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Josie had dreamed that she was back on the liner, and was trying to get to her stateroom, but the hallways kept shaking from side to side and tilting further and further back, so that she couldn’t get where she wanted to go. Then she had woken with a start to the sound of breaking glass and books falling to the floor, and more distant crashes, and a floor that moved like the floor of the liner.

‘Tash!’ she had called, getting to her feet, and while the castle convulsed around her she felt her way over to his bed. It was empty and cold.

She had fallen to her hands and knees there, because it was hard to stand, and she had tried to pray like she had tried to pray when she fell overboard, but she had failed as she had before to get much further than ‘dear God, please don’t let me die.’ The castle had shook, and shook, and the sound of falling masonry grew into a thunderous roar then, a roar that seemed mixed with the roar of a wild beast. The sound had sent a thrill of terror through her, a thrill that was also crazy kind of joy, and she had screamed. When she had finished the room was no longer shaking.

‘My God,’ she had said, shakily rising and throwing back the shutters on the window . The air that flooded in was little warmer than freezing, but she had given it no mind. ‘Tash!’ Josie had called again, and listened for a response. There had been a few isolated sounds of stonework falling on the castle grounds, and in the distance the wild dogs had begun a melancholy caterwauling. She had prayed another desperate prayer, ‘dear God, please don’t let Tash die.’

What would she do if Tash was gone? She listened for every little sound, and after a while was certain that mixed among them were footsteps running across the pavement, but she did not call out again, because it would be too terrible if the voice that called back was not Tash.

Then Tash had returned to her, safe and strong, but trembling like she had never felt him trembling before; like herself he must have been terribly upset by the earthquake. She had realised then how cold she had become, standing by the open window, and it felt so good to be gathered up in Tash’s arms and warmed by the warmth of his body. The hammering of her heart had begun to slow, and then Tash had said ‘I am more glad that you are alright than I am glad about anything,’ in a voice that had set it hammering again. The terror and the crazy joy she had felt during the earthquake had not gone away, but was changing inside her into something different now that Tash had returned to her.

‘Tash,’ said Josie. He held her snugly with three arms, while his other hand smoothed back her hair. She could smell the anxiety on him, an acrid tang to his jasmine scent, but this only made her love him more.

‘I love you, Tash,’ Josie said. She had not planned to say it; she just suddenly found that she had said it.

‘I love you, Josie,’ said Tash, his massive head bent down close to hers.

She trembled with joy and fear. ‘You are still cold,’ said Tash. ‘I will put you back in your bed.’

‘Is it safe inside, do you think?’ she asked him. ‘I would not like the roof to fall on us.’

‘This part of the castle is strong, I think.’ He passed his hand softly over her forehead again, brushing the hair away from her face.

‘Will you stay with me tonight and keep me warm?’ she asked.

Josie felt the familiar tightness in her breath, the warmth going to her face and other places, but she did not care. She had taken back the decision she had made before. Tash did not say anything in reply, but gently put her down and arranged her blankets over her, then crawled in alongside her. Carefully, like he was putting dishes away – a thing he had to do very carefully, for he was wont to drop and break them- he lay one inhumanly long arm across Josie’s chest, and another across her feet. He lay his head alongside hers so she could feel his breath. All along her side she could feel the downy warmth of his chest and belly through her nightdress. Tash still seemed strangely trembly; or not so strangely trembly; for it was not every night they had an earthquake. One of his hands coiled around her shoulder; the lower hand on that side began to rub her ankle, back and forth. It was only a gentle touch, but she could instantly feel herself swelling inside like she had so often before when she had lain next to Tash. The unbearable feeling seemed stronger than it ever had before, stirred up by the earthquake and mingled with the fear and the wild reckless joy that had possessed her at its height.

‘I am thinking, Tash,’ said Josie slowly. ‘That this world is not my world, and it is not your world, and there seem to be quite different rules here about a lot of things. So the rules that we were supposed to obey on our own worlds are not the same rules that we need to obey here. So,’ she went on even more slowly, each word like something strange and wonderful she was taking out of a chest in a hidden room. ‘I love you, and you love me, and perhaps there is no reason that we cannot be betrothed here, even though we are different kinds.’

‘I only want to be near you, Josie,’ said Tash. There was a persistence in his touch that had not been there the times before, when they had lain together before in comparative innocence. While Josie spoke he had not stopped stroking her, his upper arm moving to the bare skin of her forearm, while the lower had moved upward, sliding back and forth along the inside of her calf. His hands moved with a ceaselessness as if he wanted to make sure that she was still there, that she was still real. That all of her was still there.

‘I know you want to be near me,’ she said, breathing hard. She reached out and rubbed the soft skin of Tash’s throat. The feathers there were tiny, and the feel of it put her in mind of a chicken at the age when they were little balls of fluff. Tash’s lower hand rubbed the skin behind her knee, while the other played with her hair. She kissed his beak then, and because he could not kiss back she let out her tongue and gave his warm ivory beak a tiny lick. It had a very faint bitter flavour that was not unpleasant. She licked it again. Tash smelled stronger to her than he ever had before, and she could smell herself, an improper animal stink.

‘Are we betrothed now?’ Tash asked uncertainly.

‘I think we should say something,’ she said.

‘Yes?’ asked Tash, raising his head to look at her face.

‘I think,’ she said slowly, ‘That it would be enough to say that we will never leave each other.’ She had made this rash promise before, but had never felt what it might mean to her. Now she did, with a force like she had run at full tilt into a wall, and it took her breath away.

‘I will never leave you, Josie,’ said Tash.

‘We should not rush,’ said Josie, wanting very much to rush. ‘We should have some sort of ceremony. And we cannot really be betrothed unless-‘

‘I will never leave you, Josie,’ said Tash again, with a burning intensity in his voice, as if he thought they were going to be torn apart at any moment.

‘I will never leave you, Tash,’ said Josie after a moment in which she seemed to hang in midair, like she was leaping into a pool from a high place. Her heart sang with a strange exultation. It was a crazy thing to do. By all the rules she had known before, it was not only crazy, but wicked: but this was not her world. In some far corner of the castle precariously balanced blocks of stone fell with a crash. She found that her hands were clutching him too tightly, like she was holding on for dear life, and she forced them to relax.

‘Now we are supposed to kiss,’ said Josie, and kissed Tash’s beak with her mouth open, holding her lips to it for a long minute and tasting the bitterness of it. She could feel herself starting to tremble, and Tash opened his beak a tiny bit; Josie darted her tongue in and tasted the wet sharpness inside, then sat up.

‘Is it done?’ asked Tash.

Josie rubbed Tash’s shoulder firmly in a sign of affirmation. ‘It is done. So we can sleep together, and bathe together, and we will know it is not wrong.’ Tash’s arms wrapped Josie gently. ‘I am glad you will never leave me. I am glad that we can do those things.’

‘Me too,’ said Josie. She was unable to stop trembling, so after a minute of being held to Tash’s chest and stroked with his free hand she pulled a little away from him and sat up.

‘My Josie?’ asked Tash, a little uncertainly.

Josie pulled her nightdress off over her head, then burrowed back under the blankets and pressed herself against Tash’s chest. It felt so good to feel skin next to skin, flesh next to flesh. It was something she had wanted all her life, she realised: to touch someone. She held her hands against his chest and buried her face in it, drinking in the scent of him. She wanted to drink him in, to be drunk herself, to be touched all over and to touch him all over. One of Tash’s giant almost-human hands rubbed Josie’s shoulderblades, while another cradled her from underneath, and from his hands something like an electric current sang through her body, the same exultation of being poised in midair as at the instant she made her rash promise.


How like a proper Mistess of Telmar she looks, Tash thought with pride, when Josie pulled her nightdress off and he saw the ruby key lying on the white skin of her chest. How splendid a thing it was to serve her, and love her, and be hers.

As Tash had touched Josie, and as she touched him, he had felt the same sense of exhilaration he had felt when he first touched her tear-streaked face. It grew and grew, and he felt spun and tumbled about inside, as if he was a pool of water being tossed about by the thrashings of some great mire-beast. She had promised that they would be together – whatever the lion said, they would be together, he vowed – but he needed to hold on tight to the reality of Josie, to feel her warm flesh, her long hair the colour of new grith stalks, her wet lips, the hot comforting moistness of her breath. The more Tash touched Josie the more he wanted to keep on touching her. He touched with a particular fervour the parts of Josie that she had not let him touch before, the parts that were not allowed before they were betrothed. It was good to run his hand up from thigh to neck along her back without running into cloth, to feel the soft lumps of flesh on her chest with the hard lumps at the ends, the curious puckering of her navel, the damp valley between her buttocks, this fringe of hair at the bottom of her belly that was so curiously unlike the hair on her head. And she smelled so very good. It was good to have so much of her smell so close to him, to have her rub it over his skin.

Josie kissed Tash’s chest, and darted out her tongue to taste it, and as she did it sent little shocks of wild joy through him, as if the mire beast that was tossing about the pool that was Tash had thrashed its tail. Something strange was happening to him. He could feel blood flowing to places in his body in ways it had not before, things swelling and moving within him without him willing them to do so.

‘I should still like to know if you were really a boy,’ Josie murmured to Tash, kissing his chest again.

‘How can you tell?’ he asked.

‘Between your legs,’ she told him. ‘Are you like me, or different?’

‘I think we must be the same,’ he said. ‘I always thought we looked the same, when I saw you without your clothes.’

‘Oh?’ said Josie.

Tash abruptly took a hand away from Josie’s thigh and felt between his legs. He felt different than he usually did. ‘I feel strange.’


Josie inched down Tash’s body to check for herself. Her hands slid from his chest to his belly, then to the thicker feathers above the junction of his legs, then to what he had between them. ‘I think you are right,’ she said, feeling a little of the same bewilderment she had felt when she had fallen from one world into another. ‘You are a girl after all, and not a boy.’ She could not help being disappointed and a little stupid, yet still felt more excited than she had ever been before. A small part of Josie outside herself laughed at herself.

‘That feels strange,’ Tash said, in a voice full of wonder and confusion. ‘Please do not stop.’

Feeling very strange herself, Josie gave Tash a cautious rub, then another, and then it was suddenly very clear that Tash was, indeed, a boy and not a girl. Tash suddenly threw his limbs about in a way quite unlike his usual gentle manner, making an unearthly hissing sound, and Josie had to roll away from him to avoid being struck.

‘You are a boy, after all,’ she said, and could not help herself from laughing. She kissed Tash’s chest.

‘Please do not stop,’ asked Tash.

Josie did not stop. Tash tried to avoid throwing his limbs about, but was unable to keep them quite still, so Josie grabbed tightly onto Tash’s thigh with both legs so she would not be knocked over.

‘Gentle, Tash, gentle,’ said Josie. ‘Dear Tash, gentle.’

She clung to Tash with her hands and with her legs, skin against feathered skin, and she kept on clinging to Tash. She felt like she was being carried along by a great wave, further and further out to sea.

The words of the first song Josie had heard the gazelles sing ran through her head.

In the tale of Love there are times

Other than the past, the present and the future;

Times for which no names have yet been coined.

Love is the light of life.

Love is the fire of life.

More, more, more: the waves were pounding at her, drawing her down, throwing her up, tumbling her head over heels. Josie loosened her grip on the still shuddering Tash and slipped off of him onto the blankets, her mind and body filled with a delicious sensation of warmth.

Abruptly, her eyes filled with tears. ‘Well, that’s torn it,’ she said to herself. It was wrong by the rules of her own world, she told herself fiercely, but not here in this new world. Here the humans married young. And there was no one else here in Telmar, just her and Tash, Tash and Josie.

‘That was very strange,’ said Tash, putting his arms around her. He touched a hand gently to her damp face. ‘You feel like everything that is good. Are you alright?’

Josie could not bring herself to talk, not then, but just buried her face in Tash’s shoulder and kissed it, taking deep breaths of the familiar smell of him. This seemed to reassure him that she was indeed alright.

‘I do love you,’ she said after a little while, when the tears had stopped flowing. ‘You feel like everything that is good, too.’

She lay there on Tash’s shoulder for what could have been a few seconds or half an hour, the thoughts in her head stubbornly resisting to form words.

‘Come, dear Tash,’ she said at last. ‘We should have a wash.’