It was well past nightfall, and the celebration was showing signs of continuing on for some time yet to come.  Noble weddings on a magnitude such as this one didn’t happen very often, and so the guests were taking full advantage of the opportunity to enjoy themselves—as well as the excellent products of the Dragon’s kitchens and wine cellars.

The bride, in the company of the Dragon herself as well as a few other ladies, had already retired to prepare for the night.  Arjuna, sitting at the high table, was starting to feel as though he’d never be able to similarly escape the noisy celebration.  He had always been a rather private man when it came to his personal life; though he had attended such grand public occasions before, he’d never done so as the center of attention.  It was a colossal relief when one of the ladies discreetly approached and murmured a few words to indicate that his bride awaited him.  His almost hasty exit from the great chamber was accompanied by various shouts of congratulations and not a few ribald comments, including some remarks upon how eager he appeared to be to consummate his union.

The halls of the palace were still conveying a certain amount of servants’ traffic, but after the uproar of the great hall, it was downright peaceful.  Arjuna strode through the familiar corridors, yet found his steps slowing as he approached the door of his own quarters.

For the first time, I will not sleep here alone.  The thought was frightening and exhilarating at the same time as he silently acknowledged how much time had passed.  He didn’t feel old, of course, having only entered his fourth decade quite recently; Avatars were longer-lived than ordinary folk, and they tended to enjoy good health and vigor the entire time.  Yet he realized that for nearly half his life, he had thought of virtually nothing but his plans for revenge against the Kaykolom.  For that entire span of time, he had had no home but the quarters provided to him by the ruling family of the province, and the only women who’d ever gotten past the sitting room were the household staff in the process of their normal duties.

He opened the door and entered the sitting room, and the door to his bedchamber opened at almost the same moment.  Divaksina walked sedately out, pushing the door not quite closed behind her, and looked at him with a sort of calm, quizzical expression in her golden eyes.  As children, she and Karavasu could have—and sometimes were—been mistaken for siblings, but as they grew, the clan differences became obvious.  Kara’s eyes were as clear and bright as pure honey; Diva’s had become richer, deeper, almost smoky with the power of the Dragon, and those eyes seemed to look right past the surface into a person’s soul, reading and weighing them.  Arjuna had apparently never been found wanting, a fact that he found immensely relieving at this moment for some obscure reason.

“She’s waiting for you,” the Dragon Princess informed him, a hand flicking back toward the door she had just come through.

“I know,” he said, realizing how vaguely inane he sounded.

“She’s been waiting for you for a very long time,” Diva said, her voice very low.

“I know,” he repeated.

Diva crossed the room and hugged him without preamble, then kissed his cheek in a chaste, sisterly sort of way.  With her lips close to his ear, she whispered.  “Be good to her, Old Fox.”  The “or else” was implied, and best left to a vivid imagination.

“I intend to,” he answered sincerely, simply.

“Good.”  The Dragon’s eyes glinted with a mixture of emotions that Arjuna hesitated to classify.  He couldn’t begin to grasp how painful it must have been for the young woman to give up her foster sister, whom Diva loved as if they were one soul.  But it was because Diva loved Kerzama that she had done everything possible to bring this day about—a day that Kerza had scarcely dared to dream about.

The hallway door closed quietly behind Diva, and Arjuna looked at the door on the far side of the room with a sudden sense of nervousness that would have been more appropriate to a man half his age.  He was the Derkaryan Minister of War, the Grand Dragon General, and here he was feeling almost as trembly as a private on the eve of his first battle.  Squaring his shoulders, he crossed the room and opened the door, entering the familiar bedchamber.

Someone, probably Diva, had arranged lights at the four corners of the bed, casting a warm, gentle illumination.  In the middle of that pool of light, she was waiting, sitting with her feet tucked up beside one thigh and her hands resting in her lap.  Her soft smile of welcome made the room he’d occupied for twenty years feel much more like home than it ever had before.  The embroidered silken robe of pale turquoise-blue flowed around her in smooth folds; her face was as calm as ever, framed by the unbound cloak of snow-white hair that pooled at her hips, its pale luster a striking contrast to the slender coal-black brows that arched above eyes almost the same color as the robe.  He realized suddenly that he’d never actually seen her with her hair loose before, framing that lovely face.

She blushed faintly as he stood rooted to the spot and stared at her.  “My lord?  Are you all right?”

Jade-green eyes blinked at her, his lips curving downward in the lightest of frowns.  “‘My lord’?” he murmured, walking to the end of the bed.  “No, not here, please.  Everyone calls me that, or ‘Your Grace’.  It’s understandable in public, but . . . when it’s just the two of us, I’d rather not feel like I’m your superior.  Once more he halted; this time he drew in a slow, deep breath in an attempt to steady his nerves.

It was more than the nervousness of a new husband facing his virgin wife for the first time with the full intent of claiming her virginity.  It was also more than the nervousness of a man attempting to be intimate after choosing to be celibate for over two decades.  What he faced now was a bridge that, once crossed, could never be crossed again in retreat.  Up to now, his words and his actions taken upon this new path were only that—lip service.  This would be the first concrete step in living life to live, not to pass the time awaiting death.

He wanted very much to do that, to shake off the last of the shadows, bury his hands in that gorgeous mane of hers and confirm to himself and to her that it was not too late for him, that his capacity to be a part of life hadn’t withered under the long night of grief and death.  But what if it was too late?  What if he truly was lost to his connections to creativity and life?  The fear of this unknown was nearly as bad as the first time he’d faced a foe on the battlefield.

Kerza watched him with those soft blue eyes, a hint of uncertainty in her gaze.  The respectful title had been spoken out of sheer habit; despite her seeming calm, she was dealing with a stomach full of butterflies.  She had loved this man for most of her life, but the day had felt almost unreal.  Surely it was only a dream, and she would wake soon, alone in her own bed; that had happened before.  She wasn’t at all afraid of the consummation that lay ahead of them, but it was just barely starting to occur to her that it was all right now for her to want him.  Her feelings had matured along with her, turning from childish adoration to adolescent lust and finally into a deep and steady love, never “outgrowing” its previous stage, but rather incorporating it as part of the new whole.

“Do you wish some help in disrobing?” she asked, and was proud of the way her voice didn’t waver or crack.  After all, she’d helped him bathe before, so surely this was no different.  Yes, it is.  He wasn’t my husband before.

“I would appreciate that,” he said sincerely.  She had never seen him clothed in quite this sort of finery, either, resplendent in the brilliant reds, warm orange-reds, and cream-to-silver whites of his clan’s traditional colors.  It was his own wedding day; besides that, Diva had requested that he—well, actually, informed him that he was going to—dress in the finest manner possible, including the trappings of his station as a clan-chief.  He was marrying another chieftain’s daughter, after all, and more significantly as far as Diva was concerned, he was marrying Kerza, who certainly deserved the extra effort.  On her orders, the Lopayzom clan’s circlet and seal ring had been fetched from the vaults specifically for him to wear.  That would have been simple enough for him to remove on his own, but like Kerza’s own clothes, his required help to get into and out of easily.  Diva had helped with Kerza’s change of clothes.  I get to unwrap my wedding present myself, she thought irreverently as she slipped off the bed, her hair falling in a heavy sheet down her back and one shoulder, ending at mid-thigh.

She came up within arm’s length of him and hesitated.  One part of her wanted to help him as if this were no different than the bathhouse; another part—one which had been repressed for years—wanted to make the best possible use out of the intimate situation.  Still, it wasn’t appropriate for her to be too forward, was it?  There was a flicker of uncertainty in her eyes as she looked at him.

She should have expected him to catch her hesitation.  A silver eyebrow quirked up in a wordless question, the jade eyes watching her with nervousness—and perhaps even true longing.  She blushed faintly at the quizzical look, a little surprised to see an expression in his eyes that seemed similar to how she was feeling.  “Is something wrong, my lo—mph.”  She cut herself off awkwardly, remembering his previous reaction.

Thin lips curled up in mild amusement as she caught herself.  “‘Arjuna’ is sufficient, Kerza, here where it’s just you and me.  There are enough to remind me of my somewhat exalted status without my wife referring to me as a superior.”

“It’s become a habit,” she offered wryly by way of apology.  “I’ve been calling you that—in your presence—for most of my life.”

That made him softly chuckle.  “I do hope that’s not a sign of a trend.  After all, you’ve also spent most of your life pining for me from a distance.”  He leaned down while reaching out to brush his fingertips against one of her exquisite cheeks.  “I think I would be disappointed if that too was a habit hard to break.”

“I’d be rather put out if your habit of not noticing my existence continued on,” she remarked, a shiver running through her at the light caress.

“Mmm.”  The sound was neutral; he could have meant it any number of ways.  His hand intensified the caress, the palm now resting against her while his fingers tickled the skin just under her ear.  “I notice you, Kerza.  I very much notice you.”

The Swan blushed.  “I-I apologize, my lo—Arjuna.  That was . . . ill-tempered of me to say, especially now.”  Since he was touching her, she dared to touch him in return, just settling a hand tentatively on his shoulder.  “Forgive me.  I . . . have trouble believing that this is real . . .”

He smiled, eyes half closing, the jade hue darkening.  Ever since he’d allowed himself to actually see her, to let the attraction that had always been there but shoved far away, left to lie dormant, finally bloom, he’d wanted to sink his hands into that magnificent mane of white silk.  He let himself indulge that impulse, hand slipping further back to thread his elegant fingers through her locks.  He leaned forward a bit more so that he could murmur in her ear, “I must confess that I too have some trouble believing this is truly real.  But I am willing to take the chance that this is reality . . .”

Her hair was thick and silken, amazingly soft and smooth to the touch.  It had more weight to it than he might have expected; Kerza’s entire appearance had an ethereal quality to it, much like Chaiya’s had.

Slender fingers tightened a little on his shoulder; she turned her head just enough to be able to look at him from the corner of one half-closed eye.  There was a teasing lilt in her voice.  “Are you certain?  You have a look about you that concerns me—as if you’re about to dash for the door.  I sincerely hope you won’t, because I wouldn’t put it past Diva to be lurking somewhere in the sitting room or out in the hallway, and I shudder to think what she’d do if she caught you trying to run away.”

“I look like . . . ?”  He pulled back, a quizzical expression on his face.  “Do I really look like I’m going to turn tail and run?”  he asked, incredulous.  That was the furthest thing from his mind, to be honest.

Then his expression turned to one often seen in drawings of Lopayzu, the Fox Spirit.  A somewhat naughty slyness, and a reminder that even the elegant Arjuna was a Lopayzom through and through.  “Well now, we’ll just have to do something about that,” he said, suddenly darting forward.  His tall form pressed against her as he wrapped an arm around her.  Next thing she knew, she was pinned on the bed with Arjuna in all his Court finery lying on top of her, their legs dangling from the knees down off the edge of the bed.  He smirked down at her, his long topknot and the tassels from the Lopayzom diadem spilling over his shoulder to the right of his face.  “So now what do you have to say for yourself, hmm?”

She let out a startled squeak as he caught hold of her; the snowy mane haloed her surprised face as she lay beneath him, blue eyes huge.  For a moment, she almost looked as though he’d scared her half to death.

Then, impulsively, she reached up and caught a handful of his silvery hair, bringing it to her face and rubbing it softly against her cheek, her eyes falling closed for a moment.  It felt wonderful, satin-sleek against her face, as it had when she’d indulged herself during the long journey—when he was asleep, of course.  “I say that if you tried to run, I’d follow you nevertheless.”  Her eyes opened again, full of honest and unconditional love, and she reached up with her free hand to touch his face as her voice grew very low and soft.  “I would follow you anywhere, Arjuna.”

The playful slyness faded away into a serious, almost contemplative expression.  “I know,” he breathed, lowering his face toward hers.  “I only hope I prove worthy of such unsullied devotion.”  The jade eyes closed as he closed the small distance between them.

His kiss was sweet and tender, almost hesitant at first but intensifying with gentle, insistent passion with every heartbeat.  The kiss that had sealed their marriage vows had been a chaste, formal one; this was nothing so mild.  She was a little shy, inexperienced, still hardly daring to believe that her most treasured dream had come true.  Her response to him was based more on the depth of her emotion than simple sexual desire.  He was her dream, but not in some idealized form.  She knew him, with all his flaws and quirks, and her affection was rooted entirely in a real, complex man rather than an artificially perfect perception.

She drew away reluctantly, opening her eyes to stare past his shoulder at the ceiling above.  “You can’t be comfortable for very long in those clothes, and there’s no point in getting them hopelessly wrinkled.”  Pushing herself up gently against him until he yielded to sit up beside her, she reached out and then stopped, her eyes searching his face.  “But if you don’t object, I’d like to take my time,” she admitted in a near-whisper.

“I don’t object in the slightest,” he murmured, sifting a handful of her hair through his fingers with a smile before rising to his feet and crossing the room to the closet.  As vowed, the graceful Swan followed.

Kerza untied the brilliant red sash, tugging it loose from its four-fold wrapping around his middle and winding it into a neat roll as she went.  As she did so, Arjuna shrugged out of the deep red sleeveless jacket that bore his clan’s insignia on either breast as well as the back.

“I imagine you’re glad to be out of your own finery,” he remarked as she started undoing the small ties at the front and waist of his white outer robe.  The pearlescent finish to the textured silk attested to the expensiveness of the garment.  Up close, the Haesom could see her new husband wore a small fortune in honor of her.

“I think it’s safe to say that as elaborate as your formal clothing is, it hasn’t got a patch on women’s clothes,” she answered wryly, stepping behind him to ease the robe off so that she could hang it up.  “The more splendid one wants to look, the more weight one ends up carrying around.”

“You must have been half-crushed, then, because you were utterly magnificent,” he said with a smile.

“You were the only one I wanted to impress.”  She went to work on the knots that held the bright red inner robe closed.  “Diva had fun arguing over everything with the seamstresses, though.  She had some very definite opinions about how I should look.”

Though she was indeed taking her time, she wasn’t making any overtly amorous gestures.  The light, seemingly accidental brushes of her fingers were having an effect on him that was all out of proportion to their apparently businesslike intention.  That such little caresses were causing his blood to stir made the elegant Fox smile as he closed his eyes.  Perhaps his ties to life and creativity hadn’t been withered to nothingness after all.

“You’re quite the tolerant one, Kerza.  Most women would be upset or disappointed at being chained to a man already into his fourth decade,” he teased while reaching up to fiddle with the twisted cords of red and silver fastening the Lopayzom diadem around his head.  Unused to bearing the weight of the crown for so long, he was aware of a mild headache trying to manifest.  Of course, his newly-wedded wife was quite the pleasant distraction judging by the other sensations of which his body was making him aware.

“I’m not most women,” she pointed out calmly.

“What a horrible fate, indeed,” he went on.  “Having to share your bed with one with gray hair—”

“Your hair is silver, my lord, and always has been.”  It wasn’t a case of her forgetting his request that she address him by name; it was more a case of her becoming slightly annoyed by the direction he was taking.  “And I’ve always been fond of it.”

“—a gap-toothed smile—”

“You’re not missing any of your teeth.”  I was just counting them with my tongue, so I know they’re all present and accounted for.

“—a withered, dessicated body—”

“You keep yourself in perfect condition.”  That was obvious to her as she stroked her hands over his shoulders and down his arms to sweep the red robe off him; she could feel the muscle there.  Unbidden came the myriad of images in her memory of what he looked like divested of his clothing.  Lean, sleek, gracefully muscular—even to this day he exercised vigorously each day as part of his usual routine.

“—and a pump so weak it’s unable to make his member rise to the occasion,” he concluded soulfully in his litany of imagined personal flaws.

“You’re still quite virile, as your current reaction betrays,” she corrected him in a rather prim tone that was at odds with her somewhat blunt words and a direct stare at the region in question, before she knelt down to take the sandals, adorned with gold and fox-rubies, from his feet, and peeled his socks off for good measure.

“You’re not going to let me have any fun, are you, Kerza?” he asked plaintively as she got to her feet again.  A soft jingle filled the air around them as he lowered the diadem from his head.  The tiny links of gold holding beads of pearl and fox-ruby tinkled musically against the wide gold band adorned with even more pearls and fox-rubies as he held the treasure in his hand.

“If you mean by ‘fun’ this pitiful monologue of self-flagellation, then you’re correct.  I’m not going to allow it.  But I do have have something truly ‘fun’ in mind at the moment.”  Her hand brushed over him lightly, and he shuddered.

“And just how do you know this is fun as opposed to what I was doing?” he managed

“Easily, beloved.  I have eyes and ears—and I can see from your reaction and hear from your sounds that what I have in mind gives you pleasure.  For me, giving you pleasure is fun.”  She touched him again, still a tentative caress, but with more self-assurance, and was rewarded by a low moan.  The cream colored shirt and loose-fitting pants were of a silk so thin, it was hardly a barrier to her touch.  Instead, it seemed to heighten the sensation, giving the hard, lean planes of his decidedly masculine body a soft, satiny overlay.

“Kerza,” he softly moaned again, the jade eyes shut.  The grip of his hand slackened on the diadem; if she kept up her exploration, the Lopayzom crown was in danger of being dropped to the floor.

She caught it deftly with her free hand.  The circlet had survived the near-total destruction of the clan it belonged to, and having it dropped and damaged when its current wearer was finally in a position to start rebuilding the clan would have been disgraceful.  She did have to use both hands to lay it carefully down in its velvet-lined box, straightening the chains that swung from the band.

“I see absolutely no trouble with your hair, your teeth, your body, or indeed any part of you.  Arjuna . . . I’ve watched you for years.  I’ve seen the changes that time has made on you.  You were beautiful when you were twenty years younger, but time has brought you a maturity and strength of character that suits you.  At this time in my life, that appeals to me.  I . . . know that I’m not as young a woman as a man wishing to renew his clan’s blood might wish for, but I’m strong and healthy, and my clan’s usually very fertile.”  Her voice quivered slightly.  “Diva bullied you into this, and I wouldn’t blame you if you had second thoughts.”

His jade-hued eyes snapped open, staring at her.  His expression remained thunderstruck for a moment, much like a man who’s been rudely awakened from a nice dream or just caught a cup of cold water in the face.  Then it turned ominous, like a thundercloud about to burst; many a Derkaryan foe had seen such a thunderous expression on him in his younger days when he strode a battlefield.  “First you accuse me of cowardice and now this?  Kerzama, you truly belittle yourself.  Look at the diadem you so carefully replaced.  You know as well as I that it represents a great deal of wealth and power.  The materials in it alone could feed hundreds for a very long time.  I could have had a flock of nubile teenaged nobles’ daughters pawing all over me just so they could have a chance at such wealth.  But I didn’t.  I chose you.  And if you can’t believe that, I don’t know what else to say.  Diva did not bully me into anything.”

The snap in his voice had her turning around abruptly, blue eyes wide.  “Cowardice?!  No, I didn’t—”  She fell silent as he continued, one slender hand coming up to cover her mouth as she realized just how insulted he must be, judging from his words.  By the time he finished, her head was bowed, moon-pale hair slipping down over her shoulders and shadowing her face.  “But . . . I know she . . . lectured you the night we returned from the Rookery.  She admitted it.”

Just like that, his anger was gone.  He couldn’t stand seeing her suddenly wilted like a delicate flower enduring far too much heat.  Softly sighing, he walked up to her and pulled her firmly but gently into his arms, insisting without words that he wanted her there against him.  “And so did your father, and they both had every right to do so.  But they weren’t telling me anything I didn’t already truly know.  I didn’t allow myself to live, and in doing so, I’ve hurt those around me . . . including you.  But I thought you knew me better than that.  I thought you could see that in doing this, I wasn’t doing anything more but following my heart.”

“My father? . . .”  She groaned faintly in mortification as she pressed herself into his arms.  “I . . . I know.  But I can’t help but wonder if perhaps you should have chosen a younger woman—and then I get angry and jealous at the mere thought,” she confessed into his chest.

“Shh . . .”  His arms tightened slightly around her, offering warmth and comfort.  He stroked the fingertips of a hand against her back in a soothing manner.  “I truly was only teasing when I was mentioning my age.  I didn’t intend for you to get upset about your own.  You and I are both Avatars . . . and I trust Lopayzu to see to it that there are more little Foxes soon enough.  At the worst . . . there is still always Karavasu.  And perhaps . . . if it’s meant to be there are no more after my son and myself, at least I actually tried with the woman I love.”

“I love you, Arjuna,” she whispered.  “I didn’t mean to insult you by implying that you were a coward.”

“Shh.  I’m actually more upset you believe I’m here with you only because our princess bullied me into it.  That . . . hurts.  I married you because I wanted to do so.”

“I didn’t think you were only here because of Diva.  I do know that she was—as usual—a great deal more straightforward than I would have been in explaining the situation.”

“So?”  His low voice sounded genuinely puzzled.

“I wanted you to choose me on your own.”

“I did.  But I can see that right now, you don’t want to believe that.”

“I don’t mean to doubt you,” she murmured.

“If I knew what I could do to strengthen your faith in me, then I would.  I fear I’m at a loss.”  He sighed, giving her a kiss on the top of her head.  “So for now, I may as well slip out of the rest of my Court clothing.”

“That’s a good idea,” Kerza remarked, sliding her hands into the front of his shirt.

He softly purred at her touch.  She could doubt his motives all she wished, but he knew the truth of his choice.  He’d often dreamed of those same hands doing much as she was now; memories of her poking and prodding even in the clinical manner she had while he was recovering from his fight with the Raven swordsmen had often blurred into pleasant daydreams of what it would be like with her touch being more . . . personal.

It had been tempting to be bolder while she cared for him, but she had known that it would be, to say the least, inappropriate.  Being not only able but allowed to run her gentle hands over his sleekly muscled torso was a dream come true.  Her fingers trailed down, almost out of sheer habit, to check the sites of his wounds, but the caress was far more intimate than a mere clinical examination.

He smiled, nuzzling a cheek against her snowy hair.  “I’m sound and whole, mostly thanks to you and your skill.  You were there when I needed you . . . like you always have been.”

She raised her eyes to his with a slow, sweet smile, and answered him with a kiss as she loosened his shirt and pushed it back off his shoulders.  He responded gently at first, but with increasing passion as she caressed him, exploring the lines of his body with a gentle, unhurried touch.  She’d been pursuing this particular Fox for a very long time; surely she was entitled to pet her prize to her heart’s content.

“You know,” she murmured, her hands working their way up his back in a soothing massage, “I was very jealous when you went off to attend your duties during the Dragonfly conflict.”

“You were?  Why?”  He was stroking her hair, combing his fingers through the long, soft strands.  The skilled hands working over his back searched out and soothed tensions that he hadn’t even been aware of until they melted under the knowing touch.  He was suddenly recalling all of the times that she’d helped him bathe, and the memories only added to his increasing ardor.

“Because I know perfectly well that certain women of negotiable affection find military camps to be very profitable places of business.  I rarely went to sleep without wondering if you were sharing a bed with some practiced, polished woman whose attachment to you would last exactly as long as you’d paid for.”

He purred deep in his throat, still combing through her soft hair.  He hadn’t realized how stiffly he was carrying himself and his Court garb, but as he relaxed under Kerza’s massage, he could tell the nervousness had affected him more than he’d thought.  “Would it surprise you to know that no one’s shared my bed since I met Chaiya, save a very young, very scared Karavasu who couldn’t sleep otherwise?”

She looked up at him with one dark brow arched in a slightly disbelieving expression.  “No one at all?”

“No one.”  He shook his head slightly in a negative gesture.  “It never seemed worth it, what with all that was going on in my life.  My heart remained focused on what I could never have with Chaiya, and I didn’t wish to involve any innocents in the clan war.  Hence no pursuit of a wife.  As for camp followers and the like . . . Many have been the men who have been ruined by becoming attached—knowingly or not—to such a woman.  Profit motivates them; that is their true love.  There’s just something . . . distasteful to me about a woman who would spread herself so easily for the glitter of gold.”

She studied him for a moment.  “Arjuna, you have been with a woman at some point, haven’t you?”  That was probably about as blunt as Kerza was capable of being.

Again a shake of his head in the negative.  “Why?  I didn’t want the emotional entanglement for many reasons, and the purely physical aspects can be adequately dealt with solo.”

To say that Kerza was surprised would be to severely understate her reaction.  She looked rather cute gaping at him in shock.  A pale eyebrow quirked up as he studied her.  “Well, let me ask you this.  Have you ever lain with a man?”

She reddened.  “Of course not.”

“Then why is something possible for you for roughly the same length of time seems impossible to you for me to have done so as well?”

“Because it’s hard to believe that not even one woman managed to lure you to bed, Arjuna.  You’ve always been terribly attractive.”

He smiled, then softly chuckled.  “Oh, there have been a number that have tried.  Including some of the palace servants, which is something that perhaps hasn’t escaped your notice.  But in the end . . . I just didn’t feel like doing so.  Not with someone else.  It wasn’t worth it . . . until now.”

“Oh, I noticed, all right.”  It was odd to see a glower on that gentle face.  “The maidservants used to talk a great deal.”

He chuckled again, both amused and satisfied.  He leaned closer, murmuring near her ear, “Oh?  And just what did they say?”

“Your dazzling physical beauty was a popular topic for discussion.  And, of course, there were a few of them who hinted rather heavily that they’d seduced you.”

He nibbled gently on her earlobe.  “Rest assured . . . the only one who has seduced me is you.”

She shivered, pressing against him.  “Well . . . I learned a great deal of information from listening to the maidservants.  I hope you know a bit better than I do how this works.”

Another soft chuckle.  Whatever angry or insulted mood he may have been in earlier was certainly gone.  “Like I said,” he began, pausing to nibble gently against her neck, “I’ve not been with a woman since I met Chaiya, but I did sow a few wild oats when I was younger.”

“Ah-ha.  I knew it.”  She hardly sounded angry, given that little hitch in her voice as his lips trailed down her throat.  In all honesty, she was mightily relieved; she knew the simple mechanics of the act, but the thought that he might be as much a virgin as she had been somehow disquieting.

“Mmm.” Another non-committal sound as he deepened the nibble into a lightly suckling kiss.  She reached up, her fingers tugging and tweaking; the thong that had held his topknot came loose, his silver hair showering down.  She gave a soft, delighted laugh, smoothing the gleaming locks back from his face.

“Hrmph.”  He pulled back when he felt his hair suddenly loose, then gazed out at her from a single jade eye still visible under the curtain of long pale hair until she brushed the hair back from his face.  “So much for my elegant dignity,” he jokingly mourned, grinning at her delight.

“You’d still have your elegant dignity if you were stark naked.”  There was a sudden, wicked glint in those innocent blue eyes.  “But we can test that theory if you like,” she murmured, pulling his shirt open the rest of the way.

“By all means, let’s,” he purred, eyes closing.  There were no doubts in his mind at all about his ability to become excited, not at this point.  Though two decades older, his body responded to the gorgeous Swan as well as it ever had to Chaiya—if not moreso.  His sense of honor had barred him from Chaiya, which had helped him maintain his self-discipline; Kerza was his wife now, and all social convention and custom pushed him into her bed, not away from it.

The light, cream-colored silk slid down his arms, and Kerza tossed it onto a nearby chair.  She’d seen him naked before, obviously, caring for his wounds and his needs during the journey, but this was quite another story.

His wife.  The thought lent a bit more eagerness to him.  He shivered in pleasure at imagining where things were going to lead, his hands reaching down to begin untying the drawstring of his thin silk pants.  Kerza’s gaze went automatically to the places where he’d been wounded in the fight with the Raven swordsmen.  He would carry the scars from the impaling injuries for the rest of his life, but the others, including the long, shallow slash from shoulder to hip across his chest, were long gone.  The entrance wounds remained marked by skin just slightly paler and shinier than the surrounding tissue, but otherwise, he was as healthy as he was before the confrontation in the abandoned clearing.

She touched one of the scars that remained on his abdomen.  “I tried, Arjuna . . .”

“Hm?”  He paused in untying, looking at her in curiosity.

“I hope you’re not disappointed.  I tried to make sure you’d heal cleanly.”  She ran a thumb along the faintly shiny skin, shaking her head a little.

“Kerza . . .”  He lifted a hand and covered hers with his.  “I had three feet of steel rammed through my gut and you’re unhappy about it leaving a scar?”

“Well . . . yes.  I should have been able to do better.”

He softly sighed.  “I’m alive and well.  What’s a scar?  If you look, you’ll see I have plenty more.  It’s just part of being a warrior.”  He took her hand in his, boldly lowering it to press it against the hard bulge in his loincloth.  “Why worry about a scar when I have something more urgent that needs your loving attention?”

She blushed, lightly curling her fingers around him, apprehensive and curious at the same time.  “It does indeed seem to require immediate care . . .”

“Mmm-hmm,” he purred, gently encouraging her.  “Though I think the problem needs a more direct examination,” he said, referencing the fact he still had his pants and loincoth on.  Through the cloth, he seemed rather hard indeed.

“I would be most remiss in my duties as a physician if I failed to examine this matter most thoroughly,” she agreed, loosening the drawstring of his pants and letting them fall.

He softly chuckled, carefully stepping out of the cream-colored silk and then playfully kicking it aside.  As before, his legs were the same strong, gracefully muscular limbs she recalled from all the times she’d helped with his bath or took care of him as he recuperated.  But this time, the barriers were down between them.  The magnificent man with her was her husband now, forever bound to her.  He worked around her hand, unwrapping the waistband of his loincloth with practiced ease.

“Hm.  ‘Withered, dessicated body’ indeed,” she murmured, admiring him quite openly.

“I was teasing about that, honest,” he murmured, letting the cloth fall away from him.  He tossed it to the side to lie next to the silk pants, his eyes carefully watching his wife’s face for her reaction.

His manhood was long, hard and jutted proudly upwards from a nest of hair as silver as that flowing down his back.  Perhaps it couldn’t lie almost flat against his lower belly as it once could, but it certainly looked more than ready for the work at hand.

Kerza was blushing, but she certainly didn’t look frightened.  Having seen him naked before—having handled and washed him as impersonally as possible—she had mostly known what to expect.  She stroked her palm very lightly over him, seemingly fascinated by how different this was from its quiescent state.  He purred while closing his eyes, hips twitching just a bit in response to her almost ticklish touch.  The skin under her palm was velvety, seemingly sliding a bit over the hardness underneath.  “So how bad is it?” he teasingly murmured.

“The swelling seems like a rather extreme case,” she said, her tone mock-clinical.

He laughed.  “Perhaps it’s just as well you’re not serious.  I’m rather attached to it, and having it swell up and then fall off isn’t my idea of a good thing . . .”

“I’d be severely disappointed if that happened,” she replied.  “I’ve been waiting a long time.”

He covered her hand with his, pressing her palm against his hardness.  “The waiting is over, beloved.  We have the rest of our lives ahead of us . . . together.”

She smiled, and gave him a little nudge toward the bed with her free hand.  “That ought to at least make a start on it.”

“Hmm.”  Again that Lopayzom grin settled on his face.  He swept her up in his arms, cuddling her graceful form up against his broad chest.  He walked toward the bed with her, his arms every bit as strong as they were twenty years earlier.

She laughed softly, laying her head on his shoulder, one arm slipping up around his neck.  “Gallant of you, my lord.”

“Hmm . . .”  He gave her a hug as he approached the bed.  “I appreciate the respect, but I had hoped there to be more of a sense of equality between my wife and myself.”

“Well, if that’s the case, I’m overdressed,” she murmured in his ear.

“Something easily fixed,” he responded.  He gracefully knelt down at the side of the bed, tenderly setting her down on the comfortable surface.

She smiled, running a hand over the covers.  “You certainly got a big bed for just one person, didn’t you?”

“I think it was a subtle hint by the Dragon,” he answered, settling beside her.  He nuzzled against the side of her neck, hands gently pushing the neckline of her gown aside.

“To paraphrase Diva, he wouldn’t have known subtle if it kicked him in the pants,” Kerza murmured, tilting her head.  The turquoise robe slid easily out of his way, whispering over the pale skin.

“Hmm,” he said, his attention remaining on kissing and nibbling her neck as he pulled open the robe and urged the sleeves to fall down her arms.  The robe slipped away, falling into a silky puddle around her, like cool water beneath the exquisite whiteness of the Swan.  She was very slender, her breasts seemingly sized exactly to fit his hands, her hips curving only a little to break the sleek tapering lines of her body.  Her skin was so pale that if it weren’t for her hair, it would seem white, accented by the faint blue lacework of veins beneath the surface and the soft rose-pink tips of her breasts.

He leaned back and opened his eyes just enough to drink in the sight of her.  “You are beautful indeed,” he murmured in appreciation, heated gaze dropping to her breasts.

She blushed, one hand moving as if to cover herself modestly, then stopping.  “I was never sure if I was your type,” she confessed.

“I’ve always admired your beauty,” he replied.  “I merely didn’t allow myself to do more than notice.”  He gently fitted a hand to one breast, shaping the soft flesh gently, then lowered his head to press a kiss to her nipple.

“I never thought you even noticed,” she whispered, burying her fingers in his shining hair as it drifted over her skin.

“I had.  Many times.  I’ve noticed your eyes on me for years, including those times when a very young you would sneak over to the balconies overlooking the courtyard and watch as I put Kara through his paces with our swordmanship.  I felt a bit guilty then, noticing one that young.  Though now you are entirely old enough.”

“I’m most definitely grown up, Arjuna.”  The smile she gave him was somehow innocent and knowing at the same time.  “And I’ve been waiting for you.”

“The waiting is over,” he whispered again.  The sudden wave of desire that rolled over him, seemingly unleashed by his words, almost made him shake.  It had been so many years, nearly half his life, since he had lain with a woman; his self-discipline and willingness to resort to solo methods of easing his need had sufficed, but that was primarily because he’d been so driven, so set on his inevitably self-destructive path, that his procreative drive had seemingly been stifled by his grim deathwish.  Now he had chosen to turn aside and take another path, and all of that repressed need was returning.  The woman he held was not only willing, devoted, and exquisitely beautiful, but was his wife—no off-limits object of adoration or creature whose affection would last only as long as he’d paid for it.  The rush of hunger virtually staggered him, and he drew a few sharp, panting breaths.  He would not fall on Kerza like a starving man upon a banquet, would not take her so roughly.  She deserved so much better than that.  He was determined to make this first experience as painless as possible, to give her as much pleasure as he could.

She wasn’t making it easy for him to hold onto his self-control.  Her soft hands roamed over him, enjoying the strong feel of him beneath her fingers, stroking through his lustrous hair.  It might be a little worse for him because he knew what he’d been missing all of this time, but it seemed that she felt the same kind of long-dormant need awakening.  He was hers, as she was his, and that freed her to do things she’d dreamed of doing ever since she was old enough for sexual awareness to join her emotional attachment.  Arjuna’s good intentions dissolved into the whirlpool of caresses and heated murmurs; she was white fire in his hands, responding so quickly and eagerly to his touch, and he was half-startled to find that he responded just as well to hers.

He found her ready for him, wet and hot and soft, his hands trembling with the force of his need as he settled between her legs.  There was no fear or hesitation in her, sleek thighs parting for him, slender arms winding around his shoulders.  He nevertheless called on all his self-discipline to go slowly, to let her adjust to the new sensation, rather than plunge into her as his body clamored to do.

A soft sound cut through the haze of his tightly focused attention; Kerza was humming, a low variant of the song he recognized as the one which had eased his pain so many times on the journey.  He lifted his head in surprise to look down at her, into half-lidded blue eyes and a sweetly wicked knowing smile.  She recognized his need and the effort he was making to keep that need caged for her sake, but she didn’t want him to torment himself any longer by going too slowly.  She arched herself in wordless invitation, seeing the understanding light his deep-jade eyes before they closed and he surged against her, sheathing himself to the hilt and wringing a sharp little cry out of her.  It wasn’t pain, more surprise, but he froze immediately.

“I’m all right,” she murmured, stroking one hand down his back as if soothing a nervous animal.

“You deserve a gentler lover for this first time,” he groaned against her shoulder by way of apology.  “I have waited too long, not even knowing truly what I waited for.”

“The waiting is over,” she whispered, giving his own words back to him.  “You are the only lover I have ever desired, Arjuna.  There is nothing, nothing you could want of me that I would refuse you.”  She lifted herself and sank back experimentally, and he shuddered.  “Love me, Arjuna.  Give me all that you need to give . . .”

Her gentle assurance broke the reins of his control; he could not hold himself back any longer.  Though it was not in him to hurt a woman—especially not this one—even in the grip of the fiercest lust, he found that he truly could not go slowly, could not do everything he might have done to bring her that ultimate satisfaction, and he felt half-ashamed of himself even as his long-denied flesh reveled in her sweet welcome.

It was a gratifying surprise to hear her voice ringing out in a breathless cry of satisfaction—a more beautiful song than any he could have imagined at the moment—and her body gripping his in the rhythm of release a moment before he poured himself into her.

Arjuna collapsed, retaining enough presence of mind to roll onto his side, gathering her against him.  Sweating, panting, they lay in a satiated tangle of limbs and a great fan of silver and white hair.

“I wasn’t . . . I didn’t . . . how, Kerza?  I was giving no thought or effort toward your pleasure,” he said into her hair.

“You weren’t?” she murmured in wonder.  “Goddess, Arjuna, I don’t know if I could survive if you were doing so.”

He lightly stroked her alabaster skin with the fingertips of a hand, his face still buried in her hair as his breath slowly quieted. "At least I have all the time in the world in which to make it up to you."