Author's Note: I have removed the middle chapters of all of my stories due to plagiarism. If you would like to read this story, please go to my home page for a link to my blog.
She kept tripping over the robe, and if she stepped on the hem of the pure white garment one more time, she swore she would throw it over her head and run around like a banshee. The thought made her grin. What would the Elders say if they saw the future Empress of Light running around the foyer in nothing more than her stockings?
If the action would shock them, she certainly would not be able to tell. The men and women who guarded the entrance to the Palace of Light were like austere ghosts, and more than once she had woken from a nightmare in which one of them was sternly warning her that her wicked ways would send her to Hueres, the land of the Demons.
Ten-year-old Ariella had already decided that she must get used to warm weather. According to Elder Baruch, Hueres was a land of constant flames, and even the lakes and oceans were consumed with liquid fire. Sometimes she would stand just a little too close to her hearth at night, preparing herself for the future everyone but her dear father felt certain would be hers. And even he, on occasion, had warned her that naughty children went to Hueres – usually only when she'd pulled a particularly nasty caper. Any other time she misbehaved, he would just shake his head slowly and look down at her with such disappointment.
If there was one thing Ariella could not stand, it was the silent rejection of her father. She knew he did not mean it, that he could not know how the palace servants talked about his displeasure in not being able to have more children, but sometimes she would catch the sadness in his eyes when he ruffled her blonde curls and knew what he was thinking. If only there had been others from which to choose…
She wanted to make him proud today. Ariella's mother had died giving birth, so he was the only one she had to impress.
"Your tiara is crooked." Elderess Hadara bent over from her position in the very center of the half-ring of ancient men and women blessed with the powers of Light and pushed at the glittering diamond tiara that had practically been embedded into Ariella's head. If one more person poked at the tiara…
"Elderess Hadara, why must I be presented to the people?" Ariella wondered. She tried to keep the whine out of her voice because she knew how much the old woman hated complaints. "Elder Baruch told me that I might not even be the Empress of Light. He said that the Holy Scepter can choose anyone to rule Galatéa, and that I am so wicked it will probably crumble at the mere sight of me."
Elderess Hadara's eyes narrowed as she searched the crowd of white-robed individuals in the main hallway for the middle-aged culprit. She cast the wind-talented Elder a vicious glare before turning to the young girl with a bright, encouraging smile. "The Empress or Emperor of Light has been selected from your family since the beginning of the Empire itself, Ariella. It is in your blood, even if it is not yet in your brain. You will be the next holy Empress."
"But I do not even have any powers," Ariella reminded her. She was clinging tightly to the woman's gnarled old hand without even realizing it, and despair flashed in her sapphire eyes. It was Ariella's greatest failure that she had not been gifted with powers at birth. Fifty men whose minds had reverted to child-like states because of accidents or age were miraculously cured on the day her father was born. His gift involved minds, and he only used his powers to heal. People flocked from all over the Empire to receive even a morsel of his healing powers.
Elderess Hadara's power was compassion. Even as Ariella clasped the older woman's hand, she could feel her body flooding with warmth and assurance. "Your powers will come in time, little Ariella. Sometimes it is those things for which we wait an eternity that are the greatest."
"Will papa be proud of me?"
She smiled down at the little girl and sent a wave of confidence through their linked hands. "Your father will be very proud."
Ariella sighed and turned to face the grand, golden doors that would lead to the veranda overlooking the great front courtyard of the palace. Three hundred stone steps led down from either side of the veranda to the cobblestone courtyard where her future subjects awaited the sight of their future ruler. All she had to do was walk out onto the veranda, smile, and wave.
It was customary in Galatéa to present the one selected from the family as the candidate for the position of Emperor or Empress in the child's tenth year. The current Emperor or Empress would take the child out onto the veranda, one of two outdoor spaces the palace-bound ruler was allowed to occupy, and announce the name of the future head of the Galatéan Empire. The one selected was not always the eldest child—her own father had been the youngest of three children but had possessed the greatest power. Unfortunately, he was not as virile as his own father and only produced one child very late in life. Even less fortunate were the premature deaths of his elder brother and sister before either could produce children of their own.
That left only Ariella.
The sound of boots clicking against cold marble made the child's back stiffen and her fidgeting hands drop instantly to her sides. She would recognize the sound of those boots anywhere, shiny black and so clean she could eat off of them. Even in his fifties, her father was a handsome man, with a lean physique and a noble face. His pale blonde hair and sapphire eyes were the same as his daughter's, though in every other way she took after her deceased mother.
Her father wore the ornamental white and gold robes of the Emperor, and atop his head rested a silly hat that resembled an upside-down triangle. Diamonds swayed from the thin brim, colliding with one another in a riot that sounded like tinkling bells. The smile of greeting he offered his daughter was somewhat rigid, but she did not even notice.
Ariella's gaze was fixated on the beautiful golden staff in her father's right hand. It had no inlays, no embossing. The Scepter of Light was nothing but a solid staff of pure gold, an object with the power to accept or deny the future ruler of Galatéa. If accepted by the Scepter, it would proceed to glow so brightly that the entire country would be engulfed in light. If not…well, no one had ever been denied by the Scepter, so Ariella had never been told what would happen. She was afraid, however, that in eight years, the people would know what to expect when the Scepter rejected a candidate.
Ariella took her father's free hand and used her other to imperceptibly lift the hem of her robe so she would not trip over the excess fabric. Two grandly dressed servants opened the great golden doors with a flourish, and with a heart pounding in anticipation, Ariella stepped out onto the veranda and into her destiny.
* * *
"Riyka! You sorry little girl, get in here this instant before I find my switch!"
Lady Saffron, the owner of Lady Saffron's Tea House, expected to hear the scurry of feet followed by the breathy pleas of a terrified girl. Riyka, however, was not a child anymore, and the threat of a switch did little to horrify someone who had felt it for so long that her body could barely feel pain anymore. Years of abuse and negligence had left Lady Saffron with only one threat that worked with any degree of certainty on the insolent brat, and she had learned to use it sparingly to retain its effectiveness. As this was not an incident that required such a threat, the corpulent woman ignored the girl's rebellious streak and waited impatiently for her to arrive in the small back room that served as both storage room and kitchen to the Tea House.
In more polite regions of Galatéa, such as the prudish country of Ranglen further north, tea houses were places where women gathered to gossip and giggle over steaming hot cups of gourmet tea. In the case of Lady Saffron, however, a tea house was something else entirely. Having established her business in the middle of Gorma, a large country that bordered the fiery pits of Hueres but was also a part of the holy Galatéan Empire, Lady Saffron tried her best to market her business to a very diverse set of people.
Initially, she adopted the title of Lady to soothe her more noble-minded clients, and she called her establishment a Tea House to trick their wives into entering. Her girls wore dresses that resembled typical Ranglish garb, all silk and lace…but far shorter and with tighter busts and a daring dip in the back. Most women were immediately offended; so offended, in fact, that they immediately ran home to tell their husbands about the awful mixup. Why, it wasn't a tea house, after all, but a bawdy place where women danced around in barely anything at all!
The husbands, of course, just had to come and see for themselves. And if the girls were not enough to ensure their repeat business, she offered a fine selection of teas – all laced with various narcotics to which many of her customers had become addicted.
As the night wore on at the Tea House, the scene generally escalated from a daring mockery of typical tea houses to a den of dissolutes where the women danced and enticed and worked more at selling their bodies than selling the tea. After many years in business, her establishment was now known as one of the best brothels in Gorma, and very few wives were still tricked into entering. She didn't need them to market her establishment anymore, anyway. Between her regulars and their friends, the Tea House whores kept very busy every single night.
All of them but Riyka, anyway. She was the only girl working at the Tea House who was not required to sell her body for cash and deliver a hefty percentage to her patroness. Having discovered early on in the girl's life that she was not blessed with the natural rhythm necessary for sensual dancing, Lady Saffron had juggled with various ideas for how to use her. Everyone had a use, after all, and Lady Saffron had enough whores to please her customers without adding another. Whores tended to have little time for precious else but their primary profession. Relatives, however…
Her friends – a loose term for a woman who cherished money above human companionship – often asked her what had possessed her to take in her sister's bastard daughter. They only saw that the rich, gluttonous woman who wouldn't spare a copper coin to save a man's life had charitably taken in an orphaned girl. Lady Saffron would just smile a secretive little smile and explain that Riyka was not a charity – she was a workhorse. When her friends wondered why Lady Saffron hadn't just bought a slave to work for her, that devious smile would only widen as she explained her motives. Slaves worked because they had to and only did what was necessary for survival. Orphaned relatives worked because they felt they owed their caretaker and often worked much harder.
Riyka was proof positive. At first Lady Saffron had set her to work in the back room, cooking and cleaning like an average kitchen maid. Within a matter of years, the girl was practically running the Tea House on her own, as well as cooking and cleaning for her aunt in whatever spare time she had. Riyka could cook, tend the tea bar, serve and moderate the guests, and sometimes even act the role of a pimp when Lady Saffron was not around. And more often than not, the Tea House owner would spend her days and nights lounging in her plush, leather armchair in her opulently furnished home next door while she gorged herself on the fruits of Riyka's labor. Only occasionally would she stop by to make sure that her business was running smoothly.
This just happened to be one such day. And oh, was her troublesome niece in for it....
Riyka was in the main room scrubbing the hardwood floors until they shone, knowing that in a matter of hours they would be covered with dirt and grime. She did not care. The cleanliness of the Tea House was a matter of pride for her, one of the few things about the place of which she could be proud.
When she heard her aunt's loud, grating voice from within the kitchen, she groaned softly and then said a quiet prayer for patience. As she walked slowly, purposefully, towards the kitchen, she continued to speak softly to herself. "Your aunt means well," she murmured, making sure to drag her feet to give herself time to prepare for another beating. "She only has your well-being in mind. How can you ever be successful if you cannot properly run a business, Riyka? Yes, she just wants you to be successful. One day she will die, this Tea House will be yours, and then you can do whatever you want with it. Even turn it into a charity house for the poor. Wouldn't that make her roll over in her grave! So just listen to what she has to say, and do not consider the many ways in which you would like to bring about her untimely demise."
She tried not to let herself smile over the fact that one day Hariette Birch, more commonly known as Lady Saffron, would die, in an untimely manner or no. Instead of envisioning gruesome, bloody murder, she tried to focus on being calm and genteel, and by the time she reached the kitchen, she was smiling a pleasant smile, not one belonging to someone who was contemplating murder.
"Is something wrong, aunt?" she asked sweetly. Her hands were folded primly against her stomach, and she stood tall and straight, knowing that any signs of superiority irritated her aunt to no end. No one should act more important than Lady Saffron, for in her beady little eyes, she was the most important woman in all of Gorma.
Her aunt's heavily painted lips drew into a scowl. "Did you know about Leila?" she snapped, getting right to the point. Apparently, she was far too concerned with business just then to bother chastising her niece for her arrogant posture, no matter how much it so obviously annoyed her.
Intent on avoiding the subject, Riyka pursed her lips together and narrowed her eyes as she stared at a stain on the wall just behind her aunt's head. How had that happened? She hadn't let the tea bubble over in weeks…
"Riyka! Pay attention girl! It is your job to keep up with the wenches who work here, so why is it that the girl's father showed up on my doorstep to tell me about her injury?" Lady Saffron demanded peevishly.
"Injury? Leila?" Riyka's eyes widened as she fought to hide the smirk that threatened to spread across her lips. "However did it happen?"
"He says she tripped on her way out the door last night and sprained her ankle. And don't you go looking sympathetic, you little brat, because I know you do not like the girl."
"Just because she called me a spoiled termagant does not mean I would purposefully bring harm to the poor dear," Riyka argued. She honestly had not meant to trip Leila, though perhaps she had daydreamed of the silly chit falling and breaking her neck as she absentmindedly left her mop lying directly in the path of the front door. "Frankly, I was surprised to discover that she knew such a large word let alone used it in a complete sentence."
One thick eyebrow trembled on Lady Saffron's fat forehead. "Stupid or no, that girl was one of my best whores, and you know it! If she had not upset me just last week by trying to shortchange me on my percentage, I would damn well make you take her place!"
Her furious threat stole away every last remnant of Riyka's defiance. Ever since she'd turned sixteen, her aunt had been promising to sell her body if she refused to work or if she did anything imperfectly. She worked herself to death to make absolute certain she would never fall prey to such a wretched fate; for years Riyka had been in charge of the women who sold their bodies for money at the Tea House, and some of the things she had seen…some of the injuries she had tended…She shuddered at the memories. Men, apparently, had some very strange appetites, especially those who drifted up from Hueres.
"It really was an accident," Riyka insisted. "I will find someone else to cover for her, I promise!"
"There is no time for that! We open in an hour, Riyka, and the slave market is already closed for the day. It takes weeks to negotiate deals with freewomen, which leaves us with nothing."
She sighed. There was no helping it, then. "I will work for her tonight," she allowed, "but only as a tea maid." There was absolutely no way she would agree to sell herself because of some silly accident.
Lady Saffron nodded her head in satisfaction, and the thick rolls about her neck seemed to nod along with her. "That will have to be acceptable for the time being. If something like this happens again, however…"
"It will not," Riyka assured her quickly, trying to force away a niggling sense of impending doom. "I swear it will not," she added, if only to convince herself. Trouble, it seemed, had a habit of following her around like a terrible specter. She knew her time was running out; very soon Lady Saffron would realize that if she kept threatening Riyka's virginity without following through on that threat, it would lose its potency. Thus she resolved to do her best to control her rebellious impulses, praying to the invisible powers of Light that she could survive another night of endless pawing in order to salvage the tattered remains of her innocence.
Riyka could not even count how many times over the years she had been forced, by some unfortunate mishap, to work in the main room at night. Normally she kept to the kitchen, brewing and mixing the teas and only drifting into the main room if someone needed her help or if the tea bar got too swamped with orders. Most likely her aunt had expected to find her in the kitchen this close to opening time, else she wouldn't have wasted precious effort entering through the back door of the establishment to find her niece. That her aunt hadn't known Riyka spent the hour before they opened cleaning the main room was only a testament to how infrequently she visited her own establishment.
Now she found herself delegating the cleaning chores to Lorg, the burly man who poured the tea and doled out the drugs. He had the personality of a log but a soft spot for Riyka, and he had started mopping before she even reached the back door that led up to the second level of the Tea House.
Even at this early hour, she could hear the sounds of money being earned by the Tea House harlots. Most of them were slaves, but a few freewomen lived at the actual Tea House for lack of cheaper lodging. They could sleep in one of the upstairs rooms so long as they gave Lady Saffron a higher percentage of their earnings. To offset the cost, many of them chose to work the streets during the day before donning their tea maid attire at night.
When Riyka first came to live with her aunt, she'd slept on the couch in the old woman's lavish one-bedroom cottage. Once she took over the Tea House, her aunt insisted that she move into the building because of the odd hours she kept. Apparently, her late nights and early mornings were disturbing her aunt's 'beauty' sleep. As if anything, even the great powers of Light, could make that woman beautiful.
Her room here was sparse – a simple mattress on the floor, a chest of hand-me-downs, and a candlestick resting on top of an overturned crate. Next to the candle she kept a small jar of black ink, which she rubbed into her hair every morning to disguise her blonde hair. Her aunt had warned her that the men from these parts went crazy over anything that looked Galatéan, as she didn't want her niece to be distracted from her duty of running the Tea House by the unwanted advances of man or demon.
Not that Riyka believed any man would approach her, even without the dye. She wasn't exactly a beauty, and the typical tea maid garb did very little to flatter her. On the busty, curvaceous women who normally worked downstairs and up, the outfit was suggestive, enticing. Pink or blue silk clung to every curve of the body, and the pure white lace that lined the hems and bust implied an innocence that drove the demons wild. For Riyka, the blue silk of her tea maid dress hung loosely over a straight frame, and the open back only served to expose what had once been her aunt's favorite place to use the switch. It wasn't a pretty sight.
She decided to wear a pale blue cape for this next foray into the pit of iniquity commonly known as the main room of the Tea House. She always wore something to cover her marred back…a loose-fitting shirt, a robe…whatever worked. The cape draped lightly over her shoulders and fell over her back and down to her waist; the neck clasp glittered with fake sapphires that would help draw attention upwards and away from her non-existant chest. More than once she'd been ridiculed by the Tea House customers for her lack of a figure.
Riyka took a deep breath to steady herself and wondered if this would ever get any easier. She was a nervous wreck at the thought of having to cater to those intoxicated, groping buffoons yet again.
"What'd you do this time?"
As Riyka walked back down the stairs leading to the main room of the Tea House, she stopped and turned. Jillian, a woman with light brown hair and dark eyes who had been working at the Tea House for longer than Riyka had been living there, was standing a few steps above her with a smile on her thick, red lips. The makeup she wore made her face look like melting wax, and she wondered that the aging woman still had customers every night. Of course, she'd heard on more than one occasion that experience outranked looks in the eyes of some men.
"She blames me for Leila's accident," Riyka explained.
Jillian snickered. "If I was Lady Saffron, I'd promote you for it. That girl was a cheat."
Riyka smiled. She liked Jillian. Most of the whores were just like Leila – contemptuous and full of themselves. Jillian treated Riyka like a little sister, however, and had been more like family to her than her own aunt. "Yes, but what is bad for business is bad for me," she reminded the woman.
Jillian sneered at that. "One day that woman'll realize what a treasure you are, and I hope to goodness it's after you're gone."
"What makes you think I will ever leave?"
The woman laughed heartily. "You weren't made for a place like this Riyka. You were made for bigger things."
"I used to dream that I was," Riyka admitted, "but then I wake up and I'm here. There is nowhere else for me to go, Jillian, and even if there were I would not know what to do with myself anywhere else. It took me long enough to learn the ropes around here."
"Don't you worry, girlie. You'll find your own soon enough." Jillian patted her on the back as she pushed her towards the door. "Try and keep to the corners tonight. We've had some wild ones come in lately, but they usually gather round the center. The quiet ones stay in the dark."
As her friend had suggested, Riyka kept to the corners and, for the most part, was left alone. Every now and then she would feel a hand snake up her skirt to pinch her bottom, but she had become very skilled at scooting away before the fingers met their target. About halfway through the night, however, disaster struck.
It was all the daimon's fault.
Riyka had been keeping her eye on all of the corner tables, making sure to jump on them before any of the other girls so she had an excuse to stay away from those in the center. When she saw the tall man wearing the long, hooded robe walk in and take a seat in the back left corner, she immediately walked over and asked what he wanted to drink.
Every table in the room had a small, laminated menu listing the assortment of teas the establishment offered – with only hints at the hidden ingredients that made the teas so addictive. All of the regulars knew what to expect from each of the teas, but there was always the risk, with a newcomer, that he (or, occasionally, she) might order something ill-suited to his or her tastes. For example, a full-blooded demon should not be permitted to order Passion Tea. The narcotic in that particular brew strengthened a man's libido, and demons certainly didn't need any help in that department. Riyka generally kept an eye on newcomers and did her best to ensure that the girls didn't serve them something they shouldn't…regardless of what they ordered.
Unfortunately, she couldn't get a very good read on this man, as he was covered from head to toe in cloth, and his eyes were intent on the menu, not her, when he said, "Just a cup of tea." His voice was low and rough, exactly the type of voice she would have imagined to come from such an enormous man. When he'd entered the Tea House, it had almost felt like the entire main room shrank in his presence.
Another table of three Gorman factory workers entered shortly afterwards and seated themselves at the table next to the hooded man, along the back wall. Riyka could hear their shouts for Visionary Tea – a customer favorite, as it caused whacky hallucinations and made one feel light and bubbly – before she even approached the table, so she decided to fill both orders at once. As she turned towards the bar, however, she felt the light touch of skin on her arm and immediately stiffened. Oddly, she didn't feel threatened or otherwise repulsed by the touch. Perhaps that was because this was the first time anyone at the Tea House had touched her without animosity or lewd intentions.
She turned back towards the hooded man and asked, her voice somewhat unsteady, "Yes?"
"Just tea," he specified, only the slightest hint of a warning in his tone. And yet Riyka didn't feel the least bit threatened. In fact, his request made her smile just a little.
This was quite possibly the first time anyone had ever asked for just tea since Riyka started working at the Tea House, and for some reason, it amused her.
"Busy night," Lorg commented as she placed her orders at the tea bar. "Any trouble so far?"
Riyka shook her head, though she wouldn't tell Lorg even if there was someone giving her trouble. He'd end up getting violent and losing his job, and other than Jillian, he was her only ally in this place.
As she walked back towards her customers, she could see that the three factory workers were busy ogling one of the more experienced, bustier whores. Bypassing them for now, she opted to serve the hooded man first. Just before she reached his table, however, she stopped and found herself staring curiously as he cupped one of his hands over the flame of the candle in the center of his table. He kept waving it back and forth with gentle motions, and Riyka found herself mesmerized as the flame responded, changing shape. Distorted images appeared within the fire, shapes unrecognizable to her unfocused eyes. Suddenly uncomfortable with the strange, almost snake-like visions emerging from the candle's flame, she forced herself to approach the man and interrupt his fire-play.
"You are going to burn yourself," she warned, forcing her voice into a semblance of nonchalance as she set the steaming cup and saucer down in front of him.
"I don't even feel the heat," he admitted quietly. His head turned slightly, but the hood of the robe still concealed his face completely from sight. A flash of warm gold revealed his eye color, but nothing else stood out from the darkness. "I like your cape."
Riyka started at his words. No one had ever commented on her attire before, no matter how differently she dressed from the other women. Perhaps he was mocking her? But the words hadn't sounded derogatory at all; in fact, it rather sounded like a sorry and awkward attempt at a compliment.
"Um, thank you," she said just as uneasily. She wasn't exactly used to people saying kind things to her, especially not in the main room of the Tea House. This was typically a place of ridicule on evenings such as this one.
When she stood there for a moment, unsure if she should leave or try to talk to the man, he glanced back at the table of factory workers behind her and queried, "You aren't going to serve your other customers?"
She glanced back at the men, whose eyes were locked on Lissa as she danced around their table – and, occasionally, on their table. "I think they are currently otherwise occupied," she advised with the slightest hint of a smile. "Besides, I am not going to continue serving that table. Once I drop off their drinks, I will leave them to Lissa."
He looked at her strangely. "You act as if that is your right. What is your position here, I wonder? Head harlot?"
She heard no censure in his remark; in fact, now it definitely sounded like he was teasing her. Relaxing a little, she responded, "Not a harlot at all, really."
One of his eyes closed a little, almost as if he were cocking an eyebrow at her…not that she could truly tell with his face still concealed by the shadows. "What you're wearing under the cape would seem to imply otherwise," he argued.
"In case you haven't noticed, these clothes do little but reveal what I do not have. A truly clever whore, one who actually wanted customers, would have worn something else entirely."
Those oddly slanted eyes softened just a little, as if he found her remark humorous. "And a whore who actually wanted customers probably wouldn't talk the way you do," he added.
Beginning to wonder if maybe he was trying to insult her, she demanded to know, "What do you mean by that?"
He lifted his massive shoulders into a shrug. "Condescending. Like a princess addressing her subjects." He nodded his head towards another one of the women. "You see what she does when she talks to one of them? She leans down. Puts herself on their level. You don't do that. I don't think you've ever done that."
It was an oddly penetrating observation for someone who had only just met her, and Riyka found herself unnerved by the whole encounter, even more so when she saw him reach for his cup of tea. Red scars that looked like sunken channels marred his right hand, and in place of fingernails were short, gray claws.
Riyka had seen her share of daimons – half-human, half-demon creatures – during her time at the Tea House. Most daimons were slaves or hermits, but some precious few dared to show their grotesque faces in public. They were all different, just like all demons were different. She had seen one that only looked like his demon ancestor in the curled horns that protruded from his head, and yet others were barely even human in appearance. She understood now why the man chose to wear the hooded robe and could only imagine how hideous his face must look that he felt the need to conceal it from sight.
His demon heritage did not, however, stop her from trying to defend herself. "My aunt, Lady Saffron, put me in charge of this Tea House at a very young age," she explained. "I've had to be this way to keep control of the place. Do you have any idea how temperamental whores can be?" Before he could respond, she said, "Of course you do. You're a daimon. Typically, I stay in the back room and brew and mix the teas, so I haven't had much practice being around regular people."
"It shows," he assured her. His eyes were clouded now, as if he wasn't quite sure what to think or feel just then. "Do you enjoy mixing the teas, at least, since you don't seem to care much for dealing with the whores or the customers?"
She shrugged. "It's work. What is there to enjoy about drugging people?" Then she grinned, staring off towards the kitchen in remembrance as she said, "When I first started mixing the teas, I had trouble judging the difference between the different powders. I once accidentally put what Lady Saffron calls passion powder into the Visionary Tea, which happens to be our most popular brew. That was certainly an interesting evening. I went into the main room the next morning, and the whores were all passed out on the floor while poor Lorg hid underneath the bar. I think Lady Saffron would have been far more upset if she hadn't made a killing that night."
"Weren't the customers unhappy about the mistake?" the daimon wondered.
Riyka flashed the grin down at him. "Would you have been?"
The daimon leaned back in his chair just a little and took a sip of his tea. "You forget, I ordered just tea. I didn't come here to get drugged."
"Well, as you can see, that isn't the only reason men come here," she said drolly and motioned towards the table of factory workers with her free hand. The tray was starting to get heavy, but this was the first somewhat civil conversation she'd had with someone not associated with the Tea House in a very long time. Possibly ever.
"And how does that generally work? I would assume the passion powder incident was a fluke, but if they all went upstairs at the same time, you would have no one to serve the rest of the customers."
"Well, generally speaking, they are not supposed to take their customers upstairs until after the main room of the Tea House closes. This time of night is for serving drinks and enticing future clientele through dance. Occasionally, they will go back to the stairwell for a very quick interlude, but it is my job to make sure there are always enough girls in the main room at any given time to serve all of the customers. Some nights, it isn't easy," she assured him. In fact, on some nights, it was almost easier to work the main the room than to manage it.
"I see." He looked at her thoughtfully for a moment, and then he asked, "Will you dance for me?"
Riyka was unable to control her reaction to his question; her jaw dropped. Then she glanced over her shoulder to make sure that one of the other girls hadn't walked up behind her. And then she started laughing. "I see now. You ordered regular tea because you are already soused."
The daimon looked disgruntled. "No, but I am…"
Whatever he'd been about to say got cut off by loud shouts for tea from the table behind her. Apparently, the factory workers had finally realized that their drinks hadn't arrived yet and were just now, at this insanely strange moment in Riyka's evening, calling for them to be delivered.
Attempting to end what had turned into a ridiculous conversation, Riyka hissed at the daimon, "I don't dance, and I don't do that either. So just drink your tea and be on your way."
"That?" the daimon queried, seemingly startled by her vehement refusal. "I wonder which that you are talking about?"
What did he mean which that? There was only one that…wasn't there?
"I am leaving now. If you would like more tea, let me know. Otherwise, I am finished serving you." And to highlight that fact, she drew herself up haughtily and turned her back on him.
Riyka was a little startled to discover that she was shaken by her encounter with the daimon. This was not the first time anyone had asked her to dance, after all. There was a disgusting, violent daimon named Thorpe that sometimes frequented the Tea House…usually only on the nights when Riyka worked the main room. Thankfully, he hadn't shown up tonight, so she didn't have to tell him no, repeatedly, while plying him with Soothe Tea in place of the Passion Tea he always ordered.
This daimon, however, was different. He'd conversed with her instead of trying to verbally force her into bed, and she hadn't felt any of the uncontrollable emotions that seemed to emanate from other daimons, like Thorpe. It was strange, really, because a part of her had actually wanted to dance for him.
Lost in thought about that anomaly, Riyka was too slow to evade the pinch as she set the cups of tea down on the table belonging to the factory workers. Lissa had stopped dancing moments prior to focus on another table, which was probably why the man had even bothered messing with her.
Riyka didn't feel the pinch. Her rear end had received so much abuse from Lady Saffron in her younger years that she probably wouldn't have even noticed if her skirts hadn't lifted slightly in response to the man's movements. Still contemplating her reaction to the daimon, she did not think before reacting instinctually and slamming her tray into the man's head. He went flying to the ground in a heap of moans, and when she realized what she had done and that the entire main room of the Tea House had gone silent and still in response to her reaction, her eyes widened in horror.
Instantly regretting her rash attack on a paying customer, she walked over to the man and offered her apologies. She truly had not meant to be so violent with him, but years of going into town alone to shop for the Tea House or purchase slaves for her aunt had caused her to often react aggressively whenever someone gave her unwanted attention.
The seedy-looking man stood up and backhanded her. She would have forgotten herself again and hit him right back if Lorg hadn't suddenly stepped in front of her to guard her. The worker looked ready to take on the burly bartender, too, but one of his friends placed a hand of warning on his shoulder. It was not in Lorg's direction he nodded with a grim look of warning, however, but at the dark corner where the daimon was seated.
Riyka couldn't see the daimon from behind Lorg's enormous back, but she did see the seedy man glance to the side, pale visibly, and then abruptly sit back down. "No use fightin' over a stupid wench," he muttered. "Not worth beddin' anyway."
She breathed a mental sigh of relief. She had no idea what had frightened the men so much – when Lorg finally returned to his position behind the bar, the daimon was sitting peacefully at his table as if nothing had happened – but she was glad that her lack of a body seemed to be enough to deter the one man from pushing the subject.
Riyka could only hope that her instantaneous reaction to the sneaky-handed man would not come back to haunt her.
* * *
Ipkus, Demon King of Hueres, sat on his throne of heated red iron with one grotesquely scarred elbow on his knee as his pointed chin resting on his clawed hand. To the fifteen high-class demons standing below the raised dais in the scorching-hot throne room, Ipkus looked lost in thought, an expression not common amongst those dwelling in the land of eternal flames. Like most demons, Ipkus hated having to think, but ever since the Galatéans conveniently disposed of his older brother nearly twenty-five years ago – Ipkus smiled pleasantly at the thought. Such a simple, expedient arrangement that had been – he had spent every waking hour trying to think of a way to rid the world of those detestable Light worshippers. If not for the constant interference of the Galatéans, the demons would be free to run rampant in the human world, killing and raping as they saw fit.
For most demons, there was no greater pleasure in life than hearing a woman scream or watching the life spill from a man's body. Some demons were content to control their urges and live peacefully with the humans…but not Ipkus. His own cursed brother had been quite amiable with the Galatéan Empire, had even tainted himself with the body of a Galatéan woman…but not Ipkus. If he touched one of their kind, it would be to strangle the life out of him.
A few of his loyal retainers stepped hesitantly away from him. The look of sheer malice that had entered his eyes made him appear crazed, and not one of them dared approach him or speak. The powerful demons were constantly in his attendance as protection, but nearly an hour ago he had announced that he wished to have a word with them. He spent the following hour lost in thought, but no one dared to ask why he had called a conference only to sit in silent reverie. To question the Demon King equaled a death sentence.
Unaware of the apprehension he was inspiring in his underlings, Ipkus contemplated how to approach a very delicate matter with the mighty demon accomplices standing silently before him. Demons were not above striking bargains with Galatéans to get their dirty work done in the Holy City, but if they knew the plot Ipkus was currently involved in, they might have a few protestations. This was far more than a minor bargain with a filthy, greedy human, after all.
"The time draws near," Ipkus finally announced in a calm, low voice. "In a matter of weeks the Galatéans will hold the ceremony to crown Princess Ariella the new Empress. We must stop this from happening."
His retainers, all large and hideously scarred, nodded their agreement enthusiastically. "I still say we should hire someone to break into the palace and rip her throat out," a hunkered down demon with squinty red eyes snorted.
"We tried that already, Orses," another demon snapped.
"What other option do we have?" someone else demanded. "The princess is not permitted to leave the palace walls, let alone the confines of the Holy City. Even paying off Galatéans to do the job for us has not worked."
"The old Emperor grows weaker every day," Ipkus spoke up. "The man can barely even hold the Scepter on his own now, let alone rule his Empire. As his strength weakens, so does the strength of his people and their faith in the powers of Light. We must take advantage of this weakness. We must declare war on the Holy City."
Fourteen of the fifteen demons looked startled by his revelation.
The fifteenth, Orses, was the first to voice his opinion. "I think it is an excellent plan, your highness. We should have done so years ago."
"Shut up, Orses!" A large demon stepped forward, his thick horns belying his ability to hold his head straight and proud. "Your grace, even with the Emperor's failing health, we cannot hope to amass an army and defeat the Holy City before the princess has accepted the Scepter. With the barrier of Light protecting the city…" His voice trailed off.
"Then we shall just have to make certain that the Scepter Ceremony never occurs," Ipkus easily replied.
There were confused murmurs among the demons. Finally, one with short, narrow horns spoke up. "But sir, didn't we just agree that it would be impossible to kill the princess?"
"There are ways to destroy an enemy's plan without having to kill the enemy." He turned to Orses. "Begin gathering the troops. And you, Yuthus." He pointed at the one with the long, thick horns. "You will stay behind and speak with me. There is much we have to discuss about the future of the Galatéan Empire."