“You could... stay,” said the Snow Queen. Ciara, her name was.
“No thanks, sweetheart,” Oyun said, jamming her helmet back on her head and lacing up her boots. “I've got to be in Tama City by tomorrow. A job's a job.” She held back from mentioning that she also had to call at the village to pick up her fee for satisfying the queen and bringing spring to the region. Oyun wasn't usually one to mince words, but fucking a gorgeous woman into a sated, sweaty (well, in this case, thawing) mess wasn't exactly a hardship, although her old injury in her thigh was throbbing a bit from the cold. She was also wet and slick now under the thick sheepskin, not that she was stupid enough to mention that as she hefted up her backpack. If she wanted ice cubes in her pussy, she'd have let that innkeeper's daughter do what she'd wanted back that one time, and this Ciara looked like she'd be needy in the afterglow. No thanks. She nodded to the queen, who was still lying back on the bed and panting (what could she say, she was fantastic in the sack), and went on her way.
If the queen's yearning gaze bothered her - if, later, on a bed that smelled of goat in a roadside inn, she stroked and fingered herself, thinking of the queen's round, glistening breasts, the way she'd bit her lower lip and whined as Oyun pounded her into the furs - well, there was nobody around for Oyun to mention it to, and by the morning, she was wearing out her boots on the road to Tama.
Oyun spent the next month clearing out the bandits from a godforsaken village thirty miles or so to the east. A wasted job, since they preferred to hire a damn shapeshifter rather than pay her her well-earned fee. She set fire to a few strategically chosen buildings; you couldn't let the word get around in her profession that you were soft on a few poor innocent villagers. She was so pissed, tired and hungry after that mess that she almost considered going back to the Ice Palace. She could fuck for her keep with the best of them, and had done, a few times, although she'd always been lucky enough to be picky about who did the keeping. But then a simple bodyguard job came along to tide her over, and that took her back all the way south to Tama City. By then, it'd been a long time since she'd had a bit of company in her bed and she was horny enough to fuck a goat if it wiggled its behind at her, so when she reached the city, she decided to make the first stop on her itinerary the legendary Tama City leather quarter. She was regretting leaving her dick with the pathetic specimen in Meltwater, and Tama City was really the only place to pick up a new one. That thought led to the queen again, and for a moment Oyun was distracted from her surroundings by the memory of the rhythmic sound of the queen's skin against the sheets, like a stone skimming over an icy pond. Damn.
With a new pair of boots, and two (the shopkeeper had been persuasive, and Oyun was a sucker for a pretty pair of eyes) new leather cocks and a harness wrapped in linen, Oyun headed towards the rougher part of town for the Carrot and Codpiece: bar, private club, and her home away from home.
It was only early evening, but there were a few of the usual suspects around; Big Talia with her legs up on the table, chewing on the end of her dagger; Yuki the Killer, playing darts with her girl Landobar, and Burdog Son of Kronar lounging against the bar, chatting with the bartender and polishing her club. Oyun had spent a few enjoyable nights being the meat in the sandwich between Yuki and Landobar, but she wasn't looking for that kind of company tonight.
Burdog grunted as she approached the bar. “Oyun.”
“Have a drink.”
“Thanks. How are things?”
“How's your dad?”
Burdog growled. Oyun grinned.
She didn't recognise the new bartender; the management had changed since she'd last been here, she'd heard. An older woman, with interesting curves under her no-nonsense apron. Defensive. Oyun liked a challenge. She considered the best line of approach.
“Glad to see the Carrot's being kept so well, ma'am. Like the new floor polish.”
The woman considered her.
“You look like you've had a long, hard ride. Drink on the house?”
Oyun felt the beginnings of a grin start to tug at her lips. She settled her pack against the bar and unfastened her sword, feeling the woman's eyes on her.
“A drink to start. Then perhaps we can talk about that ride.”
Maria was demanding, but worth it; Oyun stayed for a few weeks, breaking in her new dicks, fucking into Maria's glorious cunt, Maria's thighs squeezed around her waist, or lapping up Maria's heady taste as Maria writhed, purred and screamed below her, the linen bonds white against her dark wrists. By day, pleasantly tired and a little chafed, Oyun paced the streets, picking up old contacts, setting up some jobs. Finally, she mentioned casually that she might be on her way with a jewellery train the following week. Maria's head snapped up from where she was wiping the bar.
“Oh!” she said. “I thought you might - stay for a while.”
The early morning shadows stretched luxuriously along the street as Oyun slid down the drainpipe on the side of the Carrot and Codpiece, satchel on her back. Shame really; she liked this place, and now she'd have to add it to the list of establishments she couldn't visit if she didn't want a faceful of dishwater. But she couldn't be an innkeeper's wife; if she'd wanted that, she'd never have left home. Why didn't women understand that she couldn't be tied down? She liked new places, new faces, liked the danger and the road. She was a rolling stone, and rolling stones didn't settle. She bought a sausage-in-a-bun that didn't look too dubious from a street vendor, and went about her day, pack on her back but a great weight lifted from her shoulders. She'd been in Tama too long, anyhow.
Heat began to slither through the windows and twine its way around the houses, keeping respectable people busy with harvesting their crops and watering their vegetables, and keeping aristocrats and sorcerers lazy, hot and playing board games with human teeth, or whatever it was aristocrats and sorcerers did in their spare time. Oyun picked up work on a northbound trading caravan to seek cooler climes. She was the only woman there, and mostly she kept to herself.
Once, halfway through the Forest of Traal, they passed a beautiful magic fountain encircled with crumbling stone, the remnant of some ruined civilisation. Oyun was thirsty and stupid enough to drink, and after deciding it probably wasn't a magic fountain after all and perhaps wasn't even the remnant of a ruined civilisation, spent the next week wondering if she'd made the right choices in her life until the effects finally wore off. She dreamed about the snow queen, kisses like a trickle of cold water across her overheated brow and throat, cool fingers sliding inside her, and when she woke up, she was sticky, hot, unsatisfied and wondering why she'd ever left. She fucking hated magic fountains.
She had a little spare cash when she got to Xo, so after asking around to check whether or not that weirdo Sandoval had moved on (he'd apparently been 'promoted' to Xoan ambassador to the Sorcery Mistress, whom she hoped didn't have any young male assistants, for their sake), she signed up for a few sessions at the Knifemaster's Training School there. She'd had a nasty run-in with a couple of opportunist thieves coming over the pass and had found she was getting a little rusty at hand-to-hand. Then, on a whim, she dropped by the armoury to see if Kirinal was around.
“Oyun!” Kirinal said, and raised her arms; for a second Oyun wasn't sure if it was going to be a hug or a slap; but then Kirinal said, “Come here, hot stuff!” and threw her arms around her. Surrounded by Kirinal's muscular arms and the familiar smell of the forge, she almost considered letting her hands wander, before Kirinal stepped back and said, “I can't wait to introduce you to Sal!”
“No hard feelings, then?” Oyun said, still a little nervous.
Kirinal hit her with a bright, beaming grin that, to her surprise, stung worse than a slap would have. “Oh no! If you hadn't run off like that and broken my heart, I would never have gotten together with Sal! I'm so happy, Oyun, being in love's been so good for me -”
Oyun was weak enough to accept an invitation to dinner, remembering Kirinal's map-fruit stews, but then she had to sit through two hours of Kirinal and Sal spoonfeeding each other and simpering. Couples.
As she stalked through the closed, quiet bazaar that evening, she thought about the snow queen. It was because she hadn't had got to come, she decided. That was why she couldn't get it out of her head. It was just a quick, unsatisfying fuck, there was no reason why she was still thinking about it. She was so caught up in her thoughts that she almost didn't hear the guy behind her until his knife was at her back; a quick scuffle later, she wiped her knife off on his shirt, her heart racing and blood thrumming. Perhaps she didn't need that training after all.
Back at the inn, she caught the eye of the tasty bit serving the meals. After a bit of easy flirting, she raised an eyebrow and nodded to the back room. The girl blushed. Yeah, she still had it.
After, she licked her fingers and watched the maid tug her stockings back up and her skirt back down. She was still blushing. “What, um, what would you like?” she said. She put her hand on Oyun's thigh, then shyly slid it up under her skirt to rest on her hip. Oyun's cunt throbbed.
“Hm,” she said. “You got any ice around here?”
The girl's lips were cold and sweet on her hot places, but it wasn't quite right, all the same. She spent most of the next week in the training ring, where it was easy to avoid her and Kirinal, although she came away feeling just as bruised.
She spent a profitable two months helping keep the peace at the enormous Summerhaven Fair, which was really more of a temporary market town, but eventually the horses were all sold, the apple crates empty, the craft stalls packed up and wheeled away. She was ready to move on, anyway. On her way south, she ran into the same shapeshifter again, the one from the village. At first she wasn't sure it was the same one, but then it morphed back into the half-naked woman, right there on its horse. This time it gave itself a real head. Sensible. She was pissed enough as it was, and another look at a fake bag of cash might have snapped her temper.
“Hello again,” it said. “Still sure you don't fancy a go?”
“I don't think so,” Oyun said. She thought about killing it, but it was only doing what it got paid for. It hesitated, reining back its mule.
“How about a drink then? On me.”
Oyun thought about it. It was almost sunset, after all.
“Why not?” she said.
Later, after a good steak and ale pie and a few beers (but not too many, since by now Oyun was fairly sure the shapeshifter wanted something more from her than a lack of hard feelings), the 'shifter (its name was actually Aron) said, “Listen, I hope you won't think I'm rude for asking, but my mate and I have been wanting to set up a respectable establishment catering to all tastes, if you take my meaning, but we've got a bit of a problem.”
Aron grimaced. “It's a bit delicate.”
She spun her fork on the table. “I'm listening.”
Aron leaned over. It - he - she? smelt vaguely of something fried. “It's like this -”
He whispered in her ear. If anyone had been passing by (which they weren't), they might have heard a few snatches of conversation - “respectable establishment... said it wasn't how they do it... run out of town...”
When she'd finished laughing, Oyun laid her cards on the table. Then an idea entered her head, and she laid down a few more.
“Deal,” said Aron. “I'll hire a room, shall I?”
“I'll need another drink first,” said Oyun. The firesprite brandy burned as it went down, but it didn't smoke out the butterflies in her stomach. As Aron sauntered into the room ahead of her, fingering the key, its - her - skin rippled and turned blue as the summer sky, then frosted over; her hair sprouted and slicked itself back, then covered itself with that cute little headdress and icy tiara; her breasts shrunk a little, and her belly flattened.
Oyun considered. Between her legs, heat pooled and thrummed. She was tipsy, but still sober enough to know that this probably wasn't a good idea. Let yourself get caught up in a memory, you were sure to lose your way.
“A little taller,” she said. “Okay. Lie down.”
Aron lay down.
“I don't suppose you can make yourself cold, can you?”
“Nah, sorry,” said Aron. Her eyes widened. “I thought you got hotter during sex! Wow, we were so misinformed.”
“No, never mind, forget it,” Oyun sighed. “Touch yourself. Yeah, like that.”
The room was warm enough for her to sit naked in the chair and still be comfortable. She watched the ice-woman on the bed writhe. “Bite your lip,” she said, hearing her voice get deeper, hungrier. “Yeah.” She slid a hand between her legs, and went to work.
“Wow,” said Aron, after Oyun flopped back into the chair, panting. “That is not what I thought would happen.” She hopped up on the bed. “Okay, okay, fuck me now. Or I could fuck you?” A blue penis sprouted from her icy thatch. Oyun recoiled.
“No! Gods, put that thing away. I'll get my bag.”
Aron eyed the leather dick dubiously. “Does that thing work?”
“I'll show you,” said Oyun, and crawled over her. Aron was warm - hotter than human temperature, actually - and her skin was slightly moist to the touch, which Oyun tried not to think too hard about. Aron grunted in nearly-Ciara's shape, and hoisted her legs up higher to rest on Oyun's shoulders.
“Look more surprised,” Oyun panted. “And - grateful, yeah. Bite your lip again. Close your eyes.” Gods, it was almost right. Then - “Wait, your breasts shouldn't actually grow during sex, you do know that, right?”
“Oh,” said Aron. “Really?”
“Really.” Oyun sighed. It just wasn't working. “Look, drop the shape. Do the one you had before. The hot fiscal one. No - not the moneybag head! A real head! A human head, Aron!”
“By the gods, you're picky,” snapped Aron.
After, Aron lolled around for a while, then said, “Well, thanks again for all the tips. Money's on the dresser.”
“Okay, okay.” Oyun picked up the bag of gold and then her clothes. It was nice, she told herself, to just have good, old-fashioned, straightforward, no-strings-attached sex again. Where both parties left satisfied (well, almost), there was no awkwardness or tears, and there was a bonus bag of cash for her too. This would pay for decent accommodation until she could catch up with the Xoan missionary train she'd heard about. They hadn't paid their guild fee, claiming their purity of spirit would protect them from all misfortune; no doubt they'd be looking for a bit of extra help by now. She preferred sleeping alone, anyway. This was fine.
In the early hours of the morning, cursing and punching her pillow in an attempt to make it easier to fall asleep on, she had the fleeting thought that she wished she'd kissed her. The snow queen, that is, not Aron, that would have been weird. Oyun lay back with a sigh and stared at the ceiling in the darkness. She never regretted things, unless it was not feinting the right way in a knife-fight. What in the name of all the demons was wrong with her?
She left the inn before dawn, in a foul mood.
“Business, or pleasure?” growled the gate watchman. He looked Oyun up and down like she was a tasty piece of meat he'd like to pick out of his teeth.
“What's it to you?”
The watchman clearly thought about making a comment about how he could make Oyun's pleasure his business or vice versa, saw Oyun's hand on her dagger and reconsidered his life choices.
“Just routine, ma'am.”
“Stopping for a night or two. Meeting a friend.”
The gate swung open with a rusty creak. Oyun made her way to the Sorcerer's Bunions. It was a little off the beaten track, and Oyun had to ask for directions and kneecap a would-be assaulter before she made it to the surprisingly bright windows and well-polished doorstep. It was certainly a step up from the rathole of an inn she'd spent the last night in, and there were a few tasty pieces at the bar she'd investigate later (the food didn't look too bad either).
He was in the furthest booth, as he'd said he would be.
“Oyun, my homosexual mercenary friend,” he said, “You are most welcome in the town of Radgalth. How are you? Fantastic.”
“Hi,” she said. She'd learned not to take anything he said too seriously. They'd once spent a nasty few days snowed in together in an abandoned fort after a diplomatic meeting gone wrong; they'd known each other a long while now, and they'd become - well, maybe 'friends' was too strong a word. Acquaintances. Colleagues. They were in the same line of work. She thought. At any rate, his word was good, she'd found a lot of work through him, and he always bought the drinks, which excused a lot. She didn't know his real name, but she thought of him as the Man.
“It goes most excellently, friend Oyun,” he said. “Try the home-brewed ale. It is magnificent.”
He caught the eye of the prettiest waitress in the place, naturally, who sashayed over. She looked them both over, then winked at Oyun. Oyun preened. A fine line appeared between the Man's eyebrows.
“Pretty waitress,” he said. “This is my companion Oyun. I command that you treat her like a queen. Look at my hand. Look up. I have it. It's a blue ruby, delved from the mines of Tar'el'helith. Look back down. The ruby is now a gold piece. Fetch us some more of the divine nectar with which you served me earlier.”
She pocketed the gold piece, and looked at Oyun. “Two of the local, then?”
“Please,” said Oyun wearily.
“Silverfish hand catch!” cried the Man. He handed the trout to the waitress, who turned her nose up a bit. Oyun sympathised. He was always doing shit like this. She wondered how fresh that fish was. “Have the chef prepare this for our meal. Look down. Look up. Another gold piece for you!”
“Right,” said the waitress.
“Tell me of your travels, friend Oyun,” he said. “Where have you travelled? Whom have you slain? Have you encountered any fine or unusual smells?”
“Oh, you know,” Oyun said, but the atmosphere, the beer (it was good), the promise of fish and chips, and the Man's raised eyebrow loosened her tongue. She found herself telling him about being cheated by the village with the bandits, the Xoan mission and their ill-fated detour in search of pickled herring, and the Well of Doubt, as the Man interjected helpful comments like, “Majestic,” “That was most forthright,” and, “Swan dive!”
As they blew the foam from their third beer and pushed away their knives and forks, she found herself telling him about the shapeshifter, and Kirinal's new domestic bliss.
“Hm,” commented the Man. “As I summered in the balmy climes of the southern seas with my dear friend the King of Dolphins, where I won every medal in the Sea Olympics competing with four barrels of diamonds on my back, I heard tell that you were the one to bring the end of winter to the town of Meltwater.”
Oyun slouched. She poked at the ruins of her fish to find a bone long enough to pick her teeth with.
“Yeah. That happened.”
“Well? Is she as beautiful and radiant as the stories say? Is her boudoir made all of ice? Did her breath freeze the air as she cried out in pleasure?”
“Uh,” said Oyun.
“Did her crystalline, limpid eyes follow you from the room? Did you find yourself wondering, yearning in your heart for something that maybe, just maybe, her sweet, untouched heart might give you?”
“Did she send you?” said Oyun.
“Um,” said the Man. “Maybe.”
Oyun put her head in her hands. “Gods, I don't know what to do. What the hell's happening to me? Did she put a spell on me?”
“The ways of love are strange and circuitous,” the Man said. “Sometimes paved; sometimes slippery with the ice of mishap or the slime of a strange creature dragging itself across the path. Listen! A shriek breaks the night air. But do not fear. You're on a horse.”
“Well,” said Oyun. “Thanks for the talk.”
“Wait, friend Oyun. I was instructed to convey this gift to you. Look at your hand.”
Oyun looked. There was a single, perfect snowflake lying in the palm of her hand. It was already melting.
“She couldn't just send a letter?”
As she watched, it dissolved into a single bead of water that rested in her cupped hand. She waited. Nothing happened.
“That's it? It's just water?”
“What is more important?” said the Man.
“I just,” said Oyun. The Man looked at her. She wiped her wet palm against her tunic. “I just don't want to get tied down, you know? They always want me to stay, and I - I can't. Stay.”
The Man shrugged. “Can it always be spring for the queen of a winter realm?”
“Did I tell you,” said the Man, “of my adventure in the jungle of Waka-Waka in search of the great tooth of the Beast of Barakh, who I tamed with the sheer force of my manly scent?” He chuckled. “Oh, that Beast of Barakh. What an entertaining fellow.”
“You know, I don't believe you did,” said Oyun, with great relief. “Go for it.”
The next day, Oyun woke to silence; outside her window, the sun was shining and the world was carpeted with white. She thought for a while. Then she packed up her bags, slowly, meditatively, and went downstairs to settle her bill.
“No charge, darlin'. Your friend left enough to cover you both.” said the pretty waitress. She leaned over to wipe down the bar, giving Oyun a good view of her spectacular cleavage. “Unless you'd like to stay another night?”
“I don't know,” said Oyun. “I was thinking of heading out.”
“My break's in a a few minutes,” said the waitress. She gave an inviting smile, and leaned closer. “Maybe a little help with your... packing?”
Oyun felt interest stir as she eyed the waitress' tempting curves. Then she hesitated. The waitress' face softened into a smile.
“Got someone at home, have you? That's all right. My Rillin's out on patrol with the King's Guard; I says to her, I'm a woman with needs, and what happens out of town, stays out of town, you get my drift? But she likes to have someone to come back to. Well, there's more than one way to warm up, that's what I say.” She poured a mug of something steaming, and pushed it over towards Oyun. “Get that down you. My name's Susana, by the way.”
“Thanks,” said Oyun, feeling gratitude and something warmer than lust grow inside her. “Thanks, Susana.”
The drink was hot, and tasted like spices, and apples, and the porridge that followed it was filling. Oyun ate slowly, and watched snow flutter past the window, disturbed from the roof by a bird or a squirrel. It was a beautiful day to start the walk north. Winter had come early this year up there, she'd heard. But there was no reason for it to last forever.