EXCERPTS

From “Hot as a Dragon’s Blood” by Eric Del Carlo

“Caffax.”

Her voice carried tranquilly. He looked up and found her in the doorway, backlit by the candlelight. She had shed her scarlet robes and stood nude. Her body was robust. Was she really so different from the supply clerk with whom he had so foolishly dallied earlier today? Her breasts were smallish but as firmly molded as the rest of her. Yet there between those taut thighs was only the moist dark of her curls. It was an absence, or so it seemed to Caffax.

“I want you to take my salt dragon,” he said. “I do, but…”

She came to him. “You are a brave man, Caffax.”

“Maybe not brave enough.” He blinked up at her. “Is there some other way?”

She bent and softly stroked his cheek. “In Mavvan it is taught that a dragonmaster must give of himself completely in order to bond with his dragon. It is the same when that bond is transferred. You must give of yourself. To me.”

Her mouth moved toward his.

Caffax closed his eyes. And felt the touch of her lips. They were moist and velvety, and they moved against his without insistence. She tasted of the liquor they had both been drinking. He let his mouth answer back, giving in to instinctive responses, not thinking of this person as a woman, a female, merely as a friend, someone who had been kind to him.

Her hands were in motion once more, tugging the shirt’s sleeve from his wrist so that his torso was bared. He thought she would reach for his crotch again, and tensed; but she instead set about caressing his upper arms, his chest, even as they continued to kiss. Her fingers found his nipples and grazed them, which sent a shiver through him.

When those fingers caught his aroused buds and applied a mounting pressure, Caffax groaned against her mouth. At that same moment her tongue invaded him. Again he allowed himself to respond spontaneously. His body’s deep instincts took over. After all, he was a human, and humans had been designed to reproduce. Some part of him, despite his own private proclivities, had to answer that primary urge.

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From “Of High Renown” by Janine Ashbless

She remembered how she had misused him.

It was an unending struggle to keep him alive. The venom in his blood seemed to have destroyed his body’s sense of equilibrium and threw him between burning fever and frigid tremors every few hours. Emlhi cleaned and bandaged the deep puncture wounds in his shoulder, but after that she simply tried to keep his temperature on an even keel—stopping the fever boiling his brains at one moment, piling blankets over him to maintain some vestiges of warmth the next. She fed and watered him, cut fresh bracken every morning for his mattress and, when she was not watching over him, tried to keep up the work of her smallholding. She snatched her own sleep during his chills, dozing in her father’s old room.

Between fire and ice, the knight would have passages where he seemed to be lucid but completely exhausted. Then as the fever flared up afresh he’d begin to talk and sometimes try to rise from his bed. He stared at the ceiling and spoke to people who weren’t there. He raved about battles and campaigns and the horrors he’d witnessed until Emlhi wanted to stop her ears for sorrow. Sometimes his hallucinations grew worse and in terror or fury he would lash out at her. If he hadn’t been so weakened by his illness, he might have been really dangerous.

It went on for days, and there were times she couldn’t understand why he did not die. She might have called in an older female relative to share the labor of care, but she guarded her sole right to Gareth possessively. Exhausted, she took strength from his stubbornness.

And she took more than strength.

The first time it wasn’t her doing. She was sitting on the edge of the bed, tending him as he burned. She’d been wiping his face and chest with a damp cloth, dipping it in fresh water every few minutes and waving it about to cool it. He was twisting in discomfort, tossing in a delirious dream, his hands scrabbling convulsively across his belly. When she touched his cheek with the cloth he would turn his face toward it, like a baby seeking the teat. She ran it down the midline of his torso and he grabbed her hand, knotting his fingers around hers. Gently she freed the cloth with her other hand and continued to bathe him. He kept his grip on her. His head was thrown back, his larynx working. Then he pushed her hand into his crotch.

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From “Eyekeeper” by Aurelia T. Evans

Lydia stood in the middle of the cell. The floor under her bare feet was nothing but dirt and hay and dust mixed with disintegrated rat droppings. She had long since removed the cloth belt from between her legs where it held her skirt up away from her feet like pants. It was easier to creep around when skirts could not snag on corners, but she was not creeping now. She had been caught, betrayed by a man who should know better, sentenced to burn by the king whose coffers she pilfered, and shut away in the castle dungeon to await her execution at dawn.

The sky through the window slit revealed stars. She could not yet smell the morning fog, and she still smelled ale and sweat on the breeze, which told her evening was still upon the city.

There was a moldy pallet in the corner, next to a bucket. Lydia used neither, simply stood. Her clothing was ordinary and her face was smudged with dust. But something was different; something was wrong. It was a feeling in the gut, like looking into a forest and knowing there was a creature staring back, something silent and unseen. She smiled, the curve of her lips almost imperceptible.

The woman whom the king called Witchthief waited.

After the bell tower chimed ten, the warden entered. He could not look her in the eye, but his strong, narrow jaw was set, his fists inadvertently tight. He bore marks of distress and distraction—there were deep circles under his eyes and his stubble smudged his cheek like charcoal.

“Good evening, Hann,” she said.

He bowed slightly. The gesture was automatic and somewhat mocking. “Lydia.”

“You have had a good evening, have you not?” Lydia asked.

“Very lucrative.”

He shut the door behind him. His keys clinked in the lock. “Where is the rest?”

“You ‘rescued’ the bag when Micah alerted the king I was digging through his treasure room.” Lydia stepped forward. Her left ankle dragged behind a bit, laden as it was with an iron shackle that attached her to the wall. “You failed to inform me that Micah kept a Scrying Glass in there.”

“I have been told that an artifact was also removed,” Hann interrupted. The timbre of his voice was official now. Cloaked in his profession, he found the fortitude to meet her eyes.

“Is that what Micah told you?” Lydia’s expression remained placid and slightly bemused.

“The king ordered me to search you for any additional items stolen.”

“I am sure it will be such a chore.” Her smile became perceptible.

“Damn it, Lydia, where is the Oculum?” Hann shouted, grabbing her by her arms. When he shook her, he made her chains rattle. She just laughed, the low, husky sound vibrating over his flesh.

“Search me.” She peered up at him through her dark eyelashes.

“Words cannot describe how glad I am you will burn on the morrow,” Hann said. He pulled at the ties of her bodice, spreading it open before him with nothing but her light chemise underneath. As her skirts moved and brushed against her legs, the clink of metal on metal was more apparent. She could no longer cover it with the sound of her shackle. When Hann heard it, he raised an eyebrow.

“Really, Lydia. What did you think you were going to do with the treasure? Bribe the ferryman to take you the other direction?” Hann asked. Slowly, he slid the bodice down and loosened the final ties so that the material of her dress slid down her legs. There was a heavy clink as the full pocket-lined skirts fell to the stone floor.

Lydia said nothing, nor did her smile falter. She could see sweat forming above his lip as his gaze traveled from the ridge of her collarbone down to the shapes of her breasts under the thin chemise. Her remaining clothing was silent as he moved his hands over the full arms, down the back, against the skirts, now pressing against her firm thighs.

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From “The Widow’s Man” by Nyla Nox

Our queen was in a lighthearted mood that night.

She joked and laughed as she asked for my help in taking off her elaborate dress. She had sent her maids home early, “so we would have more time.”

The dress had many layers of white and cream, decorated with stylishly exaggerated flowers that looked a little menacing to me but that I was told were the envy of all the ladies at court. Our queen was thinking of taking the designer under her wing.

Perhaps, she said, there would be a need for a larger dress, particularly in a certain area…

I could not help getting confused with the hooks and eyelets when I heard that. For a moment I started to put them back together again by mistake, until my queen turned around and playfully slapped my hand.

“What are you doing?” she said. “Is this how you are going to serve me?”

My turn to laugh now, lightheartedly. “Maybe I was caught up in a dream,” I said.

I was indeed. At this very moment the assassins were watching the shift change of the royal guard from the vantage points I had revealed to them.

The queen put her arms lovingly around my shoulders.

“Is it your dream, too?” she said.

Experienced as she was with the daily deceits of the royal court, she couldn’t hide her sudden joy. I suppose she always felt, deep down, that something was missing in me, in spite of my imaginative attention to the details of our frequent celebrations in her bedchambers. I never had any trouble showing my admiration and respect, in every way. You taught me superb control, my Lady Widow. And I know I never said anything that could give her the slightest clue to my real passion. I never talked about it to anyone. Not even to you.

No sounds from outside. Your assassins were true experts. Or else they had been discovered and our plans destroyed. I had no way of knowing.

The queen gripped my buttocks with her strong, workmanlike hands. She is no ethereal beauty like you, my Lady Widow, her body bears witness to her descent from a long line of provincial farm wives. She pulled me in as deep as she could. Had she chosen this night of all nights to make me come inside her?

In all the time I served in her bedchamber, she never replaced me with another lover, although of course, as our queen, she always had a few men on the side, a well-designed cross section of our population who kept her in touch with current thought and fashions as well as current lovemaking. She had no reason to assume that I would be anything but delighted to share even more of her life and contribute to the history of our illustrious city. What man would not love to father the queen’s child?

Well, perhaps the man who, while embracing her, reassuring her with soothing words and making love to her with her precious gown still half hooked up, flowers all crumpled and sticking out in awkward places, exposing only her magnificent breasts and, if pushed up far enough, her smooth strong thighs, feeling the softness of the silk against his belly and the softness of her inner body tightly around him, knows that he has already betrayed her to her enemy and expects the assassins to enter the bedchambers any moment now using the key that he himself supplied.

In spite of all that, I obeyed.

 

 

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