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“I am adrift,” Catherine sighs, hands clasped over her chest, “on an ocean of pleasure, bobbing as lightly as the froth. I am in an absolute reverie, Marial.”

“Yes, Empress.” Marial stands over her bed, gazing down at where Catherine lies in a state of deshabille. Looking down at herself, it pleases her to see herself marked by Leo’s recent presence. Her shirt, pulled aside to bare her breasts, still rucked in the way Leo’s fingers left it. Her bare thighs turned outward to accommodate his solid heft.

“It is as if he is a stamp,” she says, “and I carry his impression, as molten wax would.”

“All right, Empress. Shall I tell your husband to expect you at lunch, then, or should I tell him you’re in a reverie?”

“Oh, don’t talk of him now,” she says, sighing. “Do not bring my husband into a moment such as this. My smiles come naturally with Leo, you know—not like the tense little game I must play with Peter. They spill forth from me, as if they too wish only to be in his presence.”

“I’ll send word you won’t be at lunch, then?”

Catherine gazes up at her. Marial’s lovely face is wan and pinched, the dark circles under her eyes more pronounced than usual. Poor thing. She won’t take it charitably if Catherine asks. The least Catherine can do—for now, of course, the rest will come—is not remind her of her situation.

“Marial, aren’t you happy for me? You do not seem happy about Leo.”

“Of course I am.”

“You don’t feel—” She hesitates. “You don’t feel I should be unhappy?” After all, they are plotting to overturn the current state of affairs. Marial is unhappy, which is why she wishes to do so. If Catherine now finds her circumstances so terribly wonderful, Marial may doubt her conviction, even more than she already has in a thousand unsubtle mutters.

“I have nothing to gain from your suffering, Empress,” Marial says. She sighs, and her sharp face softens. Catherine’s heart leaps. Marial does love her, after all, under her acerbic nature. She is and has been Catherine’s only friend, her dearest friend, and before Leo the only one whose tenderness toward Catherine was genuine. If Leo’s presence drove a crack between her and Marial, Catherine would never be able to really enjoy him.

“I am happy you’re having fun,” she says, the warmth in her voice quieting Catherine’s worries. “It’s only that I know how very new you are to the world of men and women. I think in time you’ll find one cock is much the same as another. After that discovery, they do not bring quite as much joy.”

“Not even you can be quite so cynical,” Catherine says. She sits up, pulling her shirt back together. Her hair falls to her shoulders, curls pulled out of how Marial set them just a few hours earlier. “I may only be familiar with two, but the difference between them is as between night and day.”

“Perhaps. Shall I help you dress, Empress?”

“Oh, must I?” She pulls the fabric of her shirt away from her sweat-dampened breasts and uses it to fan her chest idly. “But what if Leo should return from his hunting trip—won’t it be terribly inconvenient for him to remove my bodice all over again? One must think of these things, Marial. As Empress, one does have a responsibility to ease the hardships of everyday life for one’s subjects.”

“You wish to bed him again?” Marial crosses her arms over her chest, but the light in her eyes is fond. “The Empress of Russia does not tire of her throne?”

“Never,” Catherine confesses. It is thrilling to admit. Leo has awakened a rushing river of desire within her, a yearning that beats under her skin and pulses between her legs. When Leo is finished, drunk off her cunt and ready to be put to bed, she lies awake and burns. “It must be true,” she says, “that God loves men more than women, for he allows them to tire of sex.”

Marial tilts her head, her eyebrows rising. “You think so? I’ve found that the strength of one’s desire depends on the individual more than their sex.”

“Well, yes,” Catherine says, “of course, but men are given a... natural ending to the activity. They... finish, and it is complete. And they seem perfectly satisfied with the matter.”

At this, Marial sits on the edge of the bed. Her face, now level with Catherine’s, pulls into a look of perplexed concern. “Empress... do you not finish?”

Catherine has seen much, here in Russia, that has startled her into speechlessness. Now she is taken aback again, almost sure that Marial is jesting, but her tone is sincere.

“Well... no, of course not. I... can’t.”

Marial makes a face at her, her mouth twisting to the side. “Empress, Lord Voronsky is your first lover. You are also his?”

“I... yes.”

“Have you never touched yourself? Before you came here?”

Catherine bites her lip. She has, but barely more than an exploration. She was too afraid of destroying her own virtue, unsure what she was meant to feel and how much prodding would make her unsuitable for marriage.

Marial sighs, lifting her skirts to settle more comfortably on the bed. She takes one of Catherine’s hands in hers. “Men are of great use in the bedroom, undoubtedly. But there are some things that women can best do for each other. Would you like me to show you? There is still some time left before lunch.”

Catherine looks down at Marial’s hands, pale and lovely, her fingers strong and chapped from servitude. She is still aflame with the blaze that Leo lit within her. Her undergarments are loosened and pulled aside, her cunt still sticky with need.

“You would take me to bed?”

“Oh, honestly,” Marial says, with a click of her tongue. “It’s not like that. I won’t be taking Lord Voronsky’s place. This is womanly knowledge, and we owe it to each other. Clearly the older women in your life prepared you poorly for marriage, dear Empress. As usual, all the difficult work in the palace falls to me.”

“Ah, so one of your chores, then.”

“Yes, ever so tiresome. Marginally better than emptying the chamberpots. If I had to choose.”

Catherine feels herself smile, one of the helpless smiles that happens so rarely in the palace. “I think I would like that very much.”

Marial pauses. “He didn’t finish inside you, did he? I won’t touch his leavings.”

“No, no,” Catherine assures her, “on the sheets.”

“The sheets I have to clean later,” Marial says, wrinkling her nose. “But never mind for now. Lie back, Empress.”

Catherine lets her head fall to the pillow. She has glutted herself on happiness, these past few days since Leo came. That first week in the Emperor’s palace, she had been sure that the world around her was nothing but darkness and dust, that there was no joy to be had in a country run by a man like Peter. Then she thought there was no joy to be had until he was dead. She never expected to feel like this, her heart and body made light with bliss. To have Marial join her in her dreamy state makes her happier than she could possibly speak of. It can’t be so bad, a country that could give her this.

Marial lies next to her, propped up on one elbow. Catherine wonders if it is a pleasing view for her. Her beauty is about the only positive attribute most Russians can agree on. She would like it if Marial found her beautiful.

She feels the touch of Marial’s fingers at the crease of her thigh. Catherine does not look to them, and neither does Marial, holding her gaze and finding her way between Catherine’s legs by feel. Marial’s fingers touch lightly where she is still wet, making the banked embers of her desire roar anew.

“He does touch me,” she says, defensive of Leo.

“Goes straight for your entrance, does he?”

“Well—of course.” It sometimes takes him a little fumbling around, but they are learning together. “That’s the port one aims to dock at, isn’t it?”

Marial hums and slides her fingertips down, pausing to press hard just above Catherine’s entrance. Catherine huffs out a breath, her hips tilting forward into the touch.

It’s different than with Leo. Marial’s fingers are slimmer, but her touch is more confident. Practiced. As though Catherine really is merely a duty to be taken care of. She shivers, her legs falling further apart as Marial presses the tips of two fingers just barely inside her.

“Are you sore, Empress? I hear his cock is of a good size.”

“It is,” Catherine says, her voice unexpectedly breathy. Peter accused her of being joyless to bed, but she always yields happily to Leo’s touch, because he is Leo and not Peter. It is strange to note that Marial can have the same effect. “But I am learning to take such hardships. Good practice for ruling Russia.”

“Indeed.” Marial’s fingers slide into her. Catherine arches with a muffled sound.

“He’ll have done this,” Marial says.

“Y-Yes.”

“Vigorously?”

“Oh, yes.”

“Well done, Voronsky,” Marial says approvingly. “There’s a place inside you that you might teach him to touch. One curls one’s fingers as if calling an animal.” She does so, putting firm pressure on something inside Catherine that makes her slam her hand over her mouth. It amplifies the sound of her panting breath in her ears. Marial does not let up, rocking her fingers back and forth over that hard little spot, making Catherine gasp into her hand.

“You can feel it yourself, if you like,” Marial says, as conversationally as when they discuss Catherine’s wardrobe. “Then you’ll know better how to guide him. Give me your hand?”

She doesn’t wait for Catherine to do so. She shoves herself up to her knees, freeing the arm she was leaning on, and takes Catherine’s free hand from where it rests on the bed. Catherine lets her guide her fingers to her own cunt.

“Put one inside,” Marial says gently.

Catherine was well stretched earlier by Leo’s cock, which is of a good size. It’s still a tight fit to slide one finger in beside Marial’s, but she is wet, and she is willing.

“There you are,” Marial says, and pushes Catherine’s finger against the spot.

Oh.” She doesn't mean to make noises, but they come from her anyway, unpretty guttural sounds. She can feel it, that little hard place inside that makes all the muscles in her legs turn to water.

“He has probably hit it by accident,” Marial says, “if it’s as big and nicely-shaped as they say, but there it is. Keep touching yourself there.”

She withdraws her fingers. Catherine makes a noise of protest, her one meager finger not nearly enough on its own.

“Oh, settle down, Empress. You may add more fingers if you like. Goodness, you do get wet—I can see why Voronsky follows you like a dog.”

Catherine swallows before demurely lowering her hand from her mouth.

“Is that—desirable? That’s something men like?” She wishes, with a sudden urgency, to know if Marial is complimenting her. If she’s finding this experience—if she’s finding Catherine—acceptable.

“Yes, it makes things easier for them, I suppose. And for us. See, you’ve soaked my fingers, so this should feel very nice indeed.” She slides her fingers up through Catherine’s folds until she hits a spot that makes Catherine’s thighs spasm. It’s like the sound of an alarm bell made physical, a hot, sharp feeling that clangs all through her body.

“Oh,” she breathes, “what—”

“Hush, Empress. Does it feel good, or is it too sensitive? Some women don’t like a direct touch.” She brushes the spot again. Catherine cries out, clutching at the pillow with her free hand.

“Well? Good?”

Yes,” she manages. “How did you—why is—that’s so far away from—from where he enters me. Who would think to touch there?

“Clearly not Voronsky,” Marial says. “Well, this shouldn’t take long.”

She draws both fingers in a careful circle around the sensitive place, pulling a delicate moan from Catherine’s throat. For a long minute while Marial touches her, Catherine is too muddled to think of anything else. There is a callous on one of Marial’s fingers that catches right at the same place on every slow circle. Her body spasms so tightly she can hardly draw breath.

Then she remembers that she is meant to be touching herself as well. Instantly, she shoves two more fingers inside herself, curling them as Marial demonstrated. Pleasure swells inside her, as vast and unstoppable as the sea. She wants to do as Marial bid, but she can’t stop herself from thrusting her fingers as Leo does—vigorously. The more Marial touches her sensitive place, the tighter she clenches.

Pleasure is new to her, and becoming familiar with it has transformed her body. Already she has learned so much about how impossibly good a body can feel. The addictive burn of sex. This is better still, so agonizingly good that her whole body shakes. She feels the quiver around her own fingers, unbearably hot.

The motion of Marial’s fingers accelerates. Instead of circling coyly, she now jabs right where Catherine is most delicate, fast and relentless. Catherine nearly sobs, plunging her fingers faster into herself. Something in her is winding tight as a winch, the muscles in her stomach, thighs and cunt all clenching hard. She grips at the pillow so hard it hurts. Just when it’s almost too much, the feeling crests. She throws her head back and yells as it washes through her, helpless in its grip.

She finds that the pleasure has not one crest, but many; it overtakes her in spasm after spasm. Marial has stopped the movement of her hand, but her fingers still press lightly at that place, intensifying each peak.

Catherine’s body is a tyrant, keeping her on the edge of pleasure for longer than Leo’s finish has ever seemed to take. Finally she falls back on the bed, exhausted. Everything in her has been burned clean to white ash. Her mind is empty, her blood afire.

“There you have it,” Marial says kindly.

Catherine did not realize her eyes were closed, but she opens them now. Her lashes are damp with sweat, blurring her vision. She blinks several times over.

Marial is flushed pink, her hair falling down in pieces. The flush is likely from exertion. But perhaps there was a part of her that enjoyed the task? Perhaps Marial herself is wet under her skirts?

To have shown this to Catherine, she must have experienced it herself. With a man? Catherine finds the idea of Marial with a man distasteful. More likely she discovered it on her own, touching herself as fearlessly as she approaches all other tasks in life. The thought of Marial learning her own sensitivities, her own desires, makes Catherine’s cunt throb weakly.

“Thank you, Marial,” Catherine says, breathless. “That was... most educational. This... this is why... we must bring science to the court.”

Marial snorts. “It’s very like you to say that. You know what, Empress?” There’s fondness in her eyes again, as sweet and intoxicating as honeyed wine. “You really can be quite charming.”

Catherine’s heart pounds. “Flatterer.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t. You know I wouldn’t.”

“Yes,” Catherine says with a laugh. “You’re not charming at all.”

“I should hope not. If I were, I might be considered a good servant.”

Catherine shifts her hips, conscious of how sensitive she is now, after being taken more than once. The desire has not been fully sated; if Leo were here, she would happily bed him again. But she finds that she can stand the waiting a little easier than she could before. She is not drained and useless, as men often are after their climax, but the burning need within her has receded for the moment.

“You are a servant of average quality,” she tells Marial, “but a most excellent friend. And you have done a great service to Russia today.”

Marial smiles, her eyes roguishly alight. “I am always happy to service my country. Shall we clean you up?”

Oh yes, lunch. Despite barely having left her bed today, Catherine is suddenly ravenous. But the thought of seeing her husband makes her stomach turn.

It’s not only that he’s loathsome, but that she must continually perform for him. She can endure pain, but it is difficult to be expected to endure it with a smile. He wants her to be happy at court. Well, she is, but only when not in his presence.

“Yes,” she says. “I will dress and take my lunch. But I’m—feeling a little weak. I believe it’s my unsteady feminine constitution. It will be best to take lunch in my room, I think.”

Marial nods, forcing her mouth to go serious. “It would be terrible to risk the Empress’ health by making her sit in the dining room. I’ve noticed it’s quite drafty—there’s often such an unpleasant air.”

“Yes, yes. And since I’m feeling so terribly feeble, I think I will need to be attended quite closely.”

“I do have other duties, Empress.”

“I think you will find that you don’t,” Catherine says airily.

Marial’s mouth works as she tries not to smile. She loses the battle, amusement spreading over her face. It has more color to it than before; the dark circles do not quite stand out so starkly. “No, I suppose I don’t.”