IT AIN'T JUST A RIVER IN EGYPT

By xffan_2000 and Nancy Brown

NC-17

Disclaimer: DC and Warner Bros. would be very angry with us if they found out about this.

Notes: Deepest thanks to Dotfic for the beta. Takes place during and contains enormous spoilers for "Ancient History."

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"I am Horus, the great Falcon upon the ramparts of the house of him of the hidden name. My flight has reached the horizon. I have passed by the gods of Nut. I have gone further than the gods of old. Even the most ancient bird could not equal my very first flight. I have removed my place beyond the powers of Set, the foe of my father Osiris. No other god could do what I have done. I have brought the ways of eternity to the twilight of the morning." - The Coffin Texts (passage 148)

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CHAPTER ONE

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The first thing she noticed, after, was the painful grit of the sand in the sensitive flesh where her wings met her back. Beside her, Bashari lay naked and spent, his breath still hard in his chest.

Chayara sat up slowly, wiping the sand from her arms and shaking it from her hair. Her own breath was returning to her, and with it, the realization of what she --- what they --- had done.

She didn't want to speak and break this fragile thing they'd created. She knew one of them would have to, and then it would be over. Instead, she bent over Bashari's face, pressed her lips against his mouth, quirked her own into a smile as he responded back tiredly. She leaned her forehead against his, enjoying the touch of their faces together, breathing his exhalations into herself.

It had been so long since another had touched her so intimately. Eight months gone since the last time Katar reached for her in their marriage bed, and that a thin moment in the night when she'd already been asleep, waking just enough to feel him slide between her legs and shudder and withdraw.

The wind blew, stirring the leaves in the oasis trees out of her sight. Hot, always this desert was hot, but Chayara suddenly shivered with cold.

Katar.

Without thought, she pulled away from Bashari, reached for her mask and slipped it over her face. The familiar feel of the metal encased her, secured her; even nude, the mask gave her badly-needed covering. She felt Bashari move, and she looked at him.

"Are you all right?" he asked her, cupping her cheek in his soft, strong hand. She'd known his hands to wield weapons, to fight their enemies and forge peace beneath their power, and now she knew how gentle those hands could be, how delicately they could coax her into ecstacy. She would never be able to see his hands again without awareness of both facets.

"I'll be fine," she said, bringing her own fingers atop his. She had to hold onto this, had to cling to this moment.

"I didn't ... Did I hurt you?" Bashari's beloved face was flooded with concern.

"Quite the opposite," Chayara assured him, and sealed her word on the matter with another kiss.

"Good," he murmured into her mouth. "I'd like to die for making you happy, not for having injured you."

"What do you mean 'die'?"

He sat back on his heels, but kept her hands. "Katar will kill me for this. If I'm very lucky, he won't castrate me first."

"Don't be stupid," she said automatically.

"My Queen ... "

"And don't call me that," she said, more angrily than she intended. "Not now. I love you."

The words had come out quickly, and the shock on his face told her Bashari hadn't expected them. But then, neither had Chayara.

"I've loved you for as long as I can remember," he told her. "I will love you for the rest of my life." She smiled. "But I'm not a fool. And neither are you. If we are discovered, Katar is the King and you are the Queen, and my life will be over."

"Then we won't be discovered," she answered, removing her mask and noticing how his shoulders relaxed as she did. She drew his head to her breast, kissed him where his own bronze helmet usually covered.

"Chayara," he whispered, his breath warm against her sensitive flesh.

"Love me," she said, and wondered if he would take it as a request from his woman or an order from his goddess. He drew her nipple into his mouth and she stopped caring.

Bashari's tongue rasped against her skin, while his hands slid, the left to tweak and massage her other breast, the right to slip between her thighs and nudge her open again with fingers and thumb. Chayara moaned, wriggling herself against his touches and almost dislodging his mouth. She felt his smile just before he suckled. Still riding the lingering waves of her last crest, she felt her next being urged along by his stroking fingers.

Mind swimming, she held to the thought that, as delightful as this was, his hand was not want she wanted. Chayara grabbed his chin, gasping hard when his teeth grazed her, and pulled his warm mouth to hers as she pushed Bashari back onto the sand and straddled his hips.

"Again," she breathed into his ear as she reached down to ready him.

Bashari yelped at her touch and grabbed her arms. "Not ... My Qu ... Chayara, a man can only do so much!"

She narrowed her eyes at him, not letting go. "What do you mean?"

He stroked her bare shoulders. "I'm not a god. I need time."

"Oh." Chayara's experiences with men other than Katar were limited. "Do all humans need this time? Human males, I mean."

Bashari chuckled. "I've never been with a human male, but yes, I think it's common."

Her glow was fading, and perhaps he could read her mind, because both hands returned to their pleasant work between her legs. "But that doesn't mean I can't still love you."

She stared into his dark eyes, barely moving from where she lay atop him, as his fingers moved inside of her, rubbing and stroking and stretching. The part of her that could think wondered how many women Bashari had taken to his bed, for he was clearly no blushing virgin. The rest of her burned and seethed and gasped, grinding her hips against him.

"Ah!"

The second peak was not as intense as the first had been, but this was not unusual for her and she convulsed with joy regardless. Boneless and replete, she collapsed on Bashari's chest as he gently coaxed the last quakes from her body.

When she moved her head to look at him, she found a satisfied smirk on his face. "I suppose you're pleased with yourself," she said.

"Very much so, yes." He kissed her again, and she thought she would never grow tired of the feel of his strong mouth seeking hers.

Even though she did not want to, Chayara sat up. Her mind was clear now, and her normal senses were reasserting themselves. Smell, for example. They were redolent with the scent of each other, and while humans might not remark on that, Katar wouldn't fail to notice Bashari's musk covering her.

"I need to bathe," she announced, "and you should as well. Before we return."

The water at the oasis was clear, churning only slightly as their feet disturbed the silt at the bottom. Chayara rinsed off her sweat and the sand, then ducked her head under to clean her hair. Fresh from the water, they dressed, careful not to touch more than lips. The last thing she donned was her mask, and she noted the shadow in his eyes as she settled it into place.

Chayara would no sooner walk around maskless than naked, but when she wore it, Bashari saw his queen and goddess. She would have to ponder this.

The ride home was slower than their gallop out, but seemed much faster. When they entered the city, Chayara felt chilled from the afternoon shadows that darkened the streets. She turned to catch Bashari's eye, but his gaze was ahead of them and she could not read the expression on his face.

Had what happened been merely a stray moment, two people caught in the desert heat and nothing more? She didn't dare ask him, not now.

Maybe it had been an aberration, something never to happen or be spoken of again. Maybe he would kneel before her as her husband's general, and not meet her eyes for weeks, and go to the women at the temple at night as the soldiers tended to do.

Perhaps her own passion had been encouraged, not by love, but by her knowledge that this was her season, the three week period each year when her body was fertile and ready to mate for offspring rather then merely pleasure. Certainly that had been the impulse driving her so desperately to Katar --- had that been this morning? For days, she'd been aware of her own skin, chafing inside her clothing as she walked and moved and tried to sleep. Her breasts grew tender, her whole being became ripe and waiting, as she did every year when her season came, until the ache reluctantly passed.

The first ten years, they'd been stranded on an alien world and had not wanted to bring a child forth to be stranded with them. The second decade and more had been filled with forging a new empire in the shape of the one they'd lost. These past five years, she'd finally been ready. But Katar kept postponing. He refused to touch her during the times when he knew their coupling would produce a child; for the past year, he'd rarely touched her even when it would not.

Chayara frowned as they approached the palace, slowing their mounts to a canter.

When they first arrived on Earth, she and Katar had performed what studies they could to determine the species of this strange, primitive people they'd encountered. The ship's computer was heavily damaged, but functioned enough to tell them this was a different species despite their almost-Thanagarian appearance. Interbreeding would not, should not be possible.

Attendants scurried over to them, taking the reins of the horses as they dismounted. The taller said, "General Bashari, the King has ordered you join him in the war room as soon as you returned."

Bashari made a low, elegant bow to her. "My Queen," he said simply, "I must take my leave of you."

"Of course," she replied, and she made herself not watch him go.

Not for the first time, she wondered just how badly damaged the ship's computer had been.

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"General," the King said as Bashari entered the war room. "I trust you showed the queen how to properly handle a stallion."

Bashari blanched, his mouth becoming as dry as the desert outside.

"Did she enjoy the ride?" Katar continued, his attention focused on the papyrus maps before him.

"Yes, Your Highness," Bashari said, his voice rasping.

The King's head jerked upward, his dark eyes meeting Bashari's. "Tell me something, old friend," Katar growled, his fingers caressing the dagger sitting on the tabletop.

The General felt his palms sweat. He hadn't expected his king to find out so quickly. Bashari hoped death would be swift. Katar picked up his dagger and pulled the tip over the map of the Nile, and Bashari could almost feel the cold metal pressing against his flesh, feel the thin slice across his throat, feel the warm blood spill from him. "Yes, my Lord?" he forced.

"If someone was attempting to take something from you, what would you do?"

Bashari swallowed, resisting the urge to fall to his knees and beg for his life. "My Lord, I ... "

The King raised the dagger and slammed it into the table. "Den Qa'a has organized a rebellion!"

Bashari nearly did fall to his knees then, thankful his betrayal was still hidden. "A rebellion?" he heard himself say, again thankful that at least some part of his mind was able to still function.

"Yes," the King hissed, his attention returning to the maps before him. "Our spies report his followers are preparing to retake Nebet."

His life spared, Bashari was almost relieved to hear the report. As the King pored over the maps of the southern lands of their kingdom, Bashari forced himself to listen, to pay attention, to offer the tactical knowledge Katar needed. But in his deepest thoughts, all he could do was keep repeating, He doesn't know.

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Hath-Set finished the afternoon devotions with an uneasy heart. Full of knowledge, he had come to the temple to pray for guidance. The voices of the gods were silent within him, and even now as the priestesses took away the remnants of the offerings for their own meal, he knew he deserved that silence.

He blasphemed in his heart.

Hath-Set had been brought to the small temple in his home city as a small boy, given to the gods by a widowed mother with five younger children to care for. The priests had taken him in, trained him to speak for the gods, shown him how to listen to the voices on the wind and read the ashes of the burnt meats and grains to divine knowledge, and he had learned it all and he loved the gods.

While he was still a boy, the winged god and goddess had stepped from their celestial home, had come to the people and ruled them, and Hath-Set who loved the gods loved these two golden gods most of all. He'd set his sights to becoming the High Priest that he might be the one to bow before them, and his keen mind had not failed him in this attempt. He grew to know them as people, as gods, as royalty, and he respected them, worshipped them, served them as was due.

Each morning, Hath-Set gave praise to King Katar who brought the sun, and each night he gave praise to Queen Chayara who brought the fickle moon. Each hour between, he dedicated himself to their service, and for years, tried to love them equally.

But Hath-Set was born in sunlight and raised in day, and he loved his god more. At night, when the Queen's charge lit the sky, Hath-Set lay alone in his small bunk and dreamed of the King's firm lips, dreamed of seeing that golden visage forever locked behind his holy mask. On the nights Hath-Set was not alone, it was Katar's name he held back from crying out.

As his love for the King rose, his love for the Queen equally dimmed like the moon falling from the sun's bright rays, though he served her still.

And now ...

The priestesses in the temple lay with men as they chose, and they favored most kindly those who brought gold. Soldiers and commoners came here, and great lords too, but for those lacking offerings or the priestesses' favor, there were more desperate women who would pleasure men for less.

He'd seen the two lovers in their passion, an accidental discovery brought about when he'd gone alone to pray. They'd whispered endearments, and removed each other's garments with delicate care, and the unmasked Queen had lain atop the General, and Hath-Set had watched all of their unholy union with disgust.

He had yet to speak a single word to any other, but his heart raged and screamed that his goddess was a gutter whore.

Katar had to be told, but how?

Hath-Set walked from the temple to the palace, hating himself every step, and at the same time, freshened with a strange excitement. The King would hear of his wife's betrayal, would exile or kill her, and then, perhaps ...

Perhaps.

He found the King emerging from the war room. "My King, may I have a word?"

A moment later, the damnable, usurping General emerged behind him, and Hath-Set cursed inwardly.

"What is it?" King Katar asked quickly.

Hath-Set cast a look at the General, but he could not say what he knew. The General would simply deny it, would kill him on the spot as a liar. "I would like to speak with you alone."

"Is it urgent?" The King glared at him, placing a friendly hand on Bashari's back. "The feast is about to begin."

"I ... " He sighed. "No, my King."

"Excellent. We can discuss it tomorrow, then." The two left him standing there, hot in his embarrassment.

He should have shouted it.

Tomorrow. The Queen's betrayal could be told tomorrow. Hath-Set would not be expected to come to the feast, but perhaps he would choose to go anyway, find a moment and seize it.

"Hath-Set?" The King had turned around.

"Yes, my King?"

"I would like you to ask intercessions on our behalf tonight."

"My King?"

"Dissent grows in the South. Ask the other gods to find their way to quiet the hearts of the people, that there may be less bloodshed." He paused. "As a favor to me." He turned and continued to walk down the corridor.

Hath-Set would not be going to the feast tonight after all.

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On the greatest feast days, the King and Queen dined in splendor with hundreds of guests. Tonight was not such an event, but a celebration regardless for the General's victory. His higher-ranking officers had been invited while the rest feasted in the barracks, and the room swelled with soldiers, servants, and as many of the landed nobles as could wrangle an invitation at the last minute.

Chayara picked at the boiled cabbage in front of her, trying to stifle her boredom.

On Thanagar, she and Katar had never even seen the inside of the Great Council Hall. Why should they? They'd been common law officers, certainly good at their jobs, but no more worthy than any other citizen of the Empire. Here, though, they were venerated and even worshipped. The few times she'd gone into the homes of their poorer subjects, she'd seen small, clay statues of herself and Katar, and while she'd tried --- they'd both tried --- to dissuade the people from their strange fixation, too many citizens still cast their eyes down when she walked through the streets of her city.

In the palace, things were hardly different. Almost thirty years under their rule, and while they were treated as royalty, those humans with whom they had the most contact saw them as unearthly still, though not necessarily divine. The members of the highest houses jockeyed for their favor, regardless of their nature, maintaining whatever unctuousness they thought necessary to keep their rulers happy. It was maddening, in a way.

No wonder she liked Bashari. He deferred to her as his Queen but he wasn't afraid of her and he never played false for her favor.

She felt the color rise in her cheeks, and it did not go unnoticed.

"Chayara," Katar said, leaning over from his own ornate seat, "are you well?"

"I'm fine," she said, rubbing her hand over her face. "It's warm in here."

"I could order them all to leave." There was that gleam in his eye, the one that reminded her he knew that they were police officers playing at kings and castles.

"Don't. They're enjoying themselves." She set her bowl aside. A moment later, a servant whisked it away, leaving in its place a platter with grapes and roasted waterfowl. She took some grapes into her hand. Sometimes she didn't like being kept, and sometimes it had some use.

A deep laugh carried over the noise, and she made herself not startle. Bashari stood in a group of men, all his best officers. From their laughter, someone had just told a joke, probably Ishpi.

From time to time, Chayara went to where the soldiers were quartered, partially to give them her thanks, partially to escape the politicians in the palace. Bashari always served as her guide, and once he'd discovered her second purpose, he coaxed his subordinates to be a touch less formal in her presence, although not too informal. She sat in on their games of dice now and then, but had stopped playing when she quickly realized they let her win every time.

Bashari didn't let her win. Not usually.

She watched him with the others, until she became aware that she was watching him. She focused instead on her meal.

It had been a mistake. It had to have been a mistake. Her husband and partner and life-mate and friend sat beside her, smiling benevolently over the crowd as he ate bites of melon. She'd simply had an indiscretion, brought about by the exhilaration of the ride and her own damnable physiology.

It wouldn't happen again. She wouldn't tell Katar, because she didn't want to hurt him. Yes.

A messenger approached the dais where they sat, bowing quickly and waiting for Katar's acknowledgment, oblivious to the revelers.

Katar motioned the boy over and tipped his head to hear better. Chayara couldn't read his lips and the room was too noisy for her to hear anything, but Katar frowned deeply.

He turned to her, the scowl still deep on his face. He knows.

"Chayara, there's something I must attend to." He stood. "Bashari!" Her heart froze. "Nesamun! Teti-en! To the war room. Now." She tried to remember how to breathe, as he raised his arms and said, "The rest of you, continue to enjoy the feast."

With a last nod to Chayara, Katar spread his wings and glided out of the hall, amid a few gasps from those present who had not seen the king fly before. There was always someone new.

Bashari's adjutants hurried to follow Katar. Bashari himself glanced back to where she sat, just for a moment. Her heart stopped again as their eyes met. Then he was gone, so fast she might have imagined the whole thing.

And she knew it had not been a mistake, that she would have lain with him at any time he would have had her, that she had meant her words when she'd told him she would leave her husband to be at his side.

The party had not returned to its former level, so Chayara stood and held out her arms. "My husband the king commanded you to enjoy the feast. Please do not disappoint him." Immediately, the volume rose as people attempted not to be seen as insufficiently enjoying themselves.

Chayara flopped back onto her throne. She tasted the meat on her platter, but it was too bland for her palate. She would have to talk to the cooks again. The grapes were sweet, and her servant brought her soft bread with honey, and she could smile when she needed to as the nobles grew more courageous with beer and wine and kneeled before her to ask favors.

Finally, she stood. The conversations in the room quieted, but she waved kindly and left the room without another word. Katar would understand.

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"Tell them what you told me," said Katar.

The messenger, hardly more than a boy but still one of Ptahetep's loyal men, turned to the General and his men. "Den Qa'a has made his move. When I rode from Nebet five days ago, the city was in full rebellion."

Nesamun swore. Bashari bent over the map. "We have soldiers garrisoned at Djeba who can be there within two days."

The messenger nodded. "Ptahetep sent another man to ask their aid, but I don't know if they will come without the king's order."

"Consider the order given," Katar said gruffly. "What about the troops at Waset?"

The messenger shook his head, and Bashari said, "It's a much smaller garrison, but I believe they have better arms. It would take them three days to reach Nebet, once they received the request for help." He tapped his fingers on the table. "With the stallions we just acquired, we could have a messenger there within two days."

"I could be there much faster," said Katar, flexing his wings. It had been a long time since he'd gone into battle himself, but he was ready.

Teti-en made the holy sign. Katar hid his smile.

Bashari said, "I could ready my men for travel by the day after tomorrow. We could join forces with you by the end of the week."

"And you'd only have clean-up to deal with by then," said Katar. "Den Qa'a is a fly. A large, annoying fly, but still one easily swatted. No, I'll make my journey at daybreak, and I will remind Den Qa'a and his followers that I am not some king-in-idleness. You and your men remain here, but stay ready in case I do send for you."

"Yes, my Lord."

Katar nodded to the messenger. "Go rest and refresh yourself. Teti-en, find him a meal and a bed and then return. Nesamun, go with them and bring back food for us. We will discuss our strategies for retaking the city." As the three left, Katar cracked a smile to Bashari. "It's going to be a long night, my friend. A pity we couldn't stay at the feast to celebrate your latest conquest."

"Indeed," said Bashari, but there was something odd about his voice that made Katar wonder.

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In her chamber, she readied herself for sleep. Katar would come soon, and she would spend her first night in their bed with him after having mated with another man. Unable to face that prospect, Chayara spent almost an hour combing her hair and thinking of home.

At last, the oil in her lamp guttered low, and rather than refill it, she crawled under her sheets, wondering if he would return before she fell asleep, if he would take her into his arms and tell her yes, he would plant a child in her as she'd asked, if she would shudder away from him.

Katar woke her from a fitful dream when he came to bed hours later. "Go back to sleep," he told her, before quickly settling into his own deep snores.

After an age, she did, but Katar was not the man loving her in her dreams.

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Chayara rose before dawn, as she usually did. Katar slumbered beside her still. She watched him: his strong, kind face that she alone ever saw, the curve of his back where it met his wings. He seemed so fragile when he slept, and she wanted to protect him as he protected her.

"I love you, Katar," she whispered, simply to try the taste of the words in her mouth; she found them a bitter, awkward fit.

She'd spoken too loudly, for his eyes drifted open. "I love you as well," he said, and now she was stuck with her lie.

Katar sat up, stretching. "The messenger last night was from Nebet. There's rebellion in the south."

"Again?" He would send Bashari away to deal with the matter, and perhaps that was for the best.

"It's nothing. A tribal chief beating his chest to impress his women. I'll fly there myself today." He bent and kissed her quickly and rolled from the bed to his feet.

"You? Alone?" Katar was brave, but rarely reckless.

"I can fly faster than horses can run," he said as he dressed. "We have soldiers stationed nearby and I will lead them to retake the city. I visit the southern part of the empire so seldom, they forget too easily whom they serve."

"How long will you be gone?"

"Three days if all goes well. If it doesn't, then I'll return and order our full force to retake Nebet."

He sat down on the bed beside Chayara and took her hand. "I will miss you." She let herself smile back at him as he drew her fingers to his mouth and kissed them. "You are still within your season, yes?" He bent to place his lips against her neck, breathing deeply.

"For another week, I think." Hope burned within her. Katar tilted his head back to meet her eyes.

"Then perhaps after next week, you and I can travel to the North Palace for some time alone." He let go of her hand and turned to don his mask. She knew he didn't see her expression change behind him, and she wasn't sure she'd care if he did.

"Go safely," she said.

"I'll be fine. And I've ordered Bashari to take care of you in my absence, so you'll be fine, too."

"I'll remind him you said so."

Katar laughed, and he made her a mock bow, and he left.

Outside, Chayara heard the cocks begin to crow daybreak.

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CHAPTER TWO

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Bashari found the Queen in the throne room.

He hadn't gone looking for her, yet after he had seen to the morning exercises and the drone of what duties he could not put off on his subordinates, his feet wandered of their own accord to where she was.

He watched her from the entrance, leaning against the wall and not trying to attract her attention as she performed her morning duties to her people.

Supplicants came every day to the palace: landed nobles and poor farmers alike, bringing offerings, seeking judgments or favors or blessings from the winged gods. Of the thousand things Bashari loved about his king, Katar was always just, and meted out his gifts regardless of the station of the supplicant or the size of the offering. Of the million things he loved about his queen, Chayara was merciful, and distributed her own favors more kindly among the supplicants who needed them most. Lucky was the man who came before both, and rare was he who left their presence with a valid complaint.

It was nearing midday, and the last few petitioners made their cases before the Queen. Bashari listened and observed.

A young couple about to wed asked her blessing on their union, which she granted smiling. Two men arguing over the ownership of a goat were told to breed the goat, and when the kid was weaned, it would be given to the second man. Two others debated a property line: one had built his house encroaching on the land of another. Queen Chayara ordered him to pay his neighbor the price that fraction of the land was worth plus half again, for he had not just taken his neighbor's land, but also part of his neighbor's children's legacy. Bashari suspected the King would have left the price at the value of the land alone, but Katar was not here.

The petitioners thanked the Queen and were shown out. Bashari remained where he was, watching as Chayara wrote something on a fresh scroll. He guessed she was recording what she'd granted, in case Katar asked.

"You don't need to lurk in the shadows," she said, rolling the papyrus and handing it to a servant.

"I was not lurking." He knew the servants in the room were not blind, deaf, or stupid. "Your Majesty."

"You certainly were," she replied, and she descended from her throne. "Don't contradict your queen."

"My mistake, m'lady."

"Walk with me." Her tone was clipped, formal, and a touch testy. She'd had the night to consider what had occurred at the oasis yesterday. Katar had left without ordering the removal of Bashari's head or any other part of his body, which meant she hadn't confessed. That did not mean she wasn't upset or angry with Bashari.

They didn't speak as they walked through the hot, still palace hallways together. She led him out to the gardens, where the shade from the trees and vines brought a cool relief from the sun's heat. The palace always baked at this hour, and most chose this time to rest.

They were alone.

He watched as the tension drained from her back and shoulders. "Sometimes it's too hard to breathe in there," she said, and for the first time today, she smiled at him.

"You fly on the wind. Can't you simply spread your wings and leave whenever you want?"

She let out a disgusted breath. "You know the answer to that." Chayara tilted her head. "I meant ... Yesterday. I meant all of it." There was a question in her statement.

He touched her chin. "As did I."

She closed her eyes. "Bashari, this can't go any further."

There it was, then. They would deny what had happened between them, and it would not happen again, and they would move on. He couldn't hide the pain on his face, and he didn't try.

"But I want it to," she whispered.

He bent and kissed her, not trusting his voice. She kissed him back desperately, tugging his head to her, licking her way into his mouth. He tasted her sighs, pressed his hand against the fabric covering one perfect breast and felt her heart race.

They broke, panting, and he knew he was done, knew he would never willingly have a life without her near him again.

Bashari lifted Chayara into his arms, and they laughed around more kisses as he carried her deeper into the garden and the shadows. Here, it was almost chilly in comparison to the rest of the grounds. He set her on her toes, tongue seeking her mouth as his fingers coaxed her nipples to easy peaks under their covering.

He reached for her mask. She batted him away, and again when he tried once more.

"My ... Chayara," he protested around her kisses.

"Not my mask," she said around his. He sighed into her mouth, then moaned as her hands slipped down his body and under his loincloth. "Has it been long enough?" she teased, nipping his lip as she squeezed him, maddening him.

"Far too long," he growled.

He backed Chayara against the nearest tree, spreading her glorious wings out to either side. Her hands grasped him urgently, stroking and tugging. Bashari twitched the cloth at her hips aside, and together, they guided him deep inside of her.

Chayara let out little cries of pleasure in her throat as Bashari thrust into her quickly and hard. The tree shook behind her, rattling the leaves above him like some obscene breeze. He placed his arms around her, lifting her, and Chayara wrapped her legs around his waist, letting her weight and --- oh gods, such strong muscles she has! --- her own thrusts join them even deeper. He groaned and bit her neck, wanting to meet her in her climax, wanting to postpone his own as long as possible.

So many nights, he'd awakened from wonderful, shameful dreams of his Queen, heard her voice murmuring sweet imprecations as he filled her. Last night, he'd lain awake replaying their encounter over and over in his mind until he'd finally taken the matter in hand just so he could sleep.

He'd thought all he would have of her was that memory, those dreams. Never had he been so grateful to be wrong.

She shifted her body and she was slick in her passion for him, perfect and tight, and he could feel that strange, soft ridge inside her rub against his cock and it was too much for both of them.

Chayara spasmed against him, screams held muffled in her mouth as her lips clamped shut. Bashari surged and pulsed and there was nothing in the universe but the goddess in his arms. Later, his throat would be sore and he would realize he'd roared.

They fell to the ground together, still joined, still kissing each other weakly. He bruised his nose bumping into her mask, but not kissing her would be far more painful.

"I would spend the rest of my life doing that with you," she said, resting her covered forehead against his. He had no intention of disagreeing.

Chayara pulled away first, and he jumped a little as her body tugged at him before he slid free. Two sets of clothing could be pressed smoothly back into place without fuss, and by the time they emerged from under the trees, he could believe they both looked nearly innocent. The Queen's face was flushed and her lips swollen; as they passed the few servants still about at this time of day, he was convinced they read his guilt all over his own tired, joyful visage.

It was hard not to take her hand. It would be suicide to consider doing so anyway.

"Thank you for the report, General," she said suddenly, as the priest Hath-Set emerged from a doorway unexpectedly.

"I'll get you the rest of the information this evening, my Queen," Bashari replied after a moment's hesitation.

"I will dine at sunset," she said. "Bring it then." Without another word, she turned and walked away from him in the direction of her room.

He bowed his head as she left. The priest did not bow, and he watched them both with a closed expression that Bashari could not read.

+++++

Hath-Set returned to the temple, anger filling his soul and drowning out all other thoughts.

Did they honestly believe him to be so great a fool? The Queen's hair was mussed and her face practically glowed from her latest tryst with the General, who himself wore a satisfied smirk. And then she had the gall to pretend he had been giving her a report?

The King had departed early, before Hath-Set could inform him of what he knew. And while Katar valiantly protected their kingdom from threats in the South, his most trusted friend fomented another rebellion in the King's own marriage bed.

Bitter names dripped from his lips, whispered too quietly for any other to hear.

He would not tell, not yet. The King deserved to hear the truth from his loyal Hath-Set, not giggled by some vapid chambermaid. For now, Hath-Set comforted himself with thoughts of how Katar would punish his betrayers. The Queen would be disgraced, and cast out from the palace and the city. The General would be allowed to die, eventually, and pieces of him fed to vultures. Hath-Set prayed that Katar would give him the honor of fulfilling that order.

His heart calmed. The wicked would be punished. That was the will of the gods. He could bide his time and watch it unfold.

+++++

The afternoon business dragged. Chayara had taken a restless nap, rising hot and itchy. Rather than wake her body servant, she'd gone for a quick swim in the shallow pool on the grounds. When they'd first built the palace, she'd gone swimming in the river every morning, until the day she'd had to fight a crocodile.

After she'd emerged from today's swim, she was cooler, but soon sweaty again in the heat. Sitting in the stuffy throne room, listening to the plans Katar had commissioned to build a third palace farther south, she tried not to lose her temper.

They didn't need a third palace. They hadn't needed the North Palace, or for that matter, this one.

She frowned, not wanting to think about the North Palace, about Katar's promise to take her there after his return.

The architect must have misread her expression for displeasure at his design, as he hastened to say, "Of course, this is a preliminary concept only, Your Highness."

"Leave the plans," she said. "I'll consider them before my husband returns, and then he will give you further instructions."

"Yes, my Queen," said the architect, kneeling and scraping before handing the scrolls to Chayara's servant, who took one look at her face and then set them aside.

After he left, Chayara descended from her throne. Another frown crossed her face. "Metit," she told the servant, indicating the scrolls.

There was a table along the side of the wall. Chayara spread out the scrolls, examining the designs closely.

"Metit, remind me. How long have you been working for me?"

"Six years, my Lady." Chayara could remember the scrawny twelve-year-old, who'd stammered and dropped trays and trembled in fear of her gods.

"Before that, you lived in the city?"

"Yes, my Lady. My mother lives three streets from here."

Chayara bit her lip, remembering her own mother. "Do you see her often?"

"When I can, my Lady. My grandmother lives there, and my brother and his children."

The light in here wasn't the best, and Chayara could just make out the scratched notes in the margins of the paper: dimensions, how many thousands of bricks the new palace would take.

"How big is your mother's house, Metit?"

The girl stared at her curiously.

+++++

Earth tables were always too low. Tables on Thanagar were waist-high, and the chairs designed to perfectly accommodate a pair of wings. Human tables were barely off the ground. Chayara lounged on a scattering of pillows while she dined and wished again that she could convince someone to craft longer table legs.

Bashari sat at the corner to her left --- not in Katar's place --- curled up like a large cat as he deftly pulled bites from his bowl and popped them into his mouth.

Chayara found that she had little appetite. She made do with sweet bread and wine, wrinkling her nose at the fruit and dried fish in her own bowl. Instead, she watched him eat as they chatted.

" ... and my brother and I slept on the roof most nights," said Bashari, lost in a memory. "We used to tell each other stories about the patterns we saw, warriors and ladies circling above us and keeping watch."

"You don't talk about your brother often. Does he still live at Abedju?"

"He caught a fever two seasons before he would have been a man."

"Oh." On Thanagar, she would have asked if he'd died well, but Bashari had already told her that answer as well. She dug through her memories to recall the proper human phrase. "I'm sorry."

"It was long ago." Bashari took a deep drink of his wine. "Why did you ask about my childhood home?"

She pushed her bowl away. "Katar has commissioned a new palace at Waset. It will be almost twice as big as this one."

"You don't want to move to Waset?"

"I don't see the point in having three palaces. When I lived on my homeworld, I shared an apartment the size of this room with another woman!"

Bashari raised an eyebrow. "My Lady ... "

She glared at him. "We were just friends." Bashari cracked a grin. She threw a piece of bread at his head, which he caught and casually ate.

"If it bothers you, ask him to forget the palace. He loves you, he'll stop construction." Bashari paused as Chayara flinched. "You are his queen," he said carefully, placing the rest of the bread untouched into his own bowl.

Silence stretched between them. Katar was in the room with them, even when he was many leagues away.

She turned suddenly to the two servants waiting on them. "Leave us. And see that we are not disturbed." They bowed and left.

Bashari watched her. "My ... Chayara?"

She held up her hand. "I want to talk, and I don't want them eavesdropping."

"What do you wish of me?"

She glared at him. "We're alone. You don't have to be so formal."

"We're in your palace."

"Yes." She leaned back on her arms, not in invitation. "I miss my home."

"Is that why all the talk of old times?"

"Yes. And no. I wasn't a queen on Thanagar. I was a law officer." He nodded; she had told him of her life before. "I never starved, but in my childhood, there were plenty of hard times and short rations. Now I'm looking at plans for another palace, the size of a small city, with gold and gems inlaid into the walls, and ... " She let out a disgusted breath.

"Our people do not starve," he said. "You and the King have brought great prosperity to the land, and yet you are generous enough to seek new lands to govern and educate."

"You sound like him." Something like amusement twitched in his eyes. "But you don't agree, either, do you?" she asked.

He sat back. "We are talking, as just the two of us?" She nodded. "You have helped our people, and you have brought order and structure and wealth, uniting petty tribes into a great kingdom."

"But?"

"Not everyone likes being governed, even by a just god."

"No," she said. "And an opulent palace reminds people that they are governed, but it can also make them resentful."

"As long as they see you as gods, you'll inspire awe, not resentment."

"What if the goddess leaves her husband to live with a mere mortal?"

He sat back in thought. "That could prove troublesome."

"It could. And in a world controlled by a god, where might two people go where he couldn't reach them? Is there even such a place?"

"I don't know," he admitted. Her stomach twisted.

"Think about it," she said quietly. "That's all I ask."

He nodded, and then he stood.

"Where are you going?"

"I need to check on my men."

"Will you return?" She wondered if she sounded like she was begging.

"I can. Do you have a place in mind where we could ... meet?"

Her breath quickened, and she saw that his did as well.

"There is a guest room in the corridor adjacent to my bedroom. No one is using it tonight."

"I know the room," he said. "I'll be back at moonrise."

After he was gone, Chayara lay back on the pillows, performing the necessary arithmetic in her head to determine how many houses could be built from the bricks of one overlarge palace. Moonrise would not come soon enough.

+++++

Bashari hurried from the palace, only relaxing when he reached the barracks. He could not honestly say that the smells of unwashed soldiers and the thick, yeasty beer they drank were among his favorite odors, but at least he knew where he stood with his men: usually at the front, barking orders and brandishing a weapon.

"General!" cried Ishpi. "We were just coming to find you."

"What is it? Has the King sent word?" The King and Queen had introduced to them the concept of messenger birds, although they both flew faster. Katar could easily overtake his own missive should he send one.

"No word from the King," said Nesamun. "We're getting some of the men together to go to the temple."

Ah. He shouldn't have been surprised. They had returned from battle yesterday, and many of them had been feasting last night. The men with wives were home with them now, and the men without would find female companionship for the price of a small donation into the temple coffers.

"We were coming to get you," said Nesamun. "I'm sure Kemisi misses you."

"She says you tip well," said Ishpi, a grin on his face.

Bashari rolled his eyes. He'd not been to the temple to see Kemisi or her coworkers in long months. At first, there had been no time, and in recent days, his thoughts had been elsewhere.

"Not tonight," he said. "You go. Leave half the men here, and if the night is quiet and the day brings no news of the king, they'll be allowed to go tomorrow evening while the others stay."

"Fair enough," Nesamun said. "Perhaps you will join us then?"

"He won't," said Ishpi darkly. "He'll be busy."

Bashari rounded on him "What's that supposed to mean?"

Ishpi backed away. "Nothing, sir. Just ... You haven't gone with us in an age, even in the other cities, so we know you're not just ignoring Kemisi. The men are starting to think you've got a wife stashed somewhere you haven't told anyone about."

"Don't be stupid," he said, but the words hit too close. He covered with a joke. "Had I a wife to go to, secret or otherwise, do you think I'd be wasting my time talking to you now?"

Nesamun grabbed Ishpi's shoulder. "This isn't worth the fight. Come on, we need to go before all the pretty ones are taken. General." He dragged Ishpi away.

Bashari sighed, and looked around. Teti-en shrugged his shoulders from where he sat. Bashari joined him. Teti-en never went to the temple for the women, but only to pray. "Is there any news this evening?" Bashari asked him.

"Nothing, sir. The evening exercises went well. The physician came by at sunset for a last check of the wounded. Mshai's arm is healing well, but he doesn't think Sebi will regain the use of his leg."

Bashari glanced over to the sick beds at the end of the barracks. Sebi lay there unmoving, looking at the ceiling.

"General," said Teti-en. "Perhaps if one of the gods ... "

"Healing is not among their gifts," he replied, a touch sharply.

"Yes, sir."

"I'll go talk to him." The moon would not rise for a while, and he needed to offer his soldier some thoughts on what a man without a working leg might do with the rest of his life.

+++++

Chayara sat in the darkened room. The guest beds were not as sumptuous as her own, and it was uncomfortable to recline for long.

Again and again, she wondered what she was doing here, what she was thinking, carrying on this relationship. Katar would kill them both if he discovered their betrayal. If she fled with Bashari, she would lose any chance she had at controlling Katar, shaping this empire. If she stayed and Katar remained ignorant, he would expect her in his bed and occasionally in his arms, and she thought she might scream if he tried.

A shadow covered the door.

"It's me," Bashari whispered.

She flowed to her feet and into his arms. "I feared you wouldn't come."

He took her chin. "There was no chance I would not." He kissed her, and her knees melted as his arms roamed around her back.

Crazy, this was crazy, and she never wanted it to end.

The bed was out of the question, so he lay her down on the rug instead, helping her to remove her mask. She knew it was too dark for him to see her clearly, but still she read the delight in his eyes as he looked on her true face once more.

Then there was no time to look, only to drown in kisses, to sigh as he licked and bit up her neck and to her ear and his hands held her waist. She couldn't remember when she'd last desired Katar like this.

"I brought something," she whispered to him, pushing him away enough to reach her prize: a small, clay pot.

She dipped her index finger in the contents, then placed it between his lips, watching his eyes open as he recognized the taste. He carefully licked off the last drops of honey from her sharp nail.

Chayara smiled, and took more on her fingertips. With her clean hand, she unfastened his loincloth, and with the other, she spread the sticky stuff onto his stiffening penis. She drew lines and whorls over his skin, and she heard him moan loudly when she drew him into her mouth.

She had to remember to keep her teeth covered, to keep her head moving, to suck and to lick. Bashari lay back as she kneeled over him for better leverage. He grasped her hair as though it would save him from drowning, guided her head up and down, though gently.

Chayara withdrew long enough to wet her hand with her own tongue, then pumped with her fist as she continued to clean him with her tongue.

Sweet, the honey was too sweet, and she choked as he went deep, and she didn't want to stop, not as he growled in his throat, not as his hips thrust wildly, not as he bit back his groan and the sweet became salty.

She sat up, turned carefully away from him, and spat out the strange tastes mingling in her mouth.

Bashari pulled her atop him tiredly. "That was ... "

"You're welcome," she grinned against his shoulder. He kissed her hair. "You are not to fall asleep."

"No, my Queen," he agreed.

She pulled a thin linen sheet from the bed, and they lay on the rug, talking of nothing for what could have been an hour: idle court gossip, more of Bashari's childhood memories, some of her own. Chayara was often homesick, but when she was with him, she was home.

When he began to nuzzle her head, she knew he had recovered enough of his strength to continue. She tilted her head up to his, slipped her tongue against his lips, prodding until he parted them. When her hand slid down his chest, he stopped her.

"My turn," he said, and with a light kiss to her knuckles, he lifted her to the bed, where she could sit with her legs over the edge and her wings behind her.

He found the clay pot. As her heart raced, he dipped his fingertips in the pot, then spread warm honey over her nipples. She had been on fire for him for hours, and the firm motions of his thumb and forefinger only teased her further. He applied more honey and then his teeth and tongue were on her hungrily.

Chayara whispered, "Idh-yaa ... " Beloved.

Bashari's hand drifted down to her thighs, just barely touching her where she most wanted him. "My Queen, there seems to be some trouble here," he said, nibbling her breast. "Perhaps you went for a swim and didn't dry yourself?" One finger brushed her opening and she bit back a moan. "You're terribly wet," he said, and he slipped his finger in deep. Pleasure shot through her.

He turned his attention from her breasts to kiss her lips with sweet breath. She felt his other arm move, and then felt a second hand rub her more strongly. She tilted her head to see Bashari's fingers, covered in warm honey, spread her opening wide and plunge inside.

"I should clean that off for you," he said, and he fell to his knees before her.

Fingers and tongue, tasting and prodding and rubbing inside of her. Her thoughts spun, centered around the pleasure between her legs. So perfect, as his tongue slithered against her most sensitive ridge, sparking all the nerves in her body.

And of course she compared, and she remembered, and she failed to recall the last time Katar made her feel this way. How many months had it been since he'd pressed his mouth against her soft down, and how many years since he'd done so with such finesse and passion?

She had to fight her moans, had to temper her pleasure with the knowledge that too many people might hear. Each stroke ached, as Bashari licked and drank every trace of sweetness within her. Two gentle fingers rhythmically slid in and out, the knuckles crooked perfectly against her ridge. She burned with love for him.

Chayara swore in a harsh whisper, first in her own language and then in his, cursing and blessing him as her orgasm ripped through her. He didn't stop the onslaught of his tongue, even as she quaked and stilled, and it was too much, pleasure so deep it was practically pain.

Stop, she needed him to stop, and he did. Then he grabbed her wrists and brought her to her shaking knees on the rug.

He reared behind her. "I need you," was all the warning she had before he thrust deep inside her.

Different now, the pleasure and the sensations, and Chayara made insensate cries, matched with Bashari's gasps as he took her. She collapsed her weight onto her elbows, allowing him an even better position to stroke her throbbing ridge. Her hands clawed the rug beneath them as Bashari pounded into her again and again and again.

"Is this what you want?" he growled.

"Yessss."

He withdrew, and she ached for him, for completion. "Tell me."

"I want you." She crawled backwards to rub against him, but he pulled back. "Bashari!" she hissed.

He teased her outer ridge with his slickened head. "You mean you want this?"

"I want you inside of me. I want you to fill me. I want ... " Her words fell off into a primal moan as he shoved into her again and retook his rhythm. So hard, so deep, so ...

Another peak loomed, and then before she could so much as breathe, she came hard, shuddering her whole body. Could anyone see them in the darkness, she was certain that she glowed from every pore.

"Love you," she gasped, as he continued to take his own pleasure from her willing body.

"Love you so much," he replied, his voice quavering, his hips grinding hard against her. One hand stayed at her hip, the other grabbed almost painfully onto her wing. Then he hitched and his rhythm quickened and he groaned his release.

Bashari fell back, drawing her into his lap. Tired, aching, and sated, Chayara reached up to press wet kisses against his mouth, which he returned gently, brushing her wings out of the way.

Their breathing stilled, and she could not drag her eyes away from his, dilated huge and beautiful in the darkened room. She wanted all of him, wanted to know every thought he'd ever had, wanted to hear every word he'd ever spoken, wanted to promise her soul to him and understood she would be satisfied with nothing less than the same in return.

She knew she should return to her own room, and he should return to his quarters. She shouldn't coax him to lie beside her on the floor, shouldn't grab the sheet from where it had puddled and wrap it around them both, shouldn't rest her head on his arm as they lay facing each other in the darkness, shouldn't long to do so every night for the rest of her life.

But that was what she did anyway.

+++++++++++++++

CHAPTER THREE

+++++++++++++++

Metit always started her day with quick prayers to the gods. King Katar and Queen Chayara were represented by tiny clay figures she'd brought from home, and they were joined by her family's household gods. She left an offering of figs this morning, asking that Ashai the cook might look her way and like what he saw.

Then she hurried to her lady's chambers.

Metit frowned. The sheets on the bed were neatly tucked, and the mattress was still plumped. She checked the oil in the lamps and found them as full as she'd left them the night before. Queen Chayara loved to read in the evening, and rarely went to bed ere the oil was gone.

As Metit went through this in her mind, she was startled by the Queen. "Good morning, Metit," said Queen Chayara pleasantly, moving past her. "I woke early today." She placed a smoothing hand over the sheets.

Metit was no fool, and she knew very well that though her Queen had many good qualities, making her own bed was not one of them. But again, she was no fool.

"Of course, my Lady."

She helped the Queen with her morning bath as always, then went to fetch her breakfast while Chayara dressed. Metit turned down the corridor, nearly running into General Bashari as he emerged from one of the guest rooms. She bowed to him, then resumed her errand.

Ashai was already red-faced from the oven when Metit arrived. The morning bread was hot and ready, and the evening meal would soon be placed in to cook.

"Morning, Metit," said Ashai, smiling at her.

"Good morning, Ashai," she said, trying not to smile too brightly back at him as she took a choice loaf and then hunted for the honey.

"How's the Queen?" he asked.

"The Goddess's health is well."

Ekibé stood at a counter, cutting roots. She said something which Metit didn't catch but made Ashai laugh.

"What was that?" she asked sharply.

Ekibé shrugged her large shoulders and repeated: "I'm sure the General is taking excellent care of her." Ashai smirked.

Metit set the food down. "That's not a good rumor to be starting, Ekibé."

"I didn't start it," replied the older woman. "Nafrit saw them in the garden yesterday."

"Many people walk in the garden."

Ashai snorted. "Nafrit said they weren't walking."

Metit felt a blush creep over her features. "Nafrit needs to learn to keep her mouth shut."

Ekibé stopped her work. "How long have you known?" At Metit's confused expression, she added, "The Queen trusts you, doesn't she?"

Ashai stood still and watched her closely. Either the Queen trusted Metit and had told her, or she didn't and hadn't, and the little status Metit had gained among the other servants would be lost again. In a moment, she replayed a dozen scenes in her mind: the Queen and the General talking, laughing, lingering in rooms together after the King had gone. And this morning, an unused bed, and the General in a bedroom close by.

Perhaps she had chosen not to see.

"We can't speak of this," she stated firmly. "The King ... "

Ekibé made a noise. "When my mother worked for the old King, he had three wives. Each of them had lovers, and the King himself insisted on bedding every girl in the city the night before her marriage."

A shudder went through Metit. When she'd come to work at the palace, her grandmother had taken her aside and told her to be watchful when answering any summons from King Katar, although her mother had shushed the old woman before she could say why. Her grandmother had been married in the city, and the old King would have been her ruler.

She shook off the horrible thoughts. "That was another time and another King. King Katar and Queen Chayara are gods come from the sky, not some ... " What was the phrase the King always used? "Tribal chiefs!"

Ashai went back to his ovens as Ekibé shrugged again. "Gods they are," she said, "but people as well. This is how these things go." Kindly, she patted Metit on the arm. "You're her body servant. Help her." Then she went back to her chopping, leaving Metit with the rapidly-cooling bread.

Her thoughts in disarray, Metit took the bread and some melon, and hurried back to her lady's chamber. She paused outside the door where she'd met the General, and cursing her own curiosity, ducked inside to peek. The mattress on the bed was not as soft as the Queen's, but did not look slept in. The sheets were tucked in with strict lines.

They had talked, perhaps, and nothing more.

As she turned to go, her foot caught something on the floor. She picked up a half-empty pot of honey, the same she'd been looking for in the kitchen. Beside it, she spied ten fresh and matching furrows in the rug, as if made by two hands with sharp nails.

Metit walked back to the Queen's bedroom, bringing the food. Her trembling stilled, she placed the bread and the melon before Queen Chayara, and then the little clay pot.

The Queen's eyes widened.

"I am your servant," said Metit, head bowed. "Tell me how I can help you, my Lady."

+++++

Bashari shouted the men from their slumber and then led the morning exercises himself. His muscles, stiff from sleeping on the floor, loosened quickly with the routine movements of arms and legs. Among the men, there were a few groans from those who had overindulged the night before, with women or with wine. Ishpi in particular was slow in his movements.

Perhaps with more cruelty than was necessary, Bashari ordered the men on a quick run around the city, leading the way at a brisk pace.

Two-thirds of the way around, he got a hitch in his side, and embarrassed, had to slow down. A few of the men passed him; he waved them by, though Teti-en slowed to pace him.

"I'm getting old," huffed Bashari, falling into an easier gait.

Teti-en matched it. "Yes, you are."

"You weren't supposed to agree."

"Young men can be with women all night and still run leagues in the morning. You need your rest."

Bashari glared at him. "I had plenty of rest, thank you."

Teti-en did not look at him. "Your room was empty last night, General."

Bashari tripped and quickly caught himself, continued his run. "I was elsewhere."

"Perhaps you went to the temple later?" He didn't reply. Teti-en said, "But then Nesamun and Ishpi would have seen you, and they swore they hadn't when they crawled back to the barracks just before dawn." No wonder they were tired.

They reached the training yard, behind a handful of other soldiers, and Teti-en stretched his calf muscles while Bashari panted, then stretched his own. The run had not been a good idea. He was going to be sore later.

They were away from the others and would not be overheard. "Teti-en, either tell me what's on your mind, or shut your mouth entirely. Games are for children."

"General, the Queen," Teti-en made a quick prayer-gesture, "wears a distinctive perfume. Half the men are too tired and hungover to notice anything but their own pounding heads, or more would have remarked that you reek of her scent."

Bashari went cold. Slowly, he hissed, "You should have chosen silence."

Teti-en didn't quail. "You know I am loyal to you. You know they are as well," he said, spreading his arm to the soldiers arriving back from the run. "But the palace runs on rumors. If the servants know, Hath-Set will know, and Hath-Set will not hesitate to tell King Katar." Teti-en made the prayer-gesture again.

"No one knows."

"Even if you are right, secrets are things that are born to die." Perhaps he noted the look in Bashari's eyes, for he hastened to add, "I will not reveal yours."

Teti-en's voice lowered. "But I know Hath-Set suspects you, if he does not know outright. He asked me about you."

Bashari raised an eyebrow but didn't pry. Teti-en never went to the women in the temple, but there were houses to go for men, and the palace gossip said Hath-Set frequented the same places. Teti-en would not say that was where he'd met the priest, but Bashari strongly suspected it was so.

"What did you tell him?"

"That you are a good man and sworn to the King and Queen, and that if he questioned your loyalty in my presence again I would send him home without his teeth."

Bashari grinned. "You're a good friend."

"Yes, General."

The last of the men staggered in, Ishpi and Nesamun stumbling along at the rear. Bashari barked orders to the soldiers to pair off for practice with their swords for a quarter hour, and then quietly slipped back to his quarters to wash.

+++++

She saw him in the distance, her sharp vision allowing her to see him clearly, while he would note her as no more than a dark blur atop the pyramid. She could tell he was looking for her, though he tried to appear as though he wasn't. For a long while she observed as he wandered the palace grounds and spoke with guards, bowed to passing priests and aided a young chambermaid with a large basket.

Fleetingly, she wished for a communicator like those used on Thanagar. That way she could summon him to her location instead of having to retrieve him herself. With a sigh, she stood on the steep incline and spread her wings. She'd awakened with pain in her lower back, attributed it to having slept on the stone floor and decided flying would loosen up the muscles. To her aggravation, the ache remained. But the ache to be with Bashari was stronger, pressing her into action. She pushed off the pyramid and caught the breeze.

A moment later, she hovered over him.

"General!" she barked and he snapped to attention. She chuckled and he relaxed enough to look around, still unable to see her. She laughed then.

Bashari tilted his head up and frowned. "Not amusing, My Queen."

"I beg to differ. You assume a military stance so quickly and so well."

He shook his head. "Come down."

"General, I am not a soldier whom you can order around," she said with mock defiance.

"Then I shall have to come up to you," he said.

Chayara crossed her arms and her ankles, assuming a relaxed appearance, though her wings still beat against the wind. "That should prove interesting."

Bashari nodded, obviously accepting her doubt as a challenge. She watched as he looked around to decide his path. He disappeared under a nearby tree and she heard his sandals scrape against its bark as he climbed. The leaves and branches shook as he emerged several feet higher, yet still below her. He leapt from the tree to a balcony, his hands grasping the elaborately carved stone as he hauled himself over the wall.

He looked over the edge and seemed to realize for the first time how high he had climbed. His eyes widened and he stepped back from the edge a half step.

"Not quite there," she informed him.

"I'm not finished," he said, taking a full step forward.

She smiled as he climbed up to stand on the wall. Almost eye-to-eye with her, he took a proud stance, feet apart, hands on his hips and a smile on his face.

"That was very impressive, General."

"Thank you, my Queen."

She saw his eyes dart downward and his smile waver. He covered by raising his hand to her. "Will you come to me now?"

"I do believe you're uneasy," she said.

"Certainly not," he dismissed, then crooked his finger at her. "Come to me."

"I think you're afraid of heights."

"A general does not have such mundane fears as that, I assure you." Again, the finger beckoned.

Chayara arched an eyebrow under her mask. "Then prove it."

"I'm standing on a narrow ledge high above the ground. I fail to see how I could further prove myself."

She nodded then and extended her hand. Bashari stretched, his fingertips brushing her palm. Suddenly, she clamped onto his hand and beat hard with her wings, lifting them both into the air.

Bashari made a very unmanly sound and flailed his free arm until he grasped her hand with both of his. His grip was painful. "Chayara! Please!" he croaked.

"I won't drop you." To prove the point, she hoisted him up further and adjusted their positions. Much as a mother would hold a too-large child, she supported his back and butt while his legs squeezed around her hips. His arms went around her neck, nearly choking her, as he pressed against her securely. "I'm much stronger than Earth women," she reminded him. "In fact, I'm much stronger than even you."

She hovered, stroking his back, waiting. When he spoke, it was with his face buried against her neck. "You were correct. I don't like heights."

Chayara held him tighter. "Fly with me," she whispered into his ear, "and I'll show you a freedom you've never known."

Bashari pulled back and looked at her then the ground far below. She saw his eyes widen at the height because she'd already raised them high above the buildings. "If man had been meant to fly then the gods would have given him wings."

"Your goddess is giving you wings now," she smiled.

He swallowed. "Then how can I refuse?"

Chayara kissed him quickly, changed her angle in the sky and flew them away from town. She went slowly, making sure to avoid sudden movements, until they were far from prying eyes.

"You'll enjoy it more if you don't cling to me," she told him. "Look around and see the sights. Feel the wind on your body."

Bashari lifted his head from her shoulder and twisted his neck. His fingers dug into her shoulders, but he didn't hide his eyes again. "It doesn't look real," he said, and she could hear the awe in his voice. "The river is so narrow, the pyramids are so small."

"Do you trust me?" she asked.

He took his eyes off the scenery for the briefest of seconds to look at her. "With my life."

"Then trust me now." She changed their angle so they were vertical once more. Her wings flapped slowly as they hovered many meters above the ground. "Let go."

Bashari's mouth opened. But rather than offer her the protest she expected, he took a deep breath and closed his eyes. His legs dropped from her waist and his arms loosened from her neck, allowing her to support his full weight out in front of her as though he were a rag doll.

Chayara turned him around so her chest pressed against his back. "Extend your arms outward and hold your legs straight," she instructed. He did and she leaned forward until they were parallel to the ground again. She flew toward the open expanse of desert, her arms wrapped securely around his chest and waist. "Now, open your eyes."

She felt Bashari gasp. The position of his arms and legs faltered just a bit before he recovered.

"This is ... " His breath hitched and she was afraid she'd taken him too far. " ... exhilarating!"

Chayara pressed her lips to the back of his neck, pleased beyond words that he was enjoying himself.

"Faster?" Bashari requested.

Smiling, Chayara sped up, her wings pumping harder. Bashari laughed and Chayara became bolder. She twisted them into spins and dips, which caused Bashari to whoop with excitement. She powered high up then dove headlong back toward the ground. Bashari's shout grew louder the lower they got. She could hear his excitement start to change to terror before she pulled up --- just barely above the sand --- swooping them back into the sky.

She could feel his heart pounding in his chest, his breaths coming in short pants. He pulled his arms in and covered her hands with his, squeezing. Chayara felt the sudden need to land.

She tilted, sweeping them in a huge arc and flew back to the city, heading for the palace's main balcony --- the very one from which she'd witnessed Bashari's triumphant return from war not a week earlier. It was also where she'd asked --- no, begged --- for Katar to love her, to pay attention to her, to give her a child so maybe she'd have at least a part of him while his attention was on world domination. She wondered if Katar had allowed her to take him into her arms right then if she'd have Bashari in her arms right now.

Chayara careened to the left, avoiding the balcony with all its memories and questions, and instead landed them around behind the palace at the servants' entrance.

Bashari stumbled when she released him, catching himself before he toppled into the wall. He shook his head and blinked. "I did not expect to be so disoriented."

"You're not used to flying," she explained. "Stallions don't perform such aerobatics, nor do they move as swiftly."

"It was like riding with a hawk." He reached toward her.

She expected him to stroke her cheek, but he bypassed her face and touched her wing. His fingers pulled through her feathers and Chayara smiled.

"They're magnificent," he breathed.

Chayara stretched up and kissed him briefly. She wanted more, wanted his hands on her wings, his lips on hers, him buried deep inside her. But not here. Not in the open. "Come," she instructed, opening the servants' door.

+++++

The room was used for storage: jars of oil, rich decorations to bring out at festival time, odd gifts from wealthy supplicants which had no good place but had not yet been quietly stolen by a servant.

Chayara ran her fingers through the fine fringe of a rolled tapestry, luxuriating in the softness. Bashari purred into her shoulder, almost asleep, "Are you going to pet that all day?"

She laughed. "I'd forgotten we had this. I think it's supposed to be a picture of me."

"Then I shall take it back to my quarters and keep it," he said, kissing her collarbone.

"And what will you do with it?"

His fingers tickled down her bare sides, then rested on her hip. "I will look at it and say, 'What an unpleasant woman.'"

Chayara punched him on the arm, pulling the blow. Bashari grabbed her fist and kissed the knuckle, then held her arm above her head as his mouth found hers again.

At first, the recovery time he needed after sex had baffled her and then annoyed her. Now it was a chance to lay with him, touch him, talk to him, and she loved him even more. Besides, given a little time, she would arouse him regardless of his sleepy state.

Outside the storage room, Metit sat quietly in the corridor, keeping watch lest anyone ask after the Queen. Hidden in the dark, Chayara smiled around Bashari's kisses, delighting in the danger and reveling in the secret.

"I told the architect to cancel the plans for the new palace," she said to him between kisses.

"Why?" he asked, more intent on the kissing.

"We don't need it. It's extravagant and stupid."

"All right."

"I thought you'd be pleased."

He nuzzled her neck. "I'm working on that."

She pushed him away.

Confusion covered his features, at least those she could see in the dim light. "What is it?" he asked.

"I just said that I cancelled the work on Katar's third palace."

"I heard you."

Chayara scowled, and her gut clenched. She wasn't quite sure what she'd expected him to say, but she'd thought it would be more than this.

"You don't care," she said flatly.

He shrugged. "I care because you care. Is that what you want to hear?" He rubbed her arm playfully.

"You should," she said, pushing away his hand and reaching for her clothes. "Katar will be furious when he finds out."

"What's wrong?"

"Nothing!" The cloth caught and stretched uncomfortably. She cursed, trying to adjust the material over her chest, until Bashari set his arms around her. She resisted, then finally allowed him to draw her against him. Grudgingly she even moved her wings so as not to smack him in the face.

"Tell me," he said into her hair.

"I wanted you to be happy with me."

"I am."

"You're happy because I can," she reached her hand around and grabbed him roughly, "give you pleasure."

Gently, he pulled her hand away and kissed her fingers. "No, I'm happy because I love you. I'm happy because you are beautiful and you are kind-hearted." He chuckled.

"What's funny?"

"You are also terribly self-centered."

"I am not!"

"You are," he said. "You were hoping I'd praise you for stopping the plans. You wanted me to say how brave you are for standing up to Katar, and how good a person you are for not spending the treasury on another palace."

"I was not."

"Yes, you were."

She wondered if he could see her glower in the dimness. "I hate you."

"No, you don't. You love me, though I can't imagine why."

"That makes two of us," she huffed.

"Shall I try to find you a good reason?" he asked, fingers peeling away the fabric that hadn't quite managed to cover her breasts.

Chayara continued to glower, but did allow him that opportunity.

As she lay against a fine table, Bashari nibbled and tasted every inch of her body. She giggled and squirmed as he breathed and suckled at the sensitive spaces between her fingers, on the backs of her knees, the soft pads of her tired feet. Then he licked his way back up the insides of her legs and between her thighs, and she knew that she loved him more than anything.

+++++

The Queen looked up from her barely-touched dinner and asked him, "Have you thought about where we could go?"

Bashari startled. He'd been focused on the grace of her arm as she brought small bits of food to her lips, and hadn't been following the thread of the conversation.

Quickly, he looked around the room, but of course it was just the two of them dining as her servant kept watch outside. "I'm ... not sure," he covered, taking a long draught of wine.

Her shoulders fell. "I know. I haven't been able to come up with anything, either. There's no place we might go where he can't follow. And if I do leave him," she glanced up at Bashari, offered a reassuring smile as she corrected, "when I do, I'm not sure how he'll react. I want to believe the best of him, but I've had to talk him down from all-out wars before now. There will be no one left whispering in his ear but Hath-Set."

Bashari was reminded of Teti-en's confidence. "I don't trust that priest."

"You shouldn't. He doesn't like you. He doesn't like me either but he knows I can have him killed."

"Not that I'm offering this as a suggestion, but if he happens to die before Katar returns, things might go smoother all around."

"I'll keep that in mind," she said, smiling. His fingers itched to pull away Chayara's mask and see the light in her eyes that always joined her smiles.

With effort, he banished thoughts of Hath-Set from his mind. Chayara was far prettier, and the priest had no evidence for his suspicions, not yet. Bashari could arrange an accident if one was necessary, and keep her out of it.

As they ate, he placed some thought to where they might go, should they choose to run. The kingdom stretched hundreds of miles in all directions, and Katar was always casting his eye further. The sea was not many leagues to the north, and past that, the King's hand had not yet extended. Barbaric lands edged the northern coast, tiny fiefdoms where hard men clung to green mountains, growing olives and raising sheep and knowing nothing of the fine culture the gods had brought from their celestial home. Two unusual-looking strangers would raise some comment, but enough gold could buy them freedom from questions.

He would lose his command, naturally. His closest advisers would feel the King's wrath in his stead, and so he resolved to tell them to leave at the same time. She would lose her throne and her power and her good name, and her servants might also be put to torture and death for Chayara's betrayal.

But they could go north. If the need came, they could flee beyond the sea.

The shadows lengthened, and he knew he needed to return to his soldiers. He would grant leave to those who'd stayed in last night, then return in secret to the palace. He whispered these things into her ear, claiming a kiss before he stood.

"Come to my room tonight," she told him. A tremor went through his spine and he nodded before quickly leaving her there alone.

++++++++++++++

CHAPTER FOUR

++++++++++++++

He dawdled, longer than he should have, with the men and the work. When the moon was full in the sky, he knew he could delay no more.

Bashari had set foot in the royal bedroom only once, following Katar as he'd run in to retrieve a scroll he'd left the night before. Tonight his footsteps brought him outside the doorway and he could not make himself step inside.

From within, he could see the warm glow of the lamps. And then, the woman he loved, naked and supine on the bed, smiling seductively at him.

"My Queen," he whispered.

"You're late."

"I know. I ... " He turned his head, would not look at her. He heard the susurration of her wings as she rose from the bed and came to where he stood.

"Bashari?" She placed a cool hand against his cheek. He opened his eyes to see concern lighting her beautiful features. Hidden, her face was always hidden, and he one of three people on this world who had ever seen her divine face. He had never seen Katar's face, not once.

He pressed his hand over hers, held it to his cheek. "I'm sorry. This is his bedroom, his bed."

"Mine," she corrected him.

He shook his head. "And still his as well. I can't love you here."

She let out an exasperated noise. "Last night was the most perfect night of my life, because I was with you. The only thing that marred it was sleeping on a hard floor. This is my room, my bed, and I am comfortable here."

"No," he said simply. He wondered what she would say, if she would try to order him to do so anyway.

"Then where? Your quarters? The guest room again? The gardens? Tell me where I can be with you and I will go, no matter how far." So many ways in which she stood naked before him, and he wanted to offer her the moon and the stars just to make her smile.

A thought struck him.

"Wait here," he said. "And get dressed." He kissed her quickly --- his conscience would allow that much in this room --- and left before she could protest.

+++++

Chayara reluctantly donned her clothing and her mask. If he wanted her to dress, he meant for them to walk where they might be seen, but she had no idea where he intended to go.

Minutes passed, and then a quarter hour, and he returned to her, slightly out of breath but pleased with himself. They put out the lamps, and then he took her hand, leading her through the quiet passageways of the palace and out onto the rooftop. The roof of the palace was not flat, but a series of small terraces. He led her to one out of sight of the wider view of the roof but which overlooked the city. Above, the few stars bright enough to compete with the gibbous moon shone down on them like watchers.

Too often, she'd wondered which one was Thanagar's sun, if she could even see it on the most star-filled night.

He'd dragged a thin mattress up here, and a sheet. Chayara suspected both were from the same room they'd slept in last night, and could not hold in her grin.

"This is wonderful."

"I thought you'd like it." He threw himself down on the mattress and placed his hands behind his head. "I remember how much I enjoyed sleeping out when I was young, and it's a perfect night. No one can see us up here, especially in the darkness, and no one will hear." He moved to his knees, took her hand and pulled her gently down to face him. He tugged off her mask and set it aside.

As their tongues fought for dominance, her hand stole downward, under his loincloth. The first time, when they were exploring and learning the subtle differences between their respective species, she was surprised to find his testicles on the outside. Thanagarian males' were inside, and she'd told him so. Bashari had seemed disconcerted by that, until he'd made his own discovery of soft down where he'd expected hair.

Chayara soon found it advantageous --- and more than a bit entertaining --- that humans weren't built the same. She could cup him, jiggle her fingers just so, and Bashari would groan in a way that drove her mad. She could squeeze lightly and have his full attention. She could stroke him and make his already hard cock even harder.

Tonight, she jiggled her fingers and Bashari moaned around her tongue, pressed his mouth and hips closer to her. His hands slid around from her back to her breasts where he tweaked her nipples through her clothes. She swatted his hands away.

Wetly, she disengaged from their kiss. "I'm in charge now," she said and shoved him back to the mattress.

Bashari's smile widened as she disrobed first herself, then him. She positioned herself between his legs, dipped her head and suckled him for a moment, just long enough to hear him sigh and feel his abdominal muscles flex. She could continue, could bring him over the edge with her mouth alone, but not now.

With a long stroke of her tongue, she left him. He whimpered and she replaced her mouth with her hand. A few hard, quick strokes with her fist and Bashari whimpered again, this time a note of discomfort in his voice. Chayara loosened her grip, remembering that humans didn't have the fortitude of Thanagarians.

To apologize, she drew herself up his body, allowing the very tips of her breasts to skim teasingly along his stomach and chest, and kissed him.

"I don't wish to hurt you," she told him.

His fingers stroked her back and wings. "You couldn't."

"I could," she said, her stomach twisting with an all-new guilt for something she had yet to do. "Easily."

To her surprise, Bashari smirked. "Perhaps it could be fun." He swatted her butt and she jolted.

"You don't want to do that," she warned, though her heart rate had accelerated.

"Don't I?" he smacked her cheek again.

Chayara bit her lip and closed her eyes.

"I think you like that," Bashari said and she could hear the legitimate astonishment in his tone.

Her fingers dug into the mattress. She opened her eyes, looked down at Bashari and reminded herself once more that he wasn't a Thanagarian. For him it was play; a stinging open-palmed slap done to be mischievous. For her --- for any Thanagarian --- it wouldn't end there. And because he wasn't Thanagarian, she could cause him to bleed, she could break every bone in his body, she could kill him. She gripped the mattress harder. Yes, she did very much like the thought of having it rough. But she couldn't. They couldn't.

Chayara sat up, straddled his hips and reached back. She firmly took both his wrists in her hands and pulled him away from her butt. As she twisted his arms upward, over his head, she gave him a small example of why she couldn't allow herself to proceed down the path he wanted to take. She put pressure on his wrists, bending them backwards almost too far.

Bashari yelped.

"Do you understand now?" she asked.

He nodded and wiggled his wrists in her grip until she released him.

"Forgive my ignorance," he requested.

Chayara smiled and kissed him. "All is forgiven, if ... " She moved her hips, pressing herself over his waning erection, rubbing him to arousal again.

Bashari's fingers dug into her thighs. "Whatever my Queen desires." His hips bucked beneath her.

"Your Queen desires you." Chayara moved again, this time taking him in.

She sat up straight and looked down at him. Bashari's hands slid up her thighs, up her stomach, his fingertips reaching for her breasts. Chayara shifted her wings, drawing them forward, catching his attention with their movement. She smiled and slowly extended them out to their full length.

Bashari's fingers left her chest and stretched for her wings, which were out of his reach. She brought them forward so he could touch them. The tug of his fingers through her feathers sent tiny jolts of pleasure to her shoulders and down her spine.

She fell forward, her weight on her hands and her wings still extended. She flexed her back muscles, drawing her wings out of Bashari's grasp in an upward stroke. She made a downward stroke, followed by another upward one. It wasn't fast or powerful enough to actually fly, but the movements pulled her up his length and pushed her back onto him again.

Bashari grasped at her hips, his short nails trying to find purchase in her skin on every stroke that threatened to detach him from her. To ground herself as she pumped her wings harder and faster, Chayara clamped around Bashari tighter and gripped the mattress more firmly.

They soared together without ever leaving the ground. Bashari flew over the edge first with a shout and a hard thrust of his hips. Chayara beat her wings twice more before following him past the brink. She collapsed atop him, her breaths coming as hard as if she'd just flown a long distance at top speed.

"That was much better than spanking you," Bashari sighed into her hair.

Though she hadn't the energy, Chayara laughed. "Perhaps someday we'll test that theory." She felt Bashari twitch within her. "But not tonight." She disengaged from him and slid down beside him, her right arm and leg draped over his body.

Bashari lay next to her, his chest rising and falling heavily, his heart pounding against her palm. She'd felt his same reactions as they flew earlier. Exhilarating. He'd called their flight exhilarating. She traced her nails lightly over his chest. She'd certainly call everything she'd experienced the past several days exhilarating.

And terrifying.

Also ... saddening.

Katar slipped into her mind uninvited. On Thanagar, they'd been partners and good friends. He'd asked her out for drinks a few times and they'd enjoyed each other's company, but the desire to permanently bond hadn't been there.

Then they'd crashed to Earth.

The people of this new planet had seen them as a joined couple, had treated them as a pair. It had been like an arranged marriage and for years, Chayara and Katar remained only friends and partners and occasional lovers. But time had passed and love had eventually grown out of circumstance.

One moonless night, they'd knelt in their damaged ship, their only tie to their homeworld. They'd lit candles, accessed as much of the appropriate text from the damaged computer as they could --- filling in the gaps with their own words --- and in their native tongue they'd pledged their love to one another.

Chayara sighed and snuggled closer to Bashari's side.

All she'd wanted was for her and Katar to have a family and build a home, for their little corner of the new world to prosper, for their people to be happy and healthy. But as the years passed, Katar's attention had turned from improving the lives of the area's citizens, to "bringing the stability of Thanagarian rule to the rest of the continent." He'd paid less and less attention to the nucleus of his world and more and more attention to the fringes and to dominating any who opposed him.

Power corrupts, Chayara knew, and Katar was well on his way to absolute power.

She'd pled, argued, cried, yelled, debated, reasoned, and questioned in her numerous attempts to ground him, to turn him back into the man she once loved. Sometimes she'd been successful, other times not.

As he'd pulled further from her, she'd tried even harder to build the family she truly wanted. Each year she'd begged for him to impregnate her, hoping that if he saw his son or daughter, he'd realize his true place was at home, not out expanding his grip on the world. Her tactic this year had been to appeal to his sense of duty, to tell him he was required to carry on his bloodline, but even that hadn't worked.

"What's wrong, Chayara?" Bashari asked, his thumb swiping her cheek.

She blinked and drew a shaky breath; realizing tears had escaped her eyes. "Nothing," she answered, wiping her eyes clear.

Bashari looked unconvinced. He leaned forward and kissed her, stroked her still-damp face. "Don't weep, my Queen."

"Don't call me that," she said against his lips, her voice catching on tears again. "Not now, not ever when we're alone together."

"Never," he assured her. He kissed her again, comforted her with his gentle touches to her wings and back, held her in his arms.

Much later, when her emotions were back in check and he had covered them with the sheet, she asked, "What do you want from life, Bashari?"

"Whatever you want," he replied.

"Don't do that. Tell me honestly, what do you want from life?"

Bashari fell silent. She raised her eyes to see him staring up at the stars.

"I want things I cannot have."

"What things?"

He swallowed, as though he feared he'd be struck dead for speaking. When he finally spoke, it was without looking at her. "You."

Chayara smiled. "You have me."

Bashari twisted his neck, facing her. "Temporarily. Chayara, people already suspect us. Rumors can be deadly. For me in particular. When Katar comes home ... "

"We will leave."

Bashari bowed his head. "We will leave." His tone suggested he didn't believe it would happen and it distressed her.

They shouldn't feel so miserable, she decided, else they were defeated before they even could begin. She shook her head, ridding it of negative thoughts.

"Once we're away, then what do you want from life?" she asked. "Tell me what our home will be like."

Bashari turned his eyes back to the stars and she saw a small smile touch his lips. "We will have a house I have made myself. It will be near running water. And it won't be hot where we live. It will be pleasant all year round."

"The heat is tiresome," Chayara agreed.

"We will have livestock and large fields. We will be self-sufficient."

"A farmer?" She was surprised. Though, after thinking about it for only a moment, it made sense that he'd want to find peace after a life of military service and warfare. "I can see you tending fields," she smiled.

Bashari nodded. "There will always be enough food to feed you and me and all our children. And when we're old, our grandchildren will sit at our feet as we tell stories of my great military victories and your benevolent ruling over a great far away land."

A lump formed in Chayara's throat. "You want children?"

Bashari's arm tightened around her shoulders. "Yes. Sons. Daughters. A large family that grows long after we're gone." Suddenly, he turned to her. "You do want children, don't you?"

She remembered the ship's computer, the experiments they'd run when they'd arrived, the sight of Katar's wings as he rolled away from her in their bed.

"I've wanted children for longer than you could possibly know."

"Good," he sighed, his head turning back toward the stars.

Her fingers resumed their meandering over his chest as notions of her and Bashari defying laws of biology to create a new life filled her thoughts and carried her nearly to sleep.

"Tell me about the heavens."

Chayara's eyes cracked open. She looked at Bashari, who still stared into space, then shifted her view upward. "The heavens are mostly empty," she yawned.

"But the stars ... "

"There's a whole lot of emptiness between them."

"I don't understand."

Chayara closed her eyes and pillowed her head more comfortably on his shoulder. "There is much I can teach you, my love."

"About the heavens?"

She nodded against him. "About the stars, other planets and other life-forms in the heavens."

"Other life-forms?" He whispered, "There are others besides us?"

She wasn't sure if he meant "besides humans" or "besides humans and Thanagarians," but either way, her response was the same. "Yes," she said. "Many, many others."

"Teach me."

"I will, Idh-yaa. I will." She could hardly stay awake. "After we've built our house, I'll teach you everything I know as we tend our crops."

She drifted off as Bashari pressed his lips against her hair.

+++++

Ishpi sweated in the late morning heat. He'd been given the task of getting the new recruits from Tmn-Hor fitted with weapons then teaching them how not to cut off their own ears.

He suspected the General was punishing him for something, although Ishpi ran through a quick mental list and couldn't think of anything he'd done wrong lately. More truthfully, he couldn't think of anything he'd done that hadn't been overlooked a thousand times before and thus must not be terribly bad.

So far, the training was going well. Only a few minor cuts. He'd had to separate the boys from scuffling a few times, but that was natural.

He couldn't get over how young they were; not one had more than a breath of beard. Always the King was looking to expand the borders, which meant they continually needed fresh soldiers to take and then hold the new parts of the Empire.

Ishpi stilled the smile on his face. Training had been called for the moment, due to the heat, and he was in the process of teaching the recruits other things they'd need to know in the Empire's army.

"Now, everyone put down a chip."

The boys all obediently set stone chips in the pile. Each chip meant a measure of beer, or would after Ishpi relieved them of their chips and made them pay up.

Ishpi shook the bones in his hand and rolled the dice. Four lovely spots came up. Everyone but Isphi himself groaned as he reached into the pot and dragged his winnings closer.

"Ishpi, what in the name of Set are you doing?" boomed General Bashari's voice.

Ishpi spun, knocking over his stack of chips.

The Queen stood with him, silently. Ishpi ran his hand over his face, wishing he'd combed his hair, while the recruits hit their knees and bowed to the winged goddess.

"General! Sir! I was just teaching the new recruits as you ordered." He grinned, until he saw the General's eyes cast over the group of them and lock onto the dice.

"And what do you think you're teaching them?"

"Ah ... "

"General," said the Queen, "Ishpi was clearly showing these young men the basic principles of mathematics." She gestured to them to stop bowing.

The General's head spun and he stared at her. The Queen stared back at him, an odd smile on her lips.

Then, to Ishpi's delight and the shock of everyone else, the Queen crossed her legs and sat down on the ground next to Ishpi. "I'll show you." She grabbed the dice and rolled them. "The way these are cut and numbered, four and five will be the most common sums to come up. Basic statistics." Sure enough, five dots showed. "Now, I imagine Ishpi is going to allow these nice young men," --- most of whom stared at her slack-jawed and a bit frightened --- "to place wagers on the numbers that will come up, while he himself wagers on the likely numbers, thus teaching them the laws of probability."

The General stood back. Ishpi knew his leader's moods, and he recognized the smirk that the General was trying not to show.

"Perhaps m'lady could demonstrate," he said. Then he sat down beside her.

The Queen examined a chip. "What do these stand for?"

One of the boys chirped up: "A swallow of beer. My Queen!" His mates jostled him, shushing him, until the Queen smiled.

"Thank you." The boy beamed. "I don't know that I'd want to take your beer," she said diplomatically.

The General replied, "You and I can play a few rounds to show the men. I'm sure we can gamble for other things, my Queen." He pulled some stones from a pouch and gave her half. Ishpi noticed that it took her a long time to take all the little stones from his hand.

The Queen set down her chips and took the dice. "Fine. We'll demonstrate. And you and I can work out the payment details later." She rolled.

After, Ishpi would remember thinking that he'd never seen the General so happy to lose a bet.

+++++

Nesamun was the only one not abed, and he liked it that way.

He rarely napped at noon, choosing to spend his time reading or writing or drawing. Scroll after scroll was wasted (Ishpi's word) on the intricate designs that burned the insides of Nesamun's eyes when he closed them: the curvature of springs, coiled and ready to fire spears over great distances; the teeth of gears, smoothly turning to open a doorway or even propel a wheel. The General had asked the Queen's permission, and so Nesamun spent many a glorious hour in the ship of the gods, examining the sleek metals and sussing out the magical secrets. With the Queen's permission, he had even begun some work, in his little free time, with a few precious scraps of what she called the Ninth Metal, coaxing it to merge with bronze and iron.

Today, he continued his study of the ship's log, the holy Absorbacron. The Queen had ordered him never to touch it, lest it harm him, so he stood a safe distance away and sketched.

Nesamun heard footsteps outside. He set down his papyrus in time to see the Queen walk up the gangplank of the vessel.

"Oh! I didn't expect to see you here, Nesamun," she said.

"Queen Chayara," he stammered, and made a low bow.

She walked over to him and picked up his drawings. "These are good."

"My thanks. I will leave you to your work."

"You may stay," she said. "I simply wanted to consult the ship's computer on something. Continue your work."

Nesamun knew an order when he heard one. He turned back to the Absorbacron and his pencils. Behind him, the Queen moved her fingers over the panel. The mechanism that moved the ship hummed and crackled; she'd told him that meant it was damaged beyond what she or her husband could repair.

In his deepest dreams, Nesamun thought that perhaps, once he'd unlocked enough of the mysteries of this ship, he might someday be the one to repair it for them.

Queen Chayara made a displeased noise in her throat.

"Is there something I can do, Your Majesty?"

She pounded a fist into the metal. "No. This cthylla thing doesn't know up from down anymore. On one day, it says the sky is blue, the next red."

"I see," he said, although he did not. He glanced at the symbols on the screen. The Queen had taught him a smattering of her language ("cthylla" for example, meant "fornicates with one's own parent") but he did not recognize the symbols blinking irregularly on the screen while she scowled.

The Queen smacked a switch and the screen went dark. She continued scowling as she turned. "How goes your study?" she asked him with a brittle brightness.

He spread his hands. "I could learn more by examining it closer, but I follow your command."

She sighed, then grabbed the Absorbacron. Brilliant lights flashed in the small ship, and Nesamun took two steps back as she closed her eyes. Then, grabbing his pencils quickly, he sketched what he saw like a madman.

A few minutes later, the Queen dropped her hand to her side. Her scowl was gone, replaced by a musing sadness. "This isn't in good condition, either."

"I will repair it for you, my Queen," he said, spitting out the promise quickly before he could stop himself.

Her lips quirked into a smile. "I think you would. Consider it a challenge, but remember not to touch. I've just recharged it, and an unshielded contact could easily wipe your mind. I am very fond of your brain, so for my sake please don't damage it."

Nesamun felt the blood in his cheeks. The General had badgered Nesamun and his companions to treat the Queen as a friend (although the General had made quite clear, noting Ishpi's expression, that he meant a friend who could have them all executed on a whim). Nesamun enjoyed her company, though he remained very polite. "Thank you, Your Majesty."

A thoughtful look crossed her face. "You and your friends, you love Bashari, don't you?"

He thought about it for only a moment. "Of course, my Queen." There was nothing he would not do, should the General ask him.

"And you are loyal to me."

"Without question."

"Be watchful," she said quietly. "We may have need of your loyalty."

He bowed his head. "Anything you ask. Simply name it."

"When the time comes, you will know, and if you are true to me, to us, I promise you in return that I will protect you with all my power."

Before he could possibly question her strange words, a voice came from without, the General's: "My Queen?"

"In here," she called.

The General entered the vessel.

"I was just coming to look for you," said the Queen.

"Then better for us both that I found you first," the General said. A smile lit his face, and another bloomed on hers.

Nesamun looked back and forth between them, then buried his attention in his drawing.

"Let me know how your progress goes," the Queen told him.

"Yes, Your Majesty," said Nesamun, and he bowed again as she left with General Bashari.

+++++

Katar flew into his city with the late afternoon rays of the sun warming his side. It had been a long, hard journey both ways, and he was unaccustomed to traveling such a distance. He'd done little enough fighting when he'd arrived in Nebet: at the sight of his golden winged form leading a phalanx of troops, the rebels had broken ranks and fled.

He had to admit, he was pleased with that result.

And now he was home, and he was sore, and he was tired and hungry and filthy, but more than anything, he had a longing to see Chayara again.

Katar touched down lightly on the balcony overlooking the city, and walked inside. Servants, surprised to see him, scurried around anticipating his requests even before he spoke.

Godhood had its benefits.

He went to his bedroom first, not really expecting to find Chayara there. Two servants followed him into the room, his own body servant Kemnebi and Chayara's as well.

"Metit, where is the Queen?" he demanded of her.

The girl stepped back and stammered, "The Goddess has gone into the city, my King. She didn't say when she would return."

Katar sighed and ordered her to draw him a bath while Kemnebi helped him strip off his dirty traveling clothes. Minutes later, Katar dipped his tired body in a tub filled with lukewarm water, feeling relief soak into him, and civilization, too. Just because he lived among savages didn't mean he had to smell like one.

Fresh from his bath, he dressed and considered going into the city himself in search of his wife. But then, she hadn't known for certain he would return, and she had her own duties and interests, and she would be home soon enough.

He sent the servants away, and sat on his bed, frowning. Chayara would still be in her season, still be deep in desire for him, for a child. He hated having to tell her "No" year after year, but he wasn't ready for a family.

At the same time, the short span he'd spent away from her made him eager to find her right now, pull her into the nearest alcove, and bury himself deep inside her. Encountering her in her heat, beautiful and willing and drenched in pheromones, he wasn't sure he could stop himself. She might get her baby from him yet.

Katar stood and stretched.

Perhaps tonight, he would grant her what she wanted. A child could give her whatever joy she was missing from her life, and he always wanted to give her joy. Even if he was not ready, she said she was.

He left his bedroom, walked down the corridor towards the throne room to see what business he'd missed in his absence. As he reached the outer chamber, Hath-Set detached himself from a shadow.

I hate it when he does that.

"My King, I am pleased to see you well and safely returned from Nebet." Katar inclined his head. "May I have a word with you?"

+++++++++++++

CHAPTER FIVE

+++++++++++++

A general's private quarters were comfortable and cool, having been earned through years of hardship and heat. High windows caught the early evening breezes and directed them downward into the room. Real oil lamps, rather than the torches found in soldiers' barracks, lit the space. The general had also earned one other item regular soldiers lacked: a bed.

Bashari, who had spent most of his life sleeping in a hammock, found he couldn't sleep on the mattress. It was too soft, yet too hard, and he missed the gentle sway as he slept. Therefore, he installed a hammock that he used each night instead. And with the exception of the first week in his quarters over five years earlier, Bashari hadn't used his bed.

Until today.

"Is it uncomfortable?" he asked against her cheek. His hips pressed forward slowly, then backed away. Again, he pushed forward.

"Certainly not," Chayara sighed into his ear. "It's exquisite."

"Not this." He thrust only a little harder. His fingers moved from teasing her breast to stroking her feathers. "Laying on your back. On your wings."

He felt her lips on his earlobe. "It's awkward." Her hands traced the line between their bodies, tickling his ribs. "But I find I enjoy this feeling. You above me, claiming me."

His stomach clenched and Bashari lifted his head. He forced himself to say her name, rather than her title. Merely having impure thoughts about the Queen was enough to get him killed, but to be reminded that he was claiming her as his own --- stealing her from the King --- Bashari felt his testicles try to crawl closer for protection.

Chayara's fingertips came to rest on his temples; her green eyes were soft in the lamplight. "We're able to see one another's face," she said, a gentle smile on her lips. "Where I come from, seeing a person's face ... " Her fingers traced his eyebrows, his nose, his cheekbones. " ... is very intimate." She stretched her neck and kissed his lips with the barest of contact.

Bashari felt his muscles relax and he allowed his hips to continue the previous movements, increasing in pace as Chayara's moans grew more urgent. He clasped her right leg, drew it up and bent it at the knee, changing the angle, allowing him deeper. Chayara's nails dug into his shoulders; her expression twisted as she reached for their goal. Bashari doubled his efforts, his fingers stealing down to where they joined. While the position worked well for reaching a human female's most sensitive area, his queen was built differently, and Bashari had to twist his wrist around himself to find Chayara's ridge.

When he made contact, she flinched. Bashari smiled and kissed her hard. She bit his lower lip. He stroked her with his thumb and forefinger as he again sped his hips.

"Please," she breathed, her teeth still latched onto his lip.

Power surged through Bashari then. A woman --- the queen and goddess of the land --- was under his control, begging him to provide her with pleasure. Who was he to deny such a request? His middle finger, moistened with her essence, slipped lower, pressed forward and slid inside.

Chayara gasped as he penetrated her in alternating strokes. Her head fell back to the pillows and her eyes squeezed shut. A cry started low in her throat. Bashari covered her mouth with his, swallowing her scream, not wanting the soldiers in the nearby barracks to hear the commotion. Her body convulsed once, then again, and Bashari let go, spilling himself deep within her with a groan.

As their quakes died down, Bashari withdrew. He didn't move off her, though, as her wings took up all the extra space.

Chayara raised her hand to his cheek and stared into his eyes. "My love."

"My life," he promised.

She kissed him and when she pulled back he saw sadness in her eyes. His stomach knotted. For a battle-hardened general, he'd spent more time in the past week with his heart in his throat than a new recruit on the front line of battle.

"What troubles you?" he asked, though he wasn't sure he wanted to know.

"Katar will be back from Nebet soon," she said. "I must return to the palace."

He sighed, knowing the truth of her words. Given the lateness of the hour, there was a good chance that Katar had already arrived. That fact didn't concern Bashari, though, as he had no intention of letting his lover go so quickly after their coupling.

"We will bathe," Bashari said, knowing their routine. He pushed himself up and away. "Then I will escort you home."

He took his time, leisurely washing each part of her, feeling her warmth as she scrubbed him in turn. When they were clean and dry, she dabbed the perfume she'd brought, the same she always wore, to her hair and her wrists. He watched her, longing to sweep her back into his arms and love her again. Instead, he bowed as she donned and straightened her mask.

She was his Queen again. Bashari hid his sigh.

Dark had descended on the city. Each step was painful as they approached, and finally, he took her arm and led her without protest around to the garden where there were fewer eyes to watch them go. He could part with her --- for now, only for now --- not far from where they'd made love.

Her smile told him she understood, and she squeezed his arm.

He ought to give her something, a token to remind her of him when they were apart, but everything he owned was in his quarters, and none of it appropriate for a lady.

Bashari had an idea. He pulled his knife, and as she watched, flung it. His aim was true, cutting a daylily from its viny hold on a tree branch. He caught the flower mid-fall

As he presented it to her, she teased him, "You didn't have to do that. I can fly."

"When we're together, so can I."

They were in the shadow of the palace, but no one was around, no one would see. He drew her body to his and kissed her tenderly, desperately. The scent of the lily in her hand and the flowers in the garden mixed with her perfume in the warm night breezes, and he was lost.

From far away, he heard a sharp noise, and he pulled away from her with one last press to her lips.

"Go in without me," he breathed. He couldn't tell her to go to Katar, not without breaking his own heart.

"I love you," she whispered back, and touched his hand, and walked away, still holding his gift.

When she was gone, Bashari climbed up to retrieve his dagger. As he tugged it free, the blade snapped in half.

+++++

Chayara went first to her room, finding a place to set the lily so she could spy it from her bed. Then she went in search of her husband. He was not in the throne room, nor in the war room, and she began to wonder if he'd returned at all.

She found a servant hurrying through the corridors. "Wait. Has the King returned?"

"Yes, my Queen," bowed the chambermaid. "He is dining."

"Thank you." Chayara changed direction. Sure enough, Katar lounged on the pillows beside the table, moving the food around on his dish without tasting it. Three servants stood at bored attention around him. She considered sending them away, and then decided against it. She didn't want to be alone with him, not yet.

She forced a smile to her face. "I thought you might be home."

His head jerked, and he turned to face her. "My Queen," he said simply.

"How did you fare in Nebet?" she asked, taking her seat beside him. One of the servants immediately brought her wine and another left to bring her dinner.

"As well as I expected. Den Qa'a had only a handful of loyal supporters. The rest of his followers turned tail as soon as our forces arrived." He ripped a joint free from the roasted fowl before him and chewed the meat from the bone.

"Congratulations on your victory. What will you do with Den Qa'a?" she asked, as her food was set in front of her.

"Nothing. His women can attend to his corpse. I won't abide traitors, Chayara."

"Of course not," she said quietly. The smell of her meat was too rich, and she pushed the dish away from her.

Katar continued to disjoint his dinner, although Chayara noticed he wasn't eating, just ripping it to bits. "Nebet won't forget us soon. I left Den Qa'a's head and the heads of his supporters over the gates of the city." A tiny piece of his food flew and hit her in the face, bringing with it the pungent aroma of the meat and the spices, and her imagination was too ready to provide a different head above their own city gates.

"Excuse me," she said, bolting for the door, but she'd only just made it out of the room before she heaved up what was left in her stomach from her earlier meal. She coughed the last of it out, then sat back. She was secretly glad that the servants came after her, retrieved rags, and cleaned up without comment.

Katar came to the door. His face was unreadable under his mask, even to her. "Are you well?"

"My stomach's been ill these past few days. It's nothing." It wasn't exactly a lie; her stomach had been giving her grief lately, as guilt gnawed at her. She offered a weak smile. "I think I'll go to bed now."

"I'll come with you," he said, and helped her to her feet. She tried to stay calm, not cringe from his touch. This was Katar. This was the man she'd married, the man she had once loved more than life. His comment about the traitor had been coincidence, nothing more. He would never hurt her.

Back in their room, she undressed quickly and slipped beneath the sheets, placing her back and wings to him, counting the breaths until he would come to bed with her, slide up behind her.

The breaths counted out longer than she'd thought, and she rolled over. Katar stood beside the bed, masked and clothed, watching her through the mosquito netting. "Katar?"

"You still want a child, don't you?"

Chayara sat up, pulling the sheet to cover herself. "You don't."

"If a child would make you happy, I will give you one." He began to tug at the fastener to his loincloth. Every muscle in her body tensed as she saw that he was already aroused.

"Not now," she said. "Not tonight." She placed her hand on her abdomen. "My stomach." She tried another smile. "Tomorrow. We can try tomorrow."

Katar stopped undressing and stared at her. For a moment, she wasn't sure what he was going to do. If he would come to bed and let her sleep. If he would try to mate her anyway.

"I will allow you your rest." He blew out the lamps and left her there.

Chayara allowed a tremble to go through her body as she lay down again. She'd avoided him for this one night. She couldn't keep pushing him off, certainly not when she'd pursued him for so long on the matter. Her season should last another week, and ...

In the darkness, Chayara frowned. Hesitantly, she reached up and stroked her breasts. The sensitivity had faded. Her season had ended early this year, and she hadn't noticed.

Katar would notice, as soon as he nuzzled her neck, breathed in her scent. He was distant tonight, weary from the battle and hard travel, but his senses were as keen as hers and he could tell almost as easily as she when her time came and when it left. He would be gratified to find out she was finished. He would probably take her north sooner, and they would be alone.

She had to run.

Chayara closed her eyes. She was so tired, and her head ached, and her stomach still roiled.

Tomorrow she'd talk with Bashari and they would plan an escape. The hope calmed her.

She reached out and stroked the flower he'd given her, reached her other hand between her bare thighs to stroke herself. In her mind's eye, Bashari was there with her, his mouth and hands working where her own fingers brushed and rubbed.

She sighed quietly, wanting more, and pulled her hand from under the sheet to rummage in a shallow drawer beside her bed. Beneath the scrolls, her fingers found the polished hardwood object she sought. In times past, she had spent passion-filled nights with Katar as he'd loved her with his body at one entrance and with this at the other. That had been years ago, though and the wooden phallus had known her more often than her husband for more months than she could count.

Noiselessly, she coated her own essence over the knobbed end and slid it coolly inside herself.

Again, she fantasized about Bashari, now buried deep within her, pumping and thrusting as she twitched her hand. Chayara reached out to touch the daylily again, brought it to her mouth and licked the flower like she might his lips.

Then, fearing she'd crush it, she set the lily aside and bit her lips tightly to keep from making a sound. She moved her hand faster.

This wasn't the first night --- alone or with Katar --- that she'd pretended she was with Bashari. This was the first time she'd done so knowing firsthand what it felt like to have him inside her. Her memory provided his rich scent, his soft sounds, the spicy taste of his mouth, the feel of his warm skin pressed against hers. It didn't take long.

Idh-yaa! Yes!

Her climax convulsed her, and she rode it, wishing Bashari was with her. When her last tremors had faded entirely, she pulled out the phallus, returned the shameful thing to her drawer.

Chayara closed her eyes and fell quickly asleep, and she dreamed of a life with her love among green hills where she was not afraid.

+++++

Katar sat on his throne, thinking murderous thoughts.

He couldn't wipe the memory from his mind: his wife and his closest friend, locked in a passionate embrace. Hath-Set's words came back to him, bringing rumors he'd hoped were idle gossip. The General, that human, had his hands all over Katar's wife. Katar's one hope, that Chayara had played reluctant victim to Bashari's insistence, had been dashed at last when she'd denied Katar even in her heat.

There were words on Thanagar for women like her, and he muttered them under his breath, releasing each like a curse. She would pay. They would both pay.

"My Lord," said Hath-Set.

Katar's head jerked up. "What do you want?"

"Only to serve you," said the priest. "Only ever to serve you."

"You at least are loyal, aren't you?" Katar said, brokenly.

"Oh, yes, my King." Hath-Set bowed and approached the throne with careful steps. He reached Katar and knelt down before him, placing his hand atop Katar's own as it rested on his leg.

"How could they? How could she? I gave her everything!" He'd tamed this land for her, built her palaces, sacrificed and bled for her.

"Women are fickle and untrustworthy creatures. This has always been so." Katar felt the slight pressure as Hath-Set squeezed his hand, began rubbing Katar's knuckles.

"But I am bound to this woman as long as we live," he said coarsely.

"Yes, my King."

He recalled so clearly the day they'd met, the day they'd been assigned as partners. He remembered being almost too shy to ask her on a date. Then had come the wormhole and the crash, and it had not been long before they were lovers simply out of loneliness. His mother's earrings --- which he'd gladly have given her --- were light years away, but still they had wed. He had pledged his heart to her forever, and now to discover that she wanted another, a human, struck him to the core.

She'd never loved him.

Katar stood suddenly, sending Hath-Set tumbling down the steps. Without another word, Katar strode back to his room. He would wake his wife and he would demand the truth from her and he would claim her body for his own again and then he would wring her faithless neck.

Chayara lay sound asleep in their bed, her breaths making the sheets rise and fall softly. So calm, so lovely and peaceful, as she had been each night of their marriage.

Denied him. She was well within her season and she'd denied him. But he'd spent almost thirty years denying her, too.

With a sob, he turned from the doorway and ran out into the night-shrouded garden.

His brain seethed. Chayara, beautiful and naked the first time they'd coupled beneath a luminous moon. Hath-Set's whispers. Bashari, kissing Chayara passionately, holding and touching her like a lover.

How long had they been together? How blind had he been? His imagination needed little prompting to give him image after image of his wife and his best friend, pale and dark, winged and smooth, rutting like beasts in Katar's own bed. Katar knew too well the little noises Chayara made in the back of her throat during sex, could easily hear Bashari's deep voice, moaning her name.

In his mind, Chayara undulated atop Bashari, her perfect body thrusting and twisting in time with his. Bashari's muscled thighs pounded him up into her hot, tight sheath as they muttered dirty things to each other, while a ghostly, ghastly Hath-Set stood in a dark corner, watching and noting the perfidy of women.

Katar's hand was inside his own loincloth, and he jerked himself angrily, tears streaming down his face, his thoughts aflame with pictures of the two people he loved most on this world naked and gasping in their betrayal.

He came fast, still crying, and spilled his seed out onto the bare soil between the trees. He fell to the ground, in too much pain to crawl back inside.

He wanted to die.

+++++

His thoughts were too much on her. Two nights Bashari had spent in Chayara's arms, and now the prospect of a night without her was terrifying. There were papers to read, scrolls on reallocation of manpower, on the distribution of rations to the far garrisons. Normally, he hated this kind of minutia and handed it off to Teti-en or Nesamun, but tonight he needed what distraction he could find.

When the lamps burned low, he set the paperwork aside with a sigh. Still unable to sleep, he exercised in the darkness of his room.

"General Bashari!" The shout came from outside.

He got to his feet in an instant and he dashed out into the barracks. The men slept, but for a few. He looked around, confused, eventually striding up to where Mshai sat by Sebi's side, trying to raise his spirits.

"Someone called my name," Bashari said.

"Not us, sir," said Mshai. "And I didn't hear anything." Sebi said nothing.

"You're sure?"

Mshai nodded.

Bashari frowned. Perhaps his mind was playing tricks. He considered staying, seeing if he could help cheer Sebi, but the look on the man's face told him it would be no use. "I'll be in my quarters if anyone needs me."

"Of course, General."

He went back to his room and crawled into his hammock. He'd considered trying to sleep in the bed, wrapped in her lovely scent, but that would drive him to distraction all over again.

He slept fitfully, even so, and when he woke just before dawn, the rosy light creeping in through his windows pushed him the rest of the way from his uneasy dreams. He climbed out of his hammock, and then noticed a dark shape in his bed.

A snake, long and brown, curled slumbering in the middle of his sheets. Had he slept in his bed, he would have died.

Bashari grabbed the new dagger he'd claimed last night, not as good a fit to his hand as his old one but serviceable enough. Two slices of the dagger, and the headless thing bled out on his floor. Heart hammering more than he'd like, he left his room in search of his breakfast.

+++++

Hath-Set smiled to himself as he went through the morning ritual to welcome the sun. Surely the body would be discovered soon and a shout would go out from the soldiers' barracks: the General, victim to a cobra's bite, a terrible accident.

No shouts came as day broke.

There might be a simple inquiry first. Soldiers kept to their own, would be frightened of bringing what they thought was bad news to the King.

He desired to know, and he could not wait, so he made his way to the wall nearest the training yard, where the early risers were already gathering for their exercise. He spied Teti-en among them and frowned. When the usurping General was confirmed dead, that sharp-tongued fool might very well receive a snakebite for himself.

There was still the Queen to consider. Hath-Set quailed at the thought of murdering a goddess, had to gird himself with the reminder that this was his god's wish. Her execution made a vicious kind of sense: the Queen was a whore, and the King could never again trust that she would stay faithful. Any child she gave him might not come of his own divine flesh but instead be sired by another. Hath-Set would end the kingdom himself before he allowed it to be ruled by Bashari's bastard.

Lost in these thoughts, he did not notice at first as the General came out into the training yard. Then the soldiers greeted him loudly, and Hath-Set cursed under his breath to see the man, hale and healthy.

This would never do.

+++++

Chayara woke from a dream she didn't remember to find herself alone in her bed. As she shook the sleep from her mind, she couldn't remember who was supposed to be there with her, and she looked around the room for Bashari until she remembered fully where she was and that Katar had come home.

She lay in bed for a while, staring at the red daylily, and thinking.

Metit came in to her room just after sunrise.

"Where is my husband?" Chayara asked her as Metit helped her dress.

"I believe he is in the throne room, my Queen."

She wondered where he'd slept last night, if he'd slept at all. She didn't want to see him, not yet. Her stomach was a hard knot again this morning, but she was ravenous. "I'll eat in my room today, Metit."

"Yes, my Queen."

"Metit?" The girl turned. "After you bring the food, please see if you can locate the General and ask him to meet me here."

"Here, my Queen?" Chayara read the fear on the girl's face. It was one thing to help her Queen in an affair when the King was gone, and another entirely to bring the Queen's lover to her chamber under his nose. Then, she swallowed. "Yes, m'lady."

"Thank you, Metit." She watched the girl go, and went back to her thoughts. They had to flee, and it had to be tonight. She needed to talk with him, and if Katar was avoiding her, this was the best place for them to plan. She would tell Metit to return to her family, perhaps even see them out of the city if possible. Bashari had said he would tell two or three of his men an hour in advance.

She took a bit of papyrus and began to jot down what they'd need to take with them to ensure safe travel over the sea. Metit returned with sweet cakes and wine, which Chayara wolfed down. She added more food to the provisions.

An hour passed. Chayara finished her list, then nervously rolled it and unrolled it. What if Katar came in? What if he discovered the scroll and knew what she was planning?

A movement in the doorway, and her heart stopped until she saw Bashari. Metit remained outside. Chayara gestured to her to bring them more to drink, and then patted a spot on the bed for Bashari to sit.

"We had this conversation before," he said uncomfortably. With a sigh, she removed her mask and set it on the post beside her bed.

"I didn't ask you here for that," she responded. "We have to go. Tonight."

He frowned in confusion and then he did sit down. "Why?"

She closed her eyes. "Katar. Last night ... "

"Chayara?" She opened her eyes to see the pain and worry on his face.

"We didn't. I won't. But he knows something's wrong now. He'll find out about us soon. I don't know how he'll react, and I won't risk your life." She bit her lip. "And there may be another reason for us to have to go."

Metit came back into the room with a pitcher and two goblets. Chayara smiled as she set them on the table beside the bed. "Leave us," she instructed the girl.

"Shall I wait in the corridor?"

"Keep a watch close by. If the King comes near this passageway, come in to alert me."

"Yes, my Queen." Metit left them alone.

Bashari looked at her. "What's the other reason?"

Chayara took Bashari's hand, pressed it lovingly to her cheek, and then placed his warm palm against her belly. "Something to celebrate."

+++++

Metit hurried back to the kitchen to grab another tray. She found that if she walked with a pitcher and goblets, she met with no questions while she haunted the corridors near the Queen's room.

The King had been in the throne room since before daybreak, and Nafrit said she thought he'd been there most of the night. Hopefully, he wouldn't disturb them at all.

Metit's own thoughts were in turmoil.

She had aided the Queen in her romance, but the King could have the Queen, the General, and Metit herself killed if it struck his whim. What had seemed like service to her Queen now looked perilously close to treason.

She chose to cling to the small hopes she'd found this morning.

First, Ashai had asked her to walk in the garden with him this afternoon when her duties were finished. Second, the priest Hath-Set had stopped her in the hallway on her way back to her lady's room and had insisted on blessing the wine she carried while she knelt with eyes closed. Third, she had dreamed a strange yet wonderful dream that still whispered in her thoughts, of a kind man all in green who sang sweetly to her.

Metit tried to hum the song, but couldn't quite remember. Then she paused, as she saw something at the end of the corridor, a flash of gold from the King's holy wings.

Just to be safe, she would tell the Queen that her husband was near. She walked to the doorway casually, heard nothing, and ventured inside the room.

At first, she thought they'd simply fallen asleep. Then she noticed the spilled wine, the unnatural pose of their bodies, the Queen's open, sightless eyes.

Metit screamed.

++++++++++

EPILOGUE

++++++++++

Nesamun crept into the ship. Late afternoon light filled the city; at full dark he would attempt to make his escape past the locked gates. The ship was a better hiding place than most, as no one would suspect him to go to ground here.

He was filled with weeping, with rage.

The alarum had sounded in the late morning: Murder! Treason!

King Katar and Queen Chayara were dead, and the General as well, and Hath-Set the priest sat on the throne. Nesamun had come to the palace with Teti-en, heartbroken, had witnessed as Hath-Set accused the Queen's body servant of poisoning the gods. The girl swore she had not, swore it must have been Hath-Set himself while she knelt praying, and Nesamun had watched Hath-Set's own guards execute her before she could say more.

And then the guards had turned to the others in the room who'd heard her speak. Nesamun had been behind the rest, had run, had lived. Teti-en had been closest to the guards, and didn't survive to reach the doorway, though he'd taken two of Hath-Set's guards with him to the afterlife.

The city gates were barred, and Hath-Set's men were going from house to house in search of anyone loyal to Bashari or the Queen. Nesamun had family in Waset. If he could make it to the river, he might live to tell what he'd seen and heard, but he had to stay ahead of the guards. For now, he would rest here and wait for nightfall.

In the center of the small vessel, the Absorbacron sat, lonely and watchful. He had promised the Queen he would try to fix the device, but it seemed he would fail her in this last task as well.

Yet he had time now, and his spirit ached, and he'd left his tools here last night when he'd come, unable to sleep.

He opened the Absorbacron with prongs, careful not to touch flesh to it himself, and he picked at the tiny wires inside, pushing them back together where they had fallen away from each other.

Outside, he heard a noise, and he placed the cover back on carefully. Then he picked up his sword and crouched low as the ship's door opened. His one hope lay with the thought that Hath-Set might have conscripted some of Bashari's own soldiers for the task of routing the rest, and Nesamun was now their commander.

Four guards entered roughly. He did not know their faces. Nesamun leapt at the first, bringing his sword around and hoping for a swift, clean death. The guard moved faster than Nesamun thought possible and punched him hard in the gut. Nesamun fell, the wind gone from him, and another guard stomped on his wrist, cracking it. The sword fell from fingers that could no longer hold it.

"Tell the priest," said the largest guard, while Nesamun lay on the metal floor of the vessel staring at three swordpoints not an inch from his eyes.

A few minutes passed, and finally Hath-Set entered the ship of the gods. He stared down at Nesamun. Then he spat on him.

"Traitor," Hath-Set said, and Nesamun burned.

"You poisoned the wine, like the girl said."

"You defile the sacred vessel with blasphemy." His eyes narrowed on Nesamun's tools.

"I am trying to repair the device of the gods," Nesamun argued uselessly. "The Queen gave the order and no one countermanded it."

"The Queen was a whore and you are a liar."

Nesamun longed to wrap vengeful fingers around the priest's throat. He slowly moved to a sitting position, drawing his legs beneath him, uncaring as one sword sliced his cheek. They were going to kill him regardless, and he would not die like a dog on the floor.

"Queen Chayara was a goddess, and King Katar a god, and General Bashari was their most loyal man, and you murdered them."

Hath-Set turned away from him with a wave. "Kill him."

Nesamun was ready. He punched his legs out and forward, hitting the smallest guard with his full weight. The holy vessel was small, and too crowded for four armed men to fight effectively. Nesamun's broken wrist hung at his side, but he could kick and head-butt using every bit of the training Bashari had instilled in all his men.

A sword slashed across his arm, and he fell, kicking out desperately to strike one last blow before he died. His foot connected with Hath-Set's knee, and the traitorous priest staggered, reaching out for support.

Nesamun saw Hath-Set's hand grasp for and connect with the Absorbacron, and he ducked his face away just before the room filled with brilliant lights. As the guards were distracted by the holy sight, he pushed his way out to freedom and he ran.

He found refuge in a small stable and hid, emerging hours later to a new rumor: Hath-Set had gone to the sacred vessel of the gods, and was carried out by his own men, drooling and gibbering and broken. The guards claimed the holy Absorbacron had radiated light when he'd touched it, but did not understand why or what had happened. They called it a miracle, a sign.

Nesamun understood what had happened, and he knew enough about the gifts of Thanagar to recognize a discharge from a broken device. He also knew that if he went before the masses telling them it was the Goddess punishing Hath-Set for his crimes, he would be believed. He would be allowed to live, as would the rest of his men. If he was wise, he might even be able to stop the kingdom from falling into a squabbling mess as it was sure to do now that the King and Queen were dead without issue.

If you are true to me, to us, I promise you in return that I will protect you with all my power. He cursed her in his heart a little. This should be Bashari's task, or Teti-en's, for Bashari had loved her and Teti-en had always believed in her. Nesamun was not cut out to be a prophet. He was a soldier and a tinkerer. But someone had to fix this mess, and the Queen had trusted him.

He looked to the gates and the desert beyond. Then with a sigh, he turned back towards the palace.

END