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Note: The world of Dawngate can, at times, be a dark place. Unraveled details the background of a Shaper who has seen such darkness. The following story contains mature language and content. Please read at your own discretion.

Junil 18, 1536
Seven years before the Dawngate opened

The sky overhead was deep blue, fading to white where it met the peaks across the valley. Dandelion-puff clouds drifted lazily on wind that smelled of earth and grass and growth. If you tilted back your head and twirled, it felt like you could spin off the world. She did so, the yellow wildflowers crushed under her boots releasing a sweet scent, and she knew he'd be watching the hem of her forest-green skirt rising from her ankles and rippling in the wind. She laughed against the back of her hand and bounced over to grab his hand.

"Come on," she whispered, tugging him urgently towards the collapsing barn, eyes crinkling into a smile.

He looked over his shoulder across the shadow-speckled meadow, at the distant, cloud-crowned peaks. "Won't we get in trouble?" The light caught in his unkempt hair, spun the gold into radiance.

She rolled her eyes and pivoted on a platform heel, wrapping his arm up around her as she turned. He grunted in surprise as her chest pressed hard up against his. She'd worn the burgundy bodice that did spectacular things. "But no one comes out here in summer," she murmured up into his big blue eyes, "and I can keep a secret if you can," Inspired, she craned her neck to nuzzle under his ear, and was satisfied by immediate results. "I can tell how interested you are," she lilted, favoring him with the lopsided smile that she'd caught him sketching in the courtyard.

He reddened, grinned foolishly, looked down into her fine midnight hair, glittering iridescent violet where the sun hit. "Are you sure?"

She cocked her head at him, struggling to keep the tautness out of her voice. "You truly think I dressed like this to stroll in a meadow?" He swallowed. She watched the artery in his neck flicker and tremble with the force of his longing. "Be a man. Or," she said, idly tracing an electric fingertip along the downy stubble of his jawline, "perhaps I could make you one?"

It was the end of his meager resistance. "All right." He stood awkwardly, slightly hunched over, ineptly trying to make her effects on him less obvious.

She laughed and pressed her lips against his, slithered her tongue past his defenses in the way the older girls did. His shoulders stiffened. Young, strong arms encircled her waist, pressing the small of her back against him. "Hm!" she pulled away, discreetly wiping off her mouth; he was enthusiastic, but not particularly accurate. "Not out here, my squire." She gestured to the barn with one fluid arm and made herself a signpost pointing into the shadows; hips tilted, one brow raised, shoulders set at an angle.

"I hope there aren't any rats," he said, laughing with nervous excitement. "I wouldn't want you to get, um, upset."

She laughed lightly. "Rats? It takes far more to upset me." He bent over to duck under the sagging beam of the old door. She admired the line of his breeches, and waited until he turned before ducking under herself. As she expected, his eyes locked the fall of her bosom as she bent over. He couldn't see her mouth; she allowed a smile of satisfaction.

The barn smelled of dry, clean hay, stacked under the remaining ceiling in anticipation of winter. She'd scouted it ahead of time, of course. It wouldn't do for her first to be in mold and filth. He fiddled with his collar, unsure what he should be doing.

"Let me," she said, hips swaying as she sashayed up to him. With quick, precise movements, she had his shirt unlaced and her hands sliding up his bare chest. Her lips and tongue moved lightly across his neck, his nervous gulps throbbing against her mouth.

"Have you - you've done this before?" he gaped at her.

"Oh my, no," she smiled up at him from the shadows. In the finger of sunlight between them, motes of straw dust whirled and danced. "I've been waiting for some time. Working up my courage. Waiting for the right person."

He flushed in the darkness, his deep blue eyes flickering over every part of her body but her eyes. "And – and you picked me?" He practically squeaked. "You barely know me."

"Yes," she hummed, "we must remedy that." She slid the shirt off his shoulders and traced the sunlight on his summer-scalded biceps with her fingernails. Every part of him was alive and a-quiver, the fine, pale hair on his arms bristling. Within her, the carefully banked and stoked blaze remained untouched by his inexpert hands, restless with his apologies. But soon enough.

"Should I... would you like me to help you with your clothes?" he asked, meekly, his eyes scurrying across the pale flesh spilling over her bodice. Such a good purchase, that. He bit his lip as she slid his trousers off angular hips.

"Oh my," she murmured, and he flushed literally from head to toe.

"I... should I - can I-?"

"No," she said primly, poking the tip of his nose. "I do not give you permission to touch me. I am a Lady, after all."

He swallowed loudly. "How will we, um..?"

She laughed throatily, senses afire, the pounding in her ears and chest steadily increasing in volume. She circled behind him, fingers lightly brushing as she passed. He shuddered at her touch. "Don't worry, dear boy. Just... relax and let it happen."

He laughed, high and hysterical, the sound bouncing back and forth off the faded wooden walls like a chimney-panicked swallow. "You've never done this? Seriously?"

"Do boys never speak of such things?" she breathed into his spine, her fingers waltzing slowly, delicately in the hot, still air of the barn. "Not among yourselves? Stories and advice?" She heard the faint rustling of a mouse somewhere off in the straw.

"I, uh..." He seemed to be losing his ability to string words together. It was amusing to observe. "I think they mostly lie. Exaggerate."

"Hm. The women at the Queen's court share... useful details. In the interests of rulership and diplomacy, of course." She smiled in the dark, where he couldn't see. "How to lead. How to persuade. How to reward. You're all rather easily influenced, you know."

"Yeah," he cracked, and shivered between her arms, unconsciously swaying with her.

A sudden firm grip stilled him with a gasp. She arched her neck and gently nipped the flesh between his shoulder blades. "You should lie down."

"In the straw?" He shook his head, laughed shakily, raked a hand through his explosion of blond. "That's kind of a cliché, isn't it?"

She hummed in amusement, thunder rolling in her ears. "If you don’t lie down on the straw, you'll collapse into it. And if we stay like this, what of me?" She put a mock pout into her voice. "Would you leave me unsatisfied?"

"No!" he shook his head, sun-dazed, and reluctantly pulled away from her hands. He picked out the thick pile of straw she'd built two days before, and lay on his back. Bashful and sheepish, he asked, "What now? Do you need me to-?"

She smiled through her hair. "Just be patient," she said, and sat on his lap, demurely arranging the hem of her skirt over their knees.

She could feel him struggling to remain politely still. "We're not going to, um-?"

"Not yet. That will be for me. I can... amuse you without going so far." She began to sway gently, rocking like a boat on the warm southern seas. "Does that feel good?" she asked.

"V-very much."

She ran her hands down the embroidery on her bodice, smoothing the fabric. On a whim, she loosened the laces slightly at the top. "Does it bother you that you... can't see anything?"

"No, My Lady. You're – you're beautiful."

She smothered a frown and tutted softly. "Don’t call me such a thing. And there's a saying in Neissen; 'There are no titles in the bedchamber.'" The thunder in her head was deafening. The furnace in her chest was blooming, waves of sparks and flame flowing up her spine and down to her toes. It was becoming a struggle to keep her voice even. He reached up and began to run his hands across her exposed skin, tracing the neckline of her bodice, running his fingers down her arms. "Mm, that's lovely," she lied, closing her eyes and tilting her head back.

"I – I think I'm-" He choked and shook.

His strong, calloused fingers grabbed and crushed her forearms. "Ah?" she gasped, eyes widening at the unexpected pain. It spiked up her arms, jetted straight to the smoldering core of her. The inferno blazed up, burst through her careful defenses, threatened to engulf her.

She screwed her eyes closed, shook her head. It wasn't time yet. It wasn't perfect. Blinking back stars and flame, she yanked her arms roughly free, grabbed his wrists, and slammed them deep into the hay. Breathing hard and gritting her teeth, she strained to tamp the blaze, avert the explosion.

"I'm s-sorry," the words shivered free of him. His eyes were huge, a mirror of the sky outside. "Did I hurt your arms?"

Truthfully, he had lasted longer than she'd been told to expect.

She pasted on an indulgent smile and calmed her breathing. "I'm fine. Did you enjoy that?" She peeled her fingers off his bruised wrists, one by one.

"Very much," he sighed. "Did you?"

"I got something out of it," she said coyly, tracing lazy patterns on his chest with one fingertip. The thunder in her head reluctantly subsided to a distant mutter. "I'm looking forward to getting the rest."

A blissful smile spread across his face. "What would you like me to do?"

"What you've been doing is just fine." She paused, adjusted her weight for comfort, then adjusted it again for effect. "You are still... interested? Yes?"

"Absolutely!"

Yes, of course he was. And now, his tension spent, it would be safer for her. Not completely – you were rarely completely safe. More useful details learned in the evening discussions.

He laughed wildly, irresponsibly, drunk on her. "If your mother knew about this, she'd have me tied to a pole and whipped."

A glorious opportunity. A magnificent risk. Her heart tripped and hammered. She forced the languid calm back into her voice, applied a hint of dry humor; "Oh, I doubt it. If she found me in the hay with a knight's son, she'd have you tied to a pole and executed."

She paused as if the idea were just coming to her, as if she'd hadn’t carefully observed him for weeks, hadn't seen his wide eyes and the angle of his neck around the higher-ranked noble daughters. Looking away to the door with a shy expression, she murmured, "Ah... could you perhaps want to be tied up by a Countess? Or... a someday-Countess?" She dropped her chin and glanced back at him sidelong, through her lashes, a look she’d seen Queen Sereyn inflict on a truculent Maridian diplomat. "We could try."

If he got any redder, he'd begin to glow. "Uh... where would we get..."

"I'm sure there’s some rope left in here," she said, hiding a smile behind both hands like the bashful girl she wasn't, letting him see only the crinkle of her eyes. Queen Sereyn was a master of such little artifices. A season at her court had been terribly instructive.

He peered around into the darkness and dust. "Um, over there?" he suggested, pointing to the weather-blackened coil she'd left draped over one of the stalls, conveniently within arm's length.

"Perfect," she smiled, and stretched to reach it. "I'm not particularly good at knots. I only know how to tie up stallions." As planned, he snorted with laughter at her choice of words.

She leaned forward, allowing her chest to press distractingly against his face as she looped the hemp around his wrists and the nearby support beam, then pulled tight.

"Ow!"

"Sorry." She sat up, splaying her fingers across his bare chest, resumed the little hip motions that had proven so effective a few minutes before. "How is that... peasant?" she said, selecting an imperious tone shot with a thread of self-deprecation. She imagined most girls her age would be uncomfortable playing roles. She tilted her nose up in the air a bit for good measure.

He moved with her eagerly. "That's wonderful, My La—Er," he stopped himself and visibly hunted for another word to use.

She smiled impishly. "Titles in the bedchamber are appropriate for this fantasy, I should think."

"Thank you, My Lady," he said, looking up at her with wide, adoring cow-eyes. "You're so lovely."

The flames snapped. A flock of sparks whirled up her spine, tightened her jaw. She forced calm into her voice. "I told you, don't call me such things." Then she reapplied her smile and said, "It's my turn now. Be still a moment."

She raised herself off his lap, adjusted carefully. "Ah. There we are." Satisfied with her own condition, she slowly nestled herself back down, wincing slightly. "My goodness," she breathed. "Isn't that a wonder." She could feel the tension in him, the primal urge to move.

He blushed and looked modestly off towards the door. She reached forward and grabbed his jaw, curtly turning him to face her as she began to move. "I didn't give you permission to look away," she told him. "I want your eyes on me." She leaned down and sought his lips, teasing them with the tip of her tongue. "You're only to look at me."

"Yes, My Lady," he breathed, and forgot his determination to remain still.

"You're mine," she said, her motions growing quicker, more tremulous. She moved her lips across the pulsing in his neck, absently marveled at the quickness of his desire. The fires in her chest bloomed and unfurled. The distant mutter of thunder in her head rolled forth, drowning out the sound of his breathing.

"All yours," he echoed. A cooling breeze blew across from the door. Her hair glittered violet where the sun skipped off it.

The furnace in her chest roared, shaking her body with its intensity. "Mine forever," she said over the roar of blood, gritting her teeth to contain the curtains of flame coursing through her. It was time. She braced herself with one hand, and used the other to hike her skirt up to her garter.

"Whatever you wish," he gasped, "you're so beautiful."

The inferno broke through her walls, consumed her belly, raged down her limbs. She made no effort to tamp it. "Don’t call me that!" she snarled.

The dagger was out of her garter and slashing his throat before she could even think. She'd spent weeks whetting the blade. It passed through him as if he were a curiously undercooked roast.

His sky-colored cow-eyes bulged as the life burst from him. His body jerked and spasmed, throwing her upwards. "Uh-ah!" she squeaked as he bucked and hot rain sprayed her. The blackened rope creaked as he uselessly threw his arms from side to side, bubbling and hissing. He heaved beneath her a final time, and she gasped as the aftershock shivered through her. They were both left limp and breathless.

The burning in her chest dissipated.

The pounding in her head fell silent.

She floated, eyes closed, swaying limply as she panted in the summer silence. A rustle of feathers and a twittering came from the loft overhead. A warm wind whistled through the knotholes and cracks in the walls, mingling the whisper-fine smells of late blossoms and sweet grass with the heavy stench of raw meat. Absently, she pawed at her damp bodice, loosening the laces.

She opened her eyes, and wondered if things looked as different from the other side of them. The women at court had claimed they could always tell.

"That was perfection, sweetling," she told the corpse. She staggered up, legs trembling, stretching the cramps out of her thighs. Her lips tasted of slick metal. "That – I actually felt that. How marvelous." She laughed shortly, and released a long, shuddering sigh. She raked clotting strands of sticky hair back away from her face.

She frowned down at the body. One finger twitched, reflexively, seeming to beckon her back.

"But it ended so quickly. I shall have to enjoy the next boy for longer."

Continued...

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