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It was the Sword Emperor who greeted them as they came up the path, hand in nervous hand. Smiling and bowing to them, holding the door open wide. “Welcome home, sweetheart. Everything’s just as you left it, kept in perfect order for you.”

Ayaka’s hand clenched in Arthur’s. The nerve of him. Standing there, grinning like a jackal, welcoming me back to my own home--

Slowly. Softly. His fingers moved in hers, sending comfort. I know this is hard for you.

Lucius Tiberius aside, everything was...the same. Their slippers were waiting in the front entrance as if they’d simply left on a trip to the grocery store. Swallowing through the stone in her throat, Ayaka pulled off her shoes--her designer shoes, brought and provided by the Emperor--and slipped her feet into soft shabby cotton once more. Tears welled. She knelt to hide them, slowly and carefully placing the new shoes in the cupboard. Maybe I can "accidentally" leave them behind.

“Should you be doing that?” Her voice was quietly normal. “Standing there armored in plain sight, I mean.”

Be at ease, Your Majesty, Aniketos’s calm voice said directly into her ear. No one is currently observing us. Indeed, even if they were, I would be very surprised if there are more than a few--if any--mages living able to breech our shields and illusions. We are quite safe from prying eyes.

She jumped and nearly fell over the doorstep, Arthur’s quick hands the only thing between her and disaster. “Don’t do that!” she whispered fiercely once she’d caught her breath again. “I mean...it’s...”

He manifested with the shrill hiss she had learned to identify as a spirit entering or leaving the material plane. “My deepest apologies, Your Majesty,” he said, his eyes penitent behind his thick glasses. “I had forgotten that you are not yet used to our ways. I shall endeavor to be far more careful in the futu--”

“Save it. Business awaits.” Lucius Tiberius swept them inside, snapped his fingers. The living room bloomed suddenly with people, a cacophony of colors and languages. Roman soldiers, women and men in silks and homespun, some crowned. Smoke moved in one corner, a strange form that almost looked like it could be some kind of demon. Her heart jumped. “Silence. All of you. Your Empress is choosing which possessions she’ll bring back to our base, and which will be stored away. Her words are as mine.” He touched her elbow, drew her forward. Eighty pairs of eyes fastened themselves to her. “Go ahead, Ayaka.”

She took a deep breath. Let go of Arthur’s hand, wiped her damp palms on fine wool. Wiped them again. “Good...morning. Um. I can pack my own things. Clothes, I mean. I don’t have much.” If only her tongue would stop stumbling over itself. “The only thing I really need help with is Garden. The doves need to be transported, and I want to bring some of the smaller plants and taking cuttings from the rest. Just...just in case. Does...is there anyone here who knows about plants?”

The Emperor laughed. Red crept slowly up her neck. “Of course, sweetheart. I have a whole swath of gardeners.” Another snap and a new group of men presented out of thin air, kneeling, caps in their hands. “You’ll be serving the Empress in her garden. Do as she tells you. Didius, you’re in charge of the birds.”

More bows and they were gone, one second before her, the next second inside Garden. “Wait, tell them not to start until I’m there. They can take the birds, but--”

Lucius Tiberius lifted his chin slightly and all movement inside Garden stopped. “Don’t worry, darling. They won't lift a finger until you arrive. Your word is law, after all.”

“Sure it is,” she muttered.

A gentle cough came from behind her, and she turned to find Njeri, the mage second in command, her dark hands folded respectfully before her. “With your permission, Your Majesty, Aniketos and I offer to pack and inventory your honored father’s workshop. Since, as you stated, you left everything as it was when he most unfortunately passed, there may be knowledge he left behind regarding the previous War that may prove of service to us.”

“Yes, and since we have yet to be able to do so, this would also be a fine opportunity for us to interview His Majesty about his experiences and especially--” Aniketos cleared his throat, “about the previous Servants.” He and Arthur exchanged a look, and Ayaka felt a secret passing in the air between them. “Is that acceptable, Your Majesty? It will be a productive way to pass the time as we wait for Her Majesty to finish her leave-taking.”

The look Arthur gave her was solemn, and slightly bashful. “Is that all right with you, Ayaka?”

“Of course,” she said, a shade too cheerful, too loud. “I have plants to dig and you have important information to share. I'll be fine. Njeri, Aniketos, you can pack up Pa-Father’s workshop. There’s a seal on the door, but I’m sure that won’t give you any trouble.”

“No indeed, as we have--begging Your Majesty’s pardon--already been inside.” Something must have changed in her face, for she continued gently: “We needed to be absolutely certain that the house had not been breached in any way, and as your...there were possible artifacts connected to the previous War inside, we felt it best to take no chances. I am sorry.”

“Don't worry about it,” she said softly, and raised up on tip-toe to kiss Arthur’s cheek. “Go ahead. I’ll get started in Garden.”

The place that had been made and left for her, and her alone. Her and Arthur's special place. Swarming with the Emperor’s men. She closed her eyes, a sudden weariness creeping through her body. No. I don't have time for this. Sighing, she straightened her shoulders and went, pushing away the sound of footsteps moving towards her father’s workshop. I'm just going to think about Garden, and the plants. Nothing else.

“Wait a moment, Ayaka. There’s someone I want to introduce to you.”

Lucius Tiberius, waiting for her just inside Garden’s door, lounging against one of her favorite trees. Anger swelled inside her, burned the weariness away. “We’ve been so busy with the change in base and all, there’s been no time for proper presentations. That needs to change soon: my people deserve to meet their new Emperor and Empress and you two need to learn who’s serving you. In the meantime, though--” Taking her arm, he snapped his fingers, and a man appeared; taller than the Emperor, broad as two houses. A face like a slab of broken rock. “Behold: Junius Brutus. The head of my generals. On the incredibly rare occasions when I or Arthur can’t be with you, he will be.”

The man flung himself down before her, a shudder rocking the earth. “Augusta! I am your most humble servant! Please, order me as you see fit! Eternally, I am your creature!”

Ayaka took one step back, then another.

Calm down, darling. He looks menacing but he can only hold one thought at a time in that thick skull of his. Such as “completely eradicate the enemy.” The soft thunder of Lucius Tiberius’s laughter filled her head. That’s to his--and our--advantage, though. Too dumb to betray and neither heaven nor earth will stray him from his appointed task until it’s completed. A good watchdog for you.

She swallowed. “...Yes,” she said, her eyes on the sunburned skin that gleamed through the dun-colored strands that blanketed the top of his head. “Um, why is he calling me--” Her tongue tripped on the foreign word “--Augusta, though?”

Junius Brutus’s head shot up, blue eyes wide. “Did I offend? If so, take my unworthy head as recompense!”

“No! It’s fine! You didn’t offend! Really!” A throbbing pain was beginning to grow behind her own eyes. “Um, if you don’t mind, you can help me dig plants and take cuttings--”

“Augusta, I would fell an entire forest using only my teeth if you desired it!”

The Emperor’s shoulders were heaving with silent laughter. “Never change, o Junius Brutus, never change,” he murmured, then went off into another spasm. “Darling,” he said after he finally calmed down, “‘Augusta’ is a title for the Empress, that’s all. Same as my subjects calling me and Arthur ‘Augustus.’ ”

“Oh,” she said feebly, and he patted her arm.

“You’ll get used to it. To everything.” He grinned, then nudged the still-prostrate Junius Brutus with the toe of his boot. “General, I’m going to check on things, talk to some of the men on guard duty. I leave the Empress in your capable hands until I return.”

Junius Brutus sprang to his feet, causing another shockwave. “Yes, Divine One!”

 

Sunlight patched gold on green as they worked, the only sounds in Garden Junius Brutus’ noisy breathing and occasional questions, the soft scrape of trowels. None of the Emperor’s men spoke: even the doves had gone silent. “Shall I pot this one, Augusta?”

She nodded, and delicately, he placed the cutting in the soil, patting the earth down all around it with his thick, careful fingers. “And this?’

“Yes,” she said absently, concentrating on the tree before her. There was a small sore place in her chest, as if a cold finger had pressed down deeply into her heart. I’m sorry, she thought, as she had every time she uprooted a plant, or precisely cut a tree. I’m sorry, Mother. I’m trying to protect you, just as you protected me. I can’t--

Movement flickered to the side. She turned.

The Sword Emperor came towards her, Florent in hand, black coat snapping in the wind, and she sprawled small and cold on the ground body roaring with pain grit in her face and dust between her teeth watching his grin flash through tears as death came towards her with crimson sword upraised--

Ayaka?

“Augusta?” Junius Brutus blared into her ear. “Are you well? You are so pale!”

Dirt. Her forehead touched bark. Fingers dug deep into the ground, warm earth. The pot had fallen off her lap, cuttings and soil scattered over her skirt. She blinked. Hand on her arm, leather and metal. A gently possesive hand. “Are you all right? Ayaka?” Rider’s face, very close to hers. “Ayaka?” Tension, concern. She looked at him through the damp screen of her hair, then rose and stumbled rapidly away.

Ayaka? Arthur again, thick with worry. Are you all right?

“I’m fine.” I’m all right. “It’s nothing. Absolutely nothing,” she called, not looking back. Lucius Tiberius just...startled me, that’s all. I’m fine. Stay with the others. Sweat poured down her back like a summer storm. “I’m going to get some water. Don’t--”

Three steps into the kitchen and Lucius Tiberius materialized before her, waiting with folded arms. “--Follow me,” she finished, and glared at him.

Very well, Arthur replied, his voice tight with resignation. But if he “startles” you again, I will not hesitate to come.

The Sword Emperor narrowed his own eyes back at her. “What’s going on, Ayaka?” he asked. “One minute you’re happily planting, and the next you’re white enough to rival the moon. What happened?”

“Nothing happened.” She pushed past him, found a glass. Turned on the tap. “I got a little dizzy, that’s all.” The cold water washed out the last of the imaginary dust, helped her swallow again. “Go back outside.”

He didn’t move. “Dizzy my ass. That was pure fear I felt from you just now. Did you forget that we’re one, darling? I can tell when you’re lying.” Fingers shrouded in smooth leather gripped her chin, turned her face to the Emperor’s. “Tell me what’s going on.”

Blood thrummed in her head. “You really want to know? Fine. I was planting away, just like you said, and then I looked up, and saw you walking towards me.” A muscle jumped in her throat. She swallowed and swallowed again. Felt a dull coil of heat grow inside her, right in the center of her stomach. “I was kneeling and you were coming towards me, fully armored with your sword out, and all of a sudden I was lying on that filthy roof, crippled with pain because you’d just kicked me. You were coming for Arthur and for me, grinning and grinning, and I knew that we were going to die. And all I could do was watch.”

Lucius Tiberius’s lips moved silently over her last words. His face was very pale. “I...are you telling me that you’re still afraid of me?”

“When did I stop?” she said, her voice a dry croak, and pulled away from those clutching fingers to fill the cup again.

“But...why?” he said, voice soft. “I thought that...we’d come to an understanding after the other night.” His voice grew stronger. “I thought that you were willing to trust me, let me be good to you. That you knew I would never hurt you again.”

The water eased the heat somewhat, made it easier to speak. “That’s the key, isn’t it? Again. Maybe my mind knows what you promised, but my memory doesn’t. All it knows is that you already hurt me once. And that’s never going to go away.” She stared into the glass, at a mote of dust floating in the remaining water. “The past doesn’t die just because you say it does, Lucius Tiberius. I think...that a part of me will always be flinching away every time you touch me. Every time I look up and see you standing over me. Every time you take Florent in hand. That’s the price of your eternity, Sword Emperor. And...I think that we’ll be paying it forever.”

A splatter of pain, from his mind to hers. “Ayaka--”

She set the glass down in the sink. I wonder if I’ll ever use it again. If she left, or died, would the next occupants of the house find it waiting, the mark of her lips still on the rim? “I don’t want to talk about this anymore. Go away. Do something useful for once. I’m going to pack.”

Air shrilled behind her, but she didn’t turn around, taking the stairs to her room two at a time. The bathroom--she’d stop on the way back for her toothbrush, her plain drugstore soap, no-frills shampoo. No more smelling roses and honey every time she moved, another link in the chain binding them to the Emperor. Her little room, tucked into the end of the hall, white door shut. So quiet. I wonder if I should also take Arthur’s clothes while I’m here. She hesitated; then, feeling strangely shy, she turned and crossed the house to the spare room. Neat and sunny and smelling of him. Arthur. Shirt, pants, jacket. Boxers, and she blushed slightly as she took them up, tucked them between shirt and pants. Don’t get embarrassed over something like that, dummy, she scolded herself. He’s your husband!

Shoes and socks. I don’t have anything to put these in, she realized. Or my own clothes either. I never needed luggage before. Regret flared in her, a small black star; she’d never traveled anywhere, never spent a night outside her own home. I couldn’t even go on the senior class trip because Garden and the birds couldn’t be left alone for long. And now...

A dark spot appeared on Arthur’s shirt. She blinked, then quickly put his clothes down, made a neat pile outside the door. Swiped furiously at her eyes. My gym bag, she thought. I still have that. She stopped in the bathroom for a tissue and cold water, dabbed at, and dried her eyes. Unlocked her door. It should be in the clos--

Clothing piled on the bed. Books pulled out of the bookcase, stacked on floor and nightstand, some opened. Drawers half out of her dresser, the underwear one clearly rifled, and Lucius Tiberius peering into her closet, dresses dangling from the crook of his arm.

“What are you doing?”

The Sword Emperor looked at her with sly innocence. “Helping you pack, lovely. Isn’t that useful?” Another dress slid into his hands and he studied it gravely, a grimace turning his mouth. “Though I’m not sure we shouldn’t just burn the lot and start over. Don’t you have anything pretty?”

“Shut up!” The gym bag was in the back corner, buried under her summer duvet. She shoved past his legs, knelt to drag it out. Landed on her one and only pair of heels. Biting her lip against the pain she extracted the bag and retreated to her bed, grabbing whatever her hands touched, filling the bag until the bed was empty.

Lucius Tiberius leaned against the wall, bright eyes following her every movement. One hand toyed with the hem of a cream wool skirt, pleating and pinching the fabric, folding it back, letting it spring free. “Please let me buy you better clothes.”

“No.” She took sweaters out of her dresser, pushed them down into the far corners of the bag. “I like my clothes.”

“They’re dowdy as hell, and unworthy of my Empress. And--”

“And I like them that way.” Ayaka yanked the dresses out of his arms, spread them over her bed. Began to fold them. The blue and white striped, the grey, the navy. A loose thread on the pale pink. She worked it free, smoothed the ruched fabric. All of these dresses are...old, she thought. I haven’t brought anything new since I graduated high school. Before I graduated high school. Well, there wasn’t much point, was there? She folded it, placed it with the others. Reached for the brown. It’s not like I saw anyone or went anywhere after I left school. And...I thought I was going to die. Which...

Hands on her shoulders. Leather, metal and mint. Her lips tightened, but her hands continued to move without pause. Folding and packing, the last of the dresses dull blue in her hands and Lucius Tiberius slipped both arms around her in a gentle embrace.

“Sweetheart,” he whispered in her ear. Soft hot kisses over her cheek. Hands lightly stroking up and down her arms, tracing the very edge of her breasts. “Stop for a bit.”

Blood immediately sprang to her face “I knew it,” she muttered and yanked the zipper so hard it almost broke in her hands. “I knew it. Two whole days without sex was too much for you, huh? Can’t you think of anything else?”

The Emperor took the bag from her hands, laid it on the ground. Guided her to sit, the mattress crinkling under her weight. Hands clasped hers, raised them to his lips, and then he was sinking down to kneel before her, his shin guards ringing dully upon the wooden floor.

Violet eyes looked into hers, soft as the flower. “The only thing on my mind right now,” he said, voice low, “is helping my wife.” A kiss on her clenched knuckles, the thin tender skin of her wrists. “You’re spinning with turmoil right now, darling. It’s running through me even with the wall you’ve put up. Let me make it better. Let me help you.”

Her heart quickened with anger, with the look in those truth-filled eyes. With desire, thin as a thread and sharp as a knife. “You call this help?

Fingertips to his lips. The gentle heat of his mouth. “How else can I make you feel better? All you like about is me,” he whispered, “is the pleasure that I give you.” Slowly, his kisses covered her palms. “My wife, one with me. If you’re wounded, I bleed.” Hand curved to his cheek, cheek rubbed against her hand. A kiss, light as tears, on her lips. “I promised you. No more pain. Only pleasure.”

Ayaka opened her eyes through the kiss, held his. Amethysts with chips of obsidian at their center, solemn yet merry. Dark lashes, the straight bloody slashes of eyebrows under that mop of red hair. Her fingers moved, without thought or volition, traced the arc of his cheekbone, the pale smooth skin of his jaw. Skin soft against hers, a joy to touch. Freckles over his nose, tiny and faint--how could she have not noticed them before? Thumb on his lips, tender skin, the flick of his tongue. The soft pinch of heat between her legs. Frowning, she took her hand away, ran it over his eyebrow, and he nuzzled his face into her palm with a little moan.

“Let me be good to you,” he whispered. “Let me give you better memories to replace the painful ones.”

Her traitorous heart beat faster. Well, this is what you wanted. This is what you’re working towards, the calm little voice that waited in the dark of her mind whispered. The Sword Emperor focusing on you instead of Arthur. This is what protecting him means. Go to it, Ayaka; he’s on his knees before you. You like that. Make him suffer for his sins. And if he does manage to chase the tears and pain away, so much the better.

I...I...

“You...you really think that you can just wipe that memory away? By having sex with me while you’re armored?” she said quietly and wound a lock of his hair around her finger. Slowly, she pulled his head back, until his armor could no longer shield his throat and he lay open to her, pale skin gleaming.

The Emperor moaned and looked up at her, his eyes very bright. “One bad experience, battered and broken by a thousand better ones.” A simple twist and he was free, hands cupping her face, lips soft against hers, tongue teasing, caressing. Tenderly, he captured her, sucked on her, pulled her deep inside him. Heat flooded her body, pooled and sank between her legs. Wet just from kissing, hate him, hate him. “Let me show you.”

“All right, fi-fine,” she whispered, hating the split in her voice. “But you won’t be...so lucky next time.”

One hand warm over hers, leaving the other free to roam. Grey cashmere crept upward, set her shivering. The pale skin of her belly, the soft curve of her ribs. Lucius Tiberius’s eyes, narrowed in delight. Her breasts, demure in white cotton. His eyes widened.

“What?” Ayaka asked, feeling a thump of amusement. “Did you really think I was going to wear that lacy red nonsense?”

Wounded eyes lifted to hers. “I picked them out specially,” he muttered, and pushed the fabric away with the tips of his fingers, as if it was filthy.

She leaned forward so he couldn’t see the smile trying to occupy her mouth. “Maybe later, if you’re good,” she said and pinched his ear.

Smooth leather cupped her breasts, squeezed gently. Harder, and she bit her lip. Fingers circled her nipples, stroking and tugging at them until the tips rose against his fingers and Ayaka shuddered, wound her fingers in his hair. Lucius Tiberius smiled at her, slow and wicked, then buried his face in her bare breasts, hot tongue stroking over every inch of her Master’s Degree.

Sweetness raced through her body, set her blood aflame. Ayaka bit back a whimper, pushed him away. Guided his mouth to her nipple instead. Lucius Tiberius made a soft hmm, kissed her, sucked gently. Too gently. She wanted teeth, wanted his mouth between her legs. Wanted him to die.

The Emperor pulled away suddenly, touched her cheek. Laid his fingers over her heart. “I wish--”

“That I was your Master?” Words came hard.

He shook his head. “No, not that. You couldn’t handle the both of us, Arthur and I,” and the truth stabbed her, turned her face red with shame. “But every time he looks at you, he sees the bond between the two of you, burnt into your skin.” His tongue flicked over her nipple, circled it, caressed it. “I want that.” A note of wistfulness in his voice, nearly inaudible. “Some mark or sign carved into our bodies, shouting to the world that the three of us are forever one.” Gently, he worked her nipple between his teeth, bit down, and Ayaka cried out, pulled him more tightly against her, angling his head so his teeth could sink more deeply into her flesh.

What’s wrong with me? she thought, mind blank as new paper. I don’t need to get all worked up over him just because I’m seducing him. Him under me, that’s what I want. Not the other way around. “I--I...isn’t eternity enough? We don’t need more reminders that we’re stuck with you.” She twined her fingers more tightly into his hair, made it a leash for him as her foot slid downward. Found him under the quilted tunic, thicker than the pants he’d worn on their wedding night, and shoved into him. Lucius Tiberius groaned, long and ecstatic, and she forced his face into her breast to quiet him. Her heart beat hammer blows on her ribs. “Besides, you’re...you’re ours, Lucius Tiberius, much more than we’re yours and I’m not going to let you forget it.”

Teeth in her skin. Darling, darling, darling. Grinding into her foot, moaning like a whore into her breast as he arched and grew harder beneath her. Yes, yes, fuck me, use me, make me yours--

You already are, she said brutally, and pushed him over the edge.

Warmth spread under her toes, between her own legs. Panting, the Emperor laid his head in her lap as she continued to caress him softly, rubbing him, tracing him, playing with his hair. His big hands stroked the outside of her thighs, laid kisses on her skirt, on the place where her legs met, until she bucked a little and gave his hair a warning tug. “That was wonderful, sweetheart,” he murmured. “Thank you. But--” Sharp teeth gleamed suddenly and her entire body trembled on the hook of his smile. “You’re the one who’s supposed to be getting fucked, not me.”

One hand slipped under her skirt, caressing her hip, the curve of her rear. Both hands inside the waistband of her stockings, inside her underwear, sliding them down, spreading her thighs. Open for him. Gloved fingers slipped through her curls, gently pinched her nub. Tightened. She whimpered and the fingers slid away, ran softly up and down her folds. Thumb back on her nub, circling, the leather smooth when she wanted rough. Slow-burning pleasure instead of sharp, and she shifted irritably. A metal-clad knuckle pressed delicately against her entrance, sent a thrill of cold through her bones. Pushed in, just a little. Withdrew when she gasped.

Lucius Tiberius looked up at her with a heavy-eyed smile. “More?” His hand rose to his mouth, tongue dragging over his wet fingertips, greedily lapping up every drop.

Ayaka flushed and looked away from that knowing face. Focused instead on her fingers, tight in the Emperor’s hair. Why am I such a coward? It’s not like I haven’t done this before. Why can’t I look at him? “Keep...keep going.”

“Still a little shy despite everything, hmm?” he murmured. “That’s fine. Why let the beast have all the fun? Mice should play too.” Cold metal spreading her wide under the Emperor’s eager, relentless gaze. Smiling, he studied her, holding her open, leaning in close, peering inside her. Licking his lips. The tickle of his breath, the flutter of his eyelashes against her folds. Burning embarrassment, split with pleasure. Wetness dripping slowly over his fingers.

“So beautiful, pink and wet and waiting for me. Waiting to be filled and fucked.” A teasing breath over her nub, fear and pleasure bursting through her brain, and she squirmed, furious at her lack of control. “I still owe you a good hard fucking, sweetheart. Don’t think that I’ve forgotten. Fucked until you can’t walk straight, o my heart’s delight, fucked until you scream.” Cold slid inside her, moved languidly, soft, shallow thrusts. “Maybe not today, my darling, but soon, very soon.” Fire in her cheeks, ice in her veins, stinging, relentless pleasure-pain. “Fingers first, then my mouth.” Second in and a shudder rippled up her spine at the doubled cold, the thick stretch of his fingers. “Then...we’ll see, won’t we?”

The world shrank to those fingers, cold and smooth, metal kneading and tormenting the weak spot inside her, slowly, than faster, the edge of the plate pushed up against her and rubbed just so. Choking back moans, riding his fingers, clamping down on them, shoving him in deeper, hips moving to his sway and hating herself with each escaping whimper. Don’t...don’t let him get to you...think about Arthur...think about Arthur...

Oh god, I hope he can’t tell that we’re doing this.

“My sweetheart still can’t let herself go without help, hmm?” the Emperor whispered, and pulled away abruptly, startling a groan from her. “How about...” Wet fingers curled around her hip and his mouth was on her, biting and sucking. Gently, his teeth took hold of her nub: gently, his tongue curled against it, stroking back and and forth. Teeth, hard enough to burn, working her, then lips, soothing away pain. Sweet darling. Sucking her folds, then her nub, teasing her with teeth and tongue and now fingers back again, but three this time, too much with the added bulk of his armor, just too much, filling her so completely and the softest little bite to her nub--

I don’t want to play too deeply here with armored hands, but... Cold at her other entrance, the pad of a finger, slick with her own wetness, caressing, pushing up just hard enough to break and Ayaka broke, gasping and sobbing as her husband groaned voluptuously and swallowed every drop.

All her senses dipped and sang, the room spinning. “We’ll break the bed if we fuck the normal way,” she thought she heard Lucius Tiberius say, and then she was in the air, his arms tight around her, his mouth at her breast. Panting, she grabbed at him, took refuge in the familiar feel of soft red hair underneath her hands. “Wha--”

“Here.” Her legs hooked over the cold metal of his hip guards, pressed close to his sides. I stabbed him here three days ago, she thought dizzily. Arms around his neck, gold-encrusted velvet scratching at her skin. “Ayaka.” His mouth claimed hers, hungry and sweet. Brought her back to herself. She kissed him back, caught and bit his tongue to make it clear who was in charge, tasted a faint hint of desperation. “Ayaka.” Fumbling at her waist, cloth pulled up and the thick hard length of him wanting entrance. Her back hit the wall, not hard though, with his arm there to shield her. Slowly, he pressed into her, every inch filled, stretching her past what even his fingers had demanded, hotter than Florent’s blade.

I forgot just how big he is, she thought, feeling him full inside her, muscles shaking with the effort of allowing him. Enormous. Huge. Lucius Tiberius groaned, kissed her ear. Asked anxiously if she was all right. “...Yes,” she said after a moment’s consideration. “But stop if I say so.”

“I will,” he whispered, and began to thrust, slow and smooth, rocking her hips with his. Hot, so very hot, piercing her, filling her past the brim. Stroking against her weak spot until it burned, her blood thickening like honey. Ayaka whimpered into his ear, bit the rim. The Emperor’s body jerked, his hips snapping up. A bloom of pain quickly snuffed by pleasure, her walls rubbed and caressed with each thrust. Outside, her nub fondled and pinched and teased until her body went lighter than air and heavier than death, and she buried her face in his throat to stifle her moans. More kisses, a dance of tongues, his cock twitching and pulsing with each twist of her body. So good, so good, so good--

Scream. The thought leapt up unbidden. I want him to scream. She tightened her hold on him, pulled herself up carefully. Threw her arms around his shoulders and leaned into him, relaxed around his cock. Tightened. His breath hitched. Smiling, she braced her knees, pushed up again. The ridged metal of his hipguards bit into her skin but it was worth it to hear him gasp, worth the fire that was starting to flicker through her body, setting her alight.

“Tease. You cunning little...tease,” Lucius Tiberius whispered, and groaned into her ear. Nipped the lobe. “Keep...it up my darling, and you’ll be drowning in my seed before your orgasm even starts. And that’s...not what we want.”

“I don’t...care,” she gasped, rising again. “Because I know...you’ll make me come no matter what,” and at her words he shuddered, wrapped his arms around her, so tight she could barely breathe and thrust, harder, faster, so deep it hurt but so good. Darkness pooled in her eyes. She was sinking, every bone burning, losing everything to him again, I won’t let you get away with this--

Fumbling fingers yanked his collar aside, and Ayaka sank her teeth into his throat, good and deep, seeking blood. Felt it well over her tongue, just a drop, burning like the summer sun, glittering like champagne. Lucius Tiberius broke apart with a shout, fingers digging into her skin, seed hot as blood filling the cup of her body as Ayaka cried out with him, nerves sparking and snapping with magic.

 

“You feeling all right, lovely?” the Emperor asked after he’d finished her off with soft kisses, tongue gentle and relentless against her nub. “Not that Aniketos has ever failed me, but--”

“I’m fine.”

“Sure? No dizziness, no faint feelings--”

“Yes.” Soft pearl light dappled her palm; she looked at the crystal a moment more, then tucked it back under her sweater. No light escaped the thick cashmere, but Arthur was going to catch her undressed sooner or later. I’ve got to get stronger, make this unnecessary. Arthur doesn’t need a flashing reminder that Lucius Tiberius and I are having sex. “I know my body, thanks.”

A softer note came into his voice. “Not sore?”

Perturbed, she glanced down, but saw only red hair and hands busily cleaning her. “No, not really.” There were gouges on the inside of her knees, thick and smarting, but those could be healed. Inside--she shifted subtly, pretending to yawn. A burning ache and a sense of emptiness, both of which pierced her.

He looked up at her, a brief flash of eyes, then down again as the towel went softly across her thighs. “Oh? You were getting a little rough back there, sweetheart.”

She bristled and a very strong desire to kick him washed over her. His face is right there... “So? You like it rough. Or are you angry that you lost control first?”

“That’s not the point. And when I said “rough,” I meant on yourself. Did you think I’d miss the marks on your legs?” he asked, wiping the last streaks of his seed off her thighs with the warm damp towel: she’d refused to shower. “This was supposed to be about you, and your pleasure. You didn’t relax. You didn’t let me please you. Instead, you went after me.” He kissed her now-clean thigh, then grinned up at her, sudden and sharp. “Maybe next time I’ll tie you down, make sure you can’t scheme and tease and torture me until you’re completely worn out with bliss.”

Pleasure and alarm ran through her, sent a pulse of fire between her legs. “You...you first!”

Still smiling he kissed her, slow and hot. Hugged her tight. “Little beast,” he murmured, “my vicious, wicked, bloodthirsty beast. Turnabout is fair play...but you have to let go sometimes, sweet. You can’t always be in charge.”

Metal, leather, the sandalwood scent of his hair. Neither can you, Ayaka thought, unmoving in the circle of his arms. Neither can you. This is just the beginning, Lucius Tiberius. Gently, slowly, she cupped his cheek. Took his mouth with hers, felt him laugh. “Darling,” he whispered, “you’re incorrigible.”

Exactly. Watch me.

I’ll prove it to you.

 

After the third just-one-last kiss, she pushed him off her, peeled his groping hands from her breasts and her thighs. “Enough. We can’t stay up here all day,” she snapped, and picked a clean pair of underwear and tights out of her bag. Buried the soiled ones at the very bottom. “I’m going to change and head back to Garden. Leave everything here for now--”

“Sure you don’t want help?” he said sweetly, his eyes on her butt.

”No.”

“Go be Emperor somewhere else,” she said as they came down the stairs, Lucius Tiberius’s arm firmly around her shoulders. His gloves were spotless and her soiled clothes well packed away, but Ayaka couldn’t help feeling that SEX was written on their bodies in huge glowing letters. “You don’t need to hang around me every second--”

“I’m desensitizing you.”

Desensitizing? Where do you--”

Two men carried a desk past them, its surface pitted and shabby with work, while another man carefully wrapped instruments of brass and copper and bronze in white cloths. Njeri held a box of inlaid woods and gestured for a woman to bring her the books she was carrying. From the workshop door Aniketos watched, a leather-bound notebook under his arm.

For a moment she couldn’t speak. Papa, I-- “Oh, you’re...you’re done,” she finally croaked. Strange faces turned to her, shrouded with concern. Sympathy. The bruise in her heart spread, grew a little colder, a little wider. “Where’s...where’s Arthur?”

In here, Ayaka.

The laundry room? she thought, and followed the tug under her breastbone to him, the Emperor at her heels.

The door stood wide, sunlight flooding the room. Inside, Arthur, fully armored, was carefully folding and packing clean laundry into a wicker basket she didn’t recognize.

He looked up with a smile. “I remembered that there was still a load in the dryer from the other day. Some of your sleepwear--oh, and your blouses that I hung up to dry.” Ayaka followed his hand to the drying rack, the drooping white flags of her clothes. Silently, she collected them, let Arthur take them out of her hands, fold and pack them. Stood watching him, his calm sure movements, the contentment on his brow.

The strain, slight and well-hidden, around his eyes.

Ayaka wrapped her arms around him from behind, rested her cheek against his back. Cold metal under the thin cloth of his hood, and she couldn’t feel his warmth, or his heart. “Was it very bad?” she whispered, and held him tighter, despite the metal dividing them.

Arthur stopped. Rested both his hands, leather and metal, over hers. “No, not bad. Nothing I have not already dealt with. But, you--how are you feeling?” He turned to look at her, his eyes dark with love, while his fingers entwined with hers. “This is well-trodden ground for me, while you are living all this anew.”

She looked away, feeling inexplicably guilty. “Oh. Um, I’m okay. I guess. For now. I can be...I can be sad later.” A sudden feeling of tears made her blink hard, hide her face against his hood. “We...I...we should just pack everything up and leave as quickly as possible. No way of knowing when we might get attacked.” Warmth seeped into the cloth under her cheek. “Don’t you think?”

“I do,” he replied quietly, and she felt him begin to move again. “I’ll be finished shortly. There’s laundry that I didn’t get to before we...left, though I suppose that can be cleaned at the base. The garbage has been taken out. Non-perishable foods can left behind. I don’t know if it’s worth it to take the other--”

Lucius Tiberius coughed. She and Arthur both turned to look at him leaning against the door, a slight frown curling his mouth. “You really wait on Ayaka hand and foot, don’t you, love? Making breakfast for her this morning, and now this.”

“Part of a knight’s duty,” Arthur replied quietly, his hands never pausing, “is to serve his Lady to the utmost.”

The Sword Emperor tilted his head to the side, and a new note--hard, impatient--came into his voice. “Yes, but you don’t need to do that any longer, my heart. That’s why I have my people: to handle the lowly work. They’re your people too, you know. Serve Ayaka in other ways--like cutting down her enemies so we can banish sorrow from the world. So we can live in pleasure, the way we’re meant to. You’re the Emperor of Rome now, love. Let these things go.”

Arthur shot him an unreadable look. Continued to fold. “It pleases me,” he said, voice very dry, “to do this.”

Lucius Tiberius sighed, ran a hand through his hair. Looked away. “Is this another peasant thing?”

“No, it’s an Arthur thing,” Ayaka snapped before her husband could reply, “and leave him alone. We don’t tell you how to be Emperor. Quit telling him how to be Arthur.”

“So you say.” Tight-lipped, the Sword Emperor straightened up, turned to leave. “But remember, love: the whole point behind this marriage was you exchanging yourself. For peace. For pleasure. For the world. All the things you can’t obtain on your own.”

Arthur’s body went stiff beneath her arms. “Fulfillment. Reciprocation. We’ve discussed this before. Let me take care of you, as I vowed to do. Surrender everything that’s beneath you and relax for once in your lives.” Lucius Tiberius stopped and looked back at them, his eyes glinting shards of amethyst. “While you still can.”

They stood in rigid silence as the sound of the Emperor’s boots faded into the distance. “I’m going to murder him,” Ayaka finally muttered, her voice hollow against his armor. “And you can’t stop me.”

Some of the tension left Arthur, and he stroked her hand. “Yes, I can,” he murmured. She could feel him smiling in her thoughts. “But if you promise to abstain from murder, I promise that as soon as this Grail War is finished, I’ll beat him soundly and throw him in the nearest river for you.”

The tears couldn’t stop her smile. “Deal,” she said, and he turned to her. Took her in his arms, her Arthur, her true husband, her only love, and sealed their vow with a kiss as the sun surrounded them and turned the entire world to gold.