Author : Amber
Disclaimers: Uber warning. Though inspired by our two favorite Grecian warrior-women, these characters are my own creations. But having said that, I’d like to add that I take no responsibility for their actions in this story – once they get onto the computer, they’re out of my jurisdiction.
This story contains some violence, some mild drug use, and a whole lotta lusty, steamy sex of the grrl/grrl variety. – your fairly run-of-the-mill FF story, I guess. If you’re underage or shouldn’t be reading this for any other reason, please move along quietly.
Summarize: Dragged from a homeland of strict moral order, Dae is marched by her kidnappers into a harsh world of desert dunes and wind-carved stone. The rescue she prays for, however, may not offer respite from her fate, as she finds herself in the harem of a mysterious, dark-haired woman with flashing, seductive eyes of pure sapphire – the Scion Zafirah Al’Intisar. Plunged into a world of decadent morals and utter sexual freedom, Dae struggles to come to terms with desires she has never felt before in her life. As love and lust collide, these two women slowly forge a bond... as one learns to listen to her heart, and the other hears the call of her awakening body.
Authors note (Feel free to ignore): Okay, I’d like to take just a minute to explain this little piece of sapphic exploration if I could. I planned this story to be a way for me to practice writing erotic love-scenes (ooh la la!
Archiving: Only with the permission of the author.
Feedback : I love to get feedback, so if you’d like to offer some it would be greatly appreciated. Questions, comments and suggestions can be sent to me at firstname.lastname@example.org Thank you.
I hope you enjoy…
~Nights of Silk and Sapphire~
It beat against her like a live thing, hungrily wringing the moisture from her body, leaving her drained and weak. Her pale skin, a stranger to such harsh exposure, was blistered and burned. Her throat was dry and parched; the few sips of water the slavers allowed her each day didn’t even touch the thirst that plagued her. Fine blonde hair, once lovingly brushed and tied into elaborate plaits, now tangled about her face in sweaty snarls. Wild, stinging winds lashed her relentlessly with whips of grit and sand, making her eyes swollen and sore. She had learned to walk along with her eyes cast down; there was nothing in this God-forsaken desert that she wanted to see anyway.
For the first week after the attack, Dae had cursed the slavers who slaughtered the caravan she’d been traveling with, had cried herself to sleep every night. Now, her tears were gone. She hadn’t the energy to think, let alone feel sorry for herself. This land was strange and, to a mind accustomed to endless green pastures and placid lakes, hellishly evil. The slavers had dragged Dae and the few dozen others they had captured into this barren, cruel land, forcing them to march across the shifting sands and stretches of sharp, jagged rock, stopping only a few hours during the hottest part of the day to rest wherever they could find shade. The captives – mostly young women and girls like Dae herself – were fed only enough to give them energy to move. They didn’t talk about what awaited them on the other side of the desert; ignorance was a blessing they had no desire to cast aside.
Dae fought hard to keep up with the others, but it was an arduous undertaking. Raised to a life of luxury and privilege, sheltered by doting parents from anything the least bit harmful, the young girl had barely had to walk more than a mile on her own in a single stretch. Her legs felt like boiling lead had been poured into the muscles along her calves and thighs, but she didn’t complain. The ugly men who had captured her held whips and carried fearsome-looking swords, and while so far the worst they’d done was threaten, Dae had no intention of raising their ire.
Stumbling, exhausted, Dae fought to place one foot in front of the other. The sun was lower on the horizon now, and she encouraged its descent eagerly, knowing that darkness would bring some measure of relief from the stunning heat. She found the bitter chill of night far easier to bear than the fire of day. Licking dry, cracked lips, tasting the salt of her sweat, the young girl glanced about briefly at the shimmering waves that played across the land, teasing her mind with phantasmic images of trees and ghostly oceans of cool, refreshing water. Suddenly, as her glassy emerald eyes flicked about without interest, she noticed something out of place in the bleak landscape. She blinked and squinted, realizing she wasn’t seeing another mirage.
Up ahead and to the right, perched on a sharp ridge of wind-carved stone, three dark, mounted figures stood watching the slave caravan make its way across the desert.
Chancing a glance behind her, Dae saw the slavers hadn’t yet noticed the watchers. The idea occurred that perhaps she could somehow signal the distant figures for help, for rescue, but she had no idea how to accomplish such a thing without attracting attention from her captors. Anyway, from the stories her maids had told her as a child, the people of the desert were more savage even than the slavers.
Biting her lip, indecisive, Dae plodded along, watching the watchers and praying to any Gods who might be listening for some kind of savior to rescue her.
Zafirah Al’Intisar, Scion of the great city of El’Kasari, watched the small caravan with narrow, sharp eyes. The strangers were moving slowly, their feet doubtless weary from trekking this far into the merciless Jaharri desert. Zafirah’s great horse, Simhana, a beautiful white mare with solid black markings, seemed to take an equal measure of interest in the caravan, silently observing with her mistress as she waited for the order to attack or retreat.
"Slavers," observed the man to Zafirah’s left, running callused fingers through a wiry dark beard that gave him a perpetually frowning expression. Zafirah glanced at the man, hearing the distaste in his voice. Rehan Al’Carin was the ruler of the Tek, one of the tribes owing allegiance to the Scion. His features held the dark, sand-blasted ruggedness that came from living in the unforgiving desert; his body was tough and lean, powerful as the desert made those who could brave its savage temper. Zafirah liked the old brute, as crude and hot-tempered as he could sometimes be. She nodded and looked back at the caravan.
"They choose a dangerous path, tempting the sands like this," said the third watcher, a tall, dark-skinned woman who held a massive, recurved bow crafted from layers of horn across her lap. A quiver of arrows fletched with raven feathers bristled above her right shoulder, and slender, powerful fingers plucked at the bowstring as she studied the group below with the predatory eyes of a hawk. Falak was Zafirah’s best scout, and the hunger in her sharp grey eyes told the Scion she was eager to attack. "What shall we do, Scion?"
One of the slaves, a young girl with pale hair and shredded clothes, slipped in the sand. Instantly one of the slavers was on her, dragging her to her feet and shoving her forward harshly, gesturing with his whip in an obvious threat. Zafirah’s lips pulled into a tight line, the expression hidden by the white cotton haik that protected her face from the wind-blown sands.
This was an unwanted distraction, but one the Scion knew she could not overlook. She had come out here leading a small army of spahi – the feared desert riders – in order to quell a simple civil dispute. The Tek tribe had been feuding with their ancient rivals, the Sakaran; a dispute Zafirah would not normally have concerned herself with. The desert tribes were made up of fierce warriors, and such blood-feuds were a source of constant quarrels and skirmishes. This time, however, the Sakaran had threatened more aggressive action, and so Zafirah had left the great coastal city of El’Kasari to remind those under her authority of the danger they took by proposing war. The two tribes had balefully retreated to their respective corners like chastised children, and Zafirah had been leading her men back to El’Kasari when reports came in of these strangers.
Not that strangers were uncommon in the Jaharri desert. The great stretch of sand lay between two lands of wealth and abundance. While the trek was perilous, crossing the desert directly was the fastest way to trade between east and west – going around was safer, but added months of expensive travel-time to an expedition. In the past, before the city of El’Kasari had been built, the various nomadic tribes of the desert had preyed upon the traders mercilessly. For hundreds of years however, since the Scion Peace, the travelers paid a tribute to the desert people and were left in peace. Zafirah’s people had grown wealthy from such payments, and most were satisfied.
"Hmm?" Zafirah glanced at Falak, her attention distracted watching the pale girl struggle along wearily.
"Do we attack?" The dark scout grinned hungrily. "Slavers have no place-"
"Slavers or no, their business is not our concern," Zafirah interrupted softly, "provided they honor the desert and its guardians. But the scouts report these men took water from the Kah-hari oasis without offering tribute for their passage." Dark brows lowered over eyes as clear and deep as burning sapphires. "These men know not the ways of our people. They are fools to enter the desert without such wisdom." She drew a flashing, curved sword from her side and spun it quickly through the air. "A pity they shall not have a chance to learn from their folly."
Rehan and Falak grinned at one another as the Scion wheeled her stead about and set off carefully back down the rocky rise to where the rest of the spahi were waiting. The people of the desert lived for battle and glory, and while this pathetic band of foreign slavers would hardly be a challenge, both were eager to enjoy the sport.
Zafirah selected two dozen riders from the army and ordered them to follow her with a gesture. The shifting sands and shimmering heat were disorienting to those unfamiliar with the desert, making it hard to judge distance or depth. Taking advantage of a shallow depression in the land, the spahi were able to ride to within a hundred feet of the slavers without being detected. When they were in position, Zafirah raised her hand and, tilting her head back, pierced the still air with a shattering, ululating war-cry. The spahi answered it with calls of their own as they spurred their mounts forward. In seconds, they had fallen upon the panicked slavers, their swords painting crimson stains across the white sands.
Zafirah charged one of the terrified men, Simhana swinging sideways at the last moment as she had been trained – a move which gave the Scion the room she needed to dispatch her enemy. A single powerful swing of her scimitar relieved the slaver of his sword, and the return stroke relieved him of his head. Sapphire eyes glittered with deadly glee as a second man charged her with a hoarse shout, only to pitch face-first into the white sands as three slender arrows sprouted suddenly from his chest. The Scion flicked a glance behind her, nodding a thanks to where Falak and her scouts were coolly notching new arrows to their bow-strings. The dark-skinned woman grinned and let fly at another target.
The fight was over in moments; the slavers could offer only pitiful resistance against the elite desert horsemen, who gave no quarter or mercy in the slaughter. In short order, the only figures left standing on the blood-soaked sands were the clustered group of terrified slave-girls, who huddled together and eyed the fearful masked figures on their prancing horses with expressions of awe and fear. Dismounting gracefully, Zafirah strode over to the cowering group, her sapphire gaze immediately seeking out the young blonde she had observed from the ridge. The girl was kneeling on the ground, looking around dazedly, swooning from exhaustion and what the Scion recognized as the symptoms of exposure. Eyes the color of deep emeralds struggled to focus as Zafirah’s shadow fell over her. She blinked, recoiling a little as though expecting a beating.
"Please…d-don’t hurt me…" she whimpered softly. Then her eyelids fluttered, and she fainted dead away.
Zafirah quickly gestured Rehan to her side. "Find some horses for the girls," she ordered. "We shall take them with us. They can serve your tribe to earn their freedom."
"But Scion, I cannot take this many into my tribe," Rehan protested. "I have not the means to feed more mouths!"
"El-Kasari will supplement your resources if it is required," Zafirah allowed. She knew that each tribe could only maintain positions for so many servants before the burden would drain their precious water. Still, the law of the desert was clear; those who were rescued from death or slavery owed a debt that must be repaid with service to the benefactor. In a harsh and unyielding world such as this one, nothing was ever given away freely. "And do not fear, Rehan…I do not expect you to take all the girls." Zafirah’s soft smile as she studied the comatose figure lying in the sand was hidden by the folds of her haik. "This one at least will be returning with me to the city."
Rehan glanced at the wretched girl shrewdly, then grinned lasciviously at his Scion. "Your tastes have altered little, I see," he observed wryly.
"My tastes have not altered at all, cousin," Zafirah said with a smirk. "I am certain I can find a home for her in the seraglio. Now go…get the horses." She dismissed him with a wave of her hand.
While Rehan jogged away to locate mounts for the still quavering girls, Zafirah knelt beside the fallen blonde and studied her more closely. The girl was young – Zafirah guessed not much past her eighteenth year – and even with the ravages of wind and sun marring her perfection, her features held a rare and unique cast of beauty. The shredded rags she wore did little to hide her curvaceous figure from Zafirah’s appreciative gaze. Reaching out with a gloved hand, the Scion ran her fingers through the long, shimmering gold strands of hair that were currently matted with sweat and grit. Blonde hair was unknown among the desert tribes, and was looked upon as a strange and foreign feature that was greatly prized. Zafirah had a well-known penchant for women of exotic appearance, and this girl was certainly too enticing a creature for her to overlook. Her smile grew wider as she nodded, pleased with her find, and with the day’s work in general.
Zafirah stood as Falak approached, the dark archer casting the girl a knowing look before she gestured towards the butchered slavers. "What shall we do with them?"
"Detail a group of men to ride the bodies out to the Kah-hari spring," Zafirah ordered. "Have them hung from the trees as a warning of what happens if the desert is not given its rightful offerings."
Falak grinned. "As you wish, my Scion." She relaxed a little and indicated the young blonde. "A new play-thing, perhaps?" she joked.
Zafirah pulled aside the cotton haik, revealing strong, slightly angular features of such classic beauty they were already the subject of legend and song. She grinned rakishly at her chief scout. "Perhaps…if she asks nicely."
Falak laughed and shook her head. "Let us hope the other girls do not grow jealous," she chuckled. "It has been some time since you added to the harem."
"Do not be concerned, Falak," Zafirah winked. "I am quite capable of satisfying the desires of all – one more will not affect my abilities much I do not think."
Knowing the appetites of her Scion only too well – and knowing from personal experience that her range of abilities extended well beyond the battlefield – Falak could only agree as she went to see to the bodies of the slain.
Dae struggled hard to shake off the fog that clouded her mind, cracking open her eyes dazedly and blinking several times before she was able to make out anything of her surroundings. For a moment, what she saw made her think blessedly that her ordeal had merely been a night-terror and that she was back in her own room at home; rich silk cushions lay everywhere, and the walls of the lavishly-furnished room were decorated with expensive tapestries and hangings. The air was heavy with the sweet scent of perfume – jasmine, she identified fuzzily – and cool, satiny sheets rubbed against her skin. The wonderful illusion lasted only a moment, however, before Dae felt again the terrible thirst as she tried to swallow, and the burning in her cracked skin. Confused, she tried to sit up and was overcome with a wave of dizziness which quickly put her back down again. A cool hand pressed against her forehead soothingly.
"Easy now, little one," said a gentle, feminine voice. "The desert did not take kindly to you. It will be some time before you regain your full strength." Something rough and cold was pressed against her lips, and Dae recoiled. "Drink," said the voice. "You must replenish what the sun took from your body."
Feeling the sudden moisture lap against her parched lips, Dae quickly opened her mouth and reached up to grasp at what she now recognized was a ceramic jug. She struggled to swallow as much as she could, choking and spluttering in her haste to accept the offering before it was revoked. Gentle hands eased her efforts.
"Slowly," instructed the voice. "Take smaller sips or your stomach will cramp and reject the water."
Dae did as told, sipping slowly until the jug was taken away, her thirst only moderately slacked. Whimpering, she lay back and tried to look up at her savior.
"Wh-who are you?" she croaked.
"My name is Inaya." Silken, delicate hands caressed Dae’s face tenderly. "Tsharraafna – I am honored to make your acquaintance."
Blinking several times painfully, Dae finally brought the features of her companion into focus. Inaya looked to be not much older than the blonde herself, and she was quite possibly the most beautiful girl Dae had ever laid eyes upon. Her olive-dark features were framed by hair so midnight black it was almost blue, and her deep, liquid brown eyes held a sense of mystery and seductive innocence that was complemented by full, sensuous lips that smiled easily. Inaya was dressed in an outfit that seemed comprised as much from jewelry as it was from cloth, exposing most of her firm, dark body while covering just enough to maintain some semblance of modesty. Dae, who had never in her life imagined such a scandalous outfit, blushed deeply. She then noticed something else; a bejeweled metal stud pierced the skin of the girl’s naval, its shiny gleam contrasting against her sun-darkened skin. How barbaric, was Dae’s first thought, followed reluctantly by, Although it is sort of pretty. Realizing she was staring, the young blonde quickly returned her attention to Inaya’s face.
"Wh-where am I?" She looked around the strange, exotically decorated room in confusion, remembering only the dark, shadowy figure that had stood over her as she knelt on the blazing sands, surrounded by blood-curdling screams. "How did I get here?"
"You are in the harem of the Scion Zafirah Al’Intisar, in the great city of El’Kasari," Inaya explained slowly. "You have been unconscious for a day and a night. From what I understand, the Scion rescued you from a group of slavers in the desert. She brought you here and I have seen to your recovery."
"The slavers?" Dae’s eyebrows knit in confusion. "What happened to them?"
"The Scion dispatched them for failing to pay tribute," Inaya said. "They are all dead."
Dead. Dae breathed a sigh of relief. I’m safe. Then, she suddenly recalled Inaya’s words more clearly. "Wh-where did you say I was?"
Inaya smiled patiently. "In the harem of the Scion Zafer-"
"Harem!?" Dae had heard terrible stories of what happened in such places, which were havens of debauchery and hedonistic sin. Panic engulfed her and she struggled to sit up, but the dark-haired girl had little trouble pressing her back down again. "Wh-what…why am I here?"
"The Scion was extremely taken with you," Inaya explained. "I can understand why – your beauty is of rare quality. You will remain here as a servant."
"But I-I want to go home!" Dae pleaded.
"The Scion rescued you; according to our laws, since she saved your life, it is her right to take control of your destiny. If she wishes you to stay here, then it shall be so. There is no argument against it."
Dae felt again the surge of depression and loss well up inside her. "A-are you a slave here as well?"
"Not exactly." Inaya smiled softly. "I am one of the harem girls…a pleasure-servant of the Scion."
It took Dae’s mind several moments to process that information, and when she did her eyes widened in horror. "Y-You’re a…a whore?"
Inaya’s face stiffened instantly. "No," she corrected a little coldly. "A pleasure-servant is very different to a whore. I provide for the desires of the Scion, whatever they may be, and I do so willingly and with great pride and joy! It is an honor for me to be chosen for such a position in the palace." She gave Dae a hard look. "You would do well to remember that, since it is a position you yourself now hold."
Dae shrank back from Inaya’s displeasure. "I-I’m sorry," she stammered quickly, not wanting to alienate someone who was being so nice to her. "I just…this is all so strange to me. I don’t understand-"
"Understanding will come with time," Inaya said, her features softening quickly. She reached into a bowl that rested on a small table nearby and retrieved a wet face-towel. "Here…" she said gently, placing the cloth on Dae’s burned face. "This will help sooth your skin."
Dae accepted the ministrations shyly, still trying to come to terms with the sudden and inexplicable changes in her life. "So…you’re expected to…" She hesitated. "To…bed with this Scion?"
"You can put it that way if you like," Inaya grinned, hearing the tremble in the painfully-innocent girls voice. "It is not so bad as you might be imagining."
Dae shivered fearfully despite the consolations. "I-I’ve never…done such things before," she admitted quietly.
Inaya nodded. "I had guessed as much."
"What’s he like?"
"He?" Inaya looked confused. "’He’ who?"
"Well…the Scion of course. Is he gentle?"
Inaya laughed lightly, a pleasant lilting laugh that sounded almost child-like. "Oh, my child, have you not listened? Scion Zafirah is no man…she is a woman!"
"What?" Dae sat up in surprise, confused by this revelation she had somehow missed. "But I thought you said-"
"I did indeed," Inaya agreed cheerfully, watching the expression on the young blonde’s face. "Zafirah is an extremely talented and generous lover; a woman of great passions."
Dae shrank back in horror. "You mean you…you sleep with…another woman!?" she gasped.
"There is precious little sleep involved, I assure you!" Inaya laughed. "Of course I take pleasure with other women…it is quite normal." She cocked her head to the side interestedly as she regarded the innocent girl. "I have heard that such things are forbidden in your land; that to even speak of them is not permitted. Is this true?"
"Of course it’s true!" Dae’s nose wrinkled in fearful distaste. "It’s an unnatural and disgusting perversion!"
Inaya stopped her gentle ministrations and lifted a delicately plucked eyebrow haughtily. "You are very quick to condemn an act of which you have no knowledge or experience," she scolded quietly. "Perhaps when you come to understand the beauty that can be found within such a taking of pleasure, you will not judge so harshly."
"I-I didn’t mean-"
"Yes, you did," Inaya interrupted. "But have no fear, child, I am not offended. It is natural for you to carry with you the same intolerance’s and foolish propriety that I have heard is so common among the people of your land."
Dae considered this new information and felt renewed despair and terror. "I could never do such a thing," she whispered almost to herself. "I-I couldn’t ever do…that…with a woman!"
Inaya smiled mysteriously, but patted the young blonde calmly. "Do not concern yourself," she said softly. "The Scion has no need to force her attentions on the unwilling – there are more than enough women who will go to her most joyfully. If you do not wish to take pleasure with her, she will not take you against your will."
Dae’s features lit up with a tremulous hope. "Are you sure?"
"Of course. Zafirah would never wish to spoil the beauty of such an act with force. There is no pleasure for her if her partner does not take equal joy as she herself."
Blonde brows knit in puzzlement. "Then…why would she keep me in the harem?"
Inaya shrugged. "It is her wish," she said simply. "You should consider yourself most fortunate, child. The position of pleasure-servant is held in high-regard within the palace. We have respect and honor from others, and we are provided a life of great freedom and luxury. We want for nothing; water, fruit, entertainment…we are permitted to indulge in whatever activity we so desire. When you are recovered from your ordeal, I will introduce you to the other girls and take you to see the rest of the seraglio. The gardens and pools are quite lovely, I promise, and a rare sight you’ll not find anywhere else in the desert lands. For now, lie back and relax. Let your body heal itself, and be calm in the knowledge that you are safe. I am sure the Scion will wish to see you when you are recovered."
Suddenly feeling her exhaustion rise to reclaim her, Dae did as Inaya suggested, laying back into the silken caress of cool sheets and pillows, letting the soothing ministrations of her new friend ease away her pains. In a few moments, her eyes had drifted shut and the young blonde had fallen deeply into a healing sleep.
Wetting the face towel from the bowl beside her, Inaya smiled softly to herself as she enjoyed the task of providing for the sleeping girl. The other inhabitants of the harem were all intensely curious about the Scion’s latest find, and Inaya knew they were envious that she had received the honor of tending to the needs of the foreign blonde. Gently letting her fingers comb through the last few tangles that still remained in the silken locks, Inaya looked forward to getting to know the refreshingly innocent and naïve girl better in the coming weeks.
Over the next few days, Dae quickly regained her strength and equilibrium as she recovered from her harsh experiences in the desert. Her blistered and cracked skin soon flaked off, and was soothed with scented healing oils until it was healthy once more. Eating strange but delicious fruits and sweetened water soon gave the young blonde back her strength, and she was provided with a new wardrobe and jewelry made from rare silks and expensive gemstones.
Although Inaya assured the furiously blushing blonde that her new outfit was the most modest and reserved one she could find, Dae was still uncomfortable and embarrassed by how much of her body it revealed. Her entire stomach was left bare, and the embroidered green silk that covered her firm, ample breasts seemed designed to enhance her cleavage rather than conceal it. Loose harem pants shimmered about her legs in almost transparent waves, and gold bracelets and chains adorned her entire lithe figure. With her hair brushed by the ever-attentive Inaya till it shone in the candlelight, and her eyelids dusted with a faint indigo powder, Dae barely recognized the stranger reflected back at her by the mirror. She fidgeted often, uncomfortable with what seemed an immodest display of flesh.
Inaya remained by her side almost constantly, the dark-haired girl always ready to serve. She was extremely gentle and kind, explaining the way that life in the palace harem usually operated. Dae wondered why her new friend seemed so willing and eager to serve her, but she accepted being waited on easily; it was something she had grown used to at home, and she quite enjoyed the attention. Inaya spoke sometimes of the Scion, but Dae was determined not to think about anything involving the woman who, in her opinion, must surely be a savage and lustful demon to indulge in such terrible sins as were hinted at by the darkly enchanting harem girl.
Dae did not venture from the room during those first few days of recovery, and Inaya informed her that the chamber would be her own private quarters from now on. When she had recovered enough to start wanting to know more about her new home, Inaya agreed to show Dae the rest of the seraglio where the other girls usually spent their time.
Following her new friend, blushing furiously at the way Inaya’s hips swayed enticingly beneath the thin beaded chains that hung about her waist and whose motion constantly revealed vast planes of smooth olive skin, Dae found herself walking down a long, expansive corridor with rooms evenly spaced on either side. There were no doors, she noted, and looking into the rooms she found each to be similar in design to her own. From that, Dae concluded these were the quarters of the other harem girls.
"Um…how many other slav-…er, I mean, ‘pleasure-servants’ does the Scion have?" she asked Inaya nervously.
"Not including you and I, there are twenty-two other girls in the harem," Inaya said over her shoulder. "Of course, the Scion often takes a lover from outside the seraglio. She takes lovers freely as she chooses, but mostly she relies on us."
"Oh." Dae tried hard not to dwell on the terrible images her imagination conjured at what the poor girls must endure. "Does she only ever…take other women as lovers?"
Inaya nodded, her ear-rings jangling musically as she did so. "She has no desire to bed with men," she said with a sigh of contentment. "Zafirah’s passion runs strongest for young women of great and exotic beauty…" she flicked an admiring glance at Dae, "…just like you."
Dae swallowed hard, praying that the terrible Scion would be as unwilling to rape her as Inaya had promised.
The corridor led the two young women to an enormous hexagonal-shaped room with intricately carved walls and ceiling. The center of the floor dropped into a large sunken area filled with plush cushions and lounging chairs, and around the perimeter were tables laden with platters of fruits, breads, sweet-meats, and other delicacies Dae could not identify. There were three young women lying sleepily among the cushions, all dressed in a similarly-provocative manner as Inaya. The three looked up as Dae and Inaya entered, their eyes widening a little when they fell upon the fidgeting blonde. In a moment, they had quickly crowded around the nervous girl, reaching out to touch her skin and hair excitedly, exclaiming over her exquisite beauty.
Inaya shooed them away and stood protectively in front of Dae. "Enough," she said sternly. "The poor girl has been through a great deal already. She does not need you all fawning over her right now."
"But Inaya," one of the girls protested, "you’ve been keeping her hidden away for too long! It’s not fair!"
Inaya sighed. "Very well." She gestured Dae forward. "Dae, this is Shadiya, Firyaal and Husn." Each girl bowed in turn, and Dae nodded shyly.
"It’s nice to meet you all," she said politely, feeling very self-conscious among these people. Dae considered herself quite attractive, but each of these women was absolutely stunning! Shadiya and Husn both held a similar cast of features as Inaya, with dark hair and olive skin, while Firyaal had pale skin and thick, lustrous hair the color of flame. Next to them, Dae couldn’t help but feel a little shabby.
The harem girls didn’t seem to think so, however, and they were soon reaching out to touch her again in wonder. Inaya let them ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh’ for a few minutes before she rescued Dae from their admiration and guided her around the sunken area to a doorway on the other side. The three women followed, asking questions of Dae’s homeland and her life, and of how she had come to be in the desert when the Scion rescued her. Stammering, a little overwhelmed by the attention, Dae didn’t have time to answer before she found herself being led through the door and into sunlight and laughter.
Blinking in the sudden light, Dae found herself in a great garden surrounded by trees and plants she had never seen before in her life. The air was heavy with the scent of water, and she smiled as she looked around. The sight of the garden was comforting to her, being a similar environment to the homeland she’d been stolen from. A short waterfall nearby cascaded into a deep pool of crystal-clear water, around which hung ferns and palms or every description. Several nymph-like figure splashed about and laughed in pool, their carefree play stopping the moment they noticed Dae. Other girls were lying around happily, eating or dozing in the sun. Though they were all of different heights and coloring, each of the women were young and extraordinarily beautiful…and they all instantly stopped what they were doing when they saw Dae and rushed over excitedly.
Before Inaya could offer a protest, the girls had flocked around an embarrassed and shy Dae, all of them seemingly amazed by her hair and skin, exclaiming over the color of her eyes and her remarkable beauty. Uncertain what to do, not wanting to insult anyone, Dae stood still as wondering hands reached out to caress her face and body, the touches curious and gentle. Even though the young blonde felt uncomfortable with the attention, she had the feeling it was a natural custom among these strange desert people. They seemed to express themselves with such touches and physical contact; she had seen that much from her dealings with Inaya. In Dae’s homeland, such behavior would have been looked upon as barbaric and uncivilized – cultured people expressed themselves with words, not actions. Still, she accepted the fascinated touches as calmly as she could, trying to ignore the display of so much bare skin that pressed against her.
Before Inaya could free her charge from the avid admirers, the sharp sound of steel ringing against steel brought an instant hush to the garden. The girls immediately stopped their fawning and, pouting a little, returned to their previous activities…most casting curious looks back at the confused blonde. Suddenly left alone, except for Inaya, Dae looked around to find the source of the noise.
Two female guards stood on either side of one of the doorways leading into the garden, drawn swords still pressed against their wrist-shields. They watched the harem girls retreat, then sheathed their weapons snappily. Dae watched as a new figure emerged from the doorway, her breathe catching a little in her throat at the magnificent sight.
The woman was tall and slender, yet she carried with her a quiet air of assurance and power that revealed her true strength. Long, inky black hair was tied into a thick braid that she wore over her left shoulder, and eyes the color of burning sapphires looked around the seraglio garden briefly before they settled on Dae. The woman wore a simple yet elegant chador that flowed about her body in a diaphanous cloud. When she saw the young blonde, her hard features softened into a pleased smile, and Dae could only gasp at her incredible beauty – a beauty which seemed almost to outshine that of the other girls.
Glancing at Inaya curiously, Dae saw a very playful light in the harem girl’s eyes. "Who is she?" she asked quietly as the magnificent woman approached.
Inaya smiled. "She is the Scion, of course."
Dae’s mouth hung open in shock and she turned to stare again at the god-like figure. "That’s the Scion!?"
This was not the twisted, perverted demoness Dae had been picturing in her mind! This woman was radiant and glorious; the look about her was regal and commanding, yet at the same time, alluring and playful. As she neared the two, the woman’s sapphire gaze flickered over Dae’s pleasantly displayed body and her smile grew a fraction wider. Inaya curtsied deeply as the Scion stopped in front of her, and Dae clumsily did the same, wishing she had some of her companion’s grace.
"My Scion," Inaya greeted.
"Inaya." Zafirah accepted the homage that was her due, then flicked a glance at Dae. "I trust your charge is recovered from her ordeal?"
"She is, Scion. I was just now introducing her to the other girls for the first time." Inaya grinned a little. "They have been anxious to meet her."
"I imagine that is true." Zafirah cast her eyes over the rest of the garden, seeing the harem girls still watching their new friend curiously. She knew they were eager to learn more of their new playmate…and she also knew that their ideas of ‘play’ often tended to include activities of a nature she was certain the painfully-innocent blonde would not understand or enjoy. Zafirah encouraged her pleasure-servants to engage equally with each other as with herself…but she could tell that it would take the young blonde time to come to terms with the strange new world in which she found herself. That taken into consideration, Zafirah decided it was time to have a little talk with the latest addition to her harem. She faced Dae and addressed the trembling girl directly.
"You are feeling well, child?"
Dae was so scared she nearly fainted. "I-I am…Sc-scion," she managed to stammer, the intensity in those clear blue eyes almost overwhelming.
"Excellent. I wish to see you in my chamber in the aseau, after meals." She glanced at Inaya. "See to it."
"As you wish, Scion."
"Thank you." Zafirah gave the obviously terrified girl a last, lingering once over, then turned and departed the garden, her two guards tailing behind her.
Dae breathed a sigh of relief once the tall figure was out of sight. Inaya – casting a warning glare at the other girls who looked ready to flock forward once more – gathered the young blonde into her arms and led her back into the now empty hexagonal room, where she settled her on one of the lounges.
"Not quite as you expected her to be, is she?" the dark-haired girl smiled.
Dae shook her head. "Sh-she was…" She struggled to find an appropriate descriptive for the woman. "Amazing." Suddenly, she thought of the reason why the dark woman must have summoned her, and she started trembling with fear. "She wants to see me alone in her chambers! She must want to bed me, I know it! She-"
"She wants to talk," Inaya interrupted, stopping the girl’s panic with a gentle hand over the mouth. "You may believe me Dae, Zafirah means you no harm. If you tell her you do not wish to take pleasure with her, she will respect your decision. Never has she forced herself upon another woman…and never shall she. It is not her way."
"But she will be angered-"
"She will not harm you," Inaya insisted. "Now…put the matter out of your mind. The others will not leave me be until I have allowed them to see more of you. Do you feel ready to face the jackals?"
Dae smiled a little shakily, wanting badly to believe Inaya’s reassurances but still fearful of what would be expected of her. Still, she needed a distraction from what might lay ahead, so she nodded with a hesitant smile. "I suppose so."
"Excellent. They will not hurt you, so you needn’t be afraid. I think you will find them all very nice once you get to know them."
So saying, Inaya led her charge back into the garden, and the anxiously waiting flock who quickly gathered around once more, their questions and introductions effectively taking Dae’s attention away from her fears.
Later that evening, after a meal which she was too nervous to eat, Dae was escorted through the palace to the bedchamber of the Scion. The terrified blonde was far too consumed by her dread to notice the beauty of the palace architecture, though she did note absently that it was constructed mostly from white marble that was pleasantly cool in contrast to the heat of the day. The guards escorting her gently guided her into the expansive room which, like all the others, had no door, and announced her to the woman waiting therein.
Zafirah turned from the window she was looking out of and smiled in welcome to her guest. "Leave us," she ordered the two guards, who saluted and returned to their duties. Zafirah slowly approached the trembling blonde, her eyes warm and curious. She studied the freshly-healed skin and radiant hair, then nodded in satisfaction. "It seems Inaya’s efforts have been well rewarded," she said softly, her voice deep but still feminine. "You have recovered from your ordeal with the slavers with little lasting damage."
Dae found herself captivated by the seductive pull of the burning eyes that held her, and though she sensed no threat or malice from the tall, dark-haired woman, her mind still conjured nightmarish images of what she might be forced to do in this chamber. She swallowed hard, wishing she were home in the safety of her parent’s arms.
Zafirah ran her eyes over Dae’s body. "I trust you are pleased with your quarters?" she asked. "Is everything to your satisfaction?"
"Umm…it’s fine, m-my Scion." Dae stammered, uncertain.
"And the other girls? They have treated you well?"
Dae nodded, remembering the somewhat overwhelmingly enthusiastic welcome she’d received. "They were very nice, yes."
"Excellent." Zafirah gazed with fascination at Dae’s blonde hair, then at her shy green eyes. "What is your name, child?"
It took Dae a long moment before she managed to open her mouth. "Dae."
Zafirah grinned delightedly. "As the night is to the day?"
"Um…no, it’s not spelled the same."
"Yes…you know, the letters are different."
Zafirah shrugged. "We of the desert have no written words," she said dismissively. "Our customs, laws and history are passed down from generation to generation by oration…we do not trust dead words written on dead parchment."
Dae didn’t know what she should say to that, and so remained silent.
"You are from the eastern lands, are you not?"
"How is it you came to be captured by the men I rescued you from?’
"I-I was traveling to the monastery in the city," Dae explained. "It was just after my birthday and my parents said I needed to be blessed by the priests. The men…" She shuddered in awful memory. "They attacked my escort…and they grabbed me and took me away."
Zafirah nodded in understanding. "And how old are you, child?"
"I just saw my nineteenth summer," Dae said softly, fidgeting nervously.
"Nineteen?" Zafirah’s dark brows rose in surprise. "I would not have guessed so many years by the youth of your face. You have been treated kindly by the fates to be blessed with such beauty." She smiled and reached out a hand to caress Dae’s face, stopping when the girl recoiled, her eyes wide with fear. Zafirah’s features softened. "I mean you no harm, child. Surely Inaya told you as much?"
"Sh-she did, but…"
Zafirah smiled a little crookedly. "You were uncertain whether or not she spoke the truth?"
"I understand." Zafirah moved closer, settling her hands gently on Dae’s shoulders and urging her to relax. "Does it make you uncomfortable that another woman would look on you with desirous eyes?" she asked, her voice low and seductive. "Does it repulse you that I would wish to bed you?"
Dae shuddered, the warmth of the dark woman’s hands and the hypnotic tone of her voice having a strange and disturbing effect on her body – like a fever ran through her blood. "I-I do not like…such things," she stammered hesitantly, not wanting to incur this powerful woman’s wrath but fearing more the uncertain terror of giving in to her seduction. But the Scion only nodded a calm acceptance.
"I have learned from ambassadors that it is forbidden in your land for women to share pleasure with other women…and for men to share pleasure with men. Indeed, many ambassadors were shocked to hear that such things are accepted in the desert – shocked…and disgusted for some reason. One such man refused to agree to a treaty, and then demanded I pay him restitution simply for offering him hospitality in my home." Zafirah’s smile grew cold, and her eyes flared dangerously. "I could forgive his ignorance…but the insult cost him his head."
The young blonde shuddered, not doubting for a moment that this woman was capable of carrying out such a punishment personally. Zafirah was standing very close to her now; close enough that she could smell the scent of incense and perfume that clung to the dark woman. Close enough that she could feel the heat radiating from her…a heat which seemed almost enticing. Dae drew away a little. "I don’t mean to be rude, but…" She hesitated, glancing fearfully towards the enormous bed that seemed to dominate the bed-chamber. "I…cannot…"
The sapphire eyes darkened to an almost purple shade as Zafirah’s lashes lowered not in anger, but desire. "You do not wish to take pleasure with me?"
Dae studied her feet intently, but nodded her head faintly.
"Because I am a woman, or because you do not find me attractive?"
"Well…" Dae was confused for a moment, wondering how to answer that question. "I-I think you’re quite attractive," she stammered, looking up now. "In fact…you’re probably the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen, but…" Zafirah’s smile widened at the praise. "…I’m just…I don’t like…" She trailed off.
Zafirah lifted a hand and ran a single finger down along Dae’s face, from her temple to her chin. Her glittering eyes flickered down over the young girl’s well-displayed body, appreciating the generous curves and exotic coloring. "You are very beautiful, Dae," she whispered, her voice almost a caress. "I do not deny that nothing would give me greater pleasure than to tear the clothes from your body, throw you onto my bed, and spend the rest of the night introducing you to the joys of another woman’s body." Dae’s eyes widened in terror and Zafirah smiled reassuringly. "But I cannot force you to enjoy something you do not like…and there would be no pleasure for me unless you were a willing participant. I shall not ask you to warm my bed if you do not wish to."
The fear in Dae’s eyes dissipated a little. "You really mean that?"
"Then…" Dae’s brow furrowed. "wh-what do you want with me?"
Zafirah shrugged and drew away a step. "You will remain in the seraglio," she said simply. "It is a good life. You will be well cared for, and provided every luxury I can offer. I wish for you to be my pleasure-servant."
"But…I cannot serve you as the other girls do."
Zafirah laughed; a deep, throaty laugh that was quite pleasant. "My dear child, there are more pleasures in life beyond the sharing of one’s body." Her eyes slid lingeringly over Dae. "It is a great pleasure for me simply to look upon the radiance of your form…even if you will not permit me to sample your delights more intimately."
Dae flushed. The way Zafirah looked at her was so uninhibited – so unreservedly sexual – she wasn’t certain how to respond. Though her mind recoiled in horror and disgust at the notion that this strange woman wanted her, for some reason her body wasn’t inclined to follow the same road. She was uncomfortable with the strange warmth that flowed through her belly as Zafirah gazed admiringly at her.
"If there is anything at all you require to make your life in the palace more enjoyable," the Scion continued, "do not hesitate to tell the guards. I want you to be happy."
"So…you won’t let me go home?"
Zafirah shook her head. "Do not be upset, little one. Your life here will be one of luxury, and you will be accorded every honor by my people." She stepped closer, her eyes no longer seductive but compassionate. "I understand that this world is strange to you," she said softly. "I know our ways are not the same as those of your people. It will take time for you to become comfortable with the customs of the desert…with the way of life here in the palace. Perhaps, with time, you may come to accept and appreciate those things that you have been taught to revile."
Dae saw something like hope in Zafirah’s expression and realized what the Scion was referring too. She shook her head. "No matter how long I stay here," she said firmly, "I will not bed with another woman if I have any choice in the matter."
Zafirah smiled a little dejectedly, then shrugged. "If that is true, then so be it," she accepted. "However, if you change your mind…"
"Well…the offer stands nonetheless. And I would still like very much to be your friend, Dae, if you will not permit me to be your lover."
At first, Dae wondered if Zafirah was joking with her. The young blonde knew that rulers did not spend time with their servants in a social capacity…and they certainly didn’t become friends with their slaves. But studying the dark woman’s sculptured features carefully, she could find no trace of guile or jest. "Y-you want us to be friends? But…you’re the Scion…"
"So? I am friends with all the girls in my harem. They are more to me than simply lovers and servants…they are valued companions." Zafirah seemed quite sincere, and Dae was even more confused than before. Still, she nodded her head agreeably, figuring it wouldn’t do any harm to be friendly with this woman…as long as she didn’t expect anything more.
"I suppose that would be okay."
"Excellent." Zafirah clapped her hands, apparently satisfied. She put a hand on Dae’s shoulder and gently led her too the window. "Come…you may look upon your new home from here."
Dae fought the impulse to draw away, knowing she was going to have to get used to such physical contact if she was going to be living among these people, and looked out the window without any real interest. The view, however, drew a gasp from the young girl, and she stared in awe at the magnificent sight below. Seeing her reaction, Zafirah smiled with pride and pleasure.
"You look upon the great desert city of El’Kasari," she said softly. "It is a sight few from the watered lands have ever seen."
The city spread out before Dae like an intricate mosaic, perfectly symmetrical, its design resembling a blossoming rose, with the palace forming a jeweled bud at the center. The young blonde was surprised to see shimmering water in the distance, and realized the city was built on the coast of the northern sea. Throughout the city, glimmering in the last rays of the setting sun, hundreds of artificial ponds – or hauzes – sparkled like diamonds, providing water for the commoners and merchants alike. The buildings were all constructed along similar lines, with walls carved from white marble and strange, tiled roofs that looked to Dae like giant onions. Everything was alive with exotic colors; blue and orange silks, the green and brown of the desert plants, and the rainbow of the many market stalls below as the traders sought to hawk their wares on the last customers of the day. To Dae’s eyes, the city and the palace grounds were amazing; a fanciful, beautiful design unlike anything she’d ever seen before.
"It’s magnificent," she breathed, wondering if she would ever be allowed to explore the wondrous city on her own.
"It is the jewel of the desert," Zafirah said. "Our greatest treasure. Many centuries ago the people of the desert lived in tribes, banding together to fight over the meager water supplies. Bloody wars were fought over the few oasis and springs that give us life. Then one day, one of my ancestors discovered the secret of purifying the waters of the great sea. He joined many of the strongest clans together, offering an alliance in exchange for sharing this secret. El’Kasari was built in the spirit of that alliance, its purpose to protect the water we are now able to make drinkable, and to defend those tribes who joined under the Scion banner."
"Defend against whom?"
"Many of the tribes refused to help with the building of the city," Zafirah explained. "Ancient blood-feuds and arguments were too bitter for them to let go. At first, they sought to destroy El’Kasari, but the task proved impossible. Now, they content themselves with raiding the weaker tribes, then retreating before the army can retaliate." The dark-haired Scion scowled, then shook her head. "Since the Scion Peace, the people of the desert have made treaties with the people inhabiting the lands to the east and west. Most of my people still live in the sands; they feel trapped and stifled inside the city. But still, they often journey here to trade with the merchants, or to collect water when times grow hard. Here, and nowhere else in the desert, water is freely given." She pointed to the hauzes. "We have an unlimited supply in the great sea, and the secret of purifying the water is still a closely guarded secret."
Dae smiled genuinely, amazed by the sight of the desert city. "There are no walls," she noted.
"El’Kasari knows better than to defy the desert with walls," Zafirah grinned. "We embrace the sands, and the freedom of the horizon. There is no need for us to make our city a cage."
Dae nodded, finding such logic somewhat difficult to comprehend…differing as it did from what she accustomed to. "I’ve never seen anything like this before."
"Your people do not build such cities?"
Dae shook her head. "Not like this." She’d only seen the city that lay a day’s ride from her parents estate a few times in her life, and there were few similarities between it and the sight before her. Dark, foreboding walls surrounded the whole city, and the streets were filled with beggars and thieves waiting to prey on the unwary. It was a dangerous and dirty place, especially for an innocent young maiden like Dae, who had been carried around the entire duration of her visit in a covered palanquin surrounded by armed guards. Compared to the magnificent sight of the open desert city, the memory of that place seemed cold and ugly. "It’s beautiful."
"If you would like, perhaps one day you would allow me to show you more of the city," the Scion offered politely. "Its beauty does not fade as one draws nearer."
Dae glanced at the tall woman nervously. "Y-you would let me out of the palace?"
"Of course." Zafirah smiled at the hesitancy in the young girl’s tone. "You are not a prisoner here…put such thoughts out of your mind. I want for you to be happy in your new home, child, and if you wish to see more of El’Kasari, I would be greatly pleased to take you."
"Oh." Dae was uncertain if the offer were truly genuine, but she nodded anyway. "I would like that…someday."
"Excellent." Zafirah turned away from the window and back into the lavishly appointed bedroom. "Now…since you do not desire any more personal pleasures with me this night…" She paused and raised an eyebrow at Dae, inviting her to change her mind. Dae quickly shook her head, blushing again at the hungry look in the dark woman’s eyes. "…I suppose you should be returning to your quarters in the harem. Do you have any questions of your own before we part?"
Dae was about to shake her head negatively again, when she suddenly stopped and cocked her head curiously. "How old are you?" she asked nervously, almost expecting her question to anger the Scion.
Zafirah, however, just smiled and answered honestly. "I have seen the desert rains come twenty-six times…one for every year of my life."
"Twenty-six?" Dae’s jaw dropped in surprise. "But…isn’t that young for…"
"I was barely twenty when I first took the reins of power and became Scion." Zafirah enjoyed the shocked expression on the young blonde’s face. "The desert nourishes the strong and kills the weak. Wisdom is granted to the elderly, power to the young – thus it is that the young rule while the aged advise. It is the way of things in the desert."
"Most welcome." Zafirah clapped her hands and instantly two guards materialized at the doorway. The Scion addressed them. "Escort the girl back to the harem, then return to your duties."
They bowed and gestured for Dae to precede them into the corridor. With a few backward glances, the young blonde led the way out of the bedroom and back to her own quarters. Once again, her mind was too preoccupied to enjoy the stunning architecture of the palace halls, although no longer was it filled with expectant terror. Now, Dae was silent and thoughtful as she contemplated her meeting with the Scion. While her fears of rape and mysterious tortures had been largely alleviated, she was now faced with concerns of a far more subtle – yet even more disturbing – nature, as she struggled to understand the confusing way her body had responded to Zafirah’s overtures.
The deep desert was, as many a foreign traveler had discovered to his great regret, a deadly and merciless region. Centuries of blistering winds had carved the outcroppings of rock into lethal sharp ridges that sprang up out of the barren white sands like knives thrust into an unsuspecting back. There was little shelter from the glare of the sun; heat killed quickly out here, and a fallen body never sat long before it was found by the scavenger birds and mangy jackals who called this land their home. Water was scarce, and was fiercely guarded by those nomadic tribes who refused to let ancient blood-feuds die so they could join the Scion Peace. Those few merchants and explorers who were brave or foolish enough to venture into the deep desert, and were graced with such luck as to return alive, brought with them stories of the ugly, inhospitable land, and warned others never to test the murderous sands themselves.
But to Shakir Al’Jadin, the Jaharri desert was home…and its many perils and hardships were a comfort to him that he wouldn’t have traded for all the wealth of a thousand kingdoms.
The desert at night had its own particular beauty, its own peace, that couldn’t be found anywhere else in the world. From astride his lean desert war-horse, Shakir looked out in all directions and breathed in the vastness of an ocean of sand and stone. The half-moon and the brilliant sparkle of a million stars filled the heavens with silver light, and the air was cool and silent except for the faint clip-clop of hooves passing over stone. Deep-set eyes that burned with zealous fires searched among the many granite and sandstone escarpments, eventually finding what they sought: a faint crimson glow at the base of a not-too distant cliff. Shakir grunted, and turned his horse towards his destination.
Shakir Al’Jadin was Calif of the Deharn tribe – a small but tough group of nomads who made their home far from the structure and order of El’Kasari and the Scion Whore. For hundreds of years before the Peace, the Deharn had lived well, plundering the trade routes between the western and eastern lands without mercy. They had been feared as cunning and vicious warriors, and had earned the respect and hatred of many of the most powerful tribes. When the first Scion had forged the Peace, however, things had changed. The Deharn had refused to ally with their ancient rivals, and had led many charges against the then-weak city of El’Kasari. All their attacks had been rebuffed, and now, Shakir was the leader of a tribe forced to rely on speed and stealth to attack its enemies. He was handsome and charismatic, skilled and strong.
He was also a leader with eyes that had seen a way to restore his people to their ancient position of strength.
Crossing the stretch of desert before him, Shakir arrived at his destination: a shallow-mouthed cave carved by the wind into the rock wall of an escarpment. Dismounting, he strode purposefully into the cave, waving aside the two guards he was pleased to note were minding the entrance with drawn scimitars. The men were loyal and disciplined fighters of his tribe, and he had sent them ahead to mind his path.
Inside, fifteen men and women sat around a flickering fire in various positions. They all looked up as he entered their ring, some smiling and offering respectful nods, others greeting his arrival with glum disinterest or wary caution. Though he was young, having seen the rains come only twenty-three times in his life, Shakir had earned a reputation for his brutality and quick-temper. His hatred of the Scion and the city ran deep – as it ran deep in all those who were gathered here.
Shakir met the eyes of each person in turn, then nodded in satisfaction. "My brothers and sisters! Thank you all for coming," he said. "Some of you have traveled a long way to be here this night, and I hope to make your journey a worthwhile one."
"How?" demanded Brak, a grizzled, scarred elder whose tribe lived closest to the great salt-desert in the south. "Will you offer food or water for our troubles? Or only more talk of useless war?"
Shakir eyed the older man steadily. "War against the Scion or El’Kasari is never useless."
"Bah!" Brak spat on the ground angrily. "For centuries we have spilled our blood for the sands, trying to break the back of the Scion Peace, and have gained nothing for our efforts! We could not defeat the city when it was but an unstable alliance. What has changed, except that they have grown stronger, and we have weakened? Tell me this!"
Shakir offered a curious, knowing smile. "Much…which I will reveal to you if you would allow me." Brak was important to the Calif’s plans; his tribe bred the finest merhari’s in the whole of the desert…and those swift camels would be invaluable to Shakir in the coming months.
The old warrior snorted, but settled himself once more and glowered at the youth.
"Brak is right," Shakir stated more loudly, addressing his audience. "We throw ourselves against the might of El’Kasari and the Scion Whore, only to perish to her forces time and time again. Our raids against those who dare to trespass into the desert glean less rewards each year…and the other tribes grow fat and strong while we starve like jackals in the rocks! We cannot continue on this path, my friends. We will destroy ourselves, and our enemies will laugh at our extinction. Would you have this?"
"No!" One of the women stood and gestured fiercely. "But pretty words and tired rhetoric will not avail you here, Shakir. What can we do? I have seen young men like yourself before, filled with anger and arrogance. I have seen them lead others to an early grave! Do you offer any more than they did? Can you bring down the spahi? How? They have training and weapons beyond our means! A single rider of the Scion is worth five of our own men!"
Shakir nodded. "Perhaps this was true…once," he smiled. "But I have come across a means by which we might at least strike back against the Whore and her forces – a means I would share with you, if you would agree to my plans."
The woman studied Shakir a moment, her head cocked. "What means?"
Shakir clapped his hands once, and immediately the two guards at the cave mouth hurried in, bearing between them a heavy wooden chest, the design of which was obviously not of the desert. They placed the chest on the ground before Shakir, bowed, then left.
Shakir spread his arms wide in joy. Kneeling, he lifted the lid on the chest and proudly displayed the contents to the gathering. The people moved closer, curious, as Shakir reached in and pulled out a strange device.
It was a long pole of dark-cast iron set into a wooden brace with several intricate-looking levers attached. Although none of them had ever seen such a device, every man and woman in the cave recognized a weapon when they saw one…though its method was beyond their knowledge.
"This," grinned Shakir, shouldering the weapon, "was traded to me by a traveler from the far west. My people attacked his caravan when it crossed into our lands, and he offered us his help if we would spare his life. After seeing this marvelous weapon in action, I could not help but agree to his parley."
"What is it?" demanded Brak. "I do not think you will defeat the Scion with an iron club! Her army has swords crafted by the weapon masters from across the seas! Her scouts are armed with powerful bows that would cut you down before you could strike!"
"This is no club," Shakir corrected in a dangerously soft tone. "It is the power of the storm made flesh! It is thunder and lightening! In our hands, this great weapon can bring that bitch who calls herself Scion to heel! Come, my friends…I shall demonstrate what power I offer."
Leading his fellows outside, Shakir made his way out onto the rocky sands a short distance before he stopped. His two guards had made the arrangements he asked for – a straw-filled dummy had been set up a hundred yards from his position, dressed in the uniform and armor of a spahi of El-Kasari. As the others looked on, whispering among themselves doubtfully, Shakir hooked the wooden butt of the weapon into his shoulder and sighted along the length of the iron rod. "Watch the dummy, my friends," he instructed. "Watch carefully as I strike it down!"
The group watched through narrowed, speculative eyes. A moment later, the sound of a thunder-clap boomed across the desert, shocking them all. They cried out in fear and confusion, searching the empty skies for signs of a storm, only to be met with laughter from the young Calif.
"Relax, friends. The noise was not that of a storm approaching…it was the weapon. See what power it unleashes." Shakir pointed to the dummy, and the gathered people gasped.
A wide hole, about the size of a man’s fist, had been blasted through the chest of the dummy.
"What magic is this!" breathed Brak in awe, now eyeing the strange weapon with more respect.
"No magic," assured Shakir easily. "This weapon works as a bow, striking an enemy from afar…however, with far greater accuracy, and from a good deal further distance. It fires these-" He held out his hand, showing the people a collection of small, lead projectiles. "-with sufficient force to penetrate armor, steel, and flesh with ease."
"It uses a powder of unique ability…whose formula I will share with you, if you will but agree to help me strike back against the Scion Whore!"
There was much mutterings at this, but Shakir let it go. Most were excited by his demonstration, as he expected – the nomads needed little incentive to want to war – but others were still cautious, and he respected that.
"How many of these weapons have you managed to steal?" asked Brak.
"A hundred…but with more to come, and enough projectiles and powder to do sufficient harm." Shakir eyed his fellows smugly. "With these, we can strike with great speed against the spahi and the scouts, and disappear back into the desert before the Scion has time to retaliate. We will chip away at the mountain until it is weakened, then we shall destroy the city and all who live there." He held up the weapon proudly. "This is our destiny, brothers and sisters! It is time for us to take back our strength and honor, and cast our enemies to the jackals!"
Again the murmurings began, but this time with a more excited edge. Brak came forward and asked that he might test the weapon for himself, and Shakir graciously showed him how it was used. Smiling as he watched the elder fumble uncertainly with the weapon, the Calif felt warm pleasure course through his blood.
The winds of change were blowing…and he meant to whip them into a storm that would crush El-Kasari into dust!
Life in the palace harem, Dae soon discovered, was a curious affair. On the one hand, she found the long days seemed to drift by tediously, and during the fierce midday heat it was often difficult to muster any energy at all. During the early mornings and late evenings, however, when the sun seemed not so intent on baking the earth beneath its withering gaze, the harem girls often played like children through the seraglio gardens and the maze of rooms that were appointed for their use. Everything was provided for their comfort; fruits and meats to nourish their bodies, puzzling board-games to challenge their minds, and a beautiful environment to sooth their senses. Musicians and story-tellers would often come to entertain them, and most of the girls would dance provocatively to the tune of reed pipes, hypnotic drums, and complicated-looking stringed instruments. It was only during the long hours when the sun was too hot that the girls tended to shelter beneath the branches of the garden plants, lounging sleepily on silk cushions or frolicking in the cool waters of the great pool.
The harem girls proved to be polite and humorous companions for Dae, and she found herself quite liking their ever-cheerful presence. They treated her kindly, offering to do anything they could to make her more comfortable in her new home. Dae quite liked their strange, exotic accents and manner of speech; they were eloquent and articulate, rarely abbreviating their words as most people did in the eastern lands. Still, for the most part she kept to herself, feeling out of place and awkward around the more experienced pleasure-servants. As the days wore on she found herself spending most of her time with Inaya, who seemed to take the most interest in her. The two slowly settled into a solid friendship, Inaya helping the young blonde adjust to her new life, and easing her fears and homesickness as best she could.
The life of a pleasure-servant was one of great decadence and luxury. The harem was spacious and airy, but the pleasure-servants were not permitted to roam freely about the palace…much to Dae’s disappointment. Female guards, the most trusted in the Scion’s army and chosen for the fact that they had no interest in bedding with other women, guarded the entrance to the seraglio at all times, and escorted the harem girls whenever they required to venture into the palace proper. These guards were also polite and gentle-natured, despite their profession, and treated the pleasure-servants with great respect and honor.
In truth, Dae found the culture of the desert people to be quite interesting and pleasing…as long as she didn’t dwell too long on certain of their practices. Everything here seemed so much more intense than in her homeland. The colors were brighter, the foods more delicious and spicy, and the environment more active and physical. The air was filled with the scents of gardenia, jasmine and wild rose. At times it was almost overwhelming for Dae; she could feel her senses reeling on overload. So little was forbidden here; there were few rules…few restrictions. The harem girls were utterly carefree and insouciant…and, Dae noted bashfully, extremely sexual. And as the days passed and she grew to understand more of this strange new world, the young girl found her mind constantly straying back to ponder on a single point of focus; that of the enigmatic and mysterious Scion, Zafirah Al’Intisar.
Zafirah was unlike anyone Dae had ever associated with; was certainly different from any ruler she had ever heard of before. Rulers, to the best of her knowledge, were high and mighty personages who sat on lofty thrones and gave orders to their subordinates from afar. They didn’t socialize with their servants, and certainly never allowed themselves to be seen as anything less than divine beings. At least, that was what she had been told by her parents and by her handmaidens.
In stark contrast to this ideal, Zafirah spent every spare moment she could in the harem with her pleasure-servants, mostly just talking and laughing, but occasionally joining in their play with childish abandon. While she always carried with her the quiet air of regal power and command that Dae found so strangely mesmerizing, Zafirah seemed to enjoy relaxing in the seraglio gardens with her harem, often just watching the girls as they splashed in the pool or chased each other across the sweet grasses, a slight, contented smile curving her sensuous lips.
Of course, her presence would inevitably lead to a seduction of one or more of the girls as soon as night began to fall. Many times, Dae watched with wide eyes as Zafirah wove a spell of temptation on a pleasure-servant, whispering enticingly into a delicate ear and running a persuasive hand along smooth thighs, eliciting giggles and chaste blushes that were in truth far from innocent. The chosen girl would be led away from the seraglio shortly after, and Dae had noted that their expressions the next morning always spoke of great satisfaction and languid bliss. Her mind had trouble rationalizing this phenomenon, and she found herself puzzling more and more on what exactly went on during the mysterious dark of the night.
Sitting under the shade of a fig palm, Dae watched Zafirah and the other girls as they laughed and joked by the pool. Tonight it seemed the Scion had set her sights on Inaya; the dark-haired pleasure-servant reclined against the taller woman, eating slices of persimmon that Zafirah fed to her. This was the first time Dae had witnessed her friend in such a situation, although Inaya certainly seemed to enjoy flirting with the Scion whenever she was around. Seeing the subtle, intense display of seduction made the young blonde rather uncomfortable – moreso when Zafirah’s sapphire gaze flicked in her direction, and a charming smile flashed across painted lips. Dae hastily turned her attention to the girls who were dancing suggestively to the pulsing rhythm of drum music on the clipped lawn. When she noticed movement before her, she glanced up and cursed silently, seeing Zafirah rise from her place at Inaya’s side and start to wander over.
"Why do you sit over here all alone, little one?" inquired the Scion politely, kneeling beside Dae. "Do you not care for company this night?"
Dae shook her head. "No, I just…I wanted a little space, that’s all." In truth, she felt uncomfortable being around the other girls when they were dancing like this. Invariably they would encourage her to join in, and while the young blonde admitted she found the provocative moves strangely fascinating, she was too shy and modest to ever think of attempting them herself.
Zafirah accepted her explanation without comment, however. "There will be a full moon tonight," she observed casually, looking at the bright orb that hung low in the skies. "I always enjoy such nights. When I was younger, my mother would take me out into the city and we would wander the souks for hours, watching the street performers practice through the dark." She sighed. "There is something about a full moon that fills me with energy and joy." Her eyes darkened noticeably as she let them slide along Dae’s ill-concealed figure, lingering over the swell of her breasts and the curve of her hips. "These nights should be filled with passion and desire…not squandered in isolation and solitude."
Dae flushed hotly. In the last few days, she’d found herself unable to control her body’s reaction to Zafirah’s continued overtures, and the strange feelings that washed over her were deeply confusing and disturbing to the innocent girl. "I prefer the peace of my own company," she said quietly after a moment.
"Perhaps tonight I could entice you to try something different?" Zafirah suggested huskily.
The blonde swallowed, wishing she could control her racing heart. "L-like what?"
White teeth flashed as Zafirah grinned. "Inaya and I were about to retire for the evening. I wondered if perhaps you would care to join us?"
Surprised, Dae stared wide-eyed at the Scion, then over to where Inaya was watching their exchange with interest. "I-I-I…" she stammered, caught completely off-guard by the offer. "I don’t…don’t think so, my Scion," she managed to get out after a moment. She let her hair fall forward to hide her face. "I-I don’t like such things." Those words had become her creed in this new world.
"So you have said." The tall woman shifted closer. "You would not have to join our pleasure if you do not wish too. I thought perhaps you might simply deign to…watch…" Zafirah raised an eyebrow. "It may prove to be an educational experience."
Dae very nearly swallowed her own tongue. Images of naked flesh and tangled limbs flashed unbidden across her mind, and she hoped fervently for their dismissal. Seeing Zafirah watching carefully for a response, the young blonde shook her head firmly. "I have no interest in such an education," she insisted, wondering if tonight would be the night the Scion would abandon her sense of honor.
But Zafirah merely smiled mysteriously. "As you wish, my little Tahirah" she accepted easily. Reaching out, she ran a single finger along Dae’s collar-bone. "But I could promise you the lessons would be…most thoroughly enjoyable."
Rising again, giving the young blonde a last lingering once-over, Zafirah returned to her place beside Inaya. The dark-haired harem girl regarded Dae with a curious expression for a moment, before turning her attention back to the Scion.
Left alone once more, Dae tried to reclaim her former peace of mind but found it impossible. For some reason, every time Zafirah so much as glanced in her direction, she felt her stomach churn excitedly, her palms begin to sweat, and her blood grow warmer in her veins. Struggling to bring her body back under control, Dae considered the request carefully, wondering whether Inaya had known it was being offered. What did the pleasure-servant think about the idea? Watching as Zafirah led Inaya from the seraglio, the young blonde wondered for half a heartbeat what things she might have witnessed had she accepted the invitation. As soon as the thought entered her head, she stomped it to death immediately.
Knawing her lower lip thoughtfully, Dae consigned herself to what she knew would be a restless night of troubling considerations.
"Salaam aleikum, little one," greeted a lilting, feminine voice softly. "Such a serious face for such an early hour."
"Huh?" Dae glanced up from her work to find Inaya studying her from a few feet away. The dark-haired girl raised a delicately plucked eyebrow at the sheaf of parchment spread over Dae’s lap.
"What are you doing that has you so focused?"
"This?" Dae shrugged. "Just some drawings. It helps to pass the time."
Inaya settled herself beside the blonde and leaned over to get a better view. Her arrival brought with it the strong scent of rose, jasmine and wild musk, and the musical jangle of jewelry. "May I see?"
"Um…sure, if you like." Dae offered her friend the papers. She had asked the guards for the materials yesterday, and had spent all morning carefully sketching out remembered images from her homeland with a sharpened stick of lead that served as a pencil. Somehow, it helped her feel more at ease in this alien environment to maintain those memories of a world that was green and alive, where water was plentiful, and life was structured and orderly.
Inaya flicked through the many pictures curiously, pausing often to study them in greater detail. "You have great talent," she complemented.
Dae flushed. "They’re not really that good."
"Oh, but they are!" Inaya held up a scene depicting a great lake surrounded by enormous, ancient trees. The detail was indeed very good; Dae’s knowledgeable hand had perfectly captured the motion of a gentle breeze as it whispered through the variegated leaves, and the rippling waves that disturbed the still waters of the lake. "This is your homeland, yes?"
Inaya stared at the picture, fascinated. "I have never seen such a place," she whispered. "What is this?"
"Well…it’s a lake, of course."
"And what is a lake?"
The question threw Dae for a loop. "A lake is…well. It’s like a pool of water that lies over a vast area of land…sort of like a small ocean."
"Ohhh." Inaya smiled as she studied the drawing with new understanding. "Sometimes when the rains come in the Springtime, the water flows so fiercely down the dunes that the sand cannot drink it all, and it pools in the valleys and chasms. That is like a lake, no?"
"Sort of. But a lake is always filled with water. It never drains away completely."
Inaya smiled at the thought. "I think the people of your land are very lucky to have so much bounty," she said quietly. "I do not think they realize just how lucky they are to be so blessed."
Considering how much she had taken for granted in her homeland, Dae nodded. "I think you’re probably right." She watched her friend study each of her drawings in turn. When she reached the end, Inaya paused and grinned playfully at the last picture.
"I see not all your thoughts find focus on your homeland." Holding up the parchment, she presented Dae with the image of a familiar face.
Dae grabbed the drawing away from the smiling harem girl. "It’s not what you’re thinking," she defended herself, studying the elegant lines and shadings that had perfectly captured the fierce yet enticing features of the Scion. "Her face lends itself well to paper, that’s all."
Inaya grinned ear-to-ear, not at all convinced. "I see."
Dae huffed. "Shouldn’t you be sleeping after last night’s activities?"
The dark girl lay back on the soft grass and closed her eyes, toying idly with the jeweled stud in her naval. "Perhaps. But I want to enjoy this feeling for as long as I can before allowing sleep to diminish the memory."
Dae noted the contented, satisfied air about Inaya and, despite her best efforts, could not help but be curious. "So you…enjoyed yourself?"
"Mmmm, indeed." Inaya purred. "I am most thoroughly sated. Zafirah was in an unusually vigorous mood last night; her passion was quite voracious." A dark eye rolled in Dae’s direction. "You should have joined us."
Dae averted her eyes modestly. "How many times must I say I have no interest is such affairs before you will believe me?"
"I know not," replied the harem girl. "How many times will it take before you believe yourself?"
Emerald eyes flashed around in surprise. "What?"
Inaya sat up. "I have eyes, Dae," she said gently. "I have seen the way you watch Zafirah when she comes here. I have seen how you respond whenever she glances your direction."
"I…You…Th-that’s not true!"
Inaya shook her head. "You may deny it all you wish, little one. Your tongue may speak lies, but your eyes know the truth. I have seen the signs of arousal and interest enough times to recognize them when they are so evident. You reject your own heart because you are uncertain and afraid. You have been taught that such desires are wrong…and because you know no better, you believe such teachings. One day, however, you will have to accept that you are curious about exactly what it is Zafirah offers so readily." She paused, then added softly, "That is why I say you should have joined us last night. At least then, you would understand better what it is you deny yourself." She smiled at the hesitant, wary expression on the young blonde’s face. "We have a saying in the desert: It is better to see the truth, than to imagine it."
Dae stared hard at her friend. Inaya just smiled with unwavering certainty. Eventually the blonde shook her head and turned away. "I would rather remain ignorant," she said primly. "The only thing I feel for Zafirah is a gratitude for saving my life from the slavers. Whatever you think you’ve seen, exists only in your mind."
Inaya sighed. "As you wish." She propped herself up on her elbows and watched a group of the other girls who were playing among the spreading branches of an aspen tree nearby. "There is nothing wrong with being curious," she continued in conversational tones. "Zafirah seems quite enchanted by you. Her eyes always manage to find you immediately whenever she comes here."
Dae remained silent, determined not to be drawn into making any further comment. Inaya smiled, undaunted. Her sharp eyes noticed activity high in the aspen tree, and she sighed.
"Look." She pointed. "Johara and Hayam have found themselves a new place to enjoy each others company."
Dae looked where her friend indicated, her emerald eyes growing wide as saucers at the sight. Perched high in the branches of the tree, two of the harem girls were entwined together in a tangle of arms and legs, engaged in a passionate kiss that seemed likely to last forever. Even from a distance, their ardor was clearly visible, and Dae stared unblinking at the couple. This was the first time she had witnessed such an intimate act between two women, and she couldn’t tear her eyes away. It had not occurred to her that the pleasure-servants would willingly engage in such a fashion with one another.
Inaya smiled at Dae’s shocked reaction. "You see? It is a beautiful thing to share passion with another woman…not something to be feared or reviled. They do not lock their desires away as I have heard people do in your land; they express them, give them life and power."
Dae had never seen such an open display of love and desire; certainly her parents, who she knew loved each other a great deal, had never kissed with such carnal hunger. "They seem…so unaware of anything around them," she whispered almost to herself. "Like they’re in love."
"Well of course they do." Inaya laughed merrily at her naïve friend. "Johara and Hayam have been lovers for three years now. They are very much committed to one another."
Dae jaw dropped in surprise. "They are?" She glanced around, wondering what the guards would do if they saw the two women trysting. "What about Zafirah?"
"What about her?"
"Well…wouldn’t she be angry if she knew?"
Inaya shook her head, finding the young blonde girl’s innocence truly amazing. "Of course not, little one. She presided over their joining ceremony just last year!"
"Joining ceremony? You mean…" Dae struggled to understand this latest twist to harem life. "A marriage?"
Inaya shrugged, clearly never having heard the word before. "They exchanged vows of devotion and love, and tokens to symbolize that they were now one in the eyes of the great Goddess Inshal. The Scion was most honored to play a role in the consecration of their love."
"So…they don’t bed with the Scion then?"
"I said no such thing," Inaya winked saucily. "Their union makes them one being; inseparable. When Zafirah takes pleasure with one, she knows to include the other as well." The dark girl played idly with a silky lock of blue-black hair as she regarded the two lovers. "Johara and Hayam are quite a couple," she smirked. "Their love only brightens the flame of their passions, and they eagerly share that passion with others."
Dae’s mind struggled to understand this notion of such freely offered sexual favor, the idea making her almost dizzy. "So, Zafirah doesn’t mind the pleasure-servants…you know, doing this?"
"Why would she? The Scion would never wish to deprive any of her people of pleasure. In fact, she encourages us to share our bodies equally with each other as with herself. As I have said, she is a most generous lover." She paused, regarded Dae with a coy expression the young blonde had learned to dread. "It may interest you to know that Zafirah’s loins are not the only ones that have stirred with your arrival. The other pleasure-servants take an equal measure of interest in your presence."
Dae’s eyes finally tore themselves from the ardent couple in the trees as she jerked her head around. "What?"
Inaya’s smile was perfectly innocent, but her eyes were sparkling mischievously. "You had not noticed the attention they pay to you?"
Green eyes stared nervously at the other pleasure-servants climbing through the aspen. "You mean they…?"
"Wish to bed you?" Inaya laughed. "Why does that seem so strange to you? You are young, beautiful…and your innocence serves only to add to their interest; make you more attractive to them. There is not a woman in this harem who would not crawl through a pit of scorpions just for the chance to lie between your legs."
Dae’s jaw worked up and down for several moments in silence before she managed to form words. "B-but I-I-I don’t…They can’t…"
"These women have never met anyone like you before Dae," Inaya explained gently. "They have never known a person who does not live for the pursuit of pleasure. A person who, seemingly, avoids pleasure. Here in the desert, where life is so often harsh and brief, such people simply do not exist. Here, every moment in precious; to squander what time we have in this world by denying our own passions and desires is unheard of." She paused, studying the beautiful blonde seriously. "They do not understand your chastity…but from the whisperings I have heard, it seems they find it every bit as arousing as does Zafirah. For a single night in your bed…for the chance to be the first to introduce you to the pleasures your body has never known… Ahhh." She sighed longingly. "You do not understand how tempting a creature you are, little one."
Remembering the invitation of last night, Dae narrowed her eyes curiously at her friend. "D-do you feel the same way?" she asked timidly, unsure if she wanted to know the answer.
Inaya shrugged, her eyes sincere and honest. "I like you Dae. I think of you as a friend, and hope that we will be companions for many years to come. But…I will not deny that I find you attractive. And though I respect your wishes to remain pure, I would consider it a great honor if you were ever to allow me to warm your bed." The dark girl smiled sadly at the confused, almost wounded look on Dae’s face. "I am sorry if you do not understand-"
"No." Dae held up her hand. "I-It’s okay, really." She sat up a little straighter and shook her head to clear it. "I can handle this. It’s no different to dealing with Zafirah, right?"
Inaya’s smile brightened a little. "I have no wish to loose you as a friend Dae."
"I know." Dae returned the smile shyly. "It’s just…" She considered carefully, the revelations of the morning only adding to the confusing thoughts and feelings that seemed to be bombarding her since she’d come here. A lifetime of indoctrination came to the fore, speaking the words for her. "I mean no offense, but…I can’t be with another woman. Not like that."
Brown eyes glanced again at the detailed drawing of Zafirah, noting the careful lines and obvious attention that had been paid to every feature. Inaya grinned knowingly, already seeing the first chips flake off from the wall that kept the young blonde’s desires so caged. "As you wish."
Dae was silent for long moments, wondering at the way her friend was smiling, when she suddenly recalled something from last night. "Inaya? Have you ever heard the word ‘tahirah’ before?"
"Certainly. It is a name meaning pure…chaste. Why, where did you hear it?"
"It was just something Zafirah called me last night."
Inaya raised an eyebrow at her friend. "I think the Scion names you well," she smirked.
Dae rolled her eyes and, smiling a little herself, returned to her drawings while Inaya watched with avid interest over her shoulder.
Whooping wildly, Zafirah leaned further over the neck of her horse and cast a quick glance behind her, grinning when she saw she had outpaced the other riders by several lengths. Racing across a stretch of desert sand just in sight of the city’s first buildings, the Scion and a group of twenty hand-picked spahi churned great clouds of dust into the air as they sped between two markers planted several hundred feet apart. Zafirah’s mare, Simhana, possessed a spirit every bit as wild and competitive as that of her mistress, and needed no urging to increase her pace. When she reached the marker, Zafirah pressed against Simhana’s right flank with her leg, and the well-trained desert horse executed a sudden turn that would have thrown a lesser rider to the ground. Expecting the move, however, Zafirah twisted her body in the light saddle and then watched as the rest of the riders crossed the finish in a tight-packed group.
"An excellent race, my Scion," complemented one of the riders, pulling away his haik and grinning at the dark-haired woman. "You ride swifter than the sirocco winds!"
"Bah!" Zafirah returned the grin wryly. "You only say that to ease your pride. I have seen outlanders ride faster than you!"
The men and women all laughed, trading jibes back and forth as they readied themselves for another set of exercises. Zafirah joined in their camaraderie, enjoying the time spent among her men. The exercise was particularly welcome this day; the dark woman was feeling the need to work off some energy.
Since the start of her rule as Scion, Zafirah had set aside a few hours everyday in the morning that she would spend training with the men and women of her army. Sometimes she would ride with the spahi out in the desert; other times she would train with the weapon-masters who helped perfect her skill with scimitar and spear alike. The ritual not only kept Zafirah in prime fighting condition, it also served to endear her to the soldiers of the army, engendering a loyalty among them that was almost holy in its power. By demonstrating that she was every bit as willing to fight to defend her home and her people as she expected them to be, the charismatic Scion had created an army of fanatical warriors who were feared by all who dared to oppose the Scion Peace.
Watching as each man in turn spurred his mount through a dazzling series of equine acrobatics, Zafirah suddenly noticed a dust cloud on the horizon. Squinting, she made out a dark, shimmering patch that she knew indicated a group of riders were approaching. Halting the exercises, she called her men to order and they waited till the strangers drew close enough to identify. When she saw the flash of green and red that marked the banner held aloft by a forerunner, the Scion relaxed and grinned. As the group drew closer, she rode out to greet them, smiling at the short, grizzled man at their head.
"What is the matter, cousin? Did you come to miss my company so greatly in but a few weeks that you decided to pay me a visit?"
Rehan Al’Carin snorted, wiping his sand-blasted forehead with the back of his arm. "Hardly! I would be a happier man to see less of your face in my life than more." He gestured behind him where Zafirah now saw a number of pack camels weighed down with sacks. "A caravan of merchants traveling east paid well for their use of the Kah-hari oasis; so great a tribute as this called for a personal delivery."
Zafirah’s grin widened a fraction, knowing Rehan could have entrusted the delivery to one of his many sons. But she bowed her head in a show of thanks. "I am most grateful to you then. Will you be staying in the city during your visit? I would be honored to offer you a room in the palace if you wish."
"My thanks, cousin, but my men would prefer to camp in the desert. However, I would gratefully accept an invitation for dinner. It has been some time since I feasted in the great palace."
"Of course." Zafirah understood well the way of the tribal people; walls and ceilings made them feel caged and uncomfortable, so she was not offended that Rehan declined her offer. "I will see that you are supplied before you return…and rest assured, I have not forgotten your favor of taking in the other girls we rescued. You will be compensated."
Rehan bowed his thanks.
"How have they fared?" Zafirah asked as she joined the older man at the head of the procession as it continued on towards the city.
Rehan grunted. "As well as can be expected, I suppose. A few have adjusted well and may even decide to remain among us, but it will take time for the others to recover from their trauma." He raised a bushy eyebrow at the dark-haired woman. "And what of the flower you plucked from the pack? I’ll wager you have been most solicitous after her experiences, eh?" He winked lecherously.
Zafirah’s face was impassive as she replied. "She is well, to be sure…but she is not so easily wooed to the pleasures of my bed."
"Indeed?" Rehan smirked. He knew well the power of the Scion’s seductive lure, and was impressed that the girl had withstood her charms. He licked his lips thoughtfully. "Perhaps then, if you have no use for her, she could be persuaded to join with my tribe?"
Zafirah regarded him with amusement. "You know me better than that, Rehan, to think that I would part so easily with a flower of such rare and wondrous beauty. Though she denies me the chance to sample her delights personally, that does not mean I am not pleased with her company." She smiled mysteriously at the disappointed look on Rehan’s face. "She will remain in the palace with the rest of my harem."
In truth, Dae’s presence in the palace had been causing Zafirah some discomfort recently. The Scion was not accustomed to being rejected…and the young girl’s beauty and innocence served only to add fuel to the already impressive blaze that was Zafirah’s sexual appetite.
"Hmph." The grizzled nomad shrugged dismissively. Parting easily with the fleeting hope of welcoming the captivating blonde into his own yurt, Rehan decided to change the topic. "You will be pleased with the tribute the foreigners gave."
"Truly? I have seen enough gold and jewels in my lifetime that their sparkle does not easily impress me anymore."
"As have I, cousin. As have I." Rehan leaned closer to the tall woman conspiratorially. "The merchants were doubtless wise about our ways. They offered things of less value but far greater worth."
A dark brow lifted interestedly. Usually, travelers crossing the desert gave riches like gems and gold and fine cloth in exchange for their passage…items that were not especially useful in the harsh Jaharri desert. Zafirah regarded the grizzled nomad chief curiously. "Such as?"
Rehan grinned. "Spices and coffee from across the seas…steel weapons crafted by the masters in the far west. They even left a sack of brehani leaf among the offerings…proof enough that they knew exactly how to win the support of the desert guardians."
Zafirah’s brilliant sapphire eyes widened with delight. This was indeed a treat! Brehani leaf – the Breath of Inshal – grew only in the dangerous barren region that bordered the Jaharri desert to the south. Difficult to collect, the herb was prized among the desert people for its intoxicating qualities that could – so the priests claimed – sometimes provide visions from the Goddess herself. Zafirah had not enjoyed the herb for many years now, and she gave Rehan a wide smile. "This is a great tribute indeed," she agreed, knowing the weapons and other useful items would be a welcome gift to her people. "I will be sure that you receive your just share when you return to your tribe."
Rehan bowed in the saddle, knowing the Scion would be more than fair in distributing the wealth. "Thank you, my Scion. Your generosity is greatly appreciated."
Zafirah rejoined her spahi and the two groups entered El-Kasari together, their entrance met with much interest and delight by the citizens who flocked to greet them. Leading the procession, thinking happily about the rich tribute, Zafirah was all smiles as she touched the hands of the people who reached out to her. Already, the dark-haired woman’s quick mind was deciding how best to distribute the new wealth…and quickly concluded that it was past time she gave her pleasure-servants a gift they would truly appreciate.
Dae woke sleepily, foggy memories of a wonderful dream tugging gently at the edges of her consciousness as she roused slowly and yawned. Opening fuzzy green eyes a crack, she looked around and smiled. She’d grown accustomed to waking in her new room, the initial strangeness of the exotic furnishings and decorations now becoming familiar and comforting to her. After stretching her arms above her head and groaning as tired muscles protested the strain, the young blonde rose from the luxurious pile of cushions and rugs that made up her bed, performed her morning ablutions, then went in search of the other girls.
Living in the desert had forced Dae to make changes to her normal sleeping cycle. After observing her fellow pleasure-servants for a few days, she had decided to take her rest during the hottest parts of the day, when the sun was too intense for any activity. Then, during the dohar – mid-afternoon – she would get up and remain awake until close to midnight, at which point the chill air would force her back to her room where she would nap till early sunrise. This meant she slept twice each day, and it had taken her a while to adjust to the new conditions. Now, however, Dae felt she was finally getting the hang of things; the routine had become familiar to her, and her natural body-clock had reset itself accordingly.
Strolling through the corridor and out into the seraglio gardens, the young blonde was greeted by the end of another perfect – though very hot – day. It was early in the afternoon, the sun just beginning its descent in earnest, and the air was still heavy with heat. Dae couldn’t see anyone else around, which surprised her. Usually there were at least a few girls watching the long sunset together. After a brief search, she eventually found the entire harem gathered in a group behind one of the stone arrangements nearby, sitting in a circle.
"Hey," she called as she approached cautiously, wondering if this were some sort of desert ritual she wouldn’t be welcomed at…or which she might not want to be included in. "What’s going on?"
The girls glanced up at her, smiling welcoming smiles that made it clear they were happy to see her. Inaya grinned delightedly. "Salaam aleikum, little one! You are just in time." She gestured for Dae to join their circle. When she settled down beside her dark friend, the young blonde saw that the girls were all gathered around an odd looking device constructed from delicate glass and shining metal. To Dae, it looked almost like an oil lamp, except there were several strange tube-like arms sprouting from the base, and the main body was filled partly with water. Nasheta – who was only a year or two older than Dae and was the only other pleasure-servant in the harem possessing blonde hair and pale features – was kneeling beside the contraption and working at something with fixed concentration.
Dae frowned at the device, puzzled. "In time for what?"
"The Scion has sent us a gift!" Inaya laughed, holding up a small pouch. She reached in and pulled out several dried leaves with her fingertips, displaying them proudly to the young girl.
Dae studied the leaves curiously, wondering why Inaya was so enthused about them. They looked a little like sage to her. "What is it?"
"They are brehani leaves…the Breath of Inshal!" When Dae blinked innocent emerald eyes in apparent expectation, Inaya shook her head. "You have never heard of the Breath of Inshal?"
Dae shook her head.
A slow, mischievous smile spread across Inaya’s face. "Then you are in for a treat, little one, for this is a pleasure you may indulge in without fear of corrupting your virtue!"
The other girls laughed merrily. Dae blushed, feeling naïve and immature beside the more worldly harem girls. Inaya hushed the others with a glance and hastened to explain.
"Brehani is an herb that grows deep in the salt deserts far to the south. Few merchants will brave the perilous land to reach it, but those who do find the rewards well worth their efforts. Once dried, the brehani leaf can be smoked much like tobacco…only with far greater effect. It fills the senses with wonderful feelings…enhances the colors of the world and makes everything dance and shine!" Inaya gestured enthusiastically, her jewelry creating a musical jangling sound. "It is a rare treat for us to be blessed with. Zafirah must be in an especially good mood!"
Dae regarded the slender leaves suspiciously. "This is a drug?"
Inaya nodded. "A perfectly safe one, I assure you. Its effects last but a night, and do no harm. In fact, they instill a sense of peace and relaxation for many days afterwards."
Green eyes narrowed skeptically. Dae’s father had warned her sternly about partaking of such things, telling her of the evils of alcohol, and the terrible poisons produced by certain plants; poisons that caused a mind to conjure devilish images and living nightmares, and that could drive a man completely insane if ingested! She recoiled a little from the herb. "I-I don’t think I’d like it."
Inaya’s expression fell. "What? Of course you will like it! Please…at least try it before passing judgement."
The other girls nodded encouragingly, and Dae frowned. She didn’t want to seem like a child to these people, but her natural caution made her reluctant. "I don’t think so."
The girls pouted and began to plead with her to reconsider and share their pleasure. Dae’s will began to falter.
"Wellll…maybe I could just watch and see first?" she allowed.
Somewhat mollified, the harem girls smiled and waited for Nasheta to finish her preparations. Several of the leaves were crushed and sprinkled into a small bowl at the top of the pipe, and were then covered by a fine mesh of steel. One of the girls produced a pair of tongs and used them to pluck a small lump of glowing coal from a metal box, carefully placing the ember over the steel mesh. When all was ready, a few girls took up the strange tube-like devices which Dae now saw were each fitted with a brass mouthpiece. She watched as each girl took a turn breathing from the tube, and was fascinated to observe the water begin to bubble and churn furiously. A moment later, the glass chamber filled with a dense white smoke which was inhaled through the tubes. Each girl held the smoke from the burned herb in her lungs for several seconds before exhaling, then passed the mouthpiece thingy on to the next waiting person. Inaya took her turn at the pipe, breathing deep and them smiling brilliantly at Dae as she blew smoke-rings into the air.
"You see? Nothing to be feared from a little smoke." She closed her eyes and sighed peacefully. "It is wonderful Dae. You will like it, I promise." Persuasive dark eyes gazed at the young blonde as Inaya held out the mouthpiece in offering. "Please?"
Dae shifted, uncertain. A few of the girls had run off to summon musicians, and several others were diving into the still waters of the great pool with loud squeals. Soon, the sounds of laughter and splashing filled the air. Watching them carefully, Dae admitted the smoke didn’t seem to be doing any harm, and she regarded the ornate brass pipe dubiously.
"Wh-what exactly will it do?" she asked.
Inaya smiled, sensing victory. "Nothing bad," she insisted. "It will relax your mind and your body…will send sparkles through your blood and let you see the world and yourself more clearly. You may trust me, Dae…I am your friend. I would never willingly urge you to do something that might bring you harm."
Dae frowned. "It won’t…you know…make me do anything foolish, will it?" Like succumb to any amorous advances?
Inaya grinned, hearing the unspoken question quite clearly. "It cannot make you do anything that is not already in your heart," she promised, the very hint of a dare in her voice.
Considering one last time, Dae gave a mental sigh of resignation and accepted the mouthpiece from her friend.
As she brought the warm metal to her lips, Dae glowered at the dark harem girl sternly. "If I regret this," she said softly, "I’ll make certain you do too."
Inaya laughed. "Have no fear, little one. You will enjoy the magic of the herb, and tomorrow will heap blessings upon my head for convincing you to try it."
Dae grunted, and cautiously wrapped her lips around the brass. She took a shallow breath, still wary of the drug, and was surprised when the white smoke filled her lungs. It tasted sweet, almost like honey-suckle, and Dae followed the example of the others and held the smoke in her lungs for a moment before exhaling. She concentrated hard, but felt nothing bad happen. Inaya was watching her with a sensuous smile, apparently waiting for a reaction. After a few seconds, Dae was reassured she wasn’t about to keel over, and took another deeper breathe from the pipe before passing the mouthpiece on to the next girl.
Sitting cross-legged on the ground, Dae looked around curiously and waited for some kind of terrible hallucination to jump out at her. She was a little disappointed when no such phantasm manifested itself, feeling cheated that her father’s warning had not been justified. Instead, the young blonde began to feel a subtle, rather interesting tingling sensation begin to crawl across her body. It started at her fingertips and spread up her arms and over her skin, creating a strange sense of self-awareness that seemed to sharpen her senses to a finer point. A few moments later, Dae began to notice other subtle effects; the colors of the setting sun became brighter…more beautiful. The leaves on the garden trees seemed to jump out at her, each in sharp definition to the others. Sounds became clearer, more distinct. It felt like she could hear the very whisper of the earth itself breathing, and Dae smiled as a little rush sparkled down her spine and made her toes tingle.
"You see?" Inaya smiled at her; a smile that was warm and comforting. "Not so horrible, is it?"
Dae grinned a little wider and relaxed. "I guess not." Her body seemed indecisive, unable to figure out if it was feeling sleepy or energetic. A sudden giggle escaped the young girl and she regarded the smoky pipe with new appreciation. "This is kinda nice."
"I told you." Inaya held out the mouthpiece again. "Have some more."
"Okay." Dae accepted easily, no longer fearing the herb. After taking another deep breath of the white smoke, nearly choking, she struggled to hold it in her lungs a few moments before blowing it out onto her hands. Somewhat glassy emerald eyes stared at the curious smoke as it drifted away, momentarily fascinated by its writhing movements. Over near the harem walls, lively music began to play, and Dae’s body suddenly reached the conclusion that it did feel energetic. Getting shakily to her feet, she grabbed Inaya by the arm and started tugging her up.
"Come on…let’s go listen."
"As you wish." Inaya followed the young blonde dutifully, her eyes bright and alive as they roamed daringly over Dae’s well-proportioned frame.
Joining a group of girls gathered around five musicians playing a variety of instruments, Dae sat on the sweet-smelling grass and happily began to clap along with the drum-beat. Several girls started dancing to the pulsing, lively rhythm, and Dae watched their hypnotic movements avidly. The dancing here was – of course – unlike anything the young blonde had ever seen in her homeland. It was physical and alluring, hinting at a sexual pulse Dae didn’t fully understand, but which she couldn’t help but find mesmerizing. The dancers gyrated and swayed their hips in a wild, exotic style, twirling their arms in sensuous waves about their bodies and tossing long hair about crazily. Dae stared, wishing she could move with such graceful eroticism.
By now, the intoxicated girls were spread out all through the sprawling seraglio gardens. Some were playing and splashing about in the pool, or diving from the top of the small waterfall; others were climbing through the branches of the giant aspen. A few simply sat and watched as the sun painted the clear blue sky with fantastic stains of crimson and purple, reflecting off the tiled palace domes like a crazy rainbow. At the foot of an iron statue of a nearly naked woman, Johara and her mate Hayam were engaged in a passionate embrace, their mouths exploring one another avidly. Dae glanced at the other activities going on around her, but decided she wanted to stay here and watch the dancing for now. She could feel the music in the air…it was like a benevolent and lively spirit that wanted her to join its glorious band of merry revelers. Still clapping, Dae grinned as she enjoyed the sparkly, magical rushes that played over her body in time to the music.
Seeing the look of concentrated delight on her friends face, Inaya leaned closer to the blonde. "Would you like to join them?"
Dae lowered her eyes and shook her head. "I-I can’t dance like that," she said softly.
Inaya smiled understandingly. "They could teach you if you wish to learn."
Green eyes studied the suggestive motions thoughtfully. The herb had lowered Dae’s inhibitions, and she considered the idea of joining the dancers seriously for the first time.
Why shouldn’t I join in? she asked herself silently. They always ask me too…I’m sure they wouldn’t make fun of me if I’m a bit clumsy. Blonde eyebrows contracted. The music was tempting her to move with it. It’d be nice to be a part of the group. To be able to move like that.
"You know," Inaya whispered persuasively, "Zafirah has always found the dancers to be particularly arousing…"
Dae blushed instantly, but didn’t bother making any comment. Still…the information was enough to tip the scales of Dae’s mind quickly, and she shyly stood up and went to join the others.
Seeing her move into their circle, the harem girls smiled delightedly and sidled alongside the uncertain blonde. Shadiya held out her hand invitingly, and Dae hesitated only a moment before accepting it. The dark girl grinned and rested her other hand on Dae’s exposed stomach. She leaned forward to whisper directions into the younger girls ear.
"Feel the muscles beneath my hand?"
Dae nodded. The brehani made her skin extremely sensitive, and she was aware of every muscle in her body…and of the warmth of Shadiya’s breasts pressing against her back.
"Draw the lower part of your belly in, as though you are taking a deep breath."
Dae did as instructed, contracting her abdominal muscles. Shadiya smiled encouragingly.
"Now, push it out…and at the same time draw in the upper muscles."
After a few minutes practice, Dae was able to make her belly ripple in fluid waves, and she grinned delightedly. The other dancers praised her efforts, and started showing her how to sway her hips and move her arms. At first uncertain, Dae quickly abandoned her modesty and began to join in, laughing at her own mistakes and slowly improving her style. The music was powerful and addictive; for some reason, her body responded readily to its directions. Twirling happily among the harem girls, relaxed and at ease, Dae wondered why she had ever been apprehensive about accepting the invitations to dance.
Sitting on the grass, watching her friend with interested dark eyes, Inaya smiled and gave herself a little pat on the back.
A few more cracks were appearing in Dae’s wall of chastity and ignorance…the wall that kept her from accepting the pleasures Inaya could see she was so curious to understand.
Inaya wasn’t the only one watching the dancing blonde with avid interest. From a terrace jutting out from the palace wall thirty feet above the seraglio gardens, bright sapphires darkened hungrily at the sight of Dae’s innocently provocative movements.
Zafirah felt heat flood through her lower body and she licked suddenly dry lips, her eyes not daring to blink for fear of missing even a moment of the young girl’s dance. Her position on the balcony afforded Zafirah a wonderful view; when Dae bent forward, her impressive cleavage was revealed splendidly to the dark-haired woman’s attentive gaze. The Scion had always had a weakness for such erotic displays as this…but she had never imagined the shy and modest blonde would be so willing to join the other girls. This was an unexpected and very welcome bonus, and the dark-haired woman was extremely pleased she’d shared some of the brehani leaves with her harem.
In the course of her life, Zafirah had shared pleasure with many women. Her appetite was legendary…and deservedly so. Though the girls of her harem were talented and inventive lovers, Zafirah often seduced a bed-mate from among the ranks of her army, and even – when she was in the mood for something a little wilder and untamed – from among the nomad tribes. And yet in all the years of her rule, the charismatic Scion had never felt herself so completely drawn to another woman as she now felt to the foreign blonde. For some reason, Dae seemed able to inflame Zafirah’s lust and passion with no more than a simple timid smile.
It was something Zafirah was finding increasingly frustrating. While outwardly she gave no indication of her turmoil, inside the Scion was growing more and more confused. She had a whole harem filled with girls whose greatest joy in life was to offer her sexual satisfaction…and yet she couldn’t seem to rid herself of the image of those innocent emerald eyes that called to her incessantly. And of course, the knowledge that her hunger would not be sated only made it that much more intense.
It was, Zafirah thought as she watched the young blonde with hooded eyes, the most delicious of tortures.
Entranced by the vision below, groaning audibly when a particularly enthusiastic hip thrust almost strained Dae’s brief top past its bursting point, Zafirah didn’t hear the sound of light footsteps coming up behind her. Only when she caught sight of a dark shape in her peripheral vision did she turn around sharply to confront the intruder.
She was greeted by Falak’s familiar dark face. The scout grinned, teeth flashing against her ebony skin as she performed a casual salaam and joined her Scion at the edge of the balcony. She watched a few moments in appreciative silence.
"The council has just ended," she informed the tall woman.
Falak shrugged. "There are stirrings among the nomads in the south," she reported calmly. "They gather in greater numbers, seemingly around the banner of the Deharn."
"It will be war then," Zafirah guessed without much interest. "Shakir is a hot-head; soon enough he will need to be dealt with. But I will not venture out to meet him…let him march his men across the sands. They will be stunned with exhaustion by the time they are within sight of the city."
"Still, I have sent my scouts to keep an eye on their movements. We will know the moment the young jackal decides to test his teeth."
Zafirah grunted. "What else?"
Falak sighed. "There was general displeasure over the amount of tribute you offered to the Tek."
Zafirah scowled. The city council was a thorn in her side, as it had been a thorn in the side of every Scion before her. Comprised of representatives from all the most powerful tribes that owed allegiance to El-Kasari and the Scion Peace, the council bickered and argued over every little thing Zafirah did. Though ultimately their power was more symbolic than real, they still had the capacity to make things difficult.
"Rehan was given nothing his people did not earn," she told her chief scout. "He serves us well, and is rewarded for that service. If the other tribes worked as hard as his to defend the Peace, perhaps they would be similarly rewarded."
Falak nodded agreeably. "That is a truth they care not to see, my Scion."
Sapphire eyes glanced at the dark-skinned woman, then went back to watching the scene below. The scout grinned, seeing her Scion was in no mood to discuss politics right now. She studied the harem girls, her eyes easily drawn to the blonde hair among all the dark.
"She dances well," Falak observed.
Zafirah lips twitched into a fond smile as she gazed down at the blonde below. "Yes, she does."
"It is good that she is settling in so readily. This cannot be an easy adjustment for her to make."
"I suppose not." Long fingers ran absently along the intricate railing, tracing the details with a long, painted nail. "The people of her homeland have instilled their ignorance in her mind, however. She will never truly accept the way of life in the desert."
Falak’s grin grew broader as she turned to study her ruler and friend. "I think there is one particular aspect of our way of life that you would wish for her to accept above all others," she said wryly. "You watch her with the eyes of a hawk about to dive upon its prey."
Zafirah shrugged. "She is very beautiful. Of course I desire her." She kept her tone of voice carefully indifferent.
"Yet you’ve not even glanced at the other girls," Falak observed. "Surely they are equally beautiful…equally desirable."
The sound of lilting laughter rose from the girls as Dae made a silly mistake and burst into a fit of giggles. Zafirah sighed longingly and shook her head. "Nothing is as desirable as she is."
That remark earned the Scion a raised eyebrow. "Indeed?" Falak glanced between the young blonde and the well-known features of the tall woman beside her, seeing absolute fascination in the expressive sapphire eyes. There was something strange about Zafirah’s smile. Something that took a second for Falak to identify. When she realized what was going on, the dark scout could only shake her head in amazement. "By Inshal! I never thought I would live to see this!"
Zafirah’s concentration didn’t waver for a moment. "See what?"
"You…falling in love."
"What!?" That got Zafirah’s attention. Startled cobalt eyes pinned Falak instantly. "What are you talking about?"
Falak grinned, certain she had not misread the Scion’s face. "With all due respect, my Scion, I cannot remember you ever being so captivated by a single girl – much less a single girl whom you have not even bedded! The way your eyes follow her so avidly…the way you smile when she smiles… You have never looked so lost to this world as you did just now."
Zafirah scoffed and waved her hand dismissively. "So what? I have shared love with many women in my life, Falak."
"You have shared your body, Scion…not your heart," the dark scout correctly gently.
Zafirah paused at that. "I have cared for all those who ever warmed my bed," she said after a moment. "Every…last…one!"
Falak didn’t flinch. "That girl has completely bewitched you Zafirah," she insisted in a quiet voice. "It is nothing to be ashamed of-"
"I am not ashamed."
"-or scared of."
"I am not afraid!"
"Then why do you deny what you know to be true?" Falak saw the brilliant sapphire eyes dart away for a second. "Desire that feeds from the heart cannot be so easily sated as desire that feeds from the eye," she offered.
Zafirah sighed. She wanted to reject the notion but couldn’t convince her lips to form any words of denial. In the gardens below, the girls had paused in their dancing to watch the sunset, gathering by the far wall where they could better see the lengthening shadows slowly conquer the streets of El’Kasari. Resting her elbows on the terrace, Zafirah easily picked out Dae’s figure among the group. "Wanting her – even with my heart – will not make her mine," she whispered almost to herself. "She has made it clear she has no interest in warming my bed. That is something I cannot contend against."
Falak considered this, hearing the resignation in the Scion’s voice. "She is young," she observed. "Perhaps once she has grown to better understand the ways of pleasure and passion, she will be able to accept your desire for her."
Zafirah snorted. "And how is she to gain such wisdom?"
Falak chuckled and gestured to the pleasure-servants. "Living with those girls? I should think her education has already begun!"
Deep in the far reaches of the Jaharri desert, beyond the rule of Zafirah and her fierce army of spahi, Shakir watched with exultant eyes as his own troops went through their motions across a broad expanse of flat, empty rock-sand.
These last few months had been busy ones for the ambitious young Calif. His alliance of the tribes had started on shaky ground, but soon enough most were swayed to join his cause, awed by the marvelous foreign weapons he had procured from the western lands. Old rivalries were set aside to face a common purpose…for though ancient feuds ran deep, if there was one thing that pulsed stronger in the blood of the nomads, it was the lust of battle!
From among the ranks of the nomad warriors, Shakir had chosen seventy-five men and women to arm with his great weapons – which had come to be known as thunder-bows by the desert people – and he had added that number to the twenty-five elite soldiers from his own tribe. He had spent the last few months training those hundred until they were competent with the strange devices; teaching them how to aim, fire, and them swiftly retreat and reload. It had not been easy for some. The nomads were a proud and independent people…and they did not take well to their many stumbles when it came to learning new skills. Still, Shakir was smart; he knew well the competitive spirit of his people. With a little encouragement, the warriors were soon striving to perfect their skills, each tribe seeking to outdo the others in mastering the new weapons.
Now, finally, Shakir could see his plans for the downfall of El’Kasari finally taking form in reality. The time he had dreamed of since he was a child was soon approaching…when he would march triumphant into the torn city, and strike down the Whore who kept his people from achieving their rightful place in the world.
The call attracted Shakir’s attention from his troops, and he turned to see a young man riding swiftly towards him on the back of a great mehari – a gift from Brak and his tribe. When he got closer, Shakir saw the man was a scout, and he raised a dark eyebrow.
The scout took a moment to catch his breath; his ride had obviously been one of haste. When he had composed himself, the man pointed to the north. "Scouts, Effendi," he reported. "Scouts of the Scion, riding across the escarpments on the northern ridge."
"Hmm." Shakir’s lips pursed as he absorbed this news. "They saw us?"
"Only our outriders, Calif, not the camp. They dared not ride further into the deep desert." Seeing Shakir make no response, the man waited a moment before asking, "What shall we do?"
"Leave them be," Shakir instructed, looking back to his troops on the field.
"But Effendi…" The man started to protest, but stopped at a sharp glance from the Calif. Those burning eyes were lit with a zealous power that could both inspire, or condemn.
"Leave. Them. Be." Shakir repeated very softly. "Let the Scion bitch see what fate awaits her. She is too arrogant to lead her army out to face us…and by the time she realizes her danger, it shall be too late." He smiled cruelly, envisioning his victory already. "Soon enough it will be time to test the troops. Until then, let the scouts wander as they please. They will be the first to taste our power."
Smiling somewhat shakily, unnerved by the gleam in his leader’s eyes, the scout nodded and went to relay the instructions to his fellows still watching on the ridge.
It was midday when Dae finally pulled herself from the grip of a deep, restful sleep and looked around dazedly. She was in her room, though her memory was a little sketchy about the details of exactly how she’d gotten there. Her body was relaxed and still pleasantly tingly from the brehani, and she actually felt quite good. Groaning mildly at an unfamiliar stiffness in her muscles as she sat up, Dae closed her eyes again and recalled the events of last night.
She had stayed up late with the rest of the harem; none of them had felt the least bit tired by midnight, and even the chill air seemed comfortable for a change. Dozens of torches and candles were always lit at night to keep the darkness from ever encroaching too far into the seraglio, since a few of the pleasure-servants preferred to be more nocturnal than the others, so the girls had danced and sung and laughed long past Dae’s usual nap-time. The girls had even managed to teach Dae to sing a few traditional songs of the desert nomads, laughing everytime she mangled their words with her foreign accent. Reflecting back on the evening, Dae couldn’t help but smile a little. It had been the first time she’d truly felt at ease among the other pleasure-servants since she first arrived here; the first time she hadn’t felt awkward around them. The sense of belonging to a group, of being a part of something larger than herself, had felt very nice.
But there was more to it than just a sense of belonging, Dae realized. Something had changed in her head last night…something subtle, but important. Joining the other girls, sharing their pleasures, Dae had accepted her fate. Accepted that this palace…this desert world with its strange customs and scandalous morals…was now her home. The people she shared it with would likely be her companions for life. For the first time, Dae had put all thoughts of her homeland and family aside, and had simply enjoyed the pleasures that were offered. Enjoyed the knowledge that she was free from the judgement of others, that no-one would glare at her if she acted unladylike or giggled foolishly. There was something liberating about this world that Dae was finding more and more to her liking as time passed.
Dae’s thoughts were interrupted by a musical, feminine voice from her doorway. "Dae? Are you awake?"
"Yes," she called, smiling when Inaya poked her head into the room and grinned. "Come in."
"Thank you." The dark beauty entered, joining Dae on the bed. Liquid brown eyes studied the blonde. "How are you?"
Dae shrugged. "Okay, I suppose. What time is it?"
"Nearly midday." Inaya gave a pretty scowl of distaste. "The sun is too hot to go outside yet. I fear we have slept through the cooler morning."
"Mmmm." Dae had suspected as much. "It was a late night."
"But a pleasant one, no?" A slender brow arched in a definite ‘I-told-you-so’ fashion. "The brehani destroyed neither your mind nor your virtue, did it?"
Dae flushed a little. "No. You were right, it was…very nice."
"As are many other things in life of which you choose not to partake." Inaya ran her eyes over Dae’s body for a moment before returning to her face. "Last night was good for you, I think," she said softly. "It was nice to see you relax…to see you release your concerns, if only for a few hours. You enjoyed the dancing, did you not?"
"Welll…it was okay." Dae shifted uncomfortably. "I’ve never done anything like that before."
"You were very good."
Dae smiled shyly. "I was clumsy as a one-legged ox."
Inaya laughed and shook her head. "Why is it so difficult for you to accept your own talents?" she asked, pulling her long legs under her. "I thought you were wonderful for one who has never danced before."
"It was…strange," Dae confided quietly. "I felt so exposed. These clothes…" She plucked at the transparent fabric of her loose pants and the top that barely contained her full breasts. "They don’t cover much."
"And nor should they!" Inaya stated firmly. "You are too beautiful to hide away from those who would admire you. It would be a waste to conceal such a body as yours – and an insult to the Gods who created your beauty!" She patted Dae on the arm. "Do not be afraid to enjoy your body, Dae. If you like dancing, you should dance."
Dae smiled at the praise. "I think I will," she agreed quietly. "It was fun…and I’ll get better if I practice." She winced as she sat up. "I’m a little sore though. I used muscles I never even knew I had!"
Inaya’s eyes hooded sensuously. "I am certain we could show you many other muscles you have never used before either," she purred, smiling when Dae blushed hotly.
"Um…n-no, thank you." The young blonde wondered if her body would ever get used to being an object of lust for every female in the palace harem.
"As you wish. But do not be afraid to change your mind," Inaya said. "Who knows…you may enjoy discovering other such pleasant feelings as those you experienced last night."
A question occurred to Dae suddenly, and she fidgeted nervously before summoning the courage to ask. "Is that…" A pause. "Is that what it feels like when you’re with Zafirah?"
"The brehani? Not really." Inaya paused, wondering how to answer the question in a way that wouldn’t frighten the innocent girl. "Physical pleasure is difficult to describe, Dae. Especially to someone such as yourself who has not the slightest comprehension of what it entails."
Dae lowered her eyes, feeling embarrassed that she’d even asked. "I…I just wondered, that’s all-"
"It is good to be curious," Inaya quickly assured her. "Do not feel shame for your interest. You are a young woman. Your body is awakening, and beginning to want new things. It is perfectly natural."
Dae remained silent.
"Sexual pleasure is about intimacy and passion," Inaya explained slowly, considering her words. "It is a hunger for the body of your lover that grows so great it consumes your every thought. A hunger so powerful it can never be fully satisfied…only calmed for a time. And the pleasure it brings…" Inaya closed her eyes and sighed. "Zafirah’s talents are such that she can drive a lover to the brink of madness simply with her touch alone!"
"But…" Dae twisted her fingers nervously. "What does it feel like?"
"There is no comparison to anything you have experienced," Inaya said softly. "Of course, I could show you..?" Dae blushed and shook her head. Inaya sighed. "It is like heat in your belly," she offered after a moment of consideration. "A heat that spreads through the blood until every part of you burns with need. A pressure that builds inside until the ecstasy grows to such a point it seems it could tear you asunder! And in a way…that is exactly what it does."
Blonde brows knit thoughtfully as Dae processed this explanation. She frowned, disappointed that Inaya’s words hadn’t really helped her at all. Her body certainly responded to Zafirah’s presence when she was around, and the feelings – though strange and new – weren’t exactly unpleasant. But Dae couldn’t help but be curious about exactly what all the fuss was about. She looked away from her dark-haired friend. "It doesn’t sound all that nice to me," she frowned.
Inaya sighed. "Certain things in life must be experienced before they can be understood and appreciated."
"But I can’t-"
Inaya raised a hand to silence the blonde. "You need raise no arguments, little one. I have heard the words before, and I accept them…as do Zafirah and the others." She leaned closer. "But your body was created to desire pleasure and stimulation…to seek out a lover and share itself. That is instinct and nature, and you cannot fight against it. In time, the will of your body will grow stronger than your resistance…and you will have to decide how to deal with your appetites." Inaya gave a sultry grin and a quick wink. "Zafirah is an excellent teacher of the erotic arts. I am certain she would be most willing to instruct you."
Dae flushed, her body seeming to welcome the idea wholeheartedly. Still, she pushed the thought down as hard as she could, determined not to let herself be swayed by the temptations her new home offered so constantly. "You know, speaking of appetites…I’m kinda hungry. Are there any of those purple fruits left? You know, the ones with the big dark seeds in them? Those were nice."
Inaya smiled at the sudden change of topic, but accepted that Dae wanted to retreat. Content with simply having planted the thoughts in the young blonde’s fertile mind, she nodded. "I think a few might have escaped the notice of the other girls. Come, let us find out."
Together, the two friends left Dae’s room and headed down the corridor to the hexagonal room where their food was most often laid out. As she walked, Dae couldn’t help but dwell on Inaya’s words, wondering how true they would prove to be. Was her body starting to want physical pleasure? Sexual pleasure? Why? Was is simply because she had suddenly been plunged into this desert harem where such lusts were so prevalent and unrestrained, or was it a natural phenomenon as Inaya claimed? What would she do if it got worse?
And, in the back of her mind, she wondered what might happen if she accepted the mysterious delights Zafirah and the other girls continued to offer. What might they do to her? Would she like it?
Dae’s body responded quickly to the silent questions, and she worried at the tingling heat that raced through her blood so delightfully. Yes, she thought, something was happening to her…and although the strange longings troubled her deeply, it was impossible to fight against them. The thoughts of another woman touching her, kissing her, running fingers through her hair and moaning with passion…Dae couldn’t deny that a hunger was indeed awakening inside her.
And at the heart of all these alien desires, Dae knew, lay a pair of burning sapphire eyes, haunting her dreams and calling to her seductively from the darkness.
The next evening, Zafirah sat beneath the weeping branches of a willow tree in the seraglio, her eyes wandering back and forth between two different points of focus. The first was a group of girls dancing and laughing on the lawn nearby, the second was a solitary blonde who watched the proceedings from a comfortable spot beside the waterfall, surrounded by several pieces of parchment on which she scribbled absently. Zafirah had been watching Dae for over an hour now, trying to will her to get up and join in the dancing, but to no effect. The sun was now starting to set, and Zafirah’s hopes of seeing the captivating blonde whirl and gyrate again were slowly dying.
Why does she not dance? Zafirah frowned sulkily and began stripping the flesh from a pomegranate. She did it the night before last without care or concern. Why not now? Is it me? Does she avoid joining the others for fear of my eyes watching her?
Sighing, feeling a strange melancholy settle over her like a depressing cloud, Zafirah wondered at her feelings for Dae. Since her conversation with Falak the prior evening, the thoughts of the Scion had dwelt more and more on the young blonde. Dae’s innocent features and deliciously unexplored body taunted Zafirah, and she found her want growing stronger by the hour. For the first time that she could remember, the Scion found her normally ravenous sexual appetite oddly dulled. Though the harem girls flirted and tried to catch her fancy, hoping to win their way into her bed for the evening, their touches and smiles couldn’t rouse the flames of Zafirah’s passion. Their whispered words of seduction and suggestions of nightly delights elicited no response. The music sounded too lively and spirited for the dark woman’s mood, and she glared at the way everyone else seemed so happy.
Only when her sapphire eyes turned to the young blonde sitting apart from the group did Zafirah’s blood stir. When Dae began to suck absently on a strand of her golden hair, Zafirah almost swooned with longing. She watched every subtle motion the girl made as she scribbled away silently, entranced by each simple gesture and movement. And, as she stared hungrily at the young blonde, Zafirah realized she would find no satisfaction in the arms of another lover this night.
And so, when she left the seraglio gardens some hours later, Zafirah was alone.
Such occurrences were not terribly rare, however. No-one paid much mind to Zafirah’s strange distance or lack of interest, assuming the Scion would simply take a lover from among the army barracks for the night.
However, when the same behavior was repeated eight nights in a row, puzzled murmurings began to stir like an ill-wind through the harem.
Still a stranger to most desert customs, it took Dae some time to realize anything was amiss. But eventually, the young girl noticed the peculiar tension that marked the faces of the other pleasure-servants, and the way they whispered conspiratorially in groups from time to time. When Inaya approached her one morning with an unusually somber frown, Dae raised an eyebrow curiously.
"What’s wrong? Why is everyone acting so strangely?"
Inaya settled herself beside her friend and fiddled with the beads of her outfit. "They are troubled," she explained in a serious, concerned tone. "Zafirah’s behavior these last few days is not normal for her."
"Oh?" Dae cocked her head thoughtfully. "I hadn’t really noticed anything."
"She has not taken a lover for eight nights!" Inaya said, her eyes wide with terrible dread.
"Eight nights?" Dae couldn’t help but giggle. "So what? Surely she’s gone eight nights before without.." She trailed off as Inaya shook her head ominously. Green eyes widened in surprise. "You mean..?"
Inaya nodded. "As I have told you, Zafirah is a woman of great passion. She has never abstained before. This is not like her at all."
Dae absorbed this, then shrugged. "Maybe she’s just taking a lover from somewhere else," she suggested. "You said she does that sometimes, right?"
"Indeed. But we have spoken with the guards. They say Zafirah has slept alone this past week. Her sleep is troubled and sporadic. And there are other things." Inaya leaned closer, and her tone became more conspiratorial. "She has been training with the soldiers for hours on end…even during the heat of the midday sun! She rides alone across the dunes and comes back near exhaustion. The guards are afraid to approach her, but they are deeply concerned."
Dae wanted very much to shrug away any concern for the Scion’s strange behavior, but she could see plainly that Inaya was deeply concerned. "She seems okay whenever she comes here," she observed thoughtfully. "She doesn’t seem to stay in the seraglio with us as long as she used to, but I just figured she was busy with affairs of state. I’m sure it’s nothing to worry about."
"You do not understand," Inaya persisted. "Even during times when raiders attacked the outlying tribes, Zafirah never slept alone! Whatever troubles her must be a powerful influence indeed to keep her from seeking pleasure."
Blonde brows contracted. "So…what do you think is wrong?"
Inaya’s limpid brown eyes studied Dae’s face cautiously. "I have my suspicions," she said warily. "But that is all they are…suspicions. For now, all that is certain is that Zafirah’s behavior is not healthy for either her mind or her body. If she does not settle with her troubles soon, I fear the damage done will be far more severe."
Zafirah sat cross-legged in the city temple, breathing long, deep breaths of the incense-soaked air, trying desperately to quell the energy that thrummed through her body with the peace of meditation. The priests of Inshal who watched from the darker shadows of the temple pillars were starting to get nervous; she had been sitting here like this for over three hours, and the time no longer seemed to stretch into eternity. But still, Zafirah could find no respite from the urges of her body.
Abstinence – in any form – was not in Zafirah’s nature. The two greatest pleasures in her life were the pursuits of war and sexual gratification, and she had never felt the need to restrain herself from either…before now.
Eight nights. Eight long, frustrating nights. Zafirah’s lust was reaching a critical level, and the strain of holding back was starting to grow almost physically painful. But though she had a harem filled with gorgeous women who would have enjoyed nothing more than to relieve her of her ache, Zafirah knew none of them could satisfy her now.
None, that is, save Dae.
In the back of her mind, Zafirah knew she needed a solution quickly. If she allowed this hunger to grow for much longer, the temptation might prove overwhelming, and Dae could be hurt. Zafirah was wracking her brain to come up with a way to avoid this fate, but so far, nothing had presented itself. At first she had thought to exhaust her sexual appetite with physical exercise, hoping to distract her mind with endless martial drills and long desert rides. And at first, the plan had seemed to work. But now, nothing could stop the force of her desire for the young blonde. Sleep came only with great reluctance, and the Scion’s dreams were filled with erotic images of Dae’s untouched body writhing beneath her own. Each day, it got a little worse. Without release, Zafirah knew, this passion threatened to destroy her mind.
And then, suddenly, the solution was clear.
Sapphire eyes opened for the first time since Zafirah had entered the sacred temple. She took a moment to consider her idea more thoroughly, then nodded to herself, pleased. Rising stiffly from her meditation, the Scion rubbed her cramped legs to restore their circulation, then strode swiftly down the hallowed hallways till she found one of her guards. Gesturing the armored woman to her side, she gave a single concise instruction.
"Go to the harem and request Nasheta’s presence in my chamber at once."
The guard saluted, and marched quickly towards the seraglio gardens to fulfill her mission.
Nasheta entered the Scion’s bedroom and looked around curiously. She was uncertain exactly what to expect; though she’d served Zafirah for three years as a pleasure-servant, the young blonde had learned never to underestimate the dark woman’s creativity. And since she’d been acting so strangely this last week… Nasheta wasn’t going to make any assumptions about why she’d been summoned here, nor about what the Scion might ask of her.
The bedroom glowed in the soft light of several dozen small shamedan, the flames casting secretive shadows over the corners of the room. Smoke from a bundle of glowing incense sticks resting on a table curled up to the ceiling in serpentine spirals, twisting and writhing into the air and filling the room with the sharp scent of vanilla and hyacinth. Nasheta smiled coyly when her eyes came to rest on the enormous bed that dominated the chamber, and her smile was returned by the woman who lay there like a tiger in repose.
"Enter, Nasheta," invited the familiar husky voice in a tone that sent shivers down the blonde girl’s spine. "I have been waiting."
Nasheta stepped closer, swaying her hips in a conscious display she could tell was instantly noted. "How may I be of service, my Scion?" she asked in a heavy whisper. The heat in Zafirah’s eyes had immediately cleared away any doubts as to why she had been summoned here. Nasheta decided these past few nights of abstinence must have simply been a one-time occurrence – strange, perhaps, but not nearly so ominous as Inaya and the others had feared.
Zafirah sat up and studied the harem girl intently, her eyes lingering over the blonde hair and full breasts, before they dropped lower and passed over slender hips and down toned thighs. Her smile grew wider. "Come closer."
Nasheta did as instructed, stopping just a few inches from Zafirah. She deliberately thrust her breasts forward, inviting the dark woman to sample her flesh intimately.
Zafirah ignored the tempting offer and rose slowly from the bed. The sheer robe she wore slipped from her shoulders, revealing the barest of undergarments. She circled the patiently waiting girl like a panther, carefully noting the way Nasheta’s breathing grew heavier under her gaze. Stopping behind the girl, Zafirah ran a single finger through the fine blonde hair and down over warm skin, pleased when the simple touch inspired a low shudder. Leaning closer to a tasty-looking ear, Zafirah whispered two words that almost caused Nasheta’s legs to buckle.
Zafirah stepped away again, deliberately prolonging the moment. Nasheta whimpered, her body awash with desire. She knew from experience that the Scion would only make this torment last longer if she made any move to hasten the proceedings, and so remained silent and still as she waited for Zafirah’s next move. Warm breath suddenly blew against her neck, raising gooseflesh and causing her to tilt her head in open invitation. But no lips pressed against her heated flesh. Instead, a silken voice whispered into her ear. "Nasheta?"
"Mmmm?" She moaned, her eyes closed in anticipation of the pleasure to come.
"Would you like to play a game?"
Nasheta’s eyes flashed open, the sea-green orbs dilated with passion. She knew that when Zafirah wanted to ‘play’, it always portended a night of carnal ecstasy for her chosen partner. Zafirah smiled expectantly down at the girl, one dark brow raised. The blonde batted her eyelids with practiced innocence. "What kind of game?"
Zafirah grinned toothily and ran her fingertips lightly over Nasheta’s skin. "Oh, I think you will find it to your liking," she promised softly. "It is the kind of game where you will scream your passion to the night until you grow hoarse."
Nasheta trembled. "What would you have me do?"
Zafirah was quiet for several moments, her hands never ceasing their teasing caresses. "I was hoping…" She swallowed, and Nasheta realized with some surprise that the Scion was nervous. "I was hoping perhaps you might be willing to…entertain a fantasy I have."
In the course of her service to the Scion, Nasheta had been involved in bringing many of the dark woman’s fantasies to life. Never had Zafirah shown even the slightest hint of apprehension when sharing her desires and dreams…some of which had made even the experienced pleasure-servants blush. The dark-haired woman was bold and adventurous with her lovers. Remembering some of the things Inaya and the guards had been whispering about recently, it suddenly clicked in Nasheta’s head why she was here. She, and not one of the other girls.
Blonde hair and pale features. A slight frame with full breasts. Green eyes. Nasheta and Dae were the only two girls in the harem to possess such qualities…
…and Dae was untouchable.
Comprehension brought a slow, seductive smile to Nasheta’s lips. She turned to face the Scion directly, stepping away from her wandering hands. "I believe I understand your desires, Zafirah," she said softly, using the more familiar name confidently. In the bedroom, Zafirah was no longer Scion of a mighty desert nation – she was just a woman. As she backed away, Nasheta slowly began to touch herself, tracing the contours of her own body firmly, grazing the smooth outer curve of each breast in turn, then down over her hips and thighs. Zafirah’s nostrils flared hungrily, her eyes following the wandering hands over every inch of their journey. "I understand why I am here."
"Oh yes." Nasheta walked over to the bed and lay herself among the plush cushions, writhing erotically against the silk. "Close your eyes."
Sapphire eyes widened for a moment in surprise at the command, but then obediently slid shut.
"Picture in your mind what you wish to do to me," Nasheta instructed in a low whisper. "Picture her body as you have seen it in the seraglio."
Zafirah’s breathing stopped, her posture uncertain for a heartbeat before she shivered and relaxed.
"She is beautiful, is she not? So pure. So innocent. She has never known the touch of another woman. Never felt her body explode with fiery pleasure." Nasheta was pleased to see her words have their intended effect. Zafirah’s expression softened, but her breathing grew shallow. "Open your eyes."
Sapphire eyes flashed open instantly, their depths darkened to midnight blue.
Nasheta sat up, kneeling with her hands folded neatly in front of her. "Tonight, my body shall be her body," she whispered. "Tonight, you may love her without fear of rejection…without fear of consequence. I am yours to command, my Scion."
Zafirah stared at the young blonde, her whole body quivering with the force of effort it took to rein in her passion. In all the years she had been Scion of El’Kasari, she had never played such a game as this – had never asked a lover to be anyone other than herself. "You are certain you…do not mind?" she asked almost shyly.
Nasheta smiled and lowered her head, letting her hair cover her face as she had seen Dae do so many times. "I am honored," she said softly. "I ask only one thing."
Zafirah swallowed hard, the simple familiar gesture bringing her blood to the boil. "Wh-what?"
Sea-green eyes glanced up through a curtain of pale hair. "Be gentle." A pause. "I’ve never done anything like this before…"
Before Nasheta even had time to applaud her excellent imitation of Dae’s sweet voice, she found herself pressed hard against the cushions by the full weight of Zafirah’s ardent body. Desperate hands roamed everywhere, shaking with need but remaining gentle. Nasheta groaned when the dark woman claimed her lips with a forceful kiss, eagerly surrendering to the hot tongue that invaded her mouth and began to battle with her own. The flimsy harem outfit she wore proved no match for Zafirah’s passion, and was quickly torn from her body and thrown across the room. Once naked, the young blonde lay back against the cushions, and prepared to be devoured.
Zafirah was dizzy with lust, completely caught up in her fantasy. In her mind, it was Dae’s body she had pinned to the bed, writhing so deliciously on the silk sheets. Her fingers ran over burning skin and through fine blonde hair, and she suckled strongly at her lover’s neck, leaving marks. Zafirah hadn’t gone this long without sexual release since she was eighteen years old, and the scent of sex and sweat made her almost frenzied with desire. Eight nights of unspent passion erupted from within, and she felt a minor climax seize her just from the sound of a low, rumbling moan that escaped the woman beneath her. With trembling fingers she sought out hardened nipples and began to excite them with an expert touch.
"You like this?" she gasped.
Nasheta struggled to remain in character, but the sensuous assault on her body made it difficult. Her breasts arched against Zafirah’s touch as the young blonde wracked her somewhat distracted brain to come up with an appropriate response for a virginal maiden, even as her hips surged forward against her will.
"I-It feels wonderful," she eventually managed to get out. "Please…show me more. I want you to show me everything!"
The words were oil thrown on an already blazing inferno. Zafirah growled hungrily and abandoned the glorious breasts she was working on so she could move closer to the slick golden treasure that had haunted her dreams this past moon. Her hands worshipped briefly over the firm stomach and spreading thighs before she journeyed inwards, quickly finding velvet heat that almost drove her over the edge again. Struggling for breath, Zafirah let her fingers play through damp blonde ringlets and then lower, teasing the hardened nub that crowned her lover’s center before quickly sliding between the slick folds, pleased when the young girl’s hips began to thrust desperately against her.
"Easy, my little Tahirah," she soothed. "Be patient…we have all night."
Nasheta clawed at the silk sheets, struggling for control. When Zafirah straddled her left thigh and began grinding her dripping center hard against the muscle, she responded with a rocking motion that caused the dark woman’s head to loll forward in ecstasy. The long fingers stroking between her legs stilled a moment as Zafirah concentrated on her own pleasure, but after a second they resumed their delightful fondling.
"You are sssoooo wet, little one," Zafirah groaned, lost in her fantasy and overjoyed at how responsive her lover was to her touch. "Can you feel me touching you?"
"Urgh!" Nasheta’s vocabulary had been reduced to a series of short whimpers and high-pitched squeals as Zafirah brought her quickly to the brink of orgasm. In some lucid part of her brain, however, she managed to heroically remember her role in this game. "I’ve never…felt anything…like this!" she managed to gasp. "Please Zafirah…don’t stop! I want to feel you doing this forever!"
That was all it took for Zafirah. A powerful wave of orgasm crashed through her body, stiffening her limbs and drawing a loud cry from her throat. She continued thrusting against her lover’s slippery thigh with passionate force, feeling her own juices create a tantalizing friction against her pulsing core. Just before her climax reached its zenith, Zafirah managed to spear two fingers deep into the body beneath her, and with a few steady thrusts she felt and heard the young blonde scream out her own joyous release. There was a moment of pleasure so intense it was almost painful, and for a second her vision went white and barren as the desert sands. Then, shuddering with the last pulses of pleasure, Zafirah collapsed against her partner, sobbing gratefully.
"Thank you!" she gasped, feeling cool sweat drip down her naked back. "Thank you so much!"
Nasheta took a steadying breath, the intensity of the experience momentarily overwhelming. There was such an expression of utter devotion and need in Zafirah’s voice that the young blonde couldn’t help but feel a little strange, knowing she was but a substitute for the lover Zafirah felt she could never have. Still, Nasheta knew well the duties of a pleasure-servant. She petted the mane of dark hair softly and whispered sweet words into Zafirah’s ear until she had recovered more fully.
When Zafirah pulled away from the harem girl, it was instantly apparent that the fire of her passion had not been quenched; rather, it seemed the first encounter had merely fueled her desire to experience another. Rising from the bed, she regarded the expectant girl with still-hungry eyes.
"On your knees," she ordered, the command softened by her gentle tone.
Nasheta hastily complied, kneeling before the Scion and assuming an air of coquettish innocence.
Zafirah circled the bed, studying her prey from all angles. "Lean forward," she instructed after completing her inspection. "Rest your weight on your hands."
Nasheta again did as told. Zafirah walked behind her and out of sight, but the blonde could still hear soft footsteps rustle against the rugs that covered the floor. Concentrating, Nasheta heard the slight creak of hinges opening and flushed heatedly, knowing full well what that sound heralded; the far wall housed a wooden cabinet which was only ever opened on such occasions as this. Zafirah’s collection of erotic devices and toys was surpassed only by her knowledge of their applications, and included items gathered from the mysterious lands that lay across the northern seas. Nasheta managed to remain patient for over a minute as silence descended, but her excitement eventually grew too strong and she snuck a furtive glance behind her.
Her sea-green eyes widened at the sight of what Zafirah had selected for her. The dark woman smiled at her reaction, then strode forward slowly, her eyes burning hotter than the fires of the sun. "You are about to be educated," she whispered as she got in position behind the spread blonde.
Nasheta buried her face in the silk sheets as she felt the dark woman press against her sensitive sex with the phallus. A high-pitched scream was muffled by the cushions and her hands twisted into the bed.
Zafirah grinned as she slowly pushed deeper into her blonde lover. "Do not scream too hard, my Tahirah," she counseled gently. "You shall have need of your energy for the night ahead."
Nasheta, however, was too far gone to heed the advice. Screams of ecstasy soon echoed through the palace halls, raising the eyebrow of more than one amused guard.
Things, it seemed, were back to normal.
When Dae emerged from her room early the next morning and wandered out into the still cool air of the seraglio gardens, it took her only a moment to sense the tension that crackled around her. Most of the other girls were already awake, and Dae glanced about curiously, seeing the worried looks on their faces and hearing their nervous whisperings. "What’s going on now?" she mumbled to herself, emerald eyes seeking out Inaya. She found her friend over near the entrance to the seraglio, speaking in hushed tones with one of the two guards stationed there. "Hey. Why is everyone so tense?"
Inaya glanced up at Dae, her lips pulled into an unusually somber frown. "Zafirah ended her abstinence last night," she explained.
Dae shrugged. "So? Isn’t that a good thing?"
"Perhaps." Inaya abandoned her conversation with the guard and stepped closer to the young blonde. "She summoned Nasheta in the dohar. But Zafirah has always preferred to sleep alone once her passion is spent. It is a habit of hers that she has kept all the years of her rule."
"So…Nasheta has not yet returned from the Scion’s bed-chamber. We grow worried."
"Why?" Dae’s eyes narrowed suspiciously. "I thought you said Zafirah wouldn’t ever hurt a lover."
"She would not. But this strange behavior is unlike her." Inaya took Dae’s shoulder and gently guided her off to the side. "You must understand, Dae, that in a world such as ours, where we live in such intimate an arrangement, any change at all gives us cause for concern. That Nasheta has not returned is unusual…and therefore gives rise to ill whisperings."
Dae considered this thoughtfully, then nodded. "I understand." Still, she thought it seemed the harem girls were making too much of this. So Zafirah had abstained for a few days? It didn’t seem like any cause for such alarm to the young blonde. And so she had decided to keep Nasheta with her through the night? That was something Dae would have expected in any event.
A sudden commotion from the hallway leading into the palace proper caused the guards to immediately snap to attention, their eyes hardening with professional intent. The harem girls quickly abandoned their tense whisperings and gathered closer. Even Dae was curious, and her eyes widened when two new guards entered the gardens, bearing between them a litter on which lay Nasheta’s pale form.
The girls quickly flocked closer, their concern making them ignorant of the guards who tried to clear the way. Dae hung back, feeling a sense of dread foreboding fill her senses. Her imagination – which had lately been investing its energy in vaguely tantalizing contemplation’s of untasted erotic delights – now suddenly began to conjure images of terrible sexual tortures that might have been inflicted upon poor Nasheta. She watched the tangle of bodies before her, seeing the guards trying without success to get the pleasure-servants to give them room.
Eventually, Inaya stepped forward and began to clear the way. Though she was young, and of a typically gentle nature, the enchanting young girl held a place of high respect within the harem, and her fellow pleasure-servants respected her instructions to move aside. "Come, give them some room!" Inaya parted the clustered girls with seemingly magical grace. "We shall learn nothing by scrabbling about like turkey’s in the dust! Let them through."
The guards gave Inaya looks of extreme gratitude, then carefully shouldered their burden. Inaya gave the prone Nasheta a quick once over, her face impassive, then gestured to the guards. "This way." Then she turned and led them through the seraglio, back towards the harem sleeping quarters. The other girls trailed behind at a discrete distance, wary of raising Inaya’s ire and whispering excitedly among themselves.
As they passed by her, Dae managed to catch a quick glimpse of Nasheta, and she covered her mouth in shock. The blonde’s skin was deeply flushed as though from a fever, and her eyes were closed as though she slept peacefully. Her beautiful face was streaked with sweat, and her hair lay matted and wild about her shoulders. Purplish bruises marred her neck and breasts, and her clothes had been torn at and ripped in many places, leaving them barely sufficient to give grace to modesty. As she was carried past her, Dae’s nostrils twitched as she detected a strange scent…something musky and animal. Dae stared a moment at the comatose blonde, hypnotized by the terrible sight. Yet just before she managed to look away, she noticed something strange…something extremely out of place.
Even in her unconscious state, Nasheta’s lips were bowed into a slight, lingering smile of utter contentment.
Dae followed the other girls back to the sleeping quarters, where they all crowded around outside the doorway to Nasheta’s room. Dae had noticed that while there were no actual doors or barriers of any kind among these desert people, the boundaries they represented were always respected. No-one ever entered the personal domain of another without invitation. And so she watched now as Inaya directed the two guards to gently lift Nasheta onto her pallet, noting the scarlet marks of fingernails that had been raked down the poor girl’s inner thighs and buttocks.
Satisfied that their charge had been safely deposited, the two guards left the harem, ignoring the questions thrown at them by the pleasure-servants. Curious despite herself, Dae managed to shoulder her way to a good spot just outside the doorway, and watched as Inaya knelt beside the now-stirring blonde.
Inaya poured water from a nearby jug into a tin cup and held it to Nasheta’s lips. The blonde drank thankfully, then lay back against the cushions of her bed. From her place in the doorway, Dae watched as her friend asked the blonde a question. The words were so soft they didn’t travel across the room, and Inaya had to lean down so she could hear Nasheta’s reply. The two exchanged a few words, and Dae watched Inaya’s face carefully, hoping for some kind of explanation in her expression. The dark girl smiled a little…a soft, gentle smile that seemed reassured, and Dae wondered what Nasheta had said. Rising from her place, Inaya stroked the blonde girl’s face and offered some final words, then headed over to where Dae and the others were waiting.
"She is well," Inaya reported simply. "Let us leave her in peace for now. She will need much rest before she is recovered."
"What happened?" asked Johara.
"Was she hurt?"
Inaya held up a single delicate hand. "She is fine. No harm befell her. It was simply…a long night, that is all." Dark eyes sparkled with something like playful amusement – a look that confused Dae, but which apparently communicated something to the other girls, for they smiled and nodded in understanding, then began wandering back to the seraglio in small groups. When they were alone in the hallway, Inaya sighed and wiped her hands daintily together, her eyes studying Dae with a curious expression. The young blonde glanced into the room where Nasheta lay, asleep.
"Will she really be okay?"
"Given a day and a night to sleep, she will be fine," Inaya confirmed.
"Wh-what about the bruises? What happened to her?"
Dae stared at her friend for a moment. "Nothing? She was unconscious! Something must have happened to her!"
Inaya regarded Dae seriously, then took her arm and guided her back down the hallway. "Come. We shall talk." She took the blonde back to her own room and sat her down on the sleeping pallet, then knelt beside her. Dark eyes studied Dae a long time, before Inaya sighed and looked away. "Nasheta was not harmed," she stated, choosing her words with care. With the recent changes in Dae’s attitude towards notions of sexual intimacy, Inaya didn’t want her explanation to frighten the innocent girl. "She is simply…exhausted, that is all."
Dae’s face was blank for a moment as she processed Inaya’s meaning, then her eyes widened. "You mean-"
Inaya nodded, looking Dae squarely in the eyes. "She has been ravished." A pause, then she smiled wryly. "Quite thoroughly ravished."
The young blonde sat still, trying to figure this out. She had never seen a pleasure-servant return from a night in the Scion’s bed in such a condition as Nasheta…yet she recalled again that strange smile on the comatose girl’s lips, and wondered. "So…" She gave her friend a curious look. "This is…normal?"
"Not exactly…but it is understandable."
"The bruises? The scratches?"
"Marks of passion Zafirah inflicted during their coupling…yes." Inaya shook her head at the face Dae made. "Do not wear such a mask of horror, child. Nasheta will be the object of great envy in the coming days…that the Scion chose her as the vessel through which she would relieve eight nights of unspent passion."
Dae was very confused, unable to comprehend that anyone would want to be so injured. "She’s hurt."
"No, little one. She is tired and doubtless a little sore from her experience…but the pleasure of Zafirah’s ministrations will more than overshadow such earthly discomfits for her. When she recovers, I predict Nasheta will be in a most joyous spirit."
Dae’s brows contracted in puzzlement. "She liked it? How could anyone enjoy being bruised like that?"
"The line between pleasure and pain is a thin one," Inaya explained gently. "In the heat of the moment, when one’s body is consumed by desire, all extremes of sensation tell the same tale…a tale of pleasure. Zafirah is an intense woman, and an intense lover. The marks are not as bad as they might seem, little one."
The young blonde studied Inaya curiously. "Has she ever…done that to you?"
Inaya smiled seductively, her eyes growing hooded. "That…and much more."
Emerald eyes widened. "L-like what?"
The dark girl shook her head. "My descriptions would only confuse you, child," she said. "Such pleasures cannot be conveyed with mere words; they exist only as sensation."
"But…you liked it?"
"Of course." Inaya saw that Dae was clearly perplexed, and she reached out to pet the young blonde reassuringly. "It is a strange world, the world of pleasure. It compels us all to experience it, yet few will ever come to understand its mysteries completely…even those who pursue it their entire lives. Do not let yourself be mired by confusion, Dae."
Dae listened to her friend, then nodded firmly as she cast aside her ponderings. "You’re right. I’m not interested in such matters anyway."
"I have no desire to warm Zafirah’s bed."
"So you have said."
"And as long as Nasheta is unharmed, all is well once more." Dae gave a determined smile. "Just as I told you, Inaya, there was nothing amiss with Zafirah’s behavior. Her abstinence didn’t herald any doom as you were certain it would. Things are back to normal."
Inaya cocked her head to the side and gave Dae a sly look. "Oh…I would not be so certain of that, little one."
The dark girl lay back on the cushions of Dae’s bed, a single graceful eyebrow arched in muted contemplation. "Because Zafirah has not yet claimed what she desires. And what she desires…is you."
"You are the cause of her strange behavior of late," Inaya continued in confident tones. "I have known Zafirah some years now, and in that time she has had many lovers. But never have I seen her so affected as she has been since you arrived. You have captured more than the Scion’s eye, Dae…and I believe she is just now beginning to realize the effects of her fascination for you."
Dae sat up straighter, interested in Inaya’s words despite herself. "She lusts for me," she disputed, "but that’s all."
Inaya shook her head. "If it were only lust she felt, then why did she not simply spend her passion with one of us? Lust is nothing new for Zafirah. She has known it since she was younger than you; it is a part of who she is. No, child. She abstained from taking pleasure because she felt only your touch could satisfy her…and she would never force you to submit to her against your will."
Dae waved a hand dismisively. "She took Nasheta, didn’t she?"
"Ah, yes. But she did not choose her at random." Inaya’s eyes were intense as she gazed back at an uncertain Dae. "Do you not find it coincidental that Zafirah chose as her lover the only other girl in her harem possessed of blonde hair and pale skin? You and Nasheta resemble one another closely in form and figure…right down to the green eyes. Zafirah could not contain her hunger any longer…so she claimed a substitute for the lover she truly wanted: you."
"Yes!" Dae shook her head. Inaya’s smile and expression were unnervingly calm. "How can you be so certain?"
Inaya didn’t even blink. "Because Nasheta told me so herself."
That stopped Dae’s defense instantly. The young blonde stared at Inaya, unsure that she’d heard correctly. "Wh-what?"
"She told me so herself," Inaya repeated quietly. "Zafirah even asked her permission." The dark-haired girl sat up on her elbows and studied Dae’s reaction carefully. "Though she took Nasheta’s body, in Zafirah’s mind, it was you she loved through the night."
Dae’s mouth opened and closed a few times, her brain struggling to process the truth of Inaya’s claim, even as her body flushed with a strange, exciting heat. "Sh-she wanted to do…that…to me?"
Inaya nodded. "Wanted it with such zeal that she asked Nasheta to mimic your behavior and mannerisms that she might more fully loose herself to that fantasy." Inaya shifted closer to the young blonde. "Does this news disturb you?"
"I-I don’t…" Dae shrugged a little helplessly, feeling extremely confused by the emotions and physical sensations that rushed through her. "I don’t know."
"If it is of any comfort, I can assure you that you are perfectly safe," Inaya offered in a gentle tone, not wanting Dae to be fearful. "No matter how powerful her desires, Zafirah would never force herself upon you. It is not her way."
Dae nodded absently, images of what Nasheta might have experienced in the night filling her innocent mind…what joys or terrors that could cause the kind of great pleasure Inaya hinted at.
"And of course," Inaya continued with an innocent face, "you have made it quite clear that you have no interest in sampling the delights of Zafirah’s bed…so…"
"Yes…th-that’s true," Dae murmured, though some deep part of her she didn’t fully understand seemed not so certain.
"I suggest you put all thoughts of this matter aside," Inaya suggested with an earnestly sweet smile. "As long as your opinions remain as pure and chaste as they are, it is not an issue of consequence for you…is it?"
Dae shook her head. "Of course not."
"Well then…" Inaya clapped her hands and rose gracefully to her feet. "Shall we see what food we can find for morning meal?"
"Y…Yes, that sounds…fine." Dae joined her friend, and together they walked back down the hallway to the sitting-room beyond, where they found the tables laden with fresh fruits and other delicacies prepared by the palace kitchen.
Inaya watched with a smile as the young blonde picked through the food without her usual interest, noting the way Dae’s emerald eyes were somewhat glazed and unfocused…as though she were considering something of significant – yet uncertain – importance. The seeds of possibility had apparently found fertile soil in the young girl’s mind…and Inaya wondered how much longer it would be before they gained sufficient nutrients to sprout…and yield fruit. Dae’s ignorance was still strong, she knew. Only time would tell if her budding desires would prove stronger.
Inaya hoped Zafirah had patience to last that long.
Light from the rising sun bled slowly across the floor in Zafirah’s bed chamber, bringing with it the first subtle rises in temperature that heralded the arrival of yet another scorching day. The room was quiet and peaceful now, and the Scion lay naked on her bed, one arm draped over her face to shield her eyes from the dawning light. She could feel her body still tingle with the aftermath of spent passion, and with the languid bliss of pure satisfaction. With each breathe she took, Zafirah inhaled the sweet perfume of incense, and the stirring scent of Nasheta’s desire that still lingered in the air.
But although the Scion’s sexual appetite had been appeased – if only for the moment – she felt an emptiness pervade her senses that spoiled the perfection of this moment. Now that she had quieted the screams of her lust, Zafirah felt oddly empty…and her drifting thoughts concluded somewhat bitterly that, while her night with Nasheta had settled her immediate needs quite effectively, it was at best a temporary solution to a far larger and less easily solved dilemma.
Desire that feeds from the heart cannot be so easily sated as desire that feeds from the eye.
Falak’s words rang through Zafirah’s mind…and they sang to a tune that was starting to make sense to her.
Zafirah felt very confused. She had never experienced these new kinds of emotions that struck her heart every time she was around Dae. They defied logic and reason. Afterall, she was the Scion of a great and powerful desert nation. She had legions of women under her rule who would have considered it the greatest honor to provide for her every desire. The girls in her harem were all gifted with extraordinary beauty and grace…and they were all extremely talented lovers. Why then did their faces no longer interest her? Why was it she had become so fascinated by the innocent, naïve young blonde?
Through the years of her rule as Scion, and even before, Zafirah’s appetite for pleasure had led her to the embrace of many lovers. Yet though she had only spent in some cases but a single night in their bed, if she concentrated, Zafirah knew she could recall the faces and names of every one of those women she had taken. Many had been friends. Many – like Falak – still were. Zafirah took pride in the fact that she did not seek her pleasure as blindly as some others; as she had told Falak, she had cared for every woman with whom she shared her body. A sharing of pleasure was mutually satisfying and enjoyable. But for Zafirah, that was as far as her desires had ever ranged. Though she believed that true love existed – had seen it in the depth of connection that joined her father and mother together – Zafirah had long ago decided it wasn’t something that held any interest for her. She was far too much in love with passion and lust to devote all her energies to a single person…or so she had believed. Now, with these strange and alien feelings surfacing, Zafirah was growing less certain of her own heart.
Scowling, Zafirah lifted her arm and looked around, her confusion turning quickly to frustration. She needed a distraction; something to take her mind away from these longings. Rising from her bed, the dark woman quickly dressed herself in a pair of white cotton trousers, a loose-sleeved shirt, and a soft leather vest, and headed out to the stables in the army barracks located to the east of the palace. Perhaps, she thought, a long ride out among the expansive dunes would help to soothe her restless spirit.
The heat of the Jaharri desert was intense that day, and Zafirah was careful not to push Simhana past her limits. She rode out alone along the coastline of the great sea that bordered El-Kasari to the north, feeling the cool of the coastal wind catch the blistering heat from the sands as it rolled inland. Zafirah smiled to herself beneath her haik as she paused a moment to savor the desert air; dry and wild, with a slight tang of salt. She welcomed the emptiness of the desert, willing her mind to follow the example of the barren environment. But the teasing memories of Dae’s smile as she had danced with the other harem girls to the beat of pulsing drum music refused to be diverted…and Zafirah shook her head, irritated.
You cannot have her! she scolded herself silently. You can never have her! Accept it now, or she will drive you to madness and misery.
For a moment, it crossed Zafirah’s mind to offer Dae to Rehan afterall; certainly the girl would be well cared for among the Tek…though her life would be harder living with the nomads than in her harem. Could removing the temptation help to cure this strange attraction? she wondered. But then the Scion scowled, wheeling Simhana around and beginning her ride back towards the city. No. She knew Dae would haunt her dreams forever, no matter how far away she was sent.
It was just past midday by the time Zafirah finished washing down Simhana and returned her to the stables. The sun was stunningly hot, making the streets of El-Kasari shimmer with heat-waves. The palace was far cooler than the streets outside, and the Scion breathed a sigh of relief as she entered her chambers, stripping out of her sweat-stained clothes with a casual lack of modesty. Filling a wide bowl with rose-scented water from a pitcher, she took a few moments to scrub her body clean before slipping into the comforting caress of a silk robe. Glancing towards her bed, Zafirah was pleased to note her servants had changed the sheets during her ride, and straightened everything up after her night with Nasheta. She contemplated taking a nap, but her body was still too awake with uncertainty for rest, so Zafirah wandered back out into the hallways of the palace, smiling absently to the guards who passed her by.
With her mind preoccupied with thoughts of Dae, it was unsurprising that Zafirah’s rambling footsteps led her to the harem. She paused a moment before entering the seraglio gardens, her thoughts a tangled mess. A part of her wanted desperately to see the young blonde girl…but what could she say that could woo Dae now that had not been said before? Accustomed to being an assertive conqueror in the game of seduction, Zafirah didn’t much like the feeling of being so out of control. Still, her thoughts led her on before her brain managed to convince her to retreat, and she entered the gardens of her harem.
Few of the pleasure-servants were about, the midday sun far too stifling for any kind of activity. Those who were splashing about in the relatively cool waters of the great pool didn’t notice Zafirah as she slipped past them into the rooms beyond the garden. The Scion strode quietly along the hallways that led to the sleeping quarters of her pleasure-servants, pausing when she came to Dae’s room. Peering in, she smiled at the sight of the young blonde sprawled across the cushions of her bed, eyes closed in sleep and an innocent smile curving the edges of her lips. The vision of such simple, graceless beauty shot like an arrow to Zafirah’s heart, causing her to clutch her chest at the physical ache that spread through her body. For half a second, the dark Scion felt herself stepping into Dae’s room, thoughts of waking the blonde with a sweet caress dancing through her mind. Then she shook herself clear of the erotic notion, knowing that she would ruin even the tenuous respect Dae had for her.
Zafirah stood a while longer in the doorway, just letting her eyes roam at will over the inspiring curves of Dae’s ill-concealed form. Then, sighing heavily, she turned away and headed further down the hallway…her thoughts turning to another of her pleasure-servants. One who might be able to offer some solace or advice to ease her suffering.
She found Inaya in her room, awake as she had hoped. The dark-haired girl was sitting on her sleeping pallet, carefully working on an intricate necklace of colorful glass beads. Zafirah hesitated, then cleared her throat. "Inaya?"
Inaya glanced up, smiling instantly as she rose to her feet. "My Scion."
"Are you busy?" Zafirah gestured to the necklace. "I-I do not wish to disturb you."
"Of course not, Scion. My time it yours to command." Inaya laid her beadwork on a table nearby. "Come in. How may I be of service to you?"
Zafirah stepped into Inaya’s room, swallowing nervously. She caught a seductive glint in the harem girl’s eyes, and realized what Inaya was thinking. "I-I was hoping we might…talk."
The wicked glint shimmered for a moment, then vanished. Inaya raised an eyebrow, obviously intrigued, but nodded. "As you wish. Please…will you sit?"
"Would you like something to drink, perhaps? Some sweetened water?"
Zafirah nodded, though she wasn’t thirsty. "Yes…please." Among the desert people, it was considered rude to reject such simple offerings, so she accepted the small cup Inaya handed her and drank gratefully. "Thank you."
Inaya inclined her head. "Most welcome, my Scion."
There was a moment of awkward silence after that. Inaya watched the Scion curiously, wondering at this visit and thinking she had a fair idea what had motivated Zafirah to seek her out. Her suspicions were confirmed when the dark woman looked her in the eye and said, in a carefully casual fashion, "I wanted to talk with you…about the young foreign girl. Dae."
Inaya nodded knowingly. "Ahh."
"I-I understand you have grown close to her," Zafirah continued. "She seems most comfortable in your presence. I have seen the bond grow between you, and I…I hoped perhaps you might have some insight into her mind."
"I see." Inaya spread her hands and cocked her head. "And what insight would you have me impart, my Scion?"
Zafirah sat up a little, her eyes alive and intense. "Everything," she whispered.
"Yes. I want to know everything about her. Omit no detail, however irrelevant it may seem."
Inaya studied Zafirah for a long moment in silence. "You like her very much, do you not?"
Zafirah’s eyes softened, then looked away. She sighed longingly. "May I speak with you as a friend, Inaya?" Her voice was soft and held a rare note of vulnerability, and her eyes were shy. "Not as your ruler, but just…as a woman?"
"Of course." Inaya smiled warmly. "You have no need to ask such a question, Zafirah…of any of your servants."
Zafirah returned the smile, grateful at least that she had such people as Inaya in her life – people who could look beyond her title and see the person beneath. She was still a minute, considering her words carefully before she gave them voice. "I have found my thoughts of late…dwelling more and more upon her," she said at last. "She confuses me – makes me feel things I have never felt before."
Inaya nodded sagely. "She is very beautiful. It is natural for you to desire her."
"Perhaps but…" Zafirah threw her arms up and scowled. "There is more than simple desire to this! She fascinates me…compels my every waking thought and rules my dreams each night! And yet I barely know her…have barely spoken with her." She looked at Inaya with eyes that hungered for things beyond erotic delights. "That is why I come here – to better understand her, that I might better understand how it is that she can inspire such feelings in me."
Inaya listened carefully, hearing the stark desperation in Zafirah’s tone. "You think perhaps you love her?" she asked bluntly.
Zafirah looked away instantly. "I do not know."
"Mmm." Inaya tilted her head in consideration. "She has a certain…quality about her, does she not? Something rare and special. You are not the only one to feel it."
The Scion glanced up, curious. "Really?"
"Of course." Inaya smiled. "It would be a cold heart that would not beat faster in her presence…yet I think her charm has struck you harder than others."
Zafirah sighed. "And yet I am the one most distanced from her."
Inaya smiled. "The heart is often wiser than the head, Zafirah; it can see things deeper than our eyes. Yet all too often we ignore its teaching in favor of a more sensible form of reason." The slender girl lay back against the cushions of her bed and regarded Zafirah with a slightly playful look. "Yes, Dae and I have grown close. I value her companionship a great deal…as I value her trust. But you will find my words a poor substitute for what you truly desire, Zafirah."
Zafirah shook her head. "Then what am I to do?" she demanded, her tone harsher for her frustration than intended. "Her body stiffens whenever I draw near! She can barely bring herself to look at me…knowing how I desire her."
"And therein lies the problem," Inaya said with a smile.
"Dae does not fear you, Zafirah…she fears the unknown. She recoils from your hunger because it frightens her. She does not understand it. But if you were to put aside all thoughts of lust and carnal gratification, I think you might find her nature may change."
Zafirah’s eyes narrowed in speculation. "So…you think she would talk with me? As a friend if not a lover?"
"There is but one way to find out." Inaya fingered a strand of her blue-black hair thoughtfully. "Dae has mentioned on occasion her admiration for the city…and her desire to see more of it. She said you offered to show it to her when first you spoke with her…"
As intended, the suggestion took root in Zafirah’s mind, forming quickly into a plan. Sapphire eyes widened. "Y-you think she would like me to take her outside the palace?"
"I think she would find you less intimidating if she could see more to you than simple lust." Inaya hesitated, wanting to give Zafirah comfort and hope, but cautious of betraying Dae’s trust. "Dae has been settling in well," she said at last, her tone careful. "She is young…and adapts easily to change. Lately, I have seen her growing more confused by the urgings of her body." Inaya saw Zafirah’s eyes widen instantly with interest, and held up a hand. "She has not spoken of desire," she stated firmly, "only of a curiosity that is quite natural in one her age. If you do not wish to frighten her away, Zafirah, you would be wise to tread cautiously, lest you crush what hope you have beneath a careless heel."
Zafirah absorbed this council, and nodded. "Yes…you are right." She thought for a long moment in silence, then bowed to Inaya with a smile. "I thank you for your advice, Inaya," she said, rising from her place on the bed. "It has helped me greatly."
Inaya bowed in returned. "I am always glad to serve, my Scion." Her eyes twinkled daringly with hooded fires. "Would that I could offer solace beyond mere words."
Zafirah grinned fully at the blatant invitation, and winked. "Perhaps another time."
"I look forward to it."
Zafirah turned to leave, but just as she reached the doorways, Inaya called out. "Zafirah?"
"Mmm?" She glanced back.
Dark eyes regarded her seriously. "Dae may be innocent," Inaya said, "but she is also intelligent. If you can show her a part of yourself outside the bedroom, she will see it and respect you more for it. Do not try to be more than who you are for her – such deception would only win you her contempt."
Zafirah nodded. "Thank you."
Inaya watched the Scion leave her room. Things, it seemed, were moving nicely. Zafirah was out of her element playing the pursuer…but she was smart enough to realize it, and not pretend a confidence she didn’t have. Picking up her beaded necklace, Inaya found her place once more and continued with her project, humming to herself as she worked. She was looking forward to seeing how Dae would respond to Zafirah’s more gentle overtures.
The next evening found Dae walking nervously through the palace hallways, flanked on either side by an escort. The young blonde had been surprised when Zafirah summoned her to her chambers, and had been trying for over an hour to quell the butterflies that stirred in her stomach. A part of her was terrified, fearing the Scion had finally succumbed to her lust…but another part of her was humming with excited anticipation, almost hoping that she might be subjected to the same mysterious delights as Nasheta. Dae’s hands were sweating, and her heart was beating fast in her chest. When they reached the entry to Zafirah’s bed chamber, Dae hesitated, and one of her escorts gave her a gentle nudge and an encouraging smile.
"Do not fear, little one," the guard whispered kindly. "You are safe."
Taking a deep breath, struggling with a body that seemed uncertain what it wanted, Dae stepped into the chamber and looked around.
As soon as she saw Zafirah, a large part of Dae’s fears were set aside. The tall, dark-haired woman was dressed in loose cotton trousers and a leather shirt. She wore sturdy boots, and an open haik was wrapped around her head. From that attire, Dae concluded Zafirah’s thoughts were running to destinations other than seduction.
She wasn’t sure whether she was relieved or disappointed.
Zafirah turned when she heard Dae enter, her smile so brilliant it almost stopped the young girl’s heart. "Dae! Enter, please." The Scion waved her guards away with a simple gesture.
Dae took a few nervous steps into the room, her eyes unconsciously flicking over to the great bed. Her mouth was dry and she swallowed hard before remembering to bow to the Scion. "Y-you sent for me?"
"Yes, but…" Zafirah grinned at the obvious fear in Dae’s eyes. "I had plans other than carnal pleasure this night."
Dae smiled hesitantly.
"I thought perhaps you might deign to join me for a walk," Zafirah continued. "You wished to see more of the city, did you not?"
Dae nodded without thinking. "You would show me?"
"If you like. However," Zafirah took a moment to cast her eyes appreciatively over Dae’s figure, still clad in almost transparent silk pants and a top that barely managed to contain her full breasts. "I think perhaps a change of wardrobe is in order first. Walking the streets in harem clothes would attract far too many admirers to you…and I would prefer to be only one this night." She waved a hand towards the bed, and Dae saw a pile of neatly folded clothes laid out on the sheets, topped off with a pair of elegant boots. "Please…change. I will not watch, if it makes you uncomfortable." Zafirah turned her back on the blonde, giving her privacy.
Dae fidgeted a moment, considering. Indeed, she wanted very much to see the streets of El’Kasari up close, having looked upon them from the seraglio gardens all this time with wondering eyes. But she was ever cautious around Zafirah…and sensed a ploy. "Wh-what if I don’t want to go?"
Zafirah glanced at her. "That is your decision…and I will respect it." Her eyes softened a moment, and Dae was caught for a moment by the uncertain, fearful longing that lay beneath those stunning sapphires. "I just hoped we might…talk. Without consideration of desire, or sex. I wanted to know you better, Dae."
Emerald eyes narrowed doubtfully. "You won’t…try to seduce me?"
Zafirah cocked her head to the side, a playful half-smile forming on her lips. "The temptation may prove stronger than my resolve, but…I shall endeavor to resist my baser urges for the night."
Dae couldn’t help it – she giggled. "I guess that’ll have to do." She gestured to Zafirah. "Please turn around."
Zafirah grinned and did as bade.
Studying the clothing that had been arranged for her, Dae hesitated only a moment before she stripped off her harem clothes and began to pull on the far more concealing shirt and skirt. The boots fit her feet snugly, and Dae grimaced a little in discomfit; she had grown accustomed to walking barefoot these last few months in the harem. When she was fully dressed again, she turned back to Zafirah, smoothing down her new outfit nervously. "Okay, you can look now."
Zafirah, who had been fighting valiantly against the desire to sneak a quick glance at the beauty unfolding behind her, turned. Her eyes ran up and down Dae’s figure, and smiled warmly. "I think I prefer the harem clothes better."
Dae shuffled her feet self-consciously. "They don’t cover much."
"They cover enough that I am driven to the brink of madness for want of what lies beneath," Zafirah assured her. "You are far too magnificent a creature to be covered in swathes of cloth. But…I would prefer our walk be inconspicuous as possible, so…"
Dae smiled. In truth, she felt a lot safer and more comfortable with Zafirah now that she wasn’t so exposed. While she had grown accustomed to wearing the revealing harem outfit, and to being in the presence of so much bare flesh in the seraglio, the young blonde couldn’t help but feel especially vulnerable when she was around the enigmatic Scion. Zafirah’s eyes had a way of looking at her that made her feel very strange – a tense, warm sensation that wasn’t entirely unpleasant, and which sent confusing shivers over her skin. Wearing these new clothes went a long way towards settling her nerves.
Zafirah held up an arm in invitation. "Shall we?"
Dae nodded, and preceded the Scion out into the corridor.
Having been unconscious when she’d first been brought into El-Kasari, Dae had never seen the palace from outside. Looking around her at the magnificent architecture of gold-laced marble and amazing base-relief carvings, the young girl soon forgot all about any concerns regarding her chastity. A stunning archway marked the entrance to the palace proper, standing over thirty feet high with walls studded with a mosaic of silver and dazzling semi-precious stones that flashed rainbow colors across the cool marble floor. With a trembling hand, Dae reached out to touch the arch, her eyes roaming upwards in awe. "It’s so beautiful!"
Zafirah watched the young blonde, pleased with her reaction. "The wealth of a thousand kings…all in a single wall of my palace," she said softly, smiling a little in irony. "The people from your land and the lands to the west pay us tribute to cross the desert safely. They have done so for many generations, since the time of my ancestors. Most often, they give jewels or gold or rich cloth…things they consider to be of tremendous value. But in the desert, such riches mean little compared to food or water. They sparkle prettily in the sunlight…but that is their only true worth to us."
Dae regarded the wall curiously, wonder still shining bright in her eyes at the treasure so casually displayed. She gave Zafirah a shy smile. "I still think it’s beautiful."
Zafirah laughed. "Then come. Let me show you more pretty things."
The two walked out of the palace and along a shining marble bridge. The streets of El-Kasari spread out before them in carefully-planned lines, busy with people going about their errands in the cool of dusk. From outside, Dae realized for the first time just how large the palace truly was; it perched at the heart of the city, at the highest point, serving as a focal point for all those living under the Scion’s rule.
Merchants hawked their wares from wide, open windows in their shops, or from the convenience of a sheltered cart. Dae saw only a few horses among the commoners; most seemed to prefer using camels to move around. The city was noisy with the sounds of the merchants crying out for buyers, and it had an interesting smell to it – something like the desert itself, but with a subtle hint of many people all living and breathing together in close proximity. Certainly the air wasn’t as fresh here as it was in the gardens of the harem, but Dae remembered the stench of the open sewers that ran through the cities of her homeland, and decided this was comparatively pleasant. Wandering along the streets, her eyes wide with excitement at the exotic sights all around her, Dae grinned easily at her companion as she walked. "Is it safe for you to be out here without your guards?" she asked, noting the absence of any escort.
"Of course." Zafirah spread her arms to encompass the city. "I have walked these streets since I was but a child; there is no need for me to fear my own people. Besides, I am a skilled fighter. Any thief foolish enough to attack me would soon regret his error."
Dae turned her attention back to the streets, considering. She wouldn’t have expected a ruler to act in such a manner as Zafirah. In her homeland, no personage of the ruling class ever went anywhere without a small army of body-guards. It struck her again just how different this desert world was from the world she once knew…only now, the differences seemed not so distasteful as they once had.
El-Kasari was a riot of color and movement. Everywhere Dae looked, she saw amazing things that shocked and intrigued her. Scantily-clad women with jewels in their navels danced to the tune of wailing reed pipes. A man with a monkey on his shoulder begged for coins, the small animal aiding his master by turning back-flips and chattering at potential donors. Dae’s eyes caught sight of a street performer on a small stage, and she stared in fascination as the skinny man somehow managed to swallow the blade of a slender, straight sword all the way down his throat.
"H-how did he do that!?" She moved closer, amazed.
Zafirah watched curiously a moment, then shrugged. "I have no idea," she admitted. "It is not a skill I have ever had cause to pursue." The Scion was enjoying just watching Dae as the blonde girl moved from one wonder to the next, her attention easily caught by one thing, and just as easily stolen by another. Her youthful exuberance was refreshing, and Zafirah felt some of her inner tension ease just from being in the presence of the innocent blonde. She also noted, with some amusement, the way Dae managed to attract the eyes of many men and women from among the crowd, her face and figure drawing more interest even than Zafirah herself. Yet she seemed blissfully unaware of the attention, and the Scion grinned at her naivete, even as she warned away the would-be suitors with an occasional glower.
Dae strolled past the vendors, pausing every now and again when something caught her fancy. She stopped at the stand of a jeweler to admire his assortment of necklaces, reaching out to caress an elegant silver chain whose design was familiar to her. "I remember the jewelry my mother gave me just before I left home for the last time," she whispered. "There was a garnet ring, a bracelet of gold with a ruby set in it…and a necklace that looked just like this one."
Zafirah heard the hint of sadness in Dae’s voice, and immediately sought to ease it. She plucked the necklace from its place and held it out to the young blonde. "Here…take it."
"Oh, no…I-I couldn’t."
"I insist." Zafirah tossed a small pouch of coins to the merchant, who hefted it briefly then bowed in gratitude. "It is a gift…and among my people, it is considered rude manners to deny such an offering."
"Please." Zafirah held the necklace out earnestly. "I want you to have it."
"Well I…I guess. If you insist."
"I do." Zafirah smiled as Dae turned and allowed her to clasp the slender silver chain about her neck. As she fingered the necklace to settle it, the dark woman couldn’t help herself, and she let her fingers linger a moment too long among the silken tendrils of blonde hair that curled about Dae’s neck. Her breath caught in her throat and her body began to thrum with desperate longing.
Dae sensed the lingering touch and froze momentarily. Turning, she gave Zafirah a wary, shy look. "I thought you said you wouldn’t try to seduce me," she reproached softly.
Zafirah took an unsteady breath and looked away. "Forgive my lapse," she said hoarsely. "It is difficult."
Emerald eyes narrowed, but Dae nodded after a moment. "That’s okay."
They continued walking along the street, and Dae could see plainly that Zafirah was suffering from some inner confliction. "You’re not used to women saying no to you, are you?" she observed in a casual tone.
Zafirah’s eyes met hers cautiously, wondering at the question. Seeing only genuine interest in Dae’s emerald orbs, she shrugged slightly. "It is not often a problem for me, no," she admitted.
"And you have a lot of women who are happy to be with you." Dae fingered her new necklace absently as she watched Zafirah. "Why do you care so much about winning me over?"
Again, the Scion shrugged. "You are different," she said quietly. "Something in you calls to me…and I cannot ignore it, no matter how I try." She sighed, then managed to meet the young girl’s gaze without flinching. "I am not ashamed of my desire for you, Tahirah…but my interest goes deeper than the flesh. I want to understand you…be near you. I hunger for it beyond reason." She turned away and continued walking. "I would never try to force myself upon you, but neither will I fight against my own nature by denying my attraction."
Dae listened, struggling to understand the mind of a woman unlike anyone she had ever met before. "Are you trying to say that…you’re in love with me?" That was the closest approximation she could reach.
"Perhaps," Zafirah said non-committedly. "I have never been in love before…and I have never felt so powerful an attraction to another person before. It is possible the two are cause and consequence of one another." Twin sapphires regarded Dae curiously. "Would it offend you greatly if I were in love with you?"
Dae flushed, but shook her head. "I-I guess not. I mean, it’s kinda flattering…in a weird way."
Zafirah grinned at her small victory. "Perhaps I could court you," she suggested playfully. "An unrequited courtship of course, if you would prefer."
Dae giggled, seeing a new and interesting side of Zafirah’s personality begin to emerge. "Let’s just enjoy the walk, shall we?"
The Scion gave a martyred moan. "As you wish, my Tahirah."
Dae raised an eyebrow at her companion. "Why do you keep calling me that?"
"Tahirah. You use it more often than my real name."
"Oh." Zafirah shrugged. "I do not know. It just seems to slip from my tongue more easily. If it bothers you, I will try to stop."
"No, it’s okay. I like it." Dae hesitated. "It means chaste, doesn’t it? The name Tahirah?"
Zafirah nodded. "It does, but…I mean no insult by terming you thus. It is a term of affection, nothing more."
"Well…I am chaste," Dae admitted. "I’m not ashamed of that fact…even if it is considered out-of-place here."
Zafirah considered that a moment, then shook her head. "Chastity for a purpose is respected among my people," she said. "Like the priests of Inshal, who abstain from pleasure for periods so that they might better understand the Goddess. But when that chastity stems from ignorance…or from fear of the unknown…then I would consider it a wasted resolve." Zafirah saw Dae flush a little, and held up a hand. "Again, I mean no insult against you. It is simply an opinion I have."
Dae swallowed, uncertain how to respond. Since coming to the desert, she had felt the changes in her body – like an awakening that grew stronger every day. Her curiosity was indeed growing, just as Inaya had said…but still she fought against it.
Seeing that her companion wasn’t going to offer a response, Zafirah continued. "Of course, such matters are highly personal in nature…and I think it a good thing that not everyone sees things in the same light as myself. Take my father for instance. He governed the Scion Peace for five years without knowing the touch of a woman. He waited all that time to fall in love…and after he met my mother, he stayed true and devoted to her until his death."
"Really?" Dae’s ears pricked up with interest at hearing the Scion speak of her family.
"Yes. During his reign, the harem grounds were unoccupied."
"How did he die?"
"A sickness claimed him. Though I was young at the time, both the priests and the council accepted me as the new Scion. My mother was of the desert – born to the Herak tribe. When she fell in love with my father, she moved to El-Kasari to be with him…but I think a part of her never truly parted with the dunes. After he died, she returned to her people to grieve."
"Is she still alive?"
"Yes. I do not see her often, though. Her people are very proud…they do not often journey to the city for water or food, preferring to accept only what the desert offers." Sapphire eyes regarded Dae intently. "So you see, I do understand the concept of devoted love like that. I respect it a great deal…as I respected my father."
"But you don’t ascribe yourself to it."
"No." Zafirah smiled. "I believe more strongly in pleasure and freedom. In my way, I have loved all those with whom I have lain in passion…but not to the exclusion of all others. To my mind, it seems selfish to place boundaries on something as beautiful and sacred as sexual pleasure. It is a gift to be shared with the world, experienced by all, not just bestowed upon a single lover." She raised an eyebrow at Dae. "You have seen Johara and Hayam, have you not? You have seen the strength of their passion?"
Dae blushed and looked away. "They’re not exactly shy about it," she observed wryly.
"They love one another very much – enough that they sanctified their union in the Goddess’ name. Yet their connection is such that they are able to invite others to share in their love…to partake of their passion and join with them in ecstasy." Zafirah sighed. "Theirs is a love I can understand and admire; a love that is devoted without being caged or controlled."
Dae absorbed this explanation thoughtfully, appreciating Zafirah’s honesty. "And have you ever thought about being with a man?" she asked.
"Why would I? I do not find men appealing in a sexual way…either physically, or mentally." Zafirah gave Dae a rakish grin. "A beautiful woman, however, can turn my blood to fire."
Dae swallowed at the definite glint in the Scion’s appraisal. "But…what about children? Who will be Scion when you die?"
"I am young," Zafirah said. "My death will not come for many years, I hope. But when it does, a young man named Kadin will be my successor."
"He is a child of the Bharinah tribe…a nomad. He is but a child now…barely past his twelfth year, but with luck he will have opportunity to grow into a man before his time comes to rule El-Kasari."
"Is he a relative?"
"A cousin, yes."
"So…why him? Don’t you have any closer kin?"
"I do, but the decision is in the hands of the priests of Inshal. And I do not dispute their wisdom in this matter. I have met Kadin many times in his life. He is a strong boy; brave and honorable. Though he is young, he already hunts with the men of his tribe, and he is an excellent rider and archer. The desert will teach him patience, wisdom…and when he is ready, I have little doubt he will enforce the Scion Peace with a firm but just hand."
"Why doesn’t he live here, in the city?"
"Because he prefers to stay in the desert." A group of rowdy children armed with wooden swords came racing down the street towards them, and Zafirah took Dae’s arm and guided her gently out of their way. "I lived for three years among the tribes myself. It is important to understand the nomads and earn their respect, for without them the Peace would crumble into chaos."
"I can’t imagine why anyone would want to live out in the sands," Dae said with a confused shrug. "It’s so hot…and there’s no food, or water, or shelter."
"It is a hard life," Zafirah agreed, "and it breeds a hard people. But there is a certain savage beauty to the desert that takes time to appreciate. Once it is in your blood, however, that beauty is never forgotten."
Zafirah clapped her hands. "But enough of this. Tell me about yourself, my Tahirah. I wish to learn more of you."
"Umm…well…" Dae shrugged. "Wh-what would you like to know?"
"Anything! What things make you smile? What do you enjoy doing? Perhaps you could tell me more of your homeland…your family."
"Well…okay, I…I guess I could do that." Dae chewed on her lower lip a moment. "Ahh…for starters, I’m an only child. My mother had complications giving birth to me, so she couldn’t have any more children afterwards. So my parents poured all their affections on me; they gave me everything I could have wanted. My father waited a long time before he would allow any man to court me. That was why I was traveling to the city when I was kidnapped by the slavers…so that the priests could confirm my purity for my future husband."
"And who was your husband to be?" asked Zafirah curiously.
Dae shrugged. "I don’t know. I never actually got the chance to meet any of the suitors."
"So…you would have joined with a man whom you did not even know? Did not even love?" Zafirah scowled. "Are such practices common among your people?"
"I-I guess so…at least for the more wealthy families, yes."
"I think then that your lands must be populated with much discontent and little true pleasure," Zafirah concluded stoutly. "Not to mention a great deal of stupidity."
Dae grinned. "Perhaps." Remembering the faces of her mother and father, the grin was dissolved by a sigh. "My parents must think I’m dead by now. I wish they could at least know that I’m safe. It would ease their grief."
Zafirah saw the wisp of loss in the young girl’s face. "I am sorry to stir up such memories that sadden you," she apologized.
"No, it’s okay." Dae squared her shoulders and pushed away the sense of homesickness. "I don’t really think about it much anymore. The palace is a nice enough place to live, Scion, really. I’m grateful to you for saving me from the slavers…" She flushed a little. "And for taking me into your home, knowing that I can’t repay you as you wish me to."
Zafirah’s eyes sparkled. "So…your new life here pleases you?"
Dae considered the question seriously, surprised to find herself nodding quite sincerely. "Yes…actually, it does."
"Then I have reward enough simply in the smile that curves your lips. What more could I ask of than to see you happy?"
Dae raised an eyebrow at Zafirah knowingly. "You could ask for my body," she observed. "I know it’s what you want…and I appreciate the fact that you haven’t just taken me."
"Yes, well…" Zafirah smiled modestly. "You have made your thoughts on such matters quite clear, little one. Still, my desire shall not wane with your refusal…and if ever you find your curiosity grows, I would be most honored to entertain and enlighten it." The Scion’s tone was light and playful, but Dae’s face was serious as she returned the dark woman’s sapphire gaze steadily.
"I’ll be sure to keep that in mind," the young blonde whispered softly.
Zafirah stared wide-eyed at the girl as she deliberately turned her attention back to the street, thinking perhaps her ears had fabricated the response her heart most longed to hear. But from the awkward silence that followed and the steady flush that crept up Dae’s neck, she realized she had heard true. Warmth flooded through her loins in a familiar tide and she swallowed hard. Suddenly, Zafirah saw that something had indeed changed in Dae since her arrival, just as Inaya had hinted at. Where once the young girl had recoiled from any flirtations in disgust, she now seemed almost interested and shyly responsive. Possibilities began to whirl through Zafirah’s mind in an exciting, confusing tumble, and she had to take a moment to calm herself with a few steady breathes.
Take things slow, she remonstrated silently. Do nothing to frighten her. If she perceives a threat, she will retreat and all will be lost. Let her come to you in her own time.
Dae concentrated on the sights around her, conscious of the effect her words had had on Zafirah and fighting the urge to giggle. She was pleased with the response, seeing the Scion struggling to process the unexpected statement, rather proud at having taken the confident woman so completely by surprise. Dae wasn’t sure what had prompted her to say the words out loud…but she couldn’t help but enjoy the delightful tension that now pulled low in her gut, or the shivers that ran across her skin.
By now, the sun had diminished on the horizon to little more than a distant glow. The streets were lit by hundreds of torches that burned from sconces all over the place, and which cast shadows into the alleyways and hollow windows. Glancing at her companion quickly, Dae was mesmerized by the way Zafirah’s eyes glowed in the flickering firelight, and by the elegant, strong lines of her face. The Scion was, without question, an incredibly beautiful woman…and for the first time, Dae allowed herself to more intimately appreciate that fact.
The two walked in silence for several minutes before Dae decided to continue their conversation as though nothing had happened. "Umm…I like to draw. My mother taught me to paint and such from when I was a child, so it comes easily to me." She looked around at the city with eyes that saw everything. "There are so many wonderful things here to draw…and in the gardens. I used to just draw things I remembered from my homeland, but then I realized how much beauty I was overlooking all around me."
Zafirah cleared her throat, pushing aside her desire to pursue their last conversation to its end. "Perhaps," she said softly, "you might allow me the pleasure of viewing your pictures the next time I visit the harem? I would very much like to see them.
"Sure." Dae glanced at the dark woman shyly. "That’d be nice."
"And what of the dancing?" Zafirah probed with a teasing smile. "I watched you from a balcony that night you joined the others. It seemed you enjoyed yourself very much."
"You saw that, huh?" Dae giggled and let her hair fall over her face. "I wasn’t very good."
"You were amazing," Zafirah protested. "My dreams since that night have been filled with your image, so greatly did you inspire them."
"Indeed. Did you not enjoy the dancing?"
"No, it was…nice. I liked it."
"Yet you have not joined in since that night," Zafirah observed, offering a slight pout that gave Dae’s uncertain body an extra tingle. "Was it because I was there? Did you not participate for fear that I would see you?"
Dae shrugged. "It wasn’t you," she said quietly. "I was just…a little nervous about it, that’s all." She took a deep breath, wondering how to explain. "It’s hard for me to do that kind of stuff – I guess the same way as it’s hard for you to go against your nature by restraining your, umm…urges." She flushed prettily. "But I did like it…and I do intend to do it some more, so…" She offered what she hoped was a demure look. "I don’t mind if you want to watch me next time, okay?"
Zafirah grinned fully. "I would like that very much." An invitation! Inside, the Scion’s heart beat double tempo. She actually invited me to watch her! The flower is beginning to bloom. Zafirah had seen the signs of dormant arousal awakening enough times in her life that she recognized Dae’s body language now. The girl was still shy and nervous, and probably not a little frightened…but she was also giving definite signals of interest. Zafirah ordered herself to be patient. She had already gained more from this night than she had ever expected – interacting with the young blonde as a friend and as an equal, in the process gaining a better understanding of this strange girl for whom she had developed an unequaled desire and fascination.
They walked along the streets in silence, casting one another secretive, sidelong glances. There were still many people about, taking advantage of the cooler night air to conduct their business, and Dae watched the reactions of the few who recognized Zafirah. Many who passed them by gave slight bows of homage to the dark Scion, which she returned without thought. Those few with courage enough to reach out to her were rewarded with light touches, and Dae saw in their eyes such looks of devotion and rapture that she couldn’t help but be impressed. These people clearly loved Zafirah deeply; their respect was more than simply a facade to hide contempt or envy, as it so often was in Dae’s homeland. Glancing at the tall woman as she accepted their gestures with graceful courtesy, the young blonde felt her admiration for Zafirah rise a few notches further.
The streets circled back to the palace, and before long the two women found themselves passing back into the cool marble embrace of the great halls. Their footsteps slowed, neither wanting to hurry the end of their night. "I should let you get some rest," Zafirah allowed quietly.
"May I walk you back to the harem?"
"Sure. That’d be nice."
Zafirah smiled charmingly, and Dae felt her heart-beat double its tempo. They walked side by side back through the palace hallways, pausing outside the entrance to the seraglio gardens. Dae looked up at Zafirah shyly, shuffling her feet. "Well…Thank you," she said quietly. "I ah…had a really nice time tonight. The city was beautiful."
"If you would like, perhaps I could show you more of it another time," Zafirah suggested hopefully. "Or perhaps you would like to see the palace grounds?"
Dae lowered her eyes, but nodded. "Okay…I’d like that." When she glanced up, the young blonde was caught and held by the dark sapphire eyes watching her – eyes that were suddenly filled with an intense hunger that carried with it an almost physical strength. Dae’s legs felt suddenly weak, and her mouth became dry as heat pulsed through her stomach and groin. She swallowed hard and forced herself to look away, confused more by the reaction of her body than by Zafirah’s evident lust. The smell of spicy incense and exotic oils reached her nostrils as Zafirah stepped closer, then a hand gently cupped her chin and forced her eyes back up. Again, Dae swallowed nervously as she found herself suddenly in close proximity to the powerful, dark-haired woman – so close she could feel the heat radiating from her body.
Zafirah leaned closer to the trembling blonde, seeing the emerald green eyes flicker to her lips, then back up to her eyes, aware of what was coming. She smiled faintly and paused a mere inch from her goal, hearing the ragged edge in the girl’s breathing. "May I?"
Dae shivered, dazed by both the closeness of the tall woman, and by the strength of her body’s response. And suddenly, all the old-fashioned rhetoric of her homeland…all the teaching of what was right and moral and good…everything she had ever been taught by her father, and the priests, and the tutors…it all fled from Dae’s mind, overwhelmed by a hunger to experience the touch of those lips that breathed so close against her own. She nodded very slightly, and whispered in a voice that sounded barely like her own, "Okay."
Given permission, Zafirah completed her descent and pressed a light kiss against Dae’s lips. The kiss was brief – almost chaste compared to those the Scion normally bestowed upon her lovers – but it earned a quiet whimper from the innocent blonde. Hearing that, Zafirah decided to press her advantage slightly, returning for a second kiss – this one not so modest. Her tongue traced intimately along the edge of Dae’s lower lip, sparking unknown flames along the way, and making Zafirah long for something more carnal.
Dae’s eyes were closed as she accepted the kiss, her whole body totally fixated on the light caress of Zafirah’s lips against hers. When she felt the soft, wet sensation sliding across her lips, she almost swooned when she realized what Zafirah was doing to her. But just before her body and mind had the chance to open more fully to this wonderful experience, Zafirah withdrew and retreated back a pace. Dizzy from the brief but frighteningly erotic exchange, Dae opened her eyes slowly and looked up at the Scion, her lips still pursed.
Zafirah smiled at Dae fondly and ran a single finger along her cheek and across her lips. "Thank you, Tahirah," she whispered in a husky timbre. "Just that single kiss is worth the thousand sleepless nights it will cost me." Her finger withdrew, leaving Dae staring at her with glassy eyes. "I shall leave you to your rest, little one. May your dreams be sweet." And releasing her magnetic hold on the young girl, Zafirah turned and walked slowly back down the hallway…letting her hips sway suggestively for the eyes she felt watching her the whole way.
Only when Zafirah turned the corner and passed out of sight was Dae able to pull herself out of the languid bliss that had been wrought by the Scion’s kiss. Shaking herself, Dae struggled to understand what had just happened. Her body was still aflame with that strange burning, and her lips still tingled from the touch of Zafirah’s tongue. The young blonde took a long moment to calm her racing heartbeat before she turned back into the seraglio gardens, glad to see that no-one had witnessed her moment of intimacy with the dark woman. Walking quickly past the other pleasure-servants – conscious of the curious, wondering glances that followed her – Dae retreated back to her room where she cast herself upon the pillows and cushions of her bed. Staring up at the ornate, carved ceiling, she let her thoughts rush through her head in a confusing tumble…aware that something had changed in her this night…
…And wondering how to satisfy the cries of a ravenous, dawning appetite.
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