Bragi was dismissed. To my surprise, my presence was tolerated as I hunched in silence on a rafter beam under the thatch of Tanuvia’s bedroom. I’m not sure Tanuvia knew I was there.
Gem shut the door behind her, went to both knees, and bowed his head while she walked around the bed. As her father had, she pushed the frame. Gem was a burly lad, but how boisterous were the activities they expected to perform in that bed anyway? She pulled back a corner of the freshly-laid linens, found her former mattress, and smoothed the sheets back. She plumped the pillows, two side-by-side.
“Where did you find the pillow?”
Without raising his head, he answered, “I made it today and stuffed it with straw.”
“You sewed it?”
“From a linen sheet.”
“You did a good job. We’ll replace the straw with feathers as soon as we can afford it.”
Standing in front of him, her brain stem lit in infrared with activity. The bed was arousing her primitive emotions? I watched with fascination then noted Gem’s brain activity was as primal as hers.
When she placed her hand on his shoulder, a shudder swept him.
“Is this your offering?”
“I pray you find it acceptable and join me as consort tonight.”
“I accept your offering. We’ll sleep here tonight and for the rest of our lives.”
Still looking at the floor, Gem made a sound as if strangling. “Thank you. Will you forgive me now?”
“There’s nothing to forgive.”
“There is. I’m naive in the Goodfolk way, but no virgin, and I shouldn’t have kept this secret from you. I was fourteen when they came to Shepton. They have a drug. I was forced…they—”
“You don’t have to say. Was it once? Or more?”
“Almost a moon. Maven and Aetref rescued me and nursed me back to life.”
“And the coin? What’s it for?”
“There’s a counter drug that prevents relapse. The coin’s for that. We buy it from the Rusk, the nomads who travel from the north.”
“How much do you have?”
She grew into her consortship like a pupa emerges from its casing to fly. In seconds, she’d absorbed the tragedy and was already planning to care for him. Head bowed, Gem was as muddled with instinct as a stag in rut. His behavior was making a mess of my files. I wasn’t sure whether to categorize his responses as ritualistic or instinctive.
“Enough to last the winter. Until the Rusk start traveling again. Aetref and I are saving to purchase the next supply.”
She stroked his hair while he shivered with each caress.
“I’m not…not…” A shudder passed through Gem’s large frame like a mountain that quakes, shaken at its root.
“Ssh… To me, you’re virgin.”
Tears wet his face. Tanuvia raised his head between her hands and wiped his dark cheeks. “I hope these are tears of happiness.”
“They are. I never thought I could love, not after…”
Clay in the young woman’s hands, the chance Gem would take the lead in anything seemed even more impossible, let alone calm Tanuvia’s fear when she saw that face in her open window tonight. Bragi’s confidence seemed ill-placed.
I scanned for the changes from the drug Gem claimed. I’d viewed Gem in optical, low and high EM, and sampled his biochemistry on numerous occasions, yet not seen either the damage or the drug he said controlled his undisclosed symptoms. Perhaps too subtle for my limited sensors or outside the nature of my devices. Despite the lack of physical evidence, I believed him.
I resolved to go north as soon as my promise to Bragi was fulfilled. The sub-race of the Caldera was more significant than I’d believed, and I might find a story there, perhaps like Gem’s. Oppression and torture were always good for a tale or two.
They ate their supper as usual. Afterward, they sat together with cups of tea. Tanuvia talked of going to Ruski in the morning for thatch and decided to rise with Gem to give him a ride to the docks. Bragi resolved to wake early to serve porridge before they left. Their talk was amiable, common, and not much different than before the couple shared vows.
The most significant change in their evening was the omission of their walk, which had allowed them to court in private. I assumed they meant to replace that time in their bedroom alone at night. Gem had brought his few things in from the loft and placed his basket in a corner of Tanuvia’s room.
Bragi went to bed without a care in the world while I calculated the chances for remorseful tears, maybe even screams, in Tanuvia’s room later. The probability was high. I saw no way Gem and Tanuvia could become lovers after two kisses when neither had addressed the traumas of their separate tragedies.
Gem followed Tanuvia into their room and closed the door. Carrying a candle, she crossed to the window.
In a single long stride, Gem stood beside her. “I don’t think we need to close the window, do we? It’s still so warm.”
Agitated, the candlelight wavered in Tanuvia’s hand. “I have to.”
Gem closed his fingers around hers and extricated the candlestick from her grip. As he set it aside, she turned again to the window.
“Curly.” His voice was gentle but firm. “It’s too warm to close the window.”
The latch clicked as she secured it, and she turned to face him. “I have to.”
“You don’t understand. He’s there!”
“Even with me here? You still see him?”
“I’m sorry. I thought our vows or the bed would change it, but I saw him as soon as we walked in. I don’t want him watching. Please, not that!”
With a sigh, Gem sat on the edge of the bed. He loosed his hair from the band. Spilling around his shoulders, the black strands gleamed silver in the candlelight. He patted the bed beside him. “Sit with me. Let’s talk about this.”
He put his arm around her shoulders, and she leaned against his chest. Together, they watched the candle burn while Gem stroked the curve of her shoulder.
The shutter stayed latched, and I remained like a shadow on the ceiling, trapped, wishing I’d escaped the coming tragedy when I had the chance. When the candle was little more than a puddle of burning wax on the tin pricket, Gem took back his arm, stretched and began unbuttoning his shirt. Tanuvia sat straight on the edge of the bed, staring with eyes like moist jade.
With two shrugs, Gem removed his shirt, revealing the dark masses of muscle, smooth and shimmering in the guttering light. Tanuvia’s eyelashes fluttered, and her blood pressure rose alarmingly. Rising from the bed, he was the beast Tanuvia had once described, powerful and agile. He crossed to the shutters, unlocked the latch, and drew the wooden panels aside to reveal the night and admit the cooling breeze. He turned to stand above Tanuvia, who gazed up, her heart thumping erratically, a rabbit in a bag. Her pupils dilated to pinpoints, and her mouth fixed in a small “o.”
“Do you see him now?”
Without removing her gaze from Gem’s torso, she swallowed and shook her head.
“Try. Look at the window.”
Flicking her eyes quickly, she half-heartedly obeyed then returned her gaze to Gem’s chest, following the rippling lines of his molasses skin molded over the buckling sinews of a hard-working man.
She squeaked, “Nai.”
“Then we can be comfortable?”
Numbly, she nodded.
“Would you like to bathe before we go to bed?”
Nod. The region of her brain responsible for speech had turned cool blue on IR. In silence, she watched him go and watched him return with the water for her bath. He fetched her bath things from a basket at the end of the bed and laid the towel on the floor.
“Do you want me to undress you?”
She made a tiny sound, a chirping wren.
“Alright. I’ll do it for you.”
He went to his knees before her. She reached for his hair. Holding a a smooth lock, she rolled the strand between thumb and fingers, admiring its sheen with her eyes, the silkiness with her hand.
Looking up at her, he smiled. “You change me with your touch. Do you know that?”
If she didn’t, I did. I was monitoring the hormonal changes in him as he knelt. The biochemistry of the vapor from his sweat and in his breath was in flux. He was not the same man he’d been before their vows. Every time she touched him or engaged in another of their simple rituals, he was altered again.
She rested her hand on his shoulder, and he reached for the top button of her shirt. She watched his face while he gazed at the flesh exposed with his touch; the swell of her small breasts; the tawny, trivial nipples that beaded as his fingertips brushed across; the flat of her belly that sloped to the delicate swirl of her navel. Her pants closed with a drawstring, which Gem pulled loose with a smile. He hugged her body to push her trousers down past the swell of her flanks, round and pink as a toddler’s. She stepped out of the legs, one after the other, holding onto his shoulder for balance as he tugged them off her feet and the toes he found so fascinating and sweet.
Suddenly effusive, he admired her. “I’ve never seen anything more beautiful than you, all curves and soft colors and downy gold. I saw you once when you slept, and the image has haunted me since.”
Gem traced the curve of her torso with his fingertips while she shuddered and keened quietly like a night bird, high-pitched and spectral, fraught with primal impulses. Gem bent to his task to wash her with a sudsy cloth, rinsed, then toweled her dry with brisk strokes, buffing her pale skin to pink. He blew the golden tuft dry with his breath. She whimpered like a puppy.
He scooped her from her feet, cradling her like a child, and laid her on the bed. With quick jerks, he was out of his trousers and smalls. The candle burned out, leaving them in the dark, lying naked side-by-side.
“Curly,” he whispered. “Help me. I don’t know what to do.”
In the darkness, she touched Gem’s shoulder, urging him to roll above. Together, their IR output formed a swirling, scarlet conjunction, indistinguishable as two bodies in the dark. I turned down the input. Tanuvia spread her knees, receptive as any bloom to an avid bee. Guiding with her hand, she brought him to the apse. When he pushed forward, head down and driven, Tanuvia cried out in astonishment. Gem was suddenly deranged, humping no differently than a dog.
Tanuvia took firm charge of him, holding him back from his crisis and showing him how to bring her to climax. When she allowed, he released and bellowed as he filled her with his issue. Afterward, he hunched, hulking like a spent bear, gasping for breath, his arms quivering as he tried not to collapse on her small body and crush her. Deftly, she rolled with him and lay splayed across his broad chest like the tiny wanton she was at heart, and he dropped his big paw across her back.
She found her voice to whisper at his throat, “You’re no longer a virgin, my Gem.”
“Ai, you’ve seen to that, haven’t you?”
“As is proper,” she murmured, her voice dripping gold, pleased with herself and with him.
Dropping from the ceiling, I glided to the windowsill. Though I could not have seemed more than a black silhouette against the midnight blue sky, I still wished one of them might have noticed as I paused in the open frame of the window, but neither lover turned or lifted their head. With a leap, I snapped opened my wings and took to the sky, north to find the next story.