Nearly a moon-cycle after the confirmation signing of the Treaty of Rihelbak, Nikorah was sitting cross-legged next to her father as he presided over the seasonal all-clans meet. But she wasn’t paying much attention to the proceedings. Her fingers itched to be playing something, but what occupied her mind the most was Bralidan, heir of Grahk. Even after a cycle. She couldn’t believe that she was still dreaming about the good looking young man, but she couldn’t seem to forget about him.
She had tried talking about him to Kendra, but the herd keeper had looked at her sternly and said, “Forget him, Nika. The Kuizhack, the People of the Stone, are trouble. Don’t ruin your life!”
Nikorah hadn’t expected to hear that common Siizhayip saying from Kendra, and it bothered her. There had been a hint of personal experience in Kendra’s voice, though Nikorah had never heard any stories about the senior herd keeper of the Sun clan spending time among the People of the Stone. Nikorah had always thought herself close to the woman and it was difficult to think that the person she was closest to in the clan had secrets from her.
Her attention was drawn back to the meeting when she caught the word ‘Rihelbak’. She focused, and saw that there were three people kneeling and sitting back on their heels on the other side of the council rock from Nikorah and her father. Their knees rested on a small orange rug, banded with white, which meant that they were here to ask a boon of her father, not deliver a report or a tithe.
The three wore the braided cords of different clans on their shoulders, which was unusual. Why would an affiliation of clans get together to ask her father for a favor? The word ‘Rihelbak’, along with her knowledge of the history that had led up to the treaty, made her uneasy about the possibilities. The seven clans that had attacked the Grahk Kuizhack had not begun their war with a delegation to the Chosen One. Yet, might not a new attempt to wrest the Rihelbak Plains from the Kuizhack of Grahk begin with a formal request for the support of all of the Siizhayip?
She heard her father ask, “Why?” Nikorah didn’t know what her father was trying to clarify, but she began paying attention hoping that everything would become clear.
The one in the middle, with the braid of the Spring-Bok clan, said, “Chosen One Demahh, you have heard how the numbers within the clans are growing again. The winters have been mild, and the hunting has been good, and the Siizhayip as a whole are prospering. But even the Great Steppes are not boundless. The clans are running out of room, Chosen One.
“Our remedies are few. We could leave the grass, and become one with the Kuizhack.” The way he said it made it sound like he would rather be tied between four horses and ripped apart. “Or, we could reclaim the Rihelbak.”
“You are aware,” said her father, the Chosen One, “that barely a moon-cycle ago the treaty was confirmed. That land is overseen by the Kuizhack of Grahk.” Her father’s pronunciation bore no hint of approbation.
“I have noticed the increase in our numbers,” he continued. “And while it has gladdened me that we are prospering, I also realize the difficulties it presents us with. But we cannot look to Rihelbak. It is not our land to grow into.”
“But, Chosen One,” began the one on the left, a woman from the Prairie Cat clan. “Those Fretheodan of Grahk, they do not use the land. Rihelbak lies empty, unlived in, unhunted. It is an offense, Chosen One, to waste the land so, with no one to thin the herds, with no one to burn the grasses to stem their growth; it is an offense against the way of the Anhilizharnoh, the Lords of the Sky.”
Demahh was silent for a moment, thinking. Nikorah hadn’t thought about the treaty in those terms. She frowned when she thought about what a state the Rihelbak Plains must be in after being neglected ever since the treaty had first been signed. It *was* an offense!
“You know that the Fretheodan waste the Rihelbak?” asked the Chosen One. “Perhaps they have some other Kuizhack use for the land.”
“We have … seen, Demahh Chosen One. We have sent scouts into the Rihelbak. Never has one of the Grahk people entered the plains before the group who went to the treaty signing. Not in more than two hands of summers!”
Demahh shook his head, but whether at the Prairie Cat clan’s spying, which had to mean that they had done the forbidden and entered the plains, or at the waste by the Fretheodan, Nikorah didn’t know.
He took a deep breath, and said slowly, “What do you ask?”
The third one, a young man from the Red Cup clan, said, “We do not ask for rebellion. We know that the might of the Fretheodan Kuizhack is greater than our own. So, if we cannot claim the land as a right of battle, then all we can do is ask. Present our petition to the one who rules Grahk, let that man know of the struggle that is beginning in the Great Steppes, as our numbers grow beyond what our home can support. Surely they are capable of seeing the sense in our request. Surely they will understand that we could put that land to better use. Surely they will allow us entry into Rihelbak.”
Nikorah wondered whether the Red Cup speaker was right. The Fretheodan were strange, different. That room of rugs they had built out in the open air like that … so strange! Could they understand the plight of the Siizhayip? Would they allow the clans to grow into land they controlled?
Demahh was silent a long time, and finally he said, “You have all spoken eloquently, and I have seen the wisdom in your words. We will send a delegation to the home of the leader of the Grahk, and we will do as you suggest: we will ask them for more room. Their answer, however, is in the hands of the Anhilizharnoh.”
The petitioners bowed, then stood and rolled up their rug. Their leader, the Spring Bok man, said, “Thank you, Chosen One Demahh. Your words contain wisdom.”
Demahh nodded in response, and said, “I shall appoint Kendra to organize and lead this delegation, as she has experience with the people of Grahk. The delegation should be ready to leave within the quarter-cycle. You may go.”
The meeting continued, and Nikorah’s attention wandered again. She didn’t think much about the proposed delegation, since she was fairly sure that Kendra wouldn’t allow her to get anywhere near the heir, after her previous words on the subject. The information that Kendra had been to the Grahk stone house before intrigued her, though. She wondered who she could learn that story from.
When the meeting was over, Nikorah returned to her ghur. She drew her lute and the cat-stone out of their storage places and set about making music. Somewhere in the middle of her playing, a thought came to her. She stopped playing and concentrated on it, her hands and feet caressing the cat-stone absently. Of course she wanted to go to the home of the Grahk people. Why shouldn’t she? She would simply ask Kendra, and Kendra would agree. It was simple. Wasn’t it?
If her sudden decision to go with the delegation startled her, what surprised her even more was the way Kendra actually did just agree. What was even stranger, she realized much later, was that she never once thought of heir Bralidan as she made her decision.
Bralidan once again stood in his father’s antechamber waiting for an audience. This time, though, Bralevant wasn’t in the reception room just beyond, but in his quarters getting ready to meet their just-arrived guests. Bralidan was here to let the duke know just who those visitors were.
They had come riding up to the gates of Plethiss totally unexpectedly, and it had been Bralidan who was in a fit state to greet them. So, he had gone to the mansion’s forecourt and greeted the ten riders, who were still sitting atop their fine horses. He had welcomed them to the ducal residence of Plethiss, and then asked who they were and why they were here.
He knew who they were, of course, at least in general. One of the ten riders was the woman he had seen at the treaty signing just over a month ago and whom he had been unable to stop thinking about since. Nikorah was her name, and she was the daughter of the One of the Sun clan.
The eldest of the riders, a woman in her fifties judging by the lines on her face and the grey in her brown hair, said, “We are a delegation come from the Siizhayip, the People of the Grass, to speak to the ruler of these lands and the one who holds the rights of Rihelbak, Duke Bralevant of Grahk. We have a petition to put before him.” Despite the cold formality of her words, he thought that she was looking at him rather tenderly, an odd light in her eyes.
Bralidan had arranged for the horses to be taken care of and had escorted the Siizhayip into the audience hall to await the duke. Then he had hurried to his father’s rooms to let him know who his visitors were.
Bralevant appeared at the door to the antechamber dressed in hunting clothes, Osirek at his side. The aide was adjusting the fit of the leather tunic, and brushing imaginary dust from the hide leggings. Bralidan thought that his father’s choice of dress, perhaps meant to emulate the clothing of the visitors in some way, was a mistake. The duke’s pristine hunting leathers, never before worn and never likely to be again, did not have the comfortable, worn-in look of the garb the Siizhayip wore. Bralidan imagined his father would look like a preening mockery, and it embarrassed him.
The duke impatiently dismissed Osirek, and said, “So, Alin, what did they have to say?”
Bralevant started walking through the antechamber and out the front door, leaving Osirek standing there looking like there was more he wanted to adjust. Bralidan followed his father and said, “Well, they said that they are a delegation from the Siizhayip and that they wish to petition you for something. That’s all they said. They didn’t even introduce themselves, though one of them I already know. I saw her at the treaty signing last month. It’s Nikorah, the daughter of Demahh of the Sun clan.”
“Ah, yes. She was quite striking. Very green eyes, right? And that nose! I remember her as well.”
Bralidan glanced at his father, wondering about the tone in his voice. The look on Bralevant’s face — a sort of pleased leer — made Bralidan feel guilty for a moment as he realized what he might have looked like while he daydreamed about the beautiful Nikorah. And then he felt intense jealousy. His father couldn’t possibly be interested in the girl! She was so young! And while Bralevant had been without a wife since Bralidan’s mother, Omelli, had died shortly after giving birth to Biralvid, it still wouldn’t be decent to take up with a girl younger than that youngest son!
Bralidan tried to figure out a way to determine just what designs his father might have on the daughter of the One of the Sun, but he was too flustered by the thought of competing for Nikorah with his own father. By the time he had straightened out his thoughts, the two of them had arrived at the doors to the audience hall. Not standing on ceremony, the duke opened the doors himself and walked in. Bralidan followed two paces behind.
The Siizhayip were standing in three ranks in front of the small raised dais that the duke’s throne sat on. Someone had placed an orange rug edged with white stripes just in front of the first rank, which consisted of Nikorah and three other young people, though Nikorah seemed the youngest of the four. Behind them stood the old woman who had spoken in the forecourt, and behind her stood five other Siizhayip of varying ages. For the first time, Bralidan noticed that each of the nomads was wearing different colored braided rope on their left shoulder, except for Nikorah and the old woman, whose braids were the same. He wondered what they meant, if anything, as he followed his father to the platform and stood just behind the right arm of the throne.
Bralidan was looking at Bralevant when the duke lifted his eyes to the group before him and prepared to welcome them. So he noticed when his father caught sight of one of them and just stopped and stared, dumbfounded. He glanced up and was relieved to note that the duke wasn’t staring at Nikorah. Then, covering for his father’s distraction, he straightened up and said, “Duke Bralevant of Grahk, of the Fretheod Empire, welcomes the delegation of Siizhayip to the halls of Plethiss. You may introduce yourselves and present your petition.”
Normally his father didn’t bother with that kind of ceremony, but normally his father didn’t stare gape-mouthed at — Bralidan checked again — old nomad women, either. Bralidan looked at the woman in the middle rank and saw that she had a hard, almost angry expression on her face, but there was something else behind her eyes, something that she seemed to want to keep hidden very badly.
That woman said, “I am Kendra of the Sun clan, speaker for this delegation.” Bralidan glanced down at his father and noticed that the duke’s hand was clutching repeatedly at his chest, right where he usually wore his fox-shaped brooch. The one he hadn’t worn since the day Bralidan had found the Treaty of Rihelbak and that lovely falcon-carved stone.
Kendra continued, her voice even and official-toned, “Before me are Nikorah of the Sun clan, here to lend the weight of her father, Demahh, the One of the Sun clan and the One of the Siizhayip, to the petition.” Nikorah knelt on the orange rug, and then sat back on her heels. She looked perfectly comfortable there, and Bralidan idly wondered how long he could match her pose, if he tried. He didn’t think it would be very long.
Kendra said, “This is Denaln of the Spring-Bok clan, Lorrip of the Prairie Cat clan, and Tidick of the Red Cup clan.” As their names were given, each of the remaining three nomads knelt and settled comfortably. Kendra went on, “Denaln will present the petition, but you should know that the four who kneel, the five whose clans are represented behind me, and more than half of the rest of the clans of the Siizhayip, take part in the words to be presented. By decision of the One of the Sun, all of Siizhayip support these words.”
The four kneeling young people seemed to be waiting for some word from the duke, who was still staring at Kendra. Bralidan kicked the leg of the throne hard, jarring the solid chair. No response. He did it again, and was about to reach forward and poke his father in the side when the duke said, “Please, begin.” Bralidan looked down and his father seemed to have recovered himself and was looking at the petitioners, mouth closed, an attentive look on his face.
The man who had been named Denaln responded with, “Greetings, Duke Bralevant, ruler of Grahk and holder of the rights to Rihelbak. We come with glad tidings and grave news to ask of you a boon.
“The Siizhayip have had the freedom of the Great Steppes for countless ages. Once, the clans numbered no more than a handful, and in the vastness of the steppes our numbers were so small that we could not imagine a time when we would be stretching the resources of the great grasslands we call home.
“The Siizhayip have prospered and grown. And that day that we could not imagine has come upon us. The People of the Grass are beginning to outgrow the grass.”
Lorrip, the woman from the Prairie Cat clan, spoke up. “Great Duke, we know the steppes and we know their limitations. We have reached those limits, and we are beginning to exceed them.
“We have looked for an answer to our dilemma. Most of the solutions that would allow us to sustain more people per sweep of grassland would destroy our way of life. Leaving the grasslands would do the same. All we can see as a solution is to find more grasslands to occupy. And to our great fortune, such an area exists.
“I speak of the Rihelbak. We have watched closely, and we know that you do not use the vast grasslands of the Rihelbak. You do not live upon the plains, you do not herd animals upon them. You do not even plow them under and try to make them grow foreign plants like the Kuizhack farmers do.”
The woman paused and took a deep breath, calming herself from the slight hint of heat that had crept into her words. Then she continued, “As you seem to have no use for this land that you control, and our people are searching for land to grow into, what we ask is that we be allowed to inhabit the Plains of Rihelbak.”
The petition surprised Bralidan. He didn’t quite know what to think about it. Not much more than a month ago, he had managed to avert a circumstance that would have returned the Rihelbak Plains to the Siizhayip by default, and now here was a group of those nomads simply asking them to cancel the treaty! He wondered briefly whether the Siizhayip had somehow engineered the situation that had made everyone forget about the treaty’s stipulation to be confirmed every five years and hidden the document itself. But that was nonsense, wasn’t it?
On the other hand, the nomads had a point. As far as he knew, Rihelbak had never been a useful part of Grahk, either before or after the Seven Clans’ War. In the agreement the Fretheod had once had with the Siizhayip before the war, all of the grasslands from the Rihelbak to the eastern edge of the steppes had been free for use by the nomad clans. That had changed with the war that had forced Bralidan’s great grandfather to punish the Siizhayip by closing the Rihelbak to them. But what use did Grahk have for the land? It had been seventy years since the war and the Siizhayip neede d land to grow. What could it hurt to give it back to them?
As he pondered the situation, his constant worry about becoming duke resurfaced. This was just the sort of situation that he feared, where the two sides of an argument had equal weight within his mind. If he had to decide between keeping and giving away the Rihelbak Plains, he didn’t know how he would choose. He looked at his father to see what Bralevant would do, and found him staring at the orange rug, or maybe Lorrip’s knees.
Eventually, the duke said, without looking up, “You have given me much to think on. I will have rooms prepared for you while I ponder this issue.” He stood and turned his back on the Siizhayip, and walked quickly out the door he had come in through.
Bralidan followed his father as the duke walked swiftly back to his rooms. He walked into the antechamber to find Bralevant saying to Osirek, “… rooms in the north wing ready for them. One to a room I think, there are plenty of rooms available. I think they will stay at least a week.”
“Father?” said Bralidan.
The duke turned and said, “Yes, Alin?”
“Father, are you really going to take a week to make up your mind? I mean, it is a difficult situation, especially just a month after confirming the treaty, but a week?”
Bralevant said, scorn in his voice, “Of course it won’t take a week. I’ve already made up my mind! Rihelbak is part of Grahk, and thus part of the empire, and I’m not giving it away to anyone, for any reason.”
“But … but …”
“But what? Look, son. The empire is falling apart, and has been for years, yes? And even though we have come to be able to rely on our own people for support and protection, it is still the name ‘Fretheod’ that stands behind the respect we command, yes? So, we can’t let the empire down. We have to preserve our heritage, or we will be nothing. Rihelbak was gained for the empire by the blood of Grahk, one of the few gains in territory the empire has made in over a century! I will not erode the empire, give up our superior standing, just so the Siizhayip barbarians can have a little more grass to run around in!”
Bralidan knew that his father revered the history and traditions of the empire, even though life on the frontier that was Grahk had little of the flavor of what the empire had once been. But he hadn’t thought that the duke was so blindly beholden to that distant empire, and it worried him.
His father obviously didn’t think much of the Siizhayip either. If that was so, then why did he want them to stay for so long? “Father,” he asked, “why are you preparing to host the Siizhayip for a week? Shouldn’t you tell them your answer and let them get back to their steppes?”
Bralevant got a crafty look on his face, and he said, “Ah, no, son. No. I have plans to make. Now that she is here again, I’m sure I can … well, anyway, I will just play gracious host to the grass-lovers and see what happens from there.
“And you should be happy that they’re staying around, since that means that the little Nikorah will be at loose ends for a whole week. Maybe you can find some way to entertain her, eh?”
The duke leered again, which made Bralidan uncomfortable. But his father had a point. Nikorah would be here for a week, and that meant that he had some plans of his own to make. As he left his father’s antechamber, though, he wondered who ‘that woman’ had been. The old nomad woman, Kendra, perhaps? Why did his father need to make plans concerning Kendra?
Bralidan sat at the dinner table in the small dining room in the family’s wing. The servants had just departed after setting the main course of pheasant in front of him and his brother Biralvid. They were eating alone, since the duke was still making his plans, and the nomads had been given the evening to settle into their quarters. Bralidan had already spent some time choosing the outfit he would wear at tomorrow evening’s grand dinner, to be held in the great hall with all of the Siizhayip invited, and most of Grahk’s nobles as well. And he wondered whether he should make an attempt to meet Nikorah sometime before the party, to try to engage her interest when it was just the two of them. Trying to get to know people at an event like a grand dinner could be very difficult.
Biralvid said, “So, father actually called them ‘grass lovers,’ did he?”
Bralidan had told his brother about the petition, and his own mixed feelings on it, and then what the duke had said about Rihelbak and about the Siizhayip. “Absolutely, his very words.”
Biralvid shook his head. “You know, I still can’t understand his loyalty to the empire. I mean, when was the last time we had a visit from an imperial envoy? They don’t even try to collect taxes from us anymore! No one from here east to the sea has had any meaningful contact with the imperial province of Frethehel in thirty years or more.”
Bralidan picked at the pheasant in front of him and said, “I know. But I can see father’s point. I mean, despite what you say, we are part of the empire, and so is Rihelbak. The Seven Clans’ War might have resulted in more dead on their side than ours, but they did kill Duke Bravid after all. We earned that grassland!”
“*We* didn’t earn anything, brother, our ancestors did. And so what if that duke died? It isn’t like they were actually fighting to gain the Rihelbak. That was just a punishment! The *we* of today, you and me and father and everyone else, has no use for that land, while the Siizhayip do. Why should we keep it from them for the sake of an empire that has given us nothing except its name and reputation for longer than either of us have been alive?”
“You have a good point, Biralvid. I can see it, but I can also see father’s side. I am very glad that this is not my decision to make.”
“Well, I would give the land back to them in a second,” said Biralvid. “But since it is never going to be up to me, I guess that’s worth about as much as a blade of Rihelbak grass, eh?
“So, have you decided what to wear to the dinner tomorrow? I thought I’d try …”
Bralidan thought that the grand dinner wasn’t going well at all. It was a perfect end, though, to a frustrating day. He had spent almost the whole day trying to ‘accidentally’ run into Nikorah, but the young woman had never left her rooms in the north wing. Eventually, he had resigned himself to wait for the dinner and make the best of the crowded room; but again he was to be frustrated: Kendra sat Nikorah right next to herself at the large table that had been set up in the great hall even though the daughter of the One of the Sun had been assigned to sit across from Bralidan. The food had probably been exquisite — the duke’s cooks were the best to be had — but Bralidan hadn’t tasted any of it as he stared down the table at the beautiful blond-haired, green-eyed woman he had been dreaming of.
And now that the formal dining was over and people were milling around talking to each other, Bralidan couldn’t find Nikorah anywhere. Kendra was talking with some Grahk nobles and trying to avoid his father — he watched her keeping her eye on the duke, and moving around the room whenever Bralevant started to walk toward her. If she was still around, Nikorah should be too, but Bralidan couldn’t find her anywhere.
When Tidick, the Siizhayip delegate from the Red Cup clan — ‘red cup’ was a flower, as it turned out — cornered him, Bralidan was sure that the ensuing conversation would be another frustration, but as it turned out he was wrong. Tidick was an engaging young man who put Bralidan at ease quickly, and before long the two were comparing their experiences with wilderness living.
Bralidan’s knowledge had come during his attempts to learn military command. The exercises in squad and army leadership had included mock campaigns that meant that he had to live out of a canvas wedge-tent for weeks at a time. And while that couldn’t quite compare to living year-round in one of those hide-covered ghur he had seen at the treaty confirmation, there were similarities.
Aside from being engaged in something he felt competent to do — leading groups of teraehran — the experience of living on his own, away from the servants and even just the walls of Plethiss, had been a positive one. He found that he enjoyed the rough living. His officers complained about the conditions they endured as much as the regular forces, but he had found himself able to adapt to the harsh weather and terrain, to do without servants waiting on him night and day, to provide just the necessities for himself.
He was surprised to find out how similar the Siizhayip way of life tended to be. They had long ago perfected the art of wilderness living, though. Their ghur sounded like a vast improvement over a wedge tent. They spent most of their time tending to their herds, or hunting the free-roaming animals of the steppes. They also participated in mock battles, sometimes as games, and sometimes as contests to determine rankings, or to settle disputes. Bralidan thought they had a very noteworthy way of life.
Tidick was called away by one of the other Siizhayip, and Bralidan decided to get some fresh air and think. He strolled away from the great hall, up a few staircases, and crossed one of the wooden bridges that linked the house with the outer walls. Then, he walked slowly along the top of the defensive wall, gazing over the parapet into the darkness, which was only somewhat relieved by the light of the waxing larger moon, Nochturon. The smaller moon, Celene, also provided its share of the illumination, which, as usual, wasn’t much.
Bralidan eventually stopped, leaned on the parapet, and tried to think. He never consciously realized that he was staring out in the direction of the Rihelbak Plains. His thoughts swirled and tumbled, darting back and forth from Tidick’s information about the Siizhayip way of life, to the request of the delegation, to his worries about being duke someday. But most often, his thoughts turned to Nikorah.
He didn’t notice the shape that had come up next to him until a soft voice said, “Greetings.” He jumped a bit, having become used to the silence and darkness of his place on the wall, then turned to see Nikorah standing there. He couldn’t help but smile, partly because after all his efforts to find her, she had managed to find him, partly because they were now well and truly alone and not at all likely to be disturbed, but mostly because of the way her eyes almost glowed in the light of the two moons, and her face shone palely as she looked up at him.
“Ah, you startled me, Nikorah. You move very silently. And … ah … you look beautiful by moonslight.”
She smiled, and he thought he saw a hint of color rise into her cheeks before she lowered her head a bit. But she kept her eyes turned up to him, and he didn’t want to look away from them.
He waited for a moment, but she didn’t seem ready to speak, so he said, “I am glad you came out here, though. I’ve been looking for you all day, but never ran into you. And then this evening, Kendra moved you next to her, so I didn’t get to talk to you over dinner. And afterwards, you vanished again …”
Silence stretched again, as they stood on the wall facing each other in the darkness. Bralidan tried to come up with something else to say, but all that came to mind was something stupid like ‘I love you’ and he knew he wasn’t really ready to utter that phrase.
But Nikorah eventually broke the silence. As she spoke she lifted her head and stared into his eyes openly. “Well, it was Kendra. She’s been acting strange ever since we arrived. She told me that I couldn’t leave my room earlier today. And of course there was dinner. Then afterwards she sent me back to my room, said that she wanted to make sure that nothing happened to me. Like anything could happen to me in the middle of that huge stone place! So I left the great hall but didn’t go back to my room. Instead I wandered around until I found myself out here on the walls. I spent some time on the other side of the building looking out over the town at the bottom of the hill. I was trying to figure out how those people could all live in so small a place. I mean, I suppose that it’s a nice town, but compared to the steppes it *is* tiny …”
Bralidan realized that he had never heard Nikorah speak before. Her voice was beautiful, almost musical, delicate and soft. He tried to concentrate on her words like a gentleman, but it wasn’t easy. With her face turned up to his again, her shining visage was very distracting. Not to mention her mouth, her full red lips flexing, parting, shaping word after perfect word. All Bralidan wanted to do was to kiss that mouth, taste the lips, feel the softness of her cheek.
But he couldn’t take such liberties. He was practically her host, and it just wouldn’t be right. He was strong; he could control himself. He knew what his dreams tonight would be about, though.
Eventually, her monologue ended with an innocuous remark about the clothes he was wearing being very good looking on him, and he fell naturally into an exchange of small talk. It was only natural that his comments take on an undertone of more than casual interest, especially considering that her own conversation was leading that way as well. Bralidan was beginning to work himself into a position where he could leave her company gracefully — his control was being sorely strained — when Nikorah preempted him by raising up on her toes and kissing him. And not just a peck, either, but full on the mouth, hard and lingering.
Their arms went around each other automatically, and though Bralidan struggled for a bit to remain the proper host and gentleman, his fortitude wasn’t enough to withstand the onslaught of this particular beautiful young woman. He returned the kiss, arms moving up and down her back, basking in the moment.
When she finally let him go, he knew that his eyes were shining with the same light of lust that hers were. But now that he was separated from her physically, he was able to reassert his ‘proper host’ self. He mumbled, “Ah, … um … that … that was nice.” Then, in a steadier voice, he continued, “But, ah … it is getting late, and we should both be in … our own rooms. But tomorrow, would you like to go riding?”
They strolled back into the house arm in arm, but separated once they approached the great hall. Nikorah waved as she started walking towards the north wing, and Bralidan found himself staring after her long after the shadows in the corridor had swallowed her up.
He returned to the noise and people in the great hall, but only spent a short time there. When he got back to his room, and into his bed, he slipped the falcon-carved rock from the velvet bag he kept it in. He stared at it, tracing the ribbons of metal and glass, thinking about Nikorah, about riding tomorrow, and about what they might do during the rest of the week. And once he fell asleep, he did indeed dream of just what he had thought he would.