by Silverhope

The following is a work of fiction, and is geared toward the adult reader. Strong sexual themes and some adult language may be included. It is assumed that the reader is of legal adult age in his/her country, and that local decency standards do not object to such works. The intersection of names or events with persons or events in real life is purely coincidental, and should not be construed as pertaining to such actual persons or events, their habits or proclivities. This work is copyright 2003 by Silverhope, a pseudonym for the author, and all rights are reserved.

If you passed by a certain wheat field on the lands of Maril Jastrow, member of the House of Councilors for Nufrans District and Lord Elector for the 30th Decilongit of Arjorum, you would hardly fail to notice a long slash in the soil, as if a large object had been scraped over the land by a mighty hand. Following the slash, you would quickly spot the object, and stare in wonder as you tried to imagine what it was.

Lorene Kilroy knew very well what it was; she had been the spaceship's pilot. Now she was its salvager, removing all the equipment and personal goods that could be useful or dangerous before Maril called in a team to cut up and haul off the hull. Lorene could not blame him a bit; the ship was useless, after all, and was taking up space in valuable cropland. She had been a farmer herself once, running one of the last open farms on super-industrialized Earth. She wouldn't want a rotting hulk taking up good land either.

Today, Lorene was carefully trying to uninstall the computer core and keyboard, preparatory to carting it back to Maril's manor house in a wagon she had borrowed. The Arjorum had managed to hang onto computer technology over twelve hundred years -- they were pastoral, but not total Luddites -- but had nothing as sophisticated as this unit. Lorene suspected this was leaning on the rules; however, if she could find someone to duplicate the technology, then the planet could benefit from faster, more reliable computation and communications power....

The anchoring clamps on the wall finally loosened under Lorene's wrench. She paused to check the braces supporting the big metal box until she could hoist it away with a cargo-grav, then pulled a towel out of the back pocket of her bib overalls to mop her brow. Arjorum "enjoyed" that peculiar phenomenon of daytime autumn weather that recreated the hotter days of summer, and today was a scorcher. I wish to hell, she thought tiredly, looking for her water bottle, that I hadn't needed to destroy the power cells! The life-support air conditioning would have made things a lot more comfortable. She had found her blazer pistol early on in the salvage, then quickly found a use for it: destroying all the nuclear power cells. Their casings had been nearly breached in the crash, and were just a hair's breadth from going when she pulled the trigger on the sonic disruptor. Later, when this weather began, she had blasted out all the viewports with focused beams, then left the airlock doors open to create a cross draft. Even with that, though, it was like working inside a magna-steel sauna. In desperation, she had shucked off her shirt and slashed the bibs' legs short with a survival knife to keep cool.

That had been seven days ago. Now, as she set the water bottle back down after a long drink, she glanced at her arm and saw the sweat beading on her skin, glistening even more wetly from the light reflecting off her gleaming golden flesh. She smiled and sighed to herself, lost for a moment in pleasured memories of that day over two months ago, when she had taken on the Arjorean symbiont. That had been one of the most delightful days of her life, and not only on the level of erotic satisfaction. It was a pity it took a lifelong exile by shipwreck and an infection by a benign microorganism to convince her that she was more than just "pretty." But at least now she believed it -- she was beautiful.

Perhaps it was the fact that she had more time to spend on herself now, since she was rather forcefully "between positions." Or -- more likely to Lorene's thoughts -- perhaps it was that, being so new to her body's transformation and unused to it as a lifelong matter of fact, her gilding made her feel like the most beautiful, sexiest woman alive, and she simply knew that she surpassed the other women of the planet in loveliness; that she was the only woman who was worthy enough for Maril--

The thought chopped off short, and the warm sensuousness within Lorene instantly became cold and empty. She stood there for a lost, hollow moment, then dropped her wrench and followed it to the deck, hugging her knees and stifling frustrated sobs.

Tamra Bensen was digging a few potatoes and carrots for her supper when she heard the sound of a wagon on the road. She glanced up idly, then smiled as her eyes focused on the driver, elegant even in stained overalls and hitched-back hair of burning silver-gold. Straightening up, she picked her way across the garden rows to greet Lorene, for the younger woman was pulling into Tamra's yard. The two had become fast friends in the time since Lorene's arrival, with added elements of both a servant-mistress relationship (since Lorene was living with Maril) and a mother-daughter one.

They exchanged greetings quickly, and Lorene added, "Lord, I wish someone had told me not to crash here during Indian summer! Can I beg a glass of water from you?"

"In-dee-yan--" Tamra began blankly, then shrugged. Lorene's Arjorean, a mutated form of her own Terran Standard language, was getting very fluent, since she was doing intensive sleep training every night, but some things still couldn't come across. "Never mind, lady," she grinned; "you can tell me later. Come on in; there's always water, or I have some fresh-made sangera in the cooler."

"That sounds tempting...and I could use a drink right now."

Tamra cast a longer, more focused glance at Lorene. "Yes, I daresay you could, child. Come in now."

Lorene started, then grimaced and followed the retired servant into her cot. "Are you a witch or something?" she said as she pulled off her sunglasses -- a necessity even with the symbiont's shielding of the Arjorum's eyes -- and sat at the kitchen table. "Only thirty seconds here, and you've guessed my emotional state."

"Take a look in the mirror, Lorene, and see the tear tracks in the dust. It's hard not to guess when the proof is patent on your face." She returned with the pitcher of sangera -- the local sangria -- and a pair of glasses. She filled one and gave it to Lorene, then said, "It's Lord Maril...isn't it?"

Pure unhappiness filled her face, and she nodded a confirmation. "It's getting frustrating, Tamra! My knees want to buckle when I see him, I love him so much. And I think he feels the same way about me. But he hasn't made a move yet, and it's over two months!"

"Yes; I've noticed the look in his eyes when I've seen you together. I know the man does have a heart, but it seems locked in a shell of marble."

"Well, what do I do?? If this goes on much longer, I'm going to kill either him or me." She knocked back the wine and fruit juice in a gulp and reached for the pitcher.

"You could move out if it gets too frustrating," Tamra pointed out. "I could put you up again."

"How? I refuse to take any more charity if I move out, and you know I don't have a clipped credit to my name. I could sell some of the goodies Maril insists I buy, but that leaves the future after the proceeds run out, though it should be easy enough for me to find a job here. Anyway, I don't want to move...not yet at least."

"Then you have to get more active in your quest, take some of the initiative instead of waiting for him." The look she received back was blank, to say the least; turning kind eyes on the pilot, she added, "You never had to hunt much, did you?"

" The boys always came to me."

"With your beauty, lady, I'm not surprised. But now the tables are turned, and you'll be the one fighting for somebody's bed...and life...if you want to have him. Keep it in mind, Lorene.


She did keep the notion in mind, considering Tamra's words off and on through supper -- always a tense affair, as it was with Maril -- and beyond, when she was lounging on her daybed. She had been trying to rediscover old friends in her personal collection of salvaged books; but at last, unable to even temporarily put away the pain of her heart, she threw the book-padd on the floor, stuffed a long Arjorean cigarette into an even longer holder, and lit up to smoke and pout in frustration.

If Maril -- or any man, for that matter -- had walked into the room at that moment, he would have been hard-pressed indeed to keep from throwing himself at Lorene's feet and pleading for her favors. Draped against the curved backrest of the long-bedded chaise, she let one leg stretch out straight while bending the other up at the knee. An arm was curved behind her and under her head; the other rested on her elbow, atop the daybed's flared arm, the cigarette holder unconsciously perched in her fingers with seductive grace. Those fingers also bore square-edged nails a good centimeter longer than she used to wear; they were painted an iridescent dark brown-red, built up in airbrushed layers of clear, crystalline and colored enamel by one of the top cosmetologists in Lagranda. Her fast-growing hair had lengthened and thickened even more over two and a half months under a cosmetologist's treatments, reaching down to well past the middle of her thighs; now unbound from the braided ponytail of the morning and thrown over the backrest of the bed, it cascaded to the floor in a soft, lustrous mass of gilt-silver waves. Posed like this, almost motionless as her thoughts moved about, she truly imitated the living statue of precious metal she sometimes fantasized herself as. It was as if Midas of ancient legend had materialized in this room, touched the woman lying on the couch, and transmuted her into the stuff of alchemists' dreams and carnal fantasies.

Maril, ironically, had helped her take the fantasy even farther, almost insisting that she did so. She had been with her on the day she had chosen to get these nails, her first trip into town, and had encouraged her to try what she liked...she had seen him admiring pictures of such nails in the beautician's window, and went for it. It had taken a little practice to get used to them. Now, though, she rolled the cigarette holder back and forth in her fingertips with ease; and she did not lose a single flake of ash as she drew another puff, blew it back out in a languorous stream of smoke, and tapped off the ashes in a tray. Eyeing the holder, she thought, This brings up memories of him too. The tube was half a meter long, of blue enamel bound with gold and studded with diamonds on the flared bell; the mouthpiece was made of white enamel. It was another thing that had taken getting used to; she already smoked, but had never used a holder before. Maril explained then, showing his own cigar holder, that Arjorean science had developed a filter cartridge that removed all the poisons from the smoke and left only the taste. Lorene had adopted it willingly; now, remembering ancient entertainments she had seen, and pictures of life on Earth during that period, she realized how graceful and seductive a long cigarette holder could look in a beautiful woman's hand.... Not that I've done much to really seduce him yet....

An electric lamp was positioned to cast its light over her shoulder for reading; now she snapped it off. The only other light came from a fireplace in the outside wall; the days were sultry, but the nights were on the cool side here in the foothills of this continent's mountain range, so Lorene had the heat turned on, and a fire going besides. It was as much for the luxury and romance of a fire, too, she admitted to herself. Its warm glow struck the shimmering gold of Lorene's flesh, making her even more a creature of sensual, erotic attraction. Her unbelted robe, the same teal-and-silver silk of her first day in this room, had fallen wide open from her body; she wore no nightgown here in the privacy of "her" room, and so it hooked against the peaks of her breasts, falling off her right as she shifted on the daybed. Laying thus exposed, the firelight sought her out and made dancing, gleaming highlights of gold play with shadows of black in the valley of her cleavage, and along the angles of her limbs. Her graceful body, from her prominent collarbones and firm, round breasts to the sweet promises symbolized by her hips and the shadows between, were turned into visions of mystery and allurement as the firelight played over her, made bright love to her.

Lorene let her thoughts wander again for a time as she smoked, enjoying the course of light across her form, shining like cast and polished metal in the semi-darkened room. Absently, she unbent her arm from behind her head and stroked the lush silk of the robe, reveling in its texture, burnishing her glowing nails on the fabric. The touch of the silk against her made her sigh deeply...and then twist slightly in longing desire as her mind circled back to the problem -- This is what I want Maril to be doing. I want to feel his hands loving me, not my own. Gripped by renewed frustration, she let her hand drop. But it's not just my own fault here. I'll admit it, I've never had to work on getting a bedmate before, so I'm not used to thinking in those terms. It's time I got off my bottom and did something about it.

But Lord above, Maril's holding back too, for some reason or another! I know he is; I can see him tense up and lean toward me when I come into the room. He's made I don't know how many Freudian slips when we talk. Unused as I am to seeing them, the signs are there.

So what's making him hold back? She pulled long and thoughtfully on her cigarette, holding in the smoke for a few moments before exhaling into the air above her. She flicked a quick glance at the cigarette's tip, for she didn't want to let it burn down too far. Then: Wait a minute...what about Anya? She died tragically. Could he still be -- No, she appended as she recalled another talk with Tamra about the man and his late wife. Tami said Maril did grieve for several months, but since then, he's had new lovers...just nobody who's stayed a long time. No, he's not a young widower lost in grief.

She fell back to silent consideration -- or almost silent. A few phrases started whirling in her head -- Lover.... Stayed a long time.... Lost in grief....

The fire was burning down, she noticed; she laid aside her holder and rose to stab at the logs with a poker, adding a fresh chunk of wood to the back of the fireplace. The light glistened off her hands and arms more brightly, and Lorene's sight darkened just a touch as the photoreactive symbiont bloomed in her corneas. She smiled slightly, lost again for a moment in the sensual richness of her flesh. Will I ever get used to this?... I rather hope not; this gives me something over women who've lived here all their lives. To them, it's a humdrum everyday; to me, it's so much more than that.... No matter how this comes out, God, thank you for having a survival solution here. I'll always be grateful to You for that, and to Maril for pulling me out of a castaway's funk so I could find out about it.

Lover.... Stayed a long time.... Lost in grief.... Grateful -- The words kept playing in her mind as she crushed out her cigarette and fitted another into the holder. She lit it and lay back on the cushions and fur coverlet for a few minutes, playing with the words that would not go away.... Then she sat bolt upright, almost dropping the holder on the floor. "Grateful!!!" she whispered; "That's it!"

Lorene was no psychology expert, but she knew enough to guess the logic. People who were rescued from life-threatening situations were usually grateful to the rescuers; sometimes that gratitude manifested as an infatuation. Maril was attracted to her, she'd wager the bottoms of her boots on it -- but did he believe that she was deluding herself with gratitude? Was that what made him hold back?

She started searching her mind and heart to be sure that such gratitude was not what she felt. After maybe a quarter-hour, she shook her head, discarding the idea. There was too much she loved and admired about the man for her emotions to be playing tricks on her. The obvious reason for being attracted to Maril was there; he was handsome as Adonis, with a voice that made her fasten attention on him just to hear him speak. But there was more to him than just the physical, and those things attracted her as well. He was intelligent, incredibly so; she had seen that from the beginning. He was also very compassionate, not just in Lorene's case, but in a determination to do what was right for all those around him; the laws he worked for in Council to present to the Empress were models of fairness.

There were other things besides, but they all added up to one fact: it wasn't gratitude that made Lorene love Maril. This was real, not a delusion.

Given that, then, how do I find out if Maril's laboring under a delusion? She shifted uncomfortably, tracing her lips with the mouthpiece of the holder as she thought, drawing occasionally on the long blue tube as she sought a way around the obvious answer.

She found none, however, though she racked her brain for more than an hour. Neither could Tamra, when Lorene laid her thoughts before the older woman the next morning on her way to the wreck. "I don't see a way around it, child," Tamra said, setting down her kaf cup. "You're simply going to have to pin the man down sometime if you're right. And not just tell him that he's wrong, but prove to him that it's a true love on your part."

Lorene grimaced as she raised her own cup to pouted red lips. How did she go about proving something as intangible as love? Then, as she drank, the sunlight pouring in through Tamra's windows flashed off something even more brilliant than her skin -- a golden ring set with alternating diamonds, rubies and emeralds. Maril had bought that ring for her on that first trip to Lagranda, calling it a welcome-gift. But his hand had trembled as he set the band on her finger. Another proof he's in love with me, Lorene thought as she thumbed the ring idly, but a love he can't make himself acknowledge...maybe even to himself.

Tamra spied Lorene toying with the ring. She smiled slightly, saying, "If Lord Maril gives you baubles like this as love tokens, he must really be intrigued by you."

Lorene's lips quirked. "I was just thinking the same thing myself. He can give me all sorts of gifts...things that keep him at a remove, I suppose.... But he can't bring himself to give me the one thing I'm looking for: himself, all of him; his body, his heart, his life. Can I find a way to convince him to do so?" She sighed, drained the last of her kaf, and rose. "It's time I got going. There's a few more things left to strip out; and then I've got to figure how to cut that hull. Magna-steel is tough stuff; it'll ignore normal cutting tools."

"A shame you have to destroy your ship. Your last link with your old life."

"Pretty much so. But it's sat there long enough. Whether I manage to win Maril or not, he's going to be wanting that wheat field back. It's time we got it" Her voice trailed off; she stood rooted to the floor. Tamra raised a hand in concern, but Lorene waved her off, deep in thought, until she finally said, "That may be the way."

"What do you mean, lady?"

Her smile spilled over with excited hope. "I want him to give me the greatest gift he could possibly bestow, right? But he should receive a gift as well. So why not start off the exchange myself?"

"Lorene, are you thinking --"

"No, Tami, nothing that blatantly crude. But like we've said, he needs proof I'm comfortable with my life on Arjorum, and that I'm serious about him, not deluded. What better way than to physically demonstrate it?"

"This could just as easily backfire, and you'll be worse off than you were before; you'll have driven him farther away."

"I know," Lorene nodded. "It's a calculated risk. But if I play my cards right.... I'm going to need some help in this; will you be willing?"

"Of course, but I hope you know what you're doing." Tamra glanced at her in doubt, but saw that Lorene could not be dissuaded. "What do you need me to do?"

"First, take a good quality holo of me, then get my measurements." Lorene was already moving toward Tamra's sewing table. "And then find me the best designer in Lagranda, who can make and fit me something in no more than three weeks. Maril keeps saying I have free access to his credit, that he's the fourth richest man on the planet and can afford it. I've bought enough things to get me by, but never anything that could really be used to win him to me. It's finally time, just once, to splurge a little."

"Why three weeks, Lorene?"

"Because that's the three month anniversary of my crashing here and Maril's finding me. Not only is it a great opportunity, but it's rather fitting."

"And quite romantic.... Very well, I'll go find my camera, and we'll get this started." Tamra withdrew to her bedroom for the device, while Lorene spun about in eager planning.

Two weeks later, Maril Jastrow scribbled his signature at the bottom of the draft, then stamped his signet ring into the verification port of the padd. He sighed as he handed it to Heran. "There you are, old friend; your last pay from the house of Jastrow. I would that you weren't going."

Heran smiled in sympathy as he accepted the padd. "I understand, lord. Like I've said, don't think I don't have regrets too. But that land down in Nesia was just what Linda and me were saving for. I doubt I'll ever have a spread as big as yours, but it'll be my own land."

"You know you could have something double or triple the size if you'd just accept one of my employee-assistance grants."

"And not find half the sense of accomplishment as what we're finding by using our own money. Besides, lord, we don't need that much land; Linda and me have no great ambitions. And it doesn't cost as much to live in Nesia as it does here, near the capital. We'll be just fine, sir."

"While I'll be doing three times the work I was, and trying to find a new foreman half as good as you are."

Heran laughed heartily. "And there's another reason why I don't want so much land. I don't want that many headaches!" Maril joined him in the laughter, then waved a hand toward the wisky decanter and perked a brow. Heran smiled as he nodded; "Gladly, lord; I guess a little celebration's in order."

Maril gave him a good-natured glare as he took up the decanter. "Highest above, Heran, you're a landholder in your own right now. Can't you finally call me by my name without a 'lord' attached to it?"

Heran's smile turned into an amused grin. "You'll never understand what loyalty you inspire in your people...Maril. You treat your workers like people, not like slaves, as a few other large landowners do, or numbers like most of the others. You get our devotion and honor in return for that courtesy." He paused to accept the heavy crystal glass, half-full with liquor almost as richly copper brown as his own flesh. "No, my lord, it's not an empty courtesy for me to call you that; it's a sign of devotion, and a recognition of true nobility.... To your health and prosperity." Heran raised the glass in salute.

"To yours as well," Maril returned with shy embarrassment. They took a swallow; Heran smacked his lips in appreciation, saying, "Very good."

"I'll send you a case," Maril grinned. "I'll give you two cases if you stay here," he added with an even wider grin.

Heran merely smiled back and shook his head, then said, "Actually, I have an idea who could replace me."

"Who? Spit it out, man; if they're any good, I'll sign them in a heartbeat!"

Heran eyed the younger man shrewdly before saying, "Lady Lorene."

Maril had been raising the glass to his lips for another sip; he froze midway with a shocked look. "Lorene??"

"Aye. Those few days I was helping her take her ship apart in the beginning, we talked about farming as we worked. She's a very good manager from the sound, and well able to do the job here."

"I never would have thought to ask her," Maril said softly. "I knew she farmed on Earth, but I thought she had gotten bored with it."

"Oh no, or not entirely. She was more getting stifled and depressed by the polluted rest of the world around her; if Earth was bad when our ancestors left, I hate to think what it's like now.... But anyway, she actually sounds interested in farming here; she says it's a fantastic place to start over again."

"I never would have dreamed...."

"And, if it helps, she'd be interested in staying with you for more reasons than just a job."

Maril gaped again, then frowned massively. "Not you too! Why is everybody around me trying to marry me to Lorene?"

"Because we all see how much you two love each other," Heran said simply. "Because you two would be good for each other."

"Heran, even if I did feel --" Maril broke off as the now ex-foreman gave him a look, finally sighing heavily. "Okay...yes, I do love her. I have since that morning at her ship, when I held her to comfort her. But what makes you think she loves me?"

"It's as plain on her face as it is on yours. Maril, when you two are together, your faces are so full of longing, I'm surprised you haven't jumped each other in public. And you may yet if you keep this up; an attraction like that can't be resisted for long."

"But does she love me as Maril, or as her savior? And is she ready for an affair? After all, she's lost all she knew in one stroke."

"From what I know of the woman, Maril, she's quite glad to be shut of Earth, and I can't blame her a bit. And as for if it's a real love...well, there's only one way to find out: ask Lorene herself.

"But look at it like this. She's been living with you for fourteen weeks now; it'll be a quarter of a year in another week. She's a smart woman; she can find a job in farming, like I said, or flying any of our aircraft. She could have packed all of her goods in one bag, said thank you and goodbye, and left you to take that ship of hers apart yourself. If she isn't interested in you, then why's she still in this house?"

Maril gazed at Heran for a time while he digested all those words. Eventually he turned away and muttered, "I haven't wanted to force my suit on her. Like I said, I've been afraid that she wouldn't be interested in an affair, mourning over what she's lost."

"That was noble of you, least at first, and just what I'd expect of you. But again, the only way to know for sure is to ask her. If nothing else, she's had plenty of time to get over being a castaway. And, if we all read the signs right, you may not be disappointed." Heran gave quiet thanks and farewells then, leaving Maril to his thoughts. As he rode out of the gate, though, he pulled his cell-link off its belt hook and punched a quikode. "Tami," he said when the recipient answered, "I just got out of Maril's. Those seeds you wanted planted are in the ground."

"Good man, Hary," Tamra said. "If he takes the bait, then what Lady Lorene has in mind will work all the better. Who knows, he may beat her to the punch."

He glanced quickly around before saying, "I've never played matchmaker before; this is an interesting game."

"I haven't played it either, but it can be least according to my old mother. Let's hope it doesn't blow up in our faces."

"Or theirs. Highest bless the both of them." He keyed off and rode away.

Another week later, Lorene was again drinking kaf at Tamra's house. But this time, she was not planning to work on the hulk of her ship....

She was sitting in the front window, carefully positioned so she could see up the road toward the manor house without being seen. Her senses were alive this morning with excited nervousness; today -- or, more properly, tonight -- would probably be one of the pivotal points in her life. And the preparations would begin as soon as she saw Maril riding past, or the call --

Tamra's housecomm rang; Lorene snapped around to stare as the older woman answered. "Tamra Bensen.... Okay, Jan; thanks. We'll be there soon. Call Sara and tell her the coast is clear, and to get the team to my house about 1400, then ride up to the manor house; send horses down here to wait for them, please." She clicked the handset off and picked up her sunglasses to leave. Lorene was already halfway to the back door, running over where the tack for Tamra's horse was kept.

Some twenty minutes later, they were both in the big house, where Janefra, Maril's head of house affairs, waited impatiently, but with a smile. "Finally! I thought you two were going to fly here on your own power, if you love him as much as you say."

Lorene flushed as she said, "Tami's got an excuse, Jan, and I haven't learned how to sprout wings yet. Is he gone for the day?"

"Almost certainly; Lord Maril hasn't come back without warning more than twice in twenty years. Come, lady; your bath's drawn...and I've made it as luxurious and sensuous as I can. If you're going to become a High Court Lady tonight, then you should get into the mindset now."

"I'll go change into my work robe," Tamra said. "I'll see you in the bathroom."

Lorene smiled and nodded, and followed Janefra to the large bathroom that was part of Lorene's suite. There, a great sunken bathtub was filled with gently steaming water, fragrant with Arjorean spices and a flower bath oil. A foam of bubbles covered the surface. Jan smiled gently as she watched Lorene's reaction, saying, "You still aren't used to such a way of cleaning yourself, are you? You've never had a bath like this before you came here?"

"Never," Lorene breathed. "At my economic level, we couldn't afford to waste water like this, if you'll pardon me. We washed with sonics. Not even the wealthy can do this often."

"We're under far less pressure here, lady, and determined to keep it that way. There's no overdevelopment, and the environment comes first. So we can allow ourselves such as this, as long as the water's thoroughly cleansed afterwards. I have to keep the house running now, and prepare for the supper; Tami will be here soon." Jan bowed and stepped out.

Lorene sighed in delicious anticipation as the door closed, then began slowly easing out of her clothes, enjoying the thrill as the spectacle of her lustrous golden body was revealed. She took a few minutes to examine herself in a wall mirror; just as slowly raising her arms over and behind her head, making her firm breasts swell out, she gradually turned and twisted before the glass. She may have been beautiful before, but now she was ravishingly gorgeous, the nearly three months of hard physical labor shaping and defining her body even more. She was willowy-tall, trim and graceful, with a lithe speed and fluidity to her movements. And all of this enhanced a beauty that Helen or Aphrodite might have envied, sealed in gleaming precious metal.

Suddenly she giggled: Lord, I'm getting narcissistic! The by-product of trying to catch my man, I guess. If nothing else, though, Maril made her feel beautiful, and take pains to become even more so. Choosing to proceed with that determination, she spun and slid into the tub, hissing at the heat of the water.

Two of the hands in the vineyard paused to wipe their brows and rest a moment. The last-summer heat just refused to let up! One reached for the water bota on his belt and took a swig, then offered it to his comrade. The comrade did not see it, however; he was staring fixedly ahead of their trail and off to the side. The first asked, "What's hoein' your row, Jef?"

"Look," Jef replied quietly, and pointed a golden hand upfield. The first turned his silver head to behold a leather-clad back, black hair in a fire-orange sweatband, cutting grape bunches with fanatical speed; the man was at least five miters ahead of anyone else in the field. "That's the boss, isn't it, Bil?" Jef went on.

"Sure is; I recognize that sweatband.... He don't usually go that fast. Did he get stung by a busybee or something?"

"I don't know. But he's goin' to kill himself or cut off a finger, at the rate he's movin', before he reaches row's end. Has he even taken a break?"

"Can't say...." Then a flash of memory came to Bil, and he added, "I'll bet even credits he's got someone on his mind, and he's workin' himself to death to forget them."

"Maybe -- Wait a minute; wotnhel you mean 'someone'?"

"Jeez, Jef, don't you ever listen to the manor news?"

Jef snorted. "You mean the manor rumor mill."

"Yeah, but this one's got enough truth in it. You know about the girl he found."

"Yeah, I do; my cousin Sami was on the rescue party."

Bil nodded. "Well, do you know she's still livin' at the big house? My cousin's the cook, and she told me. She also told me they're hard in love with each other, but haven't done nothin' about it. Too afraid or somethin'."

Jef glanced back to Maril, who had finally come up for air. The golden gleam of his skin and arms was well dulled now, covered in a mix of sweat and dirt; his chest heaved like a bellows, his brow creased in pain. Jef said, "You think his nibs is tryin' to work her out of his head?"

"Yeah. Either that, or kill himself. He's well toward it. C'mon; we better get back to cuttin' grapes instead of yakkin'!" Bil flipped the pruning knife to his working hand and bent back down to the vines.

The hour-long hot bath had relaxed Lorene's muscles as well as cleansing her skin, and an excited maid had helped to wash and comb out her thick hair. Arising from it, and accepting a towel from Tamra to dry herself, she returned to the bedroom proper. There, a massage therapist awaited her pleasure, standing beside a portable table. Lorene murmured greetings and thanks to the woman, and stretched out on the table, chest down.

The therapist took advantage of her subject's relaxed condition and worked deep, finding and soothing tension that had built up in Lorene over nearly three Arjorean months. Lorene grunted and winced a little at times, but slowly became so relaxed that she fell asleep on the table. So she did not notice when the therapist finished and made way for Tamra, who took up a warmed bottle of the skin lotion Lorene had started favoring. She began smoothing it into every milimiter of the woman's lustrous flesh, sparkling in the sunshine spilling in from the windows. All Arjorum tended toward dry skin due to the radiation of their sun -- one thing the symbiont could not protect them from -- so a treatment like this every few days was not only quite pleasant, but also somewhat essential.

Right now, Lorene wasn't caring much about that. In her dreamy state of sleep, her mind took the sensation of Tamra's touch and linked an image to it. An image of a man with a noble face and bearing, wavy hair of raven black, and naked flesh of the purest gold. As she floated on cushions covered in rich silver satin, naked herself save for a satin drape across her hips, he slid warm, soft hands up and down her back, while she sighed in enraptured pleasure at his touch. Then she was gently turned over, and he began again; he lovingly caressed each arm down to her fingertips, then worked on her legs, running from her feet and toes up to her thighs. She cried out softly again and again as the ripples of pleasure poured through her, hungering for more as each passed.

In the world of reality, Tamra broke off to stare at her lady-friend. Highest! There's little doubt who she's dreaming about here.... Please let this night work for them both, o Lord; especially Lorene. She needs him so deeply. Then she resumed work, for there was nothing for it but to finish.

Maril dropped at noon break like a sack of grain heaved off a wagon. He had sense enough to haul himself to the shade of a tree before he collapsed, but that was all he had strength for. Anyone could have skinned his golden hide and hung it up to dry, and he would never have noticed. The harvesters he was working with all glanced at him laying there, either with curiosity on the part of the hired temporary help, or concern from the plantation employees. None of them had seen a man so drive himself before, especially not a landowner as wealthy as Maril Jastrow. None of them made a move to disturb him, though; it was all too clear that he needed the rest -- and it was a good guess he would drive himself just as hard when he was awakened at lunch's end.

And so, instead of eating, Maril slept. But being dead to the world of consciousness did not mean his mind was fully shut down. He had begun to dream almost as soon as he passed out. And in his dreams, he stood exposed to the world, walking nude through a howling, buffeting storm of wind. Looking about him, he saw the sky filled with cloudy turbulence in all quarters but one -- strangely, the one from which the wind blew. There, it was bright blue; and through the mists that seemed to surround him could be spied a figure.

Curious and intrigued, Maril gathered himself and turned into the blast, desiring to see what this shade was. He had to force every step at first, but within ten paces the wind had fallen from a fierce, cold gale to a cool zephyr. The mists parted from about him; he stood in a forest glade, canopied over by waving tree branches and carpeted with sweet grasses and wildflowers. Before him stood the figure: a person a little shorter than himself, draped in a hooded cloak of deep purple velvet edged with wide bands of scarlet satn. The person's head was bowed, so that the hood concealed the face. Maril stared for a few heartbeats, then said, "Who are you?"

"Don't you know, lord?" the figure replied in a familiar woman's voice. She raised her head, and the breath caught in Maril's throat; for Lorene's face was framed in the soft velvet-satn folds of the hood. A hand shot out and broke open the cloak's shoulder catch; the wrap immediately slid off her and fell away. She stood there in a pool of purple, draped in a low-cut gown of the same material from the inviting swell of her breasts to her bare feet, thin shoulder straps topped by amethyst-and-gold clips. Her burning silver-gold hair streamed loose down her back, and her superb body was sculpted in burnished gold. "See what you and your planet have made, lord," she added.

"Forgive...," Maril whispered, shaking his head; "forgive me. I only --"

Her peal of laughter cut him off. "What's to forgive? Blame yourself for nothing, Maril! You saved my life, twice in fact, and gave me a gift Earth women could only dream of. And yet there's one more gift you can give to me...."

"What is it?"

Lorene's smile became more seductive. She reached up to her shoulders, crossing her arms before her, and touched the clips; they popped open, and the gown fell away like the cloak. Now she was as naked as he, the glowing beauty of her body and her radiant smile a wide-open invitation. She said once more, softly, "Don't you know, lord?" Then she came to him, and bent to kiss the nipple of his own breast, while grasping his already erect manhood and starting to work him. The sensual joy and pure rightness exploded within Maril's mind, heart and groin at the same time, and he cried aloud for pleasure --

Then found himself being shaken violently while a male voice cried, "What's wrong, lord? Wake up!" He blinked fuzzily and stared into the face of the sub-foreman in charge of the vineyard. The man went on, "Were you having a nightmare? You were crying out."

Somehow Maril fumbled enough wits together to say, "No, I'm fine, Fil. Thanks for the concern, though." Fil nodded and rose up, while Maril cursed under his breath and ground his teeth hard.

The dress designer and her beautician crew arrived just as Lorene and Tamra were finishing their lunch, around 1430 on the clock. Lorene, in her teal robe, was worried, for it seemed to be cutting the preparation time a little close; but Tamra reassured the ex-Terran. "I've had spies checking on Lord Maril, lady. He's going to need a long rest in the bath, and he probably won't be out until 1800 or more. You should have plenty of time." Lorene nodded in acceptance, then rose to greet those who would work on her.

They spoke briefly together; then Janefra led the group to the third room of Lorene's suite, a room the late Anya had used as a dressing room. Anya had also occasionally indulged in such fantasies as Lorene was creating, and this room was equipped for such. Lorene now sat in a conformable chair that would support her to the base of the head. Tamra and the designer, an old friend of hers from her servant days named Sara, sat in other chairs and chatted, while watching with professional interest as the two beauticians and hairdresser went to work.

While the stylist began curling Lorene's hair into long, fat rings, one of the others took a stick of a clear, tacky substance; she applied it vigorously to Lorene's shoulders, chest and breasts. Then the third woman drew across the table another "inheritance" from Anya -- deep pots filled to the brim with cut gems, examples of the higher-than-average mineral wealth of Arjorum. Each stone was faceted on one side, flat on the other...for a purpose. Selecting containers filled with emeralds, rubies and diamonds, and working from a pattern created by Sara, each stone was carefully sited and pressed on Lorene's shining gold flesh. The gum spread on her skin instantly adhered to the stones' surfaces.

It took an hour and a half to finish with the loose stones. One of the beauticians then set to work on clipping and filing Lorene's fingernails to a shorter length; the other applied a more standard makeup to her face. Rouging her glittering cheeks lightly with a dark rose-red blush; tinting her full lips the same color; re-lining her eyes and building out heavy shadow to a rich depth from her upper lids to her brows; and circling the lower creases -- all this went on while the hairdresser gradually wove Lorene's gilt tresses into a tall upsweep above her head. Then the woman working on her face reached for the gems and adhesive again....

The hairdresser was just finishing, and the makeup artists not too far away, when Janefra slipped in. "If you didn't hear him coming through," she said in a low voice, "he just went into his bedroom. I had a bath waiting for him; he should be in it now."

"Did you get his closet fixed?" Tamra asked.

"While the lady was splashing in her tub. I hope he believes I just sent everything out for a good cleaning.... Then again, he looked so tired, he may believe anything I tell him. Fil said that he joined the grape-picking crews, and was working like a man possessed."

"I hope he's not going to fall asleep in the bathtub!"

"I doubt it; I slipped a mild restorative into the kaf he asked for. Between the two, he should stay awake."

"And I'll try to make sure of that," Lorene added from the vanity. "How do I look?"

The others turned to see, and gasped as a group. "The language is beggared, lady," Tamra finally whispered; "there just aren't words adequate enough to compliment you."

"She'll be even more spectacular once she gets the dress on," Sara grinned. "Are you ready?"

"Ready as I'm going to be," Lorene said. "I'm getting more nervous as the moment approaches."

"Just play with it, child, like what it is in part: a fantasy," Tamra smiled. "Forget the rest if you can, though you should remember to be yourself, too."

Sara had unsealed the bag containing Lorene's gown while they spoke; she now helped her client step into it, fitted the skintight, strapless bodice carefully to her glinting golden figure, and zipped up the back. Then from the bottom of the bag, Sara produced something Lorene had never seen except in pictures, and was looking forward to -- gloves made of leather and shimmering fabric, partly studded with more gems, close-fitting as the dress, and almost as long as the length of Lorene's entire arms. Sara smiled as she held these out. "Do you know what to do with these, dear?"

I do," Lorene murmured, accepting them. She took off Maril's gift-ring and began pulling a glove on, but stopped when she felt its satin lining. She smiled to herself then, and slowed herself down, enjoying the rich sensuality of each long gauntlet as she drew them over her fingers and up her arms, nearly to her armpits. She flexed her elbows once to settle the gloves into place, then reached for her ring. "I guess that's it until Maril's done dressing."

"Not yet," Sara replied. She brought forth a briefcase, set it on a table and opened it.

Now it was Lorene's turn to gasp as she saw the sparkling contents. "I told you I couldn't afford any jewelry; I'm being extravagant with someone else's money as it is, and I don't know if this will work out in the end!"

"Oh, these aren't yours, lady! These are mine, and I designed the dress to go with them. When you and Tami told me your story, I thought you'd hold back from buying any jewelry, no matter how free Maril made you of his credit. So I designed with my own collection in mind. You'll have to give these back afterwards...but, until then, wear them with my love and compliments. And may they help you win your goal."

Lorene flicked her gaze from Sara to the case and back again. Sara was right; even covered as Lorene was with gems, these would still go wonderfully with it all. And the gift was too generous to be refused. She said, "Thank you!" with a glowing smile on her face, then let Tamra fasten the earrings to her pierced lobes; she herself drew on the twin bracelets and ring. A large brooch completed the suite, pinned in place by the hairdresser on a wide bandeau wrapping Lorene's lower coiffure.

The preparation was done; the bait was ready for the trap. Now to wait for the quarry....

Maril sat in his own dressing room a little time later, pulling on his dress boots and lost between bewilderment and irritation. This day was turning into more frustration than it was worth. He stared accusingly at the empty closet, and thought for the fifth time, Whynhel did Jan pick today to clean out my closets? They weren't that bad!

Not that he was complaining about not being comfortable. Arjorean clothing, when not purely utilitarian, was quite comfortable, highly flattering, and often seductively provocative. "A good day's work deserves a good night's play," was the philosophy. What Maril wore now was meant for a night's revelry and play; the trousers, open tunic and draped vest were all of a soft white velvet piped in silver at the hems, and left his broad golden chest and strong forearms exposed for all to see...especially the women. The boots were picked to match this outfit -- high-topped to the knee, of white leather, with pulls to ease them on; the toes were capped with unadorned silver plates. Maril usually enjoyed wearing this soft array...when he had plans for the night.

Tonight, though, after the day he had put himself through, he had only wanted to put on something old and friendly and collapse again before the fire. Then he had opened his closet after getting out of the bath, and found this one outfit hanging there. Janefra had been in the bedroom at the time, and explained that this was the only suit that had not seemed "fusty" to her as she was straightening up the room; so she had bundled every other stitch away until tomorrow, when they would be clean.

Maril had been irritated, but not too much; the bathrobe he wore was old and friendly enough. Jan had nodded and left the room, only to return five minutes later with the news that a visitor was at the door.

"A visitor?? Who the blazes is it?"

"I don't know, lord, and she won't say. But she's obviously a High Lady. She asks to see the District Councilor on a matter of import, and she won't be turned out."

Maril sighed and shook his head. "The price I pay for having an open-door policy, I guess.... All right, Jan; tell her I'll be out in ten minutes or so. A District Councilor can't appear before his constituents in an old bathrobe and nothing else."

Thank the Highest for that bath and kaf. At least I won't fall asleep in front of her. Maril gave a quick polish to the boots' toecaps, brushed his hair before a mirror, and went down the hall to the living room. He began, "Good evening, lady; may...I...." and faltered into silence as he realized who stood there.

It was Lorene; it could be only her. Only one person on the planet had that shade of hair, bright silver mingled with molten gold. She was standing before the fireplace when he entered, leaning against the wooden mantel on one arm, watching the fire burn and light the room in the early autumn dusk. But, instead of the efficient, beautiful woman he had known for three months, she was seemingly transformed into the most beautiful lady that even the High Court had seen. In place of the simple clothes she normally wore to the evening meal, she was now gowned in fantasy: a three-colored harlequinade of silver, red and green satn diamond lozenges enrobed her. It was strapless, low-cut, and very form fitting, supporting her breasts voluptuously, with a deep plunge in front and almost no back to mention. The hem pooled out from her feet for several centimiters; the skirt's right side, facing Maril, was slit to halfway up Lorene's thigh, so that he could see the shapeliness of her glowing aureate legs. Her arms were sheathed in long evening gloves -- the entire length of both palm sides was silver lamé; the back of the left was of ruby-red satn, while the right was emerald-green, and both were studded with widely-spaced small diamonds.

Lorene's bare chest was more liberally encrusted with gems, Maril saw with a growing desire -- especially over her breasts, where he espied the points of tall ruby and emerald triangles rising above the gown's hem. The jewels paused at her collarbones and the hollow of her throat; but more small stones glittered above Lorene's dark brows. Her eye makeup fell from below the brows to her black-lined lids in an iridescent dark green, while her lower lids were ringed in a metallic scarlet. And even more sparkling brilliance -- heavy matched jewelry of silver and gems circled her wrists and one ring finger, depended from her ears on long silver chains, and was pinned on a silver bandeau wrapping her tall upsweep of curled hair.

All this panoply, rich beyond dreams, lit the great room in the firelight; but to Maril's mind, there was a brighter source of light -- Lorene, the vital woman herself. The costume she wore, the makeup and jewels, all this only focused his attention on her, and how her presence filled not only the room with golden light, but the hungering need in his soul he had been trying to forget so forcefully. This lovely, so desirable woman of Earth --

No; no longer! She is an Arjorean now; just look at her. She's embraced our world, our society and culture completely.... And since that's so, then maybe...just maybe.... All tiredness was forgotten in his growing excitement.

Maril was not sure if Lorene had heard him speak; she had barely moved as she stared into the fireplace, except to lift a long cigarette holder of red enamel with a green mouthpiece to her lips. She drew deeply, and exhaled the smoke over her shoulder toward the ceiling, her eyes closed dreamily. Then she glanced his way, and the room seemed to grow even brighter as she smiled with unaffected joy. She glided across the miters to the arch he stood in, holding out a satn-gloved hand and saying, "Good evening, lord. I hear you had a very hard day today."

He could say nothing at first; she was so beautiful, so desirable, that she robbed him of both breath and thought. But finally, he took her hand. Instead of simply bowing over it, he kissed her folded fingers with unfeigned passion. He murmured, "It was, until now, lady. But I think it's going to improve beyond my wildest dreams." He held onto her hand, drawing her back into the living room as he finally entered.

Janefra and the cook had taken pains with the supper that the lovers were soon called to. It was made to please the eye and palate, to provide tastes to share and, covertly, strength to carry them through the night. The diners thanked Jan deeply when she appeared at the end, Lorene with a wink of the eye to her co-conspirator that she hoped Maril could not see.

They returned to the living room, where Maril offered her a drink while she refilled her cigarette holder. She shook her head: "Not right now, but thanks. I want to remember all of this night as much as possible; if I have any more to drink, it's liable to get hazy on me."

Maril nodded; he took up the table lighter and lit Lorene's cigarette for her. She again drew deeply and held it in for a moment, before blowing a cloud of blue smoke over her shoulder; then she glanced toward the terrace doors, across the room from the front portal. "What I'd like to do is sit under the stars for a time. I haven't done that since I arrived."

Maril stiffened slightly, but nodded. "You'll need a wrap; it's chilly out there by now."

"You'll need one too."

"Mine's here in the hall closet."

"Then I'll go and get mine and come back." She touched Maril's arm familiarly, sending an intoxicating thrill through him, and was gone. It took him a long few seconds of staring after her before he went to retrieve a white dress cape with gold neck clasp; then he went to the light controls and killed all lighting around the terrace.

A soft step and the rustle of fabric behind Maril made him turn. Lorene was there, glimmering as she came to him. She held out her wrap: "Would you?" and turned her bare back to him. He swallowed as he settled a mantle of silver lamé, lined in scarlet and emerald, about Lorene's shoulders; a thick collar of the colored satns in twined rolls clasped at her throat. She retrieved a combined silver cigarette case and lighter from the kaf table, then gave Maril her arm for the courtesy of his escort.

Multi-colored flagstones paved the wide terrace, which faced a view of forests and semi-distant mountains in the daytime. Tonight, the colors of the flags had become differing shades of mud, the forest was a dark, undifferentiated shadow in the full light of Arjorum's single moon, and the only sign of the mountains was a ghostly hint of snow on their peaks. No snow was yet on the ground here at the lower levels, but the temperature was in the mid-teens; the wraps of the lovers were truly needed.

Maril glanced at Lorene, as they moved to a pillow-cushioned couch, to see if she was chilled; involuntarily, he shivered himself. The moon's light was a cooler, whiter light than that thrown by a burning fire. In this cold lambency, the beauty of her profiled face was altered to a chill starkness, stippled with myriad darkly glittering points above her eyes. Even the warm yellow of her flesh was muted, while the great sweeps of silver she was dressed in, rustling in the breeze, glinted hard as ice. It was as if an age-old Power had materialized and taken possession of the woman he loved.

But then she turned to him, and an enraptured smile broke across her lips and filled her eyes. And the Presence was gone, leaving only Lorene; and the joy in her face was clearly for him. The chill departed from Maril, and he found himself smiling back with equal joy.

He helped spread out her evening cloak behind her as she sat down, then joined her; as one, they turned their golden faces toward the night sky. "It's so magnificent!" Lorene whispered after a few minutes of silence. "I don't think I could ever tire of looking at the stars."

"Did you do it much on Earth?" he asked. Without conscious thought, his arm had landed outstretched on the couch's back, behind her, and tightened to encircle her shoulders.

"I tried sometimes," she said as she raised her holder to her lips. "But it was almost impossible. There's just too much light pollution. It was far easier in space, of course...." They shared a small chuckle, Maril with a nervous tremor in his voice. Then Lorene added, "Do you know where Earth lies from here?"

"No; our ancestors wanted nothing to do with the mother planet. That knowledge may lie with the Empress, who's a direct descendent of the original Captain.... What about you? Do you know how to find Earth from here?"

She shrugged a little as she blew a puff of smoke. "I could find it with some observations...if I had a mind to."

"And do you?" he said softly.

She swung to look steadily at him. "No, I don't. In fact, I'm rather glad to be shut of it. I've considered this well and carefully, Maril...and I have no regrets; this may be the best thing that ever happened to me. I have a new, unspoiled world to live on, friends of worth who stand by my side, and...."


"And...and the man that I love, more than my own life." Softly but firmly she said this, and reached to grip his arm with her free gloved hand.

Maril had suspected where this might lead to, but it was still a shock. He fought to keep a shaking from his voice as he softly asked, "Do you truly, Lorene?"

"Oh yes, my darling. It's nothing disguised as love; it's not gratitude for saving me, or giving me a place to live. It's real, it's here; and if you want the ultimate proof, then you only have to do one thing."


She leaned closer, until they were but a few centimiters apart. "Kiss me," she whispered.

He gazed at her eyes, soft as a doe's, and her lips, smiling with anticipation, wet and hungry for the fulfillment of her passion. He could smell her cologne, rich and intoxicating, almost compelling him to yield. And then he suddenly remembered his noontime dream, and the rightness that had filled him as she had begun to make love to him in that world. "Yes," he whispered to himself; slowly he closed his eyes and pressed his lips against hers.

The desire they had kept so tightly in check began to crumble like a wall, revealing a flame of light and warmth that would not be extinguished. He folded Lorene in his strong arms and pulled her closer; she threw her own about his neck in kind, the silver and jewels she was clad in flashing dimly in the moonlight, the semi-forgotten cigarette and holder still in her fingers. They kissed even more deeply; their tongues sought each other as their passion grew.

It was a long minute before they finally broke apart. Maril stared long into Lorene's eyes before he fell to kissing her again, working down toward her long neck. She cried and sighed as the thrill surged through her. And then he was sliding an arm under her legs, the other still about her shoulders; and he carried her inside, somehow fumbling the house door open. He only paused at the door to his bedroom, a small sliver of propriety reasserting itself. "Lorene, are you --"

"Yes," she murmured through a bewitching smile. "But only...."

"Only what?"

"Only if you go and get my cigarettes for me; I left my case outside."

Maril's eyes glazed for a moment; then he started laughing heartily and with released tension. Lorene joined him, until he managed to gasp out, "Highest above, you're full of surprises! Now that you have me, I'm not sure I can wait that long!"

"It'll just increase the anticipation," she grinned. "Go on; if you don't mind, I'll just...wait in here."

"I'll be right back," he promised. He kissed her as he set her down, then strode quickly off. Just as quickly, she slid into his room and closed the door, already reaching for the zipper on her gown's side.

Maril returned in moments, hunger for Lorene burning in him. He tapped on the bedroom door and entered at her invitation.

She stood waiting for him in the room's open center, the heavy silver of her cape drawn close about her body and gleaming in the light of a good fire. She gleamed too, the jewels above her brows flashing warm flame now, as her bright white smile shown with joy and anticipation in the blaze of her golden face. "Thank you, love," she said; Maril nodded as he laid down the cigarette case on a doorside table. "And need wait no longer." She snaked out her left arm through a side slit in the cloak, and held it toward him. Her smile and eyes were full of invitation.

Maril had never felt such a thrill with a woman before, even with Anya. Yielding to that thrill, he slowly came up to her and took her arm in his hands; she made no move except to sigh with pleasure and close her eyes slightly, still smiling. He gradually worked the heavy silver bracelet off her wrist, and the matching ring from her hand, then started tugging at the fingers of her glove. It slid silkily off, making her sigh deeply again; then the sigh gave way to a moan as he kissed her gold-sealed palm and the back of her wrist.

Somehow, Lorene kept herself from losing all control and jumping him there. She wanted this to last as long as possible, to send both her and him as high as they could soar together. So she held still with longing patience as he removed the glove from her other hand, replacing the friendship ring he had given her and repeating the kisses. He started reaching for the clasp of her cape, but she stopped him with a shake of her head, guiding him up to the thick mountain of curls topping her head.

Maril had dreamed of running his fingers through Lorene's hair. As he did so, they both had a pang of regret at destroying such careful, elegant work; but the sheer pleasured thrill was too much to resist. As the tresses came loose and fell about her face and body, and the silver bandeau hit the floor, he breathed in deep their fragrance and kissed the crown of her scalp. Her face was buried in his shining golden chest as he did so; she moaned, "Oh, God" deep down in her throat, and started kissing his flesh and running her hands across his nipples to inflame him.

How she had longed for this! She was unable to resist; her hands slid of their own accord to Maril's shoulders, trying to ease off his vest and tunic. As he felt her tug, Maril let her go and threw back his arms, unlocking the garments; they quickly came away in Lorene's hands. She dropped them instantly, and began pulling at his trousers, while he ran his hands up and down her satn-covered back. In moments he was revealed to his knees, strong and golden and potent. He sat on the bed to haul off his boots and finish removing his pants, and made to stand again --

Lorene stopped him once more; he had not noticed her move from where she had seemed rooted. Then he noticed something else: the red-green-silver harlequinade of her gown, pooled on the floor. Lorene saw where Maril was looking; her expression altered, and there was no mistaking the desire there. Her hands, still pushed through the slits of the cape, took his face to kiss him thoroughly. Then she placed his hands on the cape's hems, whispering, "Don't take it off; just throw it back." Her arms disappeared, and she waited.

Taking a deep breath, Maril closed his eyes and folded back the fabric. When he looked again, he saw the surprise Lorene had planned. While the jewels on her upper chest had been almost randomly laid out, both her breasts were encrusted with the distinctive pattern of the ancient compass rose, created in emeralds and rubies; the elongated northern arms were both tipped with single large diamonds. Her nipples and areolae were left bare in the centers of the circles, and Maril could guess for what reason.... "You've learned our customs well, lady," he breathed huskily. Before she could reply, he had pulled her even closer, thrusting his face into her cleavage and kissing the perfumed golden flesh that was left bare, while his groping hands sought her breasts and started caressing them, brushing his thumbs over and over across her erect nipples. The desire and fulfillment blasted through Lorene, and she began to cry out softly, then with more power as the passionate joy surged through her. She had been holding the edge of her cape; now she flung it around them both in abandon and began raking Maril's back with her dark maroon nails, harder as he moved his mouth to one breast and teased it with teeth and tongue.

He broke off for a moment, wondering hazily what he could do next to pleasure her, and stared at her. And then, in a flash, he not only saw how beautiful Lorene was, but on how many levels this night was fulfilling her. When he had first found her in her ship, her beauty had seemed alien, outside the norms of his experience. Her unaltered skin had been beyond his ken. Now she stood here, tousled curls of hair raining far down her back; and her beautiful body had been transmuted to twinkling, glowing gold that lived and breathed and moved. To Maril, this was normal. But to Lorene, this must be as exotic and alien as she had originally seemed to him. Even the red nipples of her breasts, now erect with desire, were dusted with a light gold frosting; while the rest of her superb body glowed yellow in the firelight. She had told him in their first few days how, every time she saw her reflection, she felt deliciously remade, like a glorious living statue. To her, the gilding of her flesh wasn't simply survival, but a conversion of her very self into a living fantasy of sensual excitement, one that would always stay fresh and thrillingly unusual.

But this, what was to soon come -- oh, if she seemed like a walking fantasy to herself, then he must be just as much, if not more. Maril's body gleamed as brightly golden as Lorene's, from the follicles of his scalp to the ends of his fingers and toes. What must it feel like to her to be made love to by him? to have strong golden hands caressing her flesh, touching her lips and breasts? to soon have a length of fire-bright gold buried inside her, bringing them both to a peak of joy?

Lorene had come to herself as Maril was lost in his epiphany. "What's wrong, love?" she asked breathily.

"Nothing," he whispered. "I just...I just envy you a little, what must be going through your head now."

She sighed and smiled, then caressed his face. "You can know that, too. After all, how many men on Arjorum have made love to an alien?"

He drew the woman of bright gold to the bed's edge and gently pulled her down. "Alien you may be, Lorene, but no less desirable." He wrapped her soft-hard golden flesh in his arms and kissed her, deeply enough to set them both panting with the flame of needing desire; and they began to play and explore again.

The exploration soon became more; try as they might, Lorene and Maril could only go so far before their passion completely overcame them. Maril gently pushed her down onto the covers, still with the cape of silver and red and green about her neck, maneuvered himself into position even as he continued caressing her, and connected with her, gently but deftly easing his way home. In that moment, Lorene's ecstasy became almost complete as her fantasy was fulfilled. It was her imagination, as much as the physical contact of Maril inside her, thrusting home in the ancient rhythm, that eventually made her climax in the most massive orgasm she had ever known, as the golden man of her dreams took her to heights unknown. And the experience was not one-sided; for Maril himself climaxed soon after her, releasing as strongly as she had, and finding the peace that had evaded him for three months.

Two hours later, the tired -- but sated and fulfilled -- lovers gradually rose back to consciousness. Lorene was first; stirring sleepily on the duvet, she reached out an arm and encountered a resilient obstacle. Her fingers groped over the surface, her groggy mind not connecting what she felt with the experiences of the recent past. Puzzlement eventually brought her to consciousness; she slowly opened her eyes and turned to her left. The sight of Maril Jastrow lying beside her pulled the breath from her body. Memories rushed back to her, and so did the purest joy, peace and contentment she thought she would ever feel. Hardly daring to believe, she eased herself over and wrapped Maril's gleaming body in her own golden arms.

Her touch interrupted the gentle rhythm of his breathing. He pulled in one sharp intake of breath, and reached out blindly as she had. Ever so gradually, he opened his eyes; as he focused on Lorene, unimaginable wonder filled his face. "Then it wasn't a dream," he said softly.

"No, it wasn't, love," she smiled. "It most definitely wasn't!"

He reached around her to return her embrace, pulling her tightly to his body and kissing her forehead and jeweled brows. "I don't know if I ever would have taken the chance; I was so sure you were loving me for gratitude only."

"It could have been, so easily. If I had been less certain, darling, I wouldn't have tried what I did...."

"But you were certain, and you did...and now I think I don't want to let you go.... I've never known anyone like you, Lori. There have been others, since Anya died...but not even she could meet what I feel now with you; have felt almost from the beginning."

"From the time we fell together in the wagon," Lorene said, the memory of that electric contact washing through her. She spun herself around in Maril's arms, sighing as she wrapped those limbs across her sparkling chest and jewel-studded breasts. "Mmmm.... I can still feel it... and you do, too, I think," she added, for she could feel him grow hard and erect again as she spooned against his body, his penis trying to poke through the cape still about her neck and bunched between them.

"That's not all I feel," Maril murmured with a grin in his voice, running his thumbs across her nipples and the plaques of gems surrounding them. Lorene moaned and arched; she fell back against him, whispering, "If you keep on doing that, I may never get out of this bed, or let you leave it!"

"A tempting thought... but we'll both have to get out eventually for something rather... alimentary?" He felt her sputter, then chuckle, at his pun. "Well, you haven't kicked me yet," he added, "so I guess I'm safe."

"Not yet, my lord," she said, rolling back to face him. "There's only one thing that will protect you."

"And that is?"

"Love me again," she breathed. The flicker from the low-burning fire danced across her face and chest; the golden gleam of her flesh, and the sparkle and flash of the gems adorning her, and contrasted with the shadows that gave her mystery and seduction, even more on this alien woman's part than all the women he had known in his past.

"I would gladly do that anyway, lady," he whispered back. "But have I told you yet how beautiful you are?"

"Not in so many words.... But I wouldn't mind hearing you say it."

"You are most definitely that, Lori, the most beautiful woman I have ever known. And you have learned our ways and styles well...especially with these." He reached to touch one of the diamond teardrops on her face. "Or do they do this on Earth?"

"No, they don't; gems aren't as plentiful there as here. They were Tami's idea, actually. I wasn't sure you'd approve of my using Anya's things like this."

He kissed her again on the brow. "All that was hers I gave to you, Lori, on the day you moved in there--" He broke off suddenly and went still, staring at her, his expression going completely unreadable. Lorene stared back in confusion, but realized that Maril was thinking about something, and waited.

She did not wait long. With another kiss, Maril slid out of bed and went to a tall dresser, opened the top drawer. Lorene watched him as he rummaged, puzzlement overcome by love, and by fascination with his strong golden body. The working life he led kept him physically hard, especially in his well-muscled arms; while genes or divine grace had made him tall and incredibly handsome. The symbiotic gilding of his body added to her attraction for him, compounded by what that gilded body had recently done to her.

Maril presently returned with something hidden in his hand. He sat back down on the duvet they had so passionately rumpled, motioning for Lorene to sit beside him; she did so after finally cracking open the catch of her cape and removing it. As she snuggled close, he reached for her hand, kissed it, and dropped a balled handkerchief into it. "I gave you everything of Anya's before," he replied to her glancing question, "except for this. Go ahead; open it."

For some reason she was afraid to fathom, Lorene was suddenly very nervous. She could feel a large, hard object beneath the folds of cloth, and she thought she recognized the shape by touch. She glanced at Maril, holding her breath, for reassurance. He nodded and said, "You've had enough courage and hope to go as far as you have, Lori. Don't stop now." In the dim light, the structures of his eyes were not hidden by the symbiont's protection, and a light shone there that had nothing to do with illumination.

Slowly, she unwrapped the handkerchief, and gasped at what was revealed. For a ring of heavy gold lay in her palm; the plain band surmounted by a diamond the size of Maril's thumbnail. She barely heard and comprehended him saying, "This was Anya's wedding ring. I would have buried it with her, but everyone insisted I would find another to wear it. This...this is yours to have...if you will do me the great honor of being my lady-bride."

She could find no words to say, but knew her ecstatic smile told him all. She had thought, just minutes before, that she could not be happier. Now her heart filled ready to burst with joy, and the excess spilled down her face as tears, brighter than the crystalline tears already there. She finally stammered, "God!-- I...I hadn't dared hope for this so soon! I was just focused on breaking through to you somehow."

"That you did, lady," Maril said, his voice filled with joy, "and now you have my suit full willing. But you haven't said if you're willing to accept it."

"I think you know the answer, lord.... Please?" She gave him back the ring, and held forth her left hand. Anya's hands had been larger than Lorene's, the lovers found, and the ring was too loose on her ring finger; but it was a perfect fit as Maril slid it onto her index digit. And then she threw her arms around Maril's neck, kissing him soundly to prove her happiness, and pulling him back down.

They made love again, soaring even higher and longer than before in their joy. Lorene seized the initiative this time and guided their lovemaking all the way, pressing Maril down and mounting his hard penis when they could be settled no longer with foreplay. Sliding slowly down onto him, she let her mind run again with the reality, that she was filled with a great golden finger that pleasured her to a height she had never known, and she nearly passed out then and there from the delight. She reflexively clenched herself around him, and began to rock back and forth. And then she felt his golden hands on her golden, bejeweled breasts, teasing her firm and erect as well. They worked away at each other until their shared orgasm was an intense release, and a joy that could not be equaled in the physical world.

The next morning, Janefra was fairly certain what she would find in her master's bedroom, but chose to proceed as if nothing unusual had happened the night before. She went to Lord Maril's door and tapped on it, as she had done for years, calling gently, "Good morning, my lord...," and waiting. A few minutes later, the door was opened by Maril, blearily rubbing his eyes and clutching the waist of his pants to hold them up. Janefra said again, "Good morning, lord. Are you ready for your breakfast?"

Maril opened his mouth to reply, then snapped fully awake and glanced back into the room as something occurred to him. "Uh...yes, but in maybe a half-hour, please, Jan. For two, and with a large pot of strong kaf." Jan heard a contralto chuckle come from within, and a grin plastered itself on his face as he looked behind him again. He turned back, with the grin changed into an arch smile; he added, "Two more things as well, Jan."

"Yes, lord?" she replied serenely, as if nothing were going on.

"First, if you're planning on what I think you're planning, stay away from the commlines!" Her face fell in shock, but he went relentlessly on, "I'm sure you were sharing information with Tami last night, my dear conspirator, but leave us a chance to give her some ourselves. And as for the second--"


"Some clean clothes please...for both of us. You didn't leave me a stitch yesterday, except for the one suit!" And he closed the door, while Janefra worked on stifling her laughter.

Back in the bedroom, Lorene laughed as she let the bedsheet drop from her chest. She swung out of the bed and came to him, saying, "You are evil, Maril Jastrow. She's probably been waiting for months to let the world know some woman's won your heart again."

"Well, she can gossip all she wants to anyone in the house. But, even if you don't, I want to tell Tami myself. She is one of your fellow conspirators, isn't she?"

Lorene grinned and shrugged, the sunlight flashing off her gleaming flesh. "Her, and about half of the house staff."

"Jan should have enough people to talk to, then. C'mon, Lori -- we have a half-hour before breakfast; can you think of any way to...improve the time?"

"And do you have some ideas??" she leered, looking up into his face and brushing her breasts against his chest.

Maril folded her in his shining arms, grinning back. "A few.... But they depend on how you feel right now."

"My, my; eager for more, aren't we?"

"You could say that."

"Well, I don't feel sore, and I suppose I could be persuaded...."

"Then, lady, do I have your permission to begin persuading?"

"By all means."

Somehow, they managed to finish ahead of the deadline, and even fit in a shower. To Lorene's momentary amazement, the glue holding the gemstones on her body never dissolved or loosened, even after Maril started scrubbing her. She was still studded, therefore, with multicolored, sparkling brilliance when Maril accepted a stack of clothes through the door. As he passed them to her, while he stood in the gap of the door, she heard Janefra say, "Would her Ladyship care for any assistance with her clothes, or removing her makeup?" Maril threw Lorene a questioning look around the door, where she was hiding, to see her answer.

She looked down at her jewel-paved body, then let a grin split her face. She had seen even gaudier displays on women of every degree walking the streets of daytime Lagranda; it seemed to be a part of the Arjorean culture. She slipped her head between Maril and the door to say, "No, thanks, Jan; I'll stay as I am for now." Then she reached out her hand to the older woman, not worried about how much of her naked body was revealed, and pulled Janefra into a deep hug. "Thank you so much for your help!"

Janefra was taken by surprise, to say the least, but she quickly recovered and returned Lorene's embrace as fervently; "We were all more than happy to, child. It was as much for Lord Maril's happiness as yours." She broke off to smile into both their faces, curtsied deeply, and departed.

Tamra was sitting on her front porch later, puzzling over the lack of news from the manor house, when she heard distant hoofbeats pounding on the road, approaching from that direction. She squinted through her dark glasses, for the manor house lay sunwards at this time of day, and skin gleam always leaked through from below the lenses. The road was a straight run for nearly a kimiter, and she could see a pair of riders on palomino horses, galloping toward her. As they came on, Tamra began smiling more and more. One of the pair was female, and Tamra knew only one woman with that unusual shade of hair. She was not surprised when the horses slowed and turned into her yard; neither was she amazed when she saw the joyous smiles that glowed on Lorene's and Maril's faces. She stood to meet them as Maril helped Lorene down from her horse.

Lorene was still bejeweled from the previous evening, Tamra saw, but she had changed her garb -- not surprising, as that gown was not meant for riding. Today, she was dressed in long pants from her old planet, made of a hard blue cloth that wore very well. A crisp red blouse from Lady Anya's drawers covered her shoulders, while a leather riding vest beneath supported her breasts and kept her from bobbling on the road with the horse's gait. Not that she'd notice right now, Tamra grinned to herself. Aloud, she said, "Well, you two look rather pleased with the world. Might a poor soul ask why?"

Maril turned to Lorene. "I suppose she may, don't you think?"

Lorene slowly nodded in reply. "It's allowable, I suppose.... Well, we're both so happy because I have a job now."

"Lady, I am so--" Then the full meaning of Lorene's words came home to the retired servant. "A...a job?"

"Mmhmm. Maril made me the offer to take over Heran's old job as foreman after supper last night. We thought we'd let you know first, before he took me around to get familiar with some of the nearby aspects."

Tamra peered hard at the pair. Something about this story smelled. And yet, it was herself that had thought of Lorene to replace Heran before the project began to shake Maril up, and suggested it to Hary for throwing at Maril....

The man himself, meanwhile, was grinning below perked eyebrows. "What's up, Tami?" he asked. "You look like a cornbird checking for people in the field before his lunch."

"It's just that.... I thought.... Lorene, weren't you...? Oh, damn; I'll figure it out later!" She threw up her hands in exasperation. "Wait a few minutes while I get the sangera and some glasses, and I'll toast your fortune on the job."

"Before you do that," Lorene said, "could you suggest someone who can polish a ring for me?"

"A ring?" Now Tamra was completely confused.

"Yes; a very nice one, too. See?" And Lorene finally twisted the wedding ring on her finger so Tamra could see the stone, which she had kept hidden in her palm.

It took Tamra only a moment to recognize that ring. She sucked in a gasp, then ran and threw her arms around Lorene, laughing and weeping for pure joy. "You sly, wretched girl!! What are you fooling an old woman for? New forewoman, indeed!"

"Blame Maril for wanting to fool you," Lorene returned from the hug, grinning and crying as well. "He wanted a little revenge for all the conspiring, so he talked me into it on the way down. You'd better call Jan when we're done here; she's ready to explode because we wouldn't let her call you."

"That I will. Beware, though, Maril Jastrow," Tamra added to the man with a mock glare; "even honor for your position and old fealty won't let me forget this!"

"Then don't play matchmaker next time," Maril replied with a laugh. "Though I don't plan on there being a next time, thank you very much. Oh, and incidentally, the business about making Lori the forewoman was serious -- though we plan to take a few days for ourselves first."

"We've been making up for lost time, you see," Lorene added, pausing in blotting her eyes to grin.

"And so!" Tamra laughed in return.

"And I wouldn't be here without you, lady. You helped make this possible."

"Child!... Well, maybe so, and I thank your grace for saying so."

"You can thank me for something else. I want you to stand with me at the wedding."

Again Tamra was amazed, and took long moments before she smiled and said, "Why, gladly, child, but why me?"

"Because you're the woman I know best on this world, and my best supporter. You're both my closest friend, and a mother figure to me here, and I want you there with me, not just sitting in a pew."

"We both think you should be there, Tami," Maril added. "You've been there for Lori from the beginning, even consented to having your back bedroom walls covered with aluminum foil on a minute's notice."

Tamra smiled in embarrassment, but said, "I would be honored, then; name the date, and I'll be there for you again.... I think I said something about celebrating, didn't I? Come on in out of the sun, so we don't have to squint through skin-shine, and I'll get a good bottle of wine. This celebration calls for more than just sangera!"

Lori and Maril spent a very pleasant two hours with Tamra, talking and beginning to plan the wedding, following which they set out for the return to the manor house -- this time at a more sedate pace. Indeed, they let their horses set the pace, for they were in no hurry; Maril had found that Janefra had taken the initiative and declared him incommunicado for the day, except for dire emergencies. They rode as close together as they could, glancing in each other's direction frequently, and talking about much that was on their minds.

The road passed through an apple orchard, planted by Maril's great-grandfather. Pausing there for a rest, the pair dismounted and left their horses to stray and graze. Maril reached a gleaming arm up to a nearby branch and plucked down a rich, red fruit. He asked, "Care for one?" as he polished the apple on his tunic front.

"Shouldn't we ask the owner first?" Lorene replied with a grin. "He might not want us picking his apples."

Maril laughed. "Ask yourself, love. All of mine is yours now, you know." Lorene froze and gasped, making his eyes sparkle over his smile as he added, "You mean you never considered that?"

"No, I...I never gave a thought to it. All I wanted...the only thing I needed was you. It never occurred to me at all."

"That is one of the most wonderful compliments I could receive, darling. But it's time you let it sink in; there's a lot of property and credit attached to this body. You are a very rich woman now, in fact if not in law, and it will be in law eventually. Thinking of which, I need to call my legist and have my will changed in your favor as soon as possible."

Lorene came over and laid her hand with its flashing ring on Maril's chest. "Gold you may own, lord," she said softly, "in quantity beyond what we'll ever need. But the only gold I'll truly need and want is you. I'd love you even if you were the poorest worker in the fields, as long as you remain all that you are inside."

"I'll do my best to stay that way, Lori," he said, covering her hand with his. They closed together for a long, heartfelt kiss that nearly undid them again. As Heran had predicted a week ago, the passions so long suppressed threatened to consume them, unless they held a strong resolve. Somehow, they found that resolve; with a shared smile that made promises for later, they broke apart and resumed their stroll, though they kept hold of each other's hand as they went.

Finally munching on his apple with his free hand, Maril said between bites, "Now that you do realize your rights here, you know you're perfectly free to exercise them, and get anything that strikes your fancy."

"Mercy, Jastrow, you're always trying to get me to spend your money!... Seriously, though, it'll take me a while to get used to the idea of unlimited credit at my disposal. We always had to scrimp on the farm, and things didn't have a chance to improve much when I became a deep scout."

"Well, the credit is there, when you're ready. If nothing else, you have a wedding to finish planning; and, if nothing else with that, my district is going to insist it be a state affair. I seem to be rather popular with the people, and they like to get as much news as possible about me."

"Something tells me I'm marrying into a very public life."

"Something tells me I should have prepared you for this before I proposed." Maril sighed. "Get ready for the next part, Lori; if you go through with this--"

"Don't worry about that, love; I can learn to handle a public life."

"Can you handle being third cousin by marriage to the current Empress?"

Lorene dropped his hand at the same time she dropped her jaw. "Now you have to be joking!"

Maril shook his head with a wry expression. "I'm afraid not. It doesn't put me in line for the throne or anything; that's what the Electors are for. But it does rather increase my prestige and power in the High Court. It helps me get a lot of good done that I'd have to fight for otherwise."

Dazed wonder was fixed on Lorene's face. "It's almost too much to take in. It's like I've become Cinderella, and you've put the glass slipper on my foot."

Maril stared blankly for a few seconds, then: "That's nice. Now, wotnhel are you talking about?"

Lorene chuckled as she realized what was wrong. "I think that I'm going to have a lot to contribute to the culture, love, once I get completely up to speed myself!"

"You're already contributing to my culture," he replied warmly. "And, when you first pop up at the Court Season, I'm wagering you'll set quite a few people on their ears."

"I don't know about that; from the sound, I'll have a lot to learn so I don't commit a faux pas -- a social mistake. Any road, I guess you'll hear a few things about marrying an alien; I've found that, where there's a hierarchy, there's some fool or bitch who believes they're better than anyone else."

"Oh, we have some of those, and you're probably right about their attitude. But, as I already have a reputation as an eccentric progressive, I don't think bedding or marrying an alien will make things worse. Not that I care, anyway, darling." He grabbed her hand again and squeezed it to emphasize his resolve. "And for your social fears, I've seen you around the house, and in town when we've met people there. I don't think you have anything to worry about; just be your own gracious self, while staying ready to reply when you need to; and you'll not only survive, but you'll flourish in the Court. But if you want to be sure, Tami will be able to answer most questions about the social graces. Half of her friends, or their sons and daughters, are still involved with Court members, so she knows what's going on and what to do when, socially and strategically."

"You really think I can find a place for myself at Court?" Lorene asked with rising hope.

Maril stopped and squeezed her hand again. "You had the courage to hang on, until you won me over. I should think that would have been much harder. Find the same confidence in yourself, love, and you'll confound all comers -- if anyone even has a mind to give you any problems."

"As long as you're there for me, my golden love. With you, I know anything is possible in this world."


The End

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