GIFT OF FLESH
A Novella
by Diana Laurence (writing as Diane Lau)

 

Such time as it is required for the Monarch to bestow diplomatic kindness upon another land's Royal Personage, he shall draw from his Property one who has been raised as Tribute. If the Tribute be a working slave, this shall be deemed a Gift of Strength. If the Tribute be a concubine, this shall be deemed a Gift of Flesh.

The receiving Royal Personage shall dispatch an Envoy to the Court. In a Ceremony the Monarch shall deliver the Tribute to such Envoy and bind it as Property to him. The Monarch shall pay his Fee.

The laws of the Envoy's own land shall then bind him until such time as he delivers the Tribute to his Royal Personage, and transfers the Property to him. If he fail in this mission, the Envoy shall be punished under the laws of his own land.

                                                      --Laws and Codicils of the Monarchy of Taelorea


Miakaela knelt, her head bowed, before the throne of the Monarch. She felt quite numb.

This, of course, was the moment for which she had been born and raised. She was a Gift of Flesh and had known so since she was twelve, when the Mother of the Harem took her aside for the private ceremony known as the First Presentation. Mia could barely remember a time when the eventuality of this moment hadn't haunted her mind. In fact, countless times she had fantasized about it, exploring different possible scenarios. She had pictured being chosen for bestowal upon a kind, handsome nobleman who lived in her homeland, and making a happy life in his possession, or even being retained in permanent service to the Monarch himself, among the people she had known all her life. She had imagined likewise the darkest possibilities: being given to a cruel foreign master who would torture her for his pleasure, or kidnapped on the journey to her new home and ravaged and murdered by criminals.

But many years before, she had stopped envisioning these scenes, knowing that she had no control over her eventual fate and that contemplating it did no good. Miakaela was a cheerful person by nature, and therefore she did her best to enjoy each day on its own terms. She befriended her fellow concubines, took pleasure in their company, and formed a close bond with many. She worked hard at her lessons, finding the arts of pleasure fascinating, and rejoicing in her studies in dance and perfumery and even the more serious sciences. The members of the Harem were, of course, pampered and protected, but unlike some of her peers, Miakaela never took this for granted. Until the day she was chosen to be sent away, she was grateful to know she would have fine clothes, the best food, a warm bed. And after that, well, that bridge would be crossed when it must.

And I'm at the bridge now, thought Miakaela, but she still couldn't bring herself to fully consider the course her life was about to take. Even the morning's ceremonial preparations hadn't made it seem real. By Taelorean custom, that morning her hymen had been broken by the Mother of the Harem. Mia had then been prepared for the Envoy by several hours of treatments, to beautify her skin and hair, but to her this had been moot silliness. The journey would be hard and she was to travel in rugged clothes that would serve the dual purpose of protecting her from the elements and disguising her from potential kidnappers, so there was little point in these cosmetic ministrations.

So, as she knelt before the Monarch in her travel clothes she hardly looked her best, and frankly didn't care. And that uncharacteristic apathy was the one clue she had that under her numb stoicism, she was actually reeling. Mia took a deep breath and concentrated on emptying herself of feeling. Hysterics would do no good and only make things harder for her, so she left her gaze upon the floor and waited.

The Herald called out from the hall behind her, "Envoy Naissun of the Kingdom of Royoun!"

Footsteps approached, the sound of heavy boots on the stone floor. From the corner of her eye, Miakaela saw these boots come to a stop by her side. They were worn black leather, with slightly pointed toes in the Royounish style, and quite large.

"Envoy Naissun," acknowledged the Monarch, in his slightly strident voice.

"Your Sagacity," said the man. "I come according to the wishes of His Greatness, King Regit the Fourth, Lord of all Royoun, to receive your most kindly gift."

At these words Mia narrowed her attention all the more on the boots. Until now she had not known her destination. And although King Regit was known as a monarch who ruled with a fair hand, according to rumor he had more than one personal vice that marked him as barbaric by Taelorean standards. She was sick at the thought of being his property. So she stared at the boots, focusing on the fact that although they were recently polished, they bore the marks of stirrups upon them.

"We thank you for your travels, Envoy Naissun," said the Monarch, and Miakaela heard him rise to his feet and descend the steps of the dais. Soon his slippered feet likewise came into her view, and an instant later, she felt his cool hand come to rest on top of her head. "This is the Gift of Flesh," he said, intoning the words with traditional ceremonial drama. "This Tribute we give to the wise and mighty King Regit, in a gesture of friendship and cooperation, for the mutual benefit of our Kingdoms."

Then he took up Miakaela's hand in his. "By the power we wield we transfer this Property now to you, Envoy Naissun," he said, and then took the Envoy's hand and placed hers in it.

This hand was warm. It closed over her fingers firmly but gently. Mia took a bit of comfort from the man's grasp, then checked herself. After all, he was there for no other purpose than to deliver her to her fate.

Naissun spoke. "This Property I receive as my own, to bear and tend with the full duties of ownership, till by the laws of Royoun it passes to my King."

Miakaela heard the jingle of coins in a fabric pouch, and knew the Monarch had just bestowed upon the Envoy his fee. The Monarch said, "Go now, we thank you for your service. Safe journey to you, Envoy."

"Humble thanks to you, Your Sagacity."

The Envoy gave Miakaela's hand a little tug, and she rose at last to her feet. Likewise she finally lifted her eyes to see the rest of the man who would take her on the journey to his King.

He was tremendously tall, so much so that he looked lean by proportion. He had the striking hair so common among his people: silver with streaks of every possible shade of brown. His eyes were amber; they regarded her steadily. Although there was nothing stern about Naissun's expression, Miakaela felt respect for him immediately. She could tell from his demeanor he was used to obedience.

Doubtless he had history as a soldier, she thought. His bearing told her so, and likewise the wear and tear to his face. He bore countless small scars and one very noticeable one slanting over his right cheekbone. His nose had a slight odd curve to it, indicating it had been broken at least once. These flaws notwithstanding, Naissun was a handsome man. His brows were beautifully curved, his eyes were striking, and his clean-shaven face bore strong, noble lines.

Without a word they bowed to the Monarch and took their leave. Once out of the audience chamber, the Envoy addressed her: "Fair Tribute, come now with me to the anteroom, I must instruct you."

"Yes, good Envoy," she replied, in the humble tone fitting of a concubine. She took this tone not insincerely, for Naissun's low and well-modulated voice was commanding in the extreme.

He led her to a side room, small and suited for private conversation. They took seats on a brocade-upholstered chaise.

"The journey will be hard," the Envoy began, and then, somewhat to himself, said, "and it is folly to attempt it in winter." He sighed resolutely. "But I shall bring you to my King. Have you any clothes less showy?"

Mia already felt the least showy she ever had in public, and was tongue-tied.

Naissun reached for his belt knife and drew it forth. "I was wise enough to bring a suitable cloak for you, but otherwise your own clothes must be made to do." He bent and took the knife to the edge of Miakaela's trouser leg, which was adorned with embroidered edging. "The less you look a Tribute, the more likely we both are to survive." He deftly cut the edging from first one leg, than the other, each time gripping the leg to steady it.

Miakaela did not like hearing all these references to the dangers of their journey. "Good Envoy, your pessimism alarms me," she permitted herself to say.

To her surprise, this comment merited a smile from Naissun. Mia was even more surprised at the pleasure she felt for having made him smile. Why did the favor of this man already matter so much to her?

The Envoy replied, "I'm a pessimistic man, pay no attention to me. Your wrist, please?"

She offered him her wrists one by one so that he might likewise cut the adornment from them. His grip on her forearms was pleasant. Then he eyed her up and down, frowning. "I wish there were more we could do. But you'll be cloaked and veiled...." He put away his knife. "Now then, I will tell you what the next three days bode."

Miakaela, in her nervousness, fell back on her manners training and sat up to listen politely.

"Today we will go as far as Northedge, by the Soldiers' Road. It is a rough town and I'd rather avoid it, but it is also the northernmost place we can stop before we cross the Lakelands. In Northedge especially we must take pains not to attract attention to you. There are many there who would happily kill several men to capture a Tribute. Do you know of Northedge?"

Mia shook her head. "Good Envoy, I have never been outside the court. I've heard some talk but can only imagine the place."

"Well, you will never leave my side," said Naissun. It was a curious statement, on its face a promise of faithfulness and protection, but uttered so matter-of-factly as to have no emotional content at all. "In fact, I must bind you when we ride. You understand I cannot trust you."

Miakaela felt saddened by this remark, but could expect nothing else. She nodded silently.

"Northedge will be a challenge, but the Lakelands more so. If the weather is fair we can cross in a day's ride, but the weather is almost never fair. We will sleep where we may."

The Tribute could only imagine what Naissun meant by that. She had heard many tales of the Lakelands, an area of wilderness that lay between Taelorea and Royoun and was half-heartedly claimed by both, for it was useless swampland. One road traversed the Lakelands, and could be impassible in the warm season due to water. In winter the road was frozen and useable, but swept by wind and a fair amount of snow, its relatively northern latitude making blizzards more common than in Taelorea. The Lakelands served best as the dwelling of all things evil in both Taelorean and Royounish legends, as in "There was a Terrible Beast, born in the Lakelands, and all the heroes sought to slay it...."

"But once past the wilderness," continued Naissun, "we will enter the civilized lands of my country, and there be quite safe in the last leg of our journey. I will take you to my own home and present you to King Regit the morning of the next day."

Already Mia felt she could trust this man, and she longed to ask his opinion of her future master. But that was far too ill of form to contemplate.

"Now let us be on our way," said the Envoy, and stood.

A little dazed, Miakaela stood up. Naissun met her eyes with his and looked into them intently. "You're afraid. That's to be expected."

She answered with a nod.

His inscrutable face looked down at hers. "You are my property," he said. "I will not part with my property unless my life go with it."

Miakaela hardly knew how to feel about this statement. She had been the Monarch's property all her life and had only just met this man. She wondered that he could be so determined to hold on to what he must relinquish to another in three days. And it likewise felt foolish to surrender her allegiance to him when so soon it would belong to another.

Her ambiguity must have shown in her eyes, for Naissun's expression grew stern. "The law is clear, Fair Tribute," he said, in a voice so hard and fierce it struck terror in Mia's heart. "Mine you are and you answer to no man but me. You will give me obedience or learn to quickly. Do we have an understanding?"

Mia could only tremble and nod, her eyes stinging with tears. Naissun's displeasure seemed more distressing to her than the Monarch's had ever been, even when she was a child. She wondered at this and supposed it was only because she was already in such a state of fear and confusion. But she did not resent his roughness; he had a job to do and every right to perform it in whatever manner he chose.

"Now let us be on our way," he said again.

The Envoy held her arm as they walked the corridors, exited at the front hall, and crossed the courtyard to the stables. Naissun's horse stood at the ready, an immense beast clearly bred for work and not for looks. He was quite different from the recreational horses used by the Court, a solid brown color with similar mane and tail. He bore on his back both a double saddle and two huge saddlebags packed to bulging. From these the Envoy extricated a fur lined cloak and a woolen cap fitted with heavy veils, which he bid Miakaela put on.

He lifted her effortlessly to the back of the saddle. It was actually more awkward for him to mount afterward, and settle himself in front of her. Then Naissun instructed Mia to bring her arms around him. She felt him fasten shackles at her wrists, and chain them to a loop fastened to the saddle.

"Your arms will tire in this position I know," he said, with a surprisingly apologetic tone. "Tell me when you need to stretch them and I will unbind you."

The chains were long enough that Mia did not have to press herself to Naissun's back. So she sat up tall and said, "Thank you."

Without another word, the Envoy spurred his horse and they set forth from the stable.

They emerged onto the well-trafficked main street of the city, and fell into pace with the other commerce. The day was overcast but dry, with only a light wind. It was an unremarkable winter day, and no one took note of the foreign soldier and his veiled prisoner as they made their way through town. It took almost no time at all for them to be upon a road Miakaela had never seen before. As the familiar sights of her entire life faded behind her, the reality of her situation could no longer be ignored.

She would never see her home again. She was going to a place so far away it might as well be the other side of the world. And every face she would see from now one would be a stranger's face.

All at once it seemed there was nothing in the world to hang onto but the Envoy Naissun, who at least had shown her kindness and was sworn to protect her. She found herself taking comfort in being his property, for that at least was some connection of a sort to another human being...

...for the next three days, anyway.

*          *          *

For what seemed like many hours, they rode on in silence. Miakaela was thankful for the cloak and leather mittens the Envoy had provided to her, for she would have been cold without them.

At first she had felt awkward, seated behind Naissun with his body between her thighs. Likewise it was strange to have her hands, bound as they were, resting on the Envoy's legs. But as time passed she stopped thinking about it, except to be glad for the heat that rose from his thighs and helped warm her fingers. And certainly there were plenty of distractions for a young woman who had never been outside the Court: Mia was engrossed by every sight that passed by. The Soldiers' Road traversed forest, farmland and small towns alike. She marveled at herds of cows scattered across the brown fields, and likewise the clusters of homes, inns, taverns and markets.

Nevertheless, always within her view was the broad back of the Envoy Naissun, and the back of his head with its waves of silvered brown hair. It was as shiny as ribbons of sugar candy, and looked very soft. As the road gave way to a huge stretch of forest, Miakaele paid less attention to their surroundings and more to the man. He rode so tall, he made her feel tiny by comparison. And she realized what a pleasant smell he had, a blend of leather and pine and some other musky scent that must be uniquely his own.

At midday Naissun undid Miakaela's bonds and bid her reach in the saddle bag for a small bundle of food. Tied up in the cloth were bread and cheese. They ate as they rode, sharing water from a wineskin, and said little save the politenesses required. When they were done, the Envoy tied Mia's hands to the saddle once again.

"You are good not to complain," he said in an inscrutable tone.

"It hasn't been a hardship," Miakaela replied honestly.

"I'd been told the Tributes of Taelorea were spoiled and difficult," explained Naissun. "This is my first such mission--I didn't know what to expect."

"It is a novel experience for both of us then," said Mia wryly.

Naissun gave a little chuckle and then fell silent. Miakaela expected that silence to lengthen, as it had during the morning ride, so was quite surprised when after a minute or two, he spoke again. "This business is a devilish one," he said quietly.

"Your pardon?" asked Mia, confused.

"This business of giving men and women as gifts. Slavery sits poorly with me in general, but to take a person from her home and deliver her to strangers just to curry political favor..."

The fact that the Envoy would share with her a personal opinion, particularly such a traitorous one, did not leave Miakaela unmoved. She wasn't sure how much reply she could graciously make, but wanted to acknowledge his words somehow. Finally she said, "And yet you must serve your King faithfully, as I serve the Monarch."

"Yes," said Naissun, but not with any sort of conviction. After a moment he turned to glance back at her. "I truly can't imagine how it must be to be in your place. I understand duty, but at the same time, I have always been a free man. If I had to surrender my whole will to another for all my life...well, that would be no life to me at all." He looked forward again.

"It's the only life I know," replied Mia. "And I suppose it's my nature to be content with it. There is a certain joy in submitting sincerely to one's master."

"A good master, perhaps."

"Sometimes even a bad one."

Naissun grunted. "That is beyond my ken, I'm afraid."

Miakaela dared to venture the next question: "Good Envoy, what do you think of your King? Is he a kind ruler? Will he be merciful with me?"

The Envoy's reply was the worst she could have expected: hesitance. She could palpably feel him struggle for an answer that would not enflame her fears. At last he said, "I have served him only as a soldier; I cannot tell you aught of his dealings with the harem save rumor, and I don't trade in rumor."

Miakaela's throat tightened. "I thank you for your candid reply, Good Envoy."

"Candid, but not cheerful," he said.

The irony in his voice made her have to laugh. She told him, "You do cheer me, Envoy Naissun."

"In that I deliver you to a foreign king, or rather by my binding you to my saddle?" There was humor in his tone this time.

Again Mia laughed. "In that you are a kind master, the sort who makes one joyful to be his property."

Naissun paused, then said, "I wonder that you can be joyful to be anyone's property. It appears to me this lesson has been taught you since birth, and it is only for that reason that you find it acceptable."

Miakaela had never in her life been spoken to in such fashion before, as if it were a bad thing that she was tractable, obedient, and content with her lot. It was very disconcerting. "How do you wish me to be, then? It would be quite ironic if I were to become a difficult slave for the first time in my life, just when I came into your possession."

The Envoy laughed. "Yes, it would be. I suppose it's cruel of me to command you as my property and then criticize you for your mild disposition. I apologize."

Yet once again, this man was addressing her in unfamiliar terms. Miakaela could not recall the last time a male had apologized to her. To offer acceptance of his apology seemed arrogant in the extreme and she could not bring herself to do it. However, to remain silent seemed worse. In the end she opted for candor. "Good Envoy, you are my master and under no obligation to apologize. But of course you also have the right to. Nevertheless I cannot think of myself as possessing the stature to merit your apology. So now I sit silent, as if it did not move me, when in fact it did."

Naissun did not turn around, nor did he laugh at her, nor scold her. Instead she felt the pressure of his gloved hand fall upon hers. From this gesture Miakaela discerned his complete understanding, and felt a sense of great reassurance. Then the Envoy said, "Miakaela, your master desires that you address him as 'Lord Naissun.'"

She was glad he couldn't see her smile, for it was far too bright to be fitting. She stifled it back down again and said, "As you will, Lord Naissun."

As the afternoon wore on, the wind changed a little and picked up. It was at Mia's back and she felt it even through the warm cloak and the heavy veil. Finally Naissun said, "You must be cold, Miakaela. Please, lean against my back."

The thought appealed greatly to Mia, for more than one reason. Yet she hesitated. She realized her fear was that she might take too much pleasure from such an act.

Naissun looked back at her. "Do you make me command you, woman?" he asked with mock sternness. "It is as I wish, so you might block the wind from me. Not that you are large enough to serve very well in that capacity...."

"I obey, then," she said, smiling under her veil. She slid forward a bit and leaned against the Envoy's back. In only a minute heat began to build up between their bodies, and it felt wonderful. Naissun was so much larger than Mia that her face came level with the broadest part of his back. To press close, she had to turn her cheek into him. It was very soothing, and only then she realized how tense she had been from the cold.

The Envoy did not speak, but only continued to sit up very straight in the saddle.

Miakaela had slept little the night before, and the stress of the day's events had likewise taken their toll. Now that Naissun's warmth relaxed her, she felt she might even doze a bit. She closed her eyes, and set everything aside save what her body was feeling. Her breasts were growing warm and soft, pressed against this firm back that made her feel so safe. The stride of the horse rocked her against Naissun, and she drew her arms in just a little closer to his sides. Resting her cheek on his firm flesh, she drew deep draughts of his comfortable scent.

He is a lovely man, my master... she thought dreamily.

After all, her master he was for the time being. She answered to no man save him. She wrapped this knowledge around herself like a blanket.

My master keeps me safe from harm, nothing can hurt me while he is here.

Miakaela realized it was the first time in her life she had had a master with the duty to protect her. Indeed, these three days would be the only time in her life she would enjoy such a privilege. What made it all the sweeter is that it was clear this particular man's nature suited him perfectly for the task. For reasons she could not comprehend, he seemed to respect her and truly care about her welfare.

Then all at once a new thought occurred to Miakaela. Seeing as she was the Envoy's property...well, under the laws of Royoun, what precisely were his rights? Property law in Taelorea superceded everything. A Taelorean envoy, she surmised, should be permitted to do what he wished with his property, including using her body as he wished.

She knew in her heart that this line of thinking was folly. Regardless of property laws in Taelorea, she knew of cases when an envoy had failed to deliver a tribute and the consequences that had befallen both: the envoys were hanged and the tributes stoned.

She doubted that Royounish law and custom were much different.

Nevertheless, rocking softly against Naissun's back, Miakaela couldn't help but imagine herself with him. She wondered if he would be harsh, or demand pain from her. She thought not, and yet, she wanted nothing to happen that might ruin her fledgling esteem for him. She had never felt so for a man. She wondered if she were falling in love with him.

But just then Naissun stiffened as if with alarm. Mia opened her eyes and sat up.

"Miakaela," he said in a conspiratorial voice, "two riders have been shadowing us for some time. They now close the distance. It may be nothing, but considering the deserted condition of this stretch of road, there may be danger." She felt him loosen her bonds to the saddle so both hands were free. "Keep your face turned away, we'll hope for the best. And take this in case, keep it concealed." Into her right hand was slipped the small belt knife Naissun carried.

She couldn't believe he had armed her.

Sure enough, a few minutes later two riders pulled up to them, one on either side. The one on the left, a stocky man with long hair but bald on top, addressed the Envoy. "Hail and well met, good sir! Precious cargo ye got there, eh?"

"Hardly," huffed Naissun. "Common house slave I'm delivering."

"Well, we'd be happy to give ye an escort."

"No thanks, I'm more than up to this dull task."

The fellow on their right spoke up in a jesting tone made unpleasant by his nasal voice, "Wouldn't be so dull with her arms around ye, were she the comely sort, eh?"

"Yes," said the stocky man, "let's have a look at her."

"If I'd been hired to have her seen, she wouldn't be veiled," said Naissun, the edge of aggression in his voice.

Both men pulled their horses closer. Miakaela was turned to the nasal man, and saw him start to reach for his sword. She gave a little gasp and squeezed her hand tight on the handle of the knife, having no idea what she should do with it.

"But you see," the stocky man said, "there be two of us and one of you, and we insist."

Naissun gave a loud sigh. "I see your point," he said. "But just you."

The man gave a triumphant little laugh and reached his arm out to lift Miakaela's veil. Instinctively she pulled away a little, forcing him to extend his arm still further.

How exactly it happened, she could hardly tell. But a moment later there was no arm, only a spurting stream of blood.

Naissun had taken it off with his sword, and the man barely had time to shriek before the blade flashed to their right and connected with the shoulder of the second man. Mia found she had brought forth the knife without thinking, but there seemed no need to use it. The first man fell from his horse, howling in agony. The second was still in the saddle, but Naissun, using all his height and reach, toppled him off. With the flat of his blade he whipped the two horses on their rumps, and frightened as they were by all the commotion, they eagerly took off up the road at a gallop, abandoning their riders.

Naissun hesitated only long enough to address the two men, in a voice that made even the Tribute tremble: "Trouble us again and I'll kill you." Then he cued his horse to an easy gallop. Miakaela took tight hold of his waist with her left arm, and once he had liberated her other hand of the knife, she clung to him with that arm as well. She buried her face in his back, trying not to hear the hideous cries of the two men fading behind them, trying to forget the sight of the stocky man's arm falling to the ground, and the rain of blood spraying the frozen dirt of the roadway.

"Thank the gods they were stupid," Naissun said, a little short of breath, "or I'd be dead and you'd--Well, a smarter man than that oaf would have made you lift your own veil. They weren't professionals, that's clear."

Mia couldn't speak, and in fact, began to cry.

"No soldiering experience either," continued Naissun, "slow reflexes and bad instincts. Fortunately no harm came to the horses. Fine beasts, far better than those two could have purchased with honest money. Cutpurses, those two."

Miakaela, fighting back hysteria, wondered at this sudden turn of verbosity on the part of her escort. Then it dawned on her that he was trying to calm her by talking matter-of-factly.

"Well, at least we've dealt with bad luck before even reaching Northedge. Perhaps the gods in their fairness will now look upon us with more favor. Miakaela, if you can reach the saddlebag to your left and keep your balance, in the front pouch there is a silver flask of good liquor. It would do you well to refresh yourself."

Mia tried to calm her breathing and focus on this little assignment. She was able to work loose the buckle on the saddle bag, and by holding to Naissun, pull forth the flask. With automatic obedience she opened it and took a tentative swallow. The spirits were stronger than any drink she had tasted before, and not at all pleasant on her tongue. In her throat and belly, however, the liquor was warming and calming, and she took a second, larger swallow before closing the flask and passing it to the Envoy.

"I could probably use a bit myself," agreed Naissun, taking it from her. His head tipped back when he drank, and the light wind caught his hair and blew it briefly over Miakaela's eyes. Had she been in a different state of mind it would have been acutely arousing to her. As it was, with the alcohol warming her blood, she felt uninhibited not sexually but emotionally. Suddenly her desperate need for solace caught up with her. She put her arms around Naissun's waist and leaned full against him, setting her forehead into his hair, closed her eyes and let herself tremble.

The Envoy, who held the reigns in one hand the flask in the other, fumbled to close it and rest it between his legs. Then he placed his arm over Mia's and pressed it firmly. He wished they weren't in the saddle this way, that he could gather her to him like a child and keep her there until she grew calm again.

Naissun had never imagined his mission would be like this. For one thing, he had expected his new property to be a pampered, fairly mindless creature; or had hoped so, anyway. That wouldn't have made it easy to serve as an envoy, but it wouldn't be as difficult as this was proving to be. His heart had sank at his first glimpse of the Tribute kneeling on the floor before her Monarch's throne. She was so small and slender that at first he guessed her to be merely a child. His heart had risen up again in rebellion against the barbarous practice that duty forced him to assist.

But upon closer examination, he had seen that indeed, Miakaela was a grown woman. She was not even so young as he had expected. Her beauty, rather than the vacuous perfection he usually saw in the concubines at court, was simpler, quieter. Her long black hair was bound back loosely a few inches below the nape of her neck, in a manner that was more elegant than seductive. She wore few if any cosmetics, but her brows and lashes were ebony like her hair, and her skin was naturally smooth and ivory in color. When she rose and looked into his face, she had tried to conceal her fear, but it brimmed in her large blue eyes, such pale blue as was common in Taelorea.

She stirred his sympathies at once, but his duty compelled him to conceal those emotions. Not till now, when she clung quivering to his back, had he lost his resolve. To turn a cold heart to her now, when only a few hours after leaving her home for the first time she had been exposed to such brutal mayhem, was a cruelty Naissun simply couldn't inflict.

Nevertheless, he dare not let her know the depth of his feeling on the matter; mostly because if she knew, she would think him quite the monster when he handed her over to his King in three days. Regit might be kind, if he fancied her. Of course if he fancied her too much, that would be worse. Naissun replayed his conversation of the previous week with the King:

"This custom of the Taeloreans to break the hymens of their concubines strikes me as most peculiar," the King had said.

"My understanding is that it is the Mother of the Harem's responsibility to do this final check to ensure the Gift of Flesh is still a virgin," explained Naissun. "And the act is provided as a service to you, that you may take her virginity without the inconvenience of causing her pain."

"Some of us do not consider such a thing 'inconvenient,'" Regit replied with a dark twinkle.

It had been all Naissun could do to remain stone faced.

So, aren't you a monster? his conscience inquired of him. I have lived all my life by the principle of duty, he replied. Naissun had committed more than a few heinous acts in his lifetime, but always under the command of others. Until now he was able to live with himself. If he killed, he killed in the name of his King. If he seized property from others, he did so by right of his King who had conquered their lands. If he apprehended criminals for hanging, the court had already determined their fate and he must assume done so justly.

But this...this was about political favor and selfish pleasure and it sickened him. For twenty years he had managed to avoid such an assignment. Now he found himself trapped between duty and conscience, and Miakaela would not make it easy for him.

She was clever, sweet-natured, and self-disciplined. She was lovely and graceful. Worst of all, she had chosen to believe in him as her protector and beneficent guardian. The irony of it made him loath himself.

So he sat straight up in the saddle, his arm over hers around his waist, and prayed she would stop trembling soon.

*          *          *

They rode on undisturbed and as night fell, approached the town of Northedge. This route was not one traveled by tourists or pilgrims, but it was the last outpost of civilization in that part of the land. So it had a fair share of inns and taverns, but by and large they were rough, functional places that catered to soldiers, merchants and those on political business such as the Envoy. There was really only one inn suitable for housing a Gift of Flesh, and in that inn only one room appropriately furnished. Of course King Regit had arranged in advance for its use.

Servants took care of Naissun's horse, so the Envoy and his charge went immediately to this room, requesting a private supper there. Naissun bid Miakaela sit and rest as he built a fire in the hearth, and although it felt wrong for her to let him wait on her so, Mia knew it was useless to argue. So she sat on the bed, still bundled in her cloak. The inn walls were of stone and once warmed, the room would stay cozy. But at the moment it was so cold she wondered that they could not see their breath.

Miakaela looked around. The single window was heavily draped against the night's chill, and the floor was covered with a fine wool carpet. Along with the bed and two large wooden chests, there was a small table flanked by two chairs. These furnishings would have been the humblest pieces in the palace, but in place like this, Mia recognized they were exceptionally fine. The chairs had upholstered seats and backs, the table was draped in a colorful woven cloth of Royounish style. The room was well lit with stout candles that gave off a soothing smell from their mountings on the wall.

The finest piece in the room was definitely the bed. It was large and the bedposts were tall and elaborately carved. Taelorean silk bedlinens and two thick comforters assured a comfortable and warm night's sleep. But Miakaela noted as well that a pallet had been brought into the room and placed against the wall near the fireplace, linens and blankets stacked upon it in a neat pile. That, then, would be her bed.

She fought off the crazy surge of disappointment that washed through her. What had she expected? Whatever charms she offered Naissun as a bed partner--and since he was a man and she trained in the arts of love, she was not so foolish as to think he felt no appeal--the Envoy clearly put duty before all. They would not be sharing the ample bed, and she would spend the night further from him than she had been all day.

Naissun had fashioned a vigorous blaze in the hearth when there came a light rap at the door. Mia quickly covered her head with the veils again and only then did the Envoy open the door. It was doubtful they fooled any of the inn staff, but it was a precaution Naissun still insisted upon. He relieved the servant of a large tray and dismissed him, bringing it in himself and placing it upon the table. The rich aroma of the food told Mia in an instant how hungry she was. She removed her veils completely and placed them on the bed, rising to go to the table.

"May I serve you, Lord Naissun?" she asked, bowing her head.

He looked uncomfortable but nodded yes.

Miakaela poured a cup of fragrant red wine for him, and filled his plate with thick stew from a large stoneware crock. She even tore several pieces of bread off the loaf, which was still warm and steaming, and placed them on his plate. All this accomplished, she knelt on the floor near the table with her head bowed.

"Please, eat," said Naissun.

"Thank you, my Lord," said the Tribute, and rose to her feet again. When she had served herself food and wine, she took these down to the floor and sat there cross-legged, determined not to show how urgent her hunger was. She must eat like a civilized lady...

"By the gods, don't eat down there," gasped Naissun with exasperation. As Mia arose and took a place at the table, he continued, "I know you won't consider yourself my equal, but I want some company. As must you."

Miakaela's cheeks flushed. "Of course, Lord Naissun."

"I know you meant well. But I'm not used to such treatment. I own no slaves, and the servants in my household have all been long with the family...I interact with them in what I suppose is quite a familiar manner."

"But you command quite well, my Lord," Mia said, and took a sip of wine to relieve her embarrassment.

"From my service in the army," explained Naissun. He devoured a huge spoonful of stew.

Miakaela took up a bite. It was mutton, with potatoes, parsnips, carrots and onions, well salted and seasoned. The gravy was thick and delicious, so she followed Naissun's example and mopped some up with a bite of bread. The meal was nothing like the delicate and exotic foods served in the palace, but Mia was so ravenous it tasted like the food of the gods. The wine likewise was not sophisticated, but it had a fine bouquet and complimented the stew well.

"You have an appetite," Naissun interjected, smiling a little.

Mia checked herself. She had been eating a bit hastily. "It tastes so good," she explained as soon as she had swallowed.

"I would agree," said the Envoy, "but it's basically peasant food...I'm surprised you like it."

"I like everything good," said Miakaela simply.

Naissun looked down at his plate and chuckled. He took another large bite, pushing it onto his spoon with a morsel of bread, and devoured it. Then he said, "You are not what I expected, Fair Tribute."

From his tone, Mia supposed this was a compliment. "How so, if I may ask, Lord Naissun?"

"You are quite intelligent."

"The Palace of the Monarch educates its concubines well, thank you."

She is quite overqualified for the position with King Regit, thought Naissun ruefully. "And what then was your favorite subject of study?"

"It's difficult to choose...."

"...since you like everything good," finished Naissun with a smile.

Miakaela laughed. "Yes! I liked drawing, and dance, but I also liked learning the science of healing, and about the movements of the stars."

"But what of...the more traditional arts of your calling?" Naissun could not resist asking the question.

Mia seemed unruffled by it. "We were taught much of the nature of males, both spirit and body. It was endlessly fascinating to me. We learned how men can kill so easily." She paused. "I see now how it is possible to kill; I think I could have done so if you hadn't done it yourself...the instinct to survive is strong." She poked thoughtfully at a piece of potato.

"Men have many reasons to kill besides survival," commented Naissun.

Miakaela raised her pale eyes to him. "How many men have you killed, my Lord?"

"I was a soldier," he replied.

"Then you have lost count?"

"I have killed one hundred and twelve men, assuming only one those two we met on the road died of his wounds, which I'm sure he did."

His frank and plainly spoken answer stunned the Tribute. Her mouth fell open slightly.

"I would never lose count of men's lives. Even the greatest scoundrel among them was still a man," said Naissun. Then he took up his cup and drained it off.

Miakaela automatically reached for the flagon to serve him more, just as he himself did likewise. Naissun's hand closed over Mia's. He released it, but not as quickly as he might have done. Mia frowned as she refilled his cup and poured more wine into her own. Then she put the flagon down and said, "You are certain one of them died?"

"The one I caught in the shoulder probably lived to be found by the next group of travelers. The other, if he were clever enough, might have availed himself of a tourniquet before he bled to death, but I have doubt he was that clever. And the surviving man would have an interest in his associate's death, since he could then have all of whatever stolen booty was on him. For the same reason he will make no attempt to identify his assailant...far better to take what he can and let the matter go."

Miakaela took a long drink of wine, then set down her cup and met his eyes. "I mean no disrespect, Lord Naissun, but do you feel remorse over this?"

He looked back at her with a steady, direct gaze. "The man who chooses the road of evil chooses the road of death. Whatever blade brings death upon him, it is as if he held it himself and struck the mortal wound. Had I allowed them to kill you, I would have felt remorse. As it was, I did my duty."

"In protecting the future property of your King?"

"In protecting the life of an innocent."

Mia smiled slightly at this but did not lose her somber aspect. "You make me thankful that my life has not been a series of such moral quandaries. All I must do is be obedient."

"But Miakaela, that is all I do as well."

Her smile faded. "Yes, you're right," she said.

They finished the meal in thoughtful silence. The room grew warmer until it was actually quite comfortable. Fatigue came over Miakaela like a sudden crashing wave. When Naissun stood and went to add wood to the fire, Mia commenced the task of making up the little pallet.

"You will take the bed, the pallet will serve for me," said Naissun.

Miakaela was shocked at this and opened her mouth to protest, but protesting was not in her repertoire and no words came. Her dismay then turned to disappointment, even though she had hardly dared hope he would choose to share her bed. Finally she simply said, "Yes, Lord Naissun."

"The door is bolted, my knife is at hand, so you must try to sleep easy."

"Yes, my Lord." So he had mistaken her disappointment for anxiety? Mia longed with all her heart to explain herself, to tell him he was the most entrancing man she had ever met, and beg him to take her to his bed. But no good would come of any such admissions, so she set herself upon the task of extinguishing the candles. Then she moved to the bed end of the room and disrobed in silence down to her undershift. Mia tried not to watch as Naissun stripped down to his leggings, but once she allowed herself a glance, she couldn't help but steal every possible glimpse.

In the harem the concubines had trained with eunuchs. The Monarch was strict that his tributes be kept from any males who might actually be tempted to act upon their lust. Their culture, as well as most in that part of the world, valued freshness above experience when it came to concubines. So although Miakaela knew how to arouse a man, she had never done so. She knew every aspect of intercourse save what it truly felt like. And she had never before desired a man who was in any position to respond to that desire.

Unfortunately, by the light of the fire, she could not help but notice Naissun's erection straining at his leggings. O unhappy irony! Her inner chamber longed all the more to be filled with him. He owned it along with every other inch of her, and here was the clear evidence that he wished to lay claim. Yet in their respective obedience, neither of them dare speak of it to the other.

Miakaela took to the bed in sorrow and frustrated yearning. She turned to the wall and tried to pretend Naissun was not reclining a mere fifteen feet away from her. It was no use. She could think of nothing but him: his strong arms and golden chest, the warmth of his back that had sheltered her all day, his silken hair and amber eyes, his voice that could command or comfort. She burned to lie with him to such excess that it made her limbs throb and her eyes sting. But eventually exhaustion and the wine overtook Mia and she slid heavily into sleep.

Naissun waited until he could hear her breathing grow even and steady. She was asleep at last. He wondered what troubled her so and could think of a dozen possible causes. Certainly it would have been kinder to lie down with the poor woman and offer her warmth and comfort, but that was out of the question. His feelings for the Tribute had intensified by the hour all day, deepening to sincere affection and then incurable desire. He didn't dare trust himself to share a bed with her.

Naissun rolled over on his back and stared up at the ceiling, watching the fading light of the fire play upon it. He wondered how she could be so respectful, so sweet-natured, to the man who heartlessly delivered her to her grim future. He thought again of how she clung to his back after the afternoon attack, daring to consider if it might have been more than fear that drove her to be close. It truly was possible she felt something for him...but if so, didn't that make his betrayal even worse?

He realized it was that rather than any fear of Regit that held him back from taking advantage of the Tribute. It was bad enough to hand her over to the King, but to use her first and then expect her to keep the secret was an injustice he couldn't bear.

That thought would keep him steadfast this night. But tomorrow night, in the Lakelands, would be another story. Tomorrow night they would need each other's warmth to survive till morning.

And how exactly would Naissun endure that?

*          *          *

Miakaela started awake. A bit of morning light leaked around the heavy draperies. She lifted her head, confused, then recalled where she was and why. Today they would be crossing the Lakelands, and the day after tomorrow she would be in the palace of King Regit of Royoun.

She looked across the dim room to the pallet but found it empty, the blankets turned back in a pile. Where was Naissun? Her heart was heavy and afraid, contemplating what was to come so soon, and she longed for the sight of him. Tears welled in Miakaela's eyes but she fought them, fearful that if she let herself feel too much, despair would consume her.

Instead she rose, dressed, and brushed out her hair and tied it back. She was just putting things away in the saddlebag when the door opened to admit the Envoy, bearing several large bundles.

"Ah, you've risen," he said with a warm smile.

The sight of his face and the sound of his voice drove sorrow from her as the sun burns off a mist. "Yes," she said. "I'm glad to see you, my Lord."

"I was just collecting some things I left here for the journey back, and some provisions." He hefted the bundles onto the bed. "Warmer clothes for you, and for me as well. I brought breakfast...and loaded the rest on my horse, who is nearly ready to go."

"I suppose we need to make an early start."

"The earlier the better. We must get across the swamp to the North Forest and make camp as close to nightfall as possible. If we don't reach the forest, it will go hard."

The words "make camp" had caught Mia's ear. Taking shelter out of doors was completely beyond her experience. However, she could hardly become more frightened than she already was, so she elected to consider this an adventure. She blinked brightly at Naissun and awaited his next instruction.

"I bought a sack of honey cakes, you'd best have one now before we go," said Naissun. "Staying warm requires food. I'm going to finish loading up the horse, and I'll change clothes when I'm done. I'd only make them sweaty doing it, and end up chilled in the first mile."

Miakaela nodded. "I'll eat while I dress...it won't take me but a few minutes."

The sun stood just above the horizon, dimmed by thin cloud cover, when they set forth from Northedge. Naissun grumbled about the weather, fearful that the wind would pick up later. His horse was packed even more fully than before, mostly with wool blankets and a large folded piece of oilcloth. Mia was crowded by the bundles and forced to sit even closer to Naissun than on the previous day. His warmth was welcome to her and she judged it likewise for him. He made no reference to the shackles and simply left her unbound.

They crossed the bridge over the Coaxe River, which served as the north border of the city. Civilization ended abruptly, and in a very few minutes they began traversing frozen swampland. The roadway did its best to stick to higher ground, but it was clear that in warmer weather long stretches of it consisted of pure mud. The land was flat and monotonous, with only a rare clump of trees, mostly the stubble of dead grasses and large patches of cattails. Seen firsthand it was hardly frightening enough to be the birthplace of monsters, but Miakaela supposed after awhile the gloomy monotony of it would become monstrous enough.

And it was cold. There was nothing to break the wind. The sky lowered and darkened to iron gray. Mia wasn't sure if the temperature was truly dropping or if she was just getting colder as the journey wore on. The layers of wool clothes she wore became insufficient protection, and by afternoon the travelers used one of the blankets for additional warmth. They didn't stop to eat but finished off the honey cakes as they rode.

The tedious landscape would have been unbearable had they not kept talking. Naissun regaled Miakaela with tales of far more interesting locales he had seen in the course of his soldiering. Many were places Mia had been taught about; she asked many questions to fill in the blank spaces in her imagination. The prospect of seeing a place she had never been before, that is, the court and capital city of Royoun, had a little bit more appeal. Meanwhile, however, she also envied Naissun the freedom that permitted him some choice in where he went and what he did.

Miakaela felt oddly suspended in limbo between her former life and her future one. There would never again be a time where she felt so free. Of course she was no more free now than she had been or would be, but being the property of the Envoy did not feel like captivity. Her body must go where he took it, that was true; but at the same time her spirit felt liberated.

She came to love his profile as it occasionally turned back to her during the conversation. Naissun wore a fur lined cap that covered his entire head, and tucked into his cloak so his neck was protected as well. Without the usual distraction of his striking hair, the classic lines of Naissun's face became more noticeable. Miakaela became more familiar with her companion's facial expressions: the stifled smile he wore when about to tell her something humorous, the spark in his eyes when he felt righteous anger, the way he gazed out at the horizon when considering his next remark.

So despite the cold and the brutal landscape, the afternoon passed quickly and well. In spite of its burden, Naissun's horse was glad to keep moving since it meant staying warm, and they made good time across the swampland. When Naissun declared he could see the dark edge of trees on the horizon, they rejoiced that the forest was at hand and they could stop for the day. The sun would be down very soon.

Once they found a large fallen tree that could be used for shelter, they dismounted. Naissun shared the tasks of making camp with Miakaela, for she would likewise stay warmer if she kept active. Mia set about gathering fuel for the fire according to the Envoy's instructions, and locating other fallen logs that he could dismantle with his axe. Naissun busied himself fashioning an enclosure out of the fallen tree, using fresh pine boughs for walls and roof. While Miakaela gathered small boughs and pine needles for the floor of the shelter, Naissun chopped wood and started the fire. Finally, the two of them worked together to cover the shelter with blankets and the oilcloth, anchored firmly with rock and logs against the wind.

There was one thing that did not go unnoticed by Miakaela: the shelter was very small. Her heart fluttered to contemplate the close quarters it would provide.

Naissun took one more look at the sky as the last light faded. It still looked like impending snow, but the shelter was ready and they could deal with that if it came. For now it was good to have a fire going and a hot meal in the offing. He had a crock of leftover stew he had brought from the inn, along with bread and a full wineskin. While the stew heated over the coals, Naissun heated some flat stones in the fire. He would use them to warm the wine; in a situation like this it was good to take in heat in any form.

The remaining blankets were likewise piled close to the fire to warm up, and his charge now sat upon them, warming her hands happily. The flames reflected in her eyes and colored her skin amber.

How strange it was to be on the edge of one of the most godforsaken places in the world, and feel so content. But no sooner had Naissun recognized the emotion than he checked himself. Two more mornings and he would never see her again.

The Tribute raised her eyes to him and said, "How resourceful you are to make the Lakelands so cozy, Lord Naissun."

"The bed will be a change for you from last night," he answered wryly.

"Perhaps less comfortable, but it will be warmer, I expect." She lowered her eyes shyly then, but neither that nor the falling of night could conceal how happy she was.

Naissun couldn't help but make the connection. Could it truly be that she looked forward to sharing his bed?

Miakaela rose and took one of the two blankets she sat upon and placed it neatly next to her on the ground. "My master should sit, should he not?" she suggested.

He nodded and sat down cross-legged on the blanket. The fire was a little island of comfort in the sea of cold. Ever since they had stopped to make camp, Naissun had missed the warmth of Miakaela's body against his back. Not only the heat of it, but also that sweet pressure, and the scent of her. He longed for her nearness again, but for now, the fire was a decent alternative. He took off his cap and shook his hair out, which felt good.

"Forgive me, Lord Naissun," said Miakaela as she sat down again gracefully, "but I must express how lovely your hair is...I have seen a few of your countrymen at the palace and have always remarked upon those with such hair."

"It is from my mother's side, my two brothers are the same as well."

"If there are many in King Regit's harem with such hair, I will feel humble in their company."

"The Tribute rivals any woman currently in the King's possession, so fear not on that count, Miakaela."

"Thank you."

Again he could feel happiness coming off her in waves. It must be so: she felt something for him. In spite of all his efforts to deal with this knowledge stoically, he felt himself stirring. He might well be a man who dealt with life rationally, but in this moment it was impossible for him not to contemplate the possibilities.

And just now Miakaela was cocking her head at him curiously, a hopeful look on her face. She said, "I am in no position to ask a boon of you, my Lord, but I have come to know your kindness and therefore dare to. Might I touch your hair? I'm curious to know what it is like."

Naissun smiled, mostly to conceal his agitation, and leaned a bit closer to her. "Of course," he said.

He expected she would simply take up a few strands in her fingers, but instead, once Mia had removed her mitten she ran her hand over his head, once, twice, and then the third time burying her fingers lightly. Naissun held his breath. All the while Miakaela looked at his hair with her pale eyes, dilated in the dim light. "Such hair..." she said, in a manner that made him think she wasn't even aware she had spoken.

Naissun's hair had looked soft to her, but Mia still was not prepared for how it felt. Even tangled from the day's ride it felt as soft as down, only smoother, so silky it made her palm tingle. Tonight when he's asleep I'll bury my face in it, she thought. I'll feel it against my nose and cheeks, against my lips...

Miakaela had learned what men do when aroused, and she saw even by the dim light: his nostrils flared, his pupils dilated even further, and color rose in his cheeks. For a moment she contemplated trying to seduce him...but of course it would likely be the equivalent of luring him to his death and she rejected the idea at once. But a kiss, just a kiss...just one touch of that beautiful mouth on hers...she ached for it. By way of compromise she allowed herself to barely caress his cheek as she dropped her hand. The contrast of two day's growth of beard to his gossamer hair only made her want him more.

Their eyes met briefly and then they both looked away. Naissun made a fuss then of stirring the crock of stew and turning it in the coals, and checking the status of the warming wine. "Ah," he said, "the chill is off this, it's almost the perfect temperature." He took a drink and then nodded approval, handing the wineskin to Miakaela.

This will not help me, she thought, but took a drink nevertheless. It warmed her doubly and tasted splendid. She was very hungry and the wine shot straight to her blood. She decided it would be best to talk, hopefully of something distracting.

"Have you ever wished to be anything but a soldier, Lord Naissun?" she asked him.

He took the wineskin from her and drank a second draught. "I have always thought of studying law, and when I'm too old for this business, I think I will. As it is, it is a hobby of mine."

"Interesting," said Miakaela as she took off her other mitten and held her hands out to the fire. "That a man who has always made his living by brawn should aspire to do so by brain. You did strike me from the beginning as a most intelligent man, and that is not the empty flattery of a concubine, my Lord."

"I think you are incapable of empty flattery, Fair Envoy--you are far too candid a spirit. At any rate, it has always been my belief that the law is stronger than any army, or at least in civilized countries it is so. After all, see how this soldier is bound by law to do its will, and whatever brawn he possesses matters little."

"But if you disagreed with the law, would you not rebel against it, as a man dedicated to higher morals? It is pointless for me to rebel, for I am a weak, small woman, and must obey the strong in order to survive."

Naissun was nestling the wineskin carefully back in the hot stones and took a moment to answer. A long moment. In fact, he seemed to be struggling with himself. Finally he said, "I do disagree with the law, but to rebel against it would threaten your life as well as mine. I have no right to that."

Miakaela's whole body seized up at these words in a flash of shock. She could not find her voice to reply, but stared at him with wide eyes.

Naissun continued in a low, steady voice, "It sickens me to be the amoral emissary who must hand over an innocent to the whim of an irresponsible king." He turned from her to look into the fire. "I have no heart to do it, and I wonder if the morning after tomorrow, when I turn my back upon you at the palace, how I will ever again see myself as a man."

That restored Mia's voice, and she set her hand upon Naissun's knee and said, "But my Lord, the fault is not yours. You are honor bound to your King, you only do what duty requires, and by it show yourself faithful and good."

He turned his eyes to her. "Sweet Tribute, I cannot see it that way."

It seemed to her like an insurmountable impasse. Her heart grieved to see him trapped so. And meanwhile, she was moved deeply that he should care so for her welfare; she had never dreamed a man could feel such a way concerning her.

Naissun pulled the crock of stew out of the fire. He had brought two spoons, and they ate right out of the crock, cradling chunks of bread in their laps. Neither spoke for a good while, until Miakaela finally broke the silence.

"Lord Naissun, will we need to travel much further before we arrive at a town?"

"Probably three or four hours. There's a good place there that we can stop and take a hot meal. From there on the trip will be easy."

"When I envisioned my eventual journey to my new master, I never expected it to be quite like this."

"No murderous attacks by highwaymen? No spending the night in the Lakelands?"

In the dark Mia could hear the smile in his voice, so she sought to match his jest. "No...I just didn't expect to eat the same thing for dinner two nights in a row," she said.

Naissun laughed heartily at this. "Well, we could have trapped a rabbit, but then you as my servant would have been required to skin it. Did you learn to skin rabbits in the harem?"

"Nothing so practical, my Lord. I could perfume a rabbit, and choose jewelry for it, but skin it, no."

They laughed and shared the wineskin. Then Naissun asked, "So you learned nothing practical at all during your training?"

"I shouldn't say that," said Miakaela, handing back the wine. "There is a great deal of practicality in what I learned, considering my station."

They had not really broached this subject. As curious as Naissun was, he found it difficult to speak of it. But now the wine and the joking seemed to have loosened his tongue a little, so he said, "I can't help but wonder what sorts of things a Tribute needs to know. It seems to me a man needs nothing specific beyond a beautiful and willing woman. We are hardly a picky lot."

Mia laughed. "Quite true, good Envoy. But sex is like wine. It's always good, but some is better than others."

"So you are like the best wine," said Naissun with a twinkle.

"The very best, my Lord," said Miakaela, smiling back. "Any wine will warm your blood, but the best simply tastes better doing it." She ate a small bite of bread delicately. "But do you seriously wish to know of my training?"

Naissun, whose mouth was full of his last bite of bread, nodded.

Mia looked into the fire. "Let's see...We are taught the twenty positions, several of which require extreme flexibility. We are taught about every inch of the male body, and how to touch every inch, whether with fingertips or palms, hair or clothing, or with tongue. All this requires years. We are taught words of love, both harsh and gentle. We learn to bear pain and to inflict it without harm. We learn to use a variety of devices, natural and manmade, as well as food, to enhance lovemaking. We are acquainted with every known aphrodisiac, its benefits and risks. We know every form of erotic dance and disrobement. We are taught to play at being a harsh mistress or a meek innocent. But more than all these obvious arts, we know how to help a man find what he most needs and wants, even if he doesn't know it himself."

The Envoy was grateful for the darkness, which he hoped concealed the effect this speech had had upon him. Until then he had been attracted to Miakaela on her own terms, for her beauty and charm and kind heart, her intelligence and wit and grace. But all at once he was struck by the full import of her status as a Gift of Flesh. His throat tightened with arousal, his blood flushed hot, and he stalled by taking another long drink from the wineskin. It was almost empty. "Here," he said, handling it to Miakaela. "Please finish it off."

"Thank you," she said politely, unruffled.

"Well, that list is most complete...I commend the Harem of Taelorea."

"It is that last thing that is the most necessary. Because men are so easily pleased, they seldom bother to really contemplate their deepest desires."

"You make us sound so simple," jested Naissun.

Miakaela smiled. "You are, which would make my job easy if I were lazy. But now that at last I may serve, I hope to do it well."

Naissun's heart fell at her innocent naïveté. Most of her art would be lost upon King Regit, although he had been glad to hear the Harem taught its pupils the tolerance of pain. Naissun offered Mia a soft smile. "I have no doubt that you will shine," he said, hoping to conceal his heartsickness.

Their meal complete, there was little left to do but prepare for sleeping. They each held one of the blankets carefully to the fire to warm them. Then Naissun lit a single fat candle from the fire. He gave Miakaela the task of keeping it carefully alit in the shelter while he put out the fire and settled his horse in for the night.

It was no easy task to find a steady place to trust the candle flame while she arranged the blankets and disrobed down to her shift. Naissun had assured her light clothing would help them better share body heat and that the candle would sufficiently heat the small space. In the brief span of time before the Envoy joined her in the shelter, it did indeed warm up substantially. Naissun had crafted it well and thoroughly, and the walls held firm against the rough wind outside.

Miakaela had curled up between the blankets when Naissun crawled in, securing the opening well behind him. "Hold the candle," he said, "I tend to be clumsy in small spaces."

"I love the smell of pine...I should sleep well in a bed like this," said Mia.

"Are you very cold?"

"I admit I am, but less than at first. You were right about the candle."

"I'm fortunate to be able to undress when the room is already a bit warm," said Naissun, likewise taking off his clothes to the closest layer. Miakaela wanted to watch but had no wish to embarrass him. So she looked at the candle, placed on the floor above her reclined head and steadied by her hand. When she felt his weight shift the blanket and needles below her, she lifted the top blanket to assist. "This is good. I'll need to blow out the candle now and it will be very dark, Miakaela. Are you settled?"

"Yes," she said.

His hand took hold of the candle but she did not withdraw her fingers. He raised his head and blew out the flame, plunging them into darkness so complete it assured the thorough barrier of the shelter walls.

Naissun drew back his hand from the candle and Mia withdrew hers as well. She felt him settle in between the blankets. Then he said, "Lift your head."

She obeyed and felt his arm slip above her shoulder. Trembling, she let her head come to rest on his upper arm. He pulled her close, and she found her hand pressing his firm pectoral muscle, and her legs running the length of his, and his body heat pooling around them.

Miakaela, for all her training, had not been prepared for this. Enveloped in this sudden cloud of masculinity, she seemed to have lost the ability to breathe. Her body absorbed warmth and power and shimmering strength, her head filled up with the scent of him. The rush of pleasure and emotion, of tenderness and fire, drove out of her every rational thought.

She raised her face to his in the darkness.

Naissun's mouth took hers ravenously. One of his hands buried itself in her hair and pulled so her head would tip up further; it was a little painful but excited Miakaela even more. She arched shamelessly into him, working her body so his erection pressed as close as she could get it. She whimpered under the kiss, staggered that he could make her feel so good with so little effort. She was already frantic with lust for him.

Her free hand found his hair and her fingers reveled in it. Meanwhile Naissun's rough chin burned her skin as he kissed her. For some reason the simultaneous sensation of his roughest and softest parts made her even more aroused. She let her palm run smoothly over his hair, letting it soothe her flesh, while her mind focused on the chafing he worked on her lips and chin. It made her wild, so wild that her imagination rushed ahead of her, envisioning him piercing her body and thrusting, taking her completely...

We mustn't, we mustn't, she thought. It would no doubt be inviting a death sentence, for both herself and Naissun.

But how little she cared in that moment, with his huge body overpowering hers, and his lips feeding so deliciously, and his voice making such sounds of pleasure and hunger! In spite of all her knowledge of the male animal, she hadn't expected masculine aggression to be like this, so potent and intoxicating. Her body seemed to be swelling up with it, she was growing tight and hot inside her own skin, and could feel every pulse of her blood. It drove out everything but the urge, the urge became touch and taste and smell.

Naissun was kissing her throat now, and his large hand had worked under her blouse and wrapped halfway around her waist in a tight grip. The way he moved felt like a kind of rage to her. He was always so stoic, so controlled...that made it all the more thrilling to feel his abandon, the harshness and recklessness of his touch. Blind as she was in the dark, she might have thought him a different man; but she knew his scent and voice too well. He was indeed the man who had ridden for two days between her knees, but so frantic, so ferocious.

His hand moved up to cup her right breast, and covered it entirely. Naissun lifted his face a little so his nose traced up the edge of Miakaela's ear. His palm caressed her nipple; she felt his breath, moist and warm, fill her ear.

He spoke, in a whisper: "Miakaela...what we do could bring death upon us both."

She shivered, not with fear but with desire. If he had meant the words as discouragement, he failed, for breathed thus into her ear they were the sweetest seduction.

"Welcome, death," she whispered back.

At this Naissun lifted his body and brought it down upon hers. Mia felt swallowed up in conquering bliss. She opened her legs to welcome his erection against her tender parts, and wrapped her arms over his immense back. He kissed her mouth again, this time trying to be gentle. His mouth could be shockingly soft when employed in this way, caressing, suckling, first pleasuring her lower lip and then the upper one, smooth as satin, full and deep. The kisses soothed her, made the tension in her body give way to a sudden wash of lethargy. Her hands slipped dreamily, slowly down his back, and came to rest on his buttocks.

Miakaela wanted to feel his bare skin there. Her fingers worked under the fabric of his leggings, then elected to pull them down. Naissun's hands joined in this task until his organ was free, and once that was accomplished, he set to undoing the tie on Mia's loose trousers and lowering them as well, just past her knees so she might be free to part her legs for him. When he laid back down she felt the satin head come to probe her opening, the touch of it sending a bolt of ecstasy up through her womb to her spine to the very center of her brain. She let out a wail of anguished lust. Then her mind began chanting, welcome death, welcome death, welcome death...

She felt Naissun hesitate. She could tell he was fighting it, but also that he would lose the battle. She lifted her hips to beg him, and his organ slipped against her wet folds, massaging bliss into her flesh. Her hand, with a will of its own, slipped between them and took hold of him. She stroked herself with him until he moaned and convulsed from the sensation. As he twitched his hair brushed across her cheek and the feeling was murderously sweet, destroying the last vestige of her rationality.

They shared equally in the crime. Miakaela's hand tugged and Naissun plunged. His penis slipped inside her and she gasped in welcome. Her hands seized his buttocks and clung to him, and her ankles wrapped around his. Naissun found greater depth in her flesh than she knew she had. She spread her legs as wide as she could so he could go even deeper. She opened herself like the ocean, vast and liquid and immeasurably deep, and his power made her surge in higher and higher waves, rapture rolling through her, shimmering on her surface and stirring her to the very bottom.

They were past the point now of evading death and the thought was wonderfully liberating. Mia heard herself laughing, or weeping, and couldn't tell which for she was too far lost in the throes of pleasure. Then she became silent, and ceased breathing, because her climax was almost upon her and became more urgent than anything else in all the world. She stared wide-eyed into the blackness, feeling her body start to shudder, then convulse, then rock frantically under the magnificent body of Naissun, and several seconds of it passed before her mind could even grasp what was happening. Then all the crippling tension melted like a pile of sugar poured over with milk. Miakaela was sweet milk through and through...such sweet, sweet milk.

But Naissun had not quite finished with her, and as she dissolved beneath him he unshackled his strength upon her. The pounding was furious, and might have been painful had she not been so soft just then. But soft she was, and so it simply felt heavenly. And when Naissun came, uttering a deep, tight cry, Miakaela observed it almost as if she were dreaming. Welcome death, she thought again, beautiful, beautiful death. He collapsed upon her, his tremendous weight covering her like impenetrable shelter. Between her legs he was pressed so close, and within her he was rooted so deeply, she felt their conjugation was perfect, utter and complete.

Too soon Naissun shifted his weight from her, and only then did Miakaela realize how starved she was for oxygen. She panted, all the while whimpering with yearning to be crushed beneath him again. But Naissun lay back down next to her, his organ slipping from her to lay against her thigh. He gathered her up in his huge embrace and pulled her tight against him. He kissed her mouth and cheeks and hair tenderly. Mia kissed him back, but she was fading, fading into perfect contentment.

She had never known such happiness as this, falling asleep in Naissun's arms.

*          *          *

Miakaela awoke but did not open her eyes. She could smell pine needles and the scent of Naissun's skin. She was warm except for the top of her head. The needles and branches beneath her were surprisingly comfortable, even though the blanket spread over them had shifted out of place. She realized her left hand rested on Naissun's forearm. She opened her eyes.

The shelter was still very dark, but the sun had risen and there was a dim glow now, barely enough to see anything by. Mia's eyes focused and she found Naissun's face inches from her own.

He smiled sadly. His hand emerged from under the blanket and cupped her chin and cheek. She turned her head to kiss his palm. "My Lord Naissun," she said with warmth.

"My lady Miakaela," he replied. "Forgive me."

She shook her head. "No...I will not forgive you for making me happier than I have ever been."

Naissun leaned to her until his forehead touched hers, closing his eyes. "It should not have happened."

"It had to happen," Miakaela corrected.

He did not respond to this for quite awhile. Mia wished for better light that she might read his face. Then finally Naissun said, "I want you to understand one thing. I did not make love to you as my property, as a concubine, as the Tribute of Taelorea. I did it as a man who loves you. If you were to believe anything other than this, it would injure me greatly. Can you find it in your heart to believe me?"

Tears welled in Miakaela's eyes. Her voice broke as she answered him. "Yes, I believe you. And I want you to know something as well." She laid her hand over his rough cheek. "I will not give myself to another, not to King Regit nor any other master. I can't, not now."

Naissun shook his head. "You were born to this life, Miakaela...you have lived it honorably till now. I don't ask for any such faithfulness. You owe me nothing."

"All those things may be true. But they don't matter. I can't let another man take what I gave to you of my own free will. It's yours now, regardless of what happens to us."

"But you can't deny King Regit. He would surely have you stoned. Do you understand? I'd rather have you safe and alive in another man's bed than meet such a fate!"

The alarm in Naissun's voice was quite moving. Mia realized he could not possibly feel any differently. "What then shall we do?" she asked him, her throat tight.

"We won't let this happen again. Neither of us will speak of what happened to anyone. I'll take you to my king, and you will serve him. You will live, hopefully long and contentedly."

Miakaela's sorrow suddenly gave way to anger, not at Naissun, but at their hopeless position. To make matters worse, she hardly knew how to deal with her fledgling emotions concerning sexual fidelity. She had indeed been taught her whole life that her body was the Monarch's property and would one day belong to his designee. She had never for a moment considered what it would be like to actually choose whom she wished to share it with. Now she found herself suddenly unable to tolerate the thought of someone else taking what seemed so irrevocably Naissun's. As new as this conviction was, it was also as strong as a stone wall. It turned her whole world upside down, but she could not let go of it. It seemed to give meaning to her life as nothing else ever had.

"So you think life is always preferable?" Mia cried. "What about faithfulness? What if I value my loyalty to you above my life? What if I prefer death to betraying you?"

Naissun stayed quiet in the face of this outburst. He stroked her cheek soothingly with his knuckles. "Miakaela...show your loyalty to me by obedience. Do as I bid you and stay alive. Will you obey me, if not out of faithfulness, then out of love?"

At this, tears spilled over from Miakaela's eyes. It was hopeless. "Please, my Lord, call me Mia," she said weakly.

"Mia?"

"The Mother of the Harem always told me that was what my birth mother called me."

Naissun wiped the tears from her cheeks. "When we are free to speak as we wish, I shall call you Mia. And if you will, please call me Naissun."

"I will. Naissun, my beloved." She took a shuddering breath and let it out slowly. "And I will obey you, both out of faithfulness and out of love."

He kissed her lips lightly and briefly, then said, "I bless you for your faithfulness. Even if you belong to another man, it heartens me just to know you are in the world. Mia, if you live, then I am content. I only wish there were an act of such devotion that I could do for you in return."

"Simply do the same, Naissun. That such a man as you came to love me is a miracle however brief."

"That which we remember all our lives cannot be brief," he told her, smiling.

She gave him a kiss, resolving to be brave. "You are so wise, my Lord Naissun," she told him.

They rose from the bed of pine and wool, the little shelter warmed by their body heat, and emerged into the cold, gray day. It had snowed just enough to dust the hard ground, and even now flakes fell, although few and far between, drifting straight down in the windless air. They broke camp in near silence, speaking only as the occasion required. It took no more than a half hour before they were packed and mounted upon the horse, sharing water and the remaining honey cakes.

Naissun directed the horse onwards north, into the forest, following the road until it curved slightly to the east. The snow fell with a little more intensity, but with no wind behind it, was not troublesome. Miakaela clung gently to Naissun, watching the flakes fall, gazing off into the bare, black trees, musing to herself.

How strange it felt to touch him today. She had her arm looped around his waist and his hand rested over hers. In that gesture she felt both possessive and possessed, as if he belonged to her as much as she did to him. She had never in her life felt like another person belonged to her and couldn't account for the strange emotion now. She had no right to command him, as he did in his capacity as her master. He was in no regard her property, as she was his by law. Nevertheless, she felt it: that by their intimate connection of soul and body, she had gained some inalienable right to him, some unique claim.

She liked this feeling. Very much.

Miakaela suddenly felt herself augmented, as if Naissun's gifts were now her own as well. She perceived his strength was her own, the power in his arms and shoulders was hers to wield. She felt his courage and self-confidence swelling in her own breast. This sudden sense of invincibility was intoxicating to her, considering she had spent her life powerless and at the mercy of all those around her.

They had survived both evil men and brutal nature, and even more amazing, they had denied the command of the King upon them and made their own choices in love. And yet...

...and yet, they were neither of them free. For still the road bore them inexorably to the court of Regit of Royoun, and even with all their strength they could not escape that road.

My body may be Regit's possession soon, thought Miakaela, but my spirit is my own, and Naissun's, forever.

The Envoy, meanwhile, judged the remaining distance to the next town, when at last they could stop for a hot meal. The woods were beginning to thin, and an isolated cottage or two appeared. The Four Oaks crossroad marked the signal that Hoaryton was nigh--they would be there in only a few minutes.

From there it was four hours' ride to Naissun's home in Royoun City. He rejoiced at the thought of at last returning Mia to civilization, where she could bathe and put on clean clothes, eat well and sleep in warmth and comfort.

But he could not think of her sleeping without thinking of sleeping with her.

Of course it was out of the question, not in the royal city, in a home where servants might observe or neighbors suspect. And it was bad enough he had failed once in his duties.

But at the same time, Naissun felt to deny Miakaela that last act of love and comfort was the worst sort of failure. He could feel in the way she held on to him how desperately she wished to be close. Her words of that morning had convinced him of her devotion. And on the morrow he must deliver her--cursed errand!

He had never in his life felt so helpless, and was not accustomed to it. That he, a man who had held sway in battle since his youth, should now be manacled by mere words on parchment, by archaic custom and the will of a pampered king, made him burn with frustrated rage. There had to be some course of action he could take other than the one which seemed so inevitable, there had to be another way besides the road that took Mia to the Harem of Royoun. How could it be that he had met his match in this? The problem was, he couldn't use his sword in this battle. If it came to that, without doubt both he and Miakaela would end up losing their lives.

It seemed hopeless, but Naissun was tired of operating under that assumption, of lying down like an old dog too weak to show any spirit. He might not find an answer, but at least he had to seek one....

They stopped at an inn in Hoaryton to take their noon meal. There was no more need for secretism now that they were in Royoun, and this town, though small, was well patrolled by the King's men. Both Naissun and Miakaela were ravenous, so it was a quiet dinner. There was enough activity among the other patrons at the inn to keep their attention: particularly a band of pilgrims that included a half dozen small children making a ruckus. Mia had had little exposure to children, especially little boys, and found their antics most entertaining. Naissun smiled particularly at the two eldest boys, spatting over the last piece of cake. Finally he caught their eye and motioned them over to the bench where he and Miakaela sat.

The two boys were clearly both excited and intimidated by the attention of a soldier, and stepped forward to stand silently before Naissun.

"You see I am a King's Man," said the Envoy.

"Yes sir," said the taller boy, and his brother nodded.

"I have observed you quarreling over that bit of cake; I wonder if you know how a soldier would deal with such a situation."

The boys exchanged glances and remained silent, neither one willing to risk a wrong answer.

Naissun drew himself to his full height and put on his most authoritative face, regarding the boys just long enough to make them lose their color in trepidation. Then he said, "You should offer it to your mother, and if she declines, to your sisters."

This answer did not seem to please the boys, but they nodded assent nonetheless.

Naissun went on, "If none of these desire the cake, then the elder of you should cut it in twain, and the younger one choose his half. Very simple, is it not?"

It took the boys just a moment to realize the perfect equity of such a plan, and then they nodded with much more enthusiasm.

"Pursue graciousness and equity rather than squabbling. Now go," said Naissun.

The boys looked relieved to be excused and scampered back to their family, the younger one offering a quiet "thank you sir" as he left.

Naissun turned back to Miakaela, who had watched the whole exchange with unbridled enjoyment. "Well, Good Envoy," she said, "you would indeed make a great man of the law, perhaps better even than you fare as a soldier."

"Thank you, Fair Tribute," said Naissun, pleased. "But were I not a soldier, I would not have commanded the respect of those two young hooligans."

"Perhaps, but I think the authority you wield comes more from your own character than you realize. Perhaps over the years you have erroneously come to believe that your power comes from your office; knowing you but freshly, and being acquainted with other soldiers, I can testify that it is uniquely your own."

Naissun paused, considering her words.

"You underestimate yourself," Mia said, with an air of authority seldom possessed by a concubine. But then, she did not currently feel much like a concubine.

"I will think on what you have said," Naissun told her somberly.

And think he apparently did, for during the final leg of the journey, northeast into Royoun, the Envoy said hardly a word. He did not seem quite as morose as that morning, so Miakaela did not trouble herself over it and let him be, content to hold onto his back and enjoy his warmth and her full belly.

The snowfall increased in intensity and the two riders had to brush the flakes off themselves every few minutes. But it was a pretty snow, gathering on the branches of the trees that lined the highway. The forest had thinned to a combination of woods and open farmland, and they passed through several towns as well, towns which seemed to increase in size as the journey went on. Finally they crossed a narrow river by a rather ornate bridge and found themselves in the trade district of a bustling urban center.

"I suppose I should welcome you home, Mia," said Naissun. "We are now in Royoun City."

Miakaela looked all about her, trying to judge similarities and differences between this place and her home in the royal capitol of Taelorea. It seemed not too foreign, except for local style, and Royounish style was well enough known to her. Nevertheless, it offered similar sights to those back home: parks, marketplaces, shops and taverns, cottages and inns.

They passed a small group of soldiers conversing outside a blacksmith shop, and they acknowledged Naissun with hails and salutes. The air of the men told her they knew him and were not just greeting a fellow.

At last they turned off the main road onto a side street lined with large, two story dwellings, quite attractively decorated and well kept, with gardens between them and the street which doubtless were very pleasing in the green season. They traveled perhaps a quarter mile and then Naissun turned into the lane which ran next to a great house built all of white stone.

He turned around to meet Miakaela's eyes. "This is my home," he said simply. And then added, "I will see that you are comfortable as long as you stay here."

"Thank you," said Mia, and gave him a little embrace, so slight that anyone looking on could not possibly have noticed it.

There was a small stable, and Naissun dismounted and unbolted the door, then led his horse in out of the snow. He helped Miakaela down, his hands firm on her waist. Just as her feet hit the floor, there was a cry behind them.

"Lord Naissun, here you are safe and sound!"

An older man, plump and with a head of full white hair, stood in the stable door with a broad grin on his face.

"The Lakelands spared me yet again," laughed Naissun, striding up to the man and giving him a brief but warm embrace. "Stowan, how fares the household?"

"All's well, my Lord. And this then is your charge?" He stepped closer to Miakaela.

Naissun nodded, setting his hand briefly on her shoulder. "I present the Tribute of Taelorea, the Lady Miakaela. Fair Tribute, this is my steward, Stowan."

Stowan bowed low and rose again to offer her that bright grin. "Fair Tribute, it's a pleasure. I trust your journey was not too arduous?"

"Good Steward Stowan, it was challenging, but your master was up to the task in all respects. My words cannot honor him enough."

She noticed the flick of Stowan's eye casting to Naissun's face, as if to say, well, you impressed this one! But he was a model of decorum and simply replied, "He is a man who does all things well. And I'm glad to have him safely home! Now let me tend to horse and packs, if you will. My Lord, I beg you go in and see Faisli, the woman has been beset with worry over the weather and was sure you were buried in a snowdrift in the Lakelands."

Naissun chuckled and nodded. He took Miakaela's arm and led her via the back gardens to the kitchen door in the rear of the house. He opened it for her and warmth and good smells poured out. "Faisli, heat the bathwater and be quick about it!" Naissun called ahead of them.

As he closed the door behind them Mia heard running footsteps and then a woman appeared in the doorway to the back hall. "My Lord, thank the gods!" she cried and ran to embrace him.

Naissun patted her back and said, "You would think I was off to war for six months...Faisli, Stowan tells me you've been a terror to him."

The woman pulled away, laughing. She was quite young and had a clean, pretty face spread over with freckles. "I'm sure I haven't! I only fretted a bit because of the weather...but here, there's business to attend to." Faisli had spotted Miakaela over Naissun's shoulder and walked to stand before her. She offered her a curtsy and said, "Fair Tribute, welcome."

"Miakaela, my housekeeper Faisli. She is with me only four years but as faithful as can be...when she is not terrorizing Stowan, that is."

Mia laughed with Faisli at this, then offered her own curtsey. "A pleasure," she said.

"And my master I'm sure is right, you must want a bath desperately," said Faisli. "What a hard trip for a woman! I'll go heat the water at once, by your leave."

Naissun nodded and let her scamper off.

Miakaela was then treated to a tour of the house, which was furnished in an elegant but slightly old-fashioned way. The rooms struck Mia as cozy and comfortable; but then again, after the previous day it was just good to be back in civilization and the most modest accommodations would have pleased her.

The upstairs rooms were sleeping chambers, and Naissun showed Miakaela to her room. Laid out upon the bed was a new gown, with boxes that held slippers and jewelry, no doubt gifts sent by King Regit for her presentation on the morrow. Both of them looked at the clothes in silence for a moment. Then Naissun said, "I'm sure the clothes packed on my horse are quite frozen through; I'll ask Faisli to warm them by the stove while you take your bath."

"That would be most kind," said Mia.

Naissun set his hand upon her arm and looked earnestly down into her eyes. "There will be supper in the kitchen whenever you wish to eat. I'm going to take my meal in my study and wash later. I have some matters to attend to."

Miakaela felt a sharp twinge of disappointment in her belly. She had expected they would dine together, and spend as much time as possible in each other's company. She blinked back tears and nodded to him.

The rest of the evening proved quite sorrowful. The warmth of the bath should have been comforting, and the feel of having her hair and body clean again should have been a delight. But Mia felt abandoned and confused. As she dressed and dried herself before the fire, she pondered. Perhaps Naissun was just concerned about propriety, about making sure the servants suspected nothing. Perhaps it hurt him too much to be with her now, knowing they would be separated so soon. These excuses made sense, but did nothing to ease the hurt. Worse still, she knew this was just a taste of how it would feel in the morning when Naissun placed her hand in King Regit's and left her.

Faisli brought up her clothes and invited her to come down to dine. On her way to the kitchen, Miakaela passed Naissun's study. The curtain in the doorway was drawn.

She passed a pleasant enough meal with Faisli for company. They talked about the journey, and then about various domestic topics like canning and cleaning. Mia knew nothing of such matters but Faisli was an amusing conversationalist and distracted her with her smiling voice and sparkling laugh.

Finally Miakaela said, "I wonder what Lord Naissun is doing in his study. I had hoped we would see something of him at supper. But I suppose when he is away a few days, there is much business to attend to."

Faisli, clearing the dishes, said, "I don't know...it's rather peculiar. Usually when he comes back, he wants to spend a few hours with Stowan hearing all the news. But he sent him home as soon as the horse was tended to."

"Oh," said Miakaela, rising to help.

"Oh no, miss, I can take care of it. Won't take me but a bit to get all in order here, and then I'll be off myself till the morning. You take your rest, I'm sure you wish to be at your best for the King."

"Of course, thank you," said Mia. "Do you suppose I might interrupt Lord Naissun just to bid him goodnight?"

"Certainly, he's never one to mind that."

So Miakaela went to the curtained doorway to the study and called softly through it. "My Lord, may I say goodnight?"

"Come in, Fair Tribute," came his voice.

She entered, letting the curtain fall back shut behind her. She found Naissun seated at a huge table, surrounded by parchments in disarray, and several large volumes in leather covers. A lamp stood on the table, its flame turned up high, illuminating some writing which the Envoy bent over intently. He did not look up.

"Have you eaten, my Lord?" she asked softly.

He glanced up. "Pardon? Oh, no--not yet. I imagine Faisli will bring me a plate when she goes. Are you well? Did the food suit you?"

"It was very good, thank you. And I am...I am fine, my Lord."

"I know it won't be easy for you to sleep...ask Faisli for a cup of wine."

He looked at her, he spoke to her, and yet he did not. In his amber eyes she saw no emotion, but something else intense and preoccupying. "Perhaps I will," she told him, then gave a little bow. "Good night, Naissun."

He extended his hand and gave her arm a squeeze. "Good night, Mia."

She turned from him just in time before the tears spilled down her cheeks. She ascended the stairs quickly and dashed to her room, falling on the bed to weep.

Miakaela cried for a long time, burying her face in the bedclothes so she would not be heard. At last she was wrung out of tears and sat up to catch her breath. She heard the front door close downstairs. Out the window over the bed, through the tumbling snow, she saw the figure of Faisli departing up the street. For a moment she considered going to Naissun, but the possibility of experiencing his preoccupied politeness again was too repugnant. So she dried her face and put on her sleeping shift, realizing suddenly how cold she had become. There had been a fire in the room but it was out now. She sought comfort under the blankets and after a few moments her body began to warm the bed.

She wished she were back in the tiny pine bough shelter in the Lakelands, warm in Naissun's arms. The thought made her start to cry again, so Miakaela turned her mind instead to the morrow. She must begin to prepare herself for her new duties. It would be challenge enough with a positive attitude; she did not dare set out upon her new life in this frame of mind.

The crying bout had left her drained, and much to her relief, sleep overcame her quickly.

*          *          *

"Mia..."

She felt a soft warmth caress her cheek. She forced her eyes open to meet candlelight. It was still nighttime, and Naissun was seated next to her blanketed body on the bed.

"Naissun?" Her only emotion was pure joy to see him again, to find he had come to her.

He lowered his chin. "Mia, I believe all will be well. I've come to ask if you will trust me, even though there is risk..."

She sat up. "My Lord, tell me what you mean. All will be well?"

He seized her hand in his two. "Do you still wish to stay with me?"

Her heart doubled its pounding. "I would give anything--"

"As I say, there are risks..."

"Will we make our escape? I have no fear of fleeing, regardless of the risk..."

Naissun smiled. "No, my lady--I'm in no mood to give up my house and my good servants, my honor and station." He stroked her hand. "I prefer to keep them all, and add to my fortune by-well, let's wait and see if we are successful."

Even in the dim candlelight Miakaela could perceive Naissun's excitement, and it was infectious. "What must I do? Just say the word and I will."

Naissun lifted her hand to his lips and kissed her in the palm, fervently. She shivered to feel his face again against her fingers, and quickened longing added to the speed of her pulse. "Mia, this is what I ask of you: that you give me yourself again, this night, and that tomorrow in the Court of King Regit you testify to have done so."

Her eyes went wide. She smiled. "Sweet command, my Naissun! However this can be part of your plan, I do not fathom, nor do I care for I am eager to comply."

Naissun laughed. "I have no wish to make it a chore for you, dearest Mia, so I ask you, warm my bed while I bathe. In my haste to tell you this news, I have still not availed myself of the hot water Faisli left for me."

Miakaela looked at him shyly. "If I may made a suggestion, good my Lord, permit me to bathe you."

Naissun's face broke into a slow but thorough smile. "Even better," he said, his voice suddenly husky.

The bathing room was next to the kitchen, and a huge kettle of scalding water still stood on the stove. Naissun hauled it to pour into the cool water already standing in the marble tub. Miakaela selected soap and soft towels from the chest against the wall of the small chamber. As Naissun disrobed, she did likewise.

This time Mia made no effort to conceal her examination of his nakedness. She deliberately let him see her eyes fix upon each part: his magnificent shoulders, broad chest, long and muscular arms...his flat belly and sweetly curved buttocks, and even his erection. Last night had been lovely, but this time she would give Naissun every little attention she knew how to give.

He stepped into the bath and settled down into the water. Miakaela knelt next to the bath. "Close your eyes and pay no attention to me," she told him calmly. She had been taught to do so, for most men found the experience of being bathed almost too intimate at first. It was better to make little of it than much.

Naissun closed his eyes. Mia watched his face as she wet and lathered her hands. By the gods, he was beautiful. She could barely breathe looking at him. Carefully, she lay her soapy hand upon his shoulder, stroking round it. She imagined she could feel the power laying dormant in the firm flesh. She was in awe touching him, feeling his skin as her palm slid over it, watching his face in repose...perfect, he seemed perfect.

"Mia," he said softly, his voice resonating against the water and the marble, "what if I were the man to whom the Monarch of Taelorea gave you? When you first laid eyes on me, in his Court, would you have been glad?"

Miakaela lathered his other shoulder. "When you first touched me, I rejoiced at it, though I knew not why. Your hand was warm and comforted me. When I first looked at you I found you most pleasing to the eye. And you frightened me a little, which is not at all contrary to love."

He laughed, but kept his eyes closed and his head tipped back. "Do I frighten you a little still?"

She soaped her hands again and placed them on his chest. "I am frightened of the power you have to make me want you," she said, relishing the hard muscle.

"I do nothing to exert myself in that regard...I wonder at what power you believe I have."

"Your magnificence," she said, and to emphasize the point, caressed the sensitive side of his waist.

Naissun turned his head in a little shudder of pleasure, and his amber eyes opened halfway. "What a curious creature you are," he said. "Have you not noticed the scars I bear, not to mention the ruin that was once my nose?"

"Magnificence," Miakaela repeated. She soaped his left arm and indeed found the long pucker of an old stab wound across his bicep. "See here how the scar adorns your splendid arm?" She traced her fingers around the band of muscle. "It is like jewelry on a woman, it draws the eye to a place of perfection. Ah Naissun, my heart wants to stop when I look at you."

He lifted his hand out of the water and caressed her face, painting warm wetness down cheek and chin. "By all means then," he said, "look and touch to your heart's content."

She washed his other arm. The dark, wet hair in the hollow of his armpit was oddly beautiful to her and she realized as she touched him there that her womanhood was swelling and moistening. The first pangs of hunger stirred within her.

"Ah Mia..." Naissun sighed luxuriously. "Were it summer and not winter, I would draw you into the bath and take you here. But I think the bed will be preferable. Oh, you do know how to touch a man..."

Miakaela smiled. "My will to please you is inexhaustible."

She set to washing his legs, starting carefully with his feet. She knew at this point his yearning would be becoming quite acute. Naissun fell silent but she could plainly see his emotions on his face. He smiled beatifically. Bathing his calves she turned her attention to the muscles there; they were rock hard and perfectly proportioned. Then she washed his thighs, working her way slowly to the inside. She could imagine how it felt to him and her own thighs began to quiver in sympathy.

"Unless you have the desire to be seized and pulled into this bath, you must leave off, Mia," said Naissun, the pinch of arousal in his voice.

Miakaela was dying to lay her hands on his erection, but could not refuse his command. Ah, but he was so large and beautiful, and the sight reminded her again of her fullness of the night before. "As you wish, my Lord," she told him. "But your hair..."

"All right, yes, my hair," he agreed reluctantly.

Naissun's hair had become tangled on the journey and he had not bothered to comb it out as yet. Miakaela found combs in the chest and set to freeing his hair of knots. It was a joy to her to touch it so, study the colors of it. Then she washed and rinsed it with a small pitcher, and dried it immediately with a towel so he would not catch cold. Then she combed it a little with her fingers, indulging her fascination just a little bit more.

Naissun snatched at her hand with his. "My sweet, if you believe your touch upon my hair has had no effect upon me, you are mistaken. Leave off."

The look in his eyes paralyzed her. He held her pinned with it and took his hand to his mouth. Mia watched him kiss her fingers and the sight of those beautiful lips pressing her skin made her weak. It took a supreme effort for her to reclaim herself and stand up next to the bath.

Naissun stood likewise, and Miakaela laid a towel on the floor and helped him step out. As he took another towel to dry himself, he kept his eyes on her until she trembled with fear and desire. Suddenly he swung the towel and caught her in it, pulling her to him. She lost her balance and started falling back, and took a few steps backward, seeking equilibrium. But Naissun seized this momentum and followed it, carefully but assertively moving her until her back fell against the wall. He pressed her naked body with his, firm into the wall.

She was trapped-marvelously, deliciously trapped. The feeling of being pinned by his huge body against the wall was intoxicating. Naissun raised one of his arms and braced himself with his forearm over Mia's head, making the prison of his flesh more secure and powerful. His other hand cupped her breast possessively. His feet were planted outside her own on either side, and his penis had come to rest against her belly. Naissun shifted so that it folded against her, hot and hard and pressing into her flesh. It was a form of possession Miakaela had never experienced before, physical possession that mimicked what she perceived in her soul.

She felt her whole body drained of will, like water coursing out of an upturned bottle. She raised her face to beg for Naissun's kiss and was not denied. His mouth fed wildly upon hers. She let one of her hands slide around behind him and dusted his buttocks with her fingertips. Naissun responded by piercing her with his tongue and leaning to crush her more desperately into the wall. It hurt, but wonderfully.

Naissun broke the kiss, gasping. "Your wiles will be my undoing, Miakaela," he said in a low, wild voice. "I cannot bear waiting the time it takes to carry you to my bed."

"Take me on the marble then, my Lord, I care not where we are if I can have you inside me." Indeed, Mia's loins were tight and trembling to receive him.

He gathered her up in his arms, towel and all, a damp and quivering bundle. "A compromise," he said, and carried her out of the bathing room and into his study but a few steps away. The fire still burned there, and the floor was covered in thick carpet. He collapsed with Mia on the rug before the fire, and she stretched out under him.

Again she marveled at the sheer size of him. But not for long, for in the next moment he was kissing her, deeply and sensuously, and the palm of his hand circled over her nipple, the sensation driving out all rational considerations.

She simply could not perform as a concubine with him. All her studies escaped her, all the practice failed her. She could not think to make the correct moves. Now, for example, when she should be focusing her attention on how to touch Naissun, what sounds to make, what gestures, she could do nothing but dissolve beneath him and let her thighs fall open. She had been taught a concubine was all mind, but he made her into all flesh, into instinct and urge and mindless delight.

Naissun's mouth was near her ear at that moment, and he murmured softly into it, "In the harem did you learn anything of your own pleasure, or only of men's?"

Miakaela found her voice with difficulty. "No, nothing of my own, at least not...intentionally."

He gave her earlobe a gentle bite. "Then let me teach you," he whispered.

He shifted off her body enough to access her with his hands. His palm continued to caress her breast, while his other hand danced faintly down over her belly, then teased her sides. His touch was light and slow, and seemed to bring individual nerve endings into blissful awakening. Miakaela moaned and lay her hand upon Naissun's wet hair, stroking it absently. He leaned to kiss her and fed upon her mouth as he caressed her below. His fingers had traveled to the inside of her thighs and her most tender places ached for his touch.

Which happened at last...

Mia tensed up as the bolt of pleasure tore through her. She arched and gasped, "Oh Naissun...", which made him laugh behind the kiss. She was slick with wetness, and his fingers spread it everywhere, exploring, probing, reading her reactions and determining the most sensitive place. His finger stayed there, playing the spot, and Miakaela found herself grasping his hair, squeezing her eyes shut, tensing violently in response to it.

She had never been so selfish in her life. All desire retreated except for one: to feel this, to feel more and more of this, to have it spread all over her and multiply in intensity until it consumed her. And Naissun, bless him, did not stop, did not break the rhythm, until she was convulsing wildly in his arms, wailing, shuddering, melting. Then and only then did he cover her and pierce her.

To Mia's disbelief, the penetration of his organ into her utterly conquered flesh felt so good, so sweet and delectable, her body began to tense again at once. She wrapped her legs around his calves and spread wider, the better to feel it. Yes, there was more tension left in her body, she found it and lay it in consecration beneath Naissun's pounding. Her hands gripped his buttocks and pinched, which made him quicken his thrusts even more. Another orgasm was budding in Miakaela's loins; she raised her throat so Naissun's damp hair fell upon it, and with that sensation she climaxed again. She was unfolding softly into it as Naissun himself reached orgasm, crushing her in his embrace as he did so. He squeezed the air out of her, then slowly let it back in as he relaxed. Mia felt on the edge of consciousness, not so much for lack of breath as for her sudden comprehension of the extend of Naissun's strength.

They lay on the floor for a minute, catching their breath, no other sound save the crackling of the fire. Then Naissun stirred and said, "Did I teach you well, Mia?"

Miakaela replied with a kiss.

*          *          *

Morning dawned brilliantly, with a brightness possible only when the sky clears after fresh snowfall. A ray of light from the window in Naissun's bedchamber fell across their pillows, and the two lovers woke almost simultaneously.

"Good morning," said Naissun with a smile, brushing a strand of hair from his eyes.

"Good morning," replied Miakaela, smiling back. "I trust you feel less remorse than yesterday morning, my Lord Naissun?"

He turned to squint at the bright window. "Less remorse than there are clouds in today's sky." He settled his head back on the pillow and regarded her sleepily. "Would that we didn't have this chore ahead of us, I would call upon Faisli to serve us breakfast here."

Miakaela took comfort from the lighthearted way Naissun spoke of their appointment ahead.

"Faisli..." continued Naissun. "I'm sure she's already arrived to make breakfast, and as I recall we left a bit of disarray downstairs."

"Oh dear-what will she think?"

"Probably something fairly close to the truth. Ah well, it will all be moot in a few hours. We'd best get up and face the day."

Miakaela returned to her room and dressed, but she followed Naissun's instructions and did not put on the gown the King had sent. Instead she put on one of her own dresses. She met Naissun in the dining room where Faisli had set out a light breakfast. Naissun arrived a moment later, attired in a rather dramatic dress uniform that far outshone Mia's gown for elegance. It was black and silver with royal blue accents, cut in a way very flattering to the Envoy's lean physique.

He saw her looking him up and down. "It's my dress uniform from my days as a captain in the King's army. I'm hoping to remind him of the several favors he owes me from that time."

"It's very dashing," she said with an approving smile. "You outshine me today, Naissun."

"It's best if your shining be kept to a minimum, but I fear it cannot be concealed," he replied.

After the meal, Miakaela dressed in the same cloak and veils she had worn on the journey. Meanwhile Naissun donned a beautiful long cape in royal blue, trimmed in embroidered eagles, the royal symbol of Royoun. The two went outside to the lane, which had been cleared of snow by Stowan. He had hitched a covered surrey to Naissun's horse, and when Miakaela sat inside, she saw Faisli had boxed up King Regit's gifts and placed them on the seat. What must the servants think concerning what was going on? There was also a squarish leather bag packed tightly with some sort of documents.

Naissun paused and addressed Stowan before the steward took the drivers seat. "Stowan," he said in an earnest tone, "our business with the King should be completed in an hour or two, depending upon how long we must wait for audience. If I do not return to the surrey by eleven, bring it back home. If that should happen, I will send word to you what to do next."

From where she sat, Miakaela could not see Stowan's face, but the tightness in his "Yes, my Lord," made plain his reaction to this instruction.

So Naissun climbed in the surrey, and settled them in with the lap blanket, and they were off to the palace.

"Naissun," said Miakaela quietly, "you said I will need to testify...what do you wish me to say?"

"It will be simple: tell the truth, as will I. We have justice on our side, although my hopefulness is placed not so much in that as in the politics of the thing. Let us hope the presentation is well attended; the more lords and ladies present, the better for us. At any rate, after it's over, I will explain anything to you that you wish to hear, but for now I'd rather not cloud your mind with unnecessary concerns."

"All right," she agreed.

"You're a very intelligent woman, Mia," said Naissun, touching her arm. "No circumstance will arise that you can't handle, trust me."

It wasn't far to the palace, a huge and imposing complex that had a much more serious and militaristic look than its equivalent in Taelorea. They left Stowan and the surrey and entered at a main gate, Naissun carrying their various packages.

The Envoy led the way with the confidence of having been at court regularly for many years. Miakaela herself lost track of the various hallways and turned corners. Finally they reported to an anteroom where a number of people were waiting, attended by a clerk who sat at a table strewn with parchments, registers and such like. Naissun and this man seemed well acquainted and conversed in a familiar but professional fashion. Apparently King Regit was quite anxious to receive them and they were to be announced at once upon their arrival.

A heavy brocaded curtain hung in one end of the room, with a man guarding it who served both as sentinel and herald. They waited briefly, until the guard determined the time was right, and pulled back the curtain. He stepped into the doorway and in a well-modulated, strong voice, announced, "The Royal Envoy, Retired Captain Naissun and his charge, the Most Fair Tribute Miakaela, a Gift of Flesh from the Monarch of Taelorea."

Naissun gave Miakaela a smile and took her arm, leading her through the doorway.

They were at the rear of an immense audience room, furnished resplendently with tapestries and chandeliers, and absolutely crammed with people. Evidently the presentation of a Gift of Flesh was a major social event in Royoun. Miakaela and Naissun paused to turn down the center aisle and Mia took the opportunity to peel back her veils. Then she saw at the end of the aisle the raised dais where King Regit sat, flanked by several advisors in lower chairs.

She wanted to get a good look at the King, but of course custom called upon her to lower her eyes and let Naissun lead her. There seemed to be some sort of consternation going on in the crowd, which she surmised related to her appearance. Miakaela wasn't at all comfortable attired as she was on such an occasion, but she would have felt worse bedecked with Regit's gifts.

They arrived at the foot of the throne and there Mia fell to her knees. Next to her, Naissun offered a low bow and waited in silence.

"Captain Naissun," said the King gruffly.

"Your Greatness," replied Naissun, his voice steady and sure.

"This is...irregular," commented Regit. "Were my gifts for the Tribute not received?"

Naissun was pleased to find the King was not already in a towering rage; apparently it was one of his good days. The Envoy wondered if he might indeed find good fortune this morning. "King Regit, I will explain to you the situation. I know you are a man well versed in the law, so forgive me if I sound condescending in my explanation, but I want to make sure the matter is clear to all those present." He gestured at the gathered throng. He didn't want Regit to forget for a moment that a good share of the most important members of Court were in the room.

"Go on," said the King, clearly perturbed. He had dark silver hair, a black beard, and heavy black brows, which at times such as this lowered threateningly. Regit was not a tall man but he was sturdy, and despite being well past his youth, maintained an imposing figure.

"Your gifts were indeed delivered to the Tribute, my King, and she was pleased to excess with your generosity and good taste. Let all present know that the gown the Tribute was to wear today would have brought great honor to this Court. But I am required unfortunately to return these gifts to you, for reasons I will now explain."

With these words, Naissun took a step forward and handed the boxes to one of the King's aides. He retained under his arm a leather bound book and a rolled parchment, and when he stepped back to Miakaela's side, he took the book in his hands and opened it. "Sadly," he began, "according to the laws of the land, the Lady Miakaela of Taelorea has lost her status as a concubine, and therefore cannot serve as Tribute, nor is she fit to be presented thus to this Court and to you, my King."

Behind them there was an agitated murmur. Naissun kept his eye on Regit, knowing that if the man rose to his feet, the task ahead would be much harder. For a moment the King seemed to be preparing to stand, but then he leaned back in the chair instead, fixing the Envoy with a stern stare. "I'm sure, Captain, you will enlighten me on this sorry turn of events."

"I beg your patience, King Regit," said Naissun, and looked down at the page before him. "Let me begin by presenting to the Court the laws of the land regarding this matter. From Codicil 24, governing issues of property, Section 36, on the subject of concubines, I read:

Should a concubine willfully give her body to a man who has no right to it, she forfeits her status and the protections and privileges thereof. She must throw herself upon the mercy of he who holds her as property, and he is granted sole right to determine her punishment for this rebellion, even to the extremity of taking her life.

And unfortunately, Your Greatness, the Lady Miakaela is guilty of this crime, having given herself to a man of her own choosing, when she was dedicated to serve only you according to the will of the Monarch of Taelorea."

Naissun had known Regit for a very long time, and served under him in every possible circumstance. Therefore he well knew every manner and gesture of his king, no matter how subtle, and it was clear to him that the prospect of bringing Miakaela to an unpleasant end appealed to him as much as retaining her sexual services. There was a hot glint in the King's eye and no doubt his imagination was already running wild with the possibilities. Naissun raised his voice to be heard over the astonished muttering of the court.

"My King, obviously it is not fitting that you should take to yourself such spoiled goods as this, and no doubt the Monarch of Taelorea would agree. Therefore it would be an insult for me to relinquish ownership of this lady to you."

The color left Regit's face. In spite of Naissun's compliments to the contrary, the King had never had a head for law. As the Envoy had expected, he had completely forgotten that Naissun still retained ownership of Miakaela.

Now King Regit stood, not with confident authority, but with the unsteadiness of a man unsure of his next move and thinking fast. "Captain Naissun," he said, "let us not be hasty. In the interest of justice, we should give the Lady Miakaela a chance to defend herself. This is a matter of some seriousness and she should be allowed to speak."

Regit stepped forward until he stood before Mia. "Fair Tribute," he said with hopeful gentleness, "you will find that Royoun is a country of justice but also of mercy. Although you are but a slave, we trust you to speak honestly on the matter of these charges. Deny them, and we will take you at your word and spare you all shame and punishment."

It was all Naissun could do to stifle a smug grin at this speech. There was no one in the room who did not know these words to be hollow, for Regit's reputation was one of swift and merciless punishment that assumed a man guilty until proven innocent. He clearly was begging the concubine to lie, that he might salvage his opportunity to retain her. But of course, she would not lie....

Miakaela raised her face and then replied, in a high, clear voice: "Great King Regit, the accusation is true. I did indeed give myself, and most willingly and on two occasions, to a man to whom I was not promised. You may trust the testimony of Envoy Naissun, for he is the man."

Needless to say, chaos erupted in the room. The color returned to Regit's face; in fact, he went crimson. Fortunately there was too much racket for him to speak immediately, when the first blind rage was upon him. In the moments after that, he no doubt realized he had no viable options and went tongue-tied. One of the royal guards pounded a staff on the floor to demand quiet. Throughout all this, Miakaela continued to kneel before the King, her face raised quite proudly.

Naissun tucked the book back under his arm and unrolled the scroll. When the noise began to taper off, he again addressed the King. "Your Greatness, the situation is most unfortunate, but not irreparable. In our country's case law there is precedence, for you yourself so wisely judged in a similar situation but three years ago." Naissun glanced down at the scroll in his hands. "There was a man charged with the task of transporting a herd of goats from the farm of the seller to the farm of the buyer. As usual in such matters, during the journey this envoy was given possession of the goats. Sadly, the entire herd fell ill with the gray mange while under the envoy's care. It was our King's most wise decision that the envoy make restitution to the buyer for the herd which he could not deliver, and thus all accounts were satisfied."

Naissun cast his eye around the room, to be certain his listeners were attending to this. How such a ticklish situation might be resolved was apparently of as much interest to them as the scandal that created it, for all present listened raptly. The Envoy continued, "So Your Greatness's wisdom may be applied likewise here. I shall return to the Monarch my envoy fee. And to you I will offer six months' service without pay to make restitution for my failure in delivering the Monarch's gift in the condition it was intended. As for my property, the Lady Miakaela: I shall judge how best to deal with her as is my right under the law. But rest assured, my King, I have taken much to heart your speech to her concerning the mercy for which our fair kingdom is so renowned."

This was the checkmate moment. Of course Regit, as king, had the right to strike the chess pieces to the ground and arbitrarily make himself the winner. But the prize was only a concubine, and his political reputation was of far more value to him. It did not take him long to draw this conclusion and force calmness upon himself, although clearly he knew he had been bested by his old captain and was acutely displeased by the humiliation.

In even tones he addressed the company, shoulders back and head held high: "We appreciate the pains you have taken concerning the just disbursement of this...rather complicated matter, Envoy Naissun. It is clear to all present that you failed utterly in your mission and for that we are greatly disappointed. Your service as an envoy will not be requested again. Nevertheless, you must, as you say, be required to make restitution for this error, and we will accept your offer of six months' service in some other capacity. A letter shall be written in my own hand to the Monarch expressing our regret and hopefully your irresponsible behavior will not be taken as a reflection of general barbarism in the Kingdom of Royoun."

Naissun offered a low and humble bow. He had expected if he were successful to be thus upbraided; the King had the right to try to save a little face. But Naissun knew the courtiers felt far less concern for the good opinion of the Monarch of Taelorea than they felt amusement that the King had been thus outwitted by a retired army captain. Naissun stood up again and said, "Our King is most gracious and wise as always."

"You are dismissed," declared Regit with a sweep of his hand. He turned to seat himself again, with a forced casualness. From now on he would act as if the matter had been of little consequence, which of course was just what Naissun wanted.

The Envoy helped Miakaela rise to her feet and escorted her quickly from the room. He needed only to make eye contact with a few in the audience to know he had won their respect. He clearly needn't be concerned with any public outcry later, when gossip spread that the fallen concubine was happily ensconced in Captain Naissun's household.

As they arrived back in the anteroom, Miakaela began to tremble, half with excitement and half with fear. She could not believe the King of all Royoun had truly been outwitted before his whole court...surely such a thing could not be true! She stood silently at Naissun's side while he handed over the purse with his envoy's fee to the clerk and made arrangements for its return to the Monarch. Apparently the clerk and all who waited in the room had somehow been kept abreast of the new developments, probably by the guard at the door, for the smile on the clerk's face when he addressed Naissun was one of great mirth and admiration.

The two did not speak as they made their way back through the palace halls. Only when they were back in the surrey and a much relieved Stowan set the horse in motion did Mia open her mouth.

"My Lord, how can it be true that we are not both sentenced to death by your king?" she gasped.

Naissun laughed. "Regit is impetuous, but Royoun is built on a sense of order. He could not fly in the face of established law, at least not in such a public forum as we enjoyed at Court today."

"But could he not punish you more severely for your failure to deliver me? Was that not a crime?"

Naissun gazed past her at the passing traffic, and said, "My impudence at allowing myself to be seduced by the Gift of Flesh in my charge was certainly offensive. If the scenario this morning had gone differently, that might have taken precedence over all other issues. But clearly the King had no legal right to punish you."

"So you dared let the truth come out because you knew it wouldn't hurt me, even though you put your own life at risk?"

He turned to meet her gaze again. "It was a calculated risk. But I knew if I won the favor of the audience, the game would be in our hands. There is little a king values more than the good will of the powerful, at least this king. And I'm sure he will ride me hard for the next six months. Of course, not so hard as to look bad; a lot of people will be watching. I didn't expect this little exercise would make such a hero of me, but I think I am not the only one in this kingdom who has grown tired of his treatment of the Harem. At least I hope that's the case."

Miakaela gave him a quirky smile. "Naissun, you never did provide me much detail as to what I might expect from my service to King Regit."

Naissun smiled back. "Suffice it to say, even on my worst days you will be better off with me."

Mia lowered her eyes thoughtfully, then cast them up at him again. "But my Lord, I am now stripped of my status as a concubine. Of what service can I hope to be to you, untrained as I am in any other vocation?"

Naissun kept a straight face only with great effort. "Not to worry, beloved...I have a great many rabbits in dire need of being perfumed and bejeweled, and need your assistance desperately."

*          *          *

The wedding of Naissun and Miakaela occurred in the early spring, but did not take place at Court as was traditional for officers of the king's army. Nevertheless, it was the most popular subject of gossip for weeks afterwards. Accounts seemed in accord as far as certain details: It was held in some remote spot, with the household servants as the only witnesses, and the Lady Miakaela was as beautiful as a goddess. Some rumors held that King Regit himself supplied her gown as an act of reconciliation with Captain Naissun, who had been serving him so cheerfully these months, sometimes at the most unpleasant tasks. Others gossiped that the King had attempted to discover the location of the ceremony and interfere. That tale was embellished by the more creative with the additional idea that there had been a duel with swords involved, which the King lost, but Naissun graciously spared his life.

Meanwhile, around many a tavern fire, the menfolk speculated with even more gusto as to the circumstances of the wedding night.

Happily, the couple gave little thought to gossip and settled contentedly into domestic life, something neither one had ever expected to experience.

One night early in their marriage, Naissun was working in his study by lamplight as Miakaela did some sketching on a piece of parchment by the glow of the fire. She looked up approvingly at her husband, and asked him, "Naissun, you must be studying the law again, for you wear that look."

He cast his eyes over to her. "I have a 'look'?"

"Most certainly you do."

"Hmmm." He put down his quill and leaned back in his chair. "Well, I cannot deny it. I meant to surprise you, but it appears when my service to the King is ended next month, I will be granted a position of justice."

Mia set down her drawing. "I can't imagine why King Regit would think that a good idea. However did you persuade him to grant it?"

"He thinks the gesture will demonstrate he and I are allies. He is still perturbed about the rumors that I bested him in a duel at our wedding."

Miakaela laughed and rose to walk over to her husband. He welcomed her into his lap and put his arms around her. "You know," she said, "I always wondered who started that rumor. He certainly is a most creative fellow."

"Why thank you," said Naissun, and kissed her.

END

© 2005 Diane Lau/Diana Laurence

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