Nights of Silk and Sapphire by Amber

renee_05

Nights of Silk and Sapphire
by Amber
amberj8@hotmail.com

I

Heat.
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.

“Scion?”

“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.
II
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!?”

“Indeed.”

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.”

“Spelled?”

“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?”

Dae nodded.

“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?”

Dae nodded.

“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?”

“Of course.”

“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…”

“I won’t.”

“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.”

“Oh.”

“Anything else?”

“No…thank you.”

“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.”

“How?!”

“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!
III
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?”

Dae nodded.

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.
IV
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.

“Why not?”

“I just…can’t.”

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.

“And?”

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.

“Calif?”

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.

“What news?”

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.
V
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.
VI
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.

“I hunger.”

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.”

“You do?”

“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.
VII
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 what?”

“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?”

“Nothing.”

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.”

“Exactly.”

“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.”

“Why not?”

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.”

“Me? But-”

“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.”

“That’s ridiculous!”

“Is it?”

“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?”

“Thank you.”

“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.

“Everything?”

“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.

“What?”

“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.”

“Most welcome.”

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.
VIII
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.”

“But-”

“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?”

“What?”

“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.”

“Who’s he?”

“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.”

“Hmm.”

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.”

“Really?”

“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.

“Mmm.”

“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.
IX
At dawn the following morning, as the sun began to paint majestic tones of purple and crimson across the desert horizon, Dae sat in the seraglio gardens with her back propped against one of the many statues arranged about the harem grounds. Across her lap was spread a large piece of coarse parchment on which she traced idle scribbles with a sharpened stick of lead. She had been trying since the darkness first began to recede to summon some kind of interest in her work…some kind of inspiration from the beautiful gardens around her…but Dae’s mind was far too distracted to concentrate on anything other than the events of the previous evening.

Zafirah had flirted with her.

And she had not been offended.

Zafirah had kissed her.

And she had allowed it.

No. Dae frowned and flicked at a blade of grass absently. She had not simply allowed the kiss…she had enjoyed it. Enjoyed it so much that she longed for another…longed to rekindle the flames that had sparked so deliciously through her at the touch of Zafirah’s lips. The thought of the dark woman’s body, with its powerful curves and intoxicating scent, was enough to have kept Dae up most of the night…struggling to readjust the perceptions she had carried all her life.

It was wrong for a woman to have carnal knowledge of another woman. It was perverse to even harbor such depraved thoughts! That was a truth Dae had been taught since she was old enough to understand such matters…and yet now, she was faced with the bitter realization that this cornerstone of morality she had believed in with such conviction…was flawed.

Looking around her at the dozen or so other girls who were enjoying the sunrise, Dae smiled. These people were not evil. They were fun, and loving, and caring. She had been told of the barbaric customs of the desert people all her life…but found the reality vastly different to all those stories she’d heard from her hand-maidens. These people spoke politely, in precise tones, and their manners were a good deal more civilized than those displayed by many people in the east. Yes, they were also licentious and possessed some rather quaint notions of morality…but the lives they lived were fulfilling in a strange way. They indulged so freely in their passions, with no fear of consequence or chastisement. There was, Dae had come to understand, a certain innocence to the pleasure-servants that had nothing to do with their sexual escapades – an innocence that stemmed from having lived their lives without ever being judged, or condemned. And having lived among these people for only a few months, Dae found herself envying their carefree existence for the first time.

A giggle and a low, throaty moan called her attention to the far wall of the seraglio. There, beneath the sprawling mass of a creeping honey-suckle vine that flowed across the stone, the lovers, Hayam and Johara, were engaged in a gentle yet passionate embrace. Johara, the taller of the two, had wrapped her long legs around the shorter frame of her mate, and Dae watched with studious interest as she ran her hands up Hayam’s body to cup her breasts through the cloth of her top.

Remembering the feeling of Zafirah’s tongue as it had skated against her lips, Dae tried to imagine what it might feel like to kiss the Scion as Johara was kissing Hayam. The two were avidly exploring one another’s mouths in a sensuous display that Dae couldn’t help but find stirring. The young blonde let her musings roam further, wondering what else Zafirah might do to her…if only she were granted permission. Would she touch her breasts? Dae considered that a moment, studying her own full chest curiously. Yes, she decided. Zafirah’s sapphire gaze always paused to admire her cleavage and breasts whenever she let her eyes wander. But would she herself enjoy such a touch? Would she find pleasure in reciprocating? Closing her eyes, Dae called to mind an image of the Scion’s body, letting her focus shift to Zafirah’s chest. She imagined her hands reaching out to touch the offered flesh…fondling, stroking, feeling the heat rise in Zafirah’s skin as her excitement grew.

Dae’s eyes snapped open and she pulled in a sharp breath, somewhat surprised by the quickness of her body’s response to the image. Yes, she admitted. The idea of touching the Scion like that was pleasing to her.

But…what else would happen if she were to give in to Zafirah’s seduction?

Trying to imagine anything further was futile. Dae hadn’t the vaguest notion how two women might make love. She had, in truth, only a child’s comprehension of how a man and a woman would couple – enough to understand the basic mechanics, but little idea of any practical realities. And so she watched Hayam and Johara as they basked in their love and desire, wondering what it was her body wanted that might satisfy these feelings of emptiness and hunger that plagued her more and more with the passing of each day.

Her thoughts were interrupted by a lilting, playful voice. “Salaam aliekum, little Dae! May I sit and enjoy the sun with you?”

Dae glanced up at Inaya as the dark girl approached. She shrugged. “If you like.”

“Thank you.”

As Inaya sat beside her, Dae focused her attention back to her drawing, marking a few lines on the parchment without much interest. Inaya watched, amused. “You seem distracted this morning,” she commented. “Did you not enjoy your walk with the Scion?”

Emerald eyes shot up instantly. “How did you know about that?”

Inaya shrugged. “I wondered where you were last night and asked one of the guards. She told me you had been invited by Zafirah to see the city.” Dark eyes blinked with utter innocence. “Why? Did something happen?”

Dae shook her head and returned to her drawing. “No. I-I’m sorry, I just…” She sighed. “Nevermind.”

Inaya watched Dae as she carelessly sketched a few shapes. She had seen the focus of the young girl’s drawing shift these last few weeks. Where once Dae only drew pictures of her remembered homeland, now, she focused on the things around her. She sketched the gardens, the desert, the harem girls. The change was a subtle one, but Inaya understood the deeper meaning behind it; Dae had come to accept and enjoy her new world, setting aside her homesickness and moving on. When Inaya’s gaze lowered to her friend’s neck, she smiled and reached out to finger the delicate silver chain that now hung there. “This is a pretty thing,” she admired. “A gift from the Scion, perhaps?”

Dae nodded, ignoring the wicked glint in the dark girl’s eyes. “She insisted.”

“Of course.” Inaya smiled faintly, certain that Zafirah had initiated some kind of courtship with the foreign girl last night. She had watched Dae for several minutes before coming over, and had noticed with some amusement the expression of interest on her friend’s face as she stared at Johara and Hayam’s ardent coupling. Even now, Inaya saw Dae’s attention drift back to the garden wall where they embraced.

“You no longer seem so repulsed by the sight of such a passionate display as you once were,” she observed simply.

Dae flushed bright crimson and returned her attention back to her drawing immediately. “I-I just…I wasn’t really…doing anything…”

“Do not be defensive, my friend,” Inaya cut off the girl’s stammerings. “You look upon a union of great beauty. It is only right and proper that such beauty should be appreciated. And,” –Inaya’s eyes sparkled mischievously– “you certainly seemed quite able to appreciate it. You have changed much since you first arrived here.”

Dae opened her mouth to offer a reflexive protest, but closed it after a second. She lowered her head a fraction, looking up at Inaya through a curtain of pale hair. “Maybe I have,” she admitted softly.

Inaya beamed a smile at her. “And is it such a terrible thing to see the world through more mature eyes?” she asked. “Through eyes that have gained a greater depth of understanding, and from that, a greater wisdom?” She reached out and patted the young blonde on the shoulder. “The people of your land do not understand us because our customs differ so greatly from their own. Therefore they distrust us – brand us as barbaric and uncivilized…as living in sin and debauchery. What they do not realize…” She grinned broadly and sighed. “…is the pleasure we embrace, which they condemn.”

Dae listened as she watched Hayam whisper into Johara’s ear, raising a devilish grin that was apparent even from across the garden. Hayam then rose and pulled her mate up after her, and together, they headed back towards the sleeping quarters at a brisk pace. Dae’s eyes narrowed thoughtfully for a moment, then widened in understanding as she turned to study Inaya. The dark-haired girl sported a wide smile, and her eyes danced as she watched the departing lovers.

“They’re going to…?” Dae left the sentence hanging.

Inaya nodded. “Passion that burns with such intensity as theirs requires very little incentive to burst into flames.”

The young blonde considered this, her lips pursed. She recalled again the sensations evoked by Zafirah’s kiss…remembered the feeling of that powerful desire that the Scion had restrained. And the need to better understand what Zafirah wanted from her became suddenly more urgent.

“Can I tell you something?” she asked Inaya, her fingers twisting together nervously around the lead pencil. “Something in confidance?”

“Of course.”

Dae hesitated, knowing that in the palace harem, little stayed secret for long. “You can’t tell anyone else,” she insisted. “I mean it Inaya…no-one, or I’ll never speak to you again.”

The dark girl nodded sincerely. “As you wish, little one. I would never betray a trust.”

The blonde studied her friend carefully, until she was satisfied Inaya understood and was serious in her statement. She glanced away, knawing her lower lip nervously before she leaned closer in conspiracy. “Last night…” A long pause. “Last night…Zafirah kissed me.”

Inaya’s brown eyes widened a fraction, and the very edges of her lips pulled tighter – though whether in a frown or a smile, Dae couldn’t tell. “You allowed her?”

Dae flushed, and nodded. “I liked it,” she admitted in a shy whisper. “It felt…” She struggled for a moment to find words to express how the touch of Zafirah’s lips against her own had made her feel, then shook her head in confusion. “My body got all hot…like a fever ran through me. And I…felt sort of sick, too. But not in a bad way. My stomach felt like I’d eaten something disagreeable…but it was nice. And I got all dizzy, and I could feel the heat of her right next to me.”

Now, Inaya did smile. “Then what happened?”

Dae shrugged. “She drew away…just when I was about to…” A deeper blush colored the young girls cheeks, remembering again the wet sensation of the Scion’s tongue tracing her lips. “I was about to…”

“About to what?”

Emerald eyes flashed away to study the sunrise intently. “She was…using her tongue, and I wanted to…open my mouth…”

“Ahhh.” Inaya’s smile turned into a mischievous grin. “You wished to deepen the kiss?”

Dae nodded, thoroughly embarrassed.

The harem girl laughed. “You color so prettily, little one…yet there is no need to feel shame or abashment. It is natural to hunger for such greater contact from one you desire.” Dark eyes narrowed with interest. “You do desire her…do you not?”

Dae hesitated a long while, still fidgeting. “I don’t know,” she whispered at last. “All I know is I liked what she did last night. She was so open and honest with me…and she made me feel very special.”

“I think Zafirah cares for you a great deal,” Inaya observed. “More, perhaps, than she yet realizes.”

The blonde smiled fractionally. “As soon as she pulled away, I wanted her to continue. I was dizzy and excited…but for a second there, I wanted so much more from her.”

“More?” Inaya shifted closer still. “What more would you have liked?”

Dae shrugged. “I have no idea. I don’t know…what she might have done, if I’d allowed her the freedom to do as she pleases.” Restless fingers set aside the lead pencil and parchment now, and Dae turned her full attention on her friend. “But you could tell me. What would… How do two women make love?”

Inaya’s gaze dropped away and she sighed. “I have told you before, little one, it is difficult to explain-”

“You couldn’t explain how it felt,” Dae put in. “Surely you can tell me what happens. Would she touch me? Where? What would she want me to do? How would I-”

Inaya held up a delicate hand to stop Dae’s questions. “It is not so simple,” she protested.

“Why not?”

“Pleasure is a jewel of many facets,” she explained patiently. “One cannot see them all in a single glance. What one person enjoys, another might shy away from. Such matters are of a highly personal nature…and I cannot describe what you might find to your liking.”

Dae grumped. “Well…what does she do when you’re with her?”

Inaya’s olive skin hid her blush somewhat. “Um…I-it is…somewhat difficult to explain.”

The young blonde was getting frustrated. “How am I supposed to know whether or not I could be with her if you won’t at least give me some information?!”

A sudden light popped into Inaya’s eyes, and she looked up quickly. “You wish to better understand the expression of desire?”

“Yes.”

A nod. “Then I believe I know a most perfect way for you to gain such wisdom. Come.” Inaya grabbed Dae’s hand and pulled her to her feet, then started tugging her back towards the sleeping quarters. “It is past time your eyes were opened to such matters.”

Dae suddenly saw where this might be going and she offered uncertain protest. “Um…Inaya, look, you’re my friend and I like you very much, but….I-I don’t think this is such a good idea. Can’t you just give me a few academic descriptions?”

Inaya grinned. “Relax, child. I do not intend to bed you,” she assured the weakly struggling blonde. “Unless, of course, you wish it…?” A raised eyebrow was cast back.

Dae shook her head. “N-no, thank you.”

Inaya shrugged. “Do not be afraid to change your mind.”

Dae’s fear turned to puzzlement as Inaya led her past her own room and further down the corridor. “Wh-where are we going?”

“Somewhere you may find answers to your questions.” Inaya stopped them outside the furthest room of the hall. Her dark eyes sought and held the emerald ones of her companion. “Better to see the truth, than to imagine it,” she said simply, before tugging the blonde into the chamber entrance.

Dae’s mouth opened to pose yet another question, but she lost the power of speech at the sight before her. There, sprawled among a pile of pillows and satin sheets, Johara and Hayam were in the midst of removing the last of one another’s clothing, their lips and hands exploring every new area of skin as it was revealed. The light from several oil lamps lit the scene perfectly, gleaming off the couple as they entwined.

Grinning, Inaya cleared her throat. Two sets of eyes blinked, then turned at the interruption. Dae fully expected an outburst of some kind – anger sparked over the intrusion – but to her surprise, the two lovers grinned delightedly.

Johara, who was tall and lean, with long brown hair and the deeply tanned body of a huntress, lifted herself slightly from where she had her shorter mate pinned. “Inaya! Please, enter and most welcome.” Her grey eyes shifted to Dae. “And the little one! What occasion brings you to our chamber?”

Inaya stepped into the room, pulling an uncertain Dae along with her. “A mission of enlightenment brings us here.” She pushed the blonde forward.

Hayam, who was about as tall as Dae and carried the golden skin, midnight-black hair, and slanted eyes of the lands across the northern sea, grinned even more fully. Her voice carried a heavy accent. “You wish to join our pleasure? We would be most honored-”

Inaya shook her head. “Not today, I fear…though I should be overjoyed to accept another time. No…I hoped perhaps you might be willing simply to allow Dae here to observe.” She smiled benignly at Dae’s startled expression. “She wishes to learn how a woman might please another woman.”

Johara flashed a playful grin at Hayam and nipped the shorter woman on the neck, earning a muffled giggle. “Then you have indeed come to the right place,” she said, “for we possess such knowledge in great abundance!”

“Uh, that’s…not necessary, thank you.” Dae recovered control of her jaw and managed to glare at Inaya. “I-I don’t think-”

“Thinking is often overrated,” Inaya interrupted, pushing the young girl over to a chair and firmly seating her so she could watch the couple on the sleeping pallet. “You have questions? What better way for them to be answered?”

Dae glanced at the lovers who were watching her with interest and some amusement. “I-I can’t-”

“Yes, you can.” Inaya leaned close to Dae’s ear and whispered, “They will not harm you, my friend. Indeed, they will not even touch you unless you invite them to do so.”

“But-”

A finger pressed against her lips, quieting her protests. “Do not argue,” Inaya stated firmly. “Sit. Watch. Learn. You will be better able to understand your own longings when your eyes have seen something of what Zafirah offers to share with you.” Inaya turned back to Johara and Hayam, winking saucily. “Play nice.”

“We will.” Johara ran her eyes up and down Dae’s figure, her hands exploring the body of her lover as she did so. Feeling the heat in her appraisal, Dae shifted on her seat uncomfortably, her eyes searching about the room for anything to look at other than the nearly naked bodies that lay not five feet from where she sat.

Inaya chuckled at her friend’s discomfit, then, offering a final reassuring pat on the head, she turned and left the chamber.

Left alone, Dae offered the couple on the bed a weak smile. “I-I’m really sorry about this,” she stammered. “You probably want your privacy right now, so I can just…go back to my own room for a while-” She started to rise from the chair.

“Nonsense, little one,” Hayam responded quickly. “We are always glad of company…and would consider it a tremendous honor to be a part of your education into the world of earthly delights.” Her hazel eyes flashed to her lover playfully. “Johara is quite a show-off,” she grinned. “She appreciates an audience.”

“And you do not?” the taller woman teased, her fingers seeking out her lover’s small breasts. She glanced at Dae, who was watching with a strange mix of fascination and absolute terror. “Please, Dae…do not leave,” she pleaded sincerely. “It is right that you learn more of the pleasures you deny your own body.”

Dae stared at Johara’s fingers as they sought out a hardened nipple and began to manipulate it with knowing skill, swallowing hard at the sight. Her mouth felt too dry to offer a reply, but she sat back down again and set her restless hands firmly on the arms of the chair…a precaution against them deciding to wander off on their own accord. Johara and Hayam both smiled at her surrender, and Dae felt their eyes crawl over her body even as they shifted on the bed to afford her a better view.

“So,” Johara positioned herself behind her lover and began to caress the shorter woman with long strokes that ran the full length of her body. “What things do you wish to learn?” Dae remained silent, and Johara raised an eyebrow playfully. “Would you like to know how Zafirah might touch you…or how she might like to be touched?”

Dae’s gulp was audible even over Hayam’s increasingly ragged breathes as Johara incited her arousal to a deeper level. But after a moment, she managed to steel her resolve and offer a faint nod. “I-I…I want to know what she wants from me.” Her emerald eyes drifted helplessly down Hayam’s exposed body to the juncture of her thighs. The northerner was slight of frame, with spare muscles and slender legs, but every inch of her skin glowed in the lamp-light like burnished brass. She was, Dae allowed herself to appreciate, an incredibly beautiful woman. It was impossible to keep her eyes from taking it all in…and as she watched in fascination as Johara continued to touch and caress her mate, the young blonde felt a tightening in her own groin, and a strange sensation of wet heat begin to flow through her loins. She shifted in her seat, somewhat uncomfortable at the strength of her body’s reaction.

Johara ran a line of slow kisses from Hayam’s shoulder to her neck, her grey eyes fixed on Dae the entire time. “Do you think you might be willing to give the Scion what she desires…if you find what you see here to your liking?”

Dae was finding it hard to think straight with the erotic display being played out before her, so her response was automatic. She nodded. “I might.”

Johara grinned at that, recognizing the dawning hunger in Dae’s eyes as they feasted on what had been for so long a forbidden fruit. “You have affected Zafirah strongly, little one,” she observed. “I have seen her eyes as they watch you from afar; they are filled with more than simple lust. There is much affection and true care in her regard. I know, for I saw the same look in Hayam’s eyes when we first fell in love.”

Hayam whimpered softly and arched her back to gain a firmer touch from Johara’s hands on her chest.

Johara grinned at the unconsciously hungry expression on Dae’s innocent face, delighting in the effect of her performance. She let her own gaze drift to the young blonde’s chest, noting the way the girl was breathing faster now, and the way her fingers were twitching. “You are a creature of rare beauty, Dae,” she whispered in a husky voice. “If you would like to join us, do not be afraid. It is one thing to simply watch an act of passion…but it is something far more fulfilling to experience the sensations themselves.”

Dae blushed at the invitation. A small part of her was tempted to accept, itching to know the feel of that silken skin beneath her touch, but the stronger part of her nature was still ruled by uncertainty and fear. She shook her head. “I don’t think I should.”

“As you wish.” Johara’s left hand slid lower down her partner’s body. Hayam’s stomach contracted as fingertips roamed across her abdomen and began to scrape tantalizingly along her inner thighs. She spread her legs wider, and Dae stared at the treasures now suddenly laid before her. Johara ran a single finger through the sparse black curls that crowned her lover’s center as she cocked her head to the side, watching the blonde’s reaction carefully. “Have you ever looked upon another woman before?” she asked softly.

Dae shook her head, her eyes fixated by the sight of Hayam’s swollen petals gleaming with slick moisture in the lamp-light. In some lucid part of her mind, she wondered whether Zafirah would look the same.

“Then let me show you.” Johara’s fingers split over Hayam’s sex and parted her folds, revealing the coral-pink flesh beyond. She stroked her lover slowly, and Hayam bit her lip in delight at the sensuous torture. Dae could only stare in amazement, feeling her body tingle with a powerful, erotic rush. Johara noticed and smiled slyly. “Hayam is quite aroused,” she observed as she continued to caress her lover slowly. “You see how wet she becomes?”

Dae nodded, licking her lips unconsciously.

“That is a sign of how much her body wishes for deeper contact. She wants to feel me inside her…touching her most intimate places.” Hayam cried out as Johara grazed her clitoris, and Dae’s eyes widened with concern.

“You’re hurting her!”

“No, child.” Johara repeated her actions, eliciting another drawn out moan. Hayam leaned back against her, needing more support as she abandoned herself to sensation. “The sounds she makes are sounds of pleasure, not pain. Do not let them deter you. Hayam likes to make a lot of noise during our love-making. She will be screaming before we are done.”

Blonde brows contracted now in academic curiosity. “H-how can you sure?”

“We can test her if you wish.” Johara withdrew her fingers slightly from the velvet of her lover’s core. “Hayam? Dae here is concerned for you. She fears you find my touch unpleasant. Shall I stop?”

“NO!” Hayam’s eyes flew open instantly, pulled back to awareness by the suggestion. She desperately grabbed Johara’s wrist with a trembling hand and urged it back to her center. “Please…keep going! Never stop!”

“As you wish, aziza.” Johara returned to her ministrations immediately, smiling at the wide-eyed blonde. “You see, little one. She feels only pleasure from my touch – pleasure so intense it shall soon grow overwhelming, and will rob Hayam of all reason.” She lifted her glistening fingers for a moment and displayed them to Dae. “Her body reacts strongly. Hayam is very sensitive right now.”

Dae leaned a little closer, interested in the proceedings despite her innocence. She could smell the same wild, animal musk that had lingered around Nasheta after her night in the Scion’s bed, and realized it was caused by this arousal. Indeed, she could feel her own sex beginning to tingle with heat, and she squeezed her legs together to ease the strange sensation…an act which seemed only to sharpen her growing ache.

Johara gently laid her lover on the bed and settled beside her, watching her own fingers dance through the slick heat of her core. Hayam writhed on the silk sheets, cupping her own breasts and tugging hard on her nipples. Dae watched in awe, while Johara simply smiled. “There are many ways to bring pleasure to a woman,” the lean beauty explained in a casual tone. “Ways that do not require the aspects of a man. My touch alone could bring Hayam to fulfillment…and I find great joy in the act of providing her this pleasure.” With her free hand, Johara pulled Hayam’s legs further apart, displaying her sex more openly to Dae’s rapt attention. “A woman’s sex is a highly sensitive realm,” she continued. “It is a matter of individual preference what will bring the highest form of pleasure. Some like to be touched gently…slow caresses that build the tension, and linger long on simpler delights. Others prefer something a little firmer…” Two fingers slid into Hayam and began to thrust solidly in and out, drawing a high-pitched squeal from the northerner. Dae gasped, her imaginings never having dared consider such a thing. “…to be taken hard and fast, with a climax that stuns the mind with shocking ecstasy, and as quickly moves on to further delectations.”

Dae’s breath was much shallower now as her body flushed at the sight of Hayam writhing under the assault of her lover. She couldn’t believe what she was seeing…but her imagination was absorbing the sight and busily applying it to a new and more detailed notion of what Zafirah might do to her.

Johara pulled her fingers from Hayam’s dripping sex and dragged them up to pull the hood from her hard clitoris. “This,” she explained, “is the center of a woman’s desire – the heart of all ecstasies. It is called the clitoris…and a wise lover will treat it gently and with the utmost devotion and love, for it is very sensitive. Rough treatment will kill sensation after a time, and can cause pain that rivals the pleasure. You see…” She circled the hard little bud with a wet fingertip, and Hayam’s hips surged upwards, instinctively seeking more. Hayam growled. Johara giggled. “Too much too soon will end our play,” she reminded her lover, before returning her eyes to Dae. “She is like liquid velvet – soft and hot. Would you like to touch her?”

“I-I don’t…” Dae shook her head, even as she noticed Hayam looking at her with eyes dazed with lust and hunger. “No…th-thank you.”

Johara frowned. “As you wish.” She circled the bundle of nerves once more, enjoying the responses of her mate, before continuing the lesson. “Of course, this is not the only way to touch a woman. It is a good way to start love-making…but all too often the hunger of lust must be appeased with a more…oral…form of expression.”

Hayam’s eyes lit up and she panted anxiously. “Please, Johara! Yes…do it!”

“Patience, love,” Johara soothed, petting her mate calmly. She saw Dae’s expression become puzzled, and continued her explanation. “Fingers are wonderful,” she purred. “They are firm and long and can touch places deep inside the body. But a tongue can provide a far more sensuous means of contact…wet and powerful; a tactile, intense muscle that can more fully mold itself to every fold and crevice. Not to mention,” she flashed a quick grin as her mouth descended, “the delight of tasting your partner’s essence.”

Dae watched in amazed disbelief as Johara’s long tongue emerged and swept the full length of Hayam’s sex. The northerner gasped and abandoned her breasts to clutch at her lover’s mane of long hair, pulling her closer. Johara made certain her audience had a clear and unobstructed view of her attentions, then began to suck and lick at her partner’s wetness with avid devotion. Dae felt her inner temperature rise a few notches further, and the heat between her own legs became noticeably warmer. And, she realized with a deep blush, wetter. The amative acts she was witnessing easily sparked the first signs of arousal in a body that had never known such feelings, and Dae’s hands gripped hard at the armrests as she stared, unblinking, at the things Johara was doing.

Pausing in her ministrations, Johara glanced at the blonde girl, her lips wet with the nectar of Hayam’s pleasure. “The sensation of a tongue against one’s sex is truly exquisite,” she offered with a grin. “Zafirah is much gifted in the art of oral service. Perhaps you would like me to show you something of what she could make you feel?”

Dae’s somewhat addled brain took a moment to figure out what Johara was offering, and when she did, she lowered her head instantly. “I can’t-” Her body, however, awoken to a hunger that was frightening in its strength, screamed out its approval at the suggestion, fueled further by a vivid imagination that considered how that soft, wet muscle might feel pressed against her most sensitive and private region.

Johara licked her lips in consideration, very much wishing she could draw the captivating blonde into their love-making. She glanced at Hayam, who was panting for breath now, driven to the brink of release much faster than normal due to the presence of those watching emerald eyes. After a moment, she held out her left hand to the young girl and gestured for her to take it. Dae eyed the offered hand nervously. “Come,” Johara invited. “Please, come closer.”

Dae’s eyes flicked about the room anxiously, and she shook her head. “I can’t.”

“Do not fear, little one,” Johara soothed. “I only wish for you to be a part of our love…not the focus of it. Please?” She saw Dae’s will begin to falter, and pressed to reassure her. “You are quite safe, child. Do not let yourself be ruled by fear and doubt. I can see in your eyes that you find us pleasing; why deny yourself the opportunity to better learn the ways of passion and desire?” Johara wriggled her fingers. “Please? Will you at least come closer?”

Dae hesitated a moment longer, feeling her modesty and the indoctrination of her childhood war against the newly discovered hunger that surged with ferocious strength at the erotic sight of the two lovers on the bed. But eventually, her hunger overwhelmed her innocence, and she reached out to accept Johara’s offered hand.

The tall brunette smiled warmly and pulled the young blonde onto the pillows beside Hayam. Taking the girl’s hand, she took a moment to simply stroke her fingers gently, feeling the tensions ease at her touch as Dae’s eyes were caught by her own. When she felt Dae had relaxed enough to go further, Johara lowered their hands to Hayam’s thigh. Dae gasped, feeling the heat in the glistening skin under her fingers, and an answering heat that bloomed between her own legs. She eyed the northerner uncertainly, worried Hayam might not appreciate her presence during such an intimate moment. But Hayam’s eyes were filled only with lust, and when Dae’s fingers caressed her unconsciously, she moaned and bucked her hips.

Johara watched the expression on Dae’s face change from fearful, to wondering, and then to curious as she let her touch wander along the sensitive leg of her mate. “You see?” she husked, leaning closer to the fascinated blonde. “She finds great joy in your touch. It is not so difficult to pleasure a lover, is it?” Johara ducked her head and suckled at Hayam’s stiff nipples, watching Dae watch her with open-mouthed wonder. “But of course, pleasure takes on many guises,” she continued, sliding a hand down Hayam’s belly to play briefly with Dae’s fingers, before she sought out the slick heat of her lover’s twitching sex. “Far more than we could show you in a day. A woman like Zafirah – who has engaged with so many and so often – learns many skills in the art of ecstasy. Many positions…” Her fingers quested inwards, drawing a sharp intake of breath from the writhing northerner. “Many ways to prolong the moment…” Johara grinned as she felt her lover begin to peak, glancing down to see Hayam’s eyes focused on Dae, who was staring at her in awe.

“Please!” Hayam panted, every muscle in her slight frame held as taut as a drawn bowstring as Johara’s knowing caress held her at the very edge of release. “Just a little more, I beg you!”

Johara appeared to consider the plea. “What say you, Dae? Shall we finish this?”

Dae, not entirely understanding the question, but seeing the desperation in Hayam’s face very clearly, nodded.

“Here…” Johara withdrew her fingers from their tight nest and reached for Dae’s hand. “You shall help me.” Dae was totally caught by the look of intense rapture in Hayam’s eyes, and couldn’t offer any resistance as Johara guided her fingers along a journey of a few inches, across skin that grew hotter and wetter. Smiling as she watched the young blonde, Johara slid their fingers together over and around the hardened nub of Hayam’s engorged clit.

The result of this direct stimulation was immediate and spectacular. Hayam’s hips surged upwards and her body stiffened even further. Her mouth opened, but she couldn’t draw breath to scream. As the pulse of her passion thundered silently in her ears, and the waves of white-hot ecstasy tore through her, Hayam managed to keep her eyes open and locked with the emerald gaze of the young blonde, sharing her enjoyment.

Dae was stunned by the sight of Hayam as the northerner strained in the throes of her release, not certain exactly what was happening, but understanding on some primitive level that it was something very good. Looking deep into Hayam’s slanted eyes, she saw the anticipation building like thunder-clouds gathering on the horizon. The storm grew, then crested, holding for a breathless heartbeat before it erupted in an explosion of dazed wonder that rolled through Hayam’s almond orbs. It lasted a few seconds before Hayam gasped, panted, and cried out in joy, her sweat-slicked body convulsing a few times, then falling limply back onto the satin sheets.

It was, Dae thought, the most beautiful thing she had ever witnessed.

Only after Hayam had collapsed, drained from her climax, did Dae finally realize where her fingers were resting. Feeling soft, slick flesh under her touch, she stared a moment at her glistening digits, not quite believing they were her own, before she blushed bright crimson and tried to pull them away.

“Be calm, little Dae,” Johara soothed gently, maintaining her hold. “You did nothing wrong – you have brought only pleasure to us both. Relax.” Lifting Dae’s fingers to her lips, she proceeded to lick and suck the clear honey from them.

Dae shuddered at the sensation of Johara’s tongue as it wrapped around her fingers, her body craving something more, but her mind still uncertain how to attain any satisfaction. The carnal look in Johara’s gaze struck her like a fiery arrow, and she felt her body shiver with longing. When Johara released her hand, Dae could only stare at it uncertainly, wondering what to do with it now. At length, she returned it to her lap, and regarded Hayam’s form curiously. “Wh-what happened to her?” she stammered.

“She climaxed,” Johara said simply. Then, seeing her explanation meet with only a blank look, she shook her head. “Gods above, girl! Did your parents tell you nothing of such matters?!”

Dae looked away, her blonde hair falling forward to hide her embarrassment. “They…told me about how babies are made,” she said softly. “And about giving birth…but…nothing about…” She gestured vaguely between Hayam and Johara. “…this stuff.”

Johara sighed. “Then they neglected your education much, I think, and cruelly kept you ignorant of pleasures no-one should be denied.” Shifting on the bed, she considered how best to make Dae understand. “When one is touched by a lover,” she said slowly, in a gentle voice, “one experiences a building sensation of pleasure. That pleasure grows in intensity until it reaches a peak…a climax. It is like an explosion inside the body that results in a great wave of ecstasy. When we touched Hayam just now, that is what she experienced.”

Dae considered this explanation as she returned to her seat, putting some distance between herself and the two lovers. She remembered what Inaya had told her of physical pleasure; of the heat which consumed and embraced. She looked at Hayam, who was recovering her wits once more, and nodded slowly. In a very quiet voice, she said softly, “It was beautiful.”

Johara smiled sweetly. “Yes…it is.” She regarded the blonde with eyes both friendly and amorous. “Are you certain you do not wish to experience such beauty for yourself?” she asked. “Hayam and I would be very gentle…and would stop if you found our ministrations not to your liking.”

Dae couldn’t meet her gaze; she was embarrassed and confused by the part of her that wanted to accept Johara’s offer. “I-I can’t ask you to…”

Johara considered this, seeing that Dae was tempted, but not so much as to give in to a seduction. Still, while she knew she had to respect the young blonde’s wishes, Johara felt it would be negligent of her to leave Dae still unknowing of what delights she might experience under the Scion’s touch.

“Perhaps there might be another way,” a recovered Hayam offered, sitting up on her elbows and eyeing Dae with a definite look of hunger.

Johara raised a dark brow curiously. “Indeed?”

Hayam gave her lover a suggestive smile. “Perhaps we might offer instruction on another form of pleasure,” she offered. “One which might serve young Dae’s desire to learn, but remain untouched by the hands of another woman.”

Johara realized what her mate was suggesting, and grinned immediately. She planted a quick kiss on Hayam’s lips. “Yes, aziza. Perhaps we might.”

Dae regarded the two lovers with a wary look, uncertain how to read their playful expressions. “Wh-what are you talking about?”

“Well…” Johara shifted on the satin sheets, positioning herself between the spread thighs of her still-reposed mate. “There is a way we could show you that would enable you to bring pleasure to your own body.” Slate-grey eyes hooded sensuously. “We could instruct you how to touch yourself in ways that would simulate the caress of a lover…and might show you the many joys you have never known.”

Emerald eyes narrowed in confusion, but widened in sudden, shocked understanding as Dae watched Johara begin to explore her own body. “You mean…” Her tongue locked in her mouth, for a moment unable to complete the words. “I could make love to myself?”

Johara nodded. Behind her, Hayam shifted so she could watch and enjoy the show as well. “Would such instruction be of interest to you?” Johara inquired, splaying her hands over her breasts and toying with her nipples slowly. “It would be but a simulation of a true act of pleasure, but might at least offer some level of illumination.”

Dae stared at the way Johara was touching herself, still struggling to accept what she was seeing. She tried to picture herself doing such things and found it impossible – but still, her body wasn’t about to let this hunger go unattended, so she nodded. “I-I guess so.”

“Then watch,” Johara whispered, arching her back to present Dae with a better view of her thrusting chest, “and learn.”

The harem girl continued to fondle herself before Dae, her hands and fingers bringing her nipples to painfully stiff attention and building the heat between her legs. Unable to leave her lover untouched, Hayam began to lightly stroke Johara’s back and shoulders, occasionally running the tip of her tongue erotically along a shoulder-blade. Johara shivered at the extra stimulation, but kept her gaze locked on Dae, remaining mindful of her mission here. “If you choose to employ this new knowledge,” she said softly, “do not feel shame for it. You are young, Dae…and the passions of youth flow quick and hot. It is natural for you to want to learn more of your body as it awakens – to fully explore the limits of sensation. This is an excellent way in which to discover what feels nice…what pleases you and what does not.”

Dae let the words flow over her, absorbing them but keeping the greater part of her focus fixed on what Johara was doing. She could feel her own breasts tingle in longing, jealous of the attention Johara’s were being paid. Her fingers itched to satisfy this craving, but she prudently kept them clutching at the arms of the chair.

Johara smiled, seeing Dae’s discomfit and guessing what was generating it. “You are very beautiful,” she whispered somewhat breathlessly. “Moreso than you yet realize, for innocence is a quality that carries a potent and carnal edge. If you would wish to touch yourself now, do not be shy. I would find it greatly arousing to look upon you more intimately.”

Dae shifted, uncertain. She saw Hayam pause in her gentle caresses and regard her with a hopeful look. She imagined herself removing her top, exposing her full breasts to those admiring eyes, then covering them with her hands. The ache in her center was more acute now, more desperate…yet not so much that it could overcome a lifetime of modesty. She shook her head, but did offer, “Perhaps another time. I-I just…want to…”

“You need not explain, little one,” Johara shushed. “These matters should not be rushed or forced – they should happen in their own time.” She smiled a quietly desirous smile. “If in the future you wish to share yourself with us, however, we would be most honored.”

Dae was pleased, and started feeling a little more comfortable. This was all very new for her, and dimly frightening, but it was reassuring to know that she was safe. As Johara began to run her fingertips along her sides, Dae watched her tanned skin shift and writhe over the ridges of her easily visible ribcage. She licked her lips and enjoyed the sight. When Johara spread her knees wider and exposed her center, the young blonde gasped; Johara’s sex was bare except for a slender, elegantly shaved arrow of dark pubic hair. Such an intimate level of grooming had never crossed Dae’s mind, but she found the sight of those smooth, exposed petals extremely exciting.

The naked woman heard the gasp and smiled. “You like it? It is a common practice among pleasure-servants and body-slaves to shave our bodies smooth. Bare flesh can heighten one’s enjoyment of certain sexual acts.”

Dae continued to stare, unable to form words.

“When one has the opportunity,” Johara continued as her hands moved lower onto her belly, “it is often nice to take time to fully ignite one’s body. I would suggest you move slowly, for while it is often tempting to answer the call of certain lower longings, the destination is far more satisfying if it is attained by the longer route.”

Hayam leaned closer to her lover’s ear and began to whisper words Dae couldn’t hear. Whatever she said, however, had a definite effect. Johara’s breathing grew even more ragged and sweat glistened over her lithe frame. She groaned, her eyes hooding as she stared at Dae lustfully. The young blonde had never been looked at in such a blatantly sexual manner…not even by Zafirah, who was far from chaste in her regard. She leaned closer, wondering what Hayam was saying, but the few words she managed to make out made no sense to her. Hayam was speaking her native tongue, the language of the people from across the northern sea.

“Wh-what’s she saying?”

Johara, who was now openly fondling her swollen sex with both hands, panted for breath. “She is describing…in great detail…exactly what she would do to you…if only she were given your consent,” she managed to say.

Hayam gave Dae a wickedly hungry grin, her eyes roving over every pale curve of her body, leaving a burning trail in their wake. Dae swallowed hard, unsettled more by the way her body reacted to Hayam’s expression than by the expression itself. “And what would she do?” The words were past her lips before she could stop them.

Johara pressed two fingers into herself, shifting her thighs further apart to enable Dae to see clearly every move she made. “Can you not imagine for yourself?” she asked coyly. “I am certain she would make you feel wonderful…would enjoy sampling the untasted delights of your body.” Johara’s excitement was mounting at the whispered descriptions her lover continued to make. She wanted to show Dae more, however, and so withdrew her fingers before they pushed her passion too far. Dae’s lips pursed instantly and Johara smiled, thinking the girl had been enjoying the sight. “There are many places that bring pleasure to a woman if touched properly,” she said, trying to calm her racing heartbeat. “Do not limit yourself to the most obvious and intense, or you will miss out on many things.” Slowly, Johara scraped her blunt nails along her inner thighs, shivering at the sensations she caused. At the same time, she felt Hayam move behind her, running a single digit down the ridge of her spine, pressing gently at her tail-bone before slipping lower with certain assurance. Deep pleasure pulled low in her center, drawing a sharp intake of breath. “Yessss!” she hissed, turning her head around so she could accept a long and passionate kiss from her smiling mate, who responded by pressing harder against her.

Dae watched the two women with wide eyes, seeing only beauty and love in an act which would have repulsed her but a few short months ago. Though she couldn’t see Hayam’s hand, the young blonde knew something was going on by the way Johara had reacted…and she had a pretty good idea of what that something might be just from the position of Hayam’s arm. Her blush – having settled somewhat – returned in full force at the notion of what Hayam was doing, and she wondered if anything was considered taboo to these people.

Although she wanted to drag this out, Johara couldn’t contest with the sensations that bombarded her; the sensation of Hayam’s finger from behind, her own hands that returned helplessly to her slick core…or the feel of those innocent yet intent emerald eyes that watched every move she made with absolute fascination. Gasping for air, Johara broke the kiss and arched her body. Hayam, knowing from long experience that her lover was near the edge, lowered her lips to Johara’s neck and bit firmly at the pulse-point there. Johara all but collapsed backwards, all her strength focused on the task of bringing her body to fulfillment. As the first bolts of ecstasy shot inwards from her clutching sex and burned a path deeper into her belly, Johara’s eyes squeezed shut and she gave a high-pitched scream which ended in a strangled sob. Her hips thrust up, desperate to hold the pinnacle as long as possible, before she fell back against Hayam, who held her during the long moments it took her to recover, whispering words of love and devotion in her strange language.

Dae watched in awe, considering Johara’s release to be even more spectacular than Hayam’s. The scream startled her, but she realized instantly that it was one of pleasure, not pain, and wondered what feelings could be so intense as to draw such a cry. She imagined herself bringing Zafirah such pleasure, and comforting her afterwards, finding the image to be actually quite appealing. That the mighty Scion would offer herself so intimately, would let Dae see her in such an open and vulnerable state, and would share such great beauty with her – for the first time, Dae began to understand what an honor it was that Zafirah paid her such devoted attention.

And she began to wonder whether she might actually enjoy sharing such moments of emotional closeness with the dark-haired woman.

When Johara had at last regained her composure, she pushed her disheveled hair from her face and sat up straighter on the pillows, flashing a smile to Dae. “I apologize for not restraining myself that you might gain better insight,” she said in a charmingly husky tone. “Hayam takes great delight in my pleasure, and cannot keep her hands from wandering.”

Hayam grinned unrepentantly and nipped at Johara’s shoulder playfully. “I think Dae saw enough to understand how things work.” A jet-black eyebrow raised curiously at the young blonde. “Did you not?”

Dae nodded dazedly. “I-I think so.” Was the ‘lesson’ at an end then? she wondered. Apparently not.

“Besides,” the northerner continued, “there are many other delights to explore – many other paths of pleasure that might be of interest to the little one. Positions and methods that we might demonstrate…” She poked at her lover playfully. “…if you possess the endurance to do so..?”

Johara gave an indignant scowl and twisted about, pinning the shorter woman to the bed with a growl. Hayam yelped, then giggled. “Endurance? We shall see who begs for rest first then, shall we?”

Amused at the obvious playful streak that outlined the sincere love and desire in Johara and Hayam’s interactions, Dae settled herself in her seat and looked on as the two began another passionate coupling…wondering as she did so who was enjoying these ‘lessons’ more: herself, or her instructors.
X
It was some time later that Dae returned to her room, having watched Hayam and Johara bring each other pleasure in a variety of styles they thought might be of interest to her. Her mind was reeling on overload from the demonstration. Her body was thrumming with electric tingles. Certain – long unappreciated – parts of her were downright throbbing! Dae needed some time to collect herself, to process the new wisdom she had gained before she returned to the seraglio and faced Inaya.

Breathing deeply, trying to calm her racing heart, Dae paced a few times across her room, eyes closed. She wanted to take her mind off the tension in her groin…but of course, this was not easily accomplished.

“Well,” she lectured herself, “you wanted to know how two women make love. Now you know…and now you have to deal with it!”

After a few minutes, Dae managed to get a handle on things…except for one image that refused to depart from her mind – the image of Johara as she stroked herself with a lover’s caress, bringing pleasure to her own body. She recalled Johara’s parting words to her as the tall woman had placed a soft kiss on her cheek. “New worlds are often frightening, little one, and it is understandable to be wary or nervous. But there is no need to let that fear dictate your actions. Do not let the ignorance of your people and your homeland keep you from exploring what could be a beautiful and wondrous thing.”

Almost of their own accord, Dae’s hands ran slowly, lightly, along her hips, just teasing her highly-sensitive skin. The touch sparked an instant reward; pleasure zinged through her, running straight to her center. Dae was surprised by the sensations, and curiously let her touches roam a few moments longer. In a gilt-framed mirror that stood against the far wall, the young blonde watched herself with eyes that saw things in a new light. Cocking her head to the side, Dae studied her body critically, standing up a little straighter and squaring her shoulders.

These months in the desert had had an affect, she admitted, narrowing her eyes in contemplation. The image reflected back by the mirror was that of a young woman…not the grown child she had been before her abduction. Her body was all feminine curves and smooth, ivory skin, accentuated and highlighted by the harem clothes she wore now without much concern. Her lips were stained with berry juice, her eyes shadowed with crushed indigo powder. What little baby-fat had once softened her frame was gone now, for though water was plentiful in El’Kasari, one never truly forgot the grim ward of the desert just outside, and Dae had grown accustomed to rationing what she drank and ate. Her blonde hair hung low down her back, the tips brushing just above her buttocks, and her emerald green eyes flashed charmingly from beneath her bangs.

All in all, Dae thought, the mirror presented a pleasing enough picture – certainly pleasing enough to warrant the attention she was paid by Zafirah and the other pleasure servants.

Looking at herself, Dae slowly let her hands move where they would. She watched as she traced the outer curve of each firm breast in turn, her lips parting at the approval her body voiced. “Mmmm.” Closing her eyes, Dae summoned to mind an image of Zafirah – the tall, powerful body that was so often veiled beneath the folds of a chador…the alluring, playful half-smile that bowed those sensuous lips…and of course, the sapphire eyes that burned with an intensity so deep, sometimes it seemed their flames could reduce a woman’s soul to cinders. The image lent courage to her hands, and Dae’s touch became firmer. A soft whimper escaped her throat, snapping her out of her daydream just as she’d been about to let her hands drift lower, to where the ache seemed strongest. Dae stared at herself, blushing, then turned from the mirror and tried once more to settle her raging desires.

Throwing herself onto her bed, Dae growled in frustration. She felt the two halves of her nature warring…and was perceptive enough to realize that this newer half – the half that wanted to explore and experience what Johara and Hayam had shown her – was far stronger than its rival. The idea of touching herself so intimately was exciting…all the moreso because she was certain it would have been forbidden in her homeland. Her hands were itching to roam…and after several long minutes of restraint, Dae heaved a dramatic groan. You know you’re gonna try it sooner or later, she admitted silently. Might as well do it now and get it over with.

Sitting up, Dae turned again to the mirror. Her hands fluttered a final moment in indecision, then slowly reached for the laces that held her top closed. Slipping the jeweled cloth from her shoulders, the young blonde shook her hair a little and regarded her reflection seriously. Her hands followed the path of her eyes, very lightly running across her full, firm breasts, the touches causing her nipples to harden enticingly. Dae’s expression was earnest as she let her fingers drift lower, and she stood to allow them the opportunity to slip off her gauzy trousers and brief undergarments. She blushed only a little as she looked frankly at her naked form, her eyes exploring every secret inch for long minutes before she lay back on the bed and took a steadying breath. The tide of lust was still strong in her blood, its call incessant. Dae closed her eyes and let her fingers begin their first timid explorations over her sensitive flesh.

Silence reigned in the dim light of the room for the space of several breathes. Then suddenly, Dae gave a quiet, squeaky gasp. Emerald eyes shot wide open and the young blonde sat up, an almost comical look of surprise on her face. She stared a moment down the length of her frame to where her hands had paused in mute astonishment…then a very slow, very sexy smile pulled gently at the edges of her lips – the kind of smile that might be worn by a child who has suddenly discovered a forgotten stash of sugar-cookies…and who plans an instant feast.

Dae closed her eyes once more, lay back, and continued her explorations a little more boldly, humming at the brilliant flashes of sensation that rewarded her pioneer spirit.

The feelings that her touches evoked were far more powerful than Dae had imagined, and she began to understand a little better why Hayam and Johara had been swept along by them so completely. It seemed odd to her; afterall, she had touched herself plenty of times before, but had never experienced such things as this. She was aware of the throbbing that rose between her legs, its beat keeping time with her racing pulse. She was aware of the liquid heat that now slicked her core. Squirming on the sheets of her bed, her breathing growing harsher, Dae continued to fondle her left breast while she allowed her right hand to venture lower, teasing the crease of her rib-cage and down over her belly…to where she sensed the center of her need now lay.

When her fingertips encountered the swollen nub of her clitoris as it peeked somewhat shyly from its hood, Dae froze, stunned by the blue-white bolt of pure pleasure that arced through her body and sizzled her brain. She gasped, then curiously ran a single digit along the upper folds of her sex. Sure enough, the sensation was repeated, and her smile grew a little broader. Remembering what Johara had told her about prolonging the act, Dae resisted the temptation to explore this delightful treasure for the time being. There were, she reminded herself, other pleasures to explore. Her hand moved grudgingly past the slick petals of her center and began to comb along her inner thighs.

In some deeply entrenched part of her conscience, Dae felt the slightest pangs of guilt and shame over what she was doing…but Johara’s seductive voice was more than compelling enough to drown out the cries of her modesty. She was right, the young blonde thought as she returned both hands to her breasts. This feels nice. Why shouldn’t I want to feel like this? I’m young. I guess I’m beautiful. And everyone here says it’s natural for my body to want to feel this stuff. Still, the sliver of shame remained, and Dae supposed it would be some time before it would disappear completely.

As she continued along her journey of self-discovery, Dae felt the subtle changes begin to rise. The tension in her lower belly, at first a bare tingle, built itself into a steady and potent throbbing. Sweat covered her skin and her face was flushed with excitement over every new pleasure she discovered. And, she found, there were a lot of pleasures to be discovered. Eventually though, her hands were drawn inexorably back to the burning heat that pulsed from her now-dripping core, and Dae spread her legs unabashedly in order to get the most access possible for her questing digits. There was an emptiness she’d never felt before, but as much as she wanted to attain complete fulfillment, Dae was mindful of her virginity. She’d been told enough stories of pain and blood by her mother that even her current state of dazed ecstasy couldn’t entice her to penetrate that mysterious place between her legs. But thankfully, she found such a thing to be unnecessary anyway. The sensations elicited as she explored every fold of her slick sex were more than enough to keep those waves of blinding pleasure coursing along quite nicely…and Dae felt her senses begin to climb strangely higher, spirally upwards to dizzying heights.

The climax to this symphony of pleasure struck so suddenly it caught poor Dae completely unprepared. The first teasing ripples washed through her in a gentle roll, but they were swallowed almost instantly by a tidal wave that surged with ragged strength, stealing the air from her lungs. Dae’s limbs stiffened, her fingers pressed firmly into the velvet heat of her spasming center. The pleasure almost deafened her, but Dae could make out the high-pitched, breathless little screams that she managed to gasp out as her vision was stunned into blindness broken only by spots of rainbow colors. There was a sensation of falling from a great height… No, rather, it seemed she was floating. Dae’s hips thrust urgently twice, sensations of heat and raw pleasure running through her that seemed for a second to be so overwhelming she thought they might well burst her heart.

But then, just as she was beginning to sob for breath, Dae felt the ecstasy crest, then mellow back into a low, sensuous burn. Her limbs began to obey her orders once more, and she relaxed them with a grateful sigh. A sudden wave of sleepy contentment stole over her, and Dae began to drag air into her aching lungs in deep, hitching breathes. Her fingers still played in the silken petals of her sex, the sensations enjoyable but not nearly so urgent as before. She became aware of the sweat cooling her skin, and smiled a little shakily with a nervous/relieved giggle.

“Well…” Dae looked around her room in wonder, her eyes bright with the aftermath of passion. “I guess that’s what all the fuss is about, huh?”

She laughed at the silence that answered her question, looking at herself in the mirror. The flushed and tousled reflection surprised her, but Dae was past feeling awkward. She blew her damp bangs from her eyes and smiled quietly. “Maybe I could see my way to being a little more open to Zafirah. I mean, this is my home now, afterall.” She gave herself a surprisingly wicked little grin. “It couldn’t hurt to embrace the culture…could it?”

Lying back on her pallet, Dae closed her eyes and let her wet fingers continue to caress her sensitive flesh…feeling languid and blissful in the wake of her spent pleasure.
XI
Inaya looked up when she saw the blonde-headed figure of her friend emerging from the inner sanctum of the harem. She watched the expressive emerald eyes meet her own, then hastily glance away. An adorable blush colored Dae’s cheeks and upper chest. Inaya’s smile became a decidedly playful grin as she noticed the still-somewhat tousled hair, the way Dae’s clothes seemed less carefully arranged than they had been this morning, and as the blonde drew closer, the slightly dazed cast to the glinting gems of her eyes.

“Ahhh…” Inaya clapped her hands as she looked up at her friend. “Truly nothing is quite so beautiful as the face of a young woman in those first moments after she has tasted satisfaction!”

Dae glanced about nervously, her blush deepening. “Shhh!” she hissed.

“Why?” Inaya gestured about her at the mostly empty gardens. Those few pleasure-servants who were outside were busy about their own affairs, and paid no mind to Dae’s arrival. “They would not condemn you for taking pleasure. You forget where you are, little one.”

Dae looked around again and was relieved to see Inaya was correct — no-one seemed to be watching her. Still, she sat down very quickly beside her friend, feeling as though every single girl in the seraglio knew exactly what she had been doing these last few candlemarks. She fidgeted nervously with the glass beads that dangled about the waist of her trousers, certain her efforts to remove the smell of her passion hadn’t been entirely successful.

Indeed, Inaya did detect the subtle perfume that still clung to the young blonde, but she merely regarded Dae with a mischievous smirk. “So…did you find your experience with Johara and Hayam to be enlightening?”

Dae studied her own hands intently. “I-I suppose so.”

“Mmm.” Inaya looked her friend up and down, one eyebrow lifted curiously. “I have seen that look in the eyes of many women during my life,” she observed after a long period of silence. “You were persuaded to join their pleasure, no?”

Dae shook her head, eyes still downcast.

Inaya’s other eyebrow rose. “It is nothing to be ashamed of, Dae. You are past the age that such things should remain a mystery to you.”

Dae swallowed, then managed to meet Inaya’s gaze without looking away. “They wanted me to join them but…I couldn’t do it.” Her face was scarlet. “So they…showed me how to do things to myself…”

Inaya’s eyes widened a fraction in understanding. “I see.” A pause. “And you…exercised this new wisdom.”

Dae nodded, though she knew the question had been less a question than a statement.

“So?” Inaya’s tone was gentle, for she could sense Dae was still uncertain about this new world she had discovered. “Did you find it to your liking?”

Dae’s fingers were twisting knots in the string of beads at her waist, but she nodded. “It was…really good, I guess.”

Inaya reached out and petted the young blonde lightly on the shoulder. “And not half so terrible and sinful as you were led to believe in your homeland, no?”

Dae shook her head. She lifted her eyes now with more courage. “Is it…always like that?” she asked in a low whisper.

“Like what?”

“Like…so powerful and…” Dae struggled to find an appropriate word to describe how her body had felt. “and…nice.” It was woefully inadequate, but her brain was still a bit frazzled.

Inaya cocked her head in amusement at the definite eager gleam in Dae’s eye, seeing the heat still burning there like dormant embers, waiting to be fanned into flames. “You are unpracticed in the arts of pleasure,” she said after a moment of consideration. “Skill comes with time and further instruction…and of course, sensations are usually more intense when they are shared with an actual lover. However nice it felt when you touched yourself, it was but a pale shadow of what Zafirah could make you feel.”

Emerald eyes widened in awe. “Really?”

“Of course.”

Dae considered this, then smiled a silly smile. “I don’t think my heart could handle that.”

Inaya laughed delightedly. “Oh child…you would be surprised by what the heart can handle if the body is willing.”

Dae giggled, and shifted closer to her friend. “I guess I can understand a bit better now why everyone was so eager to show me that stuff.”

“And would be willing to instruct you further in such affairs,” Inaya added. “But I think Johara and Hayam are good teachers. Perhaps when you are more comfortable with your own body, you will be able to join them in their passion.”

Remembering the way the two lovers had embraced and entwined — and remembering how her body had ached with desire at the sight — Dae felt again a tingle in her lower belly. “They were beautiful together,” she whispered almost without conscious thought.

“You found their demonstration pleasing?” Inaya asked interestedly, giving herself a little pat on the back for having guided her innocent friend in this direction.

“Yes.”

“Did it…arouse you?”

Dae shrugged. “I guess.” Her brows knit suddenly in a stern line, and she frowned. “But why?”

Inaya saw the troubled expression suddenly steal across Dae’s face. “What do you mean, ‘why’?”

Dae looked up at her friend seriously. “I’ve never had such thoughts of being intimate with another woman before in my life,” she stated. “I’ve never looked on another woman with desire. Before I came here, such issues never even crossed my mind! But now…”

“Now?”

Dae sighed. “Since I came here…since I met Zafirah…it seems like that’s all I’ve been able to think about. Now, when I look at Zafirah, or when she’s near me, I can feel the way my body reacts to her. Watching Johara and Hayam would have seemed an appalling notion to me just a few months ago! But now…I found it…exciting.”

“Desire is not something to be rejected or wrestled down,” Inaya argued. “And you do feel desire for the Scion. Why is it so hard for you to accept this?”

“Because I don’t understand why!” Dae said firmly, shaking her head in confusion. Taking a deep breath, still unsettled by her experiences this morning and last night, Dae sighed. “If I’d never been abducted by those slavers…would I still be feeling these things? Or is this just something that’s happening now because I’m living in a harem, with a dozen girls constantly propositioning me?”

Inaya grinned. “Oh, I think there are more than a dozen.”

Dae gave her friend a dirty look. “You know what I mean.” She turned away, looking at nothing in particular but seeing in her mind that curiously-arousing half-smile Zafirah had worn last night. “Is this something that’s a part of me…or is it just something I’m picking up because of where I am?”

Dae gave the young blonde a frank, curious look. “Does it matter?”

“Yes, of course it matters!”

“Why?”

Blonde brows contracted a moment in puzzlement. “Well, because…” Dae’s hands fluttered about her like two lost birds. “Because it just does, that’s why.”

Inaya smiled. “I have a story you should listen too,” she said softly after looking at Dae a moment in silence. “Some generations ago, a man came to El’Kasari from the western lands. He was a learned man…a man of great wisdom, who had done great things for his people. He claimed to have made maps of the stars, and to have discovered how their movements changed with the passing of the seasons. Anyway, he came before the Scion at the time and requested permission to study the great spring that forms the Kah-hari oasis. I understand you saw the oasis during your time with the slavers, no?”

Dae nodded. Though most of her ordeal in the desert had faded to a blur, the way a night-terror will vanish almost as soon as one awakens, Dae still remembered clearly the beautiful, lush oasis that had appeared as if by magic in the middle of all that sand and rock. Completely out of place in the harsh Jaharri desert, the oasis was supported by a bountiful spring of fresh water that had flowed since time immemorial, and Dae had heard tales from her handmaidens that it was regarded as a true wonder of the natural world.

“Though there are many springs and oasis in the desert, none are so plentiful nor well-known as the Kah-hari,” Inaya continued. “This man said he wished to learn how it was that the water came to flow into the sands…and how it supported life in so barren a land. The Scion was amused by the man’s request, but since the foreigner was respectful and polite, he granted permission and an escort.

“Well, the man went out to the oasis and he spent nearly two years there, struggling to understand the mystery of the spring. When at last he returned to El’Kasari, he was frustrated and weary, for the answers he sought had eluded him utterly. The Scion listened to his bafflement and could not help but laugh.

“‘What is so funny?’ the man asked. ‘Why do you laugh? I have invested two years of my life in this matter, and have learned nothing!’

“The Scion shook his head, still smiling. ‘Forgive my humor, friend,’ he said, ‘but I cannot help but find it amusing that a man of such wisdom would come all this way, and struggle for so long, trying to find answers that do not matter, to a question only a fool would ask.'”

Dae stared at her friend warily. “So…what’s your point?”

“My point is, little one, that some answers are unimportant,” Inaya explained slowly. “When an answer changes nothing, why even bother to ask the question? That man tried to understand the spring…but would his knowledge have been useful? Would such wisdom cause the desert to erupt into a jungle? No. The Kah-hari spring has flowed since as far back as my people have lived in the desert; it is as consistent and reliable a thing as the waves that break upon the shore. No-one has ever fully understood it…but their ignorance has not caused the spring to stop.”

Dae scowled. “That’s pretty hypocritical coming from someone who keeps telling me I shouldn’t let ignorance stop me from learning new things,” she observed tritely.

“Perhaps,” Inaya admitted. “Or perhaps it is simply that one should learn when an answer is of worth. The lone eagle flying high above the desert who spies the carcass of a sheep lying on the sands does not pause to wonder how that sheep came to stray from his flock. The ‘why’ simply does not matter. It is enough that he will return to his nest that night with a full belly.” She shifted on the lawn, regarding the young blonde earnestly. “You are attracted to the Scion, Dae. You feel desire for another woman. And this day you have tasted pleasure…and enjoyed it. Would knowing ‘why’ change anything for you? Would it make these feelings shimmer and fade like a mirage?”

Dae considered this, suddenly understanding what Inaya was getting at. She shook her head. “I guess not.”

“Then why ask ‘why’?” The dark girl smiled. “Do not dissect your feelings, little one, for they are better left intact and unspoilt. Let them hold their mystery. Enjoy them for what they give, and do not look for answers to questions that change nothing.”

Dae could feel her mind still struggling to adjust to all these new things, but she couldn’t dispute Inaya’s logic — a logic she knew would have been considered barbaric in her homeland, where science and order ruled supreme. “It’s still a lot to get used to,” she said softly.

“Do not let your head be burdened by confusing thoughts,” Inaya advised, hearing the lost tone in the young girl’s voice. “You have all the time in the world to sort through your feelings…and to accept the leanings of your heart and body. And as strange as all this is for you, you must realize it is every bit as difficult and confusing for Zafirah, as well. She is learning a gentler form of love than to which she is accostomed, just as you are learning a more passionate one. But if you are patient with one another, and allow the roots of your feelings the chance to grow strong, I am confident you will be rewarded.”

Dae listened, and smiled at Inaya’s words. “What should I do when she comes here tonight? I mean…I let her kiss me last night — perhaps she’ll expect more from me now.”

Inaya’s playful smile returned, her dark eyes laughing merrily. “Zafirah is as frightened of making a wrong step as you are, little one. Talk with her. Let her see you for who you are…without the walls. Show her how you feel: nervous…excited…afraid. She will understand.”

“Will she?”

“Of course. Though she was born to glory on the battlefield, Zafirah is a gentle and compassionate woman…even though she is often ruled by her more carnal appetites. Her body desires you, yes…but her heart desires you more.”

Dae heard a strange, almost reverent tone in Inaya’s voice, and saw the faint shimmer in her large eyes — something akin to adoration. “You love her very much, don’t you?”

Inaya shrugged and smiled. “We all love her, little one,” she observed simply. “She makes it impossible to do otherwise. But such love as ours is born in the bedroom, not in the heart…and its pleasures take a different flavor to what she feels for you.”

Dae shook her head, confused. “I don’t understand.”

“With time, you will,” Inaya assured her. The dark-haired girl looked up at the sun high over head and wiped her glistening brow. “For now, however, I fear the heat is growing uncomfortable. Shall we see what we can find to eat inside? I have not had a chance to break bread this morning.”

“Sure.” Dae’s stomach chose that moment to voice a loud approval of this suggestion, and the young blonde giggled as she stood up. “I think that might be a good idea.”

“Mmm.” Inaya petted her friend’s pale, smooth belly soothingly. “You must keep up your strength, little one,” she advised with a grin. “Afterall, sexual pleasures tax the body a great deal…and I would think you should have need of your strength in the coming days, if you are to more fully explore the world of carnal delights.”

Dae flushed, but, with the memory of those stunning sensations still fresh in her mind, she figured it couldn’t hurt to follow Inaya’s suggestion and satisfy her growling stomach as quickly as possible. Dae had already accepted the fact that, as soon as she had the opportunity, she was planning on leading her hands and fingers on another long expedition into the mysterious pleasures her body longed to sample again already.

She was definitely going to need her strength.
XII
Zafirah came to the seraglio just as the sun began to lower itself onto the cradle of the horizon, a time when most of the pleasure-servants liked to play and roam through the gardens as the air cooled. Dae, who had been sketching images of the other girls from beneath the shade of the giant aspen tree, felt an almost palpable shift in the air, and glanced up to find the Scion’s glittering sapphire eyes watching her. The blonde felt instant heat shoot through her loins, but this time the sensation wasn’t so much a stranger to her. She understood it better, and welcomed the honey-sweet burn that crept along her skin like a slow caress. She gave the dark-haired woman a slight smile and went back to her drawing.

Zafirah watched the young blonde as she talked with her pleasure-servants, taking careful note of every line of her posture. She saw the emerald eyes flicker up every now-and-again, and smiled to herself. Dae’s mood wasn’t apprehensive or nervous anymore; the spirit of last night still held strong. Content for the moment just to watch, Zafirah joined a group of girls by the waterfall, accepting their gentle flirtations while keeping half an eye on Dae.

Beneath the aspen, Dae let her fingers continue to trace idle lines on the parchment spread across her lap, but in truth she had lost interest in drawing. She watched Zafirah interact with the harem girls, noting the relaxed energy that surrounded her — the crooked smile and occasional flash of pearl-white teeth when the Scion grinned…the soft, uninhibited touches she exchanged with the flirting pleasure-servants. Dae’s eyes narrowed a fraction as she observed the subtle battle the girls waged for Zafirah’s attentions — a war fought with lingering caresses and intimate suggestions of nightly delights whispered into the Scion’s ear. For the first time, Dae felt something other than curious dread watching the seduction — something like…jealousy? No, that wasn’t it. It was more an envy — envy at the easy way the harem girls flirted with Zafirah. It came so naturally to them, while she was forced to wrestle desperately with every new desire that occurred to her. For a moment the young blonde wished she could behave with such care-free abandon; could flirt and touch and giggle and blush with assumed — rather than actual — innocence, as the others could. For a moment, the urge to get up and join them by the waterfall was so strong, the muscles in her calves and thighs tensed, ready to start walking.

But then, those sapphire eyes glanced up and pinned her with a look of such mixed devotion and utter lust that Dae felt her breath catch painfully in her throat. The look was enough to settle any feelings of envy Dae had. She didn’t need to vie for the Scion’s attention…she had it already.

Smiling, Dae turned her focus back to her drawing, surprised to find her hands had been working during her distraction. A very nice image of Zafirah’s angular, beautiful face had been sketched without her even knowing it, each line perfectly shaded and keeping the correct proportion of the Scion’s features. It was a moment of true insight for Dae. I know her face so well I can draw it with my eyes closed, she realized, marveling at the way her attraction towards Zafirah had grown so powerful without her consent. She was still staring at the picture when a familiar, throaty voice spoke.

“You have much talent.”

“Huh?” Dae looked up to find the subject of her art standing a few feet away, one dark eyebrow cocked, her full lips pulled into an amused smile. Those amazing eyes regarded the picture on her lap with interest, and Dae shifted shyly. “Oh…I was just…um. Practicing.”

“Mmm.” Zafirah gestured to the grass beside the young blonde. “May I sit?”

“Sure.” Dae made to roll up her sheaf of parchment-drawn pictures, but Zafirah stopped her.

“Please? May I see?”

Again, Dae shifted shyly. “I-I guess. Some of them aren’t very good, but…”

Zafirah took the drawings from the girl — letting their hands brush together in the exchange — and began to look through them. Dae had drawn everything, it seemed — her homeland, the gardens, the harem girls, even images recalled from her night in the city. But, the Scion noted with pleasure, there were many sketches of her own familiar features among the works…each one drawn with obvious care and attention to detail. She paused at a particularly striking portrait which had captured a seductive, playful expression perfectly. “I am flattered you find me a worthy subject.”

Dae shrugged, managing her keep her blush down but still extremely conscious of the way her body was reacting to the Scion’s proximity. “You’re very beautiful,” she observed calmly. “Your face is easy to draw.”

“I see.” Zafirah finished looking through the drawings, then carefully handed them back. “Perhaps one night, I might pose for you,” she suggested. “I would be honored if you would draw something especially for me.”

Dae swallowed hard, a lump forming in her throat at the intense regard in those deep sapphire orbs watching her. “I-I guess…maybe. I-if you’d like…”

“I would,” Zafirah assured in a low voice. “Very much.”

“Okay. Tomorrow, maybe?”

“If you like.”

Dae nodded, and pretended to go back to watching the harem girls who were busy gathering together a group of musicians to play for them.

Sitting back, Zafirah set herself so she could look at Dae’s profile without being too obvious. The lively sounds of drums mixed with the jangle of finger-cymbals rose from the other side of the lawn, and the Scion watched as a few of the pleasure-servants began to dance. “Will you join them?” she asked her companion hopefully.

Dae glanced back at her, a coy expression on her face. “Would you like me to?”

“Of course, Tahirah…though the sight may add to the burden of my restraint.”

Dae grinned. “I think it’s probably worth the risk,” she said wryly. “Besides…you could use a little extra practice in that department.”

Sapphire eyes darkened to the color of the midnight sky. “Oh Tahirah…I am practiced in the art of restraint far more than you could realize.”

Though uncertain what the Scion meant, Dae had no trouble interpreting the heat in Zafirah’s regard, and so figured the reference had been somehow sexual. She cocked her head, considering a moment, then shrugged. “It’s too hot right now. When the sun goes down properly, I’ll join in.”

“Then I shall wait with great impatience for the dark,” Zafirah said, leaning back again so she could study the young blonde thoughtfully.

The Scion was skilled at reading women — a talent honed after years spent practicing their seduction. It didn’t take her long to realize that something had changed in the girl since last night; something subtle, yet distinct. A part of her wanted to attribute the change to the kiss they had shared, but Zafirah recognized that this was simply the voice of ego. Her lips pursed in consideration, trying to pin-point what this enticing difference was exactly.

Her eyes are open.

The thought occurred of its own volition, and she gnawed at it mentally for a moment. Yes, she thought, her eyes are open. She no longer draws away from my presence, or flinches at my touch. She did not even blush when I looked at her with lust. And there was more. Zafirah could detect a new scent about Dae…something so low and delicate that it seemed less a physical presence than an aura surrounding the girl. The scent of a dawning sexual maturity — an understanding that had not been present last night. Zafirah had wondered if kissing Dae had been too forward, too aggressive…if she might have scared her away. But now she saw that perhaps it had prompted the innocent blonde to seek out new knowledge…to accept her own needs and wants.

Her eyes are open, she thought again. I wonder who is responsible for opening them?

She glanced across the lawn and found Inaya watching her with stealthy interest. The slight smile on the dark harem girl’s face was answer enough for Zafirah. Of course. Zafirah gave Inaya a quick, devilish grin. I shall have to thank her later for this gift of enlightenment.

The two women sat beneath the aspen, exchanging furtive glances and a few words now and again. The dancers moved out onto the lawn as the sun disappeared and torches were lit about the seraglio grounds, the girls swirling and swaying in a display Dae saw was meant to catch Zafirah’s fancy. Those not dancing gathered around Dae and the Scion, clapping along to the beat of the drums, laughing and urging their fellows on. Zafirah watched with an expression that was half amusement, half appreciative desire…but her eyes always returned to Dae. The young blonde giggled at the pleading, hopeful looks being cast her way. Eventually she decided she’d put it off long enough, and rose to join the dancers.

As soon as she stood up, the harem girl’s cheered their instant approval and encouragement. Dae blushed profusely at the attention, but shyly accepted a hand from one of the dancers. When she looked up, she found Johara’s laughing eyes gazing back at her. The slender brunette flashed a wicked grin at the young blonde, then pulled her into the circle of dancers, twirling her about and guiding her first awkward movements with casual grace.

Though the brehani had lowered her inhibitions the last time she tried this, Dae found it easier to pick up the rhythm than she’d expected. Johara helped ease her initial tensions, and she quickly relaxed and just let her body dictate the way she moved in time to the spirited music. Smiling broadly, laughing as she struggled to emulate the fluid motions of the other girls, Dae began to enjoy herself.

And while she danced and laughed, the young blonde watched Zafirah watching her with eyes of blue flame.

A pleasant little shiver thrilled along her spine, but Dae didn’t find the Scion’s attention now to be in any way uncomfortable. In fact, she welcomed it…and began to shed her natural modesty in favor of more provocative movements which suggested new, primal rhythms she didn’t yet fully understand. But Zafirah did, and her attention focused to a deeper intensity. When Johara caught Dae’s eye for a moment, the two exchanged secret, knowing smiles…acknowledging the bond of intimacy that had been forged between them that morning. Johara took an opportunity to run her hands along the young blonde’s rippling belly, leaning close and whispering into Dae’s ear. “Attentive, is she not?”

Dae flashed the Scion a quick grin, nodding.

“She is even moreso in the bedroom,” Johara added, letting her hands explore a heartbeat longer before drawing away and returning to Hayam’s side.

Dae felt wild as she whirled about to the tune of exotic music…exhilarated by a sudden sense of absolute freedom and joy. The night air felt cool against her flushed skin, and she was breathless and giddy from the active dance. A fresh breeze blew in from the desert, bringing with it the scent of vast, open places and the distinct perfume of sand and stone. She liked the way Zafirah’s gaze never left her body. She liked knowing she affected the dark woman in this way. An image from her experience with Johara and Hayam that morning blazed suddenly to life in her mind, and she pictured what it might be like to share such delicious intimacies with the powerful, seductive Scion.

Dae danced until she grew too tired, then returned to Zafirah’s side, begging off the pleas of the other girls who tried to pursuade her to continue. “I need a rest,” she insisted. “Maybe later.”

Zafirah smiled and waved a hand, signaling the musicians to play again. As the dance began once more she let her eyes roam over Dae’s figure, appreciating the way her pale skin shone under a fine layer of sweat. Dae was breathing heavily, her long, golden hair charmingly ruffled. To Zafirah’s eyes, dazzled by pangs of sweet affection, she looked absolutely gorgeous.

“You were magnificent!” she complimented.

Dae giggled and lowered her head modestly. “Thanks. It was fun.” She wiped her forehead with her arm, feeling the sweat begin to gather a chill now that she was settled.

“You seemed to enjoy it.” Zafirah could smell the musk of Dae’s sweat and it made her dizzy — made her want to rub up against the young blonde…feel the friction between their bodies…breath the same air and let the tension build until it burst! With an effort, she resisted the powerful temptation to reach out and touch that glistening skin, but she shivered slightly at the vivid images that skipped through her mind like a teasing itch, daring her to give in and scratch them.

Dae noticed the shiver. “Are you cold? I could get a cloak from my room, if you are.”

“No, child.” Zafirah shook her head, her eyes betraying the depth of her want. “In truth I am warmer than I might care to be…and that is something I thought never to feel.”

The answer confused Dae a moment and she almost opened her mouth to ask a question. But then she noticed the heat in Zafirah’s gaze; a heat which made her pause, uncertain how to respond. She dropped her eyes and plucked at her trousers with nervous fingers. “Oh.”

Zafirah smiled quietly. “I lost much sleep last night,” she admitted. “The memory of your lips against mine would not subside…even in my dreams. But I consider it an experience worth the price of such discomfiture.”

Dae licked her lips unconsciously, remembering every detail of the kiss all too clearly. “You must have kissed hundreds of women.”

“But none like you.” Zafirah shifted closer so her low voice could be heard over the music. The other girls, sensing the two wanted some privacy, had turned their attention to matters other than winning their way into the Scion’s bed, giving them some extra space. “None like you.”

Dae felt shy, but couldn’t help but feel flattered at the same time. A small part of her mind argued that Zafirah was only saying these things to seduce her into parting with her virtue…but that voice was silenced by the honest sincerity in the dark woman’s piercing eyes. There was no lie in those sapphire gems, no trace of guile or deceit. They were as open as the desert itself…and Dae felt a spark of courage burst from inside her just seeing how Zafirah was willing to lay herself so bare in this way. If she can be honest with me, she thought, how can I be anything less with her?

“The kiss?” She sat up a little straighter. “I didn’t hate it.”

Zafirah considered that statement, one eyebrow raised in cautious hope. “Indeed?”

A nod. “In fact…” Dae chewed her lower lip — a gesture which, for some reason, fanned the flames of Zafirah’s lust even higher. “…I kinda liked it.”

Now Zafirah couldn’t contain her smile and it tugged at her lips helplessly. “Indeed?”

Dae nodded. “A lot.”

“Mmm.” Zafirah moved closer again — close enough that Dae could smell the scent of rose perfume mixed with the faintest traces of leather and horse, a scent that seemed enticingly feminine. “Enough that you might wish to experience another?”

“Maybe.” Dae stifled a grin as she appeared to give the matter the most serious of deliberation. “If I could find someone willing to give me a second try.”

“I think I could be persuaded,” Zafirah said with becoming gravity.

Dae giggled and looked away quickly before she could be snared by the Scion’s devastating eyes — she knew if that happened, nothing short of death would stop her from sending her tongue on a mission of conquest into the dark woman’s mouth. “Maybe one day,” she said very softly, “you could show me how to do it properly. You know…the way Hayam and Johara kiss.”

Something had indeed changed in the innocent blonde, Zafirah thought…and it had been more significant than even she had dared to hope. Still, her feelings for Dae were too strong to allow lust the chance to ruin all. “Are you certain? I do not wish to lead you down a path you have no desire to walk.”

“I thought it was something you wanted,” Dae remarked, one eyebrow lifted playfully.

“I do…but not if you feel even the most minor of unease.” Zafirah reached out and laid her hand on Dae’s thigh — not attempting a seduction, but simply needing a physical connection to the girl. “I still remember all too clearly what you told me when we first spoke of such matters. You said you would never wish to seek pleasure with another woman, no matter how long you stayed here.”

“Well…” Dae gingerly set her own hand on top of the Scion’s, feeling the warmth of the older woman’s flesh beneath her touch. She met Zafirah’s gaze again cautiously. “Words spoken in fear or haste are never set in stone. Perhaps they could be…negotiable.”

Zafirah looked deep into Dae’s shy emerald eyes, searching. “You have much fear in your eyes,” she whispered after a long moment.

Dae blushed and lowered her head. “Maybe I do,” she admitted without shame. “But not as much as when I first came here.”

“Mmm.” Zafirah considered this statement and the message that lay beneath it. “Perhaps, in time, that fear might fade to nothingness.”

Dae nodded. “I think it might, yes.” She smiled at the dark woman, her whole body tingling as it always seemed to do whenever she found herself in close proximity with the Scion. “Maybe…until then…we could just take things…slowly?”

Zafirah lifted her free hand and ran a single finger along Dae’s lower lip, then up her cheek. She smiled. “I am, if nothing else, a patient woman, Tahirah. Until you are ready, I shall do no more than long for you.”

“Well…I don’t think it’d be fair of me to give you nothing but longing,” Dae whispered, leaning forward a little. “Patience deserves some reward, afterall.”

Zafirah shivered as Dae closed the distance between them and kissed her softly — a kiss of youthful innocence tempered with an edge of excitement. As much as she wanted to deepen their contact, she waited breathlessly as Dae relaxed against her. When she felt the first timid touch of the young girl’s tongue against her lips, Zafirah almost choked with the force of her restraint. The inquisitive wet muscle explored along her lips, then, with more assertiveness that she would have expected from the innocent blonde, swiftly demanded entrance to her mouth. Zafirah complied and allowed Dae to lead the kiss, dueling softly with her own tongue and feeling the wonder in the body held so close to her own.

When they parted, both were breathing heavily. The seraglio had fallen silent, but it took them both a moment to realize that fact, so loud was the beating of their hearts. When they eventually managed to tear their eyes away from one another, puzzled at the lack of music, they found several dozen smiling faces watching them with great amusement. A moment later, a loud cheer went up among the gathered pleasure-servants, many of whom whistled and cried out for more.

Dae blushed an instant crimson and buried her face in the crook of Zafirah’s arm. The Scion merely smiled indulgently at her harem.

“Music!” she commanded, grinning. “Come now, let us not make poor Dae a spectacle. More music! More dance! Play on!”

The musicians did as ordered and several girls began to dance again. The others went back to their conversations, still laughing and smiling at the couple.

Zafirah chuckled. “Come now, little one. They are happy to see you indulge your desire. Do not be embarrassed.”

Dae peeked up at her, her face still a brilliant scarlet. “Easy for you to say,” she grumped.

Zafirah licked her lips and waggled her eyebrows. “We could give them something more to watch,” she suggested half-jokingly, half hopefully. “No? Perhaps another time.”

Dae, still quavering from the sensation of having her tongue in Zafirah’s mouth, turned a little so she could relax against the dark woman, her head resting on the soft cushion of her breasts. She pulled those smooth, powerful arms about her waist and happily tangled their fingers together. “Definitely…only next time, maybe we’ll try somewhere a bit more private.”

Zafirah let the blonde settle against her, hardly breathing for fear of ruining this dream. She felt those long golden tresses tickle her skin, and breathed the clean scent of the young woman’s hair. “Whatever you desire, my Tahirah,” she whispered, leaning forward a few inches so she could press her lips against Dae’s forehead. “Whatever you desire.”

* * *

That night, at the same time as Zafirah was saying her final goodnights to Dae — leaving the seraglio after quickly selecting one of her pleasure-servants with whom to satisfy her still-blazing appetites — far out in the deep desert, a group of mounted figures moved across the shiftless sands, riding single file to hide their numbers.

Bahira — a young woman who had served as a scout of the Scion for almost a third of her life — listened to the echoing silence of the desert at night. Her eyes, trained over the years to be ever-watchful, skipped along the expanses of rock and dune, never idle, always attentive. This assignment was important to her. Falak, the leader of the scouts and Bahira’s sometime lover, had entrusted to her the task of keeping watch on the stirrings among the renegade tribes being led by Shakir Al’Jadin. It was a promotion she did not intend Falak to regret.

Glancing over her shoulder, around the raven-fletched arrows that were the trademark of the Scion’s elite scouts, Bahira smiled at the line behind her. These were all skilled and able soldiers. They had been her family since she first left behind her nomadic tribe to seek her fortune in the great city of El’Kasari. Nasir, the slender, hard-muscled man riding directly behind her, was her second in command, and had fought beside her many times. She gestured for him to ride at the front with her.

Nasir gave his commander and friend a smile, his eyes remaining watchful — this was, afterall, wild-land…the land of their enemies. “The night seems quiet,” he whispered in a low tone, one practiced so the sound would not carry more than a few feet. “Shakir and his dogs would be fools to move about under the light of a full moon.”

Bahira nodded, but her face remained serious. “We must be vigilant still. I do not flatter myself to think that our presence here has gone entirely undetected. Shakir knows the Scion will be watching him — it is possible he may try to blind her eyes.”

“True enough. Yet we have been here some time now, and they have made no move to attack us.”

“Our mission is too important to leave to chance,” Bahira reiterated. “The Scion needs to know when Shakir decides to strike.”

Nasir was silent for a long while, before he asked gravely, “And what of the thunder? Have you reported it to Falak?”

Bahira frowned. Everything, it seemed, came down to the thunder. Her fellow scouts were edgy and concerned. Through the weeks they had been here, their efforts to watch Shakir’s actual camp had been foiled by geography — the camp was nestled in a wide canyon, surrounded on three sides by towering, sharp-toothed cliffs…impossible to climb, even for the adept scouts. The position afforded Shakir great protection from spies; his men patrolled a wide perimeter, and Bahira had been unable to penetrate their ring of steel. But from watching the supply wagons and the number of guards, she had gained at least an idea of how many troops the renegade Calif commanded, and of their general condition. What was of concern, however, was the thunder.

Most evenings, it cracked across the desert plains — a series of loud, sudden bolts of sound that seemed to herald a coming storm. But of course, the season when the rains would come was still many months away, and the skies remained a clear and brilliant cobalt blue. No lightening ever accompanied the strange, ominous thunder. No rain or clouds ever darkened the horizon. The mystery was disturbing…and it caused Bahira a measure of fear. What strange power did Shakir command, that he would go to such lengths to hide it from the Scion, and that could make such noises as these?

“I have kept Falak appraised of all we have seen and heard,” she told Nasir now. “She knows as much — and as little — as do we. We must learn more before the knowledge becomes useful.”

Nasir studied his commander a moment, reading the lines of her face carefully. “You are worried though…are you not?”

“I do not like the uncertainty,” she admitted honestly, one hand holding the reins of her horse loosely while the other stroked the horn grip of her recurved bow. “Whatever power he has found, Shakir should not be given time enough to master.”

“The Scion is no fool,” Nasir observed. “Her tactics have been successful time and time again. The spahi cannot maneuver so well in the canyon passes. Let Shakir bring his dogs into the open, where their advantage will be lost.”

“Mmm. Perhaps.” Bahira sighed. “Still…I do not like the not knowing of all this.”

Nasir considered for a time, then shook his head. “Perhaps they will move soon,” he suggested hopefully. “They cannot remain overlong in the deep des-”

A sudden sound like the cracking of stout wood shot across the open desert at that moment, silencing Nasir. The horses shied, but having been trained to be calm under battle conditions, they quieted almost immediately. Bahira and the other scouts lifted their bows, arrows nocked in a heartbeat, and their eyes scanned the horizon for their enemy. The sound had been close, and Bahira realized her party was under attack!

“Where are they!?” she demanded, her eyes finding nothing. “Nasir, can you see them?” There was no reply. “Nasir?”

Bahira glanced at her second, and her eyes widened in horrified disbelief. Nasir was staring down at his chest, his hands covering his ribcage, a look of surprise and pain etched on his face. In the light of the full moon, Bahira could see the blood welling out from between his fingers…not crimson, but a rusted black color in the silver light.

“Nasir?”

Nasir looked up at his commander and friend a final time, then his hands dropped limply to his sides, and he toppled from his horse. Unable to believe this was happening, Bahira saw a gaping hole had been torn from his chest. She took a moment to gather her energies, then turned back to her remaining scouts. She signaled them to form a circle with their backs to one another. Even as they moved to obey, a second booming k-raaack rang out, and another scout fell to the sands. This time, however, Bahira caught sight of movement on the dune-line, and she pointed. “There!”

Five arrows were loosed simultaneously, but the target was gone while they were still in the air. Another rider appeared, his figure silhouetted against the night sky, and Bahira fired again. Her shot fell short; the enemy was out of range, even for the powerful bow.

But apparently, whatever weapon he was armed with was still effective. A third explosion…and a third scout was slain.

Bahira felt a moment of panic grip her. It was only for a second, but it chased up her spine like the cold fingers of death. She didn’t know what she was up against here, but the facts she did understand were clear enough: she and her scouts couldn’t hit the enemy, but the enemy could pick her whole party off at their leisure. Trained to be adaptable, Bahira decided on the only possible plan of action that might save at least some of their lives. Lifting her head, she cried out, “Take them! Ride them down!”

Ululating war-cries split the night air as the scouts spurred their horses to attack. Arrows were nocked at a gallop as they charged the unknown numbers beyond the dune ridge, all of them determined to close the distance so they might at least fight back effectively.

Leading her fellows on, Bahira was the first to crest the rise…an act of leadership which very nearly cost her life. A line of fifteen or so figures mounted on swift mehari camels were ranged against her, no more than a few dozen paces away. She had barely enough time to sight a target and let loose an arrow before an explosive boom blasted against her, the sound deafening her ears. Flashes and smoke sparked in the darkness, and the acrid stench of sulfur stung Bahira’s nostrils a moment later. Startled by the noise, her horse reared up, and it was all Bahira could do to keep her seat. Behind her, she could hear screams as her brothers and sisters were felled by these mysterious weapons, but she didn’t have time to grieve. Not yet. In a fluid motion practiced since she was five years old, Bahira drew another arrow, nocked and sighted in one move, and let loose. A feral grin spread across her lips as she saw her aim hold true; one of the mounted enemy cried out and clutched uselessly at the shaft embedded in his lung. The surviving scouts shot arrows of their own, and for a moment Bahira thought perhaps they might overcome their enemy yet.

Another clap of strange thunder dismissed this hope, however. Bahira’s eyes squeezed shut at the sound, fully expecting to feel the punch of whatever magic these men were using…fully expecting agony and blood and final darkness. But miraculously, she remained untouched by the deadly hand of the thunder. In the confusion of shouts and screams all around her, Bahira saw more of her party fall…and suddenly realized the fight was as good as won. They could never hope to defeat this ambush. And if none survived, the Scion would remain ignorant of the enormity of this threat.

Retreat, then, was the only option.

Glancing about quickly, expecting at any moment to hear that thunder again, Bahira searched for an escape. Running back into the dunes was useless — she had seen how great a range the thunder could kill from. Scowling, her eyes glinting like chips of steel in the moonlight, Bahira considered a moment, then charged straight towards the edge of the enemy line. Her only hope was to break through, and hope she could loose any pursuit in the rocks that lay beyond the sand.

As she charged at a gallop towards the man, screaming the war-cry that had struck fear into the hearts of bandits for over a hundred years, Bahira saw the man fumbling with the weapon he held. A sudden realization dawned on her: he was trying to reload…just as she would have done with her bow. She grinned fully and pulled another arrow from the quiver at her back. Nocking it, she sighted carefully, letting herself grow accustomed to the rhythm of her horses gait. As she drew closer, she saw panic in the man’s eyes, and loosed the arrow. It buried itself soundlessly in his throat, and he struggled to pull it free even as he toppled from his camel.

Bahira, never slowing her galloping stride, flipped her bow over her shoulder and slipped her right foot from the stirrup. Bracing her thigh muscles, she leaned over precariously in the saddle, feeling the subtle shift as her horse recognized what she was doing and tensed to adjust to the redistribution of her weight. Eyes locked on the strange metal staff the man clutched in his hand, Bahira held herself almost parallel to the ground in a maneuver that foreigners from the east and west had marveled over for years. With her left hand hanging limp, seemingly relaxed, Bahira grabbed up the weapon from the ground as she passed at a full gallop, then swung herself back up into the saddle with a grunt of effort.

Sudden thunder boomed from behind her, and her horse whinnied and bolted. Bahira chanced a quick look back, her heart aching when she saw the rest of her scouts being butchered. She also noticed blood on the rump of her horse, and realized he’d been hit. Offering a calming pat, she twisted in the saddle to examined the wounds. They were deep, and had torn through muscle, but she judged that they would not lame her horse for some time. She said a silent prayer of thanks to the Goddess. El’Kasari was some distance away, and Bahira knew she would never make it on foot.

Slowing her steed to a canter, confident she could loose any pursuit in the rocks, Bahira scowled darkly at the weapon clutched in her hand. She would see that her fellows did not die for nothing; Falak and the Scion needed to know what power Shakir had somehow discovered. Then, she could begin the task of avenging her fallen comrades.
XIII
The next day was hot. Of course, most every day in the Jaharri desert was hot, but today the heat lingered long into the afternoon, forcing the pleasure-servants to remain indoors where the marble deflected most of the suns rays. Even when the shadows lengthened into evening, the temperature outside in the seraglio was such that many chose to sleep through until full dark.

Since coming here, Dae had found herself adjusting well to the desert climate. She still tried to stay out of direct sunlight, since her pale skin burned easily, but she was now fairly comfortable living with temperatures that were unheard of in her homeland, even during the summer months. But when she stepped outside today, the heat was like a physical wall, and she winced as sweat beaded almost instantly on her forehead.

“Gods above!” Even breathing seemed difficult in the heavy air! Dae looked about the seraglio, fully expecting to see every plant and blade of grass withered to dust beneath the glare of the sun’s irate gaze. But the garden was still impossibly green and lush, and there were a few other girls about…mostly lounging in the shade of the taller trees or splashing about in the pool beneath the waterfall. For a moment, Dae wondered whether she should just go back to her room and wait for nightfall…but after being inside all day, she wanted to stretch her legs a bit. Plus, she recalled that Zafirah had offered to pose for her tonight…and she wanted to be here when the dark woman arrived.

The thought of being alone with Zafirah caused an instant jolt of eager anticipation to shoot through the young blonde. Last night, Dae knew she had crossed a line. She had accepted that she was attracted to the Scion, and had gone so far as to admit her feelings in a physical way. The kiss she had shared with Zafirah had been exciting and carnal, and Dae had lain awake late into the night, remembering every detail of how it had felt to have her tongue in the dark woman’s mouth, letting the memories guide her hands and fingers across her body until she was quaking under the fury of climax for the second time that day. The thoughts of what might happen when she eventually gave herself to the Scion were as frightening as they were thrilling; Dae found the delayed anticipation slowly building within her…as it had surely been building since she’d first come to El’Kasari.

“Dae!”

A voice calling her name broke Dae from her licentious ponderings, and she glanced over to the pool where Nasheta and a few other girls were splashing about in the cooler waters. The blonde girl waved her over. “Come join us little one!” she called. “The water is wonderful!”

Dae hesitated, but wandered over after a moment. Sitting on one of the boulders that broke the waters edge, she eyed the pool uncertainly. “I’d rather just stay here.” Dae had only been in the pool once; after realizing how the water made her clothing transparent — and realizing further how appreciative the other girls were of that fact — she had made a point of staying on dry land.

Nasheta pouted up at her. “Please?” she begged, batting wet eyelashes persuasively and managing to look quite forlorn at Dae’s rejection. “The sun is too hot for comfort. Surely you would rather be cool in here with us than remain in the hot air.” Her hands caressed the surface of the water. “We promise to play nice…”

Dae heard a distinctly mischievous edge in Nasheta’s tone…and recognized that the girl was trying to draw her into a flirtation. The sea-green eyes that were almost the same shade as her own emerald ones skipped down her figure for half a second, and Dae felt her body respond helplessly to the attention. She wrestled a moment with her modesty…and with the new pleasures she had been experiencing recently adding strength to her internal debate, she actually managed to win quite easily. Afterall, it was hot, and the cool water did look rather inviting.

“Welll…” Dae appeared to give the matter consideration, then she smiled. “I guess it couldn’t hurt.”

Nasheta clapped her hands and squealed in delight. “Excellent!”

Dae dipped her hand in the pool, testing the temperature of the water. It was quite pleasant — not too cold, and much nicer than the stifling air. Standing up, she took a deep breath, then jumped into the pool with a big splash. She stayed underwater for a moment, shaking her head to get her hair wet as she sorted through the folds of her outfit, then she found her feet once more and stood up. Her head broke the surface; the water lapped just above her breasts, and she grinned at the other girls.

“This is nice.”

Nasheta giggled and splashed her playfully. “You should join us more often. Come…it is even better under the fall.”

The two swam over to the waterfall, Dae looking up at the cascade with interest. The water was far shallower here, leaving most of her upper body exposed. From this angle, the spray cast the last rays of the sun into iridescent rainbow arcs, and Dae laughed delightedly. “I bet this is the only place in the whole desert where you can see a proper rainbow,” she said.

Nasheta, who was actually more interested in appreciating the way Dae’s harem clothes clung to her every curve in transparent folds, regarded the rainbow curiously. “Such things are common in your land then?”

“Oh yes. Sometimes when there’s a fine rain, you can see giant ones that stretch across whole fields. My handmaidens told me that if I ever found the foot of a rainbow, there’d be a pot of gold waiting there for me.”

Nasheta grinned and immediately dove towards the colorful arc. Dae laughed at her antics as she pretended to look confused when the rainbow eluded her efforts to catch it. “I must have run after a hundred of these things as a child,” she remembered. “I never stopped trying to catch up to them when they disappeared.”

“I think it is a wonderful dream,” Nasheta sighed, leaving off her chase. “In the desert, children are taught not to follow such mirages — it is dangerous to believe in their reality.” Finding a smooth rock shelf to the side of the fall, she pulled her lithe body from the water and sat on the slick seat. “I was born in the west,” she explained. “My village was attacked when I was a little girl, and the bandits carried me across the seas to the far north. I cannot recall much about my homeland, but sometimes I wish I could see it again…see lands that are fat with water and green life.”

Dae listened, curious. It hadn’t really struck her that Nasheta had to have been born outside the desert world, though with her blonde hair it seemed obvious now. “How did you come to be living here?” she asked, shifting closer so she could hear better over the noise of the waterfall. “You talk with a desert accent.”

“And I speak their language fluently,” Nasheta added. “The men who took me traded me to the desert people as soon as I grew old enough to be appealing as a body-slave. Pale hair and green eyes are qualities much prized among the Jaharri nomads. I lived in the deep desert for a year or so before Zafirah saw me. She purchased me for a king’s ransom, and I have been happily in her service for some years now.” Nasheta paused and gave Dae a curious look. “I think you are very lucky to have been rescued so quickly from your fate at the hands of those slavers,” she said softly. “I doubt that whoever purchased you would have had the same sense of honor as the Scion.”

“You’re right,” Dae nodded, not liking to think what might have happened to her had her abductors been given a little more time. “I try not to think about it too much.”

“As well you should not,” Nasheta approved. “Why dwell on such negative thoughts? You live in a beautiful palace, accorded every respect and granted every luxury you could wish for. And,” she added with a wink, “you have captured the heart of a very attractive, very passionate woman…who would lavish much pleasure upon your body if given permission to do so.”

Dae blushed and looked away, though her smile remained. “I wouldn’t say it was her heart that seems most interested in me,” she protested shyly.

“Oh?” Nasheta gave the younger woman a look filled with secret knowledge. “If you truly believed only lust motivated Zafirah’s attentions, would you have kissed her so ardently last night?”

Dae’s silence was answer enough.

“I thought not. You may believe me when I say Zafirah feels much love for you, little one — I have experienced at least a taste of her passion for you, and know better than most how strong her feelings are in this matter.”

Dae looked up at Nasheta then, feeling curious but also a little awkward. Afterall, Zafirah had used this woman to vent passions which were aimed at her. Nasheta hadn’t spoken about her night with the Scion…but Dae felt again that stab of wonder lance through her, and the thought that she had tried to keep silent for so long now crept back into her mind; the thought that Nasheta knew exactly what Zafirah wanted to do to her…and that she might be willing to share that information. She moved closer to the other blonde, uncertain how to broach such a delicate issue. Finding a half-submerged seat in the pool, Dae puzzled the matter silently for a moment.

Nasheta watched the younger girl’s thoughtful expression with an amused smile, knowing the questions Dae longed to ask but enjoying the wait. Eventually, however, the look of puzzled awkwardness on the poor girl’s face was too much for her to bear, and she took pity on her companion. “If you wish to talk about what she did to me that night, you need not tear yourself apart trying to find your tongue. Just ask me. I am most willing to entertain your curiosity.”

“I-I wasn’t…I mean, that wasn’t what I was…I couldn’t-”

Nasheta held up her hand. “You are curious, Dae, and after last night it is no longer a secret that you feel desire for Zafirah.”

“Well, I don’t-”

Sensing an instinctive protest coming, Nasheta cut it off. “Can you look me in the eye and deny that it is no longer a question of ‘if’ you will warm the Scion’s bed…but rather, ‘when’?”

The cool water wasn’t enough to stop the blood rushing to Dae’s face…and other, lower, parts of her body. “I-I guess…maybe.”

“You wish to know what she did to me? What things she would do to you when the time comes?”

Dae nodded. “I-I saw the scratches,” she admitted softly.

Nasheta grinned. “And the bite marks?”

Dae nodded again. “And your clothes were all…torn…”

“Zafirah was extremely aroused,” Nasheta explained gently. “She needed to vent her lust completely. Do not be afraid; I did not mind the little pain…and I am certain she would be more gentle with you than she was with me.”

“So…” Dae hesitated. “You liked what she did?”

“Of course. She seemed determined that I should feel as much pleasure as my body could stand…and perhaps more. Such generosity and desire to please are excellent qualities in a lover…although,” Nasheta pouted, “she barely let me touch her at all, so intent was her focus on my absolute satisfaction.”

“Wh-what did she do to you?” Dae asked, her eyes as wide as those of a child who waits impatiently for a story to be told.

Nasheta leaned forward. “She kissed me. Everywhere. Long and deep.” The blonde harem girl spoke softly, in a seductive tone. “And she touched me. At first she was almost frenzied with desire, and I think in her delirium she was caught up completely in her fantasy of ravishing you. But after a time, she calmed somewhat…and became more thorough in her ministrations.” Nasheta sighed theatrically. “I fear my memory of exact details is a little unreliable; my body and mind were overwhelmed with sensation. The pleasure was quite extraordinary, and I am certain I passed out a few times during the night.”

Dae remembered the state Nasheta had been in when the guards returned her to the seraglio, and the way she had looked during the days after. “You seemed…in pain…when they brought you back.”

“I was sore,” Nasheta admitted. “Particular — highly sensitive — areas of my body had received more attention than to which they are accustomed. Even pleasure-servants have limits. But a little tenderness and a few days rest are small prices to pay for the gift of such intense bliss as I experienced.” Nasheta paused and looked at Dae’s face, trying to gauge her reaction. “I have lain with Zafirah many times, child,” she said softly after a moment. “I know her well, and consider her a friend as well as a lover. Believe me when I tell you that she loves you.”

Dae looked away, uncomfortable. “How can you tell?”

Nasheta smiled. “I have seen her naked and exposed during a moment of intimacy that she wished to share with you. I heard the love in her voice and I felt it in her touch. Had you been in my place — in the place you were meant to be — you would have no doubts as to the depth of her feelings for you.”

“But…” Dae frowned, unable to accept Nasheta’s insistence, “why would she love me? She’s like a queen. She can have anyone she wants.”

“And she wants you.” Nasheta shook her head and grinned, amused by Dae’s innocence. “Is it so hard to understand? People fall in love all the time…and you are as deserving of such attention as any other. You are beautiful, kind-hearted and warm-natured. Zafirah may be a ruler, but that does not make her any less a human being. Her heart is not as armored to the arrows of love as she might have believed it to be.”

“But…she still beds with others,” Dae observed. “Even last night, she didn’t sleep alone.”

Nasheta considered this, remembering that Dae had been brought up in what was a comparatively puritanical society. “Would you wish for her to stop?” she asked seriously. “For her to give up pleasure?”

Dae shrugged. “I-I don’t know. In my land…”

“We are no longer in your land, little one,” Nasheta pointed out gently. “Is it fair for you to set boundaries and borders on her love?”

“Well…she’d probably expect me to be…faithful…to her…” Dae trailed off as Nasheta shook her head.

“You honestly believe Zafirah would be angered if you shared pleasure with another? If so, than you have much to learn of her.”

Dae paused to consider this. She remembered her conversation with the Scion regarding love, and realized Nasheta was right. Zafirah didn’t expect fidelity or monogamy from any lover…she believed that pleasure was too pure a thing to be bound by rules.

Nasheta saw the understanding begin to light in Dae’s eyes, and smiled. “I think you will find that if you promised her your heart, Zafirah would be more than satisfied. Perhaps, like Johara and Hayam, she would want to include you in her pleasure-taking…but jealousy is something completely foreign to her nature.” Nasheta slipped closer to Dae and ran a single finger along her left shoulder-blade, smiling when the young blonde turned in surprise. Sea-green eyes darkened, and her voice grew huskier. “She would want you to be free to explore all pleasures that present themselves.”

“Umm.” Dae swallowed hard, suddenly aware of her companion’s proximity and intentions. Nasheta’s eyes roamed over her chest, and Dae froze, completely uncertain as to what she should do. She started to fold her arms across her breasts, but was stopped by a voice in her head — a voice she’d never heard before, but which spoke with a confident and commanding sense of authority. Let her look, the voice said calmly. She likes your body…what harm is there in letting her see you? She’ll probably think of you tonight when she’s all alone, and the memory will excite her. Perhaps she’ll touch herself while thinking of you…or seek pleasure in the arms of another.

Dae’s hands remained at her sides, but her eyes were still wide.

Nasheta smiled and shifted closer still, seeing that Dae wasn’t going to cover herself and accepting that as an invitation to let her eyes linger. “Mmm…so many delectations yet to be sampled,” she whispered, almost purring. “So much flesh untasted by lips who would lavish such attentions upon you as cannot be imagined.” The tip of a pink tongue flickered out to lick her lips and Nasheta smiled, seeing Dae’s body respond. “Your nipples grow hard, little one…and I doubt they are affected by the cool of the water. Perhaps you find the thought of my mouth pressed against your flesh appealing..?”

Dae’s breathing grew suddenly shallow; her pupils dilated and she felt tell-tale heat flush through her loins. Under Nasheta’s ravening gaze, she felt positively naked.

Nasheta ran a hand up her own body, conscious of others watching her seduction attempt. She doubted Dae would succumb to her, but it was definitely worth a try. “I could teach you things that would be of great use when you decide you are ready to be with Zafirah,” she coaxed, shifting her body closer to the younger blonde until she could feel the heat between them. “I could show you pleasure without even risking your virtue.” Nasheta gazed longingly at Dae’s breasts. “Shall we make a game of it? See if I can make you come just from suckling your breasts…?”

“No!” Dae dragged herself out of a erotic daze, stopping Nasheta just as she was about to descend. “Um…th-thank you but…I-I don’t…think I’m quite ready for that. It’s a lovely offer, really, but I just…I can’t-”

Nasheta smiled and shrugged, backing off a little. “You are afraid to feel pleasure?”

“No, it’s not that, I just…” Dae trailed off, unable to find the words to explain her continued resistance. She knew that if Nasheta’s lips had touched her aching flesh, all would have been lost. She would have allowed the other woman to do whatever she pleased. As it was, her blood was still roaring through her veins in a tide of lust; when she went to bed later, Dae knew she would have to satisfy the ache between her legs with her own fingers.

“I can see the desire is in you,” Nasheta said gently. “Why do you fight it? Because of Zafirah? She would be pleased to know that you are exploring the pleasures of the flesh.”

“It’s not Zafirah, it’s me,” Dae said. “I just…” She shrugged helplessly.

Nasheta nodded. “I understand. You do not feel ready.” She reached out and laid a hand on the younger woman’s thigh. “May I offer some advice?”

“I-if you like.”

“Listen to your body. You have no idea the power you hold, Dae.”

“Power?”

Nasheta smiled. “The power of innocent beauty; a body that men and women would do anything to possess. It is a gift — a powerful gift — you should not shy from using.” She squeezed gently with her hand before withdrawing.

Dae smiled, still confused, but arched an eyebrow at Nasheta’s hand. “That was just an excuse to touch some skin, wasn’t it.”

“Well…” Nasheta grinned. “Perhaps a little. But think about what I said, okay?”

Dae nodded. “I will.”

“Good.” Nasheta clapped her hands, her whole demeanor changing in an instant from intriguingly seductive to childishly playful. “Come! Let us dive from the top of the fall.” She began climbing the rocky cascade, finding easy handholds all the way.

Shivering despite the hot air, having just a little trouble dispelling the interesting tingling sensations that still raced over her skin, Dae hesitated only a moment before she followed.

* * *

Zafirah was striding purposefully towards the harem grounds when Falak caught up to her. The scout hesitated when she saw the expression of anticipation on the Scion’s face, reluctant to spoil Zafirah’s good mood after her recent tensions. But her mission was too important to wait.

“My Scion?”

Zafirah glanced at her, smiling, but didn’t slow down. “Yes Falak?”

“I have received urgent news; your attention is required.”

“Not tonight, my friend. I have a prior commitment to Dae. Your news can wait until the morning-”

“With all respect, my Scion,” Falak bowed slightly as she walked, “it cannot wait. Indeed, events have grown more dire than we thought; every moment now is precious.”

Hearing the note of unease in Falak’s tone, Zafirah stopped and gave her full attention to the scout. She read the serious, grim expression on the dark-skinned woman’s face, and reluctantly put thoughts of Dae aside. “You have received word from the scouts watching Shakir?”

Falak nodded. “Though not from the scouts themselves, Scion.” She paused, then stated simply, “They were ambushed and slaughtered last night; only one survived.”

“Ambushed?” Zafirah’s jaw dropped in surprise. Her scouts were fierce and stealthy warriors; their skills were legendary. “How? Was it Shakir?”

“It appears the Calif was behind the attack, yes.”

“But-”

“The scout who survived wandered into the camp of the Herak. Her horse had fallen from wounds sustained in her escape, but she carried one of the weapons retrieved from the enemy. The Herak sent a swift-rider immediately to bring us news of her safety. He told me the device is unlike anything we have ever seen. It killed from a great distance, and with tremendous accuracy.”

“Where is the surviving scout now?” Zafirah asked.

“She is still being cared for by the Herak.” Falak watched Zafirah process this information quickly, her strategic mind quickly working through to the obvious conclusion. Still, the dark-skinned scout finished her Scion’s train of thought for her. “We must leave at once.”

Zafirah considered a moment longer, wishing there were another way. But this news meant Shakir posed a greater threat than anticipated, and she needed to move fast before he attacked her people. No matter how enticing the prospect of a night alone with Dae might have been, Zafirah knew the lives under her protection came first. She nodded. “Have Simhana saddled and an escort drawn from the barracks,” she ordered quickly, her attitude shifting to that of a commander. “If we ride through the night and into the morning we can reach the Herak before the sun forces us to stop.” It would mean a hard pace; the Herak lived near the deep-desert far to the south. “What of the swift-rider who brought us this news?”

“He is resting. His horse is near exhaustion, but should recover with proper care.”

Zafirah nodded, satisfied. “Make certain he does not leave El’Kasari before he is fully recovered. Draw provisions from the stores and equip another scouting party. Once we have learned more of this threat, I may need eyes in the deep desert once more.”

Falak saluted smartly. “At once, Scion. We will be ready to leave before sundown.”

“Excellent.” The scout turned to leave. “Falak?”

“Yes, Scion?”

Zafirah’s hard expression softened. “The survivor? Was it…?”

Falak smiled very slightly and nodded. “Bahira.”

“I am pleased for you,” Zafirah said softly. “I have seen how close the two of you have become.”

“Thank you.” Falak’s eyes dropped. “In truth…I cannot help but feel ashamed of my relief,” she admitted. “Ashamed that I am glad others died instead of her.”

Zafirah nodded, understanding that feeling very well. Though she and Falak had shared pleasure with one another, she knew the bond her chief scout shared with Bahira ran deeper than the flesh. “Do not let such clouds darken the gift of her survival. It would anger the Goddess to see her mercy so ill-received.”

Falak nodded, then waved her hand at Zafirah. “Go. I suspect there is a young woman who will be much disappointed to hear she will not be enjoying your company this night. The least you can do is offer a proper apology.”

Zafirah grinned. “I will join you at the stables when I am done.”

Falak nodded. “Take whatever time you need.”

The Scion nodded her thanks, then continued on to the harem grounds, the spring in her steps now noticeably subdued.

Entering the seraglio, Zafirah couldn’t help but smile when she saw Dae. The young blonde was laying on her back on a rock beside the waterfall, sunning herself. She had obviously been swimming recently; her clothes and hair were soaked. The brief harem outfit she wore was plastered to her body, almost transparent with moisture. Zafirah swallowed when Dae saw her and propped herself up on her elbows with a grin; she just knew the image of that lithe, ripe body was going to haunt her at every opportunity during the coming days.

Damn you Shakir, she cursed silently. You have no idea what your pathetic little rebellion is costing me!

“Ahlan,” the young blonde greeted properly as Zafirah approached, demonstrating her recent efforts to learn the desert language. “Was it unusually hot today, or should I adjust my scale again?”

“No, it…it was quite a hot day.” Just keep your eyes from wandering lower and perhaps you will escape the harem without ravishing her in front of everyone. But the temptation to take advantage of this rare opportunity proved too great for the Scion to resist; her eyes flicked rapidly down to take in the beauty of Dae’s breasts through the sheer silk fabric.

Dae did not miss the look, nor the almost inaudible groan that escaped Zafirah. She lifted one eyebrow coyly but made no move to cover herself, rather enjoying the look of twisted desire and restraint on the dark woman’s face. “So…what did you have in mind for us tonight?” she asked innocently.

“Huh?” Sapphire eyes snapped into focus suddenly.

“Tonight? Remember, you offered to pose for me. Or have you forgotten the invitation so quickly?” Dae was now thoroughly enjoying the effect she was having on the usually calm and confident Scion.

“No, I…I was just-” Zafirah’s gaze slipped helplessly back to the glory of Dae’s body. For a moment, she forgot completely about Falak and the threat of Shakir, all thoughts driven far from her mind by the image before her — an image she had longed to behold for many months now. When she managed to tear her eyes away and focus once more on Dae’s face, Zafirah saw the playful glint in the young girl’s emerald gaze and realized the display had been far from innocent. Dae was quite deliberately tempting her. Zafirah closed her eyes and asked for strength from the Goddess. Why did this have to happen, tonight of all nights!?

“You were just…what?” Dae grinned.

Zafirah sighed and claimed the spot next to Dae, making certain her eyes didn’t wander anywhere near the captivating blonde. “This is not fair,” she said after a moment spent collecting her scattered thoughts.

“What’s not fair?”

“There has been trouble among the southern tribes,” Zafirah explained simply. “Renegade tribes have banded together and have attacked my scouts. I must leave tonight so as to evaluate the threat they pose.”

“Oh.” Dae’s playful expression vanished immediately, replaced by one of concern. “Are you… I mean, will you be okay? Will it be very dangerous?”

Dae’s concern brought a warm feeling to Zafirah’s heart. “The risk should not be great,” she assured the young woman. “I will have a strong escort and have no intention of riding to battle before I understand my enemy. But I fear I must delay our appointment together until I return.”

“How long will it take?”

Zafirah shrugged. “I cannot know for certain, but…I should not think more than a few days. We shall be riding to the camp of the Herak to talk with the scout who survived the attack; it will afford me the opportunity to visit with my mother. The ride out there will be fast and hard.” The Scion gave her companion a wry smile. “Believe me when I say I would much prefer to entertain your company tonight than that of my horse, but…”

Dae held up hand. “No, that’s okay. I understand. You have to take care of your people.”

“I hope you are not offended.”

“Why would I be offended?” Dae smiled softly and reached out a hand to touch the dark woman on the shoulder; her hands seemed eager for any contact they could get. “We can spend some time together when you get back. I’m not going anywhere.”

Zafirah nodded, accepting the contact eagerly. She would have liked to return the familial touch, but knew that if her hands were given such leniency they would most certainly misbehave. She glanced quickly at Dae’s nearly naked body, then back to the garden. “I begin to feel as though I am cursed by Inshal,” she remarked with a half-smile. “The thing I most desire in all the world is dangled before my eyes, but each time I think it is within my grasp, something rises to snatch it away.”

“Oh?” Dae leaned a little closer to the other woman, liking the scent of incense that surrounded the Scion. “I thought you were doing pretty good, all things considered. Especially after last night.” She looked down at her wet clothes and giggled. “I mean, I’m sitting here in see-through clothes just to give you something to look forward too. I think that should be evidence enough that your seduction is coming along quite nicely.”

Zafirah couldn’t help herself and chuckled. “You shall drive me to madness with such teasing, little Tahirah.” She caught the younger woman’s hand in her own and brought it to her lips, placing a delicate kiss on the palm. “I shall return as soon and as swiftly as I am able.”

Dae tilted her head girlishly. “Promise?”

“Of course.” Zafirah smirked. “I would never keep a beautiful woman waiting for pleasure.”

“Psh!” Dae flushed. “Get going then. The sooner you leave, the sooner you’ll be able to get back.”

Zafirah reluctantly stood. Her sapphire eyes were soft and filled with deep affection as she gazed at Dae. “Maasalama, aziza,” she whispered. “I shall miss you every moment we are parted.” Then, the Scion turned and walked from the seraglio quickly, before she decided to put her personal needs before the welfare of her people.

Dae watched the dark woman leave, her eyes wide with surprise at those parting words. She remembered the word aziza, having heard it from the lips of Johara and Hayam often enough during her time in the harem. But she had never expected to hear it from Zafirah; a woman who professed passion and lust, but never true love. A slow, sweet burning sensation clutched at her heart, and she felt unexpected tears prick slightly at the corners of her eyes as she realized Nasheta had perhaps been correct.

Zafirah had called her ‘beloved.’

* * *

“You allowed her to escape?”

The soldier paled at the cold, lethal edge in the voice asking the question. His fingers plucked nervously at the reins of his camel and he felt his throat begin to close up in fear. “W-we could not- I mean…sh-she was too fast for us. They charged straight into our lines; there was nothing we could do-”

A single raised hand silenced the man. Shakir Al’Jadin regarded the others standing before him with uncaring, malevolent eyes. “A single scouting party…and you managed to loose five men in the battle.” An ominous pause. “And one weapon.”

Several dozen eyes hastily looked away, unable to meet the terrible scorn in Shakir’s gaze. They knew the Calif didn’t care much about the lose of his men; what stirred his rage was the lose of the thunder-bow.

One of the braver members of the party spoke up. “Effendi, it is true one of the scouts escaped…but her horse was wounded. I myself fired into the beast, and my aim was true. El’Kasari is far from here; she will surely perish in the desert without her stead.”

Shakir considered this, then scowled and shook his head. “And what if she is able to make it as far as the camp of the Herak? They will take her in and report at once to the Scion. Our greatest advantage right now is the element of surprise; the Whore knows nothing of the thunder-bows, and so will be unprepared to counter them. And what have you done?” Shakir’s face was dark with rage. “YOU HAVE GIVEN HER ONE OF THE WEAPONS!!”

The soldiers flinched at the verbal lashing, but they all remained silent, knowing their words would only further enrage the Calif.

“No wonder El’Kasari has stood for so long, with fools and idiots like yourselves attacking it! We have been offered a chance to strike back at the people who have kept us cowed for so long, and your incompetence is bringing us to ruin!”

The first soldier stared straight ahead, his back stiff. “I apologize for allowing the scout to escape,” he offered calmly.

Shakir regarded the man coldly, then, without a word, he pulled a scimitar from the scabbard at his back and slashed out with the speed of a striking asp. The soldier barely had time to recognize the flash of steel before white-hot pain blinded him. His head fell to the sands; a few seconds later, his body joined it, toppling from the camel and landing with a dull thud. The Calif glanced at the body contemptuously. “Apology accepted.” His cold eyes shot to the other soldiers, who were staring at him in fear. “The rest of you take note; when I issue the order ‘No survivors’, I mean exactly that. Let us have no more mishaps like this one, or I shall save the Scion the trouble of killing you by doing it myself.” So saying, Shakir turned his mount away and headed back to the rest of his men.

The soldiers watched him leave, then their attention back to their fallen comrade. They felt little pity for him…only a relief that they had not shared his fate.

At least for today.
XIV
The deep frown on Zafirah’s face was hidden by the folds of her haik, but those around the Scion had no trouble reading her mood from the cold storm raging behind her flashing eyes. The tall woman stood in the tent of Jestart, the leader of the Herak tribe, studying the object laying on the ground at her feet.

They had arrived nearer to mid-day than Zafirah might have liked, only pushing on through the rising heat because no shelter could be found on the stark sands. Once they reached the camp of the Herak they had seen immediately to their weary horses, made the proper, traditional exchange of greetings and welcome with their hosts, and then asked to be shown to the tent where Bahira lay, recovering from exposure and exhaustion. The scout had offered her report to the Scion and Falak, concisely retelling the events of the ambush and how she had escaped when the other members of her party had fallen. Zafirah listened without interrupting, and when Bahira finished she commended her for her efforts. Now, darkness was falling, and Zafirah had been led by Jestart to his tent where she could see with her own eyes the instrument of death which had killed her scouts so effectively.

The weapon was long and slender, comprised of wood and steel. Zafirah considered it a while in silence, puzzled by its seemingly harmless appearance but respectful of the air of power it projected. When she reached out a hand to touch it, Jestart drew in a sharp breath.

“Be careful, Scion,” he cautioned. “We are uncertain of how this device works exactly.”

Zafirah nodded, but picked the weapon up anyway. It was heavy, and she hefted it cautiously. “Bahira said she believed it worked much like a bow,” she mused aloud. “It fires some kind of thunder which strikes the target dead from any range.” The steel pipe that comprised most of the weapon’s length seemed to gleam an ugly, menacing grey in the light of the shamedan. Zafirah drew back her haik with one hand and sniffed curiously; the weapon stank of sulfur and hell-fire. Sapphire eyes narrowed. “How did Shakir come by such a weapon?”

“More importantly,” Falak put in, “how many more of these does he have?”

“Bahira guessed his main camp comprised no more than a hundred men, judging by the supplies he was receiving from the other tribes of his alliance. We must ensure he does not add to that number, or his threat will be far greater.” Zafirah puzzled with the weapon a few moments, then pulled the wooden part of it back into her shoulder. With her hands supporting its length, she lifted it to eye-level, nodding when she saw how it was sighted. “If we learn how it works,” she said softly, “we may be able to learn how to defeat it. Jestart?”

“Yes, Scion?”

“Have this weapon shown about the camp. It seems harmless now, but if any of your people can deduce its method we may stand a better chance against Shakir when he moves.”

“As you wish, Scion.”

Zafirah regarded the elder leader fondly. “I regret that I must also request you move the camp closer to El’Kasari. I know this is not something you wish to do, but I will not allow you to be slaughtered when the Calif of the Deharn attacks.”

As she expected, Jestart scowled, but nodded. “If you command it, Scion, it will be done.”

“Thank you.” Zafirah carefully placed the strange weapon back on the tent floor. “With your permission, my spahi and I will remain here until Bahira is well enough to travel. We will take this devil-weapon with us to El’Kasari, so the council may deliberate and study it. Falak? Send the scouts we brought out into the desert. Do not attempt to draw near Shakir’s camp; I only wish to know when he begins his advance.”

“As you wish, Scion.”

“For now…” Zafirah sighed, feeling her body ache. “There is little more we can do besides get some rest and prepare for tomorrow.”

Jestart nodded. “We have prepared a tent for you, Scion. You are welcome to join our fire and even-meal. Your visit has stirred up much excitement among my people; I know many will be disappointed if they are not given a chance to meet you.”

Zafirah smiled, seeing the twinkle in the older man’s eyes and understanding the hidden message in his words. Zafirah’s skills in the bedroom were as legendary as her beauty, and doubtless many young women of the nomad tribe were eager to test the truth of her talents. “I would be much honored to join your meal, cousin…but fear I must rest a little first. The ride through the night has taxed me overmuch, and my company will be of little worth until I regain some strength.”

“Of course.” Jestart grinned and bowed. “My people will show you to your tent then. Join us when you are rested.”

“My thanks.”

Sometime later, Zafirah was jerked from a light but restorative slumber by the sound of rustling cloth and footsteps outside her tent. The Scion moved as swift and silent as a desert asp, her right hand straying to the hilt of a dagger that lay near her pallet. The figure silhouetted against the light from outside pulled apart the flaps of the tent door and stepped inside. Zafirah’s eyes went from cold slits to warm regard as she made out the familiar features of her visitor.

“Rashida,” she greeted with a slight smile, tossing the knife away. “I wondered when you would come see me.”

The woman stepped closer, lighting one of the oil-lamps that sat carefully on a small table near the center of the tent. “‘Rashida’, is it? How very formal.” Her tone was amused. “You may be Scion now, Zafirah, but you will always be my little girl.”

Zafirah sat up, crossing her legs beneath her. “‘Mother’, then.” She grinned, opening her arms. “Have you an embrace for your child?”

“Always.” Rashida accepted the hug fondly, ruffling her daughter’s hair when they parted. “My, it seems you grow taller and more beautiful each time I see you,” she said with gentle pride, running her eyes over Zafirah’s frame. “A pity it takes the call to battle to bring you out here for a visit.”

Zafirah looked away, properly shamed. “I know. And you have every right to think me a terrible daughter for not visiting more often, but…”

“But the city is your home, Zafirah…and you are Scion.” Rashida smiled a quiet, slightly sad smile. “I understand.”

Zafirah nodded, grateful for her mother’s acceptance, before she studied the elder woman more carefully. In her youth, Rashida had been a woman of great beauty, and the extra years and hard life she lived had done nothing more than add grace and dignity to her features. She had the same long, midnight-black hair and startling blue eyes as her daughter, and was tall and willowy of frame. Zafirah noticed a new depth to the lines that creased the skin about her eyes and lips, and a few more strands of grey in the dark tresses than she remembered, but she was pleased her mother still seemed strong and healthy. The Herak were a tough and willful tribe; they seemed almost to enjoy the punishing way the desert treated them, where every day was a challenge to be overcome. It was that strength and pride which had first drawn Zafirah’s father to Rashida…and it had not been diluted with time. “You look good,” she complemented.

“Thank you.” Rashida cupped her daughter’s cheek with a callused hand and gazed into her eyes shrewdly. “You have changed somewhat. You seem not so abrasive as the last time I saw you.”

“I was younger then; the extra year has made much difference.”

“So I see.” Rashida gestured to the door. “I had expected to see you at the dinner. Jestart told me you were resting, which surprised me. I thought by now you would be prowling about the camp, searching for some young maiden to warm you through the night.”

Zafirah waggled her eyebrows at her mother’s teasing tone. “The night is young.”

Rashida laughed lightly, then studied her child carefully. She shook her head. “Something has indeed changed in you Zafirah,” she whispered. “Your eyes are not the blazing furnaces they were a year ago; their heat has taken on a softer quality.” There was a long pause, then the older woman smiled. “Tell me about her.”

Zafirah rolled her eyes and groaned. “Who told you?”

“Falak.”

“Ah…I might have known. So my chief scout reports to you now, does she?”

“No.” Rashida settled herself on a rug beside the coal-burner and assumed a knowing, wise air. “She simply respects that there are certain things a mother deserves to know about her child. So…tell me. Who is she, this woman who has captured your attention so?”

Zafirah snorted. “I suspect Falak has told you all you could wish to know about her.”

“She explained a few things, yes…but I would like to hear about her from your lips, little one.”

The Scion considered, then shrugged and sat opposite her mother. “Her name is Dae,” she started in a low, almost shy tone. “But I call her Tahirah…and I think she has grown to like it.”

“And does she deserve such a name?”

“Oh yes, moreso than I might desire. She swore when we met that she would never bed with me, and has only recently decided that her words were spoken in haste. She was captured by slavers in the eastern lands, and I rescued her and took her into the harem. While she has settled in well, it has taken some time for her to accept the way of passion in the desert.”

“She is beautiful?”

The soft, adoring expression on Zafirah’s face answered that question better than words could. “More beautiful than the sparkle of a thousand stars,” the dark woman whispered. “Her hair is as golden as a flow of honey, and her eyes shine like wet emeralds. The vision of her in my mind has led me to many sleepless nights…but it has been worth the frustration.” Zafirah was quiet under her mother’s regard for a time, before she admitted sheepishly, “It is difficult for me, but…I am learning to temper my passions with patience.”

“I hope she appreciates that.”

Zafirah nodded, remembering very clearly the feel of Dae’s body in her arms as she had held her the other night. “She is coming to understand such matters better.”

Rashida smiled. In truth, she had never expected to see this side of her daughter — had never expected such a side existed. Zafirah had been a confident seductress since she was barely past her eighteenth year, but had stoutly claimed that she could never give her heart to another completely. Now, it appeared that boast had been proven wrong. “You love her?”

Zafirah shrugged and offered a nervous little half-smile. “It is difficult to believe, is it not? But she has made herself a place in my heart…even though I am certain she did not intend to. And I cannot help but love her.”

“She must be very special,” Rashida decided. “Perhaps you will bring her to visit me some day? I would very much like to meet the woman who could tame your wandering eye!”

Zafirah laughed. “My eye is as free to wander as it was a year ago, mother…but my heart has been claimed beyond repudiation.”

Rashida considered this, then shook her head. “You always were too easily ruled by your lusts, Zafirah. I hope this girl will not be hurt because of your appetites.”

“I have never sought to conceal my nature from her,” Zafirah said stoutly, “nor my opinions on the concept of monogamy. She has only ever seen me for who I am…and I hope she will respect me enough not to want to change me to better suit her own ideals.”

“Mmm.” Rashida kept her own opinions to herself. She had only ever loved one man in her life, and even though he was dead, she remained true to him. But she knew better than to debate this issue with her strong-willed daughter; it was an argument neither would win. “Are you hungry?” she asked instead. “There is food and music to be found near the fire. You can tell me more about this young woman while we eat.”

Zafirah was feeling hungry after the long ride, having had little time to find food in the last day. She nodded. “Certainly.” Standing, she offered her mother her hand. Rashida accepted, letting her daughter help her up, then they headed off together towards the sound of laughter and drums in comfortable, familiar silence.

* * *

Dae had heard the phrase ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder’ many times in her life, but she was gaining a new appreciation of it now.

The young blonde had not expected to miss Zafirah, and was surprised to find herself constantly flicking glances towards the entrance to the palace proper, always expecting — hoping — to see the familiar tall, dark-haired figure standing there watching her intently. She had grown so accustomed to Zafirah’s visits that life seemed strange without her. She found herself longing for the dark Scion’s return, wanting to indulge in more touches and kisses with the older woman…wanting an opportunity to explore the new dimensions to their connection.

A large part of Dae’s longing no doubt stemmed from her growing acceptance of herself and her body as a sexual entity. The young blonde spent more and more time indulging herself in physical pleasure, and as she became more familiar with her own body, her touches became bolder and more confident. Through long hours of practice, Dae found she could bring herself to climax very quickly, with just a few knowing caresses…or, alternatively, she could prolong the ecstasy seemingly indefinitely, teasing herself until the sheets of her bed were stained with sweat and her own juices, and the edges of her mind seemed to burn with the need to experience fulfillment. As she grew more knowledgeable and assured, Dae began wanting something more — she wanted to test these new skills on Zafirah…and perhaps learn a more refined level of expertise from the older, more experienced, woman.

Of course, there were plenty of others in the harem who would have been more than happy to offer their assistance to the charming young blonde…and they made certain she was aware of their willingness. As the days went by, Dae noticed the behavior of the other pleasure-servants begin to change. It seemed that, while they had respected her resistance to their advances before, now that she had expressed an interest and willingness to the Scion, Dae was once again fair game. Nasheta had been the first to proposition the young blonde that day in the pool…but the others weren’t shy in following her example, and set about expressing their own interest during Zafirah’s absence.

At first, Dae thought the renewed attention was a result of her kiss with the Scion…but Inaya was quick to enlighten her.

“Little stays secret in a harem for long,” the dark-haired temptress had explained one day with an amused, seductive smile. “I doubt Johara and Hayam were able to keep their little ‘educational session’ with you to themselves. And also,” she added, just to see the young blonde blush, “you have been less than quiet in your room when you are practicing your new talents.”

Of course, Dae’s embarrassed reaction to this news was everything Inaya had been hoping for.

At first, Dae quietly and shyly rejected the advances of the other girls…but over time, something in her began to change. Inaya, watching interestedly to see how her friend would handle herself, was surprised when the young blonde actually began to encourage the flirtations. Dae would often frolic in the pool with the others, making no effort whatsoever to maintain her modesty. In the evenings and at night she would join in the dancing, her technique improving quickly as she started using ever more daring and sexual movements. She would accept long, sensuous massages from the other pleasure-servants, who quickly made a game of seeing who could draw the most erotic-sounding moans from the delectable little blonde. Dae seemed to revel in the way her body drew the attention of all those around her, enjoying the lustful stares cast her way. Whenever someone approached her with an invitation of more intimate pleasures, Dae would giggle and blush charmingly, and would offer a polite but flattered rejection even as she allowed enticing, suggestive touches to linger over her flesh. Inaya noticed the young girl had developed a new kind of smile…devilish yet innocent, which seemed for some reason to be incredibly erotic. There was a new sparkle of mischief in her emerald eyes…and a new maturity to her movements and actions. Inaya was not the only one to recognize the change for what it was…

Dae was getting her first taste of sexual power…and it seemed she found the flavor very much to her liking!

Dae knew she was teasing the other girls, but the game was fun for her now. She knew no-one would force her to do anything she didn’t want to do, and this feeling of security made her bold. That little voice in the back of her mind — the one which had encouraged her not to cover up when she’d been swimming with Nasheta — grew stronger and louder as time passed. Although at times she was tempted to accept some of the invitations made by the other girls, Dae continued to hold back. Their flirtations were light-hearted and enjoyable; they excited her, yes…but not in the same way as Zafirah could. The Scion was magnetic and intense. When Dae lay on her bed each night, her hands running over slick, heated skin with lustful purpose, the image that always filled her senses was that of sapphire eyes and a crooked, seductive smile. And when she closed her eyes to go to sleep, her body warm and drowsy with satiation, she remembered the gentle expression of adoration and love on Zafirah’s face before she’d left…and that single word, aziza, would cause a sweet ache to clutch at her heart. It was that memory more than anything else that stopped Dae from accepting the invitations made by her many admirers. Imagining what Zafirah might do to her — or what she might be allowed to do to Zafirah — had become Dae’s new favorite way to pass the time. She couldn’t wait for the dark woman to return from her mission, eager to demonstrate her new, more confident attitude.

Dae was lying beside the pool, letting the sun dry her clothes after a cooling swim, when a shadow fell across her. Sleepy eyelids parted to find Inaya standing over her, one eyebrow raised and a slight smile tugging at her full lips.

“Salaam aleikum, Dae.” Dark eyes roved downwards, pausing quite deliberately to admire the way Dae’s breasts strained against the fabric of her gauzy top, before returning to her face. “May I join you?”

Dae grinned lazily and nodded. “Sure. You should take a swim; the water’s great.” Now that she was more comfortable with her body and the attention she attracted, Dae found the pool offered a wonderful respite from the desert heat.

“Perhaps later.” Inaya settled herself beside the blonde, who had closed her eyes once more. Given the opportunity, Inaya absorbed the vision of Dae’s beauty happily, admiring the way the sun sparkled off the beads of water trapped on the young woman’s smooth, flat belly. “I have spoken with the guards,” she offered. “They told me Zafirah is expected to return to El’Kasari within a day…two at most.”

Dae smiled, but didn’t bother opening her eyes. She sighed. “I hope everything went okay for her.”

“You have missed her, I think.”

“Mmm…maybe I have.” One emerald eye peeked at Inaya brazenly. “I’m sure I can think of a few ways to welcome her home.”

Inaya laughed. “Such bold words from such an innocent mouth,” she mocked playfully. “I have seen the changes in you these last few days, little one; do not be too proud of your teasing games. You are but a babe in swaddling clothes compared to Zafirah when it comes to seduction.”

“I know.” Dae’s grin was unrepentant. “But I drove her to distraction before without even trying to; imagine what I could do if I put some effort into it.”

Inaya shook her head; she was pleased Dae was accepting her own desires at last…but a part of her wished she could be there when the still-naïve girl got her first taste of real pleasure. In fact…a part of her wished to be responsible for providing that taste. “You still have much to learn, little one,” she said in a husky tone.

Dipping a hand into the pool, Inaya wet her fingers then held them out above Dae’s body, letting the water drip onto her stomach. The blonde chuckled, her abdominal muscles contracting in unconscious response. Inaya repeated her actions, this time letting the water drip a little higher. When Dae felt the subtly-arousing sensation of droplets falling onto her breasts a moment later, she opened both eyes fully and raised an eyebrow at her friend.

“Are you trying to get me wet?” she asked in a low burr, fully aware her question had two layers.

Inaya’s eyes were smoky but amused; she was no stranger to the game of seduction herself. “Is it working?”

“Perhaps.” Dae’s heart began to beat just a little bit faster as Inaya returned her hand to the pool. This time, the dark-haired girl ran her dripping fingers lightly over the skin of Dae’s thigh. The young blonde couldn’t help it; she hitched in a sudden sharp breath at the erotic sensation of Inaya’s touch.

“It feels nice?” Inaya asked very quietly.

Dae smiled and nodded. “Very.”

“Mmm.” Inaya licked her lips slowly as her touch crept higher, feeling the shiver that ran through her friends body. “I wonder what else you might enjoy…”

Dae held perfectly still as Inaya continued to touch her…knowing she should stop the inappropriate caresses, but wanting the pleasure to continue. “You know,” she managed after a moment, “this isn’t the way friends are supposed to touch each other.”

“Oh?” Inaya hadn’t missed the tremble of desire in Dae’s voice. “Did you learn that in your homeland?”

“Yes.”

“Mmm…no doubt from the same people who denied you knowledge of the pleasures you now exercise freely — and quite vocally — each night in your bedchamber, hmm?” Inaya smiled at the confliction in Dae’s eyes. “Am I not desirable?” she asked with a slight pout.

Dae shivered. “I-it’s not that-”

“I certainly find you extremely attractive.”

“Yes, but-”

Inaya pressed a wet finger against Dae’s lips, silencing her. “You are still trying to place boundaries on that which is limitless, my friend.” Her voice was so soft it was almost ethereal….but Dae’s body responded to its tone helplessly. “Pleasure and love are two different things; one feeds from the flesh, the other from the heart and soul. Do not confuse one with the other.”

“But…we’re friends,” Dae observed.

“And friendship is based upon trust, respect, and affection,” Inaya agreed, “Qualities which can be deepened and strengthened through a sharing of intimacy and pleasure.” Long, delicate fingers traced down over Dae’s collar-bone, toying with her cleavage. “You could share many things with me, Dae; fantasies, dreams…your deepest desires. Is it so wrong that a friend should want you to feel pleasure?”

“Well…” Dae considered, finding it hard to argue with those deep, dark eyes gazing at her temptingly. Though she had grown accustomed to the others looking at her that way, it still seemed disconcerting when Inaya did it. “I guess not, but…”

“If you would allow me, there are many things I could show you.”

Dae almost moaned as a sudden image of herself and Inaya kissing and fondling one another sprang to life in her mind. Still, she rallied against the desire to simply give in to this seduction. “Others have made the same offer.”

“And been rejected.” Inaya cocked her head to the side. “Will you reject me also?”

The look on the desert girl’s face was almost too much for Dae to withstand, but she managed somehow. “For today…yes.”

“For today?” Inaya’s disappointment was suddenly lit with hope. “And what of tomorrow?”

Dae shrugged. “I don’t know. But…anything is possible.”

Inaya smiled and returned her hand to her side. “I can accept that.”

There was silence for a while as the two friends sat, each lost in thoughts that were mostly licentious in nature. Then Inaya glanced at Dae curiously.

“Is this what you have told all the others who have propositioned you?”

Dae lay back on the warm rock, eyes closed, grinning ear to ear. “Does it matter?”

Inaya considered a moment, then shook her head. “I suppose not.”

“Then don’t bother asking the question.”

The two exchanged amused looks, then burst into a fit of laughter.
XV
Rumors of unrest among the renegade tribes wasted little time making their way through the city of El’Kasari; Zafirah’s extended journey south gave them credence, as did the apparent tension among the spahi. Still, while such rumors might have driven a foreign city into a flurry of siege preparations and panic, the citizens of El’Kasari continued about their daily business without concern. They trusted their Scion implicitly; she had never failed them in protecting the Peace, and the army was stronger and more disciplined than it had been in decades. And if war did come, the people were ready to take up arms to defend their lives and their city.

Despite their calm, the people met Zafirah’s return with at least some measure of relief, feeling better having their Scion back among them. The tall, impressive woman smiled and touched hands with those who gathered in the streets to welcome her home, careful to keep any trace of concern from her face. She was the very embodiment of strength and utter confidence; calm, beautiful, and self-assured. The people saw her and knew that whatever threat was manifesting in the deep-desert, it could never hope to avail against the might of their Scion.

They did not see the look of disquiet in the deep sapphire eyes, nor the tension that stiffened the dark woman’s shoulders. They didn’t notice the grim, stern expressions on the faces of those riding escort for the Scion, or the worried glances they cast towards the unassuming cloth-wrapped bundle tied to Simhana’s saddle. When the soldiers disappeared back behind the walls of the palace barracks, the people of El’Kasari returned to their own business happily, safe and secure in the knowledge that their beloved leader was back in their midst once more.

Striding through the hallways of the palace, Zafirah issued orders to the guards who fell into step beside her. “Assemble the council at once. Request the priests to send a representative to attend our meeting. We must learn more of Shakir’s new army and the power it wields before we can counter it.”

“Some of the council members are asleep, Scion-” began one of the guards hesitantly.

Zafirah’s eyes blazed. “Wake them up.”

The guard gulped, nodding. “A-at once, Scion.” He hurried off on his mission.

Zafirah watched him leave, her bad mood only slightly mollified by being back in the familiar halls of her home. She wanted nothing more than to go immediately to the seraglio and see Dae, but knew that she couldn’t let her other duties wait. Her trip south had made the dark woman realize just how deep her affection and need for the young blonde had become; though she had taken pleasure with a few women from among the nomad tribe, Zafirah found their efforts only managed to appease her body…they could do little to settle her heart or mind. All the Scion wanted to do right now was take the gentle, innocent young girl in her arms and kiss her till she understood how much she was loved. The knowledge that she was going to have to wait an indeterminate length of time before she could see Dae only served to make Zafirah that much more irritable.

Continuing down the massive corridor, Zafirah glanced at herself quickly, noting the damp sweat-stains that darkened her vest and trousers. Her nose wrinkled. “I shall join the council as soon as I have had opportunity to change into something dry.”

As expected, the meeting was little more than a waste of time. Zafirah informed the representatives of the various allied tribes of the danger mounting in the south, displaying the strange, alien weapon as evidence of their threat. Bahira, recovered from the exposure she’d suffered, recounted again the story of the ambush and requested Zafirah’s permission to be among the first to ride against Shakir’s forces. Recognizing the need for revenge in the young woman’s eyes, Zafirah granted the request. The council members and the priests of Inshal all studied the weapon curiously, spending over an hour trying to deduce how it operated. In the end, they finally concluded that the device was beyond their wisdom; Zafirah was unsurprised. After another hour or so of heated debate, the council agreed that Shakir clearly intended to attack in short order, and that he and his allies should be stopped before they could cause any significant harm to the Scion Peace. Those tribes who were near to El’Kasari would be called on to defend the Peace, offering their own warriors to complement the formidable elite spahi. Falak’s scouts would report as soon as the renegade Calif left the sanctuary of the cliffs and encroached into the open; as soon as he was exposed, Zafirah intended to test his forces for herself.

By the time all these matters had been discussed and decided, the hour had grown late. Zafirah escaped as soon as the last member of the council left the chamber, heading as quick as she could in the direction of her harem.

When she arrived, the tall woman found few of her pleasure-servants still awake. The air was chill and bitter. Zafirah scanned the gardens hastily, searching for and failing to find the face she most wanted to see. Sighing dejectedly, she was just about to leave when a soft voice from the shadows stopped her.

“She is sleeping.”

Zafirah turned back to find Inaya standing nearby, the slender girl holding an unconsciously provocative pose. Dark eyes regarded her steadily, glittering as brightly as the stud in her navel. “She stayed awake late tonight, hoping you would visit, but eventually succumbed to her weariness. Come…I doubt she would mind if you were to look in on her.” Inaya gestured towards the sleeping chambers, pleased when Zafirah followed her silently.

They stopped outside the entrance to Dae’s room. Inaya studied Zafirah’s face carefully as the taller woman gazed at the slumbering girl; the gentle expression of utter adoration there couldn’t help but touch her heart.

Zafirah sighed quietly, gazing for several long moments at Dae’s peaceful repose, just soaking in the sense of calm and peace that looking at the young blonde stirred in her. “I cannot believe how much I missed her presence these last few days,” she whispered almost to herself.

Inaya smiled gently. “You may be pleased to know that the feeling was mutual.”

Sapphire eyes shifted, surprised. “Sh-she missed me?”

Inaya nodded. “I think she had not realized how much she enjoyed your company until it was gone. And I think you will find her eager to make up for the time you have been apart.” She paused, her smile turning into a wicked grin. “She has changed much in your absence; grown more aware of herself as a woman…and as a creature deserving of pleasure.”

Zafirah turned back to regard the slumbering figure. “She is so beautiful.”

“Mmm. And you are not the only person to appreciate that fact. Since the kiss she shared with you, Dae has become quite popular among the other girls.”

“Of course.” A dark brow lifted curiously. “Has she…succumbed to their advances?”

“Would you be jealous if I told you she had?” Inaya returned with equal interest.

Zafirah considered, then shook her head. “Envious, perhaps…though that is saying little. I am envious of the very clothes she wears, that they are able to touch her skin while I cannot. But it would make me happy to know she is experiencing pleasure and enjoyment.”

Inaya nodded, having expected the answer. “Well…while she has learned to enjoy the attention, Dae has refused all offers made to her…even my own.” A slightly wry smile tugged at one corner of Inaya’s mouth. “She has not admitted it, but I believe she wants to save herself so that you may be the first to touch her intimately.”

That statement sent a shiver across Zafirah’s skin and caused heat to flush through her lower regions. She watched as Dae shifted in her sleep, the young blonde whimpering softly and smiling as though at a pleasant dream. I wonder if she dreams of me, the dark woman mused, the thought warming her heart. “I shall see she is rewarded for her devotion,” she whispered. “Tomorrow…I shall spend as much time with her as I can.” As she watched the sleeping girl, Zafirah felt light hands begin to trace the contours of her back. Inaya leaned against her, and she smiled as those hands wandered to her hips.

“Perhaps tonight,” a husky voice suggested, “you might allow me the honor of welcoming you home properly, my Scion…?”

Zafirah chuckled, her body tired but still responsive. She turned around and looked down into deep, dark eyes filled with hungry promise. “It has been a long day, Inaya. I am weary from travel.”

Inaya pouted, her expression seductively tragic. “I could ease your muscles…relax you.”

“I doubt what you have in mind would be relaxing,” Zafirah grinned.

“But fun.” The slender girl pressed herself against the tall Scion, making certain her prey was aware of every curve and hollow of her body. Her eager hands wrapped themselves about a willing waist, knowing fingers beginning to tease the sensitive area at the base of Zafirah’s spine. “You could thank me for assisting with Dae’s…’education’…”

Zafirah’s ears perked up immediately. “Wh-what are you talking about?”

Inaya grinned fully, pearl-white teeth flashing in the dim light. She tugged at the taller woman’s clothing. “Come to bed and I shall tell you,” she husked seductively, feeling Zafirah’s resistance weakening. “Pleasure me well, and I will describe in great detail the sounds your beloved makes each night while she explores herself excitedly…practicing skills she hopes to use on your body someday.”

Zafirah groaned and allowed herself to be pulled along behind the slender temptress. I can rest in the morning, she decided, her fatigue quickly overcome with lust. The two left Dae to her dreams, retiring to the Scion’s bed-chamber to ‘relax’.
XVI
After a morning spent training with the men and women of her army — dedicating extra time to the martial drills due to the imminent possibility of battle — Zafirah made her way quickly to the harem, eager to spend time with Dae. The young blonde greeted her with a kiss which, while brief, hinted at something far more carnal and hungry. When Dae asked about her trip and the rumors she’d heard of danger rising, Zafirah hushed her immediately.

“I do not wish to think of such matters here,” the Scion whispered into a delicate ear. “Let the world outside disappear, I beg you…just let me enjoy your company while I am able.”

Dae had agreed readily, realizing that Zafirah needed respite from the responsibilities of her position. Smiling, she pulled the taller woman in the direction of the pool. Zafirah relished the affectionate, slightly possessive way the young blonde wrapped an arm about her waist, noticing but not questioning the warning glares Dae cast her fellow pleasure-servants. It was clear the girl wanted some time alone with her…and Zafirah felt a surge of pleasure race through her.

The two women spent all morning splashing about in the water and diving from the waterfall. Zafirah willingly shed her regal stoicism and played enthusiastically with her pleasure-servants…though she found it almost impossible to keep her hands off the young blonde, who seemed to be flaunting her wet, nearly-naked body about in a decidedly tempting fashion. Zafirah saw that Dae had indeed changed somewhat, just as Inaya had told her last night. And with the memory of what Inaya had whispered to her while she feasted hungrily upon her slick, honeyed flesh still burning in her mind, Zafirah found her body in a high state of arousal just being so near to the young blonde. A few times the urge to grab Dae and crush her up against the edge of the pool where she could ravish her senseless became so strong the Scion was forced to turn away from the younger woman, clenching her hands into fists and struggling to keep her breathing deep and even. Tonight, she counciled her raging lust firmly. Tonight, when you are alone with her, you may play. Not before.

Dae, very much aware of how she was affecting Zafirah, displayed at least a little mercy to the enamoured woman; she resisted the temptation to strip off her clothing completely, and she managed to keep her eager hands from touching the dark woman. From the look on Zafirah’s face, Dae knew she would only be able to push her teasing so far before she would find herself laid out on a rock and devoured in front of the entire harem…who, she considered with a little shiver of delight and a quick lapse into fantasy, probably wouldn’t be willing to remain spectators for long. And while the prospect of being devoured by two dozen extremely talented lovers held a certain level of appeal, Dae was determined to explore the world of erotic delights slowly…one step at a time. Splashing and laughing about in the waters, keeping one eye fixed on Zafirah at all times, Dae let herself just enjoy having the Scion back after her trip away. Tonight, she promised herself. I’d wager anything she’ll invite me to draw her tonight…and we’ll see what happens once we’re alone together.

When the sun was high and the temperature started to grow stiflingly hot, Dae and most of the other girls retired for a nap. Zafirah was sorry to part with the young blonde, but knew she had many duties that required her attention. Before leaving the seraglio, however, she pulled Dae into a fierce embrace and kissed her thoroughly and passionately, swallowing the little moans and squeaks of pleasure that escaped the younger woman. When they parted, the dark Scion bent to whisper breathlessly into Dae’s ear.

“Come visit me tonight in my bed-chamber after even-meal. And bring your drawing materials.”

Dae nodded, the smile on her face complementing the twinkle in her eyes. “I look forward to it, Scion.”

Zafirah watched the blonde walk away, admiring the feminine curves of her body that were accentuated by the wet, clinging harem-clothes. When Dae was out of sight, she grinned and turned to leave herself…already wondering how best to engage the next stage of the innocent girl’s seduction.

Dae ate sparingly that evening, her stomach tied into knots with excitement and trepidation over what might happen when she was alone with Zafirah. Nervous, but conscious of the subtle pull of arousal that had settled over her body, Dae left the seraglio with an escort of two of the harem guards. The other girls whistled and offered a few extremely suggestive pieces of advice as she departed, laughing delightedly at her colorful blush and clapping their enthusiastic encouragement. Dae clutched her pieces of parchment and sticks of sharpened lead to her chest, her mind filled with images of what she had been shown by Johara and Hayam, her senses remembering the scents and pleasures of what she had experienced of her own body.

Reaching their destination, Dae entered Zafirah’s bed-chamber hesitantly as the two guards left her alone to return to their duties, both women offering her reassuring smiles before they disappeared. Looking around as she stepped into the chamber, the young blonde suddenly realized for the first time just how beautiful and comfortable Zafirah’s room was. The air was filled with mixed perfumes of incense and oils, and numerous ornate shamedan bathed everything in a friendly light. There were several arched windows opening onto a terrace outside, and a coastal breeze served to cool the desert heat. What few pieces of art that decorated the room all portrayed the female figure in some fashion; Dae’s attention was caught by an iron sculpture of two women locked into a passionate coupling. Stepping closer, she decided the artist had been working from life experience; the details of the piece were too intimate and explicit to suggest anything else. The enormous bed no longer struck her as a fearful thing; rather, it seemed to hold a sense of mysterious promise…and Dae wondered if she would be appreciating the touch of those cool silk sheets and pillows against her naked skin later tonight.

“Welcome, aziza,” whispered a familiar voice.

Dae turned, and her jaw nearly hit the floor when she saw Zafirah standing in the corner of the room. The dark-haired woman was wearing a midnight-blue robe, her long hair hanging loose and wild about her shoulders. The robe was only loosely tied at Zafirah’s waist, exposing her cleavage and the inner curve of each breast, as well as everything else down to her navel. Dae couldn’t help herself — she just stood there, mouth agape, staring in awe at the woman before her. The skin she could see was deeply tanned and muscular…and her fingers itched to pull that robe away completely to allow her the pleasure of seeing more.

Zafirah grinned, pleased to see her efforts had been appreciated. She had deliberated all afternoon on how she should greet Dae’s arrival, eventually rejecting the part of her that suggested she just throw the girl on the bed, tear her clothes away, and see how loudly she could make her scream in ecstasy. While less spectacular, the sheer robe certainly seemed to get Dae’s attention quite nicely, and Zafirah let the young blonde stare at her for several minutes before she cleared her throat loudly. Dae shuddered and seemed to pull herself from a trance. Zafirah grinned seductively and raised an eyebrow. “See anything you like?”

Dae blushed instantly and began fumbling with her drawing materials. “I-I-I…Y-You’re very nice — I mean…beautiful…”

Zafirah stepped out of the corner, her hips swaying. “Thank you.” She gestured to the parchment. “So…are you are ready to draw me?”

“Draw?” Dae stared stupidly for a moment, then shook her head to clear away a momentary daze of lust. “Oh yes…draw. Of course, yes, um…where…I mean, how would you like me to..?”

“I thought I might pose on the bed,” Zafirah suggested, her voice low and throaty. She indicated a plush, velvet-lined chair she had positioned earlier. “You may sit here if you like.”

“Okay.” Dae sat quickly and arranged a sheet of parchment across her lap, folding one leg underneath the other to support the paper.

“I do not know much about artistic matters,” Zafirah apologized as she stepped up to the bed. “Will the light be sufficient for you? I could light more candles if you require greater illumination.”

“No, this…this should be fine, thank you.”

“Excellent.” The Scion untied the slender sash that held her robe closed and tugged it loose. The silky material immediately fell away from her shoulders, and she tossed it aside before arranging herself on the sheets of her bed.

Dae stared helplessly at Zafirah’s naked body, revealed in all its splendor in the flattering candle-light. “Wh-what are you doing?” she managed to gasp. My God…She’s magnificent! So much skin…

Zafirah smiled a feline smile. “I hoped you might draw me nude,” she explained simply. “Why? Does this disturb you?”

“Well, no, not disturb, but I…I just thought you wanted me to draw you…dressed.”

“Mmm.” Zafirah considered a moment, her head cocked to the side in contemplation. “If you insist upon clothing, I will comply of course. However, I believe the female body is so perfectly suited for conversion into art…and that to cover the full effect of its beauty is akin to the watering of wine — it saps the sweetness. But, if you prefer…”

“No!” Dae held up a hand just as Zafirah began to reach for the robe again. “This is…just fine. It just took me by surprise, that’s all.”

“Oh.” The Scion settled back down, laying on her side with one leg slightly raised, relaxing back against a pile of cushions with one arm draped across her belly while the other supported her head. She smiled as Dae openly ran her eyes up and down her body, feeling tingles of arousal itch across her skin. “Will this be satisfactory?” she asked.

“Um…” Dae struggled to keep her mind on the task at hand, even as her libido insisted on pointing out the finer aspects of her study. She’s so firm; her breasts, her muscles, her skin…everything about her is perfect. And she would let you do anything to her that you like! ANYTHING! Think how smooth she’d feel under your fingers. Or better yet, your tongue… The young blonde blushed furiously as that last thought occurred just as her eyes drifted to the elegantly-shaved arrow of soft, dark curls that pointed between Zafirah’s legs. She shivered and ordered herself to stay focused here. “C-could you pull your hair over your shoulder a little? And maybe bend your left knee more. Yeah…that’s good. Are you comfortable?”

“Eminently,” Zafirah purred.

“Good, because you’ll have to hold still while I do this.” Dae set all thoughts of lust firmly to one side for the moment and studied the figure lying before her critically. She analyzed the way the light played over Zafirah’s body…the angles of her limbs and the lines of her form. Holding a stick of sharpened lead loosely in her right hand, Dae began to sketch out the first basic outline of her drawing, a look of concentration stealing across her face.

Zafirah smiled at the expression on the young woman’s face, finding it extremely endearing. She shifted on the bed to settle herself better. “I have never been drawn before,” she commented after a few minutes of silence. “Will it bother you if I talk while you work?”

Dae shook her head. “No, that’s fine. Just try to stay still.”

“Of course.” Zafirah watched the way Dae’s hand guided her pencil. “Have you ever drawn a woman naked before?”

Dae smiled as she worked. “Sort of. Husn fell asleep one evening after she’d been swimming and I sketched her. Her clothes were so transparent she might as well have been naked.”

“And why did you choose to draw her at such a moment? Did you find her image pleasing?”

Dae shrugged non-commitedly. “She’s very beautiful. All the girls in the harem are…which I guess says something about your taste in women.” She offered Zafirah a quick grin. “Mostly I just draw people when I think they’re going to stay still long enough for me to do a good job of them.”

“Ahh, I see. So the sight of her did not…arouse you then?”

“Not at the time. A sleeping woman doesn’t really offer much appeal to me.”

Zafirah chuckled, seeing her line of questioning was going to be defeated. “And what about now?” she asked in a low voice. “Do you find me…pleasing?”

Dae smiled, no longer such a stranger to questions intended to seduce her. “You don’t need me to tell you you’re attractive, Zafirah. I’ve heard some of the poets who write about your beauty. They’re not shy about offering praise where praise is due.”

Zafirah pouted. “I know what others think. I am interested in your opinion. Be honest, Tahirah…does the sight of me like this have no affect on you at all?”

Dae didn’t stop her careful drawing, but she did let her eyes linger over Zafirah’s more intimate attributes. “Honestly? I think you look positively ravishing. And I think you’ve seduced enough women in your life that you could hazard a guess as to how you’re affecting me.” She waggled her eyebrows at the dark woman, pleased to note her blunt reply take Zafirah by surprise. She decided to press her advantage. “Were you planning on personally testing my level of excitement later on?”

Zafirah stared at the younger woman in astonishment, wondering if her ears were working correctly. Seeing the amusement glittering in Dae’s eyes, however, she couldn’t help but chuckle. “You have grown bolder during my absence, little one,” she conceded. “Do not think the change has gone unnoticed. I saw the way you were teasing me this morning. Do you realize how close I came to taking you right there in the pool?”

“I think I have a fairly good idea,” Dae smiled. “I didn’t think you’d mind the show…and I liked the way you were responding to me.”

“Oh, my body needs little incentive to respond to your presence, aziza, I assure you. Like right now, for instance…” Zafirah sighed and allowed her left hand to shift subtly down her body, using her fingertips to caress her skin lightly. “I can feel your eyes on my body like a kiss of flame. Just being with you like this…naked…exposed…I cannot help but feel aroused.”

Dae had paused in her work to allow herself a moment just to look at Zafirah, and she suddenly noticed how stiff the dark woman’s nipples had become…how her breathing had grown somewhat shallower. It took the young blonde a moment to realize that Zafirah’s left hand had ventured lower, and she gasped when she saw those long, slender fingers begin to stroke over glistening, intimate flesh. “Wh-what are you doing?”

Zafirah smiled, her eyes smoky with pleasure as she fed off her own lust. “What does it look like I am doing?”

“I know what it looks like you’re doing, but…” Dae trailed off. She couldn’t…could she?

Zafirah didn’t hesitate to clear away any doubts. “I would very much enjoy letting you watch me,” she purred. “It has been a long time since I last pleasured myself; your company would make it much more thrilling.”

Dae sat very still for a few seconds, considering. When am I going to get used to this? she wondered vexedly. Afterall, it wasn’t the first time someone had made her this offer. In fact, it wouldn’t even be the first time she’d seen this act; the image of what Johara had done to herself was still vivid in Dae’s mind. But with Zafirah, things like this always seemed to take on a whole new depth and intensity…seemed a thousand times more erotic and spell-binding. Watching those long fingers playing over tanned, toned flesh, Dae knew she didn’t have the willpower to turn the offer down. “I-I can’t really draw you if you’re moving…” It was about the best protest she could come up with.

Zafirah’s grin was purely wicked. “Draw the parts of me that are still,” she instructed, enjoying her game. “If you stop what you are doing…so will I.” As she expected, Dae immediately returned to her work, obviously struggling to divide her attention equally between her drawing and the far more compelling display being played out on the bed. “And when you finish…so will I.”

Zafirah stroked herself languidly, not hurrying her pleasure but letting it build slowly under the gaze of wide, emerald eyes. She moaned softly in contentment. “Talk to me.”

Dae glanced at her, her hand continuing to shade in the Zafirah’s muscles on the parchment. “Wh-what do you want me to say?”

“Anything. I like the sound of your voice…I like the way it feels against me.” Zafirah bent her left leg a little more, allowing for better access to her center. “Perhaps you could tell me about what you did while I was away,” she suggested. “I am greatly interested in hearing more about your new” — a dark brow lifted knowingly — “activities…”

It took Dae only a moment to figure out what Zafirah was referring to. She groaned and rolled her eyes, but couldn’t stop the shy, charmingly embarrassed smile that stole across her face. “I guess nothing stays private in a harem, huh. Maybe I should learn to be more quiet.” She giggled, but decided there was little point in being self-conscious about her pre-bed-time ritual…not while she was sitting across from the most spectacularly gorgeous woman in the universe while she gave a very personal demonstration of ‘self-love.’ “How did you find out about that?”

“Inaya.”

“Uh huh…predictably enough.”

“So…” Zafirah gazed at the young blonde steadily. “Tell me about it.”

A light blush colored Dae’s cheeks. She shrugged awkwardly, feeling as though those blazing sapphires could see right through her clothes, her flesh…all the way down to her soul. She felt naked under their regard. “What’s to tell? Johara and Hayam showed me how to do it…and it feels nice.”

“How often do you indulge?”

“I dunno. Every night, I guess…and most mornings.”

Zafirah struggled not to writhe as she let her touch grow firmer. Her voice dropped several octaves. “What do you do?”

Dae fixed her eyes firmly on her picture, taking a moment to accurately portray the details of Zafirah’s face and using the time to compose herself. “You don’t look like you need any lessons on the subject,” she observed wryly.

“No, but…I would like to hear you describe how you touch yourself. In detail.”

Dae glanced up and noticed that Zafirah was now stroking herself with shorter, more purposeful motions. A slow, sexy smile spread across her lips as she realized how she was affecting the dark-haired woman…and the power she held in this little game. She sat up straighter in her seat. “You want me to describe how I make myself come?” she asked, lowering the tone of her voice to what she hoped was something seductive.

“Yes.”

Emerald eyes narrowed. “Will it make you wet…hearing how I slide my fingers down over the lips of my sex and let them dance in all that velvet heat?”

Zafirah’s attentions were getting faster. “Gods, yessss!”

“How I like to go quicker and pinch my clitoris when I feel the first ripples of climax begin to wash through me…and how I scream out your name while my juices drip down my hand…”

“Urgh! Yes!”

“Zafirah?”

“Mmmm.”

“I’ve stopped drawing.” Dae flashed an evil grin. “Aren’t you supposed to stop too?”

“What?” Zafirah paused breathlessly, seeing suddenly that the tables had been turned. “Wh-what are you…?”

“You said you’d stop if I did, so…” Dae held up her lazy pencil, enjoying the thrill of knowing she was in control. She could see from Zafirah’s expression that the dark woman would adhere to the rules she’d set for this little display. “Slow down. I’m not close to being done yet…which means neither are you.”

Zafirah struggled to rein in her lust, feeling fires burning all over her body at the confident, playful expression on Dae’s face. It hadn’t occurred to her that the young and supposedly innocent girl would take the initiative like this…but as soon as the Scion managed to drag herself out of a haze of arousal, she realized she didn’t want to discourage this development. Her fingers returned to swollen, slick folds, but remained still. “Alright,” she gasped. “Please…continue.”

Dae considered the request carefully a moment, watching Zafirah rest her fingertips against her excitement in expectation. A brilliant shiver of pure desire rushed through her body with the realization that she was in command here; she would dictate the terms of Zafirah’s pleasure and eventual climax. Emerald eyes darkened salaciously. Dae had tasted a sample of sexual power in the harem…but this was so much stronger! She felt exhilarated and terrified at that same time…but no fear on earth was going to stop her from testing this new pleasure. She inclined her head slightly and touched the tip of her pencil to the parchment on her lap.

“Slowly,” she ordered. “Or I’ll stop again and make you wait all night for release.”

Zafirah nodded obediently and resumed her caresses at a much more controlled pace.

Though more accustomed to taking an assertive role in the bedroom, Zafirah was certainly no stranger to playing the submissive. There were few methods of sex she had not tested during the many years of her reign, and there were fewer she had not found enjoyable on at least some level. Seeing the look of excitement in Dae’s eyes as the blonde settled into her new position of authority, Zafirah felt herself grow even wetter. This was the perfect way to introduce Dae to more intimate pleasures; it gave her control and a sense of security, knowing that nothing would happen without her approval.

And besides, the dark woman thought as she saw a wicked gleam bloom in Dae’s emerald eyes, there were few things as stimulating as the sight of an innocent girl taking up the reins of sexual power for the first time.

“Does it fell nice?”

“Huh?” Zafirah’s attention, lust-dulled and fuzzy, focused quickly. “What did you say?”

Dae just smiled as she continued drawing. “I asked if it felt nice?”

“Mmmm…yesss.” Zafirah’s fingers were coated with her arousal and slid smoothly along the petals of her swollen sex. “After your performance this morning, I am in urgent need of release.” She moved two fingers lower and started to curl them inwards, but Dae’s voice stopped her.

“No.” The blonde shook her head. “Don’t go inside. Just stroke yourself slowly. I liked that.”

Zafirah whimpered, wanting deeper contact, but reluctantly obeyed Dae’s command. “Is this how you touch yourself? Slowly…without penetration?”

Dae shrugged, splitting her focus between her art and her subject. “I’m still a virgin,” she pointed out. “I can’t touch myself like that yet. But it feels nice anyway. And no, I don’t always go slowly.” A wicked grin spread across her face as she saw her words excite Zafirah. “Sometimes I like to do it quickly…and I keep going until I get too dizzy and strained that I have to rest.”

Zafirah’s eyes squeezed shut, images of Dae pleasuring herself dancing across the insides of her lids. “Gods!” The muscles in her neck strained with the need to move. Her hips were desperate to pick up a rhythm against her fingers, but she fought to hold them still.

“You’re speeding up again,” Dae warned, thoroughly enamoured with her new power. “And keep your eyes open; I want you to see me watching you while you do this.”

Sapphire eyes appeared once more, dark with lust. They raked over Dae’s figure hungrily, focusing on the swell of her breasts. Zafirah licked her lips. “It is difficult to control myself with you so close to me,” she admitted breathlessly. “You are so beautiful.”

Dae smiled a pleased smile. “Thank you.” There was a long pause while she concentrated on sketching in the shadows of Zafirah’s stomach muscles. When emerald eyes returned to those watching sapphires, there was a playful question there. “Do you really find me so pleasing?”

“Of course.”

“Moreso than the other girls?”

Zafirah’s movements slowed as she considered the question seriously. “There are many forms of beauty, Tahirah…but I think I can say with honesty that yours appeals to me the greatest of all I have seen. There is something in you that stirs my heart as well as my loins.”

Dae cocked her head to the side, her smile impish. “And would it excite you to see more of me?”

Zafirah’s breathing actually stopped entirely at the query so innocently posed. Her fingers came to a brief halt, then resumed their attentions with greater intensity. “Yes!” she nodded, her expression instantly pleading. “Please…let me look upon you!”

“Mmm…I’m not sure. How do I know you’ll behave yourself?”

“I promise,” Zafirah offered quickly. “I shall do nothing more than look. Please, my Tahirah!”

The sly look in Dae’s eyes seemed incredibly sexy to the eager Scion at that moment. The seemingly innocent girl affected to consider the matter as she worked. “I don’t know that I can trust you-”

“You can! Please!”

“Wellll…” Dae chewed her lower lip thoughtfully, the tip of a pink tongue emerging briefly and doing nothing to cool Zafirah’s ardor. “I suppose I could show you a little more of me…but I think I need some incentive first.”

“Incentive?” Zafirah didn’t like the look of mischief in those sparkling eyes one bit. “What would you have of me?”

“I don’t really know.” In truth, a thousand and one fantasies skipped through Dae’s mind at once. She knew she didn’t have the courage to give most of them voice…but there were certainly a lot of things she was interested in exploring with Zafirah that might be applied to the current situation. “Perhaps you could taste yourself,” she suggested after sifting through her mind for possibilities. “I thought that was very erotic when Johara did it.”

“I think I would like to hear more of what my pleasure-servants have been showing you,” Zafirah husked. Still, the request was a simple enough one to fulfill, and the dark woman made certain her fingers were thoroughly soaked before she brought them to her lips. Maintaining eye contact with the attentive blonde, Zafirah ran her tongue slowly up each digit in turn, moaning at the familiar flavor of her arousal and enjoying the way Dae licked her lips unconsciously in reaction. She took her time, wanting to give a good show so as she might earn her reward. The prospect of seeing Dae without the restrictions of clothing was making her dizzy with want.

When her task was completed, Zafirah returned her fingers lazily to their assignment between her legs. She lifted an eyebrow at Dae hopefully. “Is there anything else you wish to see?”

Dae, who was feeling decidedly flushed from the dark woman’s display, struggled to respond. “I…can’t think of anything right now.” A statement that held more truth than she might have liked; her mind had gone completely blank and the only thought left in her head was God, I wish I were her tongue!

Zafirah smiled, pleased with herself. She teased her fingers up the sensitive skin of her left thigh, then down again to where her heat was greatest. Sapphire eyes filled with anticipation. “So…May I see more?”

“Oh yes…more would be nice…” Dae murmured, not entirely parted with her fantasies.

The Scion grinned fully and waved a hand at Dae to get her attention. “Tahirah?” When glassy emerald eyes managed to focus, Zafirah gazed hungrily at Dae’s top. “Please?”

“Oh…Right. Sorry.” Dae giggled a little nervously, but set her parchment and lead sticks to the side before reaching for the laces that held the cloth together over her breasts. Seeing the impatient expression on Zafirah’s face, she decided to take her time; each lace was slowly pulled free, revealing just a little more pale skin. Zafirah whimpered at the torture, wanting to hurry the girl along with a helping hand but not daring to move lest her reward be revoked. When eventually the bejeweled cloth was shrugged off, Dae watched the expression on the older woman’s face carefully as those sapphire gems consumed the sight of her bare breasts. She felt her nipples pebble and grow hard under Zafirah’s gaze, and the fine hairs along her arms prickled.

Zafirah stared for long minutes, her self-pleasuring pausing as she drank in Dae’s beauty, committing every detail of that perfect body to memory.

Dae smiled a smile that was half shy, half brazen. “You like?”

“You are magnificent!” Zafirah breathed in awe. Though the Scion had seen countless women topless, somehow the sight of Dae seemed like a new experience for her. It wasn’t something she could define…but it felt like she was appreciating the beauty of the female form for the first time. “Divine perfection…”

Dae blushed and dropped her head. “I think that might be going a little too far, but thank you.” She gathered her drawing materials up again and resumed her work.

Zafirah’s expression fell. “Wait, what…what about..?” She gestured to the filmy harem trousers Dae still wore.

Dae grinned. “Not tonight.”

“But-”

A warning finger stopped the Scion’s protest cold. “You promised you’d behave. We’re taking this slowly, remember. Afterall, I’m still an innocent, naïve young maiden; my virtue won’t be surrendered so easily.” Dae’s words were playful yet promising.

Zafirah settled back into her pose grudgingly. Just enjoy what she is willing to share with you and do not press for more than she is ready to give, she told herself sternly. “Very well. Though I would argue in the case of your naivete — I think you know very well what you are doing to me, little one.”

“True…but from the look of things I’d say you had little to complain about.” Dae glanced pointedly to where Zafirah’s fingers were actively satisfying her body’s need. After a long, lingering stare, the young blonde focused back on her drawing, feeling almost frighteningly at ease being half-naked in Zafirah’s presence.

“I would very much like to see the rest of you, Tahirah.” Zafirah stroked herself while gazing longingly at Dae’s full breasts, imagining how they might feel and taste. “Tell me — are you proud of your beauty?”

“What do you mean?”

“Does your beauty please you? You posses exquisite form and features, Tahirah…beauty that others would admire and covert. Do you consider such rare grace and splendor to be a blessing…or a bane?

Dae shrugged, never having considered such a question before. She had always known — or at least suspected — she was unusually attractive; it wasn’t something she had ever paid much mind too. “I guess I like the way I look. It hasn’t ever really mattered much to me before, but…since I met you…” She trailed off with a shy smile.

“Your beauty is what brought you to my harem-”

Dae regarded her naked breasts wryly, then the dark woman. “Yeah…I’d guessed as much.”

“But something deeper than your beauty stirs my passion for you,” the Scion finished. Dae didn’t respond, but Zafirah could see her words had had an affect. She smiled. “Do you like watching me while I do this? Does it arouse you to see how deeply you affect me?”

Dae refused to raise her eyes, instead concentrating on her artwork. “It does. I think a person would have to be dead not to be affected by…what you’re doing.”

“Mmm.” Zafirah could feel her need reaching a critical level. “How far are you from completion?”

“Not far. Why?” Dae grinned. “Feeling anxious?”

“I will not last long with you teasing me like this.”

“Then perhaps we should stop for a few minutes.” Dae lifted her pencil threateningly. “Do you need some time to compose yourself?”

The dark woman growled, but stilled her fingers obediently. “Don’t stop. Please…I want to finish.”

Dae took pity on the Scion and continued…but she hoped this wouldn’t be the last time Zafirah would let her be in control. “Alright then. I’ll tell you when you can come.”

Zafirah breathed a sigh of relief. “Thank you.” As she caressed herself, she studied Dae curiously, noting the signs of arousal in the young blonde. “When you leave here and return to the harem…what will you do?”

Dae smiled, having no trouble guessing what Zafirah hoped to hear. Still, she decided to play dumb. “I don’t know. I guess I might take a swim if it’s not too cold and then go to sleep.”

“Sleep?” Zafirah pouted. “Will your body not require…satisfaction? A release of tensions from what I have shared with you?”

“Maybe.”

“And?”

Dae shook her head with a little chuckle. “And what? I guess I’ll do pretty much the same thing you’re doing now…only without quite so much patience!”

Dark brows lifted in expectant interest. “You will think of me as you pleasure yourself?”

“I usually do,” Dae admitted.

“Will you be vocal?”

“You really like those details, don’t you?”

“Your voice arouses me…as does the thought of you touching yourself.”

“Maybe I should just show you so you don’t have to wonder anymore.” The words were out of her mouth before she could censor them. A blush raced across Dae’s face almost as fast as an expression of excited approval spread across Zafirah’s “I-I didn’t mean that-”

“I would love to watch you! Please? We could do it together…feed off the other’s image! It would be wonderful!”

“No.”

“I would promise not to touch you! I would not even speak if you do not wish it!”

“I-I can’t-”

“Why not?”

Dae opened her mouth to explain, but couldn’t find the right words that would make Zafirah understand. “I just…I can’t, that’s all. Not yet.”

Zafirah’s face fell, but she recognized that Dae’s defenses would rise if she pushed the matter further. “Very well, aziza,” she said softly. “I will respect your wishes.”

Silence descended for long minutes, broken only by the low scratching of Dae’s pencil on parchment and the irregular, hard breathes of Zafirah. Eventually, the young blonde checked a shy glance at the dark Scion. “Zafirah?”

“Yes, little one?”

A very slight smile. “I do like the idea.”

Zafirah’s expression didn’t change, but her eyes softened. “When you are ready to share such intimacies with me,” she whispered, “do not be too afraid to let me know it. I wish only for your pleasure.”

“And I appreciate that.” Dae paused, then added very quietly, “I really would like to let you watch me. The thought of it…is extremely arousing.” Without really thinking what she was doing, Dae’s free hand went to her left breast and began to trail lightly over the sensitive flesh. “Johara and Hayam showed me how two women make love. I want to share those things with you.”

“Mmm…Inaya told me of your ‘education’.”

Dae scowled without any malice. “That girl’s tongue wags too easily.”

And with great talent! Zafirah added silently, watching avidly as Dae caressed herself. “Do not be too hard on her. I extracted the information from her last night…along with many cries of passion. You would be surprised how effective pleasure can be for interrogation.”

Seeing how fixed Zafirah’s focus had become, Dae suddenly realized what she was doing and halted her touches. She cocked an eyebrow at the dark woman’s disappointed groan. “You like my breasts?”

Zafirah nodded. “Very much.”

“Mmm.” Dae’s fingers circled the hard nub of her nipple, shivering at how sensitive she had become. “I like yours, too.”

By now, Zafirah’s entire body glistened under a film of sweat and she was trembling with the force of her need. “No more teasing, I beg of you! Finish your picture.”

Dae realized the dark woman wouldn’t last much longer…and if pushed, her self-control would snap easily. Abandoning her breast, she began adding the final touches to her artwork. “You can go inside now,” she allowed, seeing Zafirah’s body trying to find a rhythm. “Don’t touch your clitoris until I tell you to.”

Zafirah released a heavenly sigh as she slid two fingers into her core, feeling her inner muscles clench welcomingly about the questing digits. She thrust in and out slowly, eyes locked on Dae’s upper body. The scent of sweat and sex filled her senses with their familiar perfume, and she could feel herself dripping down her hand.

Dae finished shading the last section of her picture and, after a moment spent contemplating her creation, calmly set the parchment and pencils aside. Folding her hands in her lap, she gazed at Zafirah expectantly. “Alright…let me see you come.”

The request itself, coupled with the expression on the young girl’s face, was more than enough to throw Zafirah over the precipice of pleasure. Her body fell back against the pillows behind her as her legs splayed open fully. The muscles in her neck strained as her hand moved furiously against her sex. With a primal, joyous roar, Zafirah felt the waves of ecstasy roll through her with blinding force. When she felt them begin to ebb, the dark woman split two fingers along the shaft of her clitoris and squeezed gently while massaging with firm strokes. Almost instantly, the practiced, knowing ministrations sent the thrill of orgasm crashing through her again. Zafirah could feel her body pumping out fluids as she maintained her climax for several long, agonizingly sweet moments, only stopping when she hadn’t strength enough to continue. Collapsing, exhausted, she dragged air into her lungs in desperate gasps.

Dae knew she was soaked with arousal as she watched Zafirah succumb to climax. It was a struggle just to keep her breathing steady as she stared at the dark woman writhing on the bed before her, wanting desperately to join her and aid in her pleasure but lacking sufficient courage to do so. She squirmed a little in her seat, squeezing her legs together and enjoying the sensation of tense excitement that built in her center.

After several moments, sapphire eyes opened and Zafirah sat up, smiling shakily at the wide-eyed blonde. Dae returned the smile. “You’re loud,” she remarked.

Zafirah laughed. “So, I hear, are you.”

“Yeah well…” Dae blushed prettily, the color spreading all the way down her chest. “It’s hard not to get carried away.”

“Indeed.” Zafirah took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. “So…may I see your picture?”

“Of course.” Dae reached over and picked up the parchment, collecting her top at the same time. Standing on somewhat weak legs, she handed the sketch to Zafirah before slipping the top back on, giggling at the disappointed groan as she covered her breasts.

Zafirah studied the drawing, smiling. Dae had done a good job; while the art didn’t portray what the Scion had actually been doing, it managed to capture her expression of fierce desire perfectly, along with the sexual tension that galvanized her body. The lighting gave a wonderful contrast over her muscular form, and Zafirah was flattered by the attention Dae had paid to every detail. “Your talent humbles me,” she whispered.

Dae lowered her head modestly. “I’m glad you like it.”

“You captured the moment well…though I think a few activities went unrecorded.” Zafirah’s eyes sparkled playfully.

The young blonde laughed. “Yeah well…I didn’t quite feel comfortable drawing you exactly as you were.”

“Mmm.” Zafirah studied the picture for a few moments longer. “May I keep this?”

“Of course. I drew it for you.”

“Thank you. I shall treasure it always.”

“Welcome.” Dae turned away from the longing in Zafirah’s gaze, moving back a few paces to put some distance between them. The dark woman was dripping with animal sensuality at that moment, resplendent after her climax and smelling of sex and sweat. It was an intoxicating combination, and Dae knew it wouldn’t take much for her to let lust consume her senses.

Recognizing the effect she was having on the blonde girl, Zafirah grabbed her discarded robe and donned it. “The night is yet young. Perhaps we could go for a walk through the palace?”

“Um…I’d like that but…not tonight.” Dae blushed, embarrassed. “I think I have some urgent needs that require immediate attention.”

“Ah.” Zafirah grinned unrepentantly. “I am pleased to have caused you such condition.”

“I’ll bet you are.” Dae turned away from the dark woman. Not really wanting to leave just yet, she wandered about the room curiously, recognizing aspects of Zafirah’s nature everywhere. She paused in surprise at a table where a familiar object rested atop a velvet cloth. “Oh wow! You have a rifle. I thought your people only used bows.”

Zafirah glanced up sharply. When she saw what Dae was looking at, her eyes narrowed. “Rife-El?”

“Yeah.” Dae reached out and ran a finger along the wooden stock of the weapon, smiling. “I guess you must trade with the western lands for them, right? This one doesn’t look as fancy as the ones my people make.”

The Scion strode over quickly and picked up the weapon. “You…you know what this is?”

“Of course.” Dae studied the taller woman wonderingly, seeing a tension in her that dispelled the languor of the previous hour. “Y-you don’t though, do you?”

Zafirah shook her head.

“Then…why do you have it?”

“Renegade tribes attacked a scouting party in the southern desert. They were armed with these weapons; only one of my scouts escaped the massacre. Their army will ride against my people probably within the week, and we know nothing of their weaknesses.” Sapphire eyes blazed fiercely and Zafirah grabbed Dae by the shoulder. “This is a weapon of your land?”

“I-I guess so.”

“Do you know how it works? Can you show me?”

Zafirah’s grip on her was powerful, but Dae realized it was strength born of desperation, not anger towards her. “I don’t know…maybe. My father had a rifle he used during the spring hunt. I saw him with it a few times but…”

Seeing the young blonde wince, Zafirah released her immediately. “You must tell me all you know.”

“Okay…well…it’s called a rifle for starters. It fires these small balls of lead that we call bullets.”

“How far away can it kill from?”

Dae shrugged. “I don’t know…probably about twice as far as a bow. And my father said it was more accurate and powerful, too.”

“So we have learned. How does it do this? Magic?”

Dae giggled a little and shook her head. “No, of course not. You pour this powder down into this tube — the barrel — and tap it firmly with a long stick. Then the bullet goes in, and when you pull this thing here like this…” She curled a finger about the trigger and gave a sharp tug. A small handle snapped back then immediately forward. Zafirah flinched as it struck a spark against a small piece of flint hidden at the base of the steel barrel. “That makes the powder explode, which fires the little bullet out here.”

Zafirah nodded in understanding. “This powder? What is it?”

“We just call it black-powder. I know it has coal-dust in it, because my father had a big bin of it out in the barn. I don’t know what else though.”

Zafirah sniffed at the weapon distastefully. “It reeks of sulfur — the rock that burns. But what else?”

Dae shrugged helplessly. “I wish I could help you more.”

“Mmm.” The Scion considered a long moment in silence, then asked, “Do you know any weaknesses of the weapon? How my people may defeat it?”

Dae thought about it. “Wellll…my father said the black-powder wouldn’t work if it got wet. I remember how disappointed he was when he had to cancel a hunt because it was raining too hard.” Considering her words, she smiled ruefully. “I doubt that’s much help to you though, is it?”

“No…not much. Can we not shield ourselves from its fire?”

Dae shook her head. “Bullets can go through all but the heaviest armor. You’d only weigh yourself down.”

“Then what else?”

“Hmm.” The blonde closed her eyes and tried to remember everything she’d ever heard about rifles and guns. At last, she snapped her fingers. “They take time to reload…much longer than a bow. Once fired, they’re useless for a time afterwards.”

“How long?”

“I guess it depends how well-trained the person reloading it is. But certainly long enough to attack them…unless their army has another line of soldiers waiting to cover the others.”

Zafirah hummed as she absorbed this information hungrily. “Anything else?”

Dae shrugged, wishing she knew more. “I’m sorry. I suppose if they were carrying around barrels of the black powder with them, like in a wagon or on camels, you could blow them up with arrows soaked with oil. That’d do a lot of damage, I know for sure. My father showed me what can happen with black-powder so I wouldn’t be tempted to play with it.” Dae shuddered at the memory of that spectacular explosion that had forever stilled her curiosity about guns. “It’s very dangerous if it catches on fire.”

Zafirah’s mind was already working through this new information and considering how it might be applied to a working strategy against Shakir. “Would you tell all this to my council?” she asked hopefully. “Anything at all you can tell us would be useful.”

“Of course…whatever I can do to help.” Dae paused, observing the way Zafirah was regarding the rifle with caution and some fear. “This is why you went south, isn’t it? Because your people were attacked with these?”

Zafirah nodded. “I must ride against the renegades as soon as they are exposed and cannot retreat.”

A chill shiver ran up Dae spine. “Y-you? Personally? Don’t you have an army to fight for you?”

“I am their commander, Tahirah. It is a leaders place to lead, not to stay behind out of danger.”

That wasn’t the way most leaders in Dae’s homeland saw things…but she admired Zafirah’s courage. “I’ll do what I can to help you.”

“I would be most grateful…as would my soldiers.” Zafirah leaned down a placed a gentle kiss on Dae’s forehead. “Tomorrow, I will assemble the council so you may share your knowledge.”

“Okay.” Dae smiled a goofy smile, still in a high state of arousal from Zafirah’s display. “I…guess I should get some sleep then, huh?”

“Do you require an escort back to the harem?”

“No, I can manage.” Dae laughed a little sheepishly. “The way I’m feeling right now, I’d probably end up inviting the guards back to my room with me!”

Zafirah grinned. “Perhaps I should escort you personally then-”

“Don’t tempt me.” A pause. “…Anymore than you already have, I mean.”

Zafirah chuckled and patted the smaller woman affectionately. “Then I shall bid you a pleasant night, aziza…and leave you to your dreams.” She winked lecherously. “Do not exhaust yourself satisfying your needs, or you will be of no use as an advisor tomorrow.”

Dae took her time wandering back to the harem, enjoying the beauty of the palace at night. A few guards gave her curious glances, knowing from her attire she was a pleasure-servant but not questioning her presence outside the seraglio. A few smiled at her politely and asked if they might be of assistance, but Dae assured them she was fine, and was returning to her quarters for the evening. They accepted her words readily enough, and wished her a pleasant night.

If Dae had hoped to find the other harem girls asleep, she was to be disappointed. As soon as she stepped back into the seraglio gardens she was met by at least a dozen of her fellow pleasure-servants, all of whom were eager to hear how her night with Zafirah had gone. Blushing, Dae refused to go into any detail…which, quite naturally, led the girls to take up a guessing game of what delights the Scion might have shown her. Their graphic descriptions made the young blonde blush even more, and she pleaded fatigue in order to escape. The girls laughed and let her go; they were all familiar with how a night spent in Zafirah’s company could leave one in need of rest.

Stripping off her clothes, Dae crawled onto her sleeping pallet and extinguished the light. Closing her eyes, she let herself remember every detail of what she had shared with Zafirah that evening…every word spoken, every word she had wanted to speak. Fantasies of how she might have boldly ordered the dark woman to stop her ministrations so she might see to her pleasure personally raced through Dae’s mind as she let her arousal build. She didn’t have the patience to drag this out, however, so her self-pleasuring was quick, almost frantic, and blisteringly intense. Only after three climaxes was Dae’s body satisfied, and she took a moment to clean the sweat and juices from her body before closing her eyes once more and breathing a sigh of contentment.

The dreams that came and stole her away were vivid and erotic, alive with images of tanned skin and intense sapphire eyes. Dae smiled in her sleep and murmured a single word filled with promise and warmth: “Aziza…”

* * *

“This is folly in extreme, Effendi. We should wait!”

Shakir glanced from the ranks of his soldiers who were mobilizing to march and glared at Brak mutely. Where others would have flinched at the feel of those burning steel eyes upon them, the grizzled elder remained unmoving; he had seen zealotry enough times in his life that its force no longer impressed him. He glared right back at the Calif of the Deharn and repeated his protest. “You would set a hundred men against the Scion’s legions? I had thought you were smarter than this!”

Shakir studied Brak a long moment in silence, then turned back to look at his troops. They were disciplined and well-organized, if not particularly numerous. “Staying here is no longer an option, Brak” he said softly, his voice clear and certain. “Our outriders have reported the Herak have broken their camp and are moving closer to the city. The Scion Whore is alerted to danger; we must strike swiftly against the weaker tribes and cut them down before they can join her army and ride against us. If we do not, our enemy will crush us beneath sheer weight of numbers.”

“But what of the extra weapons you promised?” Brak insisted angrily. “We should have five times our current number by now!”

Shakir’s face was devoid of expression. “It is possible the trader has betrayed our pact,” he admitted calmly. “If that is so, there is little we can do for the time being. We must complement the weapons with other warriors armed with spear, sword, and bow. We can still do damage to the Scion’s forces.”

“But no more than the stinging of a scorpion to bother a jackal,” Brak snorted. “And when we are defeated, the vengeance of El’Kasari will be terrible. My people will suffer much for your failed promises of glory and retribution, Shakir.”

This time when Shakir pinned him with angry eyes, Brak couldn’t help but feel a slight tremble of fear. There was something in those piercing eyes that spoke of deeper and more disturbing things than zealotry.

There was the beginnings of madness…blind and furious.

“And so will you return to your camp in the desert?” the Calif asked in a sibilant, slightly mocking tone. “Will you run now, Brak, when battle calls you and your men? What will you tell your sons and daughters in the years to come when they ask why they must grovel in the sands while El’Kasari sits on the coast in defiance, fat and complacent? That you were too cowardly to seek a better life for them? That your fear of the enemy drove you back without even having lifted a blade against them?”

Brak’s face flushed red with rage. “Bite your tongue, whelp!” he roared, knuckles white as he clutched the horn of saddle. He would have been happier to wrap his fingers about the Calif’s neck. “My people do not run from battle! We will fight, and fight well!”

Shakir smiled thinly. “And the time to fight is now. We march north and east, to smite the smaller tribes before the Scion can unite them under the banner of El’Kasari and retaliate.”

Brak scowled darkly, still not liking this hasty plan. “The Scion is no fool. Her scouts will know when we leave the cliffs.”

“And when she comes to face us, we will be ready.”

“How?”

Shakir held up his thunder-bow proudly. “These will level the field of battle. The Whore is a good fighter…but her skills will not avail her against our forces. She will ride at the head of her army, as she has always done in the past. We will pass the word through our people — a dozen of my tribes finest horses will go to the one whose shot brings down the great Scion!” His grin was terrible in its malice. “When she has fallen…her army will crumble into chaos and we will tear them into pieces as they struggle to find order. Leaderless, their might will break easily.”

Brak considered this, grunting when he realized Shakir might not be far from accurate in his assessment. The spahi were only as good as their leader; cut off the head, and the serpent dies. If Zafirah were killed in battle — killed quickly and visibly — moral would fail and confusion would be rampant. It wouldn’t be easy…but perhaps they could do more damage to the Peace than he had initially believed.

“Then let us ride,” he allowed grudgingly. “North, gathering what men we can from the tribes of this alliance, and then to the enemy.”

Shakir nodded, smiling without humor as he surveyed his army proudly. His eyes shone exultantly…their gleam showing only a hint of the madness that was swiftly consuming his mind with a blank and senseless hatred.
XVII
During the next week, Zafirah and Dae continued their romance at a more sedate pace. The Scion would spend what time she could away from her duties in the seraglio, more often than not in the company of the young blonde. Most nights they would walk together through the city or the palace halls and gardens, smiling and talking, hands clasped and shoulders frequently brushing. The various soldiers and servants about the palace would watch the couple as they strolled past, oblivious to all but the other, and would smile and whisper between themselves how sweet the two seemed together.

Rumors that the Scion had fallen in love with the foreign blonde wasted little time making their way out into the city, and the citizens of El’Kasari began making a point of offering Zafirah small tokens of devotion she might give to Dae whenever she walked among them. Knowing how little experience the dark woman had in affairs of the heart, most agreed their Scion could use all the help she could get in her quest to woo the charming girl. Dae accepted the love-tokens with demure blushes of pleasure, making certain Zafirah’s kindness was rewarded with a lingering kiss every chance she got.

Indeed, the kisses and gentle touches exchanged between the two women grew more frequent as their bond strengthened — more frequent, and less easily held in check. Though Zafirah was no stranger to the hungers of her sexual appetite, Dae found herself at times struggling to suppress urges and desires that surged within her like a rising tide. She would remember Inaya’s words on the subject each night as she lay in bed, her body awash with longing despite her best efforts to appease it: Sexual pleasure is about intimacy and passion. 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. At the time, the explanation had seemed confusing; now, it was all too easily understood. Zafirah’s body seemed like a magnet to her — it drew her to it with its intoxicating curves and an irresistible siren-song of lust. Dae wanted to loose herself in Zafirah…wanted to drown her senses in white-hot ecstasies that promised a union and connection deeper and more terrifying than any she’d ever known. Her need for that consummation of flesh grew stronger with the passing of each day, with every hour spent in Zafirah’s company. And as much as she wanted to be sensible about the whole thing, and take her seduction/courtship one step at a time…Dae knew she didn’t have the willpower to fight restraint for long.

Thoughts of what delights she might share with Zafirah were rushing heedlessly through Dae’s head as she returned to her bedchamber to prepare for another evening with the dark-haired woman. This morning the Scion had asked if she might like to accompany her on a walk through the stables, and Dae, who had always quite liked horses despite never having learned to ride, had accepted the invitation with great enthusiasm. There was at least another hour before Zafirah would come collect her, which Dae planned on using to arrange her hair, clothing and general appearance for her date. Those plans were over-ridden, however, when Dae reached the doorway to her room and heard something far more compelling; a low, extremely erotic-sounding moan originating from further down the corridor.

Dae stopped instantly, ears pricked. A moment later, a second breathless cry came, followed by the words, “Yes! Nek ni! Urgh, yes!”

The young blonde felt the blood rush to her lower regions as those words cleared away any doubts as to what was inspiring the moaning — words she had learned from Johara and Hayam as part of her ‘education’. Dae knew she had no business standing and listening to the continued noises, but her feet refused to obey all orders to carry her into her bedchamber…and indeed, decided to take her further down along the corridor towards the intriguing sounds. Shocked at the behavior of her uncooperative limbs, Dae tried to ignore the moans and whimpers as best she could while struggling to convince her body that its little rebellion was entirely inappropriate.

As she made her way down the corridor, it became apparent that the room from which these sounds were emanating was the one situated at the farthest end of the hallway. That’s Johara and Hayam’s room, Dae’s mind informed her. This changed things a little for the young blonde. Afterall, the two lovers had told her she was welcome to join them at any time, even if only to watch. Dae hesitated, considering. She was going to be spending time with Zafirah later. Did she really want to get herself all worked up by watching Johara and Hayam ravishing one another?

“Ah! Faster, please! Stop teasing me, I beg! Nek ni! Do it!”

Another voice, rich with lust and a seductive northern accent, replied. “Teasing you? I have barely begun to tease you. You will need to improve your begging if you hope to climax anytime soon.” A high-pitched squeak followed this statement, quickly making Dae’s mind up for her. Steeling herself with a deep breath, the young blonde stepped into the doorway and cleared her throat meaningfully.

The sight that greeted her was unexpected…and after her last visit to this room, Dae considered herself braced for pretty much anything. But when three pairs of eyes turned towards her, Dae could only stare, mouth agape, the witty and seductive introduction she imagined herself using disappearing in a heartbeat.

Johara was reclining on the bed in the center of the room, only the briefest of undergarments keeping her from being completely naked. The lanky brunette had apparently been occupied watching her lover as she pleasured a third woman — a fellow harem inhabitant Dae didn’t know very well named Suhayla — against the far wall. The scene itself might not have been so shocking to Dae — who, having lived in the harem for so long now, knew well enough that pleasure was shared as easily and as readily between three or more as between two — but for the fact that Suhayla was bound spread-eagled between a set of pillars by lengths of silken cord, her body glistening with sweat, eyes glazed with lust.

It took Dae only a moment to realize that Suhayla’s bondage was quite voluntary; the eager, almost ravenous expression on her face was clear indication she was enjoying every moment of whatever Hayam had been doing to her.

Not expecting to find Johara and Hayam already entertaining a guest, Dae wasn’t sure what she should do next. “I-I’m sorry, I didn’t…know you were…”

But Johara flashed a brilliant, pleased smile immediately and shook her head. “Not at all, little Dae, you know you are welcome here any time.” Like a panther, the tall woman rose from the bed and gestured Dae forward. “Please, do not be shy. Enter, and most welcome.” Laughing grey eyes glanced towards Hayam and Suhayla. “I am certain our guest will be delighted to entertain your patronage…won’t Suhayla?”

The bound girl fixed hungry eyes on Dae, muscles strained with pleasure. “Oh yes…delighted.”

Johara grinned at Dae. “You see? We have been playing with Suhayla for over an hour now. Your interruption is far from unwanted. Please…will you not stay?”

Dae looked from Johara to Hayam, then to Suhayla, plucking at her trousers uncertainly. She hadn’t spoken with Suhayla much during her time here; the girl was polite and quiet, born of the desert tribes and possessing the kind of beautiful, virtuous features one would never suspect could harbor lustful thoughts of any kind. She rarely danced with the other girls, rarely joined in their flirtatious behavior. Dae had wondered for a time if perhaps she simply didn’t enjoy the attentions of other women as her fellow pleasure-servants did…a notion that had been shockingly corrected when Suhayla propositioned her one day with suggestions so explicit in their detail it seemed impossible they could have come from such seemingly innocent lips. Still…looking at her now, naked and bound, Dae acknowledged that the dark-haired desert-girl was ravishingly attractive. She took a cautious, wondering step closer, noticing for the first time that Hayam was wearing some kind of strange undergarment about her waist.

“Wh-what are you…?” She glanced to Johara for explanation. “Why is she tied up?”

Johara stepped behind Dae, smiling. “It is something Suhayla enjoys,” she offered simply. “She comes to us several times each moon to be pleasured in such fashion.” Gentle hands were laid upon the young blonde’s shoulder, pressing her forward. “Come…it may interest you to see what Hayam is doing. This is yet another method of pleasure we did not show you last time.”

Hayam had turned back to her task, and Dae saw now that the northerner’s hips were thrusting in an undulating manner against the bound Suhayla. When Johara guided her closer, she gasped in surprise. A strange shaft protruded from between Hayam’s legs, pressing into Suhayla’s womanhood on each forward thrust. The shaft seemed to be connected to Hayam by means of a leather harness strapped about her slender waist.

“It is a phallus,” Johara explained when emerald eyes turned to her in silent question. “They have many forms and designs, and can be crafted from a variety of materials: leather, horn, wood, even stone. There are many different styles for different applications…but in general they are intended to substitute the male member.”

Dae stared at the phallus as it disappeared into Suhayla slowly, the shaft gleaming with her arousal as it slid in. The blush which ordinarily would have colored her cheeks was subdued by genuine intrigue at the device. “You mean a woman can make love like a man?” she asked, marveling at the concept.

“Not exactly.” Johara smiled, pleased Dae seemed accepting of the display before her. “In my time as a body-slave, before I came to Zafirah, I experienced male lovers on occasion. None of them had quite the same technique as a woman in this style of passion…and certainly none of them possessed the same endurance!”

Suhayla was whimpering now, twisting slightly in her bonds. “Please Hayam! Faster!”

Hayam just grinned and maintained her slow, teasing pace. Dae saw how she was controlling the rhythm of their motions by keeping firm hold on Suhayla’s hips. When the captive girl tried to meet her thrusts, Hayam would pull back slightly, using her grip to steady their connection. Suhayla’s whole body was rigid with need, her breathing shallow and desperate. But her pleas fell on deaf ears, for the northerner seemed to be enjoying her task too much to want to increase the speed of her thrusts anytime soon.

“Doesn’t that hurt?” Dae asked, fascinated by the way the folds of Suhayla’s sex seemed to cling to the phallus as it was withdrawn.

“For a virgin…yes, there is a moment of pain. But it is negligible compared to the pleasure of being filled by a lover so completely.”

“Why does she like being tied up?” Dae wondered aloud. Warm hands rested on her shoulders a moment before gliding lower, over her arms and down to her hips, sparking fires all along the way. Johara shifted closer and Dae felt her breath tickle her ear.

“Is it so difficult to understand the appeal?” Johara whispered, feeling Dae tremble as her touches became more intimate and suggestive. “Trust is such an important element of pleasure, little one, for without trust we can never truly be at ease. Suhayla enjoys the restraint because it sharpens her awareness of that trust element. To be naked and exposed…” Her hands shifted around to play along Dae’s taut abdomen. “…helpless, entirely at our mercy…” Long fingers played idly with the young blonde’s navel. “…yet to be comfortable in the knowledge that we will take that sacrifice of all control and reward it only with pleasure.” Johara sighed as she felt and heard Dae suck in a quick breath. “Can you not imagine how exciting that might feel if you were to give yourself to Zafirah is such a way? To demonstrate such absolute faith in her…to feed off of her arousal as she looks upon you, bound and helpless before her.” Her voice dropped to a seductive purr. “Might that not arouse you, little Dae?”

Dae could only nod slightly, her body brought to life by the sight of Hayam and Suhayla and the voice and touch of Johara.

“Or perhaps,” the tall temptress continued, “it would please you more to see the Scion tied to her bed, that magnificent, powerful body eagerly laid bare for whatever tender mercies you could devise?”

That image caused Dae to close her eyes and moan audibly. She offered no resistance as Johara’s touch roamed up her front until those fingers skirted along the edges of her top teasingly. “Yessss.”

“Keep your eyes open, child,” Johara whispered. “Watch Hayam work. She has been teasing Suhayla a long time now, denying her the pleasure she so craves. With such prolonged torment, her climax will be quite spectacular.”

Dae did as bade and opened her eyes, watching the way Suhayla was being taken and imagining how it might feel to be in her place. As it was, Johara’s continued touches were enough to have caused her to soak her undergarments thoroughly, but she felt no shame for her excitement. Indeed, she was eager for more.

“Do you think Zafirah would really…let me tie her up?” she asked breathlessly, feeling Johara toy with the laces of her top.

“I cannot imagine the Scion denying you her body in any way you might take it,” came the husky reply. There was a playful pause. “Would it interest you to hear that I have seen Zafirah in such a position before? Have pleasured her when she was bound?”

Dae whimpered. “Really?”

“Indeed. While it is not a style of passion she indulges in often, she is certainly no stranger to ropes and chains.” Johara’s voice was like a caress — lingering and sweet. “Oh, how she screamed when we finally allowed her to climax! Such bliss!” A sigh. “And for you, little one…she would offer up her very soul just to see you smile.”

Dae stood unmoving, considering the validity of that claim seriously. “I suppose I’d do the same for her, too,” she realized aloud.

Johara nodded and planted a light kiss on Dae’s bare shoulder. “Love is a many-splendid thing.” With her advantage of height, she was able to see her hands clearly as they played against the silky, bejeweled material of the blonde’s top. She grinned. “Does my touch arouse you?” she teased. “Your nipples shall pierce cloth if they grow any stiffer.”

Dae glanced down at her chest, blushing when she saw her nipples straining against her clothing. “Well if you keep this up much longer-”

“It would be my greatest pleasure,” Johara finished without hesitation, tugging suggestively at the laces of Dae’s top. “If you would but give permission for me to unlace this humble length of cord that hides your flesh from those who would admire you…”

Dae’s breathing was ragged, but she was still in control of herself. Certainly she was in control enough to know she wanted this to continue. She gave a mental shrug. What the hell. Let’s see where this goes. “Alright then. Slowly.”

Johara’s fingers stilled instantly. Her offer had been playful, meant in jest; she hadn’t expected Dae to take her up on it. But neither was she going to miss the opportunity now that it was here. With a gentle motion, she defeated the simple knot that held the cord tied. “I am honored,” she whispered softly as she worked the laces out, surprised to find her hands trembling in anticipation. “You may ask me to stop any time you wish.”

Dae smiled, feeling very safe and at ease in Johara’s arms. “I trust you.”

Johara gazed over Dae’s shoulder as smooth, pale skin was revealed with the parting of cloth. “Were you not saving such intimacies for Zafirah?” she asked, respecting the sanctity of love too much to overstep her bounds…no matter how tempting the prize.

“Some intimacies, yes,” Dae corrected easily. “But things like this…” She sighed as Johara’s touch scored close to her sensitive nipple. “Things like this I’m happy to share with you.”

“As you wish, little one.” Johara kissed then licked along the pillar of Dae’s neck, breathing in the clean scent of lilac from the blonde hair. “Perhaps you might care to assist in Suhayla’s pleasure later? You could wear a phallus without risk to your physical virtue.”

Dae shivered at the thought…then again as her top was pulled fully open and her breasts laid bare. “We’ll see,” she gasped. “I promised I’d meet Zafirah in the seraglio in an hour.”

“Ooh…how wicked of you!” Johara teased playfully. “Seeking a dalliance before your rendezvous with our beloved mistress.”

“It’s not like that,” Dae protested weakly, pushing herself against Johara’s hands as they caressed the curve of her breasts. “I heard a noise and thought…maybe I could watch…”

“And stir your passion before meeting with the Scion? You play with fire, little one…and I suspect you wish to get burned.”

“Mmm…maybe.” Dae’s legs almost gave out when Johara’s fingers sought out her aroused nipples and began to twist them gently. Pleasure shot straight to her center and she might have collapsed had the taller woman not moved to brace her up. She felt the length of Johara’s body press against her back, aware of her feminine curves and the contact of her breasts. “This feels niiiiice,” she hummed, watching Hayam and Suhayla begin to move to a faster pulse. The bound woman was gazing back at her hungrily, while Hayam glanced back from time to time, smiling at her lover enviously.

“I think your mate is jealous,” Dae observed with a cocky grin.

“Perhaps you might be willing to appease her another time.”

Hayam threw her lover a quick smirk, then let her gaze linger on Dae’s breasts a long moment before turning back to Suhayla.

“Well I wouldn’t want you to have to fight over me,” the young blonde grinned, quite enjoying the knowledge that she inspired such hunger in the others. “It seems only fair to include her.”

“My sentiments exactly.”

Suhayla’s arms were pulling desperately on the silken rope that held them spread. “Please,” she whimpered, tendrils of her dark hair plastered to her face with sweat. “I cannot take much more Hayam! Let me come!”

“Patience, lover,” the northerner soothed. “I am in control of your pleasure for now, and will decide when and how you climax.” She thrust her hips sharply and suddenly, embedding the phallus fully, then ground against Suhayla firmly. The desert-girl’s head lolled, eyes rolling back in their sockets. Hayam looked over to Dae as she withdrew from her captive, running a finger down Suhayla’s cheek. “Such a deceptively innocent face she has, hmm? Much like you.” She glanced at Johara’s hands as they excited the young blonde’s body, sighing. “Always the quiet ones who become demons in the bedroom.”

Dae felt Johara’s body shake against her as she chuckled. “What does she mean?”

Johara continued her attentive and experienced ministrations. “Nothing, little one. She refers to the fact that quiet and unassuming girls are often possessed of surprisingly intense, adventurous sexual natures.”

“Really?”

“In my own experience, yes…though it is not a perfect truth by any means.”

Dae considered this curiously as her senses were inflamed by Johara’s touch. “What about Inaya? She’s fairly quiet.”

Johara chuckled again. “Indeed she is, little one.” She leaned closer and nibbled very lightly on Dae’s ear before whispering. “But if you wish to learn more of her sexual tastes you will have to ask her directly. Her preferences are not so easily explained.”

That statement intrigued Dae enormously, and she would have liked very much to pursue the matter further. However, Johara’s attentions became suddenly more purposeful, effectively distracting her with pleasure. Dae gasped and grabbed at Johara’s hands with her own, amazed by how sensitized her breasts had become and how the pleasure seemed to shoot straight down to her sex. “Gods above!”

“You like?”

“Yes but…How..?”

Johara grinned, pleased but not surprised by how responsive Dae was to her caresses. She could smell the young girl’s arousal in the air as she began to press her own center against Dae’s backside. “Many years of experience, child, along with a willing and enthusiastic soul-mate with whom to practice.” She sucked at the hollow of Dae’s neck, careful not to leave a mark. “You do not touch your breasts when you pleasure yourself?”

“I-I do but- GODS!” Dae uttered a shocked squeak of surprise as Johara tugged at her nipples. “They never felt like this before!”

“Perhaps you should spend more time attending to them,” Johara suggested silkily. “They seem so delightfully sensitive…”

“Urgh!”

Dae’s cries were mingling with Suhayla’s in an ecstatic orchestra as both women were pushed closer to climax. Johara ground herself against Dae’s willing body, feeling her own pleasure rise as she watched her mate thrust harder and faster into Suhayla. “Will you come for me, little one?” she purred into the blonde’s ear. “It would excite me greatly to feel you climax against me.”

Dae didn’t have breath to respond coherently, but her body had already decided the matter for her. Her sex was pulsing in time with her accelerated heartbeat, yearning for some kind of contact. But when she reached down to satisfy her need, Johara’s stopped her.

“No, Dae.”

“But-”

“You need not touch yourself. Relax. Let me show you…”

Whimpering, desperately wanting direct stimulation, Dae nevertheless allowed Johara to guide her hands back up to her breasts. “I can’t- I mean…I want-”

“Release?” Johara’s long fingers resumed their wonderful attentions. “You shall have it.”

“But-”

“Trust me, little one,” Johara chuckled. “Pleasure lives in every part of your body, not just between your legs. Keep those emerald eyes of yours on Suhayla…and feel what I do.”

Uncertain, but trusting to Johara’s experience, Dae followed her instructions. She watched with rising excitement as Hayam claimed the bound girl with greater force and fervor, feeling blissful tingles arc between her grateful breasts and her pouting-in-jealous-displeasure sex. As Johara continued her artful ministrations, a familiar pressure began to build low in Dae’s belly…a pressure she had learned could mean only one thing.

Emerald eyes widened in disbelief. Dae’s legs weakened in expectation. “I-I think…”

“I have you, little Dae. Trust me.”

Suhayla’s cries were constant now, the hours of patient teasing her body had endured culminating in the dawn of inevitable climax. Dae felt her own sex tense in sympathy, then twitch and spasm. This is impossible!

“I can’t-” she gasped.

But apparently, she could.

Dae screamed as her legs gave way, falling forward a little before Johara caught and steadied her. Waves of pleasure rushed through her in directionless patterns, her climax seeming to originate from every part of her body at once in an overwhelming tide. It was far more intense and shattering than anything she had experienced at her own hands, and Johara expertly kept her senses floating in a haze of swirling ecstasy for long moments. In some distant part of her mind, she heard and saw Suhayla succumb to her own orgasm. When she eventually came back to her senses, Dae was surprised to see the desert-girl still caught in the thrashing grip of ultimate pleasure. She hung limp and unresisting in her bondage, supported by a considerate Hayam who continued to move against her until it became clear that she had lost consciousness.

Without knowing quite how it had happened, Dae found herself on the bed, cradled in Johara’s lap as the tall woman stroked her hair gently and hummed a calming melody. When the final pulses of climax had dissipated, she looked around with a fuzzy expression. “Wh-what happened?”

Johara giggled. “If you have cause to ask, perhaps I need to improve my technique.”

Dae blushed and sat up, turning to face Johara. “How did..? I mean, you never even touched me…there…” She glanced down and her blush deepened when she saw the dark patch at the crotch of her trousers where her climax had soaked the sheer silk.

Johara shushed her quietly. “No need to color so, little one. You were beautiful!”

Dae studied the pillows of the bed intently. “I…didn’t know that could happen like that.”

The lean brunette smiled. “Experience is the highest form of education…and there is so very much you have yet to learn on these subjects.”

Dae chuckled at herself. “And here I thought I was getting pretty good at it.”

“No doubt you are, little one.” Johara leaned down and placed a soft, chaste kiss on Dae’s cheek, stroking her head fondly. “But there is far more to the world of pleasure than what your own hands can teach.”

“So I see.” Dae glanced over to where Hayam was wrestling with the knots that held Suhayla tied up; the desert-girl was no help at all, unable to support her own weight due to her state of unconsciousness. “Will she be okay?”

“She will be fine,” Johara assured. “It is always this way with her; the intensity of such a climax steals her from us for a time, but she will recover soon enough to find herself tied to our bed, whereupon I shall have opportunity to ravish her while she thanks Hayam properly for giving her release.”

Dae giggled and turned away, thinking. When she glanced at Johara again from beneath disheveled blonde locks, her eyes were playful yet shy. “You know…I still have a while before I’m supposed to meet with Zafirah. Would you maybe…like some help?”

Johara grinned, white teeth flashing joyfully. “Assistance is always appreciated.” As they made room on the bed for Hayam to lay her precious burden down, she couldn’t help but shake her head a little at Dae’s all-too-eager expression.

Always the quiet ones, indeed.

* * *

Zafirah noticed quickly that Dae was unusually subdued as they walked side by side through the palace hallways, but she politely kept her questions to herself. The way the young girl blushed frequently while stealing secretive glances at her, as well as the subtle scent of arousal that warred with the stronger perfume of jasmine and wild rose, gave the Scion at least a hint as to what was occupying Dae’s thoughts. But as much as she would have liked to pursue the matter, Zafirah resisted. The news she had received from Falak’s scouts less than an hour before made her just want to spend her evening with the lovely blonde quietly.

When they reached the stables, Dae was surprised by the amount of activity going on all around. People — spahi riders, she surmised from their attire — hurried about the compound in orderly chaos while their captains issued orders in loud, serious voices. She glanced curiously at Zafirah, able to meet the dark woman’s sapphire gaze without blushing terribly for the first time that night. “What’s going on?”

Zafirah sighed. “The renegade tribes are on the move,” she explained quietly. “They march towards the less-unified tribes of the Scion alliance, no doubt hoping to crush them quickly. We must ride out to face them on the desert sands.”

Dae stared at her in shock for a moment, then spun back around the watch the soldiers. “You mean…war?”

“A battle, yes.” Zafirah smiled and reached out to clasp Dae’s hand in her own. “Thanks to you, Tahirah, we at least ride with knowledge of our enemies and the power they wield. The information you gave the council about these…Rife-El’s will save many lives.”

Dae shivered at the warmth of the Scion’s hand, hoping Zafirah couldn’t read her arousal too easily. Her time with Johara, Hayam and Suhayla had left her in a highly responsive state, and her mind was still filled with images of naked, sweat-slicked flesh and writhing bodies. “I’m glad I could help you,” she said softly. “Does…does this mean you’ll be leaving tonight?”

Zafirah shook her head. “No, little one. Tonight and most of tomorrow will be spent organizing the army and preparing supply wagons and a route into the desert. We will leave when the sun begins to cool late tomorrow evening, marching through the night and camping through the day.” She smiled and continued walking towards the stables. “I regret I must leave again so soon but…at least we have tonight together.”

Dae returned the smile a little uncertainly; she wasn’t sure if she could resist the urge to strip the dark woman bare and demand a thorough ravishing before Zafirah left. Clearing her throat, the young blonde squeezed the larger hand clasped in her own. “You’ll be in danger, won’t you?”

“Some, perhaps…but I am as skilled in the warrior arts as I am in the arts of pleasure.” Dark eyebrows waggled playfully, causing Dae’s blush to return. “Will you worry about me while I am gone?”

“Of course I will.” Dae forced herself not to think about the possibility of Zafirah getting hurt, not liking the way it made her stomach churn sickeningly. She swallowed hard. “But you’ll be careful for me, I know.”

“Have no fears, aziza. I shall return unscathed, and the foolish curs who threaten my people will be sent back to the deep desert, tails between their legs!”

“Good.” There was a pause then while they stopped to admire a group of spahi as they ran through a short, impressive series of equine acrobatics, Dae marveling at the sight in awe. When they continued, the young blonde cast her taller companion a shy, wondering look. “Zafirah?”

“Hmm?”

“When…when you call me aziza like that..?”

“Yes?”

“Do you mean it? Is that…what I am to you?”

Zafirah lifted a hand and tenderly reached out to touch Dae’s face. She smiled; a warm, loving smile that caused Dae’s heart to burn. “I never speak words I do not mean, my Tahirah,” she said softly. “That one least of all.”

“Oh.” Dae looked away, fearing she’d turn into a puddle if the dark woman continued looking at her like that. “Have you…ever called anyone else that before?”

“No…only you.” Soft lips brushed lightly against the crown of Dae’s head, inspiring a sharp intake of breath. “You are my beloved. And I hope one day, you will consider me yours.”

“I do!” Dae said quickly. “I-I definitely do, I just…wasn’t sure…”

“Sshhh, I understand.” Zafirah pulled Dae’s shorter body to her, wrapping long arms about the girl’s waist and resting her hands tentatively on her backside. “I do not make such things very clear, do I…seeking pleasure with others so frequently?”

Dae smiled as she breathed in the dark woman’s scent. “Just part of your charm, Zafirah. And I really don’t mind.”

“Really?” Zafirah was surprised.

“Of course not. You’ve never forbade me to engage with the other girls in the harem. It’d be hypocritical to ask you to restrain your desires…not to mention cruel, since we don’t actually…you know? Together.” A pause. “Yet.”

“This is true.” Zafirah soaked in the knowledge that Dae was willing to accept her completely, but soon enough a wicked thought occurred. “So…have you?”

“Have I what?”

“Engaged with the other girls?” Dae’s blush answered her question, and Zafirah raised an eyebrow curiously. “I know you spent some time with Johara and Hayam, but..?”

“I haven’t done much,” Dae defended modestly. “I want to share most things with you…at least for the first time. But…”

Zafirah grinned and tickled the blonde teasingly, making her giggle. “You must tell me more, my little temptress.”

Dae escaped out of reach of the dark woman’s long arms, laughing playfully. “Well…I actually do have a few questions I’d like to ask you…”

“Oh? Then consider my wisdom entirely at your disposal.”

Emerald eyes flicked about the stable compound, noting the way several people were watching her and the Scion with amusement and interest. “Later, okay?”

Zafirah shrugged, supposing it was better to continue in private. “As you wish.” She held out her hand for Dae to take, and together they continued their tour of the stables.

The evening was a pleasant one, passing quietly and without drama — for which Zafirah in particular was grateful. With the prospect of several days — possibly weeks — spent separated from El’Kasari and the young blonde, the Scion cherished every moment of this time spent in Dae’s gentle company. The coming battle would be an uncertain affair; she had only the cloudiest outline of a plan in mind to defeat Shakir and his renegade army, and the untested element of the foreign weapons added to the danger significantly. Still, Zafirah set thoughts of battle aside for now, content to enjoy the night and bask in Dae’s affection.

It was late by the time they made their way back to Scion’s bedchamber, and Zafirah was flushed with desire at the thought of what questions Dae might ask her…and how she might be able to illustrate her answers. As she walked about the vast room lighting oil-lamps and candles, Dae settled herself gingerly on the bed, hands folded demurely in her lap.

“So…” Zafirah glanced at the young blonde. “Questions?”

“Yes, umm…” Dae shifted, wondering if she had the courage to actually ask what she wanted. Wondering where to start. “Well…before you came to the seraglio tonight, I kinda paid a visit to Johara and Hayam…”

“Indeed.” Zafirah settled herself into a seat opposite from Dae, not wanting to tempt herself by sitting on the bed. “Were they..?” She raised an eyebrow meaningfully.

Dae couldn’t stop the blood from rushing to her face…and other, more southerly, places. “They were uh…occupied, yes.” She paused. “With someone else.”

“I see.” Zafirah grinned, liking this tale very much already. “Who?”

“Suhayla.”

“Aaah.” The dark woman’s grin grew wider and she nodded, suspecting where this might be headed. “Let me guess — she was, shall we say…restrained?”

Emerald eyes widened. “How did you-”

“Suhayla’s preferences are well known to me, Tahirah. She is, afterall, my pleasure-servant. I would consider myself quite remiss were I ignorant of what pleases her the most.”

“Oh. Yeah, I…I guess that makes sense.”

“So…you wondered why she was tied up?”

Dae shook her head. “No, Johara explained it to me so I understood.” She found it impossible to meet Zafirah’s gaze. “It seemed…interesting.”

Zafirah made no comment, but her mind was suddenly filled with images of Dae, naked and bound to her bed, pleading to be ravished at the point of her tongue. Her breathing became a little shallower.

“Anyway,” Dae continued, “the thing I was wondering about… Hayam was using this thing on Suhayla…Johara called it a phallus.” She glanced up to find slightly wide sapphire eyes watching her. Zafirah nodded to show she understood what Dae was referring to. “Well…it definitely seemed like Suhayla was enjoying it, and I was curious about whether…maybe… you…?” She left the question hanging.

Zafirah was silent a long while, amazed that the girl who once claimed she would never indulge in pleasure with another female was now asking whether she owned a phallus. When she shook away her initial lustful thoughts — which chiefly involved tying Dae up and introducing her to every sexual device in her collection in a very personal way — Zafirah stood up and walked over to the intricately-carved wall cabinet mounted opposite her bed. She opened the double doors and gestured for Dae to come closer. The young blonde did so, studying the contents of the cabinet with interest. Her lips pursed in consideration as she looked from one item to the next, guessing there were at least a hundred individual pieces in the cabinet.

“What are they?” At first she they were weapons of some kind, but that didn’t make much sense.

Zafirah caressed her collection lovingly. “These are devices akin to the phallus you saw Hayam using; devices designed to bring pleasure to the female body.”

Dae’s eyes widened in awe as she regarded the cabinet with new respect. “All of them!?”

The Scion smiled. “Yes, all of them.”

The blonde took a step closer, intrigued. “There are so many!”

“I have spent many years collecting them,” Zafirah explained. “There are pieces here gathered from every corner of the known world…even,” she added with a smile, “from your own land.”

“MY land? But…people don’t use things like this in…my…” She trailed off as Zafirah nodded firmly. “No-”

“The laws in your land may forbid women from laying with other women, and men from laying with other men…but laws do not change the hearts of people, nor dictate the terms of love.” Zafirah plucked an elegantly carved length of ivory from her collection and held it out. Dae saw it was a phallus, artistically carved to depict two women locked in an embrace. “This was made in the eastern land especially for me. The woman who carved it most certainly did not agree with, nor adhere to, the laws that forbade her desires.”

Dae was shocked by this revelation, even as a part of her found it strangely comforting. Others in my land feel the same as I do. In some absurd way, that idea made her feel not quite so confused or alone. She turned her attention back to the other sexual devices, trying to deduce how each one worked. Some were obvious, but others… She pointed to a string of what looked like glass beads. “What the heck are those?”

Zafirah chuckled as she set the phallus back in its proper place. “I would be delighted to demonstrate their use, aziza.”

Dae blushed, but smiled. “Some other time, perhaps.” She gazed at the amazing and varied tools of pleasure, awed by their number and diversity. “You’ve used all of these?”

“I have, at one time or another, tested each of them thoroughly, yes.” The dark-haired woman stepped closer to Dae and rested her hands on the girl’s shoulders. “One day, perhaps you will be able to say the same.”

The hours — weeks, more likely — of blistering pleasure that statement promised were enough to make Dae dizzy. “That might take a long time,” she whispered hoarsely.

“I am a patient teacher.”

“Then I could be a willing student.” Dae turned about and surprised Zafirah with a searing kiss, standing on tip-toes to allow her tongue leverage to pierce the dark woman’s lips and conquer her mouth. The Scion moaned and gave in happily to the unusually aggressive assault, sucking at Dae’s questing muscle hungrily and wrapping the shorter woman in a tight embrace. When they eventually parted, both women were breathing hard.

Dae clutched at Zafirah greedily. “I wish you didn’t have to leave. You have no idea how much I want to give you a proper goodbye.”

Zafirah groaned and bent to suckle at Dae’s neck, her lips unconsciously taking up the exact same position as Johara’s had just hours earlier. She felt her lust redouble at the young girl’s words. “That would be wonderful-”

“Mmm, yessss.” Dae pulled back and gazed up at the dark woman with eyes ablaze with wicked passion. “But unfortunately for both of us, there’s something I want even more.”

“What?”

“To give you a proper welcome home when you return.”

Zafirah saw in that statement that once again, her lust was going to have to be leashed. “You are evil, my Tahirah,” she moaned.

“Perhaps.” Dae grinned and deliberately dragged her tongue along the taller woman’s collar-bone, feeling bold after her experiences with Johara, Hayam and Suhayla. “But you have to admit, it makes an excellent incentive. You return to me safe and unharmed, and as a reward…” She paused. “I let you show me how your tongue feels dancing over my most intimate and untouched treasures.”

It was almost too much for the poor Scion. Zafirah pulled away from the young girl, knowing if their bodies remained in contact much longer she wouldn’t be able to control herself. Taking several slow, deep breaths in a futile effort to calm her raging libido, Zafirah regarded the blonde hungrily. “With such a promise in mind, Shakir and his dogs shall rue the day they thought to attack my people. But are you certain it is a promise you wish to keep?”

Dae grinned, pleased with herself. “Believe me, I’ll be looking forward to it just as much as you.” She shivered in memory. “It seemed so intense and erotic when Johara was feeding on Hayam…you have no idea how often I’ve imagined how it will feel letting you do that to me.” She stepped closer. “Or how you might taste when I do it to you…”

“Gods above, girl! Have some compassion!” Zafirah backed up a pace, knowing if Dae touched her that the girl would be experiencing those delights sooner than she thought. “For such delicious reward, I would willingly take on a thousand men single-handed!”

“Really?” Dae’s nose crinkled as a new thought occurred. “Then you won’t mind if I add on an extra little condition, will you?”

Zafirah froze, regretting her words at the wicked gleam in those emerald eyes. “L-like what?”

“While you’re away,” Dae smirked, “I want you to abstain from all sexual pleasure.”

“WHAT!?”

“You heard me. No seducing the nomads daughters. No ‘inspecting’ the troops.” Dae’s voice dropped to a low purr. “When you get back to me Zafirah, I want you so eager for my touch you’ll explode the instant I lay hands upon your flesh.”

Zafirah turned away, trembling, her eyes squeezed shut. “You cannot know what you ask of me.”

“I do know,” Dae said, softly but no less erotically. “I understand how hard it is for you to deny yourself, but you can do it if you only try. When we make love for the first time, I want it to be like it was when you took Nasheta. I want you dripping before I even touch you, delirious with want for me. I want to feel your love and desire in every way you can show it.” She paused. “If you do this for me, aziza…I’ll give you a welcome home you won’t soon forget.”

Zafirah considered the request seriously. True, it would be difficult to curb her appetites…but not impossible. Afterall, she could vent her passions somewhat on the battlefield, and keep her mind occupied planning and refining her strategy against the renegade Calif. Slowly, a smile spread across her lips, and she turned back to face Dae. “Very well,” she agreed quietly. “But I have a condition of my own.”

Sensing victory, Dae spread her hands in expectation. “Name it.”

“You must adhere to the same rule.”

Dae’s smile vanished. “Me? But I don’t-”

“While I am gone, my not-so-innocent little temptress, there will be no nightly forays into the world of self-induced ecstasies for you. As you lay in bed each night, your fingers will remain idle and well-behaved.” Zafirah grinned at Dae’s expression. “When I return, I wish for you to hunger for me as greatly as I for you.”

Dae’s eyes narrowed in contemplation, then she gave a single firm nod. “I guess that’s fair,” she accepted grudgingly. “If you can behave yourself, I’m certain I can as well.”

“Excellent.” Zafirah clapped her hands. “And now, I fear the hour has grown late for us. There will be many matters requiring my attention tomorrow and I will pay dearly for any lost sleep.”

Dae nodded. “I should get some rest too, I suppose.” She gave the dark woman a hopeful look. “Will you come visit me before you leave?”

Zafirah nodded. “I promise…though I will not be able to give you as much of my time as I would wish to.” Steeling herself, Zafirah held out her arms and pulled the shorter blonde into a hug. “Once my people are safe and the enemy routed, I swear we will have all the time in the world to explore our affections, aziza. And I will show you such pleasure as you cannot imagine.” She placed a light kiss on Dae’s hair.

Dae squeezed the Scion hard, trying to memorize her scent and the firm, powerful feel of her body, knowing it would be some time before she got to experience it again. “Just be safe,” she demanded in a fierce whisper. “Don’t do something stupid like getting hurt, or you’ll have wasted all this time you’ve spent on my seduction.”

Zafirah chuckled as she pulled away. She gazed lovingly at the young blonde. “You have my word, Tahirah. I shall exercise all caution in the battle.”

“Good.”

The two parted after several more long, lingering kisses, neither looking forward to their separation, both already anxious to experience the bliss and heat of their reunion.
XVIII
From atop Simhana’s back, Zafirah looked out over the endless miles of featureless, open dunes that lay in every direction, her sharp sapphire eyes seeing the subtle ridges and valleys that most foreign travelers were blind to. Out here, distances were deceptive; what looked like a single mile often proved to be ten or twenty. Behind her, the Scion heard the quiet sounds of several hundred mounted horses following her lead in a great line. Outriders and Falak’s scouts flanked the army in a swift-running cage of steel, making certain no surprises lurked in the hidden depressions of the dunes. The desert was bright with the light of a three-quarter moon, but there was little to see out here. The horizon stretched on forever, and it was all too easy to imagine that the whole world had been magically emptied of every rock and tree, and now hung barren and empty between the stars. Looking out at the endless expanses of nothing, Zafirah felt an unusual sensation of melancholy steal over her.

She had never felt so alone in all her life.

In the four days and nights since they had left El’Kasari, the army had managed to cover good ground and were now approaching their destination. Falak’s scouts reported that Shakir and his rag-tag accompaniment were closeby, and the spahi were eager for battle. The numbers of the enemy were greater than they had anticipated, but no-one gave the matter much thought. The only thing that concerned them was the apparent low-spirits of their beloved leader. Zafirah’s mood couldn’t help but affect her troops; they adored the dark woman with religious intensity and utter devotion. Seeing her despondence as she rode along at the head of the column sent whispers through the ranks of the horsemen. It was clear to them that Zafirah was suffering the pangs of love-sickness.

Responding to the pleading looks the people were casting her, Falak spurred her horse up to ride alongside the quiet Scion. Zafirah glanced at her sullenly, but remained silent.

“It is a quiet night,” the dark-skinned scout observed conversationally. “If we ride till dawn without pause, we may be fortunate enough to meet up with Rehan and the Tek.”

Zafirah grunted.

“My people report that Shakir and his army will move through the Ah’raf Pass before the sun rises a day hence. We will have ample time to secure our position before he arrives.”

This time the Scion didn’t bother making any noise.

Falak sighed and fought the urge to roll her eyes. “Petulance is an unattractive expression on you, Zafirah,” she said at last. “You are behaving like a child deprived of her sweets, and with a battle near at hand no less!”

That got Zafirah’s attention. She stared at her scout in shock. “I am not being petulant!”

“Yes you are.”

“Am not!” Zafirah turned away.

Falak grinned. “And now you are sulking.”

“Hmph!”

“Why do you fret so, my friend? Dae will be waiting for you when we return to the city.”

“I know.” Zafirah hadn’t slept much these last few days, her mind filled with searing imaginings of what awaited her when Shakir was defeated. “I just miss her greatly.”

The scout smiled fondly at her friend. “Being in love takes some getting used too, does it not?”

Zafirah nodded. “But my heart would not reject it for anything in the world.”

“Perhaps you would benefit from some companionship,” Falak suggested. “You have slept alone since we left El’Kasari; I know many are disappointed not to have opportunity to enjoy your talents.”

“I cannot, my friend. Dae asked me to abstain from pleasure until such time as she can satisfy my desires personally.”

Falak’s jaw dropped in surprise. “And you agreed?!”

The Scion grinned rakishly. “The way she spoke…and the things she promised… Denial was not an option.”

The scout shook her head, amazed. “I never thought to see you tamed by such an innocent creature as that girl!” she marveled.

Zafirah laughed, the sound echoing back to those riding behind her and lifting their spirits. “That girl is far less an innocent than she appears, Falak. You guessed correctly when you told me she would learn the ways of pleasure and seduction from the others of my harem.” Her chuckles dissolved into a sigh of longing. “Now I have but to wait with great impatience till I can be with her again…and anticipate the intimacies we will share on my return.” There was a long pause, before she glanced at her friend with an uncommonly shy expression. “To tell the truth…I am somewhat nervous. Is that not strange? I have pleasured countless numbers of women in my life…but the prospect of bedding this one girl makes my stomach churn and my hands shake.”

“It is not so strange,” Falak offered kindly. “Love is more than what the body shares, Zafirah. It is of the heart, as well.”

Zafirah considered this, then nodded slowly. “I am learning this is true.”

“But such thoughts have little place on the battlefield,” Falak continued, her tone shifting to something more formal. “You need to focus, my Scion. When Shakir is defeated and the Peace maintained, there will be time to think of love and pleasure. For now, think only of battle and glory!”

Zafirah straightened in the saddle, properly recalled to her duty by Falak’s reminder. She nodded sharply. “You are right, Falak, and I thank you for reminding me of my priorities.”

The scout grinned, snapped a quick salute to the dark-haired woman before turning to make her way back to her place in the column of riders. As she left, however, she heard Zafirah’s voice whispering quietly to the night.

“But I still miss her very much.”

* * *

Inaya was walking past Dae’s bedchamber on her way to search for food when a hand reached out and suddenly grabbed her arm. She gave a startled squeak as she was pulled into the room, the sound cut off when fingers pressed against her lips. Shrugging off the hand, Inaya spun about and glared at her accoster.

“Dae? What are you-”

“I need a favor,” the blonde said in a hushed voice. “A…personal favor.”

Seeing the charming blush that spread across the young girl’s face, Inaya’s expression changed from indignant to intrigued in the blink of an eye. “From me?” She smiled broadly.

“I didn’t know who else to ask. It’s…kind of a private thing, you know?”

“Of course.” Inaya bowed at the waist. “I understand the value of discretion.”

Dae snorted. “Yeah, Zafirah told me how little it took to get you to part with certain explicit details about my more personal habits.”

“Little? On the contrary my friend, I assure you I made the Scion work very hard for every scrap of information she gleaned.” Inaya winked saucily and clapped her hands. “So…what assistance did you require that inspired you to drag me into your bedroom?”

Dae turned away, unable to look her friend in the eye. “I was…hoping to surprise Zafirah when she returns with something…sexy. Something she’ll appreciate.”

“Drape yourself naked upon her bed,” Inaya advised without hesitation. “Her appreciation will be readily apparent.”

“No, I…I had something else in mind.” Dae paused and took a deep breath, willing her face to cool. “I wanted you to help sh-…shave me.”

Inaya’s dark eyes narrowed uncertainly. “Pardon me? Shave? But your hair is radiant, little one, why would you-”

“Not my head, I mean my…” Dae gestured vaguely in the direction of her thighs. “You know…like Johara.”

Sudden understanding dawned in Inaya’s face and her eyes widened appropriately. “Aaahh…I see.” Try not to look too eager, she told herself firmly. “Are you certain? Once done, such grooming must be maintained or it will cause you much discomfit.”

“I know but…I’d like to do it. I-if you think Zafirah would be pleased..?”

“Oh little one, I think she would find you delicious no matter what you do. But certainly…this could be fun, if nothing else.” Inaya let her eyes roam appreciatively over Dae’s figure. “So what…exactly…were you hoping I could do for you?”

Dae shrugged. “Well…I don’t really uh…know how to go about something like this, you know. And I figured maybe…you…did.”

Inaya appeared to consider this. “You wish me to shave you?”

Dae nodded, thoroughly embarrassed but determined to follow through on this. “Yes.”

“Hmm. I suppose I could — in the interests of friendship, of course.” Inaya gestured Dae towards the bed. “You wait here. I shall need to retrieve some things from my room.” As she turned to leave, the dark-haired girl glanced back. “While I am gone, please remove your trousers and underwear.” Then she hurried away.

Dae shook her head. “I can’t believe I’m doing this,” she muttered as she stood and began unfastening the waistband of her harem-pants.

When Inaya returned she was holding a wide, shallow dish filled with gently-steaming water in both arms and a folded length of blue-dyed cloth in one hand. The instant she saw Dae, bare-bottomed and blushing adorably, she paused to spend a long moment admiring the girl’s more intimate beauties. She whistled. “Very nice, little one,” she complemented, setting the bowl on a table and crawling onto the bed beside her friend. “Very nice indeed. Now…” Spreading open the cloth, she revealed an ivory-handled razor, a small glass vial, and a velvet pouch. She picked up the pouch first and sprinkled a fine white powder into the bowl. “This is crushed soap-stone,” she explained to the nervously watching blonde. “It is mixed with perfumes and oils to help sooth your skin.” Inaya made a slight waving gesture. “If you would spread your legs for me, please…?”

Her face so red it was almost aglow, Dae did as Inaya asked, hesitantly opening her legs a few inches. Clucking under her breath, Inaya reached over and pulled the younger girl’s legs apart brashly. She then dipped her hands into the bowl and rubbed them together. A white, sweet-smelling foam lathered almost immediately.

Looking her friend in the eye, Inaya held up a soapy hand. “Are you ready?”

“I-I guess…”

“Just relax. I will be very gentle.”

The next thing Dae knew, her friend was running those long, slippery fingers between her legs, touching places no-one had ever touched before…except herself, of course. She tensed in shock at first, feeling a guilty little thrill of pleasure course through her body as Inaya rubbed her gently and lathered the soap-stone over her soft blonde curls. The fingers withdrew after several rather delightful moments, than Dae heard the sound of steel snapping. Her eyes widened as she watched Inaya stroke the edge of the gleaming razor. “Uh…”

Seeing the trepidation on the young girl’s face Inaya smiled reassuringly. “Do not fear, little one. I have done this many times, on myself and for others, and have never drawn so much as a single drop of blood.” She lowered her face closer to the crux of Dae’s thighs and rested her hands gently on her warm skin, thinking as she did so that the girl’s sex looked just as adorably sweet and irresistible as the rest of her body. “Just try to hold still for me and do not tense up.”

“Okay.” Dae swallowed hard and urged herself to relax. Seeing how intently Inaya was studying the exposed petals of her sex didn’t make it easy, and feeling the cool kiss of sharpened steel against her sensitive skin made it harder still. Against her will, Dae found herself succumbing to the first flushes of arousal. It was impossible not too; after resisting the desire to touch herself for so many days, her body was extremely receptive to the stimulation — however innocent — it was receiving. Closing her eyes, the young blonde concentrated on keeping her breathing deep and even, conscious of the growing tension between her legs and hoping Inaya wouldn’t notice her excitement.

Inaya, of course, was trying very hard to do just that. As she carefully and gently drew the edge of the razor across Dae’s skin, leaving her satin-smooth and glistening, Inaya couldn’t help but gaze adoringly at the rising blush that colored the girl’s labia a delightful shade of coral pink. As she shaved the fine blonde curls from the crown of Dae’s center, she heard a stifled gasp and smiled, letting her fingers tease against the hood of the girl’s clitoris while she pulled the skin taut. Inaya could feel herself getting wet from touching her friend as she had long dreamed of doing, but she kept her focus tuned to the task at hand. “Would you like me to remove it all, or shall I leave a design?” she asked calmly.

“Huh?” Dae’s eyes snapped open and she shook herself free of her guilty delight at this attention. “Oh, um…I-I suppose a design would be good. Like Johara.”

“As you wish.” Inaya continued about her task, humming quietly as she worked and trying not to enjoy herself too much.

Dae was doing very much the same thing. She’s your friend! She berated herself sternly. Stop getting carried away! Still…the feel of Inaya’s long, delicate fingers brushing against her most intimate flesh, combined with the sensation of the cool against bare skin and the overall eroticism of the situation, resulted in one very stimulated and aroused little blonde. Biting her lower lip and squeezing her eyes shut, Dae tried to think about anything except how nice this was making her feel.

At last, Inaya decided she was finished and, dipping the cloth she’d brought into the water, she began to clean away the remaining lather. After running her fingers over the smooth skin, touching up those few places that had escaped her diligent grooming, she patted Dae’s thigh happily. “It is done.”

Dae opened her eyes and looked curiously down at herself. The soft tangle of hairs between her legs had been tamed, and now her sex was completely bare except for a short, elegant arrow that tapered down towards her center. The sight was rather beautiful, she thought, and she reached down to touch herself. “It’s so smooth!” she marveled with a delighted smile.

“And you must keep it that way, or you will soon regret asking me to do this.” Inaya picked up the small glass vial that sat beside the pouch of soap-stone and unstoppered it. “Here…this is the oil of the sarangura bush. It will sooth your skin further and slow the growth of your hair.” Shooing Dae’s hands away from herself — although she would have liked very much to continue watching — Inaya poured a few drops of the oil onto her friend and began to rub it over the naked skin slowly. She smiled when she saw Dae lie back once more, eyes closed and biting her lower lip. After a while, the dark-haired girl let her ministrations grow more tender and intent. A low, barely audible whimper escaped the blonde, and her eyes darkened. “I can feel you growing wet,” she whispered seductively, “even with the oil.”

Dae glanced at her and tried to close her legs, but Inaya gently stopped her. “Relax, little one. It is not unusual to become aroused during such grooming. Indeed, your body will likely be extremely responsive and sensitized now that everything is so naked.” Her fingers slid with liquid ease over the hood of Dae’s clit, inspiring the young blonde’s thighs to tremble. “You feel so wonderfully smooth…I could touch you like this for hours.”

“No.” Dae tensed and shook her head. “I can’t.”

“Why not? I can see it in your eyes that you want this.” Inaya pouted, her fingers aiding in her persuasion. “You need not be shy, my friend. Let me pleasure you-”

“I-I can’t. I’m sorry.” Despite her words, Dae did nothing to halt Inaya’s extremely welcome caresses. “I want to but…”

“But what? You are in need, and I am only too willing to satisfy you-”

“I promised Zafirah I wouldn’t.”

“Zafirah?” Inaya couldn’t help but chuckle. “The Scion would never wish to deny you of pleasure-”

“No, you don’t understand. We made a deal to abstain.” Dae blushed at her admission. “W-we wanted to…when she gets back, I mean-”

“Aah, say no more, little one, I believe I understand. You wish to sweeten the moment of your union by building the anticipation, no?”

“Yeah…something like that.”

“Mmm.” Inaya didn’t cease her gentle touches as she considered this dilemma. She was determined to pleasure the beautiful little blonde…she just needed the right argument. “Is there no way I could convince you to…shall we say, stray from the path of your arrangement with the Scion?”

Dae was fighting a loosing battle, discovering just how hard it was to say ‘no’ to a fully-wakened lust. “I-I don’t…think so- Oh, yes!”

Inaya grinned. “Nice, hmm?” She stroked firmly against the hardened nub of flesh that still hid behind its protective hood. “You know…when Zafirah sees you like this, I think she will be willing to forgive your lapse in self-control. Indeed, for the chance to lay between your thighs I have little doubt she would forgive you anything!”

“W-we need to stop.” Dae was almost panting now, her legs splayed unresistingly to Inaya’s attentions. “We have to- Urgh! Gods, PLEASE!!”

“Please what?” teased Inaya. “Do you mean, please do this?”

Dae’s hips shot forward. “Yes, that!”

“But I thought we were stopping.” Long, skilled fingers halted menacingly. “Hmm?”

Dae was dizzy with need and in no condition to fight her friend’s seduction. “No. No stopping, please!”

Inaya accepted her victory gracefully. Her fingers resumed their lazy caresses “As you wish, little one.” As she worked, the harem girl shifted to better position herself between her friends legs. “It has been my most ardent desire to pleasure you for a long time now,” she admitted quietly. “You will not be disappointed by my efforts.”

“Yessss!” Abandoning herself to the inevitable, Dae relaxed and resigned her senses to the pleasure she was receiving from those talented fingers stroking her ever-so-gently. Propping herself up on her elbows, she gazed hungrily at Inaya’s body. When the dark-haired girl leaned closer to her, full lips parted in anticipation, Dae didn’t hesitate to meet her kiss passionately, her tongue demanding and eager as it dueled for space in Inaya’s mouth. There was a different edge to this kiss than the ones she’d shared with Zafirah; it was filled with fire and desire, yes…but there wasn’t the same soul-shattering, toe-curling emotional force that there was when she locked lips with the Scion. Still, Dae moaned when Inaya nibbled aggressively at her slippery muscle, feeling her arousal rise a few notches further.

Dae wasn’t the only one in need of satisfaction however, and Inaya pulled herself closer against the blonde’s body and grabbed for Dae’s hand, guiding it to the beaded sash that circled her slender waist and held her skirt together. “Will you pleasure me, too?” she asked hopefully, never stopping her caresses. “Please…I want to feel you touching me.”

Caught in the heat of the moment, Dae didn’t even hesitate. Her fingers clawed at the simple knot in the sash and eventually released it. Inaya’s skirt, which was really little more than a few scraps of silk draped with strings of swaying glass beads, fell away, revealing her gloriously firm body to the young blonde’s appreciative gaze. Emerald eyes devoured the planes of smooth, olive-dark skin, traveling lower quickly, then widening when they noticed something unexpected. “Wh-what’s that?”

“Hmm?” Inaya glanced at Dae and saw what had caught her attention. She smiled and spread her legs to better display her hidden treasures. “You mean this?” With her free hand, she spread herself open and languidly stroked the metal stud that ran through the hood of her clitoris. “It is just more jewelry…like the one in my naval. Do you like it?”

“I-I-I don’t…I mean, how..? D-didn’t it…hurt?” Dae stammered, staring in amazement.

“Of course…a little. But the pleasure was equally intense.” Seeing her friend obviously distracted by the intimate jewelry, Inaya slowed her ministrations.

“Why would you want jewelry…there?”

“It heightens the sensitivity of my clitoris and increases my pleasure,” Inaya explained matter-of-factly. “My nipples are also pierced, for much the same reason. See?” She casually untied her top and exposed her breasts, showing off the elegant rings that hung from each nipple.

Dae winced, even as a part of her admitted the jewelry was rather beautiful…in a barbaric yet extremely erotic fashion. “It doesn’t hurt when you touch them?”

“On the contrary,” Inaya smiled seductively. “The sensation goes directly to my center. Besides, I find that a little pain mixes very nicely with pleasure; it can sharpen the senses…make things so much more exciting.” Dark eyes hooded. “I enjoy the darker elements of passion, little one…and you will find my jewelry makes me extremely responsive. I climax very easily…as I would be happy to demonstrate. Please…?” She reached for Dae’s hand and guided it to her glistening sex. “You may touch it.”

Curious despite herself, Dae fingered the steel bar gently. The contrast between the hard metal of the stud and the silken, smooth skin surrounding it was interesting, and it wasn’t long before Dae’s touches grew bolder and more confident. When Inaya gasped and uttered a low-pitched cry, the inexperienced blonde stopped and looked up, concerned. “Did I hurt you?”

“No little one. It feels wonderful.”

Dae grinned and returned her fingers to their task, sighing when she felt Inaya do the same. Soon, the two were settled into a comfortable position laying side by side on the bed, fingers caressing and breathing growing increasingly more ragged.

Inaya was delighted to find Dae just as vocal now as when she was indulging alone. Many nights, the dark-haired harem girl had lain in her bed listening to the muffled cries of self-induced pleasure coming from Dae’s room, and more often than not the sounds would incite her to touch herself as well. Now, feeling the liquid heat of her beautiful friend against her fingers…breathing in the sweet, musky scent of her arousal while she listened to those little squeaks of pleasure…Inaya was realizing a fantasy that had been swimming about in her head since Dae first arrived in the harem. And she was determined that the young blonde was going to enjoy this moment.

“You feel so good, little one,” she whispered softly, knowing how arousing words could be. “So wet…so hot. Will you come for me? I want to feel you climax against my hand.”

As intended, the words shot Dae’s lust into overload. The young blonde was having a hard time continuing her task of pleasuring Inaya, the flashes of ecstasy burning away her concentration and urging her focus to the center of her body. Inaya felt Dae’s touch lose its rhythm and immediately redoubled her own efforts.

“Are you close, little one? Come for me.”

Dae collapsed onto her back, thighs trembling as she felt the pressure build within her. The whimpers escaping her throat turned to full-fledged, pleading cries as her senses began to take flight. Inaya recognized the signs of impending climax and increased the speed of her attentions, focusing on the now not-so-shy bud of Dae’s clitoris as it peeked out from its secretive hood. Her efforts were rewarded with a sudden increase in liquid flowing from the girl’s sex, and she smiled in satisfaction at the little spasms that rippled against her fingers. Dae’s orgasm was quick, sharp, and intense. And, Inaya added to herself, very loud. She suspected the poor girl would be teased mercilessly by the other pleasure-servants when she next visited the seraglio. Still, watching her friend recover her wits, Inaya felt only pride in her actions. Dae was a beautiful, desirable young woman…and she had a lot of catching up to do when it came to carnal exploits.

When Dae felt her breathing had returned to normal and her senses were grounded once more, she sat up a little and was immediately greeted by the sight of Inaya happily licking her fingers clean of her essence. She blushed. Inaya threw her a rakish grin. “Did you like that?”

Emerald eyes looked away quickly. “It was nice.” A pause. “Thank you.”

“Not at all, little one. I am always happy to help a friend…especially one who makes such delightful noises at the height of passion!”

Dae’s blush wasn’t getting much opportunity to subside. “I’m not that loud,” she protested weakly.

“Then why do your cries still ring in my ears, hmm?” Inaya sucked the last of the clear nectar from her fingers and licked her lips. “You taste as sweet as you look,” she declared cheerfully. “Perhaps next time, you would allow me the honor of sampling your flavor directly from the source..?”

“Umm…I-I guess. If you wanted to.” Next time? Dae felt her insides stir a little. No wonder Zafirah can’t control her desires. Who could, with gorgeous women like Inaya ready to fulfill your every fantasy? Emerald eyes flicked down over the raven-haired desert goddess before her, growing hooded as energy returned. “In the mean time though, I think I should finish what I was working on when you distracted me.”

Inaya’s dark eyes flashed wickedly. “Oh?” She quickly lay back on the bedsheets and spread her legs, brazenly showing off her bejeweled and glistening sex. “Then my body is yours to claim, my friend.”

“Hussy,” Dae scolded, moving closer with an eager expression on her face. Settling between Inaya’s legs she ran her fingers along the tanned skin towards the gleaming metal bar that pierced the girl’s clitoris. She teased the silken petals of Inaya’s labia for a few minutes before turning her attention to the delicate little stud, her fingers stroking against it cautiously. Inaya’s hips bucked and she cried out breathlessly. “Harder, little one!” she urged.

Dae flicked the metal gently, curious. Inaya growled and began tugging at the rings that pierced her nipples. “Again! Please, keep doing that…Harder!”

The blonde repeated her actions, watching as her friend mauled her own breasts and finding the sight enormously erotic. When she slid two fingers over the sensitive shaft of Inaya’s clit and pinched gently, the dark-haired girl threw her head back and screamed out her climax wildly. Dae continued her ministrations, knowing from her own experiences how nice it felt to hold the moment of release as long as possible. She rubbed her fingers quickly and firmly across the full length of Inaya’s dripping sex, enjoying the tremors she could feel beneath her touch.

When Inaya’s body finally had no more to give and went limp, the young blonde withdrew her hand and, after making sure her friend was still too dazed to be watching her, hesitantly brought her wet fingers to her lips. Dae had tasted herself only once before, her curiosity eventually growing stronger than her uncertainty, and had found the taste actually quite pleasing. Inaya’s flavor was similar to her own, only sharper and not so sweet. She quickly licked herself clean when she saw Inaya begin to stir and sit up.

The dark-haired girl sighed languidly. “Thank you, Dae. That was wonderful!” Inaya’s normally immaculate hair was now looking rather disheveled, but her smile was as radiant as ever. “You have learned the ways of pleasing a woman well.”

Dae shrugged modestly. “I’ve had good teachers.”

“Mmm.” Inaya blew an errant strand of hair from her face and sat up on the bed. “Would you like to practice some more? I would be willing to contribute my body to your further studies.”

The blonde giggled and looked away. “Thanks but…I think I’d rather wait for Zafirah to get back.” A pause. “Though I appreciate the offer very much.”

“As you wish.”

“I can’t believe how easily I got carried away,” Dae commented shyly. “I just hope Zafirah isn’t upset about it — I mean, I asked her to deny herself while she was away, and then go get naked with you.”

Inaya considered this with a smile. “Well…if you feel any guilt over this little escapade, just think how much fun you could have apologizing to Zafirah.” She ran a finger lazily along the young blonde’s arm. “Or, if she will not forgive you so easily…how much fun she could have devising a proper punishment for you!”

Dae’s eyes hooded as a few ideas came immediately to mind. “Yeah…I’ve been very, very wicked, haven’t I?”

“Mmhmm.” Inaya purred and licked her lips, one hand wandering down to toy idly with her lower jewelry. “Such a naughty girl.”

“But I’d be willing to do anything if she’d forgive me…”

“Anything.”

“Yeah.” Dae smiled a sexy, sensuous smile. “And she’d probably like hearing about what we did, too. I bet she’d find it extremely exciting.”

“Then we should make it a tale worth the retelling,” Inaya suggested, stroking herself wantonly now.

Hearing her friend-cum-lover starting to breath harsher Dae glanced at the dark-haired girl curiously. Emerald eyes widened when she saw what Inaya was doing. She’s got stamina, I’ll give her that. “What are you doing?”

Inaya flashed a playful, unrepentant grin. “Contributing to your story.”

The young blonde felt her desire surge anew. She swallowed hard and shifted on the bed. “Well…I’d hate for Zafirah to get bored when I tell her what we got up to.”

“Indeed.”

“Are you still willing to let me practice my…technique…on you?”

Inaya pulled her hands away from her weeping sex. “Always.”

“Excellent.” Dae dove right in eagerly…wondering if Zafirah was managing to behave herself any better than she was.
XIX
Ah’raf Pass was a well-known landmark to those who sought to cross the Jaharri desert unscathed. In times past, before the Scion Peace, traders avoided the deceptively inviting path that ran between two great stretches of sharp-edged sand-stone escarpment, knowing that bandits favored the many caves and hollows as places from which to launch surprise attacks. In more recent times however, the Pass was as useful and important to foreigners and the desert nomads as the Kah-hari oasis. It offered protected shelter to weary travelers in the numerous wind-carved caves that pock-marked the cliffs, and more importantly, it was a safe passage that was largely shielded from the vicious and unpredictable sand-storms that could rise up without warning on the barren dunes. There was little doubt in Zafirah’s mind that Shakir would use the Pass to reach the tribes beyond.

Which made it the perfect site to prepare and execute an ambush.

Of course there were murmurings of concern from among the Scion’s commanders and advisors. The Ah’raf Pass was highly exposed and devoid of any dips or gullies…hardly ideal terrain in which to hide an army over three-hundred strong. Also, the Pass itself was too narrow for an effective cavalry charge, which would deprive the spahi of their most valuable asset: speed. But Zafirah ignored the whispered remarks, smiling a confident smile as she ordered her troops into their positions. By the time all was in readiness the hour had grown late, and the Scion raised an eyebrow questioningly at her head scout.

Falak consulted with her outriders before reporting to Zafirah. “Shakir and his men are approaching the Pass — they will be here before full dark.”

“How many?”

A hesitant pause. “Somewhere between four and five hundred.”

Zafirah appeared unconcerned. “Wagons?”

“Three.”

“Excellent.”

Falak’s face was serious as she studied her leader. “This plan of yours involves much risk, my Scion. From what my people saw Shakir is keeping those armed with these devil-weapons in the center of his line. They ride mehari and will be able to retreat quickly if the trap is sprung too soon.”

Zafirah looked off into the distance, her expression masked by her haik. “Or so he thinks,” she said softly. “But the young Calif has much to learn of battle. I will ensure he is educated before the night is through.” Sapphire eyes pinned the dark scout intently. “Your people know what to do?”

A nod. “They will wait for your signal to attack.”

“Excellent. Remember Falak…full quarter and full mercy. We are not here to deprive families of their providers, only to stop Shakir’s crusade and maintain the Peace.” With a flick of the reigns, Zafirah urged Simhana up the rocky path that led to the top of the escarpment — a climb that would have been impossible for any other horse but the desert-bred mare. There, she was pleased to find a group of thirty scouts armed with their powerful bows waiting for her. Several barrels were stacked along the edge of the precipice, just as she had ordered. Another thirty scouts were perched atop the cliff-face on the other side of the Pass, similarly supplied. The scouts nodded in greeting to the Scion, then gestured wordlessly to the south-west.

Shielding her eyes from the last rays of the setting sun, Zafirah saw a cloud of dust rising out along the dunes: Shakir’s army. She fingered the hilt of her sword, looking forward to the coming confrontation. After so many days without any kind of sexual release, the Scion was eager to vent some of her energy in the heat of battle. She watched the dust-cloud move closer, then saw distant dark figures emerge from the desert and halt a few miles from the Pass. “The young jackal is cautious,” she muttered beneath her haik, smiling without humor. “Bold…but cautious.”

Indeed, out on the shifting sands Shakir was studying the looming Pass carefully, sensing something amiss. During the days of travel across the desert, the young Calif had slipped deeper into his madness. He drove his men hard, punishing even the slightest slip in discipline with savage brutality. The zealous fire in his eyes was now burning brighter with the added fuel of insanity, and his troops followed him more out of fear than genuine respect. Now, looking at the Ah’raf Pass, Shakir felt a subtle shifting in the air around him. He knew Zafirah would not wait long to attack him…but surely she was not so foolish as to choose the Pass for a battle! Her spahi would be useless. No…more likely she was waiting for him on the other side, some miles from the cliffs where the open terrain would suit her horsemen better. The Calif grinned, caressing the length of his thunder-bow lovingly. The Scion Whore was in for a rude surprise.

Still, Shakir was no fool. He pointed out two of his mehari riders and gestured towards the Pass. “Go! See that our way is clear!”

The two immediately rose off to scout ahead, returning after several minutes. “The Pass is clear,” was their report.

“And the sands beyond?”

A quick nod. “Nothing. Not so much as a single scout or outrider.”

Shakir considered this, then nodded the two men back into position, apparently satisfied. “We ride through the night then. If we make good time we will fall upon the Sakaran tribe at dawn. Move forward!”

The procession rolled on, slow but tireless. Shakir led the way, along with a group of maybe a hundred troops mostly mounted on horses and armed with spears and javelins. These riders formed a forward defense for the true core of the army; those armed with the thunder-bows. Behind them came three wagons, each bearing a burden of several barrels filled with the magical powder that fueled the foreign weapons, as well as ammunition, spare weapons, and camping supplies. Bringing up the rear came the reserve troops; men and women recruited from the renegade tribes, most riding mangy camels and armed with dented swords and maybe a few bows. Though not the most experienced fighters, this final group was numerous, and provided useful additional muscle to Shakir’s force. This was the army that rode into the Ah’raf Pass as the sun departed the skies.

Perched atop the cliff, Zafirah gazed down at the line of riders below. The scouts watched her eagerly, arrows nocked, waiting for the signal to attack. As the first of Shakir’s men exited the far end of the pass, a few of the scouts began to shift nervously, uncertain what was going on. Were they just going to let the enemy get away? But Zafirah waited patiently until the forward third of the army below was clear of the cliffs, leaving a long line of men still in the Pass and the rest straggling behind. She trusted her senses until she felt the low, excited bubble burst within her — the one that said the perfect moment had come. Then, tilting her head back, the Scion let loose a shattering, ululating war-cry that echoed down into the canyon, gaining strength as it reverberated through the caves and crevices. The scouts joined in with cries of their own, and most began to fire arrows into the panicked enemy below. Those near the barrels that rested at the far ends of the escarpment however, watched until the Scion waved her hand to them, then they pushed the giant containers over the edge.

Zafirah watched, her eyes exultant, as the barrels hit the ground and shattered, spraying liquid everywhere and soaking the entrance and exit of the Pass. She heard several sudden claps of thunder boom through the canyon and realized the enemy was trying to fight back. She smiled. It was already too late. At her gesture, the scouts lit the tips of special arrows that had been soaked in oil and took aim at the barrels below.

“Fire!”

The blazing shafts were loosed. A moment later Zafirah grinned as they ignited the lamp-oil that had filled each barrel, creating two walls of roaring fire below and illuminating the targets in the darkness. Those men who were trying to retreat or push forward milled about, panic rising as they realized they were trapped.

It was a strategy untested in the desert lands, one which Zafirah had learned from ambassadors from the west. It was more commonly used in the defense of castles than open land. She was pleased to see it work so effectively. Now, Shakir’s army was split into thirds, with the most dangerous section — the men armed with the foreign weapons — trapped in the center of the Pass, easy prey for the scouts who rained arrows down upon them. Those who had already made it through the Pass turned about, but couldn’t help their fellows on the other side of the fire. The largest group at the rear milled about uncertainly, seeing no enemy they could fight but watching in horror as their fellows were slaughtered. Many turned to flee, and Zafirah’s orders were that her army would not pursue. Full quarter, full mercy…

…But those in the canyon had brought their own doom with them.

Zafirah’s cold eyes turned to the three wagons, currently abandoned in the center of the Pass while horses and camels reared about in a disorganized panic.

“There,” she pointed to the wagons. “Burn them.”

Five scouts took up oil-soaked fire-arrows and loosed them without hesitation into the wagons.

Zafirah had been told by Dae that the black-power was highly volatile, but even she was shocked by the explosion that blasted through the canyon. A ball of fire and smoke tore through the Pass like a wall of death, choking the air and causing those perched on the cliffs to fall back in awed fear. Zafirah could only stare at the massive explosion, stunned, hearing the sounds below grow ominously silent as the echo of the blast died away. When the smoke had cleared, Zafirah squinted down.

Nothing moved in the Ah’raf Pass now except the flames.

Zafirah swallowed, her hands trembling a little at the unexpectedly powerful force of the blast. Then she turned to her equally stunned scouts, her eyes calm. “Such is the fate of those who would bring death into our lands.” Turning away, she gestured for the others to follow. “Come. This days work is not yet over.”

Casting nervous glances at the rising smoke that twisted through the still night air, the scouts followed their Scion back down the path and onto the plains below.

One of the first to make the through the Pass, Shakir now stood staring at the charred remains of his precious army through the wall of flame that had dropped seemingly from the skies above. He heard the cries of his men as they were struck by the lethal shower of arrows, but could only watch, impotent with rage, as those around him tried to rally a defense against an enemy they couldn’t see. Shakir’s fist clenched as he felt a blinding, insane rage build within him. Hearing a dull roaring sound behind him, he turned and finally saw the enemy. Hundreds of spahi riders had risen like ghosts from the desert sands, their position masked by the cover of dark. Now they raced toward the burning Pass, their numbers overwhelming. Still, Shakir felt no fear…only the rage. His clasped his thunder-bow tightly and scanned the approaching tide carefully while the men around him wheeled about to face the horde.

He had only one shot…but he planned to make it count. The Scion Whore would pay for this treacherous ambush with her life!

Zafirah was thrilled to see her strategy work so utterly well; the spahi had been lying flat against the ground, looking like nothing more than a patch of rocky terrain in the darkness, but now they rose and sped against the remains of Shakir’s army. Whooping and hollering, the Scion spurred Simhana to a gallop, eager to take her share of the fighting. Her curved scimitar dipped and rose in fluid, unrelenting arcs, each time cutting an enemy down. Her attacks were not lethal, however. She simply disabled her foes, cutting a path through their ranks and screaming out her war-cry as she rode.

Shakir watched his men fall without a flicker of emotion. He had never seen Zafirah before, but when he saw the tall figure — obviously a woman by the curves of her form — mounted on the desert war-horse slashing through his army without effort or concern, he grinned and took aim with his thunder-bow. That figure could only be the mighty Scion, and he waited patiently for the perfect moment to fire. When his quarry paused in the battle briefly, sharp eyes looking all around, Shakir’s finger tightened on the trigger, her body held perfectly in his sights.

“NO!”

A black figure crashed into the Calif just as he fired, the thunder-bow jolted to the side by the impact. Shakir was knocked from his horse, speechless with fury. He gained his feet and looked immediately to the Scion, laughing when he saw his shot had not been thwarted completely; the mounted woman was clutching her shoulder, her sword dropped and forgotten. Shakir drew his own weapon and turned to face the one who had spoiled his shot. The woman — a scout from her attire — glared at him with dull hatred, holding her sword before her with grim purpose.

“You will die, bitch!” he promised softly.

“A long time after you,” Bahira replied, exultant in her moment of vengeance. “You slaughtered my friends…my brothers and sisters! For that, your life is forfeit.”

Shakir grinned and waved his scimitar. “Then come. Your Whore Scion will follow close behind you into the hereafter!”

With a flash of light and a clash of steel, the two combatants locked blades.

Zafirah was stunned by the roar of thunder and the sudden lancing pain that speared through her chest. She clutched at the injury quickly, blood welling between her fingers as she released her sword and studied the damage. The shot had taken her in the upper chest, a few inches below her right shoulder-blade. The pain was terrible, but Zafirah was no stranger to injury. She ignored the flashing white spots of light behind her eyes and the nausea that tightened in her gut. The wound itself wouldn’t kill her…but she had to stop the flow of blood quickly or she might pass out. If that happened, she would be an easy target for the enemy still fighting desperately against her spahi in a loosing battle. Squeezing Simhana’s flanks, Zafirah ordered the mare to carry her from the fight to safety — she needed to attend to her injury before she bled to death. That thought brought to mind the promise she’d made to Dae…her beloved…that she would return unharmed to her. A painful smile pulled at her lips.

“I hope you will forgive me, my Tahirah. Such promises are not easily kept.”

Bahira was a good fighter, but she couldn’t match the zealous, furious strength of the renegade Calif. Shakir was tireless and enraged; he rained blow after blow upon the young scout until her arms ached from the shattering force of his attacks. Stumbling, still determined, Bahira struggled to keep her sword up, unable to find an opening between Shakir’s relentless assault. Her hand and arm were numb, and with one final, smashing strike from the Calif, her sword flew away. Bahira fell to the sand, breathing hard, stormy eyes glaring up at her enemy without fear.

Shakir laughed at her courage and lifted his sword high. “Join your fellows in hell!” he snarled.

Bahira didn’t flinch as she saw the firelight gleam brightly off the edge of the curved steel, determined to meet her fate with head held high. But the final blow never came. Shakir’s smile suddenly turned into an expression of pained surprise. His eyes widened. His mouth dropped in a silent scream. The sword fell from his hand and he clutched at his back frantically for a moment, then pitched headfirst into the sand.

A raven-fletched arrow stuck out of his back, directly over his heart.

Bahira looked about and saw the familiar dark face of Falak grinning at her from nearby. Tension left her body in a sudden wave of relief, and she laughed and waved to her lover. Falak returned the wave. Bahira glanced at Shakir’s body, nudging it with her foot to ensure he was really dead. Then she stood up, collected her sword, and wiped her brow in exaggerated relief. Falak chuckled, then nocked a new arrow and fired into the subdued ranks of the enemy.

The battle didn’t last much longer. When the men of Shakir’s army began to kneel, holding their weapons above their heads in a pose of submission, Falak looked around for Zafirah. She grew worried when she didn’t see any sign of the dark-haired woman, and stepped up onto a boulder to address the enemy, whistling sharply to get their attention.

“Your leader is fallen!” she shouted, her voice carrying through the canyon to those still milling about on the other side, uncertain what was happening. “You are defeated! We do not wish this to be a slaughter…to deprive your families of their loved ones here! Return to your tribes now and we will let you go in peace! But remember the lesson you have learned this night — the Scion Peace will be defended at all costs! Do not come upon us in anger again!”

After a few minutes, the men and women of Shakir’s army began to struggle to their feet and pick themselves up. There were few dead among their number, but many limped or clutched at bleeding arms. They helped one another walk back into the canyon, past the fires which had died away as their fuel was consumed. The charred remains of those who had been trapped in the Pass made a powerful impression, and most resolved never to challenge the might of the Scion ever again.

Within an hour, the broken army was making its way back to the deep desert. Falak figured it would be many years before they had courage enough to begin their raids again. When the last of the enemy had withdrawn from the field, Falak looked about curiously, seeing many others doing the same. Where was Zafirah? A murmuring of concern began among the riders. Falak waved a hand. “Find her!”

It wasn’t long before a cry alerted the chief scout that the Scion had been located. Pushing her way through the spahi who gathered around the rocky base of the cliffs, Falak willed her heart to be steady and refused to think the worst. “Let me through! Where is sh-” Dark eyes widened. “Holy Inshal!”

Zafirah lay in the arms of the spahi who had found her, looking around with a dazed expression. The right side of her upper torso was stained dark with blood. A nasty wound on her forehead bled sluggishly down her face, and her hair was a mess. Still, she managed a pained smile when she saw Falak approaching.

The ebon-skinned scout knelt beside the Scion and shook her head. “Oh Zafirah. What happened?”

Zafirah grimaced and tried to sit up, only to find the task beyond her ability. “I fear I found some ill on the battlefield,” she said, grinning and wincing at the same time.

Falak reached out to inspect Zafirah’s wounds, drawing a hiss of pain from her patient despite her gentle touch. The gash on her head seemed fine, but the small hole in the Scion’s chest continued to bleed. Falak pressed the cloth of Zafirah’s haik into the wound. “We must get you back to El’Kasari,” she said seriously, glancing back to those gathered behind her. “Go! Make a litter for your Scion. And the rest of you, see to the others who are injured! We must be on the move within the hour.” The men hurried off to find spear shafts and cloth to form a litter. The scout stroked Zafirah’s hair soothingly. “You are fortunate the Calif’s aim did not hold true, my friend.”

“Shakir?” Zafirah looked around her curiously. “Is he..?”

Falak nodded. “Dead, yes.”

“His army?”

“Returning from whence they came. Now we must see to our own injured…but your wounds will require the attention of the healers in the city.” Falak touched the torn edges of the gash on Zafirah’s forehead. “This was not done by a blade,” she observed.

The Scion scowled. “I fell from Simhana and struck my head on a rock,” she admitted. “Is it bad?”

Falak smiled. “It will scar,” she reported, sighing in dramatic lamentation. “I fear your beauty is ruined forever. What woman will bed you now that you are so hideously disfigured!?”

Zafirah scowled, but found some measure of relief in the joking, knowing her wounds couldn’t be too bad if Falak was teasing her. “It is more than my appearance that lures so many to my bed,” she boasted weakly. “My tongue is still in fine working order!” She waggled the muscle in question at the scout to demonstrate.

Falak laughed. “And let us hope it stays that way, lest your little Dae be deprived of the opportunity to sample its expertise!”

Zafirah would have chuckled but she felt too dizzy and weak. Lying back in the gentle support of the spahi holding her up, she relaxed and tried to keep her eyes open. It was dangerous to fall asleep after a head wound, she knew, and so Zafirah concentrated on watching the activity of those around her. The right side of her body ached and throbbed, and her head felt hot, but she wasn’t in mortal danger yet. The ride back to El’Kasari would not be easy…and neither would facing the ministrations of the healers. Zafirah was fairly sure the small ball of lead that had caused her this pain was still embedded in her flesh; she wasn’t looking forward to having it removed. Sighing, forcing her eyelids to stay open, the dark-haired Scion pushed past thoughts of the unpleasantries ahead of her…and concentrated instead on thoughts of how Dae might be willing to ‘assist’ in her recuperation.
XX
“I want to see her!”

Dae glared at the two guards standing outside Zafirah’s bedchamber, emerald eyes blazing but wet with tears, trying to remove them from her path with the sheer force of her displeasure. The two women exchanged glances, uncertain, but refused to stand aside. “Argh!” Dae lunged between them suddenly , only to be held back by a second set of guards who had escorted her here from the harem. “Let me go! I want to see her!” The young blonde wiggled and squirmed, slapping at the hands that held her firmly. Her struggles diminished as a sob shook her slender frame and she collapsed weakly to the floor.

“What is going on here?” came a new voice. “Guards? Who is-”

Dae glanced up to find a strange woman standing over her; tall, with dark skin and eyes almost as intense as Zafirah’s. She snuffled and sat up a little. “I want to see Zafirah,” she repeated.

The woman looked down at her, smiling slightly. “The Scion is resting,” she explained gently. “Our healers have removed the missile from her chest but she is still sedated. It will take time for her to recover, and you can do little for her while she sleeps.”

“Sh-she’s going to be alright then?”

“Yes, little one. She will be fine once she has had opportunity to heal.”

Dae felt a great surge of relief wash through her, releasing the sickening tension that had been her constant companion since word arrived two days ago that Zafirah had been severely wounded in the battle against the renegades. When she heard that the Scion had returned to the palace, Dae had alternately threatened and pleaded with the harem guards until they agreed to escort her to Zafirah’s bedchamber…their compliance stemming mostly from a realization that the girl would make herself sick with worry if her need for reassurance went unanswered. Now, finally, Dae felt the heavy grip that had tightened around her heart ease a little, though her eyes were still shiny with unshed tears. “Thank the Gods!” she breathed fervently.

“Indeed.” The dark-skinned woman waved the guards back and offered her hand to the kneeling blonde, helping her up. “The return trek through the desert taxed Zafirah’s strength despite our best efforts to ward off the heat. She is suffering from exposure and blood-loss, but her condition will improve quickly I think.”

“C-can I at least see her?” Dae pleaded.

The woman considered gravely. “I suppose there would be no harm in permitting a visit. A brief visit. Come.”

Dae practically flew past the guards as they allowed her through to Zafirah’s bedchamber, rushing over to the bed where the Scion lay asleep. The young girl stopped when she saw how pale the dark-haired woman was, and moaned when she caught sight of the neatly-sutured cut on Zafirah’s forehead.

“It is not so bad as it looks,” the dark-skinned woman assured her, stepping closer and brushing a strand of hair from Zafirah’s face. “The Scion heals quickly. Given a year, the scars of this battle will be as faded as the memory of the fight itself. Do not look so horrified, little Dae.”

The blonde looked up at the strange woman, eyes narrowed. “Y-you know who I am?”

“Of course.” The woman smiled charmingly. “I was with Zafirah when she first rescued you from the slavers in the desert…though you were in no condition to remember my face. I am Falak, leader of the Scion’s scouts.” She paused, then added, “She and I have been friends for many years.”

“Friends?” Dae looked the taller woman up and down shrewdly, wondering if Zafirah had bedded her. Probably. She took in the slender, graceful body and full, sensuous lips with a critical eye. Definitely. Still, Falak possessed a pleasant and friendly demeanor that set Dae quickly at ease, and she found herself a little curious. Dae sidled closer to the ebon-skinned scout. “So…has she ever talked to you about me?”

“She has said enough that her affection and love for you are obvious,” Falak replied. “In truth, I recognized the depth of her feelings some time before she did. I believe Zafirah fell in love with you almost from the first moment she laid eyes upon you in the desert.”

“Really?”

“It seemed that way to me, yes.”

Dae’s nose crinkled in pleasure at this little insight. She turned back to the unconscious woman, her expression soft and loving. “I guess it was a bit like that for me, too,” she whispered almost to herself. “She made me feel so many new things when we first met…things I didn’t understand. Didn’t want to understand. But now…” She trailed off. “This isn’t how I imagined welcoming her home.”

Falak laughed quietly. “I do not doubt the truth of that, little one…but unfortunately for both of you, Zafirah will need to regain her strength before she is ready to entertain your desire for a proper reunion.” The scout shook her head fondly and sighed. “She will not be pleased to hear that her passion for you must continue to be held in check.”

Dae blushed at the knowing glint in Falak’s eyes. “Yeah, well…I’m not too thrilled about it myself.”

Falak laughed again and patted the young blonde on the shoulder. “Patience has its own rewards, little Dae. Let Zafirah heal well before you start tempting her with carnal delights.”

“Mmm.” Dae was tired from the lack of sleep wrought by two nights of constant worry, and now that she had seen Zafirah and been reassured she was alive and in no danger of dying, those hours of tension were catching up to her. “When will she wake up?”

“Perhaps by nightfall…though the longer she sleeps the better. She will be weak for a few days to come, however.”

“Can I come see her tomorrow?”

“If you like.” Falak’s lips pursed seriously. “I have little doubt Zafirah would find solace in your company, but I warn you now to be mindful of her condition. Do not let her seduce you with assurances that she is feeling well, and try not to tease her further. She will be feeling much frustration after so long without pleasure, but will only do herself more harm by spending her energy in bed-sports.”

Dae’s face colored further and she suppressed a cheeky grin. She nodded sincerely at the dark scout. “I’ll make sure she behaves herself.”

“Be certain you behave yourself as well, child,” Falak said sternly. “I can see beyond that virtuous facade of yours. Keep your visits brief and innocent until she has healed and is well.”

Dae nodded earnestly. “I’ll be good.” Leaning down, she placed a tender kiss on Zafirah’s forehead, careful of the sutured cut. “She’s really not going to like this, is she?”

Falak smiled. “After living so many months in anticipation? No, little one…and I cannot say I blame her.” She held out a hand to Dae. “Come. I will see you back to the seraglio. The other pleasure-servants must surely be concerned for their Scion as well.”

Dae accepted the hand and let Falak lead her from the chamber, casting a glance back over her shoulder to Zafirah and promising silently that this delay would be as short-lived as she could possibly make it.

As promised, Dae returned to visit the next morning, pleased to find Zafirah awake and already looking much improved. Her naturally olive skin still seemed a bit pale, but her eyes had regained their bright sparkle and she smiled in obvious delight as soon as the young blonde entered her room.

“Ahlan, aziza,” she greeted, propping herself up on her elbows. “Have you come to take advantage of me in my weakened condition?”

Dae giggled, further relieved to see the dark woman in good humor. “I’d love to,” she teased, “but I don’t think you could handle me right now.”

Zafirah raised an eyebrow, wincing slightly at the stiff pain in her shoulder and chest. “A challenge, hmm? Oh, but how this wound debilitates me! I fear I am far too weak to offer much resistance. Indeed…I am quite thoroughly at your mercy, my Tahirah.”

“Oh, I’m sure you are.” Dae sat gingerly on the edge of the bed, out of Zafirah’s reach. She knew that if the Scion managed to add her hands to the invitation she would never be able to resist…which would doubtless lead to much pleasure for herself and possible death for Zafirah. So she folded her hands primly in her lap and regarded the recovering woman seriously. “But you know we can’t do…any of that stuff yet,” she said softly. “I’m sure Falak gave you the same warnings she gave me.”

Zafirah scowled. “Falak, bah! She underestimates the recuperative powers of sexual pleasure.” Sapphire eyes hooded pleadingly. “Would you not like to make me feel better?”

Dae groaned. “You know I would…but I’m not going to risk your health by exhausting your energy in love-making when you should be resting.” She reached out and laid her hand on the dark woman’s shoulder, smiling a little. “Once you’re healed, I promise you can introduce me to every erotic thing you’ve been dreaming of these last few months…but until then, we’re both going to behave ourselves. Understand?”

Zafirah pouted. “Would you not even allow me to touch you a little? I could bring you pleasure without moving much at all.”

“Oh? And I can trust you not to get carried away, right?”

“Of course!”

Dae smirked and shook her head. “When we make love, Zafirah, I want you to get carried away. I want us both to get carried away.” She sighed at the thwarted expression on the Scion’s face. “Hey…come on. Don’t look like that. It’s a few more days…maybe a week or two at most. Aren’t I worth the wait?” It was a low blow, but Dae needed Zafirah’s compliance.

As expected, the dark woman hung her head and looked properly chastised. “I just want you so much,” she whispered fiercely, unable to meet Dae’s eyes.

“I know. But for now…let’s just concentrate on letting your body fix itself up.” Sympathetic emerald eyes went to the bandages that wrapped about Zafirah’s upper torso. “Does it hurt much?”

“Some,” Zafirah admitted. “Like a dull throbbing. My muscles ache but it hurts to stretch them, and my chest feels rather heavy.”

“You were shot, right?”

“Yes.”

Dae shuddered. “Then you were very lucky,” she said quietly. “A few more inches to the left and…” she trailed off, not wanting to finish that thought. “You promised to return unharmed.”

“I did…and I wish with all my heart that I had kept that promise. My heart…and every other part of me also.” That comment brought a slight smile to Dae’s face, banishing the tears that Zafirah couldn’t stand to see. “Does this mean I have not earned my reward?”

Dae’s smile became a giggle. She blushed and looked away. “No…but you’ll have to wait for it a little longer now.”

“A dire enough punishment as is, I think.”

Dae cleared her throat at the heat in the dark woman’s eyes. Gods, she arouses me so easily! How can it be possible to want something this badly? She decided to change the subject, thinking it would be wise not to linger on such topics. “Can I get you anything? Maybe something to drink?”

Zafirah grinned salaciously and licked her lips, unwilling to be detoured. “Something sweet, perhaps?” she purred hopefully.

Dae glared at the dark woman sternly. “Don’t make this harder than it has to be for us.”

A long sigh, then the heat reluctantly dissipated. “I apologize. And water would be wonderful, thank you.”

Dae poured the dark woman a drink from a nearby urn and handed it to her. “So, aside from you being shot, how did the battle go? Did you win?”

Zafirah took a sip and grinned. “Of course. Your advice on the foreign weapons was extremely valuable to me. I think it will be many years before the renegade tribes find the courage to start their raids again.”

“I’m glad.” A pause. “Were many other people hurt?”

“Some…but not half so many as might have been had we not known the strengths of our enemy.” Zafirah finished off her water and handed the ornate tin cup back to Dae. “And what of you, aziza? How did you pass the time in my absence?”

A heavy blush instantly spread across the young blonde’s face and her eyes studied the emroided silk cushions on the bed avidly. “Um…you know, I-I just…did the normal stuff, I guess. Nothing too exciting. Th-there was a magician who came and visited us. He was…pretty good, I guess.”

“I see.” Zafirah sat up straighter, intrigued by Dae’s response. “And his tricks were such that they make you blush to remember them, hmm?”

Dae willed herself to calm down. “No.”

“Then why do you color so? What happened?”

“Nothing.”

“You are a terrible liar,” Zafirah observed. “Tell me, please. I beg of you.”

Dae glanced up, then quickly away. “I…I can’t.”

“Why not?” Zafirah’s voice dropped to a sexy rumble. “Is it something so terrible that you cannot give it voice?”

Dae shook her head. “No, it’s just…it’s meant to be a surprise for you, that’s all.”

Zafirah’s interest doubled. “For me? Hmm…and why can I not have it now?” The look on Dae’s face answered her question clear enough. “Is it something…sexual?”

A slight nod.

“Will you tell me if I guess?”

“No.”

“A hint?”

“Uh uh.”

Zafirah lay back on her bed and pouted. “You are too cruel to me, Tahirah,” she scolded, though her tone was playful. “Now my thoughts shall be plagued with libidinous ponderings for days!”

“Well it serves you right for asking me about it,” Dae defended primly. “Now let’s talk about something else.”

Dae stayed with the Scion until it became clear Zafirah needed to rest, then she left with a promise to return later that night. Over the next week she continued in this fashion, spending at least a few hours each day with the dark-haired woman as she recovered from her injuries, mostly just talking and helping to ease her boredom, but occasionally indulging in a few kisses and lingering touches. It was obvious Zafirah wasn’t accustomed to inactivity; she chafed against the pain of her wounds, wanting to move about and resume her normal routine as soon as possible. Thankfully, once she’d recovered from her exposure the Scion was able to leave her bed and walk around the palace once more, her arm strapped tightly across her chest to keep it still. Dae often joined her, enjoying the company and learning more about the woman who had claimed her heart.

A week and four days passed before the young blonde began to seriously consider consummating her relationship with Zafirah. She wanted to be certain she wasn’t making light of the dark woman’s condition in order to appease her own desires, but even the most discriminating of her observations couldn’t argue with the fact that Zafirah was making a rapid recovery. The Scion’s right arm was still stiff and only allowed for a limited range of motion, but her strength had returned in full, and she no longer complained of pain when she breathed deeply. And with her return to health, of course, Zafirah’s playful, hopeful seduction resumed. Dark sapphires burned with need every minute she spent in Dae’s company…and the blonde felt her own body grow ever more anxious to sample the ecstasies she had been promised for so long. All her fears were gone now — and when she saw that Zafirah was feeling better, the young girl started planning for what she hoped would be one of the greatest experiences of her life.

It was time for their dreams and desires to be fulfilled.
XXI
Her hands were damp with sweat. Butterflies fluttered about chaotically in her stomach. She sucked on her lower lip in a nervous habit as she strode down the palace hallways, flanked on either side by a harem guard, shoulders squared and eyes alight with excitement and daring. The two female guards smiled at each other, neither of them requiring any explanation as to what was motivating the little blonde’s visit to Zafirah’s bedchamber tonight.

Dae stopped at the entrance to the Scion’s bedchamber and waited for the guard to announce her. As soon as she heard Zafirah’s welcome she marched brashly into the room and over to the bed, not even glancing at the dark woman who rose to greet her. Her escort remained outside the doorway.

“Dismiss the guards,” she said quietly.

Zafirah swallowed hard, seeing something new in Dae’s body language and hearing hunger in her voice. She waved a hand vaguely to the grinning guards. “Return to your duties,” she ordered, eyes fixed hopefully on the short blonde.

As soon as the sound of the guards retreating footsteps had quieted, Dae took a deep breathe and reached for the laces of her top. Her back was turned to Zafirah, but she felt those sapphire eyes burning into her as she quickly stripped off her brief clothing, pleased to find her fingers only trembling slightly. She smiled as her trousers and undergarments hit the cool marble floor, hearing Zafirah’s breathing stop suddenly as her form was revealed. Dae glanced over her shoulder and flashed her admirer a sexy smile.

“Are you feeling strong enough,” she asked in a seductive purr, “or should I came back later?”

Zafirah’s jaw worked up and down a few times before she managed to argue her tongue into forming words. “In truth,” she stumbled, “I am stricken with a sudden weakness. But I shall endure.”

“Excellent.” Dae turned around and faced the Scion, feeling a rush of arousal burn through her body as dark sapphires consumed every inch of her naked form. She had expected to feel uneasy at this moment…exposed — but instead there was only a sense of excitement and comfort. She trusted Zafirah completely…and was eager to get this thing underway, despite her inexperience.

Zafirah’s eyes roamed down the girl’s body, pausing at her breasts before continuing on to admire her flat stomach and the flare of her hips. Dae grinned when she heard the dark woman gasp, knowing what had garnered the response and widening her stance slightly to better reveal herself. “You like it?” she asked, running the fingers of her left hand through the neatly trimmed blonde curls and along the smooth flesh of her sex, feeling the wetness already beginning. “I wanted to surprise you with something special…something you’d enjoy.”

Zafirah’s heart was beating double-time trying to keep up with the sudden rush of blood that shot straight to her suddenly needful groin, and for a moment she could only stare in mute astonishment at the erotic sight of Dae’s freshly groomed nether regions. This wasn’t something she’d been expecting…but it certainly had a powerful effect. This is it! she thought exultantly. The most beautiful woman in the world is standing naked before me…wanting me to make love to her! “Y-You did this..” her voice cracked and she cleared her throat. “You did this for me?”

“Uh huh.” Dae continued stroking herself. “What do you think?”

“I think I should like to appreciate your efforts in as intimate a way as possible.”

Dae grinned at that, her eyes dancing. “That’s exactly what I was hoping for.”

Zafirah started to recover some of her equilibrium at seeing the playful expression on Dae’s face. “How did..?”

“Inaya helped me the first time.” Emerald eyes lowered for a moment sheepishly. “She was uh, eager to make it a…pleasing…experience for me. And I have to confess I didn’t do much to fight her off.”

Zafirah’s eyes widened. “She pleasured you?”

Dae nodded. “I’m sorry. I know I agreed to behave myself if you did, but I…I couldn’t help it.” She shrugged. “I’ve never had to deal with these sorts of feelings before. I guess I got carried away. But…” Green eyes glanced up shyly through blonde bangs. “I was hoping you might be willing to forgive my lack of self control…if I forgive you for getting yourself injured.”

Under the circumstances, Zafirah thought she would have forgiven Dae for bedding her entire harem. And probably half the army, too! She nodded. “You are young. It is understandable that you are eager to explore the wonders of sexual pleasure. And I suppose self-control will come with experience.”

“I thought you’d understand.” Dae took a few steps towards the dark-haired woman. Her voice dropped to a lower pitch. “And you know…I’m going to try very hard to make up for my little indiscretion.”

Zafirah’s nostrils flared as the girl approached, amazed she hadn’t just thrown Dae onto the bed and begun ravishing her by now. But she wanted this to be as wonderful an experience for her aziza as she could make it…which would require patience and reserve. Still, imaginings of what Dae and Inaya might have done to one another skipped through her mind tauntingly, exciting her further. “This…indiscretion..?”

Dae paused, one blonde brow raised curiously. “What about it?”

“I should very much like to hear more of it.”

Dae grinned rakishly, not at all surprised by the request. She glanced at her own naked body, then at Zafirah, who still wore a flowing silk chador. “You’re way overdressed,” she decided, closing the distance between them further, almost daring the Scion to give in and take her. “If you stand very still and behave yourself while I rectify that situation…I’ll describe exactly what Inaya and I did.”

Zafirah straightened herself slightly and closed her eyes, thinking it would be easier to endure being disrobed by the girl if she didn’t have to look at that gloriously unveiled body. Taking that as an invitation to continue, Dae reached out and began unraveling the folds of silk cloth. The young blonde talked as she worked, recalling her experience with Inaya and enjoying the effect it had on her lover-to-be. Undressing Zafirah was something she’d imagined doing countless times in her day-dreams, but the task was far more erotic than even her most lurid and adventurous fantasies had allowed for.

It’s like unwrapping a birthday present, she thought, licking her lips and admiring every newly-revealed section of olive-tanned skin as she peeled off the chador. A tall, amazingly gorgeous birthday present with bright blue eyes and — more cloth fell away, causing Dae’s mouth to go dry as all the moisture in her body was called to a more urgent appointment in the south — Oh my! Very nice, very tasty-looking breasts…who’s going to let me do anything I want with her! Caught up in her licentious musings, Dae forgot where she was in her story and stammered slightly. She shook her head to clear it, then continued.

Zafirah smiled, sensing her partner’s rising desire and enjoying the caress of a light coastal breeze against her bare skin. With her eyes closed, the Scion had no trouble at all conjuring pictures to illustrate the story being told to her. Perhaps in the future, Dae and I might share our pleasure with Inaya…and perhaps many others. Zafirah recalled the look on Dae’s face as she had talked of her experiences with Johara, Hayam and Suhayla. Yes…I think she would find that notion very pleasing. Perhaps the whole harem… Zafirah groaned audibly, a slight tremble running through her at the images that sprang to mind.

When at last Dae had completed her task, she stepped back a few paces to admire Zafirah’s body, tossing aside the length of gilt-edged silk that made up the chador. The Scion’s right arm and shoulder were still wrapped in bandages, but the young blonde wasn’t willing to disturb the still-tender injury any more than she had to. Besides…there was plenty to look at besides that small covered area, and Dae was no longer shy about staring. So much flesh…so much soft muscle! It was difficult to know where to begin.

Sapphire eyes opened and watched the young blonde, waiting for the next move. Dae remained still for long moments and Zafirah didn’t hurry her, content to let the girl enjoy the sight of her body. When Dae eventually finished, she looked at the dark woman shyly. “I’m not really sure how to start.”

Zafirah smiled. “How would you like to start?”

Dae gave a half-shrug.

“Well…I would be happy to lead this dance if you so desire. Or…” Zafirah bowed humbly. “perhaps you might be more at ease having me as your most willing and enthusiastic servant, attentive to your every whim…?”

Dae considered those options seriously, grateful to Zafirah for giving her the choice. Of course, both scenarios were quite intriguing…but for their first time together, Dae decided she’d be more comfortable being in control of what happened. She nodded firmly, squared her shoulders, and pointed to the bed. “Lie down on your stomach.” A breathe. “Please.”

Zafirah smiled, recognizing the same look of suddenly excited control light in Dae’s eyes as she had seen when she’d posed for the girl many weeks ago. She bowed slightly, then did as instructed, settling herself face-down on the silk sheets of her bed, taking just a moment to make certain her stiff arm wouldn’t cause her any pain. She waited, feeling Dae’s eyes exploring her backside and thighs, hearing silence, then the clink of glass from somewhere to her right. A moment later she felt the weight of the girl’s body shift the mattress slightly as Dae joined her on the bed. Something warm and liquid was poured onto her sensitized skin, then small, delicate hands began to roam over her muscles slowly, exploring with only a slight degree of hesitance. Zafirah moaned low and deep, applauding Dae’s idea. When the blonde spoke, her smile was almost audible.

“This is something I learned from the other girls,” Dae said quietly. “I think they enjoyed massaging me as much I enjoyed letting them…although” — a soft giggle — “I’m pretty sure they were just trying to get me worked up so I’d let them do other things to me.” Soft hands slick with scented oil spread like dragonfly wings over Zafirah’s shoulder-blades, firmly kneading the muscle before journeying lower. “Do you like it?”

“Mmmm.” Zafirah’s eyes were closed with pleasure as she hummed contentedly. “Very much.”

“Am I doing it right? I’ve never-”

“Perfectly, my Tahirah. I do not think you could touch me in any style other than absolute perfection.”

Dae smiled, feeling her confidence grow as she aquainted herself more intimately with Zafirah’s body. “I always got really…wet…when I let the others do this to me,” she admitted, knowing how it would inflame the dark-haired Scion.

“And how do you find being the provider of such pleasure? Does it arouse you also?”

“Yes.” Dae shifted on the bed, moving closer to Zafirah so she could gain access to every part of her. When her thighs pressed firmly against the dark woman’s warm body, Dae reveled in the skin-on-skin contact, knowing there was plenty more to come. Zafirah’s body was slippery with the oil she was rubbing into it, and Dae set herself to the task of making certain every inch of skin was properly covered. When her hands came to Zafirah’s buttocks, she boldly let the fingers of her right hand press deep between the older woman’s thighs, grinning both at the surprised gasp that escaped the Scion, and at the heat she could feel building there. “As it does you, I see.”

Zafirah growled when the fingers were withdrawn.

“Everything about you arouses me, Zafirah,” Dae continued. “Your body. Your eyes. The sound of your voice. The way you look at me. And especially the way you kiss me.” Her hands were now working on the thick length of muscled upper thigh. “You know what I’d like to do right now?”

“Uhh…no.”

Dae grinned, feeling very wicked at the thoughts running through her mind. “I’d like to straddle you and rub myself against your…” She gave Zafirah’s butt a light smack.

Zafirah groaned, feeling the molten river between her legs flow stronger.

“You’d feel so slippery…and hot against me.” Dae giggled girlishly. “I’d be so easy to just ride you till I came!”

“By the Gods!” After such an extended period without pleasure, Zafirah’s body was quickly pushed to the edge by Dae’s words. Her breathing was accelerated and every muscle in her body tensed as the pressure built within her. It wouldn’t take much from the young girl to send her soaring.

Dae watched her lover strain, utterly entranced by the way Zafirah’s body was moving. She could feel the tension rising in the flesh beneath her touch, and some instinctive part of her recognized what the harsh edge in Zafirah’s voice portended. “You’re close already, aren’t you?”

Zafirah nodded, concentrating on the hands massaging her.

“You’re not used to going so long without release, right?”

Another nod.

Dae’s hands slowed their explorations as she considered her next course of action carefully. “Could you spread your legs a little for me please?”

Zafirah almost sobbed with relief at the request, complying quickly and without comment. She needed this. Oh, how she needed this! Her body froze completely as she felt Dae slide two oil-slicked fingers between her legs to stroke her sex from behind, then she convulsed as sensation overwhelmed her immediately, the climax so sudden and powerful it tore a cry from her throat. As the fingers continued to gently fondle her spasming sex, Zafirah dimly heard Dae’s voice speaking calmly over the roar of her passion. “This is just to take the edge off. There are so many things I want us to do tonight, but I can see you’re a bit impatient so…” Zafirah didn’t hear anymore, her senses listening only to those wonderful fingers working their magic on her raging core.

When at last the pulses of ecstasy had run their course, Zafirah’s body went limp on the bedsheets. Her heart — which had moments ago seemed about ready to burst — began to adopt a less critical rhythm, and her breathing slowly returned to normal. She felt Dae’s fingers withdraw from her sensitive sex and casually resume their task of massaging her legs. Zafirah hummed happily, enjoying the lingering tingles in her blood, feeling relaxed for the first time in weeks. “Thank you so much, aziza,” she said, glancing over her shoulder at the obviously pleased blonde. “My body responds so readily to you…to your touch, your words…I could restrain my need no longer.”

Dae’s nose crinkled delightedly. “You’re very welcome.” Watching and hearing Zafirah climax had been an incredible and extremely arousing experience…moreso than last time, because now Dae had known she was the one directly responsible for that pleasure. There was a certain sense of pride that came from providing such pleasure. As she finished rubbing oil into the last part of Zafirah’s legs, the urge to return her fingers to that velvet heat grew stronger, and Dae imagined loving the dark woman as she had seen Hayam love Johara, burying her fingers deep within her sex. She drew back a little to give Zafirah room. “Could you turn over now please? I’d like to do your front.”

As soon as Zafirah had settled herself again, Dae spent a few minutes just letting her eyes admire the feast of flesh before her, conscious of those startlingly clear sapphire gems watching her closely. Her hands trembled slightly as she poured more oil over the Scion’s body, running a line down the valley of her cleavage, along the taut muscles of her abdomen, and finally down to her already slick mound. Setting aside the small glass vial, Dae leaned forward and claimed Zafirah’s lips. The two dueled softly with their tongues for long minutes, the younger, inexperienced blonde pleased with the control her position afforded her. She boldly nibbled on Zafirah’s lips, then licked along her jawline before suckling at her neck, excited by the clean scent of the woman’s dark hair and the readiness of her body for more pleasure. As she continued laying kisses over Zafirah’s face, occasionally returning to dance with her mouth and tongue, Dae’s hands reached out tentatively and cupped those full breasts. It was amazing, but Dae could almost taste the change in the Scion’s skin. When her fingers sought out the stiff points of Zafirah’s nipples, Dae was rewarded with an enthusiastic, “Yes, Tahirah! Touch me!” She grinned and pulled her mouth away from Zafirah’s neck, wanting to watch what she was doing.

Zafirah’s breasts were smaller than her own — firm yet soft, and infinitely touchable. Dae’s fingers dipped into the river of oil in the dark woman’s cleavage, then began gently covering every inch of skin with the glistening liquid. She took her time, knowing from her experiences with Johara just how wonderful it could feel to have one’s breasts thoroughly attended, and wanting to demonstrate everything she’d learned for Zafirah’s pleasure. “You feel so soft,” she said quietly. “Are your breasts very sensitive?”

Zafirah nodded, her jaw clenched tight as Dae lovingly fondled her. “Very.”

“I can tell,” Dae grinned. “I want to learn everything that pleases you. Everything about your body.”

The Scion applauded that idea with a throaty groan.

When she felt satisfied with her manual efforts, Dae let her hands drift lower to the rippling abdomen. She hesitated only a moment to wonder if the oil were safe to consume, before deciding she didn’t really care if it wasn’t and dipped her head down to lavish those glorious breasts with her lips, teeth and tongue.

“Oh Gods! YESSSS!” Zafirah’s hands clutched at the silk sheets desperately. She would have liked to bury her fingers in Dae’s golden hair and guide her movements, but knew it would be better if she just let the girl do as she pleased. Dae needed the safety of control right now…and besides, she didn’t seem to need much guidance. Zafirah could only stare at the ceiling with passion-glazed eyes as the little blonde hungrily ravished her.

Indeed, Dae was enjoying her task very much. The oil tasted slightly bitter, but Zafirah’s flesh was intoxicating. She ran the tip of her tongue in tight circles around the nub of a hard nipple, then tugged it between her teeth, grinning at her lover’s responses. But as much as she would have liked to spend the rest of the night devoting her attention solely to Zafirah’s breasts, Dae’s fingers were itching to do some more exploring further south — exploring which required her eyes to act as overseers. So reluctantly, the young blonde pulled herself away from her banquet so she could guide her touches with more confidence down to toy with the neatly-groomed dark curls that seemed to point her towards the even more intriguing mound of Zafirah’s sex.

Zafirah’s breathing went ragged and her whimperings came to a sudden halt as she realized where her lover’s attention had shifted. Without hesitation she spread her legs, letting emerald eyes roam where they would. Though she’d climaxed just minutes ago, Zafirah was more than ready to soar again, but she waited patiently to see what Dae would do to her.

Dae gazed at the flushed lips of Zafirah’s sex, seeing them glistening more from her previous orgasm than from the scented oil she’d been applying. Her fingers played along the hollow of Zafirah’s thigh, delaying the moment of contact while she sorted through exactly what she intended to do here. I could taste her, she considered, imagining how it might feel to lower her lips and feast on that slick flesh as she had feasted on the dark woman’s breasts. But she was very uncertain of herself in that field yet, conscious of her inexperience now more than ever. I want to taste her…but I don’t really know how. I mean, I’ve seen Johara and Hayam together — and Suhayla — but I still have only a vague idea of what to do. Maybe I should let her show me first before I try that. Dae didn’t let herself dwell too long on the shortcomings of her naïveté; there were many other things she could explore for the time being.

Dae looked back to Zafirah, finding the dark-haired woman watching her intently. She smiled, inching her fingers closer to the heat she could feel radiating from her lover’s center. “I want to go inside you,” she said softly. “Would you like that?”

Zafirah nodded quickly. “Please. I need you now!”

Dae smiled, her fingers now lightly stroking Zafirah’s labia, exploring and learning. She watched as the older woman’s eyes squeezed shut and her body tensed eagerly, then very gently sent two fingers in search of deeper heat.

“Oh yes!” Zafirah was hard pressed to keep her body still as she felt Dae enter her, trying to steady her breathing and maintain control. This was more wonderful than any of her fantasies portended…and the best was yet to come!

Dae gazed at her fingers as they sank into Zafirah’s core, amazed at what she was feeling. I’m inside her! The realization of such intimacy was beautifully terrifying, and Dae was surprised to feel tears in her eyes as she pushed deeper into the dark-haired Scion. “I can feel you all around me,” she whispered in awe. “I can feel your muscles pulling me into you. You feel sssooo soft…so wet.”

“For you,” Zafirah gasped, her focus devoted wholly on the sensation of Dae’s fingers within her. “Please…more. I want to feel more of you.”

Dae responded by adding a third happy finger to the two already inside the Scion, instinct guiding her now to find a slow rhythm as she thrust in and out of Zafirah. After a moment, she twisted her hand around a little and found she could use her thumb to stimulate her lover’s clitoris as she worked — which discovery prompted some rather vocal praise from the dark-haired Scion.

“Yes Tahirah! Katha ath nan!”

Dae paused, uncertain of the desert words. “What?”

“Keep going! Touch me more, please! Never stop.”

Shrugging, Dae resumed. She liked Zafirah’s cries of passion, and was especially pleased when her ministrations earned her an enthusiastic “Nek ne!” from her lover. She was even more gratified when she felt the muscles around her fingers begin to tighten, warning of an impending climax. Dae sped up, watching Zafirah tense and delighting in the sound of her name being cried out as a sudden flood of liquid soaked her hand. The tremors continued to wrack Zafirah’s body for long moments, squeezing Dae’s fingers gently until they eased. The blonde withdrew and moved so she could gather her spent lover in her arms while she recovered — feeling very pleased with herself despite how overwhelming the experience had been.

Zafirah looked up at the grinning blonde who was stroking her hair lovingly, sighing in utter contentment and wriggling so she could press as much of her body against the younger girl as possible. “You are amazing,” she whispered.

“Really?”

Zafirah nodded.

“Hmm.” Dae bent down and kissed the dark-haired woman softly. “I wasn’t really sure what I was doing. I mean…that’s the first time I ever…”

“I understand.”

Dae looked faintly embarrassed. “I know I’m not as…experienced, as the other girls, but-”

“Shh…speak no more of such things. Experience comes with time. Do not be troubled by fears that I find you in any way unsatisfying, my Tahirah. You inflame my passion more than any woman I have ever known…and feeling you touch me even innocently sends shivers straight to my core.”

Dae blushed a little in pleasure. “Well…I am a pleasure-servant, afterall.”

“Indeed you are.” Zafirah grinned. “But now…I wonder how best I might show my gratitude for the joy you have bestowed upon me.” She eyed Dae’s naked breasts and licked her lips. “Tell me, aziza…how would you have me pleasure you?”

Dae didn’t have to think for more than a second for the answer to spring to mind; though she had pondered long on the many and varied devices of pleasure she’d seen in the Scion’s collection, there was one thing that had occupied her thoughts more than any other these last few weeks. Laying back on the colorful silken sheets of Zafirah’s bed, she spread her legs and looked directly into the sapphire gaze of her lover, reveling in the chance to act with complete wantonness. “Lick me,” she ordered confidently. “I want to feel the acclaimed magic of your tongue.”

Zafirah’s eyes darkened to midnight blue as she gazed upon the glistening, naked folds of Dae’s sex, her mouth watering at the thought of tasting her lover’s most intimate flesh. While she wanted to explore Dae’s body slowly and thoroughly, learning every inch of pale skin, she knew there would be time enough for that later. For now, there was only that simple command to obey. “Your wish is my most fervent desire, Tahirah.” She moved eagerly to lie between the blonde’s legs, smiling at the obvious anticipation in Dae’s watchful eye. When she licked teasingly at the girl’s upper thigh, Dae giggled. Zafirah took a breathe, the scent of her lover’s arousal only whetting her appetite. “I hope you enjoy this as much as I,” she whispered, before dipping her head down and taking her first taste of Dae’s desire.

Dae cried out at that first contact, stunned at the way her body responded. Zafirah’s tongue explored her slowly at first, expertly teasing her passion higher till her senses reeled in a haze of lust. Dae clutched at the Scion’s head, driven by raw need to tangle her fingers in that dark mane and pull her tighter against her desperate center. The sensation defied description! Dae had thought herself no longer a stranger to pleasure, but now realized her experiences were woefully lacking. Nothing her fingers — nor the fingers of those few others who had touched her — had ever done came close to the experience of Zafirah’s tongue! Blistering, burning, shattering sparks of exquisite pleasure pounded through her body, coloring her vision in rainbows and reducing her verbal skills to squeaks and screams of joy and encouragement. She felt her climax building like a roaring inferno in the back of her mind, and fought against it valiantly, wanting this feeling to go on and on.

Zafirah, meanwhile, was doing everything she could to bring her younger lover’s body to the edge, if only so she could do it again and again until Dae either begged her stop or lost consciousness. The taste of Dae’s arousal was intoxicating and sweet, and Zafirah was thrilled by how responsive the girl’s body was to her attentions. She explored every fold and delicious crevice of Dae’s sex, occasionally pausing to suck gently at her clit and savor the honeyed nectar that flowed so abundantly from her core. Zafirah’s tongue roamed everywhere, diligent and merciless in its mission of pleasure.

Dae couldn’t hold out long against her orgasm; she screamed Zafirah’s name as her spirit seemed to burst into a thousand glittering shards that rained down from the heavens. But just as her climax reached its peak and began to subside, Zafirah suddenly clamped down on her swollen clit and sucked forcefully, laving the hard nub of flesh firmly with her tongue. Immediately Dae was overwhelmed by a second stunning wave of ecstasy, unable to find breathe to scream anew. She managed a slight whimper and a gasp, her body weakening even as her more ethereal senses were cresting higher and higher in a seemingly endless spiral. For a moment the whole world seemed to fall away into blackness beneath her, along with her awareness of what she was experiencing, but when she came back to herself her body was already in the grip of a third climax, brought on by Zafirah’s expert ministrations. She writhed weakly under Zafirah’s oral devotions, lightheaded and dizzy as her lungs struggled to find new air. Tangling her fingers in Zafirah’s midnight tresses she managed to drag her lover’s lips from their feast.

“No more,” she croaked hoarsely, gasping for breathe. “Please…I can’t take anymore. I need to catch my breath.”

Zafirah withdrew, smiling up at her with lips wet with her juices. “As you wish, aziza,” she agreed cheerfully. “Though I trust we are far from being finished with this night..?”

Dae nodded, grateful for the reprieve from such astonishingly intense pleasure, even as she wished for it to continue without cessation. “Sure, just…give me a chance to recover.”

Zafirah easily slid her uninjured arm around the little blonde and pulled her onto her lap, tangling their legs together and stroking the long golden hair softly. “Was that to your liking?” she inquired playfully.

“Oh yeah.” Dae laughed shakily, enjoying the slight friction of the oil covering Zafirah’s skin against her body. “Even though I think you nearly killed me!”

“There is a great deal more that I plan to show you,” Zafirah promised. “I wish to hear more of those delightful cries of pleasure you make just before you climax.”

Dae blushed and quickly defended, “I’m not that loud.”

The Scion chuckled, not bothering to argue. Instead she began running the fingers of her left hand down over Dae’s body, lightly toying with her sensitive breasts and teasing the fires of her passion back to wakefulness.

Dae shivered, content just to lie back and let her lover touch her gently. Zafirah was arousing her, but it wasn’t rushed or hurried now. She sighed, feeling fabulously decadent and not minding one bit. “Zafirah?”

“Mmm?”

“Can I choose something from the cabinet?”

Zafirah’s hands stilled a moment, the innocently-posed question stirring her lust anew. “Later, perhaps,” she suggested. “There is the matter of your virginity yet to be dealt with, and I would not have that honor bestowed upon any but my own fingers.”

Dae’s expression turned thoughtful. “Have you ever…?”

“Deflowered a maiden? Yes…though it has been some time.”

“Will it hu…hurt much?”

Zafirah heard the slight quaver in her lover’s voice and placed a soothing kiss on Dae’s forehead. “Have no fear, little one,” she assured. “I shall be gentle, and any pain you feel will be so overwhelmed by pleasure that your mind will scarcely recognize it.”

Dae relaxed a little, feeling an aura of comfort envelope her as she lay in Zafirah’s embrace. “I trust you.”

Zafirah was quiet for a minute, just letting her touches roam aimlessly over Dae’s body, feeling quiet awe at the beauty before her. “When you feel ready, I would be more than happy to demonstrate any device in my collection. Or…if you are taken by an adventurous spirit, perhaps you could test something yourself. On me.”

Dae grinned wickedly and rolled an emerald eye up to regard her desert lover. “I think I like the sound of that.” A second later she squealed as Zafirah lightly pinched her right nipple.

“I thought you might.”

Knowing fingers continued to excite and explore, and Dae closed her eyes and gave herself over to sensation. The way Zafirah touched her was incredible. The young blonde felt almost like a goddess, sensing a reverent air to the Scion’s attention, as though she were doing more than simply making love to her…she was worshiping something sacred. It was, she admitted privately, quite flattering to have such a powerful, beautiful woman pay her such attention, and she gave a little moan of encouragement as Zafirah’s touches became more intense and purposeful.

Zafirah held herself in check for as long as she could, but Dae was so responsive to her the need to do more soon grew too powerful. Very gently, she laid the blonde down on the sheets once more, before beginning a slow journey down her body with hands, lips, and tongue. Her long dark hair fanned out to cover the girl’s pale skin, tickling her nerves and raising gooseflesh all along the way. Zafirah smiled when her hand dipped between those silken thighs and Dae spread her legs eagerly, ready for more pleasuring.

This time, the Scion was more patient and gentle. Dae was still very sensitive from her previous ravishing, so Zafirah used only the lightest of caresses, shifting her attention constantly from one point to another, never giving direct stimulation to the throbbing, needful bud of her lover’s clitoris. Her fingers spread the nectar of Dae’s arousal all over her flushed sex, teasing her until at last she begged for firmer contact.

“Please Zafirah, stop teasing me!”

Zafirah just grinned. “Relax, Tahirah. Good things reward those with patience to wait.”

Dae growled and bucked her hips fiercely. “Well I’m not really in the mood to be patient right now.”

Zafirah chuckled. “Trust me, my aziza. Just relax…let me love you.” Dae’s hips thrust forward again, and Zafirah replied with a quick, appeasing lick to the girl’s clit. “If you cannot behave yourself, perhaps I should tie you up, hmm?”

Emerald eyes looked down sharply, filled with lust and prurient hunger. “Ooh, yes! Yes, do it!”

Zafirah smirked and shook her head, surprised by how eager Dae had become to experience such carnal delights. “I meant it as a threat, Tahirah. Perhaps another time. Please…lie still for me.”

Dae frowned, disappointed, but lay back. As Zafirah resumed her patient ministrations, the blonde cupped her own breasts and began to play with her nipples, thinking perhaps the extra stimulus might let her reach the edge sooner.

Zafirah knew the best way to take a virgin’s maidenhead without pain was to distract her with pleasure…beguile the senses so all feelings merged into ecstasy. She artfully manipulated Dae’s passion, keeping the blonde’s body poised at the brink of release, but never quite giving her enough to send her flying. She ignored the pleas and threats directed her way from the frustrated girl, but eventually slid two fingers into the tight, untouched heat of her core. Dae was more than ready, she sensed, feeling the muscles clamp down around her immediately. Pushing forward, Zafirah came to the thin barrier of Dae’s maidenhead. She withdrew, massaging the inner walls of her lover’s sex gently; at the same time she finally dipped her head down and began to give gentle, loving attention to the neglected bundle of nerves that throbbed in time with Dae’s rising pulse.

Dae felt it coming and her body tensed in anticipation. She was aware that Zafirah was inside her, touching places she hadn’t dared touch herself, and though she dimly feared the pain she knew was coming, she wanted to feel the dark-haired woman as deep within her as she could possibly get. This climax came on slowly, the first waves crashing upon her with subtle, lingering force, but followed quickly by a more intense, stunning surge of pleasure. Dae screamed out loud as she felt heat suddenly tear inwards between her legs, and was dimly aware that Zafirah had penetrated her completely, forever erasing any trace of her virginity and laying claim to her body in the most deeply intimate way. But the swift stab of pain was only slight, and seemed to push her climax to a higher level. Soon, all she felt were those fingers inside her — stroking her, loving her, keeping her cresting on a wave of ecstasy she prayed would never end.

Zafirah’s fingers curled slightly within the squirming blonde, finding the magical place that would make this orgasm as enjoyable for Dae as possible. She was gentle and persistent, feeling blessed that she was the first to touch Dae so deeply. When at last the tremors began to subside, Zafirah withdrew her fingers from their snug nest, placing a last kiss to Dae’s sex before shifting round so she could hold the little blonde while she recovered.

Dae sighed blissfully as she felt the Scion wrap her up in a calming embrace. There was a slight feeling of dull pain between her legs now that the pleasure had faded, but she smiled anyway with the knowledge that she had passed that final line…and had given herself fully to Zafirah.

“How do you feel?” the Scion asked quietly.

Dae snaked her arms around her lover’s waist and pulled her tight against her. “I feel wwwwonderful.”

Zafirah grinned. “Then I am pleased.” Long, graceful fingers twisted fondly through Dae’s long hair. “You may be a little sore for a few days to come, but when your body has recovered in full there will be many new pleasures to discover.”

“Mmm.” Dae felt a slight wave of drowsiness steal over her as she often did after she’d climaxed, but she fought against it, wanting to continue. Looking around Zafirah’s room, her eyes fell on a small, intricate iron statue of two women caught in the throes of passion. Emerald eyes narrowed speculatively. “Zafirah?”

“Yes, aziza?”

She pointed. “Have you ever done that?”

Zafirah glanced where her younger lover indicated, then grinned mischievously. “I have.”

“Oh.” Silence. Then… “Can we try it now?”

The dark-haired woman chuckled, shaking her head at Dae’s unexpectedly voracious appetite. Still, her body was more than ready for another round, so she shifted on the bed, straddling Dae’s left leg and sliding forward so her center pressed against her lover’s mound. “What an excellent idea.”

Dae’s eyes rolled back in their sockets as Zafirah very gently began to move against her, the slippery, silken touch of her sex feeling wonderful. Laying back, she relaxed and let the older woman take the lead, half her mind focused on the sensations between her legs, the other half already planning what they might do next.

She hoped Zafirah wasn’t expecting to get much sleep tonight.
Epilogue
The dawning sun and the rising heat woke Dae late the next morning. Reluctant emerald eyes opened and glared at the windows irritably. Groaning quietly, the blonde stirred and took mental stock of her position. She was lying on Zafirah’s bed, the taller woman’s body spooned against her own, long, tanned arms wrapped possessively about her middle. She could feel warm breathe tickle the back of her neck, and the sensuous sensation of naked skin pressed all along her frame. Dae’s body was a bit stiff and sore from the night’s activities, but she smiled at the scent of sex that clung to the silk sheets, remembering everything they’d done…and everything Zafirah had promised her they would do in the future.

Teeth nipped suddenly at her shoulder, and Dae giggled as her lover squeezed her lightly and stretched. That familiar, deep yet feminine voice whispered in her ear. “It is early yet.”

“The sun woke me.” Dae wriggled around until she was facing her partner. She gazed adoringly into those clear sapphire eyes, reaching out to touch the older woman’s face. “Good morning.”

“A very good morning indeed,” Zafirah smiled, “that it finds you naked in my arms.”

Dae chuckled, then raised an eyebrow curiously. “Inaya told me you prefer to sleep alone after you’ve finished with your pleasure. Is that true?”

“It is.” A pause. “But it seems every rule has exceptions…and I would never send you back to the harem after we make love.”

“Mmm.” Dae regarded Zafirah seriously. “So…where do we go from here?”

Zafirah shrugged. “Wherever you wish to go, aziza.” She gave the young blonde a wary, cautious look. “I love you Dae. Never doubt that. But it is not within me to resist the temptations of the flesh-”

Dae silenced the dark-haired woman with a kiss. “I’m not asking you to give away the harem…or the other girls. I knew all this when I fell in love with you…and before we made love.”

Zafirah smiled, relieved at Dae’s understanding. “I would be happy for you to share my quarters,” she offered. “In truth, I never thought I would have a consort, but…”

“You want me to move out of the harem?”

“If you like.”

Dae considered the offer seriously, looking around the room and trying to envision herself living here. At length, she sighed. “I like it in the seraglio. And you’re there a lot anyway, right? Almost all the time when you’re not busy being Scion. Maybe, for the time being, I could just stay there.”

Zafirah’s expression fell slightly. “If that is what you would prefer.”

Dae smiled. “Don’t look like that. I’ll spend the nights here with you, afterall. Although I doubt we’ll be doing a lot of sleeping.” She reached down and caressed Zafirah’s breasts teasingly. “I just enjoy being around the other girls, that’s all. They’re my friends.”

Zafirah’s smile returned at the mention of Dae sleeping here. “I understand. And besides…” she waggled her eyebrows rakishly at the little blonde, “my entire harem would scream for my blood if I deprived them of the opportunity to seduce you!”

Dae laughed…but Zafirah didn’t miss the twinkle in her emerald eyes, and knew it wouldn’t be long before her lover was exploring all the many avenues of pleasure available to her. Thoughts of what skills Dae might learn from her pleasure-servants sent shivers of anticipation running down the Scion’s spine.

“W-would that be okay?” the blonde asked shyly. “If I let them…do things with me?”

“Do you really need to ask?” Zafirah kissed her lover soundly. “I am happy for you to share yourself with others, little one…so long as you tell me all the details afterwards.”

“Or better yet, invite you along for the ride, right?”

Zafirah’s eyes burned bright. “Of course.”

“Hmm. Maybe we could see if Inaya would like to join us some time,” Dae suggested, thinking it would be extremely exciting to watch Zafirah and her friend together…and to join in when she felt like it. Four hands, she thought. Two tongues. And so many fingers..! “Or maybe Johara and Hayam. We could be just like them…sharing our love.”

“Indeed.” Zafirah felt a little ache of fear clutch at her heart, before she said in a carefully casual tone, “I would be much honored if you would agree to consecrate our love in the eyes of the Goddess.”

Dae froze, her mind taking several seconds to process Zafirah’s words…and to realize that she had just been proposed too. “Y-you mean like…a mar- I mean, a joining?”

Shy sapphire eyes looked away. “If you would prefer not to, I understand completely, but…yes, a joining.”

Tears welled suddenly in Dae’s eyes. “I’d love that. Very much.”

Zafirah’s grin was pure delight and relief. “Really?”

“Of course!” Stunned, beyond excited, Dae felt her love and desire for this woman double. She sat up, pushing Zafirah down and straddling her belly. “Does this mean I’d be your wife?”

“Y-you would be my consort…and wife, I suppose.” Zafirah felt her body rousing fully at the sight of Dae atop her. She could feel the heat of the girl’s sex press into her abdomen. “It would mean a ceremony…and an exchange of vows and tokens. We would as one…unified and unbroken.”

“I really like the sound of that.” Dae rocked her hips, enjoying the firm muscles pressed against her sensitive core. “How about you give me a taste of what I can expect from our wedding night?”

Zafirah didn’t know the word ‘wedding’, but she had no trouble interpreting the heat in Dae’s eyes. “As you wish, my Tahirah,” she grinned, reaching up to guide the motion of the blonde’s hips. “As you wish.”

* * *

Outside in the palace halls, screams of joy and words of lust and need echoed through the corridors, the marble walls carrying the sound clearly over long distances. Guards and servants alike paused to exchange amused grins, shaking their heads and marveling at the endurance and enthusiasm of the little foreign blonde, before they went about their business with the kind of selective deafness that comes only after years of practice.
THE END.
Glossary:

Aseau: Sunset.

Chador: An article of women’s clothing.

Dohar: Mid-afternoon.

Effendi: A term of respect and honor.

Haik: A desert head-dress, consisting of a length of cloth wrapped about the head and face.

Hauze: An artificial water pond.

Mehari: Racing camel.

Salaam: A formal greeting, where the chin, lips and forehead are touched.

Salaam aleikum: A polite greeting of respect.

Seraglio: ‘The forbidden’; the place designated to the harem.

Shamedan: Candelabra.

Sirocco: Summer windstorm.

Souk: Market

Spahi: Desert cavalry troops.

Tsharraafna: I am pleased to meet you.

Ahlan: Hello.

Aziza: Beloved.

Katha ath nan: Caress my sex.

Nek ni: Fuck me.

Aseau: Sunset.

Maasalama: Farewell.

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