A Budding Romance

I primarily right non-erotic military sci-fi, however, I am currently working on a large fantasy work that may or may not include erotic moments within the book. The stories I submit to Novel Trove are modified excerpts from my Fantasy work.

  ...

  Raphe locks eyes with her again.  The deep brown irises bore into him and he feels his temperature rise.  Raphe nods slightly to her before picking up his wine glass and drinking deeply.  Around them both, the dragons continue to feast.  Oh they wear their human forms, but there is a primal and predatory edge to them that would mark them as dragons without their unnatural hair and eye color.

  They sit at a long stone table grown from the living rock.  Even the chairs they rest upon had been formed from rock with the magic of The Court of Spring.  The table rests, after all, in the base of the rock spire that is the palace of the Queen of Spring.  Raphe breaks eye contact with the woman and shifts his gaze to the Queen.  As the Paladin who completed his test here today Raphe’s seat is the one of honor, just to the Queen’s right.  She is in animated discussion with Raphe’s Mentor, Master Rebekkah.  The two women’s friendship goes back centuries. 

  The Queen has the features of those of her court.  In her human form she is a softly beautiful woman with long golden hair.  Despite her millennia of service to The Maker, she carries the beauty of eternal youth.  As an embodiment of Spring her pale skin carries a pink flush on her cheeks and lilies form a green and white crown upon her head.  As a dragon her blonde hair shines with a metallic luster and her irises look to be crafted from twenty four karat gold.  Also, as a dragon there she exudes an aura of power and nobility that give her soft looks a charge that Raphe finds incredibly erotic.  The Queen clothes herself in a long dress with a low waist, high neckline and a long straight skirt. The cut of the dress truly accentuates her figure, the epitome of nubile fertility.  The fabric looks like the softest cotton and is the color of newly sprouted grass.  Embroidered in golden thread, flowers and vines decorate the dress from the waist up. 

  The Queen shifts her gaze to Raphe and in her melodious tone addresses the young Paladin, “You did quite well today Squire, your strength is a testament to the skill of your mentor.”

  Quickly Rebekkah, a Master Paladin and his mentor, states, “I do believe his strength is a testament to his strength, Your Majesty.”  She locks eyes with Raphe.  “He has proven a most apt pupil.”  She smiles at Raphe warmly.  Her hair falls in black wavy curls around a slightly heart shaped face and she has eyes the color of warm caramel.  Her skin is a light brown, just enough to really notice, and glows with a healthy luster.  She also smells exotic, a mixture of woman and water, of good clean earth and fresh breezes, with the faintest hint of wood smoke.  For clothing she wears a buff white tunic with designs on the chest and buff white trousers tucked into calf high brown leather boots.  Also of brown leather, a broad brown belt wraps around her waist and over the tunic. In addition to the symbols denoting the Paladin Order stitched upon her chest, she has quatrefoils, embroidered in black at her tunic cuffs, to indicate her rank of Master Paladin.  There is a strong masculine edge to her uniform, but her figure shows through enough that the garments add to her attractiveness with their formality. Normally a strong woman like Rebekkah would entice Raphe, however with her it is different.  He does not find her desirable, just pleasant.  A crucial distinction as a romantic entanglement with her would likely disrupt her role as his mentor.

  The dragon to Raphe’s right speaks up, “Oh I believe there are other fine qualities our young Squire possesses.”  Raphe looks over at the dragon in man form.  Duke Kiipluu’ had assisted with the young Paladin’s training.  And despite his smiling demeanor and helpful assistance to Raphe, the dragon is a powerful noble of Belit’s court.  He wears a uniform in harmony with his queen’s dress.  The pants, jacket, and vest are a deep emerald and the lapels, cuffs, and epaulets are a deep gold.  He has golden hair as well, cut short and he sports a magnificent handlebar mustache which sits atop a masculine yet youthful face.

  Though Raphe only met him a few days prior, he felt himself on very friendly terms with the noble dragon.  Raphe grins and replies, “Oh I’m sure you also had a great deal to do with my success, Your Grace.”

  A raptorial grin spreads across Duke Kiipluu’s face and he returns, “Oh, but of course.”

  Everyone laughs including the woman across from him.  She pipes up, “Somehow I expect your role might have been a little less than your boast, Your Grace.”

  Instead of taking offense the Duke smiles at the dragon across from Raphe and says, “Ahhh, Dame Ahati, you were ever the perspicacious one.”  He winks at her, “One of the things I always liked about you.”  Turning to Raphe Duke Kiipluu’ adds, “I do not believe I have formally introduced you to the good baronet,” Raphe feels excitement bubble up within him as Kiipluu’ gestures with a flourish, “May I present Baronet Ahati-Waqrat of the Babbling Brook in the Demesne of Flora.”

  Raphe nods at her and for the thousandth time this feast, takes in her appearance.  She wears a straight-necked drop-waisted dress that hugs her figure.  It is a deep green and heavily embroidered in white thread.  The embroidery runs in vines up the skirt and blossoms into flowers about the waist.  Her skin is a luxurious olive and she has a beautiful oval face.  There is natural rose to her high cheeks and her full lips also bear a rose hue.  Her eyes have dark brown irises that remind Raphe of espresso.  Her long hair is not ornately styled and it simply hangs down in natural waves.  She is the most human looking dragon he has ever seen.  He responds to the introduction by saying:  “I am Raphael Michael Jimenez, Squire of the Paladin Order.”

  She too appears to examine Raphe closely.  He knows he is not the worst looking man to come from Los Angeles.  The Mexican heritage of his parents gives him light coffee tones to his skin and causes his raven black hair to shine with a natural luster.  There is a touch of beauty to his angular face, a gift from his mother, and his frame is draped in lean, powerful muscle, a gift from his father.  Dame Ahati replies, “I do believe I am aware of that, as your successful test is the purpose for this feast.”

  Blushing, Raphe breaks her gaze and looks down at his food.  He feels quite foolish now.  Looking back up he finds that Ahati still gazes at him and her expression becomes warmer when she adds, “Of course I do appreciate the courtesy of a proper introduction.”

  Duke Kiipluu’ chuckles and nudges Raphe, “Do not let her discomfit you, Squire.”  Easy for him to say, Raphe thinks as he again locks his gaze upon her beautiful and powerful eyes.

  …

  Eventually the feast comes to an end.  The Queen looks around the table before saying to Rebekkah:  “The afternoon waxes late.  I have things that I must attend to.”  She looks down the table and knocks her fork against her wineglass.  Everyone falls silent and looks at the Queen. In a louder voice she states, “I must bid you farewell.  Pray continue your merriment.”  With that she stands and everyone at the table rises.  She presses a hand to Rebekkah’s and nods at her before departing.  Everyone remains standing until she makes her way out of the room at the rear of the spire.

  When she is gone, many people begin leaving, while others return to their seats.  Rebekkah looks at Raphe and says:  “I have nothing further for you today, Squire.  I recommend you take the rest of the day for your own pleasure.”  She looks around.  “I will expect you at the Noble Citadel at mid-morning tomorrow.”

  The statement surprises Raphe.  He knows he is supposed to be pushing his training.  He looks at Rebekkah seriously and says:  “What of the Grand Master’s orders.”

  Rebekkah returns the serious gaze and replies:  “Do not concern yourself with that.”  She shakes her head.  “You have learned far more than enough for your time here.  If you do not rest and seek to enjoy yourself, you will lose that which gives a Paladin their strength.”  She smiles at him and reaches her hand across the table.  Raphe grasps it in a firm shake and she says:  “Tomorrow.  Mid-morning.”  Raphe nods and she breaks the grip and heads for the exit.

  For a moment Raphe stands at the table staring at nothing.  What will he do?  In his days off in L.A. Raphe would go surfing or hang out with his friends.  Here he has no friends other than Rebekkah and Duke Kiipluu’ and simply has no idea where to find a decent swell.

  The woman who sat across from Raphe has moved around the table and she touches his shoulder gently.  He turns towards her and she says:  “If you have no plans, Squire, may I offer to show you around the Demesne of Flora?” 

  Raphe regards her for a moment before replying, “That sounds most pleasant.”  He fights down the heat her contact had aroused in him before adding, “and please call me Raphe.”

  She laughs lightly, sending thrills down Raphe’s spine, and responds:  “I do not it think it proper for any but The Four to call you by your given name.  You of the Orders carry far too much authority.”  She curtsies, “But you may refer to me as simply Ahati if you wish.”

  She seems so nice, thinks Raphe.  He faces her fully and says:  “If you will pardon me, you do not seem much like any of the other dragons I have met.”  He hastily adds, “You’re far more pleasant.”

  “Please do not judge us too harshly, Squire,” she replies.  She looks around at the other dragons.  “We live for a powerfully long time.  And things change so little here in Kirib Shame.”  She looks back at Raphe.  “Furthermore, we are not imbued with the same gifts that you humans possess.”  She fingers her skirt.  “We create so very little of our own.  Even my dress comes from human ingenuity, we simply copy it.”  She meets Raphe’s eyes.  “In such an existence we rebel against the monotony, and as we are dragons this often takes an aggressive form.”

  Raphe wants to ask another question, but Duke Kiipluu’ walks up.  He bows to Raphe and Dame Ahati curtsies to the Duke.  Kiipluu’ says:  “Would you care to join me and my fellows this afternoon, Squire Raphe?”

  Out of the corner of Raphe’s eye he sees Dame Ahati’s face freeze for a moment before composing itself into a pleasant expression.  He smiles at the Duke and replies:  “I’m afraid I already have other obligations, Your Grace.”  Raphe is really beginning to sound like everyone else around here, he thinks.

  The Duke glances over at Dame Ahati.  With perfect polish he replies:  “I understand completely.  Perhaps another time?”

  Raphe reaches out his hand and the Duke grasps it.  He says:  “I promise, Your Grace.”  They break their grip and Raphe grins.  “I mean it, Kiipluu’.  I really want to come back and hang with you and your friends.  I know I’ll have a great time.”  There, take that stupid formal speech, Raphe exults.

  “Excellent,” Kiipluu’ replies.  He bows and adds:  “Soon if you would, Squire.”  He steps off regally.

  Raphe turns to Ahati and sees that she looks at him in slight confusion.  “I was not aware that you had other obligations, Squire.”

  His face scrunches in confusion as he replies:  “I thought you were going to show me your Demesne?”

  Relief crosses her face as Ahti returns:  “I imagined that you would have considered the Duke’s authority more of an obligation.”

  “Oh that’s just bunk,” bunk Raphe thinks, this place is really getting to me.  “You asked first and I said yes, that’s all that matters.” The Paladin grins, “Besides, I can’t imagine a better way to spend the afternoon.”

  Ahati blushes slightly before saying:  “You do me a great courtesy, Squire.”

  “It’s Raphe,” he replies.  “When would you like to go?”

  “Is now acceptable?” Ahati asks.

  Raphe nods.  “Perfectly,” he responds.

  He holds out his left arm and she places her hand into it.  Sometimes Raphe finds the courtly manner of these people restricting.  Other times he finds it delightful.  As he feels the warm weight of her hand he definitely counts this as one of the delightful times.

  The Honorable Ahati leads him from the spire and they follow the steps down into the courtyard.  After a few dozen feet she releases her grip and turns to Raphe.  “There is plenty of space here to transform.  If you would follow me, please.”  She takes a dozen more steps and assumes her dragon form.  Her scales are the deep brown of a rich coffee.  Raphe transforms as well, his scales gleaming the white of those of the Paladin Order, and they launch skyward.  As he alights he wonders what the afternoon holds.  For the first time in days the thought does not bring with it any apprehension.

  …

  Once airborne Ahati bends south and assumes a purposeful, yet pleasant pace.  Raphe does not follow her, he flies next to her.  As they leave the spire and its buildings behind the ground becomes rolling green hills covered in meadows and small forests riotous with the blooms of thousands different kinds of flowers.  He had yet to experience the lands of Autumn, but as much as he loves the change in leaves it is hard to imagine the place would be more beautiful than this.

  Next to him Ahati begins speaking:  “We have entered the Demesne of Flora.”  She gestures with a clawed hand.  “Below us lies the Cheerful Plain.” She smiles, showing her dagger teeth.  “My home is nearby; would you care to see it?  I am quite proud of it.”

  “Sure,” shoots Raphe.

  Ahati banks sharply and begins a slalom towards the ground.  He matches her and they weave around each other.  Raphe laughs as they swoop about.  He says:  “This is so much fun.”

  Ahati barrel rolls over him and laughs delightedly.  How old is she?  Raphe thinks.  She seems so carefree.  “Thank you ever so much for coming, Raphe.”  She says.  “I have grown weary of spending my time with stuffy old dragons.”  She laughs again and banks sharply.  Raphe turns tightly with her and she pulls hard in the opposite direction.  Raphe tries to pull inside her turn.  In a cheerful voice she says:  “Oh I think not, Squire.  I was born to this form.”

  “Is that soo…” Raphe returns and cuts even more sharply.  Ahati laughs joyfully and begins a series of cuts and twists in the air.  Raphe tries to outmaneuver her.  This is amazing thinks, Raphe.  He had already begun to take flying for granted.  It was always rush to here, or rush to there.  When they were not rushing Rebekkah was filling his head with knowledge and probing him with questions.  Not so with Ahati, he delights.

  Ahati smiles at Raphe, even in her dragon form Raphe can tell the smile holds much meaning.  She looks down and says:  “Oh, we have gone too far.”  She banks around tightly and Raphe follows.  They swoop in low over a small forest and Ahati lands in a field of wildflowers just beyond.  Raphe lands next to her.  She regards him for a moment before saying:  “Your dragon form is quite comely, even for a Paladin.”  Before Raphe can process that thought she assumes her human form.  Raphe matches her and she gestures behind him.  “My home.”

  Raphe turns.  He is stunned into silence.  Her house lies at the edge of the forest and seems to be made from the very trees.  Two rows of oaks have been bent over each other and their branches interlock tightly forming a curved roof.  The front wall is composed of smaller oaks growing tightly together and their branches mold themselves into the roof.  There are two windows set on either side of a door formed from the living wood.  Two rows of sculpted rose bushes in full bloom with every color imaginable line a short path that leads to the door and Raphe breathes in their beautiful aroma.  Along the front wall jasmine vines crawl up the oaks and display hundreds of their tiny white flowers.  Raphe finally manages to say:  “Amazing.”

  Grabbing his hand with both of hers Dame Ahati starts pulling him towards the door.  Her touch sends a flame of desire shooting up in his core.  Raphe tries to quench it while she says:  “Wait till you see the interior.”  He meekly follows the exuberant woman as she pulls him.  They work their way up the path and reach the door.  She lets go with one of her hands and waves it, summoning a little magic.  The door opens and she pulls him inside.

  Amazing is not a good enough word to describe the inside, Raphe thinks.  The walls are the other side of the live trees and above his head leaves mix with the branches in delightful patterns.  Flowers of many types grow from holes in the trees and they add every color of the rainbow to the décor.  The floor is a luxuriant carpet of short soft grass that gleams an emerald green.  The left side of the house is composed of bookshelves, growing from the trees.  Other trees form a pair of chairs that half face a table set between them and half face the rest of the house.  The right side of the house has many cabinets, again grown from the living wood.  On the far right a hearth lies black and dormant.  In front of the cabinets bent cherry trees form a waist high island that runs for several feet.  The top has been stripped of its bark and is polished smooth, with each tree forming the planks.  At the far end of the island Raphe spots a wooden washbasin and pitcher.  A ridiculously large and comfortable looking bed extends from the center of the back wall.  The headboard and frame look to be formed from tightly intertwined and very much alive chestnut trees.

  Raphe turns to Ahati.  She looks at him nervously.  “What do you think?” she asks.

  “It’s glorious,” replies Raphe, his voice quiet with awe.

  She beams at him, “I am so very glad that you like it.  Squire Raphe”

  Raphe interjects, “Please call me Raphe, Ahati.”

  Ahati smiles with some heat and says “Very well, since we are in my home I suppose the world shall not fall. “  She curtsies again and says, “You shall be simply Raphe while we are here.” 

  Raphe had learned much in his time beyond the Veil.  But he had not learned much about the magic of those of the Demesne of Flora.  He asks, “I think I can guess, but what element do you have sovereignty over?”

  She extends her hand and Raphe can feel her summon her power.  It has a vibrant feel to it.  At his feet an oak tree sprouts from the ground and grows to chest height.  “We of the Demesne of Flora exercise power over all plants.  We cannot create new life; if there had not been an acorn below your feet I could not have summoned the tree forth.  However, we can bend any living vegetation to our will.  Can you imagine what we can create with such power?”  She waves her hand and the tree shrinks back into the ground.

  Raphe looks around pointedly.  He says:  “I see it all around me.  It’s amazing.”

  Smiling Ahati replies:  “Again I thank you for your kind words.  However, any of the Demesne of Flora can craft a place such as this.  The only way it becomes special is if it has existed for a great many years.”  She shrugs, obviously faking nonchalance.

  “That’s just stupid,” Raphe replies with some heat.  Ahati blinks in confusion.  “Would another of the Demesne of Flora create it like this?”  He gestures to the house.  “Would they choose precisely the same kind of trees?  Would they decorate the ceiling in the same patterns?  Would they choose the same flowers for color?”  Raphe shakes his head.  “I’m pretty sure the answer is no.  This place is uniquely yours, and that is what gives it value.”  He looks away.  “Silly dragons.  You value form over substance entirely too much.”  Looking back over at Ahati Raphe can see that she is fighting a strong emotion.  “Did I upset you?” Raphe asks with contrition.

  Shaking her head Ahati chokes out:  “No.  Oh no.  That is simply the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me.”

  “Well if you’re gonna get all upset when I say nice things,” Raphe shoots back with a grin.  “I can just say mean stuff if you want.”  He fakes a scowl.  “This chair is really uncomfortable.”

  Ahati bursts out laughing.  She says through the laughter:  “I always heard that humans were different.  However, I had no idea how it would really be to meet one.  It is more wonderful than I imagined.”

  Something occurs to Raphe.  He asks:  “How old are you?”

  Her laughter grinds to a halt and she pulls herself up in her chair.  “Why would you ask that?” Ahati asks.

  Raphe senses trouble so he carefully forms a response, “It seems you have never been to Earth.  Your place is new, and during the feast you mentioned that today was your first time at the Court of Spring.  Furthermore, you’re so much fun.  I just thought you might be a young dragon or something.”

  “I am no child,” Ahati shoots back with a hint of anger.

  Raphe’s eyes widen.  He says:  “Of course not.  That’s not at all what I meant.”  He searches for words.  “Look I don’t know a lot about dragons.  But, for us humans there are two ways to look at youth.  One is the physical.  Youth is prized for its appearance.  That’s kind of depressing actually, older people, especially women, try so hard to look younger than they are instead of being comfortable in their skin.  But the other is mental.  Youth can be associated with modes of thought.  Sometimes this is an insult, implying you lack wisdom.  But, often it is a compliment.  It means you are more fun loving, more carefree, more willing to drop work and just go do something crazy.  My parents were like that.”

  Relaxing into her chair Ahati says:  “I believe I acted hastily in my upset.  I now understand that you were complimenting me, although carefree is not a word that is generally used positively with dragons.”  She shakes her head.  “I am just sensitive about this because I very recently reached my twenty-first birthday.  I am so very young and I do not wish to be minimized because of it.”

  Raphe fails to hide his shock, “You’re younger than me?”  Raphe had been celebrating his twenty-sixth birthday when all of this began a few short weeks ago.”

  Sighing Ahati replies:  “I hope you do not find this displeasing.”

  “That’s so cool,” Raphe shoots.

  “I fail to see what temperature has to do with it,” Ahati replies.  Before Raphe can respond her eyes widen.  She adds hastily:  “Oh, you are using American slang.”  She looks embarrassed.  “You must think me so naïve.  I have not been to Earth, but I have read much about it, including contemporary fiction.  I am simply not accustomed to hearing American Slang spoken.”

  Grinning slyly Raphe returns:  “Nah, it’s cool.”

  Smiling back Ahati asks:  “How old are you?”

  “I’m twenty-six,” Raphe answers.  He wonders what she will think of that.

  “Interesting,” she replies enigmatically.

  “What does that mean?” Raphe shoots back.

  “You seem so much older,” Ahati replies.

  Raphe leans back and says:  “You grow up pretty quick in Twenty-First century L.A.”

  Ahati leans towards him and says:  “Please, tell me about it.”

  “Growing up?” asks Raphe.

  “All of it,” she replies excitedly.  “I wish to hear what it is like to be human.  I wish to know what Los Angeles is like outside of books.”

  Raphe smiles.  “On one condition,” he says.

  “What?” Ahati asks.

   "That you tell me what it is like growing up as a dragon,” Raphe shoots back.  “And you tell me all about Kirib Shame.”

  “It would be my pleasure,” she returns.

  Raphe leans back and closes his eyes.  He thinks back to his earliest memories.  He starts:  “When I was a kid …”

  The next several hours are enthralling for Raphe.  Despite her youth he learns that Ahati has a much better grasp on human history than Raphe.  She also understands human psychology very well, at least in the abstract.  Where he entertains her most is translating her broader understandings into more concrete and personal examples.  At the same time he learns that dragon childhood is quite stilted.  There are moments of fun, but as Kirib Shame’s aristocracy, propriety weighs in to every childhood experience for dragons.  She spent entirely too few of her twenty-one years having fun, in Raphe’s opinion.  He also gets some specifics about Ahati.  Despite the stilted nature of her upbringing he learns that Ahati has a deep and delightful sense of humor.  She also seems bound and determined to truly enjoy the life given to her.  It drives many of her decisions.  Something Ahati realizes as she also seems incredibly introspective.  Raphe appreciates her introspection.  He would like to think that he is introspective as well, a gift of his mother’s profession, and there is nothing an introspective person appreciates more than another introspective person.  Not surprisingly, as the hours pass by, he finds that he enjoys Ahati’s company, very much.

  …

  “I didn’t mind doing accounting too much,” Raphe says.  “But, to be honest I’m kind of glad those monsters walked into the restaurant a few weeks ago.”  He looks around.  “I like it here.  It’s beautiful, the people are fascinating, and the magic.”

  Ahati returns:  “I understand why you would find the magic interesting.  However, I grew up with it.  Your description of smartphones sounds just as magical to me.”

  Raphe grins.  “Well, if you could have asked my papi, he would have pointed out that humans of a hundred years ago would have found them equally magical.”  His stomach rumbles.  This distracts the both of them and they look around.  Dusk has fallen outside and it has become quite dark in the house.  With his dragon senses Raphe can still make everything out, but he craves light anyway.

  “Oh, dear me,” Ahati says.  “I am such a terrible hostess.  Please allow me to prepare a meal.”

  Raphe cocks his head and says:  “What say we make it together?  I can show you some of my abuela’s recipes.”

  Standing Ahati replies:  “I accept your offer.  I find that I would like to see you prepare food.”  She gestures to the door and says:  “Would you care to accompany me to the garden?”

  Raphe stands and stretches mightily.  He returns:  “I would like nothing more.”

  She leads him to the door and opens it with her magic.  They step outside and she heads down the path.  The twilight seems to fade fast and in the gloaming he sees fireflies dancing about everywhere.  The rose bushes give off their delightful fragrance, and the wind rustles the trees behind them.  With a beautiful woman walking by his side he realizes that it is one of the most pleasant experiences of his life.  Furthermore, the initial physical attraction he felt towards Ahati has now been augmented by an intellectual one, brought about by their hours long conversation.  He looks over at her and sees that she is concentrating on following the path.  She is incredibly erotic and alluring thinks Raphe.  He looks away.  She’s a dragon, stop looking at her like that, his conscious mind tells him.

  At the end of the path she walks to the right.  Soon they happen upon neat rows of plants.  She turns to Raphe and asks:  “What vegetables would you like?”

  “I could really use some tomatoes, onions, Jalapeños, cilantro, and if you have pinto beans that would be great,” Raphe replies.

  She places her finger against her lips in thought.  It’s adorable thinks Raphe.  Stop it, he tells himself.  After a moment she begins walking among the plants.  “I think I have everything but the Jalapeños.  Would yellow bell pepper suffice?”

  “It’s not that spicy,” muses Raphe.  “However, beggars can’t be choosers; I’ll work with whatever you got.”  Ahati begins waving her hands over the plants.  Some of them grow rapidly, flower, and bear fruit right before Raphe’s eyes.  “That’s just so neat,” he says.

  She smiles at Raphe shyly and says:  “Thank you, Raphe.”  She gathers up her skirt and begins picking vegetables into its folds.  She picks tomatoes, yellow bell peppers, onions, and cilantro.  Turning to Raphe she says:  “I have dried beans inside.”

  “Perfect,” returns Raphe.  “Do you need any help carrying that stuff?”

  “Oh no, thank you,” Ahati replies.

  They head for the house and enter.  As Ahati heads to the cherry tree island Raphe summons fire and flicks it into the hearth.  While she places the vegetables on the counter she says:  “It must be wonderful to have control over the four elements.”

   The fire adds a cheery glow to the cozy house.  Raphe replies:  “Personally, I think manipulating plants is cooler.”

  “Perhaps I take it for granted,” Ahati replies.

  Raphe walks over to the table and begins helping her clean the vegetables in the washbasin.  They work in companionable silence.  When they clean the last vegetable Raphe realizes something and smacks his head with his hand.

  “What?” asks Ahati curiously.

  “The beans,” states Raphe.  “They need to soak all day to make proper refried beans.”

  “Do you not know water magic?” Ahati asks.

  “Sure,” Raphe says.  “But I don’t see …” he trails off.   Suddenly he is very excited.  He asks:  “Where are the beans?”

  Ahati walks around the island and opens a cabinet.  She pulls out a crock and sets it on the counter.  She then opens another cabinet and pulls out a crystal bowl.  She sets the bowl on the table.  Raphe grabs the crock and fills the bowl halfway full with beans.  He grabs the pitcher and fills the rest of the bowl with water.  Looking into the bowl he summons his power.  The water regards him placidly.  He feeds his power into the water and urges it to soak into the beans.  The water slowly disappears and the beans swell to fill the bowl.  Soon enough he has a bowl full of softened beans ready for cooking.  He looks over at Ahati exultantly and says:  “This Paladin thing is amazing.”

  “Yes,” she replies quietly.  “You are quite amazing.”

  Raphe blinks.  “What?” he asks.

  Ahati ignores the question and says:  “What do we do first?”

  Raphe begins explaining and soon the two of them are gathering pots and preparing food.  After the beans are put on to cook in water, they begin dicing the vegetables.  With a partner things go very quickly and soon they have a nice, if not terribly spicy, pico done.  “Do you have flour?” Raphe asks.  Ahati nods and pulls out another crock.  They begin making tortillas.  Raphe finds that he is having an excellent time.  He also notices that the two of them come into contact a great deal while working together.  He continues to feel a thrill every time they touch.  And she also seems to be seeking out his touch, implying she does as well.  Stop it, he tells himself.  They move over to the fire and begin making the tortillas.  He pulls the first finished tortilla off the pan and summons the air to cool it off.  After cooling it off just enough to eat he hands it to Ahati and says, “Try it.”

  She tears off a piece and stuffs it into her mouth.  She almost groans with pleasure.  “It’s delicious.” She says.

  Raphe grins:  “Wait till we get the whole meal done.”  He demonstrates how to do the tortillas to Ahati and she takes over.  With her finishing the tortillas, Raphe begins working with the beans.  It would be better to cook them all day, he thinks, but he will just work with what he has.  The pot of water he set them in boils nicely.  He can smell the onion and spices he added to the water as he pulls the pot off and puts it on the counter.  He drains the excess water and mashes the beans.  That done he spoons them into an oil covered skillet and carries them over to the fire.  There he cooks them in the oil, stirring occasionally.  Just as Ahati finishes the last tortilla the beans finish cooking.

  “Time to eat,” Raphe says.

  “I am extremely hungry, Raphe,” Ahati replies.

  He carries the tortillas, pico, and refried beans over to the small table and sets them down.  He says:  “We can use plates if you wish.”  He turns towards Ahati.  “However, it is fine for friends to share, if you would like.”

  Ahati grins and walks over.  She says:  “Sounds delightfully informal,” and sits in one of the chairs.

  Raphe sits opposite her and hands her a tortilla.  “It is good to do just pico or just beans,” he says.  “But I like to mix them.”  He tears off a piece of tortilla and scoops out some beans.  Using another piece of tortilla he scoops out some pico.  He folds them over each other and stuffs them into his mouth.

  Laughing Ahati says:  “My parents would never approve.”

  Raphe somehow manages a grin while he chews.  He gestures towards her and she duplicates his method.  Soon she has a mouthful of Raphe’s creation.  Her eyes widen and then close in bliss.  “Like it?” Raphe asks.

  She swallows and answers:  “It tastes even better than its aroma.”  She rips off some more tortilla and adds:  “And it smells divine.”

  “Sounds like a yes,” shoots Raphe.  Ahati simply nods and stuffs more food in her mouth.

  Being a dragon and a Paladin they eat every last bite.  When the last mouthful disappears, Raphe gets up and gathers the dirty dishes.  “I’ll clean ‘em,” he says.  “Least I can do for you sharing your afternoon with me.”

  “That seems quite unfair, Squire,” Ahati replies.  “I had one of the best afternoons of my life.  I believe it is I who am indebted to you.”

  Reaching the washbasin Raphe begins to clean the dishes.  He replies:  “Don’t be ridiculous.  I’m sure you’ve had plenty of better afternoons.”

  Standing Ahati walks over to one of the cupboards.  While she walks she replies simply:  “Oh I think not.”  She opens a cupboard and pulls out a bottle full of amber liquid.  She grabs a pair of small stemmed glasses and sets them next to the bottle.  She pulls a stopper out of the bottle and pours the liquid into the two glasses.  “I believe true absinthe is now illegal in your native land.”  She carries the glasses over to Raphe.  He has transitioned from the dishes to cleaning the mess from cooking.  She hands him a glass and adds:  “This is a great tragedy.  It is quite delicious and so very pleasing to the mind.”  She knocks her glass to his and they both down the amber liquid.  Raphe’s taste buds explode at the sharp tasting liquor, and it burns pleasantly as it slides down his throat.  “What do you think?” she asks.

  “It certainly tastes good,” Raphe replies.

  Ahati smiles and sets her glass down.  “I am happy to share this pleasure with you,” she says.  She begins putting the cleaned pans away.  In a few more moments the kitchen is completely clean.  Ahati pours them each another drink and holds up her glass. She says:  “To brave Squires.”

  Raphe shoots back:  “To delightful dragons.”

  They knock glasses and drink again.  Ahati looks at Raphe a long time after the second drink.  Raphe returns her gaze.  In the soft glow of the firelight she looks even more beautiful, thinks Raphe. He squelches that thought and puts his glass on the counter.  Ahati places hers next to his and grabs the bottle again.  Raphe says:  “Only one more please, I have a long flight ahead of me.”

  Silently Ahati fills the glasses.  She does not replace the stopper on the bottle as she sets it down.  She picks up her glass and Raphe does likewise.  “To etiquette and how it allowed me to sit across from you,” she says.

  “As it allowed me to sit across from you,” Raphe replies and they knock glasses and drink a third time.

  Raphe notices that the alcohol has begun to relax him.  He also notices there is a dreamlike edge to the feeling.  The magic of real absinthe he thinks.  Ahati remains silent, and Raphe notices that she seems uncomfortable.  He asks:  “What’s wrong?”  Ahati looks away towards the fire.  Raphe realizes that he wants to see her face.  Impulsively he reaches his hand out and gently grabs her chin.  He applies a soft pressure and she turns back to him.  Raphe feels an electric current where he touches her.  When she faces him he can no longer resist and he leans in and kisses her.

  Her lips part and she breathes deeply into him as they kiss.  It breaks down his barriers completely and suddenly he is crushing her to him.  The kiss becomes fiercer and their tongues touch.  She tastes of absinthe, cilantro, and something else indescribably wonderful.  The kiss becomes even more intense as they both pour themselves into it.  Eventually, they break the kiss and Raphe relaxes his grip, but he does not let go.  He wants to keep her close to him.  “I did not want you to leave,” Ahati says breathlessly.

  “I didn’t want to leave either,” Raphe replies equally breathlessly.  He leans in and kisses her again.  If anything it is better than the first.  Raphe is quite a bit taller than Ahati so he picks her up and sits her on the counter so her face will be more level with his.  She reaches up her hands and begins caressing his face.  Raphe sucks in her lower lip and Ahati moans quietly with pleasure.  The moan thrills Raphe and he kisses her more intensely.  Her lips are so soft and perfect he thinks.  Ahati runs her fingers through Raphes hair down to the back of his head and pulls his mouth tighter against her own.  Raphe grazes his fingers along her bare arms and over her shoulders.  His hands end up in her hair and he luxuriates in the feel of her magnificent tresses while their tongues dance.

  They break the kiss and Raphe says:  “I should probably leave.  You’re driving me crazy and I don’t want to …”

  Ahati places a finger on his lips and whispers:  “I want you to stay, and I will brook no argument on the matter.”  She pulls him closer and they begin kissing again.  Ahati kicks off her boots and wraps her legs around Raphe and pulls his hips into hers.  Raphe breaks the kiss and begins kissing down her neck.  He works his way down to her exposed collarbone.  Ahati tosses her head back and sighs with desire.  Raphe works his way across to the other collarbone and up the other side of her neck.  He then follows her jaw to her chin.  Ahati can wait no longer and presses her lips to his.  The kisses just seem to grow in intensity to Raphe.

  Grasping at his broad belt Ahati pulls it out of the buckle and lets it drop to the floor.  She releases her grip with her legs and presses her heels to the counter.  Leaning into him she pushes Raphe back a step and begins pulling up his tunic.  She does not remove it, she merely gets it high enough to run her hands underneath it and place them upon his chest.  Her hands burn delightfully and it is Raphe’s turn to moan in pleasure.

  The sound seems to energize Ahati.  She pushes him another step back as she breaks the kiss and hops to the floor.  Almost frantic she grasps his tunic and pulls it over his head.  Her hands roam over his bare chest and she says:  “You are so painfully beautiful, Raphe.”  She grasps one of his hands in both of hers and she pulls him around the counter to the bed.

  They crash into the bed on their sides kissing hotly.  Raphe pulls her closer to him and she wraps her upper leg around him and grinds her hips into his.  Raphe is almost blind with desire at this point.  However, he fights it back.  He will not do this quickly.  He is going to savor every moment and see just how crazy he can drive her.  He sweeps his hands down her back and caresses her shapely backside.  She moans again as he squeezes her buttocks gently.  He breaks the kiss and nibbles on her ear.  While he does so he whispers:  “You are the most beautiful woman I have ever met.”  It is not an idle statement.  Raphe had been progressively more smitten with Ahati as the day progressed.  Yes she was physically beautiful and Raphe would not be a man if he did not enjoy that.  But, that alone would not have interested him.  If she hadn’t been so fascinating he would have left hours ago.  She was beautiful in a complete way.  Mind, body, and spirit.

  Ahati pulls her head further back and meets his eyes.  They stare at each other for a long moment.  Finally she says:  “You really mean that?”  She seems doubtful.

  Ridiculous, thinks Raphe.  “Is it so shocking?” he asks quietly.  He pulls his hand quickly up her back and caresses her cheek.

  She continues to regard him closely.  She seems to be trying to read his soul, Raphe thinks.  She says quietly:  “My kind tends toward beauty I am told.  Yet, I see the other dragons of the court and think they are so much more beautiful with their golden hair and more pleasing faces.”

  Raphe traces the outline of her face with his hand.  He says:  “Do you want me to tell you what I really think?”

  “Yes, please,” Ahati replies with a hint of trepidation.

  Raphe returns:  “They look unreal.  They look entirely too …” Raphe grasps for the word, “much.  You look far more authentic and utterly perfect for it.”  He continues to trace her face as she stares at him, supremely vulnerable.  He can almost feel her hoping to believe him.  “However, it is not just the way you look that makes you beautiful.  There is an inner joy to you that separates you from the rest of your kind.  Even if you were plain, which you are not, that alone would make you heartstoppingly beautiful.”

  Ahati grasps his head fiercely and pulls him in for another brief but intense kiss.  She breaks it and says:  “You have a way with words, my Squire.”

  Her addition of the word “my” terrifies Raphe.  He realizes they are beginning a dance that could change both of their lives forever.  Raphe meets Ahati’s eyes and says:  “As do you, Ahati.  I’ve never been called painfully beautiful before.”  Which, Raphe admits to himself, made me feel really good.

  The dragon gazes at Raphe softly and after a moment says:  “But you are.  If you could have seen what you looked like facing down the Queen during your test.  One of The Four and you faced her like you were born to it.  There was no fear in you at all.”  Her words are rushing now.  “You bent all of the elements to your will with such grace and speed.  And the end.  I have never heard or read of such a thing.  Then you were sitting across from me laughing and joking with Her Highness as if it had been nothing more than a lark.”  She reaches her hands up and caresses Raphe’s face. “It took every bit of my courage to ask you to accompany me.  When Duke Kiipluu’ offered to spend the afternoon with you I thought for sure you would choose him.  I am but a lowly baronet.  Instead you chose me and were happy to do so.”  Her words almost tumble over each other.  “Here in my painfully new house you called it beautiful and told me it was special because I made it.  And then you were telling me the most fascinating stories and making dinner with me and …” she runs out of steam.  “You are the most beautiful man I have ever met.”

  They lean into each other and begin kissing again.  It is tender at first, the emotion of their conversation tempering their passion.  However, the emotion gives way to desire rapidly and the kiss becomes more fervent.  Raphe runs his hand slowly down Ahati’s back and over her perfect rump then down the back of her leg up towards her knee bent over Raphe.  They break the kiss and Ahati removes her leg, breaking contact with Raphe’s hand.  She sits up in the bed and grasps Raphe’s hand with both of hers.  She slides to the edge of the bed and stands.  Pulling on his hand she brings Raphe to his feet next to her.  She turns and sweeps her hair up exposing a line of buttons on the back of her dress.  Raphe bends his head and kisses her on the neck while he slowly works the buttons out of their holes.

  When he completes the last button he slides his hands through the opening in the back of her dress and caresses her naked belly.  He works his hands up to her breasts and cups them, stimulating her nipples gently.  Moaning softly Ahati leans back into Raphe.  He runs his hands over her breasts and grabs the top of the dress and begins slowly sliding it off of her.  While he does so he kisses down the center of her back.  She smells amazing, thinks Raphe.  The magic of her kind has imbued her with the scent of honeysuckle, jasmine, rose, and a million other flowers.  His kisses move further down and Raphe ends up on his knees.  The dress falls to the floor and he wraps his hands around her belly and grazes his teeth over the curves of her perfectly formed backside.  The sensation causes Ahati to pant with desire.  He turns her around and she buries her hands in his hair.  He kisses her on her hip and works his mouth across kissing just above the downy softness of her hair to the other hip.  Gripping his hair tightly Ahati whimpers with enjoyment.  Raphe places his hands on her lower back and kneads it gently.   While doing so he licks the folds of her womanhood.  The taste almost causes Raphe to pass out.  To him it is as if he is drinking the nectar of roses.  He buries his face and probes deeply with his tongue.  With one hand he caresses and squeezes her heart shaped rear and with his other he begins caressing her clitoris.  The dragon sags into him, whimpering with delight.  She begins to helplessly rock her hips into his face.  Sensing her building pleasure, Raphe shifts his mouth to her clit and thrusts two fingers past her labia and into her hot, wet, womanhood.  He curls his fingers to her G-spot and she sucks in a deep breath and holds it as she explodes in an unbelievably powerful orgasm.

  As she exhales shakily Raphe rises slowly kneading her back while he runs his mouth up her belly to one of her shapely breasts.  He gently grazes the nipple before continuing up to her neck.  Ahati shivers luxuriously.  He meets her lips and squeezes her to him.

  They crash into the bed and Raphe holds her tight to him while she comes down from her dizzying orgasm.  He stops kissing and just strokes her luxuriant hair while she takes shaky breaths.  After a few long minutes she seems to come to and grasps his head and kisses him fiercely.  She breaks the kiss and says, “That was the greatest feeling I have ever felt.”

  Before Raphe can respond Ahati  pushes  Raphe gently to the edge of the bed and helps him sit up.  She slides erotically off the bed and leans back, displaying her perfect body to Raphe’s hungry eyes.  While he drinks her in she removes his boots and socks and with his feet free she sucks on one of his toes before leaning back in towards him.  She runs her hands up his legs and begins undoing his pants.  She deftly pulls at the buttons and then slowly pulls them off.  As Raphe’s member springs free she admires it for a moment before she plunges her mouth down its length.  Her tongue feels to be everywhere at once to Raphe and he moans uncontrollably.  After a few minutes of gentle sucking and stroking she removes her mouth smiles seductively before standing.   She then pushes him down onto the bed and lies on top of him while they kiss hotly.  While their tongues duel Raphe runs his hand up and down her back following every muscle and curve.  Panting she breaks the kiss and begins nibbling on his ear.  Raphe revels in the feel of her hot breath on his ear.  He tightens his grip on her and rolls her over onto the mattress, then he raises himself on his arms and looks down at her.

  The look on her face will stay with him the rest of his life, he thinks.  She gazes at him with a mixture of desire, joy, and wonder.  Nobody had ever looked him like that before.  It is a heady thing.  He finds himself falling into her eyes.  She deserves the best, he thinks.  He bends his mouth to her neck and again lavishes her with kisses.  Ahati grasps his hair tightly and arches her back.  He kisses down to one of her breasts and nibbles on her nipple, causing her to cry out blissfully.  He works his mouth along her belly over her hip and down her thigh.  He kisses the inside of one thigh and then the other.  He works back up over the opposite hip to the opposite breast where he again nibbles on her nipple for a few luxurious moments before working up to her neck.  He raises himself up on his arms and looks down at her.  Raphe savors the moment briefly, staring into her eyes.  Ahati quivers with anticipation.  Now, he thinks.  He reaches down and spreads her legs.  She wraps them around his hips and he thrusts into her.  They both gasp.  She is so warm and inviting, thinks Raphe and he has to concentrate hard to keep from exploding right then and there.

  After a long moment he begins to slowly make love to her.  Ahati clutches him closer to her and moans quietly into his ear.  She gives herself to him completely and makes love with abandon.  It is glorious, thinks Raphe.  They move in perfect harmony with each other. Raphe’s thrusts bottom out just as she grinds her clitoris against him.  And as he pulls back she clenches her muscles at the last moment to hold him inside her.   After several delicious moments they both begin to tense.  Raphe is now raging with desire and he cannot prevent himself from picking up speed.  Ahati seems to be similarly affected and she grinds harder into him as well.  As they pick up speed they begin panting into each other’s ears.  Soon Ahati makes charged gasping sounds and suddenly goes completely rigid.  She digs her hands into Raphe’s back and breathes in rapid sharp breaths as her orgasm crashes through her with thunderous force.  Her obvious pleasure and the delicious feeling of her muscles clenching his member is more than Raphe can handle and he buries himself  deep inside her as he explodes in ecstasy, consumed in a perfect euphoria.

  Raphe collapses into Ahati.  They both collect themselves slowly, patiently.  Finally Raphe lifts himself up and lies down on his side next to her.  She snuggles into him and kisses him softly.  Raphe runs his hand gently up and down her back.  They break the kiss and Ahati says:  “That was so much better than I ever dared dream.”

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