The bath has just been drawn. Steam rises around Annith as she settles herself into the great oaken tub, tinting her fair skin pink.
“She looks so lovely, does she not, Ismae?” Sybella says. Her throaty voice, with all the power and knowing in it that were hard-wrested from pain and terror, is full of promise. It still sends goosebumps scuttling across my skin … but, now, not in an unpleasant way.
Annith looks up at us. In the rising mist, her eyes are even bluer, and fair strands of hair have become plastered to her flushed cheeks. As ever, she looks like a sea-maid. An angel of Saint Mer — not a dévotée of Saint Mortain. Let alone his bride. And certainly not like an abbess.
I am a maiden no longer, either in body or in mind. I blush no more at desire in Duval’s eyes, or at a bawdy jest from Beast. Now, though, as I watch the small apples of Annith’s breasts pinken in the heat, their nipples still taut from the cool of the chamber, I find my cheeks beginning to glow as if it were I who sat bewreathed in steam.
With one brow softly arched, Annith remarks, “There is room for each of you, on either side of me.”
Sybella arches both her fine black brows. She says nothing, but she need not speak; her eyes have always been eloquent enough.
I blush all the harder. A hundred arguments rise to my lips. The Church decries women lying with women as they would with men. For Sybella and me, it would be an incestuous act, one we would be committing with the beloved of our sire. And each of us is now claimed by another for his bride.
But my heart answers each argument before I can voice it. We answer not to the Church, but to the Old Gods; the Arduinnites, in truth, hold unions of women to be sacred. Sybella and I were fathered by a god, even be he now a mortal — and, from what little we have gleaned in our conversations with Balthazaar, the gods have their own morality.
And we three belonged to one another long before we ventured out beyond the convent, into the world of men. I remember Sybella’s words at Rennes: Love itself is never wrong.
As always, Sybella sheds her gown and shift with as little fuss as a snake casts off its old skin. Her skin is as white as her hair and eyes are dark, and blue veins stand out in the hard muscles of her limbs and in the soft swells of her breasts. Annith’s eyes are upon the latter, before they move slowly down the flat plain of Sybella’s belly to the black thatch at the juncture of her thighs. Sybella catches that gaze, and, serpent-like again, smiles.
Then her eyes fall upon me and sharpen. “What are you waiting for? Get your bedamned clothes off, Ismae.”
My face burns hotter as I undo my lacings, step out of my gown, pull my shift over my head. My skin burns elsewhere, too, as two pairs of eyes, sky-bright and night-dark, settle upon it. But they are soft with affection, and with desire.
Annith first saw the stain upon my flesh the day we met: Matrona’s curse, from which Mortain — Balthazaar — sheltered me. It is still odd, to hold both aspects of him in my head. But never was Mortain easily understood. The mark flustered her not a whit then. And she has since ridden with Death and his hellequin, she has lain with him, and soon she will fast her hand to his. As I step into the tub she holds me by the left hip that she can press her lips to my right, to the bottom edge of the scar, which she kisses as reverently as if all the Nine had inked me crimson-red. The skin is as shockingly sensitive as when Duval first traced it with his fingertip, and the feeling of having been brushed by an angel’s wing is tenfold.
I jolt at a new sensation: fingertips that have, unseen, insinuated their way between my thighs. Sybella’s, bold as always. Now she sits at Annith’s other side, reaching across her to fondle me. I fight the instinct to close my legs to her touch and, breathing deeply, part them further instead. Her thumb traces the outer lips back and forth, drawing a sigh from me, before dipping between them. “You’ve not sat down yet and you’re wet already,” she murmurs in approval. The sound I make is a bit louder now, a sort of humming moan.
Sybella’s eyes rake back from me to Annith, and they are wicked. “Would you like to watch me pleasure Ismae?” she asks, and in contrast to her gaze her tone is as if she asks Annith whether she would like more butter on her bread.
Annith’s eyes widen; there is not so much blue in them now, so great her pupils have grown. “I would,” she says.
It only then occurs to me that Sybella has not asked me whether I would like her to … pleasure me. But then she looks at me again with an air of finality and says, as though it is a settled matter, “And then you, Ismae, will do so for Annith.”
I have no time to be shocked or flustered, for Sybella pulls my hips flush with her face, making the water plash about my ankles.
Her tongue is yet another thing serpentine about her. It flicks nimbly within my cleft, finding my nymphe and attending to it skillfully. Saint Arduinna shoots arrows of fire through my belly. Steadying myself with one hand on the tub’s rim, I clap the other over my mouth, moaning behind it. Never have I found fault with Duval’s hand when he has plied it where Sybella now plies her tongue, but a tongue is softer and smaller than any finger, and she wields it as deftly as all of us do our weapons.
In short time my thighs shake too hard to hold me up, even with my hand braced on the rim. I tumble into Annith’s lap, legs widely spraddled, as my hips jerk hard and wild against Sybella’s mouth. She has me on the edge of the precipice when I feel Annith’s fingers on my nipples; the pressure is light, but her archer’s calluses are exquisitely rough. Suddenly I am cresting, and I do not cry out so much as squeak. Sybella continues to lick at my slick and swollen flesh until the sensation is too much and I push at her head in protest.
She licks her gleaming lips and stares up at me, her eyes heavily lidded. “Do you know what to do now?” she asks, more throatily than usual.
“I… I think so,” I gasp, which is something of a lie, for I cannot think right now at all. But I make myself gather my wits for Annith’s sake. She looks as though she has seen a thing as astounding as the hunt of the hellequin, as the threshold to the Underworld, as a god becoming mortal man.
“Annith,” I say hoarsely. “Let us trade places.”
Her outer thighs are hard-muscled, as are mine and Sybella’s, but her inner thighs are warm and soft against my temples and cheeks. My tongue probes past wisps of fair hair, bathwater-damp, to silken inner flesh scented like the sea. She tastes of cream and of copper as well as salt. I do not lick her with anything like Sybella’s expertise or speed, but her soft, quiet moans sharpen and explode into fierce cries the longer I attend to her, the more vigorously I caress her nymphe. Her spend flows more and more freely onto my tongue until I feel her shudder, then go limp against me. Sybella murmurs something that I cannot hear through Annith’s trembling thighs.
I swallow, though I am loath to lose the taste of her. Through her skin I can feel her pulse still hammering. Tenderness fills me, and I encircle her waist with my arms to lay my cheek against her muscular belly. Then, with a little start of guilt, I call, “Sybella?”
“I have finished,” she informs me, her voice as graveled as ever I have heard it but soaked now in satiation. I feel vaguely cheated that I did not get to watch pleasure unmoor her from her wits, as she so watched me and then Annith, and guilty again that she had to tend to herself. But I cannot be displeased that she is satisfied.
The water has cooled somewhat since the bath was drawn. Our sloshing about in it, I am sure, has not helped. Sybella steps out, dripping onto the rushes, at ease in her nakedness as always, to fetch the kettle from the hearth. She pours the newly heated water into the tub at a sufficient distance from my feet and Annith’s, and once the kettle is back on the hob she climbs in again.
We do not so much cling to as lean against one another, easy, lazy. I remember the hours of our convent days when we stole away to hidden corners and made a pile of ourselves, where we spoke idly of the days when we would finally kill men the way other girls speak of the days when they would finally wed them. We are far less innocent now, of course, but none of us was innocent then. Even if neither I nor Annith had ever lain with another.
We are far more fortunate now, in so many ways. But this is the oldest of our fortunes, and it is far from the least.