by Shinko Hisada (身固之妥)
It was an odd feeling for Lady Katherine of Helmsford to slip unnoticed and unremarked through a crowd of her father’s people. Usually they parted for her, bowing or curtseying, but today they treated her like one of them.
Which was a good thing, in fact it was exactly what Katy wanted. In a homespun dress and apron borrowed from one of her maids, she was doing her best to blend in and hoping against hope that nobody would recognize her. If she was caught like this, sneaking out of the keep without an escort, she would be in a very great deal of trouble.
Her father was absent-minded enough that she was usually free to do as she pleased, but that didn’t mean he would be happy to learn that she had gone to see the gypsies who had set up camp outside the town. He had, in fact, given strict orders that she was to keep herself inside the walls while they were here, not even allowing her to visit with guards.
For three days she’d watched them from her bower window, admiring the gaily coloured wagons and hearing the distant sound of their strangely compelling music. Gypsies were thieves and rapscallions, everyone knew that, but they were also the embodiment of all that was mysterious and exotic. They’d never come to the county of Helmsford before in her life, and for all she knew they might never come again. Certainly, even if they did, her eventual husband wasn’t likely to allow her to go see them any more than her father would.
But oh, how she’d longed to! She’d wanted to see them for herself, up close and in detail. See the wild clothing, the rampant immorality, and immerse herself in the fascination of it all. And so she’d concocted this scheme, which was admittedly probably the most foolish thing she’d ever done, to smuggle herself out of the keep dressed as one of the maids.
Somewhat to her shock, it had actually worked. So far, at least. The guards at the gate hadn’t looked twice at her, and now she stood steps away from her goal, triumphant. If all continued to go well Katy would spend a few hours sating her curiosity, perhaps buy a trinket or two to remember her daring by, and then return to the keep with none the wiser.
Crossing into the gypsy camp was like stepping into another world. There were two rings of caravans: one tight inner huddle where no strangers were permitted, and the gaudy outer circle that held all the attractions. Gypsy women sat by tables full of trinkets, trying to lure people nearby to come look, while the men were hard at work mending pots and other things brought to them by the townspeople. Here and there stairs went up into the caravans, the doorways shrouded by colourful silk hangings and promising greater mysteries within.
For a long, wonderful moment Katy stood there soaking it all in. It was everything she had dreamed it would be, a riot of noise and colour and foreign scents. She couldn’t decide what to look at first. Nor was she the only one who dithered over which attractions to focus on. Even though this was the fourth day the gypsies had been here, the villagers still crowded about in excited little groups, drawn as Katy had been to the exotic appeal of the gypsies.
Finally Katy decided to wander in a slow circle all the way around the caravan, to look at everything once before she decided what she wanted to spend the rest of her time on. She had a few vague notions; she’d heard gypsy women could tell fortunes, for one thing, and she was curious to know what her future husband would be like. But there might be wonders she’d never even heard of, and she didn’t want to miss anything.
Her resolve was tempted several times on her slow circuit around the camp. Gold metal and colourful gems gleamed in the sun, making her want to look closer even though she knew it was probably all brass and glass. Wild music rang through the camp and she longed to stop and listen to the haunting strains. Everywhere she looked there were gypsies, with their colourful clothes and their strange accents and their exotic dark good looks.
Despite the distractions and temptations, Katy held firm to her decision to circle the camp once before settling… until a flutter of silk and the insistent rhythm of a drumbeat caught her and held her fast.
The crowds had been thinning as she approached the rear of the caravan, and the visiting villagers seemed hushed and furtive as if they were doing something wrong and feared to be caught. Despite that, the largest group of people she’d seen yet were gathered around a raised platform that was acting as a stage. The crowd was made up entirely of men; when she lifted her gaze to the stage, she understood why.
Dancing to the compelling beat of the drum was possibly the most beautiful woman Katy had ever seen. Her sleek, dark tresses spilled over her shoulders and down to her waist in a free mass of curls, and her equally dark eyes beckoned from over a sheer veil. The silk gauze did nothing to hide the crimson paint on her full and expressive lips as they curved in a smile that seemed like a promise. Her body was graceful and slender, her breasts and hips full enough to make it clear that she was a woman, not a girl.
More veils in every colour found in nature – and several that weren’t – draped over her body, crossing this way and that in a complicated-looking weave, taking the shape of pants and a shirt. They were layered thickly enough to cover her decently, but even as Katy watched the gypsy peeled one of the veils free from her ‘pants’ and started trailing it like a banner as she continued to dance. It was the flutter of silk streaming behind and around her that had drawn Katy’s attention in the first place.
The men clapped and whistled, cheering and calling rude suggestions that made Katy’s cheeks flush crimson. Or perhaps that was the result of the gypsy herself, as she swayed her body and shook her hips in time to the drum, making the little bells roped around her waist chime sweetly. There was something about the dance, about the way the woman moved her body, that made Katy’s breath stick in her throat. The gypsy tossed the scarf with a careless motion, and it floated out into the crowd where it nearly started a fight as several men attempted to claim it.
Feeling dazed and unable to take her eyes off the dancing woman, Katy watched entranced. Her gaze had dropped to focus on the gypsy’s navel, left shockingly bare between the scarves that made her top and the ones that formed her pants. She ought to have been scandalized by the idea of a woman wearing pants, Katy knew, but compared to the amount of flesh the woman was showing the fact that she didn’t have a skirt to hide the shape of her legs seemed hardly worth noticing.
Vaguely Katy heard another woman, probably one of the villagers, huff in indignation nearby. “Well! Will you look at that, I ask you? She’s certainly no better than she ought to be. Tempting the men, she is,” the woman sniffed, her eyes narrowed. “Harlot. Jezebel! Working some gypsy witchcraft, no doubt, to lure good, upright men to her like that.”
At last Katy understood what it was that the sway of the woman’s hips promised, why the men crowded so eagerly around the stage. The already intense flush on her cheeks became almost painful, her skin prickling with the heat of it. Yet still she did not look away, more fascinated than ever.
The rhythm of the drum was picking up, the slow, deliberate beats speeding gradually into something more frenzied. The woman increased her pace to match it, her steps never faltering no matter how fast the dance became. She’d now removed so many of the scarves that Katy could see the lines of her breasts beneath the top, moving and swaying in time to the beat as if they were a part of the dance as well.
Katy stared, transfixed. She had never seen another woman’s breasts before. Unlike her own, which were small and high on her chest like two apples, the gypsy’s were full and round like small melons. Her nipples were dusky in colour, not like Katy’s rose pink, and they were stiff as if the woman stood in cold bathwater. Well, covered as they were by only such thin layers of cloth, small wonder she was chilled.
Something surged deep within Katy’s body, a flowing warmth like nothing she had ever felt before. It seeped between her legs to her secret place, and up into her breasts as well, pooling there and slowly continuing to gather more heat. It seemed to carry weight with it as well, as both her breasts and that place felt oddly heavy. Or perhaps it was just that she was paying more attention to them than was proper and decent.
She knew she should leave, turn and follow the village woman who had already flounced off, but Katy couldn’t have torn herself away if her immortal soul had depended on it. Perhaps it did; she certainly could guess what the village priest would have to say about such a wanton display.
The drumbeat was so fast now that she could scarcely believe any human could match it, yet the gypsy’s graceful movements made it look easy. Her pants were now thin enough to clearly make out the shape of her long legs, the last scraps of modesty preserved by an extra veil cleverly arranged over her hips.
Then she reached down and tore that one free as well, revealing a dark shadow between her supple thighs that made the men roar their approval. At last Katy’s shock overcame her sense of adventure and the illicit thrill of watching something she knew was wrong, and she jerked her eyes back up to safer territory.
And promptly found her gaze caught and held by the gypsy’s, the woman staring at her unabashed, her lips still curved in that mysterious smile. Heart pounding at least as fast as the drumbeat, Katy lifted a hand to cover it and discovered she was trembling faintly. Still the gypsy watched her, as if none of the men in the crowd held the least bit of her interest, and Katy was now certain that the village woman had been right about the gypsy’s spell. Now she had been ensnared as well, held captive by those fathomless eyes.
The drum beat three times in quick succession, louder than before, and stopped completely. At the same moment the gypsy tossed the last veil into the air and stopped moving as well, her pose so frankly sensual that even Katy instantly understood the meaning behind it. She tore her gaze away, instead following the path of that last veil.
As far away as she was, there was no way the gauzy bit of silk should have reached Katy. She watched in disbelief as a stray breeze caught it just before it was low enough for any of the men to grab it, and whisked it over their heads in Katy’s direction. Without thinking she caught it out of the air, the sheer silk smooth against her hands.
Looking up, she found the gypsy was still watching her. Katy clutched the veil to her chest and tried to catch her breath, only then realizing that she was all but panting for air. She felt horribly overheated, as if she’d stood out in the sun for many hours and was now faint from the heat.
Whatever it was the gypsy saw, it made the woman’s smile widen briefly before she finally turned her attention to the clamouring men. She swept them an elaborate bow, and smoke suddenly erupted around her, obscuring her figure. When it cleared a moment later she was gone, the stage empty as if the gypsy had only been an illusion.
The men grumbled and demanded her return, clearly unsatisfied. Remembering the fights they’d had over possession of the veil, Katy realized they might well turn on her for the one she held. Freed from the compelling hold of the gypsy’s dance, Katy all but fled the area.
Once she was well clear of the group Katy slowed to a more sedate pace, still clutching the scarf tight to her breasts. Looking down at it, she saw that it was a lovely rich red colour, though the weave was coarser than she had first thought. Presumably the gypsy didn’t make so much money from her dancing that she could afford to throw away a dozen silk veils of good quality each time. It wasn’t anything Katy could wear herself, and the colour that looked so good on the dusky gypsy would go poorly with Katy’s own blonde hair and fair skin anyway. But it would make an excellent memento of her adventure.
She continued on her circuit of the caravan, still feeling flushed and fanning herself absently with the scarf. Now her eyes slid over the tables of trinkets and other interesting sights, hardly even noticing them. Her mind was filled with memories of the gypsy’s dance, and with the battle to calm her body. Katy didn’t know what it meant that she felt this way; she didn’t think she was ill, and it was almost a pleasant sensation, but it was terribly unsettling.
As she reached the point where she had started, Katy hesitated. She had her memento now, she didn’t really need to go around once more. But she had wanted to take a closer look at so many things, and she would probably never have a chance like this again. Nor did she want to return to the keep while she was so distraught and unable to concentrate. She might make a mistake and be caught, or if she made it back safely her father might see her and want to know the source of her distress. Taking a deep breath, she steeled herself and started walking once more.
If anything the feelings only increased, leaving her restless and aching inside in a way that was not quite painful. Perhaps if she had been able to stop thinking about the gypsy and her shocking display of immodesty it would have helped. Every time Katy forced herself to focus on the tables of trinkets, she found her thoughts sliding right back to the gypsy’s breasts or the shadow between her thighs. She began to despair of ever recovering her composure.
When the stage came into sight around the curve of the wagon circle, the platform was empty and the men were gone. Not even the hint of a drumbeat echoed in the air. It was as if the dance she had seen had never truly happened, and there was no sign of the gypsy dancer. And, Katy told herself firmly, she was not disappointed in the least. If the memories of the woman left her this distraught, then a second encounter would surely make it even worse.
Even so, Katy couldn’t help pausing at the edge of the stage, her hand running over the worn boards that made the platform. The echo of that compelling drumbeat seemed to throb within her, and her throat was so dry she could hardly swallow. The memory of the gypsy’s provocative dance haunted her, and she wondered if she would have to beg the priest to exorcise her to be free of it. Of course, that would entail explaining what had happened, which was something she very much wished to avoid.
Someone caught her hand, tugging her around. The air caught in Katy’s chest as she found herself confronting the same fathomless dark eyes she’d last seen peering at her over a veil. Her heart pounded so hard she could feel it in her throat, and there didn’t seem to be enough air in all the world for her to breathe.
The gypsy was even more beautiful up close, with flawless skin and features that looked like they belonged on an angel. The sparkle in her eyes suggested she was anything but angelic, however. She had changed and was now wearing much the same costume as the other gypsy women in a white blouse fairly sliding off her shoulders and showing far too much of the upper swell of her breasts for propriety’s sake, and a layered skirt of many colours, most of which should never have been combined.
“Do you know,” the woman fairly purred, “my people believe a person’s destiny is written on their hands for all to see? If you know the right language, of course.” She lifted Katy’s hand and turned it so the palm was up, running her nails over it in a way that made Katy shiver.
“Do they?” Katy replied, her voice coming out faint and distant to her own ears. It felt like every nerve in her body had suddenly concentrated itself there on her palm, and the gypsy was touching all of them at once. Or perhaps not every nerve; her breasts were tingling, and every breath she took made her unnaturally aware of the way they pressed against her silk shift and corset.
“Oh, aye,” the woman assured her, dark eyes sparkling with fire and mystery. “Would you like to know what destiny awaits you, Lady Katherine?”
Katy gasped, her free hand flying to cover her mouth with the veil as she stared at the gypsy in astonishment. “How… how did you…?”
“As I said, my lady, all the secrets of your life are hidden in your hands,” the gypsy told her. “That is but a trifling one. Though I think you are too free-spirited to be weighted down by such a heavy name, yes? Your hand tells me this,” she said, picking out one line on Katy’s palm and following it slowly with her index finger. Yet she wasn’t watching it, but rather was staring deep into Katy’s eyes. “You think of yourself in another way. Something shorter, less binding. Kate, perhaps? But nay, that is too stolid and respectable. Katy, then.”
Now completely astounded, Katy gaped at her, almost forgetting the sensations that plagued her in her shock. “Y-yes,” she stammered. “Yes, I… that’s amazing.”
“That is but a fraction of what I could tell you of yourself and your life, little Katy,” the gypsy murmured. “This is your dominant hand, the one you use for sewing and writing, yes? This hand tells me of how the world sees you, your outer self. Few people need to be told this, they know it already. It is your other hand that holds the secrets you seek, the mysteries of your inner self and what path lies before you.”
Without thinking Katy tucked the veil into her belt and offered her other hand, palm up as well, but the gypsy woman caught it in hers and curled the fingers over her palm, hiding it. “You should not be so willing to give up your inner self for anyone to see. I am not the only one here who knows the secrets of this language. It is a thing that should be private, between you and the Seer.”
Was it Katy’s imagination that she had stressed the word private? She could hardly think, for the woman’s proximity and the way she was caressing Katy’s hand seemed to have caused her mind to shut down rather thoroughly. Perhaps it had melted into the wash of heat in the rest of her body. She felt feverish, out of control, her knees turning traitorously weak.
“Will you come into my vardo, my wagon, and I will give you that which you desire?” The woman arched a brow at her, her eyes heated, and Katy shuddered. Give her what she desired? What an odd way to phrase it. Surely ‘tell you what you wish to know’ was what she really meant. It was only that odd gypsy accent, and their strange turns of phrase.
“I…” Staring up into the woman’s eyes, Katy realized she was swaying forward and hastily righted herself. For some reason that made the gypsy look amused.
Desperately Katy tried to remember why this was a bad idea. All the whispered tales of the gypsies came to mind, particularly the ones in which they stole away nubile young girls to sell as slaves in far distant lands. They were thieves and tricksters, she remembered, and not to be trusted. All they were interested in was money.
“And I suppose reading my fortune is something that can only be done when… what is the phrase in the tales? When I cross your palm with gold?” she managed to ask, and was proud when her voice came out with only the slightest waver to betray her.
“You would have me starve, and give my wisdom away?” the gypsy asked, her smile mocking. “Of course there is a price. Nothing worthwhile comes without a price, and that I will tell you for free. That the price is not always in coin is irrelevant. But it is only coin I ask for my services, and not much of that.”
“I…” Katy said again, and she could feel her hands trembling in the gypsy’s hold. The woman still held her; right hand up and open, left curled with the fingers hiding it, and she was still tracing seemingly idle patterns over Katy’s palm. Idle, but not without effect.
The torment of her body had begun when she watched the gypsy’s dance. Perhaps the woman would be able to halt it, but Katy couldn’t bring herself to ask out here in public. Privacy might be best after all. “Promise no harm will come to me,” she demanded, her voice quivering slightly. “Your word of honour.”
“You would take the word of a gypsy?” the woman asked, clearly surprised. “Not many would.”
“I will,” Katy agreed, nodding and looking into her eyes. The gypsy look at her speculatively for a moment, then nodded.
“I, Nadia, give you my word of honour. No harm will come to you within my vardo. You will be free to go.” The gypsy seemed amused, yet at the same time serious enough to satisfy Katy.
“Thank you,” Katy murmured, and the gypsy’s smile deepened. “I will go.” Now if only the woman could help her, before the strangeness in her body drove her to the edge of sanity. It might be oddly pleasant, but at the same time it was overwhelming and becoming more so with each breath she took.
“Then come, little Katy,” Nadia said, using her hold on Katy’s hands to draw her forward and up the steps to the door of the wagon. Katy followed without resisting, heart still pounding in her chest.
Inside the walls, ceiling and floor had been draped with more silk hangings. There were no windows, or else they were covered by the hangings, leaving it lit only by the many candles and creating an air of mystery. Most of it was empty space; there were cushions for sitting, and a low circular table. To one side sat several odd-looking bits of paraphernalia; the crystal globe she recognized from stories, but she wasn’t sure what the odd-looking coins or bundle of sticks might be for. Incense hung heavy in the air, making her feel a little dizzy. Or maybe that was just Nadia’s close proximity, as the woman brushed by her and returned to where she had obviously been sitting at the table.
A deck of cards sat on a square of silk, and a few had been placed on the table’s surface. Katy stared at them curiously as Nadia swept them up and put them back in the pile, for they had odd pictures and symbols on them.
“The tarot can tell you many things,” Nadia said, her lips quirked as she gestured for Katy to sit. “Of yourself, of others, of the world around you and the future that awaits you. But it is not the cards that will speak for you, I think. It is your hand I would see, to read your future.”
Taking a seat mostly to keep her shaking knees from giving out on her, Katy looked at her over the low table. The sensations in her body had left her breathless and trembling, hardly able to think. “Did you place a spell on me?” she blurted, remembering the village woman’s words. “Did you trap me with your gypsy magic?”
“Spell?” Nadia raised an eyebrow, pursing her crimson lips and studying Katy slowly. “I put no spell upon you, girl.”
“But you must have!” Katy insisted. “I’ve felt so strange, since the moment I saw you. Overheated, and tingling, and heavy, and… it’s horrid! Is this how you lure the men into your bed?”
“Into my bed?” To Katy’s surprise, the woman laughed. “Oh, the gorgio men should be so lucky. Nay, I dance for them only. Let others less picky than I sate their lusts, or let them take it home to their wives. They do not touch me, nor shall they ever. I cast no spells, girl. That sort of magic is potent, and dangerous. It can rebound upon the caster.”
“Then… then what…?” Katy twisted a fold of her skirt in her hands, worried. “If it’s not a spell, then what is it? How do I get rid of it?” If it wasn’t the gypsy’s doing, then was she coming down with an illness of some kind? It was the oddest illness she’d ever heard of, if so.
“Perhaps it is that your spiritual energy is trying to tell you something, yes?” Nadia suggested, her smile turning sly. “The unconscious mind is a powerful force, and unpredictable. Perhaps it is that you needed to hear what I can tell you, and your body is informing you in this manner.”
Her hands tightening, Katy swallowed. She knew enough about bargaining to know that she’d just raised the price by a goodly amount; Nadia knew that Katy wanted a fortune telling for more than just curiosity’s sake now. “How much?” she asked, hoping she had enough on her. She had brought some coin with her in case she found something she wished to buy, but she didn’t have ready access to a great deal of money. Usually her father paid for anything she wished to buy, and all the village shops kept an account that was paid monthly by the seneschal.
Dark eyes locked on Katy’s, the gypsy considered. “Two silvers,” she finally said, and Katy grimaced. It was more than any of the villagers would have been able to afford, and she was quite certain the usual price was probably paid in copper. But she had it on her, and if it would rid her of these feelings it would be worth it.
“Done,” she said, and Nadia smiled again. Belatedly Katy remembered that she probably should have tried to bargain, and she cursed herself for her inexperience. Well, too late now, she’d already agreed. She drew the coins from her purse and handed them across the table to Nadia. The gypsy held them for a moment, rubbed them between her thumb and forefinger, then nodded and slipped them into a velvet pouch.
“Your hand,” the gypsy demanded, and Katy offered her left hand palm up. This time Nadia didn’t hide it, but rather grasped Katy’s hand in both of hers and studied it intently. After a moment she began to trace the lines with her index finger, making Katy shiver again.
“Your life line is strong, and you have an active personality. Your head line says you are stubborn, but can sometimes not think things through all the way.” Katy blushed; the fact that she had come to the gypsy camp at all was a good example of that.
Seeing the flush, Nadia smiled and stroked the line once more. The hot, heavy sensation was worse than ever, and she prayed the gypsy was right that it would go away once she’d heard whatever it was she needed to hear. Surely then her unconscious mind would have no more reason to torment her?
“Your fate line is deep, but chained; you know your place in the world and accept it, but you are too passionate and adventurous to be completely restricted by it. And your heart line, ahhh…” she trailed off, and Katy leaned forward anxiously.
“What?” she asked, trembling. “What does my heart line say?” Was this the line that told of her future marriage? “Will my husband be a good man?”
“A good man, aye,” Nadia nodded, but she didn’t sound as if she was delivering good news. Katy swallowed, watching her as the gypsy bent closer to study her hand. “But you have a fire nature, full of passion and longing. That fire has been suppressed, because of who and what you are; headstrong you may be, but still a noble lady, with all the rules and restrictions that entails.
“Moreover, your future husband will not be able to free that passion from you. Perhaps no man ever can.” Nadia’s expression was grave, and Katy’s breath caught in her throat. That didn’t sound good. “It will build inside you, causing discomfort. Indeed, even now you feel it – that is what is affecting you now, the fire that has built up behind the walls of your restrictions and now burns to be free.”
“What?” Katy exclaimed in dismay, hugging herself with her free hand. “No, that can’t be. Please…” She would have to endure this feeling forever? Getting worse and worse throughout her life, until it would surely become a torment and torture beyond anything Hell could devise? Already she could hardly sit still for the pressure of it, she could not imagine the effect it would have after even one year. “Please, isn’t there anything I can do? Anything that will help?”
“I can help,” Nadia told her, the grave expression slipping back into her mysterious smile. “I have that same fire, you see, but among the Rom I am free to do what is needed to release it. I can take some of it from you, relieve you of the burden of fire you carry.” Her eyes had that same heated look she’d given Katy before, and now Katy recognized it for what it was; the fire inside her, shining through for all the world to see.
Reaching out with one hand, Nadia cupped her face and rubbed her thumb over Katy’s cheek, the drag of skin on skin seeming far too intense to Katy’s overheated nerves. “Would you like that?” the gypsy asked softly. “Shall I ease some of the fire for you? It will be strange to you, perhaps even frightening. And I can assure you it is something your priest would think poorly of. But it may be the only thing that will ever help.”
Part of Katy quailed at the gypsy’s blunt admission that what she spoke of would be a sin. Unsurprising, really, if it involved magic. But the rest of her was agonized at the idea of spending the rest of her life in this half-frenzied state, hardly able to think or rest for the heat inside her. “Yes,” she whispered, closing her eyes. “Yes, oh, please! I… I suppose it will cost more?” she asked, opening them again to look uncertainly at Nadia. Now the gypsy truly had her at a disadvantage, and could demand any price she liked.
“Not so much as you might be afraid of,” Nadia assured her, trailing her hand down over the sensitive skin of Katy’s throat and making her shudder. The feel of the woman’s nails scraping there fanned the flames within her even higher. “Two silvers more, and your word that you will then help me release it from within me, for it is more difficult to do alone. It will not be so horrid a task, indeed you may even find that it helps you further.”
“Yes,” Katy gasped, trying to speak steadily despite the way she was trembling all over. “Yes, please, anything. You have my word.” She fumbled in her purse and offered the coins, and Nadia drew her hand away to take them. Even though the touch had been making the pressure and heat within her worse, Katy found she had to stifle a noise of disappointment at the loss.
Her eyes gleaming with her own fire, Nadia chuckled. “The deal is struck, then. I will warn you now, the fire may seem to get worse before it gets better; in order to force it to jump from you to me, we must first work it into a frenzy strong enough to cross your barriers. But it will ease, I pledge you that. You will even enjoy it.”
“I understand,” Katy nodded, hand over her heart in a futile effort to still the pounding. Having it get worse didn’t seem like it would be at all pleasant, but if it meant relief in the end then she could bear with it.
“Good.” The look the gypsy gave her then did nothing to ease Katy’s discomfort; indeed, it made it worse. “You will need to remove your clothes; I shall have to work the magic upon your whole body for this to be at all effective,” Nadia told her. “Do not fear interruption, for the walls are sturdy and the lock is strong.”
“R-remove…?” Katy stuttered, staring at the gypsy in scandalized shock. “All of them?” Stand naked in front of someone not one of her maids? Oh, if anyone ever learned of this, she would be cast out of her father’s home as one sullied.
But if it would truly help…
With trembling hands Katy began undoing her dress, grateful now that the servant’s garb was not as complicated as what she usually wore. It would have been impossible for her to get off on her own, otherwise.
She stripped down to her shift and petticoats, then folded the dress carefully to set aside. Nadia watched her intently, which was not helping the girl’s nerves at all. But she’d come this far; there was no point in turning back now. Katy began to remove her under layers, baring her body for the gypsy’s boldly staring eyes. A flush suffused her, all the way from her face down to her chest, and she shivered as the air hit her skin. It wasn’t cold in the wagon, but her nipples crinkled tightly as if it was.
Finally she stood bare before the woman, wearing nothing but hairpins. “All of it,” Nadia insisted. “The fire will scorch it, elsewise.” Rising gracefully, she walked around the table to stand before Katy. Having her so close made Katy’s breath start to catch again, and she found herself panting slightly to try to get enough air. “Here, I will help you,” the gypsy offered, and lifted her hands to pull the pins from Katy’s hair.
Like all noblewomen, Katy had hair that trailed to her waist and beyond when left to hang unfettered. It slid over her body as it was freed from its pins, making her nerves tingle. Her trembling increased, and she was forced to put a hand on Nadia’s shoulder to help her keep her balance.
“Aye, that’s right,” Nadia encouraged her gently. “Touch me as you wish, little Katy. We will need to be in close contact for the fire to make its jump.” She removed the last of the pins, and Katy’s hair tumbled in loose curls over her bare flesh. The gypsy ran her hands through it, stroking it and arranging it to her liking. “Good. Now, lie back on the cushions, and make yourself comfortable.”
Why did lying down make her feel even more embarrassed than before? Reclining on the soft silk cushions, Katy struggled against the instinctive need to cover herself. Nadia was now slowly peeling her own clothes off, starting with her oversized blouse. Remembering the shadowed glimpse of the woman’s chest from that afternoon, Katy shivered and couldn’t tear her eyes away.
She knew Nadia had caught her watching, because the gypsy was giving her that heated smile again. Her breasts were unbound beneath the shirt, just as full and proud as they had seemed beneath the sheer veils. The dusky nipples stood out from the golden flesh, peaked as Katy’s were. They bobbed and swayed slightly with every move she made, drawing the eye to their perfect shape. Katy might have been jealous, if she’d been coherent enough for it.
Then Nadia’s hands dropped to her skirt, and a moment later the colourful garment was sliding down to puddle on the floor. Here, too, she was bare beneath, her legs toned and strong, the dark curls between her thighs wild and thick. Her black hair lay against her skin in snaky locks, shifting over her like a caress.
Crossing her arms at her chest, Nadia placed her hands on her shoulders and slowly drew them downwards. As Katy watched wide-eyed, shocked, she rubbed over her own breasts, cupping the mounds of flesh and passing her thumbs over the nipples. Heat spiked through Katy again, and Nadia smiled when she squirmed on the cushions.
“This is to prepare the body,” Nadia told her, tipping her head back and letting her eyes slide half closed as she continued to run her fingers over her breasts. “If you do it as well, it will ease the process, but it is not necessary.”
Hands shaking, Katy slowly lifted them and placed her palms on her shoulders as the gypsy had done. Eyes locked on Nadia, she drew them down over her chest to her small, high breasts.
When her palm encountered her nipple, Katy gasped and nearly jerked her hands away. The sensation was intense, the heat in her secret place surging. Nadia said nothing, watching her steadily, her hands pinching and twisting her nipples in a way that looked painful.
Determined to do everything possible to rid herself of this fire, Katy bit her lip and continued down, brushing her exquisitely sensitive nipples before she cupped her breasts in her hands. Nadia’s spilled over her fingers, her hands unable to contain all of their bounty, but Katy could almost entirely cover hers. Slowly, reluctantly, she began to pinch and rub her nipples as Nadia was doing.
In moments she was all but lost in the heat of her body. It was unbearable, and yet at the same time Katy was starting to realize it was also intensely pleasurable. Once she got used to the strangeness of it, and other than the ache between her thighs, anyway. She was quite certain her breasts had never been this sensitive when she bathed, or dressed.
“As I said, there are benefits to the process, yes?” Nadia said, probably reading her surprised enjoyment in her eyes. “It is not all bad. And as the flames leap higher, so too will the pleasure.” So saying, she moved her hands away from her breasts and ran them down to her navel, then spread the fingers and brushed them over her hips and upper thighs.
Breathless, Katy copied the movements. As her hands passed just above the place where the curls between her legs began, her hips arched and the ache intensified to the point where she cried out softly.
“You are ready,” Nadia murmured, and came to kneel before her. Her knees brushed Katy’s waist, and she reached out to run one hand from Katy’s collarbone to the edge of her curls. Katy bit down on another cry and shivered, managing to keep her hips still this time. “You must trust your body to me completely, little Katy,” the gypsy said, her eyes serious despite the heat burning in them. “No matter how shocked you are, if you do not complete the ritual you will be left in much worse condition than when you came to me. You understand, yes?”
“Y-yes,” Katy agreed, her voice trembling. “Yes, I understand. Do what you must.”
With a smile that might have been intended to be comforting but which only left Katy shivering more, Nadia moved her hand farther down. Not to one side over the thigh, but right down into the curls. Katy bit back a scandalized noise, and then couldn’t quite stop a moan from escaping her. She started to press her legs together instinctively to stop the gypsy from going any further, but stopped herself with a stern reminder that she’d just promised to trust the woman.
Even so she couldn’t stop the pounding of her heart as Nadia’s fingers pushed through the curls into her secret place. Katy’s maids had always warned her never to touch that place more than was necessary to wash herself, saying it was for her husband only. She wondered if any of them had ever felt this intense pounding, or the spike of pleasure as Nadia’s fingers ran over the flesh beneath the curls.
To her horror she realized she was wet there; she could feel Nadia’s touch made slick by liquid. Her monthly courses should not have come for another week! Now the gypsy would surely pull back in disgust, and leave Katy suffering from the fire within.
But Nadia was smiling that heated, satisfied smile. She lifted her hand away, and Katy was confused to see no blood on her fingers, only a strange wetness.
“It is to ease the passage of the fire,” Nadia told her. “It only appears at these times, and it helps to smooth the process.” Then she lifted her hand and retraced the line from Katy’s throat to her navel, leaving a cool trail of wetness behind.
“What…?” Katy asked, shivering and panting. Her fists were clenched in the cushions, she realized, and tried to relax her grip.
“Magical symbols,” Nadia explained, returning her fingers to stroke over Katy’s curls once again. “They will bring the fire to the surface, so I may absorb it. Lie as still as you can, little Katy.”
That was a difficult command to obey, but Katy did her best. Each time Nadia ran her fingers over the place that made the pleasure intensify briefly, her hips wanted to lift and push her body more firmly into the touch. She whimpered and gave up the struggle to unclench her fists, instead using her hold on the cushions as a sort of anchor.
Seven times Nadia stroked her there, a magical number, before lifting her hand again. Katy choked back a protest as the sudden loss made the ache inside her increase. Leaning over her, Nadia drew a symbol on her right breast, crossing and recrossing the nipple and making it nearly impossible for Katy not to squirm.
“The breasts are connected to the heart of the flames,” Nadia purred, returning her hand between Katy’s thighs. Once again she stroked seven times, the pace slow. Katy shook on the cushions with the effort it took to keep her hips still, and this time she did moan when Nadia stopped.
The left breast got the same treatment the right had, the nipple so stiff Katy could actually feel the tension. By the time that symbol was finished she was panting, desperate for air. Again Nadia stroked her, and her smile grew when Katy lost the battle with her wayward hips. Katy felt certain that if Nadia would just move faster when she touched there, it would be far more effective, but the gypsy refused to allow Katy to direct the pace.
This time she drew symbols over Katy’s navel, just above the curls. “Here is where the fire sleeps, banked but never extinguished,” the gypsy explained. “You felt it here first when it awoke within you, yes? That is why.”
Instead of returning to stroking once the symbol was complete, Nadia tapped her knee. “Spread your legs, little Katy,” she directed. Katy did as she was directed, beyond even feeling shamed at this point as she bared flesh that no eyes save her husband’s should ever see. She was too lost in the pleasure to care about the niceties of propriety, and at this point one more indiscretion was hardly worth mentioning.
Now Nadia traced a complex symbol directly onto the flesh there, her nail scraping delicately over the sensitive spot again and again. The heat rose unbearably within Katy, and she gave vent to it with a long series of moans. At some point she realized she’d closed her eyes, throwing her head back on the cushions, her entire body arched like a bow and her hips jerking as she fought to get the pressure she craved so badly.
“Please,” she begged, her voice hardly loud enough to be heard. “Please, Nadia, I can’t stand it, please!”
Moving to kneel directly between Katy’s thighs, Nadia leaned over her, bracing herself on one hand until her face was no more than an inch above the girl’s. Their breasts pressed together, shifting with each breath they took, and the heat in the gypsy’s eyes was enough to melt them both. “As you wish, little Katy,” she agreed, and she sounded nearly as breathless as Katy.
Now she returned to stroking, but her movements were firmer and much faster. The steady rhythm satisfied a craving deep within Katy, yet somehow made it worse at the same time. She was keening high in her throat, hardly aware of the sound as she rocked her hips up into each motion.
Something tightened inside her, and it felt as if her awareness was drawing into a tiny point centred on the place where Nadia touched her. Just when Katy was certain she would become so compressed she would surely die, the tension released itself all at once and she felt the fire pour through her. At the last moment the gypsy pressed her mouth firmly to Katy’s, muffling the scream that escaped the girl along with the fire. Katy kissed her back – yes, surely this must be a kiss, though it be between two women – with a passion beyond anything she’d ever felt before.
Still Nadia rubbed her fingers over Katy’s flesh, each touch making her body shake and little shocks run through her. She slowed her rhythm gradually, and by the time she pulled away Katy felt emptied of everything within her, leaving her a hollow shell.
Lifting her mouth away, the gypsy smiled when Katy started gasping for air. “Better, yes?” she asked, her voice low and husky.
Katy opened her mouth to answer, but nothing emerged save a hoarse squeak. Blushing, she nodded. “I… I can’t move,” she managed after a moment, discovering to her dismay that her limbs had all gone weak and unresponsive.
Chuckling, Nadia brushed another kiss over her cheek. “That means it worked,” the gypsy assured her. “It is not to say the fire cannot be raised again, though you are likely safe from it for a brief time. It will return eventually, however.”
“Is… is there any way I can release it?” Katy fretted, looking up into the woman’s dark eyes. “Is there no one else who can help me? I’ll never see you again, will I?”
“Likely not,” Nadia agreed with a shrug. “The Rom go where our fancy takes us.” At Katy’s dismayed look, she seemed to take pity on her. “It is possible you will find others who can help. The symbols are to help create the necessary connection, but if you perform the ritual with one who is already a close and trusted friend, it may work.” Her smile was secretive and sly, as if she knew something amusing that Katy did not. “Be careful who you choose, and more careful still never to be discovered. Your priest would not be pleased to find you thus, yes?”
“No,” Katy said fervently. She had no desire to be burned as a witch. “But… what of you?” she asked shyly, remembering the price she had agreed to. “I have to help you, don’t I?”
“Aye, but you needed to recover first,” Nadia replied, the heat in her dark eyes increasing again. “Are you ready?”
Taking a deep breath, Katy tested her body and found her muscles weak, but working. She was nervous again, uncertain whether she would have to do the same things Nadia had done, worried she would do something wrong and hurt the gypsy. But she had given her word, and she could not leave Nadia suffering from the very same frenzy the woman had released her from. “What do I have to do?”
Shifting, Nadia moved to lie on her side next to Katy, tugging at her to get her onto her side as well. They were facing each other, chests pressed together and legs entwined. “Touch me,” the gypsy invited her. “In the places I showed you, yes? Do not concern yourself with the symbols, the connection has already been established. Just do as I did to you, what felt good to you and brought you to release.”
Hesitantly Katy lifted one hand and ran her fingers over Nadia’s breast, feeling the woman shudder at the touch. To have her own fire inside her and Katy’s as well, she must have been in near agony. “It won’t jump back to me, will it?” she asked fearfully.
“Nay, not when you are replete,” Nadia chuckled, lifting a hand to rub her thumb over Katy’s lips. “A few hours from now it might respark your own, aye, but you are safe for the moment.”
Satisfied by the promise, Katy stroked the gypsy’s breast more firmly. She had never touched another woman’s body before, had never even really touched her own. Now she took the opportunity to explore shyly, feeling the firm flesh under the skin and the way the skin around the nipple was crinkled. Nadia’s breath caught in her throat every time Katy brushed over the nipple, so she concentrated her efforts there, pinching and rolling it between her thumb and forefinger.
The gypsy moaned, arching into the contact. Unlike Katy she wasn’t half afraid of the sensations, and clearly revelled in them. Encourage, Katy worked her other hand up between them so she could touch both nipples, and Nadia shuddered.
“Aye, like that, little Katy,” the woman moaned. “You learn well, and quickly.” Catching one of Katy’s hands in her own, she guided it gently down between their bodies. “Now the other. Do not be afraid.”
Biting her lip, Katy ran her fingers through the dark curls that had so enflamed her during the dance, and found Nadia fairly dripping with the same wetness that Katy’s body had produced. She wrinkled her nose a bit at the sensation, making Nadia laugh softly, but did not pull back.
Searching with her fingertips, she found the place where the flesh parted and slipped her fingers inside. Not only was it wet here, it was hot, the fire within spilling over to the outside. Within the folds she found a bump of raised flesh, and when she touched there Nadia made a helpless sound and rocked her hips up into Katy’s hand.
That must be the place that had so enflamed Katy, then. “Must I stroke seven times and then stop, as you did?” she asked.
“Nay, nay,” the gypsy shook her head, her voice rough. “Only do as I did at the end. You need not raise my fire to the surface, it is already there.”
Obediently Katy stroked her, rubbing the bit of flesh steadily rather than teasing as Nadia had done. The gypsy thrust her body into each touch, and Katy let that be the guide of her pace and rhythm. It was fascinating to watch Nadia’s face, the expression on the gypsy’s beautiful features like nothing she had ever seen before. It seemed caught somewhere between pain and pleasure, or perhaps encompassed both. If it was anything like what Katy had felt, it was a sweet agony indeed.
Before long Nadia was gasping, clinging to Katy’s shoulders to steady herself so she could push her hips harder into the girl’s hand. Katy pressed firmly, stroking faster as Nadia began to moan. She could tell when the gypsy had reached that final moment, as her body tensed and then began to shudder against Katy’s. As Nadia had she slowed her strokes gradually, drawing out as much of the fire as she could before finally the gypsy reached down and stilled her hand.
“Enough,” Nadia declared wearily. “It is done, and done well. I thank you.”
“No, thank you,” Katy exclaimed softly. “I… I can’t… there aren’t words to express how I feel, and I can’t begin to thank you enough.”
The answering curve of the gypsy’s lips was satisfied. “Well worth the silver, yes?” Taking a deep breath she rose to her feet, reaching down to help Katy do the same. “Come, you must dress. You have been here some time; soon the sun will set and the gates to the keep will close, and I venture a guess that you must be inside before then, yes?”
“Oh!” Katy took her hand with a gasp, and let the gypsy pull her to her feet. “Is it that late already?” She felt as if no time at all had passed, and yet as if it had taken an eon. The intensity of the sensations had left no room for minor concerns like the speed of the passing of time.
“Aye,” Nadia nodded, though how she could tell when there were no windows Katy wasn’t sure. By how far the candles had burned, perhaps. “Take care to bathe as soon as you can, and wash the fluids from your body,” she warned. “Some men might be able to recognize the scent of it, for most women pass the fire to them rather than to other women.” Katy tried to imagine doing something like this with her future husband, and failed utterly. Whatever it was that a man did with a woman’s secret place, it surely couldn’t be anything like this.
“I’ll be careful,” she promised. She dressed hastily, Nadia assisting her with her hair though the gypsy made no move to get back into her own clothes. She seemed perfectly at ease with her nudity, as if it was of no concern.
When Katy moved to open the door, Nadia stopped her with a hand on her shoulder. Leaning down, the gypsy kissed her once more, coaxing her mouth open and doing things with her tongue that made Katie shiver. Drawing back at last, Nadia smiled down at her. “Go with my blessing, little Katy. And remember the lessons you have learned today.”
As if she would ever forget! Blushing, Katy nodded, and opened the door to let herself out.
The sun was indeed setting, she discovered as she stepped down off the wagon. If she didn’t dawdle she’d be in no danger of being locked outside when the gates closed, but she’d cut it close.
It had been worth it, though, she decided with a dreamy smile. Pulling the veil from her belt, she bunched it in her hand and lifted it to her face. Inhaling, she imagined she could smell Nadia on it, and this time the gentle warmth that coursed through her was only pleasant. Yes, it had definitely been worth it. No matter what the future held for her, no matter what her husband was like, she would always have the memory of the gypsy’s dance – on the stage and in the wagon – to treasure.