"Before you ask," Grant said tentatively, "no, I don't know who she is."
Emily nodded. "Yeah, I'm not surprised, really. The horn had a pretty strong hold on you." She walked over to the woman in the tube. "She's gorgeous."
"She really is," Grant replied. "I wish I knew more about her."
"Do you know how to get her out of there?"
"Not a clue. No idea how she got in there in the first place, either."
Emily ran a hand over the occupied tube. It was almost impossily smooth, and cool to the touch. "Breaking it is probably a bad idea."
Grant nodded. "Mostly because we don't know what will happen. She's probably safe where she is. We ought to check with the Sage."
Emily moved to one of the empty tubes. "So this is what you were going to put me in? And Lessia?"
"I suppose I was." There was an odd expression on his face. "You'd look great in there."
The Wanderer flushed a bit. "Do you think so?" She was suddenly aware of her half-naked state. Then she laughed. "Kind of a strange thing to say, Grant. 'Hey, you'd look amazing floating naked in a glass tube.'"
"Well, it's true," he said with a shrug. "You're a very beautiful woman. So is Lessia, for that matter. And there's a certain... aesthetic appeal to the look, don't you think?"
"I think there's definitely an aesthetic appeal to the woman, not necessarily to her predicament," Emily replied.
"I'm not necessarily thinking about what comes after," Grant said, "just about how she looks now. Restful. Calm. The stasis chamber probably keeps her safe from just about anything imaginable. I suspect she's not even aging in there." He looked at the Wanderer. "Surely you can see the beauty in that."
Emily swallowed. "You have a way with words, Bard."
"Curse of the profession," he replied with a smirk. He stepped past the bedroll himself. "I suppose even however long I've spent mind-controlled on a task for relentless kidnappers, the training will reassert itself, given the chance."
"It hardly went away," Emily replied, remembering his stories from... was it just that morning they'd met? "You spoke beautifully when we met, once you were freed."
"I don't think I ever properly thanked you for that."
"I don't think that putting me in one of those, no matter how restful and calm it is, is a mark of thanks."
Grant chuckled. "If I knew how to get you in and out of one, I'd let you try it. But that's not what I had in mind."
Emily grinned and stretched tall, putting her bare upper body on display. "I see where your eyes go, Bard."
"I've hardly made a secret of it," he replied. "If you and Lessia hadn't had a goal, I'm sure we would have made some other arrangements."
"Are we maybe a little to close to the clearing from this morning?" Emily teased. "We have things to do, we shouldn't be thinking about sex."
Grant laughed loud. "It's usually one of the topmost thoughts on any Bard's mind. Most Wanderers I've met, too."
Emily blinked. "Wanderers, huh." She looked at the woman in the glass tube. "I can't say that I've explored this whole world, or even much of it, but she would stand out, at least around here."
"Really? Why?" Grant asked.
"At least in the village and the manor, I haven't seen anyone nearly that dark-skinned," Emily explained. "If she's from off-world, it would explain why no one's noticed that she's gone missing. Especially if she's a Wanderer and you grabbed her as soon as she arrived."
Grant scratched his nose. "That makes a little too much sense for my liking. If you haven't crossed paths with any dark-skinned people, she's likely not a local to the area, anyway."
"And this is a pretty isolated area, so far as I can tell. Self-contained and self-sufficient. It sounds like it was pretty messed up in the war."
"I've seen too many places like that." He frowned. "I can see the appeal, I guess, of the mindset of these kidnappers. Focusing on rebuilding in a way that they can control."
Emily's fingers unconsciously went to the cool metal band around her neck. "It's maybe a little too much control for my liking."
"Well, there's control, and there's control," Grant said. "Sometimes being in control of someone else, or under control of someone else, can be a lot of fun, but this..." He waved his hand in the direction of the tubes. "There might be some people that want this, I suppose, but it's not like the Valusians are going out of their way to find willing participants."
"That'd take longer," Emily said, surprised at her own vitriol. "Would require effort."
Grant nodded. "There's a feeling of ownership among them. They feel safe in taking what they feel owed." He let out a slow sigh. "I just want to get her out of there."
"Mhmm." Emily looked up at the beautiful woman in the glass. She made the quick motions to move her home-charm to this little camp so she could find it again. "Let's hope the Sage has an answer."
"Should I bring the bedroll and the warming crystal?" the Bard asked.
"Do you want to carry them?"
"I don't think another night or however long it will be will hurt them," Grant concluded. "Should we..."
Emily nodded, stepped around the bedroll, and wrapped Grant in a warm hug. "Let's fix this."
He responded with a strong embrace. "Any way we can."
They held each other for a while, longer than was strictly necessary. Emily was starting to feel more than comforted, even more than comfortable. She looked up at him, and he down at her. They smiled at one another.
They kissed, tenderly, gently.
"Nicer than this morning," Emily said.
"There's control, and there's control," Grant replied, reaching up to touch her cheek. "And I'm in danger of losing mine."
"Good thing you don't have that horn with you, then." Emily grinned.
Grant laughed. "It is, definitely. Hey, tell me, Emily, why didn't the horn affect you?"
She felt the collar grow warm. She raised a hand to her neck. "This protects me."
"From the horn?"
"From mind control," Emily replied.
Both his hands went to her collar. "What a beautiful and functional piece of equipment."
"Come across mind control often?"
Grant chuckled. "I'm a Bard. I dole it out more often than I take it."
Emily grinned, slipping out of his grip. "They tell us things about Bards, you know."
"When we're forced to sing for our supper, sometimes we need to loosen the purses of the donors a bit."
"And their belts, too, I'm sure."
Grant put a hand to his bare chest as if offended. "Surely not," he said, preening a bit. "This fine specimen of humanity is able to find his own bedmates without muddling with their minds."
She couldn't help laughing. He looked ridiculous. He knew that, of course, it was obviously deliberate. "Maybe some of them want that."
"Maybe some do."
"There's control..." Emily said, echoing Grant's own words, "and there's control."
"And you like control," Grant said. "Shame about that collar."
The Wanderer smiled. "Does more good than harm. Without it, Lessia and I would be in there with her." She indicated the glass tubes.
"And I'd still be possessed." He sighed dramatically. "I suppose we have to take the bad with the good."
"It's a shame, truly." Emily resisted the urge to tell him the other function of the collar. Maybe I'll let him know later. "We should get back to the Sage. I've done what I came here to do, anyway."
Grant nodded. "I suspect the direction doesn't really matter. The future is all around us."
"There's something poetic about that."
Emily held out her hand, Grant took it, and the two of them walked into the woods, following the sound of the lute.
The trip back was a lot faster, and a lot more direct. The forest melted to the plain to the hills in a way that was imperceptible while still being impossibly quick. Emily didn't even notice them passing the fence before they were walking through the garden.
Grant stopped. "I think we've arrived."
"Mhmm, we're close, definitely," Emily answered. "The house should be around somewhere."
"The music's faded."
"Because," the Sage said, coming around a bend in the path, "I sent the other Grant home."
Grant seemed about to ask a question, then thought better of it. Instead he extended a hand and approached the Sage. "I don't think we've met. Or at least, I haven't met you yet."
The Sage took his hand. "I'm glad to have you meet me," he said. "I've already met you, of course, and you'll be meeting me again in a while, but... anyway, you seem to know how Sages operate."
"You're not my first," the Bard replied with a grin. "I understand you have Lessia here, as well?"
"That's right, yes. And Emily, lovely to see you again." He nodded in her direction. "I trust you placed your home-charm as I asked?"
Emily smiled. "I did, at Grant's campsite. I should be able to find my way back there."
"How long does a home-charm last?"
"Until I move it." She yawned. "Or, uh, something like three years?" She rubbed her eyes, suddenly remembering how long she'd been on her feet. "How's that feast coming along? I could use a meal."
"And some rest, I'm sure," the Sage said. "Both of you have been active for quite a while." The Sage pulled his watch from his pocket. "It's been almost twenty hours since you woke up this morning, Emily. For you, subjectively."
Emily stretched. "Okay, I feel that."
"About the same for me?" Grant asked.
"Not quite as long, but yes, close to that," the Sage said, putting the watch away. "And Lessia's been here for two days, waiting."
Emily put a hand to her forehead. "I wish that made more sense."
"Just go along with it," Grant advised.
The Sage smiled. "How about I offer you a bedroom and some supper?"
Emily and Grant looked at one another. "I think that's a great idea," Emily said, and Grant made a noise of agreement.
The Sage led them down a twisting path through the garden, a walk that took a few minutes before they wound up on a small wooden patio among the trees, with perhaps enough space for two small chairs. A door led inside to a room dominated by a large bed, easily big enough for both Emily and Grant. In fact, it was easily big enough for Emily and Grant to join the bed's current occupant.
Lessia was curled up on top of the covers in the middle of the bed, looking like she was deliberately not trying to take up space. She was still naked and apparently asleep.
"I promise you that I offered her clothing," the Sage said. "She said she felt more comfortable this way."
"Do you need to know what we found?" Emily asked, sitting on the edge of the bed and slipping off her boots. It seemed very soft and very comfortable.
"Yes, of course, but it doesn't have to be right now. When you get up in the morning."
"Oh good," said Grant, sitting beside Emily. "Any objection if I join you in bed?"
"None," Emily replied, "and I'd wager Lessia won't care either."
"I think that's a fairly safe assumption," the Sage said. "I'll have dinner brought in."
As the Sage left by the door to the garden, Grant put his arm around Emily's shoulders. "Thank you again. Who knows how long I'd've been out there, without your help?"
Emily turned and kissed the Bard on the lips. "I guess you owe me."
"Twice over," he agreed, and kissed her back. "And I doubt it'll be the last favour I owe you." Grant got down on the floor, on his knees. "You've been walking all day."
Grant scuttled around to kneel in front of Emily, putting his hands on her hips. The Wanderer watched with some curiosity, but said nothing. Lightly, gently, he pressed his fingertips into the joint, making slow circles.
"I could stare at those breasts forever," the Bard said quietly, "but you would probably enjoy this more if you lay back on the bed."
Emily flushed, but did as he asked. The bed was as nice on her back as it had been on her behind. She took a slow, deep breath as Grant's fingers exerted more and more pressure, working through her skirt to relax her tired and sore hips. His thumbs followed the line of the skirt to the tops of her legs, and no further, pressing in almost delicately.
"Do you thank all your friends like this?" Emily asked, writhling a bit in pleasure.
"Shh," Grant replied. "Just lie there, be quiet, enjoy."
The collar grew warm.
Grant's fingertips worked Emily's thighs, from the outside to the middle, from the knee to the hip, working out the stress and soreness. He had just started to work on Emily's knees when she felt movement on the bed.
"Here," Lessia said in a soft voice, as though worried about waking herself. "Put your head in my lap."
The collar grew warm again.
Lessia sat at the end of the bed, dangling her legs down to the floor, and with her help, Emily put the weight of her head on the local girl's thighs. Emily closed her eyes and sighed happily as Grant massaged her calves and Lessia stroked her hair.
"May I remove your skirt, Emily?" Grant's voice drifted up to her.
"Mm, please," she replied. She lifted her hips and let Grant slide her garment to the floor, leaving her only in her underwear. His touch was warm on her backside and legs. Lessia kept brushing her hair and caressing her face.
With all that attention, Emily found it impossible to keep from drifting. The weight of the day pressed down on her, and her mind started to wander. She found herself floating on a cloud, relaxing in the warmth of a summer sun, caught between fantasy and dream. Birds flew overhead, and beneath.
She wasn't alone, in this dream. She was dimly aware of Grant's hands on her legs, and Lessia's on her face and head, but her attention was on her imagination, where a striking figure flew now above and below with the birds. He was tall, physically imposing, but also hugely powerful, muscle-bound. His skin was impossibly, brilliantly pale, as if made of marble. Long, light brown hair flowed down past his shoulders to where feathered wings of the same colour spouted from his back and spread from his neck to his ankles.
Emily had never seen a Valusian in person, but that's certainly how she imagined one, given the descriptions she'd heard.
Lessia was murmuring quiet, sweet things as Grant's massage got deeper and more intense. Emily's legs felt wonderful despite their tiredness. She was about to sink back into her fantasy, but the voice of the Sage called her back to reality.
"I figured I should bring dinner myself," he said, as the smell of cooked vegetables wafted over to the bed. "Wasn't sure what I'd find when I got in."
Emily felt boneless, and said nothing, continuing to enjoy the ministrations of her friends.
"Nothing too wild," Lessia said. Emily could hear the grin in her voice. "Yet."
"If this is 'nothing wild,'" the Sage replied, "I'm curious as to what you'd consider an orgy. A half-naked Bard massaging the legs of a mostly-naked Wanderer as her head rests in the lap of a completely-naked local?"
"Nothing too wild," Lessia confirmed.
"And wild would be?"
"When Grant and Emily go from half-naked and mostly-naked to all-naked, and I get to use some of this energy I've been storing up since Emily left the other day."
"'When'?" Grant said from the floor as he rubbed Emily's feet. "We've had a long day, there might not be a 'when.'"
Lessia giggled. "I've been waiting for you to come back for two days. I haven't done anything except wander the gardens and relax. I've missed you both."
"I only met you this morning," Grant pointed out.
"Oh, right, the Sage explained... some of that," Lessia said, sounding a little confused.
A warm bowl was held out before Emily, who took it gratefully. Whatever it was smelled delicious.
"We should pause to eat, at least," Grant said, getting up and sitting on the bed. "And you no doubt want to know what we found at the campsite."
"In time, in time." The Sage walked around the bed to give the last bowl to Lessia.
"Did you put anything interesting in this one, too?" Lessia asked a little archly.
Grant helped Emily to sit up. "What do you mean, 'interesting'?" he asked.
"The Sage has been helping me to sleep," Lessia explained in an accusatory tone. "And keeping me from exploring."
The Sage grimaced. "Keeping her from exploring, yes. And no, I haven't been drugging you."
"How else do you explain what's been happening to me, then?" the local girl asked.
"I'll explain after you've had your dinner."
Emily looked into her bowl and saw a mix of local vegetables, mainly peppers. The smell of whatever sauce they were cooked in made her mouth water. She put a forkful to her mouth and found it tasted as good as it smelled, warm and comforting with just a hint of spice. It wouldn't have been out of place coming from Harban's kitchen.
"What I know of Sages," Grant said between bites, "he doesn't need drugs to accomplish anything."
Lessia swallowed her food. "I keep wanting to look around. This is a Sage's palace! There's so much to see! But he won't let me." She pouted a bit. "Two days I've tried to get into anything interesting, and every time I get out into the halls I just wake up back here!"
The Sage sighed, but smiled. "I've had few more challenging guests," he said.
Emily finally spoke. "When I was here a... for me, a few hours ago, all it took was a wave of his hand and you obediently took your seat at the feast."
Lessia flushed. "Oh, right. That was... interesting."
Grant looked over with some curiosity. "I missed all the best moments, it seems."
"There will be more," the Sage said. "I'm sure of it."
"Well, we have an energetic young woman here who's been confined to her bedroom for two days—"
"Oh, I suspect that once I leave, there will be more fun and games."
"I don't know about games," Lessia said, looking over at Emily, "but I plan on a little more fun."
Grant swallowed a mouthful of vegetables. "I fear Emily and I may be a little worn out for much."
"That was delicious. And a little fun might be nice," Emily said, finishing up her bowl.
The Sage nodded, walking towards the interior door. "Rest up. You can tell me what you found tomorrow, and we can discuss what we're going to do about it."
"Wouldn't you rather know now?" Grant asked.
"There's nothing we can do about it now. All three of you will need to be at your best, or at least close to it." The Sage opened the door to the rest of his home. "That much, at least, I've seen." And without another word, he left the room.
Lessia gave a little teasing sigh. "You left me here for days with only that Sage for company," she said with a little pout.
"Two days," Emily replied, leaning closer and putting an arm around the younger woman. "Somehow, you survived."
Without further hesitation, Lessia moved to kiss Emily; the Wanderer encouraged her movement, and soon the two of them were embracing warmly. Emily felt another pair of hands on her back and turned to engage with Grant, half-letting Lessia go to bring the Bard into the tangle. Soon the three were kissing, caressing, touching, massaging. Despite Lessia's obvious energy, the three of them moved slowly. There was a dreamlike quality to the movements as Emily was laid back on the pillows, as the two others lifted her legs and slid her undergarment off, as she held Grant's back against her chest while Lessia removed his trousers, as she and Grant lay side-by-side facing each other and kissed deeply while Lessia's fingers played over her breasts and Grant's cock... There was a moment where Emily was falling asleep as Lessia and Grant started getting close, only to be awakened by the climax of their passionate interactions and Lessia's squeezing her hand as Grant let himself fall gently onto the local woman.
Emily found herself squeezing back. Grant slowly made his way to an empty spot on her far side, while Lessia followed him only so far as to be able to cuddle up to Emily's side and begin snuggling with her. Her flagging strength, though, didn't allow her much more than a few kisses and the pleasant warmth of being gently sandwiched between her two companions.
Lessia seemed to recognize this and shifted more to stroking the Wanderer's hair and gently holding her. Emily snuggled into the offered place between Lessia's breasts and fell asleep there, soothed by Grant's regular breathing and Lessia's kind ministration.
She woke in that lovely, gentle situation. She lifted her head a little and saw the Sage there. He smiled at her.
"The others will sleep, for the moment," he said.
"Somehow, I'm not surprised." She felt her self awakening. "So you want to talk to me, I'm guessing, and me alone?"
The Sage nodded. "Would you like to take a walk with me?"
Emily smiled. "If I trusted you, all you'd have to do is tell me."
He grinned, then. "One day."
"Oh, have you forseen that?" Emily wiggled her way out from between the Bard and the local.
"Let's call it an ambition of mine. Would you like me to bring you some clothing?"
It was her turn to grin as she sat up. "And cover what you've already seen? Seems like a waste of time to me."
"I appreciate your candor and your..." he paused, clearly looking her over, "... Aesthetic."
She got to her feet and stretched, giving him a full view. "What would you like to talk about?"
"What you found." He offered a hand and instead she took his arm. "Would you like to walk in the garden?"
"Will it be soft on my bare feet?"
"The path we walk will."
"Then yes, please."
He led her across the room and to the exterior door, and out into the garden. It was nighttime, and the stars felt very close and extremely numerous. True to the Sage's word, the grass was soft and comfortable. They walked slowly, the moonlight guiding their steps. The flowers were no less impressive in the silvery light than they were in the sun.
They walked in silence, arm-in-arm, and there was a calm cameraderie between them. The Wanderer, dressed only in jewelry, a silver collar and a iron thumb ring, and the Sage, in trousers and a short-sleeved shirt, in soft-soled slippers and his hair hanging loose. Emily giggled, thinking about it. Hearing this, the Sage smiled, but still said nothing.
"Does it bother you?" she asked, finally.
He seems surprised by the question. "Does what bother me?"
"That you can't work your mind controlling magic on me."
"A little, if I'm honest," he replied. "Perhaps not for the reasons you think."
"For what reasons, then?"
"I don't like such wildcards in my plans. But that's my problem, not yours."
She stopped and look at him, and he looked back. "What would you do to me, if you could?"
He shook his head. "Much, I think. To have a Wanderer, and such a beautiful one, willingly in my sway—"
"I didn't say 'willingly,'" she protested.
There was a space of silence. Emily felt her face grow warm.
"—would be an honour and a privilege, and would be a great help in my work," the Sage concluded as if he hadn't been interrupted.
There was a moment's hesitation. "I think I would like to kiss you," Emily said.
The Sage nodded. "I would like you to."
And they kissed, slowly, gently. Almost tentatively, as if each was afraid of the other's reaction. Emily giggled. "I can almost ignore that I'm naked."
"How fortunate for you, I sure can't."
She smirked. "I don't really want to."
"Neither do I," he chuckled, stepping closer and wrapping Emily in a close embrace and kissing her again, this time without the hesitation, and she returned the expression in earnest. His hands explored her bare back and even drifting as far as her ass, while she just held him close and enjoyed the feeling of his lips, his tongue, his hands...
He paused for a breath, and she smirked and asked, "No worry about the feast?"
He took a deep sigh. "Sadly, yes. I'm pushing the limits of what I can get away with as it is."
"A pity," she said, still holding him. "At least you have Lessia."
"No." He shook his head again. "She is beautiful, but she's at the feast already."
Emily tilted her head inquisitively. "So if she's at the feast... you can't mess with her?"
"Well no. She's at the feast. She's yours, not mine."
"I don't mind sharing."
"Very kind of you, and I may take you up on that, but it's much more complicated." He kissed her lightly again. "There is a bench around the corner, we ought to sit and discuss what we must do."
Emily let him go. "You could order me."
He laughed. "I don't want to find out if you trust me enough." He held his arm for her and she took it again. "If you don't, it would wound me. If you do, I'm not sure that I could contain myself and keep to the proper order of things."
She sighs, overdramatically. "What's wrong with going against the order of things once in a while?" she asked as they started walking.
"The order of things is where Sages like me take our power," he explained. "The strength of the underlying order is what lets me meddle with matters on top of it." They came around the corner, and he indicated the bench that he had spoken of: ornate, made of polished wood, large enough to lie across easily, and covered with a soft cushion. Emily sat in the middle of it. "Upholding an order is what lets me do what I do."
Emily blinked as the Sage sat on her left. "'An' order?"
"You don't think there's one great big underlying logic to everything, do you?" the Sage asked with a grin. "We all work to make our own sense of the world we live in."
She paused a moment, deciding which way to turn, then rotated her body to lie her head on the bench, her feet on the Sage's lap. "And these kidnappers upset your order?"
Seemlingly unconsciously, the Sage started massaging her feet, highlighting for her just how tired her legs really were, even after her rest. She realized she didn't know how long she'd been asleep. "These kidnappers offend my sensibilities, frankly. They're nowhere near my designs, not really; restoring Grant concluded that situation, and you handled that beautifully. But I do not like what they're doing, and I do not think they ought to be permitted to continue. In any grand scheme of thing, they are small. Pitiful, really. Pathetic. Delusions of grandeur are a characteristic of Valusian society, so no doubt they believe themselves to be saviours of humanity, which makes them dangerous on a personal level, but in terms of their effect on worlds at large they don't have great impact most of the time." By the time his small explanation was complete, his hands were travelling as far as Emily's knees, kneading lightly.
The Wanderer paused to enjoy the work of the Sage's hands, closing her eyes and relaxing into the soft cushion. She finally took a breath, looking up at the stars. "Is this what it's like, being a Sage? Someone annoys you, and you gather a ragtag band of adventurers together to go and mess them up?"
He laughed. "Sounds like a petty villain, when you tell it like that."
"I suppose so," Emily agrees, wiggling her toes. The Sage's hands were as high as her mid-thighs now. "So, what we found at Grant's camp..."
"Mhmm? What was it?"
Emily closed her eyes again, trying to picture the place. "It would be easier if I could take your hand and we could walk..."
The Sage gave her legs a squeeze and chuckled. "No Wanderer magic, thank you. Not while we're here. Losing track of time could be problematic."
"I guess so." She bit her lip for a moment. "It is an open-air site. Simple. There's a bedroll on the ground. Hard ground, not comfortable. A warming crystal nearby, probably also drives away insects and predators. And there's... four standing clear tubes, set in a stand, obviously technologically complex, way more advanced than you'd find on this world. One of the tubes is occupied. Tall woman, black-skinned. Eyes closed, not moving, floating."
"Probably in stasis."
"Probably." Emily opened her eyes. "That's about it, really. Nothing more exceptional than that."
He took a slow, audible breath, in and out, his hands rubbing her left hip and upper thigh in an absolutely pleasant way. "This is going to be more dangerous than I thought."
"How dangerous did you think it would be?"
He laughed. "Why don't you sit up, and I'll tell you my plan?"
Emily sat up as directed. "How about I just turn around?" And without waiting for an answer, she pulled her legs up to her right and laid her head in his lap.
He seemed shocked to silence. Then he burst out laughing again. "You're more dangerous than I thought."
"Good." She grinned. "Better you know that."
"Alright." He ran his hands through her hair and massaged her scalp. "So. We need to get to the kidnappers to shut down their operations. The stasis tubes are probably hooked to a teleportation device to get the 'contents' back to the Valusians. Likely there's a plan to keep them under control, safe. And that's where this," he tapped on her silver collar, "comes in handy. I doubt you'll be too trusting of your kidnappers."
"Likely not," she agreed. "Are you going to put me in one of the tubes?"
"That's the first step. Although unless we can find two more willing subjects to join you, that means we need to take fairly drastic action."
"More drastic than you thought?"
He chuckled. "No, sadly." He rested his hand on top of her shoulder and stroked gently. He sighed. "Don't take this the wrong way, I promise I'll explain more when everyone's together, but... I have to kill Grant."