When Theodora stirred, driven toward awareness from the first slivers of sunlight, her bed was empty. There was no sign of Alphonse, no proof that she had ever been there—a sensual corruptive presence. There was only craving; a throb in her sex, an ache behind her clit, and the memory of patchwork dreams across a sluggish mind. For a time, she simply… laid there. Open and quiet as she twisted sheets among her grip. She wasn’t certain that anyone had ever been there, let alone Alphonse. She’d only remembered… sensation. Wicked and so good… of tension that built and built until something had tightened with the threat of relief tinged oblivion.
Then darkness. Complete and total. Not like the black of her dreams, but so similar. A thick and heavy near-eternity of sweet hazy silence.
Ngh… just a taste of it, of that sort of… deep sleep.
She had no other word for it, for how it had felt to tip, to spill out of those dark dreams into something unfathomable. It inspired within a new craving, a needling want for the hazy warmth that gently tugged on her consciousness. Heat remained as a pounding presence, a whispered weighted reminder of her submission to dreampleasure and how it felt to be held by the wordless command to melt. Just the phantom remembrance of such was nearly enough to coax her back to sleep, back to the drowsy lust that hammered at her will and made her forget little notions of self. It was a frightening prospect, how easily her body betrayed her. How it tightened in desire despite her fear and confusion—which felt fueling in an odd and twisted way, as if weaponized against her.
She twisted in her bedding and sat upright, driven by not just her floating worry but the ring of the sun-tea bell that echoed from down the hall, followed by the delectable scent of sizzling meat. The seductive hold of dark-tinged sleep lessened with the call, but unlike every morning she was summoned it felt different, like a command. So much more than the usual traditionalists social cue. It was in the trembling of her thighs and the pleased clench of her sex. In the idea that she would go because it was expected of her to do so, had always been, and that she was conditioned for it.
Bred for it, Azul had said with honey-sweet words and sinister command.
Bred for it, her mind repeated as she moved with trained intent, stirred by the echo of power in the dark husky voice that seized her memories. She entered the washroom to carefully dab at sweat-drenched skin with a cooling kettle of water over a deep porcelain tub. She hadn’t lingered, pushed by the risk of touching her body and ushering a return to molten heat when she’d finally managed just flickering embers throughout her belly. But more than that, she couldn’t linger, not after hearing the bell and understanding the meaning, not when only one urge rolled through her mind, a mantra of kitchen and sun-tea that had nothing to do with budding hunger and everything to do with obeying the summoning to be there.
So, she’d dressed, made presentable by unspoken instruction and a sense of heated urgency, with damp wild hair and a body that still hummed. It was only when she sat and tried to blink away the blur of fog-lust, that she noticed she’d made it to the kitchen. Thoughtlessly.
If Cook noticed the tenting of her nipples through the thin material of her blouse, or how Theodora had left the top section of buttons undone—for she’d felt too hot, too overheated, to bother with them—she didn’t comment on it. She only served her with carefully lowered and loaded plates while Theodora tried to slow her breathing and push past the tingle of heat that flushed her skin at her instinctual obedience. It made sun-tea a silent affair, filled with lethargic motions, both reflected in Theodora’s careful relaxed actions and that of the woman who fed her. It wasn’t unusual, the quiet, but it felt different, infused by Cook, whose presence seemed to ooze a certain… magnetism. Often, she found her attention captured by her, by how she nibbled on her pouty bottom lip, by how she parted them to breathe a little heavier. She seemed flustered and red-faced, just as distracted as she had been the morn before, with an odd tremble to her grip that must have betrayed a lack of sleep.
Or, something else. Something other.
But every time Theodora noticed the behavior and thought to ask her—Are you okay? You’re shivering—the notion felt sluggish and dulled. It was easier to think about other things. To let heat churn concern into something wicked, into curiosity about Cook’s trembling thighs or the curve of her hips. It wasn’t until Cook squirmed as she cleaned off the table, dishes now empty of food, that Theodora’s nostrils flared, picking up the scent of something… good. Something thick and heady that she could practically taste on the back of her tongue. It stirred phantom sensation, of hands that bound her, and a sleep so deep that she’d found it difficult to wake.
“My Lord?” Cook said, words soft and slow, her gaze unfocused. And maybe… maybe Cook saw the same motions, the same little twitches, in her. Maybe she worried at the way her hands fidgeted, wanting so badly to touch, to squeeze…
I’m fine, she thought, but her head felt heavy, all filled up with half-memories and hissed words. Still, she lifted it and reluctantly pulled her focus from the odd alluring flicker of sunlight that danced on the wood of the table top. Briefly, her vision settled on Cook, but something else caught her attention and held it, something that glistened.
There, polished, soundless, and innocent on the sink sill, sat the gold colored kitchen bell—which, just the sight and shape of, made her heart race, even though she knew it was not a bell of Ashwyn—and directly beside it, a creature. Wrinkled. Bald. Blue-eyed.
“Cat,” was the only word Theodora could manage to croak. It was the most unusual feline she’d ever seen, identified by the pinkish tone of its skin and the overall lack of fur. Each individual wrinkle looked eerily flesh like, too real and exposed in a way that made the back of her mind itch. Theodora might have called it grotesque, had it not been sitting with all the regal quality of an arrogant aristocrat. That, in a way, gave it a sort of fascinating beauty.
But the stare of it, how those round eyes gleamed with a touch too much intellect… that made her shiver.
“Cat?” Cook repeated with fluttered eyes, before she turned to the beastie in question, soft-smiled and open-handed for the cat to leap into, which it did with little hesitation. “It scratched at the door.”
Theodora straightened in her seat, “You let in this cat?”
Cook shook her head, “Oh no, no… Not I. Lord Moryet.”
Theodora furrowed her brow. Alphonse wasn’t known to just let in any ole creature from the street into the manor. Not with Basil about. “Did she? And where is Lord Moryet?”
Cook cradled the cat against her chest and drew practiced fingertips down the length of its spine. Theodora swore she could feel them upon her own, stroking, pressing just right.
She inhaled deeply and jerked in her seat, but Cook didn’t notice. She was more than a little distracted dotting on the cat that appeared entirely too pleased with itself, “She’s out by the stable, I think. Wanted to check on the horses.”
Theodora took a shuddering breath and rose from her seat. She ignored the persistent tingle in the small of her back and the odd yearning that pulsed through her. What would it feel like, she wondered, if Cook were to stroke her like that? “I… I see. The stable…”
A stable which currently housed not only their powerful stallions, the pride of Havelock, but also the unsettling beasts of Ashwyn. Our pride, Azul had said, needs shelter. Notos can be unpredictable and the chill is damaging. That had been her asked favor, protection for the brood from the elements. It seemed likely that Alphonse had wanted a peek at the horses up close. They had lesser to care for them, after all. But the idea of it reminded Theodora that she had yet to muster up the courage to do so herself. There was just something disconcerting about them, creatures that looked built for war, instead of travel.
There is no war.
But those horses radiated strength and hardiness. As if they could traverse endless mountain and come out all the better for it. A portion of her, that gluttonous elite, felt a bit envious at their manner—well and patient. They did not struggle or fuss when Azul had led them to the stable. They’d entered their individual stalls with trained grace, large and imposing beside her smaller, and dare she say, more nervous stock. She dared to imagine how… powerful they would be in leathers, led forward by Azul or even Artorius, pushing through the Wodd at breakneck speed with all the intention of simply running down their spotted prey and maybe the surrounding foliage too. They wouldn’t work well for stealth, she couldn’t imagine it. They were more like their owners, built to overwhelm and oppress.
“Yes,” Cook’s voice came beside her ear, sudden and yet Theodora wasn’t startled. The emotion was as fuzzy as all the others. “The stable.”
The cat was missing from Cook’s grasp, now settled at the threshold of the kitchen doorway, waiting—
Theodora laughed then, a soft titter at the thought of a cat waiting, of any animal untrained being ready to heel, right before Cook placed her hand at the small of her back and the sound died off as it slipped into a low groan of confusion at the abrupt tangling of her thoughts.
“Go to the stable.” Cook said then, fingers hooked and scratching at her spine just right—oh... ngh oh!
Theodora nodded and swallowed a sound of surrender just as Cook applied a little pressure, pressure she felt against her mind, scratching away the dread until it was replaced with softer ideas of being touched. “G-go to the stable…”
The cat tilted its head, turned away, then slipped past the threshold. Away from the kitchen and down the hall.
She followed it.
* * *
She found Alphonse in the stable, sweat-soaked and bare topped with her upper torso glistening. Her light-weighted tunic had been disregarded, tossed to hang upon a nearby low-swinging hook. Her chest was unbound and exposed to the air, breasts topped with hard nipples. Some of the moisture collected there and dripped from their dusky peaks, but she didn’t seem bothered, even as the perspiration caught and reflected the flickering light of the cornered heat pumping iron hearth. Her attention was elsewhere, occupied by an open barrel, one she hovered over with flexing muscles as she pumped and twisted a large metal rod within it.
She worked with an intensity Theodora had thought reserved for the open hunt, clenching and stretching her body in a practiced way that spoke of long-ago days doing the very chore she now attended. Though Theodora lingered at the entrance of the stable, she knew that her seneschal was mixing a grain of some sort, a task normally reserved for the lesser stable girl and boy she’d hired to care for her hound and stock. Why Alphonse now tended to the task in nothing but her well-pressed trousers was… unknown. The unexpected sight of it stole away her focused. She found herself lost to the patterns the sweat made against her skin, gaze drawn to tiny surface scars that littered her back and belly, each a story of mischievous nights stealing away from the Academy until they were adults, no longer under the rule and guidance of their stern paters and now able to venture into the Wodd proper.
She remembered nearly every raised-skin shape. The odd sickle shaped one that crossed at an angle over her spine, earned when a young buck had rushed them during their first venture. The koin sized curve from their practical duels, when Theodora had nicked her with a carving blade… There was history and power in Alphonse body, secrets and fears that had built them both. And now…
Now, she found it difficult to look at her companion without feeling a fission of warmth. It rose unbidden and tickled her senses until she could smell, see, and taste the lust they had shared—a moving, undeniable picture against the backdrop of her mind. It summoned feeling, her skin tight with the reminder of the power of those flexing arms around her, holding her, suppressing her. She couldn’t be sure whether it had been real, Alphonse fingers teasing and driving and controlling her very mind, but whether it was or wasn’t the reaction was the same. Powerful.
She bit her lip to hold in a strangled sound as warmth twisted lower, gripping, ready and eager. Excitement trilled through her as dread laced anticipation, all for a supposed lover. It took her by surprise, the pounding between her legs, and she felt weak in her inexperience to it. What would it feel like now to be held, pinned, by her companion? What would it be like to feel the hard tips upon her chest press against her own…?
She shouldn’t be here. Couldn’t be here. She wasn’t herself yet, hadn’t been herself in what felt like days, and this new yearning pummeling her body couldn’t be trusted.
Shame then, that the cat she had followed then picked that time to slip past her, into the space with a loud mrrowl that seemed to pull Basil from their taken shadow. Surprisingly, the hound did not approach to tear or attack, but its movement drew Alphonse attention from her task.
And the heat of her gaze.
“Theo.” Alphonse said, voice low and deep. Curdled with something heated and furious that pulled at her belly.
Did she know of her wicked thoughts? Of the needs she couldn’t purge? She held her breath for but a moment, before she rasped, “Al.”
“Can you believe this shite?” Alphonse suddenly barked, ceasing her motion over the barrel to instead spit on the ground, “A pox on Duluth and his ilk.”
That was enough to pull Theodora from her pulsing hunger. “I… excuse me?”
With the fog somewhat tapered Theodora could now see the tremble in Alphonse arms, the wrinkle in her nose, and the glimmer of disgust among the storms that dwelled in her gaze. She was… undeniably angry.
Pissed. Super pissed.
“You were asleep when he came,” And the way Alphonse said ‘he’ was like the being was some sick gross thing. A worm. “Duluth’s Heir.”
His haughty second, who seemed just as hyper-focused on wealth as the Lord Duke himself. A bit slimy, Theodora thought, like a slug or a frog, with more interest in lining his coffers that running Saltpotter proper. His words held power—stolen from his pater—but his demeanor was… immature. Heirship had granted him a sort of immunity, and that immunity had morphed into a disrespect of those that adhered to it. He was the definition of the opportunistic traditionalist, utilizing their fractured culture to further an agenda of selfish hedonism. Duluth had not made it better—he just needs room to grow, he’d said, a bit of spell to be wild so he can learn. Give it time.
But they’d given him time, more than twenty-four seasons of time, and they weren’t the only Lords that thought so.
Alphonse wore her opinion of his position and all the arrogance that came with it, without the mask of propriety. “He took the fookin’ lessers, Theo!” She spat, accent thick, a symbol of her heritage beyond Saltpotter’s gates. “He took ’em for some arbitrary nonsense ’n left us with the mess. O’ where is our mighty Duke now? You may ask? ’N why would he need our lessers? To feed his arse? No no, he’s got ’em out in the Wodd!”
“Language,” Theodora groaned while she pinched the bridge of her nose to relieve the pressure between her eyes which was slowly morphing into an unpleasant thumping that had nothing to do with the heat between her thighs. “Slowly, Ally, slowly.”
Alphonse was worked up, nothing but tense and twitching muscle, as if she were restless and filled with an energy that needed some sort of release that couldn’t be granted. It was almost enough to tug Theodora’s mind back to the dream-that-may-be. Almost—
“Lil’ Junior waltzed up here and said the Wodd was our mess. That the strangers need help with their search and we best provide it. They took the lesser hands for the stable, almost tried to take Cook! Over my dead arse, they won’t touch my Cook!”
There was a near… rabid and fierce possession in that hissed phrase, one that made Theodora shiver. She cleared her throat. “My Cook, Ally.”
There was a stretch of tense silence then as Alphonse turned that torrent of frustration upon her. They were both still, Theodora struck stiff as something in those eyes tugged at her, bid her to focus, to… soften, right before Alphonse whispered—”Our Cook.”
She turned back to the barrel, grunted, and began to stir the contents again, before she whispered, “Come here.”
And Theodora did, without thought, closer to Alphonse who went back to her task and the strange sweet smell that prevailed in the space. It wafted up with each turn Alphonse gave to the inside of the barrel, stuck to the inside of her nose like something thick and cloying. She licked her lips and could practically taste it lingering at the back of her throat and by the time she was before Alphonse she felt… dizzy again, swept by the slight tinge of musk in the mixture that reminded her sharply of the pelt and the strangers.
She inhaled deeply, Alphonse mimicked the action, and both their shoulders loosened, tension escaping with the exhale.
“Yeah…” Alphonse mumbled under her breath, “that’s better.”
Theodora leaned over carefully, eyeing the mixture as her sex reminded her it was still… aching. Empty. Needy. “W-what is this?”
Alphonse raised one shoulder in a distracted shrug. The fury and indignation melted away, replaced by a hazy expression. “Something the Dominae brought the lesser hands, they said.”
Theodora swooned at hearing the title and felt the power of the word thrum through her pussy. “O-oh.”
“Their horses eat it. Figured I’d give it a go with our own, see if it would make them a little…”
“Thicker?” Theodora slurred with a bit of a goofy smile. “They’re so… big.”
Alphonse giggled, and the sound was not lost on Theodora.” Yeah. They are, aren’t they?”
Theodora inhaled deeply and clutched the edge of the barrel to resist the urge to dip a hand within the soupy mixture for a taste. Her mouth salivated, her nostrils flared. Everything within her suddenly screamed that one little lick of it would be okay. That it was safe—
“Careful,” Alphonse slurred. “This stuff… it smells really good but probably doesn’t taste like much.”
Theodora swallowed thickly, pulled more of the smell into her body and repressed a shiver. “R-right.”
She wanted to ask her about the could-be, about whether she’d been in her room the night before with her slick curious fingers and thrusting hips but found the words sloshing about in her head. She knew her skin was rosy beneath the deeper bronze. She could see it mirrored in Alphonse own tawny flesh. In her heavy breasts that dangled, free and waiting to be touched....
“You should put on a shirt,” Theodora rasped, “Or some sort of protection.”
“Too hot,” Alphonse slurred. “So hot… I-I was burning. This stuff makes me feel… it makes me burn.”
The horses behind them, both her own and those of Ashwyn, shuffled restlessly. No doubt hungry and irritated about their delayed meal, but Theodora paid them no attention, even as the cat returned and twined about her legs, seeking touch. Goodness, she wouldn’t mind being… touched either.
“Besides, it’s not like you haven’t seen me like this before. When we’re in the Wodd and it’s just us…” Alphonse voice trembled, and her eyes slid shut. “I… I’ve seen you like this before too. In Zephyr. Sometimes it’s just too… hot.”
Theodora pressed her thighs together, “W-what if the visitors return? To see to their horses?”
When Alphonse opened her eyes, they were glassy. However, from one breath to the next, they sharpened, staring at her with such… intensity that Theodora felt bare before her. She swept them downward, over her chest, her belly, to the point between her thighs and Theodora swore she could feel that gaze like ghostly fingertips teasing her lower lips, encouraging her to drip.
For a moment it settled there, concentrated and invasively pointed, before it was drawn back to her gaze. Silence befell them, only interrupted by Theodora’s sudden rasped inhale as Alphonse murmured. “So, what if they do?”
Theodora groaned, something soft and weakened. The thought of them, of anyone, seeing either of them like that was electrifying. But so wrong. Not at all the sort of thing a proper Lord would do or even think about.
“Theo,” Alphonse said with a tone that pulled her away from the syrup of her mind, “Duluth. He wants to see you at the Bells.”
Unspoken was Alphonse order. Go to the Bells.
But… “I shouldn’t leave you here.” Like this.
Alphonse stiffened but said nothing thereafter and Theodora believed the brief discussion done. But she’d only paused, as if in thought with tilted head and hunched shoulders now straight. She assumed a different posture, head held high in a practiced manner that made her entire being take up so much more space in a way that wasn’t physical and yet still so tangible. For one defining instant Theodora felt a sense of unease curl through her belly, low and heavy as Alphonse focused upon her a peculiar look.
A weighted stillness, unmovable and punishing.
Theodora whimpered, the sound pulled from her body as her own shoulders hunched. Never had she felt so anxious, small before her own servant—
“Shhh,” Alphonse reached out a hand, cupped her chin and held her with the strength of those fingers in a painfully familiar way, a way that filled her with the distressing urge to kneel. An urge that she had felt before and was starting to feel far too often. Something really was wrong with her. “Don’t worry, Theo. I must stay here. I must tend to the horses.”
Each word pulsed through her mind and remained between her eyes. Alphonse spoke with such conviction. In return, Theodora repeated, “Y-you must stay here.”
“You must go to Duluth.” Alphonse growled, and Theodora trembled from the weight of the sound. “You must go to the Bells.”
Alphonse released her chin but not before drawing fingertips down the length of her sensitive tingling neck.
“What must you do?” She said thereafter.
“I must… go to the Bells.” Theodora responded, her head spinning from the strength of her own affirmation.
“Yessss…” Alphonse hissed, a sound that stirred haunted almost-memories with a powerful tug. For one significant breath, Theodora thought she saw twin-pupils in the depths of one gleaming eye—
But then Alphonse spoke, and she thought nothing more. “Good girl.”
* * *
The Square was occupied by the higher gentry, those select Lords with the bulk of estate in Saltpotter. She was the last to join their discussion circle, but they didn’t seem to notice, lost as they were in deeper conversations about the affairs of the town. Yet, the conversation flowed with a sluggish tint, soured by long pauses, slow blinks, and stuttered interruptions. It was as if those present were as forgetful as she felt. Speaking with only the perception of normality, when furrowed brows and vacant stares gave way to more. Even Lord Shire, generally loud and obnoxious, seemed somewhat contained and distracted with a gaze that roamed manically between his slurred speech partner to the shining shape of the newest Bell.
Crafted from solid tenebraurea.
Each reflective sliver of sunlight upon it made it sing within her mind. Her body tightened, felt anticipation for the ring of it with such authority that the low level of arousal that slunk through her blood flared briefly, eager and excited. She puffed out her chest with sickening pride, as if she were the one to craft the Bell by hand, to mold its shape, and give it purpose. She could have stared at it for a sweet eternity and watched as the inky black twisted into a kaleidoscope of vibrant shades. An impossibility and yet her mind screamed that it was so.
It was only when she felt a hand upon her shoulder that she remembered to breath in more than craving and fire, and she ripped her gaze from the Bell as she felt a cool wash of fright shake her focus. Oh, Olde Ones, what was I… doing?
“Beautiful, isn’t it?”
Theodora looked to the owner of the hand and noted her beauty. “Y-yes… yes, it is.”
Artorius smiled close-lipped, face somewhat shrouded beneath the round flat-crown of her violet colored hat. Against its side and held in place by thin nail-sized chains interwoven within the wool rested a black rimmed clockwork of gold, its shiny wrist-sized face reflective of the sun above them. She tipped that hat slightly forward in greeting before she motioned to the nearby Duluth, who seemed just as entranced by the Bell as she had been, bent over and staring at his own reflection in the smooth glossy surface. “I’d say your Lord Duke thinks so too.”
Theodora furrowed her brow as she remembered Alphonse barely contained fury and Azul’s poisonous words—
She swallowed, “As he should. It’s a generous gift. The Bell of your precious metal.” Theodora resisted the urge to turn back to the Bell herself and instead focused on the soft tick and tock of the hat upon Artorius head. She’d never seen a hat of that shape before—let alone a color beyond browns or lighter hues. Each interlaced chain seemed there for the sole purpose of holding the work, and the clock itself… the shiny glimmer of its tenebraurea edges, the glossy black tiny hands stroked across the pearly surface… even the indented numeric symbols, or what Theodora presumed to be such, held a haunting eye-catching beauty. It was a focal point, just another aspect of Artorius being that felt infused with regality.
“Do you like it?” Artorius said, and Theodora couldn’t muster the will to be shamed by her covetous staring. She felt undeniably drawn to the path of Artorius fingertip as journeyed across the glass of the clockwork’s protective surface. It was a deliberate action, precise and pointed, that ended once her finger hovered over an elongated circle with a diagonal slash through its center…
Like the thick inked carving that graced her neck.
“I’ve always been fond of them. Clockwork machinations. It’s only… natural to be curious and adopt to it.”
Theodora bobbed her head in idle agreement. Her own home held various clockwork items—actual clock included. Her rifle being most precious, with its quick springs and elegant look. The grind of the gears, the scent of grease, and the power of charging force all within her grip made for a heady experience. They weren’t entirely practical, not yet, not with the tick tick tick of precious seconds lost between reloading, but art of gunwork was an evolving craft. They could only improve with the passage of time. Meanwhile, Theodora had always felt like the clocks themselves could be useful in… other aspects of life. Aspects not yet explored through Saltpotter properly.
Duluth thought them little more than ticking toys, obsolete to arrow and steel, but Theodora had always wondered about progression through experimental enhancement. Did the women of Ashwyn think so too?
“What do you use it for when it’s up there?”
Artorius shifted her gaze to the Bell and the gathered crowd, “Time tracking is simple when the rhythm is in your head. The constant steady beat of the work, the tempo that I can feel in my blood… I can tell time with frightening precision, driven by something as simple as a tock.”
And Theodora knew what she meant, had felt it just as strongly in the Wodd, when timing was all that mattered, and her mind refused to actively comprehend each second. But the beat, the weight, the sound… all of that kept her on schedule, able to squeeze the rifle trigger without fear of jam or gear break. It was exhilarating and thoughtless and suddenly she longed for that. For the scent of the Wodd and the freedom of the hunt, all interlaced with Basil’s chilling wail…
No... Basil bayed and yowled but had never wailed. The beast of black had done that, so loudly Theodora feared that even the sky had trembled.
“Do you have a clockwork machination?” Artorius asked, tugging Theodora from her terror-streaked memories and back to the present.
She cleared her throat, “My rifle.”
“Ah,” Artorius mused. “Those are rare, aren’t they? And mostly for sport?”
She nodded, focused on the motion of Artorius’ lips instead of her fingers as they toyed with the edge of her woolen jacket. “The Lord Duke finds them fit for the showmanship of the hunt but little else.” She made an idle motion thereafter, a wave of hand toward the male in question, who had turned from the Bell to gesture toward someone else—Lord Calcifer, her mind supplied. “I find the mark they make to be precise enough, depending on the numbered bulletball.”
Artorius bobbed her head, curious. “Have you hunted with other things?”
“Bow and arrow, in my youth.”
Artorius gave her a look that seemed sly, “And your comparison of the two?”
“Both are effective tools for a hunt, but there is power—untapped, I think… in the rifle. And the... tick is comforting.”
It was a beat that infused her until every breath was one with the sound of it, every action a smooth execution of expertly teased patience. Just thinking about it tugged at her mind, a lure that stroked her consciousness until visions floated freely, mingling past hunts with that of her most recently until the hum of exhilaration and fear tainted every experience. Such a heady unwanted mixture, and yet she still yearned for it. A sickening thought, that.
She swallowed the taste of that dangerous cocktail and tried to focus again, but just as Artorius opened her mouth she was interrupted by the sudden grip upon her shoulder and the greasy curl of a voice beyond it—
“Good Sunrise, Madam Stranger!”
Junior. The heir apparent to the Duluthian estate, and by default the entirety of Saltpotter.
His grip was tight upon Artorius’ shoulder, bunching the lovely cloth that made up her plum colored cloak. His ringed fingers held no regard for the smoothness that had once occupied the fabric, and his gaze seemed eerily wet, their depths twisted by a soured impatience among something else, something shiny and off-putting. Theodora didn’t care for their intensity, for how they twisted over her own form with little consideration done to her presence. This was not his conversation to interrupt, and his lack of address to her position in his haughtily given greeting did little to settle the churning unease that swam in her guts.
Yet, it wasn’t Junior who made her stiffen, who caused every nerve to suddenly scream with hyper-focused attention. It was Artorius, whose gaze remained upon her face. Where that pulling, luring, sense of liquid warm drowning once reigned, interlaced with mischievous interest, now dwelled… a chilling emptiness. There was nothing kind in the flatness of her eyes. Nothing but a sense of unassailable cold and a painful thumping displeasure. She felt… flayed beneath that look. Drawn toward an indescribable place within herself that wanted to, needed to bow and… and…
And her mind twisted over itself, bewildered by the imperative—apologize, and bow, and genuflect—when she had done nothing wrong, nothing that would mean she must heed it. Yet, she trembled none the less, consumed by the curdling fear and heat that fought for dominance behind her thudding heart. Only one major thought cycled within her mind, stronger and vivid than all others:
Heir Junior Duluth had not been given permission to touch.
But from one blink to the next that punishing look shifted. Though it moved from her person Theodora remained painfully still. Ready, waiting, and attentive. For what she couldn’t be certain, but she had to be ready in case Artorius… incase the Dominae had need of her to… to ease her discontent? To punish the other—
Then she saw it, a sudden vision of startling clarity. Her face awash in his blood, hands slick and her body just as wet as she floated… floated on the ecstasy of the Dominae’s righteousness. ‘Would you hunt a man?’ The Lanius voice whipped through her… and in her vision Theodora nodded happily, like a well-trained hound surrounded by meat and ichor. She’d tear him apart, with only the strength of her conditioned body. She’d peel flesh from muscle and muscle from bone—
She panted wildly, held in place only by the thick weight of her confusion and the fact that she had not been… asked to remove Junior from Artorius’ presence. Yet, she knew in that moment, had she been asked, had she been commanded, she would have done whatever she’d been told to appease that gaze and that… terrified her.
And made her drip.
Only the soft touch of Artorius’ hand upon her shoulder—while her other moved to politely, yet firmly get Junior’s off her person—helped settle the torrential urging beating under her skin. Still, her mind remained… pointedly trapped, cycling on the fantasy of lineslaughter.
Ready, so ready to—
She whimpered then and Junior’s brows rose—at either her sound of surrender or the Dominae’s removal of his touch—while Artorius whispered, “Untangle your thoughts.”
Theodora slumped in sudden relief and felt the cyclone of alien ideals settle, leaving her with only the hollow familiar ache of desire, a strange throbbing in her gums…
And a craving for meat.
“Heir Duluth,” Artorius answered, and though her eyes were still flat, her tone remained melodic. “A Good Sunrise to you as well.”
Junior beamed in a way that seemed disingenuous, too much teeth and dilated eyes. He did not appear aware of the danger, of the power in Artorius shifted body language. He was, instead, entirely too pleased at being addressed, stuffed in his suit of wealth, with the off-rhythmic tick of his own clockwork watch, wrapped with leather band tightly around a pale wrist. It was only then, after Artorius’ greeting, that he paid her much mind.
It was clear she was an afterthought, his tone said as much, “Havelock.”
She swallowed a snarl and felt a tingling at the back of her neck. Such disrespect. She was Lord and would not take such bratty discourtesy before their Dominae—
“Heir Duluth,” She drawled, with all the gathered storms of her building scorn.
He huffed at her dismissiveness with narrowed eyes and stepped closer, as if he could muscle his way between herself and Artorius, who only tightened her grip and shifted them as one unit, unrelenting of their shared position. “I’ve come to speak with Madam Stranger—”
“—You may speak,” Artorius interrupted.
He seemed a bit shaken by that—her tone and her disinterest, “I… now?”
“Why not?” She said, her hands now occupied with smoothing out the wrinkles he’d created in her cloak—and oh how some part of Theodora mourned it, her touch, while also feeling relief that it was no longer upon her.
“I-I... was just,” he stuttered, “hoping we could… speak alone. Surely Havelock has other, more important things to do?” Now he was emboldened, motivated by his own presumptions. He turned to her with tilted head and drawn shoulders, an imposing look given his height—one palm more than her own. “Moryet did alert you, didn’t she? That I took your lessers and sent them off to the Wodd?”
On, what may have been, some grand treacherous chase.
Theodora swallowed but he continued speaking, “So, shouldn’t you run along now and manage that?”
She inhaled deeply but kept her silence with pressed thin lips. It would have been unwise to rise to his bait, to speak the vitriol upon her mind—for she was no turncoat and Saltpotter was everything—but practiced control wouldn’t keep her from glaring at his person. It was only then, with a pointed gaze, that she noticed he held no bell or gifted koin, unlike his pater. Now that curdling unease in her belly morphed into something else, an unusual sense of entitlement.
Her Gifts were not to be wasted.
He must have seen something in her expression then, in the tension that left her shoulders and the way she sucked in her bottom lip—as if to repress delight. “In fact, you too, should be in the Wodd and should get to it, least Pater hear about your lack of urgency.” His mouth twisted into something cruel, “She’s always been a bit lazy when it comes to the Wodd. Maybe she’s the reason your poor fellow went missing.”
Something in her, tight and ready to lunge, strained itself against her control—no, no, not her control. Against… Artorius control. Against the glance she gave her from the corner of her eye, and the soft laughter that spilled past her lips. It smothered her and smoothed out the jagged edges she wanted to tear into her being so that the frenzy boiling within could spill out and over… but the madness twisted and sought to leave her in a different way. It spilled, coaxed with each heavy throb of her clit and the spasm of her inner walls, to coat her thighs just from hearing Artorius amusement-tinged laughter.
Then, she said one simple word. “No.”
And Junior whipped his head from her to his precious ‘Madam Stranger’ so fast she saw the muscles in his neck strain. “W-what?”
“No.” She repeated, with crinkled eyes. “I enjoy Lord Havelock’s company and I’ve plans with her.”
His pale cheeks grew flushed as he simply… stood there. Perhaps he combed his mind for something impartial to say, for some demand that would move either of them—but Theodora was held captive by her own desire, by the pulsating urging in her belly. Nothing he could say would move her, not unless Artorius willed it.
“But Madam Stranger—”
“Furthermore,” Artorius spoke carefully, every word enunciated with accented mirth over Junior’s needling whine, “I find that Lord Havelock is anything but lazy. The… lesser, do you call it? The supplied lesser have been very helpful, and very praising of her… generosity and dedication to task.”
There was something disconcerting about knowing Artorius had squeezed information about her from her lessers. They weren’t the most eager bunch. Intrigue could be damaging to a Lord and it was best to hire those who would keep secrets despite being oppressed. In return, she made them… comfortable. How had she done it? Maybe they had also felt compelled to speak, to be kind, talkative, and giving before the light-eyed stranger. Even the guard had had an issue keeping her tongue still before Azul… and even she found it difficult to remain quiet when the words fought and clawed at her throat, so eager to please.
“T-the lesser say a great many thing,” Junior croaked, though his glare was now directed at Theodora, “Anything to remain in service to a noble’s purpose.”
“Then may great fortune rain down upon a loyal lesser.”
Junior never lost his sour look and all too soon it was back on Theodora. “And what say you then?”
Theodora released a soft sigh, tired of the engagement. “I do what I can. What I must… for Saltpotter. If our Lord Duke has words to say about my performance then he should, otherwise I cannot provide value to my purpose… which I, like my pater before me, am eternally humbled to do.”
But the words felt wrong in her mouth. Rehearsed and insincere. She’d always taken pride in her purpose. In Saltpotter. In the power of the Lord Duke’s line but—
There’s no power in his words.
—now all she saw was a boy, barely in his thirtieth Notos, trying to push and prod without any thunder. A boy who had been allowed to wield power like a Lord while his pater remained blind. While they’d all been.
“Boy!” Duluth’s voice broke over the crowd and while Junior twisted around to face him with a scowl, Theodora only felt an idle sense of relief at his redirected attention. She didn’t want to think, let alone ponder the balance of truths and colorful lies. It was safer to be thoughtless, to just… do as she’d always done. It felt so easy now, in fact, to nod her head in recognition of Duluth’s red-splotched and demanding face. Yet, something was different. Where tolerance and haughty content had dwelled there now bellowed something else, a feeling, a yearning…
“Pater,” Junior hissed, arms stiff.
“So, you’ve noticed?” Artorius whispered, breath against her ear as Duluth stalked over, wiping at his brow with a brown handkerchief. “You’re so… perceptive.”
Theodora couldn’t repress her shiver as those words stroked heat down the length of her spine. “H-he’s… not…” She paused in her speech, if only so she could inspect the area. The sluggish Lords, the gleaming beautiful Bell. The Prideswomen who looked statuesque and still, their eyes too wide and glassy as they stiffened when the Commander walked by—her pace relaxed, but not slow, not like Duluth’s own hobble—attentive, listening, and ready for command.
Yet, there were outliers too. Not among the glazed gazed Prideswomen, whose eyes were only on their quietly speaking Commander. Nor the Lords, who kept trying to pry their gaze from the Bell. Not even the crafters, who hovered nearby, breathing deeply but hardly responsive. And especially not… not herself, warm, soft, and dizzy. She couldn’t be sure if the Commander felt the way she felt. The proud woman marching her… sleepy Pride seemed hyper-focused to task but not impaired by it, drowning in it…
And Junior… Junior wasn’t behaving properly, not like they were; captured by the gleam of the Bell’s beauty. But what was the right way to behave or even feel, and how had she forgotten? Was it this; distracted and pulled in unfocused directions?
Yet, those notions that felt forever ago held little strength when against Artorius’ chuckled question, “He’s so pitifully different. Too loud when he should be quiet. Too much everything, I think, and all of it wrong. So, he doesn’t deserve it, what we share, does he?”
“No,” Theodora hissed beneath a summoned wave of bitter unease. The answer beat at her with startling clarity, tugging new thought into a fog-drenched mind. It hardly mattered what it was. Bell, koin, or Artorius’ attention, Junior did not deserve it. Instead, he deserved the burden of awareness, of the self-destruction that came with being quenched by your own rampaging thirst.
“He is undeserving.” Artorius said.
“He is undeserving.” Theodora confirmed.
“And so, this peace, this warmth… this openness you feel? He cannot have it.”
Theodora licked her lips and watched as Duluth gave his son a harsh pat on the back. Junior’s eyes flicked down from his face to the koin about his neck, the koin that even Theodora craved despite her own… Gift. But Junior stared at it with such naked raw hunger that Theodora grew tense, that she… feared for her Lord Duke and wanted, for just a moment, to warn him—
“This budding enlightenment is only for the worthy…” Artorius’ whisper tickled her ear and her mind forgot its previous thought. “Can you imagine it? The agony of not being enough? Of never obtaining, of never touching, Her gracious Gifts? He looks so stressed.” Theodora swallowed a soft moan when Artorius giggled against her neck, smothering her cruel sound with her heated flesh. Junior did look stressed. Agitated. Nervous. His pater continued to drone on, but Junior appeared to be barely listening. “What would he give to prove he is deserving, I wonder?”
“Everything he’s ever stolen,” Theodora spoke with hazy confidence as she spilled her deepest ponderings, “but nothing of his own.”
Artorius snorted then shook her head. When she looked at her thereafter, it made Theodora feel oddly adored, like how one might humor a cherished pet. But it was nothing compared to the warmth of her hand as she slipped it into Theodora’s own. “Goodness, it’s so easy to speak with you that I often forget how… ready you actually are. So close, Theodora but you really must forget I said any of that.”
So, she did.
“H-huh?” Theodora slurred, words on the tip of her tongue as she rubbed at an eye with her free hand and fell into the delicious warmth of the one that was taken. Must forget. Must forget. Must—
She’s touching me, she’s… holding me. Her mind didn’t know what to make of it. Artorius’ bare flesh against her own, palm against palm, was so intense. They were just holding hands and yet it felt as if Artorius held something more intimate. Her sex throbbed in renewed anticipation, demanding her attention until her entire world shrunk down to nothing more than their joined skin and the fresh heat that beat beneath it. It felt so... lewd that she wanted to squirm. It was too much for an action so small.
“Elwyn?” Her voice, the very reflection of her Lordship and age, seemed miniscule to her own ears, infused with a painful and unusual shyness that she shouldn’t have felt but found so easy to sink into.
“Come, Lord Havelock. Don’t you wish to get a good spot for your Lord Duke’s address?”
Theodora’s eyes fluttered. Had Duluth said something? She noticed all at once, from one blink to the next, that Junior and Duluth were gone. How long had she been standing there, losing herself in the touch of Artorius fingers intertwined with her own? Or, had they disappeared during their conversation—and, if then, why could she scarcely remember what had been so absorbing that she missed an announcement that would prelude a speech?
“Did he… say something?” She whispered, but it was difficult to ignore Artorius query and focus on her own question. It was much easier to think less of whether she’d missed something important from him, and think more about where she would stand with her. She’d pay attention this time. “Yes.”
“My friends saved a place for us. Away from the manic energy of the gathered Lords.”
Artorius led her by her taken hand with a gentle pull. She walked without resistance, more focused on the something that fluttered within her belly when Artorius gave her hand a squeeze than where she was stepping and why. It was only once they breached the shade of a Wodd taken tree that she noticed the hood covered Lanius, who seemed more interested in scribbling within her bound book than the Lords hovering closer to the Bell. Not even Duluth—who stood before them with chest out and flushed face as he prepared to crow in rooster fashion—drew her focus from those sharp wrist-jerking motions across the hidden parchment. But she wasn’t alone. Up against the bark of the tree with arms loosely crossed beneath a leather strapped chest leant a new presence.
They were of the same tone as Azul, skin rich of umber color. Her deep red lips were parted giving insight to the wet tip of a pink tongue and the white shine of teeth that appeared remarkably sharp. Her hair was shorn low, short and wild in a style that kept it close to her skull. Briefly, Theodora envisioned what it would feel like to run her fingers through the tight curls there, how soft they would be against her skin… and almost absently she drew her gaze downward, past dilated eyes of chocolate brown, elongated ears so much like Azul’s, and a lightly freckled nose. Though something drew her from her idle dazing, the massive deep and puckered tissue of a scar. One that laid diagonally across the length her neck in startling juxtapose to the others—smaller and faded but numerous—only for it to crawl over her left shoulder and disappear beneath tight clothing.
Theodora’s soft gasp at the sight of it was shushed by a squeeze of her hand—and oh it felt so inappropriately sensual, as if that hand had squeezed her clit and not her fingers with gentle pressure.
Still, that sound was more than enough to alert their company of their approach. Though the Lanius barely acknowledged them lanky arms and legs pushed the other stranger up from her slouch against the tree. Theodora noticed that she too, once straightened, held the sort of height the strangers of Ashwyn all carried. That and the plum-colored cloak, pinned against one shoulder, but there was one more thing upon the woman that reminded her of Azul.
The black glistening pelt that she wore, not over shoulder, but wrapped around her waist.
A rumble of breath husked against her ear in a deep liquid chuckle that stroked along the length of her spine, “This is Hel.” Artorius whispered, delivering another squeeze to Theodora’s hand as if she could seal in the presence of that word among her mind—not to mention her body. Physical sensation chained it, twisting flickering flames against her flesh so she would not forget—this one is Hel—even when the warmth of Artorius grip finally left her. “She is Venandi.”
Then the other—Hel, her mind supplied eagerly—gave greeting with that three-fingered motion and Theodora mindlessly returned it, eyes still focused upon her worn pelt.
“Good girl,” Artorius said, rolling thunder amongst the storm that built within her mind, pressure and static right between her eyes.
Theodora could do nothing but gasp out, “T-thank you.”
Something in the sound of her voice, in the breathy whiney pitch that spilled past her trembling lips, finally grasped the Lanius’ attention. She lifted her head, giving sight to the hood crafted dizzying darkness that had hid her gaze within it. As it settled on her something primal and hot knocked the base of her skull and this time Theodora didn’t bother trying to pierce the veil of her mystery. Instead, she was quick to lower her gaze to the gravel beneath her boot covered feet. There was no need for her to act on that urging. No need to spiral out of what little control she desperately held to.
“Theodora.” The Lanius sung her name on accented tongue and Theodora couldn’t help but suck in a breath as every nerve aligned to that voice. “Here. To me.”
There was a sound behind her then, a soft bark of laughter—harmonious and cruel, the Dominae perhaps—but it barely registered among the pressuring thud of the order she’d been given. It pushed at her very being, slick, hot, and wanted, as a pressure that flooded her limbs and set her into motion. She shifted one foot, then the other, as her body moved to the beat of her pulsing heart. Something tight and anxious shifted through her belly as words sung unease through her mind in a chorus of I don’t want to and I shouldn’t, but reasoning was difficult to listen to. Ignored before the presence of a near tangible sensation. For though the Lanius did not physically pull her toward the space she pointed at—with a lazy twist of her hand in fact—it almost felt as if…
As if she wore a tether about her neck crafted from her own mental whisper; of a voice that seemed like her own and yet saturated with something thick and eager. Here, it said. She would like us, here…!
Have I always been this way?
Willing to be summoned, gaze wide and unblinking? She trembled beneath the weight of that order. Buzzed from the power of a simple word. She’d never felt so aware of her inability to resist and couldn’t help but wonder... Had the Lord Duke ever called for her, asked of her, commanded her with such—
“Focus.” The Lanius interrupted, twisting thought into sluggish pondering. The whispered word was just another sound upon the wind, nearly drowned beneath Junior’s forced and obnoxious laughter, but it echoed through her mind like a rippling roar, easily heard despite the growing Lord-crafted ambience. That voice, her voice, pierced through the garble in a way that was otherworldly. Alluring. Impossible.
So, why was she so utterly captivated?
She should have been frightened, terrified by the taste of salt that strengthened in the back of her throat and the sweat that drew patterns down the length of her nose. But that fear was dulled, unimportant, and overshadowed. She became host to a strange and warped need for more words. Words that belonged to her and were uttered for her. How agonizing then, to be crushed by craving and distracted by the phrase that curled through her mind—I, the Lanius, am friend to Saltpotter—
A friend with words and gifts; koin of onyx and bells that rang so sweetly...
How were any of them to know it, to feel it, as sharply as she did? How could they, gathered around Duluth as they were, focused on his gesticulation and the shiny gleam that coated his beady eyes, hear the promise of her tone? Could they see her (a sudden-born example)? Lost and sinking, slipping beneath the deep thick fog that heated her skin and reminded her so sharply of night-spun delusions…
And for a moment she felt it, the phantom touch of her disorientating visions, of black gurgling tendrils and sounds without meaning. Of a tight embrace that squeezed and held her, as warm and wet as the pelt that never dried—
“The Lord Duke…” Artorius’ voice curled over her shoulder, sharp though faded, not yet the focus, “He’s preparing to babble.”
“And I suspect you’d like us to listen?” The Lanius hissed, venom thick on her tongue. Despite the tone not being for her, Theodora shivered, drawn to her irritation. “His words don’t hold meaning and I’ve work to do with—”
Artorius made a curious sound in the back of her throat and stepped closer, a powerful and invasive presence that leaned over the Lanius shoulder like a draped and lazy cat. Her mouth snapped shut as Artorius’ lips pressed against her hood and her arms settled, firm and heavy around her neck. Yet, when those lips moved they gave off no sound. At least, none that Theodora could hear, even as she strained to do so…
Right before heat pressed against her side and a hand curled around her bicep. Theodora swayed and tried to turn a heavy head toward that touch, toward the thumb that traced her muscle through the thick wool of her jacket. When had this happened? When had she become so… drowsy and warm?
“Hel?” She whispered, catching glimpse of slick black about her captor’s waist, but just when she found her attention drifting, following curious hands that moved from her bicep down to the waistband of her pants, right beneath the edge of her jacket—
—a fingertip slipped into her line of vision, nail the color of obsidian. It dipped beneath her chin, the tip sharp and pressing, and moved her heavy head until her gaze fell away from that exploring touch. Yet, the heat of it remained, a press against her hips as dancing fingertips glided up beneath her jacket to gently push against her covered belly. She could do nothing to halt it for the finger beneath her chin held her steady. It manipulated her, set her gaze upon the alluring sucking darkness of the Lanius veil and held it, consumed it—
Then she spoke, drowning out everything else. “Your precious Lord Duke is about to speak. Focus. Stiffen up, do not move, and succumb to silence.”
Something clicked within her in a resounding boom and her body jerked with the strength of spoken command. She grew tense and tight beyond her will, muscles taunt as her arms fell, stiff yet worthless at her sides. Her gaze locked forward and she scarcely noticed when the nail pressed beneath her chin gently nudged her head toward the now pacing Duluth. He prowled before the new Bell surrounded by his Lords and heir, with hands that flexed open and closed then open again. His was manic, different from the casual near dismissive airs that often ruled him. Something must have urged him to action, some grand energy that meant to burst forth from his now open gasping mouth.
And he looked familiar to her, not just in his excitement, but in his tension and the fine tremble that made his hands shake. He hobbled like a beast; territorial and nervous with flickering eyes and… gods, like prey.
She should have been worried by how easy it had been to make that connection, to see another being—her Lord—acting in a way that stirred a yearning for her rifle, for the Wodd, for the darkness... To see her ruler as something inhuman and oh just the knowledge that her worry, her needed fear, felt more like wicked anticipation only made her stiffen further. She was suddenly a statue, only able to observe and listen.
And she couldn’t even whimper.
Something was so very wrong.
And all Duluth could do was crow about it, “Good Sunrise, my Lords!”
Around them there were soft utterances; some ‘my Lord’s’ mixed among ‘and Good Sunrise to you’. Theodora could say nothing, could do nothing. She was trapped within her own body and focused. Terribly focused.
But Duluth moved on, “Look at it! Gaze upon it! Our Bells of brilliance and fortune!”
They stared and swayed and gasped, and Theodora noted that Junior even lifted his hand as if he could touch it, but Duluth snarled suddenly, a deep gluttonous sound that caused his heir to jerk and shove both hands into his trouser pockets.
He moved on despite the oddity and ignored the soft sounds of heavy breathing intermixed with the odd groan or two—and oh, Theodora wanted to groan, to sway, to move with the masses but… “I remember when my Pater first laid eyes upon Saltpotter. This once filth-filled hovel…”
The steady presence upon her belly moved. Hel’s hands, once content with stroking the contours of her stomach now stirred with practiced swiftness. From one moment to the next Theodora found the large buttons of her jacket undone, but she couldn’t look down, couldn’t even twitch a finger to protect herself against the harsh bite of the Notos air. She had not been given… permission to move. She… could not move. Didn’t want to move.
But Hel did.
An arm wrapped around her waist, the hand against her sternum, unmoving but threatening all the same. It’s pressure, at the center of her chest, was heavily noted while her fingers rested against the top of the closest breast. Theodora swallowed thickly as the idle notion of moving a hand of her own, of redirecting that faint yet menacing touch, swam against the mental fog… but she was stiff and silent and focused. Not just on Duluth and his babbling, but also on the sensation of being touched. Of Hel’s heat as she pressed against her, curled around her, of lips that hovered over her pulse and a nose that pressed against her neck. She wanted to groan when the other inhaled deeply, when she was scented in a strange and primal way, in a manner that… that thrilled some writhing hot portion of her.
That hand curled slightly, hooked and clawed as it drew over the cloth of her blouse and down her sides right before it slipped forward and untucked her shirting, only to slip beneath it and explore her flesh without a barrier.
Her stomach twitched as tickling fingers drew over firm muscle, inspiring a slick and nervous fluttering within. They paused along the button there and dipped in slightly, startling Theodora with their wicked sharpness. Prickling nails sent little sparks of pain across her middle with cruel digging pressure—and she wanted to whimper, felt one building, twisted and trapped within her tightened throat—right before they relented, leaving Theodora’s knees weak and her mouth slightly open—
And still she could make no sound, no movement. Not even to hide the motion of Hel’s hand as they drew upward, away from the dip in her stomach to trail across old and lingering scars, on toward her unprotected chest.
“I told my Pater… There’s much we could do here; these people need us.”
Then a touch, unbearably light, a phantom press of curious fingers that she might have missed upon her chest if her body hadn’t felt so alive and ready. They fanned out, cupping her, squeezing just so while those nails dented her skin beyond the barrier of her shirt, beyond the sight of those around her. The most she could do was twitch, body incapable of arching—away or into the gently flexing grasp she couldn’t be certain—even as restless heat whipped at her core. Her vision wavered, trapped behind the power of a looping order—stiffen, focus, silence—and the strain of the touch that she wasn’t certain was actually there. She could feel lips pressed at her neck. Could feel soft breath as it puffed across her cheek, but the tempting brush of nails against a swollen aching nipple, or the press of a palm against the bottom of her heated breast… was it really there? She couldn’t lower her head, couldn’t check to see. She could only feel, could only…
And in the back of her mind the dream-vision hovered, echoing calls of her lust and pleasure, of her submission and surrender and the sweet addicting sensations they’d inspired. She felt infused by sudden craving, could barely tell reality from her memory of it, for she’d wanted just as fiercely, awake or otherwise. Suddenly it wasn’t Hel scratching at her skin, so slow and subtle that she wasn’t sure the itching heat left behind was anything other than a figment of her straining need. It was phantom tendrils. It was Alphonse’s wet and pussy-slick hands, it was—
“From the dirt we inspired rebellion! We cast the licentious disbelievers from our bosom,” Duluth continued to crow, “and rejected the false-duke’s wrong school of thought—”
A tingling began between her legs, an exquisite sharp pounding only fueled by teasing nails and soft hums of delight against her shoulder. Hel’s other hand soon joined the first, stroking under wrinkled cloth, and electric warmth spiraled from her hard-tormented nipples when fingers finally brushed across them, light and yet still so real. Her lids lowered, made leaden by her body’s command to submit, but from the corner of a hazy gaze she saw them. The people, swaying to the beat of Duluth’s spat speech, and the Dominae and Lanius intertwined, with hissed whisper-words that seemed like haunted garbled nonsense, distorted and tinny. They watched Duluth as intently as the Lords about them did with upturned lips more monstrous than kind or humoring.
Their smiles seemed savage to her. Ghastly and edged but that only deepened the flush on her skin and the ache that beat at her body. It was unfair and cruel that her sex should weep before them all, that she should be forced to drown in dizzying helplessness while amongst a crowd of her peers and before the invasive sight of her betters. That she must obey the looping order while Hel fondled, explored, and drove her lust... That she should want to writhe and cry out as fingers switched from gentle strokes to punishing pinching… to tugging and lifting… to twisting her captured nipples until they pulsed with agitation, until agony made her entire chest feel heavy and sensitive, held and conquered by dominant hands and will.
Her mind whirled at the implications, at the strength of the Lanius’ words that even now, while she was pinched, tugged, massaged and kneaded, held her taunt and steady, as if nothing were happening at all. The intense difference in sensation made her want to yelp, but the most she could do—the most she was allowed to do—was pant, greedily sucking air into lust-tight lungs as her sex clenched and inner muscles throbbed with the familiar corruptive taste of building devotion.
She wanted to be touched. To be stroked and caressed before this crowd. To be held captive by the strength of words alone. The foreign heat of being exposed was so vivid and heady that… that if only she were allowed to close her eyes and fall into the drowning thickness of it...
That scared her more than the soft primal sound Hel made against her ear, than the harsh abnormal rumble that flowed from her chest and recalled Theodora’s urge to bow. That harsh release of breath, that growl, only impressed upon her the need to show her submission, to thoughtlessly expose her neck and—
“—and so, we must, now more than ever, showcase our might! Look upon this, the symbol of our strength, and know that we will not be conquered by the mundanities of the other freeDoms! Know, that we are above all others, that our blood is highborne! Pure, and good, and superior!” Duluth’s voice took on a feverous pitch, one that encouraged a fanatical roar from Shire, and strained ‘hoorahs!’ from the others gathered. The sound rose over her, loud enough to drown her own strangled sounds.
Or maybe that was the order she’d been given.
“The piteous claw at our walls but no corruption shall reach us, no lies or falsities can muddy out truths!” Duluth continued to the stomp of his heir’s call of encouragement, “We are the absolute and deserving! We are the risen Lords born to lead our brethren. We are the better sort, the right sort! And the lesser should be so lucky to be swaddled in the protection of our mercies!”
Teeth and lips sucked on the salt-sweat skin at the side of her neck—the very side branded and marked on the Dominae—and Theodora wondered idly if those lucky lesser could hear the racket in the Square from their benevolent Lords. She wished, for a brief moment, that she could see the Commander or the gathered Pride. If she could… see what they thought as Duluth stirred his loyalist frenzy.
Then teeth bit down, and she wished no more.
Instead, she heard a strangled whine, saw Duluth motion again toward the Bells, and heard Lord Shire scream more nonsense—
“I have been here since the beginning, my Pater and his Pater before him and Saltpotter has never been so vibrant! Hail our Gracious Lord Duke! Hail Saltpotter!”
Three Lords pushed forward; Franklin, Jazzus, and Bartholomew. All eager to touch the Bells that Duluth still guarded, like greedy hungry rats—and deep within her belly, where pain and pleasure and lust only encouraged her, she too wanted to scurry forward, drooling over glistening black—but she felt incapable of processing the scene, of remembering a time before the Bells or Ashwyn, when poise and control dictated one’s entire future existence and the thickness of their highborne blood. Now they looked grotesque, starving and perverted because… because… though Duluth spoke and rallied and cried he could not give them what they really wanted.
What they all needed.
Only the Bells could do that. Only a King could ease the flame and keep them tamed.
The realization swelled toward her like an all-encompassing wave. Rising and rising and rising as teeth sunk deeper into the side of her neck. Now her body jerked and twitched as something important broke, bent beneath the weight of depravity and otherness. Those Bells weren’t normal, nothing was normal. There was only obsidian, rising and rising, ready to crash upon her and devour everything. And she could do nothing to hold onto it, those little pieces of herself that she needed. They would… return, recollect even, but they would be different—
And she knew she was being trained to want that, more than anything else. Her body yearned for it, it would feel so good, sooo good.
Then the sharp ebbing pain of teeth and the wicked pleasure of touch began to ease. Lips kissed and suckled at a new bleeding wound, one that throbbed with agonizing sweetness, pleasant and uncomfortable in the way her back sometimes ached. And Hel’s hands, so hot and warm, brushed and soothed with the sort of affection one might deliver to a well-behaved pet. She had been well-behaved, standing there, taking that touch, obeying her order and it had cost her. Cost her… something important but her mind was so drowsy and her pussy so wet that she couldn’t figure out what exactly had bent.
Other than her will.
So, she remained slouched, a trembling mess against the one who held her, and finally turned her head away from Duluth just as Junior yelled—
The proclamation stilled the crowd, the Lords now unsure despite their manic twitching. The silence felt thick, deafening, and oppressive after Duluth’s performance of supposed superiority. They’d been startled out of their madness by the demand from the wild-eyed heir.
So, he repeated, with more conviction, “Ring them! Ring them, Pater! We must show the town—no…” He licked his lips then, as if that would lessen the impact of his frenzy, “We must show the Olde Ones themselves! May the Bells sound so tremendous that even those beyond the Wodd tremble. Let Springhammer feel the thunder of our might from their poor hovels!”
Now the gathered stirred, driven by the urge to show their relevance, no matter how superficial. Theodora tried to gather her own resolve, but her tongue felt heavy and her lips clumsy. She was still trying to… to gather those things within her mind that she needed. I am Theodora… She thought, pushing at fog that felt like a now permanent fixture within her mind, Lord of Havelock estate… Owner of the Moryet line. But thinking of Alphonse only made her dizzy. She soon lost track of why she’d been thinking at all when she could be imagining the flexing planes of her muscles, the power in her touch, and the encasing heat of her thighs.
Behind her she felt, more than heard, Hel titter and when Theodora rolled her head up and back to look at her behind sweat-soaked bangs she saw the goofiest smile on her captor’s face. That could not have been good.
“R-ring the Bells?” Lord Shire croaked as he dabbed at his head with the edge of a handkerchief, “W-we should only do that for emergencies.”
“Frivolous ringing will condition the lesser to ignore instead of heed its call.”
Theodora managed to swing her gaze to the Commander, who stood with rod-straight back and thin-pressed lips. Her voice, deep and disinterested, seemed clear of the taint held in those around her. How had she succeeded in escaping the allure of the Bells? Had she managed it better, the haze that caressed their minds? Or had the strange affliction missed her, deeming her too strong to be softened.
And some portion of her mind, chained and scattered, tried to recall a concept of worthiness that had once been deviously whispered… but the sliver of comprehension crumbled when she touched it. Forgotten…
She trembled as something wicked and good rewarded her unintentional obedience, soft and barely noticeable between her thighs and eyes, but conditioning all the same.
She wanted to ask, or at least check to see if the Command held black bell or rimmed koin but she was so warm and comfortable in the taller Hel’s embrace—and could no longer remember why she should, why koin or bell was important. It was better to be still, to be soothed by the hands that now wandered along her thighs and near her center.
Oh, if she were to just touch her there, she might be able to think despite the hungry spasms of her sex.
But the sound of the discomforted gentry was a distraction, their general sense of unease and weariness nearly palpable against her sensitive skin. It was hard to consider gathering her thoughts when disharmony reigned beyond her hazy vision. Nearby she felt more than saw the Lanius and Dominae disengage from their whispered entanglement, more interested now in the strained ambiance than their secrets.
“The lesser will do as they are told,” Junior hissed beyond clenched teeth, the veins of his neck visible against pale flesh. That antsy sense of wilderness Theodora had felt about his pater oozed from his being like sweat and ichor, “they are not allowed to ignore, let alone think enough to heed anything, Commander.”
He spat her name in disgusted tenor, and though the Commander made no indication of bother by his disrespect those of the Pride at her back shifted and hummed with an awakened but contained anger. The only thing that kept them back was the stoic strength that radiated from the one that held their leash—and she’d always been that way, sincerely confident and nearly unflappable despite the silent power she held and the opposition she often encountered. For that, Saltpotter should be grateful. Not just for the Commander’s endless patience and apathetic tolerant, but also for her lack of visible corruption—for the Pride were practiced in slaughter when called to action, and the stare they gave Junior, wide eyed, burning, and vehement, was more than enough to exclaim how tightly they were bound to her order.
Only the Commander’s will held them back.
“The Bells should only be—”
“I know what the Bells are for!” Junior screeched, slicing into the Commander’s words as if his tongue was a bladed weapon, “I do not need to be told by the likes of you, Commander! So, be a grateful lesser and silence yourself!”
For a moment there was silence, interrupted only by Junior’s heavy breathing. His crazed lack of discipline and explosive retort was more than enough to stir Duluth forward. He placed a heavy hand upon his son’s shoulder but did little else. From beside her, she heard Artorius giggle, a near fiendish sound and yet so euphonic.
“The lesser will come. No matter the reason I ring...” Duluth spoke again, his gaze steady as he swept it over the discontent Lords. “And why wouldn’t they want to come, to see these gifts!”
Lord Shire looked unconvinced, his lower lip trembling, but he did not disagree. Duluth was Lord Duke and Junior was heir. He would not speak against them. He could not and neither could those of the gentry. Only the Commander looked toward them with open disagreement, her gaze narrowed, and brow pinched.
But she no longer spoke either.
Duluth bobbed his head, strong in conviction as he clenched one hand. He pumped his fist before him and raised it to the sky. “The Olde Ones will revel in our glory. For Valor! For Saltpotter!”
Lord Franklin was the first to croak, “For Valor! For Saltpotter!” And he was quickly mimicked by others within the Board.
And even Theodora managed a soft whisper, “For Valor. For Saltpotter.” Though she wasn’t certain if she could muster any sincerity for it. Her automatic response was just that, mechanical and deadened. Her passion was elsewhere, placed between her legs and on the hand that palmed her inner thigh.
Still, the chant rose around them—For Valor. For Saltpotter—interrupted only by the voice of the Dominae at her side and the joined Lanius.
“For valor and Saltpotter, is it?” Artorius drawled, amused and heavy.
The Lanius snorted, book opened and quill moving as she hissed beneath her breath, “Sanguis enim Rex.”
Dreamily, she heard the Dominae repeat it, voice weighted by her reverence to the phrasing. In response, Hel held Theodora tighter, nose buried against the marking she’d made. Lips gently worried at the sore and tender flesh of her neck while she… mewled and trembled, swept away in the action.
She’d almost missed Duluth voice through the chant then, as he motioned frantically to Junior, “Ring it. Ring it!”
Junior looked longingly at the Bell but seemed hesitant. “Ring it? Isn’t that a job for the lesser? Summon the Cryer! Or better yet, get one of your precious Lords or the Commander to do it!”
But Duluth, red-faced and lost in his own mania shoved him harshly toward the raised dais and the gleaming reflective black, “You dare defy me, boy? Do as I say, when I say to do it! The Bell is a grand honor, you’ll treat our gift with respect before the gods and the women of Ashwyn.”
As if they too were somehow elevated beyond them.
Still, Junior did not argue, and despite his initial resistance he made haste to scurry up the dais, nostrils flared and mouth agape in awe. The Bell of tenebraurea was massive, larger than the others that hung beside it. The open mouth hung low to the raised dais, so much so that Junior had to prostate his form before it. She watched with sharp elation as Junior knelt, hunched and small before it’s majesty—reduced to nothing in the face of its beauty—and began to crawl beneath its massive open mouth. What must it feel like to be enveloped by all that black? To be trapped in an embrace that encased you? She shivered with the power of the thought, arched in the grip of Hel who continued to worship her neck and thighs. She tightened in a different sort of anticipation, habituated to heed the Bell, to obey the Bell. To crave its ring as strongly as she craved the air or the thoughtlessness of the Wodd. The others seemed just as entranced, with only the Lanius soft sound of pleasure breaking the silence, her mouth moving without sound in motions of yes, yes, yes—
Then it rung.