Nine Years Ago
I touched the horns on the top of my head gingerly. “Are you sure they’re still supposed to hurt? I don’t think they should still hurt…”
The senior succubus guiding me through the halls of Shendilavri patted me on the back. “Don’t worry about it, little one. It always hurts the first time.” She chuckled at some private joke. “But it will fade, in time. For now, we need to find you a matron devil to train you and protect you before you’re ready to become a part of the culture for real.”
My heart fell. “You mean… I’m not a part of the culture yet?”
She noticed my consternation and pulled me into a quick hug as we walked. “You’re just a little young and inexperienced, that’s all. A seed that needs water and light to grow.” She gestured at our surroundings. “Spend some time here, and you’ll grow into a fine Riven.”
‘Here’ was, as noted, Shendilavri, specifically Rivenheart, the center of the succubus domain in more ways than one. The building itself was nothing special, just a drab gray concrete hab block, but the Queen had ordered her followers to spruce it up a bit.
Now, despite its humble beginnings, the Fourth Gate of Hell, the Lover’s Gate, was a beautiful and inviting place that felt like home. Thick carpets lined the floors, and beautiful velvet banners were hung on the walls, depicting all sorts of romance scenes. Even the windows were kept clean to allow the sunlight to shine through, despite the thick salty air that tried to encrust everything this close to South Gate.
South Gate had nothing to do with the Gates of Hell. When I was younger, it had taken me a long time to realize that, and my life had been confusing for a while.
“So if you’re not going to be my matron, then who will?”
The blue-skinned woman thought for a moment. “Not sure. Catherine, maybe, though Nevan could be available too. It all depends on who has room to take on another new follower.”
I nodded. I had expected this. I knew the succubi worked on the master-apprentice system, though most cultures didn’t. “But you don’t? Have room, that is?”
She laughed out loud. “No, child, I don’t. Not by a long shot.” She opened a door at the end of the sun-dappled hall, still smiling. “Now, you just wait here while I go get them. It might be a while. That’s part of the test.”
I looked at the women already in the room. “Are they, too?”
“What are you—AGH!” My guide jumped nearly three feet in the air. “H-honored Devils! I didn’t know you were… here…” She bowed low, so low her back was completely horizontal. “Please forgive my intrusion, Dame Malcanthet.”
At mention of that name, I took a closer look at the succubi in the room.
The one at the head of the briefing table, the one my superior was bowing nervously to, was an inhumanly beautiful woman with long black hair, accented by a single stripe of white. Her horns were simply two small nubs, and her dress a draw-droppingly elegant black thing that seemed to be painted on—and without much paint, either.
“Rise, Georgina,” the Queen of the Succubi ordered, the hint of a playful smile on her lips. “It is my mistake. I changed the meeting room at the last minute.” Her deep, red eyes fixed on me. “Who is the girl? A new Riven?”
“Yes, Dame Malcanthet.”
“A little young for a succubus,” the woman on the Queen’s left noted. She was also strikingly beautiful—of course she was, they all were—though of a slightly different form than Malcanthet. Her pointed ears and sharp claws, combined with the gnarled horns sprouting gracefully from her brow, gave her a more demonic appearance than any I had seen. Her eyes were also golden, and seemed to see right through me.
The succubus across from her, the one with pale, almost white skin and long blonde hair, shrugged. “She came to the culture willingly, didn’t she? What does her age matter?”
“It matters if the Big Boss decides to carpet-bomb us for pedophilia,” golden-eye snapped. She turned to Malcanthet. “Dame Meretrix, I strongly recommend you get rid of this girl, for everyone’s safety, including hers.”
I felt my heart stop in my chest. Everything I had worked for… gone, just like that?
“Don’t be a fool!” the blonde one snapped. “Just keep her out of the way until she is of age, and then—”
“Out of the way where? In a box in the basement?”
“You know full well that’s not what I—”
“Shami-Amourae,” the Queen interrupted, and the blonde one fell silent instantly. “Do not be baited.” She turned to the one with the sharp golden eyes. “Xinivrae. Don’t bait her in the first place.”
Shami-Amourae, the Lady of Delights, bowed her head. “Apologies, Honored Sister.”
Xinivrae, the Black Widow, mimicked the gesture. “Yes, Dame Meretrix, apologies. You know how I feel about Butler, Honored Sister. I should not have used this opportunity to try and force the issue.”
“Correct,” Malcanthet noted regally. Her gaze turned to the last succubus at the table, a demon who appeared in a relatively innocuous guise as a voluptuous red-haired woman with pointed ears. I wondered if that was what she had originally looked like, but dismissed it as irrelevant. “Lynkhab. You have been even quieter than usual. What are your thoughts on this?”
The woman looked up. “I am wondering, Honored Sister, if you set this up to prove a point.”
The other two women blinked in surprise, then turned to glare at their elder.
The Succubus Queen was unfazed, and simply addressed the two of us who had invaded this meeting. “Thank you for your help, both of you. Georgina, please take Miss Ling Yu to Eluvia’s Arch. It will be good place to learn more of the culture’s history while she waits for a matron.”
“Yes, Dame Malcanthet,” my guide assured her hurriedly. She grabbed me by the sleeve and pulled me backwards out of the room so fast I nearly fell to the ground. “Hurry up, girl!” she hissed into my ear. “Be glad the Honored Devil isn’t in a bad mood!”
Once we were outside the conference room, and by outside I mean she had dragged me down the twisting hallways of velvet and silk until we were about a dozen turns away, she finally took a deep breath and leaned against the nearest wall. “Velvet hells, that was too close.”
I observed her, frowning. “What’s the problem? Dame Lynkhab said it was all the Queen’s idea in the first place for us to show up. Why would she be mad?”
“We weren’t supposed to know it was a setup,” she murmured. “No one was. The girls were supposed to learn their lesson and we’d be on our merry way. They’re gonna be mad she tried to play them, and Malcanthet doesn’t like us to see her fighting.”
I quirked my head. “…because she is the Gatekeeper of Love?”
A nod. “Yeah. It’s unbecoming for her to be anything but perfect. And if we had happened to see her as anything less than perfect… ” She shuddered. “Let’s just say that you wouldn’t need to worry about finding a matron any more.”
This was all going way over my head, and I didn’t know what to make of it. Instead of trying, I just composed a quick mental prayer of thanks to the Mother Monster and moved on to safer topics. “What about this arch she told you to take me to?”
“Eluvia’s Arch,” my superior said with a nod, regaining her composure. “Yes, it’s a stone arch in one of our interior gardens. It is the symbol of the history of our culture, and it will be a good place to learn.” She frowned. “Unless… how old are you, girl?”
She made a face. “That is pretty young. Maybe Dame Xinivrae had a point about your eligibility. Either way, you’re definitely too young to see what people like to do under that damned Arch.”
I had no idea what she was talking about, which I suppose was the idea. I simply remained silent, allowing her to fill in the silence.
My guide was still considering. “Hm… perhaps the Fields of Harmony.” When she noticed the confused look on my face, she continued. “Another indoor garden, this one actually for food. It uses hydroponics and other space-saving techniques, of course.”
“Of… course,” I managed, as if I actually knew what she was talking about. “Do you think I’ll be able to find a matron there?”
She paused, considering. “You know, that’s actually a very real possibility. I didn’t even think about it. Deminsha and her step-sister like to hang out there. And Kaito, but he’s an incubus, so hardly a good match.”
I frowned. “Why not?”
“Because he’s… an incubus. And you’re a succubus. Well, a succubus imp anyway.” She grimaced. “Velvet hells, I’m going to have to give you the whole birds and the bees talk, aren’t I? I’m gonna find whoever was in charge of your orphanage and strangle them.”
I flushed with anger. “I know about all that!” I was ten years old. I wasn’t a kid any more. Of course, the matron of my orphanage hadn’t been the one to tell me. I had managed to trick one of the older kids into entering his password when he didn’t think I was paying attention, and then used it and its advanced privileges to look up everything myself. It was what had led me to Shendilavri in the first place.
“I also know that it’s not always birds and bees,” I continued. “Sometimes birds like birds and bees like bees. And Malcanthet’s followers are known for broader tastes than the rest of the city.” That last part was quoted directly from an online article. “Would I be any safer with a succubus than an incubus?”
“Well,” my guide muttered, looking away. “He’s a Gancanagh anyway. Best to steer clear of him regardless.”
That word was genuinely unfamiliar to me, and I had a feeling she wouldn’t explain it if I asked. Besides, I still didn’t like dealing with older men. If she didn’t want me apprenticed to an incubus, I wouldn’t complain.
But I did need to be apprenticed to someone. And after that confusing and frightening meeting with the culture’s warlord, I thought it was best to find someone who could protect me in this strange new life I had dragged myself into. And sooner rather than later.
Finally, after what felt like hours of walking in silence—but was likely no more than ten or twenty minutes—we reached a metal door at the end of a short corridor. It was labeled ‘side entrance,’ and bright light spilled out from under it, accompanied by the sounds of laughter and the gentle smells of earth and plants.
My guide placed her hand on the doorknob before turning to me.
“This is it,” she said seriously. “Your first real introduction to the culture of Rivenheart. If you have any second thoughts, now is the time to voice them. After this, there’s no going back. Not easily, anyway.”
I had second thoughts.
I didn’t voice them.
Instead, I simply nodded once.
My guide nodded as well, and then opened the door.
Behind the Scenes (scene 239)
This takes place in 1992.