opposite sex multiple times before, just not together. When we reached my rooms, my manservant Beiric had already prepared them for female company, lighting the rooms with just the proper amount of candlelight to give them a low, sensual flicker while still providing enough light that we could look into each other's eyes, and the room was lightly scented with a hint of an open bottle of wine and some subtle fruit — strawberry, perhaps? He otherwise made his presence unknown — I sometimes marvel at his ability to anticipate my needs, even before I know them myself. I really should pay him more.
I turned to embrace Clarielle and, in so doing, took a deep, heady breath of her hair and neck. As I suspected: lavender. If we had been in the north, in the provinces of Arthanos, Erlosche, or Oetahr for example, it would have been wildflowers. In the more civilized west in Etallios or Ocellen, honeyed rosewater. In my homeland of Bercany, across the bay to the east, it would have been lilac. Raia had always smelled of peach blossoms. Here, in the capital, it was always lavender, from the lowest born to, I would suspect, Her Imperial Majesty. Some day I would like to confirm that suspicion.
Clarielle sighed at my touch, and pressed her body against mine as I ran my lips lightly down her neck from her ear to her collarbone. "We should discuss your fee," I whispered as I nuzzled her earlobe.
"We... we can discuss that after..." she said, foolishly. She had been at this only a short while. I was surprised the guild let her work in the Imperial Crown. She once again made a wanton attempt to reach for my manhood, but I deftly seized her hand once again.
"Not yet," I said. "Let us take this nice and slowly. I have a reputation as the world's greatest lover to maintain, after all."
She blushed and removed the outer layer of her dress to reveal the corset and camisole underneath. Imagine! A courtesan blushing at such a simple flirtation. This was almost too easy.
I spun her gently around and began to unlace her corset, occasionally stopping to run my hands up and down her sides, all while breathing the scent of her hair and neck. Occasionally I gave her neck a few quick nibbles or kisses, and she squealed. Really? Was she truly enjoying this, or was this part of her professional training. Before removing her corset, I wrapped my arms around her and held her close to me, pressing my manhood into the small of her back. "You do not need pretend with me, my dear cousin," I muttered deeply, slowly, into her ear. "I understand you're only acting out of professional courtesy, but I would consider it far more pleasurable to have your genuine reactions rather than rehearsed performance."
She replied by turning around, her corset falling to our feet, and taking my head in her hands as she gave me a deep, soulful kiss. Our tongues lightly danced that ancient, pleasurable dance. All pretense melted away as she pressed herself against me, her body responding to mine with a hunger and youthful vigor I'd not known from a lover in quite some time. Her legs wrapped around my waist, and it was only my martial training that allowed me to keep my balance in my surprise.
She pulled away from the kiss and looked deeply into my eyes. There was a surprising innocence in hers as she looked at me, as though she was truly kissing a man for the first time, and I felt my impassioned self twitch against her in response. "Perhaps," she said with a wanton grin, "you should show me your bedchamber."
"Perhaps I should," I said, mirroring her grin as I carried her into that room. She once again resumed her passionate kiss, as though by doing so we were feeding off of each other's very souls.
It was then that I saw the ghost of the old woman standing next to the chamber pot.
"You shouldn't lead her on like this," the ghost said, in words only I could hear. It was a gift I had, something that my Grandmother and Father had prized very highly when I was younger — the ability to see and communicate with the lost spirits forsaken by the Dark Queen, doomed to wander the world with no rest, fated to feed on one another for sustenance. I glared at the ghost while continuing to kiss Clarielle. The pendant around my neck throbbed. "I know what you're doing," the ghost insisted. "You should be ashamed of yourself!"
I knew a minor incantation that would banish the spirit from my room, of course — Grandmother had shown me that much on her own before I had been shipped off to the Imperial Academy — but the resultant drawing of energy would leave me too drained to perform the ritual later, and truth be told, I didn't dare expose myself as a necromancer to Clarielle just yet — practicing the Mysteries was still strictly prohibited by Imperial decree, after all, despite the fact that it was the fashionable craze among the aristocracy at the moment.
Regardless, having the ghost of some maid or washer woman who had died in the hotel centuries ago watching our carnality, shouting her disapproval as we proceeded, was having a deleterious effect upon my, well, passion at the moment.
Clarielle, of course, could not help but notice as she ground herself against my hosiery. "Whatever's the matter, my lord?" she said with no small degree of distress. "Do I not please you?"