When I published “Empathy” three years ago this month, I was confronted in the comments by the dumbfounding realization that some otherwise-intelligent people do not understand that the protagonist of a story need not be good, morally-upright or even admirable in the author’s eyes; she is merely the person the story follows, not some moral exemplar. Marilith is a courtesan on an Earth very different from the one we know, who has used her paranormal ability to excel in her profession and climb the social ladder. This tale takes place three years after the first, and if you haven’t read that one yet I strongly suggest you do so before embarking on this one…but do yourself a favor and skip the comments. You’ll be glad you did.
Marilith’s guest was ten minutes late, and even the aftereffects of the laudanum could not calm her agitation. It was not the disruption to her schedule that upset her so; Prince Jamal was her only client scheduled for the day, nor were any set for the next. The disquiet was at least partly due to the empathic focus she was struggling to maintain in the face of nearer, stronger voices, but the rest of it…
“Mistress, please,” begged her handmaiden; “let me bring you something to calm you. I have never seen you in such a state.”
“No!” snapped Marilith. “It’s too late for that, Cynthia; he’s long overdue already, and I’ll need all my willpower for this. I’ve done all I can do, and now all that remains is to wait.” As if in punctuation to her sentence, the soft gong which signified a new arrival on the landing stage sounded in the antechamber. And yet Cynthia hesitated with uncharacteristic inefficiency until her mistress ordered her to go.
The trip to the roof and back was not a long one, yet today it seemed interminable; by the time the Prince was announced, his hostess felt as though she was about to scream. But luckily for her, the emotional communication enabled by her psychic gift was unidirectional; he had no idea of the turmoil which raged behind her penetrating purple eyes and her soft, enigmatic smile. “Welcome back, Your Highness. It has been too long.”
“Lies do not become you, Marilith,” he said, and a wave of panic engulfed her; did he know what she was planning? How could he have discovered…”You would be just as happy if you never saw me again, except for the fact that you would then be cheated of the ridiculous fee I pay you.”
“Your Highness does me an injustice; surely you don’t believe I could hide such unkind thoughts without wearing them on my visage.”
He laughed, an especially unpleasant laugh even by his standards. “You must think me a very great fool, woman; even a common whore knows how to disguise her true feelings for the men who pay her, and you are no common whore.”
“As you say, My Lord. But if you believe this of me, perhaps you should find another courtesan more to your liking.”
He pulled her up against him, and the wave of anger and hatred which engulfed her almost drowned her doubts and fears. “I would, if there were another fit to wash your feet,” he said in a tone which weirdly mingled resentment with admiration; “besides, you know very well I couldn’t trust anyone else.”
“So you have said, My Lord,” she said, suppressing a shudder as his right hand moved down from her waist, “but I fail to comprehend what makes me especially trustworthy. I can sense your feelings, not the other way around.”
“You do more than just sense feelings, witch,” he spat; “they become a part of you and overwhelm your own. I had prepared quite a dossier on you ere I approached you the first time; my advisors feel you would be incapable of violence because your victim’s terror would overwhelm you.”
“That is true, My Lord,” she whispered in his ear, “but I am not the only one here.”
Though she had experienced it many times, Marilith never failed to be astonished by the incredible silence with which Cynthia could move when necessary. And though she had been fully apprised of her attendant’s capabilities before she even purchased her, the reality was more terrifying than she could have dreamed. Two extra pairs of arms shot forth from her gown with the speed of striking cobras; six sets of razor-sharp fingernails glinted like gems for only an instant before they were coated in blood; thirty powerful digits ripped out the princely entrails with the ease and energy of a child scattering shredded paper from the interior of an eagerly-awaited package. And Marilith was not sure if she would ever stop screaming, much less sleep again. She drew her ornate dagger and plunged it into her servant’s body over and over and over again; for her part Cynthia quietly accepted the attack, each wound closing instantly as though the blade had been plunged into water rather than flesh. And when the hysterical girl finally collapsed into wracking sobs and let the blade drop from her nerveless fingers, the dispassionate handmaiden gathered her up as gently as one might handle a sleeping kitten, and bore her toward the bath after stepping through the gore that had until recently been a human being.
Once she had pressed the prepared wine to her mistress’ lips, bathed her tenderly and tucked her exhausted body into bed, Cynthia returned to scrub the carnage from the other room; she was unsurprised to find another man waiting there, surveying the scene with satisfaction. “So it’s done?” he asked unnecessarily.
“As you see, Your Highness. My mistress’ plan worked perfectly; she was able to remain focused on your emotions and thereby exclude Prince Jamal’s, at least until I could strike. The kinsman who so troubled you is no more.”
“Good, very good. And my other operatives have informed me that all of his precautions have been foiled; he will not return this time.”
“Forgive my boldness, Your Highness, but are you absolutely certain there is no chance my mistress will be implicated in this?”
“None whatever. Once you physically clean the area with the fluids you have been provided, my people will arrive before morning to remove the more intangible residues. If the investigators come here at all – which I doubt – they will find nothing.”
“She has done you a great favor this evening, Mighty One.”
“I am aware of that, Cynthia, and she will be handsomely rewarded as we agreed.”
“You know that she will never be the same again.”
“Indeed she will not; her patent of nobility is already in process, and once that’s done it will be a small matter to negotiate an advantageous marriage for her.”
“Thank you, Your Highness.” Before she rose from the deep bow, the lifelike image had faded from view. And as she began the arduous process of cleaning, Cynthia thought to herself that though it might be disrespectful, she was very glad indeed that she was not human.