By the end of the Trials, the entire city was abuzz with talk of the dark-haired, dark-eyed boy. Marcus Demitri had done sensationally well, winning or placing highly in every event, no matter its content. He had proven himself exceptionally physically fit and conditioned; his understanding of statecraft was superb; fans were still talking about his brilliant play at the Castles board a week ago; and he had displayed a knowledge of Eretrian history that bested Gabriele's own. Some joked (perhaps more cheerfully than necessary) that should he be chosen, Gabriele herself would become superfluous. Word of his true nature, and the identity of his tutors, had not been made public; people spoke of him enough as it was.
But as much as he was competent, the news went around that he was unapproachable. In every event, but especially those involving teamwork, he was brusque, direct, sarcastic; when those around him failed to live up to his standards, he was known to chew them out at great length and detail. Even worse, he always seemed to be right. His lectures, delivered in a singsong lilt as though speaking to a child, were grating to receive, and precious few had ever found fault in him to attack in revenge.
Gabriele, sometimes called Catheryne, could see her life clearly: following after him in a flustered panic, hastily smoothing out ruffled feathers while he charged through the corridors of the palace dispensing wisdom and abuse in equal amounts. It was not something she looked forward to.
But all that was in the future--or might be. It was the last of the Trials, and Gabriele was obliged to attend. Her father was there, as was Her Majesty Queen Meralina and almost all the royal court and all the candidates that had not been disqualified. Almost all the opponents had been dismissed as well; the remainder were judges for this final event.
The contestants had been whittled down to a bare seven. The final event, outdoors on the practice field that had been cleared of all obstruction, would be a brutal test of endurance. The names of the seven candidates had been written on slips of paper (a sign of the court's wealth, to waste paper in such a way) and thrown into a golden bowl; the Queen herself would pick two of them, and the two would be pitted against each other in a three-minute sparring match. Then, during a single minute's rest period, a third name would be drawn, and that person would step forward to aid the loser; the winner would immediately face both. Any downed opponents were to lie as they fell, as they would in a real engagement, until the completion of the match, with either the aggressors or the lone defender falling. So it would continue until the defender was defeated, at which point he was permanently disqualified. Another two names would then be drawn and the process begun anew. Unless, of course, the defender should happen to defeat all the remaining candidates in a gigantic one-versus-many onslaught; this had happened only rarely, and any who accomplished it was immediately proclaimed First Lance to the Heir of Eretria.
As predicted, none of the effeminate boys had made it this far. To Gabriele's displeasure, Marcus Demitri had. He had shown himself as highly capable in all aspects of the Trials... But then, so had all the other remaining candidates. And this Trial, her father said, was much more difficult than any of the others. Father himself had only won because most of the truly skilled swordsmen had already been rejected due to sheer lack of stamina. But luck was deliberately allowed to part a part in the competition; Kyrei would watch over her own.
Gabriele had not bothered to learn any of the candidates' names; there were too many of them. A few of them she had picked up anyway, but of those, the only one still in the Trials was Marcus Demitri. So she wasn't entirely sure who went first, and who lost first, but a second opponent was added. The fellow defeated them handily, but the third was his downfall; he tripped over the 'bodies' of one of his already-defeated foes, and found himself laid open from throat to crotch before he could blink. Discouraged, he took a seat in the stands.
The man who had dealt the blow was Marcus Demitri.
Two new names were drawn, one of them coincidentally the 'body' that had caused so much trouble earlier. He won, but when the second stepped up to join the original opponent, Father winced. "He's forgotten his training," he murmured to her. "He's letting them control the fight. He should be splitting them apart and dealing with them one at a time." And indeed, the single challenger seemed to be spending most of his time fending off enemy attacks, instead of moving on the offensive. Even Gabriele, unversed in sword-work, could tell that he could not keep this up indefinitely; eventually someone would sneak a blow in that he couldn't deflect, and he would go down. Which was exactly what happened, and a second man was disqualified.
The next pair involved Marcus Demitri.
The two were given practice swords and bowed to each other in the ritual manner, and then to the throne. "For Queen and Crown," they intoned.
Father bent near her: "I'm glad he at least observes the proper forms."
The duel was over in less than five seconds. Marcus moved aggressively and his opponent simply didn't know how to react. His blade was a flickering blur, first high then low, first to one side than another, with the other man scrambling to catch up until finally the two blades met with the clack of wood on wood. Marcus's blade spiraled around and the other's went flying out of his hands, sending up puffs of dust as it hit the ground. A single stroke at the neck, halting just short of contact, and it was over. The opponent was breathing hard. Marcus was not.
There was applause from the audience. Father stared. "Kyrei's Light. He is a Night Blade."
Queen Meralina was drawing another name. Marcus stepped into the circle again to signify his readiness, barely five seconds after the first man's sword had struck the dirt, and in a few moments, the fight was rejoined.
Even to Gabriele's untrained eyes, it was apparent that Marcus was a good fighter. He moved ever sideways, seeking new angles, using his two opponents against each other, refusing to let both attack him at once; but every few seconds, just as the one not occupying his attention had gotten into position and was preparing to come at him, he would strike them, throwing them off-balance and forcing them to retreat, reset and come again--which he didn't give them a chance to; he would pursue the second, giving his former opponent a breathless moment to gather their wits and position themselves to attack... At which point he'd turn to them and repeat the entire process.
"He can't keep that up forever," Father murmured, and Gabriele could see that he was right. But Marcus knew it too, seemingly--for his next darting shift pushed the fellow so far off-balance that Marcus was able to pursue and deliver a solid strike to the side of the fellow's stomach. A few moments after that, the other man was out.
"He seems to know what he's doing," Gabriele said casually to her father.
Father made a loud huffing exclamation. "Know what he's doing?? He's a new Camden Locarno!"
The next battle should be interesting, Gabriele thought, for Marcus would not be able to continue using the tactics he had shown earlier. Against three people, there was no way he could shift back and forth quickly enough to keep from being struck. And she was proved right: he moved aggressively against his original opponent and removed him from the battle with a bare minimum of three attacks. He left the newest one for last. "Clever," said Father, "he's taking on the most tired opponents first. But they'll have their breath back soon and be fresh for the next round."
"Unless he finishes it quickly," said Gabriele. Again, her prediction was accurate, as Marcus, in an action that drew gasps from the audience, moved in as the other man slashed downward, sliding around the blow like smoke, moving so close to him that he could not use his sword. But Marcus had discarded his own blade and was free to use his hands, and in a moment the other man was disarmed and down.
There was a spattering of applause from some of the attendant Guardsmen, most notably from those around Lord Faustos, who was sitting not far from Gabriele and her father. Marcus turned and bowed to them--and Gabriele was surprised to see a small smile on his face. It looked strangely twisted, as if he was not used to smiling; but the faint glow in his cheeks betrayed him. Gabriele suddenly recognized the look, from others' faces, from the feeling it left on her own face: an expert being lauded by other experts for a moment of particular brilliance.
Father was clapping too. "He's got it," he told Gabriele. "If he doesn't overtax himself and trip on the next fight, he's got it. There en't a one of 'em who can touch him."
Gabriele frowned. Her father really shouldn't lapse into common speech like that. Her frown had nothing to do with the prospect of Marcus Demitri winning. Nothing at all.
The fourth and final contestant squared off against Marcus Demitri. Four-against-one odds. Men had been known to survive them, but there were certainly better ones. And most of those survivors hadn't been fifteen.
Marcus stood his ground, changing position every now and then but allowing the four to encircle him, a revolving ring that moved with him like a halo. "Oh, that's not good," said Father, "they've got him in a very bad position. Now one of them will give the signal and another one of them will know to--"
"Wait," said Gabriele. "How will they know?
Father's eyes opened wide, and he realized the mistake Marcus had allowed his opponents to make: that of assuming they knew how to fight together.
Before he could open his mouth, Marcus moved. He ran forward, the ring shifting frantically to keep him contained. His opponents on the field, indeed most of the audience, must have thought it a move of desperation--but father and daughter Basingame knew differently. He had broken their equilibrium for one crucial moment. And so they were the only two who weren't surprised when Marcus suddenly lunged sideways, his momentum swinging around, to engage and dispatch one of the four in a rapid and furious exchange.
The remaining three were astonished. One simply stood there, totally caught off-guard. Marcus gave him a poke with the tip of his practice blade--even from the stands they could see that it had no force behind it, that Marcus was merely making a point--and the startled opponent blinked a few times and then subsided to the ground in a desultory manner.
Marcus scrambled backwards, shifting desperately, his legs moving but gaining little ground. One of the remaining two, seeing his evident loss of footwork, gave chase--totally forgetting the downed bodies between them. He tripped over the first one and Marcus struck him with a blow that would have taken his head from his shoulders if the blade had been steel. As it was, the man would have a sore neck for quite a while.
That left only one--the newest, the most unknown. He was tall and lanky, with light brown hair, but his strikes came whipsnap quick, and Marcus was pushed to the defensive for the first time in the Trials. His face betrayed no anxiety, but his breathing was heavy, a previously unknown phenomenon, and a smile lit upon the other man's face and he stepped forward aggressively, his blade a darting blur.
Suddenly something set in Marcus's face, and he stepped forward into vicious assault. Now it was the other man giving ground, his face a mask of surprise, and then of concentration. Blade crashed on blade, and the courtyard rang with the dry cracks of their collisions, but neither contestant took a blow.
Then a horizontal swing came within inches of taking Marcus's head from his shoulders, and he was arching over backwards with the wind of the aggressor's blade of bundled lathes riffling his hair. There were general gasps from the audience.
Marcus fell backwards, landing hard on his back in the dirt, and the aggressor stepped forward with blade raised high. But Marcus twisted, his feet lashing out, and the man backed away again, fearful. It was all the time Marcus needed. His flailing feet turned into a twisting maneuver, and suddenly he was on one knee, his back facing the aggressor.
His opponent saw his chance and lunged in, his blade crashing down on Marcus's head. ...While, simultaneously, Marcus's blade darted out, stabbing one arm under the other, and took the other man in the gut.
There was a moment of silence as everyone absorbed what had just happened. Even the other 'dead bodies' were peeking at the milieu.
"Your Majesty, this is... Highly unprecedented," said Lord Gevardos.
"Yes, I see that," said the Queen. She raised her voice, pitching it out over the grounds. "Stand up, you two. Stand up, all of you. No need to fash yourselves while we decide."
The men on the practice field stood, and Queen Meralina said, "Bring the boy to me. What is his name?"
"Marcus Demitri, Your Majesty," Father said, as two Silver Guardsmen trotted out to comply with the queen's request. He stood up, beckoning for Gabriele to follow him, and they joined the Queen at the dais.
"Marcus Demitri?" said Queen Meralina. "I heard he was dead."
"That does seem to have been said in many corners, Your Majesty," said Lord Gevardos, who in normal capacity was the Minister of the Treasury, "but as you can see, he seems to be... Alive."
The Guardsmen were back. Marcus Demitri looked a bit pale, but otherwise none the worse for wear. Behind him, Kenneth Tilmitt hovered, looking strangely anxious.
"Well, young man, you certainly seem to have caused a fuss," said Queen Meralina. "Returning from the dead. And with such skills! Never in all my years have I seen such a display of swordsmanship." Gabriele thought that was rich. Like she had seen much at all in all her years.
"Begging Your Majesty's pardon," said Father, "but we do need to decide."
It was an interesting dilemma. While Marcus had fulfilled the rules of the challenge by single-handedly defeating every one of his opponents, he had also lost, by the rules of the challenge, by being defeated. Which should take precedence?
"He seems to have won and lost at the same time," said another of the judges, Lord Dautan, the Minister of Diplomacy.
"The two seem to even each other out," said Lord Gevardos. "If you give an apple to a man who is in debt to you one apple, he is left with nothing. Perhaps we should run the challenge again--"
"I must take objection to that idea, my lord," said Kenneth Tilmitt.
"Who is this man?" said Queen Meralina.
Tilmitt bowed. "Kenneth Tilmitt, this boy's sponsor, Your Majesty. If I may continue?" At her wave, he did: "Master Demitri is presently exhausted. His opponents are clearly tired as well. It would be unfair to subject them to further rigors."
"Then run it again tomorrow," said Lord Dautan.
"No, unacceptable," said Lord Gevardos. "They will have had too much time to study their opponents. The challenge is designed to present each defender with a series of unknown aggressors and force them to learn on their feet. If they are given forewarning..."
"Look," said Father, "it seems to me that he has actually won."
"Nonsense, he was killed," said Lord Ranescan, Minister of the Interior.
"By the rules, that doesn't matter," Father said.
All looked to Lord Gevardos.
"The rules say..." he said, frowning. "The rules... Do say that being 'killed' is grounds for disqualification only before all other opponents are defeated. It says nothing about after."
"Yes, but what about during," Lord Ranescan asked.
Lord Faustos spoke for the first time, his gravelly voice jovial. "So he'll clearly fight to the last breath. What more do you want?"
"The First Lance is expendable, Your Majesty," Father said, "that is his nature. He is a soldier. It is better for him to die and his charge live, than for him to live and his charge die."
"Yes, but it is good if they both live," Queen Meralina said.
"It has never been a matter of what is good, my lady," said Father quietly. "But rather, a matter of what is best."
The queen was silent for a moment, perhaps remembering her own experiences in the Time of Trials--perhaps thinking about the man who had been chosen for her, a man who was the best, but not necessarily good.
"What do you think, Catheryne," said Queen Meralina, using Gabriele's private name.
"I think that he clearly has the confidence of those around him," Gabriele said, carefully refraining from mentioning whether her confidences were included.
"Hmm," said the queen, thinking again.
"It's highly irregular," she said finally, "but I believe that our champion has been found." She raised her voice again.
"We pronounce this boy the victor."
The applause was deafening in intensity. Gabriele clapped mechanically, her eyes resting on her new First Lance, wondering what life now held in store for her. Marcus Demitri had proven himself unparalleled in the necessary skills and abilities... But who was he?
A pair of Guardsmen came out with cloak and sword that marked his office, the cloak blue and grey with a golden shield embroidered on one side and the emblem of Eretria, a five-petaled flower, on the other; now with those settled around shoulders and waist, they guided Marcus Demitri up a step on the dais, where he knelt.
"You have accomplished the tasks and trials set before you," Father intoned. "It is now your right, should you so choose, to take upon you the office of First Lance to the Heir to the throne of Eretria."
"What is your decision," Queen Meralina asked.
"I accept, Your Majesty," said Marcus Demitri in a ringing voice.
"Then--" Father drew his sword and passed it to the queen, and she tapped his shoulders with the flat of the blade: left, right, left. She gave the sword back to Father. "I now pronounce you First Lance to Princess Gabriele Basingame of Eretria. May your lives together be long and prosperous."
"Thank you, Your Majesty," said Marcus Demitri.
Gabriele wondered why nobody had asked her.
"Rise," said Father, and Marcus did. "Turn," said Father, and Marcus did. He pitched his voice out into the stands: "Presenting the First Lance to the Heir of Eretria!"
And thus it came to be that Marcus Demitri became the advisor to Princess Gabriele Basingame.
The fete was a loud, boisterous affair, held in the royal banquet hall; food and wine flowed freely, and citizens of all rank and placement were allowed inside (which probably accounted for the loud-and-boisterousness, Gabriele thought crossly). It seemed like fun. Gabriele herself had no idea. She sat on a dais at the far end of the hall--not on the queen's dais, of course, but on a smaller dais in front of it, specially set up for the night--with Marcus standing at her side, greeting a continuous stream of well-wishers, commenters and even visitors who simply wanted to see with their own eyes.
The tailors had worked frantically in the few hours after the last Trial, and Marcus now wore black, form-fitting clothes in military styling with silver trim. The Shield and the Rose were embroidered on his left breast. The slightly-curved sword, a mirror to the one at her father's own waist except for being a bit smaller, rested at his hip. Though he was shorter than many, his cold eyes and clear readiness gave the impression of having more stature.
And Gabriele... She could well imagine herself, a woman swaddled in an outrageous pink dress that did nothing for her coloring and whose bodice sagged alarmingly, meant to cover a bosom that simply wasn't there yet; a dress accented with enough lace for three women, in that alarming pink and apricot and silver. Who exactly had commissioned this garment? She was sure that everyone thought her absurd-looking but were too polite to mention it. Oh well, it couldn't be helped.
At some point during the evening--a couple hours had passed at least--somebody was thoughtful enough to send her (via servants) a plate of food and a rather spindly table to set at (since, of course, no princess should ever be seen eating with her hands). In the general commotion of being polite and saying hello to everybody, she hadn't realized how hungry she was. It occurred to her to send Marcus to eat as well, or have something sent for him, for he must be as hungry as her if not hungrier (it was strange having an other half to remember all the time!), but when she turned to look for him, he was gone.
It was alarming. One moment there he'd been, and the next he had disappeared.
The servants said, "Oh, Lord Demitri?" (for titles and attendant power were bestowed on every First Lance, no matter how mean; Gabriele wondered how many had competed simply for the chance of the wealth). "He's been called away, Your Grace, on matters of... Well, you'll have the same thing later tonight, if you catch my meaning." A wink and a nod. She knew what they meant. "He had food sent you and then left. I think he's had his food already. And if not he'll have plenty to chew on presently!"
A monstrous wink and some good-natured chuckling. Yes, she got the picture now, thank you.
Marcus had sent her food? Marcus had realized she was hungry? It was such a startling reversal that she really didn't know what to think. She hadn't realized he was capable of thinking about other people.
By the time she had emptied the plate and, feeling devilishly gluttonous, was wondering if she should send for more, Nurse had appeared at her shoulder. "It's time," was all she said.
Nurse combed her hair and wiped her face free of makeup, and then helped her into the knee-length sheer satin robe that had been prepared for this occasion, a feather-light garment in moon-colored white that belted across the front. "My Lady is becoming a woman now." Despite being demure, it made Catheryne feel extremely exposed, because she could feel fresh air circulating in parts it almost never reached. "I fear that My Lady's father might see fit to dismiss me now. Oh, what am I saying, what does it matter." She gave the shoulders a twitch and stood back to admire her charge. "There now. You look--"
"Of course it matters," Catheryne said, reaching out to take Nurse's shoulders. "If not for you I don't know what would've become of me. If my father thinks he can just dismiss you, well... I'll talk to him. I may be growing older, but..." She sighed. "That doesn't mean I don't still need someone to look out for me." After all, why else all this rigamarole with the First Lance?
Nurse smiled, a strangely sad thing. "My Lady is wise beyond her years. But she will be a full-grown woman soon, with no need of apron strings to hang to."
"Well, maybe not apron strings," Catheryne said, suddenly aware of this woman's place in her life. How many times had she gone running to Father, only to find him sealed away in some secret meeting or court function or diplomatic envoy? How many times had Nurse been the one to smooth her brow instead? "But other things."
Nurse smiled again, an expression layered with meanings that Catheryne could not comprehend, and said nothing.
The room in which Catheryne would have her first experience was empty when she arrived, or so it seemed; multiple curtains, made mostly of the same sheer stuff as her robe but quite a bit more translucent, hung from the ceiling in multiple rings around the bed. The bed, of course, was the center of the room. It had no coverlet, only the undersheet, and two pillows. Of course, it was not meant for sleeping. The moment she left, the sheet would be stripped, and the blood of her second passing into adulthood would be displayed publicly in the banquet hall. Then Princess Gabriele would be officially invested as heir to the throne, a title that could only be given to a grown woman
She sat on the bed, the single doorway hidden by the diaphanous curtains. The man who would perform the ceremony on her had not yet appeared. Any number of assassins could hide behind these curtains, she thought, looking around her. Where's Marcus when you need him. And then, a bit irreverently: He could watch.
A rustling noise made her jump, but it was just Nurse, settling into the room's single chair. She was there to chaperone the event, to make sure nothing got out of hand. Catheryne had known this going in, but it was somehow unnerving to realize somebody would be watching.
She wasn't at all sure what to expect. She knew what it was; that had been explained to her by her own father after she had once interrupted him and the Lady Denrasta. It had been quite confusing at first--she seemed to be in pain, but her father would not stop; nor would she stop kissing him and urging him on. He had explained it quite thoroughly afterwards, the various appendages and urges involved, but she remained a bit distrustful of the subject. And he had only been able to deliver the male view on the subject. Her own mother, who should have been handling these affairs, was dead, but a number of women, acting as surrogates, had spoken to her on the matter; Nurse, and Cook in the kitchens, and the Lady Elaine Gevardos, and others that she did not know so well; and even Queen Meralina herself. Their advice had been varied, and at times perplexingly contradictory.
Her Majesty had been probably the least useful. "It happens, every so often. It's not the most monstrous thing. The pain isn't... Well. You'll become used to it. Your husband will like it, and of course it's necessary for having babies, but..." All delivered with a wavery, distant look. Queen Meralina was a singularly unexciting person with a tired, slack face as if her flesh were beginning to peel from her bones; Catheryne had learned to take her advice with a grain of salt.
Nurse had said, "'Tis an honor to Kyrei, the Mother-Creator, She Whose Hand Shelters, when a child comes out of the act... But at other times, 'tis the caress of Loduur, of He Who Brings Pain and Defilement. Not that there isn't pain to begin with, but... Be careful ere you share it--be of the proper times in your cycle. And use it to keep your husband steady and faithful, for creatures of the flesh they are, and he'll follow where you lead."
"You'll love it," said Cook emphatically. "It'll be painful at first, because it's small, you see? and it has to learn to grow. But you'll love it. It's the men who always want it, but it's the women who really enjoy it. Find yourself a man who knows what he's doing. Your life will be blissful and carefree. Or..." Leaning closer, in a conspiratorial whisper: "If you can be really careful, find a woman who knows what she's doing. Nothing like one to teach one, I always say."
Really, she wasn't sure what to make of it all. Princess Gabriele, of course, could simply nod and smile and thank them for their time, and then be drawn into the next lesson on court intrigues, or on the care and feeding of armies, or on the proper way for a lady to hold her knife and fork, and in learning all those things, forget about it. But Princess Gabriele had been left at the door. She was a creature of poise and dignity and a certain defensive armor; it was Catheryne who would have to go, naked or almost naked, to this final meeting.
The thick cloth curtain used as a door shifted open on metal rings. Nurse looked up with unreadable eyes, and then seemed to fade into the surroundings, becoming invisible.
A figure dressed stepped through the various veils and curtains. He wore a robe cut of the same material as hers, in the same style. He looked not much taller than she was. She wondered who it would be. Almost anyone could be chosen, but not just anyone would be--it required a man of a certain sensitivity, her father said. It might not be true for the commoners--for every girl went through this process eventually--but for the Princess and Heir, only the best would--
And so it was with some surprise that she saw her own new First Lance, Marcus Demitri, parting the final layer of veil to face her.
"Marcus?" she said.
"Your Highness," he said evenly, not inclining his head.
"They've... You've been..."
"My own ceremony was just now," he said. "In case you didn't notice, I left early--"
"I did notice, thank you--"
"Actually, my manhood ceremony was several months ago," he said, "in Pelanha, overseen by the Night Blades. But your father obviously wanted to make sure that I could do a good job--"
"Yes, about that, how did you get picked? I mean, you're not..."
"I asked your father. He saw no reason to refuse me--once he had ascertained that I possessed an acceptable level of skill--"
"Yes, but you're not... I mean... You aren't..."
The simple fact was, she could sooner imagine Marcus sprouting wings and flying away than being a good lover. For that matter, she could hardly conceive of him as a lover at all. There was such a distance about him; he carried with him at all times an emotional moat several miles wide. It seemed to her that such a remote person should not have need for the indignified huddlings of physical love, that he should simply be able to switch it off and ignore it. Why had he been chosen?
"I have expressed to your father," said Marcus Demitri, "and now express to you, a wish to be as competent and effective a First Lance as possible. To that end, there are certain things that, I believe, are required of us."
Catheryne felt a chill. Things that are required of us. It was as if he was speaking of signing a contract.
"I could ask for somebody else to be brought in," she said. That was always an option. Elders were wise, but they had been known to make mistakes; or there were sometimes extenuating factors. Sometimes there was sheer nerves: men were who found themselves unable to stand to attention when the time came. There was always a backup for such situations, but it was embarrassing for the original man.
"It would be your right," said Marcus. "But I assure you, Catheryne, that I will not disappoint you." A heartfelt pledge in someone else's mouth was a flat statement in his.
She shifted uncomfortably. It was odd to hear her name from his mouth. "You know my private name. What is yours?"
"Jordan," he said.
She looked at him for a moment--his calm, unlined face. He could not be much older than she was, she realized, or else his face would look different; but the almost unnatural calm and self-possession on his face was enough to make him look far older. It was as if he had seen horrors so awful that nothing could surprise him again.
"What made you like this," she asked suddenly. "What made you so... Distant?"
Marcus--Jordan--gave her a singularly grim look. "That, my lady, is my business, not yours."
"Mar--Jordan--whoever... Jordan, you can't just keep being distant like that. Eventually you're going to have to tell me something about yourself."
"Perhaps," said Jordan, which Catheryne thought was his polite way of saying, 'No, I don't.' "Does Your Highness find me acceptable, or shall we send for another man?"
Her first decision as a woman, or perhaps her last as a girl. It would be well for her to choose wisely; beginnings are such an auspicious time. Nurse was nearby to make sure nothing would get out of hand; and if only one thing could be said about this Marcus Demitri fellow, it was that he could clearly do anything. Why should this be any different? And her father had chosen him. No matter what, Father would not have allowed someone inappropriate into this room, at this time.
"I guess you'll do," she said.
"Her Highness's confidence in me is overwhelming," he said emotionlessly, moving to the bed.
She gaped at him. "Did you just make a joke? You have a sense of humor?"
"I am glad to see Her Highness in such high spirits," he said blandly.
"If I have one more massive surprise like that, I just might die of shock," she drawled.
"Then, seeing as it is my duty to safeguard Her Highness's life," said Jordan, "perhaps I should simply get down to business."
She looked at him, piqued. "It's not just 'business,' you know. This isn't just something that you do because you have to." It was the last ritual step of her awakening womanhood--to be made a woman, and to be made to know what it was women knew.
"Maybe not to you, Your Highness," said Jordan.
She felt a chill that had nothing to do with her relative nakedness. "Perhaps you'd better just get on with it."
He climbed onto the bed, the panels of his robe giving her a flashing glimpse of his manhood as he passed--flaccid, hanging limply, it did not look like the powerful, potent object everyone had led her to expect. She had barely time to notice the wrinkled skin and short, downy covering of dark hair before he passed out of her line of view. She felt his weight settle behind her; and then there was nothing for a time.
"Why, what's wrong?" she asked.
"I'm deciding how to go about this," he said, a disembodied voice behind her that clearly found the interruption irritating. It was a normal voice--not too deep, not too bright; not too raspy, not too thin. It could be mistaken for any hundreds of other voices.
She twisted to look behind her--he was kneeling, his feet under him, hands on his knees. She looked up at his face, at his impassive eyes. "What's to decide? You touch me, you kiss me, you take my flower. It's simple."
His eyes closed for a moment. "It's not so simple as that." He reached out with his hands--they descended on the top of her head, the palms wide and warm, and gently twisted her head back until she was facing forward.
No one had spoken about this. "What are you doing?"
"Be still," he said, in a voice as gentle as she had ever heard from him--that was to say, a neutral tone, devoid of any emotional overlays. "Be still and trust me. That, at least, is not an absurd thing to ask."
Now what did that mean? What 'absurd thing' had he asked before? Or had he been going to ask? She started to question, but then his fingers ran through her hair, over her scalp, down between the long, fine strands that shone in the candlelight. It felt... Nice. She had always liked it when Nurse combed her hair. A pleasant tingling sensation built up in her scalp, and then began to spread deeper into her body. Moment by moment, she slowly relaxed.
His hands moved to her neck, clasping to the sides; his thumbs began a warm rotation on either side of her spine. Nothing like this had ever been done to her before, and she rather liked it. Her eyes closed and she felt a month and a half of nervous dread slowly flowing out of her body like water. His thumbs moved in slow circles down her neck, until his palms were rubbing her shoulders.
"Where did you learn this," she breathed.
His palms moved in silence for a moment before he answered. "We are trained to fight with our hands," he said. "And to know where on the body to strike if we need to disable instead of kill. The human body is sensitive to many types of feeling in many places." One hand, his right, ceased its motion; his fingertips trailed down her body to a point on her lower back. "Being struck... Here... For example..." His fingertips exerted a subtle, deep pressure, making her aware of the potential for discomfort. "Can be very painful." His hand resumed its position at her shoulder blades. "These are useful things to learn."
It occurred to her that he may have used his hands to kill before... And yet here he was, and their ministrations felt good.
"You'll have to teach me some of these things one day," she murmured.
A beat of hesitation. "If my lady so commands." His hands never stopped moving, slowly working their way down her back. She resisted the urge to slump forward and let them take her away.
When his hands had reached midway down her back, one of them left. She felt it circling around until it clasped her breast. It was sudden, and she stiffened a little.
Another hesitation. "Should I withdraw?"
The pleasurable tingles were gone; now there was only the warm red pressure of his hand on her breast... A pressure that was not entirely unattractive.
"No," she said. "No. Go on."
His hand moved down her front, and for a moment she thought he might be going straight to her private place; but he stopped at her waist, loosening the knot so that her robe would fall open. In a sudden moment of distant clarity, she saw the dexterity of his hands and marveled--he had done it with one hand, without being able to see!
His hand traveled up her body again, and she was again surprised when he bypassed her chest and moved up to her face. She saw his hand for a moment, until it moved against her temple, stroking hair back behind her ear; then it rested on her cheek a moment, the palm rough from the calluses of swordsmanship. She could feel every line and ridge. It reminded her of times when her father would touch her just the same way, and she gave him her cheek for a moment, leaning into his palm.
Then she felt his fingers on the skin of her chest for the first time.
There was nothing to look at but white gauze curtains; her eyes were closed, and every feeling was magnified a thousand-fold. She could feel the slick cool material of the robe around her shoulders, her hips, her legs; she could feel the warmth of his body as he leaned forward, his breath rustling past her ear; and above all his fingertips, trailing over the surface of her breasts, first only the parts that were accessible despite her robe, and then beginning to push the silken material out of the way. She felt the cloth sliding over her nipple--a tingling sensation creating a strange ache within her--and then slide off.
She opened her eyes and looked down at herself. They were her breasts, no one else's; she had seen them before, mostly from the angle she occupied now, though occasionally she had been allowed to use the glass mirror in the castle's vault (it was one of Eretria's national treasures). They did not yet have the weight and heft of a grown woman's breasts, lacked the distinctive downward bulge; she did not have her hips yet, either, and her father assured her she would probably have a few inches to her height before she was done growing. For a moment, it struck her as strange that she should still be subjected to this treatment: she was not a woman! True, she was not quite a girl either, but it still seemed odd to be jumping ahead like this.
And then his fingers reached her nipple, cupping the conical projection that was her breast, and there were other things to think about.
For a moment he simply held it, his hand rough and warm over her breast, and she felt her nipple gather in on itself, as if standing up in protest. She recognized the feeling; her nipples reacted much the same when exposed to sudden cold. But Jordan's hand was warm, and the pressure building inside of her was not unpleasant. How strange.
His other hand circled around her front to cover her left breast in similar manner; his right closed to fingers, a single finger which rubbed her nipple gently, a sensation that felt confusingly, remarkably good. Distantly she was aware of her pulse accelerating, of her increased breathing; for the most part, her entire awareness was focused on his hands on her breasts, his arms around her torso, his chest now pressed against her back; and her breasts, their entire surface suddenly hypersensitive to his touch, burning at his touch, each movement and slide and subtle pressure sending tingling waves through her body, waves that rippled like water but all seemed to come to rest at the same secret place, the hidden valley between her legs that was now aching for relief.
There had been a few times, never many, that, lying in bed and feeling very strange, she had touched herself at the cleft between her legs, exploring, wondering why exactly the Lady Denrasta would enjoy having something there, trying to excite the sort of feelings that might lead a woman to it. She had felt something a little bit like this, but it had been so unsettling on the whole that she had abandoned the project and never returned to it. And she had never, ever known that the feelings could be so strong.
"This isn't-- Something they teach you at Night Blade school, is it?"
There was another hesitation; and then his voice rumbled on her back, in her ear. "Hmm. Well. It is... Encouraged."
"Why?" What an odd thing for a trained killer to learn.
"...Well. Doing these things, with a man... One becomes very vulnerable. If I had been sent to kill you..."
She felt as though her breasts were withering away like plants. She turned her head (providing him with a faceful of hair), looking at him out of the corner of her eye, her mouth gaping heedlessly open. She wanted to get out of his grasp. She wanted to get out of the room. "You mean... You've done this to... To women you've..."
He blinked at her a moment, his face that same constant impassive mask; then he shook his head. "No. I've never done this to... Actually, I've never killed a woman." There was a strange note in his voice when he said that, an air of... Satisfaction? "And I've only done... This..." He gestured with his shoulders, his hands still hovering on her breasts. "A few times. They teach us, you know. For our manhood ceremonies. They teach us what we're expected to do. And your father insisted on... Verifying that training."
She looked him in the eye; his face was bare inches from hers. "Were you sent to kill me?"
His face hid nothing; his face showed nothing. "No."
"How can I trust you?" she asked.
His eyes closed for a moment, as if he were consulting something behind his eyelids; when they opened again, he was the same remote Marcus she had always known. Now his face hid many things.
Suddenly his arms were gone. He was shifting himself off the bed. He stood before her--compact and muscular, his dark hair cut short and scratchy, his cheeks free of beard down, his eyes as hard as steel. The sheer, dignified cut of the white robe could not hide how dangerous he was. And then it hid nothing, as he shrugged it off, and stood naked before her, wearing nothing but the fierce protection of his eyes.
Catheryne stared. Though short and clearly not possessed of his full man's growth, his muscles showed a flat, wiry strength. A single short scar ran along the left side of his abdomen, roughly along his bottom rib. His penis was now clearly erect; he had been circumcised in the tradition of Eretrian nobles. He had more pubic hair than she (though that was not saying much), but his member was not the monstrous object of a thousand nervous visions; indeed, it seemed almost small for an object of such potency. Almost innocuous.
"You see that I wear nothing," he said. "You see that I hide nothing."
"You hide many things," she said, and, strangely, her hand rose of its own accord to brush his cheek.
"You see that I hide nothing with which to harm you," he said impatiently. "My lady Catheryne, there is very little point in this if you cannot bring yourself to trust me. Either allow me to finish my duties, or we shall call in the replacement. It matters naught to me. But you should know that you will feel the same worries, the same distrust, towards the other man."
"The other man isn't as dangerous as you," she said.
He said nothing. The corner of his mouth twitched. "Perhaps not. But you will still fear him. My lady, you find yourself suspicious of me not because I am dangerous--or at least not just because I am dangerous--but because no man has touched you before in these ways and you fear being under my power. That is understandable. As I've said, these activities leave a woman very vulnerable. It doesn't help that your role is passive, to sit and accept my ministrations; it doesn't help that I have been trained to exploit any vulnerabilities. But it is still the same. One day a man will know you carnally; and before it is complete, before you decide whether you like it or not, you will fear him. Whether it is me or somebody else."
He was right. She was antsy and on edge because she didn't know what to expect. This was shattering so many barriers. And true, Jordan's essential creepiness exacerbated things; but another man would probably unnerve her in other ways. Perhaps a grating, giggling laugh. Perhaps a tendency to be too rough (and Jordan's touch had been remarkably delicate thus far). Perhaps... Many things.
"And I have been honest with you," said Jordan. "I have told you things that expose my own weaknesses; if I were an assassin, I would probably be dead by now, for you would have called the Guardsmen, or sent Nurse for them with some secret signal" (There was such a signal; how in the Goddess's name had he known?) "and had them deal with me. I tell you these things because I realize how uncomfortable you are, how strange this is for you. As you have compromised yourself for me, so I compromise myself for you. It is only fair. I am sorry if the things I have to say make you uncomfortable; they're all I have.
"When I had my manhood ceremony, I was just as nervous. A woman's body is unlike any other thing. Even further, the woman with whom I shared my ceremony showed what a woman may do to a man, and it was uncomfortable to allow her to touch me in the places she did. I am not unsympathetic to your plight, in other words."
She didn't believe him. Not that these things had happened, but that he had been uncomfortable. Nothing could discomfit this man. But he was right about having been open about it. He could have just as easily said nothing. Did you learn this from the Night Blades? No answer... And the silence would have been incriminating. He had responded the only way he could; it was just their bad luck that his only avenue was to make them both edgy.
"Do you wish to continue," he asked, his voice less hard. Silver instead of iron. "I wish to continue with you."
It was such a formal statement--I wish to continue with you--that she had to giggle. "You really are incapable of being normal, aren't you."
He said nothing; merely watched her, his face impassive.
She sighed, her mirth gone. "Yes, come back. We've gone this far. Besides, I might as well get used to having you around."
He looked at her for a moment, his eyes clear, and suddenly she was aware of the welter of emotions inside of him. What were they? What was he thinking? He could hide anything behind that actor's mask of his, and clearly he frequently did; but he had let down his mask for that crucial moment, allowing her to see further into him than she ever had before--she could not see what it was he hid, but at least she could see that it was hidden. It raised sudden doubts and questions in her mind. What was he thinking? What was he feeling?
His hands on her shoulders made her realize he was trying to move her into the center of the bed. He sat where she had, facing her. He placed his palms on her chest for a moment, on top of the lapels of the robe, and closed his eyes, his head bent. When they re-opened, everything was hidden again, and she felt a sudden chill that had nothing to do with the temperature.
It was easier to close her eyes. Then she could concentrate on the feelings, on his warm hands and the sensations they evoked within her; then she didn't have to look at her face.
The tension, that she had forgotten in the flurry of emotional confusion, returned with a vengeance at the touch of his hands; soon her breathing was sharp and fast, her heartbeat thumping in her ears, and she felt herself leaning forward, pressing up towards him. She wondered when he was going to do the actual deed--and thus was surprised when, instead, something wet and warm closed around her nipple. She opened her eyes: it was his mouth. He had bent to her breast and was suckling like a baby.
And the warm, wet, pulling sensation felt very, very good.
With his face gone from her field of vision she could afford to open her eyes. Her hand descended of its own accord to the back of his neck, stroking his rough, glossy hair. It was strange to see him at her breast--strange because she had never seen it before, or realized anyone would ever want to be there except for a baby--but she liked it. She felt a tickling increase in pressure and realized it was his tongue; she leaned into his mouth without thinking, pressed his head to her bosom without thinking. His hand played with her other nipple; she felt his breath skating over the skin of her breast; and above all she felt his mouth, and his tongue slipping over her nipple, over and around in circles and random shapes, teasing strings of fire out of her, building to that pressurous ache deep inside her that was beginning to beg for release.
Abruptly he switched to her other breast; her nipple, now exposed and wet in the air, crinkled even further. But the sensations, which she had thought could not get any stronger, only intensified.
She felt his hand on her abdomen then, caressing her belly, her hip, her thigh--and then back across, until she felt it ruffling through the hairs at the top of the cleft between her legs. It was a bit surprising--he wanted to touch her there? Why would anyone want to... Well, she had asked herself the same question every time, and the answer had always been: because it feels nice. Jordan seemed to know what he was doing. She decided to let him do what he pleased.
"You can lie back if you want," he said. "You don't have to sit up all the time." So she did lie down; but then it was strange, to have him hovering over her, because for a time he simply sat and looked over her, mask in place, his face devoid of any human emotions, as if he was looking through her, or trying to figure out her weight in gold, and it was easier to close her eyes and look away. His hands on her breasts were strangely comforting. Here was something reliable. If he did these things to her... like so... then she would feel good. The pressure was mounting, and she felt an inexplicable pressure to let her legs slide open, to expose that secret place within, to expose it to... What? She had no idea. But something, certainly.
That thing turned out to be his hand, returning to the folds of hair at her pubis as his mouth returned to her breast; she hadn't realized that light covering of hair could transmit that much sensation. Then it dipped lower, to the secret places even she had barely dared to explore; and as his fingers brushed over the area, she realized it was wet.
"Oh my," she said, her eyes popping open. "I'm sorry. Did I... Did I wet myself?"
Jordan's head came up. "No, you didn't. You didn't lose your water, if that's what you're asking, but the wetness is normal. That's supposed to happen."
She blinked at him. "Why?" There was some life in his eyes and he was easier to look at.
"Hmm. Well," he said. "Here." He pointed out his forefinger. "Grab my finger." She did as she was told, making a fist around his proffered finger. "This is my manhood," he said, "and that's your passage." When he tried to and then succeeded in pulling it out, and then to push it in again, she noticed the friction and the difficulty it caused.
"So I'm wet to make it easier," she said.
He pulled up his other finger--the one that was wet from her... Down there. Before she could react, he slid into her fist and out again.
"Aack!" she said, pulling her hand away. "That's my..." She eyed her hand dubiously. It wasn't exactly a clean area!
Jordan lifted his hand to his face and smelled deeply. His face didn't change; whatever aroma he beheld seemed to please him--or at least didn't displease him, which was probably the same thing.
Catheryne smelled her own hand. It didn't seem like much.
"So, does that mean... I'm ready?" she said. This had actually taken a bit longer than she'd expected. Even if her partner had been someone much more normal, she would have expected to be done by now.
He eyed her. "Possibly. If you're not, you will be soon. But there's more than just being damp."
"What more," she asked.
In answer, his hand returned to the damp place between her legs, a place so secret that even she couldn't see. The pressure of his hand spaded between her legs was enough to get her to open them; and then his hand covered her area totally, and she could even feel his individual fingers, and the jolt it caused shuddered through her in tingling waves.
As his ministrations continued and the fuzzy, indistinct sensations gradually resolved themselves into something more acute, she became aware of a number of different places that he was touching her. There was the outer area, that was contiguous with the skin of her thighs; there was something on the bottom, near the hole from which she dropped solid waste but not it; there was a little zone at the top of her valley, that she really liked him to touch, for all the sensations were strongest there; and then finally there was something in the middle, a gap that he dipped into occasionally, the very tip of some long-buried, raging hunger that ached to be filled.
Until one of his fingers slipped inside it, and she gasped and arced with the new sensation, and she knew what it was.
"Oh!" She raised her head, looking up at him. "Is that... Was that..."
"It was," he said.
"But... Does that mean I'm not a virgin anymore? That was... Just your fingers! Aren't you supposed to use your..."
He shook his head. "My fingers aren't long enough. Your flower is still there."
"But why are you using your finger then?"
"Because..." He squinted for a moment, thinking. "Well." He gave her his finger again. "Your fist is small, you see." Withdrawing his hand, he gestured: "Now make a fist around my manhood."
She stared at it for a moment. True, it wasn't especially large, but it was... Well, it was his most private of... Well, really!
"It doesn't bite," he said, blank-faced.
Hesitantly, Catheryne put her fingers around it. It was warm to the touch, and its skin incredibly soft, though she could feel the hardness raging just beneath the surface, like steel veiled with rabbit fur. It was strangely compelling.
"Do you see how much larger it is," he asked.
"Yes," she said.
He held up his finger. "This is what your passage is comfortable with right now, Your Highness. If I were to wield my sword on you now, it could hurt you as much as a real one would."
"I thought that taking my flower would hurt anyway," she said.
"Yes," he said, "but why be hurt twice if you can avoid it."
"But then why are you using your fingers," she asked.
"Only one finger," he corrected. "Now I will put two in."
She could feel the difference immediately; it made her feel suddenly full, as if something were pushing at her from within. She liked the feeling, but she could also tell what a huge difference it was, just to have two fingers instead of one.
"I see your point--" Would it be okay to call him Jordan? "--good sir."
"I do not wish for this to be an unpleasant experience for you, my lady," he said, his voice strangely intense. It was such a bizarre statement that for a moment she really didn't know what to say. An unpleasant... What?
"Well," she stuttered. "I'm sure that your efforts... will be sufficient."
"I will try, my lady," he said.
"Catheryne," she said. "We'll be in each other's company for a long time, Jordan." He didn't react to her use of the name. "We'd best grow comfortable with each other. My name is Catheryne."
"As you say... Catheryne."
He didn't say it in the flat, emotionless voice she had dreaded. He said it in the voice that, while lacking inflection, was at least human.
"Now..." she said, arching her back a little to give her nascent breasts more of a lift. "I believe you were... Demonstrating some of the more... Interesting aspects of my... Area."
He looked at her for a moment.
"Yes," he said. "But to continue my demonstrations, I must be allowed a closer examination."
"What do you mean?"
"With Your Highness's permission, I would like to conduct a visual inspection of the area."
"You want to... Look... at my..."
"With Your Highness's permission, of course."
"Why? What's there to see?"
"That, among other things, is what I have been asked to demonstrate to you. ...Catheryne." That time the name sounded very lifeless.
The implication was that this wasn't just some weird thing he wanted to do; this had been done before, and often was done before. Now that she thought of it, some of the women had mentioned that some men kissed women down there, but it had been such a preposterous thought that she hadn't believed it. How could a man possibly want to kiss down there? She passed her water out of there! She bled down there! It was as unsanitary an area as any she could think of!
But then his tongue touched her for the first time, and it became very clear.
I should really stop doubting him, she thought to herself, clinging to the few moments of conscious thought available to her as his tongue sent unspeakably lovely feelings through her body. He always seems to know what he's doing. And even when he says the most outrageous things... They're still always right.
What happened next was beyond her comprehension, for she did not know what things he encountered between her legs, nor what he did to them; she didn't even know how much time passed and slipped away, as his ministrations took her ecstasy to brighter and brighter heights. She knew only that it felt abominably good, and made her cry out and shudder and press him to her; and that when, eventually one of his fingers slid inside her once again, she suddenly realized her need, the need that had built up--to have something, anything, inside of her. And so heightened was she in her sensations that even one finger was not enough, or two. She needed something bigger.
"Jordan..." It was strangely hard to talk; strangely hard to concentrate. "Jordan... Is it..."
"Do you feel ready," he asked.
Even in the thrall of her awakening, she had the presence of mind to ask, "Am I ready?"
Marcus Demitri looked at his charge. A flush had risen into her face and chest; her breathing was hard and fast. Her nipple, the only one he could see, was proud and erect, for her hand had, without her knowledge, had moved to cover and manipulate the other. Between her legs, her valley was moist and ready. Most of the important signs he had been taught to look for were there, but wanting the horn was not the same as being ready for it.
He had said that he intended for her to enjoy the experience, and he had meant it. Long days in the Palace, friendless and alone, lacking parents or anyone to turn to, he had learned to conceal his emotions, to blot them out, to ignore them. It allowed him a distant objectivity that had been useful. In this case, it was his duty, as Catheryne's partner in her womanhood ceremony, to show her a good time, and show her he would; furthermore, it was his intent, his self-assigned duty, to be the best First Lance it was possible to be. They might even enter into a carnal relationship at some point in the future, though it was not likely; he intended to be finished within a few months. But the thought of developing feelings for her, or allowing her to be interested in him, never crossed his mind; feelings were something he had locked away long ago. In any case, she would need a new First Lance soon, after he died. It would be better for all.
Despite this, he was able to appreciate her sheer beauty. She had not yet reached her full womanly form and figure, but she had always been beautiful: flawless skin, unbelievable golden hair (those with blond hair were considered particular favorites of Kyrei), large wide eyes of cloud-gray. When she grew into her full womanhood she would be a delight to behold. She was charming and adept in person as well, not just in body; in those classes he had attended with her and the other noble-born children, she had always displayed a bright, cunning intellect and a delightful disposition, smiling even when speaking to him. There was no room for emotion in his life, but he knew she was desirable and was not immune to her charms. But then he had gone away to train, on the advice of Lord Talnor; and she seemed different now, less prone to the laughter, less prone to the taintless wonder of childhood. Of course, she had grown; they both had. But somewhere, in the far corners of his heart where he had not quite managed to shut out all the light, he had always expected her to remain the same, the eternal child, the eternal innocent.
Now he had his chance; possibly the only one. His life would be short and miserable; he had always known that. He had lived for these months his entire life, training himself tirelessly to achieve the office he now held, an office he could then use to uncover and then slay the people he was sure he would find: his parents' murderers. He would likely die in the attempt; he had made his peace with this. There was nothing he was leaving behind; he had no friends, and Catheryne would probably be pleased to see him go. Human companionship was a sacrifice he had made willingly for the sake of his revenge. As such, this was the first and probably the last time he would ever be this close to a beautiful woman.
And yet he had not asked Lord Basingame to be chosen because Catheryne was desirable (though she was). He had asked because he knew he could use this time to move into her good graces, and he wanted her trust as soon as possible.
She was ready. She trusted him. She would reach her climax during the actual intercourse (the little death being an important part of the womanhood ritual). And he... He had been ready his entire life.
"Do you wish to do the deed now," he asked. "There will be discomfort; there is nothing I can administer that will change that. But I could continue, and there will be less."
She looked at him, her eyes clouded with desire. "I'm ready," she said.
Slowly, he nodded. "Then a woman you shall be, my lady."
He moved up to cover her, feeling his erect horn brushing against the petals of her flower; her eyes were closed, and she breathed through her nose in sharp pants. He resisted the urge to kiss her. This was no time for foolish sentiment.
Her legs spread to accommodate him. He reached between them, supporting himself on a single arm, and then with sword unsheathed found the gate of her hidden valley, "I will go slowly," he said.
She nodded impatiently.
He felt her depths opening to him, until the mushroom head of his member was all the way inside her; she was slippery wet and very tight. He had been told that this was due to her virginity; certainly the women who had told him so had been less constricting. The pressure felt very, very good, but he had other things to worry about for the moment: namely, her maidenhead, which he was bumping against. Some women, he had been told, did not have them even when they were virgins; but clearly Princess Gabriele Basingame was not one of them.
"Does it hurt," he asked--realizing that, in his self-absorption, he had totally forgotten who it was he was penetrating. And why this particular penetration was so important.
"It's..." Her open eyes considered. "It doesn't hurt, but..." A deep breath, which made her wince. "You were right about the size."
He gave vent to his annoyance with a single twitch at one corner of his mouth. When would people learn that he never said something unless he was sure it was right?
"I mean," she continued. "It didn't look like much when I saw it. It didn't even feel like much when I held it. But now it feels like the size of a--"
"I am in a position to take your maidenhead," he said, to get the conversation back on track. Having her describe his tool as diminutive made him feel like a child. "Shall I continue, or would you like a moment to become accustomed?" He made no mention of the strain on his arms as he essentially held himself suspended over her.
She closed her eyes for a moment. When she opened them, there was nothing hidden behind them. "Do it."
He exerted gentle pressure, but his manhood wouldn't move. He had been warned that a maidenhead could be strong, but what did that meant? Strong like a supple willow withe? Or strong as in steel?
"Ow," she said. "What was that?"
This time he applied more force, and suddenly the barrier was gone, and he was sliding further in. Catheryne let out a yelp, and he arrested his stroke as best he could; but then, deciding to get it over with at once, he let his hips come forward fully, and she engulfed him until he felt the ticking pressure of her sparse, downy hair, and he knew that this was as far as it went.
He looked down at her. Her face was pinched, and two tears lingered at the corners of her eyes. "Ow," she said. "That... Hurt."
"I'm sorry," he said.
Her eyes flared open, pain dissolving in the midst of anger. "Don't lie to me." Her hands moved to his shoulders and shoved at him. "This doesn't matter to you. You get to hump the Princess-Heir of Eretria." Her lips curled in scorn. "A fine job, good sir, congratulations."
It was hard to keep a straight face. "Is that truly what you think of me?"
"Are you even human?" she said. "Do you have any feelings?"
"Yes," he said, "quite frequently," but he could see she didn't believe him.
"Catheryne," he began again.
"Don't call me that," she flared.
"Your Majesty," he said. "If I had no feelings, I would have called you Catheryne, because I wouldn't respect you enough to listen to you."
"Respect," she retorted, "that's a good one. Everybody respects me. Everyone's so polite around me. I can't stand it. I'd trade all of that for just one friend."
He said nothing.
"This isn't supposed to happen!" she raged. "I used to have friends. I used to be normal. I'm supposed to have someone who cares about me for this ceremony. I'm supposed to have someone who loves me. Not this... Not such a... Not you!"
He said nothing. It was pointless to admit that he would like to be her friend, because a dead friend would do her nothing.
Some of the flickering rage died in her face, receding to a silent bitterness.
"Catheryne," he said again. This time she didn't react. "You are... You have been trained for this. Friends are a luxury we all would like to have, but a ruler's life is not her own. It belongs to the people. What they need of you... You must give. And if that requires you to be... here, in this place, in this position..."
He could see his words working on her. The bitterness faded entirely, leaving only an estranged melancholy. " 'I am Queen of Eretria,' " she repeated to herself, a mantra that everybody knew and sometimes adapted for their own use. " 'I am both first and last. When the times call for bravery and sacrifice, I am first; for I must lead so that my people will follow. When the times call for grace and happiness, I am last; for I must guarantee a life good and long for my people. I am them; and they are me.' " At the last, her voice broke, and the single tear that had been threatening her, finally departed.
He wanted to brush it away, but knew it would only unnerve her. "I am sorry I'm not who you wanted," he said.
She sniffled, squeezing another tear out, and then looked up at him. "It's all right. I'm probably not what you wanted either. And you're... Not half-bad."
"I am honored you think so, Your Highness," he said.
For a moment, they simply hung there, she beneath him with her legs splayed to accommodate him, he on his arms looking down at her. It was the first glimmerings of a connection that would be long feted in story and song.
Suddenly she seemed to remember what they were in the middle of. "Aren't you... Supposed to be doing something?"
"I am," he said. "But only if you feel comfortable."
"How do you feel," she asked.
It was an unexpected question. He wasn't sure how to answer it. "I feel... Somewhat exposed, because I cannot see behind me and someone can sneak up on me. My arms are beginning to tire from holding myself up. I am aware that you still have a public ceremony to attend after we complete this rite, so I am balancing your needs against those of the people."
"Don't the people come first," she asked, making reference to the mantra that was the oath of office for all Eretrian queens.
"In this case, my lady, the people are best served if you are best served."
"Hmm," she said. "Anything else?"
Only the part about being in terribly close proximity with a beautiful girl. "No, my lady, that seems to be all."
Her low laugh sparked life in her eyes. "What about me, Jordan, how do I make you feel? I'm sure the fact that you're making love to me is doing something to you."
Despite himself, his face colored. Surely she didn't mean... If she did, how on Teris would he describe it? "You are... Extremely..." He groped for words. "Enticing."
She shook her head in mock sadness. " 'Extremely enticing.' I suppose that's the best we'll get from you."
"It is not an easy thing to describe," he said. "If I were to ask you how you feel, how would you respond?"
Her eyebrows jumped; she had clearly not considered this. "I... I would say that I feel very... Full."
"Does this please you," he asked.
"It... It doesn't feel like much of anything," she said, clearly introspective. "It's not painful anymore, if that's what you meant."
Taking his life in his hands--or perhaps in one hand--he shifted his weight to a single arm and reached between them with the other. The nub at the top of her feminine flower was easy to find. "How about now?"
She gasped and shuddered, and he felt a fresh flow of wetness from her valley. "Oh..."
"Does this please you, Your Highness," he asked.
"Yes," she breathed, "yes. It pleases me very well."
"You can do it," he said.
"I can?" she said.
"See if you can find what I touched," he said.
It took only a moment; he felt her fingers investigating, and then her body twitched as she made the discovery. "What is that? How come I didn't know it was there?"
"It is... It is the bud of your flower, Your Highness," he said, aware of the colloquial nature of the term, but just as aware that there wasn't really an official name for the thing. "It is the most sensitive thing on your body, so sensitive that, most of the time, it hides beneath the petals of your flower. That's why you've never found it."
"The most sensitive?" she said. "That isn't my... My passage?"
"No," he said.
"Your most sensitive spot is your manhood, isn't it?"
"Yes. I do not know why a woman's nub is more sensitive than her sheath; there are some things that even I don't know."
"And... I can touch it," she asked.
"Yes," he said. "At any time. Even when you are alone."
"Well, I know that... I don't see why I would want to, though."
He gave her a direct look. "Your Highness, you shall."
Her eyebrows arched playfully. "Is that a challenge?"
"Touch it yourself and find out," he said.
She did; he felt the tremors that jolted through her. "My lord," she said. "I shall."
It was with that exchange that he first withdrew from her. "Wait," she said, "where are you going?"
"Do you wish me to remain," he asked.
She hesitated a moment, as if not sure whether to admit something. "Yes," she said finally," I would.
He finished withdrawing, the tip of his sword just barely within her sheath. "Then, I shall." And he did so.
"Oh..." she breathed. "And... You do this many times?"
"Until we have both died, yes, my lady," he said. That was the most common term he had heard bandied about for the clenching delirium at the end, probably because it was the end. He saw from her eyes that she understood the reference; none of her earlier concerns about potential betrayal returned, and she nodded.
"Are you ready," he asked.
"Take me to the end," she said.
He began to move in and out of her, feeling her sheath caressing him, closing up around him as he left, opening to receive him as he returned. Her hand, between them, probed at her flower, finding the little bud hard and wanting. Her body arched with each movement, rising to meet him; her breath came in short pants, in moans and murmurs; he was pleased to see her giving way to the sensations, not holding back. He himself was having trouble holding back; the sensations of her warm, wet passage were beginning to overwhelm him.
Then he felt it--a tremor starting deep within her and then bursting forth. Her eyes opened wide, and then glazed over, staring sightlessly into him, past him, through him. Her moans reached a crescendo; and suddenly her passage clamped down on him, spasming, clenching. It was too much. His own breath escaped him in a rushing exhalation, and he felt his seed pouring forth into her as ecstasy overwhelmed them both.
When it was over, it was all he could do not to collapse all over her.
For a moment he remained there, his heart thundering, his head bent with the exertions; then he looked up. Her head lay back on the pillow, her body lax; her mouth hung open, and her eyes were closed. Her breathing was slowly returning to normal, and the flush fading from her cheeks. Her hair was a shining, tangled mass; sweat shone on her brow, her face, her chest.
It was impossible for him not to acknowledge how beautiful she was.
When he began to withdraw, she winced and gasped; he stopped, but when she said nothing, he left her entirely; she made no further protestations. In silence, he moved from her, arranging himself beside her, lying on his side, watching her breathe.
When she opened her eyes and saw him, she smiled.
"I thought you had gone."
He shook his head. "I could not. You are still here, and I must protect you." There were other reasons, but he didn't think them worth mentioning.
"That was more than... I had no idea that... Jordan, where did you learn these things?"
He hesitated for a moment, not sure what to tell her. "I... Learned. I studied. There were women willing to teach me the necessary lessons." It certainly had nothing to do with wanting to please her. Of course not.
She smiled at him, running a hand over his chest. "You always were a quick study."
He began to rise. "Perhaps we should--"
"No," she said, her hand catching his. "Stay. Please. Just... For a little while." She seemed unaccountably shy. He allowed her to draw him back down. "I know we have to go soon..." She giggled. "I'm not sure I could move."
"I would carry you," he said simply.
Her eyes rolled widely; her smile never left her lips. "Thank you, Jordan," she said dryly. "Always looking out for my safety."
It was such an obvious statement that he saw no need to respond. Instead, he watched her close her eyes for a moment and then scoot closer to him, her body alongside his, looking up at him earnestly.
"I wanted... To thank you," she said. "I know you... Well, I don't know, really; I don't know why you do anything. But... I was wrong to doubt you, and I wanted to apologize. ...And thank you." Her hand stroked his face.
"You are welcome," he said.
"It was... Wonderful," she said.
"You deserved no less," he said truthfully.
She bent her head up to him and kissed him on the cheek, a short contact that sent lightning jolting through him. "Thank you," she said again, and then lay back and closed her eyes, totally at peace.
Jordan allowed himself the forbidden luxury of putting his arm across her chest. Then he watched her, his eyes focused and unreadable, as she slept.
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