For an introduction to Stephen Price, ex-convict, British spy, and man of many identity problems, see "We Met Upon the Road" and "The New Tiresias." Both are excerpted on my Credits page here. The following is an R-rated tidbit from the Stephen Price novel I want to write some day soon (Price of Folly, which will tell the story of Stephen's escape from prison, his introduction to Sir John, and his first, traumatic assignment in the city of Herse). Let's just say that many notes have accumulated. ("When are you gonna write about Stephen, Doris?" I'll get to it, Broc...)
The Comtesse de Meuilly believed that two things were chiefly required for a comfortable life: good manners and a great deal of money. Given these, society would overlook any other lack. By her own philosophy she considered herself blessed indeed; for although the majority of her fortune had been left broken in the streets of Paris, enough of it remained to live well in the top-most ranks of the less demanding society of the aristocracy of Herse. And her manners, thanks to a lifetime of training, were effortlessly pleasing, and a source of as much pride to her as her way with a horse.
Her house was far from the slopes that led to the harbor; it sat on the crown of a hill, overlooking the olive-lined road to the northeast mountains in back, and the street that led to the gilded quarter of town in front. A footman in a well-cut coat of gold and black stood inside the hallway at the very meanest of occasions, and for a party such as tonight's, there were three.
The Comtesse herself wore a gown of the thinnest white satin with a low-cut bodice edged with black lace, set off by a black silk mantle thrown over her arms, edged in white lace. And surrounding her artfully arranged platinum curls, not a white bandeau -- however fashionable they may be in London and Paris -- but a white satin ribbon. As her lady's maid, Zare, tied off the ribbon, the Comtesse surveyed the results critically. She had no wish to open herself to comments about mutton dressed as lamb.
"What think you, Zare?" she asked, staring into the glass and raising her chin.
"Perfection, my lady."
"But the ribbon? It is not too much?"
Zare shook out one of the curls, flicking it into a deceptive look of disarrangement. "Madame is an acknowledged beauty," she said.
Madame fixed her maid with a stare. "That may be so; but I do not employ you for flattery, but to give me good counsel before I show myself to the world. I can find compliments enough under every bushel. Gentlemen, lying dogs all, are full of such."
Zare had served the Comtesse for the six years she had been in Herse, and was uncowed. "I do not think Madame objects to lying dogs, or to their compliments, so long as both are presentable."
A gleam of humor could not keep itself from the blue eyes of the Comtesse. From the habit of years she checked herself in the glass, and saw that the expression became her. She rose. "You will not be needed till I retire, Zare; and I would guess that will be well past midnight."
"Madame la Comtesse," murmured Zare, curtseying. Her own eyes sparkled with amusement.
She was met at the head of the stairs by her young, and enthusiastic, English cousin. Sarah Fonteroy was hurrying to fetch her; she stopped short, staring awestruck at the results of an hour and a half of a practiced toilette.
"Madame! You are ravissante!"
The Comtesse smiled. It was always pleasant to hear sixteen speak so to forty-three. Even if forty-three did, if she said so herself, look a good ten years younger.
"Are our guests arriving?" she inquired.
"Oh, Madame! Charles Camberwell is here! And Lady Blen brought her son! And there are three lieutenants, and two more at the door!"
The Comtesse placed a finger under Sarah's chin and tilted it up affectionately, smiling into her joyful face. "And are there no ladies among the company at all, or is my dear Lady Blen the sole female in a room of young gentlemen?"
Sarah laughed. "You know my meaning, Madame! I was coming to thank you! We are at the very top of enjoyment tonight."
We, the Comtesse knew, meant Sarah and her three inseparable friends, Marianne Columbard, Lisette Fouquet and Janet Turner -- all respectable children of the émigré community in Herse. Offering the hospitality of her house to Sarah for a year had meant four girls in the garden, four in the sitting room, four to dinner; four to take picnic-ing in the hills outside Herse... four to chaperone. Well, she had asked for Sarah to come and bear her company; she could not complain of it now. Even though her parties for the last year were less exciting than her natural taste approved.
But amusing, withal, she thought, descending the stairs beside Sarah. There was a place for cardplay in a well-regulated life, whether one was respectable or not; and the two rooms set aside for that this night were full of bustle and conversation. Everything was in the proper style, she noted with satisfaction; uncut packs of cards and new beeswax candles at every table; and of course, a limit on depth of play for every hand in which the girls took part. Madame la Comtesse took the responsibilities of authority seriously.
"May I not at least risk the pin-money you gave me in the pot, Madame?" pressed Sarah.
"No, you may not, child. Look! There is Lieutenant Foster. Why do you not greet him properly?"
"He is a wicked cardplayer, Madame, and will take all my money away." She pouted before going off to obey.
And it was true. Lieutenant Foster was a pleasant-mannered, rawboned youth with an open Irish face; and he knew everything that could be known about those cold things, numbers. He did not enjoy playing, unfortunately. He took it too seriously, which did not recommend him to the ladies at the table. But it would be well if Sarah were to form an attachment there. His people were directly connected to nobility; Irish nobility, to be sure, but bags of money, and he was a good enough sort. The girls would treat him well.
And he was Lieutenant Price's particular companion. She watched now as Sarah led them both to the table where her friends waited, her eyes on Mr. Price, laughing at something he'd said. Price was well-spoken, always gentle, always attentive to his conversants.
She had better nip that in the bud; Sarah had better not waste her time with Mr. Price. The Comtesse doubted he could ever be brought up to scratch, and in any case he was unsuitable for other reasons.
Not that he was not a favorite among ladies generally, and the Comtesse was fully sensible that he should be. He was well-favored, with light, sandy hair and quiet gray eyes, and had an air of sense and poise more suited to a far older man. And one ought never underestimate the power of a man who actually listens to everything a woman says.
But this was not enough to explain his universally good reception. The Comtesse watched as Mr. Camberwell paused at their table and spoke a word to Price; it dealt with the cards, evidently, a pastime at which Mr. Camberwell's luck ran far beyond what most men could expect. A lure, a challenge? Camberwell went on to his own table, seating himself beside Lady Blen and her ostentatious display of sapphires.
Mr. Price's quiet gray eyes followed him thoughtfully. It was the eyes, the Comtesse thought: those gentle, fearless eyes that never stopped considering.
The much-regretted Comte had succeeded late and unexpectedly to the title; he was a military man, and therefore the Comtesse, who had had her life joined to his at the age of fourteen, had been for many years a military woman. She had ridden over enough parade grounds to greet her husband, had passed in her lace and satin through the rank and file of ordinary soldiers, and had seen sufficient blood and fire in the streets of Paris to recognize where the specific charm of Price's air came from: He had the eyes of a killer. Together with his pleasing manners, his constant quiet attention, and the gentleness and grace of speech and movement, it was quite irresistible.
She doubted if Sarah and her friends knew what it was in Price they found attractive. But the Comtesse was quite secure in understanding her own motivations; and now it was time to part Mr. Price from his set of admirers, and give Mr. Foster his fair chance. It was hardly Mr. Foster's fault that he was an ordinary man.
"Mr. Price," she said, sweeping to the table.
He rose at once and took her outstretched hand. "Madame la Comtesse," he said.
Oh, what splendid eyes they were. But she would not be distracted.
"Sir, will you not join me in taking a turn about the garden? The evening air is so refreshing, I find, after a stuffy room. Do let me persuade you."
She did not phrase it as a question, nor did she expect him to refuse. She had noted, during their previous meetings, that the quiet Mr. Price did not refuse anyone, and particularly not women.
"Of course, madam; I would be pleased," he said, not suggesting by any hint of intonation that he had just arrived, full of the evening air, and had had no chance to grow stale yet.
"Madame!" wailed Sarah. She rose from her chair. The other girls were clearly dissatisfied as well, but were too courteous to protest. Mr. Foster merely looked puzzled. The Comtesse gave her young cousin a quailing look, and Sarah -- obviously changing her mind from whatever she had been about to utter -- said merely, "May we not go too, Madame?"
"Oh, yes, Madame!" said Marianne.
"Certainly not. My dears, you have been talking of this card-party all day. You will not now go walking about in gardens. It would leave an empty table, and that would never do."
"I'll come, at least," cried Sarah, and she ran to snatch her shawl from the peg in the hallway.
The Comtesse sighed. She looked at Price.
"Madam?" he said. And he offered his arm.
They walked down the winding flagstone path: the Comtesse, the Lieutenant, and Sarah. The garden was a thicket of darkness at night, torches spilling uncertain light on the path, on Sarah's shoulders, and on the face of Mr. Price. A strong scent of roses filled the air.
"It is a lovely evening," said Sarah finally.
"Not for all of us, child," replied the Comtesse.
"Why, what do you mean, Madame?"
"Only, my child, that it cannot have been pleasant for Mr. Foster to see four young ladies seek to desert him."
Sarah flushed. "He did not seem unhappy."
"He concealed his feelings, as any gentleman would, rather than make a lady uncomfortable. I can only admire him for it."
They walked in silence a few moments more, Sarah's discomfort plain. Then Mr. Price said, "Shall I tell you of how Mr. Foster helped the King's magistrate here in Herse to find and put a stop to a smuggling operation that had run for two generations?"
Sarah stopped, a look of wonder on her face. "He didn't! Mr. Price, you are telling me a Canterbury fable!"
"I swear it to be true. But perhaps you should hear it from his own lips."
Sarah turned to the Comtesse. "May I go back inside, Madame? That is... I think I ought to, don't you? I didn't mean to cut Mr. Foster, I assure you I did not!"
The Comtesse bit back her laughter. "Go on, child."
Sarah clutched her shawl and fairly ran back through the scented shadows. The Comtesse turned to her escort.
"Thank you, Mr. Price."
"You are most welcome, madam."
They walked on, past hyacinths and more roses.
The Comtesse said, "You have an obliging nature, Mr. Price; and an obliging nature in a gentleman recommends itself to me beyond anything."
"I am glad to hear it, madam; because nothing pleases me more than to be obliging."And in the torchlight she saw his shy, sweet smile; an enchanting thing, she thought, especially when matched with such contradictory eyes.
She pulled out her fan, a thing of blue-and-white paint, like a Delft plate turned to fragile paper and polished sticks, and applied it to the air before her face. The picture showed a Chinese river and pagoda. The coloring would go well with her face and hair.
"You are a mystery, Mr. Price."
"I, madam? I think it is you who are the mystery."
The strategist in her saw at once that he was turning the attention from himself; but the human being in her could not refuse to pursue it. "How am I a mystery, sir? All of Herse knows my history."
"But not your heart. You keep yourself closely, madam."
"A lady is wise to always keep herself closely." She glanced at his face and added, "As my young cousin would be wise, whatever she may say."
The lovely smile was back again. "Do you warn me off, then? I promise you, I mean her no harm."
"I did not think of obvious harm."
"Of the more hurtful kind, then? Rest easy. I have no thoughts of marriage. And if I did... I have no fortune, you see; and I am not so foolish as to ruin two lives by wedding without one."
They had approached an old building of gold and gray stone, darkened now, set against the high wall of the garden.
"My retreat," said the Comtesse, smiling. "You asked to see my heart."
She opened the wooden door and gestured inside. Mr. Price took down a torch and preceded her. Inside he quickly found a set of candles on a cherrywood table, which he lit, then set the torch in another holder on the wall.
"Your heart?" he inquired.
It was a single room, well-appointed and of a fair size. The floor was marble, like many floors in Herse, but this was exquisitely cut; the center was a compass with twelve points, radiating out in blue, pink, and black. The cherrywood table, he saw, was really a writing desk, and there were papers still on it, and a closed bottle of ink. But the garden had crept into this retreat, as well: empty flowerpots lined one wall, and a long, black, jappaned table had been taken over by pots of flowering hyacinth.
"One sees the heart when one is alone," said the Comtesse.
"It is a beautiful heart." He spoke thoughtfully. "I am by no means sure I have ever seen my own."
"I have seen bits of it," said the Comtesse, and she put her hands on his shoulders. "It looks very fine."
His head bent and he kissed the hand at his left shoulder; but he made no other movement. "You may deceive yourself in my heart," he said, looking at her.
"Are you displeased, Mr. Price?"
He shook his head. "You misunderstand. I only go where I am invited."
"Ah." She let her silk mantle slip onto the lacquer table. "You like to be sure of your welcome."
"It seems only polite," he said, as she came around behind him and began slipping his uniform jacket off his shoulders.
"A lady would have to be very clear with you, then."
"It would be best," agreed Price.
"How refreshing!" she said, unbuckling his sword. She placed it carefully in the corner beside the door and came back to untie his cravat. "One sees so much presumption among young men these days. And yet, a lady might hang back, for fear of giving offense."
"A lady cannot give offense," said Price reasonably.
"Or for fear of being rejected."
"I hope I would never be so base as to reject a lady's friendship."
"Friendship," repeated the Comtesse. "What an unusual young man you are, Mr. Price."
She reached up to her artfully arranged curls and found the white satin ribbon Zare had tied but half an hour before. "What a knot my maid has done here! Would you help me, Mr. Price?"
"Of course, madam." Then his fingers were searching through her hair, moving with gentle efficiency to locate and undo the satin knot. She wondered what sort of killer he was, and if he had ever strangled anybody; his touch was very light.
The fingers brushed her neck as he came away with his assignment. "Your ribbon, madam."
"I see I must keep thanking you, sir."
"Thanks are not needed. It is no duty, but a pleasure, to be of service to you."
She smiled at his bow. "Then, Mr. Price, might I ask one thing more?"
She ran her hand down one arm of his white shirt and moved behind him. His eyes followed her as far as he could, then gave it up; he was too courteous to turn. She looped the ribbon around the wrist of the arm she was holding. He stiffened for a moment, then relaxed, with a release of breath that could only be conscious. "May I?" she said.
"You may do as you wish, madam."
It was what she wanted to hear. "My admiration for you increases by the minute, Mr. Price." She bent and kissed each hand before tying the wrists together, firmly but not too tightly. She pulled on the ribbon, testing it; it was quite strong, far more so than it looked.
Still behind him, she said curiously, "Tell me, Mr. Price, as you are a soldier; would you let a man so bind you?"
"Not if I could avoid it, madam."
She gave a last tug to the ribbon, stooping to flick her tongue in the hollow of his right hand. A half-second later she was at his side and saw the same flicker pass over his gray eyes. She said reasonably, "Have you been able to avoid it, sir?"
"Not always," he said, a faintly rueful note in his voice.
"For one of your comparative youth, Mr. Price, you seem to have quite a history behind you." She stood in front of him now, opening the buttons on his shirt with quiet efficiency, stopping to touch lips and tongue briefly to his skin at each. He tasted clean, of soap and powder, with a faint male tang in the aftertaste.
"I doubt others would find it of interest," he said, slightly hoarse.
"Now there, sir, I know you speak off the mark." She unbuckled his belt, sliding it through the loops slowly as she felt him go absolutely still; then tossing it into the corner beside the clay pots. What an endearing neck he had, now that his shirt was open. She really ought to take care of the breeches next, but it would be ungracious to hurry when so much was offered. "Why I myself," she confessed, touching her lips to the base of that neck, "have inquired after your connexions."
"Have you?" he said, on an intake of breath. "I fear I have none to speak of."
"None as yet that I can find," she answered, "but I am a person of much tenacity, Mr. Price, when my curiosity has been roused."
Her lips were very near his ear as she spoke; he turned and met those lips with his own, tugging gently at the lower one with his teeth, then trailing softly over her cheek to touch his forehead against her hair. She felt his mouth, his tongue, his breath travel over her skin, and for a moment she regretted tying his hands, for if those items were as clever as the other members of his body politick, Stephen Price was a Parliament to be reckoned with.
"You seek to distract me, sir," she accused him.
"Only," he replied, "from the threat of boredom; which we are like to face, if we converse of my own life." He kept his mouth a hairsbreadth from the back of her neck, so the breath of his speech did the work of hands and fingers. Her knees weakened most unstrategically, and she pushed him away.
"Impudence does not become you, Lieutenant. I think you forget our respective ranks."
"I beg your pardon, Madame la Comtesse."
"I doubt your sincerity, sir; did you really wish to obtain it, you would ask from your knees."
He sank down at once, with excellent grace for one who could not use his hands for balance. His head came to just below her hips, and it occurred to her that this might have been another strategic error.
"We seem to be at disparate heights, madam," he said. His voice had grown hoarse again. He leaned forward slightly, and she could swear she felt his breath through the ridiculously thin silk of her gown. "Do you wish me to pursue my suit from this vantage?" His voice was as liquid as the gown felt, and his face was virtually touching her; certain parts of her body seemed to be melting into poured gold.
"Your suit?" she asked, with some difficulty. Somehow she doubted they were discussing marriage.
"For your pardon." He looked up then; the deep gray eyes had darkened with arousal. Against the fair skin and light hair, the vulnerable and deceiving shine of youth, it was as compelling as a sudden pistol shot, and as impossible to ignore. She knelt beside him and, unwilling to attempt speech, placed her hands on his shoulders and pushed him gently back against the floor. He shifted his bound hands up over his head to accommodate the new position.
Those beautiful eyes were still serious and open. As if in a dream, she moved over his body, leaving little licks of her tongue at his ears, his neck, his chest; suddenly he was as irresistible as one of the flavored ices they sold down at the harbor in summer. And she became aware gradually that he was making sounds as she did it, suppressed, meaningless sounds in the back of his throat.
She sat up abruptly and reached for her fan, where she had dropped it on the floor to give proper attention to his buttons. She opened it slowly, one section at a time. Price was looking at her, not speaking, his eyes drowned. She ran the fan down his side, trailing the paper and smooth sticks over his ribs, down to the edge of his breeches. Then she ran it up his other side, up to that vulnerable neck, and brushed it against his cheek. She watched with a strange, detached interest as he kissed the back of her hand as it moved over his face.
She moved up to smooth it over his forehead, and now his head came forward, brushing itself between her breasts, then straining to leave another kiss there. When he sank back, his hair was charmingly tousled.
The Comtesse swallowed. Perhaps indeed it was time to encourage Price's spirit; he certainly showed an excellent attitude, at least thus far. And her throat was dry, and certain parts of her own body were burning hotter than the beeswax candles in the sitting rooms.
She moved down and unbuttoned his breeches, pulling them off his hips. Now freed, she saw that his body was demonstrating a very proper initiative.
"Why, Mr. Price; I believe you are feeling secure of your welcome at last."
And with a friendly stroke of approval, she moved back toward his face, wanting to feel that delicious touch between her breasts once again. Ah, she did feel it. And on her breasts, too...
"Welcome indeed," she whispered.
The pressure of a soft mouth and the rubbing of a soft head of hair was removed. "I trust that is not a rebuke." She looked down, deprived, and saw his eyes sparkle. "I would not for the world, madam, be importunate."
She snapped her fan shut and delivered a light, stinging blow to his chest. "Wicked, horrible boy."
"Yes, Madame la Comtesse," he agreed gravely, betraying not by a flicker of those quiet killer's eyes that he might be laughing at her.
She felt her lips curve in the appreciation one predator can feel for another. Although one of Price's charms seemed to be that he could not decide whether gracefully to be the leopard or the dinner.
She noted, however, as an observant general should, that Mr. Price's more southern forces had reacted sharply to the tap with the fan. She smiled wickedly. Flicking her weapon open, she peered down at Price from above the blue Chinese river. "One can communicate so well with these useful objects, cannot one?" A second later it was shut again, and she used the tip to test her theory of the enemy's vulnerability, running the softly polished wooden stem along that part of the army most likely to capitulate.
He groaned at once. She laughed and placed a soft kiss on his chest. "Speak up, Mr. Price, I cannot hear you." And she nipped the flesh between her teeth, and teased him with the fan again.
He moaned, pressing himself against her, but she moved away. He raised his head from the floor and said, gasping, "Madam, I hope that we might come to an understanding quickly."
"Why, I hope so too, Mr. Price," she said, raising a brow innocently. "But you have not yet achieved my pardon."
His head fell back, and she saw him shake -- with laughter. "Madame la Comtesse," he said finally, though his voice was still strained. "Do you know, I believe that I could work for that honor far better from this position than I could from my knees?"
She peered at him again over the fan, wide-eyed. "Do you think so, Mr. Price?"
"I believe I could almost promise my lady."
"Well," she said doubtfully, "I would not like to refuse you any fair chance."
She rose, undid her gown, slipped out of it and laid it carefully on the table with the hyacinths. She stood before Price in her shift, white stockings and delicate blue slippers with roseate points. Her arms were bare and smooth as the satin of her gown. "Have you nothing to say, Mr. Price?"
His eyes were locked on her, and his army, she noted, was as ready to march as ever. "I find it difficult to express myself in a manner that would not be familiar. If Madame la Comtesse would come closer, perhaps I could make my feelings better known."
"I begin to wonder if it is quite safe," she murmured, but she sank down over him again, and saw the startlement in his eyes when he realized she had nothing on under the shift. As with any campaign, foresight was half the battle. "It is such a warm evening, Mr. Price."
"Yes, madam," he agreed obediently. Their faces were half an inch apart now; his head came up and his mouth fastened on hers. It was exquisitely sweet. Her legs tangled unconsciously with his and she pressed his head back against the floor. Finally she pulled her lips away, gasping.
"You displease me, sir, " she lied shamelessly, through short, quick breaths. "You are precipitate."
"Forgive me," he said at once. His own voice was ragged and she felt their hearts pound.
"How can I bestow what you would already take? I must insist, Lieutenant. I require a complete surrender before offering any... terms."
"Surely, madam," he said, forcing the words to come out evenly, "you have that in me. My hands are tied and my flag of parley is raised. What more can I do?"
She took his mouth, this time, feeling his lips open under hers and diving her tongue inside. There was a stifled groan caught somewhere back in his throat. Eventually she raised her head. then dropped a kiss on his forehead. "Demonstrate a better attitude, Lieutenant."
"Madam," he said, his voice that of a man in pain, "I am so far from wishing to contend for supremacy, I find I must ask your help as a Christian. A cannon is about to go off, madam, and I fear it will take my legs with it."
"Dear me," she said, running her hand down his body to the cannon itself. "You are quite right, Mr. Price. Perhaps I can help you after all."
She moved over him, sitting up to guide the placement of his armaments. She heard a sharp, sweet sigh from Price. And then she was riding on his thrusts, her eyes closed; fourteen again; riding over the green hills of Provence, which she would nevermore see, on a fine white stallion, as the sun rose in the morning.
And when his body went limp, later, she collapsed on top of him. His eyes were closed. "I think, madam, you need not worry about my vanquishment."
She laughed, half-crying, and kissed each eyelid. "Mr. Price, you are the dearest, sweetest" -- killer -- "soldier to come through the door of my house in the last six years."
A beautiful smile came over his spent face, his eyes still closed. "As I told you, madam. Nothing pleases me more than to be obliging."