[Continued from Sade & Gomorrah, Part 1]
This is a fan fiction story based on characters from the Lonesome Dove television show, which belong to Rysher Entertainment and Hallmark. No infringement on copyrights is intended. All other characters and storylines belong to me.
Rated: NC-17, m/f, consensual B/D
AUTHOR'S NOTE: This installment of the story introduces the character of Madame Lila Tuliere, who is not your typical dominatrix. Some of you might also say after reading any part of Darkly Bound that this is not your typical Clay Mosby. True, he is not the Clay Mosby you know from Curtis Wells, but I believe I've written one possible foundation for him. Please remember he is 24 years old here, beset with symptoms of post-traumatic stress, abusing opium, and fairly isolated by choice. His previous identity has been shattered and he is desperate to reassemble the pieces into some order, some structure that will make life meaningful again.
Clay is on a hero's quest, the kind of path we all take when we must enter a dark night of the soul. He is a tarnished hero here and in Lonesome Dove, but strange as it is to say, that's his strength as a character. I, for one, could not identify with someone too perfect, too whole, too above the human experience. (Perhaps that's what the mud in Curtis Wells symbolizes -- the gritty, slippery reality of being human.) This story describes another part of Clay's journey into the underworld as he seeks to reclaim the lost treasure of his soul, and as some of you already know, the guides along the way can be many and varied....
BTW, the subtitle, "La Belle Dame Sans Merci," is French, meaning "The Lovely Lady Without Pity." I took it from the title of a poem by John Keats, written in 1819. The poem was based on numerous ancient myths about a mortal man who is destroyed by his love for a supernatural femme fatale. The legend was also the subject of several 19th century classical paintings. The painting I used as an illustration below, however, was done by John Frederick Lewis in 1871. It is titled "Lilium Auratum."
I know how strange it can feel to write to a fanfic author you don't know personally, and how difficult it might be to say you like certain kinds of adult-oriented stories, but do please write to me if you get the urge. I mean it when I say I welcome any and all comments from my readers.
Colleen J. MacLennan
O what can ail thee, knight at arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
~John Keats, 1819
Clay walked warily down the street between the cabins of Hatton Willows’ slave quarters. Servants greeted him with "Evenin’, Marse Clay" or "Sure is hot, Marse Clay" or "Gonna be a good crop of tobacco this year, Marse Clay." He nodded to them and glanced around, past their deferent faces. The cabins were intact and newly whitewashed, their walkways neatly lined with rocks, their little garden patches filled with half-grown snap peas and melons and collard greens. Chickens pecked in the dirt and at each other. A black and white mongrel dog trotted over to inspect him, and then pushed his head under Clay’s hand for petting.
It was an early summer’s eve and nothing was amiss, nothing burned or trampled or torn apart. All was as it should be; everything and everyone was there, as they always were.
Clay started toward the big house, increasing his pace to an all-out run when he rounded the tree-line and saw the first glimpse.
Home. He was home, and everything was all right. The Yankees hadn’t come; they hadn’t burned the mansion and salted the fields and poisoned the wells. They hadn’t killed his parents or defiled his wife before slitting her throat. His family was alive – Mary was alive!
He entered by the back hall and called out for her, but the rooms on the first level were empty as he searched them. Racing up the main stairway two steps at a time, he headed straight for his old bedroom, the room he shared with Mary during his furloughs, the room she had called her "nest" during his absence.
The sound of an occupant made his heart jump and his breathing quicken. Oh, God, if there is a God, make it be true! "Mary?" he said as he opened the door.
The face that greeted him, however, was another one of color. "She ain’t here, Marse Clay," Rachel said, looking up from where she was making the bed.
Clay’s heart sank in dread. "Where is she?"
"Don’t you know? She’s your wife." Rachel’s tone held vague accusation.
"I’m not in the mood for your games, Rachel. Where is she?"
Rachel dropped the pillow she was fluffing and sauntered toward him. "You liked my games well enough before. Remember?"
Clay backed away, oddly aware their roles were now reversed from that first day he had tried coercing her. "I don’t want you anymore. You’re free now. Go on and get out of here."
She smiled. "Yes, I am free. But you ain’t free, not no more. I told you, Marse Clay, bottom rail on top now."
He shoved her from him as she tried to press against his body the way she used to, the way he used to like. Fleeing from the room, he heard her laugh and call after him, "You can run, Marse Clay, but you won’t get far. The overseer be waiting for you, and you know what he do to runaways."
Clay ran nevertheless as hard as he could, aimless at first, but then reason wedged a plan between his fear and his feet and gave him direction toward the woods along the river. He could find cover there from his unseen pursuers.
But not from their dogs.
The baying of the patrollers’ hounds let him know they were coming closer, were almost on his heels. If they caught him, if it was the overseer come to punish him, they’d fix it so he’d never be able to run again.
He couldn’t go any farther, though. He had no breath left in his lungs, no strength left in his cramping muscles. He stopped and took refuge under one of the big willows on the riverbank. But the dogs didn’t track by sight. They sniffed him out and howled until rough hands came thrusting through the draped foliage, grabbing and dragging him into the light.
And suddenly they were at the work buildings. They hauled and shoved and got him down to the ground in front of the blacksmith shed, and someone pulled off his left boot and sock. He couldn’t see their faces, but he saw the knife throw sparks as the whetting stone sharpened it. There was no escaping now. He panted and braced himself, turning his face away on the beaten dirt. Should he close his eyes? Would that make it better or worse?
He kept them open and saw a woman in the distance, a white woman. He squinted to see who she was, forgetting for a brief moment the impending punishment.
It was Mary! Mary was alive, and she was saying something to him. He heard the strains of her voice like music wafting on a breeze, but not the words. He had to know the words. Did she forgive him? Did she know how much he loved her?
Rachel’s mocking laugh behind him obscured Mary’s message, and then the blade slashed across his Achilles tendon, obscuring all but the pain....
Clay jerked from sleep and drew in a gasping breath as he blinked his eyes, half-searching for Mary still. His heart pounded at a gallop from hope and fear, but when he saw where he was, a thousand miles and a thousand years from Hatton Willows, he exhaled hard and buried himself deeper under the bedcovers.
Despite the pain of the spectral knife, he regretted awakening. He would gladly be hamstrung if it meant a few more seconds in a world he could share with her, a world where she walked and breathed and spoke again. He would pay such a price – and did – myriad times each night for a chance at that rare reward.
He rubbed his left ankle and filled his lungs with air once more, trying to loosen the nightmare’s familiar bite.
It was the same every time he closed his eyes. A million variations on a single theme: he had failed in every way possible, and so he must be punished in every way possible. He should be thankful for small favors today. There were worse things than being hamstrung. He could’ve found himself struggling toward that barn again, knowing what would happen when he got there. That was a favorite of the demons set to torture him, especially this month – March – which marked the anniversary of his ruin.
What was Mary saying to him in this dream? He wished he’d heard her words. She had always put great stock in dreams and talked to him at length about their meaning, or what pieces of meaning she could divine from them. She believed they were communications from a realm where heaven and earth met, where the borders between them blended and mere mortals, visiting in their astral bodies, could glimpse the vast, unknowable existence that was God.
If Mary could walk that realm now, she would know all the answers. She could help him, if she chose. Perhaps that’s what she was trying to do; perhaps she offered the way out of these dreams and the agonies they inflicted.
Clay turned on his belly and scrunched the pillow under his head, trying to remember all their conversations about it. Somewhere in those discussions, she might already have given him the key to understanding.
Mary’s dreams had been fantastical and vividly real, she told him. They were mostly of a literary nature, but mixed with elements of science and philosophy. She entertained exalted company in them, enjoying tête-à-têtes with Shakespeare on the self-awareness of his heroines, recounting ghost stories by the fireside with Lord Byron and the Shelleys, and arguing man versus nature with Pope and Wordsworth, her position being God over all.
She divulged these secrets early in their courtship and he’d been amused by them at first, teasing her that a dream about him would probably bore her in comparison. He wanted her to deny it and tell him she did dream of him; he wanted to know she longed for him in her bed at night as much as he longed for her. It was the sort of code they could use to speak of such things at the time, a way to gauge how close they were getting. It took a little longer for him to stop flirting and start listening – really listening – to her ideas about dreaming as a concept beyond romance.
Mary had a particular passion for such ethereal topics. She enjoyed reading things like Mary Shelley’s gothic novel, Frankenstein. She explored the Spiritualist Movement and experimented with automatic writing and seances. The workings of her mind had surprised and fascinated him. She was a paradox in his world – a sheltered girl of gentle breeding who could think. A girl who could make him think about subjects he’d never considered, in ways he’d never imagined for himself.
All of it was just fanciful musings, however, until the war.
During those days of bloodshed and gore, boredom and shock, his subconscious soaked up every disturbing image he saw and then replayed them for his inner eye at night, only in new and creatively twisted combinations. And despite the relief his sporadic furloughs home brought, his dreams continued to trouble him there as well, increasing their repertoire with threats to Mary and his parents.
He hadn’t wanted to worry her, but she stayed up with him on a number of those nights, soothing and coaxing for an hour or more till he’d tell her what he’d seen, both awake and asleep.
Mary told him those nightmares were his fears taking shape and when he battled the shapes, he was fighting with himself. He argued the point with her initially, blaming the blue-coated enemy for interrupting his sleep. He refused to acknowledge his fear to a woman, most especially his own wife. She should see him as strong enough to take care of her; that was the natural order of things.
Clay shook his head ruefully at his youthful illusions. Silly to think he could hide it from her. He’d awakened in fear; she could easily see it in his face and feel it in his body’s tension. And of course, she had known, because she merely smiled a little and said, "Every man feels fear, Clay. It’s what he does with it that determines his strength."
She had laid her hands on him then like a faith healer and somehow drew the fears out of him as they talked in quiet tones about everything and nothing. He called her a sorceress and told her she had lifted the spell and bewitched him with her own magic. They had kissed and made love with a closeness that went beyond their bodies and he had slept soundly afterward.
Back in the field later, he tried doing as she advised; he faced his inner enemy as best he could when the nightmares returned. But it never worked as well as when he laid with Mary in their bed together and she could touch him with her calm.
Clay sighed and a deep sadness weighed him down on the feather bed. If only she were here now to soothe him. She’d cradle his head on her lap and stroke his hair and murmur comforting words about the goodness of his soul and the belief she had in him. Then he could tell her, maybe not everything, but enough so she’d know how sorry he was to have dishonored the name he’d given her. He’d beg her forgiveness and she’d absolve him of his guilt and fill him up with love again. And then maybe he could make love again and fill her with the child she’d wanted, and they’d start a new life in every other way, too, so he’d have only happy dreams instead of nightmares.
He squeezed his eyes shut and impatiently wiped the wetness from them against the pillowcase. He had no right to shed tears and pretend to have Mary’s forgiveness. He’d left her that last time despite his premonitions – premonitions she taught him to notice. It shouldn’t have mattered that she dismissed them as empty shades of his old fear. She was only trying to soothe him again, but he knew in his heart there was something to them. He should have been there to protect her, or at the least, insisted that she go where there was more safety. He had no say in his parents’ affairs, but he could have made Mary obey him. As his wife, she was bound to respect his decisions, even if they infuriated her.
Images crowded into his mind to replace his previous daydream, images he’d created of her last hour on Earth. Robert had tried to shield him, but he’d heard them talking – Robert and the remaining servants; he knew what her body looked like when those bastards were finished with her.
And where was he when the time came to be husband and fulfill his marriage vows? In prison feeling sorry for himself, that’s where, while Mary suffered far worse at the hands of her Yankee captors. But at least she had fought back. Even at the end, when they left her ripped and bleeding on the ground, she got up and went after them. The little stone in her fist was no match for a hunting knife, but she made the effort nonetheless.
It was only right, then, that he be made to suffer hell’s inventions every night. If the measure of a man was in how he faced his fears, as she said, then he had fallen far short. His fear had won; he cowered and surrendered even his spirit to Jensen. Worse than that, it was he who put Mary in harm’s way. If she’d stayed with her relatives in Richmond rather than at Hatton Willows ... if he hadn’t pressed for the marriage in the first place, maybe she’d still be alive....
Clay leaned toward the bedtable and groped for the laudanum bottle.
Who was he kidding, trying to find hidden messages in the lunatic ravings of his subconscious? No doubt, Mary would listen to him describe his dreams now and recommend a thorough study of Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. Morpheus, the god of dreams – how apropos that morphine be named in his honor.
He capped the bottle and left it laying on the bed as he drifted toward sleep once more.
"Clay? Are you awake yet?" Olivia called through the bedroom door. "It’s almost noon."
Clay roused from his torpor at Olivia’s question. "Wh ... what?"
"I said it’s almost noon," she repeated. "You’ve been sleeping since candlelight yesterday. I wasn’t sure ... are you all right?"
He groaned softly. "Yes, Cousin. I’ll be out in awhile."
"I have breakfast for you when you’re ready. Fresh croissants from Mr. Hurley’s bakery, and the best pot of coffee I think I’ve ever made," she said with a note of forced cheerfulness. "I’m finally learning how it’s done."
"I’m not hungry."
"Please, Clay. You should eat something."
"Leave me be, Olivia."
Her anguished silence deafened him, and after a brief pause, he heard her turn and go down the stairs. Clay sighed and rolled to his back to stare up at the mildewed ceiling.
Mary had sympathized with Frankenstein’s monster. How warmly would she view his portrayal of the creature, he wondered, flailing about, hurting everyone he loved, as Robert so accurately accused?
He knew he should apologize to Olivia many times over for his persistent rudeness and ingratitude. But she was driving him mad. Her intrusiveness knew no bounds and offered no quarter. It was like being in prison again, trying to sneak past her guard. She even found entrance into his locked room when he was out, looking to remove his laudanum supply and anything else she might deem destructive.
Well, there wasn’t much left for her to turn up in her snooping – not unless she developed a devious streak to match his own and figured out where he hid the items most critical to his well-being.
Oh God, what if she had?
Clay threw off the covers and sat up, swinging his bare legs over the side of the high bed. Vertigo unbalanced him and he had to let it pass before going to the chiffonier against the wall to the right. Kneeling on the grubby carpet, he opened the bottom drawer and carefully lifted it out, trying to avoid any telltale noises Olivia might hear in the dining room below. When he’d set it aside, he reached to the back of the chest and felt for the flat tin of opium pills he kept as insurance against sudden deprivation.
It was there, secreted as always on the finished bottom of the heavy mahogany chest. He brought it out and opened it, relieved to find his stash was still intact, relieved even more to see the battered piece of blue paper still tucked inside as well.
He unfolded it and read its short message for the hundredth time, as if by some miracle, new words would appear to spell out its meaning and put an end to his guesswork.
Mme. Lila Tulière, 2100 Esplanade at Bayou Rd., by appointment
Of course, he didn’t really need to read it – he had it memorized like the prayers he learned to recite as a boy. And like those prayers, it had become a kind of chant whose repetition could induce an otherworldly trance, an altered state of mind that opened spiritual doors for seekers of holy truths.
Sitting cross-legged on the rug, Clay stared at the worn scrap of paper and put his thumb to his bottom lip.
For the past month since his exile from the Ivory Club, he’d kept Millie Kendrick’s reference as another kind of insurance, but against what, he didn’t know for sure. He just knew her cryptic words were gathering power and momentum, propelling him toward the mysterious prize they promised.
"... she can satisfy your tastes ..."
That could only mean one of two things: his violence towards Annie or his suggestion to her that she hit him in return. Given Millie’s comment that Annie had "let some things out of the bag," however, he thought the latter was the most likely choice.
He chewed on the tip of his thumb, remembering Annie’s confusion. Hell, it confused him, too. The embarrassing idea had formed almost on its own, and he’d spoken it impulsively, without conscious regard for the implications. But those vaguely sexual urges seemed absurd now, and after his humiliating departure from the Ivory Club, he wasn’t keen to start over with another prostitute and chance her ridicule or impatience. Even with Annie, it had always been more about companionship than sex.
So what did he want? What was he hoping he’d get from Madame Tulière’s house of ill-repute? What could she offer him that was so special, he had to make an appointment for it?
Clay smiled cynically. Punishment. Pain. Penance. The three P’s of any religion worth its salt.
He had to stop running, face his guilt and take his punishment. That’s what the dream was telling him. What was the old saying – give the devil his due? He’d avoided payment on that mounting debt too long, gambling with a life that was a bluff.
Well, his credit had just about run out, and whether Madame Lila Tulière was the left hand of God or the right hand of Satan, justice would be served. It was time to see that the devil got his due.
* * * * * * *
The open carriage passed Esplanade’s Spanish-style residences, which came fewer and farther between, the farther it traveled toward the intersection with Bayou Road in the suburbs of the city. Clay gazed out at Louisiana’s old plantation country, but saw little of the fertile scenery this late afternoon. It was his destination that preoccupied him and freshened his anxiety.
He hadn’t sent a letter to introduce himself; he knew of no protocol for making an appointment at a brothel before ever setting foot in the place. Usually, a man simply went and browsed awhile among the merchandise until he found a woman who looked promising. Then, if he established a preference, he could make prior arrangements with his favorite for certain days and times. But getting started was almost always hit or miss. So this note Millie had scribbled – "by appointment" – had left him no option but to go and see what it meant.
Clay filled his lungs with humid air and shifted restlessly on the leather-covered seat. What would it be like? Would he find a girl he could feel comfortable with, or was that beside the point in such an establishment? Would she know what to do, or would he have to tell her what he wanted? He had no idea what he wanted, not really. Punishment, absolution, redemption – was that too much to ask? It was ludicrous, when he thought about it rationally, to expect a whore to cleanse him of his whole flawed existence. He should be going to a church, not a brothel specializing in sadism. Or was there any real difference in the end?
His lips formed a humorless smile. As the evangelists preached, the Lord works in mysterious ways....
And what would she be like, this new madame he would have to deal with? The women who ran these places all seemed cut of a similar cloth – hard-edged, shrewd, past their own prime and maybe a little resentful of the youthful bodies they purveyed, but savvy about men and their desires. They were the gatekeepers a man must first charm in order to gain admittance to an illicit Garden of Eden. And they were the ones to cast him out if he disobeyed their rules, as Millie Kendrick had done to him.
Of course, this wasn’t exactly the typical whorehouse he was traveling to, and Madame Tuliere might be different as well. He wished he knew something more about her and her business; he hated walking blindly into the unknown. With some noncommittal prodding, Seth had been delighted to spout what he knew of certain other dives even seedier than the Chez Marquis, but Madame Tuliere’s name never came up. If she was known in town, it wasn’t among the rank and file. That might mean she catered to a more exclusive segment of society, men who had reputations to protect. But who could he have asked? Obviously, no inquiry could have been discreet enough and no one of experience with any discretion would have answered.
He didn’t have to go through with it, he reminded himself for the twentieth time since the carriage ride began. Besides, nothing was going to happen today. The purpose of this trip was just to look the place over and make the necessary appointment if all seemed in order. He’d have time to reconsider after that, to decide if he could get used to a new girl and the new type of service she would provide.
Clay sighed and thought of Annie again with nostalgia for the familiar, the predictable. That made it easier. As much as he abhorred his ignorance on the matter, he didn’t really want to think about the shadowy future lurking ahead a few more squares. And as much as he took comfort in his ability to choose yea or nay, he knew he’d already made his choice.
The carriage he’d hired slowed and came to a stop in front of a high-fenced yard draped with honeysuckle. Behind the fence, a glimpse of the upper floor of the two-story house was just visible through a blockade of tall crepe myrtle trees. Clay stepped down to the road and looked one more time at the piece of paper Millie had given him. Yes, this was the address she had written. But it looked to be a private residence, not a place of business as he had expected.
He started to negotiate with the driver to wait for him, or at least return in an hour or so, but the old black man shook his head.
"She got her own driver to take you back, sir," he said, and without waiting to be dismissed, he snapped the reins and proceeded to swing the rig around on the wide dirt road for its journey back to the city’s heart.
Clay frowned, trying to be more annoyed than panicked at seeing his means of retreat get away. Well, it was too late to back out now. He took a deep breath and opened the gate to the yard.
The madame’s outer sanctum was perfectly manicured, containing countless varieties of native and imported flora. Clay lingered there in the gateway, standing between two worlds, using the garden as a diversion for one minute more.
In addition to the honeysuckle, jessamine vines covered in tiny yellow blossoms climbed up latticework against the white wood house, sweet alyssum bordered the herringbone brick walkway and perfumed the air with its heavy scent, and the artistically-pruned crepe myrtles were just beginning to sprout the first round of magenta buds on the end of each slender branch. In the center of the garden, a little statue of an angel with outstretched wings graced a fountain whose streams of water poured from the angel’s cupped hands, sounding like delicate chimes.
No point in stalling any further. He closed himself into this unlikely island of tranquility and followed the walkway to the steps in front of the lower gallery. The iron grille work there was painted white to match the house, but the shutters flanking the nearly floor-to-ceiling windows on the first level were a dark green. He knocked on the door, now even less sure what to expect, given the image of class and propriety all around.
A tension-filled minute passed until the door opened, revealing a muscular young man about Clay’s age, groomed as carefully as the garden.
"May I help you, monsieur?" the man asked, polite but not deferent as he blocked the doorway.
"I would like to see Madame Tuliere," Clay said.
"Do you have an appointment?"
"No. That’s what I’d like to discuss with her. If I may." Clay stood straighter, his stance and frown meant to let the man know whose station in life was higher here. Not that he had anything more than pride to base that on these days, and precious little of that to boot. But appearances were important, especially before those who served their betters.
"I will need your name, monsieur."
Impudent man to keep him outside the door so long. "You can tell her that Clay Mosby is here on the recommendation of ... never mind. She won’t know me, but assure her that my intentions are quite serious."
"Monsieur Mosby. Oui, but of course," the man said as if Clay had been expected. "My name is Antoine. Madame is not available at the moment. If you wish to wait in the parlor, she will meet with you presently." He stepped back for Clay to enter the wide foyer, and then gestured to a room through open pocket doors to the right.
Clay brushed past him and into the parlor, handing off his hat without a backward glance. He knew he should be more cordial with the bouncer, at least until he’d scouted the lay of things here, but the sudden leap in his anxiety made him too irritable for niceties.
At first, the sitting room blurred white and blue before him. Only the rosewood sideboard against the left wall came into focus. There, his eyes locked onto two crystal decanters full of dark amber liquids. They were surrounded on the silver tray by an array of shot glasses and snifters. Whiskey and brandy. Clay turned back to Antoine, hoping the man would invite him to partake of the liquor, but the servant had already disappeared into the house. Apparently, Antoine was not inclined toward niceties either.
Clay looked again at the whiskey, but decided it would be improper to help himself to it before he’d even made the madame’s acquaintance. He took a breath to steady himself and tried to look at the rest of the room. The blue and white colors coalesced into silk-upholstered sofa and wing chairs arranged upon a flower-patterned Aubusson rug. Above these furnishings hung a crystal chandelier, pouring like a frozen waterfall from the center of an elaborate plaster medallion. The walls were painted pale blue, the mantel and crown-molding white. Clay recognized a distinctly French influence in the decor, but the smaller pieces scattered about evoked the ancient world of myth and legend – porcelain figurines of Greek goddesses, paintings of women lounging in Roman attire, carved ivory boxes inlaid with gold and Persian lapis.
It was an impressive display. The only things missing from this tasteful den of iniquity, in fact, were the girls.
Clay paced about, a thumb to his bottom lip, and then made himself sit in one of the chairs. He shouldn’t appear too nervous. If he was going to do this – whatever "this" was – he wanted to make a good start of it. Fidgeting on the chair’s edge, he eyed the whiskey one more time with longing. It seemed more like an object of art, however, than a beverage intended for guests’ consumption. He felt for his flask of laudanum instead and drew it out to swallow a mouthful.
The drug relaxed him ever so slightly and he looked around the room again, both encouraged and discomfitted by the wealth and refinement it indicated. This was a far cry from the brothels he was used to, even the classier ones. The very fact that it appeared to be a private home – one evidently untouched by the war – gave it an exclusive aura, but it also seemed incompatible with what he had come for. Certainly, it was nothing like the Chez Marquis. Had Millie misled him? Could he have misunderstood her meaning?
It felt like hours were passing and still no girls, no sounds of girls, no sounds from anywhere in the house at all. Only the ticking of the clock on the mantel kept him company. He’d chosen to arrive at this time of day to avoid the most active hours of every sporting house, which began as soon as the sun set, but no brothel was ever this empty. The quiet of the house had grown eerie, unearthly. Clay began to wonder if he’d been left completely alone in it.
He glanced at the gold-plated French clock under its glass dome. Half past five. He’d been here forty-five minutes already. Why hadn’t Antoine returned to tell him what was happening, to offer refreshment, to do something – anything – to guarantee that he would stay? Surely the man wouldn’t have asked him to wait if the madame was out and not expected back soon.
Agitation gripped him tighter. Perhaps they meant to snub him. Antoine had seemed to know his name. Millie Kendrick might have told Madame Tuliere of the referral, and of his limited means and irregular habits. Perhaps she was hoping he’d tire of the wait and leave.
But he had no carriage coming and he didn’t relish a long, dangerous walk back to the city as night fell. It appeared he had no choice. He would have to sit out whatever time remained and hope he hadn’t come here on a fool’s errand.
Clay leaned forward, elbows resting on his knees, hands in his hair, and laughed softly, struck by the irony in his last thought. He stared at the immaculate wool rug and shook his head. A fool’s errand, indeed.
The feminine voice startled him and he dropped his hands and looked up quickly. A woman in the most unusual dress he’d seen outside a theater production stood in the parlor entrance, gazing at him with an unreadable expression. He sprang to his feet, regretting at once how eager and unsure he must seem.
"Oui." The woman graced him with the hint of a bored smile. "You wished to speak with me, monsieur?"
Clay took a breath and paused to collect his thoughts as he absorbed the woman’s appearance. "Yes. Millie ... Madame Kendrick recommended that I see you," he said, trying not to stare too obviously.
Madame Tuliere was nothing like he expected. She was young, not past her prime, or at least she had an ageless quality about her face. She wore her dark hair parted in the middle like most women, but wrapped and twisted up with silk scarves in a Turkish fashion. Likewise with her clothing – no hoops, just drapes of silk in vaguely matched patterns comprising something akin to a morning gown, which was open enough in front to reveal a coral-colored under-dress. Over that, she wore a short jacket, black velvet embroidered with gold thread. The whole costume brought to mind paintings he’d seen of harem girls, lending her the aura of an odalisque. No, more than a mere slave. As if the royal Sultana herself gave him audience.
"Ah. Oui." The madame appraised him in turn for a few seconds. "You understand, my specialty is very expensive," she said in Parisian accented French.
Clay ground his teeth, his simmering temper almost at a boil. The fee. After being made to wait an hour in utter silence without a scrap of hospitality, she starts their meeting with the fee. He stiffened his posture and glared at her. "Before we discuss the cost, I have a few questions I’d like to ask," he said in a tight voice. "If you wouldn’t mind."
She nodded her head, unperturbed. "You may ask your questions."
Her phrasing, as if she were granting permission to a supplicant, grated on his overwrought nerves. "Would you like to sit down first?" He indicated the sofa in a false gesture of chivalry.
The madame tilted her chin up and met his stony gaze directly, still unshaken. "Non. We will stand."
Clay exhaled hard and nodded agreement, unable to do anything else and remain even marginally a gentleman. Might as well get to the point. "It’s just you then?" he said. "No other girls? You provide this service personally?"
"Excuse me for asking, but what is it that you do, exactly?"
She gave him a polite but distant smile and spoke in a mix of English and French. "Whatever my clients require," she said. "Each is different."
"I don’t believe we’re understanding each other. Could you be more specific? What sort of things do your clients require?"
"That is confidential. I do not discuss my clients with anyone."
"Commendable, I’m sure." Clay made an effort to control his breathing and affected a flippant tone. "In general then. What do you do in your line of business? Do you have a room somewhere, some kind of ... medieval dungeon," he stopped briefly when the word caught in his throat, "a place where you ... what? Torture men, flog them, stretch them on the rack, what?"
He manufactured a smile as if they shared the joke and hoped she hadn’t noticed his momentary disorientation. An all too familiar feeling crept around the edges of his consciousness. Not now. Pray God, the devil, or whatever power toyed with his life, please not now.
She remained impassive. "I have a room," she said. "It is not a dungeon."
Her minimal responses goaded his anger beyond containment. "Madame Tuliere, let me speak as plainly as possible here. I do not like to be kept waiting without explanation, I do not like the word games you seem to be playing with me, and most especially, I do not like surprises. So if you wouldn’t mind doing me the courtesy of speaking plainly as well, what exactly could I expect to get for my money if I hired your very expensive services?"
She regarded him for what felt like an eon with infuriating detachment. Clay searched for the slightest clue to her thoughts, but saw not a twitch or a turn in any part of her to betray what she was calculating. Exasperated, he started to speak, to tell her he was leaving, when she finally answered his tirade.
"Madame Kendrick, she gave you my name for a reason, did she not?"
He halted his departure. "She said you could satisfy my ... interests."
"And these interests, do you not know what they are?"
"You’re the expert. Why don’t you tell me. What do you think I require?" He issued the challenge certain she’d sidestep this one, too. Then he could leave knowing he’d been right, it was a fool’s errand, and he wouldn’t be fooled again by any more charlatans hawking cures for the incurably damned.
Her answer, however, addressed a larger matter.
"You require control of yourself, Monsieur Mosby."
He snorted. "Are you speaking in the moment, or is that your–"
"Non," she said, interrupting him with surprising verbal force. "I will ask the questions now."
Clay blinked and swallowed. No matter how hard he tried, he could not gain his balance with this woman, and now she had managed to finesse his anger, too. "All right, you may ask your questions," he said, building a barricade of sarcasm. "What do you want to know?"
"The body will speak for itself. Remove your shirt, s’il vous plait."
"What?" He stared at her blankly and then glanced around, suddenly dizzy. "I don’t...."
He forgot what he intended to say. His guarded facade crumbled and he felt the sickening slide begin as a chasm opened in his memory and he divided into two minds. Helpless to stop the process, one part of himself watched from a lofty, rational vantage point, comprehending the madame’s genteel order, while the other part dove into the abyss, desperate to shut those words out and escape their meaning.
His vision offered no quarter, however. It tunneled past his surroundings and trained its telescope on another place, another time, another person demanding he expose himself against his will.
What're you waiting for, Mosby? You know what to do. Unless, of course, you want that fine shirt of yours to get a tear in it.
He scratched for a handhold out of the pit. This wasn’t against his will. This wasn’t Jensen or the prison or that cold day in hell. He chose to come here ... he wanted this ... he was in command of it this time....
The light touch on his arm, fleeting as it was, brought him back to the room in a startled rush.
"Perhaps you should not be here," the madame said. "I will have Antoine call the carriage for you."
"No," he insisted. His breathing eased as his vision cleared. "I’m fine. It’s just these ... damnable headaches that come over me sometimes. They pass quickly. I’ll be all right."
She let him collect himself and then said quietly, "You were a soldier in the war, non?"
Clay looked up at her with narrowed eyes, the breach in his defenses repaired. "Yes."
She nodded. "Some men have these, as you say, headaches."
Her tone was matter-of-fact. She knew, and it was not just a vague intellectual awareness that some veterans startled easily at noises. She had witnessed such demonic possessions before. She knew their meaning. Even Doctor Steadwell, who doled out Clay’s laudanum supply, hadn’t perceived his situation that accurately.
He scrutinized her face again, seized by sudden, inexplicable worry that she might be viewing him with pity or disgust. She had not changed, however. Her smoke-gray eyes and expressionless mouth continued to radiate an unemotional calm. She understood his panic and it didn’t disturb her, it didn’t scare her.
"I’m all right now," he said.
She nodded in acknowledgment. "We have not finished."
She was prompting him to make a choice, and he was amazed to find himself reluctant to leave her company. Despite his anger and her vexing reserve, he felt drawn to her unshakeable presence. "I ... I don’t want to go," he said.
"If you stay, you must remove your shirt." Her voice was soft now, but still unbending.
He glanced toward the doors that stood opened onto the entry hall. "Here? In the parlor?"
"Antoine will not come in."
"I wasn’t prepared for anything to happen today."
"Nothing will happen today." She seemed to sigh. "Monsieur Mosby, I will tell you those things that you must know, but you must never question my instructions to you, even when they bring you fear. If you cannot do what I ask, you will always have the choice to leave. Do you understand?"
He hesitated at the threshold he was about to cross. Could he actually go through with this? If he did, would it help any more than anything else he’d tried?
He nodded almost imperceptibly. "Yes, I understand."
Turning away from her, he opened his coat, shrugged it from his shoulders, and pulled his arms free of it one at a time. After tossing it on the wing chair, he dropped his suspenders and discarded the silk cravat and vest as well.
He was down to the clean linen shirt he had so carefully chosen for its look of wealth and authority. It was wet in places and carried his body’s smell – fine milled soap tainted with fear. He couldn’t help that now. He unbuttoned the pleated yoke and paused before raising the shirt over his head. The memories of Jensen returned to taunt him from the room’s periphery, closing in as if the walls themselves were moving toward him. Like the prison cell. Like the mausoleum of his childhood nightmares.
A new instinct told him to turn around and seek Madame Tuliere’s eyes. Her unwavering gaze broke through the claustrophobia and quieted the roiling in his gut.
Clay finished fast and stood stripped to the waist, nervous but for the first time also a little aroused. "So now what?" he asked, attempting a casual stance.
She said nothing, only approached him in a rustle of silk, and Clay tensed, fighting the urge to step back. Raising a delicate hand, she stroked his left nipple with her index finger lightly and watched it harden. The sensation was excruciatingly intense, like a tiny, hot explosion beneath his skin.
Clay held his breath and looked at a blank place on the wall in an attempt to remove himself from the room altogether. He wished he’d swallowed more laudanum earlier to prevent the trembling he felt inside. She was testing him, but what was she looking for? What else would his body say to her that he hadn’t already revealed? Would she be able to see the rest of the story written in his muscles and on his skin?
She stroked the nipple again more firmly, and then pinched it hard, hard enough to hurt. He winced and pulled away, but the pain did make him look at her. She examined his face after that, particularly his eyes, and he thought he saw disapproval there. The anger returned to blanket his shame and for a moment he verged on another tirade. He didn’t have to put himself through this ridiculous exercise. She didn’t possess any special skill or knowledge that could help him. She was just playing some kind of sick game with him, and if he had any intelligence, he’d take his clothes and leave.
He didn’t leave; he didn’t even move.
She walked around him, dipping her fingertips under the waistband of his trousers. His muscles tightened, and when she stopped, he knew she was looking at his scars. He prayed she wouldn’t ask about them, because he would not be able to lie. But still she said nothing, only traced a couple of the deepest lines with a finger. The touch validated something in him, recognized his pain and also, surprisingly, his courage. He’d forgotten what it took to steel himself against those beatings. He’d been strong once, defiant and whole. Not without fear, but he faced the fear head on. He’d been a man by Mary’s definition, one she admired and loved.
How did this strange woman – a prostitute, however high class – make him remember that?
He didn’t have long to enjoy the unexpected memory. Madame Tuliere continued her examination, running her hands down his arms and circling each of his wrists in a light grip. With gentle pressure, she started to pull his arms behind his back. Panic reasserted itself. He jerked free and whirled around to face her, at the same time bending his arms up in front of him, rubbing his wrists as if she’d chafed the skin.
He had overreacted, given the wrong impression yet again. She had to believe he could handle this. "I’m sorry, I ... it was a reflex. I didn’t mean to do that," he said.
"Oui," she said. "You may dress now."
Clay wasted no time complying with that instruction, relieved to hide at least some of his secrets from her once more.
When he was done, she made a pointed observation. "You have the opium in you today," she said.
He looked away, but she remained silent, and he realized she wanted his direct confession. "Yes," he finally admitted. "I need it."
"I do not permit opium. My work is then rien. Nothing. Vous comprenez?"
"Yes, but I need it for the headaches. I can’t sleep. I can’t–"
"Non. After, maybe. If I say. But not before. You must agree to this or I will not see you."
"You will see me, then?" It had become imperative to him. "I assure you, I can pay whatever price you ask," he hurried to add, smiling in the flirtatious way that women always seemed to trust.
Madame Tuliere was not taken in and he berated himself for his mistake. Even after such a short time, he should have known not to try guile with her.
"Antoine will discuss the arrangements with you," she said and turned away in dismissal.
But as she started to leave, he called her back, filled with a sudden horror. "Antoine isn’t a part of it, is he? He isn’t involved in–"
"Non," she assured him. "Antoine will be in the house, but away. Not with us."
"And the appointment. You never did say what it entails."
"You must learn patience, Monsieur Mosby," she said, though she surprised him with a look of tolerance. "It is not always good to know before you know."
Antoine appeared as soon as she’d gone. He explained the rules – payment of fifty dollars in advance of each appointment, to be forfeited in the event Clay did not arrive in time or left "prematurely." If he was even one minute late, he would not be seen, and if he left early, he could never return. No refunds for any reason. Madame would allow him two appointments in a week and each would last one and a half hours. Clay would be responsible for finding a means of transport to Madame’s house, but her carriage driver would take him back to the city if he wished. This was included in the overall fee.
In the space of ten minutes, their business was concluded and Clay was settled in the covered carriage on his way home, wondering if he’d have the nerve to keep his first real appointment with Madame Lila Tuliere three days hence. Wondering if he could put the laudanum and pills aside that long, as she demanded. Wondering if he’d be able to scrounge an extra hundred dollars every week on top of what he contributed to Olivia and to his own subsistence. That was a lot for three hours of a whore’s time when the going rate at the Quarter’s swankiest sporting clubs was fifty dollars for a whole night.
The only thing he didn’t let himself wonder about was what Madame Tuliere planned to do with him at their next assignation. He would know when he knew, when she wanted him to know, and for some reason, he took great comfort in handing such decisions to her.
* * * * * * *
Though he’d gone to her with the notion that he should be punished for his sins, Clay found Madame Tuliere’s notion rather appealing as well. He did require control of himself, and he had lost it in the name of freedom and independence. All he’d done since his release from Jensen’s grip was defy the will of others. He needed some structure now, some plan to guide his actions other than the perverse wish to annoy Robert and God. If the madame could provide a means to punishment and self-control, too ... well, then, she was worth every penny he had to offer, every sacrifice he had to make.
So Clay did as she demanded, at least as much as he could. He didn’t take any laudanum or opium pills during the day, and only a little laudanum before bed. The deprivation made him even more irritable with Robert and Olivia, and caused him restless sleep and real headaches. But despite those drawbacks, he felt an unusual sense of relief, and the nightmares ceased as well. That miracle in itself gave him hope.
He also remembered the madame’s parting words and tried not to think about what would happen when he went back to her. That abstinence was much harder to endure, especially without the opium. He had to rely more heavily on whiskey to corral his wayward thoughts and shut them into the barn from whence they originated.
On the day of his appointment, however, he awoke in a sweat with one thought blotting out all other concerns – how she had taken his wrists and pulled his arms behind him, or tried to, anyway. Was that part of what she did, like the show in the Sade Room? He could not stand to be tied down. Just the image of it stirred sensations buried in his muscles, urging them into an eruption of skin-crawling panic. If she even hinted at restraining him in some way, he’d walk out and the fifty dollars be damned.
He plagued himself with such worries the whole trip out to Madame Tuliere’s house that afternoon, but once he re-entered her front garden, Antoine gave him little time to dwell on the unknown. The servant had the door open even before Clay had closed the garden gate. He whisked Clay into the house with a flurry of greetings and solicitations. Did monsieur have a pleasant carriage ride this lovely spring day? Would monsieur care for a drink of whiskey or brandy? Surely monsieur would enjoy a fine cigar while he waited the remaining quarter hour? Madame provides only the best for her guests.
Clay distrusted the change in Antoine, but he sat on the sofa and accepted the whiskey and the cigar, which Antoine lit for him. The whiskey tasted better than any he’d had in years and the cigar was tightly rolled and fresh, finer even than the ones produced on his own family’s plantation. What a difference from his first visit, but then, of course, he had yet to be granted the privileged status of "guest." He let the refreshments loose on his senses while he distracted his mind with the mystery of Antoine and his suddenly impeccable manners.
The servant’s accent told Clay he was Creole French and educated, too. How did this young man, most likely the flower of some noble New Orleans family, come into Madame Tuliere’s employ? As well-heeled as she seemed to be, she would still be considered lower class by the aristocracy. The French and Spanish founders of this urban feast of all saints never deigned to acknowledge its more numerous sinners. Hell, the French-descended inhabitants had yet to acknowledge the Americans, viewing the city’s change of ownership in 1803 as the start of an ongoing barbarian invasion. That, however, was one opinion Clay understood completely.
Perhaps Antoine wasn’t an employee at all. Perhaps he was the madame’s lover and he protected her with his presence, acting as secretary, bouncer and butler all at once. Did she oblige him with her "specialty" too? Or would she desire something more straightforward when away from her work? Ah, but more intriguing, perhaps he wielded the power and she was the one to submit in her private affairs.
Clay drained the last of the whiskey and asked for another.
Antoine smiled but gave him a somber look of regret. "Madame would prefer that you have just the one, monsieur," he said. "But if you like, I can bring you something else for your thirst – lemonade or water."
Clay scowled and shook his head. "No, that isn’t necessary."
The servant smiled again. "As you wish, monsieur."
"Don’t you mean, as Madame wishes?" Clay said, unable to contain his annoyance. He stared at the painting over the mantel and concentrated on smoking the cigar to calm himself.
"Madame is very particular about certain things," Antoine agreed, as if he sympathized with Clay’s frustration.
Clay wished now that Antoine would leave and go wherever it was he had stayed the last time. His respectful attention to Clay notwithstanding, his allegiance obviously belonged to "Madame" and Clay held no fondness for spies and guard dogs in any form.
Besides, Antoine had to know what Madame Tuliere did for the payments he collected on her behalf. The question was, how much did he know? Was he privy to the details? Would he know after today what Clay "required" from the madame’s bag of tricks? She had said Antoine would be away from where they were and that was some relief, but Clay suspected he would not be far away and would appear instantly if she ever perceived herself in danger. There must be some way they communicated such things, some way Antoine would know to intervene without alerting the clients.
"Monsieur Mosby," Antoine said, interrupting Clay’s rumination. "Madame will see you now, if you’ll follow me, please."
Clay glanced at the mantel clock – half past the hour exactly. He took a final drag off the cigar and stubbed its remains in the crystal ashtray on the table to his side. Antoine waited patiently for him in the parlor doorway and then led him up the main stairs and down the hall toward the back of the house. The manse was more extensive than Clay had assumed, but its furnishings upstairs were no more or less remarkable than those of the parlor. That, too, was a relief – there was nothing so far at least to remind him of the prison camp.
A wing was attached at the back, perpendicular to the main house and when they rounded the corner to it, Madame Tuliere stood waiting in its arched entrance.
"Monsieur Mosby," she greeted him.
"Good afternoon, Madame Tuliere," Clay responded in French, the first he’d spoken to her, as Antoine stepped aside to let him pass ahead.
She peered into his face for a moment and then looked past his shoulder. "You may go, Antoine," she said.
Clay knew she’d been searching for signs of opium use, but anxiety eclipsed his irritation. Leave now before it’s too late, a voice warned in his head. This is sheer stupidity, it won’t help anything. It will only make things worse.
"You will come with me, monsieur," the madame told him and turned to lead down the second hall.
He heard from the voice again, but the pitch and timbre were no longer his own. If you take orders from a woman, you deserve to be beaten, Mosby. You deserve to be treated like a woman....
"Monsieur," Madame Tuliere called.
He looked up and saw she had turned back toward him. He hadn’t moved a step.
She said nothing more, but her eyes seemed to say she knew, as if she had heard the voice, too.
He swallowed and forced himself to walk toward her, staying locked on her eyes. The voice possessed no power when he could see her eyes.
She directed him through a door and he stepped into what appeared to be a private sitting room with another door inside, probably leading to a bedroom. The ordinary furnishings included two unusual items: a mirrored armoire and a commode equipped with grooming tools.
"This is where you will undress," she said, coming around to his side. "You may leave your clothes there." She pointed, not to the armoire, but to a wooden butler in the corner.
His breathing quickened and a rivulet of perspiration tickled his chest.
"Remove your clothing to the waist as before, and also your boots."
She stayed where she was, her hands folded in front of her silk skirts as she watched him.
He attempted a smile. "You still won’t give me even a little hint?"
"Non. You will know–"
"When I know," he finished for her. "Yes. That much, I know."
Why did he even ask? She was going to whip him. He knew that already. That’s why Millie referred him to her. He sighed and focused on the immediate task before him. He had chosen to do this, he reminded himself. He was not weak to be here. He was only weak if he retreated before facing the enemy within.
When he had undressed as she directed, she tipped her chin toward the inner door, which was open a crack. "Go there and wait for me."
Another threshold to cross ... the last gateway to himself? With mounting trepidation, Clay swung the door open on noiseless hinges.
An iron bed stood as centerpiece to the moderate-sized room, its massive frame painted white. Clay had never seen anything like it. Scroll-work topped the head and foot boards in a manner similar to the balconies of the city’s finest homes. But the largest portion consisted of thick vertical bars, and neither the innocent color nor the superficial flourishes diminished the bed’s business nature, hinted at in places worn of their paint.
He took a deep breath and moved further into the room, his socks sliding on the polished wood floor. In contrast to the rest of the house, this room was exceedingly plain. The unadorned walls were another shade of blue, like the sky on crisp autumn days. A white sheet stretched tightly over the exposed mattress, a linen cupboard squared itself against the farthest wall, and closest to him at the two windows, a rectangular table held an assortment of cloths and bottles and a pitcher with its bowl on the white marble surface.
Clay suddenly had the impression of a doctor’s office and he was the patient awaiting treatment. He breathed faster and his gaze swept the table again, but he saw no medical instruments tucked behind the other items, no sharp or torturous devices he hadn’t bargained for. That reassured him. Though he’d done his share of scarring his body, he wasn’t keen on letting someone else dissect him.
He turned to the only other piece of furniture then – a tall chest of drawers to the right of the doorway. Six drawers with plain brass handles, some of which, like the bed frame, showed more wear than others. The third drawer had been left open and he stared into it.
Braided satin cords, leather straps with buckles, lengths of coarse hemp rope, flat cotton strips.
The sight mesmerized him. The rope they had used ... what was it made of? He couldn’t think. Something had happened in his head, a watery swirl of intentions going down a drain.
Choose, Mosby. Which one do you want this time?
Jensen whispered suggestively to him, laughed at his helplessness, his inability to move. Clay blinked and stared down at the floor planks, on the edge of the precipice, while a choking tightness formed in his throat and stopped his breathing....
Madame Tuliere pushed past him and deftly closed the drawer with her hip. "Not for you," she said.
A small, pale hand entered his line of sight, pressed flat against the center of his chest. Immediately, his mind cleared and air rushed into his decompressed lungs. He followed the hand to its source as it pulled back.
"You are stronger than you know, monsieur," she told him when their eyes met.
He looked at her, believing, disbelieving. How could she know? She wanted his cooperation, his money, that was all.
"Lie on the bed," she said.
She stepped away from him, inscrutable as ever, and it was only then he noticed she had removed some clothing, too. Though her hair was still pinned up in silk scarves, she’d left behind the heavy outer gown and wide sash. All she wore was the shift-like under-dress with its loose sleeves, to let her work more freely, he imagined. The dress was white this time and he could see that no corset cinched her breasts and waist beneath the thin material. For a moment, he stared at the outline of her nipples.
She was just a woman, and a petite one at that. What harm could she really do him?
"Monsieur Mosby," she said, and the stern sound drew his gaze upward. "Do you wish to leave?"
She only has to get you started, Mosby. I’ll do the rest.
The leering voice grew bolder, more excited. Clay frowned and shook his head free of it. "No," he told her. "I’ll stay."
"Then you must lie on the bed now."
She seemed so distant, so unreachable. He felt like a wounded soldier left behind enemy lines to await his fate. Sitting on the bed, he searched her face for clues to her plan, and finally gave it up and acquiesced. He laid back and arranged himself flat against the mattress. There was no pillow to cushion his head, but the cool, cotton sheet met his naked skin with a light welcome. He tensed anyway, the old fear, as well as some new, rising to the occasion.
"Turn to face down."
Her eyes were calm, her voice quiet and confident. He hesitated again, fighting the resurgent impulse to bolt from the room before he finally rolled to lie on his belly as she instructed. Even still, he kept his head turned so that his eyes could remain fixed on her.
"Look to the wall. Not at me."
So she would not allow him that comfort either. All right. He turned his head and trained his eyes on the linen cupboard, avoiding the wall’s blank invitation to see what his memory contained. He could do this; he’d been through regular beatings at the prison, laid on with a man’s strength. For all her commanding presence, Madame Tuliere could not possibly surpass that level of pain.
"Lift your arms and hold to the bars," she said then.
His heart jumped. Oh, God, what a fool he was to try to fool himself. He took an uneven breath and reached up. Feeling for the smooth metal, he curled his fingers around two of the bars. Nausea copied the gesture and curled its talons around his gut, digging in for the duration. Every muscle ached and begged for the opium he had denied himself in ritual preparation.
He braced himself, squeezing the bars so hard, his knuckles whitened. Imagining the blow sometimes helped him prepare for it in the past, helped him get ahead of the pain, and he tried doing that now.
But the blow did not follow. Instead, she came to him, sat on the bed next to his hip. Her actions confused him. Given her economic demeanor, he'd expected her to waste no time getting to the matter at hand. It occurred to him with a start that she might, indeed, be doing just that, and something was up, was only seconds away. He breathed harder. Jensen had "surprised" him in just such an unpredictable manner.
She touched him then, but it was not to punish. Her warm hands stroked through his hair, across his neck and shoulders, down his back, soothing and massaging.
"You must relax, mon cher," she said.
Mon cher – my dear. An endearment that meant nothing from most New Orleans women in the trade, but from Madame Tuliere? Her words poured over him like heated bath water, and the unaccustomed intimacy coaxed him to try its cleansing embrace.
She went on with the massage, her fingertips applying more pressure until he loosened his hands and eased his body. "You are thinking of the ones who did this to you?" she asked, and her tone matched the care of her touch.
She didn't need to explain what she meant. The body will speak for itself.
He sighed heavily in response, unwilling to acknowledge his torturers with even a nod.
She hummed her understanding. "Such thoughts are like vultures, to fly away when frightened. We will chase them from you." She leaned down and her silk-covered breasts brushed his back, suddenly charging the atmosphere with a sexual promise he had forgotten. One hand twined loosely in his curls. "No more thinking today," she said near his ear. "You have only to listen and do as I say. Tu comprends?"
"Tu" this time, not "vous." It was the first time she'd used the familiar form of address with him and the sound echoed in his head like the repeated chorus of a love song. He nodded his assent, truly ready now.
She kissed between his shoulder blades and gave him a moment to revel in that caress before she stood up and stepped away. He heard a drawer opening, things being shuffled about in it. When the drawer closed, he closed his eyes, too, and waited.
He heard the whip's rush toward him only after it bit into the skin she had kissed. It was nothing next to the prison beatings, but it shocked him nevertheless and he jerked and gulped air to steady his nerves.
Don't let go, don't let go, he commanded himself, opening his eyes and gripping the bars tighter. But another thought leaped in on its heels: What am I doing? What the hell am I doing?
Panic rolled toward him like the smoke and noise of a battlefield, enveloping him too quickly to evade. An acrid taste filled his mouth and he lost his bearings. Somewhere in the haze, close but just out of sight, Jensen laughed as he struggled to breathe past the nausea.
Then she was with him, her hands on his, prying them gently from the bedstead. She stroked down his arms as he lowered them and wrapped him from behind in her own, and he held onto her as she whispered soft French words of comfort into his hair. She kissed his neck and shoulders, and when his breathing slowed, she lifted up to rub and kiss the red welt she had given him.
And something shifted at the core of him.
The pain and panic, the ever-present sense of failure, changed texture and shape. None of it left him, but each became something else – arousal, anticipation, surrender to desire. The transformation was as sharp as the whip in its arrival, and just as impossible to ignore.
Clay moaned against the sheet and tried to move her hand to his groin, where the fire from the welt had settled. He had an erection, not the half-hearted kind he usually got anymore, but a true hard-on, and he wanted desperately to share it with a woman while he could.
"Non, mon cher," she said, withdrawing her hand and pulling away. "You have more to learn. You are ready now. It will not hurt so much this time."
He twisted around to look at her, and realized she planned to continue the whipping. She held his gaze until he nodded. He would have to comply or leave, and he wasn't prepared to leave. He laid down on his belly again, and reached up for the same two bars.
She rewarded him with a kiss slightly lower on his back, and this time, he knew what that meant.
She struck him four more blows, each a little lower than the one preceding, each marked by a kiss and followed by comfort. He suffered no further humiliating weakness, but neither did he experience any further arousal. Instead, he found himself remembering the prison beatings, how his anger kept him from crying out, how the concern in Robert’s face kept him on his feet afterward. He had to be strong for the men who looked to him for leadership, but he had to be strong most of all for Robert, who would take the pain on himself if he saw Clay falter. It was all Robert could do to keep from rushing the guards as it was. If he saw Clay go down, he might have gotten killed trying to reach him.
At each burning smack of the whip on his bare skin, Clay winced and remembered the past more vividly, though not in the way he’d grown used to – he didn’t relive it as if it were happening again. Whenever he seemed on the brink of that immersion, Madame Tuliere’s hands on his back anchored him to the present, and surprisingly, he began to anticipate her touch, to count on it between the lines of pain.
When she didn’t kiss him a sixth time, but got up and seemed to be doing something at the table, he let go of the bars and ventured to turn his head toward her. He was startled to see she had left the whip laying on the bed next to his head and he pulled back from the sight and leather smell of it, repulsed and fascinated at once.
It resembled a riding crop, but was slightly longer and thicker, with a flat surface and a hand grip of ivory and silver. He could tell from looking that it wasn’t very pliable, though it was oiled and clean. Designed to raise a red stripe and make a loud noise, he thought, but not to draw blood.
He tore his gaze from it. "Is that all?" he said, a little disappointed that she’d been so lenient. "Should I get up?"
"Non. Lie still."
She didn’t tell him to look away, so he watched her open a blue bottle and pour something into her hand. She set the bottle aside and rubbed the palms of her hands together, releasing an herbal aroma. As she sat on the bed and reached toward his back, however, he flinched.
"What is it?" he said, tense again.
"It is ointment. Medicine. It will not hurt," she told him. She put her hands on his upper back where the whip had landed and rubbed the oil into his stinging skin, taking special care along the welts that were now subsiding.
"You don’t have to do that," he said. "I’ll be all right."
"The ointment is necessary."
"I could have taken more, you know. Just because I had a problem at the start doesn’t mean I need any special handling."
"Non, that was enough today. You did very well for your first time."
He made a cynical noise, thinking how mild this was in contrast to the prison whippings.
As if reading his thoughts, she leaned down to his head and added, "For your first time here." She sat up then and continued the massage. "It is not the same as that other." She punctuated her reference by rubbing ointment into the worst scar below his right shoulder blade, the one that Hanley’s belt buckle cut so deep, it had to be stitched afterward.
Her touch on it brought back that midnight beating, the frozen metal gouging his skin as he fought to pass out, the needle sharpening the pain the next day as Old Snake sewed him up in the barracks. "How is it different?" he asked her, ready to argue.
"That was done from anger, to make you forget yourself. This will make you remember."
"I remember too much already."
"You remember what they did. There is more than that, more you must learn."
Clay scowled. "I don’t think there’s anything I have to learn from what they did. Except maybe how to hate."
She stopped rubbing him and he wondered with apprehension if he’d said the wrong thing. Maybe he shouldn’t say anything, but she hadn’t told him not to talk.
"Turn over now," she directed.
He rolled onto his back and grimaced at the sheet’s sudden roughness.
In silence, Madame Tuliere got up and took the whip to the chest of drawers. Clay watched her deposit it in the fourth drawer and then go round the bed to the cupboard. There, she withdrew a pillow, and without really looking at him, set it by him so he could put it under his head, which he did. After that, she sat on the bed again and took his left hand in both of hers. Methodically, she began massaging one finger at a time and then the palm and pad of his thumb.
Clay examined her face, trying to find an expression there to let him know if she was angry. But why did it matter so much? She hadn’t told him to leave. Why did he care what she thought?
Neither of them spoke for what seemed many minutes. When she finished with his left hand, she laid it on the bed and took the right one to do the same with it. Clay breathed slow and deep and closed his eyes. Her ministrations felt good, another unexpected part of this visit. He’d imagined it would be all punishment, and maybe sex would be involved, but after meeting her, he didn’t think it would be particularly enjoyable. Her touch did give him pleasure, however. She was different here in this room, still acting as the authority, but softer somehow, even when wielding the whip.
"Clay," she called his attention, almost whispering.
He opened his eyes and looked at her, shocked at the sound of her saying his name. For a second, she sounded like Mary.
She looked into his eyes intently. "Not so tight next time," she said, rubbing her thumb across his knuckles and glancing at the bars to indicate her meaning.
He started to ask if he could use her given name, too, but suddenly wanted to know something else more. "What will I learn here?" he asked in earnest.
She looked down at the hand she held. "We shall see."
"You said I require control of myself. Is that what you think you’ll teach me?"
"No more questions today." She let go of him and sat back.
"I think you say that because you don’t have answers to my questions," he said, but it was a tease. "I can tell you one thing I learned." Clay stroked his hand up her arm under the open sleeve. "I learned I like it when you touch me with your hands." His eyes moved lower to her breasts and his cock responded nicely to the provocation.
"Oui. I know."
She started to pull her arm away, but he caught her hand, reluctant to let the opportunity slip from his grasp.
She allowed him to caress her, though she did not reciprocate. "We are finished, monsieur," she said. "You may go and dress."
"It seems too soon," he protested, making no move to comply. He drew her hand to his lips and kissed it. "I was hoping I could stay after school and earn some extra points."
"It is time. You must get dressed and leave now."
Her impenetrable persona reasserted itself and Clay could only assume his initiative in touching her was what brought it on. Was there a rule about that, too, that he didn’t know yet? His irritation flared. For fifty dollars, he’d expected to get a little more than just his back hit a few times and his hands rubbed. He thought to pull her toward him and force the matter, but the image of Annie and the black eye he’d given her came to mind, followed quickly by Millie Kendrick’s face as she banished him from the Ivory Club.
Clay released Madame Tuliere’s hand and she stood up at once.
He rose to sit and swung his legs over the bedside. "So, Madame, when can I attend your class again?" he asked, reaching for the playful tone he’d been using. For a few seconds, he worked the muscles of his back, testing its soreness, and then he stood as well.
"Antoine will tell you when you may return. He will be waiting to show you out when you have dressed."
He looked at her and wondered if she’d ever do more than just dabble in either pleasure or pain. "Will it always be like today, with you ... with us doing the same things?"
"Non. It will be different each time," she said, then added in a reassuring tone, "but always in equal measure. All must be in balance."
Clay frowned. "I don’t understand."
She sighed. "Patience, Monsieur Mosby," she cautioned him. "You must leave now or you will not be allowed to return."
With that threat to motivate him, Clay resigned himself to obedience. He had hardly stepped through to the dressing room when she shut the door between them, leaving him to the thin comfort of another cryptic aphorism.
[to be continued, but as yet unfinished]
Colleen J. MacLennan