The Twelve Systems Bundle: The Cartel & Bright Star

By EG Manetti

Sci-Fi, Romance, Fantasy

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339
17 mins

Prologue

I am the sum of my ancestors. The trowel slices the moist soil. I am the foundation of my family. Lilian rips the weeds from the loosened soil. Honor is my blade and shield.

The trowel slashes, the weeds are decimated. Again and again, Lilian tears into the soil, clearing space for her plantings. Above her the walls of the garden rise on three sides; at her back, the four-storey house completes the enclosure.

The ancient house has stood for five centuries. It is in desperate need of repairs that have been too long postponed. It does not matter. It only needs to stand for three more years. Three years. Honor endures.

“Lilian, what do you?” The familiar voice pulls Lilian from her violent assault on the weeds that have run rampant in the herb garden.

Dean Joseph, Lilian’s mentor, regards the dirty, sweaty young woman with a combination of affection and concern. “You have cleared twice the space you will be able to cultivate.”

Sitting back on her heels, Lilian turns her face to her mentor. “Once I enter the Cartel, I will not own my bells. I must clear this sufficiently that the weeds will not encroach.”

Joseph offers Lilian his hand up as he asks, “Have you questions?”

Taking the hand, Lilian rises as she ponders her response. She has endless questions. She voices her concern. “Will he hurt me?”

As Lilian finds her feet in the herb garden, Dean Joseph replies, “Hurt you, Lilian? Adhere to the strictures, and Monsignor Lucius will have no cause to correct you.”
Corporal punishment is the least of Joseph’s fears for the lovely twenty-four-year-old. It is a common enough practice, and public opinion notwithstanding, Lilian is not a coward.

Shaking her head, Lilian finds she cannot voice the source of her fear. Something in her face or stance enlightens her mentor. “As to that, it will be different from what you have known. You must not expect Monsignor Lucius to be considerate of your pleasure, but I cannot imagine he will

Chapter 1: The Cartel

The society of the Twelve Systems is dominated by the warrior elite, the genetic descendants of the Five Warriors. These five powerful warlords ended three centuries of interstellar warfare, known as the Anarchy, to establish 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, of which the most powerful and wealthy are the cartels.

Owned by the great warrior families that are identified by their family emblems or ‘cartouches,’ these commerce enterprises are locked in fierce competitive struggles for increased prominence. 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 inhabitants of 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, Preeminence of the Blooded Dagger Cartouche, the Serengeti Group has begun to contend for third among the cartels.

Sevenday 1, Day 1

I am the sum of my ancestors. I am the foundation of my family. Honor is my blade and shield. The public transport shudders to a stop with Lilian poised at the forefront, eager to reach the pavement. Honor knows not fear. Honor endures. The comforting words of the Warriors’ Litany stiffen Lilian’s spine as she steps from the transport and walks the two blocks to Serengeti Group Headquarters. Consumed by her thoughts, Lilian does not notice the glances that follow her, a few admiring but most scornful.

The black suit of a Blooded Dagger apprentice is a familiar sight in the area. However, the face of Remus Gariten’s disgraced heir has been media fodder for almost two months as all the Twelve Systems witnessed the destruction of Remus Gariten and the ruin of his family. That Lilian did not follow her father to the Final Draught and end her life in contrition for her corrupt genetics has branded the young woman a coward as well as a criminal.

With a slight shiver, Lilian passes into the shadow of Serengeti Headquarters, a massive structure that encompasses an entire city block. Honor acts as duty commands. Shoulders squared, face expressionless, Lilian presents her credentials to a frowning guard at the Blooded Dagger entrance. “If you please, what level for Mistress Marieth?”

Snorting, the dour man rakes Lilian with his eyes. “Thirty-fifth storey. Use the risers at the far end of the lobby.”

The far end of the lobby? May the Five Warriors aid me! Chafing at the apprentice strictures that forbid racing within the Cartel, Lilian lengthens her stride and quickens her step, dodging slower-moving associates as she weaves among the boutiques, cafés, and lounges that fill the lobby. Frustration turns to aggravation as four carriages pass before she finally gains a place. Lilian dare not be late. What she thought was more than ample time for early arrival is rapidly eroding.

I am the sum of my ancestors. Lilian presses into a corner. Jostled by myriad elbows and shoulders, Lilian resolutely ignores the malicious whispers of ‘shadeless scum’ and ‘tainted doxy’ as the riser moves up the seemingly endless structure, slowed by the numerous stops to release passengers.

I am the foundation of my family. Lilian is painfully aware that moments are ticking by quickly. As the carriage passes the twentieth storey, only a handful of passengers remain—all crowded as far from Lilian as the tight confines allow.

Honor is my blade and shield. There are only two more stops before the final storey. Lilian will be in time. By the thirty-fifth storey, Lilian is the only passenger. Springing from the riser, Lilian scans the area. She discovers naught but sealed chambers that offer no hint of their purpose. In the otherwise crowded hive of Serengeti, the area is ominously empty.

A tuneless whistle cuts the heavy silence. Lilian whirls, her hand reaching for her absent blade. Coming toward her is a small man in the sand-colored livery of a Serengeti servitor, a heavy tool belt across his chest. There is naught in his demeanor but curiosity. Dropping her hand, Lilian hopes the instinctive gesture went unnoticed. The man is no threat and may be of aid. “If you please, mister, where will I find Mistress Marieth?”

“Mistress Marieth, you say?” The servitor cocks his head.

“Yes, mister,” Lilian confirms eagerly.

“You want Monsignor Lucius’ suite,” The servitor waves down the long corridor.

At the gesture, Lilian looks back to the servitor, “Mister, how far down the corridor?”

“All the way, you be at the wrong end of the building,” The servitor gestures again.

Adelaide protect me! The time is nearly gone, and Lilian is in the wrong place. Throwing thanks over her shoulder, mentally cursing the entrance guard for sending her the long way round, Lilian darts away, striding down the long corridor as rapidly as stricture and her modest heels permit. This day.

The entrance to Monsignor Lucius’ commerce chambers is unmistakable. The black-enameled double doors are topped with the Blooded Dagger Cartouche, two hands high and worked in poured gold. Hesitating on the threshold, Lilian quickly scans the reception area, ignoring the luxury of gleaming dark wood floors covered with elaborately woven rugs, plush furnishings, and crystal light fixtures. All Lilian can see is the scarlet enamel door that marks the entry to Monsignor Lucius Mercio’s office. Lackwit. Focus. He will not be within at this early bell.

The only occupant of the reception chamber is an older woman enthroned in a worksite of carved cherry gleaming in the morning light. The woman matches the polished splendor of the worksite with her elegantly bound silver hair, patrician features, and stylish garb. This must be Mistress Marieth, Monsignor Lucius’ executive servitor.

Pleased that guard’s maliciousness has not made her late, Lilian steps into the reception area, her light footfalls a soft staccato on the hardwood floors. The immaculate figure behind the cherry wood console watches silently as Lilian covers the short distance.

“Well met, Mistress Marieth. I am Lilian, apprentice to Monsignor Lucius . . .” Lilian trails off as a single silver eyebrow rises in disapproval. Suddenly, Lilian is all too aware of the light perspiration beading her lip and moistening her arms and legs.

“Were you addressed?” Marieth asks sharply.

I am the sum of my ancestors. I have erred. “No, Mistress Marieth.”

“Given permission to speak?” Marieth continues, the eyebrow lowering as her lips tighten in censure.

I am the foundation of my family. This is ill. “No, Mistress Marieth.”

Marieth’s eyes flicker over Lilian, her expression conveying that she finds the apprentice lacking. “Did you even read your apprentice contract?”

“Yes, Mistress Marieth,” Lilian acknowledges. For all the benefit it provided. The strictures and protocols are wildly contradictory.

“Then you would do well to abide by it,” Marieth instructs.

Abide by it? How? It makes no sense. In fewer than five minutes, Lilian’s worst fears have been realized. She has erred, albeit unintentionally, and has no notion how to avoid erring in the future. To avoid the Final Draught, Lilian accepted the lesser penalty of Trial by Ordeal. If she fails to meet the requirements of her three-year apprentice bond, her life is forfeit. After two sevendays of study, Lilian has been unable to sift the contradictory rules that govern the bonded. Lilian had hoped that the executive servitor would provide some insight. It is now clear that Lilian will find no aid here.

The woman is waiting. The eyebrow starts to rise. There is only one possible response. “Yes, Mistress Marieth.”

“Very well.” Marieth turns to her techno console and taps quickly. “Your timely arrival is acknowledged. You are expected in the Associates’ Hall by eighth bell.

Return here at midday to attend Monsignor Lucius.”

“Yes, Mistress Marieth,” Lilian responds obediently. Honor is my blade and shield. Steeling herself against further rebuke, Lilian asks, “If you please, where is the Associates’ Hall?”

Without turning from the console, Marieth replies, “The second storey; use the nearest riser bank.”

“Thank you,” Lilian returns politely, relieved by the servitor’s lack of censure.

»◊«

The amphitheater that is the Associates’ Hall is an archaic remnant of the founding days of Serengeti when armed servitors gathered for battle training. Known for its reverence of tradition and strict adherence to protocol, the Serengeti Group’s commitment to ancient formality serves as a reminder that in these modern, civilized times, commerce remains conflict. Serengeti associates are expected to excel in all forms of commercial warfare.

Lilian enters warily as the thirty or so occupants focus on her. Honor acts as duty commands.

A handful of associates arrayed in the finest of commerce couture are seated in the first of the tiered rows designed to accommodate five hundred. These are the protégés. Two months gone Lilian expected to have an honored place in this elite group. Instead, the elegant crowd greets her with sneers. “Coward. Shadeless twist. Demon shit. Doxy.”

As Lilian reaches the middle rows, twenty or so associates garbed by the better merchants join in the hostility, the murmurs swelling in volume as she passes. Chin high, eyes forward, pace even, Lilian continues on, refusing to acknowledge her tormentors. She should be accustomed to insult and able to ignore it by now. This day. There is only this day.

The highest row, farthest from the podium, holds five associates in the same inexpensive suits as Lilian’s. Two are in the mufti of a Serengeti Cartel apprentice, one in the pale gray-blue of an Iron Hammer apprentice, one in the olive of Grey Spear, and one in the severe black of Blooded Dagger. All remain silent as Lilian takes the empty place next to the other Blooded Dagger apprentice.

“I am Chrys, apprentice to Seigneur Rachelle.” The young man offers his hand for the formal clasped-hand salute of the commoners. His medium complexion, sandy hair, and light brown eyes are washed to monochromatic beige by Blooded Dagger black.

Carefully repeating the unfamiliar motion, Lilian warily returns the greeting. “I am Lilian, apprentice to Monsignor Lucius.”

The politely neutral expression of an experienced apprentice yields no hint of recognition. “Well met, Mistress Lilian.”

“Well met indeed, Master Chrys.” Lilian completes the formal greeting to the sound of chimes.

With the chimes, Associate Master Straus mounts the podium as the associates silently rise to their feet. The associate master’s remarks are dry and predictable.

“Well come, associates of Serengeti. This ancient house . . .”

As the associate master drones on about the great history of Serengeti, Lilian steals a sidelong glance at her companion. Upon rising, Chrys proved tall, his length of leg offsetting his boxy torso. Lilian cannot help wondering how a man fulfills the duty of the bond. If Lilian fails to find Monsignor Lucius appealing, she need only be compliant. For Chrys to please his seigneur, he must be a good deal more than compliant. Mayhap—

Do not. Do not. Lilian forces her wayward thoughts to order and her attention to the associate master.

“Your slate has been provided by your cartouche and encrypted to its security-privilege. Instructions on your worksite location, schedule, and immediate assignments are all contained in your slate. Lose your slate, and you compromise the security and honor of Serengeti.

“Protégés, you will proceed to your mentors immediately after collecting your satchels. Other associates, you will remain for further instruction.
“Come forward.”

»◊«

At the twenty-eighth storey, Lilian and Chrys exit the risers into a sea of identical gray worksites differentiated only by corridor markers in Blooded Dagger scarlet and gold. In response to a few quick taps, their cartel issued slates map a route through the labyrinth to their worksites.

Intent on acquiring what she needs without displaying a dangerous level of ignorance, Lilian pays little heed to the surroundings. Think. Courtesy. We are two protégés on First Day.

“Master Chrys, may I inquire as to your area of excellence?” Lilian attempts a casual tone, her well-modulated voice and accent revealing both her exemplary education and her warrior upbringing.

“Technologistics. Research and development in particular. Seigneur Rachelle leads research and development for Serengeti. I am very fortunate to be her apprentice,” Chrys returns in a faint burr almost eradicated by years of training. It suggests origins in an agrarian community.

“Seigneur Rachelle is quite expert, then?” Lilian asks, well aware of the research and development seigneur’s expertise but determined to keep the other apprentice speaking.
“Yes, Mistress Lilian. May I inquire as to your area of excellence?” Chrys returns.

“Analytics and problematics,” Lilian replies, “with an emphasis in financials, risk analysis, and complexity modeling.”

Keep the conversation going, keep him talking. “Have you been on Metricelli Prime long, Master Chrys?”

Abruptly Chrys halts, turning to stare down at Lilian, examining her face as if searching for coded messages.

I am the sum of my ancestors. Have I somehow offended him? Shoulders square, face impassive, Lilian meets the searching gaze.

After a moment, Chrys nods. “Mistress Lilian, I have been on Metricelli Prime for two years, studying at the Institute in the Western Continent. That is not what you truly wish to know, is it? I beg pardon, but this is farcical. I am well aware of who you are—the scandal, the change of status, all the comment and gossip, the vicious spite.”
As Lilian opens her mouth to speak, Chrys shakes her off to continue, “I do not know why you chose this path over the Final Draught. I care not. Ask what you will of me. I will render assistance, or not, as I am able.”

I am the foundation of my family. Unsurprised by Chrys’ awareness of the scandal and her ruin, Lilian is far more concerned that he has seen through her ruse to her desperation. In the two sevendays since Lilian sealed her apprentice contract, she has been maddened by the inconsistent and contradictory strictures and legalistics of the Apprentice Protocol. Without guidance, she has no hope of proving her bond.

As heir to a cartouche, Lilian was accustomed to being courted and favored for her rank. Now she must ask for more than she can offer. It is alien and bitter, and it matters not. Knowing she must have Chrys’ aid to survive, Lilian is forced to risk her trust. “Master Chrys, I thank you for your graciousness, and I beg pardon for my clumsiness. As you have rightly determined, I am poorly equipped to prove my bond.”
Chrys’ neutral countenance does not alter with her admission. Honor is my blade and shield. If she has erred, it will be revealed soon enough. “It matters not why I chose this path, only that I must learn to walk it and quickly.”

Honor knows not fear. Taking a deep breath, Lilian exposes her vulnerability. “I have read the contract, studied the protocols and strictures. It is not enough. I lack the experience to sort out the contradictions and meet the expectations.”

For five painful heartbeats, the technologist’s neutral expression holds. He will not aid her. As Lilian battles despair, Chrys’ gentle smile dissolves his neutrality.
Thank the Shades of the Five Warriors. He will aid her.

Shaking his head slightly, Chrys explains, “Mistress Lilian, I cannot transfer the skills and knowledge acquired through eight years of advanced studies and ten years of apprenticeship in ten minutes, but I will offer what I am able.”

At Lilian’s encouraging nod, Chrys instructs, “Always address your bond holder as ‘milord,’ or ‘milady’ in my case. I do not believe it possible to overuse the honorific. Never refer to Monsignor Lucius except as milord or Monsignor.”

At Lilian’s open bewilderment, Chrys expands, “Do not voice ‘if you please, milord.’ The correct phrase is ‘if milord pleases.’ The word ‘you’ is a term of equality or intimacy. You may not employ it with your bondholder.”

“We must always refer to the ranked as either Seigneur or Monsignor, never as he or she.” Lilian quickly grasps the concept.

“Yes, well done,” Chrys confirms. “Even in your mind, address Monsignor only as milord. Think of Monsignor only as Monsignor, never by name. It might slip out, and that will go ill for you.

“It is wise to avoid questions. If you can acquire the information from another source, it is better not to ask. An inquiring mind is an asset in a protégé and an annoyance in an apprentice. In the end, the protocols, all those strictures, are but one instruction: discover a means. Do not ask, do not complain, discover a means.”
At Chrys’ explanation, the contradictory information that has bedeviled Lilian for two sevendays reconciles. It is not rational. It is another form of trial. “My thanks, Master Chrys.”

Before Chrys can offer more, their slates sound warningly. “Come, we should hasten. Late arrival is treated with severity.”

»◊«

I am the sum of my ancestors. I am the foundation of my family. Honor is my blade and shield. Honor knows not fear. Honor endures. Honor acts as duty commands. I am the sum of my ancestors . . .

Unconsciously Lilian crosses and re-crosses her ankles, the comforting words of the Warriors’ Litany no more able to ease her anxiety than the comfortably plush bench in the opulent reception area of Monsignor Lucius’ commerce suite.

Do not dwell on it. Do not dwell on it. Do not dwell on the fact that she is about to yield her body to a man she has not met. A man with an intimidating reputation.
At the impossibly young age of thirty-eight, upon the untimely death of his father, Lucius Mercio succeeded to the Preeminence of the Blooded Dagger Cartouche and Serengeti Group. No one expected him to hold the Cartel.

Severe economic crisis throughout the Twelve Systems battered Serengeti’s standing. Piracy and mayhem along the major supply routes further undermined The Cartouche and the Cartel. Competitors and would-be competitors moved against any vulnerable aspect of operations. It was predicted that the cartel preeminence would fall to the wily and experienced Monsignor Sebastian Mehta of the Grey Spear Cartouche.

In the end, Lucius Mercio proved difficult to defeat. In his first two years as preeminence, through a series of bold and unprecedented actions, he succeeded in stabilizing the Cartouche and Cartel. In the six years since, he has led both Blooded Dagger and Serengeti to heretofore-unreached heights of success, positioning it to advance from fourth to third among the cartels. It is the first measurable shift in the relative ranks of the ten largest cartels in over a century.

Lucius Mercio’s stunning success and his ability to outmaneuver opponents are so profound that the envious and superstitious speculate that his ‘Luck of the First Warrior’ derives from supernatural means. It is rumored that Lucius Mercio has sold his soul to the Shade of the First Warrior, Socraide Omsted. It is to this man that Lilian’s three-year indentured servitude contract has been sold.

I am the sum of my ancestors. The midday chimes.

I am the foundation of my family. Stand up.

Honor is my blade and shield. Walk through the door. Remember to breathe.

As Lilian steps into the chamber, there is the quiet swish of the door sealing behind her. The expansive chamber has two glazed walls meeting in a corner for a spectacular view of the Garden Center and city skyline. The glossy wood floors are scattered with luxuriously woven silk rugs. The chamber appears empty.

Her midsection tight with anxiety, Lilian scans the space for its occupant. Lilian registers a massive black enamel desk with an impressive techno array and a large scarlet leather chair. Her gaze finds the long scarlet leather couch facing a wall-sized reviewer, and the remainder of the sumptuous furnishings fades into the ether. Honor knows not fear. Honor endures. Honor . . .

A hitherto hidden door recesses, and a man walks through. His arresting aquiline features have a dark olive cast. They sit on a tall, powerful form that moves with the confident grace of someone well familiar with the training facilities. His tunic shirt clings to a well-defined torso, jacket missing. The Cartouche Preeminence signet dangles from his belt. Worked in platinum and rubies, the elongated oval is the length of Lilian’s thumb. Lucius Mercio is a tall man. Somehow, Lilian had not realized he would be so tall. Tall for a woman even in her low heels, she fits under his chin. Without shoes, she will barely reach his shoulders.

His Preeminence’s dark, deep-set eyes under heavy lids travel slowly over Lilian, measuring and assessing. Honor acts as duty commands.

“You are Lilian.” The statement is made in coolly clipped tones as the long frame folds into a chair by the chrome and crystal conference table. He leans back with elbows resting on the chair arms, the long fingers steepled. Legs spread.

“Yes, milord.” The ancient courtesy comes to Lilian’s lips more easily than she’d expected.

There is silence as milord examines her from beneath hooded lids. The strong features are impassive, intimidating.

It is too disturbing to look at his face. Look over his head at the Five Warriors print on the far wall.

Lucius examines his apprentice, seeking and finding changes. The tightly contained woman stands ramrod stiff and stares straight ahead. The strain of the past six sevendays is apparent in the tightness of her countenance and the shadows under her deep-set gray eyes. This day the creamy skin tones are pale, lacking the slightest hint of pink. Her features are more clearly defined. The high cheekbones and determined chin are more pronounced. Her athletic form is willowy. Lilian has dropped weight, at least half a stone.

Gone is the fleeting, quiet smile from the visuals provided by Dean Joseph. Also gone are the soft waves of dark red hair, replaced by the tightly bound tail of a warrior’s queue that turns the dark red locks nearly black. The small gold ear posts are as inexpensive and austere as her tailored black suit. Long, elegantly muscled legs are revealed by her suit skirt. Forcing aside his fascination with Lilian’s legs, Lucius continues to evaluate the lovely young woman.

Lilian has lost her cartouche, her father, her honor, and her status as a warrior. She is all but destitute. Lilian is not guilty of Remus Gariten’s crimes, only of carrying the foul criminal’s blood. It is an offense she can redeem with a three-year Trial by Ordeal. She will not regain all she has lost. Lilian will never again be a warrior. She will retain her life and the right of every inhabitant of the Twelve Systems to forge advancement in commerce through skill, determination, hard work, and ruthlessness.

This is not the arrangement Lucius initially anticipated, but it will serve. Lucius has what he wants, and that is what matters.

“I will expect you at eighth bell each morning to report status and receive instruction.” The terse words and quiet tones express milord’s will, the expectation of complete obedience.

“Yes, milord,” Lilian acknowledges.

“You will discuss your work only with me, Master Nickolas, and the associate master. Only those assignments received from the associate master are to be discussed with the associate master.”

Master Nickolas? Lilian scans her memory. Protégé. Monsignor’s protégé. “Yes, milord.”

“All that occurs in this chamber is sealed to my security-privilege.” Lucius Mercio will have naught of his affairs revealed without his express consent.

“Yes, milord.” He has yet to touch her. In Lilian’s peripheral vision, the scarlet couch looms large.

“All that remains of your family are your mother and sister living here in the city.” It is a statement, although a question is implied.

The abrupt change in topic unbalances Lilian. It causes her to catch her breath and drop her eyes to her interrogator’s face. Her concern with the couch dissipates under the weight of greater concern.

“Yes, milord.” Did he notice the brief delay in her response? Focus on the Five Warriors.

“In your sister’s house. How did you manage to retain it?” Curiosity underlies the clipped tones.

Respond to the question. Do not volunteer. Breathe. “The house is of my mother’s family. While the trust was administered by the Grey Gyre Cartouche, it was never part of the property. The benefit of the trust passed to my sister on her tenth birth anniversary. The property was the required two degrees removed from taint and was not forfeited with the Grey Gyre holdings.”

“Have you doubt of your father’s guilt? Hold you any fanciful notion of cleansing the Gariten name and regaining warrior status?” The words are harsh.

Stunned by the question and its implications, Lilian again drops her gaze to milord, wondering if she has handed herself over to the deranged. What a ludicrous notion. Do not voice that.

Milord’s gaze is unwavering, commanding. He requires something. What? An acknowledgment. Piracy, fraud, decadents dealing, illegal servitude, and lotteries—the list of crimes that sentenced Gariten to the Final Draught and Lilian to three years of indentured servitude is long, ugly, and undeniable.

“There is no doubt, milord. Remus Gariten was guilty of every transgression of which he was convicted.” And a great deal more.

“Come here, Lilian.” At the quiet command, Lilian’s heart lurches.

Here? Where here? Walk toward the seated man. Where to stop?

In the end, Lilian is unable to force a step past the invisible plane defined by the edge of milord’s knees.

Milord reaches out with one hand to grip her waist and tug her closer until her knees press against the edge of the chair, his legs on either side of her thighs.

He will instruct you.

Milord leans in. The hand not holding Lilian moves languidly to trace her left hip, her waist. One long finger slides in between the waistband of her skirt and the silk of her blouse, tracing a pattern across her suddenly tautened midsection.

“Lilian, Dean Joseph attested that you have known two men.” The tone is casual, expressing mild interest.

“Yes, milord,” Lilian acknowledges, at a loss as to the purpose of the inquiry.

“Both men were of appropriate lineage?” Milord is not looking at her face. He is involved in his physical explorations.

Keep your wits. Ignore that finger. Respond to the question.

“Yes, milord,” Lilian responds, bewildered by the inquiry. Her lineage is tainted. What matters the lineage of her former lovers? Do not. Do not.

“How long did these entanglements endure?” Milord’s gaze lifts, pinning her.

“The first, eight months, milord. The second, four.” Milord must know this. Dean Joseph would have yielded all.

Lucius considers Lilian’s responses. Her stoic countenance reveals little. Her tension at his touch reveals a great deal. Lucius rises and tightens his hand on Lilian’s waist. He pulls her close, forcing Lilian to arch backward to meet his gaze. The gray eyes are wide with trepidation, her lips slightly parted. She trembles in his embrace. A brief trial is in order.

As milord rises, Lilian locks her knees. This was inevitable.

“So, until now, you have only been touched with love?” Milord inquires softly.

“Yes, milord.” The leisurely back and forth of that single digit along her abdomen causes tiny muscle tremors up and down her torso while Lilian’s eyes fixate on the sensual lips moving toward her.

And his mouth is on hers. Carnal. Lips slant across hers. Demanding.
Open your mouth, lack wit.

Milord’s tongue sweeps in, challenging, taking. Large, strong hands mold her against his length. Her breasts are pressed against milord’s chest, her thighs to his. As her senses swim, Lilian feels a stirring in the bulge at milord’s groin.

The kiss ends as suddenly as it began. Those strong hands stand her up and set her on her feet.

Set her on her feet?

One large hand cups the back of Lilian’s head as milord compels her to meet his
forceful gaze. “Who may touch you?”

Bemused by her intense response to milord’s embrace, mind struggling, Lilian ponders, What was the question? Involuntarily, she blinks rapidly to counter the dark, penetrating eyes.

“Only milord,” Lilian recites, her wits finally reordering. As milord’s apprentice, carnal knowledge of her belongs to him and him alone.

“You will attend me this evening at seventh bell. Mistress Marieth will instruct you on arrangements for transport.” The disconcerting scrutiny lightens. Milord’s mind is moving on to other matters.

“Yes, milord.” The hand cupping her head travels down the warrior’s queue, testing its weight.

“Lilian, wear your hair unbound.” The slightly distracted tone does not mislead Lilian. It is a command.

“Yes, milord.” At Lilian’s words, milord releases her hair.

“You may leave me.”

Upon exiting the scarlet door, Lilian’s gaze quickly assesses the reception area. No one notes her presence or the brevity of her interview with milord. Lilian cannot quite believe she is not intimately engaged on the scarlet couch. Licking lips swollen by milord’s kiss, Lilian wonders at his intent. Monsignor Lucius is as unpredictable as he is intimidating. Taking a moment to gather her wits, Lilian grapples with the morning’s events as she attempts to brace herself for the remainder of the day and the coming evening.

With a deep breath, Lilian leaves the shelter of the scarlet enamel door that guards the entrance to milord’s office. Milord has expressed his will. Lilian must obey. Engrossed in her console, Mistress Marieth does not look up at Lilian’s quiet approach. Has the servitor failed to note her, or is Marieth deliberately ignoring Lilian? After the morning’s censure, Lilian is reluctant to speak. I am the sum of my ancestors. Lilian lightly clears her throat.

Turning at the soft sound, Marieth’s eyes widen and her lips part in surprise at the sight of Lilian. Apparently Lilian was not alone in her expectation of milord’s midday will. Surprise quickly covered with dispassionate courtesy, Marieth asks, “How may I assist you, Mistress Lilian?”

Mindful of protocol and Chrys’ brief lesson, Lilian diligently constructs a proper response. “Monsignor requires that I attend Monsignor this evening at seventh bell.”

“Of course, I have your transport and access tokens here. Attend while I demonstrate,” the elegant servitor replies.

Lilian is well pleased. She can do this. She was polite and unemotional and correctly referred to her bondholder in the third person. Mistress Marieth’s eyebrow did not even twitch. Lilian owes Chrys a boon.


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