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  • Charm 6: Rally the Troops

    2014 - 03.09

    Jump to Chapter 1

    Day 2

    “We want no part of your silly war! What sort of world is this that you have no warriors? Return us to our home, immediately!” Maress was profoundly disturbed, and trying to cover it up with bluster. Despite being unclothed and unarmed, he thought he was doing well enough. The strangers probably couldn’t tell the difference between eartwitches of anger and those of anxiety. They were also nude, including the one who had just disappeared. Perhaps that was the custom here? No matter. He didn’t plan to stick around long enough to find out.

    He glanced down at Lavender, standing just to his right. He could smell her fear and unease, though it didn’t show on her face. She held her fighting stance and raised an eyebrow and one corner of her mouth at him, but said nothing.

    Maress shifted his gaze back to the humans opposite them, but they were no longer paying them any attention. “Master!” the female screamed, leaping to her feet and stepping into the space the old man had just vacated. She spun to look at the male, who was looking wildly around the room, his mouth agape.

    “What the bleeding hell have we gotten sucked into?” Lavender whispered.

    Maress stared at her for a moment. “I hear you now in Elven. It must be his incantation. I do not know what is occurring, but I greatly mislike it. Keep watch,” he replied, stepping backward toward the door. He found the pile of robes just outside the room, and pulled one on. “Lav, a robe,” he called, tossing the other one that didn’t reek of sex to land at her feet. Without taking her eyes from the strangers, she hooked the robe with a foot and lifted it to a hand. She shrugged into it and pulled the flaps across her chest.

    Maress stalked quickly around the house, his ears and nose searching as well as his eyes. The dwelling was ridiculous, its architecture chaotic and inefficient, and it was literally crawling with animals of all types. The odors assaulted him, and he wondered how anyone could live with that melange of stench. As he prowled, he searched the robe. No latches, or buttons, or even a belt to tie. How the bloody hell was it supposed to close? Or did it? Maybe these people really did walk around with their naughty bits on display all the time. Perverts.

    Giving up on the robe and letting it hang open, Maress returned to the room in which they had arrived. He stood behind Lavender, who stared at the other pair, sitting on the cushion now, embracing each other, the female sobbing. “No sign of others in the house, only assorted animals.” His words were whispered, but they carried to her ears clearly.

    She nodded. “They don’t look like much of a threat.”

    Roji looked up as the male approached. “I demand that you return us. You had no right to abduct us,” he said, slowly and intently. His voice was floating and musical, when he wasn’t shouting or growling, but smoother than Tiska’s, without the irregular lilt to it.

    Tiska didn’t seem to hear him. Roji’s eyes narrowed. Was this guy really that dense? Didn’t he see what just happened? “We can’t. There’s nothing we can do. We’re just apprentices. The guy who had all the power disappeared. Or didn’t you notice?”

    “Then you must retrieve him,” the other man said, speaking as to a child.

    Roji was willing to accept that kind of tone from his master, but not from some idiotic, blind pointy-eared interloper. He rose to his feet and shouted, “And what makes you think we have any flaming idea where he went? Did you see how he went? Did it look like he had any idea what was going on, or control over it? Look at her!” he gestured at the female, her arms around her knees, her head down, rocking back and forth slightly and breathing irregularly. “Do you really think she’d be reacting like that if she had the slightest clue how to get him back?”

    Pointy’s face screwed up, but he said nothing, turning and stalking back to stand with the little woman. Roji knelt next to Tiska again, who stopped rocking, lifted her head, and tried to steady her breathing. “We have to do something,” she stammered.

    “We will,” he nodded. “I’m thinking we start with Durkentl, since she’s fairly close, and I’ve been there before, even if you haven’t.” Tiska shook her head. “She’ll be able to give us some kind of direction, even if it’s only who to go pester next.”

    She nodded and sniffed. “That’s good, but I was thinking about them, neh?” Tiska motioned toward the other two, having a hushed conference in the center of the room. She stood and approached them, wiping her eyes on her arms. “Hi, look, I know this is all a mess, but we’re going to do what we can to help you out. But we’re going to need your help too, neh? I’m Tiska, and that’s Roji. Can I get you food, water, wine, anything?”

    The miniature woman smiled sympathetically, and spoke in a high, mellifluous voice. “Thank you dear. I’m Lavender, and this overstuffed ball of rage is Maress. And I could definitely use a drink right about now.”

    “So could I,” Tiska smiled weakly and left the room.

    Roji flopped backwards on the pillow and heaved a sigh. His hand hitting the cushion reminded him of where it had been. Oops. A few words and a flicking gesture cleansed it, well enough for the moment at least. Managing even that much charm and concentration was an ordeal at the moment. After another moment he rolled off to the side and got to his feet. “Let’s go somewhere we can sit down and talk.” Lavender smiled amicably and dipped her chin to her chest. Maress just glared.

    Roji rolled his eyes and led them to Sezithorum’s chambers. Lavender struggled a bit with the oversized robe, trying not to step on it and trip herself up. Maress stalked along behind her like a wild animal, his eyes darting continuously. Pfarth brought up the rear, chittering curiously.

    Roji opened the door and motioned them to the couches. As they were passing him, he noticed the difficulty Lavender was having. “If it’s that much of a problem for you, you could just take it off,” he said, matter-of-factly.

    She spun and gaped at him, clutching the robe even tighter about herself. Before Roji could blink, Maress had him by the neck up against the wall. Roji was a full head taller than Maress, and even as thin as he was, outmassed Maress as well, but the other man didn’t seem to notice or care. Nor did he seem to be bothered by the angry little furball that had instantly scaled his robe and was now sitting on his shoulders with its tail wrapped around his neck. Tiny fists beat Maress about the head and miniscule teeth chewed on his pointed ear amid furious shrieks.

    “Just because you’re an uncivilized pervert who walks around naked all the time doesn’t mean you can drag us down with you,” Lavender rebuked, jumping and trying to wave Pfarth away from Maress’s head. The sholo hopped to the other shoulder and gave Maress a matching bite on that side.

    Tiska chose that moment to walk in, still nude as well, with a large bottle of wine in one hand and four glasses in the other. She surveyed the tableau for an heartbeat. “Whoa, what did I miss?”

    “This little reprobate suggested that if Miss Lavender’s robe was problematic, she could simply relinquish it,” Maress growled, swatting at Pfarth with his free hand, his eyes boring up into Roji’s. Roji, for his part, was completely dumbfounded, and wouldn’t have been able to speak even if he could breathe.

    Pfarth leapt up to crouch on top of Maress’s head, still beating at him ineffectually. Pfarth’s tail curled beneath Maress’s chin, anchoring him, the leathery tips probing the opening of his ear. Maress gripped the tail firmly with his free hand and unwrapped it from his head. Using it as a leash, he pulled the sholo to the side. Pfarth retained a grip on Maress’s hair, and withdrew two tiny handfuls as he was pulled free.

    At arm’s length, Pfarth dangled by his tail from Maress’s fist, the twin tendrils curling wildly from the top. That was hardly an unnatural position for a sholo, however, and he was only bothered by the stranger’s aggression toward his person. Pfarth climbed his own tail and chewed on Maress’s fingers until Lavender stepped over and picked him up. Her hands, covered by the comically long sleeves of the robe, grasped him gently around the body and suspended him by the armpits. Surprised and confused by this change, Pfarth simply hung there, looking around silently.

    With her hands no longer holding her robe closed, a stripe of Lavender’s olive skin was exposed down her chest, showing the valley between her breasts, the slight ripples of abdominal muscles, and the fluffy black triangle that disappeared between her thighs.

    Tiska shrugged, her breasts jiggling, which only served to further emphasize her own unselfconscious nudity. “Yeah, so?”

    Lavender looked bemusedly back and forth between the three of them for a moment, before leaning toward Maress, careful to keep the calming critter out of range. “Honey, remember, we’re not in Konza anymore. That’s just how they are here.”

    Tiska’s eyes flicked from one to the other as well, and her face lit up with understanding. “Oh, I’m sorry, it never occurred to me that you might have a taboo against nudity!” She flushed with embarrassment, the redness spreading down across her neck and shoulders. “And you wouldn’t know how to fasten the robe, either, neh?” She looked again and cocked her head to the side sympathetically. “And that’s Roji’s even. Of course you would get the biggest one.”

    She rushed into the room and dropped her load on the nearer couch, then turned and headed for the door again, plucking Pfarth from Lavender’s sleeved hands as she passed. “Come on, Lavender, let’s see if we can find something that fits you a little better. Roji, check the master’s wardrobe for something for Maress, neh?”

    Slowly Maress released his pressure on Roji’s throat, but with no change in his expression. Roji coughed a couple times and rubbed his neck, but said nothing as he crossed the room toward the cabinet where Sezithorum kept his clothes. He opened it and pulled a rack of robes out of the way, to get to where the more typical clothes were. Maress looked confusedly at the tall wooden box, and how much Roji was withdrawing from it. “Yes, it’s bigger on the inside,” he smiled. He motioned to the assortment, and said, “Take your pick. I’ll be back, I’m going to go get something on too. When you’re done, have a seat and pour the wine.”

    Maress said nothing, merely continuing to glare. Roji rolled his eyes and left. When he returned, garbed in a new robe, and carrying a rag, Maress was seated on one of the couches, one hand stroking the cat beside him. He was dressed in brown breeches, knee-high boots, and an oversized white shirt with laces at the cuffs and collar.

    The shirt had miraculously avoided any bloodstains, despite the crimson still welling from both ears. The wounds on his left hand had stopped flowing, but the spots still glistened wetly. Roji handed him the rag and said softly, “For the blood.” Maress snatched it without looking and dabbed at his ears.

    Maress had carefully cleared one of the small tables and relocated it to the center of the seating area, where it now supported the half-empty bottle of wine and four full glasses. Tiska and Lavender had not yet returned.

    Roji sat down opposite him, and after a pause said, “Look, let’s get this out of the way now. I didn’t mean to offend you, or her. I’m sorry. I’m also sorry about biting your head off back in the ritual room. I was a bit upset. I’m still upset, but it was fresh then, and you were being kind of obnoxious. All right?”

    He was beginning to wonder if a glare was just Maress’s normal, neutral, default expression. Then he began to wonder if Maress was going to respond at all. Were his ears twitching? They looked like they were turning blue too. Not the kind of blue where somebody is too cold for too long, a real blue tinge. No, they couldn’t be. Finally, one word at a time, he spat out, “Perhaps you should learn to keep your tongue quiet. Otherwise you may lose it.”

    Roji was saved from trying to come up with an appropriately pithy response by the return of the women. Tiska wore a grey halter top that tied behind her neck and matching calf-length tights that hugged her curves deliciously.

    Lavender wore a green pair of breeches that would have been knee-length on Tiska, but which were tied at her ankles, and a blue blouse with the cuffs tied above her elbows, so that the excess material fell to her knuckles. And now that she had other clothes on beneath it, she seemed to be enjoying Roji’s robe. The arms were rolled up to make them manageable, but the length flowed out behind and around her as she twirled and danced across the room. Pfarth followed her, playfully jumping at the alternately trailing and swinging hem of the robe.

    It was the first genuine smile Roji had seen from Lavender. She was reasonably attractive to begin with, but she had one of those faces that was absolutely transformed when she smiled. He sat dumbstruck for a moment.

    The women took the empty spots on the couches, Lavender taking up little enough room that the cat was only mildly inconvenienced. Pfarth climbed up into Lavender’s lap and sat contentedly, ignoring the withering look from the cat. Tiska noticed Maress’s wounds as she was sitting down, and sprung back up. “Oh! Right. Let me help you with that.” She knelt in front of him and reached for the injured hand.

    Maress narrowed his eyes, but didn’t stop her as she clasped it between her own hands. A few whispered words and a soft green glow later, she released it, licked her thumb, and rubbed it at the blood spots. They wiped away, revealing unbroken skin beneath.

    Tiska beamed and bounced erect, walking behind him. Maress jerked to follow her with his eyes, and when she reached for his head, he vaulted to his feet, facing her, in a defensive crouch. Tiska stepped back, her hands and eyebrows raised. The sudden movement spooked the cat as well, which jumped down and hid under Roji’s couch. Pfarth screeched and jumped up and down excitedly on Lavender’s lap.

    “Maress. Dear,” Lavender admonished, gently pressing on Pfarth’s shoulders. “Sit your ass down. We all know you’re the big macho tough guy. Get over it already and let her fix you.”

    He scowled again, and with a swish, returned to sitting and facing forward with his arms folded across his chest in a single smooth motion. Tiska stepped forward again, placed her hands on Maress’s ears, and repeated her incantation. Another leaf-colored glow, and she returned to her seat next to Roji. “I’ll let you deal with the leftover blood,” she said, as though nothing awkward had happened.

    Since Maress clearly had no intention, Lavender thanked Tiska and reached for her wine, a motion Roji and Tiska echoed. Maress continued to glare across at the apprentices, but his words were directed at Lavender. “Do not drink it. It could be poisoned.”

    Tiska was shocked, but Roji just rolled his eyes again, and continued to take a drink. “Why would I do that?” Tiska asked bemusedly. “Especially after all the effort we went through to bring you here. And I just healed your wounds, neh?”

    “How should I comprehend the will of mages?” Maress sniffed.

    Roji scoffed, leaned back against the couch and crossed his arms. He was really getting fed up with this twit. Tiska leaned forward and lifted the glass in front of Maress. “Here,” she said, taking a sip, “there’s nothing wrong with it, neh?”

    “And you opened the bottle and poured it when you were alone in the room,” Roji spat.

    “It could be a delayed-action contaminant,” Maress retorted. “Mages are capable of much subterfuge.”

    Lavender was apparently getting fed up with him too. “That’s enough. Get over it. I want wine, and we’re kind of at their mercy at this point anyway.” She lifted her glass and took a mouthful. “Ooh, that’s interesting. Very sweet. What kind of fruit is that?”

    Tiska tilted her head slightly. “Mako. Do you not have makos where you come from?”

    “Not by that name, what does it look like?”

    Tiska held up her hands to indicate a rounded oblong shape, three handsbreaths long and two in diameter. “It’s about that big, red on the inside, yellow on the outside, and covered with little soft spines. They’ll be coming into season in another howra or two, we’ll get you some, they’re delicious,” Tiska gushed.

    “Excellent, love,” Lavender grinned, and took another drink.

    Maress spoke up again, his voice dripping with contempt. “That leads us back to the original quandary, of why we have been brought here, and how we return home. I have no intention of being here in another ‘howra’ or whatever that means.”

    Roji’s eyes unfocused, distracted for a moment as he made the connection. “That’s interesting. The spell lets you understand the word, but where you come from they don’t have the same kinds of names for blocks of time, so it still doesn’t mean anything to you.” He sat forward, getting interested now. “Do you have two moons where you come from?”

    “No! Nor do I care about yours!” Maress exploded.

    “We can’t send you home!” Roji shouted back, then caught himself. He took a breath and slowly let it out, forcing himself to continue in a normal tone. “There’s not a flaming thing we can do about it right now. Sezithorum’s gone, and we don’t know where. We went through that earlier. We’ve got someone in mind to ask about what happened, and where he might have gone, but she’s not in the immediate area. We’ll leave to go find her tomorrow. But even then, she’s not going to be able to send you back either. She’s an herbalist. At best, she’ll be able to help us find Sezithorum, so he can send you back.” He paused. “And at this point, I want to get rid of you just as badly as you want to go. But we both better get used to the idea of you being stuck here for a while.”

    Maress’s eyes widened. Yes, the tips of his ears were definitely quivering, and the blue color got more distinct toward the tops. He reared back and drew breath for another tirade, but Lavender put her hand on his knee, stopping him like a stone. “Let’s go back to the question of why you brought us here in the first place,” she interjected.

    Roji took another deep breath and met Tiska’s eyes. He raised an eyebrow, and she grimaced. They turned back to the strangers, and Tiska began speaking. “We’re kind of at a disadvantage there too, because we weren’t really part of the plan, or even in on that much of it. Again, we’re just apprentices, neh? The story we got was that we were going to be summoning a great warrior, because we have none here.”

    Lavender and Maress looked at each other, and Tiska continued. “There’s a great menace here who is in danger of destroying a huge area of the world, either out of ignorance, or a desire for power, or whatever. But she’s sitting in a hole where our magic is less effective, which means we need someone who doesn’t have to rely on charm for their power, neh?”

    “Well, she’s got that much right, about you not relying on your charm for anything,” Lavender shot her eyes toward Maress, who glared but said nothing. She took another drink and looked back at Tiska, saying, “I got news for you though, sister. You didn’t get a great warrior. You got two pretty good warriors. Though ‘warrior’ may not be accurate for an archer who doesn’t have his bow.” She smirked and glanced at Maress again, whose scowl tightened, but he remained silent. “We do work fairly well together, he covers me while I charge in, and they usually present much bigger targets than I do. He’s only shot me once, and that wasn’t really his fault.” The corner of her mouth twitched again. “Don’t worry, girl, we’ll do everything we can to help you out.”

    Tiska glanced nervously at Maress, who didn’t respond. “Are… Are you sure? I mean, I appreciate your willingness, but…”

    “Oh, don’t worry about this sourpuss,” she said dismissively, patting Maress’s knee again. He’s just tired and cranky. It’s late at night at home, and elves still need to sleep, even though they don’t need much, and they don’t like to admit that they need any.”

    “And we interrupted your sex, too!” Tiska’s eyes widened as it dawned on her, and she looked sympathetically at Maress. “You must be frustrated, neh?” She slid off of the couch onto her knees and crawled around the table. “Would you like me to…” she reached toward his waistband, but trailed off as Maress drew away from her back into the couch, his eyes blazing. She glanced at Lavender, whose cheery face had become a mask of cold rage. “Never mind, then.” She shrank back against the couch next to Roji’s legs, and drew her knees up under her chin. “I was only trying to help. If you want to do it yourself, go right ahead, don’t mind me.” Her final statement drew more confused looks from the pair, but neither of them moved.

    Roji put a hand on her shoulder and she leaned her head against his knee. “‘Unfamiliar with our customs.’ He wasn’t kidding. I wonder if he had any idea how strange you two would be. Obviously you have sex, you were when you arrived here.” Lavender blushed and ducked her head slightly. “But, what, is he your slave, your property, that you’re the only one who’s allowed to touch him?”

    “I am no such thing,” Maress asserted haughtily. “And we do not discuss such things in polite company. Or in yours, as the case may be.”

    Roji closed his eyes and focused on his breathing for a moment. Lavender spoke up again. “I guess it goes along with why we wear clothes all the time. We don’t talk about sex openly, and we certainly don’t do it openly.” What had begun as calm self-reflection had quickly turned into a moralistic diatribe. “And good people, upstanding people, only do it with someone they love, not with any stray hussy who offers.”

    At least Maress was consistent in his attitude. Lavender leaped around so much it was making Roji dizzy trying to keep up with her. Pfarth was clearly disturbed by it as well. He looked up at Lavender and screeched alarmedly, then leapt to the floor and bounded back up to the vacant seat of the couch next to Roji, where he hopped and hooted excitedly.

    Tears were now dripping from Tiska’s eyes, and she dropped her forehead to her knees. Lavender immediately softened, and sprung from the couch to kneel beside Tiska and wrap her arms around her. “I’m sorry, sweetie. You really weren’t sleazy or anything, it was a genuine offer to help. We just thrib hellufgar that way.”

    Tiska lifted her head and furrowed her brow. “What did you say?”

    Lavender mirrored her movement. “What jess malen?”

    “That’s all we need. The translation spell’s wearing off!” Roji exclaimed. “Do you know it?”

    “No, I don’t. But I think I know where to look for it. Let’s put them to bed, and see if we can find it.”

    With a series of gestures, they were able to make Maress and Lavender understand that they should sleep here, in Sezithorum’s chambers. Tiska gesticulated, asking if they wanted food, and they ducked their chins toward their chests again, apparently a confirmation. While she retrieved it, Roji introduced them to the attached washroom: the toilet hole, the handle to produce water, and how to change its temperature. They were amazed, and Roji remembered how he’d felt when he’d first arrived, seeing these applications of charm, and dreaming of what he himself might someday accomplish.

    Tiska returned with a tray containing various fruits and a loaf of bread. Roji was relieved to see that Maress’s ears had stilled, and were returning to their normal color. They collected Pfarth, the cat and their glasses of wine, but left the bottle, waving as they closed the door behind them.

    “Well, that could have gone a lot worse, neh?” Tiska sighed as they entered the laboratory.

    “Yeah, they could both be like Maress.”

    Tiska rolled her eyes. “Right. But she seems to be able to rein him in pretty well, neh?”

    “Except when she’s screaming too,” he shrugged.

    “Hopefully he’ll calm down once he gets over the shock. She’s not likely to be any different, though.” She took a drink of wine. “Now where’s that translation spell?”

    She walked over to one of the shelves of books and scanned their spines. “Of course, he would know exactly which book to look in, and which pile to find the book in. Here, look through this one, see what you can find.” Roji accepted the book and took it to the couch in the other room. He took a drink, put his cup on the adjacent table, and opened the book across his lap.

    A moment later, Tiska sat on the other side of the couch and opened another book.

    Some time later, Roji said, “I don’t see it here, but this thought-link spell looks really useful. That’s probably how all these big-time wizards communicate, and how they’ve been able to coordinate about the succubus.”

    “Yep. I can do it a little bit, but not reliably.”

    “Can you teach me, so we can practice together?”

    “Sure. We’ll work on that tonight, after we’re done packing, neh? Found it!” Tiska exclaimed. “It doesn’t look that complicated, but I won’t know if I’m doing it right until I have them to try it on. You know how to miniaturize, neh?”

    “Yeah, but I’m not very good at it.”

    “Well, you’re about to get a lot of practice. There are lots of good, useful spells in these books that we don’t know yet, and we’re likely to need a lot of them. And we—”

    “We are? How long are we going to be gone? What are we going to be doing?”

    “I have no idea. But that’s the problem. Better prepared than penitent, neh?”

    “I guess. I just figured we’d find somebody else to foist them off on, some other wizard. Whatever happened to Sezithorum, whoever took him, they’re obviously really powerful. And there’s not much a pair of half-trained apprentices are going to be able to do against them. We need somebody really powerful on our side too. Which means they can do all of the heavy casting. Right?”

    “You’re probably right, but there have been too many times I’ve been caught out. I know there’s a spell that would come in really handy, right at that moment, but I didn’t have the book to look it up in, or anyone to ask about it. But we don’t really have time now to go through all of the books, so we’ve got to pack them. As well as everything else we’re going to need. And it has to be small enough that we can carry it. I’ll start collecting things, you practice miniaturizing and start stowing, neh?”

    Tiska stood up and got a blank sheet of parchment, then stuck it up on the wall, and started talking to it. As she spoke, each item appeared in a list down the left edge. “Food. Water. Cooking gear. Money. Map. Bedding. Clothes.” She turned to Roji, and added, “A couple changes of regular clothes, but take a robe just in case, neh? We don’t know where we’ll be going, or what we’ll have to do.”

    “Trust a woman to think about packing clothes for all occasions.”

    She crossed her eyes at him. “When you’ve got something packed, move it to another column on the right, so we can keep track.” She turned back to the parchment and continued reciting.

    Roji left to collect his clothes, while she added to the list. He returned a short time later with a leather bag containing his garments, and several more empty bags. Tiska had collected a pile of books to go, and had started a separate section on the packing list for them.

    By now it was late afternoon, and the sun was falling. “I’ll ride over to the Nellan farm before it gets too late. They’ve got a bunch of kids, I’ll see if I can talk them into taking care of the animals while we’re gone, neh? Speaking of which, could you feed them and put them away if I’m not back by dusk?”

    “Sure, no problem. See if you can borrow some horses too.”

    “Ooh, good idea. I’ll probably have to let Tibi pound my butt again.” Roji raised an eyebrow and she shrugged. “It’s not that bad, especially with a lube spell, I just wish he’d learn some technique. He seems to think he can make up for being small by putting a lot of power behind it. I’ll just tell him he has to let me lick his wife’s curtains while he does it,” she smirked. “Then she’ll make him give me whatever we need, neh?”

    “They seem really nice. And sincere.” Lavender gulped the last of her glass of wine and poured some more. “And I feel bad for them, their teacher getting kidnapped like that.”

    Maress still sat woodenly on the couch, though he had finally given in and begun drinking the wine. “It is none of our concern, except in that it affects out return home.”

    “You don’t want to be here, I get that, and I don’t blame you, but you don’t have to be an asshole about it. It wouldn’t hurt you to be nice to the kid,” Lavender admonished, untying the laces at her elbows and ankles. “Drink more, it’ll loosen you up.”

    He looked down into his wine glass and took another mouthful. “He is rude and uncouth. And you have seen how lascivious they both are.”

    She swam out from inside the blouse, revealing her breasts, small and perky. She thrust her shoulders back and shook them at him. “What, like this?” He tried to glare, but his eyes kept straying back to the newly exposed flesh. He had seen them many times before, but they still affected him, and she knew it.

    She smiled, then sobered. “Yeah, they’re lewd and vulgar, and don’t think I didn’t see you looking at her tits every chance you got. Especially when she blushed so cutely, and they turned bright red.” Maress rolled his eyes. “But every time, for both of them, it was so casual, so natural.” She paused to take another drink. “It’s like sex is no big deal here, like it doesn’t mean anything. I don’t like it, but we’re going to have to get used to it.” She moved to sit on his lap, and removed her breeches. “And as for him being rude, you provoked him, both times that I saw. So get off your high horse. And finish your wine.”

    He tossed back the remains of his cup, and growled, “I will not ‘get used to it’ because we will not remain here a sufficiently extended period of time.”

    “I appreciate your optimism,” she said patronizingly, turning to straddle his thighs and draping her arms around his neck. She kissed him lightly on the cheek, “but sheer force of will doesn’t make things happen in and of itself.”

    “Nonetheless, we shall aid them only insofar as it promotes our return.”

    “Whatever. Are you going to sit there and pout, or are you going to fuck me?”

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