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Soren tossed a bucket-full of dirty water from the previous night out of the window. It came splashing down in a dirty puddle on the snow at the feet of two revellers, ‘’look what the cat dragged in!’’ he called down at the man scrambling away from the puddle while simultaneously holding up his still-drunk companion.

‘’Ha! Funny!’’ the shorter of the two, auburn-haired and brown-skinned, said merrily, ‘’because we’re cats! Get it, Arlen?’’

‘’Gods damn you, Soren, get your ass downstairs and help me drag this idiot in before Mr Sawyer wakes! I’m freezing!’’ Arlen called up to a grinning Soren.

Soren grinned down at his friends from the top window, above which hung the name of the brothel – ‘Sawyer’s Cathouse’. The Cathouse was the only remaining brothel in Ashta. Considering the extent of the plague on Hailbronn, it was no surprise most closed – but it had been Mr Sawyer’s good call to keep his open. Two things were always in high demand: food, and sex.

The doors of the Cathouse squeaked open and Soren appeared within. Arlen unceremoniously pushed his companion at him and Soren caught him in the last moment. The three of them were often called the Bright Red Trio, and were Mr Sawyer’s selling point. Well, Soren wasn’t; Arlen had bright orange hair, pretty blue eyes and a mouth that could spill curse words you’ve never heard before – paired with his impressive muscles and cold attitude, it was no surprise customers pined after him; Lucio was Moriyan but his hair was auburn which, paired with his light brown eyes and slim build, made him irresistible to look at; and then there was Soren.

Soren hadn’t been sold yet.

But tonight, he would.

He blew strawberry-blonde hair out of his eyes as he hauled Lucio up – despite his small build. He weighed a ton.

‘’Boys, boys, boys,’’ Mr Sawyer’s voice filled the entry way and the three of them froze. Despite his silk-soft voice and mannerisms, Sawyer was a bull of a man, ‘’didn’t I tell you to come home before curfew?’’ he tutted and took Lucio from Soren, tossing him over his shoulder. Lucio made a gagging sound and Sawyer patted his back with his free hand, smiling cheerfully, ‘’now, Lucio, if you throw up down my back I’ll add the cost of my clothes to your debt.’’ Having said that, he sighed and turned to the other two, saying to Arlen sternly, ‘’I mean it. These are dangerous times. Plague is on the raise – only last week, fourteen people died in Ashta! I don’t want you all to get sick. And not just because you bring in profit,’’ he tucked a dark finger under Arlen’s chin when the man lowered it guiltily, and raised his head, ‘’but because you’re my boys, alright? Cats look out for each other.’’

‘’Sorry,’’ Arlen mumbled.

Sawyer smiled and whirled on Soren, getting a groan from Lucio, ‘’and you, Soren,’’ his grin widened, ‘’tonight is your night; tonight we bid for your virginity,’’ he used his free hand to wave in the air as if he was seeing a title, ‘’a masked stranger of pale fire; the unknown up for exploration,’’ he nodded, pleased with himself, before pointing a finger at Arlen, ‘’which doesn’t mean the rest of you can slack. I expect Soren’s virginity bids to top even Lucio’s from last year – but I also expect the rest of you to bring me some customers.’’ Having said so, he hefted Lucio on his shoulder more comfortably and went into the tavern to carry the drunken man to his bed.

Arlen and Soren walked in after him, Soren shutting the doors with his foot. All the other Cats were up and about. Usually they draped and sat on the furniture and ate breakfast having slept in late after long, busy nights. Today was different, though. Today was the winter solstice and the Cathouse was hosting a masked ball for peasants and the high born looking for an adventure, generals and soldiers alike. And today, after nearly a year of training and teasing the more important customers with looks and subtle movements of his hips, Soren’s virginity was up for bids. His heart sped up every time he thought about it. He was nervous as hell.

Not one Cat had a good first time story.

‘’The Bright Red Trio returns,’’ Libby proclaimed.

‘’Hey, Bub,’’ Soren slid into the stool next to her as Arlen saddled off to get them watery porridge. Plague death toll being on the rise was usually indicated by how good the food was. Nowadays it was pretty shit, ‘’you weren’t here five minutes ago.’’

‘’Just woke up,’’ Libby stretched, ‘’I had the two Moriyan girls yesterday, remember?’’

‘’Ah, yeah,’’ Soren could tell she was tired. Her usually carefully styled black hair was messy, her eyes unpainted and her dark brown skin lacked its usual glow, ‘’was it tough?’’

‘’Acting like a cold bitch all night?’’ Libby yawned, ‘’yeah.’’

Being a Cat entitled many things – including having two personalities. Libby’s was the most notorious amongst the other Cats. As Libby, she was the sweetest girl you could meet; as Bub, she was the mysterious foreigner with the heart of ice – could you, perhaps, melt it? – or, at least, that was how she was advertised by Mr Sawyer. Arlen’s Cat persona was the closest to his usual personality – as Sweeney he was a dominant prick. Most Cats envied him. He could yell and demean the customers and they’d get off on that; if the others dared do it, they’d probably get slapped across the face. Ardis once got beat up for that.

Ardis was the oldest at twenty five. Her half Moriyan, half Asakurian heritage made her interesting to look at, and she dyed her short hair bright red to further that effect. As Phoenix she was supposed to be ‘wild’ – crazy in bed and when entertaining. Sometimes she overstepped the line between ‘wild’ and ‘insolent’...sometimes she did so on purpose and was heavily respected for her insolence amongst whore circles. Jeane was the opposite – she was pretty shy and quiet by nature and as Firefly she played a highborn lady fallen from favour. Her customers loved making her beg which the Cats, Jeane included, found revolting. Soren hoped that after his first few times, his persona would not be established as something so...undignified.

And then there was Cyril, the Moriyan with the blue eyes. As Gray he was responsible for the more...required tastes of the customers. Namely leather, whips and anything else that made the other Cats cringe. Most of them suspected Cyril actually got off on it.

‘’Excited about getting your nickname?’’ Libby asked, leaning on her hand as she peered at Soren.

Soren shrugged, ‘’sure. As long as it’s not as bad as ‘Pickles’.’’

‘’Poor Lucio,’’ Libby said, ‘’he got it bad.’’

‘’He’s got it good!’’ Arlen protested, coming over with two bowls of porridge. He pulled himself up on the counter Libby and Soren sat at and passed the latter his bowl, ‘’acting sweet is the easiest. You just...kind of lay there and let them do whatever.’’ He got that look in his eyes – the one he got every time he or someone else mentioned Lucio in his role as a Cat. Like just the thought of him letting people do ‘whatever’ made him rage.

‘’Eat up, boys and girls!’’ Mr Sawyer sing-songed, coming down from the stairs leading upstairs, and moved the beaded curtain out of his way with a large, dark hand as he stepped into the main area, ‘’there’s much to do! I want the whole place decorated- winter wonderland! Garlands, fae-lights, candles, the whole lot! Can Arlen please dust the couches, they look worse for wear. When you’re done please go to Lucio and make sure he doesn’t throw up all over my carpet; Libby and Cyril, you’re in charge of making the upstairs spotless. That means changing the sheets, not flipping them over. Don’t let me catch you doing that again,’’ Libby and Cyril exchanged looks, ‘’Jeane, Ardis, you two are doing an ale run. Get some food, too, if you can – and put the masks on, I don’t want you getting sick. And Soren,’’ he clicked his fingers at the boy, ‘’finish up eating breakfast, because you’re outfit is here and you’re going to drop dead when you see it.’’

‘’Yes, Mr Sawyer,’’ the Cats chorused, crawling off furniture, yawning and stretching.

Soren scarfed down his porridge and came over to Mr Sawyer, ‘’uh, Mr Sawyer?’’ the man looked at him with gentle, dark eyes, ‘’I...need to go see my mother, before...’’

Mr Sawyer sighed and clapped Soren on the shoulder, ‘’go on then. But you’re going to have to tell her the truth eventually.’’

Soren glanced down, letting long-ish strands of strawberry blond hair cover the guilt in his eyes, ‘’I know.’’

*~*~*

Jasper lurked behind the doors of his father’s office, listening, even though he knew that was rude. Even so, he couldn’t help it. He flipped his long brown hair over his shoulder, exposing his ear, so he could hear better, ‘’...Kainan has been hit so badly. Arnheim barely so, but they have their borders closed. Moriya is pretty bad too,’’ Arne sighed.

‘’The death toll’s gone up again,’’ Edgar’s voice was quiet, ‘’I would have thought that the winter cold would slow the Plague, not hurry it up.’’

‘’It could be starvation and the cold, not just the Plague,’’ Arne said feebly, then he gave a long, slow sigh, before... ‘’Jas, stop listening at the doors.’’

Jas straightened and pushed open the doors, ‘’how did you know?’’ he asked in the melodic, bright voice he inherited from his witchling father.

‘’The doors told me,’’ Arne said pointedly and Jas glared at the doors. Arne had ‘made friends’ with most inanimate things in the palace. As a witchling, his limited powers included coaxing things to do what he wanted – a fire to send his message, a book to open to the page he wanted... but some things like Arne so much they offered to help; like the doors which had sold Jas out.

‘’It’s good for him to hear this,’’ Edgar waved a hand, ‘’he will be the king of Solin someday.’’

Jasper looked between them. Despite being only seventeen, he was good at picking up on people’s moods, ‘’the plague has been raging for years...’’ he said slowly, ‘’this is about something more.’’

This time it was Edgar who sighed, and neither Jasper nor Arne missed the way his eyes flicked to theirs. Arne’s eyes were double-coloured, brown and green; Jasper’s were green and blue. They were features that marked them as witches, ‘’there have been...some attacks.’’ Eddie said finally.

Arne cast his eyes down, ‘’on our people.’’

‘’Every times there’s a plague, witches are blamed,’’ now Eddie sounded angry, ‘’just because witches aren’t affected by the plague. And now... now they’re affected by human cruelty.’’

‘’How many?’’ Jasper asked quietly.

Eddie turned to his desk, gripped it, his navy cloak swishing behind him, ‘’twenty four in Darien, six in Waycross, two in Yarah. Of what we know.’’

‘’They were just attacked, right?’’ Jasper asked hopefully, ‘’we should-‘’

‘’They were burned alive, Jas,’’ Eddie said quietly.

Arne’s head snapped up to his husband, ‘’Edgar!’’

‘’There’s no point sugar coating it, Arne,’’ Eddie snapped back, ‘’witches in Kainan have been brutally murdered and if...if something happens...’’ he took a deep breath to calm himself, ‘’it’s no secret that I married a witchling. And that my son is a witch. If there are witch hunts-‘’

‘’There won’t be.’’ Arne said firmly.

‘’-then they will come for you first,’’ Eddie finished, ‘’that’s what worries me.’’

Arne’s double coloured eyes softened as he went to his husband. He had evaded marrying him, becoming a king, for years – when he fell pregnant with Jasper; he’d married Eddie so Jas wouldn’t be a bastard. He did not regret this decision, ever; he wasn’t about to start now, ‘’there won’t be any witch hunts,’’ he said again, firmer, as he took Eddie’s hands, ‘’there won’t be.’’

*~*~*

Airen Moreland sat at the window of his chambers, looking out at the garden. The Yamese countryside castle had been his home for as long as he could remember – since Marietta Moreland, the regent of Yame and his mother, readily gave the Yamese throne to her cousin, Roz Beirne, and his son, Fionn. Both has fought Arnheim relentlessly, ending the mere twenty six years of peace between the countries. Airen hadn’t minded being demoted from crown prince because he always knew he’d marry the gentle, fierce Fionn Beirne. The man he had fallen for as easily as if it had been planned by the gods. The man his heart and body had ached for, all those months he was away for his campaign.

The man who was now dead.

The Yamese garden wasn’t much to look at, but Airen looked anyway. Yame wasn’t much warmer than Arnheim, so everything was covered in a layer of snow – and not soft, fluffy snow. The rain had turned the landscape into a freeing sea of knife-sharp icy plains. But at least the sky was clear, for the first time in weeks. Airen palmed the crumpled letter in his lap, wet from his tears still. It had been two days since he received news that Fionn and the King of Arnheim had met in battle – and that Fionn had lost. Two days of crying and staring out of the window and this awful tension in the dark, gloomy household.

Because everyone, including Airen, knew the King’s men would come for him.

Airen was...prized. He was the oldest son of the regent who had promised peace between Arnheim and Yame. When the war started, many Yamese chose to join King Daran’s side as he promised more of that peace – his marriage to Airen a token of it. Airen had been appalled when he heard of the news, five years prior. King Daran had only been seventeen then and Airen, aged fourteen, had not believed a child-warrior would ever lay a hand on Fionn and take him as spoils of war. And then he and Fionn fell in love, and they had been with each other, in every way – Airen had rushed the first time. Surely, Daran would not want a soiled man if, by some chance, he won. But Airen never believed he would win.

And yet he did.

And Fionn was dead.

Feeling tears burn at his bright green eyes, Airen blinked them away furiously, ‘’stop it, Airen,’’ he told himself through gritted teeth, voice no more than a hiss in the empty, stone room, ‘’you knew you’d marry the victor. Stop crying already.’’

Suddenly, the doors burst open and Airen’s sister burst in. She was three years younger but almost identical to him; they could be mistaken for twins. They had the same golden hair that reached their waists, the same pale skin and face shape. But while Airen’s eyes were light green, hers were of the darkest blue, ‘’Airen, the soldiers are here!’’ Faeryn cried out.

Airen stood sharply. The pressure that had been so unbearable the past two days seemed to disperse in a flash. Airen didn’t know if that was good but, gods, at least he could think about something else than Fionn’s death on the battlefield. Faeryn looked close to tears and something went up in Airen, something hard and cold and made of steel. His entire family was the very picture of the weak, pathetic people the Arhanese thought them to be – cooped up in the castle, crying and lamenting, mourning and waiting for their fate to unfold.

No more.

‘’No tears,’’ Airen said in a soft, deadly voice as he swept through the room, ‘’from now on, we decide how things go.’’

Faeryn shook her head, ‘’you’re going to be taken to the palace and they’ll make you-‘’

Airen gave her a smile that was as comforting as it was determined, ‘’I’ll make them wish they had killed me instead, dear sister,’’ he promised and walked out of his chambers. Faeryn followed.

The soldiers, two dozen, were in the courtyard and Marietta Moreland faced them all by herself. She, too, no longer wept. Her chin was held high, her dark ringlets spilling over her shoulders as she stared down the Captain of the party. The Captain’s dark, wrinkled eyes snapped to Airen as he emerged into the courtyard, ‘’seize him,’’ he barked.

Marietta held up a hand and the soldiers actually stopped, hesitated, ‘’no need,’’ she said in a beautiful, regal voice, ‘’we acknowledge that the outcome of the battle decided Airen’s husband. We will come willingly.’’

The Captain snorted, trying to regain some dignity from being challenged by a de-facto commoner, ‘’I doubt our king will want your whore in his bed.’’

‘’Careful, Captain,’’ Marietta’s eyes flashed with warning, ‘’you may be speaking to your future King.’’

The Captain pinched his lips but said nothing more, gesturing for the carriage to be brought. The soldiers flanked it; a moving prison. Airen wanted, more than anything, to cast one last look at the castle rising behind him. At his home. But he would not show weakness.

He would not.

So he didn’t look.

*~*~*

Jamael swung in through the window of the assassin keep in Cana Kaale and landed neatly on the floor of his father’s office. The King of Assassins looked up, and a dozen heads followed. Jamael looked between them all, meeting his father’s dark eyes and the blue eyes of his mother, then the eyes of his kin, ‘’what’s going on? Why is there a meeting?’’

Amir tossed a stack of papers onto his desk; he never dealt with paperwork, ‘’more attacks on witches. Not only here, but in Kainan, too.’’

Jamael frowned and came to stand by his mother. Thais’ Hyndestane blue eyes, which he had inherited, were as worried as they were furious, ‘’is the sultan not doing anything about it?’’

‘’I don’t think the sultan cares,’’ Thais said tightly.

‘’I bet he’s one of those who believe the witches are to blame for the plague,’’ Sidara, dark as a shadow, said with malice. The Plague was on the rise yet again and everyone lost someone to it in the last three years – some had lost everything. Now people had enough and in their paranoia against dying of something they could not fight, they made up an enemy.  

‘’At this rate we’ll have to become the good guys,’’ Amir sighed, running a hand through his dark hair.

Jamael scratched his brown arm in thought, ‘’what do you mean, baba?’’

 ‘’He means,’’ Thais interjected, ‘’that when it comes to it, witches will be able to find refuge in the keep,’’ as always, the Queen of Assassins knew exactly what her husband was thinking.

A tense silence descended on the assassins. Finally, Amir waved a hand, ‘’there’s no point discussing this further when no action is yet required. Go, train.’’

The assassins filed out of the office. Vysarane caught up with Jamael, her omnipresent, over-sized axe strapped to her back, ‘’Yo, Jammy,’’ she said, the metal goggles on her eyes whirring as they adjusted to the light change; Vys had always had problems with her eyesight, so she designed the goggles herself, ‘’d’ya think the witch thing might be a problem?’’

‘’Could be,’’ Jamael guessed.

Vys cringed as they walked through the corridors of the keep and down worn, stone steps. They were both nineteen and had trained together since they could remember – the fact that their rooms were opposite each other in the basement meant they were practically inseparable, ‘’that’s...tough.’’

‘’Yeah.’’

There wasn’t much to say about the matter. The horrors of what was beginning to happen to witches weighed hard on them for the entire journey to the basement, ‘’see ya,’’ Vys said, deep in thought. Jamael nodded and watched her retreat down the corridor. He walked up to his own doors and reached for the handle.

He froze.

Someone was in his room; someone whose footsteps he didn’t recognise. His training allowed him to pick up on it. Very slowly, Jamael lowered his hand to the handle and pressed down. He slid inside the room and realised he was in deep shit. Because the boy who was in his room was clearly as well trained as Jamael was, as his ears pricked at the miniscule sound of Jamael entering and he whirled around.

At first Jamael thought it was some kind of monster. It took him a second to realise the person was simply wearing a plague mask, covering their whole face, the beak containing herbs protruding out. Their hair, if they had any, was tucked into a black hat with a round rim and the rest of them was covered head to toe in dark leather. They had a blade in one hand and a bag half-filled with Jamael’s more valuable things in the other...a thief.

The thief cocked their head to the side, bird-like, and then everything went to hell.

The thief sprung first and in the second it took Jamael to scan the room for a weapon, he had been tripped up. He landed on his back, his back slamming into the stone. He moved his head sharply to the left to avoid a would-be fatal jab of the knife, which instead clashed against the rock. The thief only had one attempt, because Jamael was prepared for the next hit. He grabbed the thief’s arm, the one holding the blade, and realised he was quite a bit stronger than them as he forced them round, pinning them under him against the cobblestones. He pinned one of the thief’s arms to the ground and closed his free fist around their clothes neck. The thief flailed under him as he squeezed, hard, their gloved hand coming up to grab at his wrist. Jamael kept squeezing, till he felt the thief lose consciousness, the body going completely limp under him. He waited a few more seconds, just to make sure the thief wasn’t faking it, before letting go. He was breathing hard, adrenaline pumping in his veins.

For a moment, he thought of what to do. The most logical thing was to bring the thief to the King of Assassins – after all, the thief had infiltrated the keep; it was a violation. Yet nothing could keep Jamael’s curiosity at bay, not even fear that the thief was covering up the dreaded plague. Jamael took the blade and tossed it far away from the thief before lifting their head to undo the leather straps at the back. He hooked brown fingers under the mask and pulled it off.

The thief didn’t have the plague.

Quite the opposite.

It was a boy with a perfect, sun-kissed complexion that appeared pale in contrast to Jamael’s light brown skin, dotted with moles under one eye and on his chin. He had full lips and a delicate nose...he almost looked like a girl. Jamael’s heart thumped at the sheer fact that the thief was just so pretty. Unable to hold back his curiosity, Jamael snatched the hat off the boy’s head. A thick mop of molten gold hair spilled onto his forehead. Jamael licked his lips nervously. He wanted to see the boy’s eyes, wanted to see what colour they were. He tossed his long, dark brown hair, twisted into a hundred tiny braids, over his shoulder, trying to calm down. He knew he should take the thief to Amir but...gods, he was just so... and the thief was his responsibility; he’d broken into his room so he was Jamael’s to punish.

Jamael groaned at his reasoning.

He glared at the unconscious thief underneath him, ‘’you just had to be my type, didn’t you?’’ he grumbled.

*~*~*

‘’What do you see?’’

Mairwen’s eyes were closed, fingertips brushing the grass beneath her as she concentrated, brows scrunched up. She listened to the wind rustling the trees, to the Witchriver rushing somewhere in the distance.

‘’What do you see?’’ the soft voice repeated.

Mairwen’s brows scrunched further as she gazed into the darkness of her own eyelids, ‘’I see...’’ her hands tightened on the grass, ‘’I see...’’ the forest seemed to hold its breath, ‘’nothing.’’

Two voices groaned in unison as Mairwen opened her eyes and sighed, ‘’it’s pointless, guys. I can’t just see stuff.’’

‘’Then you’re kind of of a useless seer witch then, aren’t you?’’ Mardin challenged.

The Wood Wives that had been standing on the edge of the Fae Forest, where the Wild Hunt dwelled, chuckled amongst themselves, a sound like trees rustled by wind and bark creaking. Mairwen sent them a glare, ‘’don’t you all have something to do?’’

The Wood Wives chuckled again and disappeared within the forest. Mairwen sighed and dumped herself backwards onto the lush grass under her. In Mystic, summer was eternal, ‘’it will come to you,’’ Fynn offered, though he didn’t sound convinced.

‘’No, Mardin is right. Being a seer is useless,’’ Mairwen complained, ‘’what good are my predictions when they come randomly? Great, so I saw the attack on Moriyan witches; now I can’t see any more, so how am I to warn them?’’

‘’Maybe there won’t be any more?’’ Fynn offered.

‘’I’d rather be an Elementalist,’’ Mairwen pouted, casting Mardin a jealous look.

‘’Come on, you’re twenty two. Act like it,’’ Mardin said snobbishly.

‘’Well, you look twelve,’’ Fynn deadpanned.

It was true. With his huge black-brown eyes and chin-length blond hair, Mardin looked like a child despite being twenty, ‘’and you look like someone who pissed off their fiancé again,’’ Mardin fired back.

‘’I’d rather my fiancé than my brother.’’

Mardin extended his hand to Fynn with a fake grin, ‘’congratulations on your third parent!’’

Fynn shook his hand, harder than necessary, ‘’thanks! At least I have parents.’’

Mairwen sucked in a breath and sat up sharply and Fynn stopped shaking Mardin’s hand, holding it apologetically in his own, ‘’sorry. It slipped out.’’

Mardin shrugged, ‘’whatever. It’s true. It’s their loss though,’’ he grinned and gestured to himself. Mair smiled.

‘’Shall we try again?’’

‘’Go on them, mighty seer,’’ Mardin grinned.

Fynn nodded, gold and hazel eyes sparkling from behind his auburn fringe, ‘’I’ve nothing better to do anyw-‘’

‘’Fynn Riddler, I swear to god, are you in that bloody forest again!?’’

Mardin looked delighted, ‘’ah, speak of the fiancé and he shall appear!’’ he said gleefully.

Fynn swore, ‘’you haven’t seen me,’’ he hissed at his friends. Then he sprouted feathers out of nowhere and where he had been a moment before, now a brown eagle sat. It batted its wings and rose into the sky, flying low over the treetops just as Rain Farlane burst into the clearing at the edge of the forest.

He looked only slightly out of breath, black hair dishevelled, brown-green eyes scanning the clearing, zeroing onto Mardin and Mairwen. He looked truly terrifying; tall and muscular, the burned skin of his left cheek from an accident with a Firething only making him look more dangerous. Everyone knew not to mess with warrior witches; even Mair rarely challenged her mother, who was one. While she was stuck as a seer witch. Mair sighed, ‘’where is Fynn?’’ Rain snapped.

‘’We haven’t seen him,’’ Mardin and Mair chorused.

Rain’s eyes narrowed suspiciously. He reached into his dark red, high collared tunic and pulled out a small whistle made out of a shell, and blew it. It made no sound; at least not to human or witch ears. But a few seconds later Fynn was soaring back over the treetops. Rain extended his arm, covered in a leather gauntlet, up, and Fynn landed on it. The eagle’s eyes stared at Rain, ‘’don’t glare at me,’’ Rain said calmly, ‘’you can’t skip out on wedding duty again.’’

Fynn beat his wings once, lifting off Rain’s arm, and the feathers cascaded off him. He landed on his two human feet a second later, ‘’how about we just skip the wedding,’’ he said. Challenging a warrior witch was never a good thing, especially since Rain was so powerful he was considered a witch prince, and yet Fynn had a knack for it. The shifter witch pulled a stray feather from his hair, ‘’and I told you to stop using that stupid whistle on me.’’

‘’I would stop using it if you showed up to help me with the preparations. It’s our wedding, Fynn, not just mine.’’

Fynn looked inclined to argue but Rain gave him a stern look. Fynn shrivelled away from him, sulky, and gave Mair and Mardin, who watched the squabbling with their usual interest, a look, ‘’bye, guys. Good luck with the Seering.’’

 Mair gave him a sympathetic smile, ‘’thanks.’’

Mardin raised a hand in goodbye and the two witches left the clearing. Mardin sat with Mair for another hour, trying to help her with her Seering, but eventually they both realised it was pointless, ‘’I should go. My brother will want my help at dinner.’’

‘’Thanks for today,’’ Mair said dejectedly. She watched him go with no inclination to get up and trail home herself. Everyone had a use in Mystic. Mair wished she was at least only a witchling. Then nothing would be expected of her. But as a Seer, especially in times like these, she was expected to offer valuable insight on how to help foreign witches. And yet she could not.

Mairwen looked down as something brushed against her knee. A critter nuzzled it. It mostly looked like a green kitten, except its ears, tail and the rings of its spine ended with sharp pinpricks. Mair stroked its soft head, careful of its spikes, ‘’oh, shit,’’ she whispered as the world around her wobbled and went dark. It was illuminated a second later, but she was no longer on the outskirts of the Fae forest. A life flashed before her eyes, but not her own. An island, wolves, howling and running, caves...a boy of double coloured eyes and freckled skin. Blood and water. Over and over. Blood and water. Blood and water.

And then she was no longer in that person’s body, but in that of a witch. One she had been in countless times before, one that kept hunting her. The witch burned as people around chanted. She screamed. The heat did not hurt Mair but it was so searing she could almost feel it, so bright-

Mairwen’s eyes snapped open and she swore again when she realised it was night. The dark clearing was illuminated by a few Firethings, prancing around between the trees on graceful legs of flame, their ears and snouts prickling at the sound of Mair’s voice. Critters had gathered around her unconscious body and now they scuttled away; Wood Wives bent over her, their bark eyebrows furrowed in concern. Mair sat up, about to say she was fine, when she realised how late it was.

She scrambled to her feet. Her mother would kill her.

And in her panic, she forgot all about the Seering of blood and water.

*~*~*

‘’How is my little bride?’’ Alys Sparrow beamed at Soren as he came into their tiny, rundown cottage.

‘’Hey, ma,’’ he said dejectedly as he pulled off his plague mask. He’d grow tired of telling her he would not be a bride.

‘’Excited for tomorrow?’’

‘’Sure.’’

Soren closed his green eyes briefly. His mother did not know that he worked in the Cathouse. He’d always felt ashamed of it when he saw how much time she poured into him, so one day he could get out of the hovel that was his house and live a grand life with a wonderful husband or wife. But she didn’t know that the only reason they could have this hovel, a roof over their heads, and the plague masks and the food was because he was a Cat. And because he was a Cat, she also had enough money to enter Soren in as a war-camp bride, something she did not notify him off until it was too late.

Since the plague started and the population went down, each year an event was held. Both poor and rich families entered their sons and daughters in as war camp brides, for a fee, to be picked by generals and soldiers of the Hailbronn army. It was both to guarantee the military was not too pent up, as they had little time or choice in lovers, and to give the people a chance at a better life. After-all, if you satisfied whoever chose you, they might want to keep you. There were a few requirements, of course – you had to be pretty, at least to some standard; you had to be physically healthy; none of your immediate family could have died from the plague, in fear that you have contracted it...

And you had to be a virgin.

Which, after tonight, Soren wouldn’t be.

And yet he still couldn’t tell his mother. It was too late to back out of the picking the next day, and Soren wouldn’t give up a job as well paid as being a Cat.

‘’We’ll get you all prettied up. I’ve made an appointment with the bathhouse for tomorrow,’’ Alys gushed.

‘’But, mother, the bathhouse is so expensive!’’

‘’All the best for my son!’’ Alys chirped, cluttering around the single room within the hut, ‘’I’ve saved up some money – you’ll be radiant tomorrow! I expect you to get at least one of the three generals,’’ she added with a wink.

How could Soren tell her, when she was so excited, so hopeful? How could he tell her that even if he did snag a general, he’d be, in the best case scenario, fucked and discarded when they realised he was not the promised virgin? In the worst case scenario, he’d be exposed straight away and bring shame to Alys. She’d find out what he did for a living the hard way. Soren hoped it wouldn’t come to that.

*~*~*

The court of Koln was, as always, having a party.

The ballroom was brightly lit with candles, casting a golden glow on the walls. The foreign guests were at the large windows with tiny magnifying spectacles, making appreciative noises as they watched the famous Kolnian storms descend on the horizon in a blaze of lightning. The fountains on either side of the ballroom gushed up in sprays of water and splendour. The guests were dressed in their best, sparkling like fallen stars, dancing and talking and eating – taking the most out of a moment in which they did not have to remember the plague.

Duke Wrathan Gwydion sat in the King’s throne, even though he was not the King. He was leaning on his hand, watching Orin with a lazy smile. If the guests were stars, then Orin was the sun. The King swept amongst his guests with a dazzling smile, his mass of dark gold hair pouring down his back like a waterfall, his golden eyes, which he inherited from his mother, sparkling as he talked and danced with his guests. He was breath taking. And he was Wrath’s.

‘’Your majesty,’’ the Moriyan ambassador bowed low and the music cut off, ‘’gifts!’’

‘’Oh!’’ Orin’s eyes lit up, ‘’you didn’t have to ambassador, really...’’

Wrath stifled a laugh; Orin was a sucker for gifts, both for receiving and giving. He cast Wrath an amused look over his shoulder, as if he could sense his amusement, and made his way back to the throne, perching on the arm, leaving his lover actually sitting in it. He put a hand at the back of his neck, stroking his thumb along the undercut of his dark hair idly. The Moriyan ambassador bowed once more and the doors to the throne room opened. A dozen stunning birds of multicoloured feathers pranced in, ‘’peacocks, your majesty!’’ the ambassador proclaimed.

Orin laughed at the grace of the creatures while the guests made appreciative noises and clapped, admiring the birds which scattered out around the room. Lightning flashed, blinding the throne room for a second. The rain started pouring, ‘’they are magnificent,’’ Orin called, ‘’I thank you, ambassador.’’ The ambassador bowed once more – he seemed to enjoy doing that. The doors opened once more and everyone’s heads turned. Orin grinned, ‘’my lord Rose, you are late,’’ he called merrily.

‘’It is good fashion, your majesty,’’ Lord Rose swept into the room, his massive stomach going first, half a dozen of his slaves following on chains he held in his meaty hand, like dogs. The guests chuckled well naturedly.

And then stopped, suddenly. A few gasps went around the room.

‘’Whoa,’’ Wrath breathed softly.

Orin’s eyes snapped to where he was looking, and then they widened. Amongst Lord Rose’s slaves stood a boy, more beautiful than anyone or anything Orin had ever seen. He forgot how to breathe, just for a moment. The boy was tanned in the middle of winter, his silver hair that marked him as an omega falling around his face in perfect waves, the fringe swept back to reveal his beautiful face, the button nose and full, plump lips, almond shaped, downcast eyes and long lashes. Orin rose from the arm of the throne and came down from the dais. Lord Rose bowed but Orin couldn’t take his eyes off the slave for a good few more seconds.

Finally, they flicked to Lord Rose and he gave him a lazy smile, ‘’It is bad manners, my lord.’’

Lord Rose inclined his head with a smile, ‘’I am sorry, your majesty.’’

‘’Are you?’’ Orin raised a golden eyebrow, ‘’what shall you give me to show your remorse?’’

The guests chuckled, amused – Orin was good at that, amusing them. Lord Rose swept his arm wide, ‘’what is mine is yours, your majesty,’’ he said earnestly.

‘’Is that so?’’ Orin smiled brightly at Lord Rose, reaching out. His long fingers closed around a chain in his hand and he swept them down, ‘’even...him?’’ he stopped when he reached the slave’s collar, and moved his fingers to tilt the boys head up. Up close he was even more breath taking. The slave’s eyes flicked up, the green-gold of them making Orin’s heart stutter. The slave’s eyes widened and he gave a little gasp as he saw Orin’s face. Sure, Orin was drop-dead gorgeous but this boy...he was otherworldly.

‘’W-well...’’ Lord Rose spluttered.

‘’How much did you pay for him, my lord?’’ Orin tried to look away from the slave’s eyes but he just...couldn’t.

‘’Fifty gold pieces,’’ Lord Rose puffed out his chest, ‘’he was extremely expensive!’’

Orin finally pried his eyes away to look at his treasurer, who was busy entertaining a whole flock of girls, ‘’Lord Winchester, please make sure one hundred gold pieces are deposited at Lord Rose’s household.’’

The guests gasped, ‘’c-certainly, your grace,’’ Lord Winchester stuttered out.

Orin pried the chain out of the shocked Lord Rose’s hand, ‘’thank you for this wonderful gift, Lord Rose,’’ he said, chipper again, ‘’next time perhaps don’t parade such a beautiful boy around,’’ he added with a wink and motioned for the band to play, ‘’enjoy yourselves, my friends!’’ the shocked Lord Rose and his remaining slaves were swept up by the dancing crowd.

Scared that if he looked at the slave again he’d end up standing on the dance-floor, dumbfounded, Orin tugged on the chain attached to the collar gently and led him towards the throne, where Wrath sat, looking as if he’d seen a god. Orin gently extended the chain towards him, ‘’for you, my love.’’

Wrath looked up at him and away from the slave boy with great difficulty, ‘’Orin, you’re kidding-‘’

‘’You like him, don’t you?’’ Orin asked brightly. There was one person he had a weakness for, and that was Wrath – whatever Wrath could desire, he got. So it was pretty convenient that the only thing Wrath usually wanted was Orin.

‘’He was expensive,’’ Wrath swallowed hard.

‘’Let me indulge you sometimes,’’ Orin laughed and Wrath took the chain from him.

‘’Thanks,’’ he said quietly.

‘’You can thank me properly later,’’ Orin said with a suggestive wink and bundled off back into the dancing crowd.

Wrath raised his brown eyes to the slave boy, but he wasn’t looking at him; his green eyes, flecked with gold, followed Orin’s retreating silhouette as if he, too, had seen a god. Wrath wound the chain around his hand, shortening it, and yanked on it, hard enough that the slave boy toppled onto his lap and finally looked away from Orin. Wrath grabbed his face with his free hand and turned it towards him, glaring at him, ‘’don’t look at him,’’ he snapped, ‘’he’s mine.’’

‘’Forgive me,’’ the slave boy whispered in a voice that was pure poetry.

Wrath released his face, ‘’forgive me, your grace,’’ he barked, ‘’I am a grand duke.’’  

‘’F-Forgive me, your grace,’’ the slave boy stuttered out. He sat extremely stiffly in Wrath’s lap, hands folded nervously together.

Wrath sighed. He had a very short, bad temper, ironically cohesive with his name. He felt guilty. The slave boy in his lap was clearly terrified. Wrath began undoing the mechanisms of the boy’s collar, ‘’got a name?’’

‘’Bren,’’ the boy whispered, ‘’your grace.’’

‘’Family name?’’

The boy flinched. Clearly he hadn’t been asked that in a while, ‘’...Wicker, your grace,’’ he said finally, quietly, staring at his hands.

The collar came off and Wrath slid it from around Bren’s neck, tossing it to one of the servants nearby, ‘’so, Bren Wicker,’’ he rested a hand on the small of Bren’s back, the other on his thigh. Now that he’d gotten over the shock of his beauty he realised how little clothing he wore, ‘’am I so hideous you can’t even look at me?’’ he was teasing, of course. Wrath was handsome – dark hair, dark eyes, a good build, and that temper to match. But he paled in comparison to Orin.

‘’No!’’ Bren said quickly, half-turning to face Wrath. He flushed and looked down again, stuttering, ‘’y-your grace.’’

Wrath sighed, ‘’you don’t have to use the title all the time,’’ when Bren didn’t look up, Wrath chewed his lip, ‘’sorry I snapped at you. I have a bad temper,’’ he offered. Bren nodded uncertainly, still sitting extremely stiffly. Wrath sighed again and stroked his leg, above the knee, not high enough to be suggestive, ‘’relax, idiot. There’s nothing to be frightened of.’’

‘’I-I’m not frightened.’’

‘’You’re shaking,’’ Wrath hesitated, ‘’are you cold?’’

‘’No,’’ came Bren’s too-quick answer.

Wrath took in his outfit – a flimsy, sleeve-less tunic made from water-soft material that didn’t provide any heat, and short pants that could practically be considered under garments. Even with the fires on, most guests wore long sleeved outfits and adorned cloaks. Wrath snapped a finger at a servant and ordered her to bring him his cloak. When it arrived, he threw it over Bren’s quivering shoulders and did the pin up, ‘’look, you belong to me now, whether you like it or not,’’ he said matter-of-factly, ‘’so if you need anything, you tell me straight away, alright?’’

‘’Yes, your grace,’’ Bren whispered.

They weren’t getting anywhere. Bren still didn’t look at him. Didn’t even get more comfortable on his lap. Wrath sighed for the nth time that evening, ‘’look, maybe you’d rather just go?’’

Bren’s eyes flicked to his uncertainly, ‘’go where?’’

‘’I don’t know. I could have rooms prepared for you. Or a bath. Whatever the hell you need to stop quivering like an animal,’’ Wrath said, perhaps a bit harder than he should have. He was bad with words, courtesy of growing up utterly alone. Bren didn’t reply. Wrath shifted, leaned closer to him, and put a hand over his, ‘’Seriously, Wicker. You need to tell me what you want. I’m not a mind reader.’’

Bren bit his lip, ‘’what I want?’’

‘’Yeah,’’ Wrath brushed his thumb over the back of Bren’s hand, ‘’tell me what you want right now.’’

Bren hesitated, and then, ‘’s-sleep sounds nice...’’

‘’Good. See, not so hard,’’ Wrath chuckled and called over another servant, ‘’take him to one of the guest rooms and give him anything he needs. Make sure he is comfortable.’’ The servant nodded and Bren stood uncertainly from Wrath’s lap, holding the cloak closed around him. He still looked like a frightened animal staring in the eyes of his hunter, but...

Bren did a quick, neat curtsy, ‘’thank you, your grace,’’ he said and hurried after the servant.

Wrath watched him go and then slid down in Orin’s throne. He didn’t know if Orin buying Bren for him was such a good thing after all.

*~*~*

The Arhanese palace was everything Airen had been told as a child – dark, gloomy. Oppressive. He had to force himself to willingly walk into it – getting dragged in by guards would have stripped away the remains of his pride. He couldn’t believe it. He was the spoils of war for a monster King. He knew what would happen to him now – he’d most likely be locked away, bred like an animal for heirs. The King would have other lovers – a small mercy. Just the thought of touching the enemy, of touching someone who wasn’t Fionn made Airen want to be sick. But he had to be strong – for his mother and sister. If everything went right, he’d be crowned King Consort and he’d be the only one to hold any sway over the King if his family needed...help. It wasn’t hard to guess they’d be outcasts here. A selfish part of Airen hoped the King would simply not marry him, and he could die in peace or at least live out the rest of his life in an abbey.

Some servants came, although you wouldn’t have been able to tell. They wore armour and donned swords, like everyone else in the palace. They started to lead Faeryn and Marietta away. Airen made as if to follow but a guard gripped his arm in a vice-like grip, ‘’the King wants to see you, immediately,’’ he said coldly.

‘’What about my family?’’ Airen asked sharply.

‘’They will be taken to your apartments,’’ the guard said without a hint of sympathy and all but shoved Airen in the direction of the throne room, thundering behind him in case he tried to run. As if Airen was a coward. He glanced back at his mother and sister but they were already gone. He swallowed, hard. He had thought that during his first meeting with the monster King, he’d have them by his side. Now he was absolutely, utterly alone.

It wasn’t hard to guess which doors led to the throne room. They rose up, black and carved and massive, at the end of a corridor. And then, as Airen reached them, they were pushed open and Airen’s future was revealed.

There was an audience.

Airen could have tried. Every little detail of this meeting was designed to wear him down – separation from his family, the crowd of silent, judging faces watching him walk down to the throne... But Airen would not be worn down. He walked with his chin high and met the eyes of the man on the throne who was, undeniably, King Daran Eiris.

King Daran. The monster King. The man who had taken over the throne after King Kane abdicated...the man who had killed Fionn. He was everything Airen imagined, too. Pale, face sculpted in marble, handsome but strong, too strong, and cold – nothing like Fionn. Good; Airen would have broken down if Daran looked anything like the love of his life. Dark brown hair was swept from the King’s brow with a silver crown, revealing cool, almond shaped eyes, the sign of his Asakurian heritage. They were as pale as Airen’s, but blue, like the icy winter sky. And then there were his lips – pulled in a bored, satisfied smirk.

The monster King.

‘’Don’t you know you’re supposed to bow to a King?’’ Daran drawled. The word pounded through Airen’s ear, rushing like blood. King. Fionn was meant to be King. Airen had believed it so long that seeing another man on the throne... He bowed. Slowly, taking his time, each breath mocking Daran – and the King knew it. His eyes narrowed as Airen straightened but his smirk remained in place, ‘’so...the whore of Yame finally shows his face.’’

Airen refused to let his face heat up. He would not be ashamed of being with Fionn. He would not deny the rumours that he was ‘soiled’. Let them think what they will, ‘’we welcome you at court,’’ a man said tightly – an Asakurian man. Presumably the King Father Airleas. But the tightness in his voice wasn’t directed at Airen, but at Daran, along with a pointed look. King Airleas gestured to the pale haired, blue eyed man by his side, ‘’this is King Kane Eiris, and those are my other sons, Brannen, Daimhin and Cian.’’

Airen looked to the three brothers, standing on the other side of the throne – a welcome relief. He didn’t think he could look at Daran much longer. Prince Brannen, the second born, looked more Asakurian than his older brother thanks to his extremely dark eyes, but his hair was a mousy brown, over one shoulder in a ponytail. He was staring at Airen with cold eyes but the next in line, Daimhin, gave him a smile. He was, face wise, very similar to Brannen but his hair was as white blond as King Kane’s. There was a grove shaved into his eyebrow, presumably to make him look more warrior-like, but he clearly took after King Airleas when it came to body structure – he was quite slight, but strong. In his head, Airen marked him as a potential ally. Prince Cian, who looked almost exactly like King Airleas, didn’t look at him – he was thirteen, maybe. Young. Clearly uncomfortable in the situation.

King Father Airleas cleared his throat, ‘’Daran, I believe Airen is tired after his journey.’’

Airen flinched at the sound of his own name from the mouth of the enemy, but did not react in any other way. Daran waved a hand lazily, as if he was a petitioner and not his fiancé, ‘’take him to his rooms.’’

Airen didn’t think he’d ever be grateful about the guard behind him grabbing him and dragging him away – but he was.

Daran watched Airen go, his thick gold braid swaying. He had incredibly long hair – and, generally, he wasn’t bad looking. But he was Yamese, the son of a cowardly Queen. Daran couldn’t help the resentment that boiled up in him, didn’t think he wanted to help it. He slumped in the throne once Airen was gone, ‘’leave us,’’ he said to his court. The warriors bowed and found places to be – quick, efficient, brutal. That was what the Arhanese court was. They didn’t need Yamese weaklings amongst them.

Kane took Airleas’ hand, ‘’are you alright, my love?’’

Airleas smiled at him, ‘’I’m not afraid of the Yamese, Kane. He’s just a boy. Just a child,’’ he turned to Daran, browns furrowed, ‘’and you were cruel, Daran.’’

Daran rapped his fingers on the arm-rests, ‘’he is the enemy, father. No matter how young he is.’’

‘’Daran is right,’’ Brannen said.

Airleas shook his head, ‘’there is no enemy anymore, boys. The Yamese army is depleted, their king is dead and the next de-facto successor that people could rally behind is at our court.’’

Kane nodded at Daran, ‘’now is the time to play our hand well. Daran, when you asked Yame for support you promised to marry the Moreland boy as a sign of your promise of peace. To deny the people that would be betrayal – and if he is tied to you, then at least we have one less person to worry about stabbing us in the back.’’

Daran sighed, ‘’I know, father,’’ he stared at the empty throne room, chewing on the inside of his cheek. Finally, he straightened on his throne, ‘’then let’s do it quick. The wedding will be by the end of the week. Just the ceremony – no feast needed. I don’t think either of us wants one, anyway.’’

*~*~*

Meridan didn’t remember the Salarian palace. He hadn’t been crown prince since he was a young child, when House Kalinan was replaced by House Starteller. Meridan had been destined to be King of Salar – when things got iffy, he was to marry the Sahrian King, so much older than him. And, in the end, he gained no status and no position, but grew up quietly in the countryside with a good education. And that had been a blessing – so why... Meridan clenched his fists. Why the hell was he back in the palace? Oh. Because some blind, old King wanted to marry him. Meridan was pretty irritated – he had hated being betrothed to random people as a child and thought he could just live his life peacefully away from court. And then King Tristan Starteller asked for his hand and his stupid parents had agreed. Now he was confined to this palace once more and, as an omega, it was not going to be pretty. He just couldn’t wait to be a baby-making machine for some old fuck.

‘’Prince Edlard?’’

Meridan glanced at the woman who was leading him to meet his betrothed – he had already forgotten her name. Meridan cleared his throat, ‘’yes?’’

‘’I was just asking how the journey way.’’

‘’Good. Thank you,’’ Meridan scouted his brain for something else to say. He had grown up amongst matter-of-fact scholars, and no children his age. His social skills were...limited, ‘’so...how old is the King again?’’

‘’Ah, he is quite a bit older than you, isn’t he...’’

Gods, Meridan hated courtiers. They never answered you straight. He tuned out – he longed for his country home and the professors, astrologers and philosophers who would give him the answers he needed. But all he had to do was meet this King, play nice and then go find a library. Make allies – find the scholars and tutors. His head would burst if he had to listen to meaningless chat all day. He winced as they exited the corridor and walked out into one of the many sitting rooms set about with couches, the massive windows letting in the blinding sun reflective off the snow. He blinked and concentrated on the only other figure in the room.

His heart dropped.

Gods, this man was ancient. He stared with unhidden disgust at the bent over man, leaning on a cane, his long white bears reaching his knees, his face dripping with wrinkles, his back hunched. It was one thing bearing children for some King – Meridan could deal with having sex a couple times, he supposed, considering he’d never done it. But with an old man!? Meridan felt a little sick.

The old man hobbled over and bowed his head, ‘’prince Edlard, it is an honour to finally meet you,’’ he gave him a toothless smile, ‘’I am master of finances, Lord Rivers.’’

Meridan exhaled, ‘’oh, thank the gods.’’ He quickly slapped his hands over his mouth, ‘’forgive me. Was that rude?’’

The woman next to him chuckled, and Lord Rivers cut her a look, ‘’Captain Heartman, how old did you tell the prince King Tristan was?’’

Captain Heartman put her hands on shoulder level in surrender. Meridan remembered some of her chatter – she was Sathe Heartman, the Captain of the Guard, and she was an omega so she’d been sent to meet Meridan. Meridan smoothed down his silver fringe nervously; he hoped they wouldn’t make it a big deal, ‘’I did say he was only seven years older.’’

‘’I’m sorry, I wasn’t listening,’’ Meridan said truthfully, which got him another laugh from the Captain and a chuckle from Lord Rivers.

‘’Well,’’ Lord Rivers hacked out a cough, ‘’his majesty King Tristan is waiting to meet you. Come, my prince.’’

Meridan followed Lord Rivers as he hobbled on towards the doors at the end of the sitting room. Captain Heartman gave a quick bow and went in the opposite direction but, after pushing the doors open, Lord Rivers didn’t go in, ‘’he wants to meet you alone,’’ he whispered.

Meridan nodded. He was rarely nervous but now his muscles felt like jelly. He stepped through the doors into the next room over and Lord Rivers closed them behind him. A man turned towards him and Meridan immediately though, ah, that’s him. He was...younger than Meridan thought. Or at least he looked it; for a thirty one year old, he’d aged well. His hair was light brown and his jaw-line was covered with a stubble, culminating in a goatee. He was dressed nicely and he held a beautifully carved staff in his hand but...his eyes were closed. Even so, he inclined his head in Meridan’s direction, ‘’how did you know where I stood?’’ Meridan blurted before the King could say anything.

King Tristan gave a half-smile, ‘’I heard you.’’

‘’That’s weird.’’

Tristan’s smile widened, ‘’you’re very forward,’’ his smile softened, ‘’it’s nice to finally meet you, prince Edlard.’’

‘’Meridan,’’ the omega corrected him quickly.

‘’Pardon?’’

‘’I go by Meridan. It’s my middle name...’’ Meridan felt like he should say something more – after all, this was his future husband. And he was a King, ‘’uh...you can call me Merry if you want, your majesty,’’ he added.

Tristan gave a soft laugh, ‘’alright,’’ he reached out with terrifying accuracy towards Meridan, ‘’could you come over here?’’

Uncertainly Merry stepped forward, until Tristan’s hand brushed his shoulder. The King moved his hand to cup Merry’s cheek, his fingers tracing against his cheekbone and jaw-line, against the underside of his fringe... ‘’um...what are you doing, your majesty?’’ Merry asked, confused.

‘’How should I put it?’’ Tristan mused as his thumb traced the outline of Merry’s lips, ‘’visualising you? You have silver hair, right?’’

‘’Yes,’’ Merry said as Tristan continued to trace his fingers over his face, ‘’do you know what silver looks like?’’

‘’Yes. I remember.’’

‘’How long have you been blind?’’ Merry frowned.

‘’Since I was fifteen.’’

‘’How?’’

‘’Acid.’’

‘’Oh,’’ Merry suddenly felt uncertain. Was he being rude? He couldn’t tell, ‘’I’m sorry.’’ He offered.

‘’What colour are your eyes?’’ Tris was unfazed, his fingertips tracing under one eye.

‘’Blue.’’

Tristan finally dropped his hand and smiled, ‘’you’re very pretty.’’

Finally, Merry felt a smile tug on his lips. Tris’ high spirits were infectious, ‘’you sound surprised.’’

‘’I haven’t really thought about what you would look like,’’ he grinned, ‘’did you think about what I would look like?’’

Merry shrugged and then quickly said, ‘’I just shrugged.’’

Tristan chuckled, ‘’you’re quite interesting.’’

‘’I thought you’d be old and ugly,’’ Merry blurted, ‘’sorry,’’ he added.

‘’And am I?’’

‘’No.’’ Merry said truthfully; it wasn’t in his nature to lie. But then, as if compelled to do it, he stepped forward towards Tristan and touched his fingers to his cheek, ‘’why are your eyes closed?’’

‘’What’s the point of opening them?’’

Merry frowned, ‘’Can you open them?’’

‘’What for?’’

‘’It’s strange, having you ‘look’ at me with your eyes closed.’’

Tristan flinched a little and Merry dropped his hand, ‘’I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to be rude,’’ he prattled off. Court life was already wearing on him – he just didn’t know how to behave.

‘’No, I just...I didn’t mean to make you feel...weird,’’ Tristan said and then, very slowly, opened his eyes. He didn’t look at Merry, not directly – his gaze hovered just above his shoulder. Sure, it was unnerving but...

Merry peered into Tristan’s eyes of the palest brown, ‘’they’re so bright they look a little like they’re glowing,’’ he said quietly, ‘’you should keep them open, your majesty.’’

*~*~*

Sawyer’s Cathouse was a-light, a portal to how Hailbronn used to be before the plague. The Cats had outdone themselves – sating curtains hung everywhere, hiding nooks with food or filled with pillows for guests to use without having to go upstairs to the rooms. The ceiling and pillars were decorated with fae lights and the whole place smelled of hot wine pushed out by hired workers. And everywhere there were Cats – dressed in their finest clothes and pretty masks, scandalous and elegant at the same time, entertaining and taunting the guests – Arlen in violet and green, revealing his muscular arms, ginger hair unbound like a fae witch of the Wild Hunt; Libby in a ridiculously short dress with a veil hiding all but her gold-lined eyes; Lucio in gorgeous baby blue that offset his darker skin, looking like an angel in his feathered mask; Cyril, dripping with leather and straps in tight leather pants; Jeane in a full blown ball gown and a scandalous slit running all the way to her waist, revealing a long, pale leg; Ardis, in nothing but beads and strappy undergarments... and Soren, so covered up he felt like a priest. The clothes were gorgeous and his hair had been washed and combed, but the fact that he was not revealing any skin had most people in the brothel salivating. They wanted him which was exactly what Sawyer had wanted.

Soren felt a little lost. With everyone else off with customers or in the middle of entertaining them, his only job was to look pretty. The mass of masked strangers who could be anything, from a poor man to a Queen, freaked him out, but he forced himself to walk around slowly, giving flirty smiles from beneath his mask but nothing else. The bids would start an hour before midnight and whoever bought him would have him till morning. Soren had already pin-pointed a few wealthier looking fellows who kept giving him the eye. They all seemed to have...required taste. Slowly, Soren’s fear bubbled up. What if they would hurt him? There was no way of telling who was behind the masks. What if someone who liked pain snuck in and...

Suddenly, Soren thought he’d suffocate if he stayed amongst the music and the wine and the people leering at him. He walked quickly to the back entrance to the brothel, trying not to run – that went to hell as soon as he reached the doors. He ran through the corridor, reached the door there and burst outside into the winter cold. He grabbed the wooden railing of the stairs running up the back, strawberry blond hair falling in his eyes, as he gulped down air. He was shaking, badly, and not just from the cold. And then, suddenly, there was coarse warmth around him. Soren looked up at the person who had thrown their cloak on him – a dark haired, masked man. He only had a second to look, as the man breathed in the softest voice, ‘’are you alright?’’

The doors burst open again and Sawyer came outside, ‘’Soren, don’t run off like that!’’ he stopped when he saw the stranger who had given Soren his cloak and fashioned a bow, ‘’welcome, most esteemed guest. Please, enter paradise,’’ he gestured at the doors and then handed him back his cloak, taking Soren’s hand, ‘’come on, kitten. The bidding is about to begin. Don’t shake now, you’ll be fine.’’

Soren cast one last look at the man, holding his cloak in his hands, before he was dragged within the brothel. Sawyer stopped in the corridor to fix his hair and pinch colour into his cheeks, ‘’Mr Sawyer, I don’t think I can do it-‘’

‘’Nonsense,’’ Sawyer was as cheerful as ever, ‘’the customers love you. They’ll take good care of you.’’ But that wasn’t the case with Arlen, or Libby or even Lucio, who had sobbed against him and Arlen the year prior when his virginity had been sold. But there was no backing out now – if he couldn’t work, he couldn’t provide for his mother, ‘’big smile now, my sweet,’’ Sawyer patted Soren’s cheek with a large hand and pulled him into the room full of anticipating guests.

The music had stopped as Sawyer pulled Soren up on the wooden podium he had chopped up himself that morning, ‘’ladies and gentlemen; our most esteemed guests,’’ he called as Soren stood next to him, smiling as much as he could muster, ‘’the time has come – our pale flame will become a blazing fire tonight and you, my darlings, will be his kindling. Now,’’ he gestured to Soren, ‘’who will pay to set this beauty alight?’’

Not even a second had passed before bids were being thrown. People shouted out numbers, topping each other over and over, and Soren’s eyes could barely follow with the voices. The bids were getting higher and higher and still the voices did not stop. Soren frantically tried to pin point who was winning – instead, his eyes travelled to Lucio, who looked at him with exuding worry from the back of the room, clinging to Arlen’s arm. The rest of the Cats stuck to the shadows and they looked towards the crowd with resentment. Finally, the voices began to slow. Soren didn’t know how high the sum was but eventually there was a long silence.

‘’Ladies and gentlemen, our beautiful Soren, sold to-‘’

‘’Six golden pieces,’’ a voice said, accompanied by the jingle of money as a pouch was set down on the bottom of the dais, and Soren looked. His breath caught. It was the dark haired man from the back porch. He didn’t look very rich and yet...and yet...

‘’Seven,’’ the man who had been a second from winning Soren pinched his lips below his moustache and put his own pouch on the dais.

The dark haired man gritted his teeth below his mask and Soren realised that he had given everything he had, just like that, to have Soren. Something inside him warmed and, even though it looked like the man with the moustache had him, he didn’t feel so awful anymore, ‘’seven, going once,’’ Sawyer said, eyes flicking between the two men, calculating, ‘’twice...’’

An imposing shape of a muscular man, also masked, broke through the crowd, followed by a smaller, dark haired man, ‘’twelve for my man,’’ the muscular stranger said with a grin, slapping his own pouch of money next to that of the dark haired one. The man with the moustache looked appalled, fumbling for more money on his person, but just then the third stranger slapped a third pouch onto the dais.

‘’Eighteen!’’

Soren’s eyes widened as the man with the moustache stopped fumbling for money. Eighteen...it was a fortune, especially for a whore. Soren’s breath caught as Sawyer grinned and gestured to the dark haired man, ‘’sold!’’

Suddenly, everything seemed like a dream. The cheers of the crowd came to Soren like through water as he walked to the edge of the dais. The dark haired man was there by then and he put his hands on Soren’s hips, lifting him down gently. And then they were toe-to-toe, Soren gazing up at the masked stranger. In the next instance he was being pulled gently through the crowd, which patted the stranger on the back, and through the beaded curtain, up the stairs. When the doors of one of the room slammed shut, the numbness, the shock, disappeared, and Soren found himself standing in the middle of the room, breathing hard from adrenaline as the stranger locked the doors.

And then Soren felt hands on him and he calmed down.

‘’Don’t be nervous,’’ the stranger said gently, running his hands up and down Soren’s arms from behind in a calming fashion, ‘’you’re Soren, right?’’

‘’Yes,’’ Soren’s throat was dry but at least he didn’t feel like he would faint anymore. He knew he was meant to be flirty, playful, show the man a good time until morning but he...couldn’t. He was still paralysed and he couldn’t do anything beyond standing there.

‘’I’m Bas,’’ the man said, undoing the ribbon holding Soren’s mask to his face. It fell unceremoniously to the floor, ‘’turn around,’’ Bas requested softly. Feeling as if his bones weighed a ton, Soren turned slowly to face Bas. The man made no move to touch him. He just looked at him, took him in. Slowly, Soren reached up and tucked a finger under Bas’ mask, but the man caught his hand, ‘’I can’t take it off,’’ he said quietly. Soren’s pulse sped up. Shit. Was he standing in front of a prince? Someone important? That’s the only reason why Bas didn’t want to reveal his identity...

Oh, gods, he really couldn’t do it after all.

‘’Whoa, hey,’’ Bas caught Soren as his knees gave out and held him close to his body. Bas’ scent and warmth enveloped Soren. It was overwhelming, all of it, he couldn’t do it, he couldn’t... ‘’let’s calm you down,’’ Bas murmured softly, nudging Soren towards the bed. He sat down first and pulled Soren in between his legs, where Soren folded himself up, caged within Bas’ body. The stranger chuckled, ‘’you really are cute,’’ he murmured, folding his arms around Soren.

Soren finally found his voice, as quiet as it was, ‘’I’m sorry.’’

‘’You just got sold,’’ Bas murmured, ‘’I’d be freaking out if I were you so you’re doing alright.’’

‘’Thank you. For before. For your cloak,’’ Soren whispered, trying to get his nerves under control, ‘’just...give me a moment and I’ll be fine, I just-‘’

He froze, muscles locking, as Bas lowered his mouth to the back of his neck, sweeping his long-ish hair off his nap to kiss gently. Soren gasped at the wet, warm mouth moving against his skin, followed by a pleasant course feeling of an invisible stubble on Bas’ jaw and the scrape of his mask, ‘’that’s now awful, is it?’’ Bas murmured, kissing up to his ear to nibble on the lobe.

Soren shivered, ‘’no...it’s not...’’

Bas slid a hand down Soren’s thigh, to his pants, and undid the string keeping them up. Soren’s head fell back against his shoulder as Bas’ hand slid into his under garments and grasped his member, stroking it into full hardness, ‘’wait...’’ Soren breathed, ‘’I should be touching you...you paid...’’

‘’Shhh,’’ Bas swept back his hair from his eyes and kissed his temple, ‘’just relax, alright? We’ve got all night. Just breathe.’’ But how could Soren breathe when Bas was touching him so expertly? It was so different to touching himself Soren felt like he was falling apart. His nerves had disappeared, his fear was nonexistent. Each slow stroke of Bas’ hand had Soren biting his lip. Unconsciously, Soren ground his ass against Bas’ front. Bas groaned, ‘’don’t do that,’’ he whispered in his ear, pumping his hand faster, ‘’you’re driving me insane.’’

‘’Same...to you....’’ Soren panted out. Then his entire body jerked in Bas’ arms and he came with a cry. He slumped against him as Bas pumped him through it, his other hand undoing the buttons keeping his tunic on.

‘’Take off your clothes. I want to see you.’’

Soren obliged, sliding out of his pants and undergarments in a haze. He tried not to think too much about anything as Bas wiggled him out of his tunic. As soon as the clothes were off, Bas hands were on Soren, sliding up and down his chest and thighs. Soren felt his confidence building as he wiggled round in Bas’ lap so he could face him and hooked his hands into his pants to pull out his member. Bas tucked a finger under Soren’s chin and tilted it up, angling his head. Soren’s fingers shot up and pressed to Bas’ lips before they could kiss, ‘’no kissing,’’ he whispered, returning to Bas’ belt, ‘’at least not on the mouth. Cat rules.’’ Bas growled, low and dangerous and Soren realised that, shit, Bas was an alpha. He shivered at the realisation – his radar had always been askew and with such a gentle soul like Bas, it was hard to tell, ‘’you can kiss everything else,’’ Soren offered breathlessly, pulling Bas’ belt off and helping him pull his pants off. Then he slid back in Bas’ lap.

‘’I intend to,’’ Bas promised , pressing his lips to Soren’s neck again. Soren slid his hand into Bas’ long, black hair, feeling the ribbon of his mask, letting himself just sit there for a while and let Bas kiss his neck. Even though he had just come, his member was getting hard again. Finally, it was Bas who shifted them, so they were lying down, Bas on top of Soren. Bas continued to kiss Soren’s neck as he nudged a finger against his mouth. Soren wasn’t sure what he was doing in his cloud of lust, but he readily opened his mouth, taking the finger in. He sucked gently and didn’t protest when Bas slipped another in.

By the time Bas withdrew his fingers, Soren was a puddle of goo thanks to his kisses. He couldn’t sort out his thoughts much less understand what fear was as Bas circled his entrance with his slick fingers. And then Bas moved a finger in him and reality came crashing down on his head.

Soren gasped, grabbing Bas’ wrist on instincts. Bas kept pumping his finger in and out, ‘’relax,’’ he murmured again, ‘’you’ll adjust.’’

‘’It feels weird,’’ fuck the fact that he was meant to be a courtesan, a whore. It was just too weird. Gods, why had he ever picked up this job? Was the money really worth it, ‘’Bas, wait-‘’ Bas didn’t wait, moving another finger into him. This time it burned. It was borderline painful and Soren’s fear returned full force, ‘’Bas, please, I want to stop...’’

Bas, to his surprise, ceased the movement of his fingers. He leaned over to kiss his forehead again, ‘’just a few more minutes, alright? If you still hate it, we can stop.’’

There was no way Soren could actually tell him to stop though, was there? Bas had paid a huge sum for him and, if he didn’t do it with Bas, he’d have to do it with someone else. Someone less kind. He nodded uncertainly and Bas moved his fingers inside him again. Soren turned his head to the side, trying to concentrate on something other than the fingers going in and out of him. He wished he’d picked a different profession. How the hell could he work in the Cathouse if every time was like...

This.

Soren’s eyes shot open, un-spilled tears clinging to his lashes, as he inhaled sharply, feeling his entire body twitch with pleasure. Bas smiled beneath his mask and nuzzled his nose just below Soren’s jaw, ‘’good spot?’’ he asked, moving his fingers to hit that same spot again. Soren’s body jerked and a sound slipped out of him. There was no third time – Bas removed his fingers entirely.

‘’Bas?’’ Soren whispered uncertainly, caught between fear and pleasure.

‘’Just breathe,’’ Bas whispered, giving himself a few pumps with his hand, spreading his precome down the length of his shaft, ‘’I’ll go slow.’’ He brushed the head against Soren’s entrance a few times to prepare him before pushing the head in gently. Soren’s muscles locked up again, ‘’no, no, no,’’ Bas whispered, taking his hand and lacing their fingers together by his head, ‘’don’t tense up.’’

‘’Can’t help it,’’ Soren whispered. His mind was spinning. In one moment he was feeling good – in the next he was afraid again.

‘’I’ll stop if it hurts,’’ Bas said, and Soren thought that he was a god-send. How could anyone be this patient with a stranger, with property they had bought? ‘’so just relax, Soren.’’ Soren closed his eyes and gripped Bas’ hand, laced with his, as he exhaled slowly, forcing his body to relax, ‘’good. You’re doing good,’’ Bas whispered as he slipped further into Soren.

Soren whimpered and wrapped his free arm around Bas’ neck, pulling him close. Bas kissed his Adam’s apple and the hollow spot between his collarbones, ‘’h-hurts...’’ Soren whispered shakily as Bas kept sliding inside him.

‘’Want to stop?’’

‘’No...’’ Soren murmured and Bas’ fingers tightened on his own.

Bas smiled and nuzzled his nose into Soren’s hair, ‘’you feel amazing.’’ Soren was breathing hard by the time Bas was buried in him to the hilt – they both were, ‘’I want to kiss you,’’ Bas’ voice was rough with lust.

‘’You...can’t...’’ Soren panted out.

Bas leaned down anyway, brushing his lips against the corner of Soren’s mouth and then his jaw, ‘’I’m going to move.’’

Soren nodded breathlessly, hiding his flushed face in Bas’ shoulder as he withdrew and thrust back in him. A helpless moan was ripped from Soren’s lips and all went to hell after that. The only thing anchoring Soren so he wouldn’t pass out from the sudden assault of pleasure was Bas’ hand, still holding his above his head so tightly it provided a pinprick of pain for him to hold onto. That didn’t help him, however, when suddenly the pleasure climaxed and he cried out, coming all over his stomach. Bas managed to withdraw before coming himself and Soren changed his mind – if every customer he had was as good as Bas, then he’d love his job.

Bas collapsed on top of Soren, who wrapped his arms around his neck and rested his cheek against the top of his head. They were both breathing hard. It didn’t matter that they were strangers; right then they were connected, and falling asleep in each other’s arms was all too easy.

*~*~*

The palace was massive – bigger than any place Bren had ever been in. When he awoke, it was closer to dawn than midnight, but it was still pitch black. He was in an unfamiliar room, in a soft bed with soft sheets. He moved his hand against the soft furs piled atop him and sighed. He couldn’t figure Wrath out. He was explosive, but he was also kind. He didn’t make Bren sleep on the floor. He’d asked him what he wanted...Bren flushed at the memory. No one had ever asked what he wanted before. But then...then there was the golden haired king who was...just the memory of him knocked the breath out of Bren. Not looking at him would be impossible.

With his head full of dark haired Wrath and the golden King, Bren slipped out of his bed. His feet hit the bare ground. Wrath’s cloak was on the chair by the fireplace and Bren snatched it up, wrapping it around the night clothes he had been given as he padded out of his room. The palace was absolutely massive and Bren had no idea where he was going. Truthfully, he needed air, to cool down...but the longer he wandered around the palace, the more he realised he wasn’t going to find an exit. The ever present storm rumbled above him. He could half-hear the last of the revellers, drunk, leaving the palace, but he had no idea how to get outside.

Eventually, tired and cold, he stopped in a random, spacious corridor and slid down the column, wrapping Wrath’s cloak around himself. Would the Duke get mad if he heard of Bren’s night escapades? What did he want from him anyway? Bren sighed; he wasn’t used to such complicated men. He was about to get up and try to find his way back to his room when he heard it – a soft laugh and whispering voice. As quietly as he could, he rose from the floor and peeked from behind the column, curiosity getting the best of him. His eyes widened when he saw Wrath – and the King. Orin.

‘’You’re drunk, you big idiot,’’ Wrath said, grinning, as he hauled a stumbling Orin along, even though the King was quite a bit taller than him.

‘’Drunk in love,’’ Orin proclaimed and Wrath giggled – actually giggled – as Orin swept them round and pressed the shorter man to the wall. Bren watched with wide eyes as Wrath’s grin softened and his whole face transformed as he gazed at Orin, tucking a long golden strand of hair behind his ear, ‘’with you,’’ Orin clarified, voice quiet but carrying in the empty room, ‘’I love you.’’

‘’I know,’’ Wrath said and tugged on Orin’s jacket to pull him down. He kissed him, gently at first, but then Orin took the lead and pressed his lips to Wrath’s harder, hands on his hips to press their bodies together, ‘’I love you, too,’’ Wrath’s voice was breathless as Orin kisses down his neck. He pushed him away half-heartedly, ‘’come on, someone will see.’’

Bren ducked behind the column at that. He was intruding. It was wrong. He sank back down to the floor, tried to make himself as small as possible as, laughing, the King and his lover slipped into one of the rooms. Bren pressed a hand to his chest, fisting the material of Wrath’s cloak in his fingers. His heart hurt.

And he didn’t know why.

*~*~*

Airen got prepared for his wedding in utter silence in the apartments his family was given. The rooms were of cold, hard stone, clearly neglected and unused in the last years. The clothes he had been given for the wedding weren’t much better – a high collared black tunic, black pants and a fur cloak. His mother pinned it in place as Faeryn sat in the corner, in a black, simple dress – neither she nor her mother were permitted to attend the wedding. Another jab. Marietta finished with braiding her son’s hair quickly, ‘’ready?’’ she asked finally.

‘’How could I be?’’

Marietta’s eyes turned sad, ‘’I’m sor-‘’

‘’Don’t,’’ Airen said quickly, ‘’we must move on,’’ he took a deep breath and turned to his family, ‘’what I have said stands. I’ll make that monster King regret not killing me when he had the chance.’’

Marietta nodded approvingly but Faeryn just looked down at her feet, ‘’please, just...try not to anger him tonight. I don’t want you to get hurt.’’

‘’Don’t worry, little sister,’’ Airen turned towards the doors, ‘’he won’t do anything to me that I will not allow him to.’’ He went to the doors and touched the handle.

‘’Airen,’’ Marietta said before he left. Her son turned and she stared at him gravelly, ‘’give him an heir. It will help our cause.’’

Just the thought of having sex with Daran – not mentioning having his children – made Airen sick to his stomach, but he nodded. He couldn’t disappoint his mother. Whatever happened tonight would be on his terms.

*~*~*

Soren woke up, sore but satisfied. Wintry light was falling through the window, illuminating Bas, still in the mask, getting dressed. Soren sat up and Bas turned to him, smiling, ‘’good morning.’’

‘’Hey,’’ Soren rubbed his eyes sleepily, then stopped and looked up sharply at Bas, ‘’was I-?’’

‘’Worth the price?’’ the masked stranger grinned at him, ‘’hell yes.’’

Soren smiled, relieved. Then his smile fell off as he realised that today was the night when he would become a war-camp bride. And, after Bas, he didn’t really feel like it – especially with his sore body. He groaned softly and rubbed his hands down his face. The bed dipped as Bas sat down and pulled Soren closer, ‘’you were amazing,’’ he murmured, kissing Soren’s shoulder as the beta blushed.

Soren brushed his fingers over Bas’ cheek, below his mask, ‘’we could...’’

‘’I have to go,’’ Bas said, voice full of regret as he pressed one final kiss to Soren’s shoulder, ‘’I’m sorry.’’

Soren nodded, but kept his hand on Bas’ cheek, ‘’I just...I’m thankful-‘’

Suddenly there was a loud banging at the doors and the voice of one of the men who had helped Bas pay for Soren the previous night filtered through, ‘’oi, Bas, we need to go!’’

‘’Coming,’’ Bas called. He turned back to Soren and kissed the tip of his nose with a sweet grin, ‘’goodbye.’’

Soren’s brain barely caught up with what had happened before the doors slammed shut.

And Bas was gone.

*~*~*

The thief opened his eyes and Jamael smirked at him. Those eyes – a beautiful, clear grey – blinked, once. Twice. Then the thief’s browns furrowed as he struggled against whatever was holding him, ‘’what the-‘’ he had an accent – not Moriyan then. But he knew the language.

‘’You look good like that,’’ Jamael rose from the chair he had been sitting at and admired the thief, his pale gold skin and the subtle muscles on display, with his arms tied behind his back, the rope attached to a hook in the wall below the ceiling, the thief on his knees on the mattress with his ankles tied together.

‘’Who are you?’’ the thief barked at him.

‘’The man you tried to rob,’’ Jamael’s smirk grew as he approached. The thief’s grey eyes narrowed, ‘’you got a name?’’

The thief prattled something in his own language – something that sounded a whole lot like a string of swear words, directed at Jamael. The assassin tutted and knelt in front of the thief on the bed – they were more or less the same height, ‘’for that,’’ Jamael slid his hand to the thief’s member and only then, judging by his widening eyes, did he realise he was naked, ‘’you will have to be punished,’’ Jamael gave an agonisingly slow pump of his hand, ‘’and, of course, for breaking into the room of an assassin.’’

The thief gritted his teeth and glared daggers at Jamael, who continued to smirk even as he admired the blush spilling onto the thief’s cheekbones, ‘’stop,’’ the thief hissed.

‘’I’m sorry, you tried to kill me,’’ Jamael said conversationally as he sped up his hand motions, ‘’but you’re making demands? How does that work in your pretty little head?’’ the thief tilted his head to the side, away from Jamael, a muscle in his jaw twitching in fury as his member began leaking, ‘’oh, someone’s pent up. Or are you excited? Does being tied up turn you on?’’ Jamael mused as he yanked on the rope, pulling the thief higher off the bed. The thief cried out at the sudden movement and from the way his body tensed, Jamael knew he was close.

He removed his hand.

The thief bit his lip, hard, as his whole body quivered. His hips moved slightly as if seeking friction, ‘’that’s for the insult,’’ Jamael said, giving the thief a moment to settle, ‘’this is for breaking in,’’ and he closed his hand around the thief’s member. He quivered again, his thighs shaking, eyes closed as he hid his face in his arm, his breath coming in pants. As he grew closer to an orgasm, his hips jerked and he groaned quietly. But, again, Jamael let go. The thief whimpered – Jamael profoundly enjoyed seeing him in such a state. The assassin sat back on his heels, watching the thief’s muscles go up and down. Only once his breathing settled enough, did he say, ‘’and this is for trying to kill me,’’ and grabbed his member again.

This time the thief cried out. Jamael imagined his erection must have been painful at that point. He alternated between long, slow strokes and quick erratic ones that had the thief jerking helplessly in his grip, ‘’oh, you like it, don’t you?’’ Jamael chuckled, even though seeing the boy, tied up like that, was driving him crazy. He let go abruptly and a half-sob broke through the boy’s lips, ‘’I almost feel bad,’’ Jamael grinned, glancing at the bruises on the thief’s neck and then up to his lips, moist and panting. He leaned forward and brushed his hand gently against the thief’s sensitive erection.

A half-moan, half-sob fell from his lips again, ‘’what’s that for?’’ he asked around pants, trying to pull away from Jamael’s hand.

‘’That,’’ Jamael rose up higher and put his hand on the small of the thief’s back to push him forward, into his hand, ‘’is for being so sinfully pretty,’’ then he started pumping again. The thief lost control, thrusting his hips desperately into Jamael’s hand.

‘’Don’t stop...please...please, let me...’’ the thief’s beautiful, accented voice was like music to Jamael’s ears.

‘’Tell me your name,’’ Jamael whispered in his ear, ‘’and I might.’’

‘’Jex...’’ the thief panted, ‘’it’s Jex...’’

‘’Well, know how merciful I am, Jex,’’ Jamael said sweetly and sped up. In the next second Jex was coming, shuddering violently against Jamael as he pumped him through it, his come splattering onto the furs. Once the last of the shivers passed, Jex slumped helplessly in the ties. Jamael stepped off the bed.

‘’Let me go...’’ Jex breathed, spent.

‘’Hm? What was that?’’ Jamael smirked again. Jex pulled on the ropes pointedly but Jamael only chuckled, ‘’did you think that was your punishment?’’ Jex looked up at him, appalled, ‘’oh, no. I’m still far from done,’’ Jamael gave Jex a wave as he went to the doors, ‘’I’ll come back when I feel like playing again.’’

Then he left the room and closed the doors behind him, leaving Jex (literally) hanging.