Beyond the Scarlet Mountains

From Traitor's Citadel, an as-yet unpublished novel by Bruce Barnes.

It took some time for me to connect properly with reality again – somewhere between several hours to a few days. Through my concussion, or whatever, enough despairing awareness remained for me to realise I was back in the clutches of slavers, with a conviction of having run out of my allotment of escapes.

Eventually I came fully to, to a vicious double headache. The tender spot on the back of my head hurt, and there was a standard migraine just to balance things out. All I wanted was to lay back silently and contemplate things for a while...then came the realisation I was not lying down. I was sitting up – more or less – between two other people.

I opened my eyes a fraction, then all the way. The darkness remained total. I hoped, with only a mild touch of panic, I had not gone blind.

Keeping silent seemed like a good idea – at least until after figuring out where I was. The air was stuffy, and filled with the smells of urine and unwashed bodies. A cough came from in front, and then a jingle of chains somewhere to my left. I was shoulder to shoulder between two other men, seated on a stone bench, with my back against more stone. There were fetters about my wrists and ankles, and there was a chain laying across my lap.

It was hard to think. Occasionally, the ghosts of colour inside my head misted into almost definable images – whether born of imagination or memory I never knew. In some ways it was like a repeat of my early days in Kramab.

The person beside me moved, jangling the chain, and startled me into full wakefulness. Bringing my head upright produced a painful spasm in my neck. I uttered an appropriate expletive.

"Shut up, idiot!" hissed a voice from the right. I figured there was a reason for this advice, and so resisted the impulse to ask why.

A wooden door boomed against stone, somewhere close by, the sound echoing and reechoing. Obscenities were uttered in commanding voices, ("Chanda's beard! Korndwin's whiskers, you!") and there came the rattle of distant chains and crack of loud whips.

The darkness contorted into a rod of metal spitting fire and smoke. I was slow in recognising it as a pistol. It was one I had used against holograms in a games park, so long ago. Three of us from the lunar project had gone there – including General Norton in a fit of out-of-character sociability. The image of the gun melted back into memory, as the whip-echoes died away. It had been as sharply visible as reality – leaving me wondering just how wide awake I was.

There was a protesting scream of hinges, a thud of wood against stone, and a door's breeze against my face. Murky red light spilled in through the doorway. I rose to my feet with the others, as a stocky man with a whip entered. He had all the manners of a Son of the Traitor. Not bothering to issue any commands, he simply used the whip on those too slow to move, until all of us were on our feet and going...somewhere.

The winding red journey through smoky corridors was a long one, the stone floor dipping and twisting. Sometimes the equally uneven ceiling was out of sight, and other times forced us almost onto all fours. A final climb up an uneven spiral of narrow steps, and we were suddenly at ground level.

Not far away was the babble of an auctioneer's voice. I could see sky and rooftops through the arched doorway ahead. It was night, with a gentle touch of breeze, cool and fresh. The contrast made me aware of the stale smells of human bodies, including my own.

We were formed into straight lines. Someone – apparently a doctor of some sort – walked by and checked each of us in the light of a paper lantern a child behind him carried on a rod. General Norton – it seemed most of my still-missing memories concerned him somehow – had told the story of a military doctor who declared patients fit for duty by feeling them to see if they were still warm. This doctor was almost as thorough.

He stopped when he came to me, and turned to the nearest slaver.

"This one has a northern slave brand. Have you got the list?"

"We just sell 'em, we don't discipline 'em. If he's an escaped, let the new owner work out the problems – after the auction."

"But his eyes! This could be the one the Sons of the Traitor want!"

"Did the Sons ever do you any favours? You didn't notice the eyes. Get onto the next slave."

"But...the Sons of the Traitor! Do you know what they're like?"

"Sheer hell on my brothers in trade up north, I hear. C'mon now. Is this lot fit for the block or not?"

"Okay, they're all fit. Bring in the next batch."

We were sent out into the open air, into a sectioned-off corner of a town square. Beyond the ropes and low barriers, a bazaar of some kind was in progress. This square was far smaller than the one in Three Falls. The buildings beyond it were of a different architecture, and shared the skyline with a number of towers.

Considering my chances of bolting into the crowd, I looked casually at the slavers, the crossbows and swords of the auctioneer's guards, and the spiked fence on the other side of the roped area. I decided against it.

The chain was withdrawn, through the loops of our manacles. A well-dressed slave then went about with a master key, removing everybody's fetters and throwing them into a wicker basket.

No commands were issued. No slave uttered a word. We just stood huddled in line, waiting.

There was a full moon out, and that damned green star was in the same part of the sky as always. Maybe it was not a star – perhaps it was something in synchronous orbit. Either way it bothered me just by existing.

A calloused hand across the chops sent me off my feet and back to earth. The slaver who had just struck me stepped back into position, and jerked his head in the direction of the auction block. It was empty, and the fellow in line before me was gone. I got to my feet and stumbled forward ahead of any further prompts.

The town square was full of people, stalls of wares for sale, and more people. Illumination was from blue and scarlet lanterns hung on lines suspended between tall poles. It was a pity I was in no situation to appreciate the beauty of the place.

I turned my head, and caught a glimpse of something in the near distance behind the surface building to the cells. It was like a milky icicle lit up from within. Far taller than all the other buildings, the luminous spire seemed set to challenge the stars. It could only be one of the windowless structures that gave Twin Spires its name. Welcome to the kingdom of opportunity.

I looked over the huddle of bidders, and idly wondered if one of them was a Hriish – idly because there was not a damned thing I could do about it if one was.

When the bidding reached the 500 mark I started paying attention. The highest price to my knowledge was 450 royals, for someone described as a muscle-man the size of a Gendorian Ape. Yours truly – let's face it – was a scrawny weakling. So why...?

"Six hundred and fifty royals I am bid. Any advance on six fifty? Going once, twice, sold to the House of Prince Ablat." The auctioneer slammed his wand against the ledger stand. I had a new master.

A bearded man in a shimmering crimson robe came out of the crowd and tossed a pouch to the auctioneer. The latter did not even check the contents, but simply gestured to two of his guards. They took me out into then square and to a cage on a small cart drawn by a single thova.

The cage seemed to have been designed by a sadist. There was not enough room for a person of my size to stand up properly or sit down. The man with the red robes promptly vanished for several hours. I was left with my dual headache for company, and the hovering presence of the guards.

The night wore on, and the festivities – in honour of one of the gods of the zodiac, as far as I could work out – built to near fever-pitch. The auctioneer's men remained present and alert, and not looking too happy about it. Apparently they were unable to leave as long as the 650 royal slave stayed anywhere near the block.

The crimson-clad figure returned just before the climax of the celebrations – walking somewhat unsteadily. The thova, which had spent the evening biting at everyone and everything within range, strangely ignored him. The man took the reins and scrambled up onto the driver's seat. We lurched into motion over the cobbled streets. A light breeze carried the smell of the thova to me, but no Hriish-smell from the driver. I relaxed somewhat.

Twin Spires, the city, was a larger place than my limited view earlier had given me to expect. The majestic spires – one radiating a soft lime-green, the other a milky white – dominated the skyline, where few buildings rose more than two storeys. In apparent compensation for their lack of height, most of the structures we passed tended to be broad ground-sprawlers.
The journey was a long and bumpy one.


Twin Spires extends far beyond the limits of its original boundaries. The old city wall still stands, pierced everywhere by roadways, and I still almost missed noticing it. Going through it was like passing under an arch, and only increasing distance revealed the wall for what it was.

Business district and slums gave way to suburban dwellings and more and more countryside. The cart rattled parallel to a high wall for a number of minutes. Up above there was a flash of moonlit metal – a guard on patrol. This wall was functional, even though it seemed about the same age as the one in the city.

The cart turned and halted at a huge arched gateway. The driver yelled an impatient order, and the gate opened. Ahead was hectare upon hectare of gently rolling landscape, with a cluster of lit-up buildings in the distance. None of the structures were taller than the two-storey-high wall, except for one stubby tower rising from the mansion proper, dead ahead.

By moonlight, the gardens through which we passed might just as well have been a large park back home.

The seeming normality of my surroundings flooded me with an unexpected and intense wave of homesickness. I wanted desperately to be out of this world of slaves, swords, and alien creatures. Such things belonged only in a book or on an entertainment disc that could be put aside when grown tired of. I had my own home somewhere and desperately wanted to go back to it. There was a key to this desire in the Scarlet Mountains – which just then might as well have been on the moon.

We reached the cluster of buildings. Thova and cart clattered into a moon-silvered courtyard. Three youngsters carrying torches ran from the big house to help with the thova. The beast was unharnessed, watered – it drank in the head-raising fashion of a bird – and then led off towards a food-trough that was at least beyond my range of smell.

Once all these priorities had been taken care of, I was released from the cage. Before my body could unkink, I was made to assist with putting the cart away.

One of the boys led me around the corner of the main building, and along a pathway to a one-storey construction a few metres distant. It was a long and narrow building, reminiscent of the tavern at Riverstop.

The kid halted at the doorway, and stood aside. When I stopped too, he nodded for me to go on in. I pushed the door curtain aside, and blinked in surprise at the strong light. It came from a system of translucent tubular bags hanging from the rafters, fed and drained of chemicals by a system of thin pipes.

Two female slaves came up and led me to towards a sunken tile bath the size of a small swimming pool. It had been hidden from view at the door by a set of colourful screens. I just had time to notice the stubby-bladed knives the girls were carrying, before they deftly cut away the rags of my clothing and unceremoniously shoved me into the water. They seemed to have had practice at this sort of thing.

Within half an hour I was thoroughly clean again, had my beard neatly trimmed, hair combed, and been issued a fresh set of shiny slave-grey clothing. The new footwear included with the issue was as perfect-fitting as the old boots had been.

I was led to another room in the same building, and left on my own. One wall was divided up into sleeping cubicles. There were fresh blankets in each cubicle, but I had the whole room to myself. Sleep came without problem.

I woke up being hauled to my feet by two beefy guards. They paused long enough to let me haul my boots on, then led me out into the courtyard. The sun was not yet up, but the eastern sky was daubed with red and gold.

The attempt to strike up a conversation with my escort proved somewhat one-sided. No slaves encountered since my arrival in Twin Spires could be accused of trying to talk me to death. I wondered if the silence was due to discipline, or whether owners liked to render their property mute or deaf.

There came the long and melancholy tone of a distant horn.

The remainder of the slaves and servants of the estate bustled into the courtyard, wordlessly taking up positions with a speed obviously born of practice.

A breeze sprang up, with enough chill in it to make me long for a travelling cloak. At least on the plains with the nomads I had been able to warm up a little by physical activity. The horn sounded again – two blasts, closer. The main gates in the wall were swung open, and a coach clattered through, pulled by six horses. I squinted at them to be sure that that was what they were. The last time I had seen a beast like a horse, a Son of the Traitor had been riding it.

The carriage came closer.

I wanted to run. Apprehensively I studied the swordsmen on either side of me. Few people I had encountered were taller than me, yet these two were not only bigger but were built like brick out-houses. Looking around, I could see that – of all the slaves and servants – the only one standing apart was me. I was also the only one flanked by guards. Why?

Two slaves hurried to the carriage. One opened the door, while the other placed a set of ornate wooden steps below it.
A man emerged – a Noble, clad in scarlet and white and amber. The rubies and amethysts decorating his cloak glittered splendidly in the morning light. He was clean-shaven – in the manner of free-men – and was slightly balding. With a look of boredom in his eyes, he went through the routine of inspecting the slaves and servants. He did not come near me, and managed to stay downwind at all times.

Then the breeze changed direction. Perhaps the course of history did too, because from that Noble came the intolerable stench of a Hriish.

I screamed. The sound bubbled and ripped and hurt my throat. My dark terrors had taken full control. The rational "me" still watching from behind my eyes was only along for the ride.

Heads turned.

The breeze was chill, my heart beat loud, and the handle of a sword was cold and rough to my grasp.

The guard whose scabbard I had taken the weapon from was too slow. I ran. The other guard tackled me. I went down. As I fell I hurled the sword as hard as I could. The human body has reserves of strength that go beyond the limits of flesh and bone, and I used them. My arm cracked like a whip.

The sword buried itself to the hilt in the Noble's chest, and went on into the wood panelling of the coach behind him.

None of this entered my attention. They tell me I curled into a foetal position the moment I hit the courtyard paving. I rocked back and forth while repeating something over and over in my own language. Nobody was able to intelligibly repeat my words afterwards.

Prince Ablat had been loved by as many who hated him, but no vengeful servant took my life. Nobody even moved, not even the guard who had brought me down. All eyes were towards the hearse-like coach now standing in place of the royal carriage. Thovas were harnessed to it, not horses. "Prince Ablat" was a dead but still-quivering, multi-limbed green-yellow-red obscenity impaled to the side of the coach.


I awoke from a nightmare about green fire and mushroom clouds. There was a pungent smell in the air, and I was laying on something soft. By now I was getting used to waking up in strange surroundings. Experience told me I would not like it when I opened my eyes, but I took the chance anyway.

A roof with glass panels, reflecting candle-light.

Huh?

I was on a bed of deep silken cushions, at one end of a luxurious room. The walls were decorated with exotic tapestries, alternately depicting jungle and glitterscrub. Glazed urns and small statuettes were arranged decoratively amongst items of squat furniture. I had to look two or three times to make sure the painted statues at the far end of the room were really statues. I moved my arm, and did a double-take at the material of the sleeve. My clothes were not grey anymore, but the scarlet and amber of a Noble.

I sat up thoughtfully.

Standing by the purple-curtained doorway, a slave who had passed as one of the statues suddenly intoned "My lord has awakened," to seemingly empty air.

A gaunt figure entered, carrying a gleaming sword. Judging from his jet-black robes and dyed-white beard, he was a wizard – the first I had ever actually seen. His robes concealed his feet, and he moved across the golden-carpeted floor with an eerie gliding motion. He halted a couple of paces from me, and extended the sword, hilt first. The metal blade was like a mirror.

"This is a soul-sword. It is strengthened by a warrior's soul, which was torn from the body by metal and by fire. By command of His Highness the King of Twin Spires, this sword is yours to do with as you will."

"I...uh. Thank you."

I came fully to my feet, and took the sword by its blood-coloured hilt. Whoever made the weapon had spent a lot of time and effort on it. I was no expert on blades, but could tell quality when it was in my hands.

The wizard dipped one pale hand back into the folds of his robe, and brought out a small scroll bound by a yellow cord. When this had been delivered to me, he turned and silently began to leave.

"Wait!"

The wizard stopped and half turned.

"What's going on?" I continued. "What happened?" My hand tried to give my beard an habitual tug, and touched smooth-shaven skin. A sudden insane suspicion came to me that I might be wearing someone else's body. It made as much sense as anything else.

"His Highness the King of Twin Spires has offered a reward to anyone who slays a Hriish. The said slayer shall be awarded the status of Prince of the Realm, the sum of ten thousand blue royals, thirty slaves, and an estate of an area not less than ninety cals."

"I killed a Hriish?" My memory was clear up to the point of throwing the guard's sword – there was nothing between then and now.

"While you...slept, you were brought here and allowed to rest while the vapours of Dynal were released by the physicians – under my supervision – to soothe your obviously troubled mind."

In the near corner was a bowl of smouldering leaves. It was their odour which permeated the room.

"I see."

I tugged the binding cord free and unrolled the scroll. It was covered in marks that might have been made by a demented spider with ink on its feet. I looked up to see the wizard trying to make another break for it.

"I'm afraid I'm not familiar with your written language. Can you help me with this? What does it say?"

The wizard returned with a billowing noiseless sweep of robes, took the document long enough to glance at it, and handed it back.

"His highness the king has requested you to breakfast with him one hour after sunrise," the wizard explained with a poorly-disguised air of superiority. "Your slave can give you the details of protocol. Just give him the scroll and he will see to all that needs to be done." He hesitated. "The king is particularly interested in the manner in which you detected the Hriish for what it was." Aloofness was betrayed by a gleam of naked curiosity. "I admit to a certain...interest, myself."

"Oh. Well...I smelled it."

"Indeed?"

Digesting this gem of information, the wizard turned to go. He did not make it this time either. A bearded man wearing red robes over a grey tunic entered, and muttered something to him. The wizard whirled on him angrily, and hissed back in an unfamiliar language.

"Would you mind using Tradespeech only, around me?" I asked. "Please?"

"Of course my lord," the robed slave almost purred. "I was simply reminding Nebren K'Norjid of a point of etiquette. He had neglected to request permission to withdraw from your presence."

"Permission to leave, sire?" the wizard asked me, and then cast a murderous glance at the slave.

I gave my permission, and watched the wizard stride from the room in a manner that destroyed the gliding illusion he had established earlier. The slave looked smugly self-satisfied.

"My lord Prince, I am chief-slave Leskro, at your command. There is a matter I am bound to bring to your attention before all else."

"Aren't you the fellow who purchased me at the bazaar?"

"Ah, quite so. Under the written command of Prince Ablat, I was indeed so directed. His estates have been deeded over to you, since the discovery that a Hriish had usurped his identity. He must therefore – to my personal regret – be deceased."

"I see."

"More immediate is the matter of a slave waiting outside. She has expressed, directly to the person of the king, a desire to be a part of the reward he promised. She has impertinently claimed that you would be displeased if she were not part of the property transfer. It would be best for the purposes of quick justice if you confirm or deny this claim now."

A female slave. Could it be possible...?

"Umm...Leskro. This slave's name wouldn't happen to be Liree, would it?"

"That is so."

"Good! Her claims are true." (Leskro's face seemed to fall.) "Send her in as you go out, will you?"

"At your command." He bowed low, and departed.

Alone, I looked around this room of my new home. Mine. Just like that. It felt wrong to me that things should suddenly go so right, so fast, and so easily. I kept looking for a break in the illusion, or a trick of some sort.

Somebody was behind me. I turned.

"Liree!"

She flashed a smile that was both familiar and long missed, started towards me, and froze.

"What is it Liree?"

"My lord...."

"Huh? What's this 'my lord' business?"

"It's a term of respect, from purchased underlings to authority figures such as Nobles."

"So?"

"Well you're a prince now."

"Yes?"

"So I've been brought up to be respectful and nervous in front of authority figures, you idiot!"

"Oh!"

We suddenly both laughed, I held my arms open towards her, and she nearly knocked me over coming into them. The feel of her, the smell of her, the realisation of how flimsy her one-piece garment seemed under my awkward hands.... I tried to kiss her, but her head was in my shoulder and I got a mouthful of hair instead. Came the awkward realisation that I knew nothing of the customs of this world for showing affection. What was I supposed to do and not do and under what circumstances? I did not want to do the wrong thing at such a moment. I seemed to have found a painless way of getting my arms around her, but her body felt tense. I wanted to say something to set her at ease, something deep and meaningful, and came up with:

"So. I hear you asked the king himself to come here."

I felt her nod. "I had to. Tan would be delighted at what happened. I let my mouth get me into more than I could talk my way out of. Any other owner would have resold me. Not the king. Then I heard about the Hriish slayer." Liree came up for air, and looked at me with those incredible eyes. "From the description, I knew it had to be you. It was either come straight out and ask, or...." I followed Liree's glance to the cushions where I had left the soul sword. "They told me how those swords get their special strength. It seems the King thinks the soul of anyone can be used to strengthen a blade, regardless of strength, courage or sex."

No wonder the slaves in this kingdom seemed so nervous.

"Uh, they don't heat the blade red hot and then impale some poor schmuck with it, do they?"

"Well...yes."

"Dipping it in ordinary water would do the same job. Someone ought to tell them."

I don't believe this. I'm back with Liree and I'm talking metallurgy!

Liree, who had been gradually relaxing against me while we talked, tensed again. "You're remembering things again, aren't you?" She sounded scared. "I've seen you tearing yourself apart, agonising for hours over some imagined fragment of memory."

"Memories come and stay now. I even know who I am!"

"You can remember? Everything?"

"Most everything."

"Are you married?"

"Married? No, I'm not. Er...why?"

"Just curious...my lord."

"You're doing it again. I'm still Kalt."

"I was the one who gave you that name. I'm afraid the word means.... Well, I'd rather not call you 'Kalt' anymore."

"Tan told me what it meant."

"He would!" Liree's momentary look of anger was replaced by sorrow and...a touch of guilt? Her head went into my shoulder again. "They told me what happened to him at Kramab. But I know him too well. He's alive somewhere. I know it."

"I wouldn't put it past him myself. We got separated just after Three Falls, but if I know –"

"Three Falls? You saw him in Three Falls?" Liree pulled back from me, her eyes searching my face.

"He got me out of a tight spot there. In fact –"

"HE'S ALIVE! I knew it all along. I knew it. I said so all along didn't I? You're sure it was Tan? You saw him up close? Spoke to him?"

"Yes of course. In fact we –"

"I knew it. Nothing can kill Tan. Not slavers, not even Sons of the Traitor. He's really alive!"

Liree dropped to sit cross-legged on the cushions by my feet. This gave me an incredible view of her cleavage. I lowered myself down beside her, in the interests of mental stability.

"Oh I can't get over all this," she went on. "You're here, Tan's alive, I'm alive, this place, us.... I'm scared I'll wake up. Now you've got to tell me everything. Who you really are, where you're from, what happened after Kramab...everything."

Exchanging stories helped kill the next hour or so. I summarised everything since the attack by the Sons of the Traitor, leaving out all mention of Kareel.

"But how can you smell Hriish when no-one else can? And why does it make you go into such a fury?"

"That seems to be tied in with something I still can't remember. What do you know about Hriish?"

"Only what everyone else knows."

"Which is likely to be more than I do."

"Well, they're supposed to be creatures which can deceive the human senses. They are completely and totally evil. They can bring only death. And...that's all I know. Except that the Traitor is supposed to have brought them into existence...."

The Traitor again. I dropped back onto the cushions.

"Liree, does the name 'Stanislaus Norton' mean anything to you?"

"No. Why? Is that your real name?"

"Absolutely not. He was somebody I knew once, a long time ago. A soldier, I think. I can remember him saying that when the human race reached the stars, any other intelligence we came across would automatically attack us. Inevitably there would be vast planet-smashing armadas sweeping from star to star. He thought we should be prepared."

"Planets? Star-sweeping? I don't understand, Kalt."

"I'm telling this badly. The language just doesn't have the right concepts. I'm a pyre technician. That means I.... Let's just say Borkan was partly right when he said I was a wizard."

"Borkan thought that you flew down onto Tylo's Peak, before he found you."

"I did. In a big flying chariot which is still up there. Which I will have to go back for."

Liree started to laugh, saw that I was serious, and then looked scared.

"Flying...chariot? An artifact that can fly like a rytt seed?"

"It's a little more versatile than any seed."

The fear I saw in her eyes was not funny. Either a flying chariot really existed, or I had gone insane and merely believed it did. Liree could not believe the first one and did not want to believe the second. I tried to give a reassuring smile, an act from which she drew a different meaning.

"Oh, for a moment there I thought you were serious. Kalt don't tease me again. It isn't like you."

"I'm sorry."

"I should think so."

"But it is a fact I was found climbing down the Scarlet Mountains. It is also a fact that I did leave something important up in them. It's encased in a tree of diamond. Liree, I'm going to have to go back and get it."

"No you don't, silly." (Liree did not ask me what it really was I wanted to go after – not after my flying-chariot speech.) "You're a Prince of the Realm now. Order an expedition to find it and bring it back here for you."

"It's too big. I'm going to have to go myself."

"Kalt, no. It's dangerous and.... Oh, I care about you, you idiot."

"I care about you too, but I'm still going to the Scarlet Mountains."

"The king won't let you. Not now you're a member of the royal family. A lot of expeditions into those mountains never come back."

"Oh I think he'll let me go to the Scarlet Mountains...when I tell him that's where the Hriish come from."

Liree said nothing for a moment. "Do you really think that?"

"I think there are Hriish anywhere I stand still for too long."

"What do you mean?"

"It means that one way or another I'm going to leave this wonderful life behind and go the the Scarlet Mountains, no matter what you say. I'm sorry."

"All right, if you must."

"Eh?"

"But not so soon, please. Do me a favour and think about it for a month. Please?"

"A month?"


"It isn't like there's a hurry. If a gem tree formed around your char... whatever you left up there, it must be made of metal. It won't rust where it is, and it won't go anywhere."

"There is a battery problem."

"A what problem?"

"Battery. A thing that makes it work. It isn't actually a chariot, but it is like something alive. It never completely shuts down. If it did I could never get it going again. Not by myself. I doubt the solar cells are receiving any power, so there's only an emergency power back-up keeping the computer memories intact, and it can last only a few months at the –"

"Kalt!"

"There's a time limit. I have to go back to the mountains, soon."

We sat in silence, face to face. Aware of how much skin Liree's clothing displayed, I tried to keep my eyes looking into hers, and my attention fixed on...on whatever it was we were talking about. Her look of worry faded. She changed her posture slightly, and the edge of her dress slipped higher up her thigh.

It's been 8,000 years, and it feels every minute of it. If she only knew what effect she's having on me.

Then I noticed the expression on her face, as she unfastened her belt and tossed it aside. I suddenly realised I was not the only person in this room able to read facial expressions, and that she knew exactly what effect she was having.

"Liree –" I said, and it came out like a croak. "Liree, I'm still going back to the Scarlet Mountains."

Pink with embarrassment but still fully determined, she slipped the one-piece outfit off over her head, and sent it in the general direction of the belt.

"But not tonight," she said.

Eight thousand years. Eight thousand years.

"No, I guess not."


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