The Dauphine approached the party of Kusheline nobles with no small amount of trepidation. The closer Ysandre drew to her quarry, the more a good portion of her heart longed to retreat to some safer, quieter corner of the ballroom. Ysandre's queenly courage eventually triumphed over her girlish shyness and fear. For if she could not engage her subjects in mere conversation, how could she hope to rule over them one day as queen of Terre d’Ange?
A voice as sweet and musical as the sounds of a plucked harp rang out brightly from the center of the black and gold clique. No matter the venue, Melisande Shahrizai could usually be found thronged by admirers and Ysandre’s own coming-of-age fete was no exception. Ysandre eyed Lady Melisande from a cautious distance. Unlike the rest of her Shahrizai kin who favored the colors of their house, her cousin’s lover had dressed herself in a gown of midnight-colored satin, nearly the shade of her rippling blue-black hair. Her bodice was modestly cut compared to most of the other ladies in attendance yet was tailored to give the impression that her couturier must have poured her into it, so expertly did it caress every curve of her fine frame. A king’s ransom of diamonds adorned her ears and glistened bright against the dark of her long gloves. Ysandre was forced to admit that whatever lovesick bard had christened Lady Melisande the Evening Star had the right of it. The young princess felt herself pricked by envy. No matter how hard she tried to shine, the D’Angeline court dismissed her as dull at best and powerless at worst. A woman whose radiant beauty was eclipsed only by her sparkling wit, Melisande Shahrizai seemingly glowed without any effort at all.
As she drew nearer, her grandfather's words popped unbidden into Ysandre’s head: “The only reason I am not moldering in my grave and you are not warming the bed of some far-off foreign prince is that my pig-headed sister and that woman have not found a way to work together.” Grandfather was getting devastatingly candid in his old age and no longer made any attempt to shield Ysandre from the precariousness of her situation. But despite her status as Baudoin’s consort, Lady Melisande had never been aught but perfectly polite in their interactions. Ysandre very much suspected it was Lady Melisande, and not cousin Baudoin, who had picked out the jeweled amethyst and opal hair combs that were her natality gift. Ysandre felt Baudoin’s antipathy toward her grow hotter with each passing day; his consort’s intentions were much harder to read, cloaked as they were in those impeccable Shahrizai manners.
Unobserved, Ysandre could not help but to eavesdrop on the Kushelines’ lively conversation.
“Sweet Kushiel, an anguisette! And you knew all this time, cousin, and breathed not a word of it to us,” Lady Persia said, half in wonder and half in jealousy.
“Did you offer for her virgin night?” her brother, Lord Marmion, inquired.
Lady Melisande shook her head elegantly. “Anafiel gave me right of first refusal, but I did not offer. I have never had much use for untried virgins, not even when I was one,” she said with a hint of mischief.
Lady Fanchone raised her glass of brandy in a toast. “Ah, my cousin likes her lovers like she likes her meat- well seasoned.”
“And bleeding raw,” Lord Marmion quipped. The group erupted into howls of laughter.
Melisande took her cousin’s jest in good humor. “Quite.” Her sharp gaze alighted upon Ysandre with a hint of surprise and her manner seemed to pivot on a pin. “Your Highness,” she acknowledged with a deep curtsey, the rest of the Shahrizai soon following suit. “You honor our House with your presence on this the evening of your natality. How ever may we be of service?”
Ysandre wandered into this circle of darkly-clad nobles, feeling like all the while like a small goldfinch surrounded by glittering birds of prey. It was bad enough Melisande Shahrizai made her feel nervous, but she would be damned if she allowed the other woman the satisfaction of seeing her tremble. “Lady Shahrizai, do you know the whereabouts of my cousin Baudoin?” Ysandre asked in her most even and politic tone.
“I am afraid I have not seen Baudoin for the better part of an hour,” Melisande replied.
Persia pursed her lips suggestively and said, “You might try the Hall of Games. Last I saw him, he and D’Aiglemort were halfway through their second bottle of perry brandy and onto their third game of faro.”
Ysandre's regal mask slipped for just the barest moment and she frowned slightly, disappointed. “Oh. Only that he had promised to dance with me this evening,” she said, gesturing toward the lavender and gilt paper dance card where it hung lamely from her wrist.
“I do not think Prince Baudoin will be in a suitable state for dancing this evening, Highness, should you manage to find him,” Lord Marmion said, his soft voice seeming to mask a sharper edge.
Had things really deteriorated so badly between her and her once beloved older cousin that he would spurn her openly at her own coming-of-age fete? Ysandre clutched her stiff brocade gown in her fists, all the while forcing herself not to let any sign of hurt or anger register in her eyes. Her queenly mask fooled most people, but not perhaps the Shahrizai. And this was a fact that caused her no small amount of consternation.
Lady Persia smirked. “Don’t worry, fair princess, no doubt our dear cousin shall punish Baudoin thoroughly for his rudeness.”
“Very thoroughly, I should think,” Lady Fanchone said with undisguised glee, causing the other Kushelines to laugh uproariously. Ysandre could not help but to blush imagining the sort of punishment the Shahrizai ladies implied. Such things were simply not remarked upon in polite company. Though, indeed, at this moment she would not object to Baudoin finding himself at the business end of his consort’s riding crop. “Won’t you cousin?” Fanchone hinted.
Lady Melisande’s gaze was far away. For the briefest of moments, a tiny wrinkle of annoyance crept across her alabaster brow. Ysandre would one day come to wonder if Baudoin’s doom had been written in that wrinkle. She turned to Ysandre and said, “I deeply apologize for my consort’s rudeness. Young men like Baudoin at times can be so very thoughtless. They do not understand what it means for a young lady to be left without a dancing partner, and on her natality besides. You must let me make it up to you,” she said, eyes as deep and sincere as a summer’s sky.
“That it is not necessary. It is no fault of yours…” Ysandre began.
Marmion stepped in and extended his arm, the soul of gentlemanly courtesy. “It would be my honor to dance with you, my princess…”
Lady Melisande’s gloved hand smoothly pushed him aside. “No, no. Baudoin is my consort, and the offense is mine to remedy. It is I who owe the princess a dance.” She paused and turned her sapphire eyes with their long sweeping lashes upon Ysandre in a way that made the latter’s heart quicken unexpectedly. “That is, if she will have me.”
Ysandre felt herself at a loss for words. She could think of no reason to refuse Lady Melisande without offending the entire province of Kusheth. “Certainly.”
Melisande swiftly plucked the paper card and its attached gilt pencil from Ysandre’s hand. With a sly smile playing about her lips, she wrote her name upon the card and handed it back.
Ysandre glanced at her dance card. Melisande had selected a dance from her native Kusheth, one rarely performed at court. “The Kusheline Reel? Lady Shahrizai, I am afraid I do not know that one.”
Lady Melisande smiled back at her very gently. “Then I shall have the privilege of teaching you, princess.”
The Kusheline party shared knowing looks with one another. Lady Fanchone attempted to be reassuring; “It’s one of the simpler Kusheline folk dances, princess. The chains do make it easier to follow along, I think.”
“Chains?” Ysandre asked mildly, desperately trying to stem the rising tide of panic she felt.
“And you get to keep all of your clothes on,” Fanchone finished, producing a length of finely-wrought gold chain from her reticule.
Ysandre was flabbergasted. She knew Kushiel’s scions were inclined to decadence and depravity, but she had no idea they were want to be so open about it. “Do you always carry such things about your person, Lady Fanchone?”
“One likes to be prepared, Highness,” she said with a wink, then dashed off in pursuit of a willowy comtesse, a veritable hawk on the wing.
“I’m afraid I left my chains at home, Highness,” Lady Melisande said very apologetically. “We shall have to improvise.” Hesitation and uncertainty must have been written all over Ysandre’s face, for her the other woman then asked innocently, “The future ruler of our kingdom should be familiar with all the customs of the land, should she not?”
Put in such a fashion, Ysandre was hard pressed to deny without seeming bigoted. “Yes, of course.”
Melisande gently took Ysandre’s hand in hers and patted it as one would soothe a frightened child. “Though we could of course choose some other dance if you like. A pavane or a waltz, perhaps? Something sedate and more…expected.”
Still burning with the embarrassment of Baudoin’s snub, Ysandre found herself rebelling against court’s narrow view of her. She knew the court thought her stiff and chilly, that many thought Lady Melisande's honeyed charisma more suited to a future queen. But fire smoldered beneath Ysandre's cold surface, hotter than the Shahrizai or any of them knew. Ysandre looked her squarely in the eye and said, “I am not one to back down from a challenge, Lady Shahrizai.”
Melisande favored her with her most winsome smile. “Good. For whatever you may have heard of me, I have never taken a partner unwilling- dancing or otherwise.” Her gloved hand locked about Ysandre’s delicate wrist and she marched her not ungently in the direction of an auburn-haired noble wearing a wide scarlet sash. She tapped him lightly on the shoulder and said, “Anafiel, darling, I need a little favor.”
Lord Delaunay spun around. “Your favors tend to be anything but little, Melisande.” His grey eyes registered surprise when he saw the Dauphine at Melisande’s side. He inclined his head. “Your Highness. Best wishes on your coming-of-age.”
“Thank you,” she told him. Ysandre knew Anafiel Delaunay was a clever man, well-trained in the arts of covertcy. Yet every time he looked at her, she saw only undisguised hunger and heartbreak in his eyes. She saw it now.
“Your sash, Anafiel. The Dauphine and I need to borrow it,” Melisande said.
Lord Delaunay frowned and Ysandre heard melancholy creep into his rich baritone. “I won these honors at the Battle of the Three Princes.”
“And we thank you for your service,” Melisande said smoothly, “Yet your honors clash so horribly with your hair.”
Ysandre thought such flippant words would have provoked Lord Delaunay’s anger. Instead Lady Melisande’s teasing seemed to have the opposite effect. He laughed, relenting. “All right. What are you two about anyway?”
Melisande picked at the knot holding Lord Delaunay’s sash together and dragged it playfully across his chest. “I am merely instructing our young Dauphine in the finer points of Kusheline country dancing.”
Lord Delaunay’s grey eyes were wary. “Is that so?”
Ysandre found herself turning to Delaunay for reassurance. “The Kusheline Reel. Do you know it, my lord?”
At this, the clever lord turned almost bashful. “Ah, Lady Melisande tried to teach me once, princess, but I am afraid I proved myself a poor pupil.”
Melisande caught his glance and remarked dryly, “You never gave it much of a chance as I recall.” Something cold yet charged passed between the two of them. But whether it was mere rivalry or some odd form of romance, Ysandre knew not.
“Well,” Lord Delaunay sighed. “Have a care, Melisande.”
She patted him affectionately on the cheek. “I always do.”
Lady Melisande presented her gloved arm rather gallantly. Ysandre rested her hand lightly upon it and let her partner steer her toward the center of the ballroom. Kusheline couples lined up to take their places, joined together by elaborate chains of jewels or simple ones of braided ribbon. As the musicians tuned up their instruments in anticipation of the next song, Lady Melisande tied the borrowed sash around Ysandre’s right wrist. “There is naught to fear, Highness. I am a most experienced dancer and if you simply follow my lead, we shall both acquit ourselves quite splendidly.”
“I sincerely hope so,” Ysandre said primly.
“When we are done, I guarantee you will have gained the attention of every Kusheline in attendance.” Lady Melisande’s words should have been reassuring, yet the gleam of secret amusement in her eyes was anything but.
Ysandre took a deep breath and scanned the ballroom. It was late in the evening and many of her guests were already pleasantly drunk. Grandfather and Uncle Barquiel were engaged in a heated conversation with the Akkadian ambassador and seemed oblivious as to her whereabouts. Lord Delaunay caught her eye and smiled at her warmly. Ysandre rationalized that though Melisande Shahrizai might wish to make a fool of her, she would never do so if it meant making a fool of herself. It was a cold comfort.
A drum roll accompanied by a flute and fiddle in lively counterpoint signaled the start of the reel. Though she was unfamiliar with the dance itself, Ysandre recognized the song; a well-known Kusheline tune, “The Spider and the Fly.” Lady Melisande had cleverly arranged for them to be at the foot of the line of couples. The head couple formed an arch using their chained arms, and the other couples followed suit. One by one, couples peeled off down the line, galloping under the arch of chains. When it was their turn, Melisande wrapped one arm around Ysandre’s waist and with the other swept her through the line of couples with grace and alacrity. The feel of the other woman’s arms around her gave Ysandre an unexpected jolt of pleasure. This Kusheline Reel proved more intimate a dance than she was accustomed to.
“Now, we draw apart and together, four times, to the count of four,” Melisande instructed, pulling gently at Ysandre’s chained wrist to draw her closer, letting out the slack when they drew apart. “Very good,” she pronounced. “This is followed by a short promenade, where I lead and you pursue.” Her partner deftly wove them between the other couples, tugging at the chain to let Ysandre know which direction to follow. It was simple enough and Ysandre was surprised to discover that the chain did make it easier to keep up.
“To complete the verse, the yielding partner completes a series of turns around the dominant partner.” Ysandre told herself it was the only the heat of the ballroom that caused her to flush at this, and not the thought of being “yielding partner” to the Evening Star herself. Lady Melisande lifted her right arm, the scarlet sash dangling high in the air, and Ysandre turned neatly beneath it, until she at last ended up facing her partner in the original place where they had started.
Ysandre smiled, pleased with herself. “That was not nearly as difficult as I expected.”
"We have only just begun," Melisande said ominously.
Almost in response to Lady Shahrizai’s words, the musicians began to play the verse again nearly in double-time. Ysandre once again let her partner sweep her under the arch of brightly-colored chains. This time, her partner’s tugs on her lead seemed sharper and more insistent. The increased speed made it difficult to avoid becoming entangled with the other dancers. By the time the second verse had ended, Ysandre was left slightly breathless. To her great dismay, Lady Melisande had hardly broken a sweat.
“You follow very well, princess. Stay close to me- the third and fourth verses are not for the faint of heart.”
“I am quite literally in your hands, Lady Shahrizai.” At these words, Melisande smiled back at her wickedly.
The third verse proceeded in the fashion of the previous two, albeit with yet another increase in tempo. As they were making their passes, Melisande said to her, “It is getting to be that hour. Are you looking forward to it, Highness?”
“Looking forward to what?” Ysandre asked, pivoting to face her partner.
“Why, your visit to the Court of Night Blooming Flowers. I should think your friends would be coming to whisk you away any moment now.” Lady Shahrizai tugged at her wrist playfully, drawing Ysandre closer.
“Yes, well…” Ysandre began, then stopped. The other woman’s words prodded at an unguarded place within her heart. “There is to be no visit to the Night Court for me, Lady Shahrizai. My grandfather is concerned it would offend my future husband.” Somehow it was easier to say her grandfather had forbidden it than to admit the shame of having no close companions to take her there.
Melisande knit her lovely brow in curiosity. “No D’Angeline would expect to marry a virgin.” A beat, an elegant twirl. “I take it you are not intending to marry a D’Angeline, then?”
The woman was too damnably clever by half. Ysandre cursed herself for letting such a carefully guarded piece of information slip. “We are merely exploring all the possibilities. I trust I have your discretion in this matter.”
“Of course, Highness,” she replied in a cool and even tone. “Though if I may speak candidly…”
Ysandre braced herself. “You may.”
“I think your grandfather treads dangerously close to blasphemy in this. Did Blessed Elua not bid us all, ‘Love as thou wilt?’ The Night Court is your birthright as a noblewoman of Terre d’Ange, it is wrong of him to deny it to you.”
Ysandre felt herself prickle with anger, though Lady Shahrizai's musical voice had only spoken her own doubts. “And if I deny it to myself?” she asked defiantly.
Melisande let out a dark chuckle, and whipped Ysandre around for a dizzying turn before catching her in her strong arms. “You must follow the dictates of your heart, the same as any other D'Angeline. But were I you, I would leave self-denial to the Cassiline Brotherhood.”
They had come at last to the final verse of the dance. The tune climbed into a higher key as the musicians raced to keep up with the quickened tempo. Urged on by the beat of the drummers and the lightning quick speed of the fiddlers, Ysandre felt something primitive in her heart break free and take flight. Lady Melisande suggestively raised her eyebrows and drew her closer, until they were standing hip to hip and breast to breast. They sped down the line of dancers like the crack of a whip. Lady Shahrizai held the scarlet sash taut between them and Ysandre found herself tugging back with equal force to balance her. Melisande smiled at this, and Ysandre realized that the tension between the two partners was entirely the point of the dance.
They tugged and pulled at one another in silent competition. Lady Melisande had strength and experience on her side, though, and Ysandre found herself yielding to the other woman’s inevitable victory. At the last, Melisande spun her around so astonishingly fast, Ysandre was unable to avoid becoming entangled in the chain. With each successive turn, Ysandre became more and more bound by Lord Delaunay’s red sash. When the music at last stopped, the makeshift chain was entirely wrapped around the length of her body, leaving her as trapped and immobile as a fly within a spider’s web. A quick glance showed other couples similarly entwined. The princess suspected this end result was also entirely the point for many Kushelines.
Ysandre was bound, tightly and cleverly, and resting in Melisande Shahrizai’s arms. To her surprise, she felt no immediate desire to struggle. Lady Shahrizai’s face held a look of triumph and Ysandre thought mayhap a hint of dark desire besides. She found herself acutely aware of the other woman’s uncharacteristically flushed cheeks and her shapely décolletage. A strange pleasant feeling came with being bound and helpless in another woman’s arms. Power had never looked so beautiful. Ysandre felt herself noticeably tremble. At this, Melisande’s countenance turned from slightly lustful to something altogether predatory.
Time slowed and the court and its worries fell away, leaving no thought in Ysandre’s mind save the anticipation of a dreadful pleasure. Melisande stroked Ysandre’s cheek and purred in her ear; “It is just as they say. There is Kusheline blood in House L’Envers.” Before Ysandre even had time to register a protest, Melisande bent her soft lips to Ysandre’s own and pulled her in for a deep, languorous kiss. Ysandre had shared a few girlish kisses before with her cousin Nicola, but they paled in comparison with the intensity of this embrace. Melisande Shahrizai was a grown woman, rumored to be one of great passion, and she kissed Ysandre like one. Ysandre moaned to feel the other woman’s tongue thrust inside her mouth, sure and insistent in its explorations. White-hot fire blossomed down the length of her spine straight to her sex. The fact that she had no choice but to surrender to Lady Melisande’s kiss only served to make it all the more pleasurable. Were her arms free, Ysandre would have thrown them about the other woman’s neck and buried them in her rich dark hair, urging her to deepen their kiss further. Instead, all she could do was yield to this embrace that was drawing dangerously close to public ravishment.
Lady Melisande broke their kiss roughly, nearly as soon as she had begun it. Suddenly the world rushed back into the void, leaving Ysandre uncomfortably aware of the scene that had just transpired. The first thing she noticed were the sound of whistles and applause from the court aimed in her direction. It is no secret that D’Angelines are great admirers of beauty. To see their young Dauphine locked in the passionate embrace of their beloved Evening Star touched something deep in the national soul. Ysandre felt herself blush all over, nearly the color of the scarlet sash she was still wrapped in, for having been party to a spectacle worthy of the Night Court.
“I did promise you would have you the attention of every Kusheline in the room. And quite a few others besides, it would seem,” Melisande Shahrizai said and unwound Ysandre with an flourish.
Ysandre folded her newly freed arms over her bodice and cast nervous glances about the room. The appreciative smiles of the court did serve to cheer her a little, yet the openly wolfish stares of the Kushelines quite frightened her. Her grandfather looked absolutely scandalized, Uncle Barquiel coolly suspicious. On the other side of the ballroom, Lord Delaunay had the appearance of a man who didn’t know whether to frown or laugh. Ysandre turned her gaze back to Lady Melisande, violet eyes burning with a mixture of embarrassment and anger. “Lady Shahrizai, you have been most forward…”
“The Kusheline Reel has been known to rouse the passions, Highness. And it would seem my passions were not the only ones aroused.” Lady Melisande deftly brushed a strand of hair out of Ysandre’s eyes. She drew closer and whispered deviously, “Should you change your mind about the Night Court, I would give Mandrake House careful consideration. Though Kushiel only knows I have forgotten more about the pleasures of power than their dominatrices ever learned.”
Ysandre struggled to come up with some clever rejoinder that would answer the other woman’s improprieties, but the Kusheline Reel had unbalanced her wits as well as her body. Before she could summon a queenly rebuke, Melisande Shahrizai swept into a grand and graceful curtsey, her deep blue skirts spreading out across the marble floors like spilled ink over parchment. “House Shahrizai’s most sincere felicitations on your coming-of-age, Princess Ysandre,” she said very cordially, loud enough for the entire ballroom to hear.
With that she turned and glided away, leaving Ysandre alone and puzzled, an abandoned game piece in the center of the board.
In the early hours of the morning, the Dauphine lay awake in her bed, silently rebuking herself for her brief moment of rebellion. The disappointment in her grandfather’s eyes had stung her worse than any lash.
She knew her duty- to her country and to her family- and she would do it without protest. But that did not mean Ysandre did not long for the pleasures that would have been hers had she been born a mere duchese instead of the Dauphine, a milkmaid instead of a monarch.
She curled on her side and hugged her pillow to her breast in attempt to soothe her restless mind and body. The events of the evening continued to perplex her. Had cousin Baudoin forgotten their dance out of mere carelessness or snubbed her out of spite? His consort’s actions were even more mysterious. An attempt to rouse Baudoin’s jealousy perhaps? Or, had Melisande Shahrizai begun to lose patience with her prince and his obstructionist mother? Mayhap she was shopping for a new lover—Ysandre herself. After their dance, the latter possibility left Ysandre more interested that she would have liked to admit.
Elua save her from the Shahrizai and their incessant love of intrigue. Ysandre wondered if they were bred to it like spaniels, or if they simply splashed it on every morning like cologne. Not for the first time, she wished she had some companion with which to share the conflicting desires of her heart. She had been quite alone since Nicola had married and gone to Aragonia. Her cousin Bernadette and Aunt Trevalion who should have stood in the role of sister and mother were patently not to be trusted. Ysandre wondered if she would ever have a true friend to call her own. There were not many likely candidates among the D’Angeline court. Her thoughts drifted briefly to her bed-cousin, Lord Delaunay’s anguisette, then dismissed her out of hand. A creature of pleasure, even one trained in the arts of covertcy, would be unlikely to comprehend the worries of a princess.
Ysandre let out an audible sigh in the grey dawn. It pained her deeply to know Melisande Shahrizai had been right. How quickly she had found the doubts and secret desires Ysandre thought well-hidden, even from her own waking mind. Hours later, she could still feel the silken bonds tight around her forearms, that fleeting moment of surrender as she yielded to Lady Melisande’s clever lips and tongue. For all that she was heir to the throne, Ysandre was still a girl in the first blush of youth and Naamah’s scion to boot. Bright points of fire burned within her and she was not sure how to put them out again, nor even if she wanted to.
It was funny,Ysandre had to admit, as she tucked the bedclothes tightly around herself, trying to recreate that wonderful bound feeling. Up until this evening, she had always thought it would have been Heliotrope House for her and its promise of a tender, devoted, and loyal lover—or at least an adept who gave the impression of being so. She was far too prudent to fan the flicker of temptation Melisande Shahrizai had kindled in her breast. But the promise she had made to her grandfather did not extend to her secret dreams. Ysandre inched her right hand down the length of her body while the other pinched her left nipple roughly between thumb and forefinger. Slowly, she dipped her fingers into the already swollen lips of her sex and bit back a moan of pleasure. Closing her eyes, she imagined a different ending to her coming-of-age ball, one in which she allowed herself to be whisked away in a sleek black coach and delivered to the steps of Mandrake House. Inside, she knelt before an adept with rippling dark hair and blue eyes who teased and tortured her for hours before bringing her at last to a passionate release.