Teaser Tuesday – The Cartel

While working on volume 6 of the Twelve Systems Chronicles, I’m drawn back to the beginning and how much the relationship between Lilian and Lucius has developed and changed.  I reread this last night and decided to share.

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“What is amiss with her, Chin?” From faraway Lilian can hear milord speaking. Her left arm is oddly chill.

A stranger’s voice responds, “Wafer abuse.”

“Surely not. I would have noted the signs.” Milord’s voice is sharp with irritation and challenge.

“The toxin levels are quite high. Also, she appears to have dropped weight recently. That skirt is quite loose. What would you estimate?” The unknown voice is matter of fact, clinical.

“How say you, Chin?” Milord’s angry voice holds confusion.

“You are the one who lies with her, make a determination,” the new voice demands impatiently.

Lilian is awake but cannot open her eyes, although she is very interested to discover who would speak so to milord. A large familiar hand strokes over her collar bone, across her ribs and down her abdomen. Lilian is lying on the couch, with milord seated somewhere near her waist. “You are correct. She has dropped weight, at least a stone.”

“A fair amount for her frame, and in addition to the stone she dropped between her protocol review and First Day,” remarks the other man, mostly to himself.

The next statement is unquestionably directed to milord. “She is exhausted and half-starved. Whatever you are about, it must cease.”

Lilian’s eyes finally obey her command to open. The unknown man is kneeling on the floor. Broad features with sharp cheekbones and a blade of a nose are complemented by almond shaped, deep set black eyes and a mobile mouth. The golden complexion is topped by dark, tightly curling hair, kept short. In his early sixties, of average height, the man is slender and moves with studied grace as he focuses on this tasks.

Finding her eyes open, the man greets her, “Well met, Mistress Lilian.”

“Well met indeed, Master Medic,” Lilian replies. She is propped on several cushions that have been placed behind her shoulders and head.

“The wafers, Lilian, speak to us about the wafers. I would know.” Milord’s voice is harsh. Milord’s countenance is set in rigid lines. Milord has one arm braced on the back of the couch, caging her. Milord is not pleased.

“’A nap in a box’ is what Rebecca names them. It is an accurate description,” Lilian explains hoping to dispel milord’s irritation.

“Lilian,” the medic interjects, ignoring milord. “How many have you consumed?”

“In total? Four, Master Medic.” Lilian is relieved to turn her gaze from milord’s harsh expression to the master medic’s dispassionate regard.

“Four?” Chin is appalled. “That is very dangerous. You should not ingest more than one per day and not within six bells of seeking sleep.”

“Yes, I know, Master Medic.” Lilian is bewildered. “I have not. One this past Fifth Day at the eleventh bell before midday; one this past First Day at the evening seventh bell; one yesterday  evening at  fifth bell; and one today at the second bell.”

“And before that, Mistress Lilian, how many and with what frequency?” Chin pursues.

“None and never, Master Medic,” Lilian responds with increasing bewilderment.

“Lilian,” milord interrupts. “Until this past Fifth Day you have not ingested a single stimulant wafer in your entire life?”

“Yes milord,” Lilian returns tentatively. Why is milord so angry?

“Do not ever ingest another,” instructs Chin.

Rummaging around in his aide bag, Chin continues to speak without a glance at the startled pair. “Mistress Lilian, you have an extreme sensitivity to common stimulants. The toxins in your blood are consistent with sevendays of overuse.”

Chin collects Lilian’s hand palm up. “This injection will counteract the toxins and purge them from your system. It will also make you drowsy.”

There is a sharp pinch on Lilian’s wrist and then the sensation of cool water flowing up her arm.

“Where did you acquire the wafers?” The medic’s dry, impersonal tones are somehow comforting.

“From the Cartel Dispensary. The box is in my satchel,” Lilian replies.

“On the side table.” Milord indicates the satchel with a nod of his head.

Chin collects the bag and after a brief hesitation pulls forth the box. “Cartel issue, four tabs gone.”

Returning the satchel to the table, Chin places the wafer container in his aide bag. “It is unlikely they are tainted. I will have them tested to be certain.”

Turning back to Lilian, the Master Medic begins, “Now let us-”

“A moment, Chin,” milord interrupts.

As the Master Medic moves to argue, milord holds up a hand. “Exhausted and half-starved? Permit me my will in this.”

Turning his attention from the fuming medic, milord continues, “Lilian, you did not attend me on First Day. Why did you consume a wafer?”

“I did not expect to find my bed until after dark of night, milord,” Lilian responds dutifully, her bewilderment unabated. Milord is behaving oddly, although his displeasure has not escalated.

“And why was that?” Milord’s tone holds a hint of silk.

It is escalating now. Unable to imagine her fault, Lilian hastens, “It was the Cartel assignments, milord. They are not difficult, but they are time-consuming. I leave them for the evening periods.”

Wordlessly, Lucius activates his slate. There is little in Lilian’s recorded life that is inaccessible to him. His frown intensifies as Lucius studies the slate. It was there for him to note a sevenday gone had he not been distracted by other matters.

Lilian’s queue is riddled with Cartel assignments. All five she displayed the Night of the Traitor were so marked. In addition to the workload assigned by Lucius, his apprentice has another twenty plus periods of Cartel assignments in her queue. The past two months are the same.

“Your Cartel assignments were to cease when your training completed.” Lucius is annoyed. They were a quickly improvised ploy to hinder Lilian’s too rapid completion of the Cartel training program.

“Execute none of these,” Lucius states as he sets aside his slate.

Chin narrowly regards Lucius. The woman’s exhaustion is explained. Her gauntness may well have its origin in the same source. “Lucius, if you have concluded, might I continue?”

At Lucius’ nod, Chin begins his interrogation.

“When did you eat last and what did you consume?” The medic’s soothing tones are leading.

“A protein bar at the eleventh bell,” Lilian replies.

“And before that?” Chin pursues.

“Soup last night, tenth bell mayhap,” Lilian says slowly, dragging the information from memory.

With a wry expression Chin voices, “Allow me to guess. More protein bars before that, maybe juice and roll for breakfast. The day before the same, and the day before that as well.”

Lilian shakes her head in denial. “That was Seventh Day. There is an opportunity for true meals on Seventh Day.”

In response to the last comment, Chin’s irritation surfaces, “When did you last consume a midday meal?”

Shades of the Five, must they discuss this?

“Yes, Lilian, the Master Medic has a purpose. We must discuss this.” Milord’s tone is even, devoid of harshness.

Eyes widening in surprise Lilian responds, “Milord, did I voice that thought?”

“You did, now answer the Master Medic’s question,” milord commands.

Mortified, Lilian closes her eyes. She cannot bear to face either man.

“Six sevendays,” she chokes.

“Nothing more recent, you are certain?” Chin is not pleased with Lilian’s response.

“Yes Master Medic, I am certain. It was the last red gem day. Chrys and I went to the art museum cafe.” Lilian’s eyes remain closed as she attempts to pretend the embarrassing conversation is not occurring. It is not as if the entire Cartel and half the city do not know how she passes midday. She simply does not wish to discuss it.

“Red gem day?” Chin inquires.

Milord ignores Chin as he collects Lilian’s left-hand palm up. It has been too long since Lilian’s last cycle.

“No hint of scarlet,” Chin confirms, his dispassionate tones hold a hint of relief. The contraception mark is black when it is administered. Fertility returns when it fades to scarlet and disappears.

“Lilian, this will not do.” The medic is as commanding as milord. “You cannot remedy living on protein bars and soup for six days with meals on the seventh.”

To Lilian’s closed eyes, Chin yields exasperation. “It is possible to consume a meal at some time other than midday.”

“Thirty-third and thirty-fourth strictures,” offers Lilian from behind sealed eyelids. Her embarrassment spiked with the examination of the contraception mark. “There are thirty-six. Should the Master Medic wish it, I am able to recite them.”

“That will not be necessary,” milord interjects.

“You have her in a pretty box do you not?” Chin addresses his preeminence. Lucius has always been selfish. His demands on his apprentice are extreme. Chin is disgusted and not hesitant to express it. “Under the thirty-third, midday is the only respite sufficient for a meal. The thirty-fourth prohibits apprentices from consuming food at their worksites.”

Lilian is uncertain of the source of Master Chin’s ire. More intriguing is that he so readily displays it to milord and with such familiarity. Seigneur Marco never fails to address milord properly.

“I can do naught more with potions,” the Master Medic rises with his aide case. “It is your box, Lucius. Discover a means out of it.”

The implication is lost on Lilian but not Lucius. Chin is prepared to use his office to correct what he considers Lucius’ abuse of his apprentice.

“Discover a means,” Lilian echoes. “That is what we call it, the Apprentice Protocol. Thirty-six strictures and they all equate to the same stricture. Do not ask, do not complain, discover a means.”

With her eyes closed, Lilian does not see Lucius’ stunned face or Chin’s smile.

“The injection I gave her will make her increasingly talkative and a little silly until she falls asleep. Lilian is to be sent to her home for the next two days.” Chin is busily tapping his slate as he cavalierly issues orders to one of the most powerful warriors in the Twelve Systems.

“As you instruct, Chin,” Lucius acknowledges.

“I will examine her immediately upon her return to the Cartel,” the Master Medic continues his orders.

“Beg pardon, Master Medic, cannot,” Lilian responds opening her eyes. “Eighth bell I attend milord. Must. Not. Be. Late.”

“Very well, immediately thereafter,” Chin agrees.

At Chin’s exit, Lucius regards Lilian soberly, aware that he had missed the signs of her increasing desperation. “You have been seeking a way out of this box for some time, have you not?”

“Only a few sevendays, milord,” Lilian replies with wide eyed earnestness. “The box is supposed to open itself, but milord did not tire of me. I do not wish milord to, but then there is the box.”

Lilian’s wide gray eyes are slightly unfocused. The artless confession speaks volumes to the vulnerability she rarely displays. Chis is right, she is in a tight little box. With an inward sigh, Lucius acknowledges, “So you sought other solutions.”

“Yes milord,” Lilian mumbles miserably into her lap.

With a single finger, Lucius lifts Lilian’s chin. Chin’s potions notwithstanding, she must understand his will is this. “In the future, you are to seek counsel with other than your doxy friends. Their suggestions bring you to grief.”

“Who then, milord?” Lilian entreats, desperation mingling with the drug induced confusion.

Milord’s eyes narrow, and the finger leaves her chin to trace a path to her temple. After a moment, milord instructs, “Seek out Master Medic Chin for counsel.”

“Milord, I do not understand,” Lilian is beyond bewildered. “The strictures –”

“For this, and only for this, you are released from all the strictures but one and four.” Milord’s tone is gentle as are the fingers that stroke her temple.

“Milord’s will in all matters and only milord may touch me,” Lilian intones. Dazed by milord’s aspect and the medic’s potions, Lilian voices her bewilderment. “Milord is being very kind.”

“I am not kind, am I?” Milord pushes a lock of hair from Lilian’s face. Her faint and the subsequent move to the couch have loosened the severe arrangement.

Turning her face into the pleasant stroking, Lilian considers the complex nature of the man who owns her bond. She must respond to milord’s query. “Devious, selfish, clever, ruthless, demanding. Not kind.”

Milord’s hand ceases its stroking. He wishes to know all. Searching for a moment, Lilian offers, “Not the Shade of the First either. Silly story spread by stupid, lazy people.”

“I am pleased you believe so,” milord responds, his lips twitching slightly.

Milord is smiling. She wishes he would stroke her some more. The Master Medic’s potion is making it difficult to concentrate. What was milord saying? “Believe what, milord?”

Considering the owlish gaze and confused response, Lucius is briefly tempted to continue the conversation. It would be interesting to discover what else Lilian might release from the vault of her reserve. It will not serve. Chin promised the potion would sedate her. Lucius must send her to her home. “Lilian, I am sending you home until Sixth Day. “

Rising Lucius crosses to the desk. “Mistress Marieth, arrange for Mr. George to carry Mistress Lilian to her home. He will need to come to my office and escort her. Inform Master Nickolas that I am delayed until Mr. George arrives.”

“I disgust him.” Lilian’s comment is clearly another spoken thought.

“You disgust Mr. George?” Lucius questions as he settles on the couch.

Shaking her head, Lilian corrects, “Master Nickolas. Tainted, discredited, doxy. Too cowardly to die.”

“Master Nickolas spoke thus?” There is a hard edge to Lucius’ voice. His protégé is customarily the model of warrior decorum.

Once again shaking her head, Lilian responds, “No protégé of milord’s would be so crude. I did not recognize him at first, not until he reminded me. The little girl to whom he was kind is dead. Nothing left but the apprentice. It used to be a nice memory.”

Before Lucius can pursue the conversation further, three rapid pings signal Mr. George’s arrival.

Placing one arm around Lilian, Lucius pulls her to her feet and holds her for a moment to steady her. Handing the woman and her slate bag to his driver, Lucius instructs, “Mr. George, carry Mistress Lilian home. You must assist her to the transport. Do not permit her speak to anyone and endeavor not hear whatever she may voice.”

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In a society where honor is revered and love is a luxury, a woman in peril and ruthless warrior enter into a dangerous contract. To survive, Lilian vows to give Lucius her complete obedience. To achieve his ambitions, Lucius vows to keep Lilian alive. Keeping those vows will prove more difficult than either of them could have imagined.

Where duty and passion collide.

Lilian is twenty-four, well-educated, disgraced, destitute and desperate. Raised to wealth and power, her expectations of a bright future were destroyed when her father was executed for foul crimes. Her family name is erased, their cartouche melted, their property forfeit. Determined to survive and protect what remains of her family, Lilian becomes the apprentice of a powerful warrior. For three years, he will train her for a position in the Cartels. In return, Lilian will yield him absolute control of her mind and body.

Lucius Mercio is the preeminent warrior of his Cartouche, and the Cartel it dominates; the Serengeti Group. Ruthless, clever and ambitious, Lucius’ wealth, influence, and power are exceeded by few within the Twelve Systems. It is not sufficient. Lucius intends to take his Cartel to unimaginable heights with the aid of Lilian’s brilliance. He faces only one obstacle. Lucius must keep Lilian alive.

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