Read The Devil's Garden Online

Authors: Jane Kindred

The Devil's Garden

The Devil's Garden
Jane Kindred
Carina Press (2011)

In The Devil's Garden, appearances can be deceiving...

Ume Sky enjoys her place of honor as temple courtesan for the reigning Meer of In'La—until an assignation with a client ends in violence. Her elite status stripped away, Ume is forced to return to a life on the streets as Cillian Rede, the boy she used to be.

Cillian finds temporary harbor with dockhand Cree Sylva, where fear keeps him from revealing his former identity. As the two become lovers, Cillian learns that Cree is not without secrets...

When Cillian has the opportunity to regain his position through a liaison with the Meer himself, he is torn between his feelings for Cree and his need to live as Ume. But there's even more at stake when Ume finds herself entangled in a plot to rid the Delta of divine rule...

25,000 words

The Devil’s Garden
Jane Kindred

The Devil’s Garden

By Jane Kindred

In the Devil’s Garden, appearances can be deceiving…

Ume Sky enjoys her place of honor as temple courtesan for the reigning Meer of In’La—until an assignation with a client ends in violence. Her elite status stripped away, Ume is forced to return to a life on the streets as Cillian Rede, the boy she used to be.

Cillian finds temporary harbor with dockhand Cree Sylva, where fear keeps him from revealing his former identity. As the two become lovers, Cillian learns that Cree is not without secrets…

When Cillian has the opportunity to regain his position through a liaison with the Meer himself, he is torn between his feelings for Cree and his need to live as Ume. But there’s even more at stake when Ume finds herself entangled in a plot to rid the Delta of divine rule…

25,000 words

Dear Reader,

I feel as though it was just last week I was attending 2010 conferences and telling authors and readers who were wondering what was next for Carina Press, “we’ve only been publishing books for four months, give us time” and now, here it is, a year later. Carina Press has been bringing you quality romance, mystery, science fiction, fantasy and more for over twelve months. This just boggles my mind.

But though we’re celebrating our one-year anniversary (with champagne and chocolate, of course) we’re not slowing down. Every week brings something new for us, and we continue to look for ways to grow, expand and improve. This summer, we’ll continue to bring you new genres, new authors and new niches—and we plan to publish the unexpected for years to come.

So whether you’re reading this in the middle of a summer heat wave, looking to escape from the hot summer nights and sultry afternoons, or whether you’re reading this in the dead of winter, searching for a respite from the cold, months after I’ve written it, you can be assured that our promise to take you on new adventures, bring you great stories and discover new talent remains the same.

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Executive Editor, Carina Press

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Dedication

For Gwen Araujo, who will always be seventeen summers.

Chapter One

Cillian Rede put little store in the magic of gods, but devils he believed in. At seventeen summers, he’d seen more than his share. Turn left or right and you would stumble over one in the city of In’La; among the marsh grass and the fragrant trees, intrigue and corruption were as likely to grow. Though such contradictions might be less pervasive elsewhere in the Delta, Cillian was accustomed to the devils he knew. And he was well versed in contradiction. From the time he could walk, he had favored the ways of women. With his delicate features, honeyed skin and hair in the uncommon hue of a tawny port, he had no trouble passing.

In the quarter known as the Garden, he worked his artistry as the Maiden Ume Sky. Ume’s patrons knew her true sex but left it unspoken. For a sacred courtesan, the gift of one’s body surpassed all other considerations. Whatever else her endowments, the Maiden Sky was undeniably lovely and blessed with a gifted tongue.

 

Among the flowering vines that draped the avenues fanning the square below
Ludtaht
Alya, temple of the Meer of
Soth
In’La, one might find a courtesan as easily as a priest. God or devil, MeerAlya was apparently immune to the simple needs of the body, but his templars were frequent visitors to the Garden.

Ume reclined against the gilded carriage stall in front of the Salver & Chalice to await her patron, turning away other suitors with a gracious smile through the gossamer fabric of her veil. Not required to follow the custom by which unmarried women were bound, Ume preferred the tradition, though her covering was more a tribute to the symbol than to its function. The sheer drapes interwoven with delicate threads of silver and gold in the pattern of the House of Alya had earned her the sobriquet
the Maiden Sky.
Beneath wide amber eyes and a few artful strokes of kohl to frame lashes in need of no embellishment, the veil spoke of whispers in the dark.

A flare of red robes on the tavern steps announced her patron, a member of the Court of Decisions, the highest office among the Order of Priests Templar in service to the holy Meer. This one was a predictable and reliable assignation who paid well. Generous with his master’s gifts, if not so much with his own, he would engage her for the full night and ask little in return; Templar Nesre liked to watch.

“Maiden Sky.” He pressed her hand to his lips, a tuft of gray beard tickling her fingers as he held them a moment too long. As always he took liberties. His subtle attempts to overstep his status were harmless, and it amused her to humor him. They both knew who held the power in the sacred rites of MeerAlya. He gave her a perfunctory bow. “You look exceptionally enchanting. As brilliant as the evening sky for which you’re named.”

Removing her hand with a slight tug, she inclined her head, setting the ruby teardrops of her headdress bobbing and glistening amid the iridescent rivercock feathers at the crown. “You flatter me, Templar. I am only a tribute to the dying sun.”

“You are too modest, Maiden Sky. Accompany me to my rooms, and we can discuss the resemblance further.”

 

In Nesre’s carriage, Ume slipped her hand between her thighs to stroke herself through the slick silk of her dress while Nesre stroked himself less covertly. His efforts came to fruition as the carriage stopped inside the temple courtyard.

Through the open arcade the last glow of twilight on the river beyond illuminated tiles of gold and mosaics of silver. Like a rising star on the firmament
Ludtaht
Alya twinkled as night approached, its arches strung with luminous crystal globes. While
Soth
Rhyman to the west was the traditional capital of the Delta,
Soth
In’La was its modern rival.
Ludtaht
Alya outshone the simple temple at Rhyman both in literal brilliance and in Meeric splendor. If the templars were to be believed, words alone, spoken by the first Meer of In’La, had created gilded arch upon gilded arch beneath a stunning network of domes and towers, just as MeerAlya’s word had harnessed the power of fire within his incandescent lamps.

As far as Ume was concerned, the Meer’s magic was no more than a prop dangled before the citizenry to give legitimacy to both religion and government. The race of Meer reigned over the city-states along the great river Anamnesis because they were considered gods—and were considered gods because they ruled.

For a citizen of the Delta, and one who made her living in sacred service to the temple, such lack of faith was akin to treason, so she kept it to herself.

Templar Nesre helped her from the carriage and escorted her over the carpet of lotus petals laid daily for the Meer, who had long since retired to his den. At a rumored 120 years of age, he spent much of his time in sleep and seclusion. As Ume mounted the steps, servants bowed to her in respect. Here in the great domed hall, Ume Sky was the goddess.

When they reached Nesre’s quarters along the south arcade, Ume drew up short. A templar in the blue robes of a minor cleric raised a glass to her from the table beside him.

Nesre took her hand from the newel. “Templar Zedei. May I present the Maiden Sky.”

Zedei rose and bowed as he kissed her hand. “I am honored.”

“I wasn’t aware you had company this evening, Templar Nesre.” Ume raised her brow in cool amusement. “Who will be servicing whom?”

Zedei laughed, returning to his comfortable position. “Come, Maiden Sky. Join me in a drink.” He held out a glass of
pelia,
the amber liquid sparkling in the light of the oil lamps, while he smoothed his hand over the broad pillows. Casting a glance of irritation at Nesre, she took the cordial and knelt beside Zedei. She was not accustomed to un-negotiated arrangements, nor did she usually take on patrons of Zedei’s level. She had a reputation to maintain, and it was his obligation to earn access to a courtesan of her standing, not his right.

“Forgive me, Maiden Sky.” Nesre took his customary place on the settee across from the pillows, which afforded him the best view. “I should have discussed the terms with you on the way, but I was distracted by your beauty. If this is not agreeable to you…” He’d already loosened his robe and begun to fondle himself to arousal.

“Of course I’ll pay the customary fee.” Zedei poured himself a glass of the cordial, oblivious to his extraordinary breach of etiquette.

Eyes intent on him, Ume drank the
pelia
with a slow, deliberate swallow, making her disapproval clear. “Do not speak to me of money, Templar Zedei. Business is not handled in the bedchamber.”

His face reddened. “I apologize. I’m afraid I’m a bit nervous.”

As she savored the sweet
pelia
on her tongue, Ume softened toward him. This was likely his first engagement with a proper courtesan. With lowered eyelids—not from modesty, but to display the Irises of Alya in gold-flecked enamel adorning them—she set down her empty glass and placed her hand on his, stroking it reassuringly. Surprisingly potent, the
pelia
spread warmth through her, mellowing her disposition.

“Put nervousness aside, Templar. After all, you’re accustomed to dealing with the divine. Now you’ve come to sacrifice at the altar of desire as an expression of that same divine.” As she spoke, she moved her hand over his robes and lowered her mouth to his ear, deepening her voice into the purr that never failed to arouse a patron. “Desire and pleasure are the sacraments of the Meer, as magic and as sacred as the gifts he speaks into being.”

Emboldened by her words, Zedei removed the headdress that held her veil in place. Lamplight danced on the gemstones, turning prisms before her
pelia
-softened vision as the layers of silk fell against her shoulders.

“You are as beautiful as they say,” he murmured, hardening beneath her touch. Ume released him from his robes and draped across his lap to bless him with her mouth, positioning herself so Templar Nesre could enjoy watching her backside perched in the air before him. The Meer were said to grant
vetmas,
blessings, with their tongues, and in this regard Ume considered herself their equal.

As Nesre nudged his slipper beneath the hem of her skirts and slid it up to bare the curve of her buttocks, Ume gave an appreciative moan into Zedei’s lap to increase the ardor of both patrons. Zedei stroked the perfumed gloss of her tawny tresses and ran his other hand over her thigh to rest between her legs. When he slid his fingers lower, he tensed abruptly and jerked his hand back, an odd sound emerging from his throat. With his fist in her hair, he pressed her down into his lap until she couldn’t breathe. Ume tried to pull back but was stayed by his ferocious grip.

“Vile—” he paused, perhaps uncertain what ought to follow this, before shouting, “—
bitch!

Then Nesre was between them, struggling to wrest her hair from Zedei’s fist. Head swimming from the
pelia
and the need for air, she scrambled against the pillows, beating at Zedei’s chest. The crystal decanter shattered as she upended the table and broke free.

Ume pressed a shaky hand to her forehead. A sticky fluid, darker than the
pelia,
ran through her fingers. Pale as a ghost and filled with rage, Zedei’s face wavered before her. She closed her fingers around a cold shard of the broken decanter as the room dissolved into a haze.

 

“Maiden Sky.
Ume.

Something damp pressed against Ume’s forehead. Beneath it, her skull throbbed and her eyes ached too much for her to open them. She moaned in answer.


Meeralyá.
Blessings upon him. You’re alive.”

“Templar Nesre?” Ume opened her eyes in a reluctant squint. Only Nesre’s silhouette was visible as lamplight flickered somewhere in the corridors beyond. “Your friend—” Remembering with a jolt of rage the sudden turn of Zedei’s passion, she raised up onto her elbows. “What in the name of Alya were you thinking?”

“I beg your forgiveness.” Nesre helped her sit up and pressed her hand to the compress on her brow. “I should never have brought him here. We had been drinking, and I bragged of you—I had no idea he was so ignorant in the ways of courtesans.”

Ume tried to rein in her anger. “He expected a different sort of woman.”

“I’m afraid, yes. And he was full of spirits. I’ll testify to that.”

“Testify? What are you talking about? What’s happened to your lamps? I can’t see a thing.”

“I put them out when you collapsed—” Nesre paced away from her, “—until I could figure out what to do.”

“Do about what?” Ume lowered the compress. Beside her, among the scattered pillows, a dark shape slumped against the wall. She reached toward it but pulled back at the touch of cool flesh, fear pounding in her chest. “Nesre…”

“I’ll tell them it wasn’t your fault. It was self-defense.”

“Nesre!”

He stopped pacing and met her eyes. “You stuck a
chiv
of crystal in his heart. That’s why your hand is bleeding.”

Ume peered at her hand in the darkness. A trail of dried blood extended from a jagged rake in her palm.

Nesre stepped into the corridor and glanced in both directions. After a moment he returned, his red robes swirling about his feet.

“No one was aware he was entertaining with me. This end of the arcade is isolated. You won’t have to be involved at all.”

Ume put the cut hand behind her back, hiding the evidence. “He tried to smother me.”

“Yes, it’s perfectly defensible—to you. To me, who saw it.” Nesre knelt in front of her and drew her hands forward, speaking low at her ear. “But to the court—I fear, my dear Maiden Sky, the Meer may not look on this as you and I do. I think it’s best if we cover up the deed.”

“I—Did I kill him?” Ume’s limbs began to shake.

He smoothed her trembling fingers between his hands. “I’m going to take care of this, Ume. I shall take care of
you.
But for a few days perhaps it would be best if you lie low.” He paused. “That is…if
Ume
lies low.” He was on the verge of breaking the sacred trust. A temple courtesan was afforded the respect of her body and her identity that no other Deltan was allowed. To violate that trust, either in word or in deed, was profane. Her shaking intensified.

He dropped her hands and went to his wardrobe, his manner suddenly brusque. “Take off your dress. I have some of my serving boy’s costumes. You’ll be assumed to be a page working late for your master.” He turned with the garments and tossed them at her. “Out of the dress, now. We don’t have time to waste.”

Ume loosened the clasps down the front of her gown and let it slip from her shoulders, baring her flat chest. In all the times she’d been naked before her patrons, she had never felt ashamed. But stripped of the identity of the immaculate Maiden Sky, there was only Cillian—an awkward boy caught dressing in girls’ clothing.

He scrambled into the rough tunic and pulled the linen pants over his flaccid cock. Despite the disparity of his sex, the glorious, taut skin of his erubescent erections belonged to Ume. As Cillian, he might as well be gelded.

Nesre shook his head as he regarded him. “You’ll have to wash your face.” He opened the hinged screens before his washbasin and poured the remains of the evening’s pitcher into it. As Cillian obediently bent over the basin to scrub at the glittering Irises of Alya and the smudges of kohl beneath his eyes, Nesre stepped behind him. Cillian raised his head in astonishment at the sound of shears and a sense of lightness at his nape.

“No one would believe you were a page with such lengths.” Nesre dropped the thick lock and took the heavy shears to another. Cillian fought the urge to burst into girlish tears and submitted as his tawny waves littered the carpet.

When Cillian had dried his face of the last traces of makeup, Nesre stepped back to observe him. “Stay away from the Garden for a few days. Including your rooms. I’ll send word to you at the Riverdock pub when things have settled down.” He held out his hands for Cillian’s slippers and gathered the dress and veil with them. “I’ll burn all of these. There’s blood.”

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