In this excerpt, Commander Jholtan, who first appeared in The Antaren Affair is being briefed on his mission by Meraya, who got her own HEA in TAA. Jholtan is returning to the planet Antares as the guest of honor in an Antaren religious festival.
“Of course,” said Meraya, “you won’t be expected to perform as many of the variants of hitan as an Antaren would. In fact, I think that just the three principle forms would be sufficient.”
“Wait a second.” Jholtan sat up. “I think I missed something. Go back.”
“You’re the guest of honor.”
“Right, got that. What did you say after that?”
“You will be expected to participate.”
“Make the first toast. Dance the first dance. That sort of thing. I suppose I should practice my pronunciation, but I can do that aboard the Yakutsk—”
Meraya waited until Jholtan’s voice trailed off. “I’m not sure you understand,” she said, her gaze fixed to the floor. It was an old kebara habit, that subservient downward gaze. Meraya only did it when she was very uncomfortable.
“There will be dancing, but you will just watch that part. You will be expected to participate in the hitan performance.”
Jholtan stilled. “I beg your pardon?” All the coffee he drank this morning felt like it was burning a hole in his gut.
Please let this not be what he thought it was.
Meraya gave him an apologetic look. “I am sorry, Jholt. I know it is not your custom. But perhaps you will enjoy it. The kebareet are very talented and will pleasure you in whatever ways you wish.”
Jholtan blinked and attempted to process what Meraya was saying.
The door to the admiral’s quarters slid open and Avar himself entered.
Vazar Colonel Avar now, Jholtan reminded himself. He stood to greet the man who had been his commanding officer for twelve years. Avar’s jet-black hair had silvered at the temples but he remained as intimidating as ever.
The man had killed more than once with his bare hands and he suffered neither fools nor incompetence. Yet he could also be the most tender and considerate of men.
With one person.
Avar put his hands gently on Meraya’s shoulders and leaned over her, pressing a kiss to her throat. She put up a hand and stroked his jaw.
Jholtan looked away. Avar and Meraya shared an intimacy that made him feel self-conscious, as though his presence was an invasion of privacy. Their bond was unique in his experience—they communicated as much by gesture and expression as through speech.
Avar pulled away from his wife, his keen eyes searching Jholtan’s face. “Has she told you yet?”
When Jholtan returned a blank look, Avar turned to Meraya. “Have you told him?”
“No,” she said, her voice softening now that Avar was here. “Not all of it.”
Avar ran a thumb along the spiral scars that marked Meraya’s arms. She flushed a warm pink. The colonel lifted his eyes to Jholtan’s. “Waiting’s not going to make it any easier.”
Meraya sighed, squeezed Avar’s fingers and then settled her hands in her lap. Avar took off his jacket and seated himself next to Meraya.
Glancing at Meraya’s concerned face, Jhōltan was reminded of the matter at hand. He closed his eyes and reached up to pinch the bridge of his nose. “Uh, just to make sure I’m clear. Isn’t hitan—”
“Sexual relations,” said Meraya, back in briefing mode. “Yes. And you should be ready to perform the first three.”
Perform? Perform sex?
Jholtan felt a sense of unreality descend. Maybe if he concentrated hard enough, Meraya would go away and he wouldn’t have to hear any more about some bloody Antaren sex festival.
“What, exactly, do you mean by ‘perform’?” he asked carefully.
“Ah. Very simple. The most skilled kebareet and durleet will perform hitan. It is choreographed, and you will just be expected to watch and enjoy. The final part of the performance will involve you.”
Jholtan’s already white face blanched.
No. Surely not.
“When you say perform—”
“The Great Hitan is like performance art,” said Meraya. “You will be expected to improvise, respond to the actions of others and initiate your own acts of pleasure.”
“Great,” said Jholtan, scowling. “I get to improvise.”
How the hell had he gotten this assignment? He wasn’t a diplomat. He was an engineer.
And he was not the best man for this. In fact, he could think of at least three men who were better qualified.
Well, maybe not qualified, exactly. After all, what really qualified you to perform an alien group-sex ritual?
Meraya leaned forward. “It is not as bad as you think, Jholt. Perhaps you will discover that durleet give you the most pleasure.”
Jholtan felt his jaw drop. He couldn’t speak. He knew Sarkadia was sexually conservative—he was sexually conservative, he supposed—but surely Meraya was joking.
He cleared his throat. Twice. “Let me make sure I understand. Are you saying that—that there will be men involved?”
Meraya blinked. “Of course.”
Avar’s lips twitched.
“And I will be expected to—”
“Perform hitan with them. Yes.”
Jholtan squeezed his eyes shut and massaged his temple. “And this is to occur in public?”
“Certainly in public. That is the entire point.”
Of course it was.
“Andor.” Meraya was using his first name, so this must be serious. Jholtan forced himself to open his eyes.
“The mir will be insulted if you refuse this honor,” she said. “And you must understand—you will be representing the empire. You cannot refuse to perform hitan with men.”
Meraya shook her head. “I cannot imagine what the mir would think of such a thing. It would be not good.”
Jholtan searched for something to say, but found himself at a loss for words.
All he could think of was that his c**k would be representing the Sarkadian Empire.
Gods help him.