Vinkiri obligingly rose up, and helped him free himself from the close, confining cloth. "She was agreeable?"

"I think there was another moment of hesitation," he said. "You must keep in mind that I was younger then, relatively inexperienced, and had all the impatience of youth. What I did next might seem a trifle despicable, but I was half-frantic at the time."

"What did you do?"

"I knew Nientha intended to take me in her hand, that we might mutually satisfy each other," he said. "But I also feared she might have second thoughts. So ... well ... instead of guiding her hand to me, I ..."

He drew Vinkiri down onto his lap again, holding her firmly by the hips, impaling her on his erection. She responded at once, shuddering with passionate abandon. Her body rose and fell, burying him repeatedly within her warmth.

"How wicked of you," she gasped as she rocked and bounced.

"Yes," he said, his head flung back against the carriage seat. "Yes, it was."

"And did she like it?"

"She ... she was too shocked to object ... and then I started ... pushing up into her while ... while still pleasuring her with my hand," Tavelorn said, reaching around to do just that. "I could tell by the feel of her that she was enjoying herself, and ... mmm ... and soon she was ... quivering ... moaning and trying to stifle the sound ..."

"The ... ooh ... the poor girl ..." A low, mewling cry interrupted Vinkiri. She writhed on his lap. "Oh, oh yes!"

"The others ..." he panted, "had to know ... just as we knew ... what they were doing. Somehow the ... thought of that ... ah, Vinkiri! ... made it all the more exciting. To ... to be so close to them ... unable to see ... while we were ..."

"Faster," she said, rocking her hips.

He thrust more vigorously and rubbed with his fingers in a slick, demanding caress. His jaw was clenched. He willed himself to be strong, not to be done so soon, but Vinkiri was a flame that burned very hot. Only on rare occasions had their times together been the languid hours of elven loveplay ... she was one who craved indulgence and quick gratification, rather than a slow, gradual building of tension followed by sweet relief.

And her fire fanned his own, so that by the time he felt her loins gather and tremble in climax, he was already on the verge.

Nientha had, on that long-ago carriage ride, surrendered to her ecstasy with smothered cries, not that any amount of discretion had fooled their friends. Vinkiri loosed a turbulent shriek of delight, drowning out Tavelorn's throaty groan as he drove deep into her.

When it was done, she slumped against him, resting her head in the cradle of his shoulder and neck. Her explosive sigh tickled his ear.

"What else happened?" she asked.

"Quite a bit of fumbling with clothing in the dark," he said. "By the time we did reach the next lighted way, we had all made ourselves passably presentable, though everyone was rather flushed and rumpled."

"And Nientha?"

"We never said a word about it," he admitted. "Not to each other, and not to anyone else until now, so far as I know. I went off to school a short while later. We still see each other at the occasional party or official function, or did when I went to parties and official functions."

"Only an interlude, then? A single moment in the night?"


They disengaged and straightened their clothes, Vinkiri using a magical cleaning-cloth from her bag to wipe away the evidence. "It's a good thing I wasn't there," she said. "I've never been any good at keeping quiet."

"I noticed." The driver, of course, would have heard her. So would any nearby pedestrians.

The carriage rolled to a stop in a bright square, the lampposts garlanded with vines and flowers, rainbow-hued curtains fluttering from open windows. Shamesa Square was lined with a succession of whimsical little shops, galleries and cafes, with rooms-to-let on the upper floors. It was a quaint older neighborhood, one of many odd corners tucked away from the main avenues of Perras Peliani, friendly and charming.

Two buildings dominated the scene, facing each other across the square more like confidantes than like rivals. One was a concert-hall, the other a theater. Crowds of people milled in front of each, chatting as they bought tickets or waited for their companions to arrive.

The driver, without so much as a hint of knowing smile, opened the door for them and unfolded the stairs. Tavelorn stepped down and offered a hand to Vinkiri. She, tucking an errant ringlet back into place, took his arm.

His impression was one of agreeable chaos. The benches, planters, fountains and statuary did not seem to have been laid out in any planned pattern, yet harmonized into a pleasing unity. Vendors strolled to and fro, selling bouquets, sweets, ribbons, inexpensive jewelry and trinkets, carvings, miniature paintings. Three wineshops, an ice-cream parlor and a bakery were all open and doing a brisk business.

Each corner of the square was staked out by a different street musician or entertainer – a piper in lively garb playing a sprightly tune for a group of children, a serene and beautiful harpist in a white gown that shone like the moon, a youth and maiden singing a love ballad in voices pure enough to make the very stars weep, and a handsome man performing one of the most famous Elwyndian soliloquies.

"We have time for a glass of wine, if you'd like," Vinkiri said.

"That would be nice," Tavelorn said. "Somehow I've worked up quite the thirst."

"Yes, so have I," she said, fanning herself with the edge of her silken wrap.

The window of the wine shop was stained glass, depicting the lovely and laughing goddess Shannia with flowers in her long hair, pouring streams of rich purple wine from a silver cup. A number of people called greetings to Vinkiri as she came in, which she returned cheerfully.

"You're no stranger here, I see," Tavelorn said.

"Hilika and I used to come to this part of town all the time while we were in school," she explained. "Neither of us could afford the big universities, so we went to Queensong first. We shared a flat not far from here. All my friends were artists, actors and musicians."

"How, then, did you end up a physician's assistant?"

She shrugged. "Two goldenwines, please," she told the shopkeeper. To Tavelorn, she said, "I had no talent for the arts. I probably don't have much talent as a physician's assistant, truth be told –"

"You're a fine, capable assistant," he said.

Vinkiri crinkled her nose at him and pinched his earlobe. "You're sweet to say so, Tavelorn. But, well, I had to do something with my life, and it's not like the Emerin offers much in the way of career choices for someone whose only interests are wine, shopping, and flirting."

"No? How about the nobility?" he asked, not without some sourness.

"I wasn't qualified," she said, laughing. "They're so picky about that ... wanting you to be born into it and all."

Two tall crystal glasses were set before them. The goldenwine sparkled as if countless tiny flecks of diamond floated in the misty-gold liquid. It was light and flavorful, effervescent enough to enliven the tongue without a harsh tingle. Tavelorn's tastes normally ran to the heartier, richer varieties ... including, when he could both find and afford it, the deep indigo and amethyst wines imported from the southlands, though this was an affectation he had to hide from his mother and his professional peers. Still, he found the goldenwine quite palatable, and they had two glasses each before crossing the square to the theater.

Tavelorn and Vinkiri stopped to purchase a bouquet of white, silver and pale blue lilies. then joined the crowd out front. It was a far cry from the majestic and imperious theaters and opera-houses at the heart of the city, but what it lacked in opulent grandeur, it made up for in comfortable intimacy.

They had no trouble securing good seats, and made their way into the lobby. Here, too, the goddess Shannia was featured, in the form of an alabaster statue rising from a wide shallow scalloped basin rippling with clear water. A crystal-and-silver antique chandelier hung from the domed ceiling, surrounded by a faded summer-sky mural of puffy clouds and multicolored birds in flight.

Twin curving staircases swept up on either side of this fountain, to a balcony entrance flanked by thick curtains. At the foot of each staircase stood a pair of young elves – students, Tavelorn was sure, from the dramatics department of Queensong College. They wore sashes of a vibrant blue color, and handed out folded programs as they collected tickets.

The curtains were slightly shabby, old, exuding a musty scent as Tavelorn and Vinkiri passed. The carpets were on the threadbare side, too, and the walls could have used a fresh coat of paint. But Vinkiri seemed aware of none of this, consulting her program and squealing with excitement at the prominence of Hilika's name.

The theater itself was a wedge-shaped chamber, the worn blue-velvet seats rising in terraced rows from a stage concealed by heavy tapestry hangings. The aisles were filled with people, many of them more students or friends and kinfolk of the performers.

Vinkiri led the way to their seats. Tavelorn perused the program. He was passingly familiar with the play, which was an obscure Denoristian classic of forbidden love, misunderstandings, and murder. His grandmother had a fondness for such fraught, impassioned tragedies.

The curtain rose on a stage set that was sparse for his tastes, accustomed as he was to the more lavish detail of the Grand. The costuming, too, proved simple ... almost plain. Clearly, the theater lacked the budget that came from royal grants and the generosity of wealthy patrons.

Hilika appeared halfway through the first act, and somehow on her, the simple fashions looked good. Her beauty was of the ethereal sort that might have been dulled or overshadowed by bright colors, excessive patterns, or ornamentation. With her large expressive lavender eyes, her high cheekbones, and her perfectly-sculpted mouth, she was the elven feminine ideal.

Her long moonsilver-blond hair was loose, spilling to her hips. A gown that recalled the pale pink-gold of a cloudy dawn lent a glow to her flawless skin. Its soft lines draped her tall, slender body. The flowing skirt was slit high on both sides and her every step revealed flashes of the exquisite legs Tavelorn recalled with such pleasure.

The audience was captivated by her loveliness, breathless to hear her speak. In the moments before she did, Tavelorn dourly wondered if Vinkiri's friend would prove to be a terrible actress, if she would render up a performance that was painful to watch.

But his pessimism was unfounded. Though Hilika might not be ready to tread the boards at the Grand, she showed none of the uncertainty of the other actors. She recited her lines not as if they were memorized, but as if they were her own words. Her voice was adequate but not particularly memorable – the girl playing Caliomine was a drab little nothing of a creature to look at, but her voice throbbed with such purity and intensity that every line was a marvel to hear.

What mattered most was that Hilika was the doomed Aliona. When she confessed her love for Myerrus, her eyes shone with emotion. When she learned of his secret past, her heartbreak was so apparent that everyone was moved to tears. And when, at last, Aliona took her own life, her death throes were so believable that Tavelorn almost leapt from his seat to save her.

Unfortunately, the actor playing Myerrus was not so skilled ... though dashingly handsome with a lot of dark wavy hair and a toned chest he displayed by removing his shirt at every opportunity, he spoke woodenly and kept casting skittish sidelong glances at the audience as if alarmed by their presence. Instead of a tragic hero, he came across as a cad most undeserving of the love of such a woman as Aliona, and his violent death was ultimately greeted with a scattering of vindictive applause.

The play ended as Vinkiri had said, the curtain falling over a scene of stabbed and poison-wracked bodies. A favorable ovation filled the theater. The lights slowly came up, the murmur of conversation rising with them.

"Well?" asked Vinkiri, turning toward him. "What did you think?"

"She's really quite remarkable," Tavelorn said. "A shame she wasn't matched with comparable talent."

"You mean Galdrian? The pretty-boy who played Myerrus?"

"Do you know him?"

She rolled her eyes. "He's one of the crowd. Thinks he's quite the thing, but the only time he seems to really know what he's doing is when they put a sword in his hand and choreograph a duel for him."

Tavelorn always hated being hemmed in amid a large mass of moving people, so he waited until most of the rest of the audience had filed out before standing. "Shall we?"

"I want to go backstage and congratulate Hilika. Care to tag along?"

"I'd be delighted."

"If we time it right," she added with an impish grin, "we could get invited along to the cast party."

Taking his hand, she almost pulled him down the aisle. They skirted the orchestra pit, and then, with an ease that bespoke her being no stranger to either this theater or these people, Vinkiri marched boldly across the stage. She smiled and waved to the stagehands, who were collecting cups, vials marked with the bile-yellow symbol of poison, blunted trick daggers with paint-filled handles.

As a youth, Tavelorn had been interested in the theater before discovering his affinity for medicine and surgery. So the labyrinthine backstage passages – costume racks, prop cabinets, scenery backdrops on pulleys – were not daunting to him. He nodded politely to the actors and musicians, most of whom were milling about discussing how the play had gone. In a way, they reminded him of himself and his fellow surgeons in the wake of a challenging operation. Charged with the thrill of success, but already replaying the events, thinking about what had gone well and what should have gone better.

"She finally rates her own private dressing room," Vinkiri said. "Look, it even has her name on the door." She tapped. "Hilika? It's me!"

"Vinkiri? Come in!"

Vinkiri opened the door and poked her head through. "I'm not alone."

"I'm dressed."

"Too bad," Vinkiri said with a small pout, and winked at Tavelorn. "I brought the doctor."

Hilika's dressing room was not spacious, but as the female lead of the production, she had it to herself. It was a corner room, with one small window overlooking a private, walled garden. The walls were papered with handbills, posters and programs from various theatrical productions. An old but once-expensive woven rug covered the oaken floor.

A wardrobe stood open to display the various costumes she had worn during this and previous performances. The other furniture consisted of a bureau, a narrow couch, a washstand and basin, and a vanity table with bench and mirror. The gown she had been wearing in her death scene was piled in a heap by the door, in a basket marked 'Domestics.' It was stained with the red dye that had spurted so realistically from her bosom.

She had said she was dressed, but Tavelorn was also familiar with the casual immodesty of many theater people. It was therefore no shock to him – in fact, a pleasant surprise – to see that Hilika's idea of 'dressed' meant that she was sitting at the vanity table wearing a misty-purple silk slip trimmed with silver lace. Those long legs he so admired were bare past the knee.

Her long moonflax hair had been pinned up in a loose bun that left a few long wispy tendrils dangling over her shoulders. She had finished washing away her stage make-up, her normally fair skin a scrubbed pink-cheeked freshness. She put down a powder-puff, and rose to meet them.

Vinkiri thrust the bouquet of lilies at her. "Hilika, you were wonderful! Wasn't she, Tavelorn?"

"Exquisite," he said. "Your death scene was almost too convincing."

Hilika accepted the flowers from Vinkiri, buried her face in them, and inhaled their perfume. "Thank you ... thank you both. You really liked the play? You thought I was all right?"

"The star of the show," Tavelorn said. "I'm glad Vinkiri suggested I attend."

"It wasn't hard," Vinkiri confided. "All I had to do was mention you, and he was grabbing up his cloak and heading for the door."

Tavelorn made a protesting, defensive noise. "It wasn't quite like that. I always enjoy the theater. Though, of course, I remembered you at once from your visit to the office, as well as from all Vinkiri's stories."

"Oh, no, what have you been telling him?" Laughing, Hilika put the bouquet aside and hugged Vinkiri. She was by far the taller of the two, but so lithe that with Vinkiri's ample curves, they were nearly the same weight.

"Nothing outrageous. Only the truth."

"That in itself is enough to worry me."

They pressed their bodies together and exchanged cheek-kisses that seemed to be a bit closer to the corner of the mouth and linger a bit longer than was strictly customary. Tavelorn tugged fitfully at the high, snug collar of his shirt, and cleared his throat. The room was close and stuffy ... or it was the sight of the two of them embracing, both of them scantily clad – Hilika's slip, undergarment though it may be, was more demure than Vinkiri's little green dress.

"If anyone should be worried," Vinkiri said, throwing a sly look over at Tavelorn, "it should be him ... after all, haven't I told you all about the good doctor?"

"Oh?" he asked. "And just what have you told her?"

"Well, I guess it's not everything ... I didn't tell her about the carriage."

"What carriage?" Hilika asked.

"The play," Tavelorn said, a bit louder than was called for, "was quite entertaining. An excellent job by you and your troupe."

"Galdrian wasn't so good, though," Vinkiri said, looking solemnly up into Hilika's eyes.

"I know. He's insufferable. At rehearsals, he struts about like he's Shannia's gift to the stage, but the moment anyone else is watching ..." Hilika sighed and shook her head. She released Vinkiri and turned to Tavelorn, extending her hands. "Doctor ... so good to see you again."

He clasped them in his own. Her grip was firm but cool, powdery-smooth. He caught the scent of her soap, like heady lilacs. He brushed a brief kiss over the back of each hand, then let go. "Your knee hasn't been bothering you, I take it?"

"A little twinge now and then, that's all." Though it was not necessary to do so in order for him to see her shapely knees, she raised the lacy hem of her slip a few inches. "There's no swelling."

"I wouldn't say that," Vinkiri said, giggling. "Give him a moment. Or lift your slip a bit more. Or just get him to tell you about the carriage."

Tavelorn raised an eyebrow at Vinkiri. She dimpled at him in her sunny, irrepressibly Vinkiri fashion.

"Whatever is all this about a carriage?" pressed Hilika. Up close, the thin slip outlined her small, high breasts in vivid detail.

"Vinkiri is teasing," Tavelorn said in a long-suffering tone. He averted his gaze, not without effort, from the firm peaks of Hilika's nipples, clearly limned by the translucent purple silk. "Teasing the both of us."

"Well, I'm like that," Vinkiri said, tossing her head airily. "So, Hilika, is there a cast party tonight? Can we horn in?"

Hilika grimaced. On her, even a grimace looked lovely. "There is one, but I was hoping to get out of it. Galdrian's father offered to host it at his restaurant. Open bar, buffet, the works. He's so proud of his son the actor. I think he always aspired to the stage himself, couldn't make it, and now just considers himself a big supporter of the arts. There's even going to be a band."

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