The sun was hot on the plaza as the Anahari caravan trundled in. Palace guards cleared out the beggars and merchants as dignitaries and functionaries clad in bright white desert-wear clambered out. Even from a distance, I recognized King Harapsuro among the arrivals. I swallowed hard.
“They actually came,” said a voice to my left, in tones of slight wonderment. I glanced over and started as I saw Grand Vizier Olatiri, who hadn’t been there a moment before.
“Yes, your grace,” I managed, acutely aware that I hadn’t braided my hair yet that morning. If he noticed my dishevelment, he gave no sign.
“Twenty silver sovereigns,” murmured Olatiri, shaking his head. “That’s how much I’m going to owe the Queen.”
“You didn’t think Harapsuro was going to show, your grace?”
The Vizier sighed. “I thought he’d make it half a league out of Rahuspar and decide he’d prefer war to getting sand all up in places.”
I glanced back out at Harapsuro. “He’s standing kind of oddly, milord.”
The Vizier squinted. “So he is, scribe. Pass the word around he’s to be kept away from the toilet-chambers as long as we can, will you?”
I didn’t bother suppressing the smirk. “Of course, milord.”
“You have everything in order for your part of the negotiations, scribe?”
I nodded. “The Anahari won’t be pulling any fast ones over the coal trade, sir.”
“Excellent. It’s little people like you that keep our empire great, you know that?” Olatiri favored me with a smile. “Carry on, Iluhani.”
He was gone as soon as he had come, darting down from the balcony faster than a man his stature should have been able. I didn’t envy his job this month. Not that my own would be so much easier, really. The hardest part would probably be not strangling the Trade-Vizier in his sleep.
“Iluhani, was it?”
I turned. A young woman, slim and tall, was standing by a pillar. She was dressed in plain robes but her complexion and bearing told me she was a noble. She seemed familiar. I was certain I had seen her roaming the halls of the palace from time to time.
I bowed. “Yes, milady.”
“Please.” She walked forward, opening her hands in a gesture of friendliness. “No need for that. Call me Inaya.”
I hesitated. “Yes, Inaya.”
She smiled. “And may I call you Iluhani?”
“Of course, mila— Inaya.”
She laughed. It was an entrancing sound. “Then it is a pleasure to meet you, Iluhani.”
“Enjoying the spectacle?” She joined me at the balustrade, fixing her eyes on the caravan.
I nodded. “It’s an impressive showing.”
“Only on the surface,” said Inaya. “Do you see how the soldiers are moving?” She inclined her head towards the plaza. “It’s shaky. There are conflicts between troops. They’re not working together except in little groups. They just pieced this regiment together, probably from bits of survivors. They want to look impressive, hide how badly the war’s hurt them. They’ve been hurt even worse than us, by the look of it.”
“You’re very wise, Inaya.”
She laughed again. The sound alone made me blush, for some damnable reason. “You pick things up when your father is Isuna Natuko Olatiri.”
Instantly I felt the panic rising. “Y-you’re the Gran— His Grace’s daughter?” I managed, trying to stay calm.
That damn laugh again. She put her hand lightly on my shoulder. “Iluhani, you have nothing to fear!” she said. “From me or my father.”
“Yes milady — Inaya, I mean —”
“Calm, Iluhani, calm. I am sorry I frightened you.” She put her hand back on the balustrade. “It must be a very stressful month for you.”
She turned to face me, piercing blue eyes catching my gaze. I couldn’t look away. She raised an inquisitive eyebrow. “Don’t think you’ll bore me, Iluhani,” she said gently. “I’m curious!”
I cleared my throat hesitantly. “It - it has been stressful, mil— Inaya. I’m attached to the trade negotiations.”
“Oh!” Inaya put her hand to her lips. “So you’re the one who has to deal with Vizier Osumato. That must be a trying experience.”
“It is, Inay—”
“It’s my name,” said Inaya gently, touching my arm. “Not a title. You don’t need to end every sentence with it.”
“I - I’m sorry,” I mumbled.
“Don’t apologize!” She laughed. I fought to keep from blushing again. “I just wanted you to save your breath. You don’t need to be formal with me.”
I nodded mutely. Her eyes held my gaze, clearly expecting me to talk. I tried to think of something, willed her to say something, but it was clear she wasn’t going to.
“We-we’re worried the Anahari will try to extort us in the gem trade—”
“Oh, I know that!” Inaya nodded. “I’ve been following my father’s briefings very closely.”
I started in surprise. “You’re lettered?”
She smiled, and brushed back her robes to show the small jade pen pinned inside, much more elegant than anything I’d ever touched. “My father was adamant. I wrote my first word when I was four years old. He had me read and write one scroll every day.”
I didn’t learn to read until I was fifteen, and I wasn’t trained to write for another two years. “You’re probably a better scribe than I am, Inaya,” I murmured.
She shook her head. “It’s your trade, Iluhani. I only dabble.” She smiled. “No need to fear for your employment.”
I laughed awkwardly. Inaya’s smile broadened. “I finally made you laugh!” she teased.
Hot with embarassment, I looked away down at the caravan. Tents were being hauled into place on the plaza, barrels of water being filled by servants carrying bowls from the stream.
“They’re going to sleep out there?” I asked.
“Of course,” said Inaya, nodding. “The Queen offered them rooms in the Palace which they politely declined because Harapsuro is afraid she’ll have him assassinated. In fact I’d bet anything that woman he’s talking to now is his food-taster.”
“Would she really do that? Kill the king, I mean?”
“Sure!” said Inaya, “In truth I think she’d rather drag him down to the dungeons and personally beat him to death with her staff than have him poisoned or stabbed in his sleep. But she won’t throw away the peace treaty just because she wants revenge. He doesn’t really have anything to worry about from her unless the talks fail.”
“I never really thought about it that way before.”
She smiled and patted my back. “You should pay more attention to what you’re told to write, dear scribe.”
“I’ll try, Inaya.”
She turned to face me. “What are you going to do today, Iluhani? Do you have any duties?”
“I don’t have any today,” I said. “I finished all my preparations this morning. I thought I’d watch the caravan for a while.”
“While all the rest of the scribes are still scurrying about?” said Inaya. “You’ve been a good little scribe.” Her hand touched my shoulder. “I think that deserves a reward, don’t you? Would you like to take wine with me in my chambers, Iluhani?”
I turned back to her, startled. Her eyes bore into mine. Her brows arched and her lips parted in a slight smile. She held my shoulder softly but her grip was firm as I turned.
I don’t think a noble had ever asked me what I wanted before.
I swallowed hard. “I’ve never drunk wine before.”
Inaya clicked her tongue in disapproval. “I suppose you’ve been forecd to settle for ale your entire life, haven’t you.”
She shook her head. “Then you need an education.” She put her hands on my shoulders, gently running them down to my wrists. “What do you say?”
My hands were shaking. My heart was pounding so loudly I was sure she could hear it. What was happening?
“Yes, Inaya,” I managed.
Her hand closed over mine, her fingers entwining with mine. I didn’t know how her grip could be so firm with such thin arms, but I had a suspicion I couldn’t have pulled away even if I wanted to.
I didn’t want to.
Nobody had ever held my hand before. Especially not like this.
She led me up a flight of stairs. My heart was racing and I could barely walk, could barely think. Her grip was all I could feel.
I didn’t want it to end.
She unlocked the door to her chambers and pulled me inside.
“I have a confession to make, Iluhani,” she said, as she turned and pushed the door closed. I heard the bolt snap shut.
“Yes?” I murmured. I was between her and the door now.
“I didn’t just ask you here for wine,” she said. The key clattered against the far wall.
She took a step forward, forcing me back against the cold metal of the door.
Her grip tightened as she forced my wrist over my head. I felt her other hand on my chest.
My heart was going to explode.
“W-what do you want?” I whispered.
She laughed, her eyes never leaving mine. “I want you,” she whispered, her free hand caressing my thigh. Her head tilted inquisitively.
I nodded mutely.
She smiled. I flushed as she moved closer and I felt her leg between mine. Her breasts pressed against mine. Her lips... Her hand was on my throat now, holding my neck, but that wasn’t why I couldn’t breathe.
The kiss was almost violent. I felt my head pressed back against the wall. Her thumb under my jaw kept me from turning away even if I had wanted to. She drew back, her teeth pressing on my lower lip. I gasped.
“This is the first time you’ve been with a woman, isn’t it?” she whispered in my ear.
“F-first time like this,” I mumbled.
“Hmm.” She smiled, her eyes narrowing cruelly. “Let’s make this one count, then.”
Her hand was at my chest again. I felt my robes loosen, and she pulled them away. In an instant, I was naked before her, somehow even more vulnerable than before.
She took my shoulders, forcing me to turn, and pinned me against the wall. I felt the cold metal of the door against my chest, the warmth of her body behind me, her lips, her teeth on my neck. I tried to pull away from the cold but she was much stronger.
“Where,” she whispered, her nails digging into my wrists, “do you think you’re going?”
I cried out in pain. “N-nowhere!”
In a flash I was pressed again with my back hard against the door, her knee planted firmly against my abdomen, my hands pinned over my head. “Right now,” she said, her eyes boring into me, “you call me mistress.”
“Good girl.” She kissed me again. “Come.”
I didn’t know beds could be that soft. It almost enveloped me as I fell back on it. Inaya was on top of me, her robes falling away to the floor. Her body was even more beautiful than I’d imagined. To know that she wanted to share it with me—
I felt the cold jade of her amulet necklace pressing against my chest as she bent down, lifting my legs. I lost track of time, suffused in warmth and comfort and pleasure I had never even imagined. Inaya seemed to understand my body even better than I did, and did not hesitate to abuse that knowledge. Her delight in making me squirm seemed endless. And something in me delighted in her abuse.
When it was done we lay entwined, panting, my head nestled on her chest. I was exhausted.
“Do you still want me, mistress?” I murmured.
Her hand ran gently up my spine as she kissed the back of my head. “You don’t have to call me mistress now,” she said gently.
“I know,” I said, looking up into her eyes. “I want to.”
Inaya laughed. “Yes,” she said, as she draped one of her robes over my shoulders. “I want you. But now there’s a question.” She smiled, her hands gently touching my back. “Do you want me?”
Still trembling, I nodded.
“Good girl,” said Inaya. “Because I’m going to need a queen.”