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The hour of love approaches

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In his wildest imaginings, these were wonders which Cazaril had never dared to dream.

Chancellor dy Cazaril. Serving at the pleasure of Iselle and Bergon.

And, more: to be wed to Beatriz! It was scarcely to be belived. Even once the formal announcements were made, once the rest of the realm apparently accepted this as his due, he could not. During each night of their betrothal he went to sleep murmuring prayers to the Five. Gratitude that if all of this should prove to be a feverish mirage, at least he had been blessed with the dream.

Yet each day he woke and the marvels were still true.

The barber who had shaved him returned to his chambers every third day, without fail. Cazaril tried to object -- his hands were no longer palsied; he could wield his own steel! -- but the barber would have none of it.

"The royse sent me," he said, shrugging, as though that were the only explanation he needed to give. As indeed it was. Cazaril had no appetite for rejecting a gift from Bergon. Not when Bergon and Iselle had given him everything for which he had never dared to ask.

No: Betriz had given him everything. The royse and royina had merely made it possible for her to ask.

His shorn face felt tender, vulnerable to the sun and to the faintest breeze. Or perhaps that was his heart. Exposed and fragile. Too sensitive after being so long hidden.

And when Betriz ran the backs of her fingers along his bared cheek, which had been so long unaccustomed to any touch (much less one so yearned-for), he feared he might go up in flame.


The day dawned bright and clear. Cazaril was up before sunrise, delivering bags of coin to the divines of each order. He and Betriz would make ceremonial offerings during the ceremony itself, but his good fortune overflowed; he would thank the Five as wholly as he was able.

With the divines of Father, Mother, Daughter, and Son he exchanged a few words, handed over the coin, bowed his head and moved on. At the Bastard's house, Umegat -- impeccable all in white -- accepted the bag, handed it to Daris, and pulled Caz into a strong embrace. When they parted, Daris nodded approvingly, though whether at the embrace or at his generosity, Caz could not say.

All the Zangre seemed as abuzz as he felt. As he made his way back to his quarters, everyone he passed wished him joy. He felt, that whole day, as though he moved in a waking vision or a dream. Everything tinged with extra brightness. Though not, thankfully, the brightness which denoted sainthood in the viewer. Which was not to say that he was ungrateful for the Daughter's blessings! Merely that he was not eager to play again such a vital role in Quintarian affairs.

Somehow he made it through the day's appointed tasks. They were few enough. It was customary to fast until the wedding feast, which was fine with him. Caz couldn't have imagined eating in any event, his belly too filled with butterflies. Better than Dondo's noxious ghost, at least.

Dressing occupied a full hour, or so it seemed. Relaxing into the hot bath, a luxury he still couldn't take for granted. One final shave from his friend the barber, who mercifully refrained from his usual patter, leaving Caz lost in thought behind closed eyelids. Linen shift, trews, ornamented tunic, chancellor's cloak and chain. Boots: not those he wore for riding, but stiffer ones which were so new they creaked.

He blinked and it was time. Their guests were assembled around the five-sided square which stood in front of the church, and onlookers crammed into the balconies above. This was no state wedding; there would be no dual processionals through the city. Still, it was the nearest thing to a state wedding that Cardegoss would see in the forseeable future, and and everyone wanted to catch a glimpse of the chancellor and his bride. Not to mention the royina and royse. Iselle and Bergon awaited him where his parents would have stood, were they living: with the divines at the church door.

The musicians began a stately new tune, the door at the far end of the courtyard opened, and there was Betriz, all in silks of the Daughter's blue. Ser dy Ferrej stood at her side, stout and proud. He accompanied her most of the way toward Caz, then kissed her on each cheek and walked away. Caz held his breath, as though it were possible Betriz might stop her slow procession, or turn around and flee. But she didn't. Her face was solemn, as befit the occasion, but her eyes sparkled.

Under the watchful eyes of all assembled, they walked from lobe to lobe with their offerings. To the Daughter, Betriz presented the egg. No real eggshell, this, blown-clean and dyed blue. This one was made of wood and enameled richly with blue blossoms on curlicues of silvered vines. To the Son Caz presented the red box of acorns. In place of the usual beeswax, these were dipped in autumnal red gold.

To the Mother, Betriz gave the green-beribboned basket of ornamented fruit, bright and full. No simple painted wooden apples for the chancellor and his bride: these were jeweled, a gift from the royina. To the Father, Caz gave the grey silken bag of winter grain. This, at least, was the same gift offered at every wedding in Chalion, regardless of station -- though in poorer quarters the bag would be homespun, rather than Ibran silk.

They stood outside the church and watched as Palli, their designated proxy, walked deliberately to the Bastard's tower. He presented to Umegat two cream-colored brocade bags carefully weighed to be equal in heft. At a simpler wedding, the bags would have been filled with barley and with copper vaidas: coin and beer, in equal balance. But these bags were filled with silver and with gold. Abundance of wealth, abundance of sustenance, and the Bastard bless them that everything unfold in its appropriate season, at the proper time.

Then to the central fire. The archdivine spoke words which went past Cazaril without penetrating his consciousness at all. He must have been listening closely enough to be able to offer the ritualized responses, because no one prompted him or looked at him askance. When Betriz replied "Now and always" her voice rang in his heart like a bell.

When the rite had ended, the assembled crowd broke into wild cheers and the musicians struck up a triumphant song. Betriz slipped her hand into the crook of his elbow and Caz covered it with his own, unable to represss his broad smile.

They endured an endless round of toasts and poems. Cazaril did not offer one; he was too swept-up, too tipsy -- not on wine but on the light which illuminated Betriz's face. On the shock of clasping her hand -- permitted, now, even in company -- and feeling her hot fingers interpenetrating his. He wanted to kiss each of those fingers, to press his lips to her palm, to map every inch of her.

The party went on for hours, and everyone wanted to greet them; they could not leave. Nor, perhaps, did Betriz wish to. They were the guests of honor at these revels, a rare privilege to be savored. And once they retired, she faced something unknown. What dreadful tales had she heard of the marriage bed? Caz drank but little, determined not to assault his new bride in a drunken haze.

After the toasts came the dancing. The dancers shifted across the floor like jewels in a kaleidoscope, whirling past each other. He was paired now with Betriz, beaming at him (and surely she would not regard him with such open delight were she uncertain?), now with the royina (whose smile was equally generous, though more sisterly), now with other ladies of the court. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Betriz with her father, with the royse, with Bonneret.

By the time they reached his -- no: their! -- quarters, the hour was late. Betriz carried her shoes in one hand and leaned on Cazaril in the hall. He welcomed her weight, savored the scent of her hair; he felt bereft when the porter opened the door and Betriz moved away.

A few candles beneath glass lanterns illuminated the outer room. A small cluster of boxes stood at one end of the anteroom: Betriz's belongings, awaiting their place in their new home. The door closed behind them, and he bolted the heavy lock. Outside the door, he knew, the porter would soon change places with the night watchman who would stay awake there until dawn. Rank indeed had its privileges.

And here was his wife, standing before him, looking up at him through her dark lashes, an inquiry inscribed across her features.

His exhaustion fled him, replaced by a desperate eagerness. In the next heartbeat, she was in his arms.


Betriz's gown was removed, now; he had unfastened its lacing and slipped it off of her shoulders, his hands skimming her sides, unthinkable liberty! Her hair, which had been pinned up in ringlets, was unbound. She wore only a linen shift, embroidered with the Daughter's flowers and the Mother's fruits. Through the thin fabric the curve of her breasts was unspeakably enticing.

Cazaril had to ask. Depending on what she knew, or didn't know, this night could either go smoothly or could be the sort of nightmare retold by chagrined soldiers around their fires. By the Five, he didn't want to terrify her. Not tonight. Not ever.

"Iselle has offered her wisdom," Betriz said, holding her head high.

"Has she," Caz echoed, trying and failing not to imagine that conversation. He'd seen the two of them putting their heads together to hatch some ill-advised scheme more often than he could count, in the beginning. A year -- no: a lifetime -- ago.

"She says if you can stand to go slowly, the first time, I'll hurt less," Betriz ploughed on. Her face was pink, but -- brave as always -- she didn't duck her head. "And I'll be more easily able to enjoy it again soon."

Now he was the one flushing red, he was certain. He hadn't given himself permission to think past this first night. He knew there was a strong possibility that his bride would be slow to welcome his touch. And surely they would overcome that, in time. But he had told himself sternly that it might take weeks, even months, before she shared his eagerness.

But Betriz was certain. Had always been certain. She wanted this. And she expected to continue wanting it.

He swallowed hard, tenderness warring with ardent desire. "It would be rude to disregard the council of the royesse," he managed.

Betriz's face lit with a smile. "I suppose it would."

"Slowly, then," he agreed, and drew her near for a kiss. A long kiss. Her luxuriant body pressing against his, voluptuous, curving everywhere he was hard. And oh, gods, was he hard. Slowly, even if it kill me, he thought, and pushed her onto her back to kiss his way down to one breast. To worship at her altar as she deserved.


Moments, suspended in time.

Licking for the first time at her nectar, driven on by her surprised sounds of pleasure.

The filthy Roknari curse she offered when he dared to broach her with a finger. Fuck, yes, there, I'll give your balls to the gods if you stop. He'd laughed in delighted surprise, though his laugh transmuted to a groan when she clutched at his wrist, pulling him deeper. 

The words he had murmured when they were finally joined. He would be mortified to remember them by the light of day, but they spilled forth unbidden in that magic hour, their quarters lit only by the faintest sliver of new moon.

Betriz convulsing around him, gasping. Permission at last to spend himself inside her, his duty to her pleasure fulfilled.


Caz awoke on his belly, sheets tangled about his hips, a feather pillow pressed beneath one leg. His body felt gloriously replete. When had he ever been so gratified? Had ever a night been so exquisite as this, as Betriz squirming beneath his fingers and lips, as --

Cazaril shook the memory out of his mind, speedily. His traitorous body was all too ready to stand at attention once more. But he had known many men married, and by and large they agreed that the morning after their nuptials was second only to the morning after a childbirth: one's wife needed time to adjust. He would not be so uncouth.

"You're awake," she murmured, and Caz rolled to the side, startled and suddenly hot with shame. The room was bright now, and his back was bare. Every livid and ropy scar had just been exposed to Betriz's intimate view. She had seen them before, but from a distance, not right beside her in their shared bed. He'd known it would happen eventually, but he had hoped -- not so soon --

But if she felt revulsion, she hid it well. He couldn't see it in her eyes.

"Good morning," he tried, aiming for casual. How was one meant to sound, the morning after one was wed? He hadn't the faintest idea.

"The best," she said simply, and the shard of ice lodged in his throat began to melt away.

And then she looked down and smiled a private smile which threatened to set him afire.

"Is there something -- are you --" He stumbled, uncertain. He wanted to ask if she were well, if she suffered from the night's exertions. Though that might sound like he was angling for more, which he wasn't; who could be so greedy?

"Do they hurt?" Betriz asked, gesturing with one hand toward the ugly welter of scars on his back.

Damnation. "No, not any more," he said, automatically. "I grow stiff, sometimes, if I exert myself too greatly, but otherwise I suffer not at all."

The moment the words escaped his mouth he regretted them. If I exert myself too greatly? Could he have sounded more like an old man, enfeebled by his injuries?

"Can you lie on your back without pain?"

"Yes, of course," he said, shifting immediately. He should have thought to don a nightshirt before sleep. She didn't want to wake to that sight. What woman would? Although she knew they bespoke no crime, they were nonetheless repulsive. He had seen that truth in the eyes of everyone who had looked upon them -- including the Roknari sailor who had bestowed them, lip curled with disgust.

Next thing he knew, Betriz had risen to her knees (by the Five, she was stunning!) and clambered over him to kneel between his thighs, which opened to make room for her. Despite every insistence with which he silently chided himself (don't be an idiot, she was virgin until last night, it doesn't matter what she said, she just saw that damage, it's the very inverse of enticing) his cock had woken, tenting the linen sheet where the sheet was pressed between them.

Her hands tugged the sheet away, exposing him. He gritted his teeth against a gasp, his erection as sensitive to the currents of air as was his recently-shaven chin.

Betriz bit her lip for an instant. "You don't think me too forward," she said, not-quite a question.

His cock felt swollen. His head was spinning. "I -- what? Never," he said faintly.

"Good," she said, and her hand closed around him and angled him up, and with a little whimper she slid herself down. She was still wet from their previous coupling, and enveloped him like a slick embrace.

Cazaril groaned, thrusting up despite his best intentions to hold back. And she ground down to meet him, her eyes exultant. His hands went to her hips to hold her steady and she shifted forward, bracing herself on his shoulders. That wrung a cry from her lips, and for an instant Caz thought to stop, afraid he had hurt her. But no: she was driving him on, chasing some pleasure that was just out of reach.

He had never in his life seen anything so beautiful.

What had he done in his life to deserve a fortune so sweet: to be pinned beneath her, shoulders pressed into the featherbed, suffering this exquisite assault? He tried a gentle roll of his hips and was rewarded with a gasp and a clench which almost undid him. Ah, that was it. Sure of himself, now -- this was a game he knew how to play, and he would win; he would see to her first; he was no boy of seventeen to spend himself on his third thrust -- he twisted beneath her again, seeking that sweet spot.

"Oh," she gasped, sounding surprised. Pleasure washed her features, pinking her from cheeks to breasts. "Caz!" She tightened around him and he had to close his eyes, struggling not to succumb. They moved together, time out of time, the rhythm carrying them like the motion of the sea.

"Anything," he heard himself say, low and desperate. "I'd do anything, you know I would--"

Anything to bring you pleasure. Anything you want from me, all the rest of my days. By the Five, ask and it is yours, anything, anything --

She bent to kiss him, and the change in position was too much: helpless, he surged into her and was spent. The thin tendril of shame (he had meant to ensure her pleasure, not to seek his own) caught like sparked tinder and burned away as Betriz clenched around him, her open mouth seeking his, shuddering with her own completion.


Caz lay abed a while, grinning up at the ceiling like a madman, his wife's hand gripped firmly in his.


He spared a glance at Betriz as they moved about the room, dressing enough to leave their inner chamber, and was gratified to see the same shy smile on her face that he felt certain was emblazoned on his own. He wondered whether he would ever again be able to look upon her fully-clothed without ardent memory.

Breakfast had been laid out for them. There were breads and meats and cheeses, hot tea, watered wine. While they dined, a knock came at the door: one of Iselle's servitors.

"Chancellor," she said breathlessly, dipping a curtsey. "Lady dy Cazaril."

Beside him at table Betriz stifled a sound. He glanced at her, curious.

"The name is still new," she whispered, reaching for his hand and squeezing it once, quickly. New and unfamiliar, but not unwelcome, clearly.

"Sir, the Royse bids you take today without work," said the serving-girl, and then to Betriz, "and the Royina hopes you will attend upon her before midday."

"Of course," Betriz said immediately.

"I thank the Royse for his generosity," Caz agreed.

The girl looked resolutely at the ground. "She says to tell you, milady," reciting without looking at either of them, "that you needn't fear, she loves you too well to expect you to take horse today, or any time this week."

Cazaril took a great gulp of his watered wine and turned his abortive laughter into a cough. Betriz glared at him. Don't scare her, said her eyes, sternly.

"Tell the Royina I appreciate her forebearance, and will present myself to her as I am able," Betriz said, and the girl nodded gratefully, curtseying again before departing.

As soon as the door closed behind her, Betriz collapsed into giggles. Caz had the sudden certainty that she had heard a great deal from Iselle upon Iselle's marriage to Bergon, and that Iselle would no doubt seek to be recompensed with Betriz's own accounting.

"Perhaps while you tarry with Iselle, I will visit Umegat," Caz said weakly. Umegat, at least, was unlikely to tease him about his new status. And Daris might laugh with his eyes, but couldn't speak.

Another knock at the door, this time a pair of servitors, man and maid. "Sir, Lady," said the girl. "Your baths are drawn, should you wish them."

"Ohh," sighed Betriz. "Yes, that does sound delightful. Thank you, Tessa. We'll be there soon."

As he reached for another piece of sharp sheep's milk cheese, Caz remembered his abortive attempt at a hot bath in Valenda, the very day he had made it to the Provincara's castle. The day that he and Betriz had met. How had his life transformed from that to this?

I thank the Five, he thought to himself, raising his watered wine in a silent toast, and -- meeting his bride's merry eyes -- with gratitude and gusto, downed all that remained.