Story art by British Museum.
From the author: In an alternate Regency in which Rome never fell and the great goddess Astarte is worshipped in Wren's Temple on Ludgate Hill, a priestess helps a wealthy heir attain his legacy.
“I’m sorry to summon you like this, Countess,” said Marcus apologetically. We were sitting together on a divan in his Knightsbridge townhouse drawing room. Lord Cyprian’s heir was dressed in a very dark crimson suit, with a ruffled white cravat held in place with a ruby stickpin. A black memorial armband for his late father was prominent on his sleeve. I was in my temple whites.
“Please,” I said, “call me Harriet. Anyway I’m here in my capacity as a novice, and it’s quite an honor to assist in your rite of investiture. I had to fight off a dozen other priestesses to get the job.”
“What? Really? I had no idea. I supposed it would be rather a burden, being such an unusual obligation.”
“My dear sir,” I said, “your ancestor’s house is practically legendary in our Order. There are stories of the Goddess herself gracing the celebrants with her presence in the final room. She doesn’t deign to appear for most of our regular celebrations. But of course even if I wasn’t a novice of Astarte, I’d be happy to help. After all, you attended my debut last year.”
“You remember me?”
“Marcus, you were the cynosure. We were all devastated when we discovered you’d left early.”
“I had no idea,” he said, coloring. “I hardly dared even to pay my respects. You and your friends were all so elegant. And I felt so… provincial. So callow. Unworthy, you might say.”
“Nothing could be further from the case.”
“Well!” he said, “I’m very pleased you’ve come. I realize this is a rather irregular rite. Do you know how it came about?”
I shook my head. “Something to do with the original creation of your title?”
“No,” he said, “evidently it was later than that. The fifth lord was a convert. He was a Deus Pater man originally, but at some point he saw the light and switched to the eastern faith.”
“Good for him! I suppose he took to it well enough.”
“Oh yes, rather. I suppose you know the Astartean hymn ‘Build Her a Temple of Pleasure’”?
“Of course,” I said. “We sing it every Friday at the Wren temple on Ludgate hill. Terrific piece. Very… inspiring.”
“Of course it’s a metaphor,” he said, and blushed prettily again. “But great-great-granddad took it as a commandment. He converted his townhouse into a shrine. Built a room for each of his thirteen principal pleasures in life, hired magi to enchant them, and had them blessed by the high priestess. And then he convinced the Earl Marshal to incorporate his ceremony into the investiture rites for all future lords Cyprian.”
“It sounds a lovely form of devotion,” I said.
“I suppose so, but the obligation is a bit…. One has to go through all thirteen stages with a partner, you see.” He trailed off.
“Hence my presence here today,” I said brightly.
Marcus looked down at his shoes. I realized he was nervous. I touched his hand. “This isn’t just a professional obligation, you know. If you’d just asked, I’d have been happy to spend time with you on my own account.”
“Oh!” he said. “Really?”
“Really,” I said, and it occurred to me that making him blush was such fun it could become something of a hobby.
Marcus and I entered the first room, a plain cell furnished with a stove, a toasting rack, and a breadbox. Oh, those crumpets! Doughy perfection, crisp around the edges, hot and soft in the center, drowned in melting butter, spread with the most exquisite gooseberry jam, sweet and tart at once. We had two apiece, but I swear I could have eaten them forever and ever.
From room to room we wandered, and from delight to delight. Some rooms transported us by magic or by grace to strange and fantastic places. Later I could never remember all thirteen rooms at once, but from time to time one would surface in memory, recalled by a touch, a taste, or a scent. These I remember now:
A room like a stable-stall, warmth and the smell of horses all around. Marcus and I exchanged tingling back massages using a wonderfully soft grooming-brush. I wondered how the fifth lord had come to prize this particular sensation. Had he ever been massaged by a groom? Marcus whinnied when I drew the brush down his shirtless back, so I fed him a carrot.
A seeming bare room, but on entering we found ourselves on a blustery cold London street, deserted except for a chestnut-man and his cart. It was June in the outer world, but here it felt like November. The chill wind raising goosebumps on my exposed skin; the burning heat of the nutmeats in my mouth; the pleasure was worth the pain.
A butterfly garden. Sunlit, warm, and lush as a greenhouse, with myriad colorful wings flitting silently about, landing occasionally on our shoulders, our hands, and our heads. And all around us the delirious scent of roses, and of wisteria, jasmine, gardenias and many others all mingled together, but delicate withal, never cloying.
And then we came to a boudoir. Twelfth, it was, and unlike some of the other rooms it has never passed out of my memory. The softness of silk sheets; aromas of sandalwood and musk. A moment’s mutual hesitation; a kiss; and hours of gentle delight and fiery passion.
“Why have we never done this before?” I asked at last.
Marcus shook his head. “I thought you were out of my reach,” he said.
“Not so,” I said, and showed him what I meant.
At last we rose from bed and hand in hand we approached the thirteenth and final door.
Night in the Lebanon mountains, the milky way blazing overhead and Venus shining bright on the horizon, so large I could see its crescent unaided. I wore my dove-feather cloak and crown of stars. Marcus was kneeling before me, head bowed, naked and shivering in the cold mountain wind. I stepped forward and ran my fingers through his hair.
“Astarte.” He whispered my name, pressed his cheek against my thigh in supplication.
“Rise,” I said, “Lord Cyprian, ninth of your line.”
We left the temple together, and rode in a carriage to the Earl Marshal’s office to get his seal affixed to the letters patent. I am back to being Harriet, Lady Columba again. Lord Cyprian and I are good friends and lovers still, but once upon a time I was a goddess.
This story originally appeared in The Sockdolager.