Chapter One: The Red-Haired Woman
The red-haired woman woke Cheng with a soft stroke of her fingertips along his spine. He shivered to wakefulness and suppressed a sigh as he glanced at the night-candle. He'd been asleep for less than an hour.
The red-haired woman put a finger over her lips and laid a hand on Cheng's shoulder, aborting his attempt to sit up. "Leave now, I," she whispered in her broken Shaodanai.
Cheng blinked in surprise. "You're leaving now, mistress? But it's after midnight. The Dog Star--"
The red-haired woman smiled with genuine amusement. "Fear not the stars, I. Night travel happy, I." Her soft fingers traced the skin at the base of Cheng's throat, just at the edge of his slave's collar. He closed his eyes and tried not to shiver. Of all the touches he endured as a waystation pleasure-slave, this was the one he found most difficult to accept with grace. "Too long here," the red-haired woman was saying. "Long travel, many nights." The fingers left Cheng's throat, to his relief, trailing down his chest. She leaned closer, her breath puffing softly on his face. "Kiss," she commanded, so he did.
Three nights, the red-haired woman had tarried at the waystation, recovering from the journey across the mountainous border between Shaoda and her home country of Khadya. Each of those nights, she had paid for Cheng's attendance. He had been a pleasure-slave for more than a dozen years, but never had he entertained a woman -- or a man, for that matter -- as insatiable as this flame-haired Khadyan beauty. Each of the three nights he had practiced his art to the utmost, bringing the red-haired woman to shuddering, gasping release again and again. Each time, the sweat had not even dried on her brow before her hands were on him again, demanding. Urging. Arousing.
Cheng had prided himself on his training and his stamina, but at midnight the third night, every trick he had learned from his former mistress, the Courtesan Mihai, had failed him. Aware of his failing but too worn out to dredge up the proper sense of shame, he had collapsed into exhausted slumber. But even now, as he kissed her, his cock stirred to sluggish life. It was raw and oversensitive from too much arousal, too many orgasms, in too brief a span, but it filled slowly, moving toward a hardness that Cheng thought was as likely to make him whimper in pain as sigh with pleasure.
The red-haired woman released him as the kiss ended, though, and stood to draw on her clothes. "Too long," she murmured again. "Leave, I."
Cheng hid his relief, watching her dress from under his lashes. "Will you come back this way, mistress, when you return to Khadya?"
Her violet eyes blazed with sudden fury. "Not return, I! Never!"
Startled, Cheng bowed deeply, letting her unexpected anger rush over him like a river. Most Khadyans did not expect the instant and unquestioning obedience that his Shaodanai clients demanded, but he had found that it was unwise for a slave to show true defiance of any sort. "Forgive this unworthy one his impertinence, mistress."
The red-haired woman frowned at him, perhaps puzzling out the meaning of his words, then smiled slightly and stroked Cheng's hair. "Meet again, we," she promised. "Kovarstvo. Soul tied."
She had insisted from their first night that the two of them were linked, though it had taken half a mark's pantomime and stilted conversation before he had haltingly taught her the word for "soul". Cheng had been amused, and obscurely pleased -- it was said that Khadyans tended to the romantic, but those who came through Master Dewei's waystation were mostly traders and couriers, more pragmatic than fanciful.
Dressed, she tied her copper-colored hair back into a tail, then sat again on the edge of the bed. She laid one hand almost gingerly over Cheng's cock, which had gone limp again. "Good service, this," she teased. "Mine now."
Cheng grunted softly at her touch and forced himself not to groan at the combined rush of pain and arousal. "Yours always," he promised, though it was necessarily a lie. Cheng belonged to Dewei Kan, and his cock and skill as a courtesan-trained bedslave belonged to whatever traveler offered Master Dewei the most coin for them.
The red-haired woman donned her shoes and gathered up her pack, then dropped a final kiss on Cheng's forehead. "Dream, I," she said solemnly. "Dream, you. Soul joins."
Cheng had no idea what she meant, but he nodded just as soberly. "Of course, mistress."
Then she was gone. Cheng listened as she padded in near-silence into the hallway and down the stairs. He waited until he was certain she had left the waystation's yard, and then let himself fall back into wearied slumber.
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