The first thing Drace noticed when she was shown into the room was how dim the light was. Usually here in the palace, the chambers blazed with brilliance so that no corner was obscure and lurkers were unlikely. But this room, large and with a vaulted ceiling was filled with shadows and she could not immediately see who or what was inside. As her eyes adjusted to the dimness, she was not surprised to recognize the figure of Vayne, lounging on a couch near a shallow pool from which wisps of vapor constantly rose.

"Ah, Judge Drace. Do come in and get comfortable. I'm sure that metal uniform is as burdensome to you as my armor is to me. As you see, I have shed mine. Why don't you do the same?" And, indeed, he was clad in a brocaded garment which covered him from his neck to his ankles and draped about his wrists in folds of vivid colour which glowed even in the shadowy room.

"Thank you, but I am accustomed to the weight and will be better able to perform my duties if I am properly garbed." She maintained her dignity as well as her grasp on her helmet.

"I have no immediate duties for you. You were summoned so that we might talk...about Larsa and other things. I insist that you relax and you might as well start by removing that metal skin." There was no mistaking the command in his voice nor the glitter in his dark eyes. "There is an armor rack to your left. Have I made my suggestion clear?"

"You have, my lord." Stoically, Drace stripped off her gauntlets and fastened them at her waist. She no longer had any doubt of his intentions. There was, then, to be a battle- one she would have to fight most carefully. To lose would be to endanger not only herself but also Larsa. She fancied herself to be the most dedicated and strongest of the walls defending the boy from meeting the fate of so many other members of his family. A sickness rose in her throat at the thought of what might happen to the young one if she was not there to protect him and the threat had been implicit but unmistakable to her mind. So she knew she must be careful in her jousting with Vayne, the one who held such unchecked power over them all.

She walked over to the armor rack. Vayne had not lied; it was the kind she used in her arming room at home, the kind which enabled her to slide in or out of her metal shell with a minimum of assistance. She was grateful that she did not have to request his aid and give him an excuse to touch her. Making no effort to cover herself or to turn aside, she unfastened the straps and buckles which held her armor in place. She had changed in the company of her fellow judges and thought nothing of it. This should be no different; but it was. She hated to bare her body before those lustful eyes. Without deigning to shield herself from Vayne's devouring gaze, Drace peeled off her sweat-soaked padded undergarments for the second time that day. Her host leaned back on the couch and watched with some amusement as she began the unwinding of the bandages which held her breasts tight to her rib cage.

"It must be a relief to be rid of all that bulk around your body," he observed stroking his fingers down the aristocratic length of his nose and delicately flaring his elegant nostrils. "Those garments, the underarmor, must be uncomfortable after you have worn them all these hours." He waved a hand at the pool near him. "Use my bath. I have had fresh water drawn and it is kept at an even temperature by an ingenious device. You will find it very refreshing." Again the note of command sounded in his voice.

"Thank you. I enjoy my bath each evening," she responded flatly.

When she was naked and her clothing heaped in a careless pile by the edge of the pool, she stepped in and let the warmth of the scented water embrace her. She had never before experienced such luxury. The water felt smooth and caressing against her skin, dissolving the aches, soothing the chafed areas, floating away the sweat and grime, leaving her calmed and clean.

After a much longer time than she had intended or realized, she looked up to find Vayne's amused eyes watching her languid motions. At once, the present returned and she was suddenly self-conscious. She pushed herself out of the bath and reached for the towel her tormentor extended with exquisite courtesy.

Making an effort to match his composure, Drace muttered, "Thank you. The bath was most welcome and refreshing." When she had dried herself, she stretched a hand towards the untidy stack of undergarments, although she could hardly bear the thought of pulling the reeking clothes over her clean flesh.

"You need not put those on again. Here, wear this." He held out to her a robe, similar in style to the one he wore but in softer colors. "I think this will be less ... fragrant." His mouth curved into what seemed to be intended as a friendly smile.

She silently accepted the garment and, dropping the towel, slid her arms into the wide sleeves. She wrapped the robe, which was subtly perfumed, light and barely opaque, around her and knotted the sash about her narrow waist.

"Come, sit by me and let's talk." Vayne indicated the other half of the couch on which he sprawled and smiled again.

"Why did you send for me, my lord?" Drace sat down on the extreme edge of the couch, trying to maintain a dignified posture. She soon found that the yielding surface defied all her efforts to sit up straight, tipping her back into its soft depths.

Vayne lifted his brows in amusement and stroked the length of his nose. He remained silent, content to let her discover for herself that she must lean back against the cushions. When she had surrendered to inevitability and to gravity, he shifted position so that he could look fully into her face.

"I wanted to hear your report on the health and morale of my brother. How is Larsa faring? I haven't had the leisure to monitor him as closely as I would like."

Drace had failed to notice that his arm, carelessly placed on the back of the couch, was encircling her shoulders until his hand touched the bare skin above the neck of her robe. She inched away.

"He is doing well, my lord. His skill at arms is remarkable."

The man's hand again made its delicate incursion into her space. She felt the fingers insinuating themselves inside the robe, tracing the line of her collar bone. Almost imperceptibly, Vayne moved closer and his arm draped around her more firmly.

"Do you think Larsa is happy here or should I send him elsewhere?"

Drace swallowed hard as the encroaching hand reached her breast, cupping it and rolling the nipple between thumb and forefinger. She knew to resist his advances might easily result in her imprisonment or even her death. Vayne was a ruthless man. Were she done away with, Larsa would be without one of his major defenders. That must not happen. She thought with desperate speed.

"I...I think he does well here, my lord."

"Ah, that's good to know. I would be devastated if anything unfortunate befell him." Something seemed to flare in his eyes.

Was it her imagination or was there a fresh threat in the words? Her fear for Larsa abruptly stilled her body's automatic response to the caress. The nipple, which had erected under Vayne's skillful manipulation, grew soft again and her breath slowed even as she could hear his become more rapid. The solution to her dilemma crept into her mind. Let him do as he wished, she could control her body and be dead to him. She could absence her spirit from whatever happened to her flesh so long as she continued to think of the boy and the danger to him. That was it! How long would so arrogant a man as Vayne make love to a vacant husk before he gave up in disgust?

So she made no protest either in word or gesture when he turned her toward him and, tipping up her face, kissed her roughly, pressing with contemptuous authority, forcing her lips apart. She felt his tongue against her teeth and let her mouth open slackly. His invasion met with no resistance; she did not respond but focused her thoughts on the trusting face of her young charge.

Vayne drew away and looked at her with an amused expression. The fire in his dark eyes had not diminished.

He untied the sash at her waist and slipped the robe from her shoulders, letting it pool around her hips. Pushing her back against the pillows of the couch, he dipped his sleek head to her naked breast and took the nipple in his mouth, fretting it with his teeth and teasing it with his tongue. The sensation made Drace momentarily forget her resolve and she caught a ragged breath as her body arched to meet him. Disgusted with her weakness, she wrenched her mind back to the fate of Larsa and, with satisfaction, felt her traitor body obey her will. She was not there feeling the adroit lovemaking of the man who held her in his arms; she was elsewhere, looking with profound disinterest at the actions of the pair on the couch in the shadowy room. As from a distance, she saw him bend over her body and trail caresses down her torso to her belly, his dark hair sweeping against her white skin. She felt nothing, willing numbness to her senses.

Even when his hand slid up the inside her leg, parting her thighs, she did not respond. Not even when his long fingers penetrated her and touched her most intimately and in ways that normally sent her panting with desire did she break her cold indifference and acknowledge his activity.

A sudden stillness made her look up to see Vayne staring at her. He looked at her for a long time and she felt as though he was searching her very thoughts, understanding exactly why she was doing what she did.

"Madame Judge, am I boring you? Would you like a book to read while I do what I will?" The expression on his face was a mixture of anger and chagrin. He removed his hands from her body and leaned away from her. "Perhaps you would rather return to your quarters and your solitude. I do not force myself upon an unwilling lover. There are enough who are not only willing but eager."

Drace pulled the robe about her once more. "Was there something else you wanted, my lord?"

"Obviously nothing you're inclined to give me. No, please feel at liberty to return to your chambers." He sprawled back against the cushions and waved her away.

Drace pushed herself up from the too-soft couch and walked over to the armor rack, letting the crumpled robe slid off her shoulders and fall behind her. Without troubling to pull on the sweat-wet arming tunic, she stepped into her familiar carapace, the chill of the metal welcome against her fevered skin. When she was covered again, she turned and saluted the man who watched her with a quizzical eye. "My lord!"

Vayne smiled ruefully. "You're a clever one and I won't forget. Not you nor your attitude. You don't need to worry about the boy. My brother is safe with and from me. Believe me or not as you choose but I care for the lad and would never hurt him."

She looked at him closely and, for this space of time, found herself believing him. It would not last but she was oddly comforted by his assurances. She nodded and tucked her helmet under her arm. "My lord."

As she left him, Drace was at once aware of the feel of metal sliding along her bare skin. She knew she would suffer for leaving off the padded underwear. There would be chafed spots and painful blisters in awkward places but it was worth it. She was out of that stifling room, free to return to her own rooms, unscathed both in body and in honour. She had won her battle and at a smaller cost than she had been willing to pay. She strode with a singing heart and a light step down the bright corridor to the outer door.

Gabranth was waiting for her. For a moment she was surprised. It seemed to her she had been away for weeks and she had not expected him to be so faithful for so long.

"How did it go? What did he want? You all right?" His words stumbled over themselves. He raised his hand and gently ran his knuckles along her cheek.

"He wanted to talk about Larsa and wondered if I thought he might be happier somewhere else. I told him no and that was that."

"Hm..." Gabranth sniffed. "You smell like a whorehouse. What's been going on?"

Drace laughed somewhat shakily. "I'll tell you later. Want to spend the night?"

"Sure. What are friends for?" Gabranth dropped an armored arm across her armored shoulders and the two clanked into the dark quadrangle on their way home.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008