The City

She tried to reward his patience with a grin, but Captain Shondar would have none of it, turning his chin to face the sea and not her. "It's only for three days, Captain," she said. "Less."

"Mm." He offered nothing else for a time as his men rowed the longboat towards shore. Then he said, "Do you know what you are going to experience, Apprentice Aimee'? No? I will tell you this. When we leave you on the shore of this island and sail away, we shall sail until this accursed place is no longer within our sight. And even from that far away, we shall feel the magicks that are unleashed here. We shall sense them, that disturbance in the ebb and flow of life that threatens to suck all the spirit from a man and leave him a mindless shell of himself. I have felt it twice before. I do not know what it must be like in that city, that center of it, but it is surely not a magic for men to be proud."

She stared at him, then turned her head to Darynn. In the five weeks of the voyage, he had said nothing about the spell he had been summoned to cast, said nothing about its intent or its components. She had read the book Adrort had pressed upon her, the history of the Battle of Reris. She trusted Darynn. He returned her gaze evenly, without feeling. "Master... is it something to be ashamed of?"

"Oh, Apprentice Aimee', what an insightful question! The answer to your question is complicated, and probably not for the ears of the Captain's men. But the short answer is 'no.' It is challenging as a ritual. It serves a useful purpose. Its effects do not spill over to other nations-- Pyu Rika is far away to be sure of that. On the whole, the people of Pyu Rika accept it for what it is, its costs and its gifts. They have made choices that are different, Aimee', but it is not for me to decide if they are worthy of shame."

"Perhaps your apprentice will make a choice different from you, Master Mage," Captain Shondar said.

"Perhaps," Darynn said. "Perhaps."

The longboat held four rowers, Shondar, and the four mages, and that was its limit, Aimee' realized. It was like the Swift Teacher made for light duty and quick escapes. She wondered if Shondar had ever had need of a quick escape. She thought it likely.

They landed on the beach. Shondar and the four rowers seized ropes and with a unified shout strained the boat onto the shore. Shondar swiftly helped the Mages out. "Ladies first," he insisted as Aimee' landed on sand, sure of her footing. He smiled at her. She returned his pleasure. She was sure he thought of their nights of pleasure, few but complete as they were, on the trip out and hoped for more on the return voyage. She hoped not to disappoint him.

The island of Pyu Rika had seemed tiny from a distance, but up close it was clearly large enough to sustain a significant city-state. Although Shondar assured them they were no further south than Barraminum the air here was far warmer. Rather than thick-barked bushes and trees, the land here was covered in broad-leaved, canopied trees with pale, banded trunks. The island ascended to what must have been a volcanic peak, high enough that she still saw snow upon its peaks here in the late spring, and the trees became more familiar halfway up until there was a treeline, then vanished. "The Pyu Rika live in a valley between the three mountains that make up this island," Darynn said. "I would say it reminds me of the Hakkana, but I would lie. Hakkana does not feel as if it belongs in this world, but it is a joyful kind of otherness. Pyu Rika is more--" He paused. "Sedate."

Aimee could not miss the implication of his words. She wondered again if she had erred in choosing to go with him. He had made it clear: her presence was voluntary, her physical safety assured once actually in Pyu Rika.

"Your guides have arrived," Shondar said, pointing.

Two men walked out of the treeline. They were dressed in colorful robes of bright red, their heads uncovered, their hair short and kempt. "Greetings!" one shouted. "Master Darynn!"

"Lwennas!" Darynn said, waving. "It is good to see you again!" He grasped the other man in his hands and embraced in a way that more than friendly. "Is everything ready?"

"The ritual is as we have always done it. We await only you, eromancer. Your timing is impeccable." He looked over Darynn's shoulder. "You have brought others this time? And the good Captain Shondar. A pleasure to see you again."

Shondar bowed, and the man called Lwennas did as well. "I am being rude. Darynn, my companion, Ajdir. Ajdir, this is the Master Eromancer Darynn, who will guide our great city through the Ritual and keep us safe from our darknesses."

Ajdir bowed. "It is my honor to meet you. I am not a mage, and so am not honored with the inner workings. I remember how well you preserved our city through the last Ritual."

"It was not merely my doing!"

"As you say, sir," Ajdir said.

Darynn smiled. "Lwennas, as you can see, I have brought companions who I expect to trip with me. This is the honored Talen Silisto, Mage Master of the School at Barraminum." Talen bowed; pleasantries were exchanged. "This is my Apprentice, Aimee'."

Lwennas looked at Aimee with an eye she knew, and it made her step back. There was resentment, and perhaps even an open anger, against her. "A girl, Darynn?"

"A mage, Lwennas, and a fine one."

"I honor your word, Darynn."

Soldiers, Aimee' thought, had it easy. They could assess some details about a potential foe with a glance-- the kind of weapon, the fitness of body, the skill with which one gripped a sword. Mages had no such assurances. Aimee could not tell if Lwennas was an apprentice, a novice, or some distance down the road to being called a Master. He carried himself like one of those guardsmen apprentices who had learned his first offensive spell, but he knew Darynn of four years ago, before she had known him or Magic, and she wondered.

"And this?" Lwennas indicated the final member of their troop.

"Ah, this is Hektor, a nephromancer apprentice of considerable promise," Talen Silisto said. "He was not on the invitation, but I humbly ask that he be allowed to accompany us as a worthy witness."

Lwennas nodded. "He will be welcome. And you, Captain? Will you be coming?"

Shondar looked surprised. He shook his head. "No. I will be taking my crew back to my ship."

"Of course." Lwennas gestured. "Before you go, Captain-- there are fresh fruits and vegetable in two baskets up at the tree-line. We have left them there for your crew."

Shondar nodded. "Thank you for your generosity," he said.

"It is concern for our friends. For them to return home safely, you must be well." Lwennas turned. "Let us go. It is only a short walk."

Aimee gave Shondar once last glance, and he nodded. "Darynn came back last time. You will too."

"I know," Aimee' said. "I just wish I knew what lies up there."

"Only he knows," Shondar said, indicating Darynn. "Soon you will too."


Aimee''s legs ached by the time they'd made it to their first stop for rest in a broad clearing topped with a dome of exposed rock. Lwennas must have had the legs of a goat underneath his robes. Darynn seemed to be having no trouble, although both Hektor and Talen were struggling as hard as she when they sat down. Lwennas handed Talen a goatskin full of water. The ascetic headmaster drank from it gratefully, then stopped and handed it to Aimee'. "I am being rude," he said.

Aimee' shrugged. "It is our guide's choice," she said. She drank from the goatskin herself, then handed it to Hektor.

Lwennas stood up and stretched, and Aimee' groaned thinking that it was too soon to be resuming their trek. "My friends," he said, "the time has come to reveal to you one of my great city's secrets and to show you why Pyu Rika will never be the subject of invasion." He looked up along towards the summit of the mountain, and out of the bright sunlight Aimee saw it, a small black speck silhouetted against the sky. The speck grew and became obvious as a boat falling through the air, and Aimee' cried out with alarm at the prospect of being crushed underneath it.

Instead it came to a halt just a few feet above Aimee''s head. A man hung over the edge and waved. "Lwennas, Ho!"

"Captain Yugerten!" Lwennas shouted back. "Would you be so kind as to take my charges to the great city and our king?"

"I would!" said the man. The ship settled further and a door in its side opened, revealing a stairway leading into the ship. "Come in, come in," said Captain Yugerten, standing there. "Welcome aboard the Door of the City."

Aimee stepped into the ship and looked around. It was appointed as no ship she had ever seen from the inside: one long gallery from stem to stern, fitted with comfortable benches along both walls looking inward, but windows behind them looking out. A low table filled the space in the middle. In the front hung a flag, a picture of a white dragon on a background of green so dark it may have been black. The dragon was sleeping, curled in on itself, but the top of its head was visible. The eyes were gouged out. Aimee' shivered when she saw it.

The benches were covered in red velvet, the wood hand-carved to perfect polish, the buttons holding the bench together shone brass and hard work.

"Take a seat." Aimee did so, gingerly, not quite sure that she was ready to take a trip in a ship that flew. She reflected that it was probably for the best that Shondar did not see this ship; the envy would have made him ill. The benches matched their loveliness for comfort. "We will fly now." Darynn sat next to her; Talen and Hektor took the bench opposite.

From here, Aimee' could see the trees out her small, round window, but then they were gone, banished from her eyes. She looked downwards and saw the ground fleeting by. "By the Gods," Hektor said.

She looked across the gallery. Outside Hektor's windows something was scrolling by, horribly fast, and for a moment she could not understand what she was seeing. Then she understood it: that was the mountain side, so close to the ship that she could have reached out and touched it if she had been topside. If the ship brushed that stone for even a second, it would have shattered into uncountable pieces.

Then the stones disappeared, replaced by blue and clouds. The ship seemed to freeze like the moment before a kiss when one cannot be sure if the next touch will be disaster or ecstasy, then it began a plunge downward that forced Aimee''s heart to press on the bottom of her throat. Out the window Aimee caught site of a great, elliptical valley of cultivated fields hemmed in by great peaks beyond and, below them, a city of white and blue, of cylindrical spires topped with decorated, windowed bulbs, of roads laid with geometric precision and of oval pools of water, their narrow ends sharp, all pointing to a central location. They seemed to be dropping towards that location.

Then the feeling in her abdomen settled downwards fast and hard, and the ship came to a stop. "We are here." The Captain stood up and opened the door. "Welcome, my friends, to Pyu Rika."

Aimee' gasped as the door was opened. They were on the edge of a courtyard open to the sun, its marbled floor inlaid in precise, geometrical patterns of green and white. In the center was a fountain, the body of which was sculpted in white marble to be that of a dragon curled about itself, its head pointed towards the center. Water shot from its mouth, arcing across the fountain to drop precisely in the middle. A covered walkway ringed the courtyard, its roof supported along each wall by three pillars of some unknown stone, a green stone like that used in the floor, but on the pillars veined with some unknown gold substance.

Nothing so elegant or beautiful existed anywhere in Barraminum. The time and dedication put into this one room spoke of attention and wealth beyond her experience or imaginings.

Out from the far door a small group approached, walking about the fountain in the calm, practiced way that members of a court will. At the head were two men, from their height and build clearly bodyguards armored in gleaming plates of copper, and behind and between them a small man, dark-skinned, with a beard that came together into a single braid that fell down to his collarbone. He wore flowing black pants and a black tunic, and over it a floor-length bright red vestment, trimmed in delicate gold lace. Behind him others dressed in similar clothing, although none so fine or flowing, followed.

"Master Darynn!" the man in the middle said, standing forward as the two bodyguards stopped. "Welcome to Pyu Rika! Your presence does reassure all of us."

Darynn bowed down to one knee, and his three companions followed suit, Aimee a bit out of step with Hektor and Talen Silisto. "Your Highness does flatter me," Darynn said.

"Oh, stand, stand! We get so few visitors here that I am afraid I have forgotten the protocol for greeting them properly myself." He turned his attention to Aimee'. "And who is this? What jewel from your barbaric backcountry have you brought for me to see?"

"King Rohani, I would like you to meet my apprentice, Aimee'. She is young, and new to the arts, but she will one day surpass even me in skill and power."

"Is such a thing possible?" the king said. He examined her, and she returned his regard carefully. He was just as tall as she, and Aimee' considered herself to be of average height for a woman. "Perhaps, someday, you will take Master Darynn's role as Guide."

Aimee' stood behind Darynn and did not see the gesture he made, but it was clear from his movement and the look on King Rohani's face that some communication passed between them. The king nodded briefly and stepped back. "You are most welcome in my land, lady Aimee'. Ah, Talen Silisto, it must be you. I have heard so much about you."

"From spies?" Mage Silisto did not smile as he said it, stepped forward and bowed.

The king roared. "Indeed! Indeed. Although nothing so dramatic as those skulking about inside your own little Empire, I am led to understand. We have students at your school, oh yes, it has made a name for itself as the best school in the Empire. The freedom your little colony has there also gives students room to grow in ways the Empire itself could never."

"I am pleased if his highness thinks so. But our little colony is only three hundred years old. It is a small place."

"Still, still, that is nothing like the Old Country, is it, with its teeming millions."

"As long as most of them stay on their side of the ocean, I shall be happy," Silisto said. "We only want the good ones."

"I have no doubt that you get them as well," the king said. "And who is this young man?"

Talen Silisto introduced the young Mage Hektor, "A nephromancer of some skill." Hektor blushed and stammered through his introduction, bowing in the right places at any rate. The king clapped him on the shoulder and made perfunctory introductory noises.

"A nephromancer," the king said. "I thought such a mage impossible. The weather is too large to control."

"I do not seek to control it," Hektor said. "But to understand it. If I can promise my captains good sailing for four days, or recommend a change of course that would save his ship, so much the better. It is as much a science as a magical art. I must be able to read maps and guage the very air."

"Ah, I see. And is there a variant of your kind for the land as well?"

Hektor nodded. "There are two. One for the military, the other for the farms. There are no farming nephromancers in study now."

"Such a sad state of affairs," Rohani said, nodding. "One would think that farmers, more than anyone, need to know the weather one, two days, or perhaps even a week in advance. Yet there is not a farmer's community willing to put up the money for a scholar."

"Perhaps I shall do just that. But my young people..."

"Are not very young when they come to us," Talen Silisto said, nodding. "We understand that things are different here."

Aimee wanted to ask a question, but the King barreled on. "Sensible in the extreme. You see, Mage Silisto, your new world has created opportunities where none ever existed before." The king turned to the party. "Darynn, you have much to discuss with our senior mages. Master Sorcerer Juntox awaits you in his chambers. You others must come with me. We have had an early breakfast; we shall enjoy a late lunch, if you are hungry?" There were brief nods. "Excellent. Come. You must tell me of your lands."

One of the aides who had accompanied the king took Darynn by the arm and led him out a side door. The king gestured that the others should follow him, and together they walked back out the main door of the courtyard.

As she had seen from the air, the palace was a rectangular ziggurat many stories tall, at least as it faced the city. But behind that ziggurat was an open courtyard divided up into smaller spaces, some roofed, some hypaethral, and between them all court officials and bureaucrats bustled about their business. They all wore the same sort of clothing: a tunic with a split collar held shut with a lace of string, black trousers with voluminous leggings, and the long vest, its colors apparently designating rank or role, long enough that its rounded edgings brushed the floor. The king's, in red and gold, was certainly the most elegant, and on his back was embroidered a sleeping, gray dragon.

The sleeping, gray dragon was everywhere in the palace. She passed it embroidered into tapestries hung from the walls, and saw its form etched into candlesticks and doorknobs. "Majordomo," the king said as the entered the palace proper, "These are my guests. Please see to their needs."

The Majordomo was a fat, round man who found smiling to be something of a chore. "Indeed. Come with me. Asmah, you are assigned to the young lady."

Asmah was a small, skinny girl, her skin beginning in yellow and darkened by the sun. Unlike those Aimee had seen in the courtyard, she wore only a simple white shrift cinched with a belt at the waist, and a headband. In one ear dangled a small earring, revealed by short black hair. She knelt before Aimee'. "If you will come with my, my lady?"

For a moment, Aimee' hesitated, caught between her desire to stay with familiar surroundings and people and her desire not to appear out of order. She nodded. "Lead me, please."

Asmah led Aimee' down a hallway. The others followed, each accompanied by a servant girl. A boy carried Darynn's bag. Aimee thought that Darynn would have loved his face. Asmah indicated a door on the Western face of the palace, opened it, and entered before Aimee'. She placed Aimee''s carrying case on the floor and then knelt beside it, on her knees, her hands folded in her lap, her eyes downcast. "What are you doing?" Aimee' said.

"Whatever you wish, my lady," the girl said. "I have been given to you for the day, to use as you see fit."

Aimee' looked at Asmah, perplexed. "'Use'? Do they... are you enslaved here, Asmah?"

Asmah looked up at Aimee'. "Oh, no, Lady Aimee'. I am simply doing my duty to the City of Pyu Rika. From my fifth until my twenty-fifth year, I am a servant to the city's elders and masters. When that time runs out, I will participate in the Ritual of the Life, and then I will be a subject, as my mother before me, and hers before her, to enjoy the benefits of the city and the Ritual."

"But, 'as I see fit' implies that I could do almost anything to you."

Asmah was quiet for a moment. "Yes."

"Even hurt you?" The words were out of Aimee''s mouth before she could even ask herself why she would say such a thing.

"Yes." Asmah's replied, barely above a whisper.

Aimee' felt a chill down her spine. "What... what are the benefits of the Ritual?"

"A long and healthy life, my lady. For after the Ritual, as long as I stay in Pyu Rika I shall not know illness, and wherever I go, my life shall be twice the days of an ordinary mortal."

Aimee' sat down on the bed and regarded Asmah's crouched, submissive form, and wondered if the girl truly understood the position she was in. She did not seem to be much different from Aimee' herself in age, which meant that she was halfway through her period of service. It was not much different from Aimee''s original condition, but for Asmah the reward would be great, whereas Aimee' had been promised only a trivial existence ending with her death. Darynn had saved her from that fate and allowed her to choose a different one, but she could not tell if the price and the purchase was truly all that different.

Then she thought of the Majordomo. "Very well, Asmah. As I probably could not be rid of you without insulting your master and harming your position, I accept your service. But, please, at least sit rather than bow like that. I have been where you are now. I did not like it."

Asmah sat down and crossed her legs, and gave Aimee' a tentative smile. "That's better," Aimee' said. "I prefer to think of you as a person." She looked as Asmah's beautiful, rounded face with big, sweet eyes and a tiny nose. Her lips were full, dark, and red. "You do this because you are young and beautiful, I take it?" Asmah nodded. "If you were not young and beautiful, what would you be doing now?"

"That would depend on my skills, my lady. I might be doing dishes, or studying. I might be doing the laundry, or cleaning the pools."

"Studying?" Aimee' said, suddenly curious. She could feel a smile on her lips. "Studying what?"

"A language. Or rhetoric. Philosophy or magic. Any number of things that are appropriate."

"For a woman?"

"For a talented one," Asmah said. "I would like to study. When they give me time-- when I have no one I must be caring for-- they let me study. I am learning the Old Tongue of Wajidi." She spoke several syllables that went into Aimee''s ear as one long stream with no breaks for meaning or breath. "I am sure my accent is terrible."

"I would not know," Aimee' said. "What did you say?"

"It is a poem. 'Bright starlight, it dreams / of breathing summer's fall of rain / No stars in the sky.' I do not understand it, but it has a mysterious beauty."

"Indeed it does," Aimee' said. "I know only limericks. 'There was a mage of Barraminum / A bugger with no morals in 'im / When wizards said 'please' / He'd get down on his knees / For he loved to have more magic in 'im." She blushed. "My Teacher taught me that one. I suspect he was laughing at his own reputation."

"Mage Darynn is your teacher?" Asmah said. Suddenly her eyes fell. "Forgive me. I am speaking out of turn. It is not my place to interrogate you."

"I say it is fine. Just don't forget your manners when they turn you over to someone else." Aimee' reached out with one hand. Asmah took it, and Aimee' pulled Asmah closer, then dropped her to the bed. "You must tell me everything I need to know."

"I do not... know anything, my lady."

"About the Ritual."

"I do not know it. This is my first year when I will not be kept locked away in a child's room." She smiled with curious pride. "I am thirteen this year and have begun my mooning. I am allowed to stay out. I am told that it is dangerous, that it grips the city in a kind of madness. Today, people are cleaning up, putting away their breakable items, cleaning out their cellars and preparing the locks that will keep the children safe. They must be locked away in their own small rooms. I-- I always had the most horrible nightmares during the Ritual."

Aimee' felt a chill. What was going to happen tomorrow night? Darynn had been so vague about it. "Does no one really know?" she said.

"It is different every time. Or so I am told."

Aimee' nodded. "I will have to see it for myself."

"I think that is true," Asmah said.

A bell distracted the two of them. "Oh! Your meal is ready. Allow me to help you with your hair." She looked up hopefully at Aimee', who nodded her acceptance. She leaped and stood. "Do you have any favored combs or brushes? Any nets or charms that you like for your hair?"

Aimee' grinned and reached down into the leather pack that Ricar had prepared for her. "I do have some." She laid down a few items. "Asmah, make me fit for a royal banquet."

"I shall do my best, my lady." Asmah picked up the whalebone comb that Aimee' indicated and began at the ends of Aimee''s hair. After only a few strokes Aimee' became convinced that she would be delicate and gentle, and she leaned back on the bed, propping herself with her arms. Her hand brushed against Asmah's thigh, and she chose not to move it away. Asmah, if she noticed the touch, did not acknowledge it. She tended to Aimee''s hair completely, and in a few minutes she said, simply, "It is finished."

Aimee' regarded herself in the small handmirror Asmah held up. Asmah had combed her hair out and fixed it in front with a pair of small rings, then tugged out the rings just enough to cause her hair to cascade around them in delicate streams. "You have worked a miracle," she said.

"Thank you, my lady. Now, your clothes."

Aimee arrived at the dining hall just moments before the soup reached the table. It was another large hall, decked in white and green tiles each about the span of a man's hand in size, decorated with tapestries on all the walls, tapestries which hung from brass rails that ran just short of the ceiling. Each table had been cast from a different variety of tree and carved by the hand of a different artisan, and each had a name. A servant, decked in the familiar livery of tunic and vest, led her to a light-colored table with the name 'Khir' engraved onto a brass plate on its surface.

Darynn soon sat down next to her. "I trust your room is to your liking?" he said.

"You know it could not be otherwise. Oh, I want to see the city!" she said.

Darynn shook his head. "You will have to be satisfied with your view from the Palace this trip, Aimee'. Tonight is the Night of Prayer, the night when the people of Pyu Rika make their spirits ready for the Ritual. Tomorrow is the Day of Preparation, and then the Ritual is tomorrow night. The day after is the Day of Repair, when the damage the Ritual causes is added up and measured." He touched the back of her hand.

Aimee' gave him her best smile. "I know," she breathed. "But it's so hard."

"You want to take the world in big bites. I understand. I would as well, were I in your position. I have never lied to you or led you wrong, Aimee', and this time you must trust me because I am experienced in these matters and know the dangers from which I should protect you."

She nodded. "I am sorry, Teacher."

"Never be sorry for being a good student," he said. "Which you have always been."

"Always?" she said.

"Always."

A bowl of soup was laid before her, and she tasted it briefly. It was strong, and sour, but not inedible, and she tried to drink it down. After the first few tastes the bitterness seemed to fade and she found herself enjoying it. It soon disappeared, to be replaced with a more traditional pastry filled with meat and cheese and others. Darynn introduced her to the others at the table, including the Sorcerer Juntox, who gave her the impression that had he not been a sorcerer his next assignment would have been as jester, and Juntox's apprentice, a scowling, serious young man named Idzam. Each was accompanied by a young woman that Darynn called an 'iwanee.' Aimee wanted to ask what the word meant until she saw the small earrings in their ears, earrings much like the one Asmah had been wearing.

"Where is the king?"

"In preparation all his own," Darynn said. "We will probably not see him again anytime soon. He is with his iwanee."

"What does that word mean? I thought it might mean servant, because my room servant had an earring like that."

Juntox smiled tolerantly. "There is no word in the Imperial tongue that matches it exactly. The best word is 'exhauster,' I suspect."

"Exhausting what?"

"Me," Juntox said. "I cannot go into any more detail than that. It is not a matter for those not participating in the Ritual."

Aimee' sighed, her curiosity again frustrated. She ate her dinner silently as Darynn and a young man to his left chattered on in a language Aimee' did not know. Darynn introduced him as Bashah, and said that he had been assigned as an iwanee for the night. The last course of the meal came, a goblet filled with beans that surprised her by being quite sugary, when a hand crept into her lap and tapped her thigh. She looked up at Darynn, who leaned over to whisper. "Be my iwanee tonight."

Aimee' thought she understood, and for a moment she smiled at him, grateful to have a master as thoughtful and loving as Darynn. She ate the rest of her meal cheered.

A bell rang. A voice called from the entranceway, "Because of Master Darynn's presence tonight, the sorcerers have all requested that we retire early. Therefore, the nightly congregation is suspended."

Darynn nodded his head apologetically. "Time to go back to our rooms, I suppose."

"That would be the wisest choice," Juntox said, rising to bow. Darynn followed his gesture, as did the others at the table, and then Juntox went his way. Darynn dismissed Bashah and then took Aimee''s hand. "We shall scandalize them tonight."

"I have this impression that you always scandalize wheresoever you go, Master."

"It is a recurrent theme in my life, yes." He grinned. "Come with me?"

"Anywhere," Aimee' said. Darynn led her down the hallway to her room. His was next to hers, although they had no passageways in common other than the public one. "Just a moment," she said. She peeked into the room. "Asmah?"

"My lady?"

"Asmah, I shall be participating in some ritual preparations for Master Darynn for a while. You may do as you see fit. If you are assigned to stay here, please, sleep in the bed."

"My lady, I..."

"Those are my instructions."

"Yes, my lady. Should I expect you back?"

"I do not know." Aimee closed the door behind her.

Darynn was smiling at her in an amused way. "You are kind to others in ways that few can manage," he said. "I would not have thought of giving her permission to sleep on the bed." When Aimee' tried not to look shocked and failed, Darynn shrugged his shoulders in apology. "It is their way. I try not to disrupt the order of things. She is not being mistreated, and when her life begins areal all of this will be memories, most of them tedious and easy to let fade."

He reached out his hand, and Aimee' took it. He led her into his darkened room, where the moment he heard the latch click he pulled her into his arms and regarded her with eyes that had once frightened her with their power. Now, though, they comforted with his love. She adored him in ways for which she could not find a voice. She stood on the tips of her toes to kiss him.

But instead, he kissed her, a passionate, forceful kiss that spread from her mouth down to her mound in one long, slow pouring of desire. This was his power, to take love and lust and turn them into magic. But now it was all focused on one thing, one person, Aimee', and she loved him for it.

His hands caressed her back as they swayed, dancing to the music in their blood, her hands on his with desire, his on hers with affection and love. "I want you out of these clothes, Master," she said.

"I know you do," he said. "That is why I shall not give it to you too quickly." His mouth found her jaw and then her neck, kissing her skin. She shivered. She wanted more. The warmth in her belly was blossoming into a fire already. It was something that Shondar, for all his 'friendly fucking', could not achieve. She had enjoyed him well enough. She loved Darynn.

Darynn's hands pushed her backwards, slowly, toward the bed. She knew they had reached it only when it buckled her knees suddenly and she fell backwards. Darynn continued a slow march along the length of her body until he was kissing her lips again, their tongues meeting and mixing their saliva, something Aimee' had once thought intolerable but now she understood it for what it was, the first sharing of bodies two lovers could achieve.

Darynn played his mouth over hers, playing his role' as the big, strong lover, a commanding male presence doing most of the work. She let him do it.

His hands stretched over her shoulders and down her back until they found the ties that held her dress closed. He opened them, one by one, and Aimee felt the restrictive material fall away from her shoulders. He tugged downwards until it pulled off her shoulders and then she let it fall to her waist. His hands slid back over her shoulders and down her chest until each found a breast and closed on it.

Aimee''s body suddenly quivered with a hunger she would not have had the words to express. She wanted Darynn to play with her breasts, to tease at the nipples. They had started to grow, finally, into more than mere mounds, had taken shape into actual spheres. The eyes of adult men strayed to her chest, as they should, when they spoke to her. Darynn's hands stroked at the skin and finally his fingers pinched at her nipples, sending aching pleasure through her. "Yes..." she hissed.

"You seem eager tonight."

"I cannot explain it. Is it the city?"

"It might be. Or it might be travel. Or it might just be that your body is finally ready for the kinds of love adults have, the unquestionably needy, rushing, lustful love." His hands were driving her mad, stroking at her breasts in calm, easy, playful ways. She wanted him to drive himself into her, not tease her like this.

Her hands, as if trying to achieve her goals without her permission, strayed down to his trousers. She found his hard cock under the cloth, large and ready. He groaned softly. "Aimee'."

"I can play this game, too," she moaned.

His hands found her wrists, seized them, turned her about and dropped her onto the bed. "No, you cannot. Not tonight." He smiled and let her go. She watched, unwilling to move or question, as he dropped below the edge of the bed. His hands touched her ankles, then her calf, her knee. He touched her thigh, and then his hands were pushing her thighs apart, pushing her open. "Master--"

"Shhh." She felt his warm breath upon her vulva, felt his mouth close upon her mound, kissing her. His tongue reached out and stroked her vulva. Her body felt as if it had turned to water, moving slowly, taking from him every moment of pleasure it possibly could. Every touch of his tongue rolled through her like a languid wave upon the warm, summer sea. She couldn't resist him, did not want to resist him. She wanted his mouth upon her, his cock within her, his body atop her. "Master, please," she whispered.

Darynn rose. Somehow he had removed his trousers already, and with a gesture cast aside the vest and tunic he wore as well. His strong, full body stood silhouetted in the window for a brief moment, and then he descended on her, his mouth on her breasts, his large hard cock sniffing at her sex. She opened her legs to him, but he only teased her, refusing to do as she begged, as she pleaded. He let his cock stroke against her wet lips and bathe in the juices that flowed readily from her.

"Fill me," she gasped. "By all the gods, fill me! Please!"

"All in good time, my dear," he said. He tongued at her nipples, and each little bite brought her closer to a cry of pain and the moment of release. He pulled and sucked at her hard nubs, and as he did so his cock slid into her with agonizing slowness.

Her sex closed about him until they were joined completely in a union that was more about a beloved teacher and student than about man and woman. She wrapped her arms about his neck as he began a strong, steady motion inside her. She could feel the head of his cock within her belly, could feel echoes of his thrust all the way up into her heart, her throat, her very brain. His cock and his thrusts both grew harder, firmer. She opened her eyes and looked to see his face. His eyes twinkled with love, and trust, and honor, and pleasure, and she was utterly taken by him. Her body surrendered to his strength, her spirit to his needs, and then both of them were swept by a climactic magic greater and older than any spell. She heard him whisper his name.

It was some minutes later that they managed to separate. Darynn fell spent upon the bed, face down, taking deep breaths to speed his recovery. "Ah, Aimee', if my lovers could see me now, I wonder what they might ask of me." He glanced at her, then sighed.

"Is something wrong, Darynn?"

"I wish I could say no. Aimee', beloved, I still cannot say that I lust after you, but that I love you, there is no doubt."

"I understand, Teacher," she said softly. "You have been so kind to me." She reached down and touched his back. He was hairy, so much like an animal, almost like the legendary satyrs he had told her about the day they had met. She caressed the hair on his back, then let her hand stray down to his buttocks. Each was firm, and solid, but she could see that the hairs upon his body were graying along with the rest of him. Darynn's body spoke of the contradictions in his life: his muscles were firm and strong with youth and vigor, yet his hair was graying, his skin was dry and cracked, his voice sometimes weaker than his face proclaimed. Even his eyes betrayed the years behind him.

Her hand palpitated the globe beneath it. "What is it like? What is sodomy like?"

Darynn turned over, hiding the objects of her attention from her eyes. "That depends upon who you are, and who you are with. For the those who have tried it, most dislike it. Possibly their bodies are not accommodating for it, but I suspect they have not known a lover who could initiate them into its mysteries properly. A small number do not care for it either way, and the smallest number adore it." He smiled. "You can imagine where I fall."

"I imagine you adore it," she said, leaning over to kiss his cheek.

"I do, I confess. Although it becomes harder with age. More preparation is required, more attention to detail. Still, there is something unspeakably wonderful about it, the unnatural use of it, the pleasure it can bring, the vulnerability and frailty of which it reminds us." He laughed. "And yet, here I am, with the juices of a woman all upon my body."

"I don't know if I shall ever trust someone enough to let them make me feel so vulnerable again," Aimee' said quietly, as if to herself.

"You already do," Darynn said. "You trust me with you body every night when you sleep, for then you are helpless and I am not. Such trust is not easy to earn, and I am honored by it."

She regarded him with caution, then eased. "I suppose you are right. It is just that I never think of things that way, Teacher." She sighed and lay beside him. She pointed to the painting on the ceiling. "The dragon image I see everywhere in the palace."

"Is only 'the dragon,'" Darynn said quickly. "Most here do not even know its name, and those that do never say it aloud."

"But it is him."

"It is," Darynn said. "This city lies on his dead back as he lays dreaming, or so the story is told. I do not understand it much myself."

Aimee' had a flash of insight. "You're not here to cast The Life of the City." Darynn turned his head and looked up at her. "You're here to prevent its death."

Darynn smiled. "You are as close to the truth as I could dare tell you." He reached out and touched her thigh affectionately. "Do not share your thoughts with others, Aimee'." He yawned again, his whole body tensing with the force of a stretch from deep within. "And you have done well to exhaust me."

She smiled. "Thank you, Master. Shall we sleep?"

"Yes, I think so. Would you sleep here, or back in your own room?"

"I think-- my own room would be wiser. For the morning."

He nodded. "I understand. And you are probably correct. The people of Pyu Rika are scandalized enough by my wanton ways, but they would be even more scandalized by perceiving a change of heart they do not understand. It would be better if they did not find you here in the morning."

She nodded and slid out of bed, finding her clothes on the floor easily. She did not bother to put them on, but instead gathered them into her arms and made her way quietly through the door that connected their two rooms.

The only light came in through the windows, but it was enough for her to find her way to a chair. She dropped her clothes and sneaked quietly toward her bed. It was not until she came upon the sleeping form of Asmah tucked under the covers that she remembered the servant girl. Asmah stirred only briefly as Aimee' slipped into bed.

She could not avoid feeling the warmth coming off Asmah's body. She found it comforting, and the few times her maneuvers brought her into actual touch she found herself wishing she were awake enough to enjoy them even more. But the hours had turned late, and it was time for rest. She closed her eyes and let sleep come over her.

Next: The Ritual

Previous: The Sea Voyage

Next: The Ritual

Previous: The Sea Voyage

The City
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is copyright © February 27, 2005 Elf Mathieu Sternberg and is available under a Creative Commons License.