I

They flurried across the room, their shoes clicking like disapproving teeth, and wherever their robes swept they disrupted the detached alignment of black and white tiles. I stood at the top of the long domino stairs, gazing just slightly over their heads and so royally avoiding lowering myself to meet their eyes. I watched them peripherally, and named them in my mind: Helkomf Seberer, in brilliant robes of blue with violet lining, but balding and tired; Oporet Twelon, a twig of a man in peach robes and sandals laced near to the knee and a sharp pointed beard; Tomhe Karande in canary yellow, plump, with a shaved head; Vorke Kheron, with deep orchid and eyes like glimmering pits; Ghestol Blahr, a thickly bearded fellow in russet with a powerful stride; and lastly Evichka, my flower, a woman of twenty-nine wearing a thin band of gold 'round her forehead. Her timing was poor, to come in with this lot of supplicants, but what can one say?

They came to rest at the foot of the stairs, their robes sweeping outward dramatically as they knelt. Evichka dropped her head to the floor. "My Master, my Master," she intoned, her thinly clothed buttocks waving in the air. The others followed suit, crooning titles and admirations, not realizing they were being mocked. It was their way.

"Enough." They rose.

"Greatness," Oporet said, "We have come begging your most exulted favor for our Council. As you know, it is our humble duty to watch over the subjects of your realm, to govern justly and wisely, and to control the flow of resources as best befits Your Majesty. But lately it has come to our attention that the treasury grows small--"

"Quite small, quite small," intoned Helkomf, shaking his head piteously.

"--and so we have come to ask your royal approval to increase the taxes on your faithful subjects. Two percent, perhaps?" Their eyes gleamed.

I appraised them briefly. "Fine." They gasped in delight as though surprised, rubbing their hands and bowing to the floor and sometimes mixing the two blunderously, nearly falling on their faces.
"Your Grandness!" they cried. "We cannot thank you enough for this!"

"Go," I growled. "Go!" They went, without glancing back, save Vorke, whose gaze I disliked especially as it fell upon my woman. The slamming of the heavy doors sent an echo across the room.

And now there was only her, still gracefully bowed with one hand forward, fingertips supporting. "Evichcka," I sighed, pooling my sight in the waves of her body as she stood: her translucent, flowing skirts of gold, her slender hips and gently curved waist, her breasts swept in sapphire cloth, her rich black hair piled in winding braids. She looked up without moving her head, and slowly began ascending the stairs. "No," I said, "Not here. Let's retire to my chambers."

"But you are the Master." She stood behind me and kissed my head, caressed my neck. "Why should you not follow your heart's desires wherever they lead?"

I batted her hand away. "Not here. Follow me." She pouted and did as I said.

As always, in the gargantuan bed, she teased me and taunted me, using her tongue, lips, fingers, eyelashes, breath, hair, and private parts; she knew every inch of me, and well, and what would make my breath quicken, my eyes close, my jaw clench...I knew it was a sin, but she was a goddess, and I, Emperor of the Free Lands, was only hers.

She slept. Thick curtains blocked the light. In the morning I would be required to greet my subjects from on high and hear their voices rise in protest over the increase in tax; but they were easier to deal with than the Council. I wrapped my arm around her naked belly and closed my eyes against the world. Let me dream of her.

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