The Belfry Archives


Charcoal & Amber


Watts Martin

Story and characters (c) 1989 Watts Martin. All rights reserved--please do not distribute this story without the author's permission.

The image in the file lekai.gif is copyright 1996 by MCA Hogarth, and may not be redistributed, reproduced or altered without the artist's permission.


"Do you always have to have that cigar?" Meoriar asked mournfully. Donthen didn't answer, as if he was completely absorbed in the dishes he was washing, not the least bit interested in a new story; the bard sighed and walked over to the bar.

"Excuse me." Meoriar pushed my mug slightly to one side, reached across the bartop and grabbed Donthen's cigar, snuffed it out and started to walk back to his chair. He got about ten feet before the stogie exploded in a vivd purple flash. When my vision cleared, the same cigar--or one that looked a hell of a lot like it--was back in Donthen's mouth, lit, and Meoriar was looking somewhat bewildered. Donthen didn't look up from the sink, but paused just long enough to take the cigar out of his mouth and growl, "Don't you have anything better to do with your time?"

"I was going," Meoriar said, coughing dramatically, "to tell a story--"

"Damn, it's Sunday already?" Donthen said. "Whose lame idea was it to have a story night?"

"Yours," Xonzoff replied. His boss glanced dourly in his direction.

"For the last few weeks your stories have all been high adventure," I said. "How about something different?"

"Such as?" Meoriar said, raising his eyebrows.

"Something I'd like."

"Translation: something with sex, eh?" Gerge said, smirking at me. Gerge was one of the few non-humans in the Wyvern's Den this night, and the only reptile. Of course, the turtle who just called himself "Turtle" might be around, but lately he'd been getting into drinking bouts with the unicorn. By this hour he'd be under a table somewhere. Somebody ought to tell him that the old saw about unicorn horns being proof against alcohol is really true, but it's too much fun watching him try to outdrink Chip.

"No!" I said, sounding hurt. "You make me sound like a lech."

"Wezip," Xon said. "You are a lech."

"I am not! Everyone knows foxes aren't leches."

"Really?" Meoriar said. "Most of the leches I know are of the vulpine persuasion."

"Juka's not a lech," I said.

"But she's creative," Xonzoff said under his breath. I glared at him (perhaps a little enviously, but she's my species, not his, dammit).

"Besides, there's no way to tell a story that isn't an adventure. That's what our lives are--series of adventures," Meoriar said, straightening up in his chair. As he paused to drink some mead, the conversation in the Den quieted. He set his mug down and stared at it, waiting for complete silence.

"The Sidhe are said to be the most beautiful race on Ranea," he began in a quiet voice, looking up without looking anywhere in particular. "I can't disagree; mortal beings can't compete with such creatures on appearance. But faerie beauty is ethereal. When all the members of a race are that pretty, none of them truly stand out.

"But for mortal men and women, ah, it's different. When a human, or an elf, or a morph, possesses such beauty...." His voice trailed off, and he took another sip of mead. "We all know people who turn heads when they enter a room. We might know a girl who has something that causes even those who aren't her species to be attracted to her. But a very few people have something--else. Something magical, if you will.

"We hear of these people sometimes. For instance, the elven prince Convilinorey, who, they say, unknowingly steals the heart of every female who lays eyes upon him. He also seems to have unknowingly caused the formerly straight-as-a-rod Edward of Achoren to fall passionately in love with him. I am told this has caused a fair amount of consternation in the Achoren Church." I bet--I wonder which bothers them more, the fact their King's in love with another man, or the fact that the other man is nonhuman.

"Another was a maiden in Oriniste named Jarinla. She was the most beautiful human I have ever seen. Do not take that lightly." I didn't; Meoriar had spent almost forty years traveling all over this world and a few others to boot, and hyperbole was not one of his vices. "I understand Jarinla recently entered a convent, no longer able to bear the attraction she held for others. She has been the object of one obsession after another, from members of both sexes and all races, and she doesn't know how to control those people. In light of her circumstances, I understand her decision."

As Meoriar took another drink, Gerge spoke. "Perhaps I've missed somethin', but that sounds a bit unfair of you, mate. How could she control other people's attraction to her? That's what you meant...?"

"That's not what I said," Meoriar replied, gazing back at the turtle. "See it in the light of using one's attractiveness to control others. Jarinla is beautiful enough for that power, but she can't use it--or perhaps, won't."

"I don't think a girl can enslave a boy just by being cute," Gerge persisted.

"Calling Jarinla 'cute' is like calling an Elder Dragon a 'small problem.'" He laughed a little, then looked at the turtle piercingly. "If you've ever been near someone who was so beautiful, or so handsome, you felt that all they would have to do to make you fall madly in love with them was to touch you, or look deep in your eyes and smile--just acknowledge you more intimately than simply saying 'hello' and walking past--then you have felt just a glimmer of what people felt around her.

"That kind of attraction is powerful enough--perhaps too much so. But when I think of Lekai...."

"Ah, someone who's really cute," I said, folding my arms.

Meoriar glowered at me an instant, then smiled strangely. "That, Wezip, is calling the Dragon God an 'insignificant bother.' Would you be so kind as to get me some more mead?"

Xonzoff quickly filled a new mug and handed it to me, and I hurried over to the bard. We knew this was the signal: the introduction was over.

"Some of you know of the so-called Empire of Bandits that rose--and fell--some five years ago. This story is the story of that fall, even though the fall is peculiarly incidental to it.

"Well. At the time, I was in Yeeth, the country that bordered on Emrit's little kingdom. Yeeth was the newest member of Ranea, the population almost entirely human. The people were suspicious of other races, and were perhaps a little more so of ones that looked too different from themselves.

"Now, Yeeth had been carrying on a sporadic trade with some human tribes in a desert to their west. But for about six months, their trade route had been blocked by a group of morph wolves. The wolves would intercept the humans and always turn them back; lately they were attacking them outright, raiding supplies and killing those who didn't move out of the way fast enough. Needless to say, this did little to back up Ranea's claim that different species could live in peace with one another.

"To add to the Empire's worries, the border patrol responsible for keeping that trade route open had not been heard from for nigh a year. The guard in charge was Commander Emrit, a well-respected soldier who had more than proved himself in battles past. He was old for a soldier, too old, one might think, to still fight; but he was a wolf. Some said he was part demon. Maybe he was, for he stood some eight feet high, weighed twice as much as a big human--and it was all muscle. In his prime, it was said he could take on six armed men with his bare hands and win, and although he was now sixty years old and his fur was solid gray, two well-trained soldiers would only survive an encounter with him if luck was on their side.

As I said, Emrit, and most of his men, were wolves; the coincidence made the Empress uncomfortable. The possibilities she laid out were simple. Emrit was no longer capable of protecting the border, either because he had lost the ability to lead or was incapacitated or dead, or Emrit's men had turned renegade. In any case, it was clear that to protect the trade route, and our relations with Yeeth, she had to know which was the truth. It was decided that the Ranean Empire should send envoys along with a representative from Yeeth to search for Emrit.

"For those of you unfamiliar with our diplomatic system, since the time of Emperor Vannilko, Ranea has had no Empire-wide diplomats. Envoys are chosen from the diplomatic corps of the states, and from a pool of Raneadhros citizens with diplomatic experience. Those of us who tend to travel a great deal often end up in this pool at various times, usually for monetary reasons. Some, like myself, had been on the winning side of certain battles as well as the winning side of certain bargaining tables, and on a mission where trouble can be expected, such people are the first choices. So it came about that I was dispatched along with an envoy from Garanelt towards Yeeth."

"Why Garanelt?" Xon asked. The sprawling northern state had a neglible human population, being comprised of most every type of furry that had ever come through our world. It's a wonderful place to visit, although I've heard extended stays tend to make all but the most open-minded humans nervous. (I'm sure the stories about the sex dens unwary travelers are sometimes trapped in for weeks or even months are completely untrue, but one still hopes.)

"Honestly, I'm not sure. The Garanelt envoy was a friendly, if abrasive, ferret named Rinneld, standing about to my waist, with a fondness for screamingly colored shirts. Our third envoy was, of course, human; Bordin was my height, of a stockier build and a dark, tannish complexion. His handsomeness was coupled with an awkward innocence about the world beyond Yeeth that would strike you as annoying or charming, depending on your own biases. He had short, dirty blond hair, dark blue eyes, and tended towards clothes that made him look like he was going to his best friend's funeral.

"Six of us, the three envoys and three Yeeth soldiers as guides and guards, set out on a morning of an unseasonally hot spring, a bad time for extended trips into the desert. The Ranean Guard had provided us with the reports of Emrit's last known whereabouts; our plan, so to speak, was to follow the trade route to the site of the last attack, then strike across the dunes towards the place where the outpost was, or had been.

"It was three broiling but uneventful days to the attack site. All that marked the route were sandworn stone pylons set every half-mile; after only a short time, I found myself looking forward to the next one, for they were the only features along the journey to be seen other than sand dunes. On the morning of the third day, a sandstorm started brewing, and hit us shortly before we reached where our guides told us the attack was. We trudged on, our line of sight reduced to a few hundred feet.

"We reached the attack site, marked only by one of the stone guideposts. An oasis, seemingly undisturbed by the blowing sand, lay a half-hundred paces towards the north, and it was in that direction we needed to head. Except for the muddy water and half-dead plants on its edge, there was nothing to suggest anything out of the ordinary; certainly nothing to suggest people had been captured and killed some three weeks earlier.

"The oasis itself was unusual. It was, we could tell, the remains of a lake; heading north, away from it, was the remains of a riverbed, carved first in sand, then sandstone, then, at the bottom, river rock. As we reached its edge, we could feel a strong humidity, almost marsh-like. I knew of several rivers that used to run from the mountains to the north of Yeeth into the desert; although this particular river was long since dry, the oasis was in the perfect position to collect water running down the valley. I remember the water as unpleasant, hot and peculiarly salty.

"The oasis formed a delta, almost pointing us up into the riverbed; as it was in the direction we wished to travel, and it gave us protection from the storm, we started to walk along its length. By nightfall, the valley had widened to a hundred feet across, and its walls rose some thirty feet over our heads. Curious, artificial caves were visible leading from the floor into the sandstone beneath the desert. We made camp that night with the conviction that whoever had made the tunnels still roamed some of them, and we slept none too well.

"We awoke to smoky tendrils of fog, drifting through the valley to the horizon in both directions. A greenish-yellow light shone dimly from a cave a hundred yards back; no one suggested that we investigate, and so we all watched it in silence as we ate breakfast. It was one of the most rattling, uncomfortable meals I can remember.

"Throughout the morning, it was impossible to shake the feeling that we were watched note only from the valley sides, but from both ahead and behind. An hour before noon, we became convinced we were being followed; it was three hours after that until we were proven correct.

"Bordin and I were leading the company. Rinneld sidled up to me and tugged at my belt until I looked down, and he whispered, 'Are you aware a wolf's been following us for over an hour now in plain sight?' I looked behind me and saw nothing. 'Don't look!' he said urgently. 'He hasn't attacked us yet, we don't know that he will.'

"It was a few minutes after that before the wolf came close enough for poorer, human eyes to pick up his movement through the fog. He was average size for a wolf, and incredibly lean--one might even say dangerously thin. He wore only ragged cloth shorts, and had a necklace of shells and bones around his neck; all in all, he looked so much like the classic adventure story primitive jungle man that I could believe he had stepped out of a frightening fairy tale to track our party for some terrible desert Faerie Queen. I motioned for the other five to stop, and we waited for the wolf to approach.

"He came towards us and stopped several paces away, then grinned without mirth. 'You have come seeking the god?' he asked.

"'We have come looking for Emrit,' said Rinneld. The wolf looked down at him contemptuously.

"'There is no Emrit. He is dead. You are on our lands; you head this way to meet the god one way or another. You may be guests, slaves, or both.' He laughed again. 'Which do you claim to be?'

"Rinneld coughed meaningfully; I said levelly, 'We are guests, then.' The wolf nodded slowly, and then set off briskly in the direction we had been moving.

"The journey continued in silence for hours, with the wolf leading. Rinneld was, not surprisingly, the first to speak. 'Who is your god?'

"The wolf laughed. 'The god. He leads us. We are his people.'

"'We?' said Rinneld.

"'Wolves,' he replied.

"'What does he lead you to?' I asked. 'Salvation?'

"He laughed again. 'No,' he said. 'Our destiny. Rulership, or death.'

"'Rulership over what?' Bordin asked, but the wolf was silent.

"The rest of the journey took only two more hours; it was past dusk when we came to a sharp, sudden bend in the riverbed.

"As we rounded the bend, the walls seemed to drop towards the ground and fall away, and the ground became criss-crossed with erosion. The wolf's 'god' lived in a makeshift town built on the corpse of a marsh. The dry desert gave way to a peculiarly arid forest of swamp trees, and gradually the hard sand and stone floor turned to muck. The bite of the desert air gave way to the tang of swamp, odors of salt and black, rotting vegetation. The wolf made his way along a well-worn path tracing an almost straight line from the riverbed into a clearing. Small, closely crowded huts sprouted randomly around a huge, impossible stone house; this was where our wolf escort was taking us.

"Close up, the house was made out of wood and rocks and dried mud; the door, incredibly, was solid oak. Our guide opened the door and held it for us with a mocking expression, and we filed inside.

"The dim light came from oil lanterns hanging from the black stone ceiling. The room was large and--not rich, but still opulent. Tapestries and silks covered the walls; there were no chairs, but a thick, black plush carpet covered the floor, and sitting on it were six or seven wolves of similar build and clothing as our guide. Plates of steaming food were being passed between them. On the far wall was a gold and blue curtain that formed a backdrop for a magnificent wooden throne. It had no legs, so whoever sat in it was resting just above floor level, and it was decorated only by carvings, yet somehow it conveyed a feeling of awe easily equal to the courts of the Empire.

"Upon the throne sat a wolf, and though none of us had seen him before, we knew that it must be Emrit. He looked far older than I could have imagined, as if he had aged a decade in the last year. Nevertheless, he looked strong and alert, and watched us keenly as we entered, stopped, and stared back at him.

"'I have brought... guests,' our guide said loudly. The rest of the wolves looked up, and he quickly explained where he had found us and who we had been looking for. The wolf on the throne raised his eyebrows at the mention of his name, but showed no emotion. 'Why do you seek him?' he finally said.

"'We are from Ranea,' said Bordin. 'I am from Yeeth. I have been told the commander is in charge of protecting this area. It is his duty to stop the raids upon our trade route.' He spoke into an almost deafening silence. 'He has not performed it; we have come to find out why.'

"'There are no raids on your trade route,' said the king.

"'You speak like you know of them already,' said Rinneld. 'Were you expecting us to show up?' Several of the wolves bared their teeth in the little ferret's direction, but Emrit raised a paw, just barely, off the arm of the throne, and they turned back towards him.

"'I expect everything. You tell me enough. You are from Ranea. He is from Yeeth.' He gestured around him. 'Welcome to the real kingdom.' The other wolves laughed. 'You have come after our feast,' he said. 'Your business can wait until the morning.'

"Bordin folded his arms, about to speak, but our guide motioned for us to sit down as three humans came into the room from behind the tapestry on the right wall. They bowed to Emrit in silence, produced head-sized rubber balls, and started to juggle them.

"'We came here for a fucking circus?' Rinneld whispered under his breath. 'They could at least be juggling swords, for God's sake.'

"'Swords are weapons,' I whispered back. 'I suspect the wolves are afraid a blade might happen to... slip.' The jugglers were skilled, but performed their routine without smiles, almost in desperation, as they juggled four, five, six rubber balls, and thrice that flying between their six hands.

"Emrit nodded ever so slightly in my direction, and three balls came leaping towards me. I've done some juggling before, and so my reaction was almost instinctive; without getting up, I caught each ball and tossed them at our guide as they came. The wolf didn't seem to have done much juggling himself, for they all went whap!-whap!-whap! against his chest and rolled back towards the jugglers, who scooped them up without missing a beat. The other wolves laughed; Emrit just raised his eyebrows again, and motioned for the jugglers to leave.

"The wolf-king sat silently for long minutes, then straightened up and clapped his hands three times. All of the wolves in the room looked at us and started whispering to one another; Emrit clapped his hands three times again and they stopped, some of them shaking their heads in what seemed to be puzzlement. Several wolves near us produced drums, what looked like an oversized mandolin, and a comically delicate-looking flute, and began to play.

"The music was quiet, slow, and possessed of a simple melody wedded to an rich, intricate percussion line. As the mandolin moved from background chords to holding a counterpoint to the flute's song, a woman stepped out from behind the curtain the jugglers had entered from."

Meoriar stopped here, taking a long drink from his mug and shaking his own head wistfully before continuing. "Here, words fail me. Most people use that phrase to mean they are speechless. I mean I can give you a description only, and the most vivid, complete vision I could paint for you is still not quite adequate. So I cannot hold the words' failure against them; likewise, if I fail to convey this adequately you, do not hold it against me.

"Well. The woman was a morph, a cat; her fur was a short, plush, tiger-stripe whose color ranged from off-white to light grey. Her darker tail was long, as long as a fox's, with silky, black-tipped hairs, and her features were exquisitely made. Sleek, dancer's legs, beautiful hips and waist, narrow but not truly thin--and a chest that some of us," he looked pointedly in my direction, "would die for--a splash of pure white fur drew your eyes to it, and, I'm slightly ashamed to say, you didn't want to take them away once they were there--her breasts were not large, but..." He cleared his throat. "Yet, her face might have been the most arresting thing about her--a nose and mouth that almost any man I have met, of any species, would have given away all his worldly goods to have pressed against his own, and big, bewitching eyes that could catch you with just the briefest glance. Her eyes were of different color, one grey, one yellow, and they were electrifying. All this was framed in a luxurious, dark grey mane tied behind her in a long pony-tail, tipped, like her tail, with black. She was dressed in a tight, low-cut dancer's costume, one dark blue piece that clung to her body so closely it should have hurt, with a translucent skirt of veils around her waist.

"All the wolves grew quiet as she entered; even to watch her walk was exciting, and she held our attention completely as she moved in front of us and turned away from the musicians, facing the audience. As her eyes took us in, sitting in the rear of the chamber, they grew wide, and she faltered for an instant. Then she began to dance."

He took another drink of mead, and spoke a little more loudly. "Describing a dance, even for poets, is not easy, and I'm certainly no poet. This scene is why I don't usually tell this story. Well, this scene and a few after it." He looked down, smiling curiously, and stared into his mug as if the lines of the story were being magically flashed there as a reminder.

I tried to imagine the woman he was describing. After I formed the picture, I decided I definitely liked what I saw; I was trying to imagine slowly undressing her when he continued again. Damn bad timing, I think. "It was a simple dance, quiet and flowing, like the music; she stepped a counterpoint to the percussion, and swayed a harmony to the mandolin. When the flute came back into the song, the dance became more... not faster, not wilder, but more suggestive. Every move was liquid, her steps were slow and precise, and as she glided from side to side, up and down, no one in the room could have taken their eyes off her.

"At first I didn't notice she was dancing closer to us, stepping between the wolves in her path, until she was only a few feet away from Rinneld, and even closer to Bordin. He was staring up at her with a slightly perplexed, or perhaps awed, expression on his face; when she was positioned so none of the wolves in front of us could see her face, she smiled at him and swayed her hips in a manner that made Rinneld's eyes bulge so much I feared they might pop out and roll off. Then she turned away, brushing Bordin's face and chest with her tail slowly as she started dancing back towards the front.

"After the dance was finished, we were the only ones who applauded. She looked surprised, and appeared to be blushing under her fur; she turned and started to leave, quickly, but Emrit said, 'Stop.' She did so, and looked down at the ground, trembling slightly.

"The big wolf seemed displeased; he motioned for her to come towards him, and after a few seconds, she did, standing before him. He pulled her down beside him roughly. 'Do you like the way Lekai dances?' he asked.

"'Yes,' I said, after Rinneld and Bordin showed no signs of answering. 'She dances beautifully.' She looked pitifully small next to his huge frame; as he held her to him, his paw almost completely covered her chest, and he was idly playing with one of her breasts as I spoke. Her eyes were closed, but her expression of burning hatred was crystalline.

"'You should see her when she dances truly well,' he said. 'She dances that way only for me. Don't you?' She was silent.

"'Now will you talk about the raids, Emrit?' Bordin asked suddenly. He was standing, and his fists were clenched behind his back.

"All of the wolves' expressions darkened, and the man on the throne scowled. 'I said, it will wait until morning.' The big wolf pushed Lekai off the chair and stormed out of the chamber; Lekai followed a second later, after looking back in our direction, her glance lingering a fraction of an instant longer on Bordin.

"'He is not afraid of you,' said one of the wolves.

"'Should he be?' I inquired mildly. 'We only come for the truth; does he have any reason to fear that it should be made known?'

"The wolves started muttering amongst themselves.

"'Do you have any reason to fear the truth?' Bordin asked loudly. 'Do you do things in your kingdom that the real one wouldn't like?'

"Several wolves started growling. 'We follow our god,' said the wolf who had spoken before.

"'You follow Commander Emrit, if you are one of his men,' I said.

"'There is no Commander Emrit. There are no men. There is our god, there are his followers,' he replied.

"'Then what does your god teach?' Bordin asked. 'Does he teach love, or hatred? Sanity, or madness?' Several wolves stood up, growling louder, but several others looked away, as if they were being made uncomfortable.

"'Truth,' said one of the growling ones.

"'All gods say that when they ask you to put your life on the line,' said Bordin. 'You better be damn sure about that truth.'

"'Do you really believe he's a god?' asked Rinneld.

"'Can you truly doubt it?' our guide said. 'Follow me to your room.'

"We were led behind a curtain and partway down a short hallway beyond it. Another curtain opened onto a small vestibule for three rooms, all shut off with curtains. 'The one on the right is being used,' the guide said. The three Yeeth soldiers entered the room on the middle. Before Bordin, Rinneld and I entered the left-hand room, Bordin asked the wolf, 'Are you sure your god teaches the truth?'

"'I am sure of nothing,' he said, grinning. 'It is a useful survival tactic.' He turned and left.

"The room was fairly large, but furnished only with a huge, cushioned mattress big enough to sleep all three of us, and a few wall-hangings. There was no door, only a thick curtain which could be tied shut. The guide lit an oil-lamp in the room and departed without speaking to us.

"Bordin dropped himself onto the mattress and sighed heavily. 'I can't believe how he's treating her,' he said.

"'You don't know how he's treating her,' Rinneld said.

"'It seems fairly obvious,' I said gently. 'I would strongly suspect that Lekai, and the jugglers, are prisoners here.'

"'Then so are we,' the ferret said. 'Unless they're exceptionally stupid.'

"'They follow him as a god,' Bordin snorted. 'They're not exceptionally bright. We already have the answer for your empress.'

"'Do we?' I asked.

"'Of course,' he said. 'It's obvious Emrit is leading the raids, or at least ordering them.'

"'It might not be that simple,' the ferret objected.

"'It probably is,' I sighed. 'Emrit didn't want to be a decorated soldier anymore; he wanted to be a king. Now he is.'

"'Great. So how do we get out and tell people about this? If all these men think he's a god, they're going to pretty much do whatever he damn well pleases.'

"'Do you think she was flirting with me?' Bordin said.

"The ferret and I both looked at him blankly. Then Rinneld suddenly burst out laughing. 'Damn, did you want her to paint runes for you, or what? You're not that dense, are you?' He rapped Bordin's temple sharply.

"Bordin looked perplexed again. Like most people from Yeeth, he'd had little experience with nonhumans, and had assumed that species were only attracted to their same type. 'You find her very attractive,' I said.

"'But I'm human. I shouldn't,' he said, shaking his head.

"'You're male. If you didn't find her attractive, you'd either be gay or brain dead,' said Rinneld. 'What would you do if she walked through that curtain tonight?'

"'You know that won't happen,' Bordin said, smiling.

"'I bet it will,' said the ferret, brushing his fur.

"Well, I was just about ready to put out the lamp when a soft voice came from outside the curtain. 'Are you awake?' it said, sounding desperate.

"I went to the curtain and drew it aside. Lekai stepped into the room, closing the curtain behind her. She was still dressed in her dancing clothes. Bordin looked up as she approached, and his mouth fell open for an instant; Rinneld grinned at him evilly, then resumed studiously brushing his fur.

"'Are you here to kill Emrit?' she said, quickly kneeling beside us.

"'No,' I said. 'We are here to learn why he isn't stopping the raids.'

"'His men need supplies,' she said. 'He doesn't order the raids, but he won't stop them. He teaches that everything--everyone--is here for their use."

"'If they believe that, they have no reason to stop,' I said.

"'Except that he's crazy. They know it. You can see it in their eyes,' Bordin replied. 'They don't follow him. They follow what he was.'

"Rinneld snorted. 'It don't matter if they see he's a furbearing rutebega or not. They'll still do what he says.'

"'Would they kill us for him?' Bordin said, looking at Lekai.

"'Some would; I do not know how many. Emrit would kill you himself, though, and none would stop him.'

"As Lekai talked, she painted the picture of an already unstable man who had fallen over the edge. I had seen some of this in the way Emrit spoke, but--at that time--the idea that she was not exaggerating seemed impossible. Emrit wanted to set up his own kingdom, free from any 'contamination' by non-lupine races. If you were not a wolf, you could be exploited in any way a wolf thought you would be useful. She believed that all the wolves really did think Emrit was a god; to this day, I'm not sure I agree.

"As she spoke, she moved closer to Bordin, and between sentences her eyes played across his body. She and the jugglers were prisoners, and, she said, the wolves terrorized them. Bordin, who had been trying--unsuccessfully--to avoid staring at her, looked right at her when she said this, and she caught his eyes with her own and held him.

"'They seemed to like you well enough,' Rinneld said.

"She looked down, silent, then spoke barely above a whisper. 'They will not hurt me. Emrit keeps that for himself.' We were all silent, not sure how to respond. Even if she had been playing up parts of her plight to increase sympathy, the pain in her eyes was genuine now. She closed those strange, beautiful eyes and shuddered, drawing her arms to herself. 'I want to leave. I want to see him dead,' she hissed.

"'We can't just kill him,' Bordin said.

"'We can,' said Rinneld. 'Our authority is to find out what's going on, and take any action we think is necessary.'

"'That might be considered excessive by the Empress,' I said.

"'She'd be the least of our problems. If we killed him, you'd better be damn sure you can convince these wolves he's a lunatic. If they think we freed them from a madman, we get out of here. If they think we killed their god, we're dog food. Maybe literally.'

"Bordin looked uncomfortable, and carefully avoided looking at Lekai. 'We can't promise his death. We can take you with us when we leave.'"

"'Oh, good thinking, bald boy!' Rinneld spat back. 'And King Fuzzyface's just gonna give her to us?' He had a point. There was no way to leave our room without going through the main hall, and the wolves could certainly overwhelm us in number alone, even if we got to the room with our guides first. If we tried to leave at all, we might be killed, but trying to bring Lekai with us would make it certain.

"Lekai rose to her feet wordlessly and started to leave, looking dejected. 'Wait,' Bordin said. She turned expectantly, and he seemed to flounder. 'You danced beautifully,' he said. 'Why did Emrit say you didn't dance well?'

"She laughed. 'I know other dances. Emrit will not let me dance most of them for others.' Her smile faded. 'There are some I would not dance for him. If I had a choice.' Then she smiled again, somewhat slyly. 'I should not... would you like to see one of those?'

"Bordin looked surprised, and stammered out a yes. 'Let me think,' she said, walking back towards us. Both Bordin's and Rinneld's eyes were fastened to her."

I laughed. "And yours weren't?"

Meoriar looked over at me crossly. "I was watching, certainly."

"Certainly," I agreed.

"Now," he said, coughing. "Lekai stood a few feet away from where we sat, and said softly, 'This dance needs no music. I am not sure how appropriate it is.' She stood still, breathing deeply, her head down; then she raised her head, brought her arms over her head, and began to move.

"She spun slowly, her gauzy skirt and her tail swirling around her legs, turning one way and then the other as she moved towards us and through our group. The dance created an almost audible rhythm; as we watched, the silence became its own eerie, compelling music. After several more seconds, it became clear she was making a wide circle around Bordin. When it became clear to him, he blushed slightly, looking a little confused.

"Lekai's spins became faster, and she began to sway at the hips as she moved around Bordin a second time, swinging her hands close to him and bringing them up towards her in a way which invited him to follow. As she started the third circle, increasing the tempo again, she brought her hands slowly down her torso, grasping the skirt and seperating it into two veils. This left her wearing just the tight, dark blue one-piece skirt and blouse, and the skirt only barely covered her upper thighs."

"Letting Bordin look right up, of course," I said. (Why don't beautiful women ever try to seduce me this way? I always yield to temptation, and sometimes even pull off the road for it.)

"Letting all of us look right up," he said, chuckling slightly. "She was wearing gray panties, if it makes the picture more complete. As she danced around Bordin now, she was so close he had to almost look straight up to see her face, and her tail was whipping across his back, chest, and face as she spun. As she moved towards his front again, she motioned for him to stand up, and he did, awkwardly.

"The dance became even faster; she dropped the veils and gripped her blouse as she moved. I am not sure how it had been held in place, but it seemed to melt around her legs, and she stepped out of it, leaving it across Bordin's feet. She wore only those gray panties now, and if I had thought her patch of white chest fur was compelling before.... and she was dancing against him now, her head arched back, her body spinning against his, with her tail wrapped around his legs and her hands moving across his chest and shoulders. He was trembling visibly, his own head arched back slightly and his arms stiffly at his sides; she danced around him several times, arching her body across his, seeming to lose herself against him. As she came around the last time, she placed her leading foot between his legs, spinning full against his body and embracing him in the same motion, and thrust her hips with audible force against his. Bordin gasped and dropped to his knees, shuddering.

"The room hung for long moments, Bordin's head almost against Lekai's stomach, Lekai with her hands on his shoulders and her hair falling in his face, breathing heavily. Rinneld and I were stock-still, although the ferret was whimpering slightly; for myself, I was not sure whether to feel privileged in having seen the first part of the Fire Dance--for I had recognized what it was--or to feel embarrassed for having seen it when I was not the person it was intended for.

"After Lekai had recovered her own breath--several moments before I had recovered mine, I may say--she said softly to Bordin, 'Did you like it?' He looked up, tried to speak, and was unable to do anything but nod weakly. She laughed and kneeled in front of him. 'I am sorry if it had this effect on you,' she said, sounding as if she meant the complete opposite. She looked over at Rinneld and myself, and seemed to blush a little under her fur. 'Normally this dance has no audience.' She seemed to notice the ferret's somewhat thunderstruck expression and walked over to him, laughing a little more. 'You look like you've never seen bare breasts before.'

"'After seeing yours, I feel like I haven't,' he said, leering up at her belly-button. She pushed him away, smiling.

"'I must go,' she said, walking back towards Bordin. 'I do not want to think what Emrit would do if he knew I danced even that much of it for you.'

"Bordin caught his breath. 'There's more?' he said, as she gathered up her clothes.

"'Oh, yes,' she said, slipping back into her dress. 'I would not dance the rest of it for even a close friend; I know I should not have danced this much for someone I really don't know. Yet I felt like... I should.' She paused before she stepped through the curtain. 'Besides, the rest would require you to do more than fall to your knees. Although that might be an interesting start.' She stepped out of sight before Bordin could reply.

"After a moment, Rinneld turned towards him. 'So, still not sure if she's flirting with you?'

"Bordin let out a long, shuddering sigh. 'In Yeeth, at least, that would go far beyond our understanding of the word "flirt."'

"This was certainly true, but even more than he knew then. If my belief that Lekai had started the Fire Dance was correct--and, as things turned out, it was--she came from a small province in Orinthe, which, before the time of the Empire, was one of the few matriarchal societies I know of. There were few differences between it and most other provinces in the Empire, at least as they exist now, but Lekai came from a tradition that assumed the female to be the sexual aggressor, not the male. The Fire Dance was part of an old courtship rite--not something that everyone was expected to do, of course, for most people simply can't dance that well, and fewer still would have enough confidence to pull it off, but it was, you might say, a romantic ideal."

"Let me guess," I interrupted. "The part of the rite this dance was, wouldn't happen to be the last part, would it?"

"Quite," Meoriar replied. "The fire it calls up is within whoever sees it. In the seconds after Lekai had whirled against Bordin, she could have had us do anything for her. For Bordin, it lasted much longer, as if he was genuinely in pain because of the cat.

"Well. Perhaps none of us slept easily that night, but in the morning, it seemed as if Bordin was still sitting in the same place he had been when I had closed my own eyes. 'Haven't you slept at all?' Rinneld asked.

"He nodded. 'I dreamed.'

"'Of what?' the ferret asked.

"'Charcoal and amber,' he replied tonelessly."

The bard stopped and stared at his now-empty mug. "It's getting quite late. I didn't realize how long this story was when I started."

"It's not that late. Besides, you're not even halfway finished," I cried.

"On the contrary. I think I'm about two-thirds finished."

"Then you have no reason to stop."

"Well," he said, rising and stretching. "I'm going to take a break for a few minutes. If any of you are interested in the rest, then don't leave." He picked up his mug and went over to the bar, and Xon refilled it silently.

The conversation level in the Den rose up to its normal level after a few minutes, but nobody left the bar.

"And so," Meoriar said.

It had been ten minutes since he had spoken, and by this time none of us were paying any attention. The bard hadn't returned to his table; he was sitting next to me at the bar, staring into his refilled mug. Then suddenly he looked up at the counter-length mirror behind Donthen and said, "And so." It's remarkable how fast the place quieted at the sound of those two words.

"And so," he repeated again a little louder, turning to face the rest of the room, his left arm still resting on the bar a short grabbing distance from the mead. "I was the first out of our room; the short hallway was empty and still. I looked behind the second curtain to find the three Yeeth soldiers awake, and motioned for them to meet us. Then curiosity got the better of me, and I parted the right-hand curtain.

"The room it revealed was smaller than ours, but projected a haphazard, wastrel opulence; fine, rich red and orange silks covered the walls, and all colors of it lay in piles scattered across the floor. There were no furnishings, save for a huge mattress with silk sheets spilling down it onto the floor, and a few small wooden boxes at one end.

"I was debating whether or not to enter when a voice inches away from me ear said, 'Lekai's room.'

"When my heart started again, I turned to find the wolf who had guided our group to Emrit's stronghold standing by my side. 'If she had been there when you entered, I am sure her reaction--and yours--would have been most amusing,' he grinned.

"'She is an early riser,' I said, stepping back out of the room. Rinneld was standing there along with all of the soldiers, although Bordin had not emerged from our room yet.

"'She is rarely allowed to spend nights in that room. Pity. I am sure it is much more comfortable than Emrit's chamber is. However, you are invited to appear before Emrit now.'

"We followed him down the short hallway to the entrance chamber. The hall was full again, but Emrit was nowhere in sight. Lekai was huddled up against the throne, eyes blank; when Bordin saw her, he made a beeline to the chair, pushing past the wolves between us.

"'What a yutz.'" The bard's voice changed register to perfectly match a musteloid's foreshortened squeak as he spoke Rinneld's lines. "I looked at him quizzically. 'Come on,' he said. 'Last night? People don't act the way she did unless they're missing a few beams upstairs--or they're extremely desperate. Whatever Firethighs over there is, stupid isn't it. She wants us to get her out of here, and grabbing Meatball by his hormones struck her like a good way to do it.'

"'And I thought romantic ideals were dead and gone,' I said drily. Bordin was kneeling by Lekai; she was looking away from him, apparently refusing to speak.

"'Romantic, hell,' he replied. 'She makes what I thought were the most beautiful women in the world look like rock lizards, and don't think she doesn't know it. Bordin can't begin to handle her. If he doesn't stay away, she'll be wearing him as her panties.'

"'Colorful,' I said, 'but a trifle cynical. And even if her interest in Bordin is as mercenary as you suspect, I could not blame her for it.' He grunted. 'And if Lekai had tried to seduce you instead of Bordin last night, short one, would have you been able to "handle" her?'

"'Hell, no,' he snorted. 'I'd cut off my tail to be her panties.'"

"And what about you?" I interrupted. Someone snickered from a corner booth.

"Don't be ridiculous," the bard said crossly. "I don't have a tail.

"Lekai had straightened up, smiling a little; Bordin sat down beside her, and they started to talk. They were still talking--and laughing--a half-hour later, when Emrit finally entered the room. He stood by the entrance, staring directly at Lekai. She shrank back under his gaze, but Bordin stood up and took her hand, gently pulling her to her feet. Without looking at Emrit, he walked her back to where we sat.

"'No! No! Yutz! Dope! Dimwit!' Rinneld hissed as he approached. 'She is limping,' I whispered to the ferret, and he subsided, watching. It was true: the limp was slight, but noticeable.

"Emrit took his throne and continued to watch as Bordin sat down beside us, guiding the dancer down next to him. 'Another for your collection,' he said, wheezing.

"'Or one less for yours,' said Bordin. All the wolves looked at him, then, as one, at Emrit. Our three guards put their hands on their hilts and rose to one knee; I placed my own hand over my pomiard.

"Emrit stared at him, unmoving, then chuckled. 'Everything is our collection, little man. The world is for those who take it.'

"I rose to my feet. 'We are here to discuss trade routes and piracy, not dubious philosophy. Either you know something about the difficulties Yeeth is having, Commander Emrit, or you do not.'

"'You may tell your empress,' he said slowly, 'that her problems with her humans are hers alone.'

"'This region is under your charge,' I said. 'Are you dispatching it or are you not?'

"He leaped towards me from his chair. 'This pack is my charge, and this land is ours!' he roared. All three of the guards drew their swords; all of the wolves sprang to their feet.

"'Are these your men, Commander?' Bordin said, still sitting. 'Do they protect Yeeth's traders, or do the traders need protection from them?'

"'Your traders mean nothing to me,' the wolf growled, glaring down at him.

"'Everyone means nothing to you,' Bordin said.

"In one movement, Emrit grabbed Bordin by the throat and lifted him at arm's length above his head. 'My men are everything to me!' he screamed, baring all his teeth.

"'You can help him!' Rinneld whispered into Lekai's ear. She jumped and cowered away. 'Dammit, woman, if he'll listen to anyone--' She shut her eyes. Bordin was trying to pry the wolf's fingers apart.

"'Are they your men, or are they your pack?' I said clearly. The rest of the wolves started to growl. Emrit stiffened.

"'My men are my pack.' He glanced at me, eyes narrowed, and tossed Bordin aside contemptuously.

"'It is an either/or proposition,' I countered. 'You know that.'

"He took a step towards me; the guards raised their swords. 'Oh shit,' said Rinneld, looking over his shoulder at the other wolves; they crowded around, but made no move to attack." Meoriar took a large swig of mead, surveying the crowd in the bar, then spun to face me. "So tell us, Wezip, have you ever seen a real fox?"

"What?" I looked back at him, caught off guard. "I am a real fox, mate, at least last time I checked."

"I mean one that isn't a morph," the bard said. He was smiling curiously.

"I know. Yeah, sure. The kind that goes around on all fours and kills rabbits."

"Have you ever wanted to go around on all fours and kill rabbits?" Most of the patrons laughed, although the furries sounded a little nervous.

"I don't quite see where you're going."

"No. Well." He took another drink and turned back around. "Emrit did. He started to growl. Lekai looked up at him, then over at Bordin, who lay near the throne in a heap.

"I stared back at Emrit, as calmly as possible. 'Are you a Commander of the Ranean guard, or an alpha male?'

"'Stop it,' one of the wolves behind me said. Emrit tensed and crouched lower, as if he was ready to spring on me.

"'Are you a man, or are you a beast?'

"Emrit growled from deep in his chest, his lips curling back. 'He'll take your throat out, human!' another wolf said.

"'With a knife, or with his teeth?' I inquired. The wolves started backing up.

"Lekai suddenly flew to her feet and ran towards Bordin. As she passed Emrit, he caught her tail; she jerked back abruptly, her injured leg giving way, and she fell on her face, screaming. Bordin sat up and spat out blood. 'Bastard,' he coughed.

"I moved forwards, gripping my dagger, and the soldiers drew their blades. Emrit lifted Lekai into the air, and let out a deep, tortured howl. Instantly, the guards' swords were at his throat and chest; he hunched down, pulling Lekai close to him, and started to growl.

"'Look at him!' Bordin said, as loudly as he could. 'Look at him, holding her like a piece of meat, howling like a hunted animal, ready to spring at any of them. This is your god. Look at him!'" Meoriar's eyes had become intense, flaming. He paused, looking around the Pub, then drained his mug.

"Well. We were all frozen, morphs and humans alike, magnetized around the two figures in our center: Emrit, crouched almost on his knees, growling, cold steel pressed into his fur; and Lekai, grappled to the wolf, her head pinned against his chest, tears streaming down her face.

"I replaced my dagger on its belt loop and approached Emrit. He stopped growling, but crushed Lekai closer to him, making her gasp in pain. 'You knew it couldn't last,' I said softly. 'Even if you kill us, there will be more sent here. The next time, the Empress will not send any diplomats.' He rose to his feet slowly, holding the dancer under one arm.

"'The Empress is a fool,' he said clearly. Then he raised Lekai over his head with both arms; she screamed wildly, kicking the air. With a roar, he threw her into me. I fell over, with her on top of me, clutching at me desperately. I brushed her hair away from my face to see Emrit, still roaring, falling towards me. I pushed Lekai forward, rolling out of the way, and the wolf crashed beside me--and lay there.

"I lifted myself onto my elbows, the beautiful cat sobbing against me, one arm around my waist. Blood seeped from a wound on Emrit's chest; the cut was long, but appeared mostly superficial. Nonetheless, Emrit did not move towards me; he only rolled over and looked at me, holding his side. He fixed me with his gaze and said, quietly but forcefully, 'It is not... either/or... for me. We are not a part of your world... we are not a part of the animal world. We must... make our own.' His eyes sharpened. 'You do not understand... do you?'

"'Perhaps,' I said.

"He laughed bitterly. 'Get out.' He closed his eyes and bared his teeth. 'If I catch any of you... I will eat you alive.' He raised his voice. 'All of you! Get out!' The wolves milled around uncertainly. He started to howl.

"'Come on,' I said, trying to help Lekai to her feet. She refused to move, curling up into a ball near Emrit. I swore ineffectually and walked towards Bordin, helping him to his feet.

"'Can't leave her...' he said.

"'Worry about it after you stop trying to spit up your liver,' Rinneld snapped, pushing the human along. Some of the wolves had left already; the rest quickly knotted around us, herding us out. I realized my pomiard had fallen out of my belt, but I had no chance to look for it.

"'Now what?' Rinneld said as we stood outside. 'Do we just leave? Do you all kill us?'

"One of the wolves finally spoke. 'You do not understand what it is like to be in a pack. Until him'--he looked back towards the door--'neither did we.'

"'And what about Lekai?' Bordin asked. 'She's still in there--'

"'She is his pet,' another wolf said, sounding bitter. 'He killed her lover a year ago and took her for himself.'

"'And that didn't bother you?' Rinneld said. 'Just a wee bit? How many others have you killed because it was fun?'

"'They weren't wolves,' one of them said, looking away. Several others had sat down, staring blankly in front of them.

"Bordin turned wordlessly and headed back towards the building. The wolf who had served as our guide the day before strode in front of him. 'You cannot enter again,' he said.

"'Do you really believe he'd try and eat me?' Bordin said scornfully.

"He would start with one hand and work his way up,' he replied. 'Of course, being eaten alive is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. If your god values painful and slow deaths, you would have a place in your afterlife second to none.'


"'You want the cat. I will get her.' He stepped towards the door.

"'Uh, you realize his mind's gone AWOL,' Rinneld said. 'What'll you do if he wants to eat you?'

"'Give him indigestion,' he said, stepping through the door. A few minutes later, he came back--alone. 'She is gone,' he said as he passed Bordin.

"'You don't mean she's...?' he said.

"'I mean she is not there,' the wolf replied. 'Emrit--he is dead.'

"The other wolves sprang to their feet. 'His throat has been slashed,' he continued. He looked at me and smiled mirthlessly. 'Your Empress' problem appears to have been been solved for you.'"

Meoriar sighed, turned around and gestured for Donthen to fill up his mug. "All the wolves but for the one who had spoken started to howl. We quickly searched the premises, all six of us, but the guide had been right--Lekai was gone. As we regrouped, Bordin's expression was painful; Rinneld's was hard and cold. But our emotions at losing Lekai turned to amazement as we came back out; the wolves were in a ring, facing one another, occasionally grappling and tearing at their neighbors in what could only be a fight for dominance. They were oblivious to our presence; we almost ran past, fleeing back along the valley towards the oasis.

"The trip back was silent and hollow. We shortly became aware our former guide was following us, some ten paces back, but we made no effort to discourage him. It was not quite early evening when we reached the place, but Bordin immediately started to set up camp.

"'We could still make four miles, sir,' one of the soldiers said to him. He shook his head, only saying, 'It would be better to camp here.'

"After we had finished, Rinneld said softly, 'You know it doesn't matter where you wait--she's not gonna show. And what about the wolves?'

"'They won't come after us. They have no reason to. And the valley ends here,' he replied. 'She still needs us to find her way out of the desert.'

"'And then what?' the ferret said. 'What happens when she doesn't need you?'

"Bordin looked over at him with a sad expression. 'You think she'll leave then.'

"'The only reason you don't is because you're even more madly in lust with her than I am.'

"'We are friends,' he said softly.

"'Showing you her tits and shoving your face against her belly-button doesn't make her your friend.'

"It was obvious to all of us--except, evidently, Rinneld--that Bordin was on the edge of either breaking into tears or hurling the ferret into a tree. 'She doesn't know her way through the desert,' he said tightly. 'Emrit never let her go. They took her here blindfolded.'

"'She told you that?'

"'Yes, she told me that!' he gritted. 'If I knew where to look for her, I'd do it! I told her about this oasis, and all I can do is hope she'll come back here before she dies of exposure!' He lowered his voice. 'You could try thinking with your brain instead of your balls. For once. Yes, I'm attracted to her. More than I thought was possible for a human to be attracted to one of you. Hell, more than I've been attracted to anyone in my life. But I don't care if she doesn't want me as a lover. I want to be her friend.'

"'Gods, he's got it worse than I thought,' Rinneld said. 'Bordin--look. I think she did the Gonad Dance or whatever it was for you to try to get you to kill Emrit. I think you probably would have done it for her. You didn't get the chance--she did. And she's not gonna hang around the scene of the crime.'

"'She didn't kill him,' Bordin said doubtfully. 'Not that she wouldn't have reason to. But I don't think she could.' He crawled into the tent, laying down on his sleeping mat. 'If she does come, wake me.' He closed the tent flap.

"'You do not like Lekai,' the wolf guide said, stepping up close behind us.

"'I really wish you'd stop appearing from nowhere,' Rinneld said. 'All right, I don't trust her. If she didn't use us, she sure as hell tried.'

"'We all use each other,' the canine replied, grinning enigmatically. 'Emrit used Lekai; she used the rest of us.'

"'She would have done anything to get away,' I said.

"'There are some things she would never do unless forced, and Emrit was the only one who would force her. We were as intimidated by her as by the commander.'

"'She wasn't eight feet tall and didn't bite through steel rods to clean her teeth,' Rinneld said.

"'Neither were any of us,' he said, grinning wider. 'Emrit forced her to lie with someone else, once. He would not speak of it in detail, but I gathered she knows how to make being under her a singularly unpleasant experience rather than a divinely pleasurable one.'

"'If that was true, she'd have done that to Emrit,' Rinneld said.

"'Not so. To me, she is tall, has a dancer's coiled-steel strength and a most intimidating appearance. But Emrit could pick any of us up with one hand. What would hurt us would only tickle him. She was a pretty toy he could take at will, and there was very little she could have done to stop him from doing anything he wanted to with her.'

"'Okay, one more question. Why did you stay with this man?'

"The wolf sighed and looked down, drawing circles idly in the sand with one claw. 'I am not sure I understand that, either, and I am not sure I can verbalize it. You could never understand it fully: you are not a wolf.

"'I believe,' he went on, 'in all of us, there is an animal under the man. Beneath that obnoxious shirt of yours there is a ferret: not you, but a part of you. There is a wolf who is part of me, a wolf who wants only to be in a pack with others of its kind, howling at the moon, staking out its territory, ripping its food apart with its teeth, ignorant of all the laws and conventions the rest of me should be bound by.

"'Perhaps your ferret is quiet; for a lupine morph, the wolf is never still. The human was right--Emrit was our alpha male, the dominant of our pack. In your world, we must be men first and wolves second; in his, the wolf is on top.

"'All of us knew it could not last, and we knew by man-standards much of what we did was terribly wrong. But the wolf has no sense of imminent future, only a sense of now; it has no morals or social taboos, only instincts.

"'So,' he finished, 'the rest of the wolves do not mourn him; they mourn the pack. I was the first to leave, but I will not be the last--the others simply have forgotten what else to do. I do not know if we can ever be a part of your world again.'

"'Then why go with us?' I said.

"'I was never a part of your world,' he replied, his mysterious grin returning.

"The wolf and I took first watch; shortly, he curled up and fell asleep, leaving me alone with the stars and the cold night wind. I have always thought of myself as a good guard, but I was not aware of anyone's presence until a hand holding a dagger thrust itself in front of me from behind. I started to whirl around, drawing my sword, then froze when I realized the dagger was my own, and was covered with dirt and blood.

"I turned slowly, to find myself facing Lekai. Her fur was sandy and knotted, and the beautiful dress she had been wearing that morning had been whipped into a dun-colored rag by the desert wind. She was holding a small pack with her other hand; she refused to look at me, but held out my dagger like a gift.

"'I was hoping you would not be at the pool,' she finally said. 'But take your knife. I do not want to steal it from you.' She started to laugh. 'Murder is fine, but I balk at theft.' The laugh turned into a wracking cough, and she started to double over.

"I caught her and guided her, against her will, into the tent, and handed her a canteen.

"'I can make it to the nearest town,' she said after she had recovered, 'if you will only point me in the proper direction.'

"'You will be lost inside minutes if a storm comes up,' I replied. 'You have no travelling gear except for your pack. Which contains...?'

"She laughed quietly. 'One other dress. Silks. Foolish things.' She buried her face in her hands, looking caught between hysteria and anger.

"'Travel with us,' I said.

"'That might not be wise,' she said, rubbing her eyes.

"Bordin was sitting up, rubbing his own eyes and staring at Lekai. When she saw him awake, she looked away.

"'What's all this racket?' Rinneld said, rolling over. 'Damn, she did show up.'

"Lekai crawled to the far corner of the tent, as far away from Bordin and Rinneld as she could get. 'As soon as we come to a town you'll never see me again.'

"'What?' Bordin cried. He caught sight of my dagger, started, and looked back at Lekai.

"'I could not get you to kill him for me,' she said softly.

"He rose to his feet, as best he could in the low tent, and walked towards her. 'Is that the only reason you befriended us?' She was silent. He knelt beside her. 'And everything we talked about, everything you told me, was all made up to win my confidence?' She started to tremble, but he pressed on. 'And you picked me because I looked like the easiest to seduce with that--'

"She grabbed his vest, almost hissing. 'I told you, I only did the Fire Dance once before in my life!' Then she faltered, letting go of his vest and shaking violently.

"'For Corwel,' he said. 'I know.' He put his arms around her, and she started to sob.

"Rinneld cleared his throat. 'Uh, would you mind letting us know what the hell's going on here?'

"'Corwel was Lekai's lover,' Bordin said. 'They were part of a caravan attacked by Emrit; most of the party fled, but Corwel was killed trying to defend Lekai.'

"'I'm sorry,' I said, walking towards them. Lekai tried to pull away from Bordin, but he held firm.

"'You have no reason to like me,' she said, 'except for my appearance.'

"'I like you because in spite of yourself, you are an eminently likable person. You are friendly, mostly honest, and you have beautiful eyes. And I am going to be your friend whether you like it or not,' he said.

"She laughed, sounding as if it was against her will, and slowly put her arms around him.

"'Lekai's only lover?' Rinneld said, half to himself.

"Lekai looked over at the ferret for a few seconds, wiping tears away from her eyes, then suddenly launched herself at him. He squealed and started to run, but she was on top of him almost instantly, easily pinning him under one knee.

"'I wasn't trying to imply anything nasty, mind you,' he squeaked, with some difficulty.

"'Then what were you trying to imply?' she said. Bordin crossed his arms, watching with a wonderfully amused expression.

"'Uh...' he tried to squirm out from under her.

"She put one hand gently across his chest, and then poised the other one a half-inch from his groin, claws extended. 'Be aware your future sex life depends on this answer,' she said sweetly.

"'Eeep. Well. I just meant... well, I thought....'

"'I didn't think ferrets could sweat,' one of the soldiers said.

"'I have never made love to anyone except Corwel,' Lekai said. 'Is there any other facet of my sex practices you are curious about? What positions we tried? Any fetishes I have? What it is like being raped by someone a third taller than you?'

"'I'm sorry,' he said, squirming again. She sat up, letting him go, and he scrambled to his feet.

"She grabbed him by the shoulder and pulled him almost into her lap. 'I only want you to remember one thing,' she said levelly. 'I am kneeling right now, and you are standing. Where is your head on me right now?'

"'Right above your, I mean, right around your neck.' He grinned half-heartedly.

"'Mmmm-hmmm. You already seem to think I lack morals, so it should not surprise you when I tell you this: anger me too greatly and I will use you as a beach ball. Do we understand each other?'

"'Promises, promises,' he said. She squeezed his shoulder hard. 'I mean, yes, of course.'"

Meoriar stopped talking, taking another drink. "Well, that's mostly the end," he said.

"How could she have only made love to Corwel?" I said.

He laughed and shook his head. "Rinneld asked me that later, also. Her culture makes a distinction between lovemates and lifemates, you see. Lifemating refers to an extremely deep friendship, if you will, not necessarily sexual; a lovemate is someone closer than a close friend, but not the same as a lifemate. You usually only find one person who is both to you, but there is no taboo against having more than one lovemate at a time, for unlike conventional marriages, it is not adultery."

"So you all went back to Yeeth," I said. He nodded. "But what about the rest? I mean, did Bordin and Lekai remain just friends, lovemates, lifemates, what?"

He laughed. "Oh, yes. Coming back to Yeeth was quite an interesting experience. We all had separate rooms at the inn; the Ranean government paid for an extra room for Lekai. I imagine we all spent most of the afternoon bathing, but the evening was something else entirely.

"We had decided to meet at sundown in the inn's pub. Rinneld caused quite a stir, of course; most of the people had never seen a furry. While we waited for Bordin and Lekai to come down, I related this story, the same way I am telling it now; Bordin entered alone halfway through the tale, but even with his corraboration, most people refused to believe it--especially the idea that a woman with fur could be so beautiful.

"Well. Lekai entered wearing what was, presumably, her only dress. It was all layers of slightly translucent black silk tied loosely at the waist, almost completely open on her left side. It had virtually no back, the V-cut dipping down below her tail, and only a little more front. Her white chest fur shone through it as dim grey, becoming clearer where her breasts pressed against the fabric. It was obviously meant to show off every curve she possessed, and it was breathtakingly successful.

"All of the noise in the bar stopped, and so did Lekai, staring around somewhat self-consciously. Then she walked towards us and sat down beside Bordin.

"When conversation resumed, it was mostly the sounds of wives and girlfriends scolding their mates. No army could have captured that many people so quickly, but Lekai seemed to have enslaved most of the men and several of the women without even being aware of it.

"As to whether or not Lekai and Bordin remained friends only, I believe they did--for exactly one week. The idea of a furry and a human as lovers was completely outside the realm of possibilities in Yeeth, but I suspect that Lekai could have most mortals of any species eating of her hand just by speaking to them. Every time she touched Bordin, you could see him melt into an ecstatic puddle at her feet. Even if he did want to only be a friend to her--which, despite his protests to the contrary, I sincerely doubt--he had little choice in the matter." His eyes grew somewhat unfocussed, and he grinned uncharacteristically. "I remember the way she kissed him goodnight the day before she took him."

"More than a peck on the cheek, I take it," I said.

"She started at the bottom of his neck, drew her tongue slowly up his chin, over his lips, and deep inside before she was finished. After she left, he just stood there. And stood there. They could have torn down the entire inn and built a new one in its place without him noticing."

"You'll have to forgive me, but how do you know it was exactly one week, mate?" Gerge asked.

"Hmm," he said, downing the last of his mead. "At the risk of continuing a narrative past the point where it's appropriate, on that particular night, Rinneld and I went to Bordin's room to talk. There was no response to a knock on the door, but the lights were on. I turned to walk away, but Rinneld opened the door and pushed it ajar.

"Lekai was dancing the Fire Dance again, this time wearing the black dress she had worn into the bar. Bordin was standing in front of her, facing away from the door, wearing short pants but no shirt. As she whirled around, touching him, she saw us and smiled. I started to shut the door again, but hit Rinneld, who was blocking it with his entire body.

"As Lekai spun around the next time, she pulled off the strip of silk tying the dress together, and it fell off in one piece, revealing nothing underneath but fur. Or, I should say, revealing everything underneath. As she spun around behind Bordin, she looked directly at Rinneld, with a mischievous expression on her face, and slid one hand up her inner thigh. He fell backwards against my leg with a solid thump.

"Bordin did not fall to his knees this time, but dropped to them deliberately as Lekai spun into him and pressed his face into his belly. 'Either come in or go away,' she said, looking across at us, 'but don't keep the door open.'

"Bordin jumped a little and started to turn around, but she moved his head down her body and continued to move slowly, bringing him with her and... well, let me only say that he stopped paying attention to anything but her...."

"Dance," Donthen suggested.

"Yes. I quickly picked Rinneld up with both hands, lifting him into the hallway, and shut the door.

"'She almost invited us to watch,' he said, shaking his head as if he was dizzy. Luckily, the hotel didn't charge us to clean his tongue prints off the floor.

"Well. That is the end of the story, at least as far as I know. The rest of what happened in Bordin's room that night, I leave up to your imagination. Shortly after I left Yeeth, they moved to Orinthe together, and together they still are today."

"Do you ever see them?" Xon asked.

"Yes, occasionally. They travel almost as much as I do. In fact, they've been at the Den a few times; I'm sure they'll be back eventually."

"Must not have been in the past few years," I said, folding my arms. "I'm sure I'd recall a feline sex goddess if I saw her."

"Most definitely," the bard said, smiling. "It's extremely late, however, and I have to be moving on. Goodnight, all." Everyone applauded his story, and conversation resumed. I followed him to the door.

"So, if I asked, do you think she'd tell me what happened that night?"

"If you became close enough friends with her, she might show you," he said, laughing. I gave him a quizzical look. "As I said, there is a distinction in her culture between lifemates and lovemates. Bordin is both to her; she will probably never have another lifemate, but more than one lovemate is a different matter."

"Bordin doesn't sound like that sort of type himself," I said. "But I suppose he learned to adjust."

"All of them would have to be friends," he said. "It is somewhat unusual for Ranea, and surely something most religions frown on, but if nothing else, they seem to have a lot of fun that way."

"So she could take a handsome fox as a lover."

"Or even you," he said. "Anything's possible."

"Except skiing through a revolving door," Turtle called from under a table somewhere in the Den.

"I think I could get used to a group that doesn't mind menage-a-trois," I said.

"Or even four-way," he said with an insanely cheerful grin. He stepped out and closed the door before I had time to respond.

I have to wonder, though--have I ever wanted to run around on all fours and chase rabbits? I'd like to say no, but I'm not completely sure it's the truth. Perhaps all of us have our true animals hidden somewhere, and all it takes is the right thing--or the wrong thing--to bring them out. Maybe that's not always bad; a lot of people seem to think that's what sex is about, after all. I can't say I agree with them on that point. At least, I don't think I do.

But that all still leaves me with one question. Morphs have always had their animals under the surface; I've always thought that's why a lot of humans still don't like us. But what about them? Do they have their true beasts locked away somewhere in their subconscious, too? Is it down there so far it never comes out? Most of us have never understood people without fur; maybe they just don't have animals of their own.

But if they don't, then what do they have?


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