Transgressions: The Apprentice Volume 3

By EG Manetti

Sci-Fi, Romance

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486
26 mins

The Twelve Systems

The society of the Twelve Systems is dominated by the warrior elite, the genetic descendants of the Five Warriors of Antiquity. These five warlords ended three centuries of interstellar warfare known as the Anarchy and established the modern Order and its governing protocols. In the millennium since the end of the Anarchy, the warrior elite have consolidated societal control into a handful of vast commercial interests. The most powerful and wealthy are the cartels.
Owned by the great warrior families identified by their emblem or ‘cartouches,’ these commerce enterprises are locked in fierce competitive struggles. To command any cartel is to control immense wealth and influence. To command one of the five largest cartels is to number among the two score most powerful people in the Twelve Systems.

Fourth among the cartels is the Serengeti Group, which controls Vistrite, the semi-liquid crystal essential to all advanced technology. Under the command of the devious, ruthless, and unconventional Lucius Mercio, the Serengeti Group has begun to contend for third among the cartels. To advance his ambitions, Lucius formed the Bright Star Consortium, the first significant attempt at stellar expansion in over two centuries, and abandoned a millennium of tradition to develop a synthetic form of Vistrite known as Mercium. These two endeavors will forever alter the commerce of the Twelve Systems.

Known to only a few is that Lucius’ notorious apprentice, Lilian, is at the center of both ventures. In the aftermath of her father’s execution for terrible crimes, Lilian was convicted of Guilt by Blood. In return for her life, Lilian vowed to serve three years as Lucius’ indentured servant, yielding him total control of her body, intellect, and will. In anticipation of Bright Star, Lucius acquired Lilian for her exceptional intellect and abilities with complexity and risk analysis. Lilian proved to be a great deal more than brilliant, her loyalty and courage the catalyst for Mercium well before Bright Star was formed.

Despised for her father’s crimes and her corrupt genetics, the disgraced young woman is continually threatened with insult, spite, and physical assault. It is proving a great deal more difficult to keep Lilian alive than Lucius had anticipated.

1. Protocol and Stricture

The Five Warriors of Antiquity – Era of the Three Systems
1. Socraide Omsted – controlled three of the four planets in the First System
2. Rimon Ben Claude – controlled both planets in the Second System
3. Mulan Tsao – controlled Artesia in the First System
4. Jonathan Metricelli – controlled the two Vistrite planets in the Third System and the Vistrite trade
5. Sinead Standingbear – controlled Sinead’s World in the Third System

In the thousand years since the Five Warriors brought Order from Anarchy, the original Three Systems has expanded into the Twelve Systems. In the modern era, the Twelve Systems’ commercial, spiritual, and civil authorities can trace their foundation to the alliances and treaties among the Five Warriors and their retainers. In the tradition of the Five Warriors, the modern cartels are self-governing fiefdoms, and the cartel preeminence is the modern version of those ancient warlords. Once, lesser war chiefs gave their oaths to the Five Warriors in return for powerful protection; now, lesser cartouches offer allegiance to the cartel preeminence and preeminent cartouche in return for increased opportunities for wealth and power. ~excerpt from The Foundation of Order, a scholarly treatise.

Sevenday 49 Day 3

Adelaide’s Thorn! Lilian mentally profanes, her rapid walk turning into a sprint as she races to catch the public transport slowing to a stop on the next block. She is late as it is, she dare not miss the transport. Impelled by frantic determination, Lilian springs aboard the transport, forcing the nearly closed doors open.
Grasping the rail to brace against the surge of forward motion, Lilian is oblivious to her scowling fellow passengers as well as the occasional admiring glance. Only recently past her twenty-fifth birth festival, Lilian is not so much beautiful as arresting. Garbed in the stark black of a Blooded Dagger apprentice, Lilian presents the fierce containment of a much older woman. An impression enhanced by the warrior’s queue that tightly gathers her long, dark red hair to her head and binds it into a thick tail that appears almost black. The severe arrangement reveals Lilian’s fine bone structure, high cheekbones, deep-set gray eyes, and determined chin.
I am the sum of my ancestors. Abandoning her earlier profanity for the familiar verses of the Warriors’ Litany, Lilian tries to quell her rioting emotions and her increasing anxiety. She should have been aboard the public transport nearly a quarter period gone. Would have been, if it were not for Katleen’s moodiness…
The stone courtyard is bright in the early morning light as Lilian relentlessly pursues twelve-year-old Katleen around the pillars. They battle past the dry central fountain and over the low stone walls that once held exotic plants and now serve as benches. Centered in the four-storey house that is their home, the courtyard is as barren as the rest of the ancient structure.
With a mistimed leap, Katleen’s foot catches on a stone bench, sending her tumbling and swearing, “Sinead’s Spite!”
“Katleen, do not profane,” Lilian reproves absently as she helps Katleen into a sitting position. Reaching over, Lilian helps Katleen remove the protective face mask, revealing elfin features with pale, freckled skin, black eyes, and red-gold curls. “Are you injured?”
Shaking her head, Katleen denies it. “I am well. Shall we try again?”
“No, sweetling, the period advances. I must hasten,” Lilian refuses her sister. “It will not serve—”
“—to be late to the Cartel.” Katleen’s singsong parodies Lilian’s often-spoken phrase. “Rimon devour the Serengeti Group! I wish another try.”
“Katleen!” Lilian is less shocked at the profanity than she is at Katleen’s defamation of Serengeti and, by implication, Monsignor Lucius. “What ails you? Were it not for the monsignor and Serengeti, we would be in dire straits!”
“More dire than abject poverty, unending insult, and regular assault?” Katleen rolls away and stalks to the weapons cabinet. Furiously, Katleen slams open one of the upper doors that she lovingly refinished the Seventh Day gone. It is one of the few items of furniture in a house that has been stripped of possessions to cover the debts of their unlamented sire, Remus Gariten.
“Katleen! You know better.” Lilian follows her sister and attempts to grasp her shoulders. “The monsignor’s shadow shelters us. Monsignor—”
“Monsignor, Monsignor, Monsignor! I sicken of Monsignor!” Katleen angrily pulls away.
Katleen does not mean it. After Remus Gariten’s foul crimes resulted in his execution and his family’s ruin, all of the Twelve Systems were turned against the sisters and their mother. The only adult child of Remus Gariten, Lilian was convicted of Guilt by Blood. In contrition for her corrupt genetics, Lilian was expected to follow her father to the Final Draught, execution by poison. Only Lucius Mercio was willing to extend his shadow to preserve Lilian’s life and aid the survival of her small family. With the help of her mentor, Dean Joseph, Monsignor Lucius arranged for Lilian’s sentence to be reduced to Trial by Ordeal, a three-year indenture agreement that surrendered Lilian’s body, intellect, and will to Monsignor Lucius. Should Lilian fail, she may yet be compelled to the Final Draught.
Katleen knows all this; what demon possesses her sister, Lilian cannot fathom. It matters not.
“Katleen, the bell advances, and I lack the minutes to indulge your temper. Do you wish to engage in wild humors, seek out Maman. I must depart.”
Hardening her heart against the young girl’s appalled expression and welling tears, Lilian races to dress for the Cartel.
As the transport fills to capacity, Lilian barely notices the jostling and press of the crowd. Her exasperation with her young sister’s moodiness wars with shame over her own cruelty.
Their mother’s derangement is an ongoing source of concern and grief for the sisters. That Helena Faesetili’s derangement coincides with her gift as a Seer of Visions does not lessen the strain. Her condition places Helena outside protocol and stricture except to protect her or, should it become necessary, others from her. Her visions shielded her from being forced to the Final Draught with her spouse, Remus Gariten. It was ill done to compare Katleen’s tantrum to their mother’s madness.
Lilian cannot unsay the words.

»◊«

Demon shit! Lucius scowls at the militia report displayed on his slate.
“Monsignor?” Mr. George asks from the front of the luxurious private transport, his eyes never veering from the congested boulevard.
At George’s deep tones, Lucius shakes his head, annoyed he has voiced his displeasure. “It is naught, George.”
It is Lucius’ eldest, Raphael. Recently past his seventeenth year, Raphael is increasingly ready to offer his dagger in response to any perceived insult to his honor or warrior status. This recent incident involves a dispute over an Indulgence doxy. As in most such matters, accounts are conflicting, the monitor records of limited use, and the witnesses unreliable. Lucius scans the report for the fines. The vast resources of the Mercios and Blooded Dagger are well known. The nightclub owner will likely press for the greatest possible gain.
Attempted consent violation. Attempted rape. The vile words leap from the slate and chill Lucius’ blood. Raphael is young, arrogant, and far too fond of his blade, but he is not a deviant.
Within the Twelve Systems, passion is not confused with love, or attraction with affection. Physical desire is considered as natural as hunger or thirst. It can be indulged to the extent that one’s means and inclinations dictate, limited only by a series of complex kinship taboos and the consent of the participants, who must be past the age of sixteen. Consent violation—rape—is a serious offense and can be cause for execution.
Beginning again, Lucius carefully scrutinizes the report and discovers a familiar name: Tiger Sylvester. The notorious black commerce raider uses his legitimate Odds Management and Indulgence interests to cloak his black commerce enterprises in assassinations and the illicit substances known as decadents. For Lucius to work his will on his Cartouche, Cartel, and the Third System, he has occasionally made use of the thug. The necessity does not please Lucius, but nor does it trouble him.
Over the past half decade, Tiger’s recalcitrance has increased in proportion to his wealth and power. Now the cunning raider attempts to exploit Raphael’s latest idiocy. With another scowl and a few taps to his slate, Lucius sends the militia report and his instructions to Seigneur Trevelyan, Lucius’ spymaster and enforcer.
Intent on thwarting Tiger, Lucius is oblivious as his transport careens across the crowded transitway to avoid a disabled vehicle. Neither George nor Lucius notices the heavy cargo transport that abruptly slows in deference to the Blooded Dagger Cartouche emblazoned on Lucius’ aggressively piloted transport or the subsequent sound of a collision behind them.

»◊«

Katleen, the bell advances, and I lack the minutes to indulge your temper. Do you wish to engage in wild humors, seek out Maman. Lilian’s words haunt her. What demon possessed me?
With a sudden and violent lurch, the public transport bucks under Lilian’s feet, tossing her forward. Pain flowers as a flying elbow smashes into her solar plexus and robs her of her breath. As her vision dims, reflexes developed over a decade and a half of martial arts training keep Lilian on her feet, her grip locked on the rail and her slate satchel. The transport lurches again. Her vision blurry with pain, Lilian dances on her toes, buffeted by flying limbs in the crowded transport. Groans and curses are drowned out by the screeching of the vehicle as it shudders to a halt.
I am the sum of my ancestors. Pulling wind, Lilian ignores the throbbing pain in her middle. Naught is broken. This dull throbbing is not the sharp agony she knows accompanies broken ribs.
Her head clears with the return of her breath, and Lilian’s earlier anxiety spikes to a new level. This is ill. It lacks but twenty minutes to eighth bell and Lilian’s mandatory attendance upon milord, Monsignor Lucius Mercio. A late arrival will be met with a harsh correction, as will any violation of the myriad strictures and customs that govern an apprentice.
As the transport doors slowly open to the distinctive whine of manual overrides, Lilian ignores her discomfort to weave among the passengers and vault through an opening barely wide enough to accommodate her slender form.

»◊«

Demon shit. It is not yet eighth bell, and Lucius’ day has gone from bad to worse. Sebastian Mehta, the Grey Spear Preeminence and Lucius’ rival for control of Serengeti, has instigated yet another intrigue designed to undermine Lucius.
Sebastian’s pettiness truly knows no bounds. It is not the first time Lucius has thought so, and it is not likely to be the last. Sebastian has unearthed an ancient Cartel provision in an attempt to deny Mercium the protection of the Serengeti Militia, beginning with the crucial prototype facility on the Western Continent. The synthetic form of Vistrite, Mercium, will produce sufficient wealth to cement the Serengeti Group’s advancement from fourth to third among the cartels. The advancement will benefit Sebastian as well as Lucius and the Blooded Dagger Cartouche.
As a Cartel venture, the funds for Mercium protection should come from the Cartel, not Lucius and Blooded Dagger. As importantly, without the involvement of the Serengeti Militia, Mercium will not have the guardianship of one the Twelve Systems’ most able generals, Seigneur Thorvald, the Cartel Training and Militia Seigneur. That Thorvald is a warrior of Grey Spear does not concern Lucius. Unlike some of Sebastian’s other warriors, Thorvald holds his duty to the cartel first and foremost. He will give his all to protect a cartel interest, and Lucius will have only the best for Mercium. With a scowl and a few determined taps to his slate, Lucius assigns his Vistrite Conservator and kinsman, Seigneur Solomon, to thwart Monsignor Sebastian.

»◊«

I am the foundation of my family. Lilian has no intention of waiting for another transport. She can easily race the remaining six blocks to Serengeti Headquarters and arrive well in time for eighth bell.
Honor is my blade and shield. The verses of the Warriors’ Litany lend a cadence to Lilian’s rapid stride. The low heels of her sturdy pumps barely touch down before lifting, the swirl of her short black skirt revealing long, well-muscled legs. Dodging a beverage cart, Lilian flies into the transitway as the pedestrian barrier begins to flash and clarion a warning. Lengthening her stride Lilian finds the far side of the transitway as the breeze from a speeding transport ruffles the back of her jacket.
Honor knows not fear. Two more blocks. Lilian’s breath is coming hard, hindered by the throbbing in her middle. The crowd thickens as Lilian nears the massive edifice of Serengeti Headquarters. Rising thirty-five storeys, the tower encompasses an entire city block. Over the next period, five thousand Serengeti associates and retainers will converge on the structure.
Lilian weaves through the throng, exploiting the openings created when associates pull back with disdain, unwilling to have even fleeting contact with Lucius Mercio’s tainted doxy. Lilian nears the Grey Spear entrance to the Cartel without slowing. Custom and honor demand associates use the entrance designated for their Cartouche. Even were it otherwise, it would not matter to Lilian. Monsignor Sebastian’s relentless assaults on milord’s preeminence assure that Lilian will never use those doors.
Something catches between Lilian’s feet, hurling her forward onto her hands and knees. The rough pavement bruises and scrapes her hands and knees to the sound of tearing as a jacket seam releases. Sudden, harsh pain rips through Lilian’s left hand. With a sharp cry, Lilian pulls her fingers free of the high-heeled boot that stepped from the crowd. Springing to her feet Lilian represses the urge to pursue the high-heeled figure that rapidly retreats through the Grey Spear portal.
Honor endures. She must not tarry. She dare not be late. Rounding the corner, Lilian races the half block to the Blooded Dagger entrance. A grunt from the entrance guard alters Lilian’s racing pace mid-stride. Lackwit. Thirty-fifth stricture. Apprentices are forbidden to race within the Cartel.
Striding as rapidly as stricture permits, Lilian hastens to the Blooded Dagger riser bank. It lacks fifteen minutes to the chimes. Lilian will be waiting outside milord’s office within five. Seven, if the riser carriages are heavily loaded.
Honor acts as duty commands. Lilian follows a small group of associates into the carriage, pleased that they are so few. There will not be many stops before the thirty-fifth storey.
Sliding to the back of the carriage, Lilian twists her skirt back into position. Unpleasant experience has taught Lilian to hug the walls of the riser carriages and employ her peripheral vision to avoid the surreptitious pinching and tripping of hostile associates. As the doors close, she straightens her jacket, the looseness in its right shoulder testifies to a split seam.
Finally, Shades’ Grace. There are only three stops between the twenty-fourth storey, where the Blooded Dagger section begins, and the thirty-fifth storey, where milord has his commerce suite. She will be in time. The repair kit in her satchel can correct the ripped seam.
The riser moves quickly past the lower levels dedicated to the communal areas of the Cartel: the Associates’ Hall, the Archives, Training and Militia, Communications, and the Dispensary. At the tenth level, where the primary conference chambers are located, the riser halts for additional passengers.
Five Warriors take it! Martin!
Monsignor Sebastian’s protégé holds no love for Lilian, far from it. He has relentlessly tormented her since her first day at Serengeti. Silently, the Blooded Dagger associates shuffle about, displeased by the presence of the interlopers. As with the entrances, it is against custom to use another cartouche’s risers to access the common areas. Even more so for rival Grey Spear to invade the Blooded Dagger section.
To the annoyed sounds of the Blooded Dagger associates, one after another of Martin’s friends press the controls for levels in the Grey Spear section of Serengeti, well below those of Blooded Dagger.
Crevasse swallow them! The additional stops should not delay her past the eighth-bell chimes, but all too familiar with Martin’s sly viciousness, Lilian suspects he has more in play.
The five Grey Spear associates chatter loudly among themselves about the upcoming Moon Races as the riser carriage glides to a halt at the seventeenth storey. With studied nonchalance, Martin leans against the riser-hold as he continues to speak to one of the associates. “Truly, Shoshanna, the Orion contender’s experience and superior Moon Race flyer all but guarantee her victory. Serengeti honor is all well and good, but you should hedge your wagers.”
Rimon’s Mercy! That is his play. Martin will hold the riser at each of the levels on the pretext of prolonging his conversation with his friends. None of these Blooded Dagger associates has the rank to counter him.
As the riser carriage begins to ping insistently against the delay, Lilian dodges past Shoshanna, into the corridor, and then to the stairs that adjoin the risers. It is not the first occasion Lilian has used the stairs to reach the thirty-fifth storey and milord. After the last time Martin caught her with this trick, she made it a practice to use the stairs for the seven levels from her worksite to milord’s suite for eighth-bell attendance.
I am the sum of my ancestors. The staircase appears to rise forever. Ten minutes for nineteen levels. Even for one of Lilian’s athleticism, it is daunting. Adelaide aid me!
This day. Taking the stairs two at a time, Lilian reaches the eighteenth storey and then the nineteenth. Lackwit. Even your pace, there are sixteen more to climb.
I am the foundation of my family. Lilian’s second day within the Cartel she arrived late for midday attendance. The minor pain of milord’s correction was naught compared to the humiliation.
Honor is my blade and shield. Milord’s warning from that day cannot be forgotten. Do not be late again. The severity of correction increases with repeated offense.
Honor knows not fear. At the time, Lilian did not recognize milord’s leniency. Ill prepared for her role as an apprentice, Lilian’s first months at the cartel were rife with unintended errors and missteps that milord tolerated with exceptional forbearance. Grace she cannot expect after nearly a year. Even as she attempts to deny it, Lilian’s fear mounts. Fear of the severe belting that is the most likely correction for the repeat offense of a late arrival. Fear of the humiliation that will be hers when the Cartel learns of it. Most of all, fear of milord’s displeasure.
Honor endures. It matters not the cause, Lilian is accountable, and milord will not be pleased.
Sweat collects beneath Lilian’s arms and breasts as she climbs to the twenty-third level. Without slowing, Lilian slides her jacket from her shoulders and hooks it over her slate satchel. The movement reveals the heavy gold belt at her hips with its single ruby charm and the scarlet conservator’s seal, marks of milord’s favor and trust.
Above her, Lilian hears the sounds of other feet climbing the stairs. Lilian’s fellow Ravens, as the black-suited Blooded Dagger apprentices are known. Martin is not the only malicious associate who uses the riser delay against apprentices. Such torment is an apprentice’s lot. None relishes the notion of the belting that is the customary correction for an apprentice’s late arrival.
Honor acts as duty commands. As she passes the twenty-eighth level, Lilian’s satchel snags against her thorn, a three-sided, six-inch blade sheathed at her left hip. Four times in the past year, Lilian’s skill with her thorn has defended her from assault and possible death. Within the Cartel arms are usually restricted to the militia. By milord’s will, Lilian is permitted her small blade. The only limitation is that she may not wear it in milord’s presence.
Milord’s presence! Lackwit. Gritting her teeth against frustration, Lilian slows her pace. As she pulls the thorn from her belt to stow it in her satchel, the draped jacket slides free.
Five Warriors’ take it! Lilian drops back two stairs to retrieve the fallen garment as the moments to eighth bell slip away.
Warmed by her exertion, sweat wetting her blouse and hair, Lilian reaches the thirty-first level to the fading staccato of other climbers. Heart hammering, breath coming fast, Lilian ignores the stitch in her side as she forces her legs onward. I will not fail. I will not fall. As she passes the thirty-second storey, her lone footsteps echo hollowly.
I am the sum of my ancestors. The first chime sounds as Lilian reaches the thirty-fifth storey. It is impossible. It matters not. I am the foundation of my family. Gasping, heart pounding, Lilian pushes through the door and into the corridor. Two. Three.
Crevasse swallow the thirty-fifth stricture! It can get little worse. Abandoning any pretense of a decorous pace, Lilian races down the corridor toward the double-width ebony doors at the entrance of milord’s commerce suite. Four. Five.
Honor is my blade and shield. Six. Lilian passes beneath the massive, poured-gold emblem of the Blooded Dagger Cartouche.
Flushed, sweating, heart hammering with fear as much as exertion, Lilian races through the reception area and to the scarlet enamel door that marks milord’s office. Seven. As if taunting Lilian’s desperation, the scarlet door slowly drags open. Turning sideways, Lilian slides through the narrow gap as the eighth bell chimes.

»◊«

Mentally consigning Sebastian Mehta and his schemes to Rimon’s dungeons, Lucius settles back into his scarlet leather desk chair. Beyond the windows that cover two walls of the large opulent chamber, the panoramic view of the Garden Center and cityscape fails to distract Lucius from the imminent arrival of his apprentice. After the trying start to his day, Lilian is exactly the diversion Lucius requires. Lilian’s morning reports are primarily for her benefit; it is rare she reveals aught Lucius does not know. That is not the purpose. Lilian benefits from the discipline, and Lucius savors the half-period respite where he has little to concern himself but contemplation of how he will enjoy his apprentice at midday.
Eighth bell chimes and Lucius relaxes further into his chair. Perhaps the scarlet couch this midday. As the fourth chime sounds without Lilian appearing, Lucius loses some of his relaxation. The crystal conference table might better suit his mood and his apprentice’s casual regard for the bells.
At the sixth chime, Lucius envisions a brief encounter with Lilian bent over his desk. At the seventh chime, Lucius is regarding the closed door to his office with distinct displeasure. Three warning pings herald the door recessing in time with the eighth chime and the abrupt appearance of a black-clad apparition.
Lucius’ normally immaculate apprentice is dirty and disheveled. Her jacket is slung carelessly across her satchel and her sleeveless black silk blouse is sweat-damp and half out of a skirt that is askew. Dirt and blood mar her knees. Sweat mats her dark hair. A long strand has pulled free of the severe bindings to drag along one cheek, obscuring the fine bone structure but not the lips parted as Lilian gasps for wind. Most shocking of all, instead of distress, the wide gray eyes hold a spark of triumph.
Rising in his astonishment, Lucius demands, “What means this?”
At the sharp command, Lilian is suddenly aware of her disheveled state, her sweat-slick skin, abraded palms, and scraped knees. Her attire violates stricture, and she is filthy. Nervously pushing the errant lock of hair behind one ear, Lilian watches the frowning man approach her.
Lucius Mercio is a tall, virile man in his late forties, his powerful frame a testament to the regular use of the Serengeti training chambers. His compelling, olive-hued, aquiline features are set in their customary harsh, intimidating lines. His black eyes blaze with emotion that Lilian fears is about to become true anger.
“What has occurred?” milord demands.
Lilian blinks at the concern in milord’s voice before realization dawns. Milord believes her assaulted. It would not be the first time. As milord closes with her, Lilian tips her head back to meet the commanding gaze. Above-average height for a woman, Lilian’s head barely grazes milord’s chin, even in her heels. “The public transport experienced a collision, and I was caught by an elbow.”
“A transport collision?” Milord’s eyes narrow and sweep Lilian with a dark glance. “How severely were you injured?”
“Mildly, milord, naught of note,” Lilian hastily claims, knowing how readily milord will send her to the Master Medic. “I was able to keep my feet.”
Milord’s frown deepens as he collects one of Lilian’s hands and turns it palm up to reveal the abrasions. “And this?”
Acutely aware of her disgraceful appearance and beginning to question the wisdom of her actions, Lilian insists, “It is naught, milord. I tumbled while racing to the Cartel.”
Milord’s dark eyes become hooded. “You did not wait for another transport?”
“There was insufficient time, milord,” Lilian explains. “I dared not.”
“How far did you race?” milord pursues.
“It was but six blocks,” Lilian replies, uneasy at both milord’s line of inquiry and the hint of silk that is entering the clipped tones.
Milord’s eyes narrow with suspicion as he slowly peruses her length. Tugging Lilian’s blouse completely free of her skirt, Lucius challenges, “A six block race resulted in this degree of disarray? Why do I find that difficult to believe?”
Milord’s fingers work Lilian’s blouse fasteners, the stern line of milord’s mouth indicative of growing impatience.
Honor is my blade and shield. Milord is not mistaken. Even with the collision and the race, unless she were injured, Lilian should have arrived at the scarlet door well in time for eighth bell and far less disheveled. Milord has caught her in a prevarication. It is not a lie, but close enough that milord’s increasing anger is justified. “I beg milord’s pardon. I could not employ the risers.”
“The risers are disabled?” Milord’s voice drips icy skepticism as one hand grasps her warrior’s queue while the other tosses her soiled blouse in the direction of the scarlet sofa.
“No, milord. I voiced ill, milord.” Lilian disavows such an unlikely event. “It was Master Martin.”
“Martin!” Milord’s eyes glitter, his fierce grip on her hair easing infinitesimally. Milord is well aware that Master Martin extends himself to torment Lilian. During the rainy season, Martin used a training chamber challenge to beat Lilian unconscious and crack two of her ribs. Incredulous, milord questions, “Martin entered the Blooded Dagger risers? Knowing that you were within?”
“I do not believe Master Martin knew I was within when he entered,” Lilian offers with careful precision, unsurprised by milord’s disbelief. For Monsignor Sebastian’s protégé to violate custom and use the Blooded Dagger risers borders on scandalous. To do so knowing Lilian was present could be considered a challenge to Blooded Dagger status, since Martin’s normal behavior is to make a great show of shunning Lilian’s tainted presence.
“Continue.” Milord’s free hand slides into her skirt, seeking the fastener.
Normally, Lilian welcomes milord’s careful peeling of her garb, but there is naught of passion in milord’s demeanor, only increasing threat. Normally, Lilian find’s milord’s features compelling. Lilian dearly wishes she dared to close her eyes against milord’s anger and the promise of correction.
“Yes, milord.” Lilian attempts to ignore the abrupt movement of milord’s hand against her hip as he drags her skirt free of the entangling gold belt. “Master Martin and several Grey Spear associates entered the riser carriage at the tenth level. They were in no hurry to reach their destinations.”
“Insufficient, Lilian.” Milord’s silky tones are dangerously cool. Milord’s fingers are busy on the clasp of the delicate teal silk that shields and confines her breasts. Modest in size, the creamy orbs are elegantly shaped with deep-rose areolas.
Unnerved by milord’s knuckles grazing her breasts and the threat in milord’s voice, Lilian trembles. She is perilously close to complaining about a warrior of higher rank, yet another transgression. “At the s-seventeenth storey, M-Master Martin held the carriage to continue his discussion with his exiting companion.”
Milord’s eyes remain locked with Lilian’s, his gaze commanding her to continue as her bra slides from her shoulders. Answer the question and do not volunteer are the primary rules of all apprentice communication with those of higher rank. Yet, milord is not asking specific questions. It is difficult to know what to reveal, what to contain. Lilian must voice all and hope milord is not offended by implied complaint. Milord’s thumb strokes one tender peak into a hard point.
Honor knows not fear. “With three other companions, the repeated delay would be extensive.”
Milord’s fingers lightly tug the lengthening peak.
Honor endures. “I was compelled to use the stairs.”
Milord’s gaze is unwavering as his thumb begins to assault Lilian’s other nipple.
“It was too far for a decorous pace.” This day. I will not fail.
Socraide’s Sword! Lucius mentally profanes. Pulling information from Lilian is more difficult than mining Vistrite. She is duty bound to tell him all, and yet she gives him half answers. Lucius has had his fill this morning of those who would flout his preeminence. Lucius lightly pinches the tender peak for emphasis. “Blooded Dagger owns more than one riser carriage.”
“Yes, milord,” Lilian’s reply holds a slight gasp in response to the pinch. “And the Cartel has other associates who are entertained by delaying the risers.”
It is as Lucius suspected. She has been prevaricating. She knew the potential for such a delay and did naught to circumvent it. His ire flares to anger. “Then this is a common challenge.”
“Yes, milord.” Lilian trembles under Lucius’ command, as well she should. It matters not that the compounded challenges of the morning could not have been foreseen. The Apprentice Protocol is absolute. Excessive ill luck does not mitigate her failure to abide by the strictures.
Anger washes red behind Lucius’ hooded eyes. For months, Lucius has overlooked Lilian’s missteps and errors, giving her time to find her balance after the shock of her ruin. Eventually, she settled into a model of apprentice decorum, wholeheartedly dedicating her considerable talents to the advancement of Mercium and Bright Star. Lucius rewarded her with a conservatorship and permitted her to carry a thorn within his Cartel. Barely a sevenday gone, he circled her in the gold belt to mark her as his to protect. Now, in return for his indulgence, his favor, she has become lax and arrogant. He should belt her raw for this.
“Twenty-eight and thirty-six,” Lucius intones, indicting Lilian for failure to diligently discharge her duties and for improper commerce attire. With each word the gray eyes darken, the lithe form quivers. Her fearful response is insufficient. Lucius releases Lilian’s breast to grasp her left hip, immobilizing her against him. “Which others? Cite the others you have defied.”
At milord’s quiet recitation of stricture, a cold pit forms in Lilian’s middle. There is no specific stricture that demands timely attendance. It is a matter of custom. Lilian has failed in her duty. She will not repeat that error by violating either the first or tenth strictures, which command her obedience to milord and a full and truthful response to milord’s questions.
Honor acts as duty commands. Facing milord’s harsh regard, Lilian unflinchingly completes the litany of her transgressions, “Twenty-first, thirty-fifth, and first.”
Lilian has failed to honor Cartouche and Cartel protocol and stricture, raced within the Cartel ’halls and, by violating so many strictures, violated the most essential of them all: the first stricture, which requires that she put milord’s will first and foremost in all matters.
“Explain your lapse.” At milord’s biting command, Lilian jerks involuntarily in the tight hold. Milord’s eyes darken, and the tight grip intensifies.
I am the sum of my ancestors. Answer milord. “Eighth bell. I did not wish to fail, milord.”
“So you willed which strictures to uphold, which to ignore?” Milord’s voice cuts like a blade.
I am the foundation of my family. Lilian placed her concerns, her desires, her will before the demands of Cartel stricture, effectively placing her will over milord’s. Miserable, no longer able to meet milord’s gaze, Lilian confesses, “Yes, milord.”
Releasing Lilian’s hair, milord pushes her toward the ebony desk. “Face the desk. Place your palms in the center.”
Honor is my blade and shield.
Nude but for her shoes, the gold belt, and the small scrap of teal silk that guards her sex, Lilian pulls her warrior’s queue forward over her left shoulder. Bent over the ebony desk, palms in the middle, Lilian is intensely aware of milord’s presence at her back. Moments stretch to minutes, and minutes to eons as Lilian’s nerves stretch taut in anticipation. Straining her ears in the silence, Lilian waits for the sound of leather against fabric, the telltale that milord is freeing his belt.
Reaching for his belt, Lucius notes that the creamy expanse of Lilian’s back is flushed, undoubtedly from exertion. It is a marked contrast to a few months gone, when the surface was covered with bone sealant and healing patches in the aftermath of Martin’s violent training chamber assault. It requires little imagination to imagine the expanse marred with welts and bruises from his belt.
Master anger. Lilian’s error is as much a result of yet another Grey Spear intrigue as her own fault. Master pain. Martin will have great pleasure in Lilian’s misery. Master ambition. Lucius will not serve Grey Spear. Mastery of mind. Lilian is not at fault for Raphael’s foolishness or Tiger’s vile allegations. Master sorrow. She has naught to do with Sebastian’s refusal to protect Mercium. Master fear.
Recognizing that his anger is due more to Grey Spear and Tiger than it is to Lilian, Lucius leashes his temper. It was an ill day for Lilian to be beset by so many challenges. Lucius knows that Lilian is normally within his Cartel well before eighth bell. There is a point beyond which allowing for every possible problem becomes ludicrous. Lilian would need to arrive at dark of night for total certainty.
Nonetheless, by her own admission, Lilian has transgressed. It cannot go unanswered. And there are better means for Lucius to relieve his anger and frustration than through a belt. Bending Lilian over his desk was a sound notion a half bell gone, and it remains one. Master pleasure.
I will not fail. I will not fall.
“Widen your stance.” The heavy timbre of milord’s voice holds passion as well as anger, renewing Lilian’s trembling even as she obediently spreads her feet to achieve the angle she knows milord expects.
The light rustle of milord’s crisp, well-tailored suit signals milord’s approach. A large, hard hand cups and caresses one buttock. Braced for a blow, Lilian flinches and then settles. What does he?
Long, strong fingers dive between her thighs and delve beneath the small silk shield to invade and work her sex. Milord’s fingers, rough from arms practice, scrape the delicate flesh and probe deeply. Fear has left Lilian dry. Tight.
Milord hisses slightly as he finds her unwelcoming. The hand not working her sex moves to Lilian’s hip, tilting her, angling her for easier access. Milord’s breath tickles her shoulders, and then milord’s teeth find the column of her throat. The fingers working her crease locate and tease the jewel that centers her passion.
As milord’s practiced fingers stroke her sex, Lilian’s confusion gives way to desire. Desire crashes into the fear that has been building for over a period, creating a heady brew of endorphins that dizzies Lilian even as it soaks her sex.
Finding sudden welcome, milord sends two fingers into Lilian’s rapidly heating channel as milord’s thumb works the nub. Eagerly pressing against the invading digits, Lilian whimpers as milord’s free hand finds her swelling breasts to tease forth the hard, throbbing peaks.
At Lilian’s eager thrusting onto his hand, Lucius rears back and releases his straining sex. Lilian is wet, ready, and able to receive him. He need not wait. Grasping her hips, Lucius tilts her for his use and powers into the hot, tight sheath.
Milord’s rough positioning is all the warning Lilian receives before the hot, hard length of milord drives into her center. The intensity of the sensation sets the wild cocktail of fear and desire to a boil. Milord’s passion is fierce, demanding, relentless. Again and again, milord strikes deep, dragging along that place deep inside Lilian that darkens her vision and reduces her to naught but sensation.
Savagely milord slams into her, each punishing thrust strikes that spot within and inflames the jewel without. With the rage of a storm, milord drives Lilian harder and further until with a roar, milord jerks violently, the force of his release pushing Lilian into a starburst of sensation.
The hard, slick surface of milord’s desk sticks to Lilian’s sweat-dampened skin. The hot, heavy weight of milord presses against her back, grinding her pelvis uncomfortably against the desk and flattening her breasts into the unforgiving surface. Lilian deliberately shallows her breath, attempting to ease the discomfort without disturbing milord.
It could have been a great deal worse. Lilian knows not which of the Shades turned milord’s anger to passion. She is pleased to send prayers of thanksgiving to all Five Warriors and her spiritual patron, Adelaide Warleader.
With a guttural sound that Lilian hopes is contentment, milord rouses and eases from her. Emotionally and physically spent, Lilian clings to the desk before duty reasserts itself. I am the sum of my ancestors.
Releasing the desk, Lilian rises and turns, her eyes lowered. Milord is correcting his attire.
I am the foundation of my family. Gracefully, Lilian sinks to her knees, head bowed and hands resting on her thighs in the required posture for contrition. “I beg milord’s pardon.”
Master pleasure. Lucius does not doubt the sincerity of Lilian’s contrition. With his carnal release, his rage from the compounding events of the morning has subsided. It does not alleviate Lucius’ concern that he has been too lenient with the fallen warrior.
Master anger. Lilian’s trial is not yet a third done. Transgressions that could be overlooked a year gone will carry severe penalties as her trial progresses. Lilian’s apprentice trial is the modern version of the ancient practice of Trial by Ordeal, designed to drive her to self-slaughter or render just cause for her execution. There are many who wish Lilian’s demise. Although he is determined to keep her alive, for all Lucius’ wealth and influence, a year gone Lilian came perilously close to joining her criminal sire, Remus Gariten, in the Final Draught. If she is to avoid that fate, there can be no hint that Lucius is making her trial easy.
Master fear. There is no possibility that her racing, disheveled appearance or untimely arrival went unnoted in the Cartel. Many will believe she missed the chimes. Even a mild belting would have left telltales that will be noticeably absent. Lucius dare not appear lenient by omitting public correction.
Holding her position as milord’s silence deepens, Lilian watches as milord’s booted feet move away. “Garb yourself. Omit your lingerie.”
The sound of milord’s quiet footfalls is followed by the unmistakable tapping of fingers on a techno array.
I am the sum of my ancestors. It could have been a great deal worse.
I am the foundation of my family. Milord has not given his pardon.
Rising, Lilian risks a glance toward milord’s expansive techno grouping. Milord is immersed in commerce, his forbidding profile a warning that Lilian dare not tarry. Her abandoned skirt is but a step away, her bra next to it. Her satchel and jacket another step. Clutching her satchel and garments to her chest, Lilian moves toward the scarlet couch to locate her blouse. After several increasingly frantic moments, Lilian finds it between the cushions where it settled after milord’s careless toss.
Quickly, she peels off her minimal briefs and tucks her lingerie into the satchel. With equal haste, unwilling to test milord’s temper, Lilian drags on her skirt, mentally cursing as it snags briefly on the gold belt.
“Lilian,” milord clips out, calling her attention.
Milord has not turned. Lilian finds naught but the back of the massive scarlet leather desk chair when she turns toward his voice.
“Yes, milord,” Lilian responds obediently. How have I erred now?
“You are unfit for the Cartel. Seek the freshening closet.” Milord’s command is barely voiced before milord’s fingers recommence tapping.

»◊«

The use of milord’s freshening closet and several freshening packets has cleansed Lilian of blood, sweat, and dirt. The steamer has eradicated the wrinkles in her attire. A handful of pins and a little of the sea-scented cleansing gel milord favors have welded Lilian’s errant lock to her warrior’s queue. There is naught to be done to remove the sweat stains from her blouse, the rip from her jacket, or the swelling bruises on her hands and knees.
Honor is my blade and shield. Lilian resolutely exits the safety of the closet to stand at attention before milord’s desk.
For several minutes, milord continues to tap. Without turning, he speaks, “Place your lingerie on the desk.”
Unnoticed by milord, Lilian’s stoic mask slips briefly in surprise. What does he?
It matters not. Lilian pulls teal silk and lace from her satchel and places it on the desk.
Releasing his console, milord turns. His forbidding expression yields no more of his thoughts than Lilian’s shuttered one. Reaching out, milord pulls the small pile of silk to him. “You will don no others until I return these to you. Leave me.”

»◊«

Torn between relief at milord’s relatively mild correction and concern that she has yet to receive milord’s pardon, Lilian weaves unseeing through the sea of gray utilitarian worksites. After months in the Cartel, she no longer needs the guidance of the small markers in Blooded Dagger red and gold. Shame at her failure to honor the Apprentice Protocol is leavened by frustration at the ill luck that compounded problem upon problem this morning.
Tucked into a corner by the risers, Lilian’s worksite is isolated by a wall at its back and two discouraging associates in the front. Turning down the walkway to her worksite, Lilian notes that the Grim Twins, as she mentally refers to them, have not yet arrived. Although no one has admitted it, Lilian is certain that they are Seigneur Trevelyan’s operatives. The proximity of their worksites to hers provides milord with close monitoring of her behavior and Lilian with protection from harassment.
“Shades take it!” Rebecca hisses, surging from her worksite opposite Lilian’s. “Why is he tormenting you?”
Once again, Rebecca dares to refer to milord, one of the most powerful warriors in the Twelve Systems, with the familiar ‘he.’ Shaking her head in an admonishment she knows Rebecca will ignore, Lilian drops into her worksite chair. “Peace, Rebecca. Milord is forbearing. I erred.”
“Let me guess. Your posture wasn’t perfect, or perhaps your suit less than pristine,” Rebecca comments with blatant derision, well aware how humiliating Lilian finds being subject to the gossip her freely moving breasts will engender. By midday, half the Cartel will be speculating about the state of Lilian’s attire. Knowing how much Lilian has done to advance Lucius Mercio’s ambitions, Rebecca’s anger spikes. “Oh wait, I know—you failed to find yet another system-rocking opportunity for Cartouche and Cartel to increase in power and wealth.”
“Rebecca, cease!” Lilian cuts off her friend. The morning has been ill. Lilian does not need the criticism of a warrior, let alone Monsignor Lucius Mercio, added to her list of transgressions. “I violated at least a half dozen of the apprentice strictures. Milord is forbearing.”
For a heartbeat, the lovely platinum blonde is silent. Her sea-blue eyes widen with surprise, and her lush lips hang open in her sun-kissed, heart-shaped face. Several inches shorter than Lilian and more curvaceous, were it not for her modest height, Rebecca would be the ideal of warrior beauty. Rebecca’s delicate jaw works, and her mouth closes. Her eyes narrowing, Rebecca states, “That’s ridiculous. You’re a model of apprentice decorum. Associate Master Straus has said so more than once. What happened?”
“The Luck of the Second Warrior happened.” Lilian refers to ill luck. “Katleen was out of sorts, so I was late leaving home. Then there was—”
“Rimon take all public transports and their drivers.” The male Grim Twin slams into his worksite. “I had better use for a half period than sitting on a jammed transitway.”
“Second time this month,” his female counterpart agrees. “They need to be fined for causing such delays.”
“At least we were close to the Cartel,” she adds with a seemingly casual glance at Rebecca and Lilian. “The Cartel is half empty, and it will be another bell before the transitway clears.”
“You were caught in it?” Rebecca asks Lilian, sliding back into her worksite. As Seigneur Trevelyan’s apprentice, she knows the Grim Twins are his operatives. The female Grim Twin’s casual glance was a warning that the apprentices need to attend to their duty.
“I was in the transport when it crashed,” Lilian replies quietly, igniting her techno group.
“Are you injured? Should you seek the Master Medic?” Rebecca fiddles with her techno display in an attempt to look busy.
“Bounced around a bit is all,” Lilian assures Rebecca. “I have had worse from Seigneur Trevelyan.”
Reassured, Rebecca turns to her work. The Serengeti Champion, Seigneur Trevelyan, trains Lilian, often sending the slender woman away aching and bruised. If all Lilian suffered in the crash was a similar pummeling, there is no cause for alarm.
Determined to shake off her morose mood, Lilian ignites her techno group and settles into work. Self-pity will gain her naught. Diligence to her duty has seen her through nearly a third of her trial and brought her unimaginable opportunity. Milord gave her conservatorship of a Vistrite mine and refinery, as well as his Southern Continent fisheries. An honor by itself, the conservatorship of those holdings justifies her role in Serengeti’s stellar exploration venture, Bright Star, as well as in Mercium, the recently discovered synthetic Vistrite. These are the responsibilities of a valued protégé, a high-ranking associate, not an apprentice undergoing a Trial by Ordeal. Milord’s recognition is so far beyond what Lilian expected that she continues to marvel at it. For all she dislikes the public humiliation of milord’s correction, it troubles her more that she has displeased milord.


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