Jurnia couldn’t help pacing nervously in the space between the twin beds and the sliding door leading to the main hallway of the inn’s upper storey.  It was still too soon after finding her missing beloved, after saving him from the horrible fate that would have snatched him away forever.  And yet he had asked her to wait here, to trust him.

She did, with all her heart.  It didn’t matter that he had moved in the shadows as the Demon’s Claw, nor did it matter that he was from the supposedly monstrous and untrustworthy Lopayzom clan.  He was simply Karavasu, the man she had come to love for everything he had been, everything he was, and everything he could yet be.

Not for the first time did she say a silent prayer of thanks to her dear mother.  Chaiya’s own unrequited love for a Lopayzom had ensured that the daughter of the elegant Raven Herald grew up free of the mindless hate for the Fox preached to the youth of the Kaykolom.

Her father, of course, would be far from happy with her once he discovered that her longed-for suitor was a Fox.  Jurnia scowled as she continued her pacing.  Not like he doesn’t already know who I would choose.  I’ve been telling him for years.  No regrets here.

No, there were none at all.  Not when the very thought of losing the redheaded swordsman left her feeling so empty and alone, leaching the joy from living.  Sighing, she turned her emerald gaze to the door.  I shouldn’t worry so.  We’re in the middle of nowhere, in a peaceful farming village.

The sense of his familiar golden aura came to her then; smiling in relief and a bit of excitement, she awaited his return.

The paper-covered door slid open revealing his slender form.  Under his shaggy bangs, his amber eyes sparkled with mischief.  She blinked at him in surprise; somewhere along the line, he’d changed into clothing that was much finer and far more formal than she’d ever seen on him before.  The loose-fitting pants were a deep burgundy; a design of foxes running among bamboo stalks was embroidered in glittering golden thread along the hems of each leg.  His shirt was a shiny, intense red, the material covered with golden embroidery forming scattered bamboo sprays and little circular Lopayzom insignia; the formally-long pockets of his sleeves were gathered together at the ends with thin cords of gold, small tassels dangling from the ends.  Under the hems of neck and sleeves, she could catch glimpses of an undershirt of palest yellow.  Around his waist, however, remained the ever-present sash of golden silk and his cherrywood-sheathed sword.  His single-toed socks were the same deep burgundy as his pants and the reed sandals were new, unscuffed.

Magnificent . . . her mind squeaked.  Swallowing hard, she finally found her voice.  “Aren’t you the fancy one?  So what’s the occasion?”

The mischievous look glided from his amber eyes to his grin.  Holding out his hand, he murmured, “You’ll see.  Come with me.”

She hesitated.  Something’s up . . .

“Don’t you trust me?”

“Of course I do,” she snapped, irate he’d even imply otherwise.

“Then come on.”

Emerald eyes narrowed at him suspiciously while she glided forward.  Though not in her best clothing—all of that had been left behind, unfortunately, in her chambers at the Rookery—she certainly wasn’t dressed in anything shabby.  But compared to his finery, she couldn’t help but feel a bit like all she had on were rags.  “I look like a washerwoman or the cook’s assistant,” she complained softly while setting her hand in his.

He raised her hand to his mouth, gently kissing the back of it.  “It’s okay.  Everything’s taken care of.  But you need to come with me.”

“Then lead on, oh Dashing One.”

He chuckled even as he tugged her out into the hallway.  Shutting the door behind them, he walked with her along the hallway and down the stairs.

Everything seemed bright, full of promise.  For the first time she could recall, he seemed willing to show his feelings to her and the world at large instead of hiding it behind some self-imposed barrier.  He seemed at peace with himself for once, the sunshine glowing far deeper than the wanderer’s usual shallowness.  They walked out of the inn, still hand in hand; she savored the rare moment of tenderness he allowed.  It was even more precious because she knew now how it would be without it.

The noontime sun shone down on them as he led her along the little village’s main road.  The day was warm but not overly so; a cooling breeze gave just the right amount of freshness to the air.  She felt like singing her joy to the world, but contented herself with walking silently next to him, a smile on her face.  After the nightmare of the past few days, she was glad for such a blessing.

“Congratulations!” called out a pair of the village elders as the two travelers strode past.  Like most of the village, the totems glimmering around their old bodies were that of the Bhekom, the wise, peace-loving, somewhat reclusive Clan of the Frog.  A rather earthy folk, they tended to keep to themselves and concentrate on their simple existence.

“Thank you very much,” Kara responded, flashing the two old men a sunny grin.

The dark-haired woman blinked emerald eyes in surprise, then turned her gaze to her companion’s profile.  “Kara, why are they congratulating you?” she asked in a low murmur.

“It’s ‘us’, and you’ll see.”  He gave her hand a reassuring squeeze.

Jurnia didn’t exactly feel his comforting gesture.  She suddenly felt lightheaded, suddenly very nervous but also somehow excited.  Congratulations and finery fit for a prince . . . ?  But her heart didn’t dare yet let her hope.  It would be too cruel if her tentative conclusion proved to be wrong.

Her excitement couldn’t help but grow as the man of her dreams led her through the gate of the village’s somewhat rustic shrine.  Stepping up onto the wooden walkway ringing the ancient but lovingly cared for building, Kara stepped out of his sandals.  He let go of her hand then; as she also slipped off her journey-scuffed footwear, the Lopayzom pulled open the door and gestured for her to step inside.

The room within was spacious; the very air hummed with a feeling of holiness.  Against the far side of the room, a dais held a gorgeously-carved rendition of the Sun Goddess holding her hand in a gesture of benediction over a knee-high frog.  Unlike its often silly-looking living counterparts, the squat creature had been given much grace and dignity by the sculptor’s skilled hand.  Tall candelabra flanked the image, their flickering light gently illuminating the chamber.  What caught her eye immediately, however, was the low, round table set before the dais.  Large flat cushions richly embroidered with sacred designs lay on the mat-covered floor before the table; they were obviously intended for a pair of people to kneel upon them.  From this angle, as she stood in the doorway from the outside, she could only see that the surface of the table was brightly colored in some intricate design while a golden chalice and a dagger lay upon it.

Still, it was enough for the reality of what she observed to sink in.  Tears welled up in her eyes, ones of pure joy, and she turned her wondering, loving gaze to the man silently waiting next to her.  “Oh, Kara,” she whispered, voice choking with emotion.

“One such as I doesn’t deserve the likes of you, but above all else, you deserve to be happy.  I can no longer deny that, for whatever reason, to be separated from this unworthy one will only cause you pain that matches anything I bear.”  He gestured toward a sliding door, its paper covering decorated with a scene of farmers going about their peaceful chores.  “There’s clothing for you in that room.  I fear it’s not likely to be anything as fancy as what I have; you didn’t seem to have any Court clothing in your travel gear, and there wasn’t much I could do on short notice.”

It’s okay, Kara, really,” she said.  Still blinking back tears of happiness—and suddenly too shy and nervous to give him a reassuring hug—she added, “I’m sure it’ll do just fine.”  Hell, I’ll even resort to marrying you in itchy old burlap if that’s what it takes!  Then her mind froze on the word “marry” and she felt flustered and lightheaded all over again.  Swallowing hard, she turned and made her way into the room the redheaded swordsman had indicated.

Like the rest of the shrine, the room was rustic but well-maintained and clean.  Seeming to be the shrine-keeper’s bedroom, it held the usual furniture one would expect from such a place.  On a wooden table were arranged a number of cosmetics, a comb and even a highly polished silver mirror while a formal women’s robe of silk lay elegantly draped over the surface of the low, comfortable-looking bed.

She had expected a simple garment, perhaps prettily colored but nothing spectacular.  What she was looking at was quite beyond what she had expected to see in this small rural town.

It was breathtaking.  Deep turquoise-blue, the color ever-so-slightly darker at the hems of sleeves and skirt to give an impression of a clear sky, it shone in the light from the small window.  Tiny birds worked in white silk thread—she identified them as doves when she looked closer—were scattered artfully across the richly colored “sky”.  Golden embroidery decorated the hems in curling patterns that suggested a gently blowing wind.  The tissue-thin under-gown was a paler blue, almost aqua.  The wide, heavy belt was darker, a rich teal-blue, stitched with a pattern of lotus flowers.  The cut of the garments was an antique style, but it was obvious that the robe had been well-kept for many years.

“Will it serve, my lady?” said a slightly cracked voice.  An older woman, perhaps sixty or seventy, was standing in the corner near the door; her eyes dazzled by the gown, Jurnia hadn’t even seen her, and she started guiltily.

“It’s beautiful,” she breathed.

The old woman smiled proudly.  “It was my wedding robe, fifty years agone.  My mother had it made in the World’s Navel.  Said that even if I were determined to marry some poor farmer, I would go in the finest she could find, for the pride of the Dove.”  She chuckled.  “My mother had a certain sense of pride herself.  The fact that I was marrying the second son of the Bhekom lord soothed her temper a bit.”  She gestured toward the dressing table.  “I’ll help you with your hair and face, my lady, if you wish.”

“Please,” Jurnia said, smiling wryly.  “I’m so nervous that I’m afraid I’d make a mess of it.”  She held up a hand, watching it tremble, then looked at the other woman.  “And if you’re the wife of the local lord, I’m the one who ought to be calling you ‘my lady’.”

“Ah, never mind that.  This is a small, simple town.  Even the folk who live here don’t address me that formally.”

The preparations wound up taking close to an hour, what with the quick sponge bath to take off the road dust, the application of scented oils and cosmetics, and the careful dressing of Jurnia’s hair with long gilded pins, ornamented with enameled flowers and tiny jewels.  The thin under-gown was cool and light against Jurnia’s skin as she wrapped it and fastened the ties to secure it around her; the formal robe itself was a much heavier and rougher-textured silk, falling in straight, neat folds, cinched in at the waist by the broad belt.  Jurnia tugged on white socks—leaving a pair of new sandals to await her departure from the shrine—as the older woman finished tying the sash, then stood still as her helper tweaked and smoothed and adjusted the robe.  With a smile, she finally nodded in approval and gave Jurnia a gentle push toward the door.

“Go on, then,” she said.  “He’s waiting for you.”

And I’ve been waiting for him, all my life.  Drawing a deep breath, the Kaykolom slid the door open and stepped into the central room of the shrine.

Back and forth the redheaded Lopayzom had paced.  Determination to overcome his belief he wasn’t worthy of such a precious gift—all for her sake; she deserved whatever would make her smile—slowly crumbled under nervousness and self-doubt the longer it took her to reappear.  The realities of the situation clawed at his thoughts, tearing at his focus.  It had only been a year and a half since their clans’ bloody feud had come to a formal end; even now he was certain many of the younger Kaykolom still believed the Lopayzom were vermin to be wiped off the face of the earth.  Yet here he was, the son of the Fox Chieftain, preparing to marry the Chief Herald of the Raven—without the blessing of either clan, and in doing so, Jurnia would be obligated to set aside her position as Herald.

Iryasitru was going to be furious.  Arjunayazu probably wasn’t going to be overly happy either, but Kara could count on his father being even more upset should the younger Lopayzom’s will crumble and he give in to Jurnia’s—and his own—unmistakable desire.  This way was the more honorable path, especially since he was sure his ability to resist the very tempting maiden was more or less reduced to tatters anyway.

Then the sound wood scraping against wood pulled Kara from his thoughts.  Stopping in mid-stride, he glanced at the moving panel.

The woman that stepped through was an exquisite vision of beauty.  His breath caught in his throat; amber eyes looked at her wide in surprise as he felt his heart pound against his ribs.  All of a sudden his formal outfit seemed far too warm.  Gulping, he could only stare, drinking in the vision.

The turquoise silk whispered seductively; like all formal gowns, the floor-length skirt was somewhat confining and forced Jurnia’s normally bold stride into tiny—for her—steps.  But this time, instead of muttering under her breath about the impractical cut of female Court clothing, she wanted to make the moment as perfect as possible.  Determined to make it seem like she glided over the mat-covered floor, she concentrated on her stride.  Much to her surprise, she actually found doing so helped keep her nervousness under some semblance of control.  Suddenly wanting to see him, she lifted her gaze from the floor to his face.

Kara still stood there, his stance obviously one of a man who had been taken by surprise.  But the wonder she saw in his large amber eyes was starting to become tinged with love and desire.  If she had any doubts about her borrowed finery pleasing him, all those questions were quickly laid to rest.  He looked like a man who had seen a vision of heaven and wanted to experience it to the fullest.

As she drew near, he held out his hand to her.  “You are . . . the most beautiful woman on this earth,” he murmured.

A smile composed equally of nervousness and feminine satisfaction played upon her reddened lips.  She laid her hand in his with a confidence born of knowing this, and nothing else, was what she wanted.  “And you the most gallant of men.”

He smiled faintly.  “I’m sorry it’s so little and on such short notice.  You deserve—”

She stopped his words, boldly placing her hand over his mouth.  “Not.  Another.  Word.”  Her unrelenting green gaze stared at him until she sensed she had won the moment.  Lowering her hand to rest it in his gentle grasp once more, she softly continued, “This is what I deserve, what I have standing before me.  And if you’re going to keep delaying my prize, I’m going to have to get angry with you, Kara.”

A sunny, somewhat embarrassed grin lit up his pretty face.  “All right,” he agreed mildly.  Turning to face the table set before the dais, he led her toward the waiting cushions, matching his stride to her tiny steps.

Kindly brown eyes watched the couple as they approached.  The wrinkled face of the village’s priest broke into a sly grin.  The strangers were clearly of the nobility; the Bhekom had a way of knowing who were of clans as tied to the humble earth as they were and who were of the more rarified ones.  When the redheaded youth had requested this, the elderly priest had agreed, but with personal reservations.  For a pair of nobles, the entire situation smacked of an alliance being sought on the sly, especially given their clans; though he’d tried his best to read any untoward motivation within the Lopayzom’s aura, the youth had seemed sincere.  Seeing them together now as they knelt before the Divine Presence, the priest relaxed and rejoiced all in the same breath.  This was no political marriage, or a form of revenge visited upon the Kaykolom.  No, the two were obviously in love.  I can truly think of no better way to resolve the dispute between Raven and Fox.  Iryasitru’s going to be fit to be tied . . .

As she settled comfortably into a kneeling position on her cushion, smoothing the robe into a neat pool around her, Jurnia noted that a small tray was placed on the floor before her next to the round table.  A flask of rice wine sat there, looking quite innocuous.  More than likely, at some point in the ceremony she would need to pour some of the wine into the golden goblet placed on the table, and she hoped that her nervousness didn’t result in it splashing all over the place.  Then her gaze flicked to the table’s surface and froze in awe.

She’d heard of this, of course.  Her mother’s upbringing included some instruction not only on sex but also the marriage ritual, but to actually see the ethereal beauty of it for herself was breathtaking.  The circular surface of the table was covered with a brightly colored sand painting; the hued grains had been made by grinding colored stones—some considered precious—into a fine grit.  The mandala was intended to be a visual prayer, an appeal for the spirits to bless the new family with their bounty.  Elegant spirals—themselves representing the cycles of nature moving through time—curved around symbols for fertility, joy and prosperity, but the majority of the pattern was composed of the Lopayzom insignia protectively cradling within it the Kaykolom symbol.

The chalice, which represented the feminine aspect of Divinity, sat on “her” side of the mandala just to the side of the Raven insignia.  The bared dagger of the masculine aspect rested before Kara, also just to the side of the large Fox symbol.  Here before her lay not only the instruments of her own wedding, but also those of the Sacred Marriage of Goddess and God.

The young couple remained kneeling in respectful silence as the priest began the ceremony, their heads bowed.  Though Jurnia kept her fascinated gaze mostly on the gorgeous sand painting, she did sneak a glance here and there at her groom while the priest walked around them and the table while purifying the area first with salted water.

Kara appeared to be lost in prayer or thought, his eyes closed, long lashes dark against his cheeks.  Not even the startling coldness of the drops of salted water the priest flicked over the couple made the Lopayzom twitch.  Even so, he didn’t appear upset at going through with this or looking like he was going to suddenly bolt in panic.  As the priest made a second circle around them and purified the area with burning incense, Kara remained in the same peaceful repose.

For her part, the butterflies had returned.  She hoped she didn’t make a horrendous mistake and completely destroy the magic; she had to stop a number of times from biting her lower lip and messing up her carefully-applied cosmetics.  Though he may not agree, Kara deserved for this to be as perfect as possible.

Having completed his purification, the kindly Bhekom priest set down the golden thurible on the small tray next to his position.  He straightened, facing the couple nervously kneeling on the opposite side of the table.  The Frog tended to be wise, but also very straightforward.  “Normally I would chatter on for the good of both families, reminding them of the blood bond this would represent, but since you kneel before the Presence alone . . .”  He waved a wrinkled hand dismissively, then turned his brown gaze onto the beautiful maiden.  “However, I do have words to address to the both of you.  First you, Jurnia of the Kaykolom, daughter of Chaiya.”

The woman addressed gulped, suddenly feeling like she’d been caught red-handed doing something wrong.  Her cheeks pinking slightly under her makeup, she lifted her emerald gaze to the priest.

“You have been truly blessed by the Divine to have within your grasp a partnership based not on politics or economics but on love.  For one such as you, this is the rarest of matches.  But the path that lies before you means many things.

“Should you tread it, you will have to set aside what remains of your childhood.  You will have to sever your ties of loyalty from the clan of your birth and leave the hearth of your family.  You will no longer be one of the Raven, but rather one of the Fox, as will your children.  The Lopayzom will be your new clan, your loyalty will be theirs, and whatever status you have will be theirs to determine.  You will have to trust them, for they will be your family now.

“Knowing this, does this still remain the path you choose?”

Jurnia nodded.  Both remaining Fox were honorable men, worthy of trust, despite the rumors the vengeful Kaykolom had spread far and wide.  Her mother had loved one, while Jurnia herself dearly loved the other.  “With all my heart, Holy One,” she said firmly.

The priest suppressed a grin.  Like most Zaryan clans, he’d heard the rumors of the stubbornness both Kaykolom chieftain and Herald possessed.  The fireworks will surely fly once Iryasitru learns of this, but I bet the Herald can hold her own.  Giving the maiden an approving smile, his dark gaze shifted to the young man doing his best to remain calm and focused.

“Now you, Karavasu of the Lopayzom, son of Arjunayazu.”

The amber eyes opened at the sound of his name.  The priest had to concentrate hard to not burst into laughter.  The poor boy had a rather glazed look about him, not unlike many of the bridegrooms who had come before this altar to be wed.  It was usually a combination of nerves and an acute awareness of what would follow after the ceremony—though in a rural community, it wasn’t uncommon for a couple to have already experimented with the “after”.  Occasionally, that was the reason for marriages conducted in some haste.  It appeared that this young man was noble enough to have known that experimentation with this particular girl would have been terribly inappropriate, but now it was probably weighing on his mind.  If it wasn’t for his training, I bet the lad would have fainted by now, the priest chuckled to himself.

“For you, this path is one of sacrifice.  No more will you be able to live only for yourself, for now a second life depends upon you.  She will leave all that is familiar behind and come to you with nothing; it is up to you to see that she is well provided for.  She will be your family now, your responsibility.  Your home will be hers.  Your possessions and wealth will be hers.  And, if need be, your blood will be shed defending her and her children.

“But she comes to your hearth not as a possession or a servant.  She is your partner, your equal, an honored guest of your clan.  Remember that she has set aside her people for yours; it is your duty to ensure that her sacrifice is not in vain.

“Do you still wish to take this path?”

Silence reigned in the rustic shrine as Kara turned his head.  His golden gaze swept over her even as the weight of the priest’s words settled on his shoulders.  Even in this brief pause, this moment of silence, he could see the anxiety in her face, the fear that he would change his mind and snatch away the one thing in the world she truly desired, intertwined with the pure, clear love that she carried in her heart for him.

But for her, he would do anything to protect her from such soul-killing grief as he’d sensed in her when she had believed him to be dying.  “Yes, that is my wish,” he finally said, his gaze returning to the intricate sand painting.

The priest gestured with a time-wrinkled hand toward the small earthenware flask waiting on the tray near Jurnia.  “If you would kindly pour a measure of the wine into the chalice?”

The dark-haired maiden blinked, startled out of her nervous thoughts.  “Oh, of course.”  Willing her hands to remain steady, she picked up the small container and opened it.  Carefully, so as to not disturb the enchanting mandala, her left hand pushing the formal gown’s long sleeve back from the table as her right tilted the bottle, Jurnia poured some of the rice wine into the waiting cup.

“Go easy, girl,” the Frog chuckled.  “You’re the one that’ll be drinking that, after all.”

Cheeks pinking again, she made sure to turn the flask upright once what looked like a mouthful was glimmering in the golden container.  Taking a deep breath to steady herself, she stoppered the flask and set it back down on the tray.

“Now if you’ll hold the goblet in your hands . . .”

Jurnia did as she was prompted, picking the vessel up with infinite care.  The smooth yellow metal felt cool in her hands as she cradled it in her elegant fingers.  Again her verdant gaze was drawn to the mandala as she awaited the next moment.

The priest’s voice continued on, tone steady and serious despite his age.  “Jurnia of the Kaykolom, daughter of Chaiya, do you now solemnly swear to recognize this man as your legal husband, to cherish and honor him, to become one of his blood and clan, forsaking all others in times both good and ill, in joy and in sorrow, until the very end of your days?”

The sacred vow . . .  She inhaled deeply, hoping to steady the butterflies batting insistently in her stomach.  Jurnia glanced over at the red-haired man kneeling next to her; noting the slightly panicked look in his eyes at her pause, she smiled, her expression full of her love and adoration for him.  “I so solemnly swear,” she murmured, making the promise that bound her to him for the rest of her life.

The Lopayzom visibly relaxed, his amber gaze lifting to the wizened old Bhekom.  For one horrible moment, he had thought she would finally come to her senses and reject such a bloodstained soul.  He felt a twinge of guilt, realizing all over again that he was coaxing her into a union that would inevitably taint her with his own sins.

Jurnia’s loving eyes had gone dangerously narrow, and the force of her stare was almost like a physical slap.  Evidently, his adoring bride was not above using Avatar senses—or simple observation—to keep tabs on his mood and guess at what was on his mind.  Just as evidently, she disapproved of his current line of thought.  His eyes momentarily closed as he gave her one of the wanderer’s sunny, contrite smiles and soft, nervous chuckle.

“The blade, if you would, lad,” the priest said, his attention turning to the groom.  As the youth picked the dagger up with as much care as possible to keep from disturbing the sand painting, the slightly portly Frog continued, “Three drops only, one each for the past you lived alone, the present that binds you to her and the future you will share together.

“Jurnia, lass, he’s not going to be able to do what he needs to if you keep clutching the goblet near your breast.  Besides, making him get his hands that close to that region of you right now is probably going to make him collapse into a pile of twitching nerves.”

Both bride and groom blushed furiously at the priest’s words.  Jurnia fairly thrust the chalice out toward Kara, dropping her ominous gaze from his eyes to the weapon’s gleaming blade.  Her mother had explained that during the ceremony, the groom was to make a small cut on his hand; the blood shed thus not only symbolized his role as protector of the new family but also was a form of equity.  After all, the end of the entire process saw the maiden’s blood shed.  This way, both parties had to experience a bit of pain, not just the girl leaving her birth clan behind.

Kara’s expression remained resolute as he twisted his torso to face his achingly beautiful bride.  Tilting his left palm slightly, he stabbed the point of the dagger into his flesh just deep enough to make crimson well up in the wound.  He then held his cut hand over the chalice, counting off the drops as they fell.  When the third one splashed into the cup, slowly diffusing in a tiny red cloud in the pale wine, he turned his left hand palm up as he gingerly replaced the dagger onto the altar.  He licked off the remaining blood that glistened darkly against his flesh and then pressed the thumb of his other hand over the wound.

The priest smiled in satisfaction.  The boy was a credit to his training.  While other bridegrooms had fainted in the past at either the thought of cutting themselves or at the sight of their own blood, this one hadn’t even flinched.  “Karavasu of the Lopayzom, son of Arjunayazu, do you now solemnly swear to recognize this woman as your legal wife, to cherish and honor her, to protect and nurture her and her issue, forsaking all others in times both good and ill, in joy and in sorrow, until the very end of your days?”

No hesitation came this time.  “I so solemnly swear,” the little swordsman responded, his voice soft and clear, the tones hinting at both the silly wanderer and the dangerous assassin.

Jurnia’s hands tightened their hold on the metal goblet.  In her Avatar senses, she could feel a glimmering spark of Kara’s golden essence now infusing the wine.  The final important act of the ceremony was upon her.  She was to drink the chalice’s contents, taking into her a part of him that would forever make her one of the Lopayzom—subtly symbolic of, and nearly as binding as, the act of consummation.  Blood for blood . . . an ancient exchange that went back to the earliest days of the empire, the marriage ceremony its most sacred expression.

I will never shy away from any blood you shed, she thought, looking straight into Kara’s eyes.  Whether it’s your own or another’s, drawn in the need to protect that you’ve devoted yourself to, I won’t shy away.  Nor do I fear being stained by the blood you feel still taints your hands.  Without blinking, without looking away, she raised the chalice and drank.

At first, it all seemed so ordinary.  The pale liquid tasted much like any other drink of rice wine.  Jurnia lowered the goblet as disappointment sparked through her.  Even so, her eyes remained focused on the man kneeling next to her.

“Flesh of one flesh, bone of one bone, two paths have now merged as one from this moment forward.”

Kara barely heard the words intoned by the plump little Bhekom priest.  He kept his gaze on the beautiful woman with a sense of fearful anticipation.  Any moment now and her aura will feel as sullied as my own . . .

“Whereas single threads are weak, vulnerable to being broken by outside forces, a rope is strong, able to withstand much.  And so shall the two of you be, each of you a thread strengthened by one another as your lives intertwine,” the wrinkled Frog continued.

It was subtle, sneaking up on her like the effects of a particularly insidious alcohol.  She didn’t notice the warm, golden feeling within her until after it tingled through every fiber.  Such a sense of well-being, of rightness, accompanied a sensation she could only describe as a protective, loving hug everywhere, all at once.  Tears of profound joy welled up in her wide, emerald eyes at the beauty of the moment.

She’s crying . . .  Guilt stabbed through the redheaded swordsman.  Whatever she felt that had made her weep, it wasn’t anything he could sense.  There was no sign yet of the stain of sin within her.

“In the eyes of Divinity and Man, before the whole of the world, I now pronounce you man and wife,” the priest continued, mentally chuckling at the subtle drama unfolding before him.

Noting the distressed look in his amber eyes and how pale his face had become, Jurnia became determined to keep her new husband from mentally withdrawing.  She leaned sideways, turning to boldly wrap her arms around his well-toned form.  “You silly, silly man,” she whispered even as a tear of joy rolled down one of her rouged cheeks.  “I’m not sad or upset.  I’m crying because you’ve made me the happiest woman ever.  Now kiss me before I have to hurt you.”

Oh.  He remained stiffly hesitant in her embrace, feeling like an utter fool.  But she was so warm and soft against him, and he was supposed to kiss her now . . . Almost of their own accord, his arms lifted from his sides to embrace her lovingly.  His lashes brushed against his cheeks as he lowered his head toward hers.

“Well, I’d say ‘You may now kiss the bride’, but I see you’re already doing so,” the Bhekom softly chuckled.

The kiss was soft, gentle, chaste—something Jurnia would have expected from the goofy fluffheaded Lopayzom she’d stumbled across while searching for Fox bandits harassing the common folk of her clan’s lands.  Even so, it held the promise of so much more and a hint of the alluring danger Khuradasu possessed.  In that moment, she was certain her new husband had skills that extended beyond the battlefield and the odd, edgeless blade he carried at his side.

Silk whispered as Kara rose to his feet.  He bowed formally to the smiling Bhekom.  “Thank you again for agreeing—”

“Now, now, it was nothing,” the priest replied, interrupting the youth’s softly-spoken, humble words.  “Go on and enjoy the start of your life together.  I’ll take care of tidying the shrine.”

Jurnia gracefully rose from the pillow upon which she’d been kneeling while her new husband said, “Since I see from your expression that you insist, then we shall be returning to the inn.”  She reverently replaced the golden chalice upon the round table, her eyes lingering one last time on the sand-painting.

“A good idea there, lad, especially since you probably wouldn’t want anything to happen to those fancy clothes you have on.”

For some reason, the tone in the kindly priest’s voice made the Kaykolom maiden blush.  Then Kara linked her arm in his and began guiding her from the shrine.  She smiled and gave his arm a hug, then proceeded to walk in contented silence at his side . They paused long enough to slip back on their shoes—the sandals Jurnia had left behind in the other room now waited on the deck next to Kara’s own—then stepped down to the shrine’s grounds and headed back to the village.

Of course, the longer they strode along the main dirt path in quiet introspection, the more her thoughts turned on what was now expected of her.  It was mid-afternoon and no drunken party awaited them to pass the time until nightfall.  The act itself filled her with anticipation and nervousness, but no dread; she liked how it felt when Kara touched her, and his response to her was enough to make any woman revel in such power over such a legendary man.

He’ll be kind and gentle as always, she thought, her gaze flicking over to look at the man walking at her side.  Noting his somber, thoughtful expression, she inwardly sighed, Of course, there’s always too kind and gentle.  If he gets too worked up and afraid at the thought of possibly hurting me, nothing may happen at all.

Weather-seasoned wood planks creaked under the couple’s sandal-clad feet as they climbed the steps leading to the inn’s entrance.  Kara slipped his arm from around his wife—his mind still had some trouble accepting the very concept of a wife—and tugged open the sturdy, sliding door for her.  Amber eyes lingered on her form as he slipped out of his footwear, watching her step inside, her sock-clad feet quiet against the wooden floor.

“Welcome back to the happy couple!”

The newlyweds started, taken by surprise by both the joyous shout and the sight of the inn’s entire staff waiting there to greet them.  Both blushing at the unexpected attention, they just stood there.

The inn’s owner, a jovial man standing head and shoulders above the both of them, strode up and clapped Kara on the back.  “I must say, boy, you’ve landed a fine one.  The spirits have an astounding sense of humor.”

The Lopayzom’s expression shifted to one of embarrassment and resignation.  “They do?” he queried, voice soft.

The innkeeper continued on as if the groom hadn’t said a word.  “What I wouldn’t give to see the look on the Raven’s face . . . Ah well, come, come!”  The large Bhekom reached out with his other hand and put it on Jurnia’s shoulder.  Before either one could gather their wits together and act, the innkeeper was pushing them before him, into the inn’s common room.  “What’s a marriage without good food to get it started?  And don’t worry about the cost.  You did all of us a favor finishing off that blight on the land that had been a temple.  Whatever happened up there, the taint’s gone.”

“It should have been finished off a long time ago,” Jurnia said almost shyly—shyly?  Kara blinked at her modest tone—as the innkeeper steered them toward a table in the corner, where a pair of folding screens had been set up to provide privacy.  “It wasn’t right that your people have had to live with that kind of thing nearby.”

“Nevertheless, you’ve done us a good turn, and we’re grateful,” the Bhekom boomed cheerfully.  “Now, settle in and make yourselves comfortable.”  He vanished through the door to the kitchen area.

Kara and Jurnia sat staring awkwardly at each other and the floor and the table.  Jurnia finally cleared her throat softly.  “It was a very beautiful ceremony, and on such short notice, too.”

Kara would have replied, except that a middle-aged Bhekom couple had just materialized at the gap in the screens to offer congratulations.  Blushing, the newlyweds thanked them, but that seemed to signal a suspension of their own conversation as what appeared to be the entire village filtered through the common room.

As the makeshift receiving line went on, it became increasingly obvious that the townsfolk were not only grateful for the cleansing of the old temple, but they had an almost proprietary delight in the unexpected union of Fox and Raven.  The down-to-earth, practical Bhekom apparently had a hidden streak of romance buried somewhere under the stodgy surface, and the fact that this marriage was a love match, in open defiance of the hostilities that had existed between the two clans, seemed to appeal to them greatly.

In a short gap in the stream of congratulations, Jurnia leaned a bit closer to Kara.  “If your father and mi—my chieftain really disapprove of our marriage, I think we could always move here and find a nice home.”

Kara chuckled.  “It does look that way, doesn’t it?”

“They’re all quite friendly, aren’t they?”

He nodded and looked at the newest visitors, a young mother and two children, all of whom were grinning.

“Yes, that they are,” the young Lopayzom managed to murmur.  He had expected his impulsiveness—born from a need to spare the one he loved the pain of uncertainty—to be rewarded with quiet intimacy and a chance to drop some of the barriers between them.  He had not expected to be an entertaining exhibit for the villagers, and he was beginning to feel somewhat overwhelmed by the attention.

Perhaps it was the fact that Jurnia had been exposed to court and other large social settings much more frequently than Kara had.  He was looking a bit glassy-eyed and flustered by the scrutiny of the whole village, but she retained a certain degree of poise.  Still, it was a relief when the innkeeper reappeared at the head of a short procession of servants to deliver a miniature banquet and close the screens.

There was a nice spread of surprisingly high-quality food for such a small, unassuming village, but it might as well have been bread and water for all the attention the newlyweds were able to focus on it.  Jurnia was annoyed at herself for being nervous; her mother had explained the mechanics of the consummation in great detail, so she knew what was going to happen when she and Kara got into bed together.  There was absolutely no reason to be afraid of it.  Chaiya had told her that some men were less considerate of a woman’s comfort than others, but Jurnia knew that Kara wouldn’t be one of those men.

I’m scared because not only is this something I haven’t done before, it’s the final step in binding myself to Kara, she acknowledged silently.  After this, nobody—not his father, not my father, not even the Empress herself—can put a barrier between us.  We’ll have each other, and that’s all we’ll need.

The bowl of soup she was eating from became blurry; she blinked hard to push the threatening tears back.  But I don’t want my father to be angry.  I don’t want to wind up never seeing him again.  He’s stubborn and arrogant and totally convinced that he’s right about everything, but surely he won’t turn his back on me forever . . .

Something about his new wife’s violet aura caught his attention.  Ever since the screens had been pulled, enclosing them into their own little world, he’d kept his gaze and mind focused on the rather mundane task of eating.  Though more or less recovered from his ordeal, the fact remained that he’d been essentially starved for over a week and his body was still upset over that turn of events.

But now he sensed something wrong.  Amber eyes flicked to Jurnia’s face; he wilted inside, seeing the sadness there in her eyes.  Perhaps this really was foolish of me.  “Regrets, Jurnia?” he asked gently.

She started, almost dropping her spoon into the soup bowl.  “What?  Regrets about what?”

“Marrying me.  You seem . . . unhappy now.”

“Oh!  No, not at all.”  She flashed him a shy smile.

He stared at her, his expression frankly skeptical.

“I’m not at all unhappy about marrying you,” she insisted, catching the disbelieving stare.  “I was thinking about something else, that’s all.”

He relaxed slightly.  Though I wouldn’t blame her for coming to her senses and having nothing to do with one such as me.  She’s too pure to be sullied by the taint that stains me.  “If I’ve offended you by acting without your consent, I deeply apologize,” he muttered, his attention returning to the meal laid out before him.  “A copper for your thoughts . . .”

“I, uh . . .  She glanced at him from the corner of her eye, fidgeting with her spoon.  “I was just worried about . . . something.”

“Anything I can do to ease your fears?”

“It’s just . . . um . . .  She stared at the table.  “I feel like I’ve . . . misled you, in a way.”

“Ara?”  The golden eyes were staring at her again; a puzzled expression graced his pretty face as he paused in his eating.

“This is so awkward,” she muttered before raising her emerald eyes to look at him, almost shamefaced, trying to find a decorous way to say it.  “Kara, you know that I wasn’t . . . born in wedlock, right?”

He nodded without hesitation, the shaggy topknot swaying behind his head with the movement.  “I’m not completely unaware of your mother’s history.  Father’s mentioned a few things over the years.”  He elegantly shrugged, adding, “For all I know, I could be a bastard as well.  No one really knows.”

“Well . . . you know that this is already going to cause some trouble because I’m the Chief Herald for the Kaykolom?”

Again the Lopayzom nodded.  “I know.  I thought long and hard about the fact that doing this essentially steals the Raven’s Chief Herald from him.  To be honest, I’m worried about that myself, but . . . I thought this would make you happy.  I’m willing to risk anything for your happiness.”

She took a deep breath.  “It’s going to cause trouble in a whole different way, too.”

He carefully set the eating sticks down onto the carved stone holder lying on the table for that very purpose.  His golden gaze returned to searching her face as he reached out across the table with his right hand, the left pushing back the red silk sleeve.  His hand remained there, a silent offering, as his voice took on a hint of Khuradasu’s steel.  “Before you say anything more, just answer me truthfully one thing.  Was I wrong thinking that you would risk anything to be my wife, that your happiness could only come if you were forever at my side?”

No.  No, you weren’t wrong.”  She caught her sleeve back and reached out as well, her slender fingers curling tightly around his.  “I couldn’t be happy with anybody but you.  I’ve known that for years.”

His sword-callused hand returned her grip, firm but loving.  “Then whatever trouble there may be, I will do all I can to protect you and your happiness, no matter how loudly Iryasitru screams.  Now . . . tell me what it is I face.  It’s far better to know where you stand than to be taken by surprise.”

“I’m scared that he’ll be angry enough that he never wants to lay eyes on me again,” she burst out.  “I’m afraid that I won’t see him for the rest of my life.  I want my children to know both of their grandfathers.  Iryasitru isn’t just my chieftain—he’s my father, Kara.  Irya’s my father.”

Iryasitru is . . .  The change was startling.  One moment Khuradasu sat opposite her, his strength an offered shield against any threat the future may hold.  Then, in the next heartbeat, the wanderer gaped at her, wholly thunderstruck.  The Lopayzom’s face became startlingly pale in hue; the golden eyes took on a stunned, glazed-over expression.  A sound burbled from him, rather like the sort of low moan someone made after taking one punch too many to the head.

“It’s not really public knowledge, even in the clan, but most people who have functioning eyes can probably see the resemblance when we’re in the same room.  Especially if we’re arguing, or so I’m told.”  She scowled briefly at that thought.  “He’s never actually acknowledged me.  I don’t know if my mother told him, but he’s intelligent enough to have figured it out on his own.  After my mother died, he sort of became my unofficial guardian, so he and I have had plenty of fights over my marriage prospects.  He knows quite well that I wouldn’t marry anybody but Khuradasu, but it might . . . be kind of a surprise for him to find out who Khuradasu really is.”  She finally focused her eyes on her new husband, and blinked.  “Kara?  Did you hear anything I just said?”

For a moment, he wondered if he was going to faint.  By all that’s holy, I should have realized.  Who else in all of Aizvarya would Chaiya have let—especially considering Father—Eeeeee . . . They’re both going to kill me.

Then the sound of Jurnia’s voice broke through his internal panic.  Focusing on her question, he did his best to calm down from the shock.  “Lots of fights and the Demon’s Claw . . .” he warbled, still trying to focus.  His hand remained holding hers, but his grip held no strength at the moment.

She gripped his hand tighter.  “Kara, pay attention to me, will you?  I just had an idea of how we can handle this.”

 “Ara?”  The look of shock faded as color returned to his face, but in the next moment that skeptical expression reappeared.

“We won’t tell him that we’re already married.  If you present yourself and ask for my hand as Khuradasu, he’ll probably say yes.”

Kara faintly smiled, his hand tightening in a reassuring gesture.  “Truthfully, it had been my intention all along to go to the Kaykolom once the danger to your chieftain was past and ask your father for permission to marry you, and ask the Raven if I could take his Chief Herald away.”

Jurnia blushed.  “You . . . you really did plan to ask for me?”  The look she gave him as he nodded in affirmation warmed him down to his toes; she squeezed his hand gently.

“If I’d been rebuffed, well, then, I would continue to worship you from afar, as it should be.  No one as bloodstained as I deserves the love of someone like you.”

Her sweet gesture turned into a briefly steel-like grasp.  “Yes, you do deserve me.  Otherwise we wouldn’t be having this conversation,” the dark-haired maiden responded, her voice taking on an undertone of annoyance.

The redheaded swordsman continued as if he hadn’t heard her admonishment, his amber gaze staring into the distance,  “But the pain I felt when you thought I was dying . . . I just didn’t have it in me to choose a path where you would continue to wonder if I would one day go my own way and leave you behind.”

She shuddered and looked down at the table again.  “I didn’t want to think about that.  I didn’t want you to go, Kara.”

His gaze focused upon her once more.  “I won’t go, not willingly, not ever.  I love you, and more than anything, I want to do what I can to keep a smile on your face.  If that means letting you go because you can’t bear the thought of being cast out from the Kaykolom, so be it.”

“I’m choosing you over the Kaykolom.  Wasn’t that clear during the wedding ceremony?”

“I was thinking the same thing of you only moments ago when you lamented your fear of your father casting you aside.”

Jurnia frowned at her new husband.  “My choice is made, but I prefer our children being welcomed by both clans.”

“Well, then . . . if I must argue with Iryasitru because nothing save being with me will make you happy, so be it.  Whatever it takes, I’ll do my best to make you happy. I swear it.”

She shook her head fiercely.  “If Irya tries to fuss, I’ll take care of him.  He’s known all along that I wanted to marry Khuradasu and nobody else.  It shouldn’t matter that Khuradasu’s a Fox.”

“No, it shouldn’t.”  Kara nodded, then smiled again.  Tugging her hand over to his mouth, he gave her knuckles a lingering kiss before releasing his grasp.  “But we should set out on the morrow to the Rookery and get this over with.  It’s only fair for your father that way.”

“This is a nice little town, but I’ll be happy to go, to be honest.  I’m a little tired of traveling.”

He chuckled softly.  “I have wandered longer than you and, perhaps, I am getting weary of it as well.”  His expression became serious once more.  “I suppose one last trip after the Rookery, then . . . I should probably return home at long last.”  His soft voice sounded both hesitant and reluctant.

“Where is ‘home’ for you?  I thought that the Lopayzom lands were more or less abandoned.”  She looked at him curiously.

“Hmm?”  He glanced back over at her, her inquiry pulling him from his thoughts.  “Oh, well . . . that’s not quite the case, though I suppose ‘home’ really is the Dragon Palace until I get a chance to talk with Father about what his plans are now for the clan.”

Her eyes widened.  “You get to live in the Dragon Palace?”

“For now.  You see . . . When Father was only the Lopayzom Swordsmaster and Lord Sikitu was chieftain, the council of advisors to His Highness the Dragon noticed Father’s talent in military tactics and planning.  With the blessing of the clan, Father accepted the post of the Grand Dragon General—the Minister of War for the entire province.  His Highness the Dragon also saw Father’s talent, and essentially overrode all loyalty Father had to the Lopayzom for the greater good of the province.  Part of that included Father taking up permanent residence in the palace, and as a result, that’s where I grew up for most of my childhood.”

“That . . . doesn’t sound right.  Clan always comes first.”

He smiled gently.  “I know, but think of it in this light . . . with his skill at organizing and leading the armies of the province, Father’s probably saved more lives than would otherwise have been had someone else taken that post.  Father agonized over his loyalties, but Sikitu was willing to make the sacrifice.  I’m not entirely certain, but I think Sikitu ordered Father to put the Dragon and the province before the clan.  Even after the feud broke out, Sikitu didn’t relent, and neither did the Dragon.

“Perhaps you’ll find you understand better once we go there and you talk with the current Dragon.  She may be able to give you some insight as to why Sikitu may have done as I’ve heard he did.”

“I’ll get to talk to the Dragon?  Really?”  She looked at him, wide-eyed.

“Oh certainly,” he assured her, going back to eating as if talking to the Dragon was no big deal.  Indeed, for him it had been an everyday occurrence while growing up.  “Father’s still the Grand Dragon General after all, and he’s married to the Dragon’s best friend.”

“We heard about that.  Him getting married, I mean.  I think Irya sent a gift.”

Kara lowered his head, the shaggy bangs shadowing his face.  However, the skin just under the curtain of red hair grew faintly pink.  “I wouldn’t know.  I wasn’t there.  I merely heard about it as well.”

“You didn’t attend your own father’s wedding?”  She blinked at him in surprise.

He merely shook his head in a negative gesture, a sigh faintly audible.  He picked at his food for a long moment, then set the sticks down again, his remaining appetite gone.  “No.  I’ve not seen Father since your mother’s funeral, and even then, that was at a distance.”

“Since—wait, you were at my mother’s funeral?  I didn’t see you there.”

“I didn’t intend for anyone to know, but it’s a long journey from Derkarya to the Rookery, and Father was injured.  I was fairly certain Lady Kerzama could deal with his wounds, but I wanted to be certain he made it.  And I wanted to have some idea of the fate of the feud.”  He clenched his right hand into a fist, the skin whitening with the pressure.  “I didn’t know if he would need to be rescued again or if I would need to fulfill his ultimate purpose for me after all.  It’s just as well things have turned out as they have.”  Yes, it is, for despite my vow to never intentionally kill again, had the Raven cut Father down while he tried to sue for peace, I would have turned the Demon’s Claw loose in the Rookery . . . and only my own death or their full destruction would have ended it.

Jurnia looked down at his clenched fist.  “What ultimate purpose would that be?”

“I . . . he . . .  Kara unclenched his fist, the ache breaking into his thoughts.  He rubbed his face with both hands, trying to find some way to articulate a reply to her question without turning her affection into cold disdain.  “Father . . . The death of the clan has always weighed heavy on my father’s heart.  He was the Swordsmaster, the one beholden to the protection of the clan, but his chieftain insisted on Father serving the Dragon instead.  When the final destruction came, Father wanted to die as well.  He didn’t feel like he deserved to live when all the rest were gone.  He would have rushed to the Rookery that night and cut down as many Kaykolom as he could before his own death . . . only he discovered me.”

The Lopayzom lowered his hands.  Lifting his head, he gave his wife a crooked smile.  “Raising me gave him a purpose, but it wasn’t what you would think.  No, he didn’t see me as part of a new future for the clan.

 “When you called me Father’s weapon, you were far more accurate than you could ever imagine.  I was raised as an instrument of his will to end the history of the Lopayzom with a blaze of glory written in as much Raven blood as possible.  He intended for me to learn all I could of his secrets of swordsmanship, then die with him in a suicidal assault on the Rookery.”

Jurnia stared at him, speechless.  If she hadn’t known him as well as she did, her impulse might have been to get angry, to throw accusations that he had gotten close to her only so that she would pave the way for him to fulfill such a hideous purpose.  The anger was still there, edged with horror at Arjunayazu’s dreadful scheme, but she didn’t hurl it at Kara.

Her own hand curled into a tight fist.  “That monster.  How dare he?  How dare he even think about using you like that?”

“Grief sometimes makes people do terrible things—as can any strong emotion.  But I still love him, even knowing what his purpose in raising me had been.  I can’t help but love him; he’s my father, even if I’m not truly of his bloodline.”

He closed his eyes and shook his head slightly.  “I did all I could to make him happy, but the only time I even saw approval was when I excelled in my swordsmanship and increased my potential to be lethal.  That’s one reason why I left the palace and joined the army fighting the border war.  Father only approved of me when I killed, and there, I was doing the province some good.

“But the blood . . . it became too much.  I couldn’t take it any longer, nor could I just peacefully accept the fate Father had chosen for me.  For my own peace of mind, I had to walk another path.

“And so the wanderer lives while the Demon’s Claw sleeps.  It was my lack of a will to kill that allowed Dashtru to become what he did.  And for that, I am so sorry.  I should have done as Father wanted and killed him the day he murdered your mother.”

“I’m glad you chose your own path,” she said fiercely.  Her hand clenched on his for a moment.  “I’m the one who should apologize.  If I hadn’t been so bent on making him suffer for what he did, he wouldn’t have had nearly the sort of . . . of driving obsession.  He kidnapped you and drugged you and tortured you because I was stupid.”

He smiled and returned her touch, his hand curling around hers in a gesture of affection.  “He had every reason to hate me.  I didn’t kill him back in the clearing, and I’m Lopayzom.  Those were reasons enough for one like him.  But it’s over now.  He can’t hurt either one of us any more, and the world is a cleaner place for it.”

Her hand trembled in his grasp, her emerald eyes misty with tears.  “He hurt you to get at me.  If it had just been his revenge for stopping his attempt on Arjunayazu’s life, he wouldn’t have tortured you the way he did.  He was keeping you alive because he wanted to see my face when he finally did kill you.  I mutilated him and gave him even more reason to stay alive and find a way to exact revenge.  It’s my fault, Kara.”

“Shh . . .  Pushing back his chair, he took the couple steps needed to come to her side.  He knelt down, pulling her into a warm embrace, left hand cradling the back of her head.  “It’s past us now.  No need on dwelling on whose fault what was.  We’re both alive, here and now, husband and wife.”  No need to remind her that had that creature not wanted her to see me die, I would have already been dead before she ever came to the befouled temple . . .

She burrowed into his arms, sniffling faintly.  “Are you sure you’re all right?  I’m a terrible excuse for a doctor.”

He chuckled softly and gave her a hug.  “If you’d like, we can go upstairs and I’ll let you look me over and see if I’m all right.  I feel well enough that I don’t think I’ll disappoint, if that’s what you’re worried about.”

He could almost feel the blush against the side of his neck.  “No, that’s not what I’m worried about.  I’m worried that you’re not completely recovered.”

“Truthfully . . .  Leaning back, he gazed upon her, happiness and a bit of awe in his amber eyes at knowing that someone as good as her actually cared about his unworthy self.  “I’m still feeling the effects of being starved, but that’s quickly passing.  Sleeping the day away yesterday gave my body a chance to recover.  I am an Avatar, after all.”  The wanderer’s sunny grin returned for a moment.  “I do apologize for being such poor company yesterday.”

Jurnia peeked up at him.  “You were fine.  Aside from making it difficult for me to get up when I needed to stretch my legs.  You’re awfully strong, even asleep.”

Kara blinked in surprise.  The day before, truthfully, was only a blur; he could recall only distantly eating a couple of times and just as many trips to the privy, but always the comforting presence of a violet aura.  His eyes glazed over as the significance of her words sank in.  “You were in bed with me?” he warbled.

“Well, yes.  At first I dozed off while I was combing your hair—I was very tired, you know.  When I woke up, I was lying down next to you.  I thought you moved me.”  She gave him an inquiring look, and he shook his head slightly with that glassy-eyed expression.  She frowned.  “Well, when I tried to get up, you hung onto me.”

His cheeks pinkened more, the glazed eyes closing in one of the wanderer’s sunny, embarrassed smiles.  Silk whispered as he let her go and rose to his sock-clad feet.  “I’m very sorry.  I didn’t realize . . . Sorry . . .”

Jurnia scowled and held onto the long sleeves of his shirt.  “Sorry for what?”

“For holding you captive, what else?”  His voice held the fluffhead’s soft tones.  His aura seemed to go a bit distant as he walked over to the chair in which he’d been sitting.

“I didn’t mind.”   She gave him a shy little smile.

Her smile ignited one of his own, one of the genuine ones instead of the fluffhead’s vacant grin.  “It’s just as well I gave into the impulse to bind you to me so that you could no longer fear losing me by my choice.  People would wonder, if we’d been seen.”

“Oh, one of the maidservants was helping me with you.”

His little frame stiffened, the amber eyes getting glassy-looking again.  “I hope she wasn’t in bed with me too . . .”

“Of course not!  But she did see us.”

“Well, it couldn’t have been much.  I did spend most of my time sleeping.”

“She thought it was very sweet, the way you were cuddling up.”  She grinned at him.

“Yes, well . . .  He cleared his throat, obviously embarrassed again.  “I was very glad to still be alive and to see you again.  You . . . were what I kept my thoughts on the past few days.  Knowing I had to be strong for you . . .  He smiled again.

“I’m glad you did.”

“Well . . .  He gestured to the table with the remaining food.  “I don’t know about you, but I’m not hungry any more.  And I really should get out of these clothes before I accidentally ruin them.  My foster mother would never forgive me.”

“I think I’m done, too.”  Looking down at the beautiful blue robe, she smiled a little.  “And I should change clothes too.”

“I’m thankful for the loan.  It suits you very well.”  He holds a hand out to her.  “Together, then?”

She blushes again, taking his hand.  “All right.”  She swallowed nervously, her mind leaping ahead to what “changing clothes” was going to involve.

Again the silly wanderer’s grin.  Suppressing the impulse to give her hand a lingering kiss—her aura radiated nervousness and though his desire was starting to get the best of him, he didn’t want to make her too upset—he contented himself with merely leading her from their place in the common room toward the stairs to the rooms above.

Jurnia followed her husband, blushing brightly at the cheers and slightly ribald comments from the others in the common room as the newlyweds headed for the stairs.  None of it was truly offensive or lewd—it was all the usual ribbing that might be expected from older, married people to younger ones.

Before they climbed the steps, the innkeeper bustled up, grinning.  “Your belongings have been moved to our finest room.  It’s at the end of the hallway.”

“Oh?”  Kara paused, his cheeks blushing red.  “You’re too kind.  If you would perhaps show us the way?”

He’d heard the comments, of course, but had let them roll off his back.  He’d heard much more graphic ones in his days in the Dragon Army, after all.  Still, it fairly took his breath away, knowing that the barriers of society had been taken away.  All that remained was the doubt in his heart.

With a chuckle, the rotund man led the way up the stairs and along the hallway.  He opened the door with a flourish, shooing them into the room.

Tugging Jurnia along by the hand, Kara stepped into the room.  The room was certainly clean and spacious.  For a small town such as the Bhekom village, the room was rather extravagant.

“And one bed . . .” he murmured, not realizing he said it out loud.

“One big bed,” Jurnia agreed under her breath.  The innkeeper chuckled as he closed the door behind them.  The room held a number of elegant furnishings and beautiful ornaments, but the young Herald’s eyes kept going back to the stark reality of the bed across the room.  She swallowed hard.

Kara glanced at his wife.  Noting the look on her face, he suppressed a sigh.  Carefully . . . no need to frighten her.  She’s wanted this for a while now, and though I don’t understand why such an unworthy one is so blessed, I can’t deny I want this too . . .

Gathering his focus, he walked over to the side of the bed closest to the sliding door.  With a soft whisper, the edgeless sword was pulled free from its place under his sash.

Jurnia stayed near the door, her hands folded nervously in front of her, watching his every move.  I know how everything is supposed to work, but . . . this seems like the difference between knowing that sword-fighting involves running a blade through the other person, and actually fighting for real.

The sword clattered against the wall.  Turning around, he noticed that Jurnia remained before the doorway.  He couldn’t help but think that she looked like she wanted to bolt.

He smiled.  “You know, something this fancy can get rather complicated.  If you’re up to it, I wouldn’t mind a bit of help . . .”

“Oh.  Um, certainly.”  She crossed the room a bit warily, as though he might bite.  “It’s a beautiful outfit.  Where did you get it?”

He turned his attention to the knot of his sash.  “My foster mother made it for me.  I was visiting my foster parents around my birthday, picking up the sword I had my foster father make for me, and my foster mother presented me with this as a birthday present.  She said I needed at least one outfit worthy of the Dragon Court . . .”

“She’s really talented with a needle.  I don’t think I could make anything nearly that nice.”

“I certainly couldn’t,” Kara chuckled.  The knot came free.  He held up his hands, the goldenrod silk falling to the floor.  “I fear mine are far too calloused for any work so fine.”

“We’ll see,” she remarked cryptically as she caught the sash, drawing it through her fingers.

“Ara?”  He glanced up at her, head tilting to the side in a questioning gesture.

Although she was blushing, she tried for a wicked glance through her lashes.  “I suspect your hands will be quite all right for the fine work I’m thinking about.”

His cheeks suddenly felt a bit warmer than usual.  Closing his eyes for a moment—What a minx—he smiled.  “We shall see.  But I really should get out of this outfit and put it away.”  He tugged the shirt free from his loose-fitting pants, fingers nimbly undoing the ties.

“I think you ought to leave it hanging up overnight, if you’ve been sweating in it.”

He paused, then chuckled softly.  “I must admit to some nervousness.”  The ties came free, the red silk parting under the fabric’s weight.  He then turned his attention to the pale gold undershirt.

She stepped behind him, reaching out to take hold of the outer shirt, slipping it off his shoulders.  It was warm from contact with his body, hanging heavy and smooth from her slender fingers.  “You’re not the only one.”

“Thank you.”  He quickly untied the undershirt, shrugging slightly.  “I wouldn’t have expected you to feel otherwise, to be honest.  After all, you face an unknown.”

“You haven’t been married before either, remember?”

“Well, there is that,” he agreed, reaching up and slipping first one arm out of the shirt, then the other.

“You’ve done it and I haven’t, but that’s about the only advantage you’ve got on me,” Jurnia remarked almost casually, draping the red silk overshirt over her shoulder and reaching out to help him peel the second shirt off.

“It is what I had in mind when I said you faced the unknown.  I really think the rest of marriage is much like friendship, and that’s easy enough.”

“Oh.”  She blushed again.  “I misunderstood, I guess.  Sorry . . .  Her voice trailed off and she just stared, the soft yellow shirt dangling from her fingers.  His leanly muscled torso was hard not to stare at.

A smile lingered on his face, the marks where he’d been clawed faint but still visible.  Also visible were the fading injuries from his ordeal, but they were well on the way to being fully healed.  He turned and faced her, reaching up and gently caressing her cheek with his fingertips.  “There’s no need to apologize.”

Her cheeks reddened again as he turned, giving her another wonderful view of his bare chest.  “Um . . .”

He couldn’t help himself.  She was just too tempting.  He leaned forward, long-lashed eyes closing.  His lips brushed against hers, soft as a butterfly’s wing.

If he had been afraid that she might flinch away, his fears were proven groundless.  Jurnia immediately stepped closer with a quiet little sigh, obviously eager to pursue that sort of behavior.  He purred softly deep in his throat.  She was so soft; it felt so right holding her close.  He deepened the kiss, wrapping his wiry arms around her.  She tried to say something, but she was quite distracted by the kiss.  Despite his belief that he was tainted beyond recovery and unworthy of her attention, she clearly disagreed.

At last he broke the kiss, only to lightly scrape his teeth against her throat.  “You know, we really should get you out of your borrowed finery . . .”

Jurnia’s breath hitched sharply as the brush of his teeth on her skin reminded her of the rather public nip he’d given her back in the outlaws’ town.  The mention of getting out of her own clothes brought the embarrassed red flags right back into her cheeks.  “Um . . . I guess you’re right . . .”

“Would you like some help?”

“Uh, well . . . yes, I, um, I’m going to need some help . . .”

“Well, we can probably start here, if you don’t mind.”  He slid his hands up along her sides, coming to rest against the knot of her sash.  Nimble fingers began to work against the silk.

“Getting anything else off would be a little bit difficult if we didn’t take the sash off first, don’t you think?”

“Indeed.”  He softly chuckled as he tugged the sash free from around her waist.  “Of course, one doesn’t have to take one’s clothes completely off, but I’d really not want to ruin such a pretty outfit.”

“I would die of embarrassment if I gave this back to its owner with . . . stains on it.”

“So would I.”  He ran his hands down along the folds at the front of the gown.

She almost dropped his shirts onto the floor as his nimble fingers loosened the tight wrapping of the robe around her middle.  “It was very nice of that woman to loan it to me,” she managed breathlessly.

“They were all very grateful for the cleansing of the temple,” he responded, lowering his head toward her shoulder.  He gently tugged the fine silk to one side, placing a kiss against the skin of her throat where he could feel the pulse of her heart.

Her pulse drummed hard against his lips, announcing as clearly as her flushed face and sparkling eyes that despite maidenly worries, his Raven bride was responding to him quite wholeheartedly.  “I wish I knew why that place hadn’t been cleansed before now, though,” she complained mildly.

“Perhaps we can discover the story at some time in the future.  But right now . . .  He gently kept pushing aside the dress from her shoulders.  “I’m far more interested in discovering something else.”  He nibbled and kissed the skin so exposed.

“I’m thirsty,” she announced a bit louder than she’d intended, his soft kisses doing calamitous things to her ability to think clearly, as well as introducing whole flocks of butterflies into her stomach.  “Here, you ought to hang these up,” she added, almost tossing the shirts over Kara’s head in her haste.

“Ara?”  His attention quickly diverted to the flying silk.  He turned loose of her, backpedaling quickly, eyes huge as he tried to get under the clothes to catch them before they hit the floor.

By the time he caught his clothes, Jurnia was across the room at the small table near the door, where a bottle of wine and two glasses had been considerately placed for the newlyweds.  “Do you want something to drink, too?” she inquired, wincing inwardly as she fumbled at the cork.

“Why yes, that would be nice,” he answered, shaking out his shirts.  He walked over to the wardrobe and opened it.  The wooden piece of furniture seemed to swallow up his small form as he rummaged around in it.

It took Jurnia three attempts to get the bottle open, but at least she got the shaking of her hands under enough control that she didn’t sprinkle wine everywhere while trying to pour it into the goblets.  From behind the black-lacquered cabinet covered with a mosaic of a peacock sitting on a tree branch adorning the door, the Lopayzom’s voice called out, “Do you believe it’s a good thing for a husband to desire his wife?”

In the middle of taking a large swallow of wine, Jurnia choked at the unexpected remark.  It took her a moment of spluttering before she could reply.   “Of course it is.”

One foot lifted from the floor, then returned a moment later devoid of the sock enclosing it.  “And is it good for a husband to show such desire?”  The other foot did the same as the first.

“I suppose that depends on how he shows it.”

“What would be a bad way, then?”

“There are a lot of answers to that.  A husband chasing his wife buck-naked down the main street of town would certainly be a ‘bad way’, for example.”  She looked at the goblet in her hand and then sent a second large gulp down to join whatever had reached her stomach rather than her lungs on the first swallow.

His soft chuckle overshadowed the whispering of silk.  “I would have to agree on that, but it makes for an amusing image.  What about any bad ways in private?”

“Well . . . doing things she’s really uncomfortable with.  Not respecting her feelings.  That sort of thing.”  She stared at his bare feet, which were just visible under the edge of the wardrobe door, then leaned sideways a little in an attempt to get a glimpse of him.  She had a suspicion as to what he was doing that was causing all those rustling noises.

“I need to hang the entire outfit up.”  Her little peek revealed far more skin than before.  At the moment, his bare back was facing out to the room, his hands fumbling with the tie that held his topknot in place.  Apparently unaware of her curious glance, he continued, “And like this, I can’t hide the effect thinking of you has upon me.  I don’t wish to make you uncomfortable, but . . .  The curtain of red silk fell to cover his back as he lowered his hands.

“Are you, uh, wearing anything at all right now?”  Jurnia’s voice sounded a bit high and thready, edged with what might be either anxiety or panic.

Kara softly sighed and rested his forehead on the edge of the wardrobe.  “No, I’m not.  But if you’ll toss me one of the sleeping robes laid out on the bed, I’ll put that on.  Forgive me for not grabbing one of them first.”

There was a long moment of silence.  Jurnia stood beside the small table, the goblets cradled in her hands, her gaze fixed on what she could see of Kara’s back.  He wasn’t asking those questions about a husband desiring his wife just to unsettle me, she thought.  I think he was reminding me that we are husband and wife now, that this isn’t some illicit liaison that could cause us both a loss of honor.  We’re both consenting adults, joined together in the eyes of both the spiritual and temporal courts.  Dishonor could only come from not allowing things to take their natural course.

She looked down into the cups, then set them gently down on the small table.  It’s all right now.  He’s not going to keep ignoring me or cramming all his passions into that little compartment labeled “Khuradasu”.  Being with me is the right thing for him to do now, so he doesn’t have to be afraid of his own desires.  She looked up again.  He won’t hurt me.  He won’t be angry or fight me for control of the situation.  I trust him.  Jurnia crossed the room with an almost catlike tread to stand behind him, and her fingers sank through Kara’s hair to run down his bare back in a long, slow stroke that made him quiver slightly.

“Who do you think cleaned you up?” she whispered very close to his ear.  “And I have a confession to make, I’m afraid.  Remember the bathhouse, the night before we met with the Sarpom?”  She clenched her fists gently in his hair, then let the silky strands fall free again, relishing the feel of the thick, soft mane.  “I peeked.”

“You . . . peeked?  The final word came out as a strangled sound.  His small, lithe form tensed up under her hands; he remained leaning slightly forward with his head pressed against the corner of the open cabinet.

“Yes,” she admitted candidly.  “When I caught you in the face with my hair, I turned around because I was worried.”

He straightened and turned just enough to glance at her over his shoulder.  Amber eyes wide and cheeks reddened below his shaggy bangs, he could only nervously smile.  “Well, I can’t blame you for looking if you were worried about me.  I certainly appreciated being given the towels.”  His worried expression deepened.  “I didn’t . . . frighten you, did I?”

“Frighten me?  By standing there rubbing your eyes and coincidentally having a, uh, visible physical reaction to the circumstances?”

“I was thinking more of the visible reaction.”

Jurnia slipped her arms around him, resting her head on his shoulder.  “I do have a fair grasp of the basic concepts, you know.”  And if I slide my hands down a little, I’ll have a whole new grasp, she thought irreverently.

His breath caught in his throat as she embraced him.  So right, he thought, a sharp twinge of guilt sparking through him as he closed his eyes and lifted his head slightly.  “Knowing and doing are different things, something like practicing swordsmanship and putting that knowledge to use on the battlefield.”

“That’s true.”  Jurnia was slightly preoccupied.  This wasn’t quite the same as it had been in the bathhouse.  As she had reminded herself before, he was her husband now; she didn’t have to feel any kind of shame about wanting to touch him, so she was indulging herself.  Kara was the first man she’d ever laid hands on in such a bold, intimate way, and the differences between his body and her own were fascinating.

He was so lean, finely-toned muscle packed tightly onto his frame.  His skin was quite smooth, but where her flesh had a sort of yielding softness—not flabbiness, certainly, but feminine resilience—his body didn’t have that sort of give to it.  He didn’t look terribly impressive, lacking the sort of muscular bulk that most people thought a warrior should boast, but a single touch revealed the corded power hiding underneath the almost girlish appearance.

Her caresses sent shivers of desire down his spine.  He kept his eyes closed; he purred softly deep in his throat, getting a bit lightheaded.  She was so warm and soft against him.

Of course . . .  “There’s something I should confess as well.  It’s no horrible secret, so don’t panic.  It’s merely that I’m not that much more experienced in this as you are, and I’ve never been the one doing the chasing . . .”

“Oh?  Confess away.”

His eyes blinked open in surprise.  “I just did.”

“Oh,” she mumbled, feeling a bit silly; she was paying far more attention to his body language than she was to his verbal commentary.  “What do you mean, you haven’t done the chasing?”

“I’ve . . . only been with one woman in my life.  I was sixteen then, and had been asked to see to it that she made it safely out of Aizhou and into Derkarya behind the battle lines.  She thought it fascinating that I was so skilled in the use of a steel sword but completely untrained in the use of the other.”

“Who exactly was this woman, hm?”

He bowed his head, the memories evoking a mix of feelings.  Sadness, regret, anger . . . all were her legacy as much as the skills she’d taught him.  “She was a high-class prostitute.  She’d been recruited as a Derkaryan spy, but . . .  He raised a hand and gently covered one of Jurnia’s own with it, the calluses rough against her skin.  “In reality, she worked for Aizhou.  She . . . was given the assignment of killing Khuradasu, of taking the Demon’s Claw out of the war.”

“She was an assassin pretending to be a prostitute?” Jurnia asked, astonished.

“No.”  Red hair swayed gently as he shook his head in the negative.  “Ziraisha was only a prostitute acting as a spy for both sides.  She was to lure me into a trap; her entire flight into Derkarya was for that reason only, to get me out into the wilderness with no one around.  Someone discovered the plot and tried to intercept the assassins, but I managed to take care of them.  The Dragon warriors took her captive, however, and she was executed as a spy.”  His mouth took on a hard line as he fell into a melancholy silence.  He kept to himself the fact that Ziraisha had insisted he’d be the one to carry out the sentence.

“Oh.  Does it help if I state that I’m not trying to lure you into anything life-threatening?”

He gently patted her hand.  Taking a deep breath, he willed himself to remain in control.  “Are you trying to lure me into something?” he murmured, keeping his voice in the wanderer’s clueless tone.

“I don’t know how much luring I’ll really have to do.”  Boldly, she peeked down over his shoulder to gauge his . . . “interest”.

That got him to chuckle softly.  He reached back, giving in to the temptation to touch her with more than his back.  His sword-callused hand gently caressed the side of her thigh.  Below, from a nest of wiry, dark red hair, his member jutted upward just as proudly as it had when she’d peeked right after smacking him in the face with her hair.

She giggled faintly.  “Not much luring, it would appear.”  She nuzzled her cheek against his shoulder, closing her eyes as the strands of his silky hair tickled her face.  “You’re not having any second thoughts, I hope.”

His hand continued lightly caressing her thigh.  “Why would I?  I love you, Jurnia, and I will do whatever I can to ensure your happiness.”

Jurnia sighed happily.  “I love you, Kara.  I’ve loved you for years.”

He gently shook his head in the negative again.  “Years?  You’ve only really known me for a couple of months.”


“The details are what makes or breaks relationships, Jurnia.  But honestly . . . I can no longer deny that at this moment, the man you love isn’t a Khuradasu that never existed, or even the harmless wanderer who has no such interest in this at all.”

“Good.  I would be terribly disappointed if you vanished or started acting clueless at this point.”  Her slender fingers traced random patterns over his chest.

“I don’t think I could act clueless at this point.  I can’t hide the fact that I react like this to you.”  He swallowed hard.  “May I turn around now?”

“In a minute.”  She released him; there was a quiet rustling, and then she draped the turquoise robe over his shoulder.  “Would you mind hanging that up for me?”

“Sure.”  The feel of the gown reminded him of how she felt against him.  Carefully removing it from off his shoulder, he hung it up to rest next to his own Court clothing.  He did his best to not dwell on the fact that she’d just divested herself of most of her clothing.  Avoiding that line of thought became infinitely more difficult when, with an almost soundless whisper, the tissue-fine aqua undergown settled onto his shoulder.  A moment later, her dainty white socks pinwheeled past his knee to land in the bottom of the wardrobe.

“Good aim you have there,” he murmured while carefully hanging the delicate undergown up next to the dove-adorned robe.  Added to the knowledge of her having disrobed were the images from his memory of seeing her in the bath on various occasions.  He swallowed hard, getting lightheaded again.

Her response was a surprisingly low, throaty laugh.  Jurnia turned and padded toward the bed, drawing the pins out of her hair and shaking it loose as she went.  She paused, catching sight of the washstand, and changed course.  The water in the pitcher was still quite warm, which made washing her face more pleasant than it might have been.  “These people are really very thoughtful, aren’t they?”

“Well, the Bhekom have always been considered wise by those who take the time to get to truly know them,” he replied.  He closed his eyes and rested his forehead against the corner of the open wardrobe once more.  It felt cold and lonely without her there next to him, a sensation he’d never truly noticed before until recently.

“That’s true.  Still, ‘wise’ isn’t always ‘nice’.”  She dried her face carefully and turned to look at him, then rolled her eyes.  “Are you going to stand there staring into the wardrobe all night?”

“I think they’re rather amused by the entire situation, and I get the feeling they’re romantics at heart.”  He lifted his head.  “Then it’s all right for me to turn around now?”

She took a deep, quiet breath.  “Yes, it’s all right.”

“Okay.”  He too took a deep breath, then turned and faced her.  His gaze first focused on the reed mats covering the floor, then slowly traveled up the length of her until he once again gazed upon her beautiful face.  He’d had glimpses of her before, but that was quite different from having the leisure—and the permission—to stare all he wanted.  Her thick hair tumbled loosely over her shoulders and down her back, framing her face and torso, and she had her hands clasped a bit nervously in front of her, modestly covering the apex of her thighs.

Jurnia’s mother had been a nigh-legendary beauty, and her father was also considered quite striking.  The combination of Chaiya and Iryasitru had produced a graceful, very feminine figure, curving lushly in all the right places; her face wasn’t all that ethereal or delicate, but instead had strong, bold features that suited her lively, spirited air.

He swallowed hard again, truly seeing in her now the promise of beauty he’d once noticed that long-ago day he carried her back to the Dragon army encampment.  Suddenly needing something to drink, he walked over to the table and picked up the goblet resting there with the most wine in it.  “You are the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen,” he said.  Saluting her with the cup, he then took a sip both to wet his throat and give him something to focus on other than his increasing desire.

Jurnia blushed, though she was busy staring at him.  Having the leisure to look all I want is a wonderful bonus to marriage, she thought happily.

Though short for a male—he stood only as tall as most Aizvaryan women—and having a prettiness more often associated with females, especially with the long mane of shaggy hair, once stripped of his clothing there was no doubt that he was a man.  His wiry frame was gracefully muscular in the flat, hard planes one would expect from a warrior.  Nor had nature skimped on his masculinity; in proportion with the rest of him, it left nothing ambiguous about his sex.  Like most everything about him, he’d cultivated a harmless look as well as a harmless personality; under his clothing, he was suddenly no longer a skinny, gentle, weak-looking man who just happened to carry a sword.

He took another drink before cradling the goblet in his hands and turning his gaze back on her.  “I’d always thought your eyes were the best attribute, but that was from my memory of you.  Now I couldn’t say what your best attribute is.”

She blushed at the comment.  “Which memory was that?”

“When I rescued you from the bandits.  I remember how pretty your eyes were then, and it’s a memory that’s stayed with me all this time.”

“You remembered that all this time?” she asked, still blushing, as she sat down on the edge of the bed. 

He nodded, then took another sip of the wine.  Setting the cup back down on the table, he faintly smiled.  “Yes, though at times I wondered why.  You were quite young at the time, after all.”

“So were you.”

“I was fifteen.”  His smile twisted into a wry one.  “Old enough.  I knew warriors in the army my age and a couple of years older who entertained themselves quite a bit with the camp followers.”  He remained standing there, left hand curling into a loose fist.  He wanted badly to be near her again, but he was also wary of scaring her.

“But you never did.”  She studied him for a moment, noting his tension.

He shook his head slightly, the wry expression still on his face.  “No, I never did.  Father had some harsh opinions on the worth of getting involved with such women.  From what I could see of them while I observed them, Father probably knew best and it would be wise to follow his advice.”

“Did your father advise you that listening to your wife’s a good idea?” she inquired innocently.

Red once again colored his cheeks.  He tightened his fist and bowed his head.  “We never had a discussion like that.  Father . . . didn’t intend for either of us to live to deal with something like a wife.  But I would think that it would be a good idea to at least listen for the sake of marital harmony.”

“Well, good.  Then get over here,” she commanded, wanting to push past the reminder of his father’s original, awful plan.

“Um, yes, milady,” he said, looking up at her, startled.  Taking a deep breath, he crossed the short distance between them and stood before her.  Amber eyes stared down at her, the faint glow of golden light as sure an indication of his desire as his physical arousal.  Perched on the edge of the bed, she smiled up at him encouragingly and patted the covers next to her.

He closed his eyes and took a deep breath.  So nervous, he thought as he fumbled about trying to sit down on the bed next to her.  Unfortunately, his nervousness got the better of him.  He tripped over his own feet as he turned.  “Ara?” he yelped, his arms suddenly flailing wildly about as he fought to regain his balance.

He lost.  He hit the bed flat on his back with a thump, arms spread out to either side.  He kept his eyes closed, moaning softly in mortification.  Jurnia couldn’t help it.  She burst out laughing as her husband fell over his own feet and landed on the bed.

“Sorry,” he warbled, cheeks turning bright red.

Since he was already flat on his back, she decided to take advantage of the situation.  “Kara, I’d ask what I’m going to do with you, but I already know what I’m going to do with you . . . in the immediate future, anyway.”  Her weight came lightly down on him as she half-sprawled over his chest.  Her hair brushed his cheek as she lowered her head to kiss him.

Jurnimmm . . .  He returned the kiss, arms lifting slightly off the bed, but rising no more.  Hesitant about doing too much too fast, he remained tense under her, concentrating on only kissing her.  Her soft heat felt so right against him, again awakening the sense of guilt within him.  I really don’t deserve this . . .  But he couldn’t resist it either.  Without opening her eyes or breaking the kiss, she reached down, caught one of his hands, and pulled it up to her shoulder.  His seeming shyness was going to make things interesting, to say the least; Jurnia liked to be in control of a situation, but Kara had the necessary experience in this case.

He moaned softly deep in his throat, caressing her shoulder with his sword-callused hand and bringing his other arm up to lightly rake his fingernails across her back.  He slanted his mouth under hers, increasing the pressure slightly.

She shivered under the stroke of his nails.  Her unspoken demand that he touch her had been thoroughly understood.  Ever since the awkward scene in the bathhouse, a warm ache had simmered within her; with his touch, it roared to life like a coal bursting into fresh flame.  The hand on her shoulder slid down her arm.  He embraced her with that arm, both hands now lightly massaging between her shoulder blades.  He broke the kiss only to gently nibble on her lower lip.  Under her, his body relaxed, some of the nervous tension draining away.

She slipped a hand down his side to his hip, her other hand curling around a fistful of the vivid hair that splayed under him like a halo of flame, giving a little moan as he worried lightly at her mouth.  He answered her moan with a purr deep in his throat.  As he slid his hands down along her spine, hugging her against him at the small of her back, he flicked the tip of his tongue against her parted lips.  She nipped at his tongue with a faint giggle, then settled in for a deep, greedy kiss.  It wasn’t difficult for Kara to tell that while his bride had a stunning degree of passion and eagerness, she hadn’t indulged herself with hopeful suitors.  Enthusiasm made up for experience in her case, however.

Her giggle followed by the vigorous kiss made his purr shift to a soft growl.  One hand drifted lower to grab the lush curve of one buttock while his other hand lightly raked his fingernails up along her spine again.  He worked at teasing open her mouth, wanting to taste her.  Her enthusiastic response only made his own desire burn brighter; her soft lips parted easily against his with another tiny moan, letting go of the fistful of his hair in order to reach up and touch him, stroking along the line of his jaw and down the side of his neck.  A shudder rolled through her, but it certainly wasn’t fear.

He hugged her to him as a shiver ran down his spine.  Groaning softly, he thrust his tongue into her mouth and twined it with hers; there was a trace of the wine she had drunk, but mostly, her mouth tasted clean and sweet.  She was surprised, but obviously not frightened by the new intimacy—on the contrary, she emitted another of those eager little sounds of hers and wriggled closer.  It was quite a change from the anxiety he’d seen only a few minutes previously, and it was certainly encouraging, making his blood roar in his ears.  He continued the deep kiss for a few heartbeats more before breaking it to gasp for breath.  He then turned his attentions to her neck, nuzzling against it with tiny kisses and nibbles.  “Ah, Jurnia, love . . .”

“I’m not scared,” she whispered against his hair.  “Not of you, Kara.  I’m afraid that I won’t be very good at this and that I’ll disappoint you.”  Even as she spoke, her soft hands were skimming over his body, delighting in his sleek, strong form.

He couldn’t help but chuckle at her words.  “You’re much better than you know,” he murmured against her shoulder.  Her gentle hands made him shiver again.  He groaned and bit lightly against her shoulder.  “Let me take the lead.”

“You’ll stop if I ask you to?”  It sounded less like a question than a statement.

“I swear.  Even if it means having to rush out of here and douse myself with water straight from the well.”  He gave her a hug, nuzzling against her.  “I only want your happiness, no matter what happens to me.”

She giggled irreverently.  “You’d shock the poor innkeeper and the servants if you went dashing through the place without any clothes on, Kara.”

“More than likely, though I’m sure some of the maids wouldn’t mind the sight.”  He entwined a leg around one of hers; holding her tight, he used his strength to roll them over across the bed, reversing their positions.  His red hair spilled down to either side of his shoulders as he shifted his arms from under her and propped himself up to stare down at her.  His eyes were half-closed, but his golden energy glowed in the amber depths.  “However, the only one I want admiring me is right here.”

Kara had never seen anything so erotic as the sight of Jurnia beneath him with her garnet hair spilling around her, her lips soft and pouting from his kisses, her cheeks pink beneath passion-darkened green eyes that gleamed with her own vibrant power.  “I’ve never been very good at sharing,” she admitted, reaching up to touch his cheek, the pad of her thumb tracing his lower lip.

By the spirits . . .  His heart skipped a beat at the sight of her.  He closed his eyes and nibbled against her thumb before sucking teasingly on it for a moment.  He then pressed his lips against her palm, nibbling gently.  “I don’t deserve this,” he whispered, unaware he said the words out loud.

“Am I that much of a trial?” she whispered, sounding hurt.

“Ara?”  He blinked down at her in surprise, taken completely off-guard by her words.

She looked wounded, the shine of her eyes dimming, her lips tightening.  “You just said ‘I don’t deserve this’.  Am I really that bad?”  Her voice trembled.

Wha  His eyes widened before he suddenly shook his head in the negative, horrified by her misunderstanding.  “No, no, far from it.  Jurnia, please . . . if anyone’s ‘bad’, it’s this unworthy one.  You make me so happy, I can’t believe I’m allowed this.”

“If you were that bad,” she pointed out reasonably, “I wouldn’t have married you.”

“You deserved someone whose hands are not callused by a sword or stained with blood.”  He lowered his head, sunset-hued hair pooling against her chest.

“I love your hands, Kara.”  She shivered as his hair spilled down over her breasts and shoulders, moving one arm so that she could curl her fingers around one of his hands.  “They’re strong enough that you can protect me, but they’re gentle enough to make me feel so cherished . . .”

Pressing his lips to the hollow of her throat, he murmured, “I don’t understand how one such as you can find happiness with an unworthy one such as me, but I can’t deny the truth of it.”

“I’ll explain it in exhaustive detail.  Later.  She closed her eyes for a breathless moment at the touch of his lips against the tender skin of her throat.

He shifted down along the length of her, nibbling and kissing from her throat down to one of her breasts.  She was watching him with those intense eyes, curious to see what he planned to do.  Her mother’s explanations had taught her about the technical aspects, but had never even come close to describing how it really felt.  What he planned to do became swiftly obvious as he first licked against one of her nipples, then covered the darker flesh with his mouth.  He shifted his weight to rest partially on her and on a forearm as he brought his other hand up and gently palmed her other breast.  She arched beneath him with a startled gasp, burying her fingers in his hair as if she didn’t know whether to pull him toward her or push him away.

Slowly, Kara.  Slowly, he reminded himself.  A shudder ran through him, an outward sign of his inner struggle to maintain control over his increasingly chaotic sensations.  His lean form shifted against her; his hip slid across her thigh, his arousal pressing against her.  Lying mostly on his right side alongside her, he continued gently suckling on her breast.  The fingertips of his left hand caressed across the velvety-soft skin of her flat abdomen, finally coming to rest lying atop the apex of her thighs.  She shivered, her slender hands clenching slightly in his hair as his fingers brushed against her with shocking intimacy.  He could feel the damp heat that announced her excitement as plainly as his body revealed his own.

Gently, carefully, he caressed the soft mound under his hand.  Increasing the pressure a little at a time at both her breast and the core of her, he groaned deep in his throat at just how responsive she was to his touch.

Her legs parted almost of their own accord, and she arched greedily against his stroking fingers, which rapidly grew slick.  Although she was going very quickly and quietly out of her mind, she managed to free one hand from a near-convulsive grip on his hair and fumbled to catch the edge of the blanket, pulling it down.  Sheets were much easier to clean or replace than blankets were.

“Mmm?”  Her fumbling about pulled his attention from what he was doing.  Giving her nipple a final lick, he lifted himself up on his right arm, left hand still gently stroking against the increasingly wet juncture of her thighs.  Passion-glazed amber eyes faintly glowing with Avatar power gazed half-lidded down on her from under a curtain of long, orange hair.

“We don’t want to ruin the covers,” she pointed out breathlessly.  It took a great deal of effort for her to scoot onto the sheets, as that involved moving away from his caressing hand.

“Point . . .  He moved with her, leaning down to nip gently against her shoulder.  Once they were comfortably spread out on the soft sheets, his hand returned to what it had been doing.  He remained watching her, however, his weight resting on his right side, his breathing faster than normal.  Watching her was exciting all by itself.  She was blushing and breathless, green eyes almost black with passion, shivering at his touch.

Jurnia was not normally a truly selfish person, and even in the midst of the delicious haze, she felt guilty that she was getting to have all the fun.  Boldly, curiously, she slipped her hand down his rippled abdomen and curled her fingers around him.

He squeezed his eyes shut as her grip enclosed him.  “Jurnia,” he groaned, his voice breathless, harsh—but not in an angry manner.  Far from it; he groaned again and pressed his mouth against her shoulder, a shudder running through him as he fought to maintain control of himself.  He pressed his left hand against her, slipping his longest finger into her just enough to rhythmically stroke her at her entrance.

“Kara,” she whispered against his hair, her voice trailing off in a soft moan, her fingers gliding along his length in a curious, caressing stroke.

I might be the Fox, but this woman’s definitely a vixen herself, he couldn’t help but think as her intimate touch sent a bolt of white fire up his spine.

His manhood was velvet over steel, the soft skin sliding in her grip over a hardness quite unlike anything she possessed.  He groaned helplessly, head still pressed against her.  Don’t want . . .  He shuddered and growled, his hand coming up from the apex of her thighs to enclose her hand, his strength suddenly focused on stopping her . Lifting up to stare at her again, he managed to gasp, his voice somewhat strangled, “No more.  Not right now.  I’m afraid I’ll end up hurting you.”

Jurnia gasped faintly as he caught her hand, looking at him in surprise.  The fire in his golden eyes was almost frighteningly intense, though quite different from the blaze of Avatar power that accompanied him in rage or battle.  His words cut through the daze; for a moment, she got quite angry at the suggestion he didn’t want to proceed at all.

“I want more,” she insisted furiously.  “We are not going to stop.  I don’t care if your father and mine both come running through that door with the news that the inn’s on fire, the empire’s at war, and the Empress wants to see us right now.  We.  Are.  Not.  Stopping.  With that, she caught his hair with her free hand and kissed him, hard.

“But—  His protest was quite swiftly and effectively cut off before he could better explain.  Even as he surrendered to the insistence of her kiss, his hand remained clasped over hers.  Moaning deep in his throat, he parted his lips under hers, both an invitation to try on him what he’d done earlier and an indication that despite what she may think his words meant, he wasn’t exactly running away from her.

It seemed that he was already learning how to deal with Jurnia; giving her the chance to take command and experiment with the kissing distracted her from her irritation at what she had thought he meant.  Though his hand kept hers from moving, her fingers were still mostly free to caress and lightly squeeze him.  He was getting an idea of what it must have been like for the bar of iron that had eventually become his sword--though the sort of heat and pressure he was experiencing right now was far more pleasant than that of a forging fire and a hammer.

Long, breathless moments passed as he twined his tongue with hers, but she was driving him beyond his limits; his control wavered and cracked and for a heartbeat he thought he’d completely lost it.  His hand tightened around hers, forcing even that little playing to stop, as he jerked free of her kiss.  Swallowing hard, he gasped, “I can’t.  Not me.  I won’t . . . have any energy left . . . if I burn it now.  Please, Jurnia.  Let me . . . concentrate . . . on you.”

“If I get any more concentrated, I think I’ll burst into flames,” she shot back.

That elicited a soft chuckle.  “Then you’re not quite there.  Close, though.”  He lowered his head, nuzzling against her.  “Finishing what’s been started is something I very much want to do, but it’s going to be uncomfortable for you.  So let me show you how good it is first.  Let me go back to what I was doing, but this time, don’t worry about me.  I’ll be fine, believe me.  Just trust me.”  He let go of her hand, sliding his back down to stroke between her legs.  “If you keep doing what you were doing, not only will you have my seed all over your hand but I’ll be too tired to actually finish this for now.  I’m still not fully recovered from Dashtru’s hospitality.”

“You won’t hurt me,” she said with absolute confidence.  Then she blinked, her expression suddenly worried.  “Are you all right?”

“I’m fine,” he reassured, nibbling and licking her soft skin.  “I just don’t quite have the energy reserves I normally do, that’s all.”  He continued stroking the slick feminine flesh under his hand.

Her little “oh” of understanding turned into a long, purring moan of delight.

“And you’ll get plenty more,” he softly promised.  Shifting his kisses to gently suckling at the base of her throat where it joined her shoulder, he slid his lean form along her soft, lithe body.  He paused for a moment in stroking her there; the touch of his sword-calloused hand helped guide his hard shaft to her feminine entrance.  With his hardness pressing gently but insistently against her, he returned to caressing the sensitive bud with his fingertips.

Her eyes widened briefly, feeling the firm, intimate nudge; she slid her arms around him, trembling with anxiety and eagerness.  It was mostly instinct that made her shift her legs, wrapping them snugly around his waist, which proved interesting when the brush of his hand made her hips jerk involuntarily.

He shuddered and hissed, fighting back the almost overwhelming urge to just bury himself hilt-deep into the liquid heat of her.  Not.  Yet.  Making a sound somewhere between a whimper and a growl, he tensed up and concentrated on stroking her with the fingertips of his left hand.  It was very difficult to concentrate on that, given that Jurnia was squirming and whimpering and clutching at him with both hands.  Fortunately, Kara had had a great deal of experience with self-control, though he had to exercise all of it right now.

“Yes, love, yes,” he murmured against her, feeling the tension rising.

The release tore through Jurnia like a tightly-wound spring suddenly let go; she screamed out loud, a long breathless cry of pure delight, and her power blazed like a solar flare.  Luckily for the Lopayzom, it wasn’t actually possible to be blinded with Avatar sight.

He struck as her climax claimed her.  With her scream ringing in his ears, he panted, “Forgive me,” and wrapped his left arm hard around her.  His embrace loving but firm, he surged forward, embedding his hard shaft deep into her sex.  It took every shred of his remaining self control to just lie still against her as her hot, slick tightness convulsed around him as her climax continued.

The keening cry ended on an embarrassingly cute squeak of surprise.  His penetration certainly didn’t hurt, but it was still an unexpected, unfamiliar sensation.  She didn’t realize that her nails were biting into his back or her legs had clenched so tightly around his waist that he probably couldn’t have moved if he’d wanted to; the dizzying sensations that swept through her had her completely off-balance.

The little stabs of pain certainly helped him keep his focus.  His breathing ragged, he murmured, “Jurnia?”

She’d buried her face against his chest in the same convulsive movement that had locked her arms and legs around him, so her voice was muffled when she answered.  “Yes, Kara?”

She didn’t sound like a woman in pain, certainly.

“Are you all right?”

“What kind of a question is that?” she murmured against his collarbone.

He paused for a moment, uncertain he heard her correctly.  He then lifted his head slightly, the amber eyes opening again.  “What kind of question should it be?  It’s supposed to at least be uncomfortable the first time.”

She tipped her head back enough to peek up at him through her lashes.  “If you call that ‘uncomfortable’, I don’t think I could survive ‘pleasant’.”

His eyes blinked open.  He looked quite cute staring at her in wide-eyed, utter confusion.  Still looking puzzled, he withdrew slightly and slid back in, watching her expression.  “Aren’t you even a little bit sore down there?”

There was no sign of pain or discomfort in her face; her eyes widened a little, then fluttered closed with a shivering sigh.  “No . . . but keep doing that . . .”

“I don’t . . .  Shaking his head, he decided to let his confusion pass for now.  It was maddening lying with his manhood buried within her, not moving.  He nuzzled against her, nipping lightly.  “Relax your grip on me just a bit and I will,” he panted, moving again what little her hold allowed.

Her death-grip on him eased to a far less constricting embrace.  Ziraisha had been very skilled, but although Jurnia did not have the sort of experience the professional courtesan had possessed, she certainly had enough passion to make up for it.  Soon any memory of the long-dead spy was swept away by the current reality; at long last, he could freely indulge his sometimes frighteningly overwhelming desire for the garnet-haired Kaykolom.  He loved her more than he’d ever loved anyone else, he would willingly die for her, and he was now forever bound to her as her husband.  Groaning softly and murmuring sweet nonsense to his wife, Kara let himself slip away into the most ancient dance of all.  He moved against her in an ever-increasing rhythm, the tension building within him to heights that left him breathless.

She might lack the seductive spy’s expertise, but Jurnia was a fast learner.  She quickly caught the rhythm he had set, discovering just how overwhelmingly good it felt to be joined with him.  The knowledge that this act was the final step of the ceremony that had been performed before the altar of the Goddess only heightened the pleasure for her; she was bound to the flame-haired swordsman by all possible ties.  No force of heaven or earth could break them apart now, whether the anger of her father or the will of the Empress herself.

“Khuradasu,” she whispered against his neck, biting him gently to punctuate her words.  “Karavasu.  Mine.”

He gasped at the soft bite and lifted his head, baring his neck to more such attention from her.  “Yes . . . all yours . . .” he panted, feeling like his very soul was on fire.  She reached him in depths shadowed from even himself, putting to ease some of the self-loathing he held within his innermost self.  Never again would he feel so utterly alone; she wouldn’t ever allow it to happen again.

The tension broke with a force beyond anything he’d ever experienced before.  His was a silent scream held back behind clenched teeth; he drove hard and fast against her as he spilled his seed.  Though the orgasm left him shuddering and weak, he kept himself propped up over her.  He lowered his head to rest his forehead against her skin, sweat dripping off his quivering body.

Her second climax was gentler than the first, ripples of pure pleasure spreading through her like ocean tides as she rocked against him, her head thrown back in a halo of her glowing dark hair.  Feeling his body tremble in the aftermath, she tugged at him, then locked her grip and pulled him firmly down onto her.  His weight wasn’t suffocating at all; it was a comforting pressure atop her.

“Hold me,” she whispered, stroking her hands down his back in long soothing sweeps.

“Mmm,” he softly purred, nuzzling against her as he wrapped his arms around her slender form.  He still shifted his weight to the side, tugging her with him so that the two of them were lying more side by side, legs still entwined, their bodies still joined intimately together.

“Mmm is right,” she murmured, sounding downright smug.

Her tone of voice struck him as amusing.  He softly chuckled, snuggling into the bed against her.  He was certainly glad he’d made it enjoyable for her, but . . .  “I still don’t understand.  You’d never been with anyone before, but you said there wasn’t any pain . . .”

 “I thought that was kind of the reason why you . . . concentrated on me so much,” she said, amused.  “Oh, now I’m feeling a little sore, but I’ve had muscle strains that hurt more.”  She bit his shoulder gently.  “What, are you upset that I didn’t cry or something?’

 “Ara?”  Her bite startled him a bit.  He then quickly shook his head in the negative.  “Oh, no, not at all.  I’m quite relieved . . . But Ziraisha had lead me to believe that it actually hurt quite a bit, even if the man was careful.”

 “Hah.  Who are you going to believe?  Your wife or your ex-paramour?”

 “What do you think?” he said, his voice falling into the wanderer’s cluelessness.  As both a distraction and a promise of things in the future for the two of them, he rocked his hips against her slightly—though he was starting to feel the effects of the energy expenditure.

I think you’re smart enough to know the right answer to that question . . .  Her voice trailed off in a little moan at his movement, but she opened her eyes to look at him seriously, recalling what he’d said about not being fully recovered.

 “I certainly believe you, love,” he murmured.  His eyes were closed, his face pale now that the blush of arousal and exertion were fading.  The marks on his cheek—and the rest of him—from the fading wounds were more visible than they had been before.  Though certainly well on the way to being healed, they were still stark reminders of the past days.  Jurnia couldn’t help but frown, though the hand she raised to touch his cheek was gentle and caressing.  The marks were also a rather sharp reminder that she had not studied the arts of healing nearly enough.

Sensing her unhappiness, Kara opened his eyes enough to look at her.  He covered her stroking hand with one of his as he gently smiled.  “You look much prettier when you smile.  It’s okay, beloved.  I just need some sleep now.”

 “You won’t wind up permanently ruined,” she asserted, still frowning, “but I really could have done a better job.”

 “I’m not unhappy with what you’ve done.”  He closed his eyes, snuggling down into the bed.  “You’re very good, in fact.  Nice raw talent.  Could only get better with practice . . .”

She blushed.  “I was talking about healing you, not making love to you.”

“I was talking about both,” he murmured.

“Oh.”  She giggled faintly, stroking his back again.  He stretched, sighed, and drifted to sleep, one hand resting on her side.  He wasn’t dangerously exhausted, not as he had been after rousing himself to finish Dashtru, but she could see how tired he was.

Now that the afterglow was slowly fading, she was beginning to feel a certain sticky soreness.  Carefully, she edged away from Kara, trying not to disturb his sleep as she extricated herself.  Once she was on her feet, she wobbled slightly and had to grab the bedpost to keep from falling over; muscles she hadn’t been aware of before were twinging somewhat, and there was a definite bit of discomfort settling in.

Her eyes went automatically to the sheets.  Through some miracle, they had wound up lying just on the edge of the top sheet, near the corner, and a few spots of telltale red marked the fabric.  She bit her lip, then turned to her travel bag.

A few minutes later, she put the sleeve knife back into the bag and carefully folded the piece of sheet that she’d cut away, making a note to pay the innkeeper for the damage.  Something told her that she might need that scarlet evidence in the future, and she rarely ignored her intuition.

The water in the basin was cooling off now, but it was still warm enough that cleaning herself up wasn’t uncomfortable, though she flinched a few times as she dabbed between her legs.  After a moment’s thought, she went over to the bed with a damp towel and cleaned Kara up as well, taking her time so that she could satisfy her curiosity as to the physical differences between him and herself.

Jurnia clambered back into bed, settling down beside her new husband; he murmured something indistinct and put an arm around her.  The twinges of soreness she felt were becoming annoying, and she scowled up at the ceiling before reaching over to lightly touch the faint lines on Kara’s cheek.  All of this was quite intolerable.  She wanted him to teach her more when he woke up, but she already knew he would refuse to do so if she was still feeling any pain at all.  Besides, she was privately angry at herself for failing to mend him as completely as possible, though the ugly, tainted atmosphere of the fallen temple had seemingly fought against her effort.

It was a little easier this time, exercising her power so close on the heels of the last healing, in a place not twisted by evil acts, and the injuries she was trying to mend were nowhere near as severe as the wounds she had dealt with before.  The effort still made sweat prickle across her forehead as she concentrated, the soft green light making the room look like something underwater as it rippled outward.  The marks that still marred Kara’s flesh faded away entirely, and her own discomfort melted into a peaceful, warm sense of well-being as the power flowed through her.  She was starting to understand why healing seemed to hold such attraction for so many Avatars; the sensation of energy flowing under careful direction to soothe, restore, and correct damaged flesh was deeply satisfying.

Next to her, Kara’s form seemed to relax even more; he breathed what sounded like a sigh of utter bliss as he snuggled up closer against her.  Though part of him seemed ashamed to feel joy at their growing relationship, another part seemed to not only accept it, but was downright smug about it.  Apparently in deep slumber, the half of him that expected her affection was the part foremost in his soul.

In time, perhaps, that part would always be foremost.


The first faint rosy streaks of dawn were tingeing the eastern sky when amber eyes slowly opened.  The sensation of lying half-atop a soft, warm mass coupled with the feeling of Jurnia’s familiar violet aura quite close confused him for a moment.  Kara yanked himself upward, eyes widening in befuddled startlement for a moment as he stared down at a very naked Kaykolom maiden sharing the bed.  His cheeks reddened as a thrill of panic washed over him—but then he recalled the events of the day before.  Still blushing, he took a deep breath and settled back down to lie next to his wife.

Jurnia muttered something, apparently annoyed by his moving around.  He draped an arm over her again as she snuggled up against his slender form; he then absently began stroking her with his fingertips.

We are well and truly bound to one another, no matter how our fathers will feel about the situation once it becomes known, he thought, closing his eyes.  Yet underneath the fear of both clan chieftains being angry and rejecting the alliance and the guilt of an assassin daring to marry someone so inherently pure, Kara was . . . happy.  Almost from the moment he’d cradled her in his arms that long-ago day he’d rescued her from the bandits, part of him had always known she was the one for him.  Even after their paths had crossed again, she knew him for what he truly was—and still claimed him as her own.  It was a miracle that left him in profound awe and made his continuing existence brighter than the harsh, drab reality it had become.

As he gently hugged her—he didn’t wish to wake her up if she was still tired and needing sleep—and stroked the soft skin of her shoulder, Kara became aware of a profound sense of wellness.  For the first time in days, he was wide awake, full of energy, and not a single twinge remained of his ill-treatment and injuries.  Vaguely remembering being washed off and then surrounded by a warm, tingling sensation flowing through him, he wondered if perhaps Jurnia had used her Avatar healing ability once more to finish the job the defiled temple had left not quite complete.

And if she healed me, perhaps she healed herself as well, a slightly naughty thought whispered in his mind.  He found himself responding to the idea that his strong-willed wife was so eager to continue she’d used her abilities to heal her honorably-gained wound; he felt a bit flushed knowing that perhaps she wanted him so much, she couldn’t wait.

He nuzzled a cheek against her shoulder, stifling a groan.  That part of him that considered her affection his just due grew stronger within him with each passing day.  He was married to her now; it would be a downright insult to her to continue to try to keep his desire bottled up from this point forward.  He wanted her—he needed her—and no matter his past, her happiness could only be achieved through his own love and desire for her.

The nuzzling turned to gentle nibbling and butterfly-soft kisses.  His hand slipped down from her arm to lightly, carefully fondle one of her breasts.  Now that she was forever his, now that it was socially acceptable and, indeed, honorable to indulge his sometimes overwhelming need for her, he was finding it difficult to keep his hands off her.  If she hadn’t healed herself, there were other things he could do to satisfy them both while allowing her tender flesh time to recover.  Nor did he think she’d be angry at him for waking her up at the crack of dawn, not when she realized he needed her so much, he couldn’t help himself.

The soft bud of her nipple tightened under the feathery caress, and she made some small, sleepy murmur as she arched back against him.  He couldn’t help but bury his face in her hair, which lay in a thick rippling sheet of midnight flame across the pillow; as he’d noticed over and over, Jurnia smelled very good, though right now the scent of her had the same effect on him as the touch of her smooth skin and the warmth of her body against his.  Their position—her back against his chest, the two of them fitting together remarkably well—made him think of a certain variation on the basic theme, which in turn made his current tension all the more urgent.  She still didn’t seem to be awake, though he guessed that she would be if he continued with what he had in mind.

That she wasn’t already awake made the guilt creep back.  Perhaps she’s more tired than first thought, and I’m imposing?  Nuzzling his face deeper into the silken strands of her garnet-hued mane, he lowered his hand to wrap his arm around her slender waist for a warm, affectionate hug.  Gently sighing, Kara attempted to put the brakes on his ardor and go back to sleep.

One of Jurnia’s slender hands curled around his wrist and pulled his hand back up to where it had been.  “Why did you stop?” she mumbled into the pillow.

He felt even more guilty, as if he’d been a thief caught in the act of making off with someone else’s property.  Cupping the hand she moved back over the soft swell of her breast, he murmured, “You’re probably still very tired and I shouldn’t be bothering you like this, that I shouldn’t.”

“But it feels nice,” was the contented reply.  Her hand slid back over her own hip and touched him very intimately indeed.  “I’m not that tired, and it doesn’t seem like you are, either.”

“Ara,” he softly yelped into her hair, mildly surprised by her boldness.  “I’m not, thanks to you,” he agreed, remembering that he was supposed to be reciprocating the caress.  “You healed me again last night, didn’t you?”

“Well . . .  He could just see the faint blush on the edge of her cheek.  “I was a little sore and uncomfortable, and I was upset that you still had marks from that animal hurting you.  I thought we’d both be happier if I fixed all of it.”

“Mmm,” he murmured, nibbling lightly against the top of her shoulder.  So she couldn’t wait after all, he thought, part of him dismayed and embarrassed but another part downright smug.  “I’m certainly not complaining,” he whispered, nimble fingers moving to tug and tease the hardening nipple under his gentle grasp.

“Good,” she answered, a little hitch in her voice as he teased her.  “I like you much better without any reminders of what you went through.”  She sounded a little ragged, almost tearful, a startling contrast to the eager response of her body to the touch of his hands.  “If only I’d been able to get to you faster . . .”

“Shh.  It’s all right,” he reassured her, nuzzling against her skin.

“No, it’s not,” she argued softly.  “You were imprisoned and starved and beaten, and it was all my fault.”

“Jurnia,” he began, a soft warning tone drifting into his voice.  He released his embrace, shifting away and levering himself up slightly on an arm.  The hand that had been caressing her then pressed down on her shoulder, firmly and insistently pushing her to lie on her back.  “Look at me,” he said, his voice that of the dread assassin.

She turned in response to the pressure of his hand, too-bright emerald eyes looking up at him with that utter lack of fear.  His gaze automatically moved downward slightly—Jurnia’s breasts were delightful to look at as well as touch—and then he met her eyes again.  “If it’s anyone’s fault,” he said in that low, even tone, “it’s mine.  First because I didn’t kill him when he was fighting Father at the Fox memorial site, and second because I was stupid enough to get caught.”  There was an edge to his tone that indicated his pride was definitely stinging from the lapse of attention that had resulted in his capture.  “He probably would have taken some revenge against me no matter what you did.  It might not even be out of the question to say that what you did to him saved my life, Jurnia—if he hadn’t wanted to torment you, he might have simply killed me outright.”  Feeling that he’d made his point, he slipped his hand down from her shoulder to cup her breast, stroking his thumb over the rosy tip.

She blinked; evidently she hadn’t thought of that.  “But . . . you were still hurt,” she said, a touch breathlessly.

“And now I’m healed.”  He kissed the side of her slender neck, feeling the thrum of her pulse under his lips.  “So even if it was your fault somehow, you made up for it.”


He looked at her for a second in exasperation, then silenced her with a long, deep kiss.  Her eyes fell closed and she wrapped her arms around his shoulders, going warm and pliant in his hands.  When he finally broke the kiss, his eyes gleamed in masculine pleasure that faded abruptly when she opened her mouth and started to argue again.

“But, Kara, if I hadn’t—”

“And you’re supposed to be a diplomat?” he asked in disbelief.  “Don’t they teach diplomats when it’s appropriate to stop arguing?”  An idea struck him, and he slid down the bed, nudging her legs until she let him get where he wanted to go.

“But the fact remains that—Kara, what are you—oh!”  Jurnia’s abrupt change of tone was directly attributable to the fact that he was kissing her in an exceedingly intimate way.  She reached down to grab for a handful of his hair in what probably started out as intention to make him stop, but her fingers curled against his head and sent quite the opposite message.

He took his time, savoring her.  This was something he had not gotten the opportunity to do during the night, and although she’d given every indication that she had enjoyed herself a great deal regardless, it was a particular act that he seemed to have a talent for.  He was concentrating exclusively on her pleasure, in a position that wouldn’t let the little vixen distract him as she had previously, and once she got past the initial shock, he started to wonder just how solid the walls of the room were.  She was making sounds that managed to be both cute and erotic at the same time, and they were frequently quite loud.

Kara lifted his head briefly to grin up at her along the length of her tense body; as he’d expected, she lifted her head as well to peer back, obviously wondering why he’d stopped.  “I was thinking before that I like your scent very much, Jurnia, but I think I like the taste of you even better.”

She blushed speechlessly.  He chuckled at her expression and lowered his head again.

He only relented when she shuddered and cried out, her back bowing, her fists clenching in the sheets.  Resting his head on her thigh, he stroked a hand down the other slender leg as the shaking eased and she started breathing more normally.  “Did you like that?”

The response was a thump on the head.  “You have to ask if I liked it?  Where did you learn how to do that?”

“Ara,” he burbled, more out of habit from the thump than true surprise or pain.  “Hmm,” he purred after that, rubbing his cheek against the soft skin of her thigh.  His orange hair tickled across her lower limbs with the movement, a fiery halo of thick silk.  “I was once told that a woman who enjoyed caresses there would find such play even more pleasurable because the heat and wetness of a kiss intensified the touch.  I was also warned that most women would be horrified at the thought if I merely talked about it, considering other functions that take place—but if I just did, most who liked caresses would be very pleasantly surprised.

“I must say . . . it seems as if I was given good counsel.”

“It was that spy, wasn’t it?” Jurnia inquired, a bit too sweetly, obviously remembering the little discussion they’d had while he was undressing.

He froze for a second.  Then a soft sigh before he lifted his head to stare up at her again.  The golden eyes were melancholy.  “I won’t lie.  Yes, it was her, but who else could it have been?  I already told you she was the only other woman with whom I’ve lain.”

She had been about to make some overly clever remark about how the woman had had no appreciation for his skills or she wouldn’t have set him up to be murdered, but the look in his eyes made her swallow the words.  There was a long moment of uncomfortable, awkward silence as Jurnia cast about wildly for some way to change the subject, and then she gave him a slightly strained innocent smile.  “Does it apply in reverse, too?”

The expression on his face shifted from sadness to surprise; it was obvious he hadn’t expected her to ask such a question.  This time his “Ara?” was one of genuine startlement, but that quickly faded into a cute blush.  “Yes, actually . . . It’s much the same . . . You just caress with your mouth instead of your hand.  It’s just . . . I was told most women would find it rather . . . disgusting to do . . . He didn’t add that Ziraisha herself wasn’t one of those women; he knew from past experience what it was like to be touched so, and his blush probably betrayed his knowledge.

“Really?”  Jurnia started scooting down the bed.

“Yes, really,” Kara yelped, reaching up to halt her with a hand on her shoulder.  “But I think it would be better if you let me lie down on my back first.  That way you can better control what you do.”

“Oh.  All right.”  She gave him a dazzling smile that very nearly hid the wicked glint in her eyes.

He smiled in return, scooting back up along the bed.  As they passed, he leaned forward and kissed her on the cheek; stretching luxuriously, he laid his short, slender form out flat on his back.  His own excitement was quite obvious, and beneath his languid expression and half-closed eyes, he still watched her for any sign of nervousness or hesitation.  Jurnia had had the differences between boys and girls explained to her in clinical detail by her mother, but she’d certainly never had the hands-on opportunity to explore those differences.  It wasn’t so much nervousness as a definite desire not to accidentally hurt Kara that made her very cautious.

Without realizing it, he licked his lips before lying fully back and closing his eyes with a soft, encouraging purr.  There she was, stretched out next to the scariest, most frightening assassin in generations—and he was lying there, passive, trusting, certain she would not only not hurt him but touch him in ways that would bring him intense pleasure.  “The only thing you have to truly be careful about is the teeth.  It’s much the same for me if you imagine yourself being bitten down there . . .”

She made a face.  “Ouch.  I wouldn’t do that to you, Kara.”

He softly chuckled, still smiling and relaxed.  “I know.  I trust you, Jurnia, with my life and all I am.”

“Even though I’m a Raven?”  The question was half-teasing, half-serious, and almost entirely forgettable given that she followed it up by experimenting with the one of same ideas she’d executed by hand the previous evening.  Her breath tickled the sensitive skin a moment before she gave a tentative lick.

“Yes,” the Lopayzom managed to groan.  His fingers curled into the bedclothes; the knuckles whitened as he tightened his grip on the sheets.

Emboldened by his response, she drew him a short distance into her mouth, one eye closed and the other peeking discreetly up to catch his expression.  He softly groaned, body twitching involuntarily in much the same manner as she had.  His eyes were clamped shut, mouth open slightly and his breathing faster and harsher than usual.  She swirled her tongue over the smooth velvety skin, one hand creeping down to caress him; she saw no particular reason why she couldn’t possibly involve her hands as well.

It was obvious from her husband’s response that she’d discovered a way to drive him as insane as he did her—and that he was every bit as responsive to her experimentation as she was to his more experienced caresses.  It wasn’t long before she had him writhing restlessly, his breathing punctuated by groans, his hair splayed out where he’d turned his head side to side.  She’d originally thought that she would need to ask him what he liked, but from his current reaction, the answer would be “everything”.  The only thing that bothered her at all was the little reminder in the back of her head that sooner or later, his . . . enjoyment would peak out, and that might be something she didn’t want occurring in their present position.

She didn’t have to worry.  He groaned, hands coming up to insistently push her up, a clear signal for her to stop.  “I’m . . . too close . . . Jurnia . . . please . . .”

She raised her head immediately, but looked at him with a faintly lost expression.  “How does this part work?  I mean, aren’t we going to make a mess?”

He swallowed hard, then tugged on her wrists, pulling her forward.  “Messy, yes . . . But you can . . .” He raised his head slightly, blushing furiously.  “ . . . Like this, easiest is you straddling me, but we can trade places too . . .”

“Really?”  Jurnia scooted up along his body, swinging a leg over.  “I didn’t know you could do it this way . . .”

“Yes, you certainly can,” he replied.  He slipped a hand down, curling around his hardened member and holding it steady for her.  “It’s much the same as last night,” he began, then blushed even more.  “I’ve been told it’s something like moving while riding a horse . . .”

“Oh.  The same way you keep from getting your behind bruised at a trot?”

He couldn’t help but chuckle a bit in embarrassment.  “I believe so.  I think that’s what she had in mind . . .”

Jurnia leaned over him, propping her hands on his shoulders, her hair falling to brush his face.  The look on her face was wicked as she whispered, “Let’s find out.”

“Jurnia . . . Have I told you yet that of all the clans you cold have married, ‘Fox’ is the one that suits you best?”

“No, but I’m hardly going to disagree.”  Still grinning, she arched back and eased herself down onto him.

Ara,” he groaned, shuddering.  “You are such a vixen.”

“Mmm . . . really?”  Her voice was breathy.

“Yes,” he affirmed, his hands gently grasping her by her hips.  “And like this, the pace is up to you.”

Giving Jurnia the upper hand in anything was a risky proposition; Kara already knew how much she seemed to enjoy being in charge of a situation.  He discovered almost immediately that this was another situation that she really enjoyed being in charge of.  Evidently, she was well-learned in horseback riding, or at least picked up the art of riding Foxes with near-miraculous speed.  He was at least in an excellent position to watch her expressive face and the sinuous movement of her sleek body.

Watching her, however, only increased his own response.  Between how good she felt, and her pleasure in both giving and receiving, his own desire spiraled ever higher.  Already close to the edge, it didn’t take long to reach the peak with the pace she’d set.  He tightened his grip on her, holding her against him as his body took over. He groaned out her name as he climaxed deep within her.  The still-unfamiliar sensation of his release flooding her with heat made Jurnia shudder and clutch at him, an involuntary little shriek wringing out of her throat.  The new experience had certainly given her a great deal of control, letting her adjust her position to her liking.  She had liked it very, very much, as was proved by her own gasping climax hard on the heels of his.

With a final long moan, the orange-haired Fox relaxed under her.  Though one arm flopped to lie against the bed. the other reached up to take her by the wrist.  “Come here, love,” he murmured, tugging her down.  With the slight tug, she dropped bonelessly over him, relaxing into a satiated sprawl.  Her head rested on his shoulder, eyes closing as she felt his heart pounding against his chest like a mirror of her own.

“Mmm,” he groaned, wrapping his arms around her.  She was hardly a burden lying sprawled atop him; he found their position quite comforting in fact, filling him with a sense of wellness.

“That was good,” she purred, nuzzling her cheek against his collarbone.

“It was more than good,” he agreed, nuzzling against her.  “How I love you, my wife.”

“I love you too.”  She dropped a row of kisses on the side of his neck.  “We waited much too long to do this.”

He softly chuckled, giving her a hug.  “If we hadn’t waited, it would have been very inappropriate, that it would.”

Jurnia lifted her head, looking down at him with that intense green gaze.  “I wouldn’t have minded.”

I would have,” he pointed out, stroking a hand down her back.  “You deserve to be cherished, honored.  Treating you like a casual bed partner would have been unconscionable.”  He caught the warning spark in her eyes, and lifted his head to kiss her before it could kindle into a blaze of irritation.  “I’m not saying that you aren’t permitted or able to make those decisions for yourself,” he murmured.  “I’m saying that I wouldn’t have been acting honorably if I had chosen to make love to you without marrying you first.”

“How would it have been dishonorable to do what I wanted you to do?”

“Because it would have been wrong to go against propriety that way.  I know you keep saying that you don’t really care what other people think of you, but I believe you’re more than intelligent enough to realize that like it or not, you still have to follow the rules.”

She snorted.  “I hate rules, unless I’m the one making them.”

He couldn’t help but chuckle at her disgruntled tone.  “Well, the rules are on your side, now.  In the eyes of society, it’s all right for us to do what we want to do.”  There was a look on his face that seemed at odds with his words, and she touched his cheek gently.

“But is it all right in your eyes, Kara?” she murmured.

He stared up at her for a long moment, the two parts of him at odds with one another.  Finally, however, he reached up and stroked her cheek with a hand, the faint glow of golden Avatar energy present in his eyes.  “Yes.  You bring me happiness, and make me feel joy like no other has.  It’s just I’ve gone long believing that because of my sins, I would never have such as this in my short, bleak life.  To find that I was wrong will take me quite a while to become accustomed to—and even then, perhaps one part will always believe I don’t deserve this.”

She smiled down at him, her hair spilling against the back of his hand, green eyes as brilliant as gems.  “You do deserve this, Kara.  You truly do.”

For a long while, they simply lay in each other’s embrace, enjoying the simple intimacy of being so close to someone so long desired.  Kara stroked his hands slowly down Jurnia’s back, acquainting himself with the shape of her body, the smooth fine texture of her skin; just as slowly, her fingers played in his hair, spreading it across the pillows, tracing little patterns in the swirl of flame-bright silken threads.

“Since we’re both awake and the sun’s coming up,” Jurnia finally murmured, “do you want to set out again for the Rookery?  The danger to Irya’s life still exists, from what Dashtru hinted at.”

“I suppose we should,” Kara answered, reluctant to be pulled out of this tiny two-person world of security and comfort.

Some of his reluctance must have shown in his voice, because Jurnia lifted her head enough to peer into his face.  “We don’t have to hurry that much.  I sent a message yesterday, after you fell back to sleep.  I wanted to be certain that the guards in the Rookery were alert to the possible threat.”

“Still, we shouldn’t dawdle.  I know you want to be certain that His Grace the Raven is safe, and—mmph.”  The rest of his words were stifled by Jurnia’s unexpected kiss, which lasted for quite some time.  When they finally came up for air, Kara looked as though he didn’t know whether to be confused or aroused.

Jurnia’s eyes glinted as she looked down at him.  “We don’t have to hurry that much,” she repeated.  “I’ve been waiting a very long time to get you, Karavasu of the Lopayzom, and I want to savor you now that I’ve succeeded.”

“Ara,” he said feebly, before she descended upon him again.


The bathhouse of the inn was simple, but very well-maintained.  The last time they’d been in it together, Kara had been unconscious and Jurnia had been bone-weary, but they were both quite awake this time.  Indeed, the last time they’d been in a bathhouse to bathe in each other’s company, they had been awkward and shy, hampered by their attraction to each other and their attempts to deny that attraction.

It was quite different now.  With the social barriers between them removed, they were far more relaxed, not nearly so self-conscious about being nude in each other’s presence—downright normal, in fact, given the usual protocol of the bathhouse.  Helping each other soap up and rinse off was accomplished with a certain amount of playfulness and extra caresses.  Jurnia was free to take her time in lathering Kara’s hair, stroking her fingers through the long bright threads, and Kara could trace out the curves of her body with soap-slick hands.  They availed themselves of those freedoms rather liberally . . . to the point where Kara wound up teaching Jurnia a slight variation on the new theme she’d learned in the early hours of the morning.

Sitting back on his heels, his shoulder blades propped against the wall, Kara curled his fingers on Jurnia’s hips and gazed through half-lidded eyes gone dark with desire as she rode him.  Her wet hair lay in slick sheets over her shoulders, the color turned quite black by the drenching; her skin was flushed from the humid heat of the bathhouse as well as their exertions.  She was such a passionate creature; it seemed incredible, somehow, that she had chosen to devote all that passion to him, never exploring it with any other man.

Then again, from what he knew, there had been no passion in her for any other man.  She had wanted only the bright-haired young warrior who’d come to her rescue, saved her from an ugly fate.  Yet it was certain that she was not pretending he was someone other than himself, a real person with flaws and failings, not some idealized and perfect dream.