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At the feast, Alva sat on Kintaro's right. This was a very good sign, as only a choice few ever got the honour. Alva's wine was poured by a good-looking dark-eyed slave youth, stark naked, and Alva wondered lazily whether he might get over his aversion to inept lovemaking and filthy habits of the steppe-dwellers, at least for tonight. With a sigh, he decided that he could not. Chevalier Ahayrre fancied the kind of delicacy and charm that was clearly beyond the nomads. The very first Essanti warrior who had crawled into his tent at night, began by yanking off his pants and setting his greedy mouth on Alva, like a starving man gulping down a piece of bread. Alva was polite, but firm. He kicked the visitor out. All the others, who, in the Essanti tradition, offered themselves to the chieftain's guest, met with the same fate. Though, come to think of it, some had been beddable enough.

Alva looked reflectively at the crowd partying by the fires. They were certainly a handsome race. Tall, slender, copper-skinned; high cheekbones, narrow faces and slanted eyes, long black hair worn loose or braided. Many youths wore nothing but loincloths, showing off their strong muscled bodies without an ounce of fat, hardened by the harsh life out here. If only they washed at least once a month and were a little less vulgar. Then Alva might not say no to a roll on the grass. He was only twenty seven, famous for being sexually voracious and did not discriminate between men and women. In fact, that is precisely why he had been sent to the nomads whose ways were well known.

Too bad the Trianess court was into modesty and fidelity for the past few years. The glamorous Chevalier Ahayrre was even finding himself with a dearth of partners, not something he had experienced since the age of fifteen. So at first he was only too happy to go on this mission. But why, oh, why, had no-one warned him about the stinking pelts, the greasy hands wiped without the help of napkins (not that there were any napkins) or the hideous smell of fermented mare's milk the nomads drank by the pitcher and called kumiss. The Essanti also seemed completely unfamiliar with the concept of using water to wash.

At first, Alva wondered how they managed to hunt. The way they stank, all the animals would run away from them. But over the past few weeks Alva witnessed the process in every gory detail: before the hunt, the Essanti would strip and smear themselves with mud, head to toe. Yuck! Alva shuddered, remembering the vile sight. Not surprising that none of the handsome filthy youths had stirred him.

He caught himself staring, sighed and looked away from Kintaro. The Essanti chief resembled a young god. At least, he was built like one. He was younger than Alva, but had been already chosen chief on account of his valour. Alva Ahayrre had never seen Kintaro in battle, but seeing him hunt and fight the others was enough to know that he was an unrivalled rider and swordsman.

Kintaro, fanart by Ozarielle

The Essanti prized fighting skills and physical perfection above everything else

The Essanti prized fighting skills and physical perfection above everything else. This made sense, as it was the chieftain who led the army into the battle and fought at its forefront. Alva wondered if Kintaro might be interested in something more intimate, and if that was why he delayed the negotiations. Maybe here it was customary to carry out diplomatic missions in bed. Fine, thought Alva, he would get over his fastidiousness for the sake of his country's glory and Kintaro's looks. He could always close his eyes, spread his legs and think of Creede. Being pissed drunk would help too.

Not that Kintaro made any overtures, even if he occasionally cast sultry glances at Alva. Even now, when the Chevalier raised his head, he was caught by the Chief's insistent gaze.

"Are you enjoying the feast, valiant Alva Ahayrre?" he asked. The question was coupled with a lewd once-over.

"The feast is splendid, valiant Kintaro," answered Alva ceremoniously. He noted that he had been promoted from "noble" to "valiant," also a good sign. He must have acquitted himself well during the hunt and the fighting trials.

Kintaro nodded at the cup-bearing slave. "Do you like him? You can take him into your tent."

"Thank you, but I am not in the mood."

"Perhaps it is women you prefer. I can order one or two fetched for you."

Alva pictured their women and felt sick. "I thank you for the generous offer, but must decline as well. I am not in the mood for women today either."

Kintaro's face remained impassive, and Alva could not tell how his obstinacy was received. The Chief had gone on staring at Alva for a bit, then shrugged and turned away.

Alva went back to contemplating the feast. Wine, kumiss and hooch flowed freely; bison carcasses roasted over the fires and were gradually getting stripped to the bone. In places, half-naked warriors were kissing and groping. Alva suspected that the feast would soon turn into an orgy. He sincerely hoped to slip away before the party was in full swing, otherwise he would not be safe from the drunken lust. He might have diplomatic immunity, but it would hardly extend this far. He might also have a layer or two of magical protection, but it would generally work against an attack on his life, not his virtue.

Thank heaven Essanti did not rape. A woman or a slave would be considered nothing more than an object, so they would be used, not raped. A warrior of equal prowess, on the other hand, had to agree to lovemaking explicitly. Just as well, or Alva's hoity-toity ways would have gotten him into trouble long ago. He could handle a street-fight, and was a match for any five thugs in one go. But the rabble-rousers he'd toss aside like trash did not even compare to the war-hardened Essanti. With a slight shudder Alva realized that he would be powerless before Kintaro's steely strength.

The nomads had to find the North's ambassador very attractive. Alva was delicate, slim, with small hands and feet and sun-kissed skin. His green eyes were clear emeralds, and wild flame-colored curls fell over his shoulders. Of course, he was no longer the fifteen-year old boy who once bewitched the Trianess court, but he still liked what he saw in the mirror. His numerous lovers were still generous with compliments.

Alva was getting fed up. Mainly, he was tired of exercising self-restraint in the midst of this free-for-all. The bronzed bodies looked surprisingly attractive in the flickering firelight. Alva was far enough away, and neither stench nor filth bothered him. The lengthy abstinence of the two-week journey and the following two weeks of camp life was getting to Alva. He was desperate now to wrap up the negotiations and return to Trianess. He did not have a lover at the moment, but Chevalier Amargo Aguirre was ardently courting him. Alva knew that the handsome fortyish courtier would quickly persuade him to surrender.

Thinking hard of cold showers, Alva glanced vaguely at the men around him and sipped his wine. Later, much later, he often went back to this moment, when a sea of tanned bodies writhed before him and he had no premonition of what would happen next, when the crowd parted to reveal a figure crouched by one of the tents.

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