Thursday, January 07, 2010
Scoundrel's Kiss by Carrie Lofty
Ada: We're supposed to interview each other.
Gavriel: Whatever for?
Ada: So that readers can better get to know us.
Gavriel: You know I cannot read. Why this farce?
Ada: Come, now. You're learning at a remarkable pace.
Gavriel: I've had a remarkable teacher.
Ada: Had you a teacher been anyone other than myself, you would learn at a faster rate. I am too quick to indulge you.
Gavriel: Very well. I'll begin. What was your first impression of me?
Ada: Intimidating. Very stern and angular. But I was too angry to find any of that attractive. You were my jailer, after all.
Gavriel: For your own good.
Ada: Yes, yes. But you were also pompous and exceedingly righteous. Had I only known how vulnerable you were at the time, I would've more heartily pressed my advantage.
Gavriel: You pressed hard enough as it was. I barely survived our first encounter.
Ada: I told you I was well skilled with a dagger. Now your turn. What was your first impression of me?
Gavriel: Must we discuss this for a score of curious readers?
Ada: I was honest. You can return the favor, at least.
Gavriel: You...you tempted me beyond reason, but it wasn't as you tempt me now. No, I looked into your eyes and saw peace. How I envied that.
Ada: It wasn't a real peace. You know that now. I was tangled up in the opium tincture, lost to its false bliss.
Gavriel: Ah, but that was so very long ago.
Ada: A lifetime, it seems.
Gavriel: No, a lifetime is what we have yet together.
Ada: This hasn't been much of an interview. We've hardly asked anything of one another.
Gavriel: But we've revealed much. I suppose should curious readers be eager to learn more, they can delve more deeply into our story...
Make sure and leave Carrie a comment or question about her book and have a chance to win a copy of Scoundrel's Kiss. One winner will be chosen at the end of the week. Don't forget those email addy's to be also.
Chapter One Excerpt
Toledo, Kingdom of Castile
Ada of Keyworth stared at the poppy pod, the one the apothecary rolled between his skeletal fingers. "What would you have me do for it?" she asked him in Arabic.
Seated, Hamid al-Balansi lolled the pod in his palm, around, around. A halo of sunlight from the doorway at his back left his aged, bearded face in shadow. But she could see his voracious eyes and the arch of his rank smile. "When was your last taste, inglesa?"
She licked chapped lips, darting a glance to his wide pupils. "Two evenings ago."
"Ah," Hamid said, his grin widening. "Without your ration, I do not envy your suffering come nightfall."
"Then don't make me suffer. Give me the tincture."
"The question is not what I would have you do for it." His sharp voice held none of the pity she sought. "Instead, I should ask what you are willing to do."
The cramped alcove at the rear of the apothecary's shop pressed closer around her. She cringed, the tapestry-lined walls threatening like ominous sentinels. Angled rays of intense afternoon sunshine illuminated the ragged edges of the tapestry covering the doorway, shining around it like a corona, polluting the air with the stench of heated wool. Seated on a scatter of worn brocade pillows, Ada hugged her knees and concentrated on the pale green seedpod.
"Please." The plaintive word grazed the parched tissue of her throat. "I have no money."
"Worse than that, pretty one. You have debts. Bad debts to unsavory men."
Panic caught fire in her chest, at war with the chills. "My debts are no concern of yours."
"Oh, but they are. If I give you the tincture for free, I keep you from asking for another loan." Hamid teased one of the pod's seams with a ragged thumbnail, releasing a drizzle of milky liquid. "Your creditors won't appreciate my taking business away from them."
"Do they have to know?" The grotesque little whisper hardly sounded like her.
"They always know. These people you owe, they are the eyes and ears of Toledo--not the high-minded courtiers you count among your patrons." He raised a bushy white eyebrow. "Why haven't you asked Doña Valdedrona for the money you need?"
"She is at the Alcázar in Segovia with King Alfonso, and most of the household with her," Ada said. "But even if she was here, I could never ask such a favor."
"And you have nothing else to sell?"
She thought of the scrolls, the ones she had pilfered from amongst the belongings of Daniel of Morley, her mentor. The English scholar had helped her and Jacob find patronage with the Condesa de Valdedrona, then spent the better part of a year tutoring Ada in the half dozen languages of Iberia. A ragged bit of her conscience had not let her bring the man's scrolls. They sat in a satchel in her room. Now she wished she had.
"No. I have nothing."
He laughed without mirth, the squawk of a crow. "More's the pity. We shall have to come to an agreement, you and me."
His fingers steady and sure despite his age, Hamid picked up a bowl from the squat table at his knee and placed the poppy inside. With a mortar, he crushed the fragile, unripe pod until nothing remained but moss-green filaments bathed in creamy resin. He added two more pods, pulverized them, and sluiced wine over the mash. Deep burgundy muted to a paler shade, swirling around the bowl. After draining the liquid to a flask, he added pinches of cardamom and cloves.
Ada absorbed the scene, taking in every familiar movement. She imagined tasting the foul, stinging tincture, feeling the blissful release of the opium. Relief washed over her. Soon. Soon, she would be free of the wicked torture of unending dreams, that terrible nightly spectacle.
The only remaining matter was what Hamid would ask of her. She closed her eyes. A distant part of her mind--the part that hovered above the pain and the insatiable cravings--recalled a very different life. Ada of Keyworth, the scholar. The translator. The woman from England who had once lived for reasons other than opium. But what had those reasons been? She could no longer recall, a failing that only added to her despair.
And what would Jacob do when he found out? He had asked her to make one promise, one ridiculously harmless promise for her own safety. And she could not keep it.
Hamid capped the flask. The liquid sloshed as he shook it vigorously, the fluff of his shabby white beard shivering with the movement. Watching, waiting, Ada faced an unassailable truth. She lived in that bottle. She would do anything to have it, devil take the consequences.
"And now the small matter of my fee," he said.
"Whatever you ask. I'll find a way to pay."
His rodent grin sent frissons of fear up her arms--or was that the sickness? Anything but the sickness of withdrawal.
If need be, she would stab the grizzled apothecary in the neck and steal his goods. She had killed once before, and memories of Sheriff Finch's bloody end revisited her nightly. Finch's ornamented dagger still dangled at her waist, the last item of value she possessed. But she would never part with the macabre souvenir, a talisman against those who would do her further harm.
Tension curled in her muscles. She clutched the hilt, patterns of inlaid jewels and raised scrollwork gouging her damp palm. One quick strike and Hamid would fall dead. One quick strike and she would steal every poppy pod in his shop.
Movement at the curtained doorway caught her attention. Two giant men in black robes swished the tapestry aside, blinding her with a stab of bright sunshine. She released the dagger to shield her eyes. When they dropped the faded wool into place, the burly guards stood at either side of Hamid, his bony limbs and parchment skin.
And the flask was gone.
"Where did it go? The flask? You said we could come to an agreement!"
"But our agreement had naught to do with murder," he said, the dark pools of his eyes alighting on her dagger. "I felt you were liable to become unreasonable."
Fingers, hands, arms--she could not stop shaking. "You know I need it."
Hamid removed the flask from the folds of his white linen robe. He removed the cork and set it on the table at his knee. "Keep your peace, if you would. A hasty move might upset the table, and then your tincture will be no more."
Once she had been able to read people very well. Particularly men. She had read them like her beloved languages, knowing just what they needed to hear. But all she heard was a watery streak of hysteria in her own voice.
"Now here is my proposition," he said. "Will you hear it?"
Struggling for a breath, she looked up at the stern guards, their impassive faces and broad shoulders. One wore a massive mace at his hip. They made the tiny alcove seem even more confining. Backed against the rear wall, she would not be able leave without their consent.
But she had no desire to escape, not without the tonic.
"Yes, I'll hear it," she said flatly. "Name your price."
For the first time, pity washed over the old man's withered features. His toothy grin faded. With steady hands Ada envied, he gestured to the open flask. An invitation.
She snatched it from the table. Greedy swallows bathed her tongue in bitter, spiced wine, trailing a path of fire to her gut. The warm wash of opium soothed her tattered spirit and quelled the shakes. Warm. Floating and free. The price he would demand, how she would satisfy her next, inevitable appetite--none of it mattered.
As the tincture enveloped her senses, she smiled and retrieved the dagger from her belt. It was no use, holding onto that grim reminder. "For you. My payment."
"Keep your blade, inglesa," he said. "Where you're going, you will need it."
Hands clasped behind his back, Gavriel de Marqueda followed two other men from the Order of Santiago. They walked deep into Toledo's underbelly where the sun lost its way among dark holes and labyrinthine streets. He concentrated on the journey and eschewed the need to inquire after their destination. His novice master, Gonzalo Pacheco, revealed nothing before he was ready to do so, and novices who asked questions only raised his ire.
No, he would know soon enough. Working to dispel his unease, he breathed steadily through his nose despite the littered foulness of the alleyway. Returning to any city, especially one as large as Toledo, filled him with dread. An undercurrent of vice, sin, and violence spoke to him in a language he had struggled to forget.
He belonged to the Order now--at least, he would after completing Pacheco's final assignment.
Listening to footsteps in triplicate, he allowed the monotonous parade of sound to drown his misgivings. His place was one of submission now, and in submission, he would find peace.
"I understand your gloom, brother," said Fernán Garza, a fellow aspirant. He eyed the dank alley with his usual mixture of disdain and amusement. "To return to life fettered by these robes--I cannot bear it, not when we're within reach of women and wine."
Gavriel pulled the white linen of his hood to one side, glaring at his companion. "You would rather partake in the sin than rise above it?"
"Yes. And I'll believe you a decidedly less interesting creature if you disagree with me."
"I disagree with you," Gavriel said.
"Ah, but what am I saying?" He rolled his eyes skyward and shook his head. "At Heaven's door or in a beautiful woman's arms, your foul temper would never abate. You're an example of all that is tedious about our, shall I say, profession."
Pacheco glanced back through the half-light of dusk, never breaking his powerful stride. "And you're an example of why noblemen should keep from having more than three sons."
"Master, my feet ache," Fernán said, his voice that of an ill-mannered child. "Shall we have a brief respite?"
Stopping at the top of a stairwell, Pacheco's white robes roiled around his legs. The red emblem of Santiago--a fleury cross tapering to the point of a sword--decorated the left side of his chest. He nodded toward an entrance at the foot of the stairs. "We shall take our rest down there. Inside."
Gavriel eyed the scarred wooden door as he would an armed combatant. Whatever lay beyond that portal would serve as his final trial. One more task and he would prove himself worthy of the Order. Failure would mean expulsion. Expulsion would mean a return to life with De Silvas--or his revenge against them. He shuddered as sweat beaded at the base of his neck.
"Lead the way, Gavriel." Pacheco stared from beneath his white hood. "Unless you would rather forfeit your obligation."
Accept. Submit. God's will.
He nodded and descended the rough, crumbling steps. Splinters of shale slid beneath his boots, as did human refuse and slippery garbage. He scraped his palm along the stairwell to find his balance. Moist patches of rotting mortar gave way beneath his fingertips.
"Fitting you should lead us, as this place seems in keeping with your disposition," Fernán said. "Though when we've concluded our ministering, I should like to visit some happy place of love and verse--in keeping with my disposition."
Gavriel turned at the base of the steps and threw back his hood. Two days of Fernán's prattle on the road from Uclés would wear a hole in the patience of a saint, patience he worked hard to maintain. "Brother, I have taken a vow to abstain from violence--"
"Or else you'd likely cut out my tongue, I know. God grants small mercies."
Pacheco angled his head of cropped silver hair toward the door. "Proceed, both of you."
Fingers tensed on the rusted iron latch, Gavriel breathed deeply and prayed for fortitude. He knew this place. Rather, he knew places like this. Hidden from sight. Shrouded in lies and crime and hopelessness. Rife with temptation.
He pushed open the heavy door, and the brothel inside confirmed his darkest fears.
"Well, well," said Fernán, peering over his shoulder. "Perhaps this is my sort of destination after all."
Illuminated by meager torchlight, a score of women in varied states of undress lounged on pillows and sloping chairs. Men lingered with the harlots, ducking beneath low, irregularly spaced beams. The shadowed mess of garish colors contrasted with the dark streets outside, but finery and incense could not mask the underlying stink of unwashed bodies and sex.
At the far end of the wide, windowless room, a man stooped on a raised platform. An olive-skinned girl wearing only a kirtle stood at his side. The man spoke in a clipped mash of languages--Castilian and Mozarabic, the vernacular of the underworld--and espoused the girl's virtues. She had no family, no disease, no debts. Neither did she have her virginity, the man disclosed, but patrons lined the platform anyway, gold and morabetins in hand. Eyes closed, the girl swayed on the verge of collapse.
Merciful Lord. An auction.
Six brawny guards surrounded Gavriel and his companions, an offensive maneuver for close-quarter combat. He watched for weaknesses but found none in their formation. With the exit at his back, he felt confident in his ability to make a hasty escape--except for Fernán pressing close and whimpering.
The largest of the six men drew a lustrous, engraved sword of Berber origin, barring their entrance. "What business have you here, Jacobeans?"
The blade glinted beneath the torchlight. What Gavriel would have given to grip that sword. But his hands were empty and his vows heavy. He was an aspirant to a sacred order, an obstinate fact that had been much easier to remember while secluded in Uclés. Before any manner of belligerence, he was defenseless.
Pacheco pushed forward and addressed the lead guard. "Salamo Fayat is expecting us."
The words were a key to unlock the human gauntlet. Five of the armed men dispersed, blending with the shadows, tapestries, and patrons. The lead man sheathed his sword and offered Pacheco a curt bow. "This way, honored guests."
Gavriel exchanged a quizzical glance with his fellow novice. Fernán smiled and said, "This is a greeting more befitting the Order, don't you agree?"
"At a brothel?"
"Pacheco has influence enough--and the Order has gold enough--to ensure everyone finds a happier afterlife. No wonder they welcome him."
"I am curious," Gavriel said with a heavy sigh. "Why would the owners of such a place want their clientele redeemed?"
"What would it matter to them? Sinners are easy to come by. Tomorrow there will be just as many eager to gain entrance." Fernán grinned, his pale skin shining with sweat and oil and his eyes wide to the room's delights. "Oh, that I could be one."
Weaving a narrow and careful path between the harlots and their patrons, edging nearer the auction platform, Gavriel followed the burly guard. He wished he had kept his hood in place, for he felt curious eyes walking over his face, his neck and hair, while his own curiosity swelled like a gorging tick. Waiting. Waiting for Pacheco's decree. The brothel's ominous temptations and worries about the upcoming test crushed against his breastbone. The air vibrated with currents of lust and greed, the laughter of the damned.
"Stay near the platform," Pacheco said before slipping into the crowd.
Gavriel lost sight of the slender man's silver hair near a rear alcove. Minutes passed, leaving him no choice but to confront the auction proceedings. The girl in the linen kirtle had been replaced by a young Moorish boy with skin like oiled wood, dark and smooth. He wore wrapped breeches and a neck manacle, his skittish eyes the size of eggs. A handful of murmured bids later and the boy was sold.
The hands Gavriel clasped at his back tensed and released, almost of their own accord. He stilled the anxious rhythm and fought a quick surge of nausea. Sweat slid between his shoulder blades, pressed on all sides by the heat of torches and bodies and wild memories. The urge to flee was nearly as strong as the urge to fight.
"You are to choose one," Pacheco said at his back. "Each of you."
Gavriel turned to him, questions stuck in his mouth. But Fernán found no difficulty bridging the silence. "I have dearly missed the luxury of personal slaves since leaving my parents' estate. Very thoughtful, master."
"This is your trial, Fernán, just as you are mine." Pacheco's black eyes narrowed and swiveled between his aspirants. "These souls are in desperate need of redemption. You will work with one to provide spiritual guidance. Turn them toward the Church. Redeem them of their wicked ways and you will pass your final test."
A year spent within the confines of the Order and living by its doctrines had taught him not to disagree with Pacheco's commands. His word would determine if and when Gavriel would pass his novitiate, the period of penance and trials before being accepted into the brotherhood.
But how he wanted to disagree.
The lines on either side of Pacheco's mouth deepened into trenches. "You fear this challenge, Gavriel. Why?"
Because I am not ready.
For once, he wished Fernán would intervene with some inane drivel, but the man was busy assessing the next slave standing at auction. Gavriel exhaled through his nose and forced tense muscles to relax. He toughened his lies until they became the truth.
"I have no fear, master."
"Then choose one," Pacheco said quietly. "It's quite intimidating, I know, to look upon a sea of depraved faces and know that you can give such a gift to only one. How do you choose?"
Fernán rocked back on his heels, that idiot grin stretching his lips. "I, for one, will choose some terrible good-for-nothing. No sense busting my hopes on a near miss."
Pacheco scowled. "You will regard this challenge with great sincerity, or you will not be returning to Uclés."
"And how is this a threat?"
"Your father has indicated that you are no longer welcome at your family estate. As of last week, the retreat at Uclés is your one and only home. Treat it with the respect it deserves."
Fernán's features drained of their scant color. He used a wide sleeve to mop the sheen of sweat from his forehead. "Well then, that changes my standards considerably." He turned toward the bulk of the room and addressed its seedy occupants. "Are there any virgins here? Virgins with an inclination toward study and prayer? And perhaps rudimentary husbandry skills? Anyone?"
Gavriel tugged on Fernán's arm. "Stop it, you fool."
"This isn't working. Should I try speaking in Mozarabic?"
"You should try behaving as if you wear the Cross of St. James," Pacheco said with unmistakable menace.
"Master," Gavriel said. "What if the one I choose does not wish to accompany us?"
"This is a slave auction. What choice will they have?"
"You intend that the Order will own them?"
"Of course," Pacheco said with a shrug. "Gavriel, you of all people should know this is no ordinary brothel. Make your selection and let us have done with this place. Now that our business in Toledo is concluded, we will return to Uclés tomorrow."
Fernán nodded toward another Moor on the platform. "I'll take him then. One's as useless as another."
Pacheco placed the appropriate bids and purchased the slave. The stooping auctioneer led his most recent sale down the steps. Fernán looked the young man up and down, his expression twisted in a distasteful sneer. "I wonder if he even speaks Castilian."
"You could ask him," Pacheco said.
"Oh, the hassle this will be."
A woman with fair skin followed the auctioneer to the center of the platform--a woman to stop the breath in Gavriel's lungs. The muddied sounds of the brothel faded. Fashionably dressed in a deep blue linen gown decorated with fine embroidery, she surveyed the crowd of buyers with a placid look. No fear tainted her shadowed eyes. No tension contorted the muscles of her body. No bitterness twisted the smile from her mouth. For all the world, she embodied the peace he had yet to find, this woman on the verge of bondage.
She rolled her eyes shut and licked her lips, head falling back. Unbound hair the same red-brown of ripened dates stretched to the shapely curve of her waist. Gavriel imagined digging his hands into those silky strands, bending her body to his, tasting her white flesh. Mouth dry, he choked on the image of transforming her look of peace into one of desire. Desire for him.
A quick glance revealed that animal hunger mirrored across dozens of faces. Fernán bathed her with a look of abject lust. "Can I change my mind?" he asked.
The muscles in Gavriel's arms and torso tensed. The nameless woman inspired more thoughts of sin than he had suffered in a month. Lust. Envy. Wrath. He closed his eyes, breathless, but dark imaginings would not leave him be. Squeezing his fists until he thought his fingers would break, he prayed for strength--strength enough to hold his temper until she was gone, until temptation passed.
A loud commotion of shouts and drawn swords clamored from the entrance. Heads turned. The same six guards materialized out of the shadows, barring entrance to a young man with black, curling hair. Patrons around the auction platform backed away from the disorder, cramming bodies against bodies. One man elbowed Gavriel in the stomach. A woman screamed.
And so did the man at the door.