Megan Hart is here today sharing an exclusive excerpt of Pleasure and Purpose – a book I’ve read multiple times and enjoyed. It definitely took me back to the days I read fantasy books. (P.S.? The print version is only $1.49 damn – it’s now $1.51, but uh, I think you can afford those 2 cents it went up since I wrote this. Totally worth it- right now. No joke. You should get it.)
Introducing the women of the Order of Solace
The handmaidens of the Order of Solace are each named for the exquisite service that best reflects their true calling. Their greatest delight is giving pleasure–devoted as they are to fulfilling the desires of the mind, the needs of the soul, and the cravings of the body.
Meet Stillness, called upon to soothe the conscience of a man in need of redemption after a shocking act from his sexual past. Then there’s Honesty, whose vow of Solace is to a prince looking for a submissive handmaiden. Instead, he gets the unexpected. And finally, Determinata, a handmaiden confronted with a client lost in a haze of random sex and drugs. She has just the plan to literally whip her man into shape.
Mina looked good in black. It was not her favorite color – she preferred red. But black suited her just as nicely and was better, for many reasons, at portraying the image she wished to uphold. A Handmaiden in red might as well be a whore, as far as she was concerned, though it wouldn’t do for her to say so out loud. Someday she might wear red again, but not now.
Now she had a purpose, and black suited it. She smoothed her hands down the fine cloth of her traveling gown, admiring the severe cut. The high neck. The long sleeves. She’d had it made with buttons of black ironwood, faintly shining, and she admired them too as they ran from her throat to her hem. Not a thread out of place, not a line hanging uneven. Not even a hair dared uncurl from the braid into which she’d pulled it. It hung now over her shoulder and across her breast, and Mina flipped it back to hang straight and sure the way she stood.
A chair, its cushions looking soft, had been waiting when they showed her into this room, but she didn’t take it. Her trip had been long, the ride rough enough that standing felt good for a while. She smoothed her gown again and adjusted the sleeves.
Where were they, by the Void? To have sent for her and be told she’d arrived, yet do nothing to greet her? Intolerably rude. Mina sighed and but didn’t shift from foot to foot in her impatience. She kept herself still and stern though she wanted to pace. It had been long enough, waiting to be sent to a patron. The hours of the journey had been long enough, too. Why was she being kept waiting?
When at last the door opened, she’d already made several circuits of the room. She’d looked out the window. Perused the rather shabby and unimpressive collection of books on the shelves. This office was for show, not function, and it told her much about its owner, King Cillian. He didn’t spend much time in here, which led to an interesting string of thought about where he did his business, if not in an office.
“Your Majesty.” Mina greeted him with her stiffest curtsey, as was appropriate for a man of his stature. To the unknown man coming into the room on the king’s heels she made a slightly less formal gesture.
“Oh. They said you were in here, but I wasn’t expecting…” the king’s gaze swept her up and down, and he grinned slowly. He elbowed the man with him. “Edward. What say you?”
His companion gave her the same sweeping gaze. “Perfection.”
“No,” she said. “Determinata. Perfection was not assigned to this house.”
Neither man laughed and she sighed inwardly at the confused looks they gave one another. “Gentlemen. I am Determinata, most often called Mina. Or My Lady. Sometimes, should I decide it appropriate, Mistress.”
The materials she’d read had provided great detail about the man to whom she’d been assigned, but next to nothing about the men who’d done the acquiring. One a king, she knew that much. His friend a nobleman of some sort, clearly a long-time companion, and with something there beyond mere friendship. She watched them closely. The King of Firth was new to the throne and not much about him had come as gossip to the Motherhouse.
The one called Edward rallied first, making a half-bow and inclining his head. “My lady, I am Edward Delaw.”
“Cillian Derouth,” said the king without using his title. His gaze turned admiring. “By the Arrow, you will whip him into shape, won’t you?”
“By him I assume you mean my new patron? Alaric Dewan, yes? Your friend. I wonder, sirs,” she said casually to them both, “what sort of friends you are to send away for a Handmaiden when he is either incapable or uninterested in procuring one for himself.”
“Incapable,” said Edward.
“Uninterested,” Cillian added. “But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t need one. He does. Desperately.”
The men shared another look she couldn’t interpret. Mina plucked a barely visible speck of dust from her skirts. “The Order must have agreed, else I wouldn’t be here. But I think I shall be the one to decide, ultimately, if he deserves one.”
Both of them stared at her with frank appreciation, but it was Cillian who spoke. “Of course.”
They took her to a set of rooms that would have been impressive if they didn’t reek of sour breath, darkness and intoxicants. Mina looked around the outer room, small but furnished with exquisite and expensive taste. She ran a finger over the fireplace mantel and brought it away coated with dust. Alaric Dewan, the son of a merchant farmer, had risen to favor as one of Cillian’s consorts before he became king. Yet the papers the Order had given her said her patron hadn’t held a position of any worth within the Court.
“Who pays for this?” She gestured at the furnishings, the books, the accoutrements of a gentlemen’s life.
Edward and Cillian shared another look, but Edward spoke. “Alaric doesn’t pay rent to live in the palace. He’s ever been Cillian’s friend.”
“Since school. I know. But who pays for the rest of it?” She lifted a pile of what might have been rags, though made of velvet and sateen. “These clothes are fine, as is the whiskey in that decanter over there on the window, if it indeed came from the bottle I spy beneath the chair there. These books are all fine-bound and read, real books, not for show. The furniture is well-crafted.”
“Alaric has an income from his father’s estate. I think much of the rest of this came from…gifts,” Cillian said.
“Love gifts.” That made sense. The room did have a definite, feminine touch to it. “A woman with exquisite taste, yes?”
Edward’s lip curled. “A woman, yes. Her taste is a matter of opinion.”
From the adjoining room came a rustle of fabric and a snorting groan. Edward and Cillian turned, but Mina moved between them and the door. “You can go.”
“We should introduce you,” Cillian said.
“I don’t think so.” Mina smiled at him to take the edge off her response. The man was a monarch, after all, and it didn’t do to be rude.
“But he’s not been himself,” protested Edward.
“I imagine he is more himself now than ever he has been, else you’d have no need of me.” She looked toward the half-open door but made no further move toward it.
Cillian also looked toward the door. “He’s not been well, is what my friend meant. But you will help him, won’t you? He’s sore in need of solace.”
“He wouldn’t be the first. I know what I’m doing. You can go.”
Again from within the other chamber came a groan. Mina wrinkled her nose. Whatever aid her patron’s friends had provided, it hadn’t been the sort she intended to give.
“Edward,” said Cillian after a bare half-moment. “She’s right. Let’s go.”
Edward didn’t protest again. He shot a glance through the door but nodded and sketched another bow in her direction. “We shouldn’t doubt you, my lady. Your mercy.”
Mina regarded them both calmly, her mind already working on the puzzle of her as-yet-unseen patron. Much to learn and more to do. She smiled at them both.
“Sometimes,” she said, “they call me that, too.”
When they’d gone, Mina looked once more around the room. It would have been easy even for an untrained eye to see despite that the luxury, there could be no solace found here. Once it might have been a room of relaxation and peace, but someone – her patron, no doubt – had done his level best to turn on its head anything that might remotely provide comfort.
She knew how that felt.
However, his past was her problem only in how it related to his present; his future was her concern. Her duty was to give this man solace, whether for but a moment or something rather more, something upon which he could build a lifetime. She never knew in advance which she could provide, but there was no doubt in her mind she would satisfy them both during her stay here.
Rummaging in the desk pushed haphazardly kitty-corner by the window, she found a box of fine writing paper. Another search of the drawers turned up an inkwell and pen of carved wood, the nib showing no signs of even normal wear. Not a writer, then. Well, she didn’t require poems or love letters, and she would be the one making the lists, not him.
Mina straightened the desk until it sat squarely in front of the window, then pulled the high-backed chair from in front of the fireplace and set it behind the desk. There wasn’t much else to tidy there. Alaric Dewan had been a man of much leisure from what his papers told her. A few receipts, a bundle of letters in a masculine hand and tied with a piece of twine. No accounting books or ledgers, nothing to indicate he’d done much work. At least not the sort most fancy gentlemen of her acquaintance had ever done, the sort that required much conversation and very little physical effort.
Mina believed strongly in the benefits of physical effort.
When the desk had been sufficiently tidied enough to suit her, and her lists had been written, she stood and brushed off her hands. She tugged the bell-pull and waited an entirely inappropriate length of time for the plump-cheeked maid to knock on the door. The girl looked around the room with wide eyes and didn’t bother with even a curtsey.
Mina didn’t waste her time or breath correcting the chit. It wasn’t her job to train other people’s staff. Instead, she spoke slowly and clearly so as not to be misunderstood. “I need a pot of cocao along with a basket of yesterday’s bread. If you haven’t any from yesterday, fresh will do but make sure it’s crusty. I need a pitcher of milk, as well, and the things on this list.”
The girl took it and made to read it, but then shook her head. “I don’t know what this says, Miss.”
Oh, by the Arrow, what sort of place was this? “Take it to your chatelaine, girl. Bring me what I asked for before the five chime.”
The girl goggled, eyeing Mina’s long, dark gown. If she had any idea at all about Mina’s function here, it didn’t show. “Yes…yes’m. Will you be needing anything else? Lord Dewan hasn’t had anyone into his rooms in a right long time. They could use a good cleaning.”
“They could, indeed, but we won’t need anyone for it. Thank you.”
The girl looked around the room again and opened her mouth as though she meant to speak, but a look from Mina stopped her. “All right, then, Miss.”
When the girl had gone, Mina took one last look around the room before slipping through the doorway into the bedchamber. Dark curtains blocked the light. A lump huddled in the center of the bed, not even covered by the blankets that had been tossed into a heap on the floor. The room stank, not the worst reek she’d ever encountered, but one strong enough to assault not only her nose but her sense of propriety.
The first thing she did was go to the window and let in the light. It showed the disorder in greater detail as well as illuminating the lumpen figure on the bed, and Mina’s lip curled. Disgusting, that a man should allow himself to sink so low, and because of what? Love?
He didn’t move. She hadn’t expected him to. The low, irregular in-out of his breath told her he wasn’t even conscious. It would take more than light to rouse him.
She went back through the study and to the attached bathing chamber where she filled a pitcher with water. She studied him for a moment or so with it in her hands. Would he scream? Thrash about? Or would she have to rouse him more thoroughly?
A small smile stole across her lips at the thought.
“Wake up,” Mina said, and tossed the contents of the pitcher on Alaric’s head.
He muttered, arms and legs swimming against the bed’s dirty bottom sheet, but he didn’t get up. His eyes fluttered and closed again, his mouth lax. The water spread in a darkening stain on the sheet.
Mina put the pitcher carefully on a side table. She walked just as carefully to the side of the bed, leaned over and studied him. Alaric Dewan, beneath the dirt and despair, was a handsome man, but if he’d had a troll’s features it wouldn’t have mattered. What caught her breath would not be the shape of his mouth or breadth of his shoulders but something rather less tangible. Something…subtle. And as always the first time she met a patron, Mina wondered if he would have that silent, subtle something she craved.
She took his earlobe between her thumb and finger, the nails pressing into the tender flesh, and squeezed. Hard. Alaric squirmed under the sudden pain. His eyes opened wide. They were blue, she noted without releasing his ear. A lovely, pale blue. He struggled, but was no more able to get away from her grasp than if she’d had him bound with ropes.
You can read another excerpt of the book here. Megan has also very generously offered up a prize! The winner’s choice of Pleasure and Purpose or Virtue and Vice! So – tell us. What’d you think? Does this interest you? Do you like alternative universes? Ever read fantasy?