She did it for a lark.
Most of us were aware of certain longings from a very young age: that we preferred girls, or boys, or both equally; that something inside us moved like a tide when, in a story or book or play, a character was wounded or nursed back to health; that we thrilled at the thought of giving or taking orders; that a delightful shiver went through us at the sight of a head of wild copper curls, a slim foot in a delicate sandal, or a pretty boy wearing a gown.
But beyond our known desires, like islands rising from a sea, lay an infinity of undiscovered longings. And when we dreamed of seeking out both that which we already burned for and those unlit fires which would kindle at our first touch of the flame, it was because we understood that our desires make us who we are. To know one’s passion is to know one’s self.
We could not have put it into such words then, of course, but we knew it nonetheless. We were young and ignorant, of ourselves and of the world. But we were children of Terre D’Ange, where all respect the command and blessing, “love as thou wilt.” And so, as is the business of youth, we set out to love and learn.
Though I considered every House, even Gentian, whose canon I did not quite understand, and Dahlia, which was far too intimidating for most youth, I finally settled on Orchis for my first visit. Their canon is joy and laughter; it seemed a good place to start. Besides, I had seen some of their adepts, and they were a merry bunch who did not seem so different from myself and my friends.
My ride to the House and my meeting with the Dowayne passed in a blur of excitement. I was not a virgin, of course. But I felt like one. In a sense, I was one. When I stood facing the adepts, my head swam and my tongue felt thick within my mouth. I could think of nothing but my throbbing, aching phallus and how it threatened to rip open my breeches.
My gaze traveled along the group of adepts, all beautiful and young and smiling. All I had managed to convey to the Dowayne was that I wanted a girl near my own age, for that was all I knew then of my own desires. Then one adept lifted her hand and gave me a playful wave and a wink, more like a friend than a lover. I focused on her immediately. She was deliciously plump, her breasts nearly spilling from her corset and her thighs and buttocks filling out her short skirt to perfection. Her feet and hands were soft and dainty, her curly black hair was cut in a deceptively careless style, and her rose-pink lips were parted in a wide grin.
I managed to beckon to her. With no ceremony at all, she ran forward, beaming, and caught my hand in a warm, soft grip. “Oh, I’m so glad you picked me! I’m Florette. What’s your name?”
“Remy,” I said, beginning to relax. It was impossible to be nervous in that lighthearted presence.
Florette pulled me along the corridors, chatting as if we’d known each other for years, and whisked me into a room. I looked around in surprise. It was well-appointed, with a large and comfortable-looking bed, but it was simply a bedroom like any other.
“Expecting something different?” Florette asked with a laugh.
“I suppose,” I admitted.
“Ivory phalluses? Velvet swings? Golden chains? Aphrodisiacs from Bhodistan? Fur rugs from Skaldia?”
“Something like that.”
Florette sat down on the bed, and beckoned to me to sit beside her. She said, seriously for once, “You could have any of that, of course. If you like. Just say the word! But I thought you’d rather start with something simpler.”
My throat dry again, I nodded. Florette leaned in and kissed me. Her warmth and light sweet scent rose up in an intoxicating fog as her soft body pressed against mine. I trembled as we caressed each other, exploring each other’s bodies. I fumbled to undo her corset, but she explained with a chuckle that it was designed to either be painstakingly undone ribbon by ribbon, or simply removed.
“Simply remove,” I said, and laughed with both amusement and delight as she flicked her fingers and made it fall away.
I spent some time kissing and caressing the voluptuous abundance of her breasts and their rose-pink nipples. Heat built within me until I shook with it. Florette undid my breeches, with some small difficulty as I was so hard. My phallus sprang out to meet her hands. The very first touch of her fingers sent an unbearable bolt of desire through me. I gave an involuntary thrust, pushing into her plump fingers, and suddenly spent into her hand.
“Oh, no! I got too excited…” I began, embarrassed, then trailed off at the sight of her merry grin.
“I noticed,” Florette said mischievously, but not in a way that made me feel foolish. Tracing a finger in a spiral around my sticky phallus, she went on, “You know, I see many men on whom I must employ all my arts just to get them hard, let alone make them spend. But you exploded like a dandelion in a storm just at the touch of my fingertips. It's quite flattering, actually. I’m excited too— I can only imagine what you’ll be like when I get you inside of me!”
Though it was too soon for me to harden again, a tingle of renewed desire arose in me, along with a shared pleasure in her delight.
“Not like a dandelion,” I said, thinking of other things which explode. “Like a chestnut in a roasting pan.”
She nodded as she dipped a cloth in warm water and cleansed my phallus, then her fingers. “Or an unpricked potato in the coals.”
“I’m not sure unpricked is the right word,” I ventured.
I was rewarded with her unabashed laugh. “Oh, no, I feel quite a bit of prick here.”
She applied a little scented oil to her hand and began to massage me. I shuddered and gasped, hardening fast.
Florette lay back, then tugged me down on top of her with her plump fist clutched around my rock-hard prick. “Let’s try for an alchemical explosion. Do you know the secret of alchemy?”
Her pillowy breasts and stiff nipples pressed into my chest, and I could feel her own wet heat against my thighs. Dizzy with desire, I managed to gasp, “What?”
“Once they get the formula right, they can repeat it an infinite number of times.” Giving me a squeeze that nearly made me explode then and there, she said, “Let the experiments commence.”
Her perfection unveiled left him blind for a fortnight.
The canon of Camellia House is perfection. Now, I thought, I could appreciate that without fear of embarrassment or unworthiness.
I gazed from one adept to the next, no longer in a daze but with full awareness of each. Indeed, they were perfect, even for D’Angelines. While no Night Court House will accept flawed adepts, each has its own notion of flaws. Orchis tolerates and even approves a certain degree of dishevelment, of studied carelessness, even a touch of jolie-laide. Freckles, attractively shaped and placed moles, snub noses, loud laughs, plumpness, fiercely curling hair, a high degree of muscularity, and the like are all acceptable there, so long as they add to rather detract from the adept’s appeal.
But Camellia House takes a more classical and strict approach to beauty. Their adepts had not a hair out of place nor a feature that could not have been carved by a master sculptor. They were straight and proud, perfectly proportioned, but with a bewitching sensuality: not cold marble, but living breathing flesh.
Two in particular caught my eye. They stood together but not touching, a young man and a woman with a striking resemblance to each other: tall, slim, long-fingered, leanly muscled like tumblers or dancers, both with thick short hair of dull gold and eyes as bottomless and blue-gray as a stormy sea. Their faces were epicene, lovely and serene and very much alike.
“Are you related?” I asked them.
Both nodded, but only the woman replied. Her voice was curiously husky, sending a shiver of attraction down my spine. “We are twins. I am Zenaide, and my brother is Zacharie.”
I had not meant to choose a man, but when her brother addressed me, I knew that I could not resist him any more than I could her. As her voice was low for a woman’s, his was high for a man’s: so much like hers that I would not have been able to tell them apart in the dark. “You may choose us separately, but we enjoy working together.”
The twins took me away, one on either side.
Their room was more like I had first expected from the Night Court, beautiful and elegant, though more austere than lavish. I lay back on the bed and watched them strip for me, so I could enjoy the sight of their nude bodies. And then the twins set to work, arousing every part of me with a refined skill that left me breathless, now pausing so I might explore the new territory of a man’s hard muscle, now sending me to astonishing heights of ecstasy with a seemingly simple technique of nail-scratching executed with exquisite judgment and timing. Zenaide kissed and stroked me while Zacharie performed a languisement that nearly drove my soul from my body; I moved within Zenaide while Zacharie lavished his attention upon my nipples; they put out the lights and left me guessing whose fingers, whose tongue, whose strong shoulders were whose.
It was, as they had promised, perfection.
She did it for pleasure.
The adepts of Jasmine House are darker of hair and eye and skin than in some Houses; the ivory skin, golden hair, and blue eyes so prized in Cereus and Alyssum are banned at Jasmine. In keeping with their emphasis upon physicality, the Jasmine adepts tend to be plump or muscular rather than slim. But within those bounds, there was infinite variety.
By then I knew that while the occasional individual man might strike my fancy, I usually preferred women. So I asked the Dowayne to show me all the available female adepts.
The receiving room was warm and slightly humid, perfumed with the scent of jasmine and with the lightest tang of clean sweat. The adepts wore little, and their exposed skin seemed to glow with an inner light. They had hair black as midnight or brown as chestnuts, eyes of bistre or hazel, and skin of every shade from sandalwood to mahogany. They lounged on soft couches, sprawled on silken pillows, and soaked in heated pools, laughing and stretching and indulging in sensual play. When they saw me, some came boldly forward, some called to me to choose them, and some beckoned to me to come to them.
I could not choose just one woman from that tempting crowd, nor did I wish to leave the chamber I was in. I turned to the Dowayne, vowing inwardly to work like a madman later to pay for this treat, and asked if I might stay where I was and let them all have their way with me.
A chorus of cheers, cries of encouragement, and some truly lewd suggestions rose up from the adepts at my words.
The Dowayne smiled. “Brave man. Have at it!”
I stepped forward. The adepts pounced.
The night that followed was beyond my wildest dreams of carnality. I was entirely surrounded by luscious, living, scented flesh. Every woman had their way with me, some taking the opportunity to test some exotic technique they had recently learned, some seeing how long they could tease me before I spent, and some plying me with oils and toys to prolong my hardness or quickly bring it on again. I buried my face in one woman’s nether parts while I sank my prick in another’s, as three more teased and stroked and rubbed against me so that not a particle of my body was left untouched. I had sex floating in the pool, held up by four women as I made love with a fifth. I spent until I could spend no more, and while my body recovered I was treated to sensual massages and Showings of the women making love to each other.
When I was finally so exhausted that I could no longer move or keep my heavy eyelids open, I cast myself down on a heap of pillows, in the arms of three voluptuous adepts, and slept the most delicious sleep of my life.
By morning, my body and soul and purse were utterly exhausted. My muscles felt like jelly, I would have no money for any luxuries for months to come, and I barely managed to wake for a week.
Oh, it was worth it.
She bestowed herself like a queen.
When I finally recovered from the delirious orgy at Jasmine, I had in mind to try something different. I have always had a taste for variety. And so I went to a House that struck me as the opposite of Jasmine’s blatant carnality— Dahlia House, whose canon is dignity.
I was not sure what to expect or how dignity might blend with sex, so I asked the Dowayne if he might choose for me, explaining my reasoning and requesting a woman whom he felt would suit me in particular while also exemplifying the qualities of Dahlia.
The Dowayne looked at me thoughtfully, then smiled. “Marcelline, I think.”
An apprentice escorted me to an elegant room where Marcelline sat upright on a chair, as if enthroned. She was at least ten years older than me, statuesque as a queen, with sapphire eyes and golden hair piled atop her head in an elaborately arranged style. She did not rise to greet me, but left me to stand as we introduced ourselves.
I felt very young and awkward in her haughty presence. I was aroused by her, yet intimidated and uncertain of how to proceed. I wondered if I had made a mistake in coming to Dahlia.
Unexpectedly, Marcelline asked, “Do I remind you of someone?”
I had not realized it until that moment, but she did. “Yes, an old tutor of mine. My mistress of history and geography. She was strict, but very beautiful.”
“Did you have fantasies about her?”
“I did,” I confessed. “As we sat side by side, poring over old and dusty books, I often grew hard beneath the table. It made me quite embarrassed. I was very distracted from my studies by fears that she might notice, and fantasies that… well… she might do more than notice.”
Marcelline smiled. “Your studies await, young sir. Come.”
She arose in a single smooth motion and seemed to glide across the floor, beckoning to me to follow. I did so, a little confused but also excited. She led me to an empty library with a table and chairs, indicated that I sit, and took an old dusty volume from a shelf. It was, I saw with amusement as she sat down beside me, one of the very ones I had studied as a youth, a staple of D’Angeline history notorious for its dullness.
She regarded me with a stern expression so much like my old tutor's that I started. “I see that you have not done your reading. Do not think you will escape it. Begin reading aloud. I will tell you when you may stop.”
I began, my attention divided between the dry account I read and my consciousness of Marcelline’s presence beside me. What did she intend to do to me, and when would she begin? I had no thought that I was meant to make the first move; I felt like a boy again beside that coolly dignified presence, and could no more have reached out and touched her without some clear invitation than I could have sprouted wings and flown.
As I read aloud, I felt a hand touch my thigh. I barely stopped myself from jumping, and stumbled over the sentence I was reading.
“Continue,” Marcelline said, as if nothing had happened to cause my distraction. But beneath the table, invisible to sight, her hand was slowly caressing its way to my inner thigh.
I swallowed, my heart pounding, and glanced up at her. Her face showed nothing but disinterested regard, and her body was still as stone. But her fingers reached my phallus, which was as hard and aching as it had ever been when I sat beside my tutor, and began to caress and squeeze it through my breeches.
I choked on my words, my vision swimming. Marcelline gave me a reproving glance.
“I see that I must take over,” she said. “Attend closely.”
With the hand that was not otherwise engaged, Marcelline slid the book closer to her and began to read where I had left off. I sat very still as she stroked me under the table, her voice never wavering.
It was my boyhood fantasy come to life. I adored every secret, surreptitious, forbidden moment of it, relishing the contrast between her imperturbable serenity and the blatantly sexual act she was performing just out of view. As I would have had this truly occurred when I was a boy, I did my best to give no indication that I was unbearably aroused, or indeed that anything was occurring beyond a simple lesson in history.
Marcelline played out the arousement longer than I would have believed possible, sometimes breaking off to allow me to retreat from the brink of spending, but eventually my excitement was too much for me. Despite my resolve to give no indication that anything untoward was occurring, I finally reached the point of no return and, with a thrust and a stifled groan, spent helplessly into my breeches.
The force of my climax left me giddy. When I recovered my senses, Marcelline calmly closed the book. “I hope your lesson was enlightening. Do not arise; you still need to study more. I shall see you next week, young sir.”
With that, she swept out of the room. After a pause finely calculated to allow me enough time to savor the moment, an apprentice entered to help me clean myself, take my soiled breeches for laundering, and supply me with a fresh pair. When I was more presentable, the apprentice escorted me back to Marcelline’s chamber, where she was once again enthroned in her carved chair.
“How did you enjoy your lesson?” Marcelline inquired.
“Very much,” I replied. “I had not thought to try such scenarios before. I had thought of them only as frameworks to receive or inflict pain, which does not interest me. But now I wonder what it would be like to be the tutor rather than the boy. Though I cannot quite see you as the girl…”
Marcelline gave a regal shrug. “I could try it, if you wished. But I agree, it is not where my talents lie. You are always welcome at Dahlia House, but if you wish to explore a greater variety of such scenes, I recommend Eglantine House. There are all manner of adepts there: singers, dancers, calligraphers who write on the skin, artists whose medium is rope and the body, and many more. And most relevant to you, there are actors of great versatility.”
I smiled at Marcelline, whom I doubted I would see again but who had taught me much and unexpectedly. “Thank you, madam. You have opened up a whole new world for me.”
She charmed him with the sweetness of her song.
In our first meeting at Eglantine House, she showed me those personas and more, all created solely through the genius of her body and voice, without so much as a change of clothes: a queen, a thief, a trembling virgin, a schoolmistress, a dancer, a pearl diver of Hellene, a rough Skaldian warrior, a physician…
“Wait,” I said, though she clearly could have gone on forever. “What is that one?”
I had always been blessed with excellent health, and had seen a physician perhaps two or three times in my life for such minor matters as a cut deep enough to need stitching or a rash that required ointment. I was curious about the erotic possibilities of playing at medicine, for they were not at all obvious to me.
Amelie smiled when I explained that to her. “It is easier to show than to tell. And since you mentioned that you wish to experiment with roles rather than having a strong preference for a single one, this would be a good one to start with. If you like, I will take you to a room where I will be the physician and you the patient. All you need do is play along, for the physician directs this scene. Then, once you have seen how it’s done, we will switch, and you will be the physician and I the patient. What do you think?”
I agreed immediately, eager for this new experience. She escorted me through Eglantine House, pointing to some of the rooms which were open and empty as ones where we might play some day: a royal chamber, complete with throne; a dungeon; a lovely indoor garden with glass ceilings to allow the sunlight in; an artist’s studio; a replica of an island, with a floor all covered with sand.
“The apprentices hate that one,” she remarked with a laugh. “Very messy; no matter how often they sweep, the sand is forever escaping.”
I laughed as well. I was beginning to perceive how all of this playing of roles held both true erotic force and absurdity, a child-like delight in “let’s pretend” and an adult passion. In a way, it reminded me of Orchis House, where laughter added to sensuality rather than detracting from it. I could see already that I would like Eglantine House, and that Amelie was already enjoying me as much as I was enjoying her.
“You are playing the tutor now,” I said.
She winked. “We are always playing here. Not just play-acting, playing. It is great fun.”
Amelie took me to a small room with an examination table and shelves of strange bottles and implements.
But before she did anything else, she explained, “While we are playing roles, if I do anything you dislike or wish to think about more before you proceed, or if you wish to stop for any reason, simply call me by my name, Amelie. I will do the same for you. If I say ‘Remy,’ we both stop what we’re doing and end our roles. Otherwise, we may protest and beg to our heart’s content, with no fear of prematurely ending our play.”
“The signale,” I said, nodding. “I have friends who use it at Valerian and Mandrake Houses.”
Amelie shrugged. “It is not so formal as a signale, nor do we take any pride in giving or not giving it. It is simply to ensure that nothing is done that is not desired. That is all.”
Then, by doing nothing more than donning a coat, she became a stern, arrogant physician. She made me lie down on a table, and under the pretext of a medical examination, made inappropriate yet shamefully exciting inspections of my body, finally forcing me to spend to “test that my reproductive organs were working correctly.” And then, having shown me how it was done, we switched roles and I did the same to her.
That was my first visit to Eglantine House, but it was by no means my last. Had I known before that out of all the Houses, it was the one whose canon was as much about variety as it was about art, I should have gone much sooner.
With Amelie and with others, I played at enemies locked up together and dosed with aphrodisiacs, farmer boys discovering sex with milkmaids, knights and queens, kings and courtiers, kidnappers and captives, slaves and masters, brothers and sisters, soldiers making desperate love on the eve of a battle they knew they would not survive, and priests and priestesses enacting strange rituals in foreign lands. I pretended that I was a woman, a wolf, a god; that I was the adept and the adept was my patron, that the adept was Naamah and I the King of Persis, and that I was a visitor from a country with strict sexual taboos who was ignorant and ashamed of my own desires.
In some scenes I dominated, in some I submitted, and in some the adepts and I were equals. I delighted in the diversity and versatility of sexual role-playing, and was forever grateful to Marcelline for introducing it to me.
And yet, years later, I was to remember the first scene I had played out at Eglantine, and feel a retrospective chill. I am very glad that I had a chance to enjoy playing physician and patient, for there came a time when it became the one scenario I could never bear to enact again.
She came in compassion.
When I had finally recovered enough to walk about, I was dismayed by the toll my illness had taken on me, in body, mind, and spirit. Physically, I was weak, my muscles wasted, my skin and hair and eyes dulled. Mentally, it was difficult for me to concentrate for long or to summon enthusiasm for the pursuits which I normally loved. And I was distressed in spirit, not so much from lingering fear over my brush with death, but by the shadow it had left over my life. Would I ever regain the vitality that makes life worth living?
Most distressingly, I had lost all desire for sex. I watched lovely women walk by, and felt no stirrings. When I attempted to arouse myself, my phallus either remained stubbornly flaccid, or only became half-hard. I summoned up my favorite fantasies, but they had lost their appeal.
I recognized that I was in desperate need of sexual healing. And so I went to Balm House.
My meeting with the Dowayne reminded me curiously of my discussions with my physician. She inquired briefly into my sexual preferences and in great depth into my reasons for coming to Balm House, asking many questions about such non-sexual matters as my appetite, how I was sleeping, and if I had pains in my joints. Then she summoned an apprentice to bring me a cup of hot tea, and left me alone while she went to speak with the adept whom she had selected for me, so that I would not need to repeat the tiresome accounts of my illness.
I was then escorted to the chambers of the adept, Gabrielle, who sat on a large canopied bed. I was pleased, though in a dulled way, to see that she was quite lovely, with creamy skin, a slim figure except for unexpectedly full breasts, cloud-gray eyes, hair like a fall of black silk, and a sweet smile.
She beckoned to me to come sit beside her. When I did, leaving my legs dangling, she got off the bed to kneel down and remove my shoes for me. Her low-cut blouse offered me a view of her exceptional cleavage, she caressed my feet and ankles as she slipped off my shoes, and I did not fail to note that she knelt before me to do me an intimate service. All those things should have been greatly arousing. And yet, like the sight of her, they were mildly pleasing, no more.
I was filled with a complex mixture of emotions, none pleasant: embarrassment at my lack of reaction, worry that Gabrielle would blame herself for it, and anxiety that Gabrielle would continue to the arousement and I would fail to be aroused. And most of all, I feared that this was how everything would always be, and I would be forever cut off from the joy that makes life worth living.
But Gabrielle did no more than sit down beside me and pull up the covers, so we both leaned against the pillows set at the headboard. Though our bodies touched, it felt more companionable than sexual.
“We are not going to make love tonight, Remy,” said Gabrielle.
“What?” I flushed hot, more ashamed than ever. “I know, I have not been able to get fully erect, let alone spend, but even so—”
She shook her head and took my hand gently between hers. “That is not why. We have means of enabling such things, you know. If I wished, I could certainly make you hard and force you to spend. But you are here for true healing, not for the mere mechanics of the flesh. You came very close to death, and such experiences drain both the body and the spirit. But an emptied well refills when the rain comes. Think of yourself not as a stubborn horse which requires whipping, but as a flower which needs only water and sunlight to grow.”
I couldn’t help smiling at her metaphor. “You have never seen a horse trained, have you? Stubborn horses also require kindness and a light touch.”
Gabrielle chuckled. “You’re right, I have not. In that case, I intend to treat you as both a horse and a flower. And as a man who has passed through darkness and is on his way toward the light.”
My eyes unexpectedly stung with tears at the confidence in her voice. She clearly had no doubt that I would be healed, and for the first time, I dared to let myself believe it.
She reached for a small table beside the bed, which in my dulled attention I had not noted before, and set a tray table over our knees. I could not repress a sigh; my life had contained all too many tray tables of late. But this one had none of the healthful but unadorned porridge and broths and teas my previous sickbed trays had contained. Instead, it was set for a romantic meal for two, the sort of thing one might receive in an expensive inn when one intended to spend all day in bed with one’s lover.
The tray was covered with scarlet silk and adorned with a white porcelain bowl overflowing with tiny crimson roses. Delicate dishes held slices of white and pink smoked fish, hot crisp bacon, a small loaf of bread, butter, one dark and one light honeycomb, whipped cream, fresh raspberries, and preserved plums in syrup. There were small bottles of both white wine and brandy, and proper glasses for each. The napkins were of soft cotton with scalloped edges, and the cutlery of silver. Everything conveyed romance, sensuality, and both simple and luxurious pleasures.
“Will you break the bread, please?” Gabrielle asked.
I picked up the loaf. It was still warm, and steamed when I tore it open. The scent unexpectedly roused my appetite; for months I had been eating dutifully, to sustain my life and nothing more. Now I examined the tray with a sudden eagerness.
Gabrielle poured me a glass of wine, and I returned the favor. We began to eat, slowly, savoring the flavors and trying different combinations: raspberries with cream, bits of bread with salty fish alternating with bread spread with honey. Gabrielle convinced me to dip a piece of bacon in the plum syrup, which was surprisingly tasty. We discussed which we preferred, the light wildflower honey or the smoky sage honey. Often we fed each other bites and sips, as lovers do.
The food was delicious, the wine and brandy excellent, and feeding and being fed by Gabrielle was a sensual delight. The mattress was soft beneath me, the coverlet warm and cozy, and her body next to mine stirred my blood.
“You have honey on your lips,” she murmured, and leaned in to lick it away with a slow caress of her tongue.
I kissed her back. She tasted of honey and plums and brandy, and her mouth was soft and warm. A tingle of pleasure went through me, and I felt myself begin to harden. I reached out to caress her, and she bent to me, letting her hair fall over my shoulders like silk.
We stroked and kissed each other for some time, but when I reached for the ties on her blouse, she put up a hand to stop me.
“Not yet,” she said, and softened her refusal with a kiss. “You have come a long way already, for this first time. Sunlight and water, remember; but for a delicate shoot, too much sun burns and too much water drowns. Come back tomorrow, and perhaps you may undo my ribbons.”
With a mischievous smile, she said, “If I said ‘certainly,’ it would leave you in less suspense, which is part of desire. So, perhaps. Think on everything you would like to do with me. If you find yourself frustrated with longing, all the better.”
I was already somewhat frustrated, but I understood. The deathly lack of caring was fading in me, replaced by the sweet pain of unfulfilled desire, like the itching of a healing scar. I understood what Gabrielle was doing to heal me, and I could already feel it working.
I kissed her lips again, reveling in my renewed capacity to enjoy their touch, their warmth, their taste, and my own response. Then I clinked my brandy glass to hers.
“To longing,” I said. “May it not be too long.”
She made a good bargain of it.
By then I was quite successful, but I had never made a fetish of wealth. Gambling and ostentatious displays of riches held no erotic appeal to me, so I had never visited Bryony House. But when my friend explained how the tournament worked, I knew I had to attend.
Bryony House was much as I had expected: raucous, overwhelming, lavish, loud. But I passed the tables where patrons and adepts sat playing games of chance and skill, to the raised and roped-off platform for wrestling. That too was surrounded by a crowd, of adepts and patrons both, calling out bets as they watched the match in progress.
Two men struggled together in the ring, their bodies slick with sweat and oil. Both were nude and gasping. D’Angelines are handsome and well-built, and skilled at the arts of love. It took me a while to figure out who was the adept and who the patron, and a moment longer to understand the nature of the match. But as I watched them writhe and groan, their hard phalluses rubbing over each other’s taut-muscled bodies, I realized that the game was to make the other spend first, whether by pinning the man down to caress his prick at will or by rubbing against it until he spent whether he willed it or not.
The slighter, dark-haired man had to be the adept; slippery as an eel, he writhed against the larger patron’s phallus, drawing groan after groan from his opponent’s lips. I found myself hardening within my breeches as I watched the patron try his best to hold back and to pin his opponent, but to no avail. Betting was running against him. Soon he gave a shudder and groan, and spurted his seed in white ribbons over the adept’s chest and belly.
“I win!” called the adept, and kissed his patron opponent in consolation.
Money changed hands all around me as apprentices helped them both from the ring. Smiling to myself, I realized that I could have placed a bet on my own understanding of what was transpiring, and how long it would take me to reach it. But then, I was not there to gamble.
The next adept who stepped up was solidly muscular, with brawny shoulders and strong-looking hands. His auburn hair was braided back in a tight plait, and his hazel eyes held a challenging glint as he surveyed the crowd. “Who wishes to match himself against me?”
His voice was pleasantly husky. I, who am not commonly attracted to men, felt myself stir, as much at the thought of touching his body as of the challenge.
I stepped forward. “I do.”
He gave me a slow, sensual smile as the crowd cheered and bets began to be called out. “I shall enjoy mastering you.”
“You will enjoy being mastered,” I retorted. “Are all challenges the same, to force the other to spend? Or might we do something different?”
The adept’s smile widened. “Did you have something in mind?”
“I thought we might wrestle to submission,” I suggested. “Whoever pins the other for the count of three has his way with him.”
His hot gaze raked over my body. “Oh, I shall enjoy having my way with you. Certainly. Do you wish to place a bet before we begin?”
I shook my head. “I am not here to bet. I am here to win.”
The adept gave a low laugh as I stripped, and watched me with a hungry gaze as an apprentice rubbed me down with scented oil. When I stepped into the ring, he bowed and introduced himself as Jean. His tanned skin glistened, and I could feel the heat rising from his body. He was bigger than me and younger as well, and looked as if he had never suffered a day of fever or any other illness in his life. The bets I heard were all against me, and Bryony House never cheats or throws a match.
And yet I felt confident. Renewed life flowed through my veins, all the stronger for having nearly been snuffed out, and I knew that I had come to the right place.
We circled, then came together. He was very strong, and my phallus hardened immediately with the contact of his body and the thrill of his power. We went down to the floor almost immediately, struggling to pin each other. Our bodies slid together in a fierce yet deliciously sensual battle for dominance. His breath was hot against my skin, and I could feel every flex of his muscles. My own heart pounded, my breath burned in my lungs, and I knew that he was the better fighter.
But fighting is not only a matter of the body. I had fought against death, and won. Keeping that in my mind, I made a supreme effort, and slammed him to the mat. He struggled, but I refused to give way.
“One!” A voice called. “Two!”
Jean bucked beneath me, nearly breaking free. I pressed my forearm against his throat, forcing his submission.
Jean lay limp beneath me, his chest heaving. When he managed to catch his breath, he said, “Well-fought. What would you have of me?”
“Stay there,” I gasped. I was dizzy with effort, and the cheers of the crowd rang in my ears.
When I recovered myself a little, I knelt above him so he could take my phallus into his mouth while he still lay defeated upon the mat. He performed the languisement with a fierce passion that I found far more exciting than the practiced refinement he was no doubt capable of. His hot wet mouth, his hard body, and my own still-pounding heart gave the act a thrill I had never felt before.
They call spending “the little death.” But I had never felt more alive.
She basked in love as in the sun, which shines on middens and kings’ chambers alike.
But after sampling all the delights of body and mind, I desired the heart as well. I wanted to fall in love, stay in love, and live the rest of my life with my beloved by my side. I thought it would happen easily to me, as it had to my friends. But it did not. One day I saw the first strand of gray in my hair. It shocked me with the realization that I might grow old alone. Perhaps the love I longed for was not to come in this life.
And so, with some doubt in my heart, I went to Heliotrope House, whose canon is devotion.
They do not display their adepts, but introduce you to them one by one over as long a period of time as you wish, bringing you to rooms where you meet, sip a glass of wine, and acquaint yourselves. You may have several meetings with the same adept in which you do nothing but talk, or you may know within a few minutes that they are not what you seek.
After a week of introductions to charming women who attracted my body without sparking my soul, I met Ninette. She was lovely, of course, petite as a child and flexible as an acrobat, with hair and eyes the sweet golden-brown of chestnut honey. But she was more than that. Her laugh reminded me of Florette, her kindness of Gabrielle, and her passion for odd foreign things, like the food of Caerdicca, the perfumes of Illyria, and the fantastical tales of the Umaiyyat, of no one but herself.
Over the weeks and months to come, we enjoyed each other in and out of bed. We did many things I had done before, and some that were new to me. But it all felt fresh and different and achingly real, for I seemed to be more than a patron to Ninette. And she felt like more than an adept to me. When I looked into her eyes, I saw lust and friendship and pleasure and all good things, but I also saw a deep devotion that I had never before encountered.
Finally, I felt compelled to ask her the question that was burning on my mind. “Do you love me?”
“Yes,” she said, simply and with absolute sincerity. “With all my heart.”
I believed her, but I couldn’t resist pursuing the matter. “Do you love all your patrons?”
Once again, she replied with clear honesty. “I do. That is the purpose of our first meetings: not only for you to choose, but for me to do the same. None of us will accept a patron for whom we do not feel at least the beginnings of love. The relationship between an adept and a patron is so intimate. How could I not love someone who comes to me with all their passion and vulnerability, who shares their body and desires and their own love with me?”
“But if you love all of us…” My feelings felt very raw. I knew it was impossible, but I wanted her to say that she loved me more, loved me most of all, loved me as a woman loves a man rather than an adept loves a patron.
Ninette cupped my face in her soft small hands. “I love you, Remy. I love you no less for loving others as well. I love you in a way that I love no one else, because everyone is different. If I never see you again, I will remember you with love till the end of my days. My love is like an ever-flowing stream. There is always enough for all.”
Her words did and did not content me. I still wanted more. And yet I knew that she was giving me something real and precious. If it was not exactly what I desired, at least she loved me enough to tell me the truth rather than hand me pretty lies that would only hurt me in the end.
Ninette lay back on the bed, her honey-brown eyes shining, her slim thighs parted. I could see her pearl glistening between her petal-pink folds.
“I am a river, Remy,” she whispered. “Drink.”
She trembled to lay aside her modesty.
Six months later, we married. Twenty years later, my beloved Carine was still by my side.
She and I spent many sultry hours in our bedchamber, but we also enjoyed visiting the Night Court, alone or together. Carine particularly enjoyed the athletic adepts of Jasmine, the intricate role-playing of the actors of Eglantine, and the sensual massage of Balm.
But for my fiftieth birthday, she gave me an unusual gift: a token for one of the few Houses I had never visited, Alyssum.
“Modesty?” I asked. “Is this a hint of some kind?”
Carine laughed. “After twenty years, original gifts become more difficult. No, Remy, I simply thought you might enjoy a new experience.”
I kissed her. “You know me so well.”
I entered Alyssum House with a curiosity that made me feel young again, and smiled to realize that such had been Carine’s true intent. The adepts were clothed with deceptive plainness, their lack of exposed skin highlighting the sensual delights of an exposed ankle, the curve of a collarbone, the nape of the neck. They blushed to see my bold gaze rake over them, lowering their eyes.
Most captured the sweet hesitancy of youth, but one woman, older than the rest, stood out to me. She was still younger than I, in her thirties at most, but her modesty seemed to stem more from inner reserve than from shyness. In an unadorned but perfectly tailored black dress that covered her from high neck to long sleeves to a skirt that swept the floor, she should have seemed sexless. But if you looked closely, and I certainly did, I could see it clinging to her spare yet elegant frame, teasing with what it hid and revealed. Her face was pale and pure, her wheat-gold hair pulled back, her pink lips closed. She was a gift in blank paper, waiting to be unwrapped.
I beckoned and she came to me, willing yet not forward.
“Your name?” I prompted.
“Manon.” Her voice was soft. I still could not see the color of her eyes.
When I introduced myself, she somehow contrived to take me to her chamber without leading me, indicating the way by her own hesitation if I took a wrong step. I was filled with an unexpected excitement. What would it be like to penetrate that reserve?
Her room was pleasant but minimal. Modest indeed. She stood before her bed, her face still lowered, until I took her chin in my hand and tipped it up. Then I saw her eyes, blue as a becalmed sea, and felt her tremble at my touch.
“Strip,” I said.
She did. Fascinated, I watched that creamy skin grow rosy under my gaze alone as she unveiled her body for me. When at last she stood nude and clad in nothing but her own blush, I said, “What is the most shameless thing you’ve ever imagined?”
“Oh!” Manon seemed disconcerted by the question. “How did you know that I have… those sorts of fantasies?”
I smiled. “Because you are an adept of the Night Court. Because you are a human being. Come, Manon. You blush so prettily. Tell me the fantasy you are, right now, considering not telling to me. And as you tell it, act it out with me, so far as you can.”
I saw that I had struck to the heart of her modesty. Roses deepened on her cheeks as she began, stammering slightly, “Well… I imagine that I am a fisherman’s wife…”
As her fantasy grew wilder and more involved, I was hard-pressed to help her act it out. She was forced to confess to the oils and ropes and nets and toys she kept hidden in drawers, so I could use them to ravish her in my persona as a great beast of the sea. I was not shocked, of course, but I was certainly surprised. The contrast between the surface reserve and the wildness below was delectable, and made it all the more delicious when I managed to make her scream and writhe and beg in the most explicit terms.
At the end, we were both thoroughly satisfied, and the room was a shocking mess. As I turned to leave, Manon pulled the sheets up to cover her nudity. With her blush gone, her hair smoothed back into place, and only her face exposed, she looked quite innocent. One would never guess that she dreamed of tentacles.
She was filled with a mystic purity of spirit.
She had lived long, as had I by then, and died well. No lengthy illness for her; she merely fell asleep in her most comfortable chair before a crackling fire with a half-drunk glass of a fine wine beside her, and never woke up. She died as she had lived, in comfort and happiness and doing what she wished. But the house was so empty without her.
For many months, I was adrift in grief, barely noticing what I was doing. As for sex, it was out of the question. I could barely bring myself to eat or sleep. It was as if my body slept. But time went on, it began to wake again. First I again felt hunger, and then food regained its savor. I took an interest in life again. And then I began to feel longings I thought I had buried with Carine.
I felt no guilt— of course Carine would have wished me to enjoy myself and be happy— but I did not know how to go on. All the Houses had memories of her: how she had laughed at my tale of the fisherman’s naughty wife, our madcap exploits at Jasmine, the fine clothes at Eglantine and Camellia made of cloth she’d sold to the adepts’ clothiers.
And so I went to a House of the Night Court where I had never been. But that was not the only reason I chose Gentian. It is a strange House, mysterious and mystical. And I was wrestling with the deepest mysteries of all, of death and life and how I might go on.
I explained myself to the Dowayne as best I could, concluding with, “I would like a man, I think.”
The Dowayne nodded. “I agree. It is a delicate thing, to be confronted with memories. A different body is best. May I choose for you?”
I nodded. And she had a young adept escort me to a room, where I met Thibault. To my relief, not even his manner reminded me of Carine, or of any adept I had ever met. He was of medium height and build, with soft-looking hair so pale as to be nearly white. His full lips and delicate features gave him a somewhat androgynous appearance, but his arms and shoulders were well-muscled. Most striking of all were his eyes. They appeared as colorless as water, changing with every shift of his head or the light to a liquid blue or green or gray. He was quiet and grave, enigmatic and reserved; I, who had never found men as compelling as women, was fascinated by him.
Adepts served us a light meal with wine, then retired to allow us to eat. Thibault spoke little, yet I found myself easily confiding in him. All adepts listen well, and yet the way that he did was different; the few questions he asked led my thoughts into paths they had never before trod, speaking not only of Carine, but of my life, myself, and my life in the Night Court.
After the meal, we disrobed and bathed together. Our conversation continued, but more slowly, dwelling more on desire. His body was very fine, and I wished to touch it, but he did not invite me to and I held back. He bathed me, in the gentle yet sensual manner of a Balm adept, but no more than that.
As he rubbed my shoulders, he said, “Most patrons visit some or even all the Houses in their youth, but soon find one or a few that they prefer and stay with those thereafter. Why have you continued to seek out new Houses for all your life?”
“Curiosity,” I began, relaxing into his caress. “Variety is the spice of life. I am a man of broad tastes.”
Thibault gave me a gently reproving prod. “Certainly, that is true. But also obvious. What were you seeking for within that variety?”
“I had different reasons for them all.”
“But why did all those different reasons draw you to the Night Court?”
I considered it as he massaged the tightness from my muscles. Finally, I said, “I suppose because I see sex— desire— love— at the heart of all things.”
Thibault seemed content with that answer, or perhaps wanted to give me time to think of it more deeply. He did not speak again, but continued to bathe me for a while. Then he drew me from it, dried me with soft towels, and led me to the bed, where he laid me down. He took out a lightly scented oil and continued to massage me, but now in a way which led imperceptibly into the arousement.
As he did so, he resumed our conversation in the same manner as before, with Thibault listening much and sometimes asking questions that lead to truths I had not known until I spoke them. It was a strange experience. I was aroused, fully and strongly. That is not a state in which one can normally think deeply, or at all. And yet I did, and without losing my pleasure in the act.
“What is at the heart of the heart?” whispered Thibault.
From within the depths of my pleasure, I replied without thought. “Joy.”
As I approached my climax, I felt in my heart and soul that the act of love is ancient and eternal, holy and blessed. Thibault and I were enacting the same sacred ritual which I’d celebrated with Carine, with Florette, and with every adept and friend with whom I’d ever made love. In that moment, we are all Naamah, every one of us an angel of love.
Afterward, Thibault held me as I wept. But my tears were not bitter. I might not have many years left, but I would live them in love and joy.
She offered herself like a flower, lovely in her fall.
I do not recall choosing her; perhaps she chose me. I only know that we walked together to her chambers at a pace that would have been slow if I had been by myself, but with her it exuded a languorous sensuality.
“What is your name?” I asked.
“Rosemonde,” she said.
“Rose of the world,” I murmured. “Your lips are like petals.”
She lifted my hand, then bent over it in a delicate kiss with the smallest, most teasing hint of tongue. Just as I’d thought, her lips had the velvety softness of a full-blown rose. She held the kiss for only a moment before letting go, but the ripple of erotic heat continued after, leaving me weak at the knees.
As we entered her chamber, she remarked, “I am very old to be an adept, you know. You may be my last patron.”
“I am honored.” I meant it, though I suspected that, like many who love their work, she was one whose “last job” would repeat until the end of her days.
And yet, some patron would be her last. Perhaps it would be me. Perhaps she would be my last adept. One visits Cereus House, first of the Night Court, to embrace the fragile beauty of our brief, bright lives.
My blood sang with bittersweet joy. Even were Rosemonde and I to have many more assignations, this one was all the more precious because it would never come again. One cannot step into the same river twice.
“Spend wisely,” she said.
I smiled at the double entendre, remembering Florette’s laughing sensuality at Orchis House so many years ago. That girl was gone forever, as was the youth who had exploded in her hand. And yet she lived on in my memories and always would, just as that eager boy would always be a part of me.
Rosemonde drew me down to the bed. “Love as thou wilt.”