At some unseen signal, the lights in the theater dimmed. It was not a magical effect, simply that of well-concealed attendants narrowing the apertures in crystal and brass lanterns, but the diminishing glow and the way soft shadows settled across the audience might as well have been a trick of sorcery, it worked so well.
Appreciative and anticipatory murmurs rippled through the room. Faces that had been turned toward one another, sometimes leaning close in whispered conversation, now looked to the stage. There, spilling from above, was a clear column of light the color of moonlight filtered through pale amber. Its backsplash illuminated the texture of the thick velvet draperies.
The music began low, drifting as if from a great distance on the vagaries of a mild summer breeze. It curled and coiled like smoke, teasingly, wisps of it swelling louder and then withdrawing. Some few in the audience, mostly those for whom this was their first attendance, looked around for the orchestra and found nothing. Others, those who’d been here before, smiled knowingly.
The drapes undulated and parted, and Kyralivanata Ro’Sallin, whose given name meant “gift of the enchantress,” stepped into that column of silvery-amber light. She stood, swaying gently in time with the music that seemed to emanate from thin air. Her eyes were closed, her head tipped back.
A general sigh arose, a breathy susurration issuing helplessly from every throat. For some, mostly men, it was a sound of yearning. For others, primarily women, it was one of wistful envy.
Both were well-deserved. The woman standing in that fall of light, light which did not merely shine upon her but seemed to caress her, to adore her, was tall and graceful, slender yet shapely. A gown as black as if it had been cut whole from the fabric of the night clung snugly to her figure, flowed around her long legs.
Above its strapless bodice, her bare neck and shoulders were the color of cream. A strand of round-cut diamonds circled her slim throat, another strand like a pendant hanging in sparkles and glints to a finial stone shaped like a teardrop. This last stone held a hint of color, a blush of green that recalled – even to the minds of those who had only ever imagined such a place – the forests of the Emerin.
Gloves of satin climbed her fair and supple arms. Matching slippers were on her feet. Her legs, of which nearly all of one could be seen through the high slit in her gown as she moved, were encased in stockings of silk so sheer it recalled gossamer and spiderwebs.
Crowning all of this beauty was a face at once youthful and worldly-wise. Her elven features were fine and flawless, from the rounding of her pert chin to the tips of her elegantly-tapered ears. Many observing her were human, but even the handsomest or most lovely of them despaired and thought themselves plain when they compared themselves to Kyra.
Most striking of all, her hair. It fell in waves to the curve of her hips, and its color was like a handful of polished rubies set aflame. Scarlet and red and gold, woven with strands of the metallic hues only seen in the elven people, it was hair that shimmered as if with inner light of its own.
The music soared, and at its symphonic height, Kyra Ro’Sallin opened her eyes. Another wave of murmurs swept the room at the sight of those eyes. They were large and heartbreakingly tilted, both winsome and sly beneath brows of fine fire-gold. The irises were vivid wintergreen, their gaze clear and direct. Everyone upon whom that gaze fell experienced a tingling rush of connection, an instant of personal and deeply private bonding with the magnificent woman upon the stage. Those whom her eyes passed over felt bereft, even if they did not consciously notice it.
She held them in her spell even before she began to sing. Once that happened, once her voice poured forth pure and deep, a voice like spring water, like a clear autumn night, a motionless enthrallment claimed the room.
Some believed she used elf-magic, and she did, but not in the way that they thought. The sorcery was in the music, which was called from nothingness merely by the power of Kyra’s mind and her will. The rapt attention, the entire devoted enthrallment, came only from the skill and clarity of her marvelous voice.
These performances were rare, occurring only twice or thrice a year. And even here at the Lord’s Retreat, which was prided throughout the Northlands for the most fabulous of entertainments, a performance by Kyra was not something to be missed. It was said that she occasionally sang in one of the exclusive, intimate lounges, for a select few. This was true. But even those regularly invited to those special evenings made sure to reserve their places early for these public performances.
The theater was filled to capacity, with some latecomers standing at the back near the three sets of double doors. The private boxes, high above the theater floor, seemed almost to float there, supported by thin pillars and flanked by lush curtains. In these, the wealthiest and most favored of the clientele of the Lord’s Retreat were attended by discreet servants, provided with wine from the extensive cellars and dainties from the renowned kitchens.
In the luxurious box reserved for the establishment’s owner – who was at the moment down on stage lost in the melodies of an Emerinian ballad – sat a lone man. A glass of blue-violet Morvalan wine was at his elbow, and he sipped at it with mingled pleasure and gratitude at being once more among the trappings of civilization. This might not be Perras Peliani, but it was close … and the odds of getting Morvalan wine were better here anyway. The best of both worlds, as it were. If one could overlook the presence of the humans, as prevalent and irksome but unavoidable as aphids.
He was still quite young by the standards of his people, although he’d completed his schooling and had operated, for a time, a quite successful medical practice. His eyes, though, told of age beyond his years. They were steel-blue, the Reyes eyes that came to him from his mother’s side of the family, and contrasted nicely with his dark hair and fair skin. Those eyes spoke of things that few living people had seen, wonders and horrors both.
Tavelorn Ilhedrion took some measure of pride in knowing that with all he’d seen, and all he’d done, he remained in his right mind. What he’d experienced would have shocked many an Emerinian elf into numbed insanity, and yet he had persevered. Even seasoned soldiers might have been shaken to the bone had they been faced with the trials he’d overcome.
Not to mention seasoned surgeons. He wondered sometimes what his instructors would make of him now. Most of them had been old, complacent and content with ministering to the sick and the infrequently injured. What would they say if they knew he’d been elbow-deep in the entrails of nearly every race, Greater and Lesser, that walked this world?
Worse, what would they say if they knew he’d been exploring other realms of medicine? As far as anyone in the Emerin was concerned, their ways were the best and the only. To even advance the heretical idea that perhaps the Morvalan with their pharmacology, or the dwarvenfolk with their science of heavy minerals, might have something to teach the Emerinians … well, such things simply were not done.
He relaxed into the embrace of his chair, relishing the sensations of being clean and comfortable again almost as much as he relished the taste of the wine, or the sweet sounds of Kyra’s soaring voice.
Did she know of his arrival yet? He’d only reached Thanis a few hours ago, and hadn’t wanted to impose upon her while he was road-weary and grimed from travel. He supposed that the moment he’d checked in at the front desk, the process had begun that would soon bring word to Kyra’s delectable ears. But there was the chance she’d been too busy readying for her performance tonight.
By rights, he knew he shouldn’t have been able to get a seat. They would have been sold out long since. But there were benefits to being favored. Not only was he on quite good terms with most of the managerial staff of the Lord’s Retreat, from the house physician to the head of security, but he was also a close – very close – personal friend of Kyra herself. More than a friend, although he remained unsure exactly how much more.
Lovers, yes, they had spent many a night in her apartment on the uppermost floor. And cohorts? Partners in crime? They were two of a kind, he and Kyra. Sharing the same goals and attitudes, although she, our of necessity, hid them somewhat better.
He could almost thank Karandis for the strange turn of events that had brought them together. Karandis’ memory was like a quilt, made from scraps and fragments that did not always fit together in symmetry. But a half-remembered song and a dream of a red-haired singer had led them to Kyra. It had not been her that Karandis sought, but her sister. To Tavelorn’s great relief. He couldn’t imagine a woman like Kyra with a man like Karandis. Karandis the demented, the depraved. Kyra’s elfkin half-sister, though? That was all too in keeping with the Karandis he’d come to know.
And all Tavelorn had had to do, in order to gain the favorable attention of the lovely Kyra, was save her life in an heroic surgery, and brook no objection, indeed, even offer suggestions, when the human who’d harmed her was caught and punished. Since then, he believed he knew Kyra fairly well. She had her secrets, oh, many of them. Some even from him, but these tantalizing hints of mystery only added to his intrigue, her mystique.
One thing he did know was that she handled the matter of her father’s perversion and the resulting existence of her sister Sera with far better grace than Tavelorn expected he himself could have shown. But then, Kyra had had decades in which to come to terms with the matter, and it wasn’t as if her kindly feelings toward Sera spilled over in the slightest onto the rest of the teeming masses of humanity.
Quite the contrary. As he watched her now, moving gracefully down from the stage to pass among them, he marveled that not a hint of her animosity, her revulsion, or her contempt showed. Her smiles, shining like sunbeams onto their dazzled, upturned faces, were just as genuine when bestowed on the humans as on the few elves in the audience. To them, she was a figure of unearthly loveliness and generosity. Her donations to the poor were well-known. Every night, baskets of leftover food from the sumptuous kitchens of the Lord’s Retreat were given out, largesse to the population.
Tavelorn hid a smug grin at the very thought. What they didn’t know would hurt them, albeit not for a generation or two. He still thrilled at the cleverness of her plan, and only wished that his efforts to aid it would bear more … so to speak … fruit. The plant was as stubborn as the dwarves who’d cultivated it, as unwilling to yield up its secrets. But in time, he was sure, he’d master it.
If Kyra did not already know of his return, she soon would. Unless he managed to surprise her at the intermission reception, out on the moonlit terrace where refreshments would be served and the crowd would circulate. Here was where the real business of Thanis was done. Not in the palace of the Highlord, but here at the Lord’s Retreat.
His smile soured a bit as he happened to glance toward one of the other prime boxes. There sat someone else who probably did not yet know of his presence, someone who would not be half so pleased as Kyra. No, that worthy would not be pleased at all.
He could only see the profile of her, Virine Fistrel, with her ash-blond hair swept up in a distressingly human style and pinned with heavy, chunky clips that were probably a gift to her from one of her toadying, simpering pets. When she looked upon the humans, her beatific smile was not of artifice. She truly thought well of these pathetic beings, and put them ahead of her own kind.
It was enough to make one’s stomach turn. As a physician, he tried with clinical detachment to monitor the symptoms that seized him whenever he saw her, or even thought of her. Just hearing her name was enough. The involuntary tightening of the muscles, the painful clenching of the jaw, the taste in the back of his mouth like copper coins and bitter tea. His eyes would helplessly narrow into slits, and his lips would want to curl away from his teeth.
The palms of his hands grew at once clammy and itchy, longing for a sword hilt or better yet, a resounding slap to her smooth face, or a throttling grasp on her ivory throat. To knock, or shake, some sense into her. She blamed him for his uncle’s deeds and that was bearable, although annoying. What he couldn’t stand was her blindness when it came to the humans.
He ripped his gaze from her and went back to the much more pleasant view of Kyra. He supposed that Virine would once again be trying to convince Kyra that he was not the sort of man whose company she should be keeping. A bad influence. A vile murdering Morvalan monster. Little did she know. Oh, little did she know indeed! He hoped to be there if ever Virine Fistrel, ambassador from the Emerin and niece to one of the most powerful counts, found out how very wrong she’d been. About Kyra, about the humans, about everything.
In the meantime, he was simply and overwhelmingly glad just to be here. He was clean again, clean in the way that he never seemed able to get while on the road, no matter how often he used his enchanted cloth or what the local bath-houses were like. And dressed in soft suedes and velvets, rather than the cumbersome weight of armor.
His dark hair had been neatly trimmed and styled, still in the short military fashion although he had never been a soldier, a style he chose out of reverence to his uncle. His clothing was in darker hues and sterner cuts than the Emerinans favored, but not quite so strictly functional and severe as the Morvalan. A mixture, a blending. Just as he was. Just as he hoped to bring about, by helping to blend the best of their two societies.
Below, Kyra finished her song on a flourish. The music, directed by her spell, held that final triumphant note for a long, emotional moment, and then faded away into a whisper. Applause shook the room as the lights came up. People stood, clapping fervently. Tears glistened on many faces, mostly those who were hearing Kyra for the first time.
She inclined her head in a gesture as gracious as any he’d ever seen made by his grandmother. As if that were some signal, the doors at the rear of the room swung silently open, and the audience began trickling out to the terrace.
Tavelorn waited until the crush had ebbed, not wanting to be pressed in among the humans. True, these were the better ones, not the stinking and dirty peasants of the lower Rings, but the blunt plainness of their features, the ridiculous rounded nubs of their ears, and the broad thickness of their bodies never failed to hamper his appetite.
He descended, nodded a greeting when he saw Doctor Havens and his much-younger wife emerging from their box. The house physician was handsome in a silver-gilt way that would have served him well in the Emerin’s arenas of political scheming. He was the sort who could quite happily spend his career dispensing medications to mature wealthy countesses, and was much more at home in his lab than in any sort of actual hands-on practice.
Truth be told, on the occasions when drastic surgery had been called for, it was a wonder Havens hadn’t fainted dead away. His downfall was that while he loved to hear horrific tales of cutting – a need well-fed by both Tavelorn and another associate, Physician Ronnis Charane – he was squeamish as a girl when it came time for the actual sight of blood.
“Physician Ilhedrion!” Havens hailed now. He was impeccable in a pewter-colored silk suit, and his wife, whom he’d met while judging some beauty contest or another, held to his arm like the mink-draped ornament she was. “Whenever did you turn up?”
“Just today,” Tavelorn said after making the appropriate respects to the lady. “But hopefully, this time I’m back for a while.”
“Good to see you, good to see you indeed. You’ll have to come by. We’ll have a drink or three and catch up.”
“I’m looking forward to it.” Catching a glimpse of rubies-aflame, he added, “If you’ll excuse me, I must say hello to Kyra.”
“Of course you must!” Havens’ bright eyes twinkled.
He saw himself as something of a kindly uncle to the Ro’Sallin girls, and made it clear in a thousand ways that nothing would please him more than to see Kyra happily married. Especially to a fine upstanding young doctor.
Tavelorn knew he had but to say the word, and a partnership in Havens’ practice would be his. With the other physician’s deep thanks. It wasn’t often when a traumatic accident or injury befell anyone at the Lord’s Retreat, but the times that it had, Havens had been very glad to have Tavelorn in attendance.
The man who’d jumped from the roof, for instance, only to fetch up impaled on the wrought-iron spikes of one of the garden fences …
Tavelorn made his way through the crowd. He spotted the silver-black hair and lean, bladelike build of Peredin Denisse as he did so. By his manner, as well as by his stark indigo uniform, Peredin stood out. Yet at the same time, he went oddly unnoticed. People parted and passed around him without looking his way, while his sharp gaze probed with a scalpel’s efficiency. He raised his chin at Tavelorn by way of greeting, with no surprise whatsoever. That, for Peredin, was an almost excessive display of friendliness while on duty.
Kyra was at the center of an admiring knot of people, most of them human and pitifully eager for a moment of her time, an instant of notice. Her laughter at the inane witticism by a portly man in a brown brocade doublet was as intoxicating as her singing. Tavelorn came up behind her, and stood there for a moment, watching the play of her hair across her shoulders.
“Lo esaya, Vali Ro’Sallin,” he murmured.
She turned to him. “Why, Tavelorn! What a surprise!”
Had he surprised her? He might never know, for she wouldn’t let on. Her eyes, pale jade, danced and danced. She touched his elbow lightly with one gloved hand, leaned forward to brush a kiss on his cheek. It was chaste and proper, soft as a butterfly’s wing, but as she withdrew, she puffed a teasing breath against his ear and he suppressed a shiver.
“Baron Sondheim, Lady Hartsford, Lord Marshall, Lady Brelaine, Sir Ashcroft, do allow me to introduce a very dear friend of mine, Physician Tavelorn Ilhedrion.” She tucked her hand through his arm and rested her shoulder against his in a subtle pose that was not lost on some of their observers, particularly the young knight.
This fellow, this Sir Ashcroft, bristled noticeably and tried to hide it by quaffing a goblet of gnomish brandy as if it had been ale. That was an action he was soon to regret, for the potent spirits brought an immediate flush to his countenance. He exhaled in a staggered gasp as if he thought fire might leap from his mouth.
“It’s so good to see you,” Kyra said. “Welcome back.”
“Thank you. As always, it is a pleasure to be here.”
“What a shame, then,” ventured young Sir Ashcroft, “that your dear friend has returned, Lady Kyra, just on the very eve of your being called away!” At this, the impudent human stepped forward and actually made as if to lift Kyra’s hand into the crook of his own elbow.
Tavelorn, with one dark brow raised high, regarded him so stonily that it stopped him mid-stride. Kyra tossed her head, hair tumbling in gorgeous profusion, and her laugh was somehow placating and merry at the same time.
“I prefer to think it a matter of serendipity,” she said, her hand not budging from its place. “If, that is, no pressing business awaits you in Thanis, Tavelorn?”
“None at the moment.”
“Then I’m sure the good Doctor Havens shan’t mind at all if you accompany me on this little trip, instead of him. He claims he has no stomach for carriage-travel, and will likely be glad of the change in plans.”
Sir Ashcroft’s face went hectic, nearly plum, as he realized what Kyra was proposing. His chin quivered like that of a denied child about to burst into tears. But he held fast to his composure, and said to Tavelorn, “Oh, but surely, having only just arrived in Thanis, you’d rather stay and rest than undertake another journey.”
“On the contrary, as I haven’t yet unpacked, it’s most convenient,” Tavelorn replied.
“Splendid!” said Kyra. “We’ll have a grand time, I know it. I’ve always wanted to see Amberdale. Haven’t you, Tavelorn?”
“It’s been a dream of mine,” he said, having no idea where Amberdale was or what about it could possibly be of interest.
The knight looked as though he were attempting to swallow something that did not agree with him. He sized Tavelorn up as he might an opponent, and Tavelorn returned the favor.
Ashcroft was perhaps twenty-five, perhaps twenty-eight. Large and healthy, with a build that spoke of long hours spent in swordplay, on horseback, and in similarly wholesome athletic pursuits. His hair was a shade of blond so light it was nearly white, and cropped even shorter than Tavelorn’s own. His skin was a rich bronze uncommon in the Vale of Banneria. He had a strong jaw and a cleft chin, and clear hazel eyes. Handsome enough by their standards, he supposed. Ashcroft stood as if accustomed to the weight of a sword at his hip, though of course no one bore arms to an evening recital at the Lord’s Retreat.
“I’d best tell Doctor Havens, then,” Kyra said. “And, gracious, I’ll have to make haste. Do excuse me, Sir Ashcroft.”
He gave a stiff nod, and Kyra steered Tavelorn away from him.
“What’s this all about?” He heard suspicion and dislike in his voice. “Why, by the gods, would you go anywhere with that insolent wretch?”
“Because his insolent family is obscenely wealthy,” Kyra said, her eyes sweeping the room for the telltale sight of Havens’ silver-gilt hair. “And I didn’t lie … I have always wanted to see Amberdale. Or at least, have wondered about it. There are odd legends associated with that valley. Thus, when Sir Ashcroft came to me with an invitation to sing at his grandparents’ anniversary celebration, I decided to take him up on it. They’ve been wed fifty years, you know. Really something.”
“I see I came back just in time.”
“Why, Tavelorn,” she purred. “You’re not jealous, are you?”
He wrinkled his nose. “Would I have reason to be?”
“Gods, certainly not.”
“But by the way he looks at you, he thinks he has reason to be.”
“Doesn’t he?” She glanced sidelong at him, a small smile playing about her lips.
“Jealousy implies he thinks he has a chance.”
“More fool he. Ah! Doctor Havens!”
She glided to him, Tavelorn at her side, and quickly explained the new arrangement. Havens did indeed greet it with relief.
“I’m sure it will allay Peredin’s concerns somewhat as well, my dear,” Havens said. “After all, this fellow here would be much more capable than I should there be trouble.”
“Peredin was aghast that I planned only to take a small group with me, and to learn he wasn’t among them,” confided Kyra. “But he’s needed here.”
“Where is this Amberdale, anyway?” asked Tavelorn.
“It’s off to the southwest,” Havens explained. “High country. A tributary of the Maikha flows down through its valley. They say that in the autumn, when the leaves change, it’s one of the most remarkable vistas in the Northlands.”
“Sightseeing?” Tavelorn inquired askance, once Havens and his wife had moved on.
“Not entirely.” That sly smile was back. “I have another reason for going, one that I’m sure you’ll find interesting. I should ask, though. Will you come? I rather jumped in and imposed on you.”
“As if I’d decline. When do we leave?”
“Tomorrow evening. Do let’s keep it to ourselves, though. I had trouble enough convincing that pet gnome of Sera’s that he didn’t need to tag along.”
“Cappy? He probably will anyway. Check your luggage.”
“In the meantime, I’d best get backstage and freshen up. I’m on again soon. Why don’t you join me after? A late supper in my rooms?”
“I’ll be there.”
Kyra kissed him on the cheek again, a more lingering kiss this time. “Have you arranged for a room?” she whispered into his ear.
“Would it trouble you unduly if I had Joretta send someone to bring your things upstairs?”
“Not at all.” He slid his hand along the side of her neck, and while it was hidden by the lush fall of her hair, ran his thumb slowly over her earlobe. For an instant, he caught himself imagining how she’d look in diamond earrings to match the necklace she wore, a touch of Morvalan wickedness, and suffered a sudden pang of sharp desire.
“I’ll see you soon,” she promised.
He stayed where he was as she vanished into the crowd. His head was filled with questions, but he decided none of them really mattered. She’d tell him why they were taking this trip, and best of all, he’d be on hand as a constant irritant to Sir Ashcroft, whose interest in Kyra was both inappropriate and offensive. Who knew, it might even have to come to a fight. Tavelorn would enjoy the opportunity to strike down the inferior beast, who reminded him too strongly of the arrogant Knights of Blackmoon and other humans who put themselves above their stations.
The chime of a bell signaled the end of intermission. On his way back to the box, Tavelorn saw and deftly avoided Virine Fistrel. The sight of her didn’t knot his stomach so badly as before, now that he knew she hadn’t been working her will on Kyra while he’d been away. Or if she had, it hadn’t been successful.
That had been a concern lurking in the back of his mind, one he hadn’t even been aware of or acknowledged until now. The possibility that he might have returned and found that Kyra had decided she needed the goodwill of the influential, well-connected ambassador far more than she needed the attentions of one Tavelorn Ilhedrion, whose reputation in the Emerin varied between eccentric and unsavory.
But Kyra was a woman of her own mind. He trusted her to make her own decisions regarding Virine and himself, to walk whatever uneasy balance she needed to.
The second half of her performance was as enchanting as the first, though livelier. Rather than ballads and long, slow Emerinian songs, she did a variety of Northlands ones, and somehow lent an elven air to those rustic, country-simple tunes. He found it perhaps not quite as pleasant as before, but Kyra could have made orc-music sound good.
When the show ended and the doors opened again, people began filing out. Tavelorn waited until most of them had gone, waited a while more to be sure that he would not run into Virine Fistrel, and made his way upstairs. He stopped by his room and found that his personal belongings had already been moved.
The topmost floors were accessible only to preferred clients of the Lord’s Retreat. The truly wealthy or powerful could retire here, where secluded lounges and card-parlors and libraries awaited their pleasure. Nearly any elf of reasonable means would quickly be welcomed into that elite group.
Tavelorn passed a salon where the Baroness Jolda held sway over one of her interminable card parties, her ornate necklace with its enormous ruby seeming to be the only thing that prevented the frail old woman from simply blowing away on a strong wind. The Heart of something-or-another, the dwarves called that gem, and considered it cursed because it was magical. Yet one more thing on his long list of to-dos, but not one to be addressed tonight.
Joretta Whitley, Kyra’s capable assistant – and tolerable, for a human – met him in the antechamber to Kyra’s apartment. As it was so late in the day, her normally pin-neat appearance had slipped a bit, fluffy locks of hair escaping their clips, smudges of harried weariness beneath her eyes. She needed a good night’s sleep, but with Kyra leaving on the morrow and doubtless entrusting the management of the Lord’s Retreat to Joretta’s hands, Tavelorn doubted she’d get one.
She mumbled something by way of a hello as she hurried past, her arms laden with notes and lists and sheaves of instructions. Had the lords and ladies who so delighted in the attentive personal care they received here known the depth of the information that Kyra had gathered on them, he suspected they might not rest easily either. Kyra was probably in possession of more secret knowledge than the Nightsiders and Tavelorn’s great-uncle Tanneivan combined. Should she ever tire of being a hotelier, she could have a fine secondary career as a spy and blackmailer.
The door to her sitting room was ajar. Tavelorn let himself in, swallowed up by velvety shadows and flickering candlelight. A supper for two had been set up on the small round table by the bay window. Few places in Thanis could boast such a view. The Rings of the city, outlined in lanterns, descended toward the river. The Tower of the Archmage could not be seen from this side of the building, but its ever-present soft rainbow glow danced at the edges of the windows like the ice-lights of the north.
“Would you pour the wine?” called Kyra’s voice from her bedroom.
“Of course.” He did so, noting that it was one of his favorites of the Morvalan vintages.
Delicious aromas rose from the covered dishes. He saw his bags piled by the sofa, his cloak and his sword Discordant hanging from the coat-pegs.
“Mmm, I’m starved,” Kyra said. She came into the room belting a seafoam-green satin wrapper around herself. She hadn’t removed her necklace, or her stockings, he saw.
He met her midway, taking her in his arms. Beneath cool satin, her flesh was warm, and the shape of her body at once exciting and familiar. Their kiss now was not a polite buss on the cheek but a deep, searching, hungry one. Her fingers combed through short dark hair and stroked, with a feather-light touch, the outer rims of his ears.
“I’ve missed you,” he said as they broke apart.
She laid her head on his shoulder and sighed. “I’ve missed you, too. How was your adventure?”
“A very long story for another time,” he said. “I’m back and in one piece, that’s all that matters right now. What of you? How have things been here?”
“Let me just say that Doctor Havens has missed you too, possibly even more than I did. We had one drunken fool go through the stained-glass window in the Carnelian Salon, and the good doctor had to piece him back together without your expert help.”
Tavelorn chuckled. “How did he do?”
“Well, he didn’t faint, and he didn’t vomit, but the amount of cognac he had to put away during the operation made his hands a bit wobbly. The stitches looked like a palsied woman’s first try at needlepoint. But this is fine dinner conversation, isn’t it?”
“We can change the subject.” He held out her chair and she slid lithely into it, the wrapper falling away to reveal one leg to mid-thigh, to pearly stocking-top. “Tell me about Amberdale. I thought you didn’t do command performances, even for the Highlord. They must be paying quite well.”
“They are, but that’s only part of it.” She lifted the covers off the dishes. Pheasant in cream sauce, steamed baby vegetables with a pat of butter melting in golden streams, bite-sized spicy meat pies. “I’m planning to redo the West Ballroom, and thought that a paneling in amberwood might be nice.”
“Somehow, I don’t think that’s the ‘reason’ you mentioned, the one that would interest me.”
She served them both, replaced the spoon and the lid. “The people of Amberdale are, to most appearances, just like any other humans. But there’s something unusual about them. Vegetables?”
“Thank you. Unusual? In what way? The one I met tonight looked typical of the breed, if slightly fitter than most.”
“You must try these meat pies,” she said. “The recipe is Lenaisian, but Merrin added her own special touch.”
“Kyra, I think you enjoy tormenting me.”
“Perhaps I do.” She took a morsel from her fork, paused to lick cream sauce from her lips. “Perhaps later, I’ll torment you in other ways.”
“Oh, will you?”
“After all, it was very naughty of you to be gone so long without word. You should be chastised. We were all worried, you see.”
“I’m sorry to have worried you, but flattered.”
“I’m sure you are. What were we talking about again?”
“The people of Amberdale.”
“Oh, yes. It’s come to my attention that they are, one and all, highly, and I mean highly, susceptible to magic.”
Tavelorn’s fork, with a meat-pie impaled upon it, stopped halfway to his mouth. “How susceptible?”
By way of answer, she brought out a piece of tissue paper that might have come from a box cradling some fragile item. “As susceptible as this is … to this.” She held it to the inverted teardrop of flame rising from one of the candles. It caught, flared, crisped and curled and was gone into ash and powder.
“That is interesting,” he said.
“Doctor Havens believes it is caused by something in their diet. Something in the plant life, or the earth, or possibly the water.”
“How did he find out about this?”
“It started with Merrin. We received a shipment of fish from Cyarmhun River, which is what they call their tributary. While she was preparing it, she noticed that the fish responded exceedingly well to the cooking spells utilized by her domestics. Further experimentation found that the same was true of the other items from Amberdale. And the people. Doctor Havens became scientifically curious, as is his wont, and sent an apprentice to examine the river and the surrounding areas.”
“Normal,” Kyra said. “There is no extra power there, but things that come from there seem to have this … this vulnerability, if you will. The apprentice, Naranin, found that the effects increased the further upriver he went. He wasn’t able to go all the way to Amberdale itself, since they have a distrust of magic and elves there.”
“There’s a lot of that going around these days,” Tavelorn said sourly.
“So it has remained nothing but a scientific curiosity. Until recently. Sir Ashcroft the Eldest would like to see his valley become more involved with the neighboring lords. Amberdale is fairly isolated by its geography and lack of political leanings. They took no part in the war, have paid only token homage to the Highlord, and so on. But having had a scare with his heart some time ago, the elder Ashcroft realized that his time was short and he wasn’t going to leave much to his sons except their remote holding.”
“And so he’s chosen this anniversary party as a way of getting to know his neighbors. By making it a fabulous event, with the best entertainment in the Northlands, he’s sure to attract favorable attention.”
“His hope precisely.”
“Whereupon you leapt at the chance to get some people in there to investigate this peculiar little effect.”
“Yes. I want to know the source of it. More, I want to know --”
“If it can be duplicated,” Tavelorn finished.
“Yes,” she agreed.
“You’re right. These meat pies are incredible.”
“So I shall go, and I shall sing, and I shall make my manners to these humans. And while I’m doing that, Naranin, who’ll be traveling with me in the guise of a domestic rather than an apprentice, will be getting a closer look at the lovely Amberdale countryside. Your expertise would be a muchly-welcome addition to our little trip.”
“I’m quite interested in it myself,” he said. “Anything that makes them more easily affected by our magic is something that definitely bears looking into.”
The toe of her stockinged foot touched his shin beneath the table. “I knew I could count on you. Oh, Tavelorn, I’m so glad you picked such an opportune moment to turn up! And not only because you’ll be so much better company than dear Doctor Havens.”
“You know me,” he said. “I’d never want to miss out on something like this. Especially with such a lovely traveling companion.”
“I daresay I have some charms that Karandis can’t match.”
“Oh, definitely. Are you taking your own carriage?”
“I’d planned to. Much to the disappointment of young Sir Ashcroft, I must say. It’s not a flying one either, I’m afraid.”
Tavelorn rolled his eyes. “Don’t even get me started on Rae and her flying carriages. She thinks I’ve been lying to her, deliberately and with malice aforethought, for some sinister purpose of my own.”
“Tsk, Tavelorn, sinister purpose? Who’d ever think such a thing of you?” She regarded him shrewdly over the rim of her wine glass.
“An alarming number of people, it would seem.” He refilled his and tinked the crystal against hers, making a resonant tone. “I could stand to take some lessons from you in that regard.”
“Lessons? Do you need instruction?” Her smile was rich as dark chocolate. “Or correction?”
“Why am I beginning to have the impression you’ve something specific in mind?”
“Because that’s very much the impression I’m trying to give. Are you finished?”
“I wouldn’t want to overindulge. At the table, anyway.”
“Excellent decision. It’s gotten quite late, and we’ll have much to do if we’re going to be ready to leave tomorrow. We should adjourn to the other room.”
He rose and held her chair again. She stepped lightly into his embrace, and when he put his arms around her she reached behind with surprising strength, braceleting his wrists and holding them there. Her quick inhalations pressed her bosom rhythmically against his chest, and her eyes gazing up into his were both starry and mischievous. He’d seen her in many moods, but never quite like this, and wasn’t sure what to make of it.
“Let’s get you out of all these cumbersome clothes,” she whispered, bending her head to nip at his collar. Her tongue flicked out, catlike, to the hollow at the base of his throat. As she released his hands, he reached for her again but she twisted smoothly away and waved her finger at him, chidingly. “First things first, Tavelorn.”
“Aren’t we the minx tonight,” he said, but obligingly began undoing the buttons of his maroon doublet, with its black and silver trim and its almost-Morvalan angles of cut.
“You don’t know the half of it,” she said. The finger that had been chidingly waving at him now curled into a beckoning come-along.
She led him into her bedroom, which was a place of dark soft fabrics and soothing lines and airy, open space. He observed that the coverlet, which was of silkmole fur so cunningly sewn that it might have been made from one huge pelt rather than dozens of tiny ones, was folded neatly to the foot of the bed. An expanse of silk, deep blue in the light but inky black in the shadows, awaited them. Darker striations lay upon the pillows, and even with his keen elvensight he couldn’t quite tell what they were.
Kyra settled herself into an overstuffed chair, crossing her long legs. Her wrap fell away clear to the hip, showing him stockings and the fine silver clasps of her garters, and the belt of black lace that held them in place.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“Take off those clothes and lie down,” she said. Some other dark striations lay across the arm of the chair, but these she picked up and he was able to identify them as the gloves she’d worn during her performance. She began drawing them slowly on.
Not without a twinge of apprehension – this mood was one he’d neither seen nor imagined – he did as she bade and undressed. It felt strange to do it while she sat there and watched him and said nothing, pulling on those gloves and smoothing them up her slender arms.
“There,” she said. “In the center of the bed.”
He sat upon it, the silk of the sheets a cool whisper on his bare skin, and slid to the center. The things draped over the pillows were kidskin straps, each ending in a cuff like a belt. His apprehension became worry, but underlying it was a prickle of excitement. He wondered if she’d been spending too much time in the company of Lady Charlotte Payne while he’d been away, Lady Payne whose brothels were known for catering to all manner of unorthodox tastes.
“Lie back,” Kyra said, a low whisper but a command nonetheless.
It occurred to Tavelorn, for what felt like the first time, to ask himself how much he really trusted this woman. She was beautiful and elegant and wealthy and cultured, but she had her darker side. Her dangerous side. And not in the same way as Kai Tilanne, whose aura of danger was born of her faith and her office.
Did he trust her?
He looked at her, the brightest image in the dimly-lit room. She let the wrapper fall from her shoulders and stood there in stockings, garter belt, diamond necklace, elbow gloves, and nothing else. His throat went dry with wanting, and suddenly it didn’t matter if he trusted her or not. He’d do what she wished. Who could do otherwise?
More cool silk enfolded him as he reclined onto the pillows. Kyra came to the side of the bed and grasped his forearm, affixing the cuff to his wrist so that his arm was held out to the side and up above his head. She did not lean over him to do the other but walked leisurely around, giving him ample time to study the sway and form of her body.
Once he was secured, she stepped back and watched in amusement as he pulled testingly at the bonds. He was not as muscular as, say, King Wyndrel, but he was no weakling either, and was confident that he could break free with effort. If he had to. Which he didn’t think he would.
“Someone’s been a very naughty boy,” Kyra said. She bent over him, hair falling like the red velvet curtains of an opera house to tickle at his chest.
“Whatever will you do to me?” he asked in a murmur.
With a swiftness he hadn’t known she possessed, she bound a satin blindfold over his eyes. In utter darkness, he could only listen through ears that had grown even more preternaturally sensitive. He heard the rustle and whisking of her movements, her stockings brushing together as she walked away from the bed. He heard his own breathing, a bit rapid, and the same could be said for his drumming pulse. He stirred, testing the bonds again, and the rasp of the straps over the silk was very loud.
From the other room came the sounds of glass clinking, or liquid pouring. He remembered there had been perhaps half a glass left in the wine bottle. And yes, his other senses were heightened too, making up for the loss of the use of his eyes. He could smell it, the rich violet fragrance of the wine.
She was coming back. He heard her light tread, detected the breeze of the air moving in front of her by the way the fine hairs on his skin reacted.
Liquid dribbled onto his chest. He gasped, tensing against the straps.
Wine. Trickling onto him, from the glass she held tipped some inches above. And then the warm, moist pressure of her tongue as she lapped up each of the droplets.
“Kyra …” How strained his voice sounded to his own ears!
“Shhh,” she said.
A fingertip, sheathed in black velvet, touched his lips to silence him. That finger withdrew as he tried to kiss it, tried to draw it into his mouth. It moved to his chin, then traced the line of his jaw up toward his earlobe. He turned his head to the side, giving her freer access.
But in the moment before she would have touched that sensitive flesh, she lifted her hand away. Brought it to his lips again. Repeated the process on the other side of his head. Again, stopped a hair’s breadth from his ear.
She touched his brow, skated three fingers lightly down his face, soft velvet skipping over the blindfold and down his cheeks, to his lips again. His chin. His neck. Collarbones. That first hand was joined by its sister and velvet-covered palms spread like warm flowers on his chest, slid out to his shoulders.
“I doubt you had time to visit the spa,” she said.
“I didn’t,” he said huskily.
Her hands exerted more pressure, massaging, kneading their way over his shoulders and upper arms. Then down, over his chest again. Her hair brushed him in wispy tendrils. He felt one stocking-clad thigh against his. Her fingers, tickling pleasantly down his ribs. To his waist. Lower.
Tavelorn was very aware how his body had responded to the erotically charged atmosphere. He strove toward Kyra, wanting to meet her, aching for her. It was too soon, of course, they were elves and did not rush things. But it had been so long since he’d been with her, so long since he’d been with any woman, and if there was one thing about the pace of life outside of the Emerin, it was that some pleasures need not always be delayed.
She passed over that most needful part of him and began working her way in languid massage down his legs. Velvet fingers, velvet palms, on his thighs, his knees, all the way to his feet. There, kneeling at the foot of the bed, she began the process in reverse, moving back up but caressing him this time with lips and tongue and gentle little nips of her pearl-white teeth. Her hair trailed after like a banner, and occasionally he felt the cold hard touch of diamonds as her necklace came into contact with him.
He heard himself moaning, helpless beneath her careful attentions. Although he could not see her face, he knew by some inner eye that she wore a cat-in-the-cream smile of pride and passion.
Her mouth finally reached his and claimed it, insistently parting his lips, their breath mingling as she probed within his mouth. Tongues fenced like dueling blades. Tavelorn strained up from the mattress, his wrists chafing with a peculiarly delightful tension in the cuffs. He would slide his arms around her waist and pull her down atop him …
Kyra rose in one sure motion, a throaty chuckle her only reply to his brief cry of dismay. He could hear her moving about the room again and his mind whirled with possibilities. Her steps returned to the bedside and she waited there for what seemed forever. In the darkness of the blindfold, he could only quiver, not knowing what she might do, or where her next touch might descend.
A tickling softness found his ear. He started, gasping again, and recognized it as a feather. A silken plume of some sort, fluttering against his ear rim. With agonizing slowness, Kyra stroked the feather over every inch of him. And then it was lifted away.
Before he could begin to wonder what might happen next, her velvet-gloved hand closed firmly around his rigid length. He cried out aloud from the sudden lovely shock. Her other hand joined the first, one curled snugly around the base while the other massaged in lazy strokes.
“Someone seems to be enjoying his punishment,” she whispered. “Are you, my naughty boy?”
“Very much so,” he said thickly, barely able to form words because of the waves of pleasure spreading through him in time with the stroking of her hand. “And if you keep on like that, you’ll soon have proof,” he added in warning, clenching his jaw and trying to forestall the building climax.
“We can’t have that, now, can we?” She released him, the cessation of sensation a sweet agony all of its own, and the bed shifted as she repositioned herself.
She presented something rounded and full to his lips, the full ripe swell of her breast. He accepted the gift almost greedily, suckling the pert pink nipple that memory told him was the color and succulence of a just-ripening strawberry. Kyra began stroking both of his ears with the same lazy rhythm she’d used only moments ago.
He switched to the other breast, which pressed against his cheek. He would have smothered himself in that abundance of flesh, gladly done so. Her hands slid along the back curves of his ears, but then she was shifting again. Letting go of him. And lowering herself with a stockinged thigh to either side of his head. Gossamer silk rubbed his ears with maddening friction.
A crisply silken tuft like a fox’s pelt brushed his face, redolent with the musky scent of her arousal. He raised his mouth to her, eagerly, desirous to please. His tongue ran along the damp cleft, tasting her, parting her, delving into her hidden depths. Kyra’s voice, from somewhere above, uttered a low wavering sigh. She rolled her hips in unhurried circles, each movement causing those stockings to rub against his ears all the more.
She trembled, and Tavelorn knew she was close. He forged on, his own needs sublimated by the overwhelming wish to bring about her release. But just before that penultimate moment, she moved away from him, sliding down the bed to kiss him, a deep and possessing kiss.
“Oh, Kyra,” he moaned against her mouth.
Her leg swung up and over, imprisoning his hips, and never had there been a more willing prisoner! One gloved hand reached back to guide, and then she was easing down onto him, taking him into herself, embracing him in that snug, moist warmth that enveloped him fully. He arched to meet her, their cries overlapping in harmony.
Their motion was a slow and gentle rocking. At one point Kyra leaned forward, her breasts pushing against his chest, and he felt a tugging as she freed the cuffs. His hands closed around her slim waist, holding her as she rose and fell, rocked and swayed. Her next act was to strip away the blindfold, letting him revel in the sight of her kneeling astride him, that fabulous hair tumbling over her like a shawl, her eyes half-lidded but fixed upon his.
The trembling began again, quaking through Kyra. She quickened her pace, and Tavelorn matched her. He didn’t want it to be over yet, but knew there was no stopping it this time. It had been too long denied, this passion, and he knew they still had the rest of the night, and a long carriage ride. So, with a groan of surrender, he strove against her, driving deep, feeling the walls of her passage, walls that seemed to have been made from oiled satin, contract around his in a series of wracking spasms. Her chest heaved, a flush turning her pale skin to misty rose.
He pulled her down, held her to him with diamonds caught between them. He nuzzled at her ear and breathing her name again and again, almost chanting it with a reverence akin to that he might have shown a goddess. Their bodies were locked together, slick with perspiration that cooled them as it melted away into the air. Neither of them were inclined to move for quite a while, and when at last Kyra did, it was only to curl against his side, her head resting on his chest, the tip of her ear poking affectionately against his neck each time he inhaled.
“Remind me,” he said when he trusted himself to speak again, “to be naughty more often.”
“I will,” she said, and he felt her smile against his skin.
At some point, she moved from him long enough to retrieve the silkmole fur coverlet that had fallen to the floor during their encounter. She drew it over them, snuggled contentedly against him again, and they drifted off to sleep in each other’s arms.
For Tavelorn, it was the easiest slipping into sleep’s dark embrace that he’d known since … since, well, the last night he’d spent at the Lord’s Retreat, in this very bed. No strange nocturnal noises, no makeshift camp or shoddy excuse for a roadside inn, no being roused at some ungodly hour to stand watch against marauding orcs or bogeymen. His last thought before succumbing was a cheerful one – and no waking to lumpy, gluey porridge for breakfast!
He did wake to breakfast, but it was not porridge. It was to the aromas of piping-hot kofa, fried shavings of ham, bread fresh from the oven. Opening his eyes to thin ribbons of daylight streaming through the curtains, he was greeted by Kyra. Slumber-tousled, but no less beautiful for it, and smiling at him.
“I must have worn you out,” she said. He saw that she had dispensed with her stockings and necklace, putting back on the seafoam-green wrapper. The door between bedroom and sitting room was standing open. A domestic, just leaving, had probably seen him as well as the litter of clothes on the floor. And maybe even the straps dangling down the side of the mattress. Tavelorn didn’t care.
He got up, and Kyra handed him a pair of silken lounging pants he’d conveniently arranged to have forgotten the last time he spent the night in her quarters. He examined the marks on his wrists, faded red and barely visible, not painful at all.
They dined together in a warm fall of morning light. In addition to the kofa, ham, and bread, they had poached eggs and sliced melon, and a light, fruity wine.
“I thought we’d pack a picnic supper to eat on the way,” Kyra said. “Sir Ashcroft tells me that there are adequate inns between here and Amberdale, but for tonight, I’d prefer not to dine in any bargeman’s establishment.”
Tavelorn nodded, recalling their planned outing. “I’ll have a few things to tend to today, but I’ll be ready to go.”
“I’m so very glad you’ve decided to come along.”
“I wouldn’t have missed it.”
After breakfast, they bathed together and lingered in the bath until the water went cold. He combed out her hair for her, and dressed in his about-town clothes. Which meant, since he considered any town other than Perras Peliani only a few short steps removed from a war zone, donning his cleverly-designed armor and belting Discordant around his waist.
A few hours later, all of his business attended to, he returned to the Lord’s Retreat. Kyra’s carriage was a comfortable affair of mahogany and silver trim, and the Ro’Sallin crest set into the doors in coats-of-arms in enamel. It was of an elven style, a kind Tavelorn recognized as having two interior compartments. He turned to her with an inquisitive smile, and she winked slyly.
They’d be taking two standard domestics with them, one a cook and the other a driver. A guardsman, at Peredin’s insistence, would ride along with them on horseback. In addition, the apprentice Naranin – not a physician-in-training, it seemed, but a mage-of-all-trades picking up spells wherever and whenever and from whichever master he could – would be joining them.
Naranin was a short, thin, edgy-looking sort, one that Tavelorn pegged instantly. In the Emerin, there were more than one of his type. From a servant-class family, tested with a high enough aptitude to indicate a career as a mage but without the money for full schooling or the degree of talent to ensure a scholarship.
“I wouldn’t have thought you needed a carriage,” he remarked, watching as the others loaded their baggage.
Kyra laughed. She was dressed for traveling, not in the sleek evening gowns she customarily wore when she was making appearances, but in a smoke-colored cloudwool skirt that hugged her hips, and a creamy silk blouse closed at the collar with a strand of truesilver beads. “Believe it or not, I do sometimes go out.”
“Why would anyone leave the Lord’s Retreat if he or she didn’t have to? It’s a world unto itself, a far finer one than anything you’ll find this side of the Emerin.”
“Alas, sometimes the ugly necessities of life intervene.” She glanced around as another carriage, this one looking a bit the worse for road-wear, rolled up. A stout fellow with a spade-shaped beard was driving, and two riders came up behind. Both were in chainmail, with shields strapped to their arms and swords at their waists.
Sir Ashcroft’s blond head popped out the window. His expression brightened when he saw Kyra, and went slightly pained when he saw Tavelorn at her side. He mastered his displeasure fairly well, and asked, “Are we ready to depart?”
“Lead the way,” Kyra said, hiking her skirt to climb into the carriage. She chose the rear compartment, with long and wide padded seats and heavy drapes. “Tavelorn?”
“To Amberdale,” he said, and climbed in beside her.
Doctor Havens, Peredin, Joretta, and a few others had come to see them off. They called farewells, and waved, and promised to look after things in Kyra’s absence. Just before Naranin shut the door to the other compartment, where he’d be riding with the cook, a small figure came trotting down the steps, burdened with a backpack nearly as big as he was.
“Hey! Tavelorn! Kyra! Wait up!”
“Oh, no,” groaned Kyra.
“Cappy, what are you doing here?”
“Coming along!” The gnome, in his best traveling clothes – standard flannel, not ‘Emerinian flannel’ that would ensure him a beating, a leather jerkin, and his trademark cap with jaunty green feather – caught the edge of the door just as Naranin tried to close it. “Kyra said she didn’t need me to come too, but I know she was just being polite. Really, I don’t mind a journey.”
“Madame?” the young apprentice asked nervously.
Kyra looked at Tavelorn. He looked back, and shrugged. “He might come in handy.”
“Oh, very well,” Kyra said. She leaned out the window. “Welcome along, Cappy.”
“Gee, thanks!” chirped Cappy. “You won’t regret it. I brought two decks of cards, some dice, a book of Southern limericks …”
“I’m regretting it already,” she muttered.
The drivers clucked, “Hya!” to the horses, and the carriages began to roll, down the streets of Thanis toward the road leading westward along the river.