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Maeve's stomach tightened. "Good evening, sir," she said. "I am Maeve, here to serve you."
The lord propped himself on an elbow. "Maeve." He stared at her with eyes the color of steel. "And what is an unmarked girl doing in a bathhouse?"
Born into slavery, Maeve didn't know why her face was still unscarred when custom decreed she be cut by the time she was five. For years, she'd dreaded being called into the presence of her master, Lord Indol, afraid the day of marking had come, as it had for every other child in the bathhouse. Afraid of Lord Indol's patrier, the razor-sharp, double-edged knife of the privileged man. Every common slave in Sliviia received a slash mark on each cheek and one in the middle of the forehead. Crescents at the temples were Lord Indol's individual mark. Scars that named skills were put close to the ears or down the neck: a three-pronged mark for a cook, crisscrossing lines for a weaver, five slashes for a bathhouse masseuse.
Lord Indol had summoned her twice a year ever since she could remember, but he had never cut her. Instead, he had asked her in his reedy voice whether she knew the name of her father, and watched her closely when she told him no. Maeve's mother--once known as Lila the Fair--had been born a high lady but was condemned to slavery by her own father, Lord Hering. Why? He had promised his daughter to a noble Sliviite captain, but Lila had loved a different man instead--a man whose name she refused to tell.
Normally, only the nobility and lowborn free kept the smooth faces they were born with. But slave girls who gave promise of future beauty were also allowed to pass their fifth birthdays without being cut. If that beauty bore out, they received sentesan scars the day they turned fifteen: two lines circling each wrist, permanent bracelets condemning them to unspeakable lives. Because Maeve's owner, Lord Indol, had never cut her, Maeve feared he intended to make her a sentesan.
I'm seventeen, and still unscarred. Lord Indol had never tested her abilities, never sent her to train in the kitchens or gardens or in the sewing room, where her mother worked, never told her what he planned for her. When she asked Orlo, the slave who had risen to be master of the bathhouse, why she wasn't marked, he said he didn't know. Maeve was glad she served under Orlo instead of under the house matrons, who resented her smooth skin--they would cut her themselves, except that only lords could wield a patrier.
And now a man whose name she didn't know was looking at her as though she half belonged to him. Wishing she could tell him to close his mouth and shut his eyes, Maeve said, "Lord Indol considers me fit to serve here."
"What a lovely voice you have. Do you sing?"
"No, sir." Maeve hoped he couldn't tell she was lying.
The man looked from her to his patrier, which lay on a shelf close to the table. The patrier was the only weapon allowed in a bathhouse, an emblem of privilege the lords never relinquished. Maeve's face grew hot. A patrier was not to be used in a bathhouse. Why was he looking at her that way?
She ought to say something, any of the hundred soothing things Orlo had taught her. Instead she waited silently while the lord's smile faded. "You were sent here to rub my back," he said. "Proceed." He stretched out on the table, his broad back waiting for her touch.
Maeve dipped her hands in patchouli-scented oil and laid them on his back. As soon as she touched him, she felt as if she had fallen into a cold, gray bog.
Her hands often told her things about the people she touched. A tingle would begin in her palms, and she would know. She knew that Lady Loren's smiling face concealed great fear, knew Lord Meche was lying when he pretended to be a generous patron of the arts. The first time her hands had led her into someone else's mind, it had startled and worried her. But she'd come to accept this knowing: it helped her to stay out of trouble. And if Lady Loren covered her fear with a smile, or Lord Meche was really a miser, what of it?
But this man chilled and frightened her. Nausea roiled through her; she drew her hands away.
His head came up. His fingers grabbed her wrist, pulling hard. "What's the matter with you?"
"I'm sorry, sir. Perhaps another masseuse. There are many far better than me."
He twisted her wrist. His eyes impaled her, sharp as a patrier and very nearly the same color. His nostrils flared. "I never thought to find one such as you in a private bathhouse," he said.
"Such as me?"
"Others may have missed it, girl. I see better than most."
Maeve wanted to ask what he meant, but her tongue felt numb. She tried to avoid his scrutiny but found she couldn't turn her head, couldn't even close her eyes, which seemed to obey his will instead of her own. She descended into the darkness of his pupils, down, down, into shivering blankness, a place of gray shadows.
Abruptly, he let go of her wrist. "I don't want others," he said. "Proceed."
What choice did she have? A high lord, here at her master's invitation--Lord Indol, his host, would have promised him a luxurious bath and massage. The lords were very exacting in their code, and if this one complained, what would be the price of Lord Indol's honor? God knew it was never the wealthy who paid it.
Though tendrils of steam surrounded her, Maeve shivered. She coated her hands in oil once more.