The servant who held open the door was attired in the most ostentatious finery that Imperial credits could buy—but Count Johaan Feracci was not fooled. The rich material of the man’s tunic stretched tight across thick and powerful muscles, and the man peered at the nobleman from beneath a thick and primal brow.
It wasn’t difficult to deduce the fellow was nothing more than a hired thug.
Still, it was important to maintain appearances, Johaan thought to himself. So the wary nobleman politely nodded and entered the private office.
The door closed behind him.
Johaan walked slowly to the middle of the room. He was a tall man, 50 years of age, but an early regimen of rejuvenating drugs gave him the appearance of a man in his late 30s. Long blond hair curled down past his shoulders, and a handsome face—notable for a pronounced patrician’s nose and bushy mustache—gave his face a roguish charm.
The room was as he remembered it from his last visit. A large desk—made of a rare wood worth more than most men’s lives—dominated one half of the room.
On the far end, surrounded by lushly upholstered chairs and sofas, was a section of floor made of transparent plasteel. Walking over, Johaan looked down onto the dance stage of the House of Subtle Delights.
There was nothing subtle about what Johaan saw below. This was the most exclusive—and many would say most depraved—pleasure house in the hive city. Here, the less reputable members of the aristocracy, corrupt merchants, and life-weary voxcast stars came to satisfy their most base pleasures, whether that involved drink, drugs, pleasure slaves, or other, more exotic activities.
Below him, a half-naked woman danced erotically on the stage, surrounded by lustful and drunken patrons who shouted and threw credits at her feet. Along the walls, half hidden in shadow, other customers drank and jostled with pleasure slaves, whose main talent was encouraging patrons to purchase another round of outrageously priced refreshments.
It was a slime pit of debauchery, Johaan thought. The building was richly furnished to the highest standards of sophistication; its staff ruthlessly trained and efficient at serving the needs of those who could afford to enter its doors. But, at its core, it was a pleasure house no less tawdry than the cheapest brothel in the underhives.
He hated this place. Yet, here he was once again.
The pleasure house had long served as a refuge for the troubled nobleman, first as an escape from a cruel and sadistic father; then, upon the loathsome man’s death, the pleasures enjoyed in the upstairs chambers had proven a welcome distraction from the weighty responsibilities of overseeing the largest trading house in the Sector.
Certainly the past few years had been difficult ones, Johaan recalled. His father had never been a particularly astute businessman, and by the time of his death—prematurely induced by a jokaero death spider—the old man had brought the family business to the brink of bankruptcy.
Yet all had turned out well in the end. Once in command of his legacy, Johaan had discovered an unrecognized talent—and ruthlessness—that had served his trading house well. He had rebuilt the family’s dominance on the local trading routes, but it had taken years—years marked by battles with rival trading houses, massive bribes to corrupt authorities, and the murder of a number of ambitious relatives and troublesome rivals.
And now he stood at the pinnacle of power—in undisputed command of his merchant empire … wealthy, influential in court, celebrated as a patron of the arts.
Yet, here he was, once again at the center of the hive city’s most corrupt squalor—the pit of hedonism.
It was nearly a year since his last visit. That was a time that Johaan remembered with unease. In his youth, Johaan had fought his baser urges, but that battle had ended long ago. as he surrendered himself to the respite provided by women and chemical stimulants. When that no longer had brought him solace, he’d sought more vivid experiences—finding particular relief in inflicting pain on his paid escorts.
He’d gone too far last time. The owner of the house, Vardis Forbin, had cleaned up the mess—for a hefty price making the poor girl’s corpse disappear without a trace. Still, the incident had horrified him, and lacking confidence in his self-control, he’d stayed away from this place.
And then, yesterday, Forbin had contacted him, suggesting a meeting. It was irregular and presumptuous in the extreme for a member of the lower classes to send such a message to a nobleman. It was a social indiscretion that could destroy the man. But Forbin had sent the message anyway, hinting that he had a proposition that Johaan would want to hear.
It was the sheer audaciousness of the message that had stirred Johaan’s curiosity—no doubt as Forbin had intended. Was this going to be an attempt at blackmail? If so, the man had badly miscalculated, Johaan thought. Oh, he would pay. He would put on a display of outrage, knowing full well that Forbin would expect him to finally capitulate–and Johaan would appear to do so.
But then he would spend whatever it took to acquire Forbin’s evidence—and pay whatever it took to convince the shady businessman’s henchmen to switch their loyalties. Then Forbin would pay for his impudence.
Irritated at being kept waiting, Johaan turned his attention to the artwork on the wall. There were multiple paintings, all gaudy scenes of nudity and lewd sexual acts. This was hardly surprising given their display in a pleasure house, yet despite the tasteless scenes of debauchery, the technical proficiency of each painting was astonishing.
What’s more … there was also something odd about each painting. Somehow the perspective of each scene was wrong, Johaan realized. Twisted somehow. Perhaps, he thought, it was the angles of the walls behind the women in the paintings. Written upon them were sigils and words in an unidentifiable language, and they both drew his attention—and somehow unsettled him as well.
He felt the first stirrings of a headache when his attention was thankfully distracted by the sound of an opening door behind him. Turning, Johaan saw Forbin enter the room and approach.
The owner of the House of Subtle Delights was deceiving in appearance. Tall and thin—with sunken cheeks and deep-set eyes—Forbin had the look of a cadaver, a man whose physique was the inevitable consequence of generations of abject poverty and malnutrition.
Yet there was a fierce energy within that sickly form. The man strode into the room with a firm stride, and his eyes were a crystal blue that peered at you with an unsettling intensity,
“Count Faracci! So good to see you.” To Johaan’s relief, Forbin didn’t presume to shake hands. Instead, the man offered a slight bow.
“And you, Forbin,” Johaan said, deigning to give the man a brief smile. “As always, your establishment is the most entertaining in the city.”
“That’s very kind of you to say, your lordship,” Forbin answered smoothly. He waved to a chair across from the desk. ‘Please, my lord, take a seat.”
With Forbin offering the appropriate deference to his social ranking, Johaan deemed it prudent to reciprocate. He accepted the offered seat, even if it allowed Forbin to look down upon the nobleman from across the man’s towering desk—a psychological position of strength during the conversation to follow.
Of course, as head of a trading house, Johaan had no intention of giving Forbin the upper hand. And, wary of the conversation to follow, Johaan turned to the attack.
‘I hope this isn’t going to be a waste of my time,” Johaan said. “No offense, but I’m too busy to be bothered with some newfound entertainment you’ve cooked up.”
“I’m well aware that your time is precious, my lord,” Forbin said. “But you are a keen judge of beauty … and it has come to my attention that you seek a new consort.”
“I’ve made a few discrete inquiries—offered a few minor noble houses the opportunity to introduce their daughters to me,” Johaan shared reluctantly.
“And raise their family’s social status by an alliance with your noble house?” Forbin offered.
“Just so,” Johaan said. He cocked an eye at the shady businessman. “Although how you came to learn of such things … or to presume to intrude upon my private business—”
Forbin raised his hands in mock surrender. “Please understand that I learned of your inquiries by pure chance. And I am aware that contacting you on such a delicate matter is most irregular.”
I don’t believe you—and you know I don’t believe you, Johaan thought. “Get to the point, Forbin.”
“My lord, we have known each other for many years, so when I found this most extraordinary woman … well, I think once you meet her that you will not be displeased at my boldness.”
“Oh, you are indeed presumptuous,” Johaan shot back. “Still, you have my attention. A salesman takes quite a risk to build up a product before it’s seen. Aren’t you worried about overselling what you offer?”
“I think there is no risk, your lordship,” Paulo said, pushing a button on his desk console. The man leaned back and smiled. He said nothing more. He just waited.
The effrontery of this peasant, Johaan thought—yet still curious to see if the man’s confidence was justified.
The office door opened again, and Johaan turned to look—and was stunned.
The woman was a goddess. She was somehow both slim yet curvaceous. Auburn hair framed the delicate features of an angel, her olive complexion perfect, matched only by the greenest eyes he’d ever seen. Her gown of thin red silk clung to her body like a second skin and left little to the imagination.
She smiled, her teeth a dazzling white, and curtsied. “Count Faracci. I’ve been so looking forward to meeting you.”
Johaan detected the slightest hint of accent, but that only proved to accentuate the smoky, seductive quality of her voice.
For half a second, Johann simply stared—then he rose and bowed. “Good evening.”
“Allow me to introduce you to the Lady Adriana,” Forbin said.
Forbin offered a small bow in return. “Lady Adriana?”
Adriana just smiled.