The soap man

TW: Loss of virginity, BDSM elements (masochism)

The brothel’s garish lights splashed through the narrow byway like phosphorescent algae, illuminating the compiled facades of brick and cobblestone. The riot of color dazzled Emony’s eyes — and though she’d passed this way a hundred times, enough to know the way by instinct alone, still her footsteps slowed. She sank back amid the shadows on the opposite side of the alley without a sound.


Other travelers hurried past Emony amid the gathering night, politely pretending not to see her even as she glanced away. The soles of her feet burned guiltily; it felt criminal to stop mid-errand, even if there was no one to miss her tonight. Mistress Jeyne would be offworld until tomorrow at the absolute earliest, but Emony was an efficient maid, not prone to dallying. The urge to hurry back to the townhouse screamed at her, insistent as a klaxon, yet still her leather boots mutinously refused to budge.


By day this was as quiet a side street as any other. By night it went by a name that was infamous throughout the city, one that could be found on any planet, in any half-arsed metropolis.


The Soap District.


Prostitution was just as illegal on Ganymede as it had once been on Old Earth, but the same ancient loopholes had lingered as humanity crept outward to colonize the system. Each stubborn planet had been conquered in turn, and bordellos sprang up in the vanquishers’ footsteps like flowers from Persephone, bringing civilization to these savage new wastelands. Even here, beneath the nighted, Gothic spires of Coptos City, the teahouses’ lurid glow pulsed amid the darkness like a living vein of aqua and emerald and violet.


To be here after sundown was unthinkable … yet here she was.


It seemed an eternity before Emony could lift her tremulous gaze to the teahouse proper. The name Milky Way Mermaid was scrolled in shining letters over the elaborately engraved metal door, and the rectangular force field beside it shone like real glass, giving the appearance of an immense picture window.


And beyond it...


Emony’s belly lurched as she stared at the display, violet eyes wide to take in every last detail. The brothel was almost as grand as the blocks-long department stores in cities like Thebes and New Abydos; the whole frontspace had been done up to look like a Victorian theatre, framed with lush crimson curtains that were themselves bound with golden ropes.

Young men and women perched or else reclined sinuously on floating clouds, rainbows, and even a gilded sun, the tantalizing sylphs mere inches from wanderers that lingered beside the fauxglass field. The women’s luscious breasts were barely concealed beneath silken shift dresses that seemed about to slip from their shoulders, while the men were attired in equally gauzy trousers that accentuated rather than concealed their generous gifts.


The hovering scenery must have repulsorlifts, Emony supposed, because the nymphs bobbed freely before the cyclorama of a sapphire sky, curves rippling as they giggled. As she watched, each sank down in turn to tease a knot of youths gathered at the window before being drawn upward again, playfully whimpering and pouting prettily as they were borne away. 


A dark patch of sky drew Emony’s gaze like a magnet, to where a silver crescent moon hung just below the proscenium’s hem. The moon stayed high above the elegant ballet of its ever-shifting companions, swaying only faintly, its passenger dressed in a black suit with a matching vest of charcoal brocade. Emony could almost have mistaken him for the nymphs’ minder, but the thickset man beside the door clearly served that purpose — not that the fauxglass wasn’t protection enough.


Emony blinked in surprise as a coil of bubbles drifted past her face. For a moment, a stray translucent sphere framed the dark man in a rainbow cage high above her, and then the illusion was gone. It’s like he’s some kind of faerie — or worse, a demon.


Her pulse quickened as she stared at him, manners abandoning her in the alley’s shadows. His body is for sale, too.


It was the fashion nowadays to say a man was devastatingly handsome, but Emony had never truly understood the phrase until she gazed upon the dark man’s face. It was as though she was standing alone in a fissured desert, rough wind tearing the air from her lungs as her trembling knees betrayed her. His eyes captivated her, blacker than starless skies, and his angular jaw broke with an easy smile as he observed his companions’ antics.


Emony didn’t need to have apprenticed with a tailor to judge the power coiled within his wiry frame — and she wondered who might be stronger, the dark man or the man guarding the brothel’s door. Either way, it would be a fight worth witnessing.


The easy way the man braced his feet against the crescent moon’s lower peak made him seem regal, as though Selene had yielded her throne to him for the span of this night. Emony knew she could never hope to afford such a man — and as though sharing her thoughts, the youths clustered at the brothel window drifted away like floodwrack, first one or two and then the entire cluster gave way.


I should be moving along, too. Why aren’t I moving?


The youths were replaced quickly enough with another cluster of daydreamers — but to Emony’s astonishment, one of the newcomers quickly broke away and approached the doorman. A few words passed between the two, and then the uniformed fellow tapped a passcode into the metal cuff encircling his white-gloved wrist.


The girl floating lowest down in the display window drifted to the side like a tethered kite, grinning delightedly, and was lost to sight at the curtain’s edge as the door shimmered open behind the young man. He disappeared into the brothel, heralded by a swell of lascivious catcalls from his companions.


A prickle of warning lanced up Emony’s spine, and she glanced back at the dark man to find him peering coolly down at her, as though he’d been aware of her all along..


The sudden, nauseating slam of her heart against her ribs made Emony realize it had skipped a beat, but still she couldn’t look away. The intensity of the man’s gaze stripped her naked; he’d seen her see him, it was pointless to glance down now, humiliated as she was.


Then, to her astonishment, the man smiled at her — and it was as though sluicegates opened at the roots of Emony’s nerves as a wave of fierce, primal hunger overtook her. It crashed through her body with the force of an avalanche, leaving her dazed and trembling in its wake, but the man’s grin only widened with good humor.


The man winked at her, and Emony gasped as the scorching blush rose up to fill her cheeks. Tendrils of his dark hair swept over his forehead as he nodded at the Mermaid’s front door; then he tilted his head to the side, querying.


Emony’s treacherous feet remembered themselves and lurched into motion — but to her horror they bore her not away down the alley in the proper direction, toward home, but following the path of the now-vanished youth.


More screaming thoughts filled her mind, a howling cacophony in counterpoint to the deafening rush of her pulse in her ears. Foolish girl! How do you expect to pay for this? Mistress Jeyne was a generous employer in many respects — and it was for that reason Emony hadn’t spoken up as the date for her first scheduled raise passed without incident, then the second, the third. She certainly couldn’t afford whatever fortune it cost to have this man for an hour, let alone the night.


The sane part of her mind hoped the doorman might stop her, at least delay her with a few questions, but he only nodded politely, the spun-gold braid on his cap jouncing cheerily as she neared.


“Right this way, miss,” he said, and his gloved fingers danced over his metal wristpad until the wood-and-metal door behind him vanished, revealing a roseate receiving chamber beyond.


Emony was nearly swooning with terror as she broached the threshold and felt the familiar buzz of a nanite swarm scouring her skin and clothes. The entry chamber’s microscopic drones were cleaning her, but subtly scanning her for weapons or tech too, no doubt — and she kept still, letting them do their work as the door leading without closed soundlessly behind her.


In another moment the sensation subsided, and Emony was rewarded with the manifestation of a gleaming darkwood door before her. She opened the door and stepped through.


The second receiving room was humble compared to the elegant display in the teahouse’s front window, a cramped chamber ten feet across on any side. Another gatekeeper was waiting here, a severe-faced woman in her forties; seeing Emony had no coat to leave in her charge, the woman simply nodded at Emony and tapped a command into the silver cuff on her wrist. The wall panel ahead of Emony slid away, and she again passed through.


The chamber that lay beyond was the strangest place Emony had ever laid eyes upon. To all appearances it was a Victorian sitting room, richly appointed with cherrywood chaise longues and loveseats upholstered in bloodred Jacquard.

The air was veiled with perfume; Emony couldn’t be certain if it was smoke or mist, but the place did feel damp somehow, if not unpleasantly so. Diamondine tables winked at her beneath the opiate rose-hued lights, and Emony realized only too late the tables and couches were filled with half-naked strangers, and she was staring.


Heavens preserve me!


The brothel’s patrons and workers seemed not to notice Emony’s attention, though, and she confined her gaze to the oil paintings that studded the walls. Their subjects were as scandalous as the shadowed figures writhing ecstatically in her peripheral vision; one portrait was of a woman with long, sweeping hair, her pale face delving between the legs of a voluptuous companion, while another depicted a short, portly man buried up to the hilt in a masked companion whose gender was lost to the shadows.


Terror notwithstanding, Emony couldn’t help admiring the painters’ skill — and tingling sensation rose up her calves, creeping past her knees as her gaze strayed to a doe-eyed courtesan entwining her nubile legs with a velvet curtain, softly moaning as she twisted the cloth against her sex.


A pair of figures moved languidly toward her through the gloom. The first was a woman roughly Emony’s own height, her expertly wrought corset and bustled taffeta skirt a delicate ballerina pink. The faint lines on her face revealed her to be in her late thirties or early forties, but she was more elegant even than Mistress Jeyne — and the breath caught in Emony’s throat as the woman warmly clasped both her hands in greeting.


“Welcome to the Milky Way Mermaid — you may call me Milady Kage,” the woman said, a genuine smile lighting her face as she squeezed Emony’s fingers again. “What a pleasure to receive you, my dear. How may we satisfy you this evening?”


Curious. Emony’s simple, conservative black dress clearly defined her as a servant, but Milady Kage was treating her as though she was some prestigious daughter of the city. It doesn’t make sense! Yet she only had a scant moment for reflection before she clutched nervelessly at the madam’s hands, recognizing the other woman’s companion.


The man had seemed lanky from his perch on the crescent moon, but it was only now as he loomed over Emony that she saw how tall he truly was. His eyes smoldered like obsidian flames trapped in smoky glass, and the curve of his slim lips was kindly rather than the jaded mocking she feared.


He was standing so close that she could feel the warmth radiating from his body, smell his scent — honeyed spices, with a few deep sandalwood notes that sent shivers along her spine. His olive skin glowed under the teahouse’s roseate lights, and sparks of garnet flashed off his raven hair as he gazed down at her.


Emony didn’t feel Milady Kage releasing her hands, only the electric shock of the dark man’s slim fingers closing about her own, like the completion of some circuit she never knew existed. His skin was warm, his touch firm; she could feel the life rushing within him, chaotic and powerful as a gathering storm. The breath gushed from her in a sigh as he raised her fingers to his jaw, lingering a quarter-second too long as he brushed them against his lips.


“It seems you and Pollux have much to discuss.” The sound of the elegant woman’s voice brought Emony back to herself, and she reflexively pulled her fingers free as her pulse thrummed in her throat. Pollux … it was clearly a masquerade of a name, but she didn’t care. He was ethereal enough to warrant it.


Sense itself was fast abandoning her; though she knew Milady Kage was still standing near them, watching her, all she could see was him. What the hell was I thinking coming in here?


Yet there was no polite way to retreat now, not with that entire gauntlet of murmuring shades standing between her and the door — and what was more, she was startled to find herself not wanting to leave. Even though dread numbed her limbs and thoughts like icewater, Emony found herself yielding to her surroundings, following along mutely as the mysterious man drew her arm through his and Milady Kage led them both deep into the heart of the bordello.


The haze in the air grew denser as they moved away down a side hall. Emony could hardly see the other couples and triads slipping in and out of the rooms lining the corridor about them, save for the telltale snick of softly closing doors. Her heartbeat had seemed more like a constant thrumming than a distinct tattoo for many minutes now, but it eased a bit as Milady Kage conducted them to a private parlor.


The only furniture in the cosy chamber was a pair of antique armchairs and a narrow, circular table set between them bearing a tea tray — but Emony saw the ruby eyes of spycams looking on from discreet apertures in the pressed tin ceiling.


She frowned in confusion. This couldn’t be the sort of room where those sorts of things happened; the cameras were too quick to announce themselves, for a start — and if she wasn’t mistaken, there didn’t seem to be any way of conveying water to and fro. What is this place?


Emony’s terror flooded back as she saw Milady Kage hesitating at the threshold to the hallway, fingers still twined about the crystal doorknob. She smiled warmly, as though she and Emony were anything other than perfect strangers. “Please be sure to read the house rules, dear one, and let me know if you require anything at all.”


Then the door clicked shut, and she was alone with the dark man.


Only minutes before, Emony had been unable to tear her gaze from his; without the fauxglass separating them she could only stare down at the lacquered wood floor, sensing him as a dark silhouette through her lashes.


“Shall we sit?” Pollux didn’t wait for an answer, but moved with a panther’s lithe grace, seating himself in the further away of the two chairs. She could hear his every movement in the close space, and she drifted after him like a ghost, alighting tentatively on the facing chair as he poured the tea.


He handled the gilded pot with an expert hand, then set it back on the tray — but he left his own cup on its saucer, and she could feel his gaze probing her again as he relaxed against his armchair.


“What shall I call you?”


“Emony,” she whispered — and instantly cursed herself. I might’ve given a false name, at the very least … oh, you stupid, stupid girl! Her chest felt like it was banded with iron; breaths came only shallowly, and she forced her gaze back to the glossy floor. The wooden planks ran before her like water, the grain of the wood blurred and comforting. Words coalesced on her lips like dewdrops: “I’m sorry — you must think me such an idiot.”


“Not in the least,” Pollux said — and his voice was so kindly that Emony glanced up despite herself, and then she was caught in that living-coal gaze of his once more. He was watching her so keenly that she froze, and his lips quirked in the shadow of a smile. “How may I serve you tonight, Emony?”


“I-” she gasped, and then it was though the words were drowning within her at the sound of her name from his lips. She fell silent, swallowing hard as she vainly tried to recover herself.


“There, now.” Pollux moved so fluidly that she had no time to collect herself before he knelt beside her, his face almost on a level with her, fingers entwined with hers again, anchoring her. Her expression must have been wretched, because his touch eased a little. “Is this all right?”


“Yes.” The word darted from her too quickly, but he grinned easily at the sound, coaxing a smile to her own lips.


“It’s not so unthinkable, you know,” Pollux suggested, and one of his dark eyebrows arched mischievously. His thumb traced slow circles on her skin even as he reseated himself, and she shivered as delight rippled through her nerves. “The only unnatural thing is the way some try to pretend not to have needs … cravings, even…”


I want him. Surely he could sense the desperate longing on her just as she could smell his honey-and-sandalwood scent. Yet it was that selfsame thought that brought Emony back to herself — and she reluctantly drew back her hand. “I’m s-sorry — I have no money-”


Pollux’s dark eyes flickered with something she could almost mistake for disappointment — Does he think I don’t want him? — but as he sat back in his chair again, his features were perfectly composed, at ease. “Never mind that. When you stopped out there in the alley, what secret desire was your heart whispering to you?”


An inferno rose in Emony’s cheeks, but Pollux’s dark eyes flared and she didn’t dare look away. “I wanted you,” she confessed, so quietly that she could hardly hear her own voice. The words felt drawn from her, like a silken scarf escaping her fingertips. “But-”


Never mind it,” Pollux reassured her firmly, half-smiling again as though amused by her insistence. “That’s between my employer and me, you need not concern yourself about it tonight.”


Emony’s heartbeat quickened to a gallop as he stared at her, waiting. “You must want something of me.”


The dark man inclined his head — and if he hadn’t been so handsome, so close, Emony might’ve thought him wicked. “I’m confident we might arrange something.”


Then he winked.


Emony pressed her lips together to strangle a frustrated moan as Pollux gently released her, setting her fingertips on the arm of her own chair.


He’s playing with me — though by the gods I can’t imagine why! What could I possibly offer him?


“We accommodate all tastes at the Mermaid,” the dark-eyed man assured her softly. “How may we truly accommodate you, Emony?”


The sound of her own name from his lips was nearly her undoing; her fingers tightened on the armrests of her chair. But for his smile, so easy and generous to her, the intensity of his dark countenance and the sharp angle of his brows might’ve deceived her into thinking he was angry. How can I tell him…?


“Would you like to peruse the house rules as you collect your thoughts?”


Emony nodded wordlessly, relieved, as Pollux produced a piece of uncreased parchment from the inner pocket of his jacket and tapped it in the upper right corner before passing it to her. Black ink spiderwebbed outward from the spot he’d pressed, unspooling into a delicately calligraphed list.


She breathed easier as she skimmed through the rules. If Mistress Jeyne’s household was a ship, her myriad lists were what kept it watertight. Familiarity brought a new sort of confidence, and Emony was able to make sense of the scrolling words.


It all seemed to deal with eventualities — what legal recourse might be taken if rooms or fixtures were damaged, or worse, if patrons attempted to obtain services beyond those agreed upon with any of the Mermaid’s employees.


“Do you understand all the provisions?”


Emony nodded. “Don’t break anything. Or anyone.”


The corners of Pollux’s black eyes crinkled with mirth as he laughed, a rich, wonderful sound that made Emony ache for him. “More or less.”


Smiling or sober, Pollux was the handsomest man she had ever set eyes on — and even though Emony knew it would all be for naught, she thumbprinted the requisite box and handed the one-sheet back to him. The digipaper disappeared into the inner pocket of his coal-black jacket, and then they were alone amid the garden of spycams again.


He gazed levelly at her, as though reading her with his gaze alone. “Do you understand what it is that we do here?”


Despite herself, Emony swallowed hard, and nodded. “You w-wash people.”


“Yes.” Pollux lowered his chin so that his Stygian gaze bored into her; it was as though she was naked before him already. Amusement was plain on his angular marble features, but she thought she could read eagerness there, too. He hungers for something. “And more than that…”


He left the sentence hanging in the perfumed air between them, but Emony took his meaning all the same.


She shivered as primal wanting rippled along her spine. You fuck them, though no one will speak of it. Oh, heavens, what sort of cock must he have to be working at this sort of place?


“Many of our first-time patrons choose a wash and Lumasi massage for an optimal experience,” Pollux said, his low, honeyed voice almost a purr.


Emony stared at his elegant hands, folded easily against one of his thighs. To feel his powerful touch again, but everywhere… Her throat was so tight that her voice emerged as barely a squeak. “A-and how much should I owe you for that?”


“Have you ever been touched by a man?”


Abashed, she shook her head.


“Not even once?”


“Never, sir. N-Not like that.”


She didn’t dare mention her deepest shame — the nights during her first posting as a young servant she’d spent in the shadows watching Norabelle the cook’s assistant defiling the kitchen with her young milkman. The way they’d writhed about, half-brawling in their passion, had awakened something dark within Emony, something that was even now in control of her body and mind.


Something in Pollux’s dark eyes settled, and he nodded firmly. “Then that shall be my payment.” She frowned up at him, confused, and he went on: “You’ve heard the expression knowledge is power, I assume?”


Emony’s brow furrowed. “Of course.”


The slender man leaned toward her ever so slightly, and his expression was so fierce that for the second time this evening Emony felt as though her soles were aflame. “My payment is to know that wherever you go in this system,” he murmured, “whatever you do, whatever planet you’re standing upon, you and I will both always know I was your first. That you chose me to be the first man to ever touch you like this. That the way I hold and caress you tonight will stay with you forever.”


“A-and is that the sort of power one should want, sir?” she breathed, hardly daring to believe she was anything but dreaming his words, both a promise and — if she dared hope — a threat.


The dark man’s voice was quiet, velvet amid the silence: “It’s the sort of power that can transform a person utterly — the knowledge of who you truly are. Serving you tonight is both my price and my reward … if you wish it.”


Emony didn’t realize her heart had skipped a beat until it slammed against her ribs, all the more insistent for having forgotten itself.


She could hardly breathe, yet still the word found its way free of her numb lips: “Yes.”


Without further preamble Pollux stood, and extended his hand to Emony — but her fingers were already clasped within his by the time she had wits enough to notice. If she’d moved of her own accord she had forgotten, but it didn’t trouble her; reason seemed to slip from her like a cloak as she rose to join him, and he led her to a shimmerfield at the back of the close chamber. She’d been so distracted by his overwhelming presence that she hadn’t noticed the architectural facade — but as the wall panel faded to reveal the chamber beyond, a squeak of terror escaped Emony’s throat.


The recess beyond the sitting room was fitted in pale lavender and ivory tile, and faced with ornate matte flourishes that made the walls seem papered. The light was dimmer here, a rose quartz glow that seemed to emanate from nowhere in particular, and as Emony’s eyes adjusted she beheld the square tub sunk into the floor into the center of the space.


Taps in the form of dragon’s heads roared silently down at the empty pool, shimmering in the low light like carved obsidian. If she’d had any doubt of the square depression’s purpose, the embellished drain grates at the tub’s corners would have set her to rights. A deep lip ran along each of its four sides, and a plasticushioned half-bench stood waiting in a recessed oval alcove beside the tub, a similar grate at the center of the half-chamber announcing its similar purpose.


“It’s all right, you’re perfectly safe here,” Pollux murmured comfortingly as the shimmerfield reestablished itself and she started with nervousness. From this side the holographic plane appeared to be a door leading back to the front receiving chamber.


The dark man nodded to a place high on the wall, where the word kettledrum had been worked into the tiled design.


“The comm system is fuzzed to all audio except our safety phrases. Simply speak that word if you’re overwhelmed, and Milady Kage will have the place swarming with shieldmaidens in an instant.”


The word gave her pause. “Shieldmaidens?”


Pollux’s lips curved in his easy smile. “Like our doorman, only they’re ladies of sterling repute.” He pressed her hand within both of his, turning to face her, his voice once again a low growl. “But then, I wouldn’t be doing my part worth a damn if I made you feel frightened enough to summon them.”


Emony watched breathlessly as Pollux lifted a hand to his tie and tugged the complex knot open, then slowly unwound the fabric from his neck. His skin was taut, smooth, and she followed the curve of it with her eyes, down beneath the collar of his ivory shirt. He slipped out of his jacket just as languidly, letting it drop to the floor — and then he paused long enough to slip one arm about her waist, drawing her close against him.


His frame was strong, sturdy, and the secret hollow between her thighs suddenly cramped with lust as he pinned her body against his.


Only in her thoughts had Emony ever been so close to a man, and she yelped with surprise at his scorching touch — but Pollux’s dark gaze was hypnotic as a basilisk’s, and she quieted as his free hand moved to cup to her cheek.


“Hush, love, I’m just going to give you a kiss,” he muttered as he brought his lips to meet hers.


The sudden pressure of his mouth against hers was shocking but sweet, and Emony would’ve gasped if her mouth had been her own. Her sex pulsed greedily again, aching for him as his tongue filled her mouth, probing and ravishing hers. The touch of his hand at the small of her back was like an iron shackle, but she adored it — and she moaned in frustration as he pulled back to gaze down at her. 


His eyes were hectic with excitement, but his voice was untroubled. “Is this all right?”


Emony nodded, lost for words, and she trembled against him as his hand moved from her jaw down the length of her throat and past her collarbone. His fingertips slid down almost to the swell of her breast, but stopped at the first black button that held her simple dress closed.


She didn’t dare look away from his face, mere inches from hers, but she could feel the practiced dance of his fingers as they lingered at each button, and the soft sigh of release of the fabric from around her ribs.


His dark gaze wandered down to survey his prize as he freed the clasp just above her navel. “Lovely,” he breathed — and Emony yelped softly as his hand at her back slipped lower, pressing at the very base of her spine to pinion her against him. Something unyielding was digging into her belly, just at the lowest edge of her bodice, and it took her a moment to realize it was his phallus, rigid and unyielding against her vulnerable skin even as he held her prisoner.


“Sweet Emony...” Pollux rasped as his fingers returned to the buttons of her dress. He seemed to know the garment better than she did, for he stopped at a certain point, slid his hand beneath it and along her shoulders, and she shed it like a second skin.


She clutched self-consciously at the front of her simple white corset; though she still had her undershirt, ribbon-hemmed pantalettes, boots, stockings, and the corset about her, she’d never been so close to naked and so near a man before at the same time.


She worried at the pattern of simply worked flowers with her fingertips as Pollux stepped back and pulled his collared shirt over his head, discarding it as easily as he had his jacket. His body was like a sculptor’s perfect study, muscles banding his frame like iron, broad shoulders tapering to a handsomely narrow hips. He was well-kept but still masculine; although his chest was clean of hair, his scent became stronger with each garment he removed, until Emony’s mouth was watering and she wrung her hands convulsively to keep herself from reaching for him.


“Tell me about yourself,” Pollux urged her as he stripped off his shoes and socks.


It made a strange sort of sense to Emony that if she didn’t offer some answer he might stop undressing, so words leapt quickly to her lips: “I’m a lady’s maid over in North Xiabalba. I’ve b-been working in my mistress’s house four years now.”


Emony bit her lip to stop herself from saying more — and to her surprise, Pollux stopped, too, regarding her carefully. Even from so close his eyes were so dark that she could barely discern pupil from iris, but right now they seemed even darker, wider, as though he meant to hypnotize her anew. “You don’t have to speak about your life if you’d rather not, love. I only meant to put you at ease.”


“T-Thank you,” she stammered. Never once in her too-quiet life had her tongue turned such traitor. He clouds my head like liquor.


“Is it too much?” he asked softly.


She shook her head. His fingers were moving at the middle of her back, working at the knots she’d tied this morning — and she felt the confining fabric give as the laces pulled free. “Just … hard to collect myself.”


“Then don’t bother to,” Pollux murmured into her neck. The warmth of his breath made her skin crystallize to gooseflesh, but the way he brushed his lips against her was a panacea.


She sank against him, soothed by the realness of him, the eager way his fingers tugged at her corset laces and pushed the whole thing down over her hips so it fell to the floor. Then, curiously, he stopped, and tendrils of his dark hair teased her skin as he brushed his jaw lightly against her neck, inhaling deeply.


Emony’s hands instinctively flew to cover her breasts as Pollux moved back and tapped a command into a discreetly disguised wall panel — and notwithstanding the chamber’s nearly hypnotic warmth, she felt her nipples hardening against her palms to be so vulnerable. Her undershirt’s straps ran over her shoulders in slender lines, and the pantalettes barely stretched a quarter of the way down her thighs; Pollux, by contrast, at least still wore his trousers.


Steaming water poured from the dragon-shaped spouts, and orange-scented mist rose over the tub as it began to fill. Yet when the dark man retook her hand, he drew her not toward the pool but a curiously simple wooden chair at the edge of the room.


The simple, unvarnished wood was a perverse contrast to the chamber’s simple elegance — but no sooner had she regarded the thing than the dark man drew her into his arms again, knotting his elegant fingers into the hair at the nape of her neck and reclaiming her mouth with his. The sensation of the rough wood against the backs of her thighs and calves came as a sweet relief as Pollux skillfully maneuvered her into its hold.


Emony moaned into Pollux’s mouth as his hips found their way between her thighs, torquing gently and opening her to him like a matched lock and key. Even on his knees before her he was on a level with her, and she writhed in his arms as his fingertips traced patterns on the bare skin of her outer thigh, and though he broke the kiss still he held her close.


“Are you afraid of me, Emony?” he asked hoarsely, his touch stilling as his gaze found hers once more. Her body shuddered with a fierce heartbeat, but she couldn’t rightly say if it was Pollux’s or her own.


She nodded — and a startled laugh burst from the dark man’s lips as his brows drew in confusion. “Whyever so?”


Emony was too overcome for dissembling. “Your beauty, sir,” she murmured quietly. “It undoes me completely.”


To her astonishment, Pollux only laughed, caressing her thigh reassuringly. “Sir … dear heart, whatever I may seem to you, deep down I’ll always just be a boy from the Sharuna Plain.”


“You’re from the grasslands?” It was a startling, like finding a gem in a midden heap; the plains were known for little, an oft-overlooked province altogether a world away from Coptos City’s splendor.


“Just so.”


Her astonishment seemed to please the dark man, for he grinned kindly again, and patted her leg before regaining his feet. He squinted at her as he slowly retreated a few steps toward his discarded clothes.


“Have you ever been to one of those traveling carnivals that travels through the outlands, popping up here and there?”


Emony couldn’t help but smile herself at long-distant memories of laughter with fellows as a child in the underhalls and during her earliest years in service, before the Sinclair-Torosians had moved first here to the city and thence offworld.


“The coasters and pendulum cars — the things meant to thrill, to inspire terror — those always affected me most,” Pollux admitted easily as he retrieved his unknotted tie. “Yet if it was ever truly overwhelming, I could find reprieve in the darkness of my own closed eyes.”


“You mean-” Emony’s pulse rushed in her ears like a rising tide as she stared at the strip of black fabric.


“Let’s remove the thing that so unnerves you — for the moment, at least,” he offered as he moved back to her and knelt before her, moving deliberately as though wary of spooking her. He held the tie out to her. “You’re in control. Utterly so.”


Emony gazed down at the fabric, gleaming silkenly beneath the soft pink lights. The orange scent permeated the air now, making her surrounding seem even more surreal.


This should feel strange, I should be preserving my modesty … shouldn’t I? Yet it wasn’t unpleasant to find herself here with Pollux, not by far — and she found herself nodding to him, urging him on rather than stopping him. “P-Please. I-If you don’t mind...”


She closed her eyes, and a moment later the cool fabric pressed against her skin, its pressure against her just enough to keep her eyes closed. He tied the knot deftly. “How’s that?”

Emony murmured with pleasure. All about her was oblivion now, yet she could hear all the more keenly the roar of water filling the tub nearby, feel all the more keenly the raw wood against her skin — and even closer, the heat from Pollux’s body warming her own as he slipped one arm about her waist and drew her hips flush against his.


She could feel him even through her pantalettes and his trousers, and the contact of her sex against his thick, rigid cock made her gasp with electric longing.


Soapy tub or none, she was already soaked for him, and the thin cotton of her pantalettes was little defense against the solid throbbing of his prick through his pants as he ground himself against her. He covered his mouth with hers as though to drink in her sighs, and she clung to him, matching the intensity of his embrace.


Even one-handed her bootlaces were no match for him, and soon he had both them and the soft cotton socks off her. The tiles warmly kissed the soles of her feet, and she whimpered as Pollux caught her knees and pulled them up around his waist, bending her about him and against him gloriously.


Emony groaned as Pollux pulled away, and she heard him chuckling as he pulled her to her feet along with him. “If you’d had a man before, I might let you have me here, but not you, Emony. I won’t have your first time be so rude as that.” She could hear him grin. “Besides, I’ll have you in that tub soon enough.”


Rude … is that what he calls it? It felt crueler by half to be denied him when her whole body was clamoring to possess him completely, and the glossy tiles presented themselves acutely now that her feet were bared to them.


He led her carefully forward, but it wasn’t until she heard the creak of the short plasticushioned bench as Pollux sat beside her that she realized he’d led her into the alcove beside the tub.

The dark man’s skin scorched Emony as he drew her across his lap, encircling her with one arm. Her feet swung clear of the tiled floor, and his free hand carefully negotiated the blindfold up from her eyes. “Just for a moment, I need you to see this.”


Emony squinted against the light, more concentrated here, and under its curious glow she discerned a curious pattern of grooves that swirled at the center of the tiled alcove. Pollux directed her gaze upward, toward a curious sort of halo that lowered from the ceiling at the man’s gestured command — a sturdy yet delicately wrought cylinder that housed a riot of nozzles and hoses, and sported several handholds on its faces.


“I won’t let you fall, but these are here in case you’d like them.” His jaw moved against Emony’s neck as he spoke, and her skin prickled to gooseflesh at the way his arm tightened about her briefly. “Just don’t stand up suddenly, all right?”


“My clothes-”


“-will emerge from this unscathed, I you have my word.”


She still didn’t meet his gaze, but nodded her acquiescence, nudging instinctively against Pollux’s hand as he slipped the blindfold back over her eyes. Surely they had quick-dryers or some such hidden away for precisely this reason.


Emony felt Pollux reach up and fiddle with something in the halo contraption overhead, and the warmed coil of a flexible metal hose brushed her arm as the dark man drew a nozzle forth. He caught her hand in his free one and held it close to the nozzle as the first gush of heated water poured forth, and her exhalation was half-sigh, half-moan.


Her body vibrated with the man’s low laugh, and he gently turned her arm, running the nozzle along the velveteen skin of her inner forearm.


He moved the fixture slowly up toward her shoulder as the soft hiss of mist nozzles sang from the alcove walls, and lavender scent rose up in counterpoint to the sweet orange. Still, Emony couldn’t help gasping as the nozzle reached the strap of her undershirt and the thin cotton instantly plastered itself to her skin. The fabric clung to her breast like clutching fingers, and she felt Pollux’s cock throbbing beneath the curve of her arse.


“I don’t believe you’re really of the grasslands,” she muttered breathlessly as Pollux drew the nozzle across the nape of her neck. Her hair was still pinned up in the elegant braids she’d set this morning, so her skin was agonizingly bare to the water’s touch as it carved out a waterfall along her spine. Considering the mystery of Pollux’s origins was her last tether to any semblance of higher thought.


“Whyever not?” Pollux demanded, amused, as he moved the nozzle across her near shoulder.


Warmth poured over her breast, trickling along the curve of her belly to pool between her thighs. Her undergarments being soaked thusly was another kind of perversion, like the rudeness of the chair in the main room, and she felt the man’s cock more keenly than ever as his trousers, too, were drenched.


“You’re far too proper to be a man of the farmlands,” Emony managed as Pollux reached back overhead and affixed the nozzle.


Proper?” His breath warmed her lips even as she heard him speak the word, and then his mouth was crushing hers. He held her with his other arm now, and his free hand expertly cupped the curve of her breast, tweaking her nipple so that something deep within her shuddered at the sharp touch.


“Y-Yes,” Emony murmured when Pollux finally drew away again, and he laughed. His fingers nimbly freed her hair from the confining pins, and she heard them plink against the tile floor as he discarded them one by one.


“I was foster-brother to Lord Sander Tang, liege lord of Far Luxoria,” the dark man said as he raked his fingers gently through her hair, loosening her braids. Her scalp prickled at his soft touch, and again she could hear him smiling. “So despite being a commoner, I received an uncommonly good education.”


“But then surely you should have married some lady of the hold,” Emony protested as his fingers slipped from her breast down along the curve of her belly. Surely he can’t mean to touch me there… “You would’ve had prospects. Hells, even I could’ve gone offworld with my first family if I’d the stones-”


“I did have prospects,” the man returned quietly. “None were so pleasurable as this.”


With his last word he slid his hand between Emony’s thighs, his fingers easily finding her apex through the thin material, all the more treacherous now that it was sodden. It was more than just the nozzles; she was so wet that the fabric slipped easily against her quim as he stroked her.


She instinctively pressed her knees together, overwhelmed by the ecstasy his rough touch inspired, but he was relentless, and again she surrendered her mouth to his amid the darkness.


At length he pulled away, withdrawing his hand from between her legs despite her mewl of protest, and unhooked another nozzle from the overhead carriage. This one was broader than the first, gentler, and warmth seemed to unfurl across her scalp.


The dark man guided her so expertly in tilting her head to and fro that only a few stray drops graced her forehead, his touch as tender as the warm rivulets caressing her body She was half-dazed by the time he ceased his ministrations and rehooked the nozzle to the carriage. The scalding tough of his lips against hers was becoming familiar now as he kissed her again, his hunger as he drank her in.


His fingers nudged against her temples gently, and Emony squinted against as Pollux again drew the blindfold away. The intensity of his dark eyes was undaunted as he gazed at her, and he cradled her close against his chest. “Am I so terrifying now?”


Her stomach fluttered at his he smiled despite herself. “Perhaps.”


He again drew a nozzle down from the carriage, dark eyes glinting with challenge. “Perhaps.”


Before Emony could move, the man quickly doused his own head and shook it energetically, his jet hair more fetching than ever as it shone beneath the rose quartz lights. She couldn’t restrain the giggles that poured out of her; for all Pollux’s exuberance he might actually be who he said he was, a man of the grasslands, as prone to moments of absurdity as much as any other.


Pollux chuckled along with her, and as he replaced the nozzle above them the whole brass halo seemed to erupt with water like a breaking thunderhead. Yet the dark man surprised Emony again by negotiating her to her feet and standing along with her, nudging the halo up to give them room to stand.


His fingers slipped beneath the hem of her soaked undershirt and drew the garment up over her head; she was in his arms, her naked breasts pressed to his chest before she became self-conscious enough to shrink away.


“None of that, love.” Pollux gently caught her hands and drew them to the fastening of his trousers before enfolding her in his arms again. Her skin thrilled at the soft kiss he laid on the side of her neck. “I’m all yours, Emony. If you want me, just reach out and take me whenever you’re ready,” he murmured.


God, yes, I want you, dark man. Her fingers instinctively worked the catches free, stumbling drunkenly as she trembled with wanting. More than once her hand brushed against the thick erection straining at his trousers, but eventually she managed to unfasten the drenched charcoal fabric and let it fall from his hips.


He stepped out of the pooled cloth like a powerful naiad and then he was looming over her again, his capable hands catching her waist before she could think to retreat.


Only his briefs and her pantalettes separated them now, and Emony swayed against Pollux’s body as he caressed her hair, which hung nearly to her waist now that the water had pressed it flat. She gasped as his hands found her beribboned shorts and dragged them down over her hips to reveal the curve of her arse, and he hissed with pleasure as he grasped the backs of her thighs, holding her to him and half-lifting her so that his fingertips teased her pussy. 


“Come bathe with me, Aphrodite,” the dark-eyed man murmured.


Her fingers found the hem of his briefs, and she murmured in pleasure as she pulled them down as far as she could. His swollen prick was thicker than she could’ve imagined, seeming even thicker now that it was loosed, rigid with wanting for her the same way she was slick for him.


Part of her was still shocked at what she was doing, but her body lusted for Pollux like an animal. I have to feel him inside me. I want to feel that with him — the thing I’ve been waiting for my whole life.


He couldn’t have been blind to her reverent stare, but he only took her by the waist, pulling her back toward the half-bench and guiding her into straddling the plasticushioned surface. He fiddled with something in the carriage, and produced a porous sponge that bubbled with soap as soon as he brought it beneath the cascade before seating himself behind her.


“I think you’re just teasing me now,” she managed hoarsely as Pollux sudsed her body one agonizing sweep at a time. It seemed like he was deliberately avoiding her nether regions, taunting her for her wantonness — yet his erect phallus pressed into the small of her back, unrelenting in its rigidity.


His voice rumbled through her back, a predatory purr, as he ran the soapy sponge over first one breast and then the other. “Maybe I like teasing you.”


The roll of her hips was instinctive — and to her delight, Pollux’s arm tightened about her waist as she ground her arse against his hard prick.


She heard him grit his teeth, but he only moved the sponge lower, studiously avoiding her sex in favor of her thighs. In fact, he scrubbed every inch of her from her neck to her toes, never once returning to her sex, and holding her in place against him when she sought to return his teasing in kind. He liked that, what I did … but now he’s torturing me!


Emony was near to howling with frustration by the time Pollux wrung the soapy sponge out, returned it to its birth in the carriage overhead, and shut off the halo’s unceasing cascade — but she responded quickly as he tugged her to her feet and led her back to the main chamber.


The tub was full, obsidian-esque dragons silent now that their duty had been discharged, and Emony sighed as the hot water enfolded her limbs. Pollux seated himself on the bench that ran around the tub’s lip and again pulled Emony onto his lap so that his chest pressed against her back.


Yet when his fingers moved to her knees, she stubbornly refused to open to him.


“Are you angry with me, pet?” Pollux chuckled. With a suddenness that surprised her, he tilted her hips forward and reached beneath her arse to palm her sex — and she gasped, pressing herself back against him, parting her knees to admit his other hand.


His thumb found the nub of her clit and circled it, teasing, as his fingers probed the edge of her pussy, testing her.


“How about now?”


Emony had on not-infrequent occasions touched herself, but only in the dead of the night, and only when she was certain Mistress Jeyne was well asleep. Any of that paled against the exquisite sensation of Pollux driving first one finger and then two into her slick channel as he thumbed her clit, his naked erection solid against the curve of her arse.


She bucked against the overwhelming tempest of sensations that overtook her body like lightning, and the dark man withdrew his hand from beneath her to catch her easily around her ribs. His fingertips dug into her opposite shoulder, keeping her tight to his chest as he sank his fingers into her deeper still, and she cried out like an animal, lost to wordlessness at the power of his other hand striving against her clit.


I-I’m going to — I can’t help myself!


“Tell me how to make you come, lovely Emony.” Pollux’s teeth grazed her earlobe, and her moans heightened as she clutched spasmodically at his wrists and he held her tighter.


His erection slipped beneath her thigh as she ground against him, and its fervid touch against the bud of her arse was her undoing.


Emony howled as she broke against him, rapture blossoming deep in her belly and erupting out throughout her limbs. Her muscles seized with the force of the orgasm, but the dark man wrapped his legs over hers to hold her close and stroked her with practiced fingers, urging more waves of bliss from her sex as she sank back against him.


Emony panted wordlessly, dazed by the force of her coming. The first thing she felt when she began to reclaim her wits was humiliation — but as though reading her thoughts, Pollux spun her sideways over his lap again to cradle her against his chest.


My body’s so light in this water, it hardly takes any effort for him to move me! He ran his fingers through her hair again, peering at her with such sober grace that she could hardly believe the base things he’d just done.


“A woman in rapture is the most beautiful thing on any world,” he murmured, and his lips pressed against hers tenderly again, if still hungrily. The dark man’s cock was still hard against her hip, and she ran her fingers over it exploratorily, glancing up in concern as he hissed through gritted teeth. “Now who’s teasing whom?”


“You like this?” Emony murmured, confused. I hardly touched him!


Pollux closed his hand about hers, showing her how to grip his throbbing sex — but after a moment he pulled her fingers back, laughing tensely. “Careful, love. Too much more of that and I’ll spill.”


Now it was her turn to peer up at him. That such an exquisite man should shudder so at her touch was intoxicating — and on an impulse she resettled herself, sweeping one leg over his to straddle his lap. He’ll like this … won’t he? I certainly do...


Real warning glinted in Pollux’s ink-dark eyes. “You haven’t yet told me what I should do with myself.”


Emony frowned at him, baffled until the truth of his innuendo dawned on her. He’s asking what I want him to do with his seed?


“W-what is … traditional?” she stuttered, startled into self-consciousness again.


The dark man shrugged, and she felt him pulsing against her lower belly as he fondled her breast admiringly. “It’s up to you in this case — though know as you decide that I’m genescanned constantly to ensure purity, and inhibited to prevent me from getting you.”


Getting me… Emony was almost sorry the man was incapable of impregnating her, even if it was only a fanciful, passing impulse. Surely whatever process had rendered him thus was reversible — and it did provide certain advantages.


She swirled her fingertips around the head of his cock, enthralled by the way his whole body tensed at her touch. As a child she’d learned to play the harp; playing a man, she was quickly realizing, was little different.


“How do you prefer it, given your choice?”


He smiled so suddenly that she realized she’d startled him out of his playful manner, if only for a moment. “To be honest, I’ve only ever used a barrier for that one, final act. It’s one of the advantages of my position — to be able to say where my limits lie. And that’s one I’ve never crossed.”


Emony entirely forgot that she was naked in his arms as she gaped at him. “What — never?


Pollux’s angular olive cheeks colored with rose as he smiled sheepishly. “Never.”


“And you’re ready to broach that for me?” Her breath caught in her throat, and her brows drew together of their own accord as she stared at him, suddenly uncertain. “Why?”


He caged her cheek with his hand so his index finger gently pressed against the apple of her cheek, while his thumb caught her chin. His lips drank hers in for a long moment. “You’re giving yourself to me, Emony,” he murmured when they broke apart, his obsidian gaze capturing her as it always did. “I want to give you something equally precious. A piece of my life you’ll always know was yours.”


The sweetness of his words caught her off her guard, and she pressed herself close to him, twisting her fingers into his hair. It was softer than silk now that it was wet, and he tasted as sweet as the bright orange notes permeating the mist around them.


She was ready for him — but to her surprise he carefully set her aside, instead leading her from the tub and through another doorway on the opposite side of the room that she hadn’t made note of before. The warm air felt chill against her soaked skin, and she was aware of every inch of her bare flesh as she followed Pollux, her heart thrumming with excitement.


The chamber beyond the main room was rectangular and guarded by ornately carved columns that had been inlaid with silver. The ivory bathtub standing within it was curiously large, even for two people, more like a bed — and, as Emony saw as they drew nearer, lined with a rich layer of a pinkish-orange gel encased in discrete containment fields.


The gel was almost bouncy, Emony found as Pollux lifted her bodily and gently laid her inside the tub. He drew a glass decanter of what looked like more of the same fluid up from beside the tub and settled himself beside Emony. His cock seemed larger now that they were free of the water, and she had to force herself to look away before her nerves abandoned her. I’m not in danger here. Not with him. 


Pollux moved to pour the liquid onto his body, but stopped at Emony’s expression. “Would you like to…?”


She nodded eagerly, and his laugh was warm as he surrendered the container to her. It was strangely satisfying to watch the liquid drip over his angular form like honey, falling thick on her fingertips as his olive skin but somehow smoother than riverwater.


Pollux inhaled sharply as she poured a handful of the rich substance into her cupped palm and then let it cascade along her fingertips and onto his phallus, his gaze burning into her with the same need that stirred in her own belly. Hunger … yes, I can recognize it now. I’ve felt it all my life, but never given it a name. I never knew it was strong!


She set the glass vessel aside when it was empty, and Pollux quickly pulled her beneath him, the weight of his body pressing her into the tub’s soft embrace. He insinuated himself between her thighs easily — and Emony cried out as he began to move against her, grinding his phallus against her pussy, his hot, shuddering length threatening to devastate her while still preserving her maidenhood.


She writhed in the dark man’s embrace again, his nearness and the anticipation of being fucked by him driving her to near madness. I need him more than I need air. I need to have him inside me!


Suddenly Pollux rolled Emony on top of him, and their moans intermingled as she slid herself against him now, catching his prick between her breasts, her thighs, against her sex, even stopping to lick the head until Pollux tore her away and their mouths clashed with violent longing.


She nipped his lower lip, and he visited bites of equal savagery upon both of her nipples before catching her arse in his hands and spreading her, fucking her with his fingers even as she ground her clit against the ridge of his head.


“Ready to lose your maidenhead?” Pollux asked roughly as Emony clung to him, nearly insensate with lust.


“Gods, yes,” she panted. Some distant part of her knew she was no better than a rutting beast, desperate to be taken, but she didn’t care to stop herself as Pollux guided her hips, fitting the head of his cock between her silken folds.


Emony’s vision colored red with beautiful pain as Pollux slowly thrust into her for the first time, but she surged to meet him greedily — and beyond the point of agony his phallus slid into Emony’s pussy like a rod of oiled iron, sure and smooth even as it filled her past the breaking point.


She sat upright slowly, almost mindlessly, feeling his girth deep in her belly as her ravaged sex tightened around him, his jewels tight against her arse. Like this … yes … I need more!


“Careful,” he urged, and the catch in his voice made her belly twist with primal lust. He was striking at her very core, rooting her as she moved, slowly at first but with increasing confidence as Pollux’s hands found her hips and they began to strive against each other in earnest.


He guided her forwards and back, pulling her down atop him with increasing insistence, and she met him with equal force, nipples stiffening as her breasts jounced against her body. It felt so wrong to be naked at all that the perversion of his cock inside her felt like the only right thing in the universe.


Pollux grunted as he suddenly wrapped one arm about Emony and gripped the side of the soft tub, surging to his knees and flipping her backward to brace her shoulders against the firm gel-lined wall. It was as though he could fuck her harder at this new angle, and she lost herself in each fresh advance, meeting his hips with equal force, arching her back to impale herself further around him.


She clung to the dark-eyed man as he drove into her relentlessly, her whole body aflame as she rolled like a wave. His mouth found her nipple and he rolled the stiffened peak between his teeth, tugging gently until her body was the harp and he the harper, bringing her closer to her undoing with every thrust. This is everything I could have wanted.


“Pollux,” she gasped, and perhaps it was his true name, for when she cried out he groaned in turn, and his limbs began to tremble as though he was restraining some savage beast within himself.


His fingers became iron, gripping her soft skin so that Emony feared she would break, and his cock seared within her like a glowing ember.


“I’m going to fill you with so much cum,” he growled, and the brute savagery in his honeyed voice broke the rising tide in her belly. I’m going to shatter!


The scream that tore itself from Emony’s throat was wild and unfamiliar, as though a banshee had possessed her throat — but even that couldn’t stop the flood of ecstasy that consumed her body from her sex to the tips of her fingers.


Still Pollux thrust into her with the harshness of a steam hammer, his temple pressed against her cheek as he neared. He loosed one hand long enough to twist it into the sodden tendrils of her hair, forcing her to lift her chin and meet his gaze.


“Look at me,” he demanded in that same rough tone — but already Emony couldn’t see anything else but the dark man. It’s there in his eyes, that intensity I saw when he was sitting in the window — it’s who he is, who he always is beneath that tranquil exterior.


Tendons in his temples jumped as he clenched his jaw, his blacker-than-black eyes holding her as firmly as his embrace.


“Please,” she begged, the word barely more than a whisper.


His obsidian eyes flared, and then his lips were crushed against hers as his seed flooded her belly, hot and inescapable.


She sighed as he filled her, satisfied in a way she’d never felt in all her years of service, and his panting breaths stirred her cheek like a caress. It surprised her to feel his mouth finding hers again; it was as though he knew how much she needed him in that moment. I need him to need me. No — to want me, to claim me in the most ancient way, the way we learned on Old Earth.


“Yes,” she murmured as they broke apart.


The dark man’s body moved against and within her still as he chuckled quietly, his fingers again tightening in her hair. “Yes indeed.”



They gathered themselves wordlessly, with the familiarity of those who have known more of each other than could ever be spoken of aloud.


Emony was too exhausted to speak at first, as Pollux led her back to the alcove where the plasticushioned half-bench waited, but even as warm water brought sense surging back to her nerves she held silent.


What could I possibly say? How could I thank him for...whatever this is I’m feeling?


Too soon it was time to dry herself on the luxurious cream towel that smelled of the same oranges and lavender as the room itself, and for the first time Pollux’s deft fingers sent a pang of regret skidding through her core as he helped her dress.


She’d been so curious as to what magic might’ve dried them when first she set foot in the chamber; now she hardly cared. The simple black garment felt strange now, rough and ill-fitting despite its bespoke origins. It can only be me that’s different.


Her fingers didn’t tremble as Pollux drew her arm through his and escorted her past the shimmerfield. The corridor that had seemed so tortuous when Milady Kage led them here was now all too short, and Emony found herself wringing her hands once more as the dark-eyed man stopped beside the doorway and released her arm.


“You are wanted.” Pollux’s voice was curiously halting, and for the first time Emony caught a flash of vulnerability in his onyx eyes.


The words flew instinctively from her lips: “Beg pardon?”


A crease of worry appeared between the man’s dark brows, but his smile was kindly. “When I first saw you out there, in the alley, I thought, There stands a girl who thinks she’s invisible. But you’re not … and I thought you should know that. Whatever you are out there — whoever you are — you are entirely special.”


Emony’s cheeks burned with a fearsome blush. “I-I’m just a lady’s maid.”


He lifted one shoulder in a lopsided shrug. “Perhaps. But then, I’m only a grasslander.”


“You’re more than that,” she retorted, not even minding the fresh rush of heat the words brought to her face. “T-To me, I mean.”


Pollux’s fingers were soothing against her jaw, his touch the cooling balm she craved. “As are you to me, Emony. I’ll never forget you.”


The taste of his lips was sweet as he kissed her one last time, and she didn’t know which of them was lingering longer, drawing out the moment until she could stand it no longer. Perhaps I’ll come here again, she thought, trying to memorize every last detail of Pollux’s face before stepping back, the door to the receiving rooms opening altogether too soon.


He quirked his lips in one last smile, raven hair cascading over his oblivion eyes, and then he was gone.


The twin receiving rooms passed in a blur, and suddenly the alley was before her again, the stout door guard tipping his hat and wishing her a very good evening.


Though she’d feared shame and regret when first entering the door, the soapy water seemed to have cleansed it from her — and Emony felt powerful, surging with life as the cool night breeze skimmed over her perspiration-beaded skin.


Perhaps I’ll talk to Mistress Jeyne about that raise after all, Emony reflected — and as she gazed up at the jeweled vault overhanging the pulsing city, something seemed to call to her from among the stars.