Little ribbons of steam still drifted up from the grilled beef on Krakus’s plate: a beautiful piece of meat, with the fat all curled up around the edges and charred lines woven across its juicy surface. It was cooked rare, just the way he liked it, and blood leaked over the white porcelain and under the hot mashed potatoes, staining them deliciously reddish-brown. The meaty, buttery scent wafted into his nose. Already, a snow-white napkin covered the front of his pure-white jerkin. His stomach growled.
He reached out and picked up his knife. When he pressed his fingers into the meat to hold it in place, it gave like a woman’s breast: warm, soft in the center. Not that he had tits on the brain, oh no, he wasn’t thinking about that anymore. He’d managed five minutes running.
He sliced into the steak with a forlorn sigh, and the juices flooded out of it. It was perfect inside, rosy pink deepening to bright red, and he cut off a bite, anticipating its texture, its taste. He wanted it so much he had to swallow a mouthful of saliva.
The bite of steak made it halfway to his mouth before his conscience jabbed at him. “Eat no flesh.” Since he’d started studying it again, the Rule popped into his mind at the worst possible times. “Eat no flesh, lest you become corrupted; a beast cares nothing for its own dirt.” Krakus had given up everything but the food. He’d sent Tatiana away. He’d stripped his apartments of everything rich, replacing his comfortable bed with a straw pallet, his silken sheets with linsey-woolsey, and his finely-milled soap with the stinking ash-and-fat stuff that got a man clean, but stripped his skin raw. His end of the desk was bare of toys. He’d relinquished anything more potent to drink than mint tea, without even any honey. Absolutely everything. Shouldn’t he be allowed this one indulgence?
Krakus pushed back his stool and rose. He picked up the plate and carried the wonderful, wicked steak, the creamy mashed potatoes, out of the room and down the stairs. When he walked out of the building that housed the Commissars’ apartments, he turned toward the midden heap—but then he saw a sergeant on the way back to the barracks from Section One. “You there!” he called. “Sergeant!”
The man hustled over and snapped to attention, giving him a sharp salute. “Father!”
“Take this,” Krakus said, thrusting out the plate.
“Eat it.” He wanted to weep for the loss. “Take it back to your bunk and enjoy every last bite. Do you think you can follow an order like that?”
“Yes, Father Krakus, I sure can!” The sergeant took the plate in his left hand and saluted again with his right. “I’ll follow that one to the letter!”
“Good man. Go on now.”
He tore off one last salute and hurried away with Krakus’s meal. Heavy in heart, Krakus turned to the kitchen. Inside, on the great hearth, the pots were boiling and the kettles were steaming. It took a few moments to search out Ekaterina, his personal chef, where she sat at the opposite end of the kitchen, mopping her brow and drinking from a jack of ale. He dodged the black-clad Aurelian cooks who ran to and fro in the workspace until he stood before Ekaterina. She looked like a buxom barge and she cooked like a goddess incarnate.
“Was there a problem with the steak?” she demanded, before he could open his mouth.
“No, of course not. It was beautiful.” He wrung his hands. “It’s just that I—Ekaterina, I think I’ve got to let you go. I can’t eat steaks anymore. Or mashed potatoes. Or pot roast. Or—”
She gasped and lurched to her feet, clapping a hand to his forehead as if to check for fever.
“I’ve got to get right with the Bright Lady,” he mumbled.
Ekaterina scowled up at him. “And you think I can’t cook to the Rule, is that it?”
“Don’t you dare say ‘yes,’ Father, because then you won’t be able to sack me. I’ll be insulted and quit on the spot.”
He tried not to fidget. Ekaterina always made him feel about seven years old, and never mind that he was the older by far. He’d better mind how he stepped. The one who controlled the food controlled the world. “Will you, please? Cook to it, I mean.”
She beamed. “Of course I will. All you ever had to do was ask. I take requests—I am a cook.”
“Then will you make lentils and rice taste good?” he asked, half joking, all hopeful.
“I’ll make everything taste good. You’ll see.” Ekaterina patted his arm with a soft but callused hand. “You won’t even feel like you’re being deprived. It’s a good thing you’re doing, Father, getting right with the Queen. I saw you give your things to little Tatiana when she left. She won’t go hungry, not with all that. Neither should you.”
Krakus couldn’t help himself. He kissed her soundly. It was the last time, he vowed, his lips would touch any part of a woman. She blushed and swatted him afterward.
“You know I’m happily married,” she scolded, but she smiled, too. Krakus went out grinning, and didn’t realize until later that he’d forgotten to have any dinner.
For once, he found himself looking forward to supper, which had become a dreadful, awkward affair, eaten with all possible dispatch. He’d been avoiding Lech so thoroughly that they only came into contact at services—which Krakus performed with the same zeal he’d exercised in removing everything prohibited from his life—and at the evening meal. Once, Lech had expressed approval for Krakus’s new habits, and Krakus had answered him with a snarl so fervent he’d dropped a bite of lentils all over his vestments. Now, they ate in stony silence, each refusing to look at the other, each feeling the other’s presence nag like a bad tooth.
Tonight, though, Krakus’s stomach rumbled, and he was eager to see what Ekaterina had cooked for him in accordance with the Rule. He came to the round table just as Fillip and Feodor brought in the supper trays, and with no more than a glance at Lech’s sour face, sat down on the stool he’d had brought in to replace his cushioned armchair. When Fillip laid his tray on the table and took the cover away, Krakus wanted to run back down to the kitchens and kiss his cook again and again. Four huge, fat mushroom caps lay on his plate, grilled like he had his steaks and smothered in mushroom gravy, with roast potatoes and a piping-hot crock of soup on the side. The scents of garlic, vinegar, and oil drifted from the green salad.
Krakus lifted his eyes to the rafters. Oh, Bright Lady, You bless me far more than I deserve! Forgive my doubts and my weaknesses, and sanctify this wonderful food, so I can turn my energies even more to Your service. Then he turned to the young Militant awaiting his word, and grinned. “Thank you, Brother Fillip.”
Fillip’s farm-boy face grinned back. “Of course, Father.” He seemed to enjoy his duties for Krakus far more these days, but that might be because Krakus had dropped more lard and gone into an even smaller breastplate.
“Tomorrow morning, after service? Like usual?”
“Yes, Father Krakus!”
“See you then,” Krakus said, cutting into one of his mushrooms as Fillip left. The morning training he’d been doing with Fillip made Krakus feel, somehow, younger and older at the same time. Getting himself moving again, even beyond what he’d done in Section One, had him feeling physically excellent—and he could feel his experience again, too. He had something to teach after all, and watching Fillip improve was the best part of it.
Ekaterina, you are a queen among women, he thought, chewing the spicy mushroom. Lech sat poker-stiff across the table, masticating his supper as if his jaw were being raised and lowered on a pulley. Krakus couldn’t imagine he was enjoying the lentils and rice—why did he always eat lentils and rice when the Rule permitted the sort of supper Krakus was having? It was like he wanted to suffer.
Lech emptied his dish as quickly as always, but tonight, Krakus reveled in every bite. It was wonderful; he almost didn’t miss the meat. He’d finished his main course and turned his attention to the salad and flatbread when he realized Lech hadn’t risen from the table.
When he raised his eyes, he met his Brother’s most neutral stare, which still looked something like an alligator eyeing a juicy pig. He made sure to stuff his mouth before he asked, “Did you want something?” Lech must. They hadn’t had a conversation in a month.
“I want nothing from you,” Lech bit off, “but it may interest you to know that the Conclave has been called.”
“Conclave isn’t for another two years.”
Lech sneered. “Disa Haakonsdottir,” he said, as if the name tasted bad, “has requested a special session, to be held this winter in Oasis. As if my duties can bear such an interruption.”
Oasis was a long voyage away. Lech’s duties be damned; Krakus didn’t know if he could bear Lech that long. He swiped his flatbread through the last, delicious remnants of his bean soup. “Who’s Disa again? Doesn’t she have the long hair?”
“Akeere’s high witch.”
Before he spoke, Krakus looked up again, into Lech’s washed-out blue eyes. “If you didn’t know that was coming, you’re an even bigger idiot than I thought. If she didn’t call the Conclave, that new fellow they’ve got in Dreamport would have. Hendrick.”
“Yes, well, I’ve a mind to deny them our presence.”
“We’re going.” Krakus took his last bite of salad and wiped his mouth.
“For what?” Lech let out his horrible laugh. “To be shamed for doing as the Bright Lady Herself would command? Don’t forget, whatever happens to me happens also to you.”
“Then so be it. I’ll take whatever they dish out, because it was my duty to hold you back from your sin, and I didn’t. Besides, what can they do to us, really? Kick us out of the Conclave, maybe, but you don’t want to be in their little club anyway.”
The vulture’s face flushed livid. “It was no sin to—”
“Wickedness.” Krakus pushed back his stool. “It was wickedness. We’re going to face what we’ve done, Lechie.”
“I will not—”
“When the time comes, you will pack your things, or I’ll strap you to the top of the carriage without them, and if you think I won’t, you just go on and test me.”
“How dare you?” Lech screamed, but Krakus was already leaving the dining room to make a final check of Section One before bed. He didn’t trust that damned doctor an inch.
Once Upon a Time
the Sign of the Jackalope, an inn at the edge of the Wastes
It took the best part of a fortnight to get out of the North Wing. Kessa moped and sighed the entire time, but Dingus was plain delighted to be back on the road. He’d enjoyed the Moot way more than he’d expected to, but now it was just the three of them again, and he felt easier the farther they got from Knightsvalley. Out in the wild he didn’t have to worry so much about the mysterious someone trying to bump off his teacher, or about saying something stupid in front of all those people.
Best of all, Vandis had time again, and even if he spent a lot of it on Kessa’s woodcraft, well… Dingus spent plenty, too. But Vandis had time to tell stories again, and to hear them. The third night out, after Kessa had given them Margaret Dragonslayer—it was still her favorite—Dingus remembered to tell the one about Wolf’s Eye, whose hand had been on the string that carried an arrow through the Nuz chief Great Brog’s throat so far that it stuck by the fletching alone. With Great Brog dead, the Nuz had broken, too, and so the war had ended. Vandis came back with a human story, one Dingus had read about, but hadn’t heard, of the messenger in the Armies of the Little States who’d lost General Haver’s orders and lost the battle for the Little States. They’d signed a treaty with Muscoda afterward, and that was the treaty that let Muscoda take over last year: the Treaty of Vicksdale.
“That damned treaty’s a good part of the reason we’re going this way,” Vandis explained. “Otherwise, we’d have gone south of the Back and made a straight shot across to Windish. It’s easier country, and more populated. As it is, we’re going to have to eat off supplies for a while.”
Dingus frowned from his spot across the fire, where he was busy scraping the pelts of the tough hares they’d had for supper. “We can’t eat off the land?”
“Some things, maybe, we’ll be able to forage. But it’s not like you guys are used to. To the south, it’s fertile, but where we’re going… not so much. It’s cold most of the year, and the coast is rough. Seal Rock’s the only good harbor for hundreds of miles.”
“So what’ll we do?” Kessa asked. Dingus had the same question.
Vandis stretched his short legs, then pulled them back again to sit tailor-fashion. “Before we go out on the plain, we’ll load up on supplies. If we can, we’ll join with a merchant caravan headed up there. They’ll be happy to have us. Knights are good company.”
“Are you sure that’s a good idea?” Dingus blurted.
“Why wouldn’t it be?”
“We should go it alone. We can’t trust anybody, not after—”
“That won’t be an issue.”
“Wouldn’t have thought it’d be one at the Moot, but it was.”
“I put it around we were booking passage in Dreamport.” Vandis smirked.
Dingus shook his head and set down the pelt he was working on. “More than enough people headed that way to figure out you lied. By now they’re gonna be wondering why you haven’t showed up yet. You’re in danger.”
“I’m always in danger. All of us are. Life is risk.”
“So we gotta go looking for more?”
“It’s safer in company. Do you want to come across a whole tribe of barbarians, just you, Kessa, and me?”
Dingus scowled off into the darkness to his right. “You gotta be careful. If you—if something was to happen to you, Kessa—”
“If something happens to me, turn around and head for HQ.”
He didn’t say it, but he couldn’t see a life for himself if Vandis died. Just the thought of anyone doing him harm prickled warmth down Dingus’s spine and filled his belly with cold, slimy fear that Vandis would be gone forever, and that his own mind would snap like a twig.
“We’re traveling somewhere new,” Vandis said. “We’re going to meet interesting people and see things we’ve never seen. It’s an adventure, and you won’t appreciate it even a little bit if you fucking torture yourself the whole way.”
They traded looks. Dingus’s read: I can’t help it. Vandis’s replied: Try.
It wasn’t like he set out to torture himself, but some things he couldn’t let go. His flesh imprisoned a restless, relentless fire. He felt pent-up and frustrated in a way no amount of sneaking away to jerk off could fix—and he’d tried that plenty.
As they went, the mountains gentled down into hills. Far away, everything looked empty, and the emptiness seemed wider the closer they came to it. At last, they stopped at a wayside inn called the Sign of the Jackalope. “Last Lodging and Supplies before the Wastes,” or so the weathered sign out on the road said. It was a big place, too, with stable room for at least fifty animals, and rows of wagons tied up in the broad yard.
“Remember, don’t eat anything,” Dingus said to Vandis as they approached the gate. “I’ll fix—”
Vandis turned such a perch-eye over his shoulder that Dingus’s words died in his throat. “Who’s the Master here?”
When he didn’t answer, Vandis pressed on. “Tell me.”
“You are,” Dingus said, “but—”
“There’s no ‘but’ in that sentence.”
Dingus grimaced and pulled his hood up to cover his ears as they passed through the yard. Most of the wagons had locked lids covering their contents. Just outside the entrance, a few horses stood tied to a long hitching post, feedbags over their faces.
“What’s that?” Kessa gasped, pointing at a battered jackrabbit’s head with antlers mounted over the double doors.
“That’s a jackalope,” Vandis said.
“Do they live in the Wastes? Could we catch one?”
Vandis laughed. “No, it’s just a silly thing—Ethelred’s little joke. There aren’t any and never were, even before the fairies died.”
“But it looks real,” she protested.
“Taxidermists can do some interesting things with carcasses.” Vandis pushed open the doors. Smoke smell oozed from inside the tavern, swamping Dingus when it reached him: woodsmoke, tobacco smoke, tallow dips, and underneath, the faintest hint of burnt food. He caught the thick stink of spilled beer, old piss, and men’s bodies. It was full day outside, but when the doors swung shut behind him, might as well have been midnight—noisy midnight. The ceiling soared, with a balcony running around the whole outside of the room and filled with tables like the floor. The taproom felt close; the air settled on his skin. A barmaid whisked by between him and Kessa, trailing too much rosewater and making his head swirl.
Vandis looked back at them. “I guess this place is a little rougher than I’d remembered,” he said, his face wry.
“Maybe,” Kessa said, staring around.
Dingus didn’t reply; he stood rooted to the spot, just inside the doors, clutching the straps of his pack and trying to handle everything his senses shouted at him. The minstrel on the stage at the far left plucked doggedly away at a lute, even though nobody paid him the least mind. Probably better that way. He wasn’t very good, and the lute sounded a shade out of tune. The barman shouted at a barmaid; on the right, Dingus could almost smell a fight brewing: two men on their feet, staring each other down.
Vandis said, “Dingus. Are you under control?”
“I got this,” he said, closing his eyes briefly. Then he followed Vandis and Kessa across to the bar.
“Vandis!” the barman bellowed when they got close, turning away from the blushing barmaid, who escaped the moment his attention went somewhere else.
“Eth,” Vandis said. “Long time, no see.” He reached over the gouged bar-top to clasp wrists. “Got room for a couple of Knights and a Squire?”
“Well, now, that depends.” Eth the barman grinned all over his shiny, jiggling face. “Got stories? New ones?”
“What do you think?” Vandis asked Dingus and Kessa.
Kessa nodded; Dingus took in a deep breath. It didn’t steady him much, but enough. Besides, after telling his stories to the fishy eyes of the Masters at Moot, after going on with Francine and the guys, this ought to be cake. “How many you want?” he asked, and saw, out of the corner of his eye, Vandis beaming at him.
“How many you got?” the barman shot right back.
“I bet I got a hundred you never heard your whole life long.”
“Don’t undersell yourself,” Vandis said, without a trace of irony. His chest puffed up. “This is Sir Dingus, my Junior, and he has a hundred I’ve never heard, but he’ll give you—what do you think is fair, Dingus? Six? That’s two new ones apiece.”
“Sure.” Dingus wasn’t sure, but he couldn’t go wrong agreeing with Vandis.
“Ten new ones,” Eth said. “Three apiece, and an extra for you, lad, because you look like you can eat.”
“Seven,” Dingus returned. “Two apiece, and an extra for me, ’cause I can eat. I’ll do three now, then four for your supper crowd.”
He glanced at Vandis, who nodded. “I’ll give you some preaching in between if Kessa here can do one for practice.”
Eth sucked at his teeth. “I guess that’ll do.” He clasped wrists with Vandis again before bawling across to the minstrel. “Get off the stage, Colman, you can’t play a note! We’ve got Knights, Knights in the house!” To Dingus, he added, “Wet your whistle, lad, and get up there.”
Dingus slipped his pack, took the mug Eth slid across to him, and crossed to the far right of the bar to touch the carved medallion of the white oak leaf, brushing one hand over the stains of so many oily fingers before his. “Lady, bless my voice,” he said, like every time he’d told in a tavern, and walked to the stage, where the minstrel stowed his lute in its case with a mother’s tenderness.
“You’re tuned a little high,” Dingus said to him, real quiet, and he slammed the case shut and took himself off in a huff. After a long swallow of the beer—kind of sour, but wet, at least—Dingus set the mug on the boards, cleared his throat, and projected his voice. “If you wanna hear a story, listen up! Once upon a time…” and he gave them Lone Crow and the Witch, then Rose Daughter’s Shark, and finally the Periapt of True Seeing, which was a good long one about Brother Fox and Eagle Eye’s quest for a necklace that stripped away the veils of Glamor and gave its wearer the Sight, and how they’d used it to save Brother Fox’s betrothed from a hidden, magical prison. Grandpa had shown it to him once, the Periapt itself, a fat opal on a whisper of gold chain, and told him how the rainbows inside would stand out from the surface and dance when someone used it—back when.
He thought that one went over pretty well. He got some good silence out of it, a decent haul in tips, and some delighted murmuring from the barmaids when he described the Periapt. Nobody tried anything on Vandis. No matter what his Master had said, he’d kept a weather eye out the whole time he was up there. When he came down from the stage, promising to be back at suppertime, he crossed to Vandis and Kessa where they sat at a table surrounded by the remains of their dinner.
Vandis stood and clapped him on the arm. “They’re good and softened up,” he said, and made his way up to take Dingus’s place. His gritty voice rolled out a moment later: “Now hear this…”
Dingus grinned. This was familiar as home. So far he enjoyed being a Junior. He didn’t have to cook every single night or set up and break camp—even though he did help Kessa most every night, seeing as he was supposed to be helping to teach her the basics—and Vandis expected him to bullshit and handle jobs that weren’t quite as routine, like paying for their room and board with new stories.
Soon a barmaid came ’round with Dingus’s dinner. “If you need anything more, just shout,” she said, giving him a pretty smile. She brushed his arm with hers when she set the trencher of goat stew in front of him. “You have a really good voice, you know. I could almost believe in that necklace.” She busied herself clearing up the dirty dishes.
“You should,” Dingus said, taking out his spoon and knife. “It’s a real necklace. I’ve held it in my own two hands.”
“Oh, come on.” She propped a hand on one hip, the other on the table. He tried not to look at the way it made her breasts shift under her bodice.
“You calling me a liar?” He smiled, trying to let her know it wasn’t meant to be fighting words.
She laughed. “No, I’m calling you a flimflamming, tale-spinning Knight with nothing better to do than twist stories around until nobody recognizes them, and then spit them out as your own.”
“Yeah, I am.” That pleased him no end to say. “Anyways, it doesn’t have to be exactly true to be truth.”
“So I guess what your Master’s spouting up there is true, too.” She nodded at Vandis, who held forth onstage with Why the Moon Bleeds.
“True? Who knows. Maybe that’s not how or why it happened, but it’s truth. Jealousy. Revenge. Punishment.” He opened his hands. “Fear. That’s truth, don’t you think?”
“Now you’re philosophizing. I’m no scholar, Sir Knight.” The barmaid laid a hand over her heart. “I’m just here to wait on people.”
“Where you’re from, what you do, that stuff doesn’t matter. Look at me. I’m just a sheep-shit hillbilly far from home, but I know truth when I hear it.”
She tossed her hair, laughing again, so the silver hoops in her ears caught the low tallow-dip light. “You’re not just a flimflamming, tale-spinning Knight. You’re a preacher, with your trust-me face and your voice like sin. Finally, a preacher I could stand to listen to all night… if he talks that long.”
“Well,” Dingus said, “I don’t know about all night, but I got more stories for suppertime if you wanna hear—ow!” He glared at Kessa, who’d chosen that moment to kick him in the shin. She tilted her head toward the barmaid, waggling her eyebrows like it was supposed to mean something.
“All right, Longshanks, I’ll hear you later.” The barmaid sashayed away shaking her head.
When she’d gone, he demanded, “The hell was that for?”
“She likes you, dumbass!”
“She said ‘all night’!” Kessa hissed, leaning close.
“People say that,” he explained patiently. “Those are words. People say them.”
“Yeah, but she meant all night!” At his blank look, she let out a disgusted huff. “As in, you could do it to her all night! You are so oblivious.”
“I’m not. She wasn’t—”
“Yes, you are, and yes, she was coming on to you.”
“C’mon! Why’d she wanna do a thing like that?”
“That, right there, that’s why you’re oblivious.”
Dingus shook his head, picking up his cutlery, and tucked into the stew. Kessa huffed again and settled back in her chair, arms folded, until Vandis finished preaching and came to fetch her to take her turn on the stage. Like Dingus had figured she would, she did Margaret Dragonslayer, and it went down real well even if she used her hands in some of the wrong places and almost lost her spot when the place started to fill up with her story only partway through.
Vandis ordered a whiskey from the same pretty barmaid. Dingus, looking at his palms, asked for one, too.
“Anything for you, Preacher,” she said, and he flinched and flushed when she trailed her fingers across his shoulders. Her footfalls receded, and he stole a glance at Vandis, whose eyebrows looked about to disappear into his hair.
“It’s for Eagle Eye and the Worm,” Dingus mumbled.
Vandis’s mouth curved up. “You can have whiskey if you want it, Preacher.”
With a groan, Dingus dropped his burning face into his hands. Vandis laughed—not too hard, but he laughed.
“What am I supposed to do?”
“You’re asking the wrong guy. I know Point A, which is flirting,” Vandis said, putting a fingertip on the table, “and I know something about Point B, which would be… you know.” He put another fingertip a little ways away. “But in between? You’re on your own, kid.”
“Aw, hell!” Dingus knew Point B, all right, but he’d never even been to Point A, not as far as he knew.
“Guys a lot dumber than you have figured it out. You can, too.”
“Thought you were the Master here. Aren’t you supposed to know everything?”
Vandis was still laughing when the barmaid came back with the drinks. “You were pretty good,” she said to him. “I like how you tell those old stories. You had some truth.” She darted a smile at Dingus, who pretended interest in a knot on the tabletop.
“I can preach, or I wouldn’t be where I am,” Vandis said.
“True enough, but you don’t have—”
“Oh, look, here’s Kessa,” Dingus said, popping up from his chair. Kessa was just coming down the steps, but he grabbed his drink and headed for the stage, passing her on his way there. He shut his eyes, breathed, and imagined the Masters’ stares. She won’t be a problem, he told himself, and refused to look the barmaid’s way.
He gave them Grandpa’s absolute, bang-up, best stories, saving Eagle Eye and the Worm for last. His fire-breathing dragon trick went down in a storm of gasps and applause, which for sure he’d like to get used to, and he had to do it again twice before he could go have his supper. Thank the Lady for Vandis, who’d ordered it for him so the food already sat steaming in front of his chair. He didn’t see her anywhere.
She caught him coming back from the privy after he’d eaten. Her arms locked around his neck and she pulled him down. Instead of cool and smooth, like Moira’s, her mouth was hot, and so soft, so slick his knees about buckled; instead of sweet, she tasted of beer.
Dingus went up in sudden flame. Sensation rushed down his spine and settled, glowing, in his groin—like when the red came on—and like when the red came on, he wanted, just wanted. His hands gripped at her flesh and she yielded, swayed against him. His pulse beat in his ears: take, take, take, and he felt as if his skin bound and trapped him. He straightened, shaking.
Her fingers stole under his hood and wound in his hair. She yanked him back down. “You don’t kiss,” she said, “like a preacher.”
His breath rasped. He forced his hands into fists at his sides, tight, even though they twitched to open and touch. “Don’t, please don’t. You don’t know what—”
“I know you want to fuck,” she whispered, shifting her hips to press against his hard-on.
“I’ll hurt you.” He tried to pull back, but she had a fierce, one-handed grip on his hair, and she laughed at him.
“You’re hung, Preacher, but not that hung.” She rubbed up between his thighs—right where it counted. Fire and wanting slashed through him. If he didn’t get away, he’d do something terrible.
He lurched back so hard he landed on his ass and left her with what felt like half his hair.
“You have got to be shitting me.” She stood there, fingers curled over one out-thrust hip, looking down on him while he drew in choking gasps, and then crouched. “I’m offering you free cunt, and around here, nobody gets it for free.” She reached for his crotch and he scooted away. “What about it? Are you stupid, or are you going to act like a man?”
“Fuck off my brother before I wreck your face,” Kessa said, sweet as you please. Dingus almost groaned with relief—and a healthy dose of humiliation—to see her looming tall behind the barmaid.
“Your brother’s a mess,” the barmaid said, straightening. To Dingus, she added, “What a waste of a big dick,” before she strutted back into the tavern.
“Whore,” Kessa said. He took the hand she offered. “You know you couldn’t hurt her with a rafter, right?”
Dingus sat down hard again. “What?”
“I heard you. I went to pee. At first I thought you’d, you know… but on my way back, I heard you.” She shrugged. “You wouldn’t hurt her, that’s all.”
“That wasn’t what I meant.” He stood.
“Then what did you mean?”
He paused in the middle of brushing down his pants to look her in the eye. Since they’d met, he’d grown taller, so they weren’t quite eye-to-eye anymore. “It felt like I was going to berserk.”
“Please don’t tell Vandis.”
She snorted. “Are you kidding?” Then she stuck her fingers in her ears and sang, “‘La la la, if I don’t hear about it, it doesn’t exist, I can’t hear you!’ Let’s not squish his illusions.”
Dingus couldn’t help snickering at that. He stuck his hands in his pockets, relaxing a little. How’d he forget how great she could be?
On the way back up to the inn, she bumped his shoulder with hers. “Love you.”
“Love you, too,” he said, bumping back.
In spite of Kessa’s kindness, Dingus tossed and turned for hours in his bedroll, monstrously horny and unsatisfied. It’d been so long since he’d thought he might find someone willing to have him, and when the opportunity presented itself, what did he do? He choked, that was what, like a little boy getting a first glimpse of tit. He could promise himself not to do that again, but even if another one came along, he doubted he’d make any better showing. He sighed, and the next time he thought anything at all, Vandis was shaking him awake.
Look out for Oath Bound next month.