"Very well," Lady Aquitaine said. She nodded to Odiana, and said, "Time we got into costume."
Odiana promptly opened a backpack and handed Amara her disguise.
Amara stared down at the scarlet silk in her hands, and said, "Where is the rest of it?"
Aldrick stood at the hostel's window, watching the street outside. The big swordsman glanced back at Amara, made a choking sound in his throat, and turned away.
Odiana exercised no such restraint. The lovely water witch threw back her head and let out a peal of laughter, a sound too loud for the room they had rented from a surly Kalaran innkeeper. "Oh, oh, my lord. She's blushing. Isn't she fetching?"
To her horror, Amara realized that Odiana was right. Her cheeks felt as though she could have heated water on them, and she had absolutely no idea what to do about it. It was not the sort of situation she had been trained to handle. She turned away from Lady Aquitaine and her retainers and held up her disguise.
It consisted of a simple sheath of red silk, held up by a pair of tiny silk straps. Neckline, such as it was, was alarmingly low-and in back, the garment would leave her naked almost to the waist. The little shift's hem would fall to the tops of her thighs if she was lucky.
"Now, now," Lady Aquitaine chided Odiana. "Show her the rest of it."
"Yes, Your Grace," Odiana said with a little curtsey. Then she drew out a pair of light sandals with straps that would wrap the leg to the knee, a pair of slender silver armbands wrought in the shapes of ivy vines, a beaded headdress that faintly resembled a chain coif and a plain, smooth metal band.
A discipline collar.
It was a slaver's device, furywrought to give control of whoever wore it to the slaver. It could incapacitate its wearer with pain-and, more insidiously, it could, at the slaver's option, provide the inverse of that sensation, and just as intensely. Discipline collars were sometimes used to restrain particularly dangerous furycrafters being held for trial in the legal system, though such cases were historically rare.
But in the past century or so, their manufacture and use had become far more widespread, as the institution of slavery deepened and darkened. Prolonged exposure to the collars could shatter the mind and will. Continually forced through agonies of torment and euphoria, victims were compelled to obey the slaver and forced to experience pleasure as they did so. Over time, often years, many such slaves were reduced to little more than animals, their humanity torn from them and replaced with the simple, irresistible compulsion of the collar. Chillingly, they were often deliriously happy to be that way.
More independent-minded individuals could often resist the extremes of dehumanization others faced-for a time, at least. But none of them survived it unscathed. Most went hopelessly mad.
"Blushing," Odiana singsonged, and spun on her toes in a little dance step. Her silk dress changed colors, shifting from pale blue to pink. "Just this color, Cursor."
"I'm not wearing a collar," Amara said quietly.
Lady Aquitaine arched an eyebrow. "Why on earth not?"
"I'm aware of how dangerous they can be, Your Grace," Amara said. "And I have certain reservations about the notion of closing one around my neck."
Odiana covered a titter with one hand, dark eyes shining as she stared at Amara. "You needn't be so afraid, Countess," she murmured. "Honestly. Once the collar is on, it's quite difficult to imagine living without it." She shivered, and licked her lips. "You scream all the time, but it's the inside kind. You scream and scream, but you can only hear it when you're asleep. Otherwise it's quite lovely." She gave Aldrick a somewhat petulant look. "My lord won't collar me. No matter how naughty I am."
"Peace, love," Aldrick rumbled. "It isn't good for you." He glanced at Amara and said, "the collars aren't genuine, Countess. I made them out of table knives this morning."
"It isn't the sort of pretend I like to play," Odiana sniffed. "He never lets me have my favorites." She turned away from Aldrick, passing a second costume like Amara's to Lady Aquitaine, and took a third for herself.
Lady Aquitaine regarded Amara thoughtfully, and said, "I've some cosmetics that should make your eyes look lovely, dear.'
"That won't be necessary," Amara said stiffly.
"Yes it will, Countess," Rook said quietly. The plain-looking young woman sat in a chair in the corner farthest from Aldrick and Odiana. Her eyes were sunken, strained, and worry lines crisscrossed her brow. "The pleasure slaves Kalarus imports for his retainers and personal guard in the citadel are a common sight. Kalarus's favored slave traders are always in competition with one another and spare no expense. The clothing, the cosmetics, the perfume. To do anything else will draw unwanted attention."
"Speaking of perfume," Lady Aquitaine murmured, "where is the good count Calderon? We all smell like folk who have been traveling for days."
A beat later, the room's door opened, and Bernard came in. "Bath's ready," he said quietly. "Other side of the hall, two doors down. There's only two tubs."
"I suppose it was too much to hope for a proper bath," Lady Aquitaine said. "We'll just have to go in turn. Amara, Rook, by all means go first."
Rook rose, gathering up her clothing-the same dark colors she'd been wearing when Amara had captured her. Amara pressed her lips into a firm line as she took her own costume and turned to the door.
Bernard leaned casually against the door and held up a hand. "I don't think so," he said. "I don't want you alone with her."
Amara arched a brow at him. "Why not?"
"Regardless of what she might or might not have to lose, she's the master assassin for a rebel High Lord. I'd prefer it if you weren't alone in the bath with her."
"Or perhaps," Odiana offered, "he wants to see what Mistress Bloodcrow looks like beneath her clothes. "
Bernard's nostrils flared, and he glared at Odiana. But instead of speaking he turned the look on Aldrick.
The big swordsman did nothing for several seconds. Then he exhaled slowly and said, to Odiana, "Love, hush now. Let them work this out in peace."
"I only want to help," Odiana said piously, moving to stand beside Aldrick. "It is hardly my fault if he is so-"
Aldrick slid an arm around Odiana, and placed one broad, scarred hand over her mouth, pulling her gently against him. The water witch subsided immediately, and Amara thought that there was something smug and self-satisfied in her eyes.
"I think," Amara said to Bernard, "that it would be wise to have a pair of eyes watching the hall in any case. Wait outside the door?"
"Thank you, Countess," Lady Aquitaine said. "Thank goodness someone in this room can be reasonable."
"I'll go first, Countess," Rook said quietly. She walked to the door, eyes lowered, and waited until Bernard grudgingly moved aside. "Thank you."
Amara slipped out after her, and Bernard followed close behind her. Rook went into the bathing room, and Amara began to follow her, when she felt Bernard's hand on her shoulder.
She stopped and glanced back at him.
"Crows take it, woman," he said quietly. "Is it so wrong for me to want to protect you?"
"Of course not," Amara said, though she couldn't keep a small smile off her face.
Bernard frowned down at her for a moment, then glanced back at the hotel room and rolled his eyes. "Bloody crows." He sighed. "You got me out of that room to protect me."
Amara patted his cheek with one hand, and said, "At least one person in that room is mad, Bernard. One has already run you through once. The other could kill you, have the body gone, and make up any tale she wanted by the time I got back from the bath."
Bernard scowled and shook his head. "Aldrick wouldn't do it. And he wouldn't hurt you."
Amara tilted her head, frowning. "Why do you say that?"
"Because I won't shoot him in the back or hurt Odiana."
"Talked about this, have the two of you?"
"Don't need to," Bernard said.
Amara shook her head. Then she lowered her voice, and said quietly, "You're too noble for this kind of work, Bernard. Too romantic. Aldrick is a professional killer, and he's loyal to the Aquitaines. If she pointed her finger, he'd kill you. Don't let yourself believe otherwise."
Bernard studied her face quietly for a moment. Then he smiled, and said, "Amara. Not everyone is like Gaius. Or the Aquitaines."
Amara sighed, frustrated, and at the same time felt a flush of warmth run through her at her husband's... faith, she supposed, that there was something noble in his fellow human beings-even those as cold-blooded and violent as the mercenary swordsman. At one time, she knew, she would have thought the same thing. But that time was a considerable distance behind her. It had ended the moment her mentor had betrayed her to the same man and woman now in the room with Lady Aquitaine.
"Promise me," she said quietly, "that you'll be careful. Understanding with Aldrick or no, be careful of turning your back on him. All right?"
Bernard grimaced, but gave her a reluctant nod and bent to place a light kiss on her mouth. He looked like he was about to say something else, but Amara's little scarlet shift caught his eye and he raised his eyebrows at her. "What's that?"
"My costume," Amara said.
Bernard's grin was not-quite-a leer. "Where's the rest of it?"
Amara gave him a very level look as she felt her cheeks warming, and she turned and walked firmly into the bathing room, shutting the door behind her.
Rook was already sitting in one of the small tubs, bathing briskly. She folded a modest arm across her breasts until the door was closed. Then she went back to bathing, while watching Amara obliquely.
"What are you looking at?" Amara asked quietly. The words came out far more belligerently than she had intended.
"A master assassin of the High Lord currently on the throne," Rook replied, her tone laced with only the barest trace of irony. "I'd prefer I wasn't alone in the bath with her."
Amara lifted her chin and gave Rook a cool look. "I am no assassin."
"Perspective, Countess. Can you say you have never killed in service to your lord?"
"Never with an arrow fired from ambush," Amara said.
Rook smiled, very slightly. "That's very noble." Then she frowned and tilted her head to one side. "But... no. Your training was unlike mine. Or you'd not blush quite so easily."
Amara frowned at Rook, and took a deep breath. There was no profit in bickering with the former bloodcrow. It would accomplish nothing but to waste time. Instead of replying sharply, thoughtlessly, she began to undress and to bathe herself briskly. "My education as a Cursor did not include... that sort of technique, no."
"There are no bedchamber spies among the Cursors?" Rook asked, her tone skeptical.
"There are some, " Amara said. "But every Cursor is evaluated and trained a bit differently. They intend us to play to our strengths. For some, it includes an education in seduction. My training was focused in other areas. "
"Interesting," Rook said, her tone detached, professionally clinical.
Amara tried to match her tone. "I take it your own training included how to seduce men?"
"To seduce and pleasure, men and women alike."
Amara dropped her soap into the bath in surprise.
Rook allowed herself the hint of a chuckle, but it died quickly as she frowned down at the bathwater. "Relax, Countess. None of it was by my choice. I... I don't think I would care to revisit that sort of situation at all if there was any way I could possibly avoid it."
Amara drew in a breath. "I see. Your daughter."
"A by-product of my training," Rook said quietly.
"Could be one of ten or twelve men," Rook said, her voice cool. "The training was... intensive."
Amara shook her head. "I can't even imagine."
"No one should be able to imagine it," Rook said. "Rut Kalarus strongly favored that sort of training for his female agents."
"It gives him greater control over them," Amara said.
"Without resorting to the use of collars," Rook agreed, her voice bitter. She scrubbed at herself with a cloth, harshly, almost viciously. "Leaves their wits intact. Better able to serve him."
Amara shook her head. She couldn't even imagine. Her experience as a lover was hardly extensive, consisting of a single young man at the Academy who had dazzled her for three glorious months before dying in the fires that had first brought her to the attention of the First Lord-and Bernard. Who made her feel glorious and beautiful-and loved.
She couldn't even conceive what it might be like for such an act to be undertaken coldly, without the fires of love and desire to heat it. To be simply... used.
"I'm sorry," Amara said quietly.
"Nothing you did," Rook replied. She closed her eyes for a moment, then her facial features began to change. The alteration was neither swift nor dramatic, but when she looked up again, Amara would never have recognized her as the same person. She got out of the tub, dried, and began to dress in her dark clothing. "We're as safe here as anywhere in the city, Countess. The owner knows who I work for, and he's proven himself adept at being blind and deaf when necessary, but the sooner we can leave the better."
Amara nodded and finished bathing quickly, rising to dry off and take up her scarlet "clothing."
"Easier to step into it than draw it down," Rook provided. "I'd better help you with the sandals."
She did so, and when Amara had slipped the armbands around her biceps she looked down at herself and felt more than mildly ridiculous.
"All right," Rook said. "Let me see you walk."
"Excuse me?" Amara said.
"Walk," the spy said. "You've got to move correctly if I'm to pass you off as a new pleasure slave."
"Ah," Amara said. She paced to one side of the room and back.
Rook shook her head. "Again. Try to relax this time."
Amara did, growing more self-conscious by the step.
"Countess," Rook said, her tone frank, "you've got to move your hips. Your back. You've got to look like a slave so conditioned to her uses that she anticipates and enjoys them. You look like you're walking to market." Rook shook her head. "Watch me."
And with that, the spy paused, her stance shifting subtly. Then she slunk forward, eyes half-closed, mouth curled into a tiny, lazy smile. Her hips swayed languidly with each step, her shoulders drawn back, and her back arched slightly, her whole manner daring-or inviting-any man looking on to keep looking.
Rook turned on a heel, and said to Amara, "Like that."
The change in the woman was startling. One moment she'd looked like a courtesan in her private chambers with a young lord after half a bottle of aphrodin-laced wine. The next, she was a plainly attractive, businesslike young woman with serious eyes. "It's all about what you expect. Expect to draw every man's eye as you pass him, and you will."
Amara shook her head. "Even in"-she gestured vaguely-"this, I'm not the kind of woman men like to look at."
Rook rolled her eyes. "Men like to look at the kind who breathes and wears little. You'll qualify." She tilted her head to one side. "Pretend they're Bernard."
Amara blinked. "What?"
"Walk for them as you would for him, " Rook said calmly. "On a night you have no intentions of allowing him to go anywhere else."
Amara found herself blushing again. But she steeled herself, closed her eyes, and tried to imagine it. Without opening her eyes, she walked across the room, picturing Bernard's chambers at the Calderon garrison.
"Better," Rook approved. "Again."
She practiced several more times before Rook was satisfied.
"Are you sure this is going to work?" Amara asked her quietly. "Your way in?"
"It isn't even a question," Rook replied. "I'll get you in there. I'll find where your prisoners are. The difficult part will be leaving afterward. With Kalarus, it always is."
Bernard knocked on the door, and said politely, "Are you almost ready, ladies?"
Amara traded a glance with Rook and nodded. Then she slipped the headdress onto her hair and fit the false steel collar around her neck. "Yes," she said. "We're ready."