SUCCUBUS

Twenty years on they gathered, up on the green where sheep grazed with glass-eyed indifference, high above the harbour with its neat rows of tiny, colourful wooden shacks; above the foreshore where the bleached bones of a long-flensed whale sat like some huge unfinished puzzle; above the Sound where the grey South Atlantic merged into an even greyer sky. They were there to remember the Colony’s violent birth – the time when, aided by the matchless might of the Royal Navy, they had evicted the hated Argentine occupiers and finally claimed these islands for the Mother Country. There had perforce been casualties: few among those who stood with heads bowed, listening to the Governor-General’s eulogy to the fallen, had not been directly touched by the conflict. Juliene Gricer was one such, her father killed in the skirmishing several months before she was even born, his sacrifice marked by one simple wooden cross among several at this lonely, windswept place. Now she wept and snuffled like a dutiful daughter should, while her mother looked on with what may have been sympathy but could equally have been contempt. In truth, Juliene felt no grief for her father whatsoever – he was an abstraction to her, a myth relentlessly embroidered over her nineteen years. She was just feeling particularly weepy and emotionally fragile this day, for no particular reason - one of the pitfalls of being a girl.

Juliene was considered beyond fair by the admittedly austere standard of the islands, where ‘beauty’ was a distinctly relative term. She possessed a strong, clear, squared face, heavy in the jaw line and with a most delicate cleft in its prominent chin. By contrast her cheekbones were subtle, her nose pert and her mouth slender and sinuous. Thanks to her mother, her hair was cut boyishly away from her face, tucked discreetly into her neck: it was a deep glossy brown, so deep one could easily mistake it for ebon. Her eyes, elliptical, vaguely oriental, perfectly matched her hair: dark mysterious depths fringed by long lashes, under thick brows the shade of winter night. There was no doubt local boys were drawn to Juliene, although the omnipresence of her formidable mother acted as a powerful dissuasion. Had they fully appreciated the secrets lurking beneath her plain and simple dress, they might have tried that little bit harder.

It was just as the ceremony was concluding, that the day changed from merely significant to truly momentous. Juliene was first to spot it, her eyes wandering up the Sound to where she perceived a vague vertical split in the horizon, which took on definition even as she focussed. All at once her funk was ended, overwhelmed by sudden, childish excitement.

“Look!” she cried, pointing frenziedly. “It’s a ship!”

All eyes promptly swivelled towards her, hostile – her mother’s especially.

“Um, I mean, I think it’s the ship,” she added meekly. The eyes followed her direction, whereupon a collective gasp of realisation set in. Two events in one day – it was almost unprecedented. For here, much earlier than advertised, sailed the Kingfisher: aboard her a very famous man; and though Juliene could have no inkling of it then, so too was her destiny.

Falkland Islands, 1853

“I just want to assure you, Juliene, that you personally are not on trial here.”

The Governor-General was, in truth, a small and weaselly man, ill suited to the pose of firm-but-fair interrogator. Juliene made no response, merely sat hunch-shouldered in the dingy room that passed for his office, gripped by fear and an impending sense of utter doom. For she was on trial, there was no doubt about it: she could feel Mother’s accusing eyes boring into the back of her head, and that was the only accusation that mattered.

“Your mother has made very serious allegations against the being we refer to as Mrs Gransden,” the Governor-General continued, nervously glancing past Juliene’s head to where the accuser sat, as if seeking permission. “The fact is, because Mrs Gransden is an outsider, I have no direct jurisdiction over her. I am, however, entitled to undertake an enquiry to determine if there is a case to answer, and to turn the Accused over to the Colonial authorities if so. I have to say that at present, the circumstantial evidence is compelling, but I need to hear the story from you: you are, after all, the victim in this matter. Do you understand?”

Juliene nodded glumly. Actually she understood little, except that she was in serious trouble, and it was her own fault – Mariella had warned her what might happen upon their return to civilisation. It had taken her so long to overcome the mountainous hurdle of her own inhibitions, and now it was much too late…

“I’m afraid I have to begin with a small unpleasantness, Juliene – I have to verify that you are currently undergoing a bout of uncleanliness.”

This brought Juliene bolt upright, eyes staring in disbelief. Surely he didn’t mean…? In a panic, and against all judgement, she turned to look at her mother.

“Don’t shilly-shally, you stupid girl,” Mother snapped. “Show the man.”

Even now, she could still blush – that was something of relief. Cheeks flaming, she rose, staring into space as she gathered up her skirt and petticoats, exposing the red-stained towel wrapped about her nether regions. The Governor-General stared a moment, then made a notation.

“Thank you, Juliene – you may sit. I understand that your condition has come on ahead of its usual commencement.”

Juliene nodded again, no longer sure if she could actually form words.

“And would it be correct to say that this onset occurred only when you were in the exclusive company of the being known as Mrs Gransden?”

“Mariella,” said Juliene, softly but very clearly. “Her name is Mariella…”

*

The first time she saw her, stepping onto the dock, utterly eclipsing the famous man, at least in Juliene’s eyes. Her attire alone would have made her stand out: she was dressed in decidedly mannish fashion – boots, britches and jacket – but there was no mistaking her true sex, because of the hair. Hair like gilt, like morning sunlight, cascading about her back and shoulders in uncountable curls and waves that seemed to glow and spark as they shifted on the sharp breeze. The overall effect was absurd yet strangely elegant - an impression of tall, slender regality.

The reception was a shambles, since it was organised in the scant interval between the ship being sighted, and it actually pulling alongside. They were forced to cut the Memorial Service short, then frantically run around trying to arrange – well, whatever they could in the time. Because the Kingfisher was early by some ten days, and it was early because the very famous man had decided to bring his expedition forward, which he did because of the weather. And it was because of all that Mariella was aboard Kingfisher when she docked in the Falklands. So, it could be said that all the trouble was, in fact, because of the weather.

The very famous man was Sir Lynton Gransden. He garnered a knighthood, and legend, for his explorations in the MacKenzie Delta, five years previously, high in the far north of the huge continent that lay to the west. Now he intended to surpass that feat, down in the fringes of the great ice-bound land at the bottom of the world. That his purpose-built vessel should call in here was ostensibly to collect final supplies: in truth it was a goodwill gesture, a sign from the Mother Country that one of the farthest-flung corners of her Empire was not forgotten, twenty years on.

And Mariella? She was Sir Lynton’s wife.

*

“Knew she was trouble the moment I set eyes on her,” Mother snapped, suddenly. “Yellow hair, like a strumpet. And man’s clothes – downright ungodly.”

“Mrs Gricer, please…” nervousness added to the Governor-General’s irritation. Soon he was going to have to ask some extremely difficult questions of Juliene, and she was going to have to give difficult answers – it would make the exposing of her curse nothing in comparison. He leaned forward.

“So: your first sight of the being – uh, of Mariella, was dockside, at the reception? You did not actually meet her until the following morning?”

“When you brought her to our house,” Juliene took some pleasure in responding. The Governor-General flushed a neat shade of beetroot.

Imagine opening the door to such a trio: the Governor-General of the islands, the great Sir Lynton Gransden, and Mariella. And once again, it was Mariella who stole all of Juliene’s attention, imprinting herself forever upon the younger girl. For a start, she had changed, now sporting a travelling gown of expensive cut and rich Tuscan hue; as stunningly feminine as her previous costume had been unsettlingly masculine. In close-up, Juliene was stunned to note a slight similarity to her own face, being broad, rather squarish; but in particulars and totality it was far more alluring. Mariella’s jaw line was strong, defined; the deep cleft in her chin a focal point like a beauty spot. Her cheekbones were high, with the sensuous curves of an ornate vase; her eyes wide ellipses containing searing circles of cut glass, cornflower blue, flagged and fringed by brows and lashes of sable. Such highlights tended to detract from the subtler elements: her compactly elegant nose; the ornate architecture of her mouth, ripe and sensual below, taut-arched as a suspension bridge above – a mouth for kissing, or dispensing passionate poetry. But nothing could distract from the wild eddies and surges of pale gold frothing about her face and slender, deep-throated neck.

It was Sir Lynton himself who made the curious proposition to Mrs Gricer, after taking pains to flatter what he had no doubt been briefed was the islands’ most formidable resident – the phrase ‘woman of outstanding personal virtue’ was deployed, with straight face. The explorer explained his fears about the southern continent’s weather; how it meant he was unable to drop off his wife en route, as had been planned. The favour he was requesting was that Mariella be accommodated, for the duration of the expedition, within the Gricer household. The good Knight insisted upon a moral household, and one guaranteed free of men folk.

And while the famous man tried to negotiate with an obviously horrified Mother, the object of their discussions – who Juliene had been steadfastly studying from the moment she entered – was herself studying one of the few decorations permitted within their little hovel. It was an animal pelt mounted upon the wall: it had been there as long as Juliene could remember, and was one of the few tangible connections to the vague legend that had been her father. The fur was now a uniform dull grey, though Juliene seemed to recall its colours being more multifaceted in years gone by. As she watched, Mariella leaned close to study it, lightly running her fingers in its wizened fibres.

“I do not recognise this fur,” she said, her voice a soft, lilting buzz, the accent rolling yet slightly clipped; enough, somehow, to still the discussion going on around her. “From what sort of animal does it come?”

To Juliene’s great surprise Mother answered, mechanically, as though it had drawn out of her. “The Warrah – you might know it as the Falklands Fox.”

Mariella nodded, saying nothing more. And somehow, in that brief exchange, agreement had been reached: she had been admitted to the Gricer fold.

*

“Witchcraft,” mother grizzled. “Even then, the monster was wielding unholy influence.”

“Mrs Gricer, I am already bending protocol by permitting you to attend this interview,” the Governor-General sighed. “I must insist that you refrain from further interjections.”

Juliene could feel Mother’s glare like a passing jet of flame: the Governor-General blanched, then composed himself.

“And so, the following day, after taking on provisions, Sir Lynton and his crew sailed south, and Mrs Gransden moved into your home. How did things go, initially?”

“Not very well. Mother was horrified by all Mariella’s luggage - bundles and bundles of it. Sir Lynton had hinted Mariella originally intended to undertake some exploring of her own, but we didn’t realise just how much equipment she had accumulated. It all but filled up my room, the one we set aside for her.”

“And what about you?” the Governor-General followed up genially. “How did you feel about the arrangement?”

Juliene hesitated. This was a leading question, and the Governor-General leaned forward to emphasise its weight.

“Remember, Juliene – you are under oath.”

“I was unhappy. Not because Mariella had been given my room, but because there was no longer any space for me.”

“You hoped Mrs Gransden would be sharing your room?” The Governor-General’s eyebrow curled upwards, poised like a rod and line.

“I imagined us as friends, whispering late into the night, sharing secrets. I didn’t want to sleep in Mother’s room.”

“And why was that?”

“She snores: the very floor shakes with it.”

Juliene smiled sweetly, and the Governor-General struggled to bite off a nervous snicker. He made further self-conscious notations.

“Very well, there was a problem with the luggage. What else?”

“Mother and Mariella argued that first night, over supper.”

“About what?”

“About the pelt on the wall, of course. About the Warrah.”

She merely mentioned it casually, and again Mother seemed helpless to resist, spinning the story in all its sub-mythical glory. About how, when the islands were still under dispute, when the colony was barely born, Juliene’s late father had shot the beast, securing what was even them a considerable bounty; a sum destined, unfortunately, to be the Widow Gricer’s pension fund.

“Even in time of conflict, there was a price on this creature’s head?” Mariella puzzled. “Why so?”

“Because the Warrah is a creature of the Devil,” mother intoned sombrely. “It is vampiric: it drains the blood of animals, and people too, given the chance. It is fearless and cruel, a vicious, relentless scourge.”

Juliene, who was far too awed by the newcomer to join the discussion, watched intently as Mariella’s face wavered between interest and outright disbelief.

“Well,” she said carefully, “I wonder how this community copes, being in proximity to such a terror.”

The irony was subtle, but not subtle enough. Mother threw down a fork in annoyance.

“Easy for an outsider to mock,” she growled. “But every family here has suffered the beast’s depredations – losing livestock, even children. It took us years to control them, and it was harder than removing the accursed Argentines.”

Mariella remained passive in the face of bitterness.

“So: no Warrahs remain in the islands?”

“None that we know of. But sheep are still lost, up in the highlands. Perhaps the fiends persist, on the remoter slopes.”

“Perhaps indeed,” Mariella murmured, a thoughtful mistiness forming in the sky of her eyes.

*

“Tell me what happened the next morning.”

“Mariella went missing. Her bed – my bed – had been slept in, but she had left before the dawn. Long after breakfast she still hadn’t appeared – I wanted to look for her, but Mother said no. She didn’t come back until almost suppertime.”

“And what had she been up to?”

“You know – you were one of the people she spoke to.”

“I want to hear your version, Juliene.”

Juliene sighed wearily. “She’d gone up into the hills at first – surveying, she said, getting the lie of the land. Then she went down into the harbour – spent all day going door-to-door, questioning people about the Warrah.”

“And what were her conclusions?”

“She told us, that while everyone claimed to know about the beasts, nobody could furnish her with a firsthand account. She described the sheep losses as – what was her word? –anomalous. She thought that maybe we were just repeating old legends, because a live Warrah hadn’t been seen since my father’s day. Mother was furious.”

Indeed, had Mother’s look been a rifle, it would have put a hole, an inch across, right between Mariella’s eyes.

“I suppose next you’ll be telling us the Argentines are a civilised people - we’ve just misunderstood them,” she countered.

“Well, as it happens…” Mariella drew breath, and Juliene could see the blue sparkle with mischief, but she backed off from provoking all-out conflict. Mother, however, was not one for backing off.

“You think that in one day you can belie everything we believe in – those who’ve lived here all our lives? You think, just ‘cause you’re an outsider, you are so superior?”

“Not at all, Mrs G,” Mariella replied, though there was mockery both in the tone and nickname. “If there’s one thing my husband has taught me, it’s that theorems are useless without direct observation. Which is why I have a proposal for you.”

Mother tried not to show any interest, almost succeeding.

“I realise you don’t like me, Mrs G,” Mariella continued, “and you’re only suffering my presence as a favour to Sir Lynton. Therefore, I propose to get out of your hair, at least for a while. You see, I came equipped for an expedition of my own, and I intend to have one. Mount Gibson may be a poor substitute for the Andes, but I believe somewhere on the far slopes of that oversized pimple is where I shall find the last refuge of the Warrah.”

Juliene’s heart sank – she had spoken barely a dozen words with the glamorous newcomer, and already she was taking off. It seemed her mother always had that effect on visitors.

“How long would you be gone?” Mother asked, fighting to retain impassivity.

“Well, that depends on what I find, or rather don’t find. Let’s say a few days – if I can stretch it longer, trust me I will.”

Mother grunted softly, but could not help her eyes glowing with triumph.

“There is a condition, however,” Mariella added abruptly. “I want Juliene to accompany me.”

*

“Witchcraft,” Mother muttered again. “I would never have agreed to it otherwise.”

“But you did agree, Mrs Gricer,” the Governor-General mused. He returned his focus to Juliene. “Why did Mariella want you to accompany her?”

“She said she needed a guide, someone who knew the lie of the land.”

“Strange that, considering I have numerous witnesses who testify that Mrs Gransden spent the next several days actively surveying the landscape. Indeed I am in possession of the copious maps and notations she compiled – it would seem a guide was her least requirement.”

Juliene did not respond directly.

“I was put in charge of provisions: cooking, drying and preserving. Mariella didn’t want to spend time hunting fresh meat, but she was determined not to go hungry, either.”

“And how did your mother react to all these preparations?”

“She ignored them, right up until the night before we were to set off. Then she had one last set-to with Mariella…”

A frenzy of creative, scientific packing had reduced their equipment - tent, bedding, rations, extra clothing, compass, maps and journals – to two bulky but lightweight bundles they were confident of being able to lug pretty much any distance. They were just conducting a final inventory, and it was just dawning on Juliene that this really was going to happen, when Mother interrupted them. She handed something long and thin to Mariella.

“Here,” she snapped. “You might need this – it’s my late husband’s. I presume you know how to use one.”

Mariella took the hunting rifle, studying its sleek lines. With expert ease she tested the loading breach and trigger mechanism, then sighted along its barrel at some imagined distant target.

“It’s a beauty,” she murmured. “A real work of art.” She lifted her head, and sighed with mild disappointment. “However, I have no use for a bounty: if I’m going to bring back a Warrah, I intend it to be a living example.”

Gently she handed the weapon back. Mother stared, her lips pursed: when she spoke, it was softly and coldly.

“You’re a bloody fool. And if you cause any harm to come to my daughter with your nonsense, I’ll make sure you hang for it. Is that understood?”

“Perfectly, Mrs G,” Mariella smiled, meeting her eyes. “Wouldn’t have it any other way.”

*

“We set off next morning, first light. I was in my working clothes, Mariella back in her manly costume: I remember she’d wound her hair into a long ponytail – made her look stronger somehow, businesslike. It was a dull day: everything grey. Mother stayed in her bed; no-one to see us off, save for a few cows and, of course, the sheep. We climbed up onto the whitegrass slopes, following the burns, heading straight for Gibson.”

“Did you talk?”

“Not much: Mariella was focussed on her maps, setting a cracking pace; I was struggling a little, with the pack across my shoulders. At one point she stopped, looked up into the sky, and calmly announced that it was going to snow. I must’ve looked sceptical, because she gave me a hard look and said, ‘I hail from the Dominion of Canada, my dear – we can smell snow’.”

“Interesting. Go on.”

“We found this spot on Gibson’s lower slope – it was in the lee of some rocks, out of the wind. We put up the tent, then while I fitted it out Mariella went hunting for dry moss and twigs to make a fire. By dusk we had food warming, a lantern hung; the camp pitched.”

“And how did you feel?”

“I was… excited, nervous. It felt so strange to be away from home – I really was on an adventure. And I suppose I was a bit scared, just in case we did actually encounter the Warrah: that got worse when Mariella started throwing food around.”

“Excuse me?”

Impulsively she picked up a scrap of dried meat and tossed it into the gathering dimness.

“What are you doing?” Juliene demanded, startled.

“Testing a theorem.” Mariella flicked another scrap in an entirely different direction. “If it’s true the Warrahs have no fear of man, then they probably know we’re here, and are already curious. Might be a good idea to leave something to encourage that curiosity, while we sleep?”

“We’re not going to keep watch?”

“Heavens, no,” Mariella chuckled. “This is not a military expedition; and anyways, you and I are both exhausted. Plus, I have no hope of maintaining this fire longer than a few more minutes. We have no advantage in darkness, so I suggest we do as nature intends, and sleep warm under cover.”

“But what if…?” Juliene felt too ashamed to complete her question, but it had been anticipated.

“They come seeking our blood? Well, I haven’t totally discounted the possibility: we are not undefended.”

From somewhere about her person she drew forth a long, dagger-like knife, the blade shining alluringly in the firelight.

“My father gave me this as a wedding present,” she said proudly. “He’s the best trapper in all of Canada: he can skin an animal in seconds, and so can I.”

For the first time Juliene noticed how elongated her fingers were; with their long nails they looked almost like talons. Then, as reflected gold shimmered across her face, Mariella’s eyes narrowed in inspiration.

“Of course, if it is blood they’re after…”

A sudden flicker of movement, so fast Juliene had no time to protest or even react, and she had cut a diagonal line across her own palm: blood blossomed, black against the fire’s soft glow. Carefully Mariella reached out, letting it drip in tiny, sticky pools upon the rocks. Juliene shuddered; was still shuddering when Mariella caught her eye.

“Perhaps my blood, from so far north, will be a tad exotic for their taste.” She held out the knife. “Shall we give them a local blend to savour?”

Juliene eyed the blade nervously, and the gelatinous droplets oozing down her companion’s wounded hand: she felt she was being tested.

“Will it hurt?”

“A flash of cold fire, like touching frost; then a slow, throbbing sting – quite soothing, once you get used to it.”

Juliene offered her hand, slowly. Mariella took it, smiled disarmingly, and then the blade drew fast across her palm, digging like a skate into ice, making her gasp and tear up momentarily. Pain faded, a lost echo, the blood warm as it bubbled free. She watched her life essence drip onto cold stone, feeling lightheaded, though the loss was inconsequential.

“And now: we heal each other,” Mariella announced, clasping Juliene’s defiled hand in her own bloodied manus, clamping their palms together, sealing the seeping wounds. The gesture necessarily drew them close, and Juliene felt even fainter as she looked into those oceanic eyes – she had an overwhelming sense of anticipation, as if something momentous were about to happen; and it frightened her.

“What strange expression you wear,” said Mariella, her smile a tad mocking. “You look half in love, half petrified – I’m disappointed you should regard me so.”

“Disappointed?” Juliene stammered. “Why?”

“It’s the same look you give your mother.”

*

“So: what happened that night?”

“It snowed,” said Juliene idly, “just like Mariella said it would.”

The Governor-General bristled. “Don’t be facetious, Juliene – I need to know everything. What happened?”

What happened was, initially, a great embarrassment. For while Juliene had no qualms about the prospect of sleeping in the same bed as Mariella – if she were totally honest, there was something sisterly appealing in the idea – she had serious qualms about undressing in her presence. There was something that Mariella must not see; that no-one must see, for mother had ingrained into her that it was unfit for another’s eyes. So she devised a wild and ultimately doomed plan, by which she disrobed frantically and inserted herself beneath their sealskin blanket while Mariella tidied up outside, and then reversed the procedure next morning. Had she a chance to practice it might have worked, but in the narrow confines of the tent undressing proved unaccustomedly challenging: she was locked in a dark, silent struggle with her own clothing when a sudden flare of the lantern froze her into immobility. When she dared to peek, Mariella was regarding her with wry amusement, the corners of her lush mouth forming bow-waves beneath her cheeks.

“What exactly d’you think you’re doing?”

“Just… getting ready for bed,” Juliene mumbled shamefacedly.

“Well you’re making a right pig’s ear of it,” Mariella chuckled, shuffling forward. “Here, let me help you with…”

But Juliene backed away, trapped arms defensively outstretched, ludicrous as a moving scarecrow.

“No,” she bleated. “You… you mustn’t touch me. And you mustn’t look.”

Mariella’s eyes narrowed quizzically. “Why so? Do you have some grotesque deformity of which I am unaware?”

Juliene looked at her in all seriousness. “Yes – yes, I do. When I grew up, something… something went wrong. I didn’t turn out how I was supposed to – I’m all lopsided.”

Mariella seemed about to burst out laughing, but caught herself when she saw the utter earnestness in Juliene’s expression. She appeared to think long and hard.

“Well,” she said at last, “I have no pretensions to medical qualification, but I have spent a deal of time with our ship’s surgeon – I think you should let me see.”

“Oh no,” Juliene’s protest was wide-eyed and vehement. “No, no, no – nobody must ever see. Please, just leave me alone for a minute…”

Mariella shrugged, a trifle peevishly. “Very well. But I have to say this pressing need for privacy, halfway up a mountain in the middle of nowhere, is a bit much…”

She crawled out of the tent again. In the lamplight Juliene quickly disentangled herself and shot beneath the thick blanket, covering strategic parts of herself with her arms for good measure. A few moments later, Mariella re-entered.

“I sincerely hope,” she said, “that you’re not as squeamish about other women’s bodies as you are your own, otherwise this expedition is going to be unnecessarily fraught.”

With that, she began to undress, methodically and unselfconsciously. Juliene felt colour surge into her cheeks as she endeavoured not to look, for in truth she was squeamish: Mother’s was the only other body she had ever so much as glimpsed. She fixed her eyes steadfastly upon the canvas above, suddenly aware her heart was beating wildly.

“It’s alright,” said Mariella gently, “you can look if you want to – I don’t mind.”

Juliene did, glancing across just as her travelling companion unwound her ponytail, letting golden firefalls tumble free about her face and shoulders. She saw everything: the litheness of Mariella, the fragile slenderness of her arms and legs; yet also the strength of her abdomen, with its curves and definition, hips stomach and sternum all taut sculpted lines; pale breasts hanging free, sumptuous ellipsoids incongruous upon a physique otherwise so lean, their nipples softly blushing rosebuds. Between Mariella’s thighs a forest of hair jutted provocatively: blacker than night, blacker than anything. In her most private moments Juliene had entertained guilty dreams, dark etched in sinfulness, about men, occasionally about women: Mariella’s flesh exceeded them all. She felt faint; her hands clamped across her chest were clammy, her mouth and throat abruptly parched.

Mariella seemed to linger in the lamplight, a hand on her hip, the other idly brushing through her hair – she seemed almost to be posing. Then she moved the lantern over to their makeshift bed, and sat down upon the blanket: it was all Juliene could do not to recoil.

“So,” Mariella smiled, her eyes sparkling sapphires, “now I’ve shown you mine, will you reconsider hiding yourself away? Even if you are a monster – which I seriously doubt – you’ll find I’m pretty much unshockable, and very discreet.”

It was challenge, no less than the knife; and terrified as she was, Juliene could not bear to lose face with this creature. After long consideration she sat up, letting the blanket slide from her torso. She hung her head as she slowly peeled her protective hands away, awaiting the inevitable response. When, puzzlingly, it did not come, she peeked warily up to find Mariella appraising her with bemused detachment.

“Well, Juliene, I see a young woman who’s filled out rather nicely. But that is all I see.”

“But what about my, my…” Juliene could barely bring herself to use the word, “my breasts? Can’t you see them?”

“One could hardly miss them – frankly, they are evoking strong feelings of envy and inadequacy.”

“But they’re wrong,” Juliene blurted. Mother had said so; Mother had always said so: keep them hidden, lest they offend the sight of man and God. In a near-tantrum, she cupped them with her hands, lifting them like an offering. “Look at them!”

Mariella stared, her expression now genuinely bewildered. Then a slow, disbelieving smile crept across her striking face.

“Oh, my dear, you can’t possibly mean…” she shook her head, and then she actually laughed. Juliene was mortified.

“Don’t laugh at me,” she quailed. “Please don’t…”

Mariella struggled to compose herself. “Oh I’m sorry, Juliene. It’s just… it’s your nipples isn’t it? That’s what you’re so obsessed about: your right nipple is larger than your left. But who on earth told you this was a deformity?”

“My mother,” Juliene whispered coldly. Who else?

Mariella’s face darkened, deadly serious now. “Oh, you poor thing – what kind of life have you been living with that harridan? Let me assure you, darling, there is nothing abnormal about you: perfect symmetry is the dream of Man, not of Nature. And let me also assure you that your breasts are beautiful, as is the rest of you: you are a very beautiful young woman.”

And she leaned across, slipping her slim arms about Juliene’s shoulders, and kissing her softly upon the lips. Whereupon, after an instant’s frozen shock, Juliene simply melted. ‘Beautiful’ – the word reverberated in her head, a bell-note struck by the mere touch of mouths, and echoed in the warm press of another’s body against her own. When Mariella drew back, after an instant that felt like forever, it was as if all the breath had been stolen from her lungs. Transfixed, she stared into the fathomless azure of Mariella’s eyes; felt she was falling into them. Mariella’s expression was strange, slightly wistful, as she gently stroked her fingers on Juliene’s cheek, then drew them slowly over her lips and chin, down across her throat, to pause in the smooth crater of her breastbone.

“I can feel your heart,” she whispered. “It’s beating really fast. Are you afraid?”

“Yes,” Juliene shuddered, the answer drawn from her without conscious thought.

“Of me?”

“I… no… yes… I don’t know.” Juliene’s brain had become soft wax, like the rest of her.

Mariella smiled. “I just want you to be happy, Juliene – you deserve that. I think I know how to make you very happy indeed, if you’ll let me.”

She kissed her again, and this was unlike any kiss Juliene had ever known, albeit delicate and undemanding as a peck goodnight. Their lips seemed to billow together, adhering slightly where they touched, just as had their wounded palms earlier. And beyond that stickiness, that slight friction, a hint of sweetwater, intoxicating in its potential – a warm well bottomless as Mariella’s gaze. Juliene swooned with it, feeling faint; she might have slipped away altogether had not something else wrenched her back to sharp reality. For Mariella’s hand had moved, stealthily descending the pale pendent swell of her breast, to lightly touch one of her mismatched nipples. She started and pulled back, breathless again. Mariella did not take her hand away, but merely paused again, regarding Juliene with blinding blue intensity. There was an awful, throbbing, aching sensation emitting from Juliene’s breast – she looked down at her suddenly unfamiliar body, and watched with horrified fascination as the smaller of her nipples seemed to swell before her eyes, growing and stiffening until it challenged its more voluptuous neighbour. And the sensation, brought about by nothing more than the feather-touch of Mariella’s fingertips, grew exponentially, becoming agonising and nigh unbearable. And then Mariella essayed her second hand upon Juliene’s other breast, making her shudder and emit a gasp that somehow transited into a low moan, but also raised a small voice of protest.

“N – no,” her whisper was brittle, dusty. “You must stop – it’s wicked…”

But Mariella did not stop, long fingers stroking and kneading gently, tormenting her nipples until it felt like they would explode.

“That’s your mother talking, Juliene, not you. I see what lies behind those big brown eyes: the way they stared at me when I first came to your house; and just now, how they lingered upon my body – so hungry, so starved of affection. I know what it is you want, even if you don’t.”

The next kiss was forceful, aggressive, hard lips forcing Juliene’s apart, tongue surging forth to swirl and tangle with her own. The tongue in her head, the hands on her bust – Juliene reeled, falling back, and now Mariella was upon her, a catlike pounce, hungry mouth in relentless pursuit. Juliene felt the weight of Mariella’s breasts upon her, and the brush of golden hair about her own face and shoulders. Her arms were thrown wide, stupidly akimbo: she could not decide whether to resist or embrace this unfathomable seduction; she could not longer think of anything clearly at all.

Mariella’s tongue was withdrawn, allowing her to breathe again. It ran in silvery wet arcs across her throat, making her shiver, before sweeping down across the lush eminence of her bosom. Her nipples, engorging coronas of sienna sand, strained towards Mariella’s mouth, each to be relished in turn with adhering lips, tongue-tip a flare of searing sensation upon tightened flesh. Juliene’s eyes were closed, but her mouth was open; she could not prevent the sighs and moans that seemed culled from her very soul, signifying neither pleasure nor distress but only utter helplessness. Her skin prickled, as if held too close to a fire: the feeling was everywhere.

And now Mariella drew down the coverlet, slowly and stealthily, and though Juliene could feel herself being exposed she had no voice or will to protest. Cool air flowed about her thighs and waist, only heightening the heat concentrating at their conjunction: a pulsing, shameful ache such as she had never known before; overriding all sense of chastity, all fear, all reason. Light yet percussive kisses sparked below her ribs, across her stomach, around her navel: Mariella in slow, controlled descent, hair like golden feathers trailing, the coverlet swept before her like some departing tide. Juliene’s heartbeat surged, fuelled by terror-tinged anticipation: she shifted, drawing her legs slightly up, locking them together in a last gesture of defiance, though she knew not what she defied, or why.

Fingertips, precise as a thief’s alighted upon her knees: she could not resist looking as with slow, infinitely gentle persuasion parted her thighs, inserting herself into the chevron thus formed. Light glowed in her gilded tresses as she paused, firing one last bolt of blue at her, a glance that made Juliene simply blossom, down there in that secret spot, become all raw wet outpouring. Then Mariella lowered her head, lips parting as though to sup water, and Juliene could bear to look no more. She fell back, eyes once more closed, incisors involuntarily biting into her lower lip as she braced herself for the unknown.

At the first soft slide of tongue between labia she moaned gutturally, her whole body suddenly clenched before just as quickly snapping back to relaxation. Mariella took her time, long sustained laps along the seam of Juliene’s vulva, from clitoris down towards perineum and back, light kisses interspersing each satin sweep of her tongue. Juliene quivered and bucked, her body riding the slow rhythm of its own accord; she cried and gasped, shivered and moaned; she did not, could not, resist. Gradually the tension ebbed: Mariella’s steady stroke, spacing out the white-hot surges of electric sensation, lulled her into a slowly rocking stupor. Her sighs became high-pitched ululations that were almost harmonic, to accompany the music Mariella made of her body. But like a virtuoso, Mariella soon began to improvise. Her tongue, which had worked to swell and separate Juliene’s inner lips, now stabbed deep inside her, once and again before curling back to swirl about the seething, shameless nub of her now rigid clitoris. The rhythm shifted, accelerated, and beneath the fine high tune a dissonance began to emerge, a building undertone of abandon that progressively eclipsed all else: an impending crescendo.

Panting now, panting hard and raucous, breath hot in her throat, Juliene at last found employment for her hands. Everything was building, building; every sinew tightening in anticipation of some unimagined, ultimate release: she put her fingers to her breasts, caressing her own nipples as they too yearned for conclusion. Mariella’s tongue fluttered savagely against her clitoris, touching off the spark that set her whole body alight, that annihilated her sense of self, sundered the final barrier; thrust her, in one momentous convulsion, into womanhood.

“Oh Mother, why?” she cried, as the first spasm took her, “why didn’t you tell me?” And as wave crashed upon ecstatic wave, and her body twitched and writhed with climactic adoration, her plaintive lament continued, “Dear God, why did you never say?”

But for once, Mother was not there: instead, ‘twas Mariella’s arms enfolded her, sweeping the coverlet over them both as she sobbed and quivered, overwhelmed by the sweet agony of her premier zenith, her inaugural apogee, her very first climax.

*