by Togi Kayako (土宜草子)
The gathering bags strapped to Lyss’ hips and slung over her broad shoulders sagged low by the time she reached the end of the long row of melongrapes. She left the last plant untouched and tossed one green and purple striped ball from her overflowing pile onto the ground, crushing it into the soft, dry earth with her hoof. Late morning sun warmed her arms as she took a moment to give thanks, breathing in the smells of baked earth, sweet fruit, and the sweat of a long morning’s labor.
Lyss heard a faint hum as the nearest speaker turned on and then Gem’s low, cheerful voice rang out through the field: “Noon is nearly here, beloved sisters. Bring in your harvests, put down your tools, finish your tasks. Raise your voices! The time of celebration is upon us!”
A cheer went up, every woman’s voice in the compound joining together into a net of joyous sound cast over them all. From the other side of the nearest trellis came Ink’s throaty howl, and Lyss layered her own rumbling call against it as she had done every celebration day in the years since they settled here. The tips of Ink’s silver-tufted ears drifted down the row and then she poked her broad face around the end to beam at Lyss.
“You done, oh fearless leader?” Ink’s fanged smile went even wider when she caught sight of the bags. “Done and fixing to make the rest of us look bad, eh? C’mon, you old work-ox, let’s head in.”
Lyss caught Ink’s arm as the shorter woman tried to brush past her, fingers wrapping clear around her muscular forearm. “One for the earth, then we can go,” she chided. Ink rolled her golden eyes and huffed as she twisted free, but she threw one of her fruits to the end of her row and nudged some dirt over it with one clawed foot.
“Gem’s superstitions finally rubbing off on you? We’ll be giving more than enough to the earth later tonight.” Ink toyed with the zipper of her navy jumpsuit, dipping it lower as she turned back to Lyss. “You decide where you’re going to be already?”
“I’m still thinking on it,” Lyss said, taking in the offered view slow and easy-like. Ink had a dusting of gray-white fur that stretched under the sharp juts of her collarbones and trailed down between the gentle curves of her breasts. “You know I’m happy to listen if you have suggestions.”
Ink dropped a hand down to her thick belt and traced a fingertip over the buckle. “I know it’s a bit early, but maybe we can set these bags aside and” —a shrill whistle came from inside the walls to the north, somewhere close to the base of the projector tower— “go see what’s the matter, I suppose,” Ink finished, face crinkling up like she’d just taken a shot of Gem’s worst moonshine.
“We’ll drop the bags if it sounds again,” Lyss said, striding back along her row to the nearest gate in the brick wall set around the heart of the compound. They hadn’t the kind of trouble that would call for a second whistle in well over a year, but Lyss kept herself and everyone else ready for it. A few folks’ heads shot up as Lyss walked in, but everyone settled quick as soon as they saw it was her.
Ink kept pace at Lyss’ side, though it took her three steps for every two of Lyss’ own. “We just caught someone before the last celebration. Wish folks looking for trouble would pick a different day.”
Lyss shrugged, keeping the gesture small to make sure none of her fruit went tumbling. She and Ink had different tolerances for folks who came in not knowing they could ask for help rather than attempt to steal. “Better than a planting day. Least this doesn’t interrupt as much.”
The memory of the mercenary who’d turned up last time was still fresh for both of them, and it was probably what was making Ink bristle so. The merc turned up in the dead of night and one of the guards caught her trying to fix up a bullet hole in her hip with stolen bandages. Lyss had talked the merc down from taking a shot at anyone, patched her up, and stayed with her while she mended. They’d gone into the fields together that celebration night, exchanging all sorts of sweet words and touches, but Lyss had woken up alone. She’d never even gotten a name out of the merc to ask after.
“I guess, but still,” Ink growled, snapping Lyss back to the present. She muttered her litany of inventive swear words all the way to the front garden beds, but cut herself off before any of the women there came into earshot. Despite her foul mood, she still pressed a kiss to Lyss’ shoulder before she broke off. “Call me if you need me,” she said, stomping off toward the kitchen to join the line of folks handing in their harvests.
Nothing seemed amiss to Lyss’ eyes. Through the windows of what had once been a diner wrapping around the tower, she could see the kitchen full nearly to bursting with women squeezing around each other, laughing and chattering as always. In the shade of the covered dining area to the side, tables were piled with platters of fruits and vegetables. A few people sat on the benches to eat, but most everyone coming in out of the sun went straight for the water dispenser.
It looked to have been their largest harvest yet, given the heaping bags and baskets starting to pile up. Tomorrow afternoon, everyone would gather and sort out what they could preserve and what could be bartered with as the traders rolled in over the next few days. With a bounty of food to share and a decent show of arms, Lyss knew the traders would carry out the right rumors and keep cementing their reputation as good customers and bad enemies.
Two of the kitchen staff came running up to take Lyss’ bags, twittering over how much she’d brought in and letting their hands linger as they undid the buckles. Lyss dropped a quick kiss on each of their heads and murmured her thanks, but she was already looking past them at the pair of people a few paces away from the diner.
Dee stood tall on an open patch of pavement, her rifle in her hands and her slitted green eyes focused on the red-headed figure sitting slumped forward at her feet. Besides the bright, clearly dyed braid hanging over one shoulder, the woman looked much like every other mercenary Lyss had seen: covered head to toe in shapeless, sturdy clothes stained brown by endless walking on dusty roads and wearing enough weaponry strapped to her to outfit a dozen women. She even wore gloves and heavy boots, probably to hide whatever quirks she had that might be to her advantage in a fight.
The one real oddity was the dual mask setup she had on. The dust filter strapped over her nose and mouth was ordinary enough, dinged up but clearly well-maintained, but the top part of her face was hidden behind something angular and matte black that Lyss had never seen the likes of before. It covered her clear up to the hairline and was wide enough to go over her ears as well. It didn’t look like a weapon, and even if it was, the merc probably couldn’t activate it with her hands tied behind her back.
“Hey there, Dee. What happened?” Lyss stepped in close to their captive, letting her size do some intimidating for her in case the merc wasn’t as cowed as she looked. It was a shame it was a merc again and not someone looking to settle. Not that mercs couldn’t settle — Ink and Lyss were proof enough of that — but Lyss still stung with the memory of her last unsuccessful attempt to coax one in from the wandering life. She’d almost hoped the woman had returned, but the merc at her feet showed no signs of recognizing her and she pushed those hopes away good and hard.
“Hi, Lyss. Caught this one inside the wall, by the back of the tower.” The green scales freckled across her nose and cheeks caught the light as Dee tipped her head back toward the wide brick wall with its coils of barbed wire sitting on top. “Didn’t see where she broke in, but I’ve got a few folks checking for damage.”
The merc tilted her whole head around in what had to be the most dramatic way possible to show she was rolling her eyes. “I didn’t ‘break in’ like some kind of clumsy rookie,” she said, her voice distorted by her filter and a strange accent Lyss couldn’t place. Lyss looked all the long way down to her and raised an eyebrow. The merc ducked her head. “I’m only saying you’re not going to find any damage,” she muttered.
Lyss acknowledged her words with a faint, disbelieving hum. “Well, good work, Dee. You did everything exactly right.” She hooked two fingers under the square line of Dee’s jaw and tipped her face up to give her a good, long kiss.
The impressed whistle the merc let out was no trouble for Lyss to ignore, busy as she was with the sweet motion of Dee’s lips against her own. They pulled apart as easily as they’d moved together. Dee’s rifle was still trained steady on the merc, her trigger finger straight out exactly as Lyss had all the guards trained to do. Ammo was neither cheap nor plentiful enough for any accidental shots.
“You’ve done real well over the last few months, Dee. I’m glad you’re with us,” Lyss said, trailing her hand down to rest on Dee’s shoulder. “Would you like to join me upstairs tonight?”
“Are you sure?” Dee asked, but before Lyss could even start to correct her, she held up her hand. “I’d be honored, Lyss,” she said with more conviction. “Don’t think I’m ready to be the main attraction, though.”
Lyss pressed a kiss to her temple. “Where your heart leads you, in your own time. ‘Sides, that role may already be taken for tonight.” The two of them glanced down at once and the merc flinched. “You got a name?”
Lyss knew she was going to get something absurd when the merc squirmed around to pull herself up as tall as she could whilst on her knees. “You may address me as Ashlene Marian Hibiscus—”
“Ash it is,” Lyss said, raising her voice enough to cut off whatever nonsense syllables the merc was going to spit out. “Now we’re not bloodthirsty types, but we can’t let folks like you walk off without so much as a slap on the wrist, either. Normally the deal is you work or you give us some of what you’ve got on you.” With hardly a moment’s hesitation, Lyss added, “Seeing as today’s a celebration, you can also join us in worship instead.”
Dee raised her eyebrows at the offer, but kindly didn’t object. Lyss kept her face calm, but thought a very stern word or three at her heart for dumping those words out of her mouth before she’d given it any thought.
“What exactly does your ‘worship’ entail?” Ash asked, prim as a city girl seeing a worm for the first time.
Lyss dropped into a crouch next to her, leaning in good and close and hoping she’d made something like eye contact. “Short version, it means we head up the tower tonight and we fuck for everyone to see and hear. Sound like something you could handle?”
Ash jutted out her chin and laughed, a sharp little bark. “You know I get shot at for a living, right? You’re gonna have to threaten me with something worse than a good time if you want to scare me.”
“That was a lot of mouthing off and not much answering,” Lyss said. Ash shrugged and didn’t say another word, so Lyss stood up again. “Suit yourself. Dee, take her stuff and lock her up for now. Make sure she has water. I’ll check in on her a bit later.”
“Wait!” Ash yelped as Dee hauled her upright. “Please,” she added, voice taking on a hint of sweetness like there might be actual manners buried in there somewhere. Lyss gave her a nod and held up a hand to Dee. “You can take all my weapons, I don’t care, but let me keep my mask on. Please.”
It was hard to get a read on the merc with her face all covered, but Lyss knew genuine desperation when she heard it. “The filter, the fancy sunglasses, or both? Air’s safe to breathe around here. We’ve replanted far enough out to keep the dust down.”
“Yeah, you can take the filter if you want. I can see you’ve made this place nice and green,” Ash said, soft and wheedling. Dee let out a quiet snort but she looked to Lyss for direction.
Lyss stepped in, undid the straps holding Ash’s dust filter on, and peeled the thing away from the bottom of her face. Her skin was only a few shades lighter than the leather chest-plate she wore, and almost as marked up. The sharp point of what had to be a good-sized scar sat on her right cheek, below the pressure line left by her filter. Another broad scar ran through her lips on the opposite side with a red tint to it that suggested it was recent. A dusting of smaller dots and scratches were scattered over her face and neck. Whatever else Ash was, Lyss could see for certain she’d done her fair share of mercenary work.
“She can keep the glasses for now,” Lyss said, figuring she’d made Ash sweat enough for the time being. There was a quick flash of sharp teeth as Ash smiled and Lyss kept a careful lock on her own expression. Ink would give her grief for getting soft on another lady with fangs as soon as she saw the merc, but with any luck she wouldn’t go saying it in front of the merc. “Take her weapons, lock her up, and I’ll see if she gets more decisive later on.”
Dee hustled Ash off toward one of the smaller bunk rooms that could lock from the outside and Lyss went to join the line for water. Tried to, anyway, except everyone waved her forward one after the other until she was up front with barely enough time to pull her canteen open. She tossed back the last lukewarm swig inside and refilled it quick as she could before plunking down at the nearest open stretch of bench.
Lyss grabbed a melongrape big enough to fill half her palm and took a bite of the crisp, sweet-tart flesh. She spit out one of the black, oblong seeds and looked it over carefully. The seed looked healthy, and this harvest hadn’t seen any bad mutations — truly a cause for celebration.
Ink slipped in next to her and set down a bowl of roasted tubers between them. The smell of oil and spices drifted up to Lyss’ nose and her stomach growled loud enough to draw a few glances from folks seated nearby. “You didn’t take a single break all morning, did you? Damn it, Lyss.” Ink might’ve sounded mad to someone else’s ears, but she nudged the bowl over closer to Lyss while she scolded. “What was the whistle for?”
“Nothing serious.” Lyss took her time munching through a bite of food while Ink stared at her, twirling a hand impatiently. “Some merc snuck in. Dee handled it. Nobody’s hurt and nothing’s missing or broken so far as they’ve found yet.”
“And you’ve taken the merc and thrown them back out on the other side of the wall this time, right?” Ink asked, calm in a way that actually boded trouble when it was her. Lyss slid her eyes off to one side and Ink slapped a hand down on the table. “Lyss. You can’t keep doing this.”
Lyss stared down a few of the too-curious heads that had turned their way at the noise before shifting back to face Ink. Wasn’t any point in trying to stare her down — nothing that walked the earth could intimidate Ink and Lyss suspected if there were any things beyond, they would have some trouble as well.
“Two times doesn’t make a habit,” she said, trying to sound like she was talking sense rather than making excuses. “Don’t know she’ll be interested, anyway. Was too busy sassing me to say one way or the other.”
Ink tossed up her hands with a sputtering growl but settled down to pick at some food without more arguing. The peace lasted until she crunched her way through a couple of orange bell carrots and then Ink started in again, gesturing with a stem still in her hand. “Isn’t it enough to take in the folks that want taken in? You know you can’t keep every single soul that wanders by, right?”
“Managed to keep Dee, didn’t I? And all those that came before her.” Lyss made herself take slow bites and taste her food properly, as much as she wanted to stuff herself full so she could escape the conversation.
“All of them needed a home to settle in and they weren’t mercs. You and I both know how hard it is to get out of that life.” Ink sighed and leaned in, pressing a kiss next to Lyss’ ear. “Mostly I don’t want to see your heart try to lead you somewhere you can’t follow. You were walking like you’d been shot for weeks last time.”
Lyss gave her a nod and half a shrug. It was true enough and anyone with so much as one working eye had seen it, too. “It may well be she doesn’t take me up on the offer, but if she does I’ll honor it.” She pressed the short, stiff fur of her hairline against the softer tufts of Ink’s curls and twined their fingers together. “And if it goes sour for me again, I’ll take more care in the future. Will that do?”
Ink stroked her small thumb over the half of Lyss’ hand she could reach and nodded against her. “Better than I hoped to get from you, if I’m being honest.” Lyss’ breath huffed out in something nearing a laugh. “You’re the biggest gal in the place, so I shouldn’t be surprised you’ve got a heart with room for every damn stray that drops by.”
Grumpy tone or no, Lyss knew words of love when she heard them. “Seems it’s big enough I need a hand or two keeping it safe. Good thing I’ve got you around to help with that.”
“Oh, you know I’ve got a hand or two ready whenever you need it,” Ink said, low and hot. She hooked one of those hands behind Lyss’ head and pulled her in for the filthy sort of kiss that made it feel like a proper celebration day at last. Scattered cheers and raunchy suggestions rose up from nearby women, along with a fair bit of laughter.
Lyss broke away slow, lingering on one kiss after another like she always did with Ink in her arms. “I asked Dee to come up tonight. If the merc does say yes, will you still join us?” She whispered the words right on Ink’s lips and felt her smile back.
“Someone’s got to keep you out of trouble, don’t they?” Ink said, too fond to even play at being irritated.
* * *
With her belly full of food and her heart full of Ink’s fussing, Lyss set off around the compound to make sure everything was ready for that night. As much as she wanted to check on their visitor, a bit of distance would help keep her head clear. Her eyes felt otherwise, drifting back to the small window of the bunk holding Ash and catching on the flash of her red hair no matter how far away Lyss wandered.
It should have been simple to distract herself. Most days she couldn’t take three steps without someone needing a word with her, but today no one asked for anything more than a quick embrace. Even the glorious sight of naked women piling into the tubs together and sunning themselves dry couldn’t hold her wandering gaze for more than a moment or two.
After trying to keep herself occupied for a good while with no luck, Lyss gave up and moseyed over to see Ash like it was just another part of her rounds. Ash wasn’t stretched out on the cot any longer — in fact, she was nowhere to be seen until Lyss pressed her face right up to the window’s thick plastic. She tapped on it twice and Ash’s head whipped up from where she’d been focused on what looked suspiciously like picking the door lock.
Her laugh was muffled through the wall but loud enough for Lyss to catch it anyway. She stepped back from the window before the merc could catch her smiling and took her sweet time unlocking the door and swinging it open.
“Hello again,” Ash said from her seat on the floor. She gave Lyss a little wiggle of her fingers, dropping the hair pin she’d been holding back down her sleeve so fast Lyss almost missed it. “Don’t mind me! Had to at least see if it was unlocked, right?” There was a hint of red-orange fur at the cuff of her sleeve, but she pulled a glove back on before Lyss could get a good look.
Lyss snorted. “Or see if you couldn’t get it there while no one was paying enough mind to you, more like.” The fur color nagged at Lyss’ memory, but she brushed the thought aside as she leaned over to take the pin and offer Ash a hand up.
“Can you blame a girl for trying?” Ash asked, smiling bright with a hint of teeth that had Lyss ready to forgive a fair sight more than she ought to. She barely pulled on Lyss’ hand as she got up in one quick, practiced motion that had no doubt saved her hide a time or two.
“Can’t blame you, but not letting you get away with it either.” Lyss kept a grip on Ash’s wrist, giving it a squeeze to make clear she wasn’t going anywhere. “You’ve had time to think. You want to work, worship, or donate some of your armory?”
Ash tugged against her grip a little, testing, but she leaned in closer to Lyss as she did it. “I’m not much for farming, and I really like all my knives and guns,” she said, slow and honey-sweet, resting her free hand on Lyss’ wrist. The way she drawled out all the vowels in her strange accent was a pleasant distraction, but not enough for Lyss to ignore what she wasn’t saying.
“You can dance around this all you want, but I’m not making the call for you.” Lyss stared down at Ash and put the weight of how serious she was into every word. “We don’t take anyone unwilling around here and I don’t take anyone who won’t tell me plain what she wants.”
Without missing a beat, Ash said, “I want you,” and did her best to pull Lyss down. She was stronger than she looked. Not strong enough to budge Lyss an inch if she didn’t feel like budging, but Lyss was fresh out of patience with the memory of the last merc dogging at her heels.
Seemed like Ash wasn’t the patient type either, going from lips to tongue and teeth in a heartbeat. If she fought half as fierce as she kissed, Lyss would bet not a lot of folks drew on her and lived to do it a second time. Still wasn’t quite enough to keep her from noticing the tug at her belt, though.
Lyss caught Ash’s other hand as it creeped toward the buckle of her pistol’s holster. “You’re trouble and then some,” she said, too pleased for her own good. She shifted Ash’s wrists to one hand and tucked them up against the wall over her head. “You only tell me you were interested so you could take another swing at escaping?”
“Mm, no, I’m genuinely interested.” Ash licked her lips and stretched one leg up to hook it around Lyss’ hip. “But I am definitely trouble. Can’t help myself, really. You’ll just have to keep a nice, close eye on me. Or a hand or two.”
This time, Lyss didn’t let herself be moved. “And what about more than two?” She cupped a hand around Ash’s thigh, giving it a careful squeeze to feel the solid muscle hiding under her baggy pants.
“If you think you need the extra hands, by all means bring some backup.” Ash’s smile went even toothier. “No shame in needing some help — I know I’m a lot for one woman to handle.”
Lyss slid her hand down Ash’s leg and started to push. Ash pushed back, but Lyss made ground little by little until Ash’s knee was all but pressed up against her body. The heavy way she was breathing told Lyss she’d put up a decent fight, but the little buck of her hips suggested she wasn’t too sour about losing. Lyss shifted one thigh in between Ash’s legs and she spit a curse like she’d been punched in the gut.
“Don’t figure I need the help.” Lyss let the words tumble out nice and slow, keeping herself steady as a stone while Ash wriggled in her grip. “There’s three other folks who would be joining us. Two to touch, one to watch. Still something you want in on?”
“Of course it fucking is,” Ash growled, her fancy accent going almost plain for the words. She was doing a lot of moving for someone that wasn’t managing to get anywhere with it. “You wanna pass me around to all your gals like a damn plate of fruit? Fucking do it, I’ll show them all a good time.”
Lyss kissed her again and aimed for gentle this time, pulling away when Ash tried to nip her. “You don’t have to fight here, sister. Relax, let me be sweet to you.” The whine that slipped out of Ash’s mouth was like nothing so much as something small and furry with its leg caught in a trap. She shuddered all over once and then did as she was bid, going limp under Lyss’ hands.
“Why are you so persuasive?” she murmured, breathing the words right into Lyss’ mouth so quiet she could barely hear it. Still, Ash stayed put and she let Lyss have one kiss after another with no complaint beyond the way her breath caught on a little whimper every time Lyss tried to stop. When Lyss did finally ease back, the pout on Ash’s puffed up lips nearly lured her straight back in again.
“Much as I’d love to keep you pinned right here, we need to get cleaned up.” Lyss tapped two fingers right down as Ash opened her mouth to say something no doubt too persuasive by half. “Not of a mind to get my tongue covered in road dirt, and I ain’t asking anyone to get theirs covered in farm dirt.”
Ash did that head roll of hers again, but Lyss only smiled back. “I suppose it would be nice to wash up,” Ash said, letting most of her pout fade away. “Am I gonna get tossed in a river now that I’ve said that?”
“You’re a few years late for that — we’ve got tubs now.” Lyss let Ash go but kept one eye on her while she waved over Dee and another guard. “You two mind seeing to it this one gets a good scrub? She can leave the glasses on if she wants. Fair warning, she’s a handful and a half.”
Dee took over, nudging Ash along to the baths with a firm hand on her back. Lyss double-checked that Ash hadn’t left any nasty surprises in the bunk and then went off for her own quick but thorough wash while running over a list of what was left to do.
* * *
The sun hit the horizon and started turning the sky all shades of fire. Lyss took a few breaths to watch the golden light fall over the walls of the compound, turning the glass shards set in them to glittering jewels. Women wove in and out of the rows of crops, laughing and chatting, carrying bowls of food and staking out reddish lanterns that wouldn’t attract bugs.
Most all of them sparkled as well, decked out with every bit of metal they could polish to a shine, painted in designs done with bright-colors across skin and scales and feathers and fur. In deference to the holiday, most folk had only a single weapon on them. Nobody had gone without since Lyss had taken charge from Gem, and no outsiders had given the place trouble more than once, either.
Lyss gave the scene an approving nod and made her way up the projector tower’s stairs. There was no sneaking in with her hooves on the metal steps, but she called out anyway when she was one flight down. “Can I come up, Gem?”
“Of course, Lyss!” Gem’s buzzing laughter echoed down the stairway. “Come in and be welcome, sister.” The scrape of furniture told Lyss she’d come at the perfect moment to help setup for the ceremony, and she took the last stairs two at a time. She swept the plain fabric curtain aside with one hand and poked her head cautiously into the small room beyond.
Gem hadn’t changed for the ceremony yet, still wearing their navy jumpsuit with the sleeves rolled up to show their delicate black-striped forearms. They had their usual tall-backed green armchair tipped over on two legs, the knitted blanket barely hanging on as they hauled the chair across the room one scoot at a time. “You could have hollered if you needed a hand,” Lyss said gently, stepping in to pick up the chair. “Where do you want this?”
“What can I say?” Gem asked, spreading their arms wide and turning so fast Lyss had to lean back. “My heart led me to rearrange. Well, my heart and the practical issues of having five bodies up here. Put that all the way against the wall, if you would.”
Lyss let Gem direct her to reorganize the room until everything was just so. The projector was set on a track and creaked worse than old wood in a storm when Lyss shoved it along. She’d brought up taking the thing out now and again, but Gem always swore they were only a part or two away from having it working. It wound up as far to the side as it would go, making room for a small ocean of padded mats covered over with the softest towels they had on hand. On the left wall was a folding table covered with a white cloth, ready to be laden down with food and other supplies. On the right wall, practically in the back corner, was Gem’s chair with the long cord of their microphone snaking over to it from the place it was wired into the wall.
Gem took one last loop of the room, antennae twitching as they straightened the tablecloth and nudged one of the mats over a handspan so it lined up neatly with its neighbor. “Looks perfect, Lyss, thank you ever so much for your help.” Every little facet of their eyes caught the light as they turned from the window to face Lyss. “Now before you run off again, Ink brought some concerns to me earlier and I wanted to talk with you about them.”
“I’ll bet she did,” Lyss said under her breath. “Ink already had words with me, Gem. I know she thinks I’m being too soft because I’m still hung up on the merc from last time, but I swore if anything goes wrong bringing this one in to worship, it’ll be the last. Don’t know there’s much else to be said.”
“She didn’t ask me to discuss it with you. This is my own concern.” Gem sunk down on one of the mats and patted the space next to their hip. “Sit a moment and hear me out?” For all that they were small and slight enough that Lyss knew for a fact she could heft them with only one arm, there was a weight to Gem’s presence. Even the first time they’d met, with Lyss down so much blood she could hardly walk, she’d known Gem was a force to be reckoned with when she wanted to be.
Lyss plunked down with a sigh. “You know I will. You’ve got too much sense for me to go ignoring what you have to say.” She set a hand out on her thigh, palm up, and smiled when Gem settled their own against her palm. “You think I should just huck the merc out over the wall like Ink wants?” Even if Ash wasn’t who Lyss had truly hoped for, she was near enough to make Lyss’ heart ache at the thought of chasing her off.
“I didn’t say that, and I’m not planning to,” Gem said. “It’s not my place to tell you where your path leads, nor hers for that matter. All I want to know is if you think yours is going to lead you away from the rest of us.”
“Not a chance,” Lyss said, fast as a shot. “There isn’t a body pretty enough in this whole damned world to pull me away from here.” Maybe in the very early days, before she’d wound up responsible for the well-being of so many folks and before it had become home.
Gem hummed a note, low and unsure. “You would go if Ink went, I wager. I know, I know, she’s got no reason to, but my point stands.” They took up Lyss’ other hand, pressing a faint kiss to the palm. “I want you to know you can, if that’s where your heart leads. We’re well-established now. There’s plenty of folks that could keep us together for a spell, if your heart takes you elsewhere.”
Lyss eased her hand free, pressing it over her breastbone where something had gone tight under the skin. “You’re good folk, Gem.” Lyss heard a touch of choke on the edge of her words and paused for a breath. “All the same, don’t think that’s where I’m headed. I got no heart for wandering anymore. All I want is to see at least one of these mercs have a heart ready to settle.”
“Oh, sweetheart.” Gem gave her hand a little squeeze before they pulled away. “I hope you get your wish one of these days. You deserve every happiness for all you’ve done around here.” They got to their feet, brushed away nothing in particular from their knees, and made a big show of checking where the sun was at. “For now, you had best round up everyone and finish provisioning us up here while I get cleaned up.”
“Expecting it to be a long night?” Lyss got up and trailed after Gem down the stairs. “More bodies doesn’t have to mean more time.”
Gem chuckled at her as they rounded the last switchback. “No, I expect it to be a long night because someone is getting her hands on something she’s not minded to let go of.” They skipped up a few steps to press a tiny kiss to the flat tip of Lyss’ nose. “But you know I’ll never complain if you want to linger in your worship.”
“Go get clean,” Lyss said, shooing them away, “And rest up your voice. Can’t say you’re wrong about any of that — I’m always minded to take my time, but today more than most.” She watched Gem stroll out into the fading sunlight, trading waves with everyone on her way to the baths. Stubbornly refusing to look around for Ash or Ink, Lyss headed to the tables to start carrying up food.
* * *
Lyss took a few trips upstairs, getting everything they might need or want stocked as the light outside went twilight-blue and then faded away entirely. Out the window of the projector room, she could see the fields dotted with lights and every so often a shadow as someone moved in front of them. The warm breeze carried the faint hint of a storm rolling in.
It would be a blessing, soaking the earth before they started in on the third planting of the season. For all she wasn’t minded toward superstition, Lyss couldn’t help but hope it was a sign that the way her heart kept tugging her was the right one.
“Anyone there?” Dee’s hesitant voice floated in from the far side of the curtain. “I’ve got my hands full, so if you wouldn’t mind….” She startled when Lyss tugged the curtain aside, but kept the tray of mugs she was holding steady as stone. “I brought up fruit juice for us, and some of the honeyed wine for Gem.”
“Very thoughtful of you.” Lyss didn’t miss the way Dee’s head ducked at the praise, but she kept her peace about it. Dee looked proper fancy with her dark hair floating loose around her shoulders, wearing nothing but some fine silver chains, a brief green tunic, and her rifle strapped across her chest.
She squeezed the tray onto the table, shrugged off her gun to prop up next to it, and turned back to face Lyss with her eyes downcast. “I’m a bit nervous about all this,” she said, quiet but not shaky. “Feels like my first celebration all over again.”
“It’s the same up here as it is down there. You can stay or go as you please, be touched or not as you want, and no one will say otherwise.” Lyss held her arms open and looked Dee over slow, letting her see it good and clear. “I can welcome you proper, if that’s something you think you’d like.”
“Yes, please.” Dee moved with careful little steps into the circle of Lyss’ arms and looked up at her, teeth worrying at her bottom lip. Lyss eased a thumb along her lips, gentled a hand down her back, and leaned down to kiss her welcome. This time, with no guard-work to be done, Dee relaxed in close and stroked her hands across the broad stretch of Lyss’ bare back.
Lyss moved her mouth down to Dee’s jaw and the long line of her throat, pressing a kiss to the wide green ribbon she had tied around it. “I’m glad you wanted to join us tonight,” she said, kissing the words into the curve of Dee’s shoulder. “And I’m glad you decided to stay with us, sister.” Dee’s hands stilled and Lyss watched her shoulders start to creep up toward her ears.
“I’m glad you let me do either,” Dee said, strained and disbelieving. “I know I’m not—” Lyss had an inkling of the nonsense Dee was about to say and cut it off with a firm kiss. When Dee had first turned up to their gates, she had only just realized she was a woman rather than a man and had hightailed it away from a family that wasn’t too keen on the change. She was doing better these days, but still doubted herself more than Lyss would rather.
Still, she’d stayed, and that warmed Lyss’ heart clear through. Lyss eased back and cradled Dee’s face with both her hands. “Dee, darling, listen to me. You’re a good shot, you work hard, you don’t give anyone a lick of trouble, and you’re a damn gorgeous lady. There’s no hardship in having you around.”
“All words of truth,” Gem said from the doorway. Lyss glanced back and smiled at the sight of Gem in their long robe embroidered all around with bright yellow flowers. “I know you will hear the ring of them in time, sister.” They ducked in and brushed a kiss to Dee’s temple. “Until then, at least have the sense not to argue with your elders.”
A tiny laugh squeaked out of Dee and all the tension in her went with it. Her eyes stayed locked on Gem as they walked over to settle into their chair, carefully smoothing their robe down as they sat. Lyss fought back a smile and made a note to make sure Dee was assigned to the tower watch more often.
Faint bickering from below caught her ear and Lyss stepped out to see Ink herding Ash none too gently up the stairs. Ash was under-dressed in one of the plain, off-white tunics that new folk wore for celebrations before they got something nicer made. It might have even been Dee’s cast off, given the way it hung down over Ash’s knees. She had copper and black fur on her small paws and covering her legs at least up to the hem of the tunic. With no adornment beyond her odd half-mask shades and the fall of that brighter than blood-red hair down to her waist, she should have been plain.
To Lyss’ eyes, Ash was about the prettiest sight in the world. It was hard to tell, in the loose tunic, but the shape of her body seemed very familiar indeed. The memory of trailing her fingers through fur almost that exact shade struck Lyss quick and hard enough to knock any words she might’ve managed straight out of her. It seemed almost impossible, but life had brought her stranger blessings before, so she allowed herself to hope.
Lyss could barely drag herself away to look at Ink, and from the way Ink rolled her eyes she’d noticed it, too. “Need anything else from down here, before we come up?” she asked. Her blue celebration day outfit was so brief it would be near indecent on any other occasion, hem barely covering her backside and neckline dipping halfway to her waist. Lyss knew firsthand that it was no impediment at all to someone who wanted to touch Ink all over.
Ink had never been much for jewelry, but she had her favorite knife with the carved flower handle strapped to one thigh and a small gun that was likely Ash’s strapped to the other. Should worst come to worst and they were attacked, someone would get it into Ash’s hands — Lyss wouldn’t stand to see anybody left defenseless.
“No, we’re all good. C’mon up and be welcome.” Whatever they’d been talking over, neither of them seemed minded to continue the conversation with Lyss watching. They reached the landing and Ink gave Ash a little shove toward Lyss. “Brought you a present. Seemed a bit rough at first, but what do you know, she cleaned up pretty nice.” Ash cackled as she let herself land against Lyss’ chest.
“Thought you dirt-digging types weren’t allowed to have fun, but your friend here seems to know how to have a good time.” Ash sidled a hand up around the back of Lyss’ neck and flicked a challenging look back over her shoulder. “Now we see if she knows how to share.” Ash’s unfamiliar accent had Lyss second-guessing herself again and she resolved to focus on the here and now as best she could.
Ink got a good handful of Ash’s hair and pulled her head back. “I’d move mountains to see her smile, merc. Since all she wants is to fuck you stupid, I promise you’ll see just how nice we can share.”
“You talk to her before you started in on the rough?” Lyss asked, doing her damnedest to keep her head clear for at least long enough to make sure they were all on the same page. “This has to be about what we all want, or it ain’t happening.”
“Told you she was a big ol’ sweetheart,” Ink whispered, nudging her shoulder against Ash’s. “She only looks like she could hurt a fly.”
Ash giggled and pulled more insistent at Lyss’ neck. “I know you wanna be gentle with me, but I promise I don’t mind getting pushed around a little bit. Now c’mere and kiss me already, you big softie.”
Lyss grumbled but she knew well enough when she was beat. Her odds against Ink and Ash working together were so close to zero as made no difference, even if both of them hadn’t been asking her to do what she was minded to do already.
Kissing Ash took any possible sting out of the loss — doubly so with Ink right there, holding her steady so Lyss could do it at her leisure. Ash barely had a finger’s width of space to move, caught between the two, but Lyss would never have known it from the way she squirmed. Her grip was tight and all the little noises Lyss was drinking down were sweet and happy, so it didn’t seem likely she was trying to get away no matter how much she wriggled.
“You three going to join us anytime tonight?” Gem’s voice called from inside the projector room, warm and amused. “I think we were planning to worship at some point.” Lyss heard a soft laugh from Dee, echoed by Gem’s own.
Seemed like it would be a night of getting bossed around one way and the other by everyone. Lyss fought back a smile as she gave Ash one more kiss, nice and loud, before making some small amount of space between them. “Did anyone tell you how this goes?” she asked, stroking fingertips across the curve of Ash’s cheek.
“Think I got the general idea, yeah. Gem does the talking while the rest of us have our fun. I’m free to say no to anything I don’t want, same as anyone else. Basic good manners stuff, really.” Ash’s tone was light, but she gave Lyss a solemn nod. For that, Lyss was persuaded to allow her one more kiss before they went up.
* * *
“Our second planting of the sun season has been brought in, a bounty to see us through many coming days. Beloved sisters, we give thanks for the labor of your hands, the sweat of your bodies, and the charity of your hearts.” Gem stood behind the projector with their eyes closed and one hand outstretched as they spoke into her microphone. Lyss stood, head bowed, listening to their voice doubly: in the room and the fainter, tinny version from the fields below. “We’ve worked hard, sisters, and now we take the time to celebrate!”
Gem flipped the switch they’d wired up to a special floodlight, one aimed straight through the projector room’s open windows rather than out at the surrounding countryside. Lyss watched as the screen below lit up, startlingly bright against the backdrop of cloudy night sky. The edges of the curtains dimmed the top corners of the screen, but there was plenty of space left for the show they’d be putting on.
Lyss stepped into the light, watching her shadow stretch out and then pulling her dark gray tunic over her head in one smooth motion. Noise rolled across the ground like high-pitched thunder, a mix of cheers and shouts and words of praise all blended together into an unintelligible rumble that she felt in her bones. All eyes in the room were on her, or so she hoped, given that she couldn’t see Ash’s.
Seemed like Ash was watching close enough — she came over quick and eager when Lyss beckoned her into the light and stopped where she gestured. She even stayed nice and still as Lyss eased her out of her own tunic one finger’s width at a time, letting everyone in the room get a good long look at every gorgeous stretch of her skin. The fur across her stomach was white, making the vivid red triangle of curls below even more eye-catching.
“Our guest tonight is a rare beauty.” Gem’s voice was hardly more than a whisper, but Ash’s head snapped over toward them in startlement. “All harsh edges and muscle, carrying the marks of many a battle fought and survived.”
Gem spoke with heart, but for once Lyss felt they hardly did justice to the sight. Some of the scars across Ash’s body had stories of too-close calls to them and it twisted at her heart almost too much to bear. A jagged tangle of lines right below her left hip caught Lyss’ eye. It seemed too distinct a shape for someone to bear its twin, and yet Lyss would swear she’d seen it before, not yet healed, on a night very like this one.
Whatever the truth of the matter, Lyss’ heart had leapt to its own conclusions: she’d come back. Lyss dropped to her knees and pressed a reverent kiss to the scar, hands curling behind Ash’s thighs like she was made of blown glass. “Let me taste you,” she said, words too-sharp with her mess of feelings tangled up behind them.
“Fuck yes,” Ash hissed, cupping a hand behind Lyss’ head and urging her forward. Despite the urgency on both their parts, she stole a moment to linger and enjoy. Lyss nuzzled her cheek to Ash’s hip and gave silent thanks for whatever had seen her out of the situation that had earned her that knotted mark.
“Help keep her steady for me?” she asked, looking from Ink to Dee with a hopeful smile. Dee jumped forward easy enough, murmuring a quick exchange before leaning down to kiss Ash sweet and careful. Ink held back a moment longer, looking Ash over carefully before joining them with a faint sigh.
Ink’s worries and Ash’s scars, Gem’s ongoing comments and even the way Dee was still holding herself away a little — none of that was her concern. Not tonight. The only thing she needed to have a care for was what she wanted, what the damn fine women with her wanted, and how those wants could best be met.
Lyss hitched one of Ash’s legs up and out to the side. Ash let out a startled little squeak that turned into a full-throated moan when Lyss ducked her head in and took a good, long lick through the coarse, red hair to the soft skin below. The mess of salt-slick that hit her tongue told her well enough that what Ash wanted was her, and that was something Lyss would provide as much as she was allowed.
With her face between Ash’s thighs, Lyss finally felt proper worshipful and she gave herself over to it. The dip of her broad tongue over and inside Ash, the familiar taste of her, the noises of pleasure and joy from watching that pleasure both, the way the rising wind ruffled over her bare skin, the weight of her own body settled down onto the floor. Every sensation twined together like a cord tying her in place here, with her sisters, the land, and the freedom they’d carved out for themselves.
The scent and heat and taste of Ash’s body kept her grounded, keeping her from drifting off too far into her feelings. Lyss narrowed her focus to Ash’s clit, directed to the right speed and pressure by the way Ash got louder above her. Even held up by both arms and balanced on one leg, she managed to stay in motion, stretching up on her toes or bucking her hips against Lyss’ mouth.
Ash’s leg quivered against Lyss’ shoulder and then pulled tight as she came with a shout. When Lyss tried to gentle her touch, Ash’s hand locked tight on the back of her head. “Don’t stop,” she growled, city accent slipping to something plain again. She’d been holding back some of her strength earlier even when she was playing at struggling her best. It still wasn’t enough to keep Lyss put if she wanted to get away, but it was more than enough to make her work for it. The thought of that blazed through her with pride and lust both. She got to fuck someone all sharp and dangerous, and she’d gotten Ash undone enough to stop holding back.
Better still, she was making Ash loud. Gem wandered over closer with the microphone, so there was not a doubt in Lyss’ mind that everyone down on the ground was getting an earful. She’d been down there herself, out in the dim red lights with hands on her body, her sisters’ shadows projected large for them all to see, and the sweet sounds of their pleasure spurring them all on.
Lyss pressed the pad of her finger right up to Ash’s cunt. She was so ready and open that it almost slid it with nothing but the tiniest shift of Ash’s hips as she chased her pleasure. “Fuck me,” Ash demanded, trying to buck down onto Lyss’ finger. Lyss teased the tip inside, chuckling when Ash let out a very displeased growl. “Get in me already,” she said. Her heel dug into Lyss’ back, again stronger than Lyss had given her credit for.
Since it was plain bad manners to argue with her mouth full, Lyss gave the lady what she wanted and then some. Two of her fingers were thick enough to be a stretch, but the throaty moan from Ash told her it was more than welcome. Lyss curled them just so and Ash let out a string of such colorful profanity Ink started laughing. The sound didn’t seem to put Ash off in the slightest. She rode Lyss’ fingers as best she could and went from cussing to broken syllables when Lyss started fucking her faster.
The feeling of her clenching down tight hit Lyss harder than a gut punch, leaving her rubbing her own thighs together for even the faintest hint of pressure where she wanted it most. Ash went loose and boneless after she’d come a second time, letting out a happy sigh and stroking Lyss’ head all gentle. Lyss eased back to her feet, careful on account of her knees. They weren’t what they used to be, and the left one ached with the oncoming storm.
Ash shivered all over, hanging heavy on Ink’s arm but reaching out for Lyss all the same. “C’mere, lemme have a taste.” Ash half slurred the words as she tipped her head up at Lyss with a very satisfied smile. Lyss went in for a good, deep kiss, letting Ash lick the taste of herself off her tongue. When Ink and Dee joined in, taking a swipe across the edge of her jaw and her cheek, Lyss found herself trying to haul all of them in close. As big as she was, there was plenty of room for three folks in the circle of her arms.
Lyss eased back and Ink ducked in to take her place. The way she and Ash kissed, it looked like neither of them had a gentle bone in their bodies and they both had more than their share of sharp teeth. Dee watched them with no little concern and hesitated when Ash turned toward her.
“I don’t bite unless it’s wanted,” Ash said, softening the sharp edges of her grin down a notch. “Promise I can play nice if you give me a chance, Dee.”
It would have taken a stronger woman than Lyss had ever met to turn down an invitation that sweet. Dee went in cautious but melted not two breaths later under Ash’s slow, gentle kisses, wrapping her arms around Ash’s waist and pulling her in close. Seeing as they were plenty content to go at it, Lyss took the chance to give Ink a touch of the attention she deserved.
“You want this on or off tonight?” she asked, running her fingers up the inside of Ink’s soft-furred thighs to the hem of her tunic.
“Off,” Ink said firmly, tugging the fabric up when Lyss wasn’t fast enough at it. “Wouldn’t be up here if I didn’t feel like letting myself be seen.” She tossed her clothing clear to the far side of the room and turned back to Lyss with a showy stretch. Lyss’ eyes lingered all over, from her thick-muscled thighs to the faint scar on her right shoulder she’d gotten falling out of a tree as a kid. “What do you say we let Ash take a look out the window?”
Ash let out a curious hum and pulled back from Dee to ask, “What is it you want me seeing?” Dee looked a bit dazed, standing with her hands tight on Ash’s hips. Her tunic wasn’t loose enough to hide the fact she was hard and then some.
“Mind if I borrow her, Dee?” Ink rested her chin on Ash’s shoulder, playing at being all cute and harmless as she battled her eyelashes at Dee. “I’ll trade you for Lyss.”
“Hey now,” Lyss said, hardly managing to sound like she objected in truth. “Don’t go trading things that aren’t yours to barter with.”
Dee couldn’t hide her own smile as she nodded. “That’s very kind of you, Ink. Happy to make that swap.” Ash laughed at the lot of them and went easy when Ink looped an arm around her waist and guided her over to the window overlooking the fields.
“Well, I suppose I’ll have to honor her bargain. Anything you want from me, Dee?” Lyss curved one hand around her shoulder, but didn’t go for anything more just yet. “Happy to help you out of your clothes, if you’d like.”
With a quick check over her shoulder at Ink and Ash, Dee gave her a slow nod. “I think I would, thank you.” She didn’t sound as sure as Lyss would have liked, but she was a grown woman and had the sense not to go saying things she didn’t mean. Dee’s breath caught as Lyss stepped around behind her and gave Gem a clear line of sight.
Lyss smoothed her hands up Dee’s legs nice and easy, making sure she had time to speak if she’d changed her mind. Gem pointed to Dee and then their microphone. Dee stiffened up something fierce, but nodded good and strong.
“Sisters, Dee is up here with us for the first time tonight and let me tell you, she is a sight to behold.” Gem’s eyes seemed almost to glitter as they looked Dee up and down. “Tall and slender as a sapling, strong enough to bend but not break when the wind picks up.” Lyss started shifting Dee’s clothing up and off, steady rather than teasingly slow. Gem spoke on, low and reverent, and Dee stood transfixed like she’d never heard such praise in her life. Lyss knew all too well that she might not have, before she joined them, but she’d get her due now and with luck, any past hurts would mend in time.
With Dee’s tunic tossed aside, Lyss smoothed her tousled hair down and took the chance to give her a kiss or three. “Gem’s right, you know,” she said, stroking her hands down the slight curves of Dee’s waist and hips. There were more stripes of scales all over her body that made fascinating little patches of smooth for Lyss to run her fingers over. “You’re absolutely beautiful and we’re all damn lucky to have you here.”
“That means I’m lucky too, to be up here with all of you.” Dee jutted her chin out like she expected one of them to argue and pressed back closer to Lyss. When all Lyss and Gem did was nod, her defiance melted back into fluster real quick. “I mean, you’re all really pretty,” she added softly. Her hand squeezed one of Lyss’ hips, but her eyes were focused on Gem alone.
Ash distracted them all with a breathy little moan. Lyss couldn’t see what Ink was doing with her hands from this angle, but she could make an educated guess from the motion of her arm and Ash’s hips. “How’s the view over there?” she called. “Sounds like it might be real nice, may have to come have a look for myself.”
“Not entirely sure,” Ash said, breathless and near laughing, “because someone keeps distracting me from it.” Ink muttered something in her ear, something good and potent judging by the way Ash shivered all over at hearing it. “Oh, you have all the best ideas today.”
Dee shifted her weight toward them, but glanced back at Lyss. “Don’t look at me for permission,” Lyss murmured. “You see something you want tonight, you go for it.” She raised her voice to ask, “That good idea of yours have room for the rest of us, Ink?”
Ink laughed, low and warm in a way that Lyss knew boded well for everyone. “Absolutely. The more the merrier, I’d say.” She twirled Ash around to face them and gave her a quick pat on both shoulders. Any cooling off Lyss’ body had done vanished as Ash sunk down to her knees with a heated smile. “I figure all of us together should be able make a good mess all over her.”
Lyss didn’t need any more invitation than that, and Dee seemed to be of the same mind. They crossed the room step in step. Ash licked her lips as they came to a stop in front of her and asked, “So, any of you fine ladies looking for a hand, or am I just particularly attractive target practice?”
“Don’t know about a whole hand, but I’d go for a couple fingers,” Ink said, stepping around to Ash’s side. Ash was quick to lift her arm, but let Ink take charge from there with a grip around her wrist.
Dee managed to keep herself from looking at anyone except Ash as she said, “I’d welcome the same, if you don’t mind. And if we have some oil up here?” Lyss was already making her way to the table by the time Dee got to the question. The small corked jar of oil was nestled in the center of a delicate coil of braided rope, dyed red and woven through with black threads. Lyss hesitated over it for a long moment, imagining the color of it tied snug around the warm brown of Ash’s body — but she’d no doubt had enough of being restrained for one day. With a quick shake of her head, Lyss opened the bottle and walked back to hold it down to Ash.
“No objections here,” Ash said, dipping two fingers into the pot and pulling them back out shining slick. “You just tell me exactly what you want and your wish is my command.” Lyss didn’t miss the pleased curl to Ash’s smile as Dee went all sorts of flustered and looked away. “Or I can make some guesses and you can tell what I get right.”
Dee nodded quick at the offer. “Thank you,” she mumbled, shoulders slumping with relief right until she looked down and saw Ash’s grin and all the trouble it promised for herself. Lyss made like she was looking out the window to hide her smile. How someone could be so steady on patrol and so flustered in the face of an interested woman was a thing she’d never understand.
“So I’m guessing what you want is me to get these fingers in your pretty little hole and fuck you nice and slow.” Ash drawled out the last few words, eyes locked on Dee’s face. “I’ve had the good fortune to meet a lady or three built on your lines before. They all told me I was very good with my hands.” She leaned forward to kiss Dee’s thigh and added, “I’ll take good care of you, lovely, I promise.”
Ink tugged on Ash’s arm to get her attention. “Sure you can handle both of us at once? Wouldn’t want to overwhelm a delicate flower like yourself.” Ash hooted with laughter and twisted her hand free of Ink’s grip lightning-fast.
“If I can hold my own against half a dozen folks in a firefight, I think I can deal with using two hands at the same time.” Ash tipped her head up at Lyss and licked her lips again, slow and showy. “Both hands and my mouth might be tricky, but I’m game to give it a try anyway.”
Lyss shifted her legs wider but shook her head. “Think I’m just gonna stand here and keep an eye on everything for now,” she said, calm as could be. Ash pouted at her and Lyss brought every last speck of stubbornness she had to bear not to give in immediately. “But you treat these two right and I’ll at least let you have a taste.”
Apparently that was all it took to end the discussion, which was for the best. Ink was all kinds of riled up and Lyss gave it even odds that Dee would lose her nerve if Ash kept yammering on instead of touching her. Ash might’ve realized the same, because she eased her hand up between Dee’s legs straight away.
Lyss shifted her attention up to Dee’s face in time to see her mouth fall open with a pretty little gasp. Dee’s gaze drifted out of focus, but when Ash did something that made her whole body jolt, Dee snapped her eyes shut instead. Ash grinned wide enough to show off her fangs again and Lyss gave up whatever fool plan she’d had of waiting. She slid a finger down over herself, getting it wet enough to glide over her clit nice and smooth.
Ash’s head twitched her way, the motion so small Lyss wasn’t sure she hadn’t imagined it. She wanted more than anything to rip off the glasses and see exactly where Ash was looking, but a bargain was a bargain. “So, Dee, she as good with her fingers as she was bragging?” Lyss asked, gesturing Gem over with a tip of her head.
Gem moved so light they didn’t make a single sound as they tucked up next to Dee’s side, angling the microphone towards her to catch her reply. “She’s real good,” Dee said, biting her lip after she spoke. It wasn’t enough to keep in the moan that followed her words, and Lyss heard the faint echo of it from below.
Dee opened her eyes and startled something fierce at how close Gem was, but she stood her ground and Lyss’ heart swelled with pride. “Share your pleasures with us, sister,” Gem said, low and coaxing. “Paint a picture for those who aren’t here to see it for themselves.”
“Ash is kneeling in front of me,” Dee said, hesitant but louder than Lyss would have expected. “She— she’s fucking me with two fingers and it feels amazing.” The air between Dee and Gem was nigh electrified with the way the two of them were watching each other.
Ink let out a startled curse. It looked like Ash had taken advantage of her distraction to get a couple fingers inside her as well. For all that she scowled about it, she got a grip on Ash’s wrist in no time and encouraged her to move at a speed more to her liking. True to her word, Ash seemed to have no trouble managing the two different paces. Gem’s voice murmured on even as the rest of them went speechless, but the only things Lyss could manage to pay attention to were Ash and her own building pleasure.
Dee held her cock up against her stomach, rocking back and forth between her hand and Ash’s fingers with a slow roll of her hips. Likely she wanted to take her time, which Lyss could respect even if her own patience had up and left. Ink was further gone still, grinding against the heel of her hand and riding Ash’s fingers at a breakneck pace.
The smell of sex was thick in the air, despite the way the wind outside had picked up and was whirling in cool through the open windows. Ink’s moans sharpened up to a full yell as she came. Lyss watched the arch of her back and the bounce of her curls, looking past her to see them shadowed tall for every eye to see. It was a sight no less beautiful for all the times she’d seen it and Lyss knew more than a few people had tipped over the edge from watching and hearing it. She was damn near among them, even as she slowed her touch to draw out her pleasure a little longer.
Gem held their microphone low by Dee’s waist, picking up the glorious and filthy sounds Ash’s fingers made. Their lips were up close to Dee’s ear, whispering something for her alone that made her whole body shudder. Dee sped up her touch at last, stroking herself quicker with Ash’s fingers matching her pace. She nodded near frantic at something Gem said, and they twined a hand into her hair to cradle the back of her head.
Lyss moaned almost as loud as the two of them when Gem tipped Dee’s head and kissed her, one delicate press of their lips after another. Dee came with a whimper, clenching her free hand tight on her own thigh. Ash gentled her touch in an instant, pulling away so careful that Dee hardly seemed to notice and wiping her hand off on a towel.
Ink dropped down next to Ash and pulled Ash’s other hand up to her mouth to lick her clean. Lyss made a low, hungry noise at the sight and Ash looked up at her with that sharp, gorgeous smile again. “Think you promised me a taste if I was good, and I don’t think either of these fine ladies have any complaints.”
Dee certainly wasn’t in any place to object. She’d sunk down to sit on the floor, resting her head against Gem’s leg while they stroked a hand through her dark hair. Ink pulled her mouth off of Ash’s fingers with a pop and nodded. “She’s been all kinds of good for us, Lyss. Think it’s about time you stopped denying her what she wants.” The pointed look Ink fixed her with made clear that the her in question was Lyss herself as much as Ash.
“You should listen to her, Lyss,” Ash said, words sweet and teeth sharp. “I can treat you real nice too, if you want me to.” She eased up to her feet and twined around Lyss slow and tight as any vine on a trellis. “I’ll even let you be sweet to me, for tonight,” she whispered, not even bothering to play at hiding her real voice. The words were hot in Lyss’ ear and hit her harder than the strongest drinks she’d ever tossed back in her city days. There wasn’t a doubt in her mind that the hangover would be worse too, but Lyss was in no mood to consider the consequences.
She took Ash’s face in both hands and kissed her with all the recklessness burning in her veins. Ash mirrored it back, all fire and passion as she hauled at Lyss’ shoulders with both hands like she could fuse them together into one flesh. “Not feeling like you want to be so sweet now, I take it?” she asked, grinding up on Lyss’ thigh hard enough to leave a streak of slick clear to her knee.
“Plenty sweet, but not minded to take my time about it.” Lyss caught Ash around the tops of her thighs and hefted her up, earning a delighted whoop from Ash. “You want to use those clever hands of yours to make me come, merc?”
“So bad you’d have to tie me down to stop me from trying.” The laugh that rolled out of Ash was a wicked, rumbling thing that only fanned Lyss hotter. Ash held tight to one of Lyss’ shoulders and tried to work her other hand down between the two of them. “Can’t say this is the easiest angle, but I bet I can still manage.”
Lyss walked them over closer to the window to make sure they’d still be seen. “How about we try something a mite less ambitious?” she asked. Ash grumbled, but let Lyss lower her down to the mats without putting up a fight. The instant Lyss sat down, Ash crawled into her lap and got her hands wandering everywhere she couldn’t press herself up against. Lyss stayed more focused, keeping Ash steady with one hand between her shoulder blades and catching her under the chin with the other. She tipped Ash’s face toward her and said, “I don’t need any more warming up, sister.”
“Well, can’t object to a lady who wants to cut to the chase.” Ash leaned back a little, letting Lyss take some of her weight and giving herself room to work. “Tell me what you want,” she said, trailing her hand down the curve of Lyss’ stomach and dancing her fingertips on the top of Lyss’ thigh.
“Don’t need anything fancy. Slick up your fingers and get ’em on my clit,” Lyss said. Ash tossed her some ridiculous sort of salute and then went to it, slipping two of her callused fingers right in Lyss’ cunt. She pulled away again too fast for Lyss’ liking, but the sight of Ash bringing her damp fingers up to her lips stifled any protest she might’ve made. Ash’s tongue flicked out to take a long lick down the length of her fingers before she popped them in her mouth and sucked them clean.
Lyss dipped a finger inside herself and had her hand at Ash’s lips in a heartbeat. “Not much for following directions, are you?” Ash only smiled and held her mouth open, tongue hanging out against her lower lip. Lyss slid in slow, eyes falling shut as Ash closed her mouth and bobbed her head to take Lyss’ finger all the way down. The faint scrape of Ash’s teeth over the pad of Lyss’ fingertip felt too damn good for what it was.
Ash kept one hand on Lyss’ shoulder to steady herself, but she got the other back down where Lyss wanted it and finally, finally stopped teasing. Her mouth was hot and wet on Lyss’ hand and her fingers moved sure against her clit, steady circles at the perfect pressure. Out of the corner of her eye, Lyss saw Ink watching them, sprawled back and touching herself with as little patience as she always had.
For once, Lyss understood. With Ash’s clever hands on her, she couldn’t have held herself back from the edge any more than she could have held back the sun from rising. She tensed all over and felt Ash’s pleased growl against her finger and came with a low groan. Ash kept right on, drawing out every last shudder of pleasure from her until Lyss tugged her hand away and they both sat back panting.
Ash got a hand between her legs, but Lyss batted it away. “C’mere,” she said, tipping onto her back and hauling Ash down to straddle her. Ash landed on her stomach, her cunt a spot of blazing heat even against Lyss’ over-warm skin. “Scoot up and let me see to you.”
“Oh, you are damn near too sweet for words,” Ash whispered. She leaned down for a quick kiss but didn’t hesitate after that to get her knees on either side of Lyss’ face. Lyss curled her tongue up into the wet heat of Ash’s body, fucking her as deep as she could for the filthy noise of it alone. Ash didn’t hesitate to move with her, grinding down and smearing Lyss’ face all over with her slick as she moaned.
Lyss held Ash loose by the hips, excepting when she needed a quick breath, and let her ride how she saw fit. When Ash started canting her hips to get more pressure on her clit, Lyss sucked it into her mouth and she started swearing up a storm. Ink came again somewhere along the way, the sound of it muffled by Ash’s strong thighs clamped over Lyss’ ears. When Ash came for the third time that night, she doubled forward, and damn near crushed Lyss’ face.
Ash shivered her way through the last of it and then rolled over to tuck herself up against Lyss’ side, breathing hard. Lyss cuddled her close for a messy kiss or five while Ash tried to catch her breath.
Once she’d managed to settle, Ash grabbed a towel no one was laying on and used it to wipe down Lyss’ face with a tenderness Lyss had no defenses against. Ash stole one more kiss before rolling away and curling up with her back to Lyss. Gem was narrating the sight of them all sprawled out with no small amount of satisfaction, and it seemed to Lyss like a fine spot to rest her eyes for a moment.
* * *
Some while later, Lyss came back to herself, heart soaring as she saw Ash still dozing at her side. With their show over, the floodlight was off and the room was lit by only a couple lanterns. Gem was the first person to move, standing and stretching up tall and bright as a sunflower. Their custom was to head back down to the privacy of their own room after worship, probably to seek some manner of relief for themself. Lyss had never asked — really wasn’t any of her business — and no one who had gone with Gem said a word about what happened behind closed doors.
Dee’s eyes fixed on Gem the instant they got up. Gem crouched down beside her and whispered something into Dee’s ear with a wicked smile. Whatever they’d said, it was clearly an invitation, and one that had Dee scrambling to her feet to accept. The pair left hand in hand. It was a sight that did Lyss’ heart no small amount of good to see, and Ink’s too from the sappy smile on her face.
The smile went pinched when she shifted her focus over to Lyss, though it was clear she was trying to keep it steady. “Feeling too awake to bed down just yet,” she said, keeping her voice low as her eyes flicked over to Ash. “Think I’ll try my luck out in the fields.”
Lyss rose with Ink as she stood and kissed her with all the sweetness she could muster. “Can’t imagine there’s a woman in this place that wouldn’t jump at the chance. I think I’ll stay up here for now, keep an eye on Ash.”
“Wouldn’t want her to go escaping on you.” Ink didn’t say again, but her wince told Lyss she’d thought it a mite too loud. “You keep a close eye on her for us. Maybe more if you get uppity.” The thread of humor in her voice, thin as it might be, eased some of Lyss’ fretfulness. Ink gave her a solid hug that took most of the rest too. “Stay safe as you can, sister,” Ink said, pressing a fingertip over Lyss’ heart.
“I’ll do my best to. Now you go on and find yourself someone fun.” Lyss shooed Ink away with a smile, and she wandered off down the stairs without another word. The room felt too big with only two bodies in it, especially given how Ash still seemed to be dozing.
On a normal day, Lyss was a believer in the spirit of the law over the letter, but today she felt inclined to do some lawyering. She’d said Ash could keep her mask earlier, but she hadn’t specified for how long. There was hardly a doubt in her mind of what the face underneath would look like, but she needed the surety of seeing it.
Ash’s head had lolled to one side, giving her a clear shot at the fastening of the damned thing. Lyss’ fingers were light as she eased the buckle loose and pulled the dark plastic away from Ash’s face as slow and careful as she could go.
Lyss fell still at the familiar eyes blinking up at her. The left was true gold and the right was paler, with a broad scar slicing up from her cheek through the eyebrow above. It was no surprise, really — not the fact she’d been watching the whole time, nor the fact of who she was. Despite that, Lyss’ voice sounded startled to get own ears as she said, “You came back.”
“Seems like I did,” Ash agreed, casual as anything. She sounded like a classic merc now, accent so smoothed down by traveling every which-way that it couldn’t be placed to anywhere specific. For all that Lyss wanted to set herself between Ash and the doorway, Ash didn’t look minded to move from her comfortable sprawl. “How long ago did you figure it out? Thought the red hair might slow you down a bit.”
“For certain? When I saw this scar.” Lyss hovered her hand over Ash’s hip. With a gentle smile, Ash cupped Lyss’ wrist and encouraged her to touch. Lyss ran her hand over the rough patch of skin, back and forth like she could smooth it away, and let her eyes drift closed. “Think I hoped from the moment I laid eyes on you, though.”
Ash let out the faintest sigh at that, sadder than Lyss would have expected from her. “This is why I didn’t come back sooner, you know. You have a knack for finding words that cut right to the heart. I barely managed to make myself walk away last time.” She danced her fingers up Lyss’ arm and tugged her down.
“I’ll do my best not to talk so sweet, if you want,” Lyss offered. She opened her eyes to see Ash watching her, all narrow-eyed with intent. Try as she might to figure out what Ash was thinking, it was like trying to read from a book when she couldn’t even figure out how to open the cover.
Ash looked like she was about to speak more than once before she shook her head. “I like it,” she said, light and soft enough to blow away in any stray breeze. “As much as I love to wander, having a home on offer makes the miles go by easier, so you carry on saying whatever you want.”
Lyss leaned down in close, and murmured, “You could help with the guarding while I keep everything running. When the harvesting time came, we could work in the fields all day and tangle up together all night.” She could see the ideas landing from the way Ash’s eyes went distant and her hands curled tight on Lyss’ body. “Stay with me, sister,” Lyss begged.
Ash closed her sharp, gold eyes and shook her head, but with less conviction than Lyss had seen from her yet. “I’m not gonna stay. Have to go where my heart calls me, right? Like you folks are always saying.” She blinked a few times, eyes shining in the dim light. “But you keep asking me so nicely and I may yet be convinced one of these times.”
“I’ll ask as often as you’ll hear it,” Lyss said, sitting up and shifting over toward the table to give them both some much-needed room. Not even a breath later, her tired head caught up with the rest of what Ash was saying. “You’re gonna keep coming back?”
Ash rose up to her knees, reaching out to cradle Lyss’ head with both hands. “As long as you’ll have me, I’ll come back around for your celebration days at least.” With a playful tip of her head and a quick wink, she added, “Might even come in through the gate every now and then, but I make no promises on that.”
“Try not to do anything that’ll make the gals on patrol shoot you, at least.” Lyss chuckled at Ash’s unrepentant shrug. “They’re good shots, every one of them. If they get you, you’ll be here longer than last time healing up, I’d wager.”
“Aw, almost sounds like you want me to get shot,” Ash said, easing her way forward into Lyss’ lap. “But I’ll do my best to keep out of trouble around here, just for you.” She draped her arms over Lyss’ shoulders and went in for a kiss. Lyss heard something being moved behind her head but damned if she cared about a bowl of food getting tipped over when Ash was draped all over her.
Ash stretched up and pressed even closer, almost managing to bring herself level with Lyss. “You mind me moving you where I want you?” she asked, nipping at Lyss’ ear. Lyss shook her head and hid a smile against Ash’s shoulder. If she wanted to play pretend, there was no harm in obliging her.
With a pleased hum, Ash caught Lyss’ wrists and eased them up to rest against the edge of the table. “Keep those right there for me,” Ash said as she shifted up further to reach for something. Lyss did as she was told, but didn’t hesitate to get her mouth on anything she could reach as Ash moved past her. The pleased laugh from overhead suggested Ash wasn’t much inclined to mind.
“You really packed this table full, huh?” This time Lyss was sure she’d heard something tip over as Ash swore softly under her breath. “Sorry about that. Looks like some of your fruit is also inclined to wandering.” One hand reached back down to feed Lyss a tiny melongrape, which she took with more teeth and tongue that was strictly necessary.
Ash wrapped her fingers around Lyss’ wrists and leaned a bit of weight on them. With no idea if she was truly trying to keep her in place or not, Lyss decided not to give her any trouble. She realized she’d been far too complacent when Ash darted back a couple steps with her gun in hand. Something around Lyss’ wrists cinched down tight when she tried to pull them forward, and the table creaked something fierce.
“I was going to let you go in the morning, you know,” Lyss said, not bothering to fight back a smile. “Worst thing I was planning to do was feed you a bit of breakfast before you went on your way.” She watched Ash fumbling around for her tunic amongst the towels and sheets all near the same color with no small bit of amusement. “Could still do, if you’d untie me,” she offered.
“Tempting.” Ash glanced up and her eyes caught for a good long moment on Lyss’ body. “Very tempting,” she added. “I think I’d best be going, all the same — I’m not really one for long goodbyes. Don’t worry, though, I’ll send someone up to get you before I run off into the night.” She shimmied into the tunic and blew a little kiss in Lyss’ direction before hurrying off.
Lyss sat still as she could, listening until the faint slap of Ash’s bare feet down the stairs faded away and a bit longer to be sure she’d actually gone. With one hand holding the table steady, she yanked the other one good and hard to snap the rope. It stung like all get out, but it got her free. In due course, she’d have to go down and make sure no one raised the alarm, but for the moment she was content to stretch out and breath in the scent of sex still lingering in the air.
Thunder rumbled, loud enough to rattle the windows, and the skies opened at last. Lyss propped herself up on one elbow to watch as the rain started to fall. There was no small amount of shrieking that floated up to her ears as rain hit her sisters’ bare skin, but only a few of the lights moved toward cover. One went off at an odd direction, up to one of the storage sheds and out through one of the small side gates.
Lyss got to her feet and watched as Ash came visible in the floodlights pointed outside the walls, carrying a bag that was hopefully held only her own things. It was impossible to see her expression at this distance, but Lyss watched her turn back and wave with the hand holding her stolen lantern. Lyss waved too, no matter that anyone looking up would be able to see it, and watched as Ash strolled off into the night.
Ink’s figure showed up in the reflection of the window and Lyss turned to face her with a smile and open arms. “I swear I just saw your merc running off, but you look mighty pleased,” Ink said, stepping in to be held with a cautious smile of her own. “You found some kinda peace with the fact she’s gone that fast?”
“Gone for now,” Lyss murmured, closing her arms tight around Ink’s solid warmth. “Back for the next celebration, if not sooner, she said.”
Ink’s groan was muffled against Lyss’ body, but it sounded good-natured enough. “Suppose we’d best get a new bunk built near ours. If two visits were enough to get her to promise to come back, I expect she’ll be here to stay before too long.”
“You think so?” Lyss asked, sounding so pleased about the thought that Ink started laughing at her. “Sure you won’t mind, if she does decide to settle with us?”
Ink leaned back enough to look Lyss square in the eyes. “She makes you happy, and that’s near all I want out of this mess of a world,” Ink said, low and solemn as any prayer. “Besides, I’m starting to see she’s the fun sort of trouble. I expect the two of us together will have a grand time keeping you on your toes.”
“You say much more like that and I don’t expect we’ll get to our rest anytime soon,” Lyss warned her. With a heated grin, Ink kicked her legs out from under her and sent them both toppling to the mats, laughing loud enough to ring off the walls. Turned out Ink had a fair bit more to say, but Lyss had long since gotten used to sleeping in after celebration days.