Title: Intrigue at the Crowned Jewel

Summary: We've got libertines with split personalities, courtesans who read minds, a city that revolves around the nightlife of its top brothel, and more magic than one can shake a stick at. There's also a cursed prince, the occasional plotting of people up to no good, and awkward dates with people who need hugs. What more do you want?


Black Viper / Rule 34: Service Only Those Who Have Paid

It was a nice night to be out, I thought reflectively, tilting my wine glass so that it caught the light of the stars and moons above. I did not often volunteer for Mother's sorties, but after a chance at rest had stretched into boredom, I decided it might be worth my time to go if only for something to do. Tonight's was particularly well attended, taking place as it was on the night before a city holiday: Antiplage Day, a celebration of the end of a war long ago. We were a rich city, one that could afford to celebrate occasions few were alive to remember, and I drank to this sentiment.

The grand mansion whose flat roof we danced and drank upon was part of the reason for that wealth. The Crowned Jewel kept money in circulation more than any other establishment in the area—our costs primarily were in cloth and fine foods, which made the city a tourist draw, one known for fineries more than it would have been for the poor soil and ill climate had Mother not chosen this place for her business. Then the tourists spent their money here, and the cycle continued.

Seven of us were working upon the rooftop tonight, though I could only spot three others at the tables or on the dance floor—the rest were out earning our keep. Oh, we were under no pressure to choose patrons tonight, but it was generally expected; it was why so many toasted the victory here, rather than at the palace or their own grand homes. Being pleasing to one of the Crowned Jewel's workers meant an hour or more free of charge—excluding the cover price for the party itself—with staff members that might otherwise be booked for months.

Those that were here tonight leaning against the ornate iron railings and swirling their crystal glasses were particularly lucky. One of the staff flitting from table to table and causing brief scuffles wherever she stepped was Sweet Lavender, our resident star—her beauty matched only her kindness, the gentle radiance visible every time she smiled at a guest, which was often. It was said her dark hair, the waves that fell to her knees, captured all bad dreams from those she touched, and that her violet eyes were so lovely even the cursed prince could find solace in them. As she made her way across the floor, the most grizzled men blushed and the most upright women flirted like children, each trying to catch her eye.

She stopped behind the chair of a young girl that couldn't be more than thirteen and placed her hands on the trembling shoulders before her, bending her head to whisper something into her guest's ear; the girl went scarlet and dropped her water glass. Three spells caught it before it could smash on the ground: Lavender's, Blued Moon's, and Mother's. That was at least two workers watching Lavender rather than pleasing guests, excluding myself, and I smiled behind my mask and turned my view out across the countryside.

The Crowned Jewel was located on a hill on the edge of the city, closer to the markets than the homes of patrons we primarily served. Placement didn't matter much—they would come regardless, and even if we had been in the slums, none would bother us or our visitors. Mother employed only mages, and only those at least a percentage non-human, gathering a collection of prostitutes whose beauty, talents, and magical abilities were famed world-wide. The owner herself was the only true human that worked the Crowned Jewel, but she relied on having presence unlike anyone else, so much pure charisma she could walk the tables naked and not draw a murmur of protest—not that she would submit herself to such an indecency, but the possibility was there. The protection and privacy spells around the building were so strong I could actually see them glimmer in the night, blurring the sights around us.

"Have you not noticed the young man in the army uniform?" I heard a low voice murmur in my ear, and turned to see another of our longtime staff and one of my dearest companions join me at the rail, leaning casually back upon it and tilting her head skywards. The people at the table behind us were staring at the line of her dark neck, the way her short black locks slid across her cheek, and I narrow my eyes fondly. Gray Diamond's beauty was not quite as pronounced as Lavender's, but she knew what she was about. "He all but leaps up and down when you look his way."

"Mm," I said, turning to rest against the bulstrade as well. The man in question, a blonde youth with his long hair pulled back into the military plait, blushed scarlet as my gaze drifted over him, and I was somewhat amused as his friends laughed and gestured my direction, apparently convincing him to approach me. "They must be new," I replied. I never accepted proposals directed towards me, for those I took to my bed were precisely those that would never ask.

"Show mercy," my friend advised. "Have fun. Never have I seen you so withdrawn, Viper." Her words were light, but I could hear the concern beneath them. "Do not let your previous assignment cage your spirit so."

I took another drink, feeling the low boil of anger rise through me at the memory her words drew up. My last assignment—Viktor, a name that made me want to crunch the glass in my hands just remembering—was what had led to this boredom and stagnancy in the first place, as well as giving me scars across my chest that I would permanently bear. It had not been a good time, neither for me nor the patron that had attacked me in a fit of madness, not after the Jewel's automatic safety spells had targeted him. But Gray Diamond was right—I should not dwell on that this evening.

The scars had prompted me to don a shirt for once, black silk that dropped to the end of my ribcage: cloth that fluttered in the wind and apparently hypnotized the army youth, who froze in the act of rising from his chair. "Fine," I replied, "I won't." I left her side, winding through the crowd, my eyes staying fixed on the soldier in front of me, who stayed properly pinned.

The table he sat at with his friends fell silent as I reached it and I inhaled carefully, judging the reactions of the man and his companions. Some lust touched my nose, as did rapidly draining amusement, and a healthy amount of hostile fear. I knew what I looked like at the moment, the black, featureless mask that stopped just before my upper lip, the black hair that fell in twists down my back, the black leather and silk that graced my form. Unlike Red Ivy, who I could see leaning up to kiss a man at the table beside us, I had muscles over my deceptively lean form, muscles a few of the army boys were looking at with calculating eyes. Testosterone flooded suddenly over the other scents and I chuckled low in my throat. This was not the type of crowd I called to my room, but that didn't mean they weren't fun.

I circled the group, keeping my eye on the trembling blonde who Gray Diamond had indicated, and when I reached him I leaned over his shoulder as Lavender had her girl, invoking likely much different thoughts than she had. "Tell me," I said, loud enough to reach his friends, "do you consider yourself a mouse?"

"A mouse?" he squeaked, and I took pity on him by not laughing. A few of the others at the table did not seem to find my question and his answer quite as amusing as I did, and they leaned forward into more dominant positions, intent on me.

"What of the rest of you?" I asked, rolling out the words languidly. "Is there a stoat among you, perhaps? A rat?"

"None of us are rats," the boy to my left growled. "And we didn't come here to be insulted." My, more than simply new, this crowd must be ill informed as well. Perhaps I would ask Mother to have a word with the General later, if he were training men that couldn't tolerate a little ribbing from a prostitute.

"Insulted?" I raised my brows, though they wouldn't be able to see this through the mask. I moved behind the speaker instead, tracing a finger down his spine. He shuddered despite himself. "I only take rats."

"Alan, stop it," the original blonde hissed. He smiled apologetically and nervously up at me. "Please, sir, they don't mean any harm." It looked as if he was trying to win me over, then; not a good sign for someone I was almost considering, and I regretfully marked him off my list. He was rather handsome, but not to my taste.

"I do," I replied, well amused, and he blushed red to his roots. The two on his right rose to their feet, bristling; several other guests were turning their heads to see what the commotion was, then got their friends' attentions when they noticed I was involved. Gray Diamond, I could see out of the corner of my eye, was laughing into her drink and trying not to show it.

Ah, but Mother would be most annoyed if I permanently lost guests, even if they were idiots. "It seems there are no rats here," I said, drawing out the hiss on the s. "A shame. Merely young lions and loyal elk hounds." That made the poor boys confused, and I lifted my shoulders into an apologetic shrug, well amused. No wonder I hadn't yet found someone to take to bed tonight, if the crowd contained such intelligent individuals as these. I left them, giving the blonde a playful tug on his braid to see him blush again, and sought out darker corners to go drink in peace within.

But peace escaped me once again. My favorite corner was already occupied by one of our older guests, a wrinkled, elderly man with a solemn expression and a weary eye that watched the crowd as closely as we who worked it did. Despite his rather dull clothing and lack of guards, I wasn't fooled a bit. The evening seemed like it might be perking up some—this wasn't a foolhardy army brat. I snuck up to his side, invisible in the darkness, and hissed, "Good evening, sire."

The old man's eyes closed and he gave a weary sigh, the closest I would ever come to startling him. "Black Viper. You should have more consideration for your guests," he told me, as he had so often before.

"I am not known for my consideration," I replied, leaning against the wall beside him. He tolerated my presence easily, not a hint of the nervousness that even my friends carried around me on his scent. Then again, this was not the first time I had caught King Martin in my shadowy spot by far. Although I doubted he came only because he enjoyed my company, he didn't seem to mind when I sought him out for a break from the rounds.

The man gave a wan smile, visible only because his skin was so pale in the moonlight. "I saw what you did to those poor soldier boys, you know. I was hoping they would challenge you to a duel."

"A duel," I echoed, tone amused. "The Crowned Jewel's mistress is not likely to add dueling to our repertoire."

He nodded, swirling his drink. "I would have put money on you, lad. The stories I hear of your feats, I think you could take on the group one-handed. Doubtless some of these rumors are unfounded," he added as an afterthought.

My smile was invisible. "Doubtless," I replied. We stood in companionable silence for a minute, watching the crowd and listening to the quiet din of the violins and cellos as they launched into the latest favorable piece.

"You don't seem to find anyone out there tonight favorable, I've noticed," Martin remarked after awhile. "That's a shame. I heard from your... the mistress that you haven't taken anyone under your serpent fangs, as it were, since an accident a few weeks ago."

I didn't want to be reminded again, but I liked our reserved king too much to be cruel to him. "No," I replied. "There are slim pickings tonight."

"That might be true." He took a sip of his drink and I wished I hadn't lost mine somewhere along the way; I had remained poised to strike for so long that evening that I had grown restless and needed something to hold in my hands. The servingmen and women were too far away to offer me a drink, so there was no obvious solution to my problem. I was just about to make my excuses and go off to look for my absent glass when the king spoke up again suddenly. "If my son was here," he said, "you might like him."

My attention focused as if it had never wandered, all my senses latched on the king. I had never heard him speak of the cursed prince, not even when others asked after his health; no one ever heard anything about him, despite the raging rumors that hovered at the tips of tongues high and low. "I wouldn't be adverse to finding out," I said, keeping my tone careful. If it was an invitation, I was as curious as the rest of the city.

To my disappointment, the king squared his shoulders, replying gruffly, "Well, I don't think he would come here."

I was about to apply a little more stress to my casual interest when my mother caught sight of us and worked her way over. "Sire," she greeted warmly, "I didn't see you in the darkness. I hope our Viper has not been bothering you." The suddenly bland look she shot my way spoke of death if I was, and I carefully blended into the darkness again.

The king chuckled. "No, not at all," he replied, and, after shooting a farewell nod to me, let the Jewel's owner lead him back out into the light. I pitied him, a little. He was a creature of shadow, a good leader, but one parties like these did not suit. I bent my head in a returned invisible bow and, suddenly tired of the proceedings, slipped into the doorway behind me, the servants' staircase to the floors below.

I didn't walk the servants hallways frequently, although I used to run up and down them daily as a child, pretending I was a knight and the servants good citizens to protect. As an adult, I enjoyed pacing them in times like these, when the nobles above brought their own servers and ours had time off, and thus the lamps were snuffed out aside from the glow of the occasional mage ball. Those made the shadows even starker, the light amplifying the dark spots in my path, and I walked among them contently. Nothing the night had ever made could scare me.

A sudden sound brought me to a halt, however: a muffled sob from the other side of the wall that I focused all my senses on, curious. A lover's spat, perhaps? I smiled in the darkness; it was unlikely at a brothel, but then, perhaps not. We catered to all emotions at the Crowned Jewel.

I felt along the wood until my fingers caught the latch for one of the hidden servant doors and I let myself out into moonlit outside hall, the one that ran around the circumference of the east wall. My excellent night vision caught the darker shape that was crouched across the richly carpeted hall beside the window, one hand resting beside a shattered glass, the other pressed against a moonlit mouth to muffle sobs. I approached on soundless feet until I gaged myself to be visible to whoever it was, then said in a low voice, "Lost?"

The figure leaped up quicker than the light that spread across dark skin and darker features; a young man, his eyes panicked in the darkness. "I'm so sorry sir," he said, voice scarcely above a whisper, his gaze darting back and forth; perhaps I had misjudged my position. I took another step towards the window, and if his eyes had been large before, they were huge now, staring at me. He made a soft noise of startlement and moved backwards, falling against the window behind him. I didn't think I would want to meet me alone and lost in a strange hallway either, so I didn't mind. "I... I..." He swallowed suddenly and held out his hands. "Don't come any closer, sir, there's broken glass."

I twitched my fingers slightly and it became a whole glass. He stared at it as if his life depended upon it; I realized after a moment of continued silence it was likely because he had just realized he was speaking to one of the Crowned Jewel's mage workers, had no idea the proper decorum for doing such a thing, and had decided terrified servitude was the best course. I smiled, an expression wasted on someone doing anything but looking my way. "You did not answer my question."

His gaze jerked up and then down again. "Yes, sir," he whispered. "P-please, Lord Vahn will be furious if I don't bring him his olives soon. If... if you could just tell me where the kitchen is again..." There were nearly twenty different types of olives on the roof, which told me all I needed to know of this Lord Vahn, a name I was unfamiliar with. I moved forward, careful not to tread on the gray shapes I could now see on the floor, and the servant stiffened though he moved back no further.

"I might," I told him, and his features dimmed in the moonlight. Why not, I decided, and reached up, ghosting my fingers across his cheek, inhaling softly as I did so. If I caught true fear or horror in that scent, I would leave him; I was not one to assault or be cruel to others. There was indeed a sudden odor of panic in the air, but the chemicals that sped up his heartbeat, loud to my ears in the darkness, was not just alarm. I smiled and knelt, and his breath caught in his throat.

"My lord?" he whispered, confused, and I lifted the glass up to his hand.

"Won't you need this?" I replied, my voice low, and he reached for it hesitantly, his grip trembling around it, though I noticed his fingers were tightly clenched and determined not to drop the cup again.

"Thank you," he said, his eyes turning away from me shyly, and I chose that moment to strike. I pinned his frame against the wall, his wrists caught between one of my hands before he could move. The glass dropped from fingers now paralyzed and it was my turn to cast a quick catch spell before it could strike his head. It floated from him to land upon the sill, but we were scarcely paying attention to it.

Another man would have chosen to make a more thorough move, attacking before his prey could react, but it was not in my nature to do so that night. Instead, I let him regard my masked face in the darkness, the black covered muscles that glistened where the moon hit. With my other hand I reached up and carefully undid the first clasp on his shirt, letting my fingers brush lightly against the skin underneath. He made no sound at all, not the reaction I was looking for, but his pulse doubled under my grip.

Slowly, enjoying every moment, I undid the rest of the clasps and let my hand rest over his thundering heartbeat. The flesh beneath my fingers was the somewhat pudgy outfit of a food servant who was spared the strenuous jobs of those assigned to harder tasks, but I did not mind; sometimes a break from the prissy, streamlined peacocks above was refreshing. I leaned forward, licking a trail up his sternum, and then he did gasp, a soft cry that I awarded with an answering growl.

"Lay down," I hissed, and his legs buckled immediately underneath him; just as immediately, however, he scrambled back up again, pulling against my grip. I grinned sharply in the darkness.

"I-I have to be getting back," he whispered frantically, and I replied by sweeping his legs fully out from under him, catching his head an instant before it would have hit the ground. He shook in my grip, staring up at me with wide eyes, and I let his scalp touch down to instead trace a line down his stomach.

"Do you know my name?" I asked, brushing the edges of his shirt off of him and leaning down to bite lightly above his navel; that got me a soft shriek and jerk away, complete with breathless panting.

"N-no, sir," he replied, and I paused in my attentions, frowning. He didn't? How annoying. He cringed back at my stillness and I stoked my hand across his torso again to calm him, or at least cast his thoughts in other directions.

"They call me Black Viper," I told him, and his gasp at least reassured me he had heard of the name, even if he didn't know my description. Perhaps I would talk to Mother about having a sort of lower-wage outreach program; it couldn't hurt publicity. Pressing his wrists down into the carpeting, I undid the knot on his belt, and now he gave the softest whimper. I smiled.

"If you wish," I growled, undoing the buttons I encountered underneath, "I will apologize personally to your lord for your absence." I deftly lifted his hips while sliding off the material in one swift gesture. You learned the most convenient actions in my line of work, I thought with some amusement, and took the opportunity to run my hand along the back of his thighs. Lovely.

Again, he made no noise, and even stilled in my grasp; I glared at him, something my mask unfortunately hid in the darkness. "Why?" he whispered, and his voice was so pitiful that I could not stay annoyed.

"I want a favor from you in return," I breathed into his ear, leaning up to run a tongue along his cheek and enjoying his shudder. "I want to be sure you know my name before this night is through."

And by the end, he had done a very good job of convincing me that he did.

Unfortunately, I was unable to keep up my end of the bargain, for the frustrated lord had left the party by the time we were through; I was vaguely amused to learn this Lord Vahn had been in the group of army lads that had risen to challenge me. Instead, I arranged for one of our drivers to take the boy home, handing him up to the coach personally as the glow of dawn began to lighten the sky. "If a written apology will not do," I told him, "I will visit him myself. I am sorry for keeping you this long."

"I'm not," the serving boy replied, his eyes shining against the lightening sky, and I gave him a rare visible smile for his words. Not a bad evening's work, I thought, watching the coach pull into the yard, and walked to my rooms for the morning.

Each of the employees at the Crowned Jewel was granted a small suite with a dressing room, a bedroom, and bath, and mine was decked in rich reds and golds that always irked me when I returned to them after a night of working. It had too much light and too many mirrors, surfaces that threw my form back to me and drew me to threateningly challenge the imposing vision they reflected. I was not the company I preferred, not this dark man who had nothing that I wanted. It always made taking off the mask easier, something I did now with a weary sigh.

The change came over me quickly as always, the spells tied up in the mask releasing their hold and slipping away. The hair that spilled from my crown was no longer black twists but soft crimson waves, the eyes that watched the mirror moving from dark to a sunny blue. The world that had been so sharply in focus softened and dimmed, until I no longer noticed the walls were gilt red trimmed in gold, nor cared.

My clothes were still a depressing black, however, and I made a face at them, stripping down to nakedness where the dour color went away. I replaced it with the royal blue robe that I had flung earlier over my chair, snuggling into the soft cloth in content. The horrid leather did itch so; I didn't know why it always seemed so important I wear it when I went rounds as Viper. The silk was acceptable, at least, although velvet was the latest style in.

Absently, I twirled the mask around in my fingers, then tossed it onto the pillows lining my bed and grinned, wagging my finger its direction. "Get better taste!" I ordered the plain black leather, then flopped onto the comforters beside it. My eyes fluttered shut drowsily. "And learn some color sense," I added drowsily, before rolling over and falling soundly asleep.


A/n: If you are interested in reviewing this or any of the upcoming chapters, there are a few specific things I'm looking for guidance in. The point of this story was to work on:

1-Introducing a large, difficultly named cast successfully in as short of a time as possible

2-Using elements of things I am learning about at the moment (specifically the cultures of Ancient China, Japan, and Carthage. Yes, that is a weird mix.) Except for less emphasis on sexism.

3-Actually having suspense and the occasional unexpected thing happen.

So any comments directly relating to those three things are doubly appreciated. Everything else is fair game too, of course :)

Oh, yeah. The setting is meant to be vaguely Antiquity mixed with medieval, but not strictly so; however, I occasionally get a little carried away. I figure if someone is playing a violin that shouldn't be around properly until the 1500s it's okay, but if I write that someone has zippered clothing or drinking Guinness please stop me.