He heard them knock on the door together before pushing it open to come in.
'Very plush,' said Julyeis. 'Who thought you'd end up sleeping in a room like this?'
Shapeis watched the woman and the girl as they moved closer to him. The pillows supporting his back and neck were firm - wool stuffed, or perhaps feathers. Not that he'd had time to investigate: any movement pained him.
'When did you get here?'
'They brought me here by carriage this morning. I thought the journey would kill me!'
'I can imagine,' agreed Julyeis. 'I've never trusted wheels.'
The girl was smiling at him, a shy grin. Gently, he reached out his arm in its splints towards her.
'Look at you. You're grinning! Has Julyeis been caring for you properly?'
Rather than answer, Sosunda nodded. Watching her smile widen, feeling her hand grasp around his fingers - he could feel his eyes moisten at the contact.
'So where's the others? Where's Maeduul?'
'She's gone to watch Delesse and Loken consummate their marriage.'
'Why?' The idea of performing sex in front of an audience - for no pay - still bemused him.
'I don't think she wanted to go. But Lady Feyn and Delesse both asked her to. She told me she'd only agreed so she could visit Tuuke, sing a song to help him complete the leap to oblivion.'
'I heard. Did they bury him?'
'A service with full Clade honours in the Temple. Commander Behin would have it no other way.'
'That's good.' He closed his eyes for a moment as a spasm walked the length of his healing spine. 'He was a good man, I think.' There was a new pain in his arm. Opening his eyes again, he saw Sosunda tugging at his fingers.
'Best not do that, little one. I ache all over.'
She was pleating the skin across her forehead, as if struggling to remember something.
'When you fine ...'
The words came cautiously, the first words he'd ever heard her speak.
'... you be my dad?'
She couldn't remember how much of her time had been spent worrying about this moment. Arbelle, of course, had speculated about little else, even before God's tormenting gift first coated her thighs in blood.
'Do you know,' she whispered to Loken as he lifted his lips from hers, 'that my little sister had to tell me about the facts of life?'
He was leaning half back, one arm behind him to support their weight as she straddled his hips. 'Tell me about it,' he whispered back.
'One evening we had an argument about - well, about this.'
She could feel the sweat of their exertions trickling between her breasts. She eased herself up and down on him, enjoying the sensation.
'Go on, tell me more,' he whispered.
'She said she would show me what it was all about. We sneaked out of our room and went down to the kitchens.'
'It was Tabeed, our housekeeper - you remember meeting her?'
He breathed an assenting smile through his teeth at her.
'She was enjoying the chef, most intimately, on the table he used for chopping the vegetables. I thought he was killing her at first, with all the growling and grunting she was doing!'
'On the table? In the kitchen?'
'Right in the middle of the kitchen! I couldn't believe it! She was always so prim and proper, too.'
'You never asked her what she was up to, then?'
'God's teeth, no! She scared me, that woman - though she was never unkind to me.'
'It's a better story than mine,' he grunted.
'I got taken to a bordello and shown the ways of how to pleasure a woman. They even had me naming the parts!'
She bit her lips to stop herself from laughing, leant forward onto him to lick the skin stretched along the line of his jaw. She was thinking of the barby rat who had watched them, once, when Loken finally hoarsed and whooped his way to the consummation of their marriage.
Polite applause reached beyond her exhaustion to her ears. Somebody laid a blanket around her shoulders, covering their naked forms from the gaze of the crowd gathered at the edge of the broad altar-block.
'Congratulations, my dears. May your marriage be long and fruitful!'
Delesse looked up into the face of her aunt. 'Thank you, Feyn,' she breathed.
'Now don't worry about a thing, dear. I'll clear this mob out and make sure nobody else tries to disturb you. And I've hidden some extra blankets and furs over there in the corner so you can make yourself more comfortable.'
She kissed both of them on the forehead, then pulled the blanket over their heads. Together, the pair of them giggled as they heard her imperiously commanding people to leave.
'Long and fruitful, eh?' whispered Loken, still propping their weight up with one arm.
'Fruitful, certainly,' she whispered back. She took a deep breath: 'I'm pregnant already.'
He gripped her tighter with his free arm. 'I know.'
They kissed again, a prayer for the growing life within the walls of her womb.
Let's hope it's born without horns, added Arbelle, secure within her sister's skull.
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