Eshe’s journey from the Order’s camp to Niol had taken three days; three days of nonstop travel, muddy roads, little sleep, and even less food. Three days where they’d been absolutely confident in their mission and determined to achieve it. And once their message was delivered and the rumors of Queen Helena’s sorceries were confirmed, they knew they had to make the return journey swiftly.
After spending a night in the palace, of course. They needed the food and rest—traveling without would do them no good. A full recovery was so important, in fact, that their one night at the palace stretched out into three. Eshe built their strength back, indulging in luxury perhaps a tad more than was necessary and taking great care to thoroughly please their gorgeous lovers in the baths. At the dawn of the fourth day, though, they had to face reality. It was time to leave Niol and travel non-stop to the Order’s camp.
Except for rests in taverns and villages, of course. Gruch was a fine steed, but long uninterrupted rides were hard on him. Stopping briefly from time to time was a good way to both keep him happy and to keep Eshe’s head clear. In fact, frequent rests were so important that they stopped at nearly every town they came across for a meal and, in most cases, company. After all, nobody would be worse off if they just so happened to fuck the barmaid who was making eyes at them all night. Or the rugged trapper they found bathing in the woods. Or the farmer’s daughter running errands right outside her village.
“Like that. There you are. Let it in. Does this feel comfortable for you?” Two of Eshe’s slick fingers worked their way into the young woman’s ass, pausing whenever her muscles tensed.
“Yes…” Her reply was more sigh than speech, as she finally eased into the knight’s probing. No more than a second later, Eshe felt their fingers get sucked deeper into her. She moaned, the long and warbling sound of overcoming trepidation and finding pleasure on the other side. “Aaaaah!”
Eshe grinned. “Ready?”
The farmer’s daughter—they couldn’t quite remember her name…Gina? Jenny? Jane?—nodded excitedly, her round flush cheeks bouncing up and down. “Mhm!”
The knight’s fingers curled upward and deeper into her ass, tapping against a spot that made her squeal and shudder. Eshe was sure to move slowly; while Jenna was certainly enjoying it, they didn't want to overwhelm her. They knew the sense of fullness she was experiencing, and knew how daunting and overstimulating it could be for one as tight as her. “Keep taking deep breaths for me, okay?” They stroked Julie’s long dirty blonde hair with their free hand and looked into her gray eyes. “You’re absolutely gorgeous, you know that?”
Genevieve squirmed, her bucking hips signaling Eshe to tap the sweet spot inside her more frequently. “Y-you’re so sweet! I…I don’t—mmm—I don’t know what to say!”
“Your moans say plenty, pretty girl.” Eshe leaned forward to maximize physical contact, and Jeanine eagerly pressed her large, pillowy breasts up against them. The tempo of their fingering only increased, their fingers pushing and pressing more insistently against the front wall of her ass. “You know what I love about shy girls like you? I get to see the exact moment when you let go.” Eshe added a third finger, and the woman’s moans doubled in volume while dropping an octave or two. Her back arched and her toes curled in preparation for climax, and Eshe was happy to provide, slipping their free hand between the pair’s warm bodies to rapidly stroke Jasmine’s cute little sex. A few seconds of that proved more than enough, and small droplets of cum leaked onto their hand as the young woman grabbed their back and squealed in release.
The barn was quiet for several minutes afterward. Whatsername stared at the knight in her arms with disbelief, while Eshe patiently waited until she recovered.
“I’ve never…not since…” she stammered out eventually as if it was all she’d come up with in the minutes of silence. “Not since the change.”
Eshe nodded. “How long?”
“Three months.” She looked away bashfully.
“My compliments to the sorcerer. They do excellent work,” Eshe mumbled between kisses along her collarbone. Whatsername giggled.
“You’re sure you don’t mind?”
Eshe pulled away, offering a soothing smile upon witnessing fear in the girl’s eyes. She was far too cute to have to carry such burdensome doubts. “Before Sol’s light, we are naught but flesh and potential. When the two met in you, they created something spectacularly beautiful.”
Jennifer—they were pretty sure it was Jennifer—burst into tears and pulled them in tighter for a hug.
Similar intimate confessions proved common over the course of Eshe’s journey; apparently, Arlunn’s citizens had few positive erotic experiences and found themselves opening up to the knight after their first. It was part of the fiction Eshe used to justify their continued delays. They weren’t stopping constantly to satisfy their own urges—they were performing acts of service, providing those in need with uplifting sexual encounters. Sol’s light shone where they walked, proving to the Arlunni that under the right circumstances, sex could be a divine act.
It was a bad excuse at best. At worst, it felt like cover for something darker. Eshe had a habit of using sex to relieve stress—they weren’t unique in that regard—but they also tended to become more attentive and passionate in their lovemaking as the weight of their burdens grew. In times of turmoil, when the tides of history seemed to move regardless of what they did, uplifting another through intimacy allowed them to point to a positive change they’d impacted. Sex was a tiny little corner of the world under their control, and one better off for it. A noble goal, perhaps, but when they were under great strain every tavern and town square became a coital obligation, every bedroom a temple. Rather than offering relief, passion became yet another weight on their shoulders, one which paradoxically pushed them to seek more lovers still.
And their trip to Niol had put them under a great strain indeed. Despite their proper manners and carefully practiced speech, they’d been completely snubbed by the Queen. In response to the Order’s pleas for aid, all she’d offered was a single phrase: ‘I’m sure you’ll figure something out.’ No elaboration, no further detail. In fact, if it weren’t for Veronica, their meeting probably would have lasted only a minute. Afterward there were no further attempts at communicating with them, no discussions with emissaries or ambassadors, and not even any formal introductions to important politicians. It had felt like a joke Eshe wasn’t in on, and it drove them to…well, to the sheets.
Eventually, though, Eshe either rediscovered their willpower or ran out of taverns—they weren’t sure which—and made it back to the woods where they knew the Order was waiting. The journey back took seven days. Seven days of plush beds, plusher women, good food, and light travel. Seven days of feeling they had failed and dreading what would happen once they delivered the Queen’s response.
Eshe creeps along the edge of the forest, scanning the tree line for movement. Despite their careful approach, they found few Arlunni soldiers on the roads—a far cry from the near-siege they’d escaped two weeks ago. It doesn’t take them long to find what they’re looking for: Ahead, a figure clad in maroon slips between the birches and pines. Eshe dismounts, shuffling through their pack for a sun mirror to send a signal.
“Hey!” the scout calls out, ignoring the far subtler system of light-based signals in favor of yelling. Eshe sighs and closes their bag, then walks Gruch past bushes and ferns over to the voice. At least there aren’t any Arlunni around to hear. “That you, Lieutenant? Ah, good to see you! We were worried you might have found trouble on the road.”
“A few minor delays, nothing more,” Eshe mumbles.
The scout—a young man with a dark complexion and shaved head whom Eshe doesn’t recognize—nods and falls in step with the sun-knight, guiding them back toward the camp. “All’s been quiet, Ser. The soldiers eased off a day or two after you left, and we’ve finally had breathing room to hunt and forage.”
Eshe frowns, carefully stepping over a gnarled root. “What do you mean, ‘eased off’?”
“No patrols, no raids, no nothing. They’re even tearing down their eastern position, believe it or not. Whatever happened between you and the Queen must have got them real afeard.”
Drops of molten dread pool in their stomach, sizzling away at their insides. Whatever made them back off, it certainly wasn’t Eshe’s public embarrassment in the palace. Something else was clearly afoot. Their earlier suspicions seem to be coming true, as larger forces and grander schemes loom overhead and threaten to sweep them away. Eshe squeezes their hand into a fist, focusing on the feel of the chain glove pressing into their palm.
It’s not long before the hazy outline of the Order’s camp appears in the distance, the blurry shapes slowly solidifying into tents, beasts of burden, and piles of equipment as they grow closer. The smell of waste is thankfully obscured by that of charred meat and the steady breeze running through the forest, and the occasional clatter of metal or hurried shout cuts into the quiet sounds of nature. It almost feels like home to Eshe—while this specific locale is a recent development, the swaths of maroon tents and temporary structures are all they’ve known for the past fifteen years. They turn to the scout.
“You mind taking Gruch to the stables for me?”
“Yes Ser Lieutenant Ser!” He grabs the steed’s reins and walks them off to the western half of the camp while Eshe jogs across the clearing to the closest group of tents.
“Lieutenant! Yer back!”
“Ey, Ser Eshe! You’re late!”
“Off gettin tail, no doubt!”
The shouts of their siblings-in-arms echo around them as they approach. Boorish yelling isn’t the only indication the Order’s troops are doing better—they see elaborate sun mirrors cooking freshly hunted roasts, and the camp watchmen playing a card game rather than staring out into the woods with sunken eyes. Above all, the tension permeating the air is gone, as if it was only a passing storm.
“Marsh, Brevoy, Ina. Glad to see your senses of decorum are still intact.” Eshe grins at their fellows as they pass, working through the narrow aisles between tents and racks of equipment. The three are soldiers of the Order—more proven than the squires, but still lacking the religious and sorcerous training of the sun-knights proper. Said training also tended to…refine one’s sensibilities somewhat. The Order had once only consisted of sun-knights, but over the years restrictions on membership had eased and rank and file soldiers had gone from a supplementary force to a majority.
“Decorum? Us? Sun, Lieutenant, we’re not the ones off shagging nobility.”
“I’d never be caught dead in a Lady, that’s for certain.”
“S’why Laviny sent Eshe and not you, moron! What’d ya think diplomacy meant?” The soldiers cackle.
As their superior, Eshe probably should check the wayward behavior. As a fellow member of the Order, though, one who’d endured most of the blockade right alongside their fellows, Eshe recognizes the importance of their newfound morale and has no interest in dampening it. They can always make an example of someone later to get the point across. Probably Ina, horny wench that she is. And so they leave the soldiers to their laughter, steadily worming their way through the rest of the camp and offering brief greetings to those welcoming them back. They’ve no more time to stall—the command tent is before them, a great rectangle marked with the Order’s Solar crest. Ser Eshe waits outside, the specter of nausea looming as they watch a guard enter to inform Knight-Captain Laviny of their presence. A minute passes, maybe two. The flap opens again, and the guard nods. They step inside.
“Ser Eshe!” Laviny sits at a large rectangular table covered in regional maps. The rest of the command tent almost appears as a comfortable parlor; rugs cover the ground, a cabinet houses liquor and crystal, and an assortment of pleasant enough chairs and end tables are occupied by stacks of requisition orders and other logistical paperwork. “Please, sit.”
They do. Laviny signs the document before him, then places it to the side and looks up. Unlike Queen Helena, he most certainly hasn’t hidden his age beneath sorcery. Crows feet grace his golden brown eyes, and his chin-length hair and neat beard are more salt than pepper. But his wits are still about him, and his expression insistently demands answers while offering none of its own.
“I expected you back yesterday at the latest.” Laviny raises an eyebrow, and the world seems to rise with it. Eshe is being ridiculous—he’s only a man, and one they know and trust well—but Laviny always made them more nervous than he should have. The sheer presence of a man who can comfort homesick squires in one moment, proselytize in the next, and cut down scores of opponents after that is breathtaking. Especially for one who has personally watched him do all three.
“My apologies, Knight-Captain. There were additional…complications during my stay at the palace.” Eshe takes a deep breath, willing themself to maintain a steady posture and not squirm.
“And did these complications happen to raise doubts?”
Their eyes widen. “No, Sir!” Doubt leads to Reflection, and after the week they had Reflection sounds miserable.
“Mm. There’s no shame in doubt, Eshe. Sol needs not demand strict faith when Its presence is so easily observed.” Laviny gestures to the sunlight filtering in through the cracks around the tent flap. “And I know doubts often translate into delays for you, as you take time to…reflect.”
He knows. Of course he knows; Eshe was a fool to think he wouldn’t. Their…appetites are somewhat infamous about the camp, and while that sort of petty gossip might not travel up the chain of command, they’ve worked with Laviny long enough for him to know their habits. Withholding the truth would do them no good, and so they tell him everything. They tell him of the lack of guards or patrols outside of the south, of the automata and Veronica—leaving out the passionate kiss they shared, as it clearly wasn’t important to the story—and of their brief, unsuccessful meeting with the Queen and their far longer journey home. Laviny listens diligently throughout, interrupting only with short clarifying questions.
“…and I did take more time than I should have in my return. To reflect. But know I doubted not the mission, but rather my role in it.”
Laviny nods. “Explain.”
“I…at first, I felt like I’d failed spectacularly, that my own errors had soured the mission. But the more I reflected, the more I realized I never really had a chance.” Eshe’s posture is long gone by now, and they lean forward to hurriedly rush out the rest of their words. “Why else would She dismiss me so soon after my arrival? Why else wasn’t I able to speak with Her emissaries or diplomats? And why else would a wayward noblewoman immediately try to defect to the Order with me? Why indeed, unless…unless I was misinformed, and the purpose of my journey was not a genuine attempt at diplomacy.” Their jaw clenches the moment they finish speaking, teeth grinding as they wait for the inevitable. They know the Knight-Captain doesn’t shy away from such confrontations, but they also know he also never makes them easy.
“I understand your confusion, and I appreciate your honesty.” Laviny turns his attention to the papers before him, stacking and straightening them with great precision as he speaks. “So here’s the truth: I had little hope you would succeed. From the information I’ve gathered, Queen Helena is notoriously fickle and prone to acting on Her various moods.”
His description doesn’t fit the cool, collected monarch they met in Niol. “I’m not sure where you got that information, Sir, but I believe She knew exactly what she was doing. This was an intentional message—I’m just not sure why She sent it.” Eshe runs a hand through their hair, psyching themself up to push a little further. “But I think you might.”
“Watch yourself, Eshe.” For a moment, Laviny’s voice shifts from that of their superior to that of their mentor, of the man who pulled them from nothing and placed them on Sol’s Path. “While I didn’t expect you to succeed in your negotiations, you did blunder in wasting time and coin on your extended return. I haven’t forgotten.”
Eshe sinks lower in their chair subconsciously, feeling like a chastised child. “Yes, Sir,” they mutter softly.
“Besides, you should know why the Queen sent you away. She was hoping you wouldn’t discover the extent of her sorcery.” Laviny’s fingers drum against the table in a steady rhythm. “And now that we have, I fear intervention is necessary.”
His words crash into them with the force of a resounding shock. Eshe even recoils slightly. “Intervention? Knight-Captain, we only just arrived! The Queen’s sorcery is potent, but from what I can tell She only uses it on a small scale. That doesn’t justify—“
“It is our solemn duty to fight sorcerer-tyrants, Lieutenant. What they do matters less than what they are capable of doing, especially for one as temperamental as the Queen.”
Eshe shakes their head emphatically. “I saw in my ride that the status quo of the kingdom, while by no means in accord with the Path, is at least stable. Is warfare truly preferable? And if so, what exactly is the Order committing itself to?”
Laviny finishes sorting a stack of documents and drops them to the floor with a resounding thud. “The Order will march north within the month.”
Eshe squints at a knot in the wooden table, willing the information they have to make sense. “You’ve already decided? When?”
“Recently, when I reentered negotiations with Duke Berinni.”
“You want to intervene on behalf of Berinni, even after he besieged us?”
“He’s the lesser of two evils, I’m afraid. Better to have a greedy oaf on the throne than an immortal hedonistic sorceress. Besides, we’re the Order. We’re above grudges.”
An image begins to form in Eshe’s head, one that gets uglier with each new piece they add. “You never wanted the Queen’s aid, did you? She knew, and that’s why She turned me away. What was I doing in Niol then, making a token effort at diplomacy? Baiting Her into an act of aggression? Looking for an excuse to intervene? Because from what I can tell, Laviny, that’s how you view Her sorcery. As an excuse to do what you already intended.”
Laviny stands, his voice booming throughout the tent. “What I intend, Eshe, is to follow the path. From your position, you cannot possibly understand the difficult decisions I must make.”
This isn’t right. They’ve found themself back among the waves, pulled and pushed without a way to exercise control over what’s around them. The tide of history dries their throat and pulls breath from their lungs. Laviny doesn’t rush in or make foolish blunders, and he’s normally not so aggressive. Which means there’s only one explanation for his irrational behavior; one explanation for why he sabotaged his own peace mission and chose war blindly. One explanation that makes Eshe want to rip their hair out.
They speak in the quiet feminine lilt of their youth, the tone an old habit they return to when distressed. “What did Berinni pay you?”
Laviny growls his reply out from between gritted teeth. “I recommend you Reflect on your duty to Sol in regards to your doubts, Lieutenant. The excess of your travels seems to have skewed your course. Otherwise, you are dismissed.”
Eshe stands and turns to depart, their body complying automatically while their mind wrestles with itself. Before they leave the tent, though, Laviny sighs and speaks again.
Eshe stops in place and looks back at their mentor.
“Berinni paid us, Eshe. He’ll keep the Order afloat for years to come; years we can continue our divine mission unhindered by practical concerns. This isn’t the old days—heroic deeds and prestige no longer fund an army on their own. And so I made a choice. Berinni gets his legitimacy, we help him depose a genuinely dangerous sorceress-queen, and our near future is secured.” His wrinkles seem deeper than when they last saw him, furrowed by a host of worries. Whether they’re logistical or moral, Eshe can’t say. They slip out of the entrance flap without another word.
Lady Francine of House Melia paces back and forth before the door to the royal chambers, awaiting a meeting she knows will not go well. Her steps are short and jagged, fuelled by impatience and frustration, and her normally tightly coiffed blonde curls spill out over the sides of her face. She can handle discontent just fine on her own. Unrest? Not a problem. But when open rebellion is imminent, she needs to take decisive steps, the kind that requires the approval of Her Majesty. And Queen Helena has been in anything but a decisive mood.
“Your Royal Highness?” Francine calls out, knocking on the door again. She’s been by countless times in the past few days, trying to catch the Queen in one of the brief moments when she wasn’t busy doing gods only know what. Each time Francine came bringing dire news about the impending revolt in the south, and each time she was waved away or ignored altogether. The spymaster isn’t sure if Her Majesty is truly ignorant of the problems in Her kingdom, too decadent to care, or if She has some trick up Her sleeve that nobody else knows about. And none of those options seem particularly comforting to her. Francine knocks harder.
“It’s really very urgent, Your Majesty!” In truth, she hasn’t been as insistent as she could be; the idea of forcing her Queen into action discomforts her, and of course, entering Her chambers also means encountering—
“Miss Francine!” Vera opens the door and beams up at her, dropping into a perfect curtsy. She wears only her golden royal crested anklet and a blue ribbon around her neck, one that contrasts pleasantly with her flushed cheeks and her stiff, wine-red nipples. “How may I serve you?”
The sight of her is still jarring, even if it also inspires the spymaster’s predatory urges. Francine is being ridiculous, really. She looked on eagerly as Vera was changed, teased, and taunted, even contributing to the process herself. So why does the end result of said process make her feel so uneasy? Why has she been avoiding Vera since the most recent changes, now that the girl is happy and content with her submission? Is she really that much of a sadist, or was some invisible line crossed?
“Hi, Ronnie. I need to speak with Her Majesty.” Francine doesn’t look directly at Vera, hoping to avoid the corresponding pang of sadness.
“Yes, Miss Francine!” Vera glances over to the side, no doubt seeking approval, and then steps aside to let the spymaster in. “You may enter, Miss.”
“Uh-huh.” Francine slips past her to enter the chambers. Out of the corner of her eye, she sees Vera pout at the lack of attention.
The room is about as disheveled as it can possibly get while still being managed by a team of servants. A number of Vera’s skimpy outfits are strewn across the floor, likely tried on and taken off in quick succession. On the dresser sits an open bottle of sparkling wine surrounded by empty and almost empty glasses. And in the canopy bed atop twisted sheets lies Queen Helena, still wearing only a nightgown in the middle of the afternoon. Her hair is mussed and her expression is filled with bored contempt as she regards Francine.
“I…I’m sorry, Your Highness, but I have urgent news.” Francine keeps her face neutral, resisting the urge to gape at the state of her Queen. This is what She was so busy doing? Having slumber parties with Her concubine? “Berinni’s soldiers are on the move. They haven’t left the extent of his territory yet, but they’re massing along the border.”
“I see.” Queen Helena checks her nails. “Is that all?”
“Uh. No? My associates finished sorting through the documents Veron…Vera told me about. There are months worth of false transactions between Kutje, Berinni, and House Liotenz, none of which actually ever occurred.” Francine sits on a nearby armchair, having resolved to invite herself in if the Queen wouldn’t do it for her. She pushes up her spectacles, animatedly continuing her speech. “Meanwhile, the actual money has fallen out of circulation—none of them are using it, which means either they’re hoarding a great deal which we know is not the case, or else they—“
“Gave it to a foreign entity, yes.” Queen Helena snaps her fingers and pats her lap, and Vera excitedly rushes over from the door to sit in it. Francine blinks, equal parts confused and annoyed at Her Majesty's nonchalance. If she knew, why then why did she do nothing?
“The Order of Sol Gloria, we believe. All the recent history we’ve gathered on them suggests they’ve sold their heroism off bit by bit over the years. What we’re dealing with now is a band of mercenaries coasting on reputation and prestige.”
“I believe Vera once said something to the same effect.” Her Royal Highness pulls Vera in closer, pawing roughly at her breasts. “Aren’t you clever?”
“I—aah! Wh—aaAAh!” Queen Helena flicks at Vera’s nipples every time she tries to speak, smiling at the girl’s whimpers. For her part, Vera’s eyes go glassy as she wraps her arms around her owner’s torso. “Thank you, Miss He—AAah!”
Francine looks away from the scene, feeling uncharacteristically bashful. “…right. We’ll continue tracking their movements, but as of right now it seems likely they’ll begin marching north with Berinni within a few weeks. I trust you’ve notified the Minister of War?”
“She’s broken in very nicely, don’t you think?” Queen Helena fondly strokes the hair of the girl clinging to her, clearly having heard Francine’s question but choosing to ignore it. “It took some time and a great deal of effort, but now we’ve gotten her right where I want to. Of course, I have to give partial credit to you as well. Your lessons on discipline were of great use to her, though she’s been missing them recently.”
“She’s…well behaved, yes. But we really have to discuss—“
“Vera, go stand in the corner.” She complies, rushing into place beside Francine. “On one foot.” Vera lifts her left leg into the air. Francine wrenches her eyes away, unwilling to let go of her point.
“My Queen, this is serious! If we cannot have your guidance then we at least need permission to act on your behalf, or else he’ll catch us unprepared!” Francine’s nails dig into the arms of the chair, clutching it tightly as though she’s trying not to float away. She softens her tone, hoping a gentler approach might get through to Her. “Your kingdom needs you now more than ever. Please come to its aid.”
“The kingdom doesn’t need anything.” The corners of Her Majesty’s lips tighten. So much for the softer approach. “It is a great unruly beast; it wants what it wants, and it takes what it can.” She doesn’t look away from Vera, who wobbles slightly from time to time on her one foot.
“What you’ve built is in danger, and I don’t understand why you refuse to protect it.”
“I’ve made no such refusal.” Vera nearly loses her balance, arms pinwheeling to right herself. “If you fall without permission, sweetness, there will be consequences.”
“Yes, Miss Helena,” Vera whines.
“Perhaps a story will help with your confusion, Francine.” The spymaster doubts it will.
Queen Helena clears her throat. “I trained in the sorcerous arts in a great many places, but one of my first and most important mentors was a man named Dado from the Southern Steppes. He was native to the region, with a wide stature and a large bushy beard, and I was a young traveler from one of the tribes that would eventually become Arlunn. We didn’t get along particularly well; he understood sorcery as the result of a long, arduous process, while I was eager to learn every scrap of information available as fast as I could.” Vera’s leg starts to tremble, and her arms don’t seem far behind. Her face is scrunched up in focus as she dedicates herself to maintaining her balance. A brief smile crosses the Queen’s lips at the sight. “Every morning I would ask him how to do this or that, how to manipulate magic in such and such manner, and he’d always give half-answers or claim I wasn’t ready. Until one day when I must have been particularly demanding—or annoying more likely, considering I was barely a grown woman at the time—and he finally turned to me and said:
‘Thus is the curse of sorcery: As you gain how you lose why.’
At the time I thought he was just brushing me off again, but over the years I came to appreciate his meaning more and more. I can pull the world apart at the seams and stitch it back together on a whim, Francine. I sit on the throne of a kingdom I practically built myself. I’ve lived just short of three centuries. There are few ‘hows’ I do not have answers for. And yet…” Vera’s arms and legs shake uncontrollably, her muscles on the verge of giving out. The Queen watches raptly. “And yet with each accomplishment, I have fewer and fewer answers why.”
Vera’s sole supporting leg gives out and she tumbles to the floor. “I’m sorry, Miss Helena!” She rapidly stands and returns to one foot, only to fall again.
“This,” Queen Helena states, gesturing to Vera, “is one of the few things I’ve never lost interest in. Specific people; who they are, what they want…why they are the way they are.”
“Mmph!” Vera grumbles from her crumpled position on the ground, face covered by her wavy brown locks.
“Come, Vera.” She obeys, muscles trembling.
“So…you’re giving up?” Francine murmurs, hardly believing the words even as she says them.
“Not giving up. Recognizing the course of history.” Queen Helena grabs Her unsteady concubine by the waist and drapes the girl over her knee. “Three of the oldest monarchies on the continent have fallen in the last fifty years: The Ghalazi dynasty, the Shurs, and the Piet-Romants. Do you know what they had in common?” She scratches and kneads Vera’s ass, warming her for the punishment she’s eagerly awaiting.
“...no.” This is fucked. Francine is so fucked. Of all the times and places to come into power, she had to be under the orgiastic Queen Apathia.
“All three were overthrown by a burgeoning merchant class. Sound familiar?” Her Majesty begins to lightly smack Vera’s tight little ass, the concubine’s breath catching and gasping repeatedly. “Tell me why you’re being punished, Vera.”
“I couldn’t stay standing any longer!” she moans. “But it’s not fair! You always make me stay until I fall!” She sounds like the old petulant Veronica, but softened. Like she knows she’s already lost and takes comfort in that fact.
The Queen’s hand slaps against Her concubine’s behind harder. Vera wails, her cry conveying nervous excitement and joy as well as pain. “You know I don’t tolerate excuses, sweetness.” In spite of her current political misgivings, Francine still has to hand it to Her Majesty for Her excellent technique. She spanks Vera twice more in rapid succession, drawing out two yelps, then addresses Her spymaster once more. “Berinni is a symptom, not the cause. It was Vera before him, and Lord Ulthe before her. And if I am to crush him—something I am capable of, don’t you doubt it for a moment—then it’s only a matter of time until someone else comes along. Paolo Liotenz, perhaps.”
“And so what, you abandon your kingdom?”
Three more spanks turn Vera’s cries into greedy moans as she starts grinding her sex into Her Majesty’s knee and chanting “thankyouMissHelena.”
“I negotiate. Despite his bluster, Berinni is still scared shitless of me. As he should be.” Queen Helena grabs Vera by the chin and pulls her up to a sitting position on the bed, forcing her to make eye contact. “But until then, I’ll enjoy what I currently have.” She kisses Vera forcefully, and the concubine melts into her arms. With the look of adoration, need, and desire the two share, one could almost mistake them for a couple. But their true dynamic shines through—Her Majesty radiates calm, composed approval while Vera squirms and mewls needily at Her touch.
“When were you planning on telling me this?” Francine can’t peel her eyes away from the erotic show before her, even as it starts to make her feel sick. Is that how Queen Helena views everyone beneath Her? As toys to be dissected and studied for Her own satisfaction? And if so…where does that leave Francine?
Her Majesty pulls away from a long, deep kiss and rolls Her eyes. “Don’t get defensive, Francine. I want you exactly where you are now, doing what you have been doing—and I knew telling you my intentions would make you skittish. Yet despite my lack of additional orders, you still felt it necessary to barge in on my afternoon.” She scowls at Vera, slapping her hands away from her wet exposed sex. “Did I say you could touch yourself, sweetness?”
“Nope!” Vera responds cheerily, sticking out her tongue.
“Disgraceful.” The Queen shoves Her concubine down onto the bed and then sits down on her face. Vera’s head disappears entirely beneath Her Majesty’s thighs and the skirt of Her nightgown, while her body begins to writhe and buck before finally settling down as she gives in. The sound of enthusiastic licking begins. Francine recognizes the look in Queen Helena’s eyes; the predatory glee of fulfilled hunger. She knows it well, and under normal circumstances might greet it with a knowing smile or a bawdy joke at the submissive’s expense. Now, though, it feels far too threatening. Francine stands and walks toward the door, unable and unwilling to appreciate the spectacle.
“What was that?” Her Royal Highness begins grinding her loins against Vera’s face and eager tongue.
“Aww. What’s the matter, sweetness? I thought you wanted attention!” Her hands dart down to Vera’s chest, lightly brushing and tickling her sides. The concubine jerks and spasms at the touch, her chest rapidly rising and falling with each shallow breath and unwilling laugh.
Queen Helena lets out the most spontaneous, genuine laugh Francine has ever heard from Her, albeit one tinged with cruelty. The spymaster opens the door.
“Oh, and Francine?” She pauses. “Don’t forget: We’re playing the long game. Have faith.”
Francine doesn’t doubt that for a moment—Queen Helena likely has plans within plans within plans for every possible future. Like Her plan for the courtroom brawl: Put Francine in a precarious position, then depart the room to go get head while she takes a beating. Or Her plan for breaking Vera: Scramble all the useful memories Francine could have gotten out of her and used, just so she could be a more agreeable lay. Or what’s likely Her plan for Berinni: Secure Her own future through negotiation while allowing him to hang the rest of the royalist faction. The cool palace air helps calm Francine’s mind, dispelling the frenzied heat of the royal chambers. And after dwelling on her options, the spymaster knows Her Majesty was absolutely right about one thing: She will play the long game. No matter what side it requires her to take.
Eshe stands before the entrance to the Reflection chamber, their feet frozen in place. ‘Chamber’ is far too fancy a name for the tiny tent serving as the camp’s sweat lodge, but once inside the process of Reflection has a way of warping words and physical spaces enough that it doesn’t matter. Of all the elaborate sun-knight rituals, Eshe hates Reflection the most. But they know they have to partake, even though Laviny only ‘suggested’ it—in truth, they have strayed from the path enough to require the rite. Their physical desires have intruded on their divine mission, and in some cases Eshe has forgotten how to tell the two apart. Ritual cleansing of the mind is the ideal solution for such a problem. Eshe takes a deep breath, then approaches the priest of Sol on duty.
“Hail, Importe-Sol,” the priest murmurs. Those of the Solar cloth only speak in the tongue of the First Executor.
“Nu vu barche en Reflekteren?”
The priest nods and steps aside. “Vai nu insenne rou Sol mich saghia.”
“Vai du insenne rou Sol mich saghia,” they respond, then pass into the chamber. The tiny barely has enough room for them to undress, the majority of the space inside seeming to be taken up by darkness and musty air. A circle of benches surrounds a large basin of water in the center of the tent, one placed below several stacked sun mirrors. Eshe removes the last of their clothing and sits, failing to slow their heartbeat by taking deeper breaths or loosening their muscles. This is going to be unpleasant; they might as well accept that.
The sound of swinging metal and mechanical components signals the beginning of the Reflection, as outside the priest has no doubt begun adjusting the sun mirrors. Before long they’re aligned, and a sharp beam shoots directly into the basin. It’s hot and bright to an almost painful degree, and Eshe averts their eyes while waiting for the water to boil. The next stage of Reflection dictates they focus on their darkest memories, the ones which pull them off of the Sun’s life-giving path. Eshe immediately pictures Veronica in her mind, then allows her thoughts to drift elsewhere—they only shared one kiss, after all, and she was an important part of their mission. Best not to cleanse those thoughts. Instead, they focus on the farmer’s daughter and their other partners, the details of the stops they made, and the sense of failure they felt after their meeting with Queen Helena. The water in the basin begins to hiss, throwing up steam and making Eshe’s hard body begin to sweat. It reminds them of the baths, and of the hours they spent delaying their crucial task to sleep with strangers. Steam passes through the beam of sunlight, refracting out rainbows of color to coat the walls of the tent. Eshe grunts in annoyance at what they must do, then allows their eyes to lose focus and take in the color.
They blink. The steam and refracted light seem to press on them from all sides as if every inch of their body is in direct contact with the world. Their eyelids sag and their posture slouches. Everywhere they look is filled with kaleidoscopic colors, colors that twist and bend and form almost familiar shapes. For a moment, they see Jennifer sitting beside them in the tent, sitting bashfully and blushing until another tendril of steam dissolves her back into an incomprehensible collage. Eshe knows they don’t need to think about her. Eshe knows they don’t need to think about anything, for Sol’s colorful light and ever-present heat will form into whatever they need to focus on. They lean against the side of the tent, their body slackening entirely. Warmth and color coat them, guide them by the hand, and promise to take them wherever they need to go so long as they leave their thoughts behind. It’s a good trade. Eshe smiles and nods lazily, a bit of drool leaking out the side of their mouth.
They sit there for as long as Sol needs them to, sifting through the tatters of their mind amidst a glorious collage of sensation unburdened by consciousness. And once Sol decides they no longer need to stay, a man in robes enters and gently guides them to another tent, whispering in their ear all the while. He speaks the truth in Sol’s tongue, telling them of their duty and of what they can leave behind. Eshe closes their eyes and allows him to fill their empty head with light, sighing contentedly as he lays them down on a cot. They have no more concerns about Jennifer, no more thoughts of Max…only the warmth of divine touch and the desire to follow the life-giving path toward it.