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Nine-Tenths

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The woman crawls. She winces every time her left knee hits the floor; her right hand is torn and twisted. Bruises are blooming black and yellow all up one side of her body from the heavy imperial boots, and her breasts are a mess of painstick burns and exquisite knife cuts. There is blood on her face and in her hair and Philippa can still feel the imprint of her teeth from the last time she struck her across the mouth.

Naked and half-human at her emperor's feet, the woman looks up into her eyes with a singular, bleak intensity, and she crawls.

Six feet. Eight. Ten. Inch by inch, across the metal floor streaked with her own blood, from the agonized heap in the corner where Philippa left her. She doesn't speak; perhaps she can't anymore. She screamed enough today that Philippa had to gag her, which was when she showed her the second knife. The terror in her eyes at that moment made Philippa's cunt throb, and that was when she knew this wasn't merely justice for Katrina's crimes.

Philippa leans back in her chair and spreads her leather-clad legs, watching. She doesn't often attend to the punishment of fallen officers herself. It takes time she doesn't have, and she can rarely bring herself to care. That is what agony booths are for. That was what Katrina Cornwell had been for, until the man whose loyalty she'd vouched for with such enthusiasm had killed Michael. The irony that it is Katrina who would have overseen Gabriel Lorca's torture in other circumstances only makes this the sweeter.

When she is four or five feet away, Philippa can hear her breathing—harsh irregular gasps from behind tightly-clenched teeth. Not a sound otherwise, despite the wreckage of her body. Is this stoicism? Does she think she can deny her emperor the sounds of her pain?

Katrina stops with her outstretched hand inches in front of Philippa's polished boot. She has dropped her head these last few feet of her careful progress, but now she raises her eyes again to her lord and master's face. Her eyes are small slivers of the abyss. If her face were not so blank, or the lines of pain etched so deeply into its corners, Philippa might recall a different Katrina entirely—the one she's taken so often to her bed, whose eyes are just this shade of deep grey when Philippa's fist pushes inside her.

Cold sweat shivers across the woman's shoulders as she stares up into Philippa's face. Still not a sound. Philippa clenches her hand against her own thigh, fighting the urge to touch her, to speak. She does not want to be forced into deciding whether to end her life, just yet, and if her officer—her slave—forces her to speak first, honour demands a show of power. One she will not be pushed into making.

Katrina's cracked lips part, and the breath she takes is a dry sob. Her throat works. Philippa has left her face mostly intact; she does not enjoy ugly things. And Katrina is so beautiful. The blood smeared across her lips like the reddest of paints only makes her more so.

The emperor nearly misses the first thready whisper.

"Please."

How disappointing. Somehow, she'd begun to expect something less pedestrian.

Katrina's arms flex and she pushes herself up, a last surge of failing energy. Her wiry body is graceless and her usual provocative insolence has been stripped away. With slow, painful movements she settles back on her heels, or as close to it as she can come. She spreads her legs and bares herself—the overlapping bruises up the insides of her thighs, the deep scratches of Philippa's fingernails across her lower belly. Her sex.

She braces herself with her broken hand and, with the other, slides trembling fingers over the one place Philippa has restrained herself from despoiling. There can't be any pleasure in it now; it is a stark, abject offer. One final surrender.

Her eyes are like coals. Her voice fractures.

"My lord—how may I please you?"