The door closed quietly behind Divaksina, and she turned to rest her forehead against the cool wood for a moment, loneliness already curling through her.  Walking away from the door became marginally easier step by step, but a heavy weight lay on her heart.  It was as good as done; by morning, Kerza wouldn’t really be hers any more.  The agreement which had sent the younger daughter of the Swan chieftain to be foster-sister and companion to the Dragon’s daughter still stood, but it truly meant very little next to the legal and spiritual bond of marriage that now tied Kerza to Arjuna.

It hurt.  Oh, how it hurt.

She had been sharing Kerza with Arjuna for almost two decades.  She’d had Kerza exclusively to herself for only a few years before the only surviving adult Fox had brought Karavasu to the palace, to formally adopt the boy as his son and—in a small, informal way—to give him to Diva, too.  Yet though she’d gained a new playmate, Diva had known even then that she had lost something of her first and dearest friend; she might have been only a child, but she had seen Kerza’s eyes following the tall, handsome Lopayzom with a wistful fascination.  In all honesty, it had taken nothing away from Diva; she had lost none of the space she occupied in Kerza’s affections.  But she knew that she was sharing those affections with Arjunayazu, and that had sometimes filled her with a selfish jealousy and anger—which grew worse over time as she watched Kerza’s longing . . . and Arjuna’s indifference.

No, not indifference.  He hadn’t been merely indifferent to Kerza’s adoration—he hadn’t even noticed it.  His oblivious innocence had been one of the only things which spared him from Diva’s childish wrath.  The other thing had been Kerza’s pleading for Diva not to intercede, not to tell him or—as the years went by and the young princess’s power in the court grew—to order him to acknowledge her love.  Because she loved Kerza, Diva had let her suffer in silence by her request.

Because she loved Kerza, Diva had had to let her go this day.  She had been at the Swan’s side up until she entered the shrine wherein the ceremony would be performed.  She had watched her dearest friend and sister and confidant enter . . . and watched the wife of the Lopayzom chieftain emerge.

On a rational level—and the children of Dragon were largely rational to begin with—she knew that Kerza hadn’t stopped being her friend.  Diva had been relegated to a secondary place in the Swan’s affections, however, and Diva hated to be secondary to anyone or anything.

In a sulky, irritated way, she wished that Karavasu were in the palace.  It might distract her to have her partner in . . . experimentation around.

Then again, it was probably best that he wasn’t there.  He was, after all, a Fox, and right now Diva was feeling somewhat uncharitable toward Foxes in general.  Fuzzy-tailed thieves, she sulked privately as she wandered down the hallway that led, eventually, to her chambers.  It was nice to have a few moments wherein nobody was trailing around after her or interrupting her thoughts.

Even as that thought came to mind, it was—ironically enough—interrupted by a childish voice.  “Your Highness!  Your Highness!”

Diva turned, startled, as a young girl dashed breathlessly up to her.  Diva recognized the child as being the chief scholar’s daughter, an adorable little tyke with light blonde hair and the distinctive golden eyes of the Derkontom, who much to her parents’ delight had been accepted as a Herald in training.  The child was wide-eyed, clearly in awe of the princess.

“What is it?” Diva said, aware that her tone was a little sharp.  “Is something wrong?”

“First Lord Derkontaru sent me to tell you that there’s a noble party at the main gate, requesting entry.  They were planning to be here for the wedding and had trouble on the road and got here late and it’d be improper to make them go to one of the inns and he says to ask you if it’s all right to let them in and would you greet them yourself,” the girl got out in one impressive breath.

“Ah,” the Dragon said, blinking at the child and wondering why she hadn’t actually turned blue somewhere in the middle of all that.  “Certainly.  Go let Derka know that I’ll be right there.”

The little girl bowed deeply, then turned and sprinted off down the hallway.  Shaking her head, Diva stopped in her own suite long enough to straighten herself up a little, ensuring that she still looked properly regal, and then made her way to the front of the palace.

Derkontaru, her elder by a scant three years, looked a bit disgruntled.  “About time,” he muttered, even as he gave her a perfunctory bow.  Though he was normally quite courteous and deferential in Diva’s presence, she knew quite well that his pastime when he was away from her was complaining, constantly, about everything she did.  Even when he agreed with her—which he very often did—he complained.  Derka really hadn’t gotten over the fact that she, the younger child, was their father’s heir.  She hardly held it against him.  He might whine nonstop, but as long as he was loyal, she didn’t give a whit what he said when he thought she couldn’t hear.

“I wanted to freshen up, brother dear,” she said breezily.  “It’s already been a long day.  Now, who’s knocking on the door?”

“It’s a front-runner announcing a party from Aizkaur.  Kaurmathom nobles, plus retainers.”

“Kaurmathom?” she inquired, glancing at him sharply.

“The ruling clan, yes,” he said impatiently.  “The rider says that Prince Nethratu conveys his apologies for being late, but they had trouble on the—Diva, what are you doing?!”

For a moment, Diva had stood rooted to the spot, wide-eyed; now she was grabbing the skirts of her regalia and bolting for the gate.  “Dragon’s sake, you imbeciles,” she snapped at the startled guards, “open the gate!  One doesn’t make the Prince of Aizkaur stand around cooling his heels like a tradesman!”  She caught sight of a rider who wore the Kaurmathom clan insignia on his livery and bore down on him.  “How far out is his Highness’s party?”

“A mile at most,” the rider mumbled, readjusting his horse’s cinch.  “If it weren’t for the wretched weather up north, we’d have been here on time despite the detour around the mudslide, and . . .”  His voice trailed off as he finally looked up and realized who he was talking to so casually.  Diva ignored him as he collapsed into a contrite, groveling bow; she was already shouting orders, and the courtyard was positively coming to life with servants and grooms jumping to obey her.

By the time the sound of approaching hooves was audible from the gate, a small army of attendants stood ready to take the travelers’ horses in hand, offer the travelers themselves fresh wine or water, guide them to hastily assigned quarters, and assist with any cleaning up they needed to do after their journey.  Diva herself stood gracefully on the front steps of the palace, her brother standing as bodyguard and escort beside her, his expression at least pleasantly neutral rather than critical.

Despite the unusual hour of day, the regal party flowed into the courtyard between the innermost gatehouse and the palace in the traditional manner all such entourages employed.  First came a small honor guard of the Dragon Palace’s own garrison, both to clear the way and to make sure that the visitors truly were entering the estate for peaceful purposes.  Following them were the standard-bearers, the fluttering cloth banners announcing under whose auspices the party belonged.  Diva’s heart skipped a beat seeing concrete proof of the Tortoise’s presence here of all places.  On deep green silk that looked almost black in the torchlight, one standard bore the solitary white mountain peak that was the emblem of the Northern Province while the other bore the white tortoise shell of the Kaurmathom clan.  Together, they could only mean one thing:  The Tortoise, Prince of Aizkaur, was present.

Behind the standard-bearers came the vanguard, a group of six well-armored warriors with serious expressions on their faces.  Tiny bells jingled as they swung from the reins of the spirited horses they rode; the long tassels decorating the tack were alternating hues of deep green and white.  As they entered the open area beyond the gate, they fanned out, three each to left and right.  As the standard-bearers split apart and marched to either side of the staircase upon which the Dragon stood, the vanguard came to a halt a respectful distance away.

The sturdy poles of the standards slammed against the ground as the bearers took up their ceremonial position at the same time a single figure rode forward into the space opened up by the forward warriors.  Diva couldn’t help but feel oddly nervous as she sensed the man’s equally imposing presence approach.  Her Avatar power stirred to life, wakened by the nearness of a similar might; she had first noticed the odd sensation while on the ceremonial visit to the other three provinces when she became the Princess of Derkarya.  As far as she knew, it was a phenomenon unique to the ruling royalty, this strange sense of attraction.  It didn’t seem to have anything to do with sexual attraction at all.  She’d felt it with Baysitu, who she definitely had no interest in at all.  She’d felt it with Hiranyu, who might have had her interest if he’d wanted it—the Tiger Prince was just that stunningly handsome and charming, but he’d shown her only the friendship she’d cultivated with him since they were children.  She’d felt it with Nethratu as well, but if she hadn’t experienced it with her other two equals previously, she might have mistaken it for a more personal attraction.  It was as if their forebears, the quartet of mighty elementals, had somehow infused their heirs with an awareness and respect for the balance that was intended to exist between them.  She had a theory that if only the four mortal embodiments of those elementals would meet each other in person on a regular basis, the frictions between the provinces would hardly exist at all.  But it had definitely been different when she’d met Nethratu, a much more personal and emotional draw.  Seeing him now made her breath catch in her throat and her heart quicken, a melting heat flowing through her.

Unlike his guard, he was unarmored.  Unexpectedly simple traveling clothes swathed his form in shades of brown and green.  Unadorned deep verdant was the linen that made up his loose-fitting pants, and his equally loose linen shirt was a rich deep brown embroidered with a simple pattern of pine branches across the shoulders.  A knee-length cloak lined with sable fur was fastened around his throat, the side to his right flipped over a broad shoulder to give his right arm full range of motion.  Underneath his unbound, mid-back-length mane of thick, wavy auburn hair, a plain circlet of white gold glittered against his brow.  The only adornment it bore was a circular medallion in the center that bore in white pearls and small emeralds the symbol of the Kaurmathom.

His gelding was as magnificent as he was.  A deep chestnut brown with a white blaze on the forehead, his tack had all the regal decoration his master was currently missing.  Long tassels of deep green swayed with the animal’s every step, and little bells jingled merrily while bits of silver and gold sparkled in the torchlight from where they were mounted upon the well-cared-for leather saddle.

With a gentle tug, the Kaurmathom drew his horse to a stop.  Emerald eyes swept over the form of the Dragon Princess for a long moment.

What he saw was a tall woman, flaming-red hair bound into an intricate arrangement and adorned with the shining coronet of her clan and station, gowned in deep gold, sunlight yellow, and pale cream.  Her gown fitted snugly to her torso, but the sleeves and skirts flowed in long, intricate, draping billows.  The somewhat unusual style revealed a tempting curve of breast and hip, giving only a hint of long, graceful limbs.  Her eyes were the telltale amber of the Dragon’s children, a rich mellow color like aged gold, and she watched him with a bright intensity.  Besides her physical beauty, he could see the banked glow of her power, a counterpoint to his own, as quick and light as his was steady and solid.

He raised a fist to his chest in a formal salute, bowing as an equal from his place upon his mount.  As the rear guard of his personal retinue filed in behind him, his low voice filled the expectant atmosphere of the courtyard.  “Forgive my rudeness at imposing upon the harmony of your household this late in the day.  I sincerely apologize for disturbing you, especially when all would rather be celebrating such a joyous occasion instead of greeting some unfashionably late guest.”

“I bid you welcome to the House of the Winds, and gladly offer you the hospitality of its hearth,” Diva replied in surprisingly formal tones, using the almost ritualistic speech to cover her nervousness until she could regain her poise.  “Indeed, we are most honored by your presence, and apologize for any lack in accommodations.  If we had had greater advance notice,” she added in a tone that just barely bordered on chastising, “we most certainly would have been properly prepared for your arrival.”

She put out a hand, resting it gently on the forearm of the man who stood a few steps below her and to one side; his eyes were much darker than hers, bordering on brown, but still identifiable as Derkontom gold.  Their facial features were similar enough that it was obvious they were related.  Solemnly, the young man escorted his sister and liege down the steps so that she could meet the Northern prince on level ground.

Behind the royal pair, everything became still as the last of the Kaurmathom’s personal guard took up their traditional position of a rearward fan.  As Diva well knew, somewhere back there—out in the city or perhaps even still on the road—would be the rest of the traveling group: the carts for supplies and the apprentices and servants of these men here before her.  The important person, however, was here before her—almost like an answer to an unspoken prayer.

They became the only points of movement in the courtyard, she gracefully descending the steps while he elegantly dismounted, hair and cloak flowing with the momentum.  He took a couple of steps forward, then bowed again when the Derkontom halted near.  This time, the bow that of an inferior showing respect to a superior:  a gesture of thanks for the hospitality of the palace being extended to him.

“If you had had greater advance notice,” he said, his low voice holding a tone of amusement while his emerald eyes swept over her in a gaze of frank admiration, “it would have rather ruined the effect we had wished to convey.  Our visit was intended to be a pleasant surprise for our royal cousin.”

She gave the slightest dip of a curtsey, extending a hand to him.  “One hopes that it pleases you to know that you have achieved exactly the effect you desired.  Your messenger said that you encountered some trouble on the road?”

Her words about achieving his goal brought a satisfied smile to his lips.  Taking her hand in his, he murmured, “Autumn in the mountains often makes for interesting journeys.  The main road between Tortoise and Dragon Palace had been blocked by a mudslide, so we were forced to divert around it, and the steady rain in Aizkaur slowed us down.  Unfortunately, we could not make up the time by hurrying once we crossed into Derkarya.”  Nethratu then bowed slightly, kissing the back of her hand in a greeting of humble respect.  His lips were soft and warm against her skin; the contact was broken all too soon as the Kaurmathom prince straightened and let go of her hand.  “If I could impose upon your hospitality enough to make myself more presentable, I would be honored if you would allow me the privilege of a private meeting between us?”  The dropping of the royal plural made his request seem quite personal.

Diva knew that she was blushing a little, but for once, the realization didn’t irritate her.  She let her hand fall back to her side, toying with a fold of her skirts.  “I foresee no trouble in fulfilling both requests,” she murmured, looking up through her lashes into those vivid green eyes.

For some reason, the answering smile the Tortoise gave her made her blush just a bit more.  Those emerald eyes hinted at a promise of many pleasant things, not the least of which was a welcome distraction to the loneliness spawned by finally giving Kerza away.

“You are most generous,” Nethratu murmured, nodding slightly in the direction of the palace.

Taking the hint for what it was, Diva flicked dragon-gold eyes to her brother.  At his sullen nod and slight frown of annoyance, the Derkontom princess gracefully turned and retraced her steps toward the main door of the palace.  Behind her, steady as stone, remained the emerald aura of the Prince of Aizkaur; she found his presence somewhat comforting given the significance of the day.  Even so, she couldn’t help but wonder why he’d decided to surprise her in such a manner in the first place.  Nethratu—indeed, his entire clan—wasn’t known for impulsiveness; the Tortoise would have probably had this visit planned for a very long time.

It will be interesting to find out why he’d like to talk in private, Diva mused while striding grandly through the palace doors.

 

Half an hour later, Diva lounged in her favorite chair in her suite’s sitting room, mastering her nervousness.  Though she still wore the gold and cream gown, she’d taken off her coronet and let her hair down; the flame-red mane rippled down her back and over her shoulders, ending just at her waist.  A bottle of wine and two goblets stood on a small table between her chair and the one that faced it, close enough to be appropriate for conversation.

The knock on her door almost catapulted her out of her seat; she scowled at her own skittishness and consciously made herself relax.  “Yes?”

The door opened a little.  “His Highness the Tortoise has arrived, Princess Divaksina,” the guard said respectfully.

“Let him in,” she said, tightening her hands on the arms of her chair.

When the door opened again, this time far wider than before, once more that sense of resonance hit her as the prince of the Northern Province stepped inside.  His attire now was casual, relaxed, not the stiffly formal clothing such a meeting would demand in more public surroundings.  He wore a long, elegant black silk robe held closed by an emerald-colored sash; the shoulders were embroidered in pale green thread with a pattern of pine branches, while the scene of a tortoise perched on a rock in a pond, a pine tree overshadowing it, decorated the skirt of the gown in pale green and white thread.  At neck and hems, hints of a light mint green under-robe could be seen.  The cloth of the black garment’s long sleeve pockets were gathered up about halfway down their length by clips of white gold adorned with glimmering emeralds.  His hair remained loose and flowing around face and shoulders, the white gold circlet gleaming on his brow.

Diva felt her breath catch in her throat.  The man was every bit as gorgeous as ever.  She started to rise, unaware of the faint expression of awe on her beautiful face, only to remain seated as Nethratu smiled and gestured at her to not bother with the formality.  At his soft-voiced inquiry about whether he could take the other seat, the Dragon merely nodded and waved her hand at the waiting chair.  “Would you like something to drink?” Diva offered.

“Yes, please,” the Kaurmathom answered while settling into the empty seat.  The smile lingered on his face as the Dragon poured some of the wine into each of the goblets waiting on the table.  “Thank you,” he murmured as he took the now-filled chalice held out to him.  He took a sip, but it was quite apparent his attention remained on the flame-haired woman sitting close by.  Nethratu’s emerald eyes continued to watch Diva.

“Quite welcome.”  She lounged back, trying to regain her cool poise and elegance rather than gape at him like a silly chambermaid.  “I trust your journey was comfortable, aside from the inconveniences you ran across?”

He smiled.  “Yes, everything else went fine.  I admit that I’m a little surprised that you haven’t outright asked me why I undertook the trip in the first place.”

She frowned at him.  “That would be terribly rude and uncouth of me, as well as making it sound as if I’m somehow annoyed that you dropped by.”

“And you’re not?” he asked, a spark of amusement twinkling in his emerald eyes.

“Most certainly not,” she said firmly.

“Good to hear,” he responded.  He took another sip, then cradled the container in his hands.  They were the sort of hands one could easily imagine were strong, steady but gentle in whatever they touched.  “I had hoped my presence would be more of a delight than an annoyance.  I’ve known from the way you’ve spoken about her in our correspondences that Lady Kerzama means quite a lot to you. It must be hard, letting her go.”

Diva hesitated, staring down into her wine.  “Yes,” she said finally, softly.  “It’s . . . very hard.  She’s been with me almost my entire life.  But I want her to be happy, so . . “  She shrugged, but the gesture was far more like someone shifting a great weight than a casual dismissal.

“They say that the spirits reward those who are generous,” Nethratu murmured.  “And letting her have what you know will make her happy is very generous, in my humble opinion.”

“I think it’ll be good for Lord Arjunayazu, too,” she said, still looking down into the wine.  “He’s been alone for a very long time.”

He took another drink, then set the goblet down.  “In truth, I had something of an ulterior motive to coming here.”

She glanced up, golden eyes curious.  “Did you, sir?  Do tell.”

“Twin reasons brought me here this day.  The first was Lady Kerzama’s wedding, not because I wished to witness it but rather I had wished for the hurt to you to be softened by having here something as pleasurable for you to dwell upon as strong as the pain which letting Lady Kerzama go has caused.  I’ve felt, from those few meetings of ours and our correspondences, that a visit here by myself would be such a balm.

“As for the other—”  The Tortoise Prince first stripped off the elaborate signet ring on his right hand, then reached up and pulled off the circlet he wore as a token of his exalted rank.  “For years now, I’ve been advised to take a wife and get to work on my dynastic duties.  I’ve done some searching, but all those I’ve seen have always paled in comparison to the beauty and spirit of one I first met long ago.  Always she’s been there in the back of my mind, the unwitting ruler against which others have been measured—and so far, all others have come up short.  I’ve come to the decision that none other will be good enough, despite the political and diplomatic quagmire that lies ahead.  I believe it can be worked out, if the woman in question feels the same way:  that true love and respect is worth any other headache over a loveless and purely political union.”

He rose from his seat, emerald gaze boring into the other royal as he crossed the short space between them.  Kneeling before her, he reached up and closed one of his hands around hers.  “I’m asking this as simply myself, the man Nethratu—not as the Tortoise nor as the Prince of Aizkaur, for such would imperil the balance of power that leaves Aizvarya intact.  Will you marry me, Diva?  For you are the one who impressed me so, and I’ve come to realize I love you.”

From the moment he’d taken off the symbols of his rank and started on the subject of needing a wife, Diva’s eyes had grown progressively wider; those smoky golden eyes were almost perfectly round now, her mouth hanging open a little in shock.  Clearly, he’d managed to surprise her completely, achieving the near-impossible effect of rendering the eloquent and urbane Dragon Princess utterly speechless.  Her hand clenched almost convulsively, slim fingers remarkably strong, though they seemed so delicate compared to his.  She had to swallow a few times before she could manage to make a sound.

“N-Nethratu . . .” she whispered, staring at him; though the Derkontom were renowned for their aloofness and cool intellectualism, she certainly showed her emotions plainly enough at the moment.  The sense of grief and loss at giving up Kerzama had just crashed head-on into the long-standing attraction she’d had for the auburn-haired prince.

The Kaurmathom kept his gaze on her, hesitant and clearly waiting in anxiety.  He tightened his grip just a bit on her hand, but his grasp remained gentle.  “Please, Diva . . . If you cannot give me an answer now, then at least tell me you’ll consider it.  I know it’s not the easiest of paths given who and what we are, and any actual ceremony will be two or three years in the future as our diplomats wrangle over the details, but you’re worth it to me.  Happiness for me is having you at my side; I’m certain I can make you happy as well.”

“Why would you even imagine that I’d say ‘no’?” she managed, putting her other hand over his.

Always before, he’d seemed so confident of himself.  Like an impassive mountain or the steady totem of his clan, Nethratu had never appeared nervous or anxious the few times she’d seen him.  Yet now, he seemed hesitant, uncertain.  “Because such a deed is a political quagmire,” he murmured, then added, “and though I thought you felt much as I did, I wasn’t completely sure.”

“I rarely let politics get in the way of something I really want,” she pointed out, quite accurately.

“Indeed, but it was the uncertainty about how you felt that made me think there was a chance you’d turn me down.”

“I suppose I wasn’t being obvious enough in my letters, hm?”

“Words on paper, though quite important to ones such as we are, pale in comparison to those spoken in person or the actions we do.”

“Well, let me clarify, then,” she murmured, touching his chin with her free hand as she leaned forward to kiss him.

The nervous tension drained away with the touch of her lips on his.  Suddenly dizzy with happiness, the Tortoise made a soft sound of pleasure deep in his throat as he returned the kiss whole-heartedly.  For a long time, he’d wanted this, and in that moment, it seemed utterly possible to overcome everything to make it happen for them both.  Given Diva’s tendency to use any and every trick, twist, and legal loophole to get her own way, overcoming the diplomatic tangle that would come of two provinces’ rulers marrying each other might prove interesting, but probably not impossible.  The complications of Air being wed to Earth, on the other hand, would probably be a great deal more troublesome—although it certainly meant their union would be anything but boring.  In the increasing heat of the passionate kiss, the politics of both mortal and celestial courts were surprisingly easy to ignore.

At long last, Nethratu broke the lingering kiss.  He pulled back, intense emerald eyes opening to stare at her with an approving smile on his face.  Her smoky gold eyes gleamed under heavy lids, a similar smile curving her delicious lips.  “I’ve wanted to do that for years,” she confessed cheerfully.

“As have I.  I’ve also wondered for a long time what it would be like.”  His smile took on a hint of wickedness.  “It’s much better than I imagined.”

“I’ll agree with that,” Diva remarked, thinking of all the rather off-color stories she’d read.  None of them, no matter how luridly written, had come close to the real thing.

Nethratu reached out, lightly caressing her jawline with his fingertips.  “You’ve made me a very happy man, love.  This is why I traveled all this way to see you—that and to hopefully ease your pain on giving your best friend away.”

“I see that I managed to convey just how much that prospect upset me in my letters,” she murmured.  “I know that this is what Kerza’s always wanted, and that helps a little.”

The Tortoise flashed her another wicked grin.  “I think, in due time, you’ll find out just how she feels and that knowledge will help even more.”

That made her blush.  “I think I’m likely to be rather distracted, yes.”

“Distracted?” Nethratu huffed.  Leaning back, he crossed his arms over his broad chest.  “Are you telling me you’re going to keep dwelling on her getting married for the rest of your life?”

“She’s been with me for virtually my entire life up until this point.  How do you stop dwelling on the loss of an arm, Nethratu?”  The sad, quiet words drew some of the light out of her eyes, her expression.  “How long does that take?”

He sighed.  The last thing he wanted was to further depress her.  The Prince of the North uncrossed his arms, holding them out in an invitation for his new fiancée to come sit on his lap.  “Come here, love,” he murmured.

She slid out of her chair and into his lap with a swirl of cream and gold silk.  This close, the light clean fragrance of her was almost intoxicating; she was noticing much the same about his own rich scent.  He couldn’t help but close his eyes and breathe in the scent of her as she accepted the invitation.  He wrapped his arms around her solid warmth, giving her a reassuring hug.  No matter the future, he would always be there for her--if not in person, than in spirit—a solid, dependable anchor against the uncertainty of the world.  “It’ll be all right, Diva.  Trust in that.  But tell me, has she said she’d no longer be with you or see you after this moment?”

“No,” Diva admitted into his shoulder.  It wasn’t just the solidly muscled strength of him that had her pressing close; a thick sheet of his hair had spilled over that shoulder, and she was nuzzling into the rich auburn cascade like a kitten.

His hair was soft, though a bit coarser than her own, and it shimmered in the candlelight as he moved.  He held her close, a hand gently stroking her back in a soothing gesture.  “You’ve spoken of her devotion to the Silver Fox for a long time, how she would follow him about and watch him.  Even so, she’s seen to you as well, has she not?”

“Yes,” she murmured.  “She’s always been there for me.”

“And has Lord Arjunayazu told you he’d be moving himself and his wife out of the palace post haste?”

“No, but they’ll do so eventually.  The Lopayzom lands and estates are still out there, and I’m sure he’ll want to take over from the stewards sooner or later.”

“Mmm hmm.”  The Tortoise hugged her again.  “But as you say, it’ll be eventually.  Not now.  Not right away.  The Fox estates have been governed as such for years now.  What’s a couple of years more?  I have faith that Kerza will stay here until you’re more ready for her to be living on the Lopayzom lands.  I can’t see her just abandoning you.  Truly, very little’s changed, love.”

“She won’t be very close any more, though,” Diva argued softly, glancing at the rightmost door of the three that were spaced at the back of the room.  She hadn’t had the nerve to even look into the quarters that Kerza had occupied for so long; surely the Swan had had her belongings moved to Arjuna’s quarters already.

“Mmm.  Keep talking like that and I’m going to get jealous,” he gently chided while nuzzling against her neck.

“Well, it’s true,” she murmured, distracted by the brush of his skin on her own.  “She’s always been close enough that she could wake me up if I was having a nightmare, or I could go right to her in the middle of the night to talk about anything.”

He shifted his hold on her slightly, tugging her closer.  “I know.  But that doesn’t mean you can’t talk to her during the day.”  He brushed his lips against her neck.  “Though I fear you must face up to nightmares on your own for a while, if you’re to be fair to her.”

She pressed close, speculatively eyeing the curve of his ear.  “I think I’m likely to have much better dreams right now.”

“Well, I find it hard to believe one such as you is plagued by nightmares that often,” he admitted.  “You’ve always struck me as having the Dragon’s bravery.”  He followed his words by nibbling lightly on her throat.

“Well, of course I do,” she replied, a bit stung.  “But you know as well as I do that ruling a province isn’t necessarily something that can always be done with sheer bravery and force.”  Her breath hitched slightly, and she retaliated with a light nip at his ear.

He tightened his embrace, a shiver of pleasure sliding down his spine.  “I know all too well.  And I hope that because we both know what it’s like to rule a province, we can help one another shoulder those burdens.”  He nibbled on her neck again, finding it hard to resist the very carnal pleasure touching her gave.

“That would be nice,” she admitted.  “My father wasn’t exactly able to tell me everything I probably ought to know.  Of course, I don’t think my father could have told anybody what time of day it was if he was standing outside under a clear sky.”  She recalled hearing that many clansfolk who had strong ties to the North—to the element of Earth—were quite fond of physical contact.  Evidently, the rumors were true, if Nethratu’s reactions were any indication.  With a faint, wicked smile, she twined a lock of that lustrous auburn hair around her fingers and blew lightly in his ear.

“Diva,” he gasped, though it wasn’t in mortification or anger.  Rather it was surprise and pleasure coloring his rich baritone voice.  With a deep growl, he captured her mouth with his for a breathtaking kiss.  That growl ran a shiver up her spine that had nothing to do with fear.  She virtually melted against him, purring as she returned the kiss wholeheartedly.

He deepened the kiss, moaning softly in pleasure.  The Dragon was all he had ever hoped for and more:  beautiful, intelligent, passionate and oh so responsive.  Intellectual inquiry had always been a particular trait of the Derkontom, and the latest leader of the clan was remaining true to type.  She was very interested in finding out everything she could about this fascinating new aspect of life that she’d just discovered.  Innocent games with her little Fox playmate had been, it seemed, only the vaguest reflection of what real passion felt like.  She clenched her fingers in Nethratu’s hair, kissing him as if she’d drink him from the mouth down.

He clenched one hand in the rich fabric covering her back.  His other hand dropped down to slide under the hem of her gown.  With a long, tender caress, he ran his fingertips up along the length of her leg, pushing the soft silk ever higher.  He stopped at her thigh, firmly but gently gripping her there on the outer side of her leg as he teased open her mouth with his.  He didn’t have the soft hands of a courtier, pampered and smooth; as astonishing as it might be to some of the nobility who thought that work was something that happened to commoners, it seemed that the Prince of Aizkaur believed in doing manual labor himself.  Some of the calluses were no doubt from sword training, but there were other slightly rough spots that suggested he’d applied himself to more down-to-earth pursuits as well.  The tough spots gave the slide of his hand up her leg a certain additional tinge of excitement, and Diva gasped faintly against his lips.  With a sound akin to a possessive growl, he twined his tongue with hers.  He continued to hold her close, firmly, as he kissed her thoroughly.  His emerald aura flared against her golden one, his passion and desire very easy to read.

The sound of the door opening barely intruded on Diva’s awareness, as she was quite involved in what she and Nethratu were doing, but the startled gasp was another matter.  Amusingly, Diva didn’t break off the kiss, but her tongue stopped its leisurely exploration and one golden eye opened with an ominous glint.  She looked past Nethratu’s ear to see the servant who’d apparently not been told that the Princess was closeted with her guest rather than still at the banquet; the young fellow had an armload of fresh bed linens and towels, as well as a look of shock and dawning terror on his face.

The spike of another aura nearby, one filled with utter surprise, impinged itself upon the Tortoise.  With a growl of annoyance, he broke the kiss and leaned back, pulling his hand out from under the princess’s silken gown.  Despite that, the Dragon looked quite rumpled.  He then turned his unhappy emerald gaze to whomever it was barging in and ruining a very nice moment.  Diva did indeed look attractively rumpled, even if her expression portended doom.  The poor servant in the doorway was in the unenviable position of being glared at quite pointedly by two of the most powerful individuals in the entire empire.

“Y-Your Highness, I, uh, the sheets, uh, nobody said, uh—”

“Go.  Away.”  Diva spaced the words out very slowly, as if enunciating them with exquisite care were the only way she could avoid screaming them.

The young man tried to bow and nod and back up all at the same time; there was a thud, an “oof”, and suddenly a pair of briefly flailing feet as the servant fell on his backside were all that was visible from the angle of the two royals entwined on the carpet.  Nevertheless, he scrambled wildly to get the door closed before he was either turned into stone or blown away on an abrupt storm of wind.

“Hrmph.”  Nethratu continued to glare at the doorway, though the poor servant’s aura was disappearing as fast as any hunted rabbit’s would.  “And such a nice moment too.”

“Well, if we were planning to keep this a secret for a while, that’s a lost cause.  I’d wager that the news is going to reach the far end of the palace before the hour’s out.”  Diva tried to straighten her skirts, breathing a bit hard.

“I wasn’t planning on keeping it a secret.”  He turned his verdant gaze back to the gorgeous and still flushed royal.  “At least, not that we plan to marry.”

“Right.”  She was trying to smooth her hair down, and blushing.

“And as much as I’d enjoy continuing where I left off, honor demands I go no further.”

“I suppose so,” Diva grumbled, looking as if she was quite willing to consign honor to perdition instead.