Cearball snorted in disgust.

Cearball snorted in disgust and let his foot slide off his thigh and onto the floor. It seemed he could never be interrupted except at some ignoble task: blowing his nose, or picking a scab, or cleaning underneath his toenails with the point of his knife.

At least toenail-​​cleaning involved such a manly implement as a knife. He deposited it carefully in plain sight upon his bedside table and barked, “Aye?”


After a moment’s hesitation a feminine voice called softly at the lock: “May I be opening?”

A woman! Before leaving Maire’s that afternoon he had made a half-​​hearted attempt to provide for his night’s entertainment by way of her bonny cook, but it had been more out of habit than any real desire.

Even that afternoon he had been tired. Now he only wanted to clean the dirt of two hundred miles out from beneath his toenails and sleep until Sunday morn.

Now he only wanted to clean the dirt of two hundred miles out from beneath his toenails and sleep until Sunday morn.

“Aye,” he growled.

It was not Maire’s cook at his door, but Maire herself.

She stopped in the doorway, and her face flushed copper. Her lips moved silently around nothing.

Her lips moved silently around nothing.

Cearball knew he ought to rise to greet her, but he was too tired to be a gentleman, and too tired to want to be. Moreover he did not care to move and spoil whatever it was about the sight of him shirtless and sitting on a bed that had stunned her so.

He merely hoped it was not some tell-​​tale sign of toenail-​​cleaning that only women knew.

“Aye?” he said roughly, in case it was.

She shook her head quickly in a shiver that streaked up from her shoulders.

'Were you needing anything?'

“I was about to retire,” she said. “Were you needing anything?”

She spoke in that sort of mumbled, pleading, “pay attention to me” tone that had always exasperated his mother when he had taken it. Tonight it exasperated him.

He dimly suspected he would regret his haste in the morning, but at that moment he simply wanted her out of his room as quickly as possible. Out of the experiences of his awkward youth he dredged up the sort of lewd line that would send any women with even vague pretensions of delicacy scampering away.

'Why?  Were you?'

“Why?” he sniffed. “Were you?”

Maire’s head sank slightly, but she made no other move.

As his desperation grew he added, “Anything I can do for you?” He smoothed his hands over the blankets on either side of him and leaned back suggestively over the bed, in case she had not understood.

Maire glanced back at the empty doorframe, but she did not step through.

She did not step through it.

Cearball cursed her in his heart. Now he was obliged to consider the possibility.

No one had ever taught Maire that a slouch was not the best way to show off a woman’s breasts, but even so it was clear they were full and heavy. Her belly pouted out slightly, but her hips were round and wide, and he had previously observed that she appeared to make a pretty handful from the back.

He bounded up in his best imitation of a cat and slipped his arm behind her. She shivered from her shoulders down into her arms and spun about to face him, but he only nudged the door with his elbow and set it swinging slowly closed.

He only nudged the door with his elbow and set it swinging slowly closed.

“You might start by shutting out that draft,” he leered.

Despairing, he watched the door turn silently on its hinge: well-​​fitted and well-​​oiled it proved to be. Not only did Maire fail to catch it and yank it open in time, but she shuffled into the room before it had even clicked shut. She planned to stay, and Cearball could not see how he could back out now.

Cearball could not see how he could back out now.

He followed her in and wrapped his arms around her waist – from behind, to give himself time to think. Why had he not bothered to ask how far away this Princess Irene lived?

Maire squirmed her shoulders uncomfortably against his chest. “I… didn’t mean…”

'I... didn't mean...'

He jerked her hips back against his and hissed “Whisht!” at her ear.

He did not want to hear her flimsy excuses. He did not want to talk to her at all. He could not imagine this slinking, shifty-​​eyed woman having anything funny or adorable to say.

He spread his palms out over her belly and slid them down in a V towards the cleft between her legs.

“I must seem so old to you,” she mumbled.

'I must seem so old to you.'

Cearball let his arms drop to his side. If there had been any hard surface nearby besides her head, he thought he might have banged his own skull against it. “Flatter me!” They were all the same – at that age.

He whirled her around and pulled her hips back against his – from before, this time. He no longer needed to think at all.

He no longer needed to think at all.

“What nonsense,” he purred. “A woman! You can never have been more beautiful than you are now.” He laid his palms flat on the small of her back and pulled her tightly against him. “More desirable,” he added in a whisper.

He slid his hands down, opening them out into an upside-​​down V until they grasped the backs of her thighs. She did indeed make a pretty handful.

'What are you thinking a man likes?'

“What are you thinking a man likes?” he murmured. “A scrawny thirteen-​​year-​​old?”

He kissed her and nipped her bottom lip. It was full and taut and did not tremble.

“No…” she tittered. “A girl your own age, I’m meaning.”

'A girl your own age, I'm meaning.'

“Tsst! Girls my own age aren’t even knowing what they like. They aren’t even knowing what they want.”

He slid his hands up and grabbed her waist, squeezing her and kneading her flesh over her ribs and pelvis in search of the thirteen-​​year-​​old body that must have been hidden beneath it.

He slid his hands up and grabbed her waist.

Cearball could scarcely remember the last time he had put his hands all over the body of a thirteen-​​year-​​old. He could not have been much older than thirteen himself. Now he could not find anything that reminded him. Her breasts lay heavily over the backs of his wrists as he searched her ribs. Her pelvis was wide and moved rhythmically against his as he slid his hands over it: it had borne children, and it had been tilted up to meet many men before him.

“What you want,” she corrected slyly. Her low voice was already growing husky. At her age – unless she was the annoying sort that shrieked – he knew passion would send it nearly as deep as a man’s before he was done.

“Only give me a woman who knows what she wants and knows how to ask for it,” he grinned, “and I promise you I shall be having everything I want and more.”

'Only give me a woman who knows what she wants.'

He had said it a hundred times before, and he had believed it too – so deeply that he had made it his guiding philosophy.

But it stood to reason that women had to learn somehow – that they had to be shown and taught and helped to discover. He had not given the matter much thought before, except as it interfered with his own education. Strangely it now seemed a noble task, both demanding and worthy of great care.

Out of habit he pulled her body close to his again, and he ran his hands over its curves, feeling out the femaleness of it as he kissed her.

His body responded promptly and a little painfully as it always did. Only his tired back and shoulders sent out one last, regretful plea for the clean, cool, dry sheets he had meant to lie between… for the dreamless sleep he had dreamt of all along the road back to the manor…

'Out of habit his hands found the slit in the back of her gown.'

Out of habit his hands found the slit in the back of her gown. He wriggled his fingers between the laces until he could massage her spine through the thin fabric of her shift, and she arched her back and relaxed her neck until her throat was bared.

Out of habit Cearball bent his head to kiss it, but his nose encountered an obstacle in the form of a dangling openwork earring, broader than a coin and almost as heavy.

He snorted and pulled back his head to plan a route around it, but he was distracted by a pair of purple spots that trailed along her hairline behind her ear – perhaps three, if the third was not a shadow. At the peak of one, where her neck met the base of her skull, there was even a narrow, crescent-​​shaped scab.

He was distracted by a pair of purple spots behind her ear.

Cearball flexed the fingers of his right hand to remind himself how fingers were arranged, but he saw at once that they would not fit.

Then he thought of the left. His fingers curled slowly around nothing at his side, but in his mind the ghost of a hand closed neatly over Maire’s neck, bruise by bruise, even revealing a fourth that was fainter than a shadow, and fitting the nail of the longest finger into the crescent-​​shaped wound.

Was the man left-​​handed? Or had he held her with the left because he had wanted to do something else with the right?

Cearball's fingers snapped straight.

Cearball’s fingers snapped straight and bowed back more than straight in a superstitious horror.

“Has he been hurting you?” he whispered.

Maire turned her face aside as though to hide her bruises, but he knew she might have worn her hair otherwise if she had not wanted anyone to see. She had wanted him to see.

Cearball wanted nothing to do with such a story.

“You shouldn’t let him do that, Maire,” he said shakily. “You’re deserving better than that.”

'You shouldn't let him do that, Maire.'

“No, I’m not…” she lipped.

“Aye, you are. Now listen – ”

She had a brother! She had a husband! What was he to her? And meanwhile, as soon as he thrust her away, an angry throbbing began between his legs as his body understood there would be a delay.

'You ought to be telling someone.'

“You ought to be telling someone,” he pleaded, hoping she would not protest that she just had. “Isn’t there someone who can help you? You’re not belonging to the man!”

“I am,” she whispered.

“Nonsense, Maire! You’re having a husband. You’re – ”

“He doesn’t want me!” she snarled. “He wants me dead so he can marry his elf – slut!”

'He doesn't want me!'

Cearball wanted no part of this story at all, and yet, perversely, the panicked pounding of his heart was only beating his blood all the faster out of his brain and into his groin.

He squeezed his dizzy head between his hands and groaned, “Sweet Jesus and Mary!”

Immediately Maire snapped back, “Sweet Jesus won’t save me now.” Cearball looked up to see a strange, savage smile. “I let the devil have me.”

The weird gold eyes of her race made her seem malevolent.

Cearball dodged around her, but he could not unlock his gaze from hers. The weird gold eyes of her race made her seem malevolent, until they squinted up and filled with ordinary, remorseful tears.

“I’m ruined,” she whimpered. “He’ll never have me back now. I’m nothing but a filthy slut!”

'I'm ruined.'

This was something like what Cearball knew. He gave her shoulder an awkward pat, but she snuck beneath his arm and threw her arms around his back.

He said I am!” she gibbered. “He proved I am!”

She was hysterical, unpredictable, irrational – everything that frightened him about women. And nevertheless it felt so good and so right to have her pressed against him again, dragging her breast and belly and hips over his again.

“You’re not, you’re not,” he soothed. “He only wants you to think so, so you’ll stay with him. You’re beautiful, Maire, you’re beautiful… Any man would be desiring you…”

His hands were grateful for his old habit of running them over a woman's body.

His hands were grateful for his old habit of running them over a woman’s body. Every curve was in its appropriate place. Every handful was of just the familiar size. As long as he held her he knew just what to do.

She sniffled and mumbled, “I’m a whore! I went to him! I went to you!”

It was the ordinary, familiar song. Some women liked to feel naughty, and some women feared they were, but the same chorus served for all of them.

“Tsst! Is a woman a whore because she’s wanting a man? When that’s what she was made for?”

'Is a woman a whore because she's wanting a man?'

His expert fingers could unlace a gown even without the aid of his eyes, and out of habit they went to work. His heart had settled into pounding out its familiar, deliberate, undeniable rhythm.

“Wasn’t I telling you, what a man likes more than any other thing is a woman who wants him, and knows what she wants from him? That isn’t a whore, Maire, or half the women I know are whores.” He gave her a friendly, teasing smile. “And the other half are unhappy.”

She bit her bottom lip and tried to frown dubiously, but her eyes were wide and told him she wanted to believe. Perhaps she had a little in her of both sorts of woman. Clearly the kindest thing he could do for her was to prove that what he said was true.

'He's only wanting you to think it so he can keep you to himself.'

“He’s only wanting you to think it so he can keep you to himself,” he crooned.

With a gentle finger he tipped her face up until the candle’s yellow glow dimmed out of her eyes, leaving them tarnished and dark.

“Fie, Maire!” he whispered. “What wouldn’t a man do for the dear gold eyes of you? Even say cruel things that are untrue.”

'What wouldn't a man do for the dear gold eyes of you?'