The Dark Rose
Even beautiful things cast dark shadows...Duty and passion are a dangerous combination in the paranormal world of Denise Rossetti, author of Thief of Light and The Lone Warrior...
Book 4 in the Four-Sided Pentacle series
Caracole of the Isles,
"I can't do it." When Rose opened her fingers, the crumpled sheet of paper fluttered down to the silk coverlet like a broken-backed bird. "I can't send another one to die."
"Rosarina." Noblelord Izanami's claw like hand groped across the bed for the letter. "My dear."
"Don't 'my dear' me." Her skirts swishing with agitation, Rose crossed the elegant room to stand by the tall windows.
"Merciful gods." Her voice cracked as she rested her forehead on the cool of the glass. Below, blue wavelets kicked up in the light breeze and skiffs darted to and fro on the canal like improbable water beetles, bearing passengers and goods. Decked out with graceful bridges, fretted towers and pagoda roofs, the city of Caracole flirted with spring like the finest of courtesans.
Grimly, she turned her back on it, facing the long gaunt figure in the bed. "For the gods' sakes, the man was torn to pieces! Gutted like a beast in an abattoir."
"I know. It means he got too close."
Unflinching, the Queen's spymaster met Rose's anguished gaze. Did he have regrets? She suspected he did, but they could not compete with expediency, the greater good of the Queendom. Staring into those faded blue eyes, seeing the dispassionate intelligence there, the iron purpose, a wave of revulsion rose in her throat.
"How can you stand to look in the mirror?" She made a wild gesture. "Year after year, you've sent them out, knowing-" She squeezed her eyes shut for a moment. "Godsdammit."
"Three decades to be exact. You forget. I am the Queen's Left Hand." Each word cost him dearly, but not even illness could rob Noblelord Izanami of his cool composure, his air of hauteur. "The responsibility is part of the office. All our agents know the risks." His gaze sharpened. "As do you, Rose."
He paused for a moment, gathering his strength. "There is no room for scruples in this business. And you cannot tell me you haven't always known it."
Rose pressed her lips together. "Not at first," she said. "Not for the first few years." She shot him a dark glance. "You were sly. You drew me in so slowly, so cleverly."
His thin lips had a blue tinge she didn't like, but he managed a smile. "Ah, you were perfect." He let out a sighing breath. "The best young mind I'd ever met, wonderfully subtle, incredibly devious, and yet-" Something sparked in his eyes. "In person, you were dazzling, more beautiful than the Sister Herself. Gods, what a combination. A courtesan and spy without peer. Flawless."
Rose sighed. It wasn't flattery. Always a pretty child, then a lovely girl, she'd matured into a woman so breathtaking men stopped in the street to stare as she passed. The most sought after courtesan in the Queendom, the Dark Rose.
It was the whole package she sold, not just her body, but the charm, the clever conversation, the music and the dancing. And in return? Rosarina of The Garden had always been discriminating in her choice of protectors, but she'd given good value. Her elegant presence on his arm gifted any noblelord with a certain cachet in public. In private, he gained an enchanted world in which he could be king or courtier as the whim took him, surcease from his troubles.
Always on display, always on stage, even in the most intimate moments. There'd been times she'd felt scraped hollow by the effort of giving and giving and giving, until there was only a tiny kernel of self left unsold, but godsdammit, in the end, she'd done it-escaped with the façade in place, her soul intact. And if the only person who knew the real Rosarina was a manipulative aristocrat old enough to be father, well... that was the price she paid.
With a fluid shrug, she said, "I retired as a working courtesan years ago. When Prue and I bought The Garden."
"Now you are even better placed to be my intelligencer," the Left Hand said with quiet satisfaction. "And to succeed me."
"What?" For a second, she was sure she'd misheard, but before she could say more, the old man gasped for breath, his face first flushing, then going alarmingly pale. He clutched his chest, coughing.
Rose leaped for the bell pull, but a strangled grunt from the bed stopped her. "No... wait." The command was unmistakable.
Her heart hammering, Rose sank to her knees on the rug and took a long-fingered hand in hers. His flesh was cold, the bones brittle beneath the thin skin. Gradually, he grew calmer and a faint wash of color returned to his sunken cheeks, though his chest rattled with every breath.
"Noblelord." Rose said when she could force words through the lump in her throat. "This is nonsense. You're too godsbedamned mean to die."
"We all... die," he said acidly, but his fingers gripped hers with surprising strength. "This matter is not closed, Rosarina."
"If you mean the succession, yes, it is." Rose ripped her hands free. She stood, glaring down at Izanami. "I won't do it. I couldn't. Don't you see?" She whirled away, took a couple of hasty paces and turned. "I'm weak. I'll never be as... as cold-blooded as you. I know Green IV is a threat, I know we need information about the Callaghans, the strength of the pro-war party, all of it." She pulled in a shaky breath. "But the thought of sending someone else makes me want to--I don't know--throw up. Scream out loud."
"You've been acting in my place for more than a month, since- Hand me that cordial, would you?" He drank, taking small disdainful sips. "Every decision you've made thus far has been a good one, made for the benefit of the Queendom." He closed his eyes, his breath still shallow and quick. "Give me... a moment."
Rose did so, disciplining her breathing. In through the nose, out through the mouth. In through the nose, out through the mouth. A solution existed for every problem--provided one was prepared to accept the cost.
Disemboweled, the report had said. The walls painted crimson with his blood. Gods
The beautiful room was hushed in the warmth of the afternoon, bars of sunlight streaming in to spark on the jeweled tones in the rugs, to caress the thin hands folded on the old man's chest. When he died, they'd lay him out like that. Noblelady Izanami, small and dark and lively, would grieve for him sincerely and his three daughters would be distraught.
And she? Rose blinked hard. She'd miss him dreadfully.
"I'll go myself," she said into the silence. "It's the only way."
The Left Hand's eyes opened slowly, as if the lids were weighted He thought for a long time, his brow furrowed and his lips tight.
"Very well," he whispered at last. "I don't like it, but we must have someone on Green IV. I'll get Marot to step in here." He fixed her with an imperious gaze. "You will report frequently and you will do what I tell you. Do you hear?"
When she nodded, some of the tension left his long frame. "Come back... to me... my dear."
Rose bent to kiss his cold cheek, gray stubble harsh against her lips. "Of course," she said steadily. "No one suspects the Dark Rose of anything deep. All she thinks about is parties and pleasure and whether to wear her hair up or down."
Carefully, she folded up the paper and placed it in her pocket. Then she slipped out of the door without looking back, heading for the music room where the Izanami daughters were waiting for their regular lesson in deportment. Her heart beat so high in her throat she had to breathe like a runner, in deep desperate huffs. A hand on the latch, she paused, staring blankly at the rich grain of the wood. She bit her lip, using the small pain to anchor herself, to stop the frantic spinning of her thoughts.
Rose didn't pray often, or with any real conviction, but now the words came unbidden. "Merciful Sister, I beg You, give me the courage, don't let me fail. Don't let me die." She swallowed hard. "Not like . that. Please." A tiny breeze caressed her cheek, the back of her neck, carrying with it the faint briny smell of the sea. For a moment, she was a girl again, back home in the Spice Islands, sailing and swimming and fishing, the sun in her eyes and sand between her toes. So carefree, so foolish.
The Sister helps she who helps herself. She straightened, breathing deeply.
In through the nose, out through the mouth. In through the nose, out through the mouth.
Throwing the door open, she sailed inside. "Ah, my dears. I trust you're not too distracted by this beautiful morning. We have work to do."
* * * * *
Three weeks later,
Ballynewhaven, Green IV
Gravel crunched as the carriage swept down the long curved drive of the Lord-Scion Harte's town house. In the dim interior of the luxuriously appointed vehicle, Rose smoothed her long trailing sleeves, conscious of a sense of trepidation so acute it approached exquisite. Every nerve tingled. Sister in the sky, how long had it been since she'd felt such a pure sensation?
Deliberately, she pulled in a long breath. She'd never been offworld before, but as the Technomage starship speared away from Palimpsest, she'd lain quietly in the safety webbing, staring out at the vastness of space. Tears of awe had sprung to her eyes. She and all those she cared for, they were no more than the merest specks, born alone, dying alone. It gave her mission a certain perspective.
She shivered, reaching up to rub the nape of her neck, but carefully. It wouldn't do to disturb the coiffure, not when it had taken the combined efforts of two maids to achieve it.
The carriage slowed, drawing to a halt. Hooves stamped, tack jingled. Rose's lips curved with pure pleasure. Four matched grays. Only the highest sticklers and the wealthiest on Green IV still used horse-drawn vehicles. The Sciony that governed it was a self-contained world of privilege and political intrigue, ruled by a brawling oligarchy of eight great clans. Between them, Queen Sikara and the Left Hand had spared no expense to give her entrée to it. Deiter had grumbled, as was his way, but the old wizard had provided the introduction she needed. They'd played their parts. The rest was up to her.
She gathered serenity around her, shrugging into it the way she would have donned a cloak. This was her business, her profession--and by the Sister, she was very, very skilled. A true courtesan creates a persona, she told her apprentices again and again. Achieve a certain mystique, make it look effortless, and you'll be irresistible.
A bewigged footman opened the door and extended a gloved hand. Light from a myriad of glowglobes in fancy sconces washed into the carriage, a wave of sprightly music tinkled in the soft-scented air. With considerable satisfaction, Rose observed the footman's eyes widen as he took in the picture she presented, but he was too well trained to do more than bow and murmur, "Scionelle?"
Hide in plain sight.
Tenderly, the man assisted her to alight. Together, the tips of her fingers resting on his serge-clad forearm, they climbed the imposing stairs, Rose's gem-studded heels rapping on the flagged stone like a delicate military tattoo.
The great house shone with light and music and laughter, its clean Palladian lines soaring up in a perfection of architectural rationality. As they passed through the columned portico, an impeccably suited majordomo appeared at Rose's elbow.
He bowed, betraying not a single flicker of surprise or censure. "Scionelle, what name shall I say?"
Rose gave him a contained smile. "I am the Noblelady Rosarina of Caracole." The Queen had insisted on making the title real. Rose's mouth twisted a little. Ironic when she had a perfectly good title of her own, unused for twenty years and no more than a trifle tarnished.
"Thank you, Noblelady." Another bow. "I will announce you."
The ballroom glittered with the cream of the Sciony, the men wearing the pale breeches and fitted evening jackets dictated by convention, the women a bower of tropical flowers, each clad in yards of billowing silk. As they moved in the precise measures of a formal dance, all she could think of was the toy she'd had as a child, a tube filled with shards of colored glass. Shake it and everything shifted, but somehow the patterns always fell into a perfect symmetry. So pretty. So ephemeral.
The dance was drawing to its graceful conclusion, the musicians in the gallery slowing the pace of their plucking and fiddling. Already heads were turning.
Standing at the top of the curving staircase, Rose lifted her chin. Good.
As the last notes died away, so did the conversation. One by one, a hundred people turned to stare. Rose favored them with a tranquil smile, tilting her head as the majordomo pronounced her name. The man didn't even need to raise his voice. Truly, the acoustics were extraordinary.
The moment she took her first step, the murmurs began, as if a playful breeze had swept across a garden, setting all the flowers to nodding and swaying.
A middle-aged man with sandy hair detached himself from the throng and took the stairs two at a time, meeting her not far from the bottom.
Creases appeared at the corners of appreciative blue eyes. "I am Harte," he said in a soft brogue. Raising her hand, he brushed it with his lips and gave an exaggerated sigh. "Ah, the beautiful Dark Rose of Caracole. You are even more... spectacular than your reputation promised."
Rose gazed into those clever eyes. "Thank you, Lord-Scion. I am greatly in your debt for the invitation."
"I had no idea doing a favor for my old friend Purist Deiter would be so delightful." Harte twinkled. "I am most thoroughly at your service, Scionelle."
This man had to be a wizard near as powerful as Deiter. What sort of hold did the old reprobate have on the Lord-Scion? It must be godsbedamned good, because Magick ran deep and strong in the Harte blood. Aloud, she said, "Forgive me, Lord-Scion, but the correct form of address is Noblelady."
After an infinitesimal pause, he said, "Of course. And though technically I'm entitled to be called Purist, I prefer Lord-Scion." She caught a glimpse of teeth.
He offered his arm. "Come, Noblelady. Come and grace us with your delightful company."
It wasn't a request.
* * * * *
"Will you attend the masque at Fitzgerald Court, good sir?" The little blonde twined a shining ringlet around one finger.
The top of her head was about level with Quin's starched cravat. Scowling, he subdued the impulse to rip the neckcloth off so he could breathe. For Science' sake, didn't these people have any concept of comfort in dress? The fitted jacket of dark green encased his shoulders so tightly he could barely move, while the cream breeches felt indecently snug. The only parts of him remotely happy were his feet. He flexed his toes. The boots were a marvel of engineering, made by hand, or so he'd been assured.
"But how silly of me! Lord-Scion Fitzgerald is your sponsor. Of course you'll be there. You simply mustn't miss it, such fun, you know, all in costume. It's a rural theme, so quaint."
He'd never liked the slick feel of the Technomage shoes that conformed automatically to the shape of the wearer's foot. They were made of transplas, whereas real boots-made of real leather-weren't that easy to come by, let alone in his size. He should order a couple of pairs to take home to Palimpsest, but not in this over the knee style. He glanced down. Made a man look ridiculous. Once the job on Green IV was done, he could return to his familiar whites, to his quiet lab and his prototypes. Ah, but the job... His pulse kicked up a notch.
"I have a milkmaid gown, all in blue, very simple, very charming. If I wear my hair down, the effect..."
As the girl's voice tinkled on, Quin let his mind wander to the great Machine a mile beneath their feet, the beating, humming heart of Green IV. Now that was a marvel indeed, occupying most of the interior of the planet, drawing power from its molten core to create the atmosphere. Millennia ago, the Machine had been created to gift a barren rock with air and life, with fertile soil and pure water. Without it, none of this--his lips quirking in a cynical grin, Quin studied the silks and satins, the glowglobes sparkling in the chandeliers, the tables laden with elegant morsels and pale wines--none of this frippery would be possible. Did the Sciony understand the precarious nature of its existence?
When the Primus of Green IV had humbled himself to ask for help from his Technomage counterpart on Palimpsest, Quin had been intrigued. The Primus--or Lord-Scion Fitzgerald to use his Greenish title--had been forced to admit he couldn't trust his own Technomages. Quin allowed himself a grimly satisfied smile. It wasn't his problem that the old man's rivals, the Callaghans, were breathing hotly down Fitzgerald's aristocratic neck. it was a fabulous opportunity, the kind that came around once in a lifetime. Godsdammit, the Machine! The most extensive, complicated work of engineering on the known worlds, a miracle of human persistence and ingenuity.
Cautiously, he flexed the fingers of his left hand. Even two weeks after the procedure, every joint in his forefinger and thumb still complained, but he couldn't bring himself to care. If Augmentation was what it took to interface with the Machine, the Greenish Technomages could Augment every limb in his body and be welcome.
The blonde had apparently run out of breath. Out of the corner of his eye, Quin watched her pretty tits rise and fall beneath the modestly cut bodice as she inhaled. He was bored, not dead.
"Blue's a good color for me, don't you think?" She swished her cobalt skirts in a meaningful sort of way.
"Mm," said Quin, leaning against the plinth of the statue behind him, the marble cold against his flesh even through the layers of clothing. The perimeter of the ballroom was littered with the useless things, chilly maidens coyly covering their privates, proud warriors with stony chins and frozen genitalia.
"What's it like being a real Technomage?" The girl fluttered her lashes.
Quin grunted. He had no ear for music, and no time for it either, but he suspected the musicians were winding down. Good.
"Ask a Fitzgerald or better yet, a Callaghan. Look, there's one over there." He gestured at a stocky youth hovering near the supper table, but the girl curled a pretty lip.
"Joey Callaghan?" she said with scorn. "I've known him all my life. He's like all the rest of them-such a bore, nothing like a real Scientist. What's it like to live in a Technomage Tower and only have a number for a name? Our Technomages have real names as well as numbers, you know. Wait a minute... Quintus..." Her brow creased. "That isn't a number. Didn't they give you one?"
"Five." Was that a stir at the head of the stairs? Some aristocrat too lofty for punctuality.
"I'm sorry, I don't-"
"I am the Quintus. It means fifth."
Two figures appeared at the head of the stairs, and though he wasn't an imaginative man, Quin had the strangest fancy that they stood in a frame, as if posed for an oil painting, the kind that hung in the gallery on the floor above.
Above the growing hush, the majordomo's voice rose clearly. "The Noblelady Rosarina of Caracole in the Queendom of the Isles, Palimpsest."
Without quite intending to, Quin engaged the Augmentation in his left eye and the Dark Rose sprang forward, filling his vision and his head.
He'd thought she looked lovely travel-worn and weary last winter at Lonefell Keep, her nose pink with cold. Here, in full plumage, gowned for battle, she stole the breath from his body.
His companion gasped. "Saints preserve us! What in heaven's name is she wearing? Who is she?"
"That," said Quin, "is the Dark Rose, the most famous courtesan in Caracole."
"But... her gown!" Now the girl sounded strangled.
"I like it."
Quin increased the magnification, focusing on the glorious bosom and shoulders rising unadorned from the deep scooped neckline, like a flower from a calyx. The dark honey of her skin made all the Scionelles look pale and ill. He knew little of fashion and cared less, but he had no difficulty recognizing sheer nerve when he saw it. Rose's exotic garment was nothing like the billowing confections worn by every other female present. For a start, it was slimly fitted, the fabric richly textured in flowing patterns in every shade of warm red and soft pink with touches of gold and midnight blue. It looked both heavy and supple, hinting at the movement of shapely limbs beneath. Immediately below her breasts was a sort of broad belt, a band of darker gold-shot material, cinched tight. He could have spanned it with one hand, his thumb brushing the underside of one sweet curve, his smallest finger dipping toward the cup of her navel.
"And her hair!"
Blue black and glossy, it swept up to expose the slender nape of her neck, increasing the impression of vulnerability, making a man wonder whether she'd gasp when he ran a fingertip from the warm skin behind her ear all the way over the graceful struts of her collarbones and down into the fragrant shadow of her cleavage. She had the shining wealth of it gathered up in two large... knobs? bunches? Something like that anyway, and each was skewered with two slender jeweled shafts that winked in the light. A small golden headpiece with graceful upturned corners had been set a few inches back from her hairline.
Quin frowned, a vague resemblance niggling at his memory. Ah. The rooflines of Caracole, like pagodas. "It's meant to be national dress--I think."
Turning, he blinked down at his companion, his vision filled with cavernous tunnels and hairs like tree trunks. It took him a couple of seconds of fierce concentration to pull the focus back to the blonde's retrousee little nose. Really, that was too slow. Augmentations required practice.
"Oh look, that's the Harte! Heavens, he just introduced her to his mother."
Ah, he loved it when life took a right-angled turn. Fighting to keep the hunter's grin on the inside, Quin closed his fingers over the cold toes of the stone maiden on her plinth. He knew for certain Rosarina of The Garden of Nocturnal Delights had never had a Technomage client because from the moment of their brief meeting at Lonefell, he'd made it his business to uncover every fact about her. He might be a specialist engineer, but that didn't mean he'd forgotten how to research. Far from it. A night's work and Rose's history lay bare before him, every protector, every liaison, all the way back to the year she'd first appeared in Caracole-but no further. She'd been nineteen then and by all accounts, unbearably beautiful. The blank years before that, however, constituted a loose end. Quin did not approve of loose ends.
"Do you know her? She's dreadfully bold, but oh my heavens, she's lovely. I just adore those sleeves. So graceful."
The girl sighed in unabashed envy, and for the first time, Quin looked at her with real attention. No more than a child really, trying her wings. Pity she was such an empty-headed piece.
"We've met," he said at last.
"Well of course you have, you're from the same place." She beamed up at him.
"Naturally," Quin said. "There are no more than two billion people on Palimpsest."
She pouted. "Now you're making fun of me."
"On the contrary."
What color were Rose's eyes tonight? He remembered being fascinated with the way they'd changed-from blue, to green, to gray, every hue on the spectrum. Stone toes creaked under the force of his grip, but he didn't notice. What shade would they be when she lay beneath him, lush and naked and panting? For a moment, he was tempted to use his visual Augmentation to check, but why rush? His mouth curved into a wolfish grin. He'd savor the discovery close-up.
Rose was the center of a laughing group, holding court with effortless charm. As if she felt the weight of his stare, she looked up. The world held its breath, then a dark brow arched in cool inquiry. Their gazes snagged, a salute like rapiers clashing. Quin's blood surged.
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© 2010 Denise Rossetti
Rose graphic courtesy of Corbis