Karavasu sat down on the back step of the house and let out a long breath, glad to have a moment in which he could rest in the shade.  The Lopayzom lands had been well-administered by the agents of the Dragon, but a number of the noble houses had fallen into disrepair over the past two decades.  Jurnia had been exactingly critical in her appraisal of the short list of prospects, but at least she’d finally settled on this house.  Mostly, anyway.

For nearly two solid months, the place had been swarmed with laborers and artisans, renovating the building from top to bottom—not only to repair or replace damaged areas, but to incorporate the newest technology for various conveniences.  Not accustomed to having other people do all the work, and somewhat embarrassed by his newly recognized status, Kara had pitched in as well.  Perhaps he should have expected it, knowing his wife, but he had nevertheless been startled to look up from pulling apart a dry-rotted section of the deck and see Jurnia among the workers clearing fallen and unsound timbers.  She wasn’t the sort of person to sit around and arrange flowers while other people did all the work, either.

            Now, at least, things were settling down.  The renovations were nearly complete, with only finishing touches and the final clean-up remaining.  He knew it was uncharitable of him, but he was glad to see the architect leave.  The man was extremely good at his job, but Kara had gotten into the habit of wrapping a pillow around his head when he went to sleep whenever he had forewarning that Jurnia wanted to “discuss” something with the fellow.  He was prepared to swear that they had happily yelled at each other for hours on end about “efficient utilization of spatial allowance” and “aesthetic and geomantrically sound presentation of visual effect”.

He had no idea why they just hadn’t said “form versus function”.  It wasn’t as if the architect was being paid by the word.  And then there was the enthusiastic debates between Jurnia and every poor soul who was there to provide furnishings.  Most of them were only too happy to agree with everything Jurnia said and escape as quickly as possible.  The only offsetting factor was the presence of Kerzama, who appeared to be the only person in the world that Jurnia deferred to.  He had been nervous when he’d first introduced his wife to his mother before the formal wedding at the Rookery; he personally believed Jurnia was the most beautiful woman in the world, but Kerzama was widely acknowledged as a beauty in the upper circles of society . . . and Jurnia knew that her husband was well acquainted with the woman.

He needn’t have worried.  Five minutes after the introduction, Jurnia had been opening her heart to the gentle Swan.  She absolutely adored Kerzama, and the feeling was clearly mutual.  Kara wondered if it would be appropriate to give Kerza some kind of gift, or maybe a regular payment, for the way she could calm even the explosive Jurnia.  It still felt more natural to call her Kerza, rather than “Mother”; he was still getting used to calling Arjuna “Father”.

As if his idle thoughts had conjured their subject out of thin air, Arjuna’s deep voice rumbled, “Room for two?”

“Ara?”  Kara blinked and looked up.  It had been another colossal shock, even moreso than seeing Jurnia at work, when his adoptive father had also joined in the physical labor.  Somehow, he had never envisioned the tall, elegant man doing such a thing.  Yet here he was now, dressed much as Kara himself was—loose pants and no shirt, torso streaked with sweat and dust, his silver hair hanging in a long braid down his back.  “Yes, sir, that there is,” the young man answered, looking at the step with a faint expression of bewilderment.  It was easily ten feet from end to end, so obviously there was more than enough space for the older Fox to sit.

With a faint smile, Arjuna eased himself down beside Kara, groaning faintly.  “It’s been a long day, and we’ve got a few hours yet till sundown.  By the end of the week, though, everything should be done.”

Kara nodded.  “I’ll be glad of it.  It’s good to have a . . . a home, after all this time.”

“You could have had a place to live any time you wished it, you know.”

“Yes,” Kara agreed, looking over at the older man.  “But that would have just been a house, not a home.”

Arjuna chuckled quietly.  “I understand the difference.  Women are strange creatures, but things are much better with them around.”

“You’ve noticed.”  Kerza’s gentle voice was amused as she stepped out of the back door of the house and halted just between the two men, still standing on the deck itself, with a sizeable cup in either hand.  “I thought you both might like a drink.”

Arjuna smiled up at her, accepting the cup of clear, cool water from her hand.  “Are you quite certain that precognition isn’t on your list of abilities, beloved?”

“Why would I need to see the future when it’s easier to know enough about you to plan ahead?”  She brought a linen handkerchief out of her sleeve and wiped a smudge off Arjuna’s forehead, then did the same to Kara’s cheek.  While she was still leaning down, Arjuna gently wound his fingers in the spill of her snowy hair, tugging her over for a light, lingering kiss.

Kara felt less embarrassed than relieved to witness the obvious deep affection between the two of them.  The grim, driven, ascetic man that had raised and trained him had been changed significantly by the gentle, devoted woman who’d also had a hand in Kara’s childhood.  No shadows lay within Arjuna’s deep-jade eyes now; the darkness had been replaced with an inner calm and tranquility that brightened whenever he caught an affectionate glance from Kerza’s soft blue eyes.  It wasn’t in either of their personalities to make public displays of passion, but it wasn’t necessary to do so when they could speak to each other so eloquently with a glance, a touch, a faint smile.

“We’ll be returning to the Den by the middle of next week,” Kerza remarked, running a hand down the length of Arjuna’s gleaming braid as she knelt on the deck.  “You and Jurnia will finally have some real privacy.”  She smiled fondly at Kara, who turned faintly red and mumbled something vague.  After years of wandering, it seemed almost strange to know that the Den, the Lopayzom fortress and clan seat, was within walking distance—about two hours away.  The estate that Jurnia had approved of was located in the countryside, some miles outside the town that surrounded and supported the Den.

“You can sleep in tomorrow, at least, and the day after as well,” the Swan reminded him.  “The wagons should be here a bit before noontime with the next-to-last load of stone, and the masons will be along to finish the repairs on the walls and walkways at that time.  The gardeners will arrive with the saplings, bushes, and flowers before dawn the day after tomorrow—it’s best to put those in the ground before the sun gets too high.  You might want to be up before noon if you’re curious to see the workings of the water pump, though.”

“How does she keep track of everything all at once the way she does?” Kara asked his father.

“I haven’t got the faintest idea,” Arjuna admitted.  “Sometimes I think she’s got a notebook stashed in her sleeve, but I can never catch her fiddling with it.”

“It’s nothing more than proper organization,” Kerza said firmly, giving Arjuna’s hair a final pat before rising to her feet.  “Remember, dinner will be an hour after sundown.”

“Kerza, dinner has been served an hour after sundown for the past two months, that it has,” Kara pointed out.  “Why do you keep reminding us?”

“Because otherwise I fear your attention might wander, and while the health of the mind is essential, the health of the body requires regular meals.”

“That’s her way of saying ‘because otherwise I think you’d forget about dinner’,” Arjuna translated.

“Hush, Arjuna.”

“Yes, dear.”


Kara woke about midmorning, aware that the bed beside him was empty.  Sometimes he wondered where Jurnia got all of her energy; he was still pleasantly tired from the previous night.  Just thinking about the passion that had kept them both awake until past midnight made his body tighten eagerly, his previously quiescent manhood stirring.  Jurnia was so exquisitely responsive to him, such an enthusiastic and willing partner.

Smiling faintly, he rose from bed and smoothed the covers down before picking up the neat stack of clothes that had been left ready for him on the dressing table.  Tucking them under his elbow, he padded along the private hallway that connected the master bedroom to the lavatory and bathhouse.  Jurnia had insisted on that hallway, saying that in her house, she flatly refused to stumble around in the rain and snow in the middle of the night to use the toilet or have a bath.

Refreshed and clothed, Kara padded back into the bedroom; unsurprisingly, his breakfast had arrived while he was out of the room.  The household staff had been under Kerza’s tutelage for six weeks, and her lessons had apparently taken well.  Despite the general chaos of the renovations, there hadn’t been a single case of a meal being late, laundry being improperly washed, or any other such problems.

He had to wonder where Jurnia was.  She normally liked to have breakfast with him.  A flicker in the doorway caught his eye, and he glanced up at once.  It wasn’t Jurnia, though; it was one of the maids.  She realized that he’d seen her, blushed, and dipped an embarrassed bow to him.  “I’m sorry to intrude, my lord, I was assigned to do the floors in this part of the house . . .”

He flapped a hand hastily and swallowed a mouthful of bread.  “No, no, it’s all right, there’s no need to apologize, that there is not.  Actually, might you know where Lady Jurnia is?”

“I think she’s outside in the back yard, sir.  I overheard her saying something about looking at the garden layout again.”

“Oh.  Thank you.”  He smiled at the girl; she blushed again, ducked another nervous bow, and hastened out of sight.

Being a nobleman is definitely going to take some getting used to, he thought wryly.  Everybody keeps bowing and looking deferential.  He chased the last bit of melted butter with the remainder of the bread.  At least the food’s good.


Sauntering out onto the side deck, he caught sight of Jurnia immediately.  Dressed in a feminine robe of pale green silk with a gold bamboo pattern rather than loose pants and blouse, a green silk ribbon that bordered on a scarf tying back her hair, she looked surprisingly sweet and demure.  She was sitting on the edge of the porch, her feet dangling idly above the ground, a decanter set beside her as she sipped from a small cup.  As he came closer, his steps soundless on the smooth-polished boards, he caught a whiff of the pleasant fragrance of cold mint tea.

“Is there enough for two?” he inquired, stopping just behind her.  She jumped slightly and turned her head to give him a daggerlike stare.

“I suppose there might be, if the second person didn’t make such a habit out of sneaking up behind the first person,” she replied with syrupy sweetness.

He knelt down behind her, his thighs on either side of her hips, folding his arms around her shoulders and cuddling her back against him.  She sighed and relaxed, lifting the little cup in her hands for another sip of tea.  He nuzzled the back of her neck to distract her and deftly redirected the cup with his left hand so that he could drink out of it instead.  She blinked, realizing what he was doing, and shot him a dirty look out of the corner of her eye.

“You’ve got some nerve—” she began indignantly, and was cut off as he gently caught the edge of her jaw in one hand and turned her head enough for him to kiss her, letting some of the sweet, cool tea trickle into her mouth.  She purred faintly, her eyes slipping half shut.  It was fun to get her riled up—she was lovely when she was angry, but then, he thought she was lovely all the time—and even more fun to soothe her irritation.  He was learning how to deal with Jurnia, though he definitely envied Kerza’s seemingly divine gift for managing people.

“You were saying something?” he murmured as he broke the kiss.  She frowned at him, a faint, pretty flush showing on the crests of her cheekbones, but she let him pluck the cup from her fingers.

“It’s almost empty,” Kara observed, all innocence.  “Would you pour me a little more?”

Your arm’s not broken,” she answered tartly.

“What an ungracious wife you are,” he teased.  “Don’t you know that you’re supposed to be at my beck and call?”

“Don’t you know that there’s a nice sheltered spot on the deck where you’ll be able to sleep quite comfortably if you keep that up?” she shot back.

He pouted, his eyes wide and faintly wounded.  “But Jurnia,” he pointed out, “if I have to pour the tea myself, I’ll have to take my arm from around you,” giving her a little hug, “and I’d just hate that most fervently, that I would.”

“Oh, all right,” she sighed, smiling slightly despite herself as she picked up the decanter and refilled the little cup.

He timed it well, slipping his right hand through the small opening beneath the arm-hole of her robe just as she tilted the decanter upright again.  As he’d suspected, she wore no under-gown; her skin was warm and smooth, her breast a soft weight that filled his palm to overflowing, and he flexed his fingers as he took a nonchalant sip of tea, hiding a smile behind the rim of the cup as Jurnia gasped.  She clutched the decanter in both hands to avoid dropping it as Kara slipped his hand a bit farther in and palmed her breast, feeling the soft bud of her nipple tightening immediately with the caress.

“You are bad,” she muttered reproachfully, putting the decanter down an arm’s length away—and then gasped again as his other hand, the teacup set aside, came up to fondle her other breast as well through the heavy silk of the robe.

Bad,” Jurnia mumbled, clenching her hands on the loose fabric of his pants legs as he tugged the front of the robe open just enough to give him room to play with her breasts, his left hand sliding in to touch her bare skin.  “Bad, bad, bad . . .”

“That’s not what I remember you saying last night,” he protested, kneading the tender flesh lightly before shifting his attention to the rosy tips.

“You weren’t doing this outside last night,” Jurnia mumbled, then caught her breath in a soft, hissing gasp as he rolled her nipples deftly with his strong, sensitive fingers, tugging and squeezing.

“Hmm . . . that’s true,” Kara conceded, then caught her ear in his teeth and worried at it playfully.  His left hand continued to toy with her breast as his right hand traveled downward and slipped under the edge of the robe just beneath the wide belt.

“Kara,” she whispered protestingly, clenching her thighs together.  Trailing kisses down the nape of her neck, he dropped his left hand to her knee, gently prying her legs apart enough for his right hand to reach its destination.  Her hips arched instinctively to the caress as she shuddered, her slender fingers clenching on his knees.

She was already warm and damp from his teasing of her breasts, the light dusting of hair on her pubis softer than silk threads under his palm.  His fingers delved lazily into her cleft, parting the delicate lobes to unerringly locate the tiny bud that made her hips arch and a shudder run through her again.  She gulped air and tried to close the robe over her breasts.

“Uh-uh,” he whispered against the nape of her neck.  “Don’t do that.  I’m not done yet, that I’m not.”

Wh-what?” Jurnia mumbled dazedly, unable to think clearly as his fingers stroked between her thighs.  He chuckled quietly, golden eyes gleaming with masculine pride at her reaction, and leaned back, urging her to turn with his hand against the left side of her back so that he didn’t have to stop caressing her.  Obedient to the firm, gentle pressure, she turned to face him, sitting up on her knees and propping her hands on his shoulders to keep her balance—which was slightly precarious, so distracted was she by what he was doing to her with that wickedly skilled right hand.

Kara studied her breasts contentedly for a moment, since they were right about at eye level, then urged her slightly closer with his hand against her back and swirled his tongue around her right nipple.  Her fingers dug into his shoulders and she bit her lip to stifle the sounds that she would otherwise be making, turning what would have been a sharp cry into another choked gasp.  He glanced up to her face, which was beautifully flushed with arousal, before closing his eyes to better focus his attention.  He closed his teeth, just enough to make her squirm, then drew the taut bud into his mouth, suckling strongly.

A thread of fire seemed to connect Jurnia’s breast directly to her groin, and every touch jerked on that thread, sending quivering shocks through her flesh.  He certainly hadn’t stopped the movement of his hand, and the bolts of pleasure that shot up her spine were only amplified by the new sensation.  She bit back a moan, arching forward to rest her cheek against the crown of his head as he suckled, wrapping one arm around his shoulders to steady herself.  His lips trailed through the valley between her breasts before he turned his attention to her other nipple, laving it with catlike strokes of his tongue.

“Kara-a-a-a,” she whimpered breathlessly as he tugged at the aching flesh, then tilted his head back.  He captured her mouth in a deep, drugging kiss just as he eased one long finger into her, swallowing the cry he knew would happen.  She kissed him almost desperately, both arms cradling his head, her hips thrusting instinctively, frustrated as he drew his hand back enough to deny her, teasing her with the promise of more.

She lifted her head—probably to complain in some manner that he wasn’t giving her exactly what she wanted—and a spark of awareness went through him.  Someone, several someones, were approaching.  He could sense no hostility, but this was definitely not a scene he wanted anybody stumbling onto.

Jurnia is mine, growled the deep-down voice of Khuradasu, heavy with possessive desire, and nobody gets to see her like this except me.

He withdrew his hands immediately, turning his head as he pulled her robe closed over her heaving breasts and trembling thighs.  “Someone’s coming,” he murmured.

Jurnia opened her eyes and glared at him.  “Well, it’s not me,” she huffed irritably.

Kara blushed and grinned at the same time, patting her on the bottom.  “I mean that people are going to be approaching around the corner any second now, and you’re looking a bit rumpled.  Attractively rumpled, that you are, but definitely rumpled.”

The rosy blush of arousal turned to the blazing red of embarrassment; she jumped to her feet, clutching the disarrayed robe tightly closed over her nudity, and looked around.  There was no door on this side of the house.  Catching sight of the shed where the carpenters had kept their materials, she leapt off the deck and dashed the short distance to the small building.  Kara watched with raised eyebrows even as he crossed his legs in tailor fashion, rearranging the folds of his pants to conceal his erection.

The small group of stonemasons paused to respectfully greet Lord Karavasu.  Having seen the stone carts passing through the village a few hours ahead of schedule, they had elected to get to work early on the outlying wall.  The shortest route to the section currently under construction passed through the side yard, but they hadn’t expected to disturb their employer at his morning tea.

Kara graciously waved their apologies away as he casually drank the last of the mint tea, watching them head toward the wall, which was a good two hundred yards from the house.  Part of what Jurnia had liked about this estate was the huge lawns.

He waited a few minutes before slipping off the deck and strolling to the shed.  He knocked politely.  “Jurnia?  It’s me.  The stonemasons are here early.”

“Good for them,” came the tart response.  There was a faint scraping sound, and she pulled the door inward.  Once he’d stepped inside, she shut the door and replaced her makeshift bar—a stray section of board that she wedged firmly against either side of the doorframe.

The shed was more of a small woodworking shop than a convenient, rickety shack to store tools.  The floor was carefully laid boards rather than bare dirt, the walls sturdy, a few small vents letting in clean air and a little sunlight; when the building was in use, one whole wall could swing open as a huge door to flood the place with light.  The carpenters’ work was nearly done, so most of the lumber stacks were already gone.  The floor and workbenches were kept extremely clean-swept—carpenters had a certain paranoia about letting wood shavings pile up, what with the risk of fire—but the small building had a clean, sweet smell, pine and cedar standing out the most recognizably.

Mostly, though, Kara could smell Jurnia, the unique fragrance that was hers alone as well as the musky scent of her arousal.  His own desire making itself known again, he turned to reach for her, and was slightly surprised when she evaded his hands to step close and embrace him rather than let him resume fondling her.  Still, he was hardly going to pass up an opportunity to hold her, and he folded his arms around her lithe form, nuzzling his cheek against her shoulder and starting to nibble on her neck.

“Stop that,” she said, and there was real irritation in her voice.  He stopped immediately and lifted his head, amber eyes wide and questioning.  The emerald eyes were dark, heavy-lidded with arousal, but her mouth was a tight line.

“Ara?” he said, wanting to understand what was on her mind.  “Did I do something wrong?”

“No . . . no, Kara, you didn’t.  Not exactly.”  She studied his anxious face, gnawing at her lower lip.  “You know that I love it when you touch me,” she began carefully.  He nodded a little and raised his brows, silently urging her to keep talking.  “And you know that you satisfy me very, very thoroughly.”  Another nod, and just a hint of a smug male smile.  “The thing is, Kara, I feel like I’m not really doing anything in return.”

“Ara?!” he blurted in confusion.  “Jurnia, just last night you . . .  He cupped a hand along her jaw and whispered into her ear.

She blushed and smacked him smartly on the back of the head.  “Yes, yes, I know.  But the thing is, even when I start something, you always take over.  I never feel as if I’m really satisfying you—that I’m just taking without giving anything back.”

Kara stared at her with as innocently clueless an expression as any he wore in his guise as a harmless vagabond.  If she’d thought for even an instant that he was putting her on, she’d have probably pounded him into the floor, but she sensed that he was honestly bewildered rather than playing stupid just to drive her mad.

“Well, look,” she tried to explain.  “Last night, when I started stroking you, you only let me do it for a few minutes before you put me on my back and—and—you know.”  She might be a rather sophisticated and worldly young woman, but graphic descriptions of sexual acts simply weren’t something she was accustomed to.  Especially not trying to detail such descriptions herself.  “And I loved it,” she hurred to assure him, “but I didn’t get to do anything else to you before you . . . uh, before we . . . you know.”

The glassy-eyed stare continued.  “But, Jurnia,” he said cautiously, “what makes you think you didn’t do anything?”

“Because I didn’t, you dolt!” she flared.  “You always tease me and lick me and touch me until I can’t even think straight, but I don’t do anything in return!”

If he got any more blank-looking, she’d have to send for a doctor to see if his brain was still working at all.  “Yes, you do,” he insisted.  “I enjoy doing all those things to you, I do.  I love the way you react to me.  You don’t have to worry that I’m not getting as much satisfaction as you are.”  He coughed slightly and rubbed the back of his head where she’d smacked him a few minutes previously.  “Men and women are different,” he began.

“I’ve noticed that,” Jurnia said acidly.

“No, please, listen . . . men and women aren’t quite the same.  Women have a much greater capacity for physical pleasure than men have in a given session, they do.”

It was her turn to stare at him cluelessly.

He sighed and resorted to blunter terms.  “Women can have more orgasms than men can.  It’s got nothing to do with anything you’re doing or not doing, Jurnia—it’s really the fact that men just don’t have the . . . the fluid pressure to climax nearly as much as women do.”

She turned faintly red.  “I get the idea.  But I’m not—”

He put a finger to her lips to shush her.

She bit him.

He ignored the small pain; at least she wasn’t arguing for the moment.

“Since I can’t match you for physical pleasure,” he explained, “I prefer to concentrate on the emotional pleasure instead.  It makes me happy to know that I’m making you happy, love.  I’d rather spend a few hours making you squirm with delight than just climb onto you, thrust until I climax, and roll over to go to sleep.”

The pressure of her teeth on his finger increased and her eyes flashed irritably, a clear indication of how little she liked that idea.  Since she had his hand captive anyway, he stroked the pad of his thumb across her soft, full lower lip.

“I don’t really need you to do anything but be who you are,” he murmured.  “I wouldn’t ask you for anything else.”

She unclenched her jaws.  “But I need to do something, Kara,” she insisted, and he quailed inwardly at the sight of tears beginning to well up in her eyes.  He would do anything to keep her tears from falling; seeing her cry made him hurt as if he’d been stabbed.  It was entirely likely that he’d rather be stabbed for real than stand by helplessly while Jurnia wept.  “You might feel like you’re getting everything you want out of our lovemaking, but I can’t just lie there and let you do almost all the work.”

“Jurnia, really, it’s all right—”

“No, it isn’t!” she flared, and her eyes began to shine too brightly.  “I know I should be happy that you can’t keep your hands off me, but when you do put your hands on me, I can’t think and I can’t do anything to make you feel good!”

He groaned.  “Jurnia, you don’t know the half of it.  I really can’t keep my hands off you when we’re making love, that I can’t.  If you really want, I’ll try not to do it, but I can’t promise that I’ll be able to.  I can promise to try.”

She looked around as if some inspiration might spring to mind, and by some miracle, an inspiration did occur.  She stared thoughtfully at the sturdy ladder that leaned against one wall; ever fussy about their supplies, the carpenters had not just propped it up and left it at that, but built a rail near the top of the wall so that the ladder’s top hooks could keep it firmly in place without the risk of having it fall or slip.

“Do you trust me, Kara?” she asked him suddenly, looking into his face again.

He blinked.  “Of course I trust you, Jurnia.  I love you.”

“That’s not necessarily the same thing.”  Her tone was slightly hurt, as if his reply had trivialized her question.  “Do you really, really trust me?”

This time, he hesitated before answering her, sensing that she honestly wanted him to be certain.  “Yes, Jurnia.  I trust you.”  He rested his forehead against hers and looked into her eyes; it was always a little odd to do that while they were standing, as she was an inch taller than he was.  This time, it was a bit different—she was only wearing her socks, while he was wearing a pair of the wooden sandals that had small risers built into the soles to help the wearer avoid mud and dirt.  For once, they were the same height.  “I trust you,” he repeated softly, determined to give himself over to her, to let her do whatever it was she wanted to do if it would make her happy.

She smiled, giving him a tight hug before gently taking his head between her hands and kissing him, her tongue slipping into his mouth briefly.  “Good.  Come over here.”  Stepping back, she tugged at his hand; he followed her, curious to see what she had in mind.

“You’ll have to take your sword off,” she pointed out.  He looked down at the weapon that he often forgot he was carrying, in much the same way that the average person “forgot” about their own arms or legs.  “You can lean it up against the wall right here.”

“Next to the ladder?” he asked, untying the cord and slipping the sheathed weapon out of his sash.

For some odd reason, she smiled.  “Yes, next to the ladder.”

He did as she asked, then looked at her again.  “What next?”

She reached up and untied the green silk that restrained her hair; midnight fire spilled loose over her shoulders, framing her face in its dark glory.  Almost automatically, he reached up to stroke the soft waves, and blinked as she caught his hands between her own.

“Why, thank you,” she said sweetly.  “I was just going to ask you to give me your hands.”

Kara reddened slightly; he knew that she was perfectly well aware that he’d been about to touch.  Determined to do what she wanted, he kept his hands together even when she released her grip, and watched with widening eyes as she carefully wound the long, wide strip of silk around and between his wrists, finishing with a neat knot.


“You said you trusted me,” she reminded him.

“I do, but what . . .”

She kissed his hands—first one, then the other, her soft lips brushing his knuckles.  “Shhh.”  Stepping up to stand right next to the side of the ladder, holding the loose ends of the ribbon, she pointed to the floor.  “Sit down.”

He sat obediently, still unsure of his intent.  His eyes widened as she pulled gently on his hands, raising them as far above his head as they would go, and then tied them securely to the side bar of the ladder.

“Ara?” he squeaked, flat on his rear with his legs slightly asprawl in front of him.

Jurnia giggled.  He always sounded so adorable when he uttered that little syllable in confusion or question.  “Now you really can’t touch,” she informed him, and watched the light dawn in his amber eyes.  “And now I really can touch,” she added, sinking down onto her knees between his shins and pushing his knees apart, much as he often did to her, so that she could move closer to him.  She petted his thick hair, running her fingers back through the bright strands and frowned as she encountered the thong that bound his topknot.  “This needs to go first, though,” she informed him, her fingers briefly busy untying it; she smiled in satisfaction as the long mane fell like a shower of flame around his face, spilling over his shoulders.

“Uh, Jurnia,” he began, acutely aware of his vulnerability.  She ignored him, a faint smile on her face as she leaned close and kissed his throat, then moved up to nip at his ear.  The gentle bite made his words end in a brief yip, and he shivered as she pulled the front of his shirt open—though not completely free of his sash—and ran her palms lightly down his chest, savoring the hard planes of muscle that shaped his torso.  One hand glided upward again to rest over his heart, while the other continued inevitably downward, fingertips scratching lightly over the washboard muscles of his abdomen, and closed firmly, though gently, over the erection that strained at the fabric at his groin.  He’d never really lost it despite the short chat with the stonemasons and then Jurnia’s impassioned argument.  The latter event had actually sustained his ardor, since his peripheral vision had registered the heaving of her half-naked breasts even while his eyes were riveted attentively to her face.  Her palm rubbed against the underside of his shaft, her fingers stroking down to the root, and his heartbeat jumped.

She tugged his sash loose and unfastened the front of his pants, drawing his sex free of the confining cloth.  “You know,” she said conversationally, curling her fingers around the hard flesh and leaning down as if to take a closer look, “you’ve gotten to kiss me down there any number of times, but I hardly get to do the same to you at all.  That just doesn’t seem fair, wouldn’t you say?”  She cradled his shaft between her hands, her thumbs gently coaxing down the natural fold of protective skin, exposing the deep-red crest.

“Jurnia,” he started again, and completely lost all track of what he might have said.  Because she lowered her head and licked him, her tongue probing inside the tiny slit for a moment before swirling around the sensitive head and trailing down to pluck lightly across the threadlike ridge of skin on the underside.  His hands spasmed briefly, clutching at nothing, and a frustrated blush bloomed on his cheeks.  With no more warning than a quiet indrawn breath, she engulfed him nearly to the base in one greedy gulp.

The sensation shredded its way up Kara’s spine and arrived in his brain with the force of an explosion.  Her mouth was warm and wet and hungry, her teeth brushing him just enough to be arousing without hurting him, her tongue working and working and working.  He groaned, a thick tearing sound, and arched himself without thinking.  Jurnia was alert to the probability, though, and drew back—as he had drawn back so many times, teasing, hinting at the promise of richer pleasure.  Lying down comfortably on her stomach, her arms propped over his thighs to pin him down, she curled her fingers around the root where her mouth couldn’t quite reach.  The taste and scent of him were luscious, a rich salty perfume that reached down into some primitive part of her brain.

She sucked him like a stick of candy, her head rising and falling over his lap in an unhurried rhythm, her silken hair tickling his belly.  One hand remained where it was, massaging the base of his shaft, while the other crept lower to explore.  The sac beneath had a different texture from the rest of his skin, like a thick fold of heavy silk, moving easily over the smooth round organs within, the very root and core of his maleness.  This she treated with the exquisite care and gentleness it deserved, stroking and rubbing without applying too much pressure.

Kara shuddered, restrained from thrusting against her by her thoughtfully placed arms; his fingers arched and clawed at thin air, his spine bowing reflexively.  Oh, she was a vixen for sure no matter what her birth clan had been, every touch making white stars flicker behind his tight-shut eyelids.

“Kara?” Jurnia murmured, and the only reason he knew she spoke at all was because she had stopped for the moment.

“What?” he gasped.

“You always make me tell you what I like the most,” she reminded him sweetly.  “Fair’s fair.  Now you have to tell me.”

“You want me to talk?” he asked in pure disbelief.

“Well, yes.  You have to tell me what you like best,” she repeated patiently, as if addressing a particularly slow individual.  He probably qualified as one of those right now, as most of his higher brain functions had already checked out.

“Everything?” he essayed, hoping she’d accept the blanket answer.

“No,” she insisted, her breath brushing across the wet flesh and making more of those little stars appear to him.  “You have to be specific.”

“Jurnia,” he whimpered.  “I can’t.”

“Yes, you can.  You made me do it, so now you have to do it too.”  Her tone softened from demanding to sweet, plaintive.  “Please, Kara?  Please tell me?”

Oh, gods, he groaned mentally.  Lopayzu give me strength.

Lopayzu, who had been involved in so many affairs that a list of them would require enough paper to consume a small deciduous forest, was probably feeling at leats mildly sympathetic toward the boy, if not inclined to intervene.

“Please?  You can just say ‘yes’ if you like it,” she whispered again, and ran her tongue up the underside of his shaft.

“That,” he gasped, and his back arched as the warm wet stroke traced the ridge again.  “And that . . .”

She closed her mouth over him and slid downward with excruciating slowness.

“Yes,” he said mindlessly, and “Yes, yes,” again as she licked and suckled and nipped her way back up, her gentle fingers caressing downward to stroke his scrotum with attentive care.  He shuddered, trying to buck upward again, and she rolled her shoulders forward and pinned him more firmly as she flicked her tongue over the tiny ridge over and over again.

He felt the climax racing toward him, the soft wrinkled skin that she cupped drawing taut, his testes pulling up close to his body.  “Jurnia,” he panted, his heart crashing against his ribs like an angry tax collector at a whorehouse door, “stop, stop, please stop . . .”

She did stop, holding absolutely still, afraid that she had hurt him.  As if she were handling a soap bubble, something so utterly fragile that the slightest wrong move could do irreparable harm, she eased out of contact and looked up anxiously into his face.

That’s not pain, she registered as his eyes opened to stare back at her, golden spirit-energy flaring so intensely from their depths that it actually illuminated the dim room with a faint glow.  His fists were clenched white-knuckle tight, pulling against the bonds; his face was glossed with lines of sweat.

“I want to touch you, Jurnia,” he whispered, his voice full of desperately hungry command, the sound of it raising the hairs on the back of her neck in response to the nigh-overwhelming masculine power of Khuradasu.  “I need to touch you.”

Her throat worked in an involuntary gulp, her eyes never leaving his, as fascinated as a mouse before a snake, immobile.  “You said you trusted me,” she managed faintly.  Most people would have fallen utterly passive before the hard dominance in his gaze, but Jurnia was not most people.

No, she isn’t! Khuradasu roared in his mind.  She’s ours, mine, my mate!  I want her and I will have what I want!

A fragment of rationality curled around the hungry desire like a thread leashing a lion.  She’s not afraid of you.  She’s the only woman who’s ever dared to stand up to you.  That’s why she’s ours, and we’re hers.  No other woman could meet us on equal ground!

The lust retreated slightly; his chest rose and fell in labored breaths, air rasping in his throat.  He let his head fall back against the ladder.  “I trust you,” he whispered, closing his eyes.  “I trust you.  Please, Jurnia.  Please . . . let me . . . let me do something . . . before I go out of my mind!”

She sat up, watching him, fascinated for a different reason now.  This was a situation she had never seen him in, not even when he was held back by his sense of honor.  He had never been so afire with need, yet helpless to satisfy his own desire.  Before, he had been bound by his honor, a chain no less frustrating for all its intangibility; she had made no secret of her feelings, her wants, but he had known that she was a virgin and a Herald and a Raven—known with the same kind of surety, with far less evidence, that he was unworthy of her least regard.  Now, though, she was his wife, his honor no longer barring him from her . . . but he was physically bound by that cord of silk, and once again held intangibly, this time by his promise to let her have her way with him, to let her map his body as he had mapped hers dozens of times over, learning every spot that made her writhe and gasp.

Jurnia leaned against him, taking his mouth in a slow, sweet kiss, aware that his half-open eyes were staring up at her, silently begging her to give him more.  She reached up to one shoulder, pushing the robe off; breaking the kiss, she leaned back and drew her arm out of the sleeve, letting the garment half fall to puddle at her belt, baring one exquisite breast.  She cupped it delicately, her eyes on his face, watching the flare of his power.  Reaching forward, she caught his face between her hands, uttering what might have been the most unnecessary command in the history of communication.

“Suckle me,” she whispered, closing her eyes, her body swaying to meet him halfway as he strained eagerly forward.  Without an instant of hesitation, his tongue lashed out to trace a damp path around the dark-rose areola even before she was entirely in range, and then his mouth clamped down more greedily than any milk-hungry infant.  Her soft, shuddering cry, her arms clutching his head to her, her fingers clenching in his unbound hair, sent a wave of pleasure through him to rival what he had felt with her lips and tongue working their magic on his aching manhood.  Unable to use his hands, Kara resorted to any and all of his usual tricks that came to mind—nipping to make her jump, painting a swath with long fervent strokes of his tongue, kissing the soft, soft skin.  But he returned over and over to the most direct and simple tactic, drawing the hardened tip between his lips, trapping it against the roof of his mouth with demanding strokes of his tongue.

When she finally pulled away, her breathing quickened, he strained to keep contact until a sharp ache in his shoulders made him yield, slumping back against the ladder.  Her soft hand touched his chin, and he raised his face eagerly for her kiss.  She broke off gently, leaning back on her heels, a thoughtful look on her face; he watched her through heavy-lidded eyes, waiting for her next move.

“That feels so, so good to me,” she purred, her palm lightly covering the warm flesh he’d so eagerly attended.  “I wonder if it feels good to you, too?” she asked the air over his head before bending low, her breath hot against his skin before her wet tongue slid across his nipple and her lips pulled gently.

Kara thought for a moment that he was going to drop dead on the spot.  Ziraisha had been highly skilled, but she had only skimmed the edges of this particular erogenous zone.  Jurnia had touched him before, though only in passing, running her hands over his chest or laying a pattern of kisses or scratching, lightly, in her excitement.  He’d had absolutely no idea what would happen in the case of a deliberate and concentrated assault.  He very nearly screamed, arching against the silken bonds as Jurnia ministered to one with tongue and lips and teeth, her fingers playing with the other.  After a blinding few seconds, during which he silently promised any god who might be listening that he would be a good boy for the rest of his life if only she would keep doing that, he somehow recognized the technique.  He’d just never been on the receiving end before, and he was starting to get an idea of exactly why Jurnia reacted the way she did to his attendance upon her breasts.

Damn, I’m good, he thought in the second or so that she broke contact, and then he stopped thinking completely as she reached the end of her very brief journey to cover his other nipple with her mouth.

After an amount of time that he had absolutely no idea how to frame, Jurnia leaned back.  He had no idea if she’d been doing that for a few seconds or a few hours, and he stared stupidly at her, his body hanging limply from his secured wrists.  She could swear that she saw tiny little pinwheels revolving slowly in his golden eyes.

“Kara?” she asked, a trace of worry edging her voice.  “Kara, are you all right?”

“Araaaa . . .” he heard his voice burble from a million miles away.  Whatever was operating his body while he drifted somewhere out here in the white light of bliss really needed to work on its vocabulary.

She stroked his hair and caressed his face, trying to figure out what to do.  He didn’t seem to be hurt, exactly, but he certainly had never reacted this way to anything she could recall.  Fortunately, before she could reach the conclusion that he needed medical attention, his eyes came slowly back into focus and he smiled dreamily at her.

“Are you all right?” she demanded.

He thought about it for a minute.  “No,” he answered finally, and added, “I am the most unbelievably stupid man on the face of the world, that I am.”

She raised an eyebrow.  “Sometimes I agree with you, but what exactly makes you say that right now?”

“I should have let you do something like this months ago.”

            She couldn’t help but smile.  “I take it that means you really liked that?”

Yes,” he breathed in a heartfelt tone.

One hand kept stroking his cheek as slender fingers spider-walked down his belly, pausing just shy of his arousal, which he felt he could have used to break rocks with by now.  “How close are you?” she inquired, rearranging his legs so that he was sitting more or less upright in tailor seat.

“Jurnia,” he said with absolute sincerity, “I passed ‘close’ about the time I was enjoying your magnificent breast.  I think I’ve somehow gone out the other side of ‘close’ and wound up back at the beginning.”

“Oh?  I suppose that means I’ll have to get you worked up all over again,” she said, pouting.

He opened his mouth to assure her that this was not the case, and his jaw continued to hang slightly as she sat back on the floor between his legs, drew her knees up somewhat, and brushed the skirt of her robe out of the way.  His gaze went automatically to the view she was deliberately offering, and his higher functions booked new tickets for the outer edge of Someplace Else.

Kara was, no pun intended, intimately acquainted with Jurnia’s privates.  He had touched and looked and licked so often and thoroughly that he probably could have drawn a detail-accurate image, possibly best done with his tongue.  He knew that the short, downy curls on her pubis were a brighter red than her hair.  He knew the exact topology of her folds.  He knew the precise color that resulted when she was at the height of arousal, blood flushing the delicate tissues.  He knew her taste and scent so well that he could virtually judge her state of readiness by the infitesimal variations that occurred as he excited her.  Nevertheless, it was likely that she’d be able to freeze him in his tracks until the very end of time by hiking her skirt up.

She was ready, and more than ready, the deep pink tissues gleaming wetly.  He wanted to touch her, to taste her, to plunge himself into her, and he had a rising sense of triumph that she’d reached the end of this excruciatingly sweet torment and was going to . . . was going to let him . . . let him . . .

If it were possible for steam to actually rise off his body from frustrated desire, it would have been happening while he watched, mesmerized, as Jurnia slid her hand down between her legs and began to stroke herself.

Every other splendid wickedness she’d wreaked on him paled into total insignificance.  She was only a few feet away, her body singing its silent invitation, her head falling back to show the beautiful line of her throat, but she wasn’t touching him and he couldn’t touch her and that slender hand between her legs was parting her folds, one fingertip right on the spot, going back and forth and back and forth like a metronome ticking out the eons of his torture and the damn ribbon was going to cut his hands off because he was straining at it, straining to reach her with a singleminded NEED that filled his entire universe with a consuming inferno and if he couldn’t reach her in the next few seconds he was GOING TO DIE—

When she moved, he thought for a delirious moment that it was a hallucination brought on by terminally throttled lust.  Her body was a carving of white jade wreathed in spring-green mist, coming to him at last, at last, and her knees were on the floor to either side of him, the touch of her guiding hand so fleeting that he barely noticed it.  All he could feel was the hot wet welcome of her flesh; he braced back against the ladder and arched upward to meet her because there was absolutely no question of doing anything else.  She sheathed him to the hilt in a clasp of molten heat and he threw his head back with a wordless sound that was scarcely human.  She shifted just a little, reaching, and his hands were suddenly free with the ribbon looped loosely around one wrist as she undid the knots.

It was as if a chain holding back the tide had snapped at last.  His arms fell around her as he rose up nearly onto his knees, holding her almost crushingly tight against his chest, thrusting into her, pulling her down against him, over and over and over again, the sound of flesh meeting flesh no distinct string, each echo blending into the next.  Her arms were banded around his ribs, holding on with a similar desperation; surely he might have hurt her if she weren’t so meltingly wet as well as being so attuned to him that she could just keep up with his rhythm, screaming into his shoulder—and he was screaming into hers—as his mindless need whipped him on into her, hard and fast.  He leaned forward until her back was nearly on the floor, her bottom still propped on the angle of his thighs, her legs encircling his waist, gravity helping him to thrust as deeply as he could as he supported his weight with one hand, the other holding her to him.

It went on and on for what seemed like a hundred years, sweat-slick bodies driving against and with each other, until Jurnia caught her breath for an instant and wailed in ecstasy, her head arching back against the floor and her legs locking tightly around him; at the same moment, he slammed himself home, both arms clutching her against him, his head buried against her breasts and his tenor scream echoing her sweet high soprano as he pumped his essence into her, rocking against her, and that too went on and on into an endless moment of transcendence as violet and golden auras exploded into white fire.


Kara stirred, breathing the scent of pine and cedar . . . and Jurnia, and himself, and the sharp-sweet fragrance of fresh sweat, and the earthy, musky smell of spent desire.  For a moment, his mind was an utter blank; then the softness he had his head pillowed on moved in a slow breath, and everything came back in a rush.  If there was ever a way to come within shouting distance of real insanity, he thought he might have just found it.

Gods!  Jurnia!  He snapped his head up, terror racing through him.  What had he done to her in that uncontrollable, headlong plunge into lust?  If he had hurt her, he would . . . would . . .

Dying might be an option.

The world spun crazily as he looked around and finally focused.  He was still wearing his shirt and pants, though their open state meant that the front of his torso was completely uncovered.  He was lying half atop Jurnia and half supporting her, her lower body slanted up along his thighs, her legs lying limply off to either side of his hips, her robe in twisted disarray around her.  At first glance, he thought she might be unconscious, her face turned to one side in the halo of her dark hair.

“Jurnia?  Jurnia!” he half-shouted, his blood going cold.

“Stop yelling,” she murmured, rolling her head to the other side.  “I can hear you.”

“Are you all right?”  It came out half question, half plea.  “Did I hurt you?”

“Yes and no, in that order.  Well, actually, not ‘yes’.  I’m not ‘all right’, I am far beyond ‘all right’.”  She opened her eyes, brilliantly green in her flushed face.  “Maybe a little too far beyond ‘all right’, now that I think about it.”  Her eyes closed again.

He was almost crying in relief, his arms going around her, holding her to him in a tender embrace.  “I’m sorry, Jurnia, I—I raped you, I—”

She reached up lightning-quick and grabbed his tongue, garbling the rest of his apology as one eye opened and focused an ominous glare on him.  “Kara.  Quiet.”

“Ugghuh?” he gurgled, which was evidently what “ara?” sounded like minus the use of his tongue.

“Listen to me very, very carefully,” she enunciated slowly and clearly.  “You did not hurt me.  You certainly did not rape me.  I might be a little sore and spraddle-legged for the rest of the day, but I am nowhere near being dead or crippled.”  Her other hand came up and caught a fistful of the bright hair that spilled down onto her skin, winching him down until they were nose to nose.  “Do you understand?”

“’ethh, ‘am’m,” he managed, wide-eyed.

“Good.”  She let go of his tongue, but only so that she could kiss him, soothing the pinch of her fingers on the tender flesh.  Kara closed his eyes and succumbed without protest, kissing her as gently as he could.

When she surmised that he was calm, or at least calmer than he had been, she released his hair so that he could lift his head.

“Jurnia, I . . .”

“If you say one word of apology or self-recrimination, Karavasu, I will personally kick you from here to the Dragon Palace,” she warned.

He smiled wryly and kissed the pulse point of her throat.  “I just wanted to say that while most of that was very enjoyable, that it was, I think we need to figure out an earlier stopping point.”

“I think you’re right.”  Jurnia smiled and stirred, letting out a quiet groan as a number of muscles protested the fervent exercise that they had just withstood.  Bit by bit, she and her husband separated from each other, only to seek each other’s arms in a more comfortable position.  As comfortable as it was likely to get on the floor, anyway.

“Oh!”  She stared in dismay, carefully unwinding the last few loops of the ribbon.  Kara’s wrists were deeply indented, blood-red marks showing here and there where he had pulled hard enough to bite the silk into his flesh to nearly the point of breaking the skin.  She gathered his hands in hers, kissing his wrists.  “I didn’t mean for that to happen, Kara . . .”

“It’s nothing that won’t mend,” he murmured, tugging his hands away so that he could wrap his arms around her.  “I bet that nobody will even notice by dinnertime.”

“Mm.”  She turned her head against his shoulder, his silky hair brushing her cheek with a sensuous tickle.  “Kara?”

“Yes, beloved?”

“This shed’s going to be taken apart once all the work’s done, isn’t it?”

“That’s right.”

Silence for a long moment.  “Kara?”


“Do you think we could buy a ladder?”