The God-King and I
Janet Fraiser came awake slowly, a soft, unfamiliar sound teasing her ears. She blinked, becoming aware that she was snuggled against a long, lean frame, her nose pressed into the warmth of someone's neck, a pair of arms folded loosely around her body. Which wasn't something she was at all used to. A moment of disorientation and then she realized where she was; trapped in the Royal City on Routtua, wrapped safely in Samantha Carter's arms. After they'd each extracted their promises the night before, they'd checked the apartment again, then lain on the bed, talking quietly until they drifted off. Janet remembered snuggling into the thick comforter, but she had no memory of how she'd wound up sleeping wrapped in Sam's arms.
She drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly, consciously calming suddenly jangled nerves. This was just way too close to some of the hormone driven dreams she'd had when Hathor's little time bomb had been playing ducks and drakes with her mind and body. And if that wasn't too dangerous a place to let herself go mentally, she didn't know what was....
...except ... there was a tiny niggling thought in the back of her head that they could both wind up trapped in the royal city for the rest of their lives. Who could blame either of them for grabbing any comfort available?
And speaking of places she couldn't allow herself to go mentally. Contemplating the meaning behind that thought was very high on the list of things filed under 'Forbidden Topics,' in her head. What she had with Sam was a real friendship ... and she couldn't allow Hathor's games and a few meaningless dreams to screw that up.
Thoughts tumbling rapid fire through her brain, she didn't consider the soft sound that had woken her until she heard it again and tipped her head up just in time to see blue eyes sweep open and blink sleepily. "Sam?" she whispered almost inaudibly.
The sound came again and this time she was conscious enough to realize it hadn't come from the woman holding her as she recognized what it was. Someone clearing their throat. She saw comprehension dawn as Sam's expression shifted.
Both women jackknifed upright at the same time.
"What the hell?" Carter exhaled.
Janet could only stare.
It was unquestionably Prime Minister Idri who'd cleared his throat, since he was standing rather stiffly in the entrance to the bedroom, but most surprisingly there were at least two dozen young women pressed into the space behind him, peering past the minister to get a look at the scene in the bedroom.
"Lady Fraiser, Lady Carter," the minister said formally, inclining his head in respectful acknowledgment, though the effect was somewhat different than he intended, punctuated as it was by a half a dozen giggles from his eagerly watching audience.
A striking woman of perhaps fifty stepped forward, silencing the girls with a look before taking a place next to the minister.
Janet suddenly realized her mouth was hanging open and she snapped it shut. "Prime Minister?" she croaked at last, wondering what new irritation he'd cooked up.
He flashed a nervous glance at the girls, setting off a fresh round of muffled giggles. "The ... uh ... women are here to begin the preparations for your wedding."
"Preparations?" Janet repeated, sounding ill. She stumbled off the bed, staggering clumsily to her feet.
"Yes, my lady," the older woman said, her expression speculative as she tracked Sam's exit from the bed. Carter found her feet and stood next to Janet, braced and ready to step in protectively. "I am Radu Parnassus and I am the minister in charge of ceremonies. I will be overseeing the preparations." Lips perfectly outlined in a flaming shade of crimson tipped up in a formal smile. "You will be bathed, perfumed, your hair and makeup done, and dressed in your bridal gown with no effort from yourself ... and, if you wish, the finest masseuse in the kingdom will see to your comfort and ease your tensions."
Janet was back to being able to do nothing more than stare, completely overwhelmed by a list that sounded more like a threat than a promise. "No, no, no," she exhaled at last and backed up a pace.
"Lady Fraiser, you must be prepared," Radu said insistently, while the crowd punctuated the statement with more muffled giggles as girls fought to peer past her in order to get a better look.
"No," Janet said again, her tone firmer this time. She stared at the girls and shook her head. She wasn't going to do that, no way. The giggling alone would make her crazy.
"My Lady--" Idri began, his tone placating.
"No," the doctor said again, her tone becoming strident. A few hours of sleep had restored her strength and enough of her normal self-confidence that she had no intention of putting up with any more indignities. "I have been poked, prodded, and assessed like a side of beef. I will, however, not be stripped naked for the entertainment of a bunch of giggling teenagers."
Which the giggling schoolgirls apparently thought was utterly hilarious, judging by the resulting volume of laughter. Radu flashed them a look and the laughter was quickly muted to low titters, but it didn't stop.
"My Lady--" Radu began as she turned back around.
"What part of no isn't getting through here?" Janet demanded angrily, rocking both Idri and Radu back on their heels.
Sam glanced at her friend, noting the lines of tension around her mouth and the blaze of anger in her eyes. If all those women came crashing in, tittering and intent on playing at bathing and dressing the doctor like a life-sized Barbie doll, Fraiser was going to blow like Mount Vesuvius. "I think perhaps I can solve this little impasse," she said quickly and stepped forward, putting herself between the doctor and the crowd. "I can help Doctor Fraiser with any necessary preparations."
Sculpted blond brows rose in polite disbelief as Radu eyed Sam from head to toe in a way that made it obvious she found the idea laughable.
Sam barely resisted the urge to run a hand over her tousled hair and point out that she'd been on a military mission and hadn't exactly had time to worry about her makeup. She glanced down at her sleep wrinkled cammies ... and the uniform was part of the job. She had any number of perfectly nice clothes in her closet at home.
"Thank you, but I doubt that would be appropriate," Radu sniffed at last.
Sam's spine stiffened at the note of disdain. "I think I'm reasonably capable of running a bath and helping someone dress," she said impatiently. After all she had a PhD in Astrophysics, plus assorted bachelor's and master's degrees ranging from physics to theoretical mathematics. She'd even been bathing and dressing herself all on her own for quite a few years. She gritted her teeth as the watching girls giggled again.
Radu shook her head dismissively. "All of the proper herbs and salts must be used ... the right oils, the right powders ... and it must all be done in the right order." She shook her head again. "And the dress...." She shook her head, still staring at Sam. "I sincerely doubt you could possibly--"
"No!" Janet shouted, once again feeling completely out of control of the situation and fed up with having her wishes totally ignored. She rounded on Idri, her voice climbing with every word. "I've had it! You've officially hit my limit!" He stared at her as though she'd lost her mind while the giggling finally ceased, replaced by wide-eyed stares and tiny exhalations of awe. "You'd better call the guards -- lots of them -- if you plan on going ahead with this, because I promise you, the first one of those girls who tries to touch me is walking away with a broken nose!"
The crowd backed away ever so slightly while Idri and Radu both looked completely scandalized.
"Lady Fraiser--" Idri began after a moment.
"I mean it!" Janet bellowed, glaring at the lot of them.
Sam peered at Idri, brows high on her forehead. "I think she means it," she pointed out unnecessarily.
"She must be readied," the prime minister fretted. His expression hardened as he met Sam's triumphant look. "If she isn't, I assure you, soldiers will aid the women and hold her in place for the preparations if necessary."
Sam met his hard look with a menacing glare. "Try it and you're in for one hell of a fight." She straightened her shoulders and reached out to rest a light hand on Janet's shoulder, purposely highlighting their alliance. "And since she managed to trash at least a half a dozen of your guards, you may not have much of an army left when I'm done."
The prime minister drew a breath to speak, only to have the words die unuttered as Sam flashed him a look of pure threat. He looked at Radu, whose expression was suddenly similarly nervous. "Perhaps you could explain to Lady Carter what needs to be done?" he said hopefully.
Radu swallowed hard, looking like a deer in the headlights. "Me?" she croaked.
"Well, I can't teach her what she needs to know," the minister hissed, sounding quite relieved by that fact.
"But I--" Radu began, only to have Idri completely override her as he summoned his most commanding glare and direct it at the prisoners.
"Do not think you can delay the wedding by this childish tactic," he snapped, suspicious that this was nothing more than an attempt at avoiding the wedding. "It will go forward on schedule even if Lady Fraiser is bathed in mud and wearing nothing at all."
"Then why bother?" Janet shot back.
"Because certain amenities are called for on such a joyous day," he responded through gritted teeth. He caught his temper, drawing himself straighter. "However, since it is obvious that the conflict over this issue is stressing Lady Fraiser unnecessarily on this wondrous day, Lady Carter, if you will give your word you will prepare her properly, I will allow you to do so once Minister Radu has instructed you."
"Me?" the minister squeaked again. "I don't remember agreeing to this plan." Her complaint went unnoticed by the others.
Sam glanced at Janet, who offered a sulky shrug. It was the best they were likely to get. "All right," she said as she faced Idri and the gathered crowd. "Just tell me what to do and she'll be ready."
Radu stared at Sam as though she was a Tazmanian Devil on the verge of going on eating spree ... with her as the main course. "My Lord Idri, I-I really don't think--"
"Perhaps I can help, Lady Radu," the voice was soft and musical and came from a delicately built young woman who stepped from the crowd of avidly watching girls. Dressed like the other harem girls, she nonetheless had a serious mien and intelligent brown eyes. "I know all of the ceremonial requirements, and I would be honored to aid Lady Carter in preparing Lady Fraiser for her wedding."
Radu turned a startled look on the girl. "S�lan," she began, then appeared to consider the situation. She looked at Sam hopefully. "She would not be harmed?"
Sam had the brief thought that they could hold the girl hostage in trade for their own freedom, but she quickly discarded the idea. She couldn't terrorize some innocent kid, and she was certain Janet couldn't either. "Of course not," she dismissed quickly. She looked at the girl who'd made the offer. Sweet faced and all of seventeen or eighteen, she at least presented no threat and didn't look likely to overwhelm anybody.
Radu's hopeful gaze swung around to land on Idri. "She does know the ceremonial requirements," she informed him, still watching Sam nervously out of the corner of her eye.
"It would be my pleasure," S�lan added, her eyes glittering eagerly. Unlike the others, she showed no fear, nor any tendency toward giggling.
After looking from one to another of the various participants, Idri finally nodded. "Very well then," he agreed. "S�lan will teach you what you need to know, Lady Carter." His tone hardened then, his gaze touching on both women. "And you are solely and completely responsible for her safety. If she is harmed in any way, the full weight of our Lord's wrath will come down on your head." The meaning was clear. Sam would pay for any transgressions against the girl.
"I don't hurt children," Sam snapped impatiently. "She'll probably be safer with us than she would be with your precious god-king ... since we've never kidnapped anyone."
"Very well," Idri said, his decision made. "Then S�lan may stay." He straightened his shoulders, his expression imperious. "And do not think to delay the wedding because you will not." His gaze slid sideways to lock with Janet's, directing the threat that followed to her. "But Lady Carter will be punished if all is not as it should be ... and if she falls in status in such a way, she will no longer be allowed to serve as a royal handmaiden ... nor even be allowed within the First Wife's presence ... ever."
"Threat heard and acknowledged," Fraiser clipped resentfully.
"Then I will bid you good day for now," Idri said and offered a hint of a bow. He turned on his heel, moving back through the gathered crowd, his voice rising above their low murmurs. "Leave those things there ... yes, and that there ... those can sit in that corner...."
With a last nervous look at Sam, Radu followed him, her voice joining his in the chiding commands, until finally, they shooed the girls out.
Just before he left, Idri turned back, making eye contact with Janet, then turning a pointed look on Sam. The silent reminder was obvious, play along or the other woman would pay for it. As long as he held that threat over the blond captain's head, there was little she could do. She nodded in acknowledgment, and he turned on his heel, slamming the door in his wake.
Her expression apologetic, Sam looked at Janet. "I thought I was supposed to be the one protecting you," she said disgustedly.
Janet shrugged. "It's to be expected." Then she laughed darkly and stepped forward. "Time to see my trousseau." Her jaw dropped as she got a look at what had been left behind, and heard Sam's soft gasp as she too stepped forward. "Oh ... my," she exhaled.
"It's very ... um ... I mean there's a lot ... of it...." Sam breathed.
There were dozens of canisters of all sizes, open boxes filled with voluminous amounts of intricate jewelry made from gold and precious stones, and on the couch, a hanging rack with myriads of dresses, robes, gowns and other garments. Lastly, a mound of glittering black fabric that was at least half again as large as a person was piled high on the couch, watching over everything else in the collection like the black raven of impending doom.
S�lan did a neat about-face, studying the horde with a pleased eye. "It is impressive, isn't it?" She gestured toward the mound of black fabric on the couch. "Your wedding gown was first worn four generations ago by the First Wife of Padraic Arim ... the train is nearly five cords long...."
The number was obviously intended to be very impressive, but with no idea what it meant, Janet could do little more than nod. "Well, at least it's the right color," she observed, noting the inky blackness of the fabric.
S�lan smiled proudly, quickly explaining, "It symbolizes the endless sky full of glittering stars that are the God-King's rightful domain."
"On earth, it mostly just represents death, doom, and depression," Janet muttered, glaring at the fabric as though it was somehow responsible for her situation. "Darth Vader wore a lot of black."
S�lan frowned, not understanding in the least. "Oh." The frown only lasted a second or two then she perked up. "We must hurry now." She pivoted neatly, pacing around in front of the doctor, assessing her with a professional eye. "There's so much to get done. We have to bathe you and then--"
"Oh no," Janet said flatly. "Been bathing myself for years now and we'll just keep it that way."
The girl looked like someone had just run over her puppy. "But it's part of the ritual ... the attendants have to prepare the herbs and salts, then bathe the intended."
Sam rested a hand on the girl's shoulder. "How about a compromise. We'll prepare the bath and leave Doctor Fraiser alone ... then you can show me the rest of what I need to know while she's soaking."
S�lan didn't look happy, but after a glance at the set of the doctor's expression, she nodded in surrender. That decided, she hurried to gather what she needed while giving a running lecture on the different herbs, scents, and minerals ... plus how to prepare them and a complete history of their use that included a fair amount of world history in the bargain.
Janet found it exhausting just to watch. She shared a look with Sam, who rolled her eyes and got a smile in return.
Less than a half an hour later, sweet smelling steam roll above the thick, foaming bubbles mounded high in the huge bathtub.
"Now, Lady Fraiser," S�lan began with a formal bow, "we shall prepare you for your ablutions."
Janet had had it with discussions of preparations. They all seemed to entail something she had no interest in allowing to happen. "Meaning?"
"We will undress you and massage precious oils into your skin before you bathe," the girl explained with a bright smile.
Janet sighed and turned an ironic look on Sam. "Why does everyone on this planet want to get me out of my clothes?" she questioned, mildly bewildered by the entire concept. "It would almost be flattering if it weren't so goddamned annoying." She looked down at herself, trying to figure it out. "I really don't get it."
Sam shrugged sympathetically. After her own adventures on P3X-593, getting treated like property and traded from harem to harem, she knew exactly how the other woman felt. "I think you can take that as a no," she informed S�lan, her tone oddly gentle. The girl had an innocent sweetness that she had no desire to shatter.
"No undressing, no naked massages, no naked baths ... in fact no public nudity at all ... public being defined as 'with anyone other than me in attendance,'" Janet interrupted, ticking things off on her fingers. It wasn't that she was ashamed of her body, but she'd never been one for showing it to total strangers. Besides, there was little enough she could completely control at that point in time, but her state of undress was still under her jurisdiction. "If the oils are that important, I'll do it for myself."
The girl's lips pursed in disapproval, but finally she nodded and began explaining the purpose of the precious oils, the descriptions becoming increasingly intimate as she continued, completely oblivious to the growing embarrassment of the two adults. Obviously, growing up in a harem made some very different views on some matters. It was a genuine relief for both women when she finally finished and Janet was able to shoo both of them out.
The doctor pushed the door closed in their wake, then leaned her forehead against the smooth wood. "How do I get myself into these things?" she asked no one in particular. Finally, she opened one of the oils and gave it an experimental sniff, then tossed it aside, the thought of a hot bath far too appealing for further delays.
* * * * * *
"Lady Fraiser doesn't wish to marry the God-King, does she?" S�lan asked curiously while they were going through the steps for putting on the elaborate black dress. It went on over a multitude of petticoats, then the sleeves, bodice, and skirt were all separate pieces that had to be tied to each other in a specific order or it wouldn't go together right.
Sam looked up to encounter a pair of intelligent eyes watching her carefully. "Not even a little bit," she admitted, bracing herself for the religious lecture she fully expected to hear as a result.
Instead the teenager laughed. "I think that's why our parents named him the royal successor," she said through a chuckle. "They knew no one would have him without a great deal of incentive."
"Your parents?" Sam repeated.
S�lan nodded quickly. "Yes, Adoh is my little brother ... not that I'm particularly proud of it most days." She made the sort of face well known to older sisters throughout the length and breadth of the universe. "He's an annoying brat most of the time, and I don't blame Lady Fraiser in the least for not wanting to marry him."
It was the first time Sam had heard of anyone showing anything but utter worship for the boy and she wasn't quite certain what to make of it. "I ... uh ... that's not the usual response around here," she said at last.
The teen laughed. "You might be surprised." She waved a hand to indicate the area where the crowd had stood watching. "Most of the girls in the harem were relieved to hear that Lady Fraiser had been chosen as First Wife since it spared them the task." She slanted a look at Sam, a flirtatious smile playing about her lips. "More than a few were disappointed when you showed up though."
Sam stared blankly at the girl, picking up on the confusing mix of signals, but uncertain what to make of them. "When I showed up?" she repeated.
S�lan nodded, paying little attention to what she was doing as she demonstrated how the point on the sleeves tied to the fitted bodice of the gown. "Yes, Lady Carter. We'd heard about her efforts to save the God-King of course, and more than a few saw her brought in. They were hoping Lady Fraiser would select one of them as a handmaid or concubine--"
"Concubine?" Sam choked. "Y-you mean for the god-king?" she asked, drawing the question out uncertainly, thinking maybe the first wife was in charge of picking his personal harem.
S�lan frowned. "Of course not," she dismissed, sounding disturbed by the very idea. "I meant for Lady Fraiser. Adoh's a little boy. He won't be allowed to share such intimacies until he's an adult ... nearly five years from now."
"You mean he's not allowed to..." Sam paused, hunting for a term both explicit enough to be certain and subtle enough to not offend the teen, finally settling on, "share sexual intimacy with anyone for five years?"
The girl frowned, looking offended. "Of course not," she repeated. "He's ... a ... child," she said, pronouncing each word slowly and carefully, as though she feared Sam was a little slow.
"Not even with his wife?" Sam pressed, needing to know for certain that she was reading the situation correctly.
"No ... not until he's of legal age," S�lan responded, staring at Sam as though she was slightly insane. "You don't allow children such intimacies on your world, do you?" she asked uneasily.
"What? No," Sam yelped, shaking her head in denial. "It's just that ... well ... your people kidnapped Doctor Fraiser, they're forcing her marry your brother. Not exactly something likely to cause a lot of trust. We were afraid that she might be forced to ... to...." She shrugged a little helplessly, wondering how in the hell she'd gotten this job.
S�lan studied Sam carefully, head canting to one side as she considered the problem. Suddenly she grinned. "So you came to rescue her."
Sam shrugged a little helplessly. "More or less," she admitted, sensing she was getting in over her head, but uncertain how to get back out.
The teen sighed dreamily. "That's so romantic."
Sam blinked. "No, it wasn't," she disagreed almost instantly. It was the right thing to do ... friendship ... caring ... any number of things. It was not romantic. Absolutely and utterly, incontrovertibly not romantic. "I ... that is..." she tried to explain only to have the coherent explanation defy her ability to express it while the girl stared expectantly at her. "We're just friends," she muttered at last.
Fine brows rose in polite disbelief as S�lan considered the statement. A beat passed before she brightened. It was a pattern Sam was beginning to notice. "Ah, I understand. You are embarrassed because you're only a handmaiden, but many handmaidens have been made concubines when love blossomed." She grinned and winked suggestively. "Besides, she had eyes only for you ... and you're her rescuer ... willing to sacrifice everything for her. What woman wouldn't be won by such devotion?"
What woman indeed? Her mouth hanging open, brain misfiring at all levels, Sam couldn't think of a single answer. She drew a breath to try anyway, only to wind up exhaling heavily when words wouldn't come. "So," she said at last, opting for a total subject change, "he really can't sleep with her for five years?"
"No. That's why everyone assumed Lady Fraiser would quickly select a lover and not be forced to observe the usual year's waiting time ... especially since, as First Wife, she can't take another husband or visit the men's harems until the line of succession has been established ... and no wife for at least two years."
Sam blinked. "Oh." Welcome to the Land of Polygamy Cubed. That could definitely take the whole concept of Six Degrees of Separation to all new heights. A complex spiderweb of a diagram appeared in her head of what a tangential knot filial relationships could rapidly become under those circumstances.
A sly smile curved S�lan's mouth as she eyed Sam from under the cover of thick lashes. "In fact I had rather hoped she might choose me as a concubine ... later perhaps as a wife if I pleased her," she admitted.
For once, Sam wasn't entirely surprised.
"But," the girl continued, oblivious to the way the blond tensed, "having seen the way you are together, I realize how unlikely that is ... however, it has occurred to me that since you are already a handmaiden, Lady Fraiser could still choose a concubine ... and enjoy the attentions of two lovers." A sensual smile curved her mouth, leaving little doubt that she was thinking of a version of that scenario that would have steamed the most jaded porn director's lens-piece in short order. "Then formally make you a concubine when she may choose again in a year."
Sam thought she'd been struck dumb before, but it suddenly occurred to her that she hadn't even come close to plumbing the depths of speechlessness. The hardest task she suddenly faced was resisting the urge to leap four feet straight in the air and flee the room at top speed. She shook her head slowly. "No," she mumbled at last. "Th-that wouldn't work ... no, not at all." She was babbling, and she knew it, but she didn't seem to be able to do anything else. "That would just be so ... so very wrong ... on so many levels." So, so, so many levels. Multitudes of levels. In fact her brain was threatening to seize up from contemplating them all.
Hurt ghosted across the girl's delicate features. "Oh." She shrugged, looking very young and a little embarrassed. "Of course, why would either of you want me when you're both so beautiful."
Sam was amazed to feel a heavy load of guilt settle on her shoulders in response to the hurt she'd unintentionally inflicted on the girl. "It's not that," she said as gently as possible as she regained some measure of speech. "It's just that you're still a child ... and some day, you'll find someone who loves you very much ... but not either of us," she quickly added. She didn't even try to explain the myriad of reasons. No, that was a discussion Samantha Carter wasn't even remotely interested in having.
S�lan heaved a mildly depressed sigh, then shrugged. "I knew it was a long shot once I saw you," she admitted, then grinned wickedly. "But you can't blame a girl for trying."
"Maybe you should finish showing me how this goes together," Sam said quickly and reached for the wedding dress, hoping to distract the girl. She was relieved when it worked and S�lan went into lecture mode a moment later, explaining in great detail the complete history of the gown, which somehow melded into an amazingly complete cultural and political history of Routtua itself. Despite the sex on the brain, the young woman was smart and well educated and Sam found herself quite fascinated by what she had to say.
* * * * * *
Janet was still stretched out in the tub, her head pillowed on the rim at one end, feet hooked over each other and resting on the rim on the other, a washcloth draped over her eyes, while most of her body was hidden by a thick layer of frothy, white bubbles when Sam cautiously opened the bathroom door.
Sam's eyes snapped ceilingward as she entered after a brief, frozen moment ... until she realized a mirror directly over the tub made that choice completely pointless. She dropped her eyes, fixing them on an utterly bland towel bar and cleared her throat to alert the woman lounging in the tub to her presence.
"Wha', oh, Sam," Janet murmured as she lifted the washcloth off her eyes to peer up at the blond. "Gotta tell ya," she sighed, sounding considerably more relaxed than the last time Sam had seen her. "I can't say much for the rest of the planet, but they do know how to pour a bath." She glanced down, noting the bubbles were still thick enough for modesty's sake and dropped the washcloth back into place, resting her head against the rim of the tub again. "I wonder what Idri would do if I just refuse to leave the tub?"
Sam shrugged. "Hold the wedding in here?"
"Ah god, you're probably right," Janet moaned and sank under the water, coming up a moment later and slicking her hair back from her face. "Either that or send the whole harem in to drag me out." She shuddered at the thought and disappeared under the water again.
Sam leaned against the doorjamb and waited until the doctor had surfaced again. "Thought you might like a robe when you get out of there," she murmured, tossing the pale gold garment she'd found on hanging rack onto a nearby counter. "Plus I have some good news."
Brown eyes swung her way. "They're letting us go?" Janet said hopefully.
Sam shook her head, her expression apologetic. "Not that good," she admitted. "But close. S�lan and I were talking while she showed me everything ... and I found out that you don't have anything to worry about where Adoh Arim is concerned."
Arched brows drew together in a frown. "Meaning?"
"They have legal age limits for sexual congress ... and he's too young ... and will be for another five years. He can't touch you before then.... We've got time," she added as Janet sank back against the edge of the tub and heaved a sigh of relief.
"Seriously?" the doctor whispered, not quite certain she'd heard right.
Sam crouched down, staring intently into dark eyes. "Seriously," she confirmed, smiling gently. "I haven't spoken to Idri, but I did check it out with her every way I could, and she was firm about it ... and she should know what she's talking about, she's the boy's sister."
"His sister?" Janet repeated. She shook her head in amazement. "Why am I surprised?"
"She's quite a font of information," Sam added without further explanation.
"Anything we can use?" Janet asked practically.
Sam froze for a moment, then shook her head. "Not really." At least nothing she had any intention of explaining to the other woman. She felt her cheeks heat with the memories of S�lan's assumptions, feeling an unwanted burst of curiosity that she immediately pushed into the backalleys of her mind. "A few interesting cultural details and some description of the ceremony." She straightened, carefully not allowing her eyes to stray over the hints of soft curves occasionally visible through the bubbles. "Anyway, I just wanted you to know as soon as possible. I'll leave you to finish your bath now." She took a step toward the door, only to pull up short as a damp hand caught her own, squeezing firmly.
"I don't know what I'd do without you," Janet admitted, her voice strained with the intensity of the emotion.
Sam looked down then, her breath catching as her eyes fell on Janet's downbent head, taking in pale shoulders where they rose out of the water, and just barely glimpsing the smooth curves beneath the foam. She purposely forced herself to meet dark brown eyes as Janet's chin rose. "I'm just glad I could help," she croaked, her mouth suddenly dry.
Janet drew a breath and seemed about to say more only to change her mind as their hands parted. "I was actually about to get out if you'd like to use the tub. There are still plenty of herbs and bath salts left, and I have to admit, they have worked wonders on my sore muscles."
Despite the temptation offered by a hot bath, Sam shook her head. "I don't think so," she mumbled, fighting the urge to flee. "But you ... ah ... you have a whole new list of precious oils you're supposed to use when you get out." Heat flamed across her cheeks as she recalled S�lan's detailed instructions on their use.
Janet grumbled something under her breath and sank under the water again. By the time she surfaced, Sam was arranging the oils on the bathroom counter. "Just start on the left with your feet and work your way up and you should be fine," she muttered. "Or you can just ignore them the way you did the ones you were supposed to use before the bath." She'd noticed that only one of the oil canisters had been opened, and there wasn't much missing by the look of it.
"What, no massage?" Janet whined jokingly before she could think better of it.
Sam came up short, momentarily struck dumb by a confusing rush of temptation to draw her fingers slowly over fine skin and find out what it would feel like to explore the flex and play of taut muscle without the impedance of clothing between her fingers and Janet's back. It was a sensual impulse, more related to the tactile pleasure she found stroking a cat's fur or touching good silk than any sudden blast of sexual desire, but it still left her reeling. She swallowed hard, forcing the thought and mental image down. "I think you can probably look after yourself," she muttered, ignoring any impulses to do anything else.
Janet's lips pursed in a playful pout. "Sheez, you'd think the future First Wife and Goddess Queen would at least rate one massage." Sam's news had lightened her emotional load and she was feeling almost happy.
Turning the lock on the alluring notion, Sam forced a wry smirk into place. "Not even deified yet and the power's already going to your head," she complained mockingly. "However, right now, I've got some things I need to get done while you finish here."
"Oh, just be that way then," Janet sighed dramatically, though a smile teased her lips, and her eyes glittered with humor.
"Will do," Sam said agreeably, then slipped out. Once through the door, she pulled it closed in her wake, then leaned her forehead against the cool wood with a heaving sigh, wondering if maybe she was going already going a little stir crazy; either that or the power of suggestion was hard at work playing with her head. She took a deep breath and straightened her shoulders, consciously restoring her mental equilibrium. She gave herself a good shake, throwing off the momentary distraction with the same control and concentration she'd always exercised over her thought processes, directing them back to the situation at hand.
She stepped away from the door and moved back into the livingroom, mentally going over what S�lan had told her ... the parts that didn't include how romantic her efforts to rescue her friend were. Her eyes fell on the complex wedding dress where it lay folded on the couch, the tail of the long train hanging over the edge of the cushions. Reaching out, she fingered the delicate fabric, letting it slide against her skin and enjoying the cool sensation. "I can't let it happen," she exhaled with quiet determination. "I just can't...."
* * * * * *
Ruffling her still damp hair with a thick towel, Janet exited the bathroom wrapped in the robe Sam had brought, the silky fabric-soft against her skin. Sam's news had released the worst of the sick dread in the pit of her stomach. She'd been fighting to survive it, ignore it, and even deny it existed, but now that it was gone she was aware of the weight she wasn't carrying any longer. Not that she was relaxed about the situation, but her thinking was clearer with the worst of the fear assuaged. Thanks to Sam.
If she got stuck locked in this place, the worst wasn't going to happen, and at least it was with someone she--
Janet's breath caught and she didn't finish the thought. That was a dangerous thought ... like the impulse in the bathroom that had driven her to tease and flirt with Sam, joking the way she always had when she was uncomfortable, but startled to find her tone taking on an underlying sexual tension that hadn't been there before. God, she had to watch that. Sam wasn't someone who dealt well with any sort of sexual come on, no matter how joking. She might just run like hell. And their friendship wasn't something she cared to risk. Hell, they'd already come close to losing it without her doing her best to make Sam uncomfortable.
Wandering through the apartment, she found the blond on the livingroom couch, the expansive black wedding dress draped across her lap.
"Hey there," Janet said softly and Sam's head snapped up, her expression momentarily surprised.
"Janet," the blond exhaled, then her mouth split into a wide grin, a lighthearted expression that made Janet's heart soar with a sudden burst of hope, her other worries forgotten. She just couldn't imagine Sam smiling like that for anything but good news. "I think I know how to get out of here."
Which was possibly the best news imaginable. "How?" Janet asked, sitting on the edge of the coffee table.
A tiny laugh and then Sam held up one corner of the skirt. "I was looking at the skirt and then I remembered something S�lan told me while she was giving me the history lecture and it hit me that the fabric was so light ... except the train." She ran her thumb along a seam she'd neatly split with a sharp edge made from a metal canister lid. "It's weighted so that it'll flow right when the wearer is moving ... with rope."
Janet frowned, staring at what Sam was showing her, seeing the edge of what looked like a cotton or nylon rope stitched to the underlining of the train. She reached out, peeling the fabric aside so she could see better.
"The train's at least twenty-five feet long and the rope is coiled back and forth the entire length ... there must be at least fifty feet ... and I think it's one continuous piece."
"My God," Janet exhaled and fingered the fabric, feeling a turn in the rope, then tracing it some distance. She looked up at Sam, hope shining in her eyes. "But if it's just meant as a weight, there's no telling if it's strong enough to hold us," she whispered.
"I got a small section loose," Sam said quickly, and flicked up another section of the train, showing Janet a short section of the rope she'd already freed. It wasn't especially heavy, but the weave looked strong. "I tested it as best I could. I think it'll work, but there's no way of being certain until we try," she admitted, then her tone grew more serious. "There is a risk."
Janet ran the pad of her thumb along the freed section of rope, silently testing it. "Tell me what to do to help," she said after a short beat.
Sam couldn't restrain a grin. "I figured you might say that," she admitted and held out a second homemade seam ripper. "Step one is just get the rope out of there in time to use it."
"And then?" Janet questioned as she took the jerry-rigged tool and began working.
"We get you ready for your wedding," Sam murmured, "and hope we can arrange for Prince Charming to be left at the altar."
With two agile handed people working on the problem, they freed the rope in record time without doing too much obvious damage to the dress, though both women knew that the change would show if Janet had to move much. The fabric was so light it tended to float with even the slightest encouragement and now there was a pile of rope tucked loosely into the last few feet of the train.
"With luck, they won't have time to notice," Sam exhaled, running her thumb over the stack of loosely coiled rope that bulged the last few feet of the train. "There should be more than enough here to get down from the balcony if we can get there."
"Which means I'd better get my hair and makeup done if I'm going to make Idri believe I've decided to play along." Janet rolled her eyes, looking disgusted at the concept.
"You need help with that?" Sam had gone over everything S�lan had explained to her about the preparations -- if not about other subjects -- while they were working, but there'd been a lot to take in.
The doctor shook her head. "I think I've got it," she assured Sam and rose easily. With her hair dry, the simple but elegant roll would be easy enough, and the makeup was no great challenge -- just a slightly more colorful version of what she might wear for a night on the town ... not that she'd had one of those in a long time.
"Okay," Sam said agreeably. "Meet you back here when you're ready." She watched the other woman disappear, a musing smile curving her lips. They were going to be okay. She ran her thumb along the ridge of the coiled rope where it was hidden between the layers of fabric. It would take speed and a bit of trickery, but she had faith their plan could succeed. She just hoped she was right about S�lan and the other girls. She really hoped they wouldn't interfere, because the last thing she wanted to face was the choice of hurting one of them or losing her chance at freedom. Neither option was acceptable. "So we've just got to make it work," she exhaled and rose, puttering with the details until she heard the soft pad of bare feet.
"Ready to do this?" Janet questioned, less than thrilled by the prospect of playing dress up, but ready to do whatever was necessary.
"Shouldn't I be the one asking you that?" Sam murmured.
Janet only shrugged and changed the subject, eyeing the clothes spread around the room with a jaundiced eye. "So where do we start?" There looked to be an awful lot to it.
"Pantaletts ... very tight black pants," Sam answered, gesturing to the black fabric slung over her shoulder, "then Petticoats." She pointed toward the stacks of stiffened underskirts. "Layers and layers of petticoats."
A heavy sigh and then Janet shook her head. "Joy."
Janet was wearing a black, military issue t-shirt under the robe and she left it on as she slipped on a pair of body hugging silk pants, then stepped into petticoat after petticoat. As Sam fastened the waistband on the overskirt, she toed the long train out of the way, then smoothed her hands along the outer seams of the skirt, settling it into place where it fell away from the doctor's narrow waist in a flared bell.
"Time for the bodice," Sam murmured, her concentration on the task at hand. She didn't even think about what that meant until after she'd retrieved the bodice and turned back to find Janet peeling the black t-shirt off over her head. Arrested by the sight of the doctor's narrow back, the tactile curiosity struck Sam again, leaving her breathless. Square shouldered and narrow-waisted, her spine a graceful track down the center of her back, the doctor stood perfectly straight, arms folded across her chest, muscles tense with the awareness of her own semi-nudity.
"Sam?" Janet's voice was low and a little uncertain.
"Sorry," Carter apologized quickly and looked down, studying the nearly forgotten garment clutched in her hand, hoping she looked like she'd been doing that all along when Janet looked back at her. "I was just trying to remember exactly how this thing goes together."
"Ah." Janet sounded better this time. "How bad is it?"
"It ... ah ... laces in back ... goes over the skirt, but the laces on the waistband have to line up with the eyelets along the bottom edge of the bodice, where they're tied in place ... and then the sleeves tie to the eyelets at the armpit, shoulderblade and breast ... and could they possibly have made this any more complicated?" she muttered unhappily, momentarily forgetting anything else in the wake of the calculus problem of a dress. "I have a PhD in astrophysics and I can barely figure this thing out." She took a deep breath as she stepped forward, reaching around a narrow shoulder to pass the garment to the doctor, letting her slip into it on her own, figuring that would be a bit more comfortable for both of them.
Janet wrapped the bodice around her body, feeling less vulnerable once she was at least semi-covered. The recent spate of erotic dreams had left her intensely aware of a whole lot of things she'd just as soon not have noticed, like the utter gentleness of Sam's hands every time they made even the tiniest bit of contact with her back. Soft and warm, they left a tiny track of heat on her skin everywhere they touched. Not that she was under any illusion that Sam cared about seeing her naked. In fact, the other woman had doubtless already done so in the locker room a dozen times before, which helped somewhat mute the fundamentally uncomfortable sense that went with standing half-naked on an alien planet, no matter who she was with. Even with a few less-than-comforting factors associated with Sam, it would have been infinitely worse had it been anyone else.
"I'm just going to lace this loosely at first," Sam explained, quickly lacing the back, starting at the bottom and working her way upward in a criss-cross pattern. She paused as she reached Janet's mid-back, a bruise drawing her attention. Releasing her tight grip on the laces, she brushed her thumb along the outline of the faint discoloration, her anger at the way the doctor had been manhandled rising anew. She felt Janet tense and pulled back, breaking contact even as she filed away the impression of velvet-soft, bare skin.
"A bruise.... I was just afraid the eyelets might press into it and hurt."
Janet glanced back. "I'm sure it'll be fine," she assured Sam. "Besides, it's not like I have much choice in the matter."
Sam nodded, brushing her thumb very lightly against the injury one last time before she went back to work, loosely lacing the bodice in record time.
"My god, it's boned," Janet groaned as Sam began meticulously tying the skirt into place. "I'm never going to be able to breathe in this thing."
Sam glanced up, noting how much leeway she had in tightening the laces "You should be fine," she disagreed. "I won't make it that tight."
Janet looked down, noting the way it scooped under her breasts. "I think you'd better make it pretty tight if I'm going to stick with the whole no nudity concept," she muttered unhappily. "Since there's not much else keeping it in place." The off-the-shoulder design bordered on gravity defying and she had a nightmare image of coming out of it if she wasn't careful.
Sam looked up from the skirt-lace she was tying in the center front, blushing ever so slightly as her eyes fell on the scooped expanse of pale flesh, and she realized the obvious problem. "I'll ... uh ... do my best to keep you as comfortable as possible ... but ... still ... uh ... contained..." she muttered uncomfortably, and went back to concentrating on what she was doing until she was safely working on the doctor's back again. "Sleeves," she said when she finally finished.
The long sleeves were fitted from just below the elbow to the wrist, delicate, black buttons closing them down the inner arm. Above the elbow, the silk-like fabric was split open in a graceful scallop that came back together where the sleeve joined the bodice just over halfway up the upper arm.
Sam did the right arm first, finishing the delicate buttons, then focusing on tying the sleeve to the bodice, incredibly aware of the soft flesh so close to her hands the entire time, her eyes tunnel-visioned on the tips of her fingers to the exclusion of all else. Anything else was just going to turn her into a babbling puddle of embarrassment.
Finally finished, she moved around to the back. All that remained was to tighten the laces and throw on some jewelry and they were ready for the game.
Janet exhaled the air in her lungs, abdominal muscles tensing as Sam began working the laces steadily tighter. The boning dented her ribcage, left her feeling like someone had tied dozens of rubber bands around her lungs, and threatened to crush a few body parts she was rather fond of. "I don't have a body made for corsets," she complained, her voice little more than a gasp.
Noting the way the gown flattered her figure, Sam was inclined to disagree. Instead, she murmured, "No one has a body made for corsets ... that's why women wore them ... er ... wear them." She shook her head, noting as she did so that her hands were so tight on the laces that her fingertips were rapidly turning purple. "You know what I mean," she grunted.
"Well, just don't plan on giving me Scarlett O'Hara's seventeen inch waist," Janet huffed, expelling the last of the air from her lungs as Sam finished. "You know this is why women used to carry smelling salts all the time ... not enough oxygen." She crossed her eyes, feeling a little lightheaded herself.
"You okay?" Sam asked worriedly.
"I'll be fine," Janet assured her with a small wave of one hand. "In fact, if this gets me out of here, I will be fantastic." She took an experimental breath, finding that if she concentrated on expanding her lungs upward instead of outward, she could almost get enough air, though it did tend to increase the sense that she might just fall out of the dress. She had to fight the urge to cover herself self-consciously, unused to having certain assets quite so thoroughly on display.
Sam stepped around in front of the doctor, one eyebrow neatly arched as she noted the overall effect. "Idri and the guards should be thoroughly distracted when they get here ... particularly if you keep breathing like that."
Swallowing hard as it occurred to her where the blond's gaze had fallen, Janet felt her skin heat with a combination of embarrassment and something much more dangerous. Momentarily paralyzed by the intensity of sensation, she was still standing there like that when Sam cleared her throat a moment later. It took the doctor a beat to realize her friend was holding something out to her. She caught the collection of gold and diamond sparklets, realizing in an instant that it was a necklace; a finely made filigree chain meant to fasten high on the throat and dangle sprays of silver and faceted crystal over the wearer's chest. "You realize this is probably worth more than my house?" she muttered as she held the ends up to the back of her neck. Gentle fingers brushed the back of her neck as Sam stepped behind her and took over fastening the necklace, reminding her just how graceful and dexterous those finely tapered hands were.
"Particularly when you add in this," Sam murmured and stepped back in front of Janet and unhooked something dangling around her forearm, then reached up, settling it onto the doctor's hair.
Dark eyes rolled up, catching a glimpse of more diamonds and gold. "A tiara?" Janet questioned. That would be the crowning glory.
"A tiara," Sam confirmed.
With a tiny whimper, Janet stepped away from Sam, the long train dragging behind her as she moved to stand in front of the full-length mirror in the bedroom. "You realize this is what Glynda the Good Witch would wear to a funeral," she pronounced as she eyed the sparkly-black clad, poof-skirted, tiara-wearing figure in the mirror. She glanced back at Sam, silently daring her to make some kind of comment.
Blond brows rose and Sam sighed softly, surprised to find herself channeling Jack O'Neill as she eyed the doctor's reflection. "I think Glynda's necklines were a little higher.... That's why she was a good witch."
"I think I'm a bitchy witch today." Janet's gaze narrowed to an annoyed glare as she inhaled as deeply as the tight bodice allowed and noted the effect on the woman in the mirror. "Next time, you wear the fairy princess dress from hell," she grumbled.
"But you do it so much better than I ever could," Sam drawled, wondering what demon pushed her to tease ... even gently ... at that point. "Or at least you do one ... or two ... things better than I could."
A wry smirk and then Janet closed her eyes and shook her head. "Would you please stop sounding like Colonel O'Neill?"
"Sorry, occupational hazard." Still staring at the figure in the mirror, Sam rested her hands on narrow shoulders, feeling a fresh wave of tension ripple through already taut muscles. "Easy," she soothed, her voice almost as much a caress as the gentle massage she began, working her fingers and thumbs against spring steel muscles and ligaments, the contact nearly as soothing for her as it was for her friend. "It's going to be okay."
Leaning back into the warm caresses, Janet just let go, accepting the gentle comfort without reserve. She rolled her shoulders slowly, musing out loud, "I feel like I'm five years-old and playing dress up for Halloween ... it all seems very unreal."
Sam nodded. She knew the feeling. "Been there, done that." She pressed her thumbs deeply in a particularly taut cord in Janet's neck, absorbing the soft vibration as the doctor groaned low in her throat. At some level, she wondered if maybe she was pushing more than just the jokes farther than she should, but they both needed the comfort too much to stop. "Gate travel can get a little strange some days ... some days more than most."
"You must think I'm a hopeless wimp," Janet sighed, not liking the thought at all. She respected Sam, and her approval was important to her. "I know SG-1 has faced a lot worse than this...."
Sam shook her head in denial. "Not at all ... you've had a lot to deal with ... and you've definitely handled it better than I would have." If nothing else, she would long since have done something evil in response to the omnipresent threats thrown out by the god-king. "Anybody in this situation would be stressed."
A startled smile touched Janet's mouth in response to the unexpected praise even as surprisingly strong hands pressed more deeply into her neck and shoulder muscles. The resulting flare of sensation was half pain, half pleasure, and she groaned softly, head tipping back on her shoulders. A tiny shiver ran through her as Sam's breath ghosted over her bare shoulder before the blond pulled back ever so slightly without breaking the warm pressure from her hands. "Thank you."
"It's the truth. SG-1 wouldn't have handled it any better. The colonel would probably have gotten himself locked in the dungeon by now; Daniel would have gotten the rest of us locked in a dungeon; Teal'c would calmly have dealt with whatever was happening -- including this dress, if necessary--"
"And you?" Janet questioned, eyes sliding open as she looked over her shoulder at Sam.
A wry smile and a small, slightly shy duck of her head, then Sam admitted, "I'd probably be in about the same position you're in now ... I don't know why, but the guys never wind up in the low cut dresses." The deadpan humor got the laugh she was hoping for. "Kind of a shame since I think Daniel would look adorable in a black fairy princess dress from hell."
Janet laughed again. "You're good for me, Carter," she chuckled, shaking her head at the image of Daniel in the outfit she was wearing.
"That's the plan," Sam admitted, leaning close in a conspiratorial pose, her breath touching Janet's neck and shoulder.
A shiver slid down Janet's spine, awareness of the grace and strength of the hands touching her neck and shoulders sending a burst of unwanted heat to the surface of her skin. Despite herself, the memories came back again. She'd consistently downplayed any importance, telling herself they were just a last side-effect from Hathor's hormone driven disease, stress, and the very real charisma the other woman projected, but suddenly they were with her again; the memory of those tapered fingers touching every inch of her body in her dreams so real there was nothing anywhere near that simple about it all. At that precise moment it felt real ... dangerously real and--
Janet pulled away in a twitch of motion, suddenly flushed and uneasy, her heart pounding a little faster than normal. "We should probably finish getting ready," she pointed out breathlessly. "They could be here at any moment."
Sam dropped her hands to her sides, recognizing the other woman's sudden discomfort, but assuming its source was their impending escape attempt. "Good point." She glanced at her watch, noting the time, something she had little sense of locked away from sunlight and normal routines. "Let's go." She nodded toward the other room. There was still work to be done.