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The dance began with astonishing leaps as the performers hurled themselves across the floor with total abandon, their un­bound hair streaming out behind them. Then, as drums pounded, the females hurled themselves at the males, who caught them in various positions, whirled them around, and

flung them on to the next partner. There was frank and un­flinching eroticism in their choreography. Even Aelmarkin, who had seen them practicing, felt his pulse quicken at their raw sensuality.

"Ancestors!" Tennith muttered under his breath, his eyes wide. "What is this?"

"An ancient fertility rite, so I'm told," Aelmarkin said casu­ally. "I thought it might be interesting to watch."

Tennith didn't reply; his eyes were glued to the dancers.

Half combat, and half mating-frenzy, it was sometimes diffi­cult to tell if the dancers intended to couple or kill each other, and the performance built to a pulse-pounding crescendo that ended in a tangle of bodies suggestive of both.

By Aelmarkin's orders, the lights dimmed gradually as the dance ended, leaving the room bathed only in star- and moon­light. As he had hoped, the performance had achieved the arousing effect he had intended. His guests had turned their at­tentions to their couch-companions, and as the dancers and ser­vants slipped away, Aelmarkin turned his attention to the censers, increasing the mist rising from them. The slaves al­ready knew to dust more of the intoxicating drugs over the coals therein.

Magic did not come easily to him, and he had to close his eyes in concentration even to perform so minor a conjuration. As he opened his eyes, he realized that he and his little slave were no longer alone. A slim form sat on the end of his couch.

"Well, Triana," he said blandly, concealing his surprise. "Whatever brings you to my side? Forgive me if I doubt that you have erotic intentions."

She made a pouting motion with her lips. "Aelmarkin, I do believe you haven't a romantic particle in you!"

"Neither do you," he countered. "So?"

"I just wondered what it would be worth to you to see your cousin unseated," she said casually, casting her eyes down and tracing a little path on the fabric of the couch with her finger.

"I suppose that would depend on the circumstances," he replied just as casually. "It would do me no good at all if, for in­stance, his estates were ruined in the process. Why do you ask?"

"No real reason. Just that women often have sources of infor­mation that are closed to the men." She gave him an arch smile, but he refused to rise to the bait. The last thing he wanted was to give Triana something she could use to manipulate him!

"Just as men have sources that are closed to women," he countered, with an arch smile of his own. "Especially someone like me. Do recall what my stock-in-trade is, my dear. Concu­bines don't speak to ladies."

She smiled with malicious delight. "If I hadn't made a vow never to marry, I swear, I would propose to you on the spot, Aelmarkin! You and I are two of a kind."

"You and I would kill one another before a year was out," he replied, and touched his finger to the bottom of her chin, draw­ing her to him for a brief, dangerous kiss. "Now, you've left that handsome stud all alone. Better get back to him before he pines away."

"Or falls asleep." She rose with a sinuous grace worthy of any of his dancers. "I'll tell you what; I'll lay a bet with you. I bet that I can find something to discredit him before you do."

"And the stakes?" he asked.

Her smile was so sweetly poisonous that it took his breath away. "Something we both swore never to do. If you lose, you train a male slave for me. And if I lose, I train a female for you. But you can't limit me as to means. Is it a wager?"

The idea of owning a slave trained by Triana made his head swim and his breath come short. Now here were stakes worthy of the play!

"Done," he said immediately. She laughed, and glided away into the mist.

He felt a tentative touch on his wrist, and belatedly returned his attention to his current favorite. He looked down at her, and saw by the furtive color in her cheek, her moist lips, and her shining eyes that the dance—and the sighs and vague shapes moving in the mist around them—had produced the effect he had anticipated on her, as well.

"Lord," the slave breathed, looking up at him coyly from be­neath her long, fluttering lashes, "Do you wish my—further service this evening?"

Though untouched, she was by no means unaware of the du­ties of a concubine, and it was clear from the moist eagerness in her eyes that she was ready to fulfill those duties.

He closed his eyes for a moment, savoring what he was about to do. He had ways of controlling the slaves he trained that went beyond, far beyond, the slave-collar and magic coercion. He had subtle tortures that were far more sophisticated than anything Tennith dreamed of.

"I don't believe so," he said, just as casually as if he were rejecting a not-quite-ripe fruit. Then he looked down at her and frowned. "My dear child—is something troubling you? You seem to be a little—puffy tonight. Or perhaps you have just gained a little weight? Perhaps you should return to your quarters."

The girl put her hand to her mouth, stifling a sob; her eyes brightened further with tears. Quickly as a fluttering bird, she fled into the mist.

He chuckled to himself. He had carefully manipulated her mind for weeks now, and this carefully chosen moment was the beginning of a delightful interlude.

He had made a point of praising her slender figure, of leaving no doubt that he treasured her slimness. Doubting her own mir­ror, certain that she had lost her real beauty, and desperate to gain his regard, she would begin starving herself from this mo­ment. At first he would taunt her by references to plump arms and chubby cheeks, by inquiries if she thought she ought to change her diet. Once she truly began to starve herself, he would switch to the next phase. She would begin refusing food. He, of course, would urge all manner of dainties on her, which she would eat unwillingly, only to purge herself of them at the earliest opportunity.

His lips curved in a slight smile. Watching her torture her­self, all the while certain that he was still as gentle and consid­erate as ever, would be highly amusing. Eventually, she would probably die, of course, but not before he gained a great deal of pleasure from watching her ridiculous sufferings. If he was feeling generous, he might even save her, wiping out her mem­ories of everything up to this moment so that he could sell her

to someone else. In any case, there would be weeks, possibly months, of pleasure ahead.

And further pleasure. Between the two of them, he and Tri-ana would almost certainly find a way to bring his cousin Kyrt-ian down.

He laughed softly; how his fortune had suddenly turned! This might well turn out to be the victory celebration he had hoped for.

His appetite suddenly aroused, he reached for the nearest wine-wench to satisfy his needs of the moment.

Poor Kyrtian. He had no notion even that he had an enemy, much less how formidable that enemy was.

 2

One did not normally see an Elvenlord smudged with dirt, twig-scratched, and rather the worse for several hours of tramping through untamed forest. I wonder how much scandal I would cause if even one of the Great Lords saw me in this state? Kyrtian mused, as he held aside an errant limb of a bush, taking care that it did not rattle, and making cer­tain the human behind him had a firm grip on it before he re­leased it. It was impossible to see the man's expression behind his helm, but the fellow sketched a respectful salute with his free hand. Ah well; knowing my reputation, they would proba­bly not be at all surprised.