"Halt! Who goes?"
"The Lord of the Emerald Deep," the coachman replied.
Within, Verdant stirred from a light doze at the sounds of the voices. He ran a hand through
his mussed hair and yawned, then stretched as much as the confines of the coach would allow.
"The lord of what?" the first voice asked, askance.
"The Emerald Deep," the coachman said again.
"Where might that be?"
Verdant sighed and pushed the door open that he might lean out. "Southeast Hachland, good sir."
The moment he stepped down, he knew where they were. Gamelin Gate, a mammoth arch of
stone supposedly built centuries ago by the dwarves of Montennor. The Gate and a few miles of high
fortifications were all that remained of the Gamelin Wall, the rest destroyed well before even the time
of Verdant's grandfather.
Against the gently rolling golden grainfields of the southernmost duchy in the Northlands, the towering
edifice seemed a relic of some forgotten age. The road which passed beneath the carved blocks of
wind-smoothed granite was little more than a hardpacked dirt track, rutted by wagon-wheels.
The guard had emerged from a station concealed within the foundation stones. He was dusty and looked
uncomfortable in his uniform of scarlet and midnight blue -- the Duke's colors. When he shifted his gaze to
Verdant, one eyebrow climbed skeptically on his weathered brow and the same corner of his mouth turned
up in a wry grin.
"And who are you?"
Verdant sighed again, knowing that the youthful features beneath his crop of lush black hair made him
appear even younger than his eighteen years. He straightened his cape and tossed it back over one shoulder,
so that the emerald and gold crest-brooch pinned to his doublet could catch the sun.
"The Lord of Emerald Deep," he explained patiently. He gestured to the green-clad outriders that had
accompanied him. "We go to Tradersport. By your leave." His tone made the last words a command rather
than a request.
The guard took in the quality of Verdant's clothing and the fine barding of the riders' horses, and dipped
his head in a gruff nod. "I cry pardon, lord. You and your company may pass through."
With that, he stepped back and bowed, leaving the way open before them. Verdant swung back aboard
and drew the drapes open.
The gates themselves, logs so large that they could have come from the high forests of Lenais bound with
iron bands as wide as a man was tall, stood open. Judging by the way the grass had grown up around their
bottoms, Verdant hazarded a guess that it had been a score of years or more since they'd actually been moved
from their resting place.
On the other side of the arch clustered a small village. The people -- families of the soldiers assigned to this
post, no doubt -- stopped to stare as the richly-appointed coach went by with its escort of armed men.
"Must not be many travelers passing by this way," the coachman muttered.
"Think of the land we've come through, Lewik," Verdant reminded him. "Betwixt here and Dark Lake, there's
not much in the way of places to visit."
"Do you wish to stop here for the night?" Lewik indicated a building whose placard bore the Northlands-wide
emblem of a mug, a spoon, and a bed.
"Gods, no." Verdant eyed the ramshackle construction. There was a cat sprawled on the steps, flies droning
around its head, and as it did not move in the time it took the coach to roll by, he concluded it was dead. "We can
put many more miles behind us, and camping roadside, even in a muddy ditch, seems like a cleaner and more
Lewik clucked to the horses and they picked up their pace, and soon Gate-Town was vanishing in the
distance. Verdant watched the fields pass by for a while, waved indulgently to the more presentable of the
peasant girls, and eventually grew bored with the scenery. He closed the drapes and settled into the cushions,
which, after much travel, had squashed into the imprint of his form.
He crossed his feet on the bench across from him, laced his fingers behind his head, and entertained himself
with speculations of what the days ahead might bring. Such thoughts, however, soon resulted in a pronounced
state of discomfort in the region of his breeches. His hand strayed in that direction.
"Save it," he murmured, restraining himself. "Not much longer now. We'll be in Tradersport soon, and then
... oh, and then ...!"
Two days later, as the sun was low in the west and their shadows stretched out long before them, Lewik
rapped on the roof of the coach.
"Tradersport, my lord. We've just come into sight of it."
Verdant stood on the seat and pushed open the trapdoor. A strong sea-breeze ruffled his hair.
They'd just topped a rise, and ahead, the land sloped down to the Fanrel Inlet. To the south, the sunlight
glimmered on the sea like a spray of gold and rubies scattered on a sheet of turquoise satin. To the east, the
wide Jelinas River was a blue ribbon curving among the hills that climbed toward the duchy of Keyda and
Lake Jeline. Where the river met the sea, there was Tradersport.
The harbor of tall-masted ships. The turreted brick and white-shingled castle of the Duke. The pearlescent
Tower of the Archmage of Gamelin, said to be an echo of the Tower of the Archmage of Thanis but also
bearing a distinctly elven flair. The baronial estates lining the river, barges moving to and fro. The tent-filled
marketplace, teeming like an anthill at this distance.
"Tradersport," Verdant said with much satisfaction. "Well done, Lewik. Into the city, then, and we shall
find an inn."
"My lord ..."
"What is it? Have you something on your mind, man?"
"I know my lord has ... business to attend to here ..."
"Yes, my late uncle left me some properties I must needs investigate, why?"
Lewik cleared his throat. "Well ... I'd also heard that my lord had other business."
"Oh." Verdant laughed. "That business. Yes, what of it?"
"It's true, then?"
"Depending on what you heard, perhaps."
"My lord doesn't really mean to ... to visit ... to wallow in the ... to go to the temple of Talopea?"
"Wallow in the filth?" Verdant parroted, and laughed all the harder.
Lewik turned, the reins laying loosely over his knee, his face set in a stern frown. "My lord, need I point
out that your family has been, for generations now, faithful followers of Bright Helia and Wise Galatine?"
"You needn't point that out, Lewik, I'm well aware of it."
"So it seems to me, my lord," he persisted doggedly, "that your ancestors might be dismayed at this? Your
lady mother was the most devout Helianite ever to have --"
"I wouldn't say that; Helia is the goddess of chastity as well as of the sun. Mother must have 'sinned' at least
once." He tapped himself and grinned.
Lewik scowled. "But even so, my lord ... to go from that to Talopeanism ..."
"I'm not converting to the Talopean faith, Lewik, I assure you. I'm merely ... curious."
"Curiosity of that nature, my lord would be better addressing in Galatine's sacred rite of marriage."
"I will marry, someday. But in the meantime, Lewik, I intend to see just what all the fuss is about. Calm
yourself. I'll be fine. It's a temple, after all."
"Temple! Brothel, more like it."
"Lewik, they're priestesses!"
"Coinwenches with incense and candles."
"Oh, really now --"
"I speak the truth, my lord! They ask for an offering instead of demanding payment, but 'tis all the same!"
"I'd no idea you were so well-versed on the Talopeans," Verdant said slyly, enjoying the flood of beet-red
that instantly colored Lewik's face.
"My lord! I've never ... I would never ..."
"Mayhap you should. It'd settle your nerves."
"I advise against this, most stringently."
"Noted. Now, press on, I want to find an inn before the supper hour." He let the trapdoor fall back into
place as he sat down, chuckling to himself.
Coinwenches with incense and candles, indeed! We'll just see about that, he thought. We'll just see.
The streets of Tradersport were so crowded that the coach was slowed to a crawl. Verdant saw many strange
and wondrous things out the window. Emerald Deep was arguably the most beautiful place in all of Hachland,
but it was fairly remote, and his journey thus far had been through small towns and villages of mostly ordinary
Here, though, orcs and orckin walked in the open, gnomes were everywhere, and a few elves drifted in and
out of the shops in that graceful I've-all-the-time-in-the-world manner. No dwarves, not so close to the open sea,
but he spied a minotaur family, a bull and a cow with matching nose-rings, a calf close on their heels.
And not only the presence of the other races, but even the humans came in a host of varieties. Pale Northlanders,
golden-skinned Plainsfolk, cocoa-complected Islanders, ebony Perrifaulians, and every blended shade in between.
The slave market offered more spectacle -- goblinkind crammed a dozen to a cage, mountain trolls squinting
painfully at the sun, rock trolls glaring sullenly and making deadly lunges at any passers-by who came too close.
Lewik turned away from the marketplace and into the quieter, more scholarly neighborhood of scribes, tutors,
mapmakers, and artists. From there, it was only a few streets more to Hampton Gardens, where the wealthy
merchants and minor nobles lived. And there ...
"Stop the coach!" Verdant commanded. "It's the Avenue of the Gods. I've always wanted to see it."
He emerged, his guards moving closer as if they expected all manner of ruffians to come boiling out of the
serene parklike surroundings. Never mind that he was armed himself, and though young was already gaining
something of a reputation as a swordsman in Hachland; he was still their lord and they were sworn to defend him.
The Avenue of the Gods was a well-mown and tended lawn bisected by a two-wagons-wide walkway of salmon
pink (and, Verdant thought, really rather ugly) marble. Seven smaller walkways branched off of it, each leading to a
hexagonal open-sided rotunda, the roofs supported by fluted columns. All in that pink marble, and ringed with
carefully-spaced and nicely-groomed white birches.
At the center of each rotunda was a white alabaster statue. Each was carved in a different style, all too
obviously by vastly different craftsmen, and each depicted one of the gods. Here was Galatine, god of justice and
wisdom. There, Tarana the Lady of Growing. Kelvennor the Creator. Honorable Blackmoon. Chaste Helia. Even
the humorless god of the dead, whose name it was believed was bad luck even to think.
Verdant turned away from that statue with a barely-repressed shudder, and went instead to survey the
voluptuous curves of Talopea.
Desire in alabaster. Half-reclined on a couch, one hand resting with teasing concealment on the juncture of her
lushly perfect thighs, the other poised just above one ripe and magnificent breast.
The guards, trailing after, nudged one another and winked when they saw the image that so captured their young
lord's attention, but Lewik made a disapproving face and busied himself checking the horse-harnesses.
"Whoever built this place," Ferd, one of the guards, remarked, "must have had a cousin who owned a pink marble
"I wouldn't have thought there was so much in all the world," Verdant said, reluctantly turning away from the
statue of Talopea. "It's a singularly ill hue, isn't it?"
Ferd shrugged and ogled the goddess' likeness. "Then again, with things such as that to look at, who notices the
"True enough! But we've put in a long day; let's find an inn and see about something to eat."
"And drink," Keljac, another of the guards, said to murmurs of agreement from his fellows.
Verdant strolled to the end of the Avenue. He paused, momentarily finding it odd that the arrangement was
unbalanced -- four gods on one side, three on another, but set up in such a way it seemed the designers meant to
include an eighth rotunda but someone pointed out at the last minute that there were only seven gods of the Northlands.
Not counting Steel, of course, the Thanian patron of warriors, but the Steelite faith was only a few decades old
and the Avenue of the Gods was said to pre-date the founding of Thanis.
Yet, where such an eighth rotunda should have been, there was only a grassy square, ringed with birches like the
others, with a plain stone birdbath set in the middle.
Verdant chalked it up to poor planning, and went back to his coach. Not long after, he was relaxing in one of the
private sitting rooms of the Hampton Arms, not the most expensive inn in Tradersport, but more than adequately
suited to his needs.
He dined on succulent whitefish in a spicy Perrifaulian sauce and sampled a few too many Islander liqueurs, so
sweet and syrupy that he may as well have been drinking honey. When he was sated (reminding himself to have a
light but filling breakfast on the morrow, as he certainly hoped he would need the energy), he started to his room.
And stopped when he heard his name mentioned. Ah, there they were, Lewik and the guards, seated around a
long table and feasting on roast goose with walnut stuffing, washing it down with copious amounts of ale.
"No, no, if that's all he wanted, there are maids aplenty back home who would be more than willing," Ferd said.
"Mark me, he's got something else in mind."
"You don't think ..." Keljac began, then vigorously shook his head and reached for a fresh mug.
"What?" Lewik asked, mouth set in a grim line.
Keljac snickered into his ale. "Well, there's Talopean priests, too, you know."
"That's sick," Roge said.
"I can think of a few reasons he might not want to have his fun with the maids back home," Ezjai suggested. "Lord
Verdant's young, a good-looking chap, and rolling in coin. Any Emerald Deep girl is going to know that, and set her
sights on marriage."
"A good point," Ferd allowed, "but I still think he's more in mind than any decent woman would allow."
"Like what?" Keljac leered.
"I don't think you need me to tell you 'like what,'" Ferd chuckled. "You've probably 'like what' more than the
rest of us combined."
"I'm sure," Lewik said in a clipped tone, "that once our lord sees with his own eyes the perversity and depravity
that goes on in those places --"
"Perversity and depravity!" Ferd and Keljac chorused, knocking their mugs together so hard that ale-froth sloshed
onto the goose carcass.
"He'll come to his senses!" Lewik raised his voice. "And we can go home."
"Fifty marks says otherwise," Ezjai said, plunking a purse on the table. "Fifty marks says he doesn't budge from
the temple until he's scarce able to walk from all the plowing and tilling!"
Verdant coughed. Loudly. Purposefully.
Their lewd laughter ground to a sudden halt, and they were all looking at him with varying degrees of chagrin.
Verdant approached the table slowly, noting how they all glanced at each other as if wondering who would be the
first to lose his post.
Then he picked up an unclaimed mug and said, "Save your money, Ezjai; I don't plan on leaving until you have
to come in and carry me out!"
Most of his retinue erupted in lusty cheers and guffaws, while the remaining few shared expressions of resigned
Verdant drank off the ale -- very rich and strong, a welcome change after the cloyingly sweet liqueurs -- saluted
them with the empty mug, and headed for his room. Having drunk far more than he was accustomed to, he fell instantly
into a deep and dreamless sleep.
When he awoke, the light of a beautiful southern day was shining through the shutters, painting warm stripes across
his skin. He got up gingerly, expecting the wallop of a hangover, but only found that he had the mildest of headaches,
which passed once he'd dunked his face in cool water and downed his morning kofa and pastry.
He spent two days visiting the offices of his uncle's business associates. Papers to be signed, goods to be inspected,
a ship to be toured.
But finally, with only a few more details to await completion, he was able to take a few days of rest. The next three
days were his. The gift he'd been promising himself ever since his birthday, several weeks gone.
Lewik had given up trying to talk him out of it, he noticed. In fact, his coachman was in a blue silence, though not
fully ceding the matter, no, not by a long shot. Lewik took the roundabout route through town, making sure to pass
the Galatine temple and the open-air ring of pure white standing stones where Helia's faithful greeted the dawn with
their joyful cries. And even the temple of Blackmoon, for good measure.
But at last, the coach pulled up outside of the flowered vine-laden wall that rose to a discreet height around the
temple of Talopea. From the outside, there was nothing to indicate what went on within. Just that wall, covered
with rainbow blooms and almost too richly fragrant. They hung down from the arched portal in a rustling, perfumed
curtain that concealed all of the grounds beyond except for a stretch of grass and a pathway of smooth flagstones.
"I doubt there's anything in here that can harm me," Verdant said to his guards, some of whom seemed not
un-eager to tag along. "Meet me here at the sixteenth bell. Until then, consider yourselves off-duty."
That taken care of, Verdant pushed aside the curtain of vines and stepped through.
The din of the city could no longer reach him. No sounds of shod hooves on cobblestones, creaking wheels
and axles, merchants shouting about their wares, children carrying on in the street, none of it could be heard on
this side of the wall.
Instead, he heard only the low and pleasant drone of bees sampling the flowers, the silvery trickle of fountains,
soft lute music, and from somewhere beyond his sight, the throaty laugh of a woman.
The path led through a garden of incomparable beauty to a terrace, beyond which was a flight of shallow steps
leading up to the temple proper. It was a construction of white stone, all curves and few angles, rounded domes that
called to mind feminine delights, windows from which sheer draperies fluttered, and open corridors with columns that
seemed to be shaped suggestively like nude figures.
He saw a few people, mostly pairs or small groups elsewhere in the garden, limbs and bodies entwined. There
was a languid sense of desire in the air, of pleasures recently finished but still remembered, of pleasures anticipated.
Verdant walked along the path, toward the terrace. Now he could hear splashing, as well, as of someone swimming.
He passed a man of impossible handsomeness, napping beneath a tree with a book -- My Lady's Chamber -- on his
chest. In the open collar of his shirt rested a golden pendant on a chain. The oval and the line, symbol of Talopea.
Three steps led to the terrace. Verdant climbed them, and saw the splashing sounds were indeed coming from a pool.
Liquid sky caught in white marble. Around the enticingly-curved pool were several tables, padded chairs, and platforms
easily big enough for two or three to rest upon with comfort.
A leisurely-swimming woman, long black hair floating behind her like a veil, saw him and waved. He returned it,
aware that he was grinning, and hoping that he didn't look too foolish.
She glided smoothly through the water, the trailing veil of her hair giving him peeks at a shapely torso unhampered
by any clothing. When she reached the edge nearest him, she surfaced like a sea-spirit, raising both hands to slick her
hair back from her face, and showing him two luscious breasts that bobbed briefly out of the water.
Oh, yes, and around her neck, the Talopean pendant.
"Welcome, stranger," she said cheerfully. "I see by your garb that you are new to this place."
"I'm from Hachland," he said, losing himself in lovely eyes as green as the lake for which his home was named.
Her laugh was night-music. "I meant new to this temple; no one here wears so much! Aren't you miserably confined?"
He swallowed. All of a sudden, though he hadn't given it a moment's thought before, he was keenly aware of how
heavy his velvet breeches and doublet were, of how his boots rubbed at his ankles. "Now that you mention it ..."
"I am Ilana, Nahle Cortia servant and admirer of Talopea, the Desired One." She hoisted herself gracefully out of
the pool, her sleek buttocks slapping against the slick flagstones with a sound that made him think of bodies meeting
in passion. Without a bit of shyness, she held out her hand.
Verdant touched her palm in greeting, willing his eyes to get back inside his head where they belonged, for they
felt like they were about to fall right out. Here he was, Lord Verdant of Emerald Deep, talking to a blamelessly
shameless naked woman. Though such had been his plan since the moment he'd realized the settling of his uncle's
estate would bring him to Tradersport, he still could scarcely believe it.
"I'm pleased to meet you, Priestess Ilana. My name is Verdant."
"So, tell me," she said, rising. "Aren't you miserable in all that scratchy, restrictive clothing?"
She was of a height with him, and nearly of an age (or so he suspected; it was difficult to tell as she seemed so
much more worldly than other girls he knew). Droplets beaded and ran down the valley between her breasts and
over her delectable hips, and sparkled like diamonds in the midnight plush of her mound.
"Very miserable," he admitted, and didn't add, 'and moreso by the moment!' It was true, but by the amused
look in those green eyes, she already knew the state he was in. Knew, and was not at all displeased.
"Would you care for a swim?"
"Thank you," he choked out. His hands seemed to sprout nothing but thumbs as he worked at the clasp of his
cloak. Just when he thought he would have to give up and pull it over his head, probably strangling himself into the
bargain, it came undone.
"You can put your things there," she said, indicating a nearby table. "Will you be wanting something to wear,
or not? We have swim garments in all sizes."
"No, thank you," he said after a brief panicked blankness of mind. "That won't be necessary."
She smiled. "I trust you've come to learn about the ways of Talopea?"
He didn't trust himself to do more than nod.
"And you've never visited one of our temples before?"
This time, a shake of the head was all that was required. He was able to manage that and also unstrap his swordbelt.
"Do you know what Talopea is about?"
"Pleasure," he said, and in the back of his mind he heard the voices of Lewik, his grandfather, and the priest of
Galatine in Emerald Deep merge into one scolding, shocked clamor. He silenced it with an effort of will.
"Yes, that's right," Ilana said. "Too much of the world is discomfort, unhappiness, and misery. Here, we dedicate
ourselves to the pleasures of the senses. Indulgence and passion. For Talopea gave us the capacity to enjoy, and it is
an offense to Her to ignore our own desires." Matter-of-factly, she moved close to him and helped him unbutton his
doublet. "To find pleasure, and to give it to others, is Talopea's greatest gift to us. Those who do harm to others for
their own selfish and cruel urges corrupt that gift. We must only do what we, or our partners, are willing to do."
Verdant shrugged out of his doublet. "That sounds ... very reasonable."
Ilana slid her hands up his upper arms to the shoulders. "Ooh, so strong," she purred. "We only approve of
swordplay to defend ourselves and our pleasures, but have to admit, nothing else makes for such a fine figure
on a man! We've priests here who train until they are as expert at the art of war as any knight you'll see, but
have never drawn blood. It's all for the sake of making themselves pleasing to the eye, to the touch."
"I can't say I've never drawn blood ..."
"We don't need to talk of such unpleasant things." She sealed his mouth with a kiss that left him breathless. Her
skin was still damp from her swim, imprinting her outline moistly on his linen shirt. Her lips tasted of sweetberries.
It crossed his mind that he was standing full out in the open, kissing a nude woman he'd met only minutes before
... and not just kissing her but eagerly accepting her help in shedding his clothes. But who would see? Only more
Talopeans and their guests.
With that thought, he put his arms around Ilana and pulled the lushness of her body more firmly against his. He
had utterly forgotten about swimming, and cared not a fig if he ever swam again. There were far better things to be
From his mouth, her lips moved over his cheek to his throat, then up to his earlobe. His shirt had somehow come
open, and he gasped at the soft and full press of her breasts on the bare skin of his chest.
"Have you been with a woman before?" she murmured.
"No," he said, figuring she would be able to tell soon enough anyway. "Not like this."
"Something must be wrong with the girls where you're from, that they'd let a man like you alone for so long."
"It's not that they didn't try; it's what my uncle said he'd do if he found out. And my mother. It would have
broken her heart."
"I see." She gently led him to sit on one of the benches, wide and padded and surely roomy enough for use as a
bed if needed. "You don't need those boots."
"Now they're both gone, and I can do as I please. What I want is to ... to learn what makes a woman happy." He
kicked off his boots.
"I think we can oblige." Ilana removed his belt, then called toward the temple proper. "Anneke!"
Verdant fought a mad urge to clutch his clothes around himself, fought it and won. He looked around, and saw
the woman Ilana had hailed as Anneke.
She was striding toward them like a lioness crossing a plain, all tawny-bronze-tanned skin and a fall of tousled
auburn-chestnut hair pinned back on the sides with ruby clips. Her arms and legs were well-muscled but not mannish,
not in the least bit mannish though she looked very strong. She wore the outfit of a priestess, two rectangles of nearly
translucent red silk held together down the sides with gold cord and sandals with straps that rose over her shins.
Anneke was several years older than Verdant or Ilana, but if anything, it only added a confident maturity to her
beauty. Here, her face said, is a woman who knows what she wants, what she likes, what pleases her.
"Ilana! What have you found?"
"A young visitor," Ilana replied, raising Verdant's hand so she could flick her tongue over his fingertips. "He's come
to learn about women."
"He's come to the right place."
"Verdant, this is Anneke. Anneke, Verdant."
"Charmed," he said, his voice quavering just a little when Ilana drew his finger into her warm mouth.
"Anneke is of the Nahle Dahlia," Ilana said. "Her rank is higher than mine."
The older priestess studied Verdant with a smoldering hunger that made him feel light-headed. "Which means I
could claim I was better suited for his instruction."
"Oh, Anneke, that's not fair!" Ilana protested, laughing. "I saw him first!"
"But you haven't even gotten him out of his trousers yet."
"I'm working on it." She reached for the laces, and that was when Verdant realized just how readily apparent was
the proof of his interest.
"Ladies ..." he said thickly. "Ladies, I couldn't resist even if I wanted to. I give myself over to whatever you care
"For the praise of Talopea," Anneke said.
"Yes, praise Talopea!" Ilana added, lowering her hand just enough so that the heel of it contacted the part of
Verdant that strained so rigidly against the velvet.
A harsh cry burst from his throat, but had no more begun than was muffled as Anneke bent over and kissed
him. Hers was a more demanding, testing kiss than Ilana's, and sent new fire coursing through his veins.
"Someone's been denying his pleasure far too long," Ilana murmured. "Why do you torment yourself so?"
Verdant couldn't answer, occupied as he was with Anneke's hot and questing tongue. She tasted not of sweetberries
but of cinnamon.
It was just as well, because words would have failed him anyway as Ilana undid the last of the laces and folded
aside the upper flaps of his breeches.
Some outraged part of his mind tried one last time to shriek in shock and propriety, that here he was with the
staff of his manhood standing out in full view. A moment later, it didn't matter, because the staff in question was
not very visible anymore, mostly enclosed between Ilana's curled and caressing hands.
"An excellent kisser," Anneke said.
"And so very well made," Ilana added.
Verdant groaned softly, unable to say more. Sensations whirled through him in a delicious storm. He would
have expected it all to be over the instant one of them held him so intimately, yet now he felt suspended in a
timeless state of arousal.
"Would it please you to touch me?" Anneke asked.
Quite a needless question, in Verdant's opinion, but he was still speechless. All he could do was nod desperately,
and let her lead his fingers to the cord on the right side of her garment. One quick tug, and the cord unraveled all
down the side, and the silken rectangles fell away. Now she was nearly as nude as Ilana, except for her sandals
and the ruby clips in her hair.
Her torso was as athletically well-defined as her limbs, with high proud breasts and a nest of darker curls below
her taut belly. When he hesitated, unsure where to begin, she caught his wrists and drew them upward.
"Yes, that's right," she sighed. "Gently, but not so lightly that it tickles, yes, a firm but gentle kneading, and here,
rub your thumb like this ..."
He complied very willingly, while Ilana coaxed him to raise his hips enough for her to strip off his breeches. She
sat beside him on the bench, one hand moving in tantalizing, agonizing strokes, while she avidly watched as Anneke
"Now your mouth," Anneke said. "Soft kisses here, yes, and there ... and then your tongue ... ah, young Verdant,
you have the instincts of a born Talopean!" She held him by the back of the head and pressed his face against her
breasts, moving her leg so that she stood straddling his knee.
He found her hips and pulled her down. Now she was half on his lap, her thighs imprisoning one of his, and it
was an easy thing for her to add her hand to Ilana's. They were both caressing him now, up and down, and he bent
his head to them both, what a shame the gods gave him but two hands with four beautiful breasts so eager for his
Somehow they fell back across the bench in a tangle. Anneke's chestnut hair swept across his stomach as she
shifted, and then he cried out as she drew him deeply into her mouth.
"Women like to be kissed that way too," Ilana breathily informed him. He stared at her, uncomprehending, until
she rose up and lowered herself toward his upturned face.
Oh, gods, she tasted of sweetberries there too ... coherent thought left him, and he feasted on her like a starved
man, letting the movements of her body and her moans guide him on his way.
A rushing building explosion thundered in his loins. He thought Anneke would release him and he grieved in
anticipation of that loss, but she redoubled her efforts, and when the spasms seized him, she stayed just where
she was, her clever tongue coaxing until the last drops of fluid were drained.
Overcome, he lay gasping while Ilana waited poised above him and Anneke moved alongside him as undulant
and sinuous as a serpent.
"Oh ..." he managed. "Th ... thank ... Talopea!"
The two priestesses smiled indulgently. Something in the told-you-so curve of their lips sent renewed strength
coursing through Verdant. He grasped Ilana's hips and brought her down again, applying himself more diligently
He felt Anneke tracing lazy spirals on his stomach with her forefinger, felt that finger wander lower into the
dark thicket of his groin. And then, to his amazement, he was growing swollen and ready again.
Ilana writhed and quaked. Verdant detected a new, even more secret taste and knew it was the taste of her
pleasure, knew it even before she raised her voice in a wanton peal of delight. That aroused him all the more, so
by the time she curled, sated, at his side, he was nearly aching for what Anneke did next.
She swung her leg over his hips and took hold of him, guiding. That first instant of contact, as her soft flesh
parted before his stiffness, was galvanic. As she sank down with terrible, wonderful slowness, he uttered a long,
drawn-out cry that seemed to encompass every ecstasy he had ever known.
Anneke rocked gently, her thighs tensing and relaxing, tensing and relaxing, as he slid back and forth within her
hidden darkness. It seemed to go on forever and be over at once, an eternity and an instant, and how she moved,
like the ocean before a gathering storm, like a river's current sweeping toward the rapids, like a lioness beginning the
final run for her prey ...
His back arched so that he lifted her completely from the bench, and she shuddered as her own pleasure crashed
over her in waves, and together they called their thanks to Talopea before collapsing, shivering with reaction, in a
Verdant lost track of himself after that, after wearily raising his head and finding that their adventures on the
terrace had drawn an audience of Talopeans ... women of all descriptions, from ripe and mature senior priestesses
to acolytes barely past adolescence ... guests of the temple, priests, so many people.
He didn't care how many days passed, who was watching, only cared about pursuing and giving and sharing
Talopea's most generous gifts.
His clearest memory during that time was of Anneke, she who seemed to possess his mind just as fully and
completely as she possessed his flesh, inviting him to share a meal with her. To his delighted surprise, her idea of a
meal was to lie back on a long, low table and let herself be covered with delicacies and treats.
Her eyes had drifted closed, her body quivering only the tiniest bit as acolytes anointed her breasts with syrups
and creams, placed segments of candied fruits in a Talopean oval-and-line on the plane of her belly, and dusted her
limbs with fine-ground sugar and cinnamon (to add to her own unique taste).
Then, opening her compelling eyes, she had beckoned for him to dine from that sumptuous living serving dish.
Which he had done, slowly, savoring, pausing only to sip from a goblet of warmed wine like liquid velvet.
At some point on the third day, he tumbled headlong into a sleep populated by memory's dreams, particularly of
Anneke. Anneke lying before him on a bed of silk, opening herself to him in welcome. Anneke kneeling as he
reclined, her own meal arrayed upon him, as he watched her dine. Of all of the women, she was the one to
haunt his thoughts both waking and sleeping.
He woke on the morning of the fourth day, naked beneath a light sheet, aching pleasantly from head to toe, and
found not Anneke's lovely face looking down on him but a trio of men.
"Huh!" Verdant lurched upright, scrambled for the sheet as it started to fall away, and then recognized them.
Relief washed through his veins. Many Talopean priests had made offers, but accepted his refusals with good
humor; for an instant, he'd been alarmed they'd changed their minds.
"Lewik, Ezjai, Ferd, you startled me."
"A good thing I didn't take you up on that bet, my lord," Ezjai said, amused. "Looks like we did have to come
and retrieve you after all."
Lewik was regarding the Lord of Emerald Deep as if he were some piece of clotted muck clinging to the bottom
of his boot, but his voice was carefully neutral. "If you are ready to go ...?"
"Uh ... my clothes ..."
"A yummy piece of pastry named Ilana said these belong to you," Ferd said, dropping a bundle on the bed and
winking at Verdant.
"I'll be along soon," he said, making no move to get out from under the sheet. "If you'd be so kind as to wait
for me outside?"
"And risk you becoming ... distracted again?" Lewik asked, grimacing.
"On my honor --"
"I say, on my honor, I will be along soon." He drew himself up as tall as the situation allowed, still holding the
sheet in front of him and aware that he must look quite a bit like one of those statues in which modesty is preserved
by a strategically-draped piece of cloth. "Need I remind you, Lewik, I am still your lord. If you've some dispute
with me, we can find some means to settle it." He glanced meaningfully at his sword, which lay with his garments.
"That won't be necessary ... my lord," Lewik said. "We'll wait outside."
Once he was alone, Verdant let the sheet fall and stretched. His bones crackled in a most satisfying way, except
for his neck, which gave such an alarming creak and pop that he was suddenly sure he would fall over stricken with
paralysis from the chin down.
No such awful thing happened, however, and he was soon washed and dressed. His innards woke and began
speaking, pointing out to him that he'd only had one meal on the previous day ... not very filling, but extremely
satisfying, he thought with a grin.
He all but skipped from the room that, if his dim memory was true, some helpful young acolytes had led him to
when he was too exhausted to move under his own power.
His grin widened. Yes, three acolytes, none of them older than sixteen, two of them twins with hair like cornsilk
and the third a brunette with a mouth Talopea herself might have envied. And he hadn't turned out to be as exhausted
as he thought ...
"... last time I saw a smile like that was on my da's hound the time he drank a whole jug of mead," Ezjai was
saying to Ferd as Verdant trotted merrily down the stairs and into the garden.
"That, my friends, is because it is such a splendid day." He flicked each of them a gold mark. "My thanks for
retrieving me, though I'd be happier to stay longer. A week, a year, a lifetime ..."
"Just keep in mind, my lord," Ferd said, "that priests can't be landholders."
Verdant threw back his head and laughed to the sky. He spotted Lewik, way over by the exit, looking as
stone-faced as Galatine's own statue.
"Come on, I am dying for breakfast," Verdant announced. He crossed the garden with that spring in his step,
and noticed the few early-rising Talopeans watching him with the fond amusement of people who had seen others
act this way many a time before. "Then, I suppose, I must needs tend to the matters of my uncle's estate. Oh, that
reminds me ..."
He'd nearly reached Lewik, but wheeled around and headed back to the temple. Just inside the main doors, he
found an alabaster offering-urn painted with images of lovemaking in gold and silver, set all around the rim with
gems. He opened his purse, peered in, shrugged, and dumped it all into the urn.
As he was turning to leave for the second time, he caught Ezjai and Ferd elbowing each other and ogling an
If he felt energetic, she positively shone. Right in front of his awed and envious guards, she embraced him and
gave him a kiss that he felt down to the soles of his boots.
He reveled in the feel of her against him, and it was only when he reluctantly stepped back that he realized she
was not wearing the customary garb of a priestess but tight suede trousers, a gold silk blouse with a scooped neckline,
and a light cape similar to his own. And she had a satchel slung over her shoulder.
"Traveling clothes?" he asked with great dismay. "You're ... you're leaving?"
Anneke nodded. "Making a journey. I've been at this temple a long while now, and all of the Nahle Dahlia are
expected to spend some time going about the land."
"But where? Why? I was hoping to come back tonight, and ... see you again."
She chuckled and ran her fingers through his hair. "Ah, Verdant, you are as dear as you are delightful. But I've
been putting off my departure long enough already."
"Where will you go?" He clutched at her hands desperately.
"I haven't decided. The city is grand, but I think I'd like to see the open country, the small villages. It's my task
to show others the glory of Talopea; so many of the humble folk are ignorant of the pleasures their bodies can afford
"Come with me. Back to Emerald Deep."
Ferd and Ezjai blinked at him. "My lord ...?"
"It's got everything you could wish. Open country, small villages, ignorant humble folk, all of it."
Her eyes searched his for a moment, then she smiled gently. "Verdant, do you know what you're asking? Do you
understand that I am a priestess and --"
"Of course. I understand all of that. But, Anneke ..." he showered kisses on her knuckles and palms, "I still want
to learn from you. I want all my people to learn from you. Bring Talopea to Emerald Deep."
"Lewik is going to burst his brains," Ferd muttered.
"Bollocks to that, the Helianites are going to burst their brains," Ezjai replied.
"Still, just 'twixt me and thee, comrade, I'm all for it," Ferd finished with an elbow nudge.
Verdant largely ignored the two of them, his attention fixed on Anneke. He had to think of something to ... aha!
"I've got a nice coach."
"You weren't planning to ride, were you? All that jouncing on sweaty horseback, out in the hot sun all day ...
when you could be rolling along, smooth as could be, in a coach with cushioned seats."
"You're devious, Verdant, but I like the way you think." She hefted her satchel and tucked her arm through his.
"And I must say, I wasn't looking forward to traveling alone. I so prefer the pleasures of company ..."
The look on Lewik's face suggested that he was about to burst his brains when Verdant introduced Anneke and
explained that she would be accompanying them all the way home. It mattered not a whit to Verdant. His thoughts
were full of her. Anneke in the coach, Anneke at inns, Anneke in the forest glen where they might camp one moonlit
night, Anneke on the sunwarmed flat boulder that rose up from Emerald Deep like the back of some submerged beast
... Anneke as the Lady of Emerald Deep?
He blundered his way through the final meeting to settle the Tradersport portion of his uncle's estate, and left the
office with the nagging feeling that he'd signed over far more than the usual legal fee, but it didn't matter. He had far
better things to think of than a paltry few thousand marks.
Soon they were bidding farewell to the city, Verdant in his coach with Anneke across from him and Lewik, who
had barely said two words to him since leaving the temple, perched in the driver's seat. The outriders flanked them
more closely than before, and Verdant was quite sure it wasn't out of concern for his safety.
Let them listen! It mattered not!
The sunlight slanting through the windows set her chestnut hair afire and brought a sheen of rose-gold to her skin.
She stretched out her legs and crossed her feet on the cushions beside him, and it was only natural, as he told her of
his homeland, to let one hand fall to caress her ankle, her calf.
And from there, only natural to unlace the low walking-boots she wore and draw them off, baring her feet and
running his fingers along the tender soles. How he loved to hear her laugh!
"Planning to start at the bottom this time and work your way up?" she asked teasingly.
"Perhaps." He raised her foot and kissed each pert toe. "Or I could just meet you in the middle."
He barely had the presence of mind to draw the drapes before she pulled her blouse over her head and cast it
indifferently aside. As he continued kissing her toes, her instep, the saucy nub of her ankle, she leaned back in the
seat and cupped her glorious breasts, stroking them until the tips were tight with excitement.
Anneke's other foot slid between Verdant's thighs and her toes curled playfully over the swelling she found there.
Like most Talopean garments, her trousers were designed for ease of removal, with laces up the outside of both legs.
He merely had to pull one cord, and the suede parted like water. Ankle to calf, calf to knee. There, he paused to kneel on
the floor, her foot now resting on his shoulder, while he trailed kisses over the newly-revealed skin.
"Mmmm, I think you're one of the best students I ever had," she sighed as he began on the other leg.
"I want you to teach me everything," he said, slowly pulling on both laces to see if he could have them be completely
undone at the same instant.
Success! He peeled the fabric away, and now Anneke was nude on the cushions, just as he'd envisioned her, both
of her hands busy with her breasts, one of her legs still raised over his shoulder, the pose causing the dark-furred center
of her to part just enough to afford him a glimpse of the glistening, coral-hued flesh within.
He kissed his way there, over the fluttering tiny muscles of her inner thigh until he could dip his tongue yet again into
that cinnamon-sweetness. She curled a fist loosely into his hair and tilted her hips to meet him, murmuring wordlessly in
Aching to be buried in that soft warmth, Verdant loosed his own trousers -- not so easy to get out of as hers, a pity!
-- without raising his head from his studious efforts.
He already knew the cues of her body well, and sensed that she was cresting toward her climax. Then he stopped,
leaving her panting and breathless. "I want ..."
"Yes," she purred. "Sit."
Verdant clambered backward onto the padded bench, and she stepped over the discarded pile of clothes, turned
around, and snuggled down on his lap. Reaching beneath herself, she guided him and cried out as he sank deep.
His arms encircled her waist, his hands filled themselves with her breasts. She flexed smoothly, gliding up and down
on his lap. Then, at the moment of her ultimate pleasure, she froze in place, so that the only sensation Verdant was
aware of was the slick convulsive contractions of her passage around his stiffness.
"Anneke!" he shouted. Oh, intense and overpowering, he couldn't wait another moment, but held her by the hips
and drove firmly up into her. His thrusts sent Anneke to greater heights even as he yielded and poured himself copiously
into her hidden depths.
Without disengaging from her, he slid to the floor and they lay entwined.
"Yes ..." he gasped. "Want to learn ... everything. Teach me ... everything."
"Didn't I already?" she mused smugly. "Oh, wait, there's this ..."
"Wouldn't want to forget that ..."
He flopped onto his back, chest heaving. "No. I suppose not. Gods, woman ... how do you ... I thought I ... isn't
a man ...?"
"Talopea is generous," she said, stretching out languidly beside.
"That's putting it mildly." He winced as a beam of sunlight speared through a tiny hole in the coach's front wall
and struck him in the eye. It winked out a moment later, as if a shadow had passed over it.
No, not a shadow ...
He realized what it was, and nearly laughed aloud. But that would only let Lewik know that he'd been caught
peeking. Instead, already feeling revived, Verdant rolled onto his side and pulled Anneke to him.
And was glad that it was a long, long way to Emerald Deep.